David Howell – 1978 Speech on the Home Office

Below is the text of the speech made by David Howell, the then Conservative MP for Guildford, in the House of Commons on 6 November 1978.

I begin by reassuring the Home Secretary of one thing. He may sometimes feel that events are moving against him on every side, especially when he reads the newspapers, but let me make it clear that we fully back all firm steps that he and his Department take to tackle crime and uphold the law. In particular, we back every step that he now feels necessary to maintain order in the prisons and safeguard the proper administration of the law against any threats from the current industrial action. I shall make more comments on the prisons later, but I thought that I should make that clear now.

We have also supported all along the approach through the Edmund-Davies committee inquiry. Indeed, we urged it on the Home Secretary and thought that it should have come earlier. On Thursday my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Whitelaw) said that he welcomed the prisons inquiry, although some of us have criticised it for being a bit belated. We were glad to learn about the Home Secretary’s conference on vandalism and were glad of the message of concern about vandalism on the part of not only the right hon. Gentleman but the Prime Minister.
We are glad that that matter has been taken on board, although I must say that the Central Policy Review Staff, the Think Tank in the Cabinet Office, still has something to learn about the dangers of producing sketchy reports—or illustrative and rapid reviews, as I think it calls them—on issues as sensitive as this. I am not sure that that is the right role for the CPRS to play, and I do not think that its report added much to our understanding of matters.

We have followed the Home Secretary’s efforts and support the moves that we believe are firm and right in tackling this matter. Naturally, we hope to push him a little further or at any rate to lay the foundations for the reforms that we plan to carry out under the next Conservative Government. Meanwhile, we are glad to ​ see that the Home Secretary recognises the importance of the law and order issue, not always with quite the support from behind him that one would like to see. We shall back his constructive efforts.

The second preliminary point that I want to make is addressed to those who believe strongly and sincerely in penal reform, and who in a sense have had all the running in the past 20 years in our penal policy. The impulse for penal reform is a very fine thing, of course, but unless and until society is more reassured than it is now that violence is being con tamed and dealt with, and particularly violence by violent young people, believe that it will be virtually impossible to carry forward sensible penal reform or to tackle prison overcrowding, which the Home Secretary mentioned.

We believe that the public are entitled to more protection than they have had and even than they are now getting, and that vigorous action is required at all stages in the cycle of crime control and the system of criminal justice. It is not good enough to react to crises as they develop or to blame each development on nameless forces. There is a need for action at every stage in the process of administering the law, right from policing and prevention at one end through the whole problem of the powers and procedures of the courts, up to the structure of punishment and penalties and the organisation of penal institutions at the other end.

We recognise that that is an enormous programme. It will demand the calling out of major resources of energy. It is not correct to say that we are doing all we can, as has been suggested. Without a doubt there is much more to be done, and it should be done.

I come to some of the areas that the Home Secretary touched upon, beginning with policing and crime prevention. As I said, we strongly welcome the Edmund Davies conclusions. We on the Conservative Benches are convinced that it would have been much better to pay the increase all at once and not to have phased it. There we are echoing the conclusions of the report, which made it quite clear in paragraph 206 that that was what the committee recommended.

Clearly, what the Home Secretary says about recruitment is welcome. I should ​ like to know how that spreads over the regions. Is the increase only in London, where there is the additional London weighting, or can the right hon. Gentleman tell us good news all over the country? Are the resignation rates really down? Has the bleeding stopped? That is the real problem—not just raising the number of recruits by increasing pay rates, but stopping the experienced men going. Can the right hon. Gentleman bring us good news about that?

We have always said, and the right hon. Gentleman himself has said, that those questions are vital, but they are not the only questions when it comes to improving policing. There is, first, the whole problem of easing the administrative burden on the police. I was interested to see in the Edmund-Davies report a list of no fewer than 98 laws passed since 1960 by this House that have added to the administrative and paper work falling on the police. It must be possible to reduce some of the enormous administrative burden and to release more manpower and womanpower for policing on the beat and in the housing estates. I am sure that there are gains to be made here.

Then there is the question of traffic. Over the past 10 years there has been an increase in traffic offences—not just parking tickets, but offences involving the police—from about 1½ million to well over 2½ million. It must be right to consider the idea of simplifying the traffic laws and of having ticket offences. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) has said a certain amount about that in recent days. It is an area to which the Home Office and the right hon. Gentleman should be applying their minds.

That is the first point—the burden must be eased to release more manpower so that it can go on the beat. The second need, which the Home Secretary touched on, is to encourage the public to be not only law-abiding but law-assisting. That means a number of things.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) referred to co-operation with the schools, and the Home Secretary added to her point. It is a very valuable one. It is not merely a question of expecting chief ​ constables and police forces to make the first approach. I should like to see the education authorities suggest that it would be a good idea to welcome the police into the schools, for two reasons. One is that there could perhaps be fitted into the curriculum some basic and interesting tuition on how the legal system works and how the system of criminal justice operates. The second is that the school authorities and police authorities in a particular locality could keep closely in touch and that in general the police in the locality could have the firm support of the school authorities, local trades people, local public service officials and all the rest.

I think and hope that the Home Secretary recognises that the need is to give the police firm and unstinted support. But that applies not only at the local level, in the village, in the street, in the city centre, but all the way up—in Whitehall as much as at the town hall and in the village. I am not saying that we want, and we would certainly be against, any development towards a national police force. But it is disturbing to find that it is clear that some chief constables—they are the people who have to run the police forces—feel and give expression to a lack of support from the top and from Whitehall. I believe that improvements could be made in co-ordination and in the regular contact that those with the difficult job of managing our police forces have with Whitehall and with Ministers.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman can help me. Can he tell me which chief constable said that? I have met the chief constables recently, and they have not put that matter to me.

Mr. Howell

I shall certainly provide the Home Secretary with a number of comments, both published and in papers circulated to hon. Members, about worries expressed by chief constables that they are not receiving enough support from the Government and the highest authorities. I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman asked me about this, because a number of these matters have been published in the press. There is a great deal of worry that Ministers have not been showing sufficient support for the forces of law and order, [HON. MEMBERS: “Where”?] If hon. Members want ​ examples, they know them. They do not need to ask.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Brynmor John)

Name one.

Mr. Howell

Perhaps the Minister of State remembers that some of his Cabinet colleagues went on the picket lines at Grunwick.

I have said that I shall provide the Home Secretary with details—

Mr. Peter Hardy (Rother Valley)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is not sufficient for him to give this important information to my right hon. Friend? He should give it to the House. He has suggested to the House that the information is available. We suggest to him that he should present it to the House now.

Mr. Howell

I have made it clear that a number of chief constables have expressed their worries about the lack of support from on high for the forces of law and order. I shall certainly provide details to the Home Secretary. I am very willing to do that, and there is no problem about doing so. What is more, hon. Members know that this view is quite widespread.

From the problem of policing, I now move one stage along the cycle of law enforcement to the area of arrest and police interrogation, which is a very difficult one.

I do not agree with all that Sir Robert Mark, the former Commissioner, has had to say recently. But I thought that he was hitting the nail on the head when he wrote the following in his book:

“The surest and quickest way to reduce crime and to achieve a more humane and enlightened penal system is to increase the likelihood that the guilty will be convicted.”

I think that that is profoundly true. I know that these are matters at which the Royal Commission is looking. But this matter has been debated for a very long time, as the Home Secretary knows. In 1972 the Criminal Law Revision Committee, under Lord Justice Edmund-Davies, as he was then, recommended that

“adverse inferences may be properly drawn from the silence of the accused”

—a matter about which the police are very concerned. I do not know when the Royal Commission will reach its conclusion—I hope that it is soon—but on the present time scale it could be as late as 1982 before much begins to happen in this area.

Let us at least agree that the Royal Commission needs to get on with its work with all speed, because these matters have been debated for a very long time and they are very important in the campaign against crime.

I come next to the courts and their powers. Here the Opposition have a straight disagreement with the Home Secretary.

The right hon. Gentleman now believes that the powers of the courts are adequate. I have tried to check this, but I think that he said it last to the Bromley Rotarians. On that occasion he said precisely that. His words were:

“Some people think the powers of the courts are inadequate to deal with crime. I do not believe this to be true.”

So he is now satisfied that the courts have all the powers that they need. The Opposition disagree with that view, especially in the case of juvenile courts, but also in one respect for the courts generally and for the Crown courts. I deal first with the juvenile courts. We in this House have all seen enough of the Children and Young Persons Act, which has been in partial operation since 1971, to realise that it is profoundly unsatisfactory to magistrates and social workers alike. The Opposition’s belief is that magistrates should have restored to them the power to make secure care orders, both when making care orders and when renewing them. In our view, it is unsatisfactory that at present the juvenile courts have no say in how care orders are discharged. It is true that under the Criminal Law Act 1977 they can attach some conditions to supervision orders, but in the case of care orders they have no say. We think that that is wrong and that it would be desirable for magistrates to be able to make care orders specifying secure accommodation.

Of course, it is obvious that that means more places for secure accommodation. As I understand it, there are now only 223 places—[Interruption.] That was the information supplied in a parliamentary Answer which one of my hon. Friends received in July. Another 217 are being built, but there are only 223 now.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

July was four months ago.

Mr. Howell

Presumably more have come into operation. That is progress. But clearly the need is for more secure accommodation. If we do not have it and magistrates feel that a care order cannot be under the control of the courts, it leads to overloading of detention centres, and I am not sure that that is a healthy development. Certainly I shall have a great deal more to say in a moment about the results of what is happening in detention centres.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

I appreciate the hon. Member’s concern, and it is one which is expressed on both sides of the House and outside it. However, there is no point in giving magistrates or courts powers to make secure care orders unless and until the facilities to hold juveniles are built. The hon. Member will know that that is not a criticism of the philosophy of the Children and Young Persons Act. It is in fact an indictment of successive Governments of both parties for not providing sufficient resources to build community homes and the secure units in community homes to hold these children.

Unless and until it is done, no amount of additional powers given to magistrates will remedy this very difficult problem.

Mr. Howell

I am not sure that the hon. Member is right, although I know that he follows these matters very closely. It is a question of who has the powers. After all, the 1969 Act actually reduced the powers of magistrates and reduced their involvement. It put the social workers in the front line of dealing with juvenile crime and placed on them what in some areas is an impossible load. I think that it is right to start redistributing that load back in favour of the magistrates.

I now come to detention centres and detention centre orders. Here, too, the Opposition think that the situation is profoundly unsatisfactory. In the case of junior detention centres, the present average sentence comes out at about 42 days —six weeks. It is really three months, but there is almost automatic remission so that it is about 42 days. We think that six weeks is a useless length. In some senses it is too short, in others it is too long.

Let me explain that. For many youngsters, what is needed is a shorter and sharper sentence, especially for young criminals early in their careers. Anyone in a junior detention centre will explain that six weeks is unnecessarily long in some cases and that it could be much shorter provided that it was sharper. For other youngsters, six weeks is a hopelessly inadequate length of time because there is no time to begin training for a new skill and to build up proper rehabilitation. That is what I mean when I say that it is both too short and too long. It satisfies neither criterion. It does not help in either way. It is clear that change is needed.

The Opposition do not want to tell the courts their business. That is not our proper role. However, I think that in this area three changes are required and that the Home Secretary should apply his mind to them and, I suggest, move away from the view which he expressed in September that the powers of the courts are adequate to deal with these matters I do not think that they are.

First, I should like to see the pattern established by which young offenders are sent to detention earlier in their criminal careers. There is nothing more depressing than talking to some of these young people who have committed their fifth, sixth or seventh offence and are veterans of every kind of caution, care order and supervision order. It is much too late then, and the detention centre is doing them no good. They should go earlier. There should be powers vested in magistrates to give shorter and more flexible sentences generally—possibly down to 14 days—and they should be of a more rigorous and sharper kind. Two new centres should be provided for these shorter sentences to be served. The Opposition think that that is a development worth trying, and we regret the attitude so far—it may change; we have managed to get the Home Secretary to change his mind—that this is not a serious proposal or a serious intention. It is.

We believe that it could be tried, that it would get the support of some of the staff, and that above all it is greatly preferable to waiting until young thugs become totally iured and hardened veterans of endless care orders and are sent to overcrowded detention centres, often arriving at the gates ​ without adequate documentation, when it is really too late.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the same concept of the short, sharp early prison shock should be applied to adult offenders as well as to juvenile offenders?

Mr. Howell

I should like to see the first development in the case of juvenile offenders, but it may be that the same philosophy, which after all was the original philosophy of the detention centres when they were first set up under the 1948 Act, should be applied at the senior level as well. That is the way that the Opposition would like the system now to develop.

As for the 17 to 21-year-old offenders —my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) has just mentioned older offenders—we should like to see senior attendance centres also expanded. We cannot understand the objection of the Home Secretary to this development. He told us last April that 18-year-olds would be admitted to some junior detention centres. He mentioned that again today. But what are the arguments against the expansion of senior attendance centres? We see that as a valuable development, and we should like an explanation of what the Home Office thinks about it.

We should like to see the repeal of section 3 of the 1961 Criminal Justice Act which restricts sentences for those young offenders who have not already served a sentence to either less than six months or more than three years. I know that there were reasons why it was felt that that restriction was desirable, but we believe that it should be changed. That is another change that we should like to see in the courts’ powers. Our broad aim is to have a fitting range of penalties, which we lack at present, with prison as the final penalty in the range.

Mr. Rees-Davies

Does my hon. Friend recognise that there is plenty of room in the senior attendance centres and other places for weekend attenders, particularly as many of the older offenders are in work? Does he not think it would be best if they attended only for the weekends, when they could be directed to do appropriate work?

Mr. Howell

I recognise that there are arguments in favour of such a suggestion.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

My hon. Friend has made some constructive suggestions. Can he say clearly that it would be his intention to see that any juvenile offender who, while in the care of a local authority, committed a second violent offence must be removed from the care of that local authority and at least be eligible to suffer a more severe penalty?

Mr. Howell

My hon. Friend would not expect me to commit myself precisely on that matter. I am sure that his suggestion is worth examining.

I turn to the question of prisons, which is a topical matter. I have already reminded the House that my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border has welcomed the inquiry. It has been set up with such speed that we do not yet know its terms of reference, its chairman or the form that it will take. On Thursday the Home Secretary appeared to indicate that hon. Members would have an opportunity to submit evidence to it. It will be a wide inquiry. I do not know how that will be reconciled with the urgency of it. I should like to know the form of the inquiry as soon as possible. There has been criticism of the Home Secretary and of Ministers for the delay in setting up an inquiry. It is right that we should at least take note of the comments of the distinguished home affairs correspondent of The Times.

On Friday he wrote:

“the worsening crisis has not been treated with the urgency it deserves…warnings have not been heeded or they have been dismissed as sensationalism, and action has been delayed until violence has made it impossible for the authorities to ignore it any longer.”

That quotation is from a reasonably independent source. That is not partisan criticism but is a correspondent making a point which is shared widely outside the House. It is right that I should quote it.

The Home Secretary cannot say that he was not warned about these matters. We have had the all-party Expenditure Committee’s report on prisons. There was a debate in the House in March 1977. The all-party Committee was chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes), and the Committee warned about the need for an inquiry into prison conditions. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew) ​ led the debate in the House. There has been plenty of warning that something needed to be done.

The inquiry comes at a time when pay disputes and the question of meal times are aggravating the issue. The inquiry will be made no easier as a result. Two separate and equally difficult issues will be mixed—the problems of pay and of the whole organisation of the prison service.

First, I wish to deal with the question of organisation. The prison officers want a service of their own. They feel that their organisation is lost in the upper reaches of Home Office bureaucracy. In saying that, I make no criticism of existing officials or the director-general of the prison service, whom I know and respect. But the officers are worried because the service is not distinct and its upper echelons are too closely bound in with the departmental processes.

In some cases there seems to be ill feeling between the prison officer and governor grades. Rigid norms have played havoc with differentials. The Prison Officers’ Association has behaved responsibly. I firmly endorse what the Home Secretary said about that. But it is not in control of all its branches. I am not sure that I go all the way with the Home Secretary’s belief that he and his colleagues have done everything possible to encourage a more coherent approach, at least over the last few years.

The probable need—the inquiry will have to decide this—is for an autonomous service under a commissioner who is responsible to the Home Secretary. That is my bet on what will come out of the inquiry.

I turn to the question of overcrowding. I find it difficult to see how the inquiry will be able to deal comprehensively with overcrowding because it extends far beyond the prisons into the whole penal system. We must be careful about bending sentencing arrangements and penal policy to suit the accommodation available. That is the wrong way round.

The protection of the public must come first. There is a hard core, ruthless element in our prisons from whom society must be protected for a long time. I hope that I am not being too pessimistic ​ when I say that I expect its numbers to rise.

There is a case for shorter sentences for the lower categories of prisoners. Some of my hon. Friends have produced a useful report entitled “The proper use of prisons.” We believe that it is the first impact that counts. That is a change that should be introduced for its own sake and not a desperate expedient to try to ease the pressure on our prisons. That is the wrong way.

There are several hundred psychiatric cases who should be in secure hospitals. However, the Home Secretary would say rightly that they must first be built. More places are required in secure mental hospitals.

There are also a few hundred alcoholics and inadequates. Some might be better treated outside, but we must remember that alcoholics are usually in prison for having committed violent crimes. That must be borne in mind.

It will take a long time for any of these changes to have any significant impact. There is no avoiding the need to build new prisons. They must be prisons from which it is hard to escape. That is the most expensive type. There is no avoiding the need for a programme which goes beyond the programme of new places built since 1970 or that are in the pipeline. We must face the situation. There is no easy way round by juggling with penal policy.

I have been speaking about crime itself and the response to it. I make no apology for that. The balance has gone too far towards seeking excuses for crime in deeper and more vague causes. Often one tends to address oneself to anything but crime when dealing with the problems of law and order.

Wider influences are a vital part of the problem. Many of our troubles begin in the home. There is a need to give parents more support when they are trying to bring up their children in a disciplined manner. Many of the troubles begin in the schools. There should be an all-out campaign for better standards. Many of our troubles come from poor public example by leading figures in authority who might and should know better. I know that this is controversial, but some of our troubles also come from the nightly ​ television message that violence is a good way to settle an argument.

The need in all these areas is to pursue policies which make it profitable for people and families to think and act responsible rather than policies which constantly take responsibility away and imply that everything will be handled elsewhere at some loftier or official level. This approach that I urge is needed not only in respect of discipline of upbringing and law observance. It extends to policies far outside the traditional Home Office area of preoccupation. It extends to matters such as taxation, education, housing, the social security system and even attitudes to pay bargaining.

Some will say, and no doubt it will be said in the debate today, that it is impossible in an era of State domination and bureaucratised welfare to move in this new direction. I do not agree. In the past two years there has been a resurgence of public demand in all parts of the country not merely for government to come to grips with lawlessness but for policies which reinforce personal and family responsibility and the standards of conduct upon which a settled society rests. That demand is coming from supporters of all parties. We are receiving the pressure and we recognise it, and in that sense I think that there is a turning point in the public mood.

In our view, the politicians’ response should be to stop blaming the situation on the media, the Opposition or anyone else and to start giving a vigorous lead from the top on all questions of law and order. Frankly, we do not see that approach from these Ministers. In my view, therefore, the task will fall to the next Conservative Government.