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Prison Population

Volume 180: debated on Thursday 15 November 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what is the current level of the prison population.

This morning, there were 44,540 prisoners held in prison service establishments in England and Wales. In addition, a further 970 were held in police cells.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that those figures are already encouragingly below the trends forecast some years ago? Will he ensure that the Government's twin-track approach to sentencing, which involves longer sentencing of violent offenders but greater use of non-custodial penalties for those who commit less serious offences, is fully implemented?

I will certainly do the last. As my hon. Friend knows, that is the theme of the proposals to be embodied in the Criminal Justice Bill which we shall be debating before long. My hon. Friend is right to say that much encouragement can be taken from recent figures, which show a fall of 2,962 prisoners by comparison with one year ago and a fall of more than 5,000 compared with two years ago.

Does the Home Secretary agree that in view of the number of suicides and other problems associated with prisoners suffering from mental deficiency, it is time to give prison medical services extra funding pro tern, so as to ensure early diagnosis of prisoners at risk?

I am not sure that it is just a question of extra funding, but the hon. Gentleman is right in thinking that we have a serious problem on our hands. We asked the chief inspector of prisons, Judge Tumim, to investigate and I expect to receive his report before long. Meanwhile, a number of important measures have been taken throughout the prison estate for dealing with that very real problem.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that there has been a reduction not just in the total prison population but in overcrowding within prisons and, in particular, a substantial fall in the past year in the number of three-to-a-cell prisoners?

A combination of our prison building programme and the important reforms embodied in the Criminal Justice Act 1982 and 1988 resulted in fewer young offenders being sent to prison or to young offenders institutions. That has changed the scene radically. The new criminal justice legislation will extend to the whole age range the kind of measures that have proved so successful in respect of young offenders.

In the light of Judge Tumim's report on Armley prison in my constituency, does the Home Secretary accept that it is universally agreed that Armley is a totally inappropriate place to send young, unconvicted remand prisoners? What plans does the Home Office have to provide an alternative and by what date does the Home Secretary envisage that Armley prison's remand wing will be closed down?

Our response to Judge Tumim's report was made public on 6 November and it is available in the Library. I indicated that action had already been taken to improve conditions within Armley, in terms of staffing and the regime. Harking back to an earlier question, the recommendations on suicide prevention have already been adopted. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we must take other measures, particularly in getting young offenders out of Armley. We intend before long to move adult offenders into another prison, so in due course there will be more scope for providing better accommodation for young remand prisoners in Yorkshire.

In his consideration of the prison population and the prison building programme, will my right hon. and learned Friend bear in mind that Northeye prison in my constituency is scheduled for closure? Will the site be sold when that happens, or will it be retained indefinitely by the prison service?

I cannot give my hon. Friend an off-the-cuff answer, but I will write to him. He will appreciate that it was important to undertake the review of the prison estate that I reported to the House in the summer because we must make the best possible use of the accommodation available within the prison estate.