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Volume 447: debated on Monday 19 June 2006

Some 900 additional places are being provided at existing prisons, which will increase total capacity to around 80,400 by the end of 2007. We will of course keep under review the need for additional capacity.

Given that our prisons are bursting at the seams and that one in 10 prisoners are foreign nationals, should not the Home Office redouble its efforts to ensure that, during an early part of their sentence, as many as possible of the 8,000 foreign prisoners in our jails are returned to secure detention in their own countries?

The hon. Gentleman is right, in that the prison population is rising, and he is right to suggest that we have repatriation agreements with many countries. He will know that we have 97 prisoner transfer agreements with particular countries. My right hon. Friend Baroness Scotland has met representatives of other countries, particularly Jamaica, to see what we can do about repatriation. We continue to work in as many ways as we can to get people out of our prisons who do not need to be there, and we are looking at the arrangements.

What effect will the extremely welcome letter that my hon. Friend sent to me on Friday have on prison capacity? He said unequivocally that no sex offenders will go into the Bunbury House bail hostel, thereby reversing a policy position adopted under the Conservatives. Will that have any impact on the prison population?

It clearly will. My hon. Friend is referring to our decision to make sure that child sex offenders will not be in approved premises adjacent to schools, which is entirely sensible and in the interests of public protection. I know that he, like other Members, is concerned about how we deal with what is a very difficult problem, and I look forward to working with Members in all parts of the House on addressing the issue of child sex offenders.

May I say that the hon. Gentleman needs to look at the impact on prison capacity of imprisonment for public protection and extended sentence provisions in the Criminal Justice Act 2003? There is a very real concern that they will result in many people spending many years in prison, not least because parole boards, against the background of the current tabloid campaign, will be reluctant to release them. Much injustice might be done this way.

The Government’s position is that serious offenders and dangerous people should be imprisoned. That is what we want. Of course, the courts are responsible for sentencing, which is quite right—

As the shadow Home Secretary says, I am responsible for prisons, but I will not be doing any fag-packet calculations about new ones. I agree with the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), who has many years of experience, that we need look at the wider issues to do with the prison population, including whether the right people are in prison and whether capacity is right. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary says, we need to take account of that in the review. It is interesting to note that, since 1997, nine new prisons have been built with an increased capacity of 19,000 and a greater than 50 per cent. rise in the prison population. Those are serious issues that have to be faced, and it is important that the whole House reflects seriously on them to ensure that the right decisions are taken.

Does my hon. Friend accept that one thing we should be doing is ensuring that people in prisons really need to be there? Far too many people are in prison at the moment: they are there fundamentally because they have mental health problems or because in many cases they are on remand. Will my hon. Friend reflect on what happens now as a result of the fact that remand practices vary so much from one court district to another? Prisons as overcrowded as they are now are more difficult to manage and reduce the chances of the work done inside them to stop reoffending being effective.

My hon. Friend, who is noted for the work that he does in this area for the all-party group, is entirely right to say, as I said earlier, that we should reflect on the prison population and consider who is in prison and who needs to be. We also need to ensure that public protection remains at the forefront. I am aware of issues around remand, which will be dealt with in the review.

What the Minister may not realise is that he has just admitted that prison capacity has not expanded at the same rate as the prison population. If he looks at the Prison Service business plan for 2006-07, he will see, as I am sure he knows, that it has seven main priorities, but that increasing prison capacity is not one of them. Since the document can have been published only with the Minister’s and the Home Secretary’s knowledge and prior consent, it follows that, despite their sentencing policy, and despite the Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone), the Government have no plans to increase prison capacity. Why not?

I wish that the hon. and learned Gentleman had listened to what I said. We will consider all options in the review that the Home Secretary is undertaking, and capacity will feature. I have already said that capacity will increase by 900 by the end of 2007. I have also already said that we are looking at the prison population. Yes, it is at its highest level, but we still have spare capacity in our prisons and we are looking into all the available options.