Public safety is paramount, and despite the current population pressures I can provide assurance that it will not be compromised. The requirement for prisoners to pass a robust and rigorous risk assessment to qualify for open conditions is the most effective way of ensuring that.
I thank the Minister for that answer. What steps has he taken to ensure the capture of those who have absconded from open prisons? For example, of the 393 prisoners who have escaped from Leyhill open prison since 1999, 25 remain on the run, including three murderers, one of whom has been on the loose for the past eight years.
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was able to attend the Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall last week in which we discussed Leyhill open prison and issues to do with it. Clearly, the police try to recapture people who abscond. He will know that the absconding rate has fallen from 1,115 in 1997 to 709 last year, even though there has been a change in the prison population, which has increased from about 60,000 people in 1997 to 70,000. The indications are that this year, we are again heading for an all-time low in the absconding rate.
I know that the Home Office is seeking to take pressure off open prisons by building new prison places. When my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary published his forward strategy in the summer, he drew attention to the number of prisoners with mental health problems. Are the Government considering building purpose-built places for those prisoners suffering from mental health problems, as part of their future prison strategy?
First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend, who is the Chair of the Select Committee, on having raised the issue on numerous occasions. We certainly are considering the issue of mental health, and we hope that there will be a forthcoming mental health Bill, but we are considering what we can do in the short term, too. He will be aware that the contingency plans that we put in place to deal with the issue of prison capacity are for the short term, but in the longer term we need to address the issue, and we will talk to colleagues from the Department of Health about it.
The Home Secretary said that he was prepared for an increase in the number of absconds. He was prepared to take that risk arising from the use of the open estate, but is it not the law-abiding public that will take the hit, rather than the Home Secretary?
The hon. and learned Gentleman refers to a leak, but the leak was wrong, and the Home Secretary said no such thing. We must manage the open prison estate in the way that we have outlined, and we have not compromised the categorisation or allocation processes to achieve our aims. If we had not tried to maximise use of that estate, I am sure that Opposition Members would have criticised us for not trying to use the capacity of the open prisons.