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Prison Overcrowding

Volume 462: debated on Wednesday 4 July 2007

6. When he next expects to meet representatives of the Prison Service to discuss prison overcrowding in Wales. (146378)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my predecessor have held regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on matters affecting Wales, including prisons. The Government have announced further plans to ensure that there are enough prison places throughout England and Wales.

I congratulate the Minister on his new appointment. Is he aware that very large numbers of Welsh prisoners are starting their sentences as mild drug abusers but coming out of prison as hardened drug addicts? What assessment has he made of the impact of overcrowding on the capacity to deliver effective rehabilitation programmes?

We are monitoring the situation closely. To clarify, this is an area of retained powers, not a devolved matter. Since 1997, the Government have increased prison capacity by nearly 20,000 places, and in 2007, capacity will increase further by 2,200 places. On top of that, a new capacity-building programme will deliver 8,000 new places by 2012, so we are well on the way to addressing the issue of overcrowding.

When I met offenders recently in Rossett churchyard, it was clear that they were carrying out purposeful work in tidying up the graveyard for the benefit of the local community. Does my hon. Friend, whom I welcome to his new position, agree that the key to reducing the prison population in Wales is to impose tough, non-custodial, alternative sentences, so that the local community can benefit from those who commit crime in the longer term?

My hon. Friend speaks a lot of sense, and I pay tribute to those involved in the scheme that he mentioned. It is undoubtedly right that a progressive agenda must look at the issue of non-custodial sentences as well. We must also consider the issue of driving down crime. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, in Wales recorded crime is down 3 per cent., violent crime is down 1 per cent., burglary is down 10 per cent., and theft from vehicles is down 3 per cent. Only detection rates are going up.

Is the Minister aware that South Wales police are having to transport, house and feed at least seven prisoners a day because of prison overcrowding, a total of 570 since the start of the year, at a cost of over £250,000? What impact will that have on the ability of South Wales police to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour?

The hon. Lady draws attention to the use of police cells for the custody of prisoners. It is not ideal, but Operation Safeguard is a well-established and tried-and-tested agreement between the National Offender Management Service and the Association of Chief Police Officers to hold prisoners in police cells instead of prison custody at times of high population pressures. It is a pragmatic approach, but the answer to overcrowding is, as I have already said, to tackle the root causes of criminal activity and to build new prison places, which we are doing.