Since the summer of 2008, the prison population has been increasing much less quickly than had been the case for a number of years. The public disorder in early August has, however, resulted in a sharp rise in the number of prisoners in recent weeks, with the prison population reaching 86,842 on Friday 9 September. Despite this unprecedented rise, sufficient capacity has been maintained in the prison estate to accommodate the prison population effectively.
Like any decent, reasonable human being, I am grateful for that answer from the Secretary of State. Could I ask him to give credit to the prison officers who have participated in this expansion, and the people working within the prison estate? It cannot have been easy for them. An additional 500 operational usable places have appeared in the last few weeks. Where from?
First, I agree strongly with the praise that the hon. Gentleman gives to the prison officers. The system did respond—the criminal justice system responded very well to the totally unexpected pressure of the riots. Partly it proved that our criminal justice system does work well in such circumstances. Secondly, it was entirely because of the public-spiritedness and good will of prison officers, probation officers, policemen and court staff, all of whom responded to the events with horror, as did every decent member of society, and decided to put the public interest first.
We always carry a cushion in the prison estate, because we do not know what number of prisoners will come. I know the consequences, which some of my predecessors have encountered, of running out of places in the prisons, and for that reason, I am glad to say, we were able to cope—there is still sufficient capacity—and it is very important that we continue to do so.
Has the Secretary of State had time to consider the Make Justice Work report, “Community or Custody?” which sets out clearly how much more effective properly managed community sentences are than short-term prison sentences, and the potential for greater use of community sentences to push down the prison population?
We have to have all forms of punishment available, because no two cases are the same. What is likely to be most effective with one offender may not be with another. We do have to punish, and then we have to see what we can do to rehabilitate and prevent people from reoffending. But I quite agree: for some prisoners, the best effect from the public point of view—returning them to an honest life—can be achieved by non-custodial sentences, and the Government hope to make them more credible to magistrates and to strengthen them, so they can be used effectively in suitable cases.
The Secretary of State has, on a number of occasions, said and written that he intends to reduce the prison population significantly over this Parliament. As he has confirmed, 16 months into the Parliament, the prison population is at a record high. It was also at a very high level before the riots. As he is aware, the prison estate is struggling to cope. Prison officers and probation officers are increasingly stretched, and prisoners are spending even longer times idling in their cells rather than engaged in productive activities such as work. In the light of that, is he still committed to reducing the prison population significantly, and if so, how will he do it in a way that puts public protection first?
I do not think I have ever said that. I have made it quite clear that the prison population responds to demand. I did not anticipate the riots, but we have to have a prison population that can cope with the judgment of judges and magistrates who send us a number of people who have to be dealt with and punished in that way. I have said that I expect to have a more stable system, but I cannot understand why everything possible was done under the last Government to push up the total number of prisoners but to let them all out earlier, so that the system looked tough but actually turned into something of a shambles. I am also hoping that prison can be made somewhat more effective, and that it might be better at putting people to work, getting them off drugs, tackling their mental health problems and getting fewer of them to go on to commit more crimes—