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Prison Population

Volume 535: debated on Tuesday 8 November 2011

The latest projections of the prison population in England and Wales, published last week, modelled three scenarios. These track, as is the usual practice, the impact of three different sentencing trends on custodial convictions. By the end of June 2017, the prison population is projected to be 83,100 on the lower projection, 88,900 on the medium projection and 94,800 on the higher projection.

The prison population is at a record high, and some 60% of the prison population have speech, language and communication needs. How will the Justice Secretary address communication disability as part of his rehabilitation revolution?

I am sorry, but I missed the second point. Is the point of the question communication disability? [Interruption.] Prison projections are very difficult to make, and that is why we have the equivalent of the fan-shaped projections that the Bank of England produces on inflation forecasts. It has always been the same with prison forecasts.

The future prison population will depend on all kinds of things beyond the control of the Government, but the prison estate is well placed to meet the demand. Eventually it will all depend on whether we have long and protracted youth unemployment, how far the recession has retracted, and how successful we are with our rehabilitation revolution, workplace reform, skills training, education reform and so on. The Prison Service is there to meet the demand, but we expect the demand to be reasonably stable.

I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend is aware of the importance of the construction of the Featherstone 2 prison, which is currently being built in my constituency, but can he assure the House that he will do all he can to encourage G4S, the operator, to employ people locally, so that we have not just the disadvantages of a prison being built, but some of the advantages?

Featherstone 2 is one of two new prisons that we have coming on stream in 2012, and I am sure that it will provide a very valuable source of local employment when it opens, as it is quite a large prison. It will also, of course, contribute to our battle against crime and to the need to punish serious criminals.

I know the Justice Secretary does not like being reminded of this, and that is clearly why I am going to do so. He had a target to reduce the prison population by 3,000 by 2015, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) helped to remind the House, it is now 87,747, which is about 3,000 more than when the right hon. and learned Gentleman became Justice Secretary. As a consequence of this Government’s policies, which projection does he believe will be the case? Will the prison population in May 2015 be the same, more or less than it was in May 2010?

It is simply not the case that I have ever had a target for prisons, because as I have just explained it is not within the control of Ministers. That is why Ministers in the previous Government used to produce these various scenarios. I do not have a target. We make an estimate of the effect that legislative changes will have on the future prison population, and as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill that the House has just passed will, other things being equal, which they never are, reduce the prison population by about 2,600.

We have a complacent Justice Secretary who, one third of the way through this Parliament, has no idea whether the prison population will go up, down or stay the same. He has cut our prison building programme, cut capital investment in prisons, he is cutting probation officers and cutting prison officer numbers. Is he surprised that the chief inspector of prisons has seen no evidence of a rehabilitation revolution and thinks that there should be a rocket up this Justice Secretary’s backside?

The future level of crime depends on a huge number of variables, which are not within the control of any Government or Minister. What one does is to make sure that one does not exacerbate any problems, and that one accommodates those who come in. I am trying to establish in prisons a more intelligent regime that will achieve some improvements in reoffending rates for those who have to be punished by going to prison. If any of my predecessors ever gave an exact forecast of the prison population, two or three out, that predecessor was in my opinion an idiot. I do remember, however, that the previous Government so miscalculated things that they had to let 80,000 people out of prison, short of their sentence, because prisons were bulging at the seams and they had nowhere to accommodate them.