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Prison Overcrowding

Volume 582: debated on Monday 16 June 2014

(Urgent Question): To ask the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice if he will make a statement on the Government’s response to the prison overcrowding crisis.

Let me start by challenging the premise of the question posed by the right hon. Gentleman. We do not have a prison overcrowding crisis. Today’s prison population is 85,359, against a total useable operational capacity of 86,421, which means we have more than 1,000 spare places across the prison estate.

By next April, we will also have opened an additional 2,000 places. That includes four new house blocks, which will start to open from the autumn. We also have a number of additional reserve capabilities to cope with unexpected pressures. At the time of the election next year, we will have more adult male prison places than we inherited in May 2010, despite having to deal with the financial challenges that the last Government left behind.

Since last September the prison population has started rising again. This has happened for a number of reasons, including the significant increase in the number of convictions for historic sex abuse. These are people who committed appalling crimes and probably thought they had got away with it. I am delighted to find the space for them behind bars.

As that increase has been greater than expected, I have agreed to make some reserve capacity available to ensure that we retain a sufficient margin between the number of places occupied and the total capacity of the system until the new prison buildings come on stream later this year. That means in reality that in a number of public and private prisons a few more prisoners will have to share a cell for a few weeks. We might not need those places, but I would rather they were available in case we did need them.

I am also taking steps to address what I believe is a weakness in our prison system: the fact that we have no access to the kind of temporary or agency staff routinely found in our health and education systems. I am establishing a reserve capability among former staff to give us the flexibility to adapt to short-term changes of population by bringing reserve capacity into operation. We currently have some staff shortages in London, particularly because of the rapid improvement in the labour market, and this step will help us to cover any gaps.

Let me also set out for the House how we are managing the prison estate. My objective is to bring down the cost of running the prison estate while maintaining capacity levels. An important part of that is replacing older, more expensive prisons with new or refurbished capacity that is less expensive to run. For example, in the past two years we have opened 2,500 new places, with a further 2,000 places due to open in the next nine months. That has enabled us in that period to close a little over 4,500 places in older prisons, saving us a total of £170 million during the current spending review period.

In addition, we have launched a benchmarking programme across the prison estate to bring down costs. I introduced this programme in the autumn of 2012 as an alternative to privatisation, at the request of the Prison Governors Association and the Prison Officers Association. Indeed, the leaders of the Prison Officers Association sat in my office and described my decision to do so as a “victory” for them. I am grateful to our staff for their hard work in taking these difficult changes forward.

The programme of change has been praised by the National Audit Office and by the Public Accounts Committee and its chairman. The National Audit Office said recently:

“The strategy for the prison estate is the most coherent and comprehensive for many years, has quickly cut operating costs, and is a significant improvement in value for money on the approaches of the past.”

We will end this Parliament with more adult male prison places than we inherited, more hours of work being done in prisons than we inherited, more education for young detainees than we inherited, and a more modern, cost-effective prison estate than we inherited. That is anything but a crisis.

The complacency of the Justice Secretary and the extent to which he is out of touch are breathtaking. He appears to think there are no problems in our prisons and that MPs can be kept in the dark about the fact that Ministers are demanding that already overcrowded prisons squeeze in another 400 inmates over the next few weeks. For example, Wandsworth prison in my constituency, which should have 943 inmates, currently has 1,597 and is operating at 169% capacity. But that is not the worst of it. This Justice Secretary has asked it to provide even more spaces.

MPs are kept in the dark about the fact that over the past five months 600 emergency places have been bought from G4S, Serco and Sodexo—at what cost we do not know. We are kept in the dark about the fact that prison staff who were made redundant and paid off are now being paid to return to work owing to the chronic shortage of staff—at what cost we do not know.

The Justice Secretary seems to think that there are no problems in our prisons. The NAO and the PAC do not agree with him. The chief inspector of prisons disagrees, as we heard this Saturday, and as he has said in every report he has written over the past two years. We disagree, prison governors disagree, prison staff disagree, experts disagree, and bereaved families disagree. Last month alone there were 11 self-inflicted deaths in our prisons. The Education Secretary may laugh; those families do not laugh. Can the Justice Secretary confirm that that was the case last month? Can he also confirm that last year self-harming, suicides and assaults on staff in adult male prisons went up?

Since May 2010, this Government have closed 18 prisons and cut 6,000 staff, yet the prison population remains broadly the same. This crisis is of the Government’s own making. Does the Justice Secretary think that there is any link between that and the 60% rise in the use of the riot squad to deal with serious disturbances in our prisons last year? Does he accept responsibility for the fact that it is his policies that have led to the wrong sorts of prisoners being sent to open prisons and released on temporary licence? Does he agree with the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), in whose constituency Ford prison is located and from which 90 offenders are currently on the run? He said on Saturday:

“It’s becoming a pattern…the wrong people are being sent to Ford.”

When did the Justice Secretary’s officials first warn him about the need to take emergency measures to deal with the most recent shortage of prison places? How many prisons are currently operating on half regime because of staffing shortages, meaning that prisoners are not working or going on courses, as they should be? What additional contingencies does he intend to put in place to deal with the possibility of disturbances in prisons?

On this Government’s watch our prisons have become unsafe warehouses, rather than places where offenders can be rehabilitated. It is important that we get answers to these crucial questions if the public are to have confidence that prisons will continue to punish and reform while keeping prisoners, prison staff and the public safe.

Having listened to those comments, Members might never know the truth. Prison overcrowding is lower under this Government than it was in the last four years of the previous Labour Government. Let me walk the right hon. Gentleman through the operational capacity for adult males in our prisons: in May 2010 it was 80,269; today it is 82,395; and in 2015 it is predicted to be 85,133. That means the capacity for men in our prisons is increasing. The tornado squads, which deal with serious incidents, have dealt with half the level of activity seen in 2007.

I think that the right hon. Gentleman needs a little bit of a lesson in what a prison capacity crisis really is. It is having to introduce a special scheme to let prisoners go home after serving a quarter of their sentence because there are not enough places to keep them in. That is what Labour did. It is deciding to shorten everyone’s sentence by a few weeks because they did not plan for the places needed. That is what Labour did. They let out more than 80,000 people early, and 1,500 of them committed suspected crimes when they should have been in prison. That is my definition of a prison overcrowding crisis, and it happened under Labour. Now they have the nerve to call sensible contingency planning a crisis, even though they were the ones who were forced to rent out thousands of police cells across the country because they ran out of space.

I make no apology for the fact that under this Government more people are going to prison, and they are going to prison for longer. I have a strategy in place to ensure that we will always have the space for them.

Why should Britain find it necessary to have a higher proportion of its population in prison than almost any other western European country?

Of course, we have a much lower proportion of our population in prison than many other countries, but I would like it to be smaller. That is precisely why I believe that the reforms to the way in which we rehabilitate offenders—for example, supervising offenders who go to jail for less than 12 months, who currently get no support, guidance or mentoring—will make the kind of difference that enables us to bring down our prison population in future. That is a goal we should all share.

The chief inspector stated in his report on Oakwood prison that it was easier to obtain an illegal drug in prison than to obtain a bar of soap. He also stated that one of the main reasons for that is prisoners refusing to be tested for drug use. There is not a single prison in this country that is free from illegal drug use. When can we expect at least one to be cleaned up?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the proportion of positive drug tests in our prisons has fallen sharply in recent years; that is to be encouraged. I am confident that Oakwood’s upcoming inspection report will show a significant improvement. The hon. Gentleman is, of course, a Welsh MP; one of the Welsh prisons—Parc, a large new prison that had some teething problems—has turned into one of the best performing prisons in the estate. I am confident that the same thing will happen to Oakwood.

My right hon. Friend should be commended on the energetic way that he, in an unprotected Department, has sought to contribute to meeting the Government’s wider economic objectives. He is entirely right that the overcrowding crisis was inherited in 2010, but is it not about time that we started thinking about the long term—about addressing the issue of the 20,000 prisoners who are in overcrowded conditions—and began to look properly at reconstituting a privatisation programme, so that we can have better-manned prisons with more efficiency for the taxpayer?

The approach that we have taken on privatisation has been to privatise individual services in the way that was recommended by the Prison Governors Association, because we needed to drive through savings quickly across the whole estate, rather than across part of it, but my hon. Friend’s point is sensible. I do not want a prison population the size of the one we have, but nor do I ever want a court to be unable to send an offender to prison when it believes that it should do so. That is why our rehabilitation strategy is so important. The way we will bring down the population of our prison estate is by preventing people from coming back to it, rather than by not locking them up in the first place.

What consideration has the Secretary of State given to treating drug addiction as a health issue, rather than a criminal issue? If he did that, he would have far more space in his prisons.

My Department and the Department of Health have jointly launched an integrated drug rehabilitation service in north-west England, which will ensure that rehab continues beyond the prison gate and is afterwards delivered by the same people. I am very much of the view that we have to tackle drug addiction, but we have to make the best use of the time in which we have people in custody, so that we ensure that they do not come back because of their addiction, that we get them off drugs, and that they do not reoffend.

I do not lie awake at night worrying about prisoners being in overcrowded conditions; if they did not want to be in overcrowded conditions, they should not have committed the crimes that got them sent to prison. Will the Secretary of State do more to encourage the Chancellor to find more money for prison building? If he is looking for suggestions as to where the money could be found, perhaps it could come from the £20 billion a year we give to the EU in membership fees, or from the overseas aid budget. When it comes to tackling any prison overcrowding issue, will he pledge not to do what the last Labour Government did in letting out prisoners before the end of their sentence?

This is what baffles me about the Opposition’s questions and challenges over this issue, because I am precisely not letting out people who should be in prison. I am simply taking sensible precautions to bring on additional capacity. I have to say that if prisoners have to share a cell, I do not regard it as a great problem. I think that the courts should be able to send people to prison if they want to, as does my hon. Friend.

In early 2010, when the Prime Minister first took office, he promised to take an axe to the number of foreign national prisoners in prisons. The figure then was 11,135. Will the Secretary of State tell me what progress has been made, because by my calculations, the number has reduced by about 40 a year?

The figure is, of course, now coming down. It is lower than it was when we took office, and it is roughly proportionate to the number of people in the population who were not born in the UK. We have to bear in mind that one of the reasons why we have a high proportion of foreign national offenders in our jails is that when the Labour party was in government it had a reckless policy on the number of people allowed to migrate to this country.

I have three excellent custodial institutions in my constituency: Rye Hill and Onley prisons, and the secure training centre at Rainsbrook, all of which have fantastic staff and do a brilliant job. I welcome the answer to the urgent question, which was spurious at best, but will there be a recategorisation of prisons? Her Majesty’s prison Onley is heading down the track of being fully made up of sex offenders, and it perhaps deserves recategorisation.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am in favour of greater specialisation within the prison estate; it allows us to concentrate expertise in particular places. Of course, the biggest change in the estate will be the shaping of a system of resettlement prisons—that will begin later this year—to accompany our rehabilitation reforms, so that some prisons specialise in particular needs, as is the case in his constituency, and others are very much geared to preparing people who are in the last few months of their sentence for release, to try to reduce the likelihood of reoffending.

Swansea prison is the most overcrowded prison in the whole of England and Wales: it is at nearly double its capacity. What particular measures is the Secretary of State considering to alleviate the situation in Swansea?

The overcrowding levels at Swansea jail have barely changed in the past four years. Clearly, I would like to bring down the number of people in overcrowded jails, which is why we are increasing the capacity of the adult male estate and why I will bring new capacity on stream this autumn. Of course, two years down the track we will open the first new prison in Wales for a very long time. It will be the first since Parc prison and the first to be located in north Wales—it will be in Wrexham—which will ease pressures on the system in Wales and allow us to detain prisoners closer to home.

When I was a shadow prisons Minister and Labour was in government, I visited about 70 of the 140 or so prisons, young offender institutions and secure training units throughout England and Wales. Despite the best efforts of the staff, those prisons were almost universally overcrowded and full of people who were unable to get educated or rehabilitated while in prison. My right hon. Friend has set in train a programme of rehabilitation which will ensure that those who are currently in prison will not go back. Will he push on with that programme with vigour?

Yes, I absolutely will. We will work on rehabilitation reforms post-prison and look to improve the level of work in prisons. We will also look to continue to expand education and training in prisons. We have, for example, set in train plans to double the amount of education in the youth estate. Those things simply did not happen under the previous Government. Labour Members accuse us of warehousing offenders, but I think they were the ones who were guilty of that.

The Secretary of State has quoted the Prison Officers Association. He is not a man who would want to mislead or confuse the House, so may I tell him what the POA has said today? It has said:

“The decision by NOMS”—

that is, himself—

“to further ‘crowd’ the already overcrowded public sector estate by an additional 440 undermines the commitment that prisons will be safe, secure and decent”.

The POA describes that as

“the perfect storm of a rising population, a lack of staff and too few prison cells.”

Could the Secretary of State start listening to the prison officers themselves, for a change?

When we set about the current programme of benchmarking, I did precisely that: I listened to our staff and governors and accepted their recommendation, and I am implementing their recommendation thanks to the hard work of staff at all levels across the prison estate. The hon. Gentleman talks nonsense when he suggests I am not listening to the staff.

This is an old story. Twelve years ago, the then Labour prisons Minister tried to defend a situation in which 20% of prisoners had to double up in a cell meant for one, saying this situation was only very limited. The problem is that there are twice as many people in prison than there were in 1993, costing £2.2 billion a year. Will the Secretary of State make it his aim to have fewer people in prison, particularly on short sentences, especially when we know that other sanctions are better at reducing reoffending and are preferred by victims?

My hon. Friend and I share the same objectives, and that is what our rehabilitation reforms are about. The truth is that approximately 95% of the people who end up in prison have already been through community sentences and probation work. We have to improve what happens at that stage and rehabilitation post-prison, but what we cannot do is simply not send to prison people who have committed serious crimes and are found guilty by the courts.

The Secretary of State may know that I, too, have three prisons in my constituency. Just last month, the chief inspector’s report on Durham prison noted that it faced huge challenges and stated clearly that cells designed to hold one prisoner should not be used for two. At the time of the inspection, a prison designed for 597 prisoners was accommodating 940. Why is the Secretary of State not doing more to alleviate this appalling overcrowding, rather than seeking to exacerbate it?

I do not think the hon. Lady has been listening to what I have been saying. Today, despite the budget cuts we have had to push through, a smaller proportion of prisoners are being forced to share a cell than was the case under the Labour Government, who were in office until 2010. We are delivering a better performance for less money and in difficult circumstances. I am proud of that and Labour should be ashamed of itself.

What impact is investment in IT having on the ability of the Department and prison management to manage the movement of prisoners, and will it in effect deliver better rehabilitative services in education for prisoners?

The IT work that is being done across not just the prison system but the criminal justice system is enormously important for the future not only in improving efficiency, but in ensuring a really joined-up approach from the time somebody is first arrested, through the court system and prison, to the support we provide post-prison and our probation work, and in understanding, should they reoffend, where they have had issues in the past. It is enormously important and it is already improving efficiency, but there is a lot more we can do.

The rehabilitation of offenders and the control of their behaviour in prison occur best when they are close to family and friends who can influence their rehabilitation. How many prisoners are currently housed in prisons more than 60 miles from their home community?

I cannot give an exact figure, but I can say that as we introduce resettlement prisons in the last part of this year, the vast majority of offenders—not absolutely all, but almost all offenders—will spend at least the last few months of their sentence in the geographic area into which they will be released, which will help with precisely the links the hon. Gentleman talks about.

Will the Justice Secretary confirm that there are more offenders in jail now than there were under the previous Government, and that crime is lower now than under the previous Government? Will he also confirm that there will be absolutely no repeat of the shambolic early release scheme, which saw 80,000 prisoners let out early, meaning that we had to prosecute hundreds of them, including for murder and other serious violent offences?

I completely agree. To be frank, I would like to have the capacity to unravel some of the residual schemes that I inherited, such as the home detention curfew scheme, which in my view should not have been introduced in the first place and which people struggle to understand. I will not be able to do that until resources are available, but it is certainly my ambition.

In the light of what he has said, perhaps the Justice Secretary would like to spend the night at Swansea prison. It is the most overcrowded prison in Britain—I guess he would say it is the most popular—with two prisoners for every place. They are crammed in cells, with shared toilets, in sweltering heat, staying there day and night. Will he at last accept responsibility for the closure of 18 jails, the loss of 3,500 prison officers and the ever-escalating increase in the prison population that has led to an increase in assaults on prison officers and the deaths, suicides and self-harming of prisoners? Will he stand aside for someone who will not put at risk the public, prisoners and prison officers, and resign for his heartless, mindless incompetence?

Mr Speaker, sometimes you hear contributions in this House that are beyond parody. To be fair to the hon. Gentleman, he was not in the House during the last Parliament because he lost in 2005, but I do not recall that he called for the resignation of previous Labour Ministers when levels of overcrowding were higher.

Let me tell the hon. Gentleman what I have done in Wales. I have recognised the fact that that the prison system in Wales has a problem because north Wales does not have a prison, which means that prisoners from north Wales cannot be housed close to home. What have I done? I have won from the Chancellor £250 million-plus to build a new prison in north Wales. That is doing the right thing for the people of Wales.

On prisons and overcrowding, according to a written answer to a question I asked, prisoners were given additional days for bad behaviour on 11,550 occasions in 2009. Will the Secretary of State clarify that this Government have done a lot to address the issue of bad behaviour, thereby affecting capacity in prisons?

We have introduced a tougher and more spartan regime in our prisons, as well as tougher penalties for those who abscond post-prison and break their licence conditions, who can now go to jail for much longer. Interestingly, the penalty that staff appear to believe is most valuable in dealing with troublesome prisoners is the removal of prisoners’ television sets from their cells when they behave badly.

Rehabilitation is important, and purposeful activity is particularly important, including the learning of musical instruments. Will the Justice Secretary ask his prisons Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), to approach with an open mind the meeting that I am having with him and Billy Bragg on Thursday, with a view to giving a positive response to our proposals if we can show that such rehabilitation will be of benefit?

I will of course ask my hon. Friend to approach that meeting with an open mind. However, although we want to encourage positive activities within prisons, there is a genuine issue for discussion about whether metal strings or metal ligaments should be made available, given that some people of course want to cause trouble in prisons.

I welcome the increased prison capacity that has been announced today. One reason for the huge increase in the prison population is the reoffending that takes place. Labour identified that and spent £9 billion on it, but there has been little change. Will the Secretary of State say what is being done by this Government to ensure that prisoners do not reoffend when they leave prison?

That is at the heart of our reforms to the probation service, which will mean, crucially, that later this year we will begin to provide support, supervision and mentoring to short-sentence prisoners when they leave prison. At the moment, they get nothing at all and are left to their own devices, and nearly two thirds of them reoffend quickly. That is the biggest blot on our criminal justice system. Unlike the last Government, we are doing something about it.

In a spirit of openness, perhaps the Justice Secretary will tell the House how much the emergency prison places that he has bought from private prisons are costing the public purse, so that we can ascertain whether they are more cost-effective than the prison places that he has closed.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the marginal cost of an additional place within a prison is much lower than the overall cost of running a prison.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government’s focus on mentoring, rehabilitating and reducing the reoffending of short-term prisoners is one of the key drivers in reducing the prison population, and that it is a far better alternative than letting thousands of serious offenders out on the streets, as the last Government did?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We have to bear it in mind that nearly 60% of the 50,000 people who are released on to the streets after short sentences each year reoffend. If we can bring that level of reoffending down so that it is closer to the level for those who go to prison for longer periods, it will significantly increase our success in reducing reoffending and, as my Liberal Democrat colleagues have said, bring down the prison population.

Last year’s inspection of Bristol prison found that the prison was dirty; that prisoners could not get clean clothes, clean bedding or cleaning materials; that it was easy to get drugs; and that about half the prisoners spent all day locked in their cells. How does the Secretary of State think such conditions help the rehabilitative process?

We are working as hard as we can to increase the number of hours that are worked in prisons, and the number is rising steadily. We have a very energetic team that is looking for new business opportunities. Of course, in a prison that is dirty, the most readily available work force to clean it are the prisoners themselves. In many prisons that I have been around, they are doing a first-rate job of that.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his robust response this afternoon and over the weekend in the media. I urge him to redouble his efforts to ensure that foreign prisoners are returned to their home countries as quickly as possible to serve their sentences, which relieves pressure on space and budgets.

I assure my hon. Friend that that remains a major priority. I pay tribute to the prisons Minister, who has successfully completed one prisoner transfer agreement and is discussing others. We need to do everything we can to return people to their country of origin as soon as possible, because it reduces the pressures on the prison population.

I remind the Secretary of State that the urgent question is the result of a report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons, which is independent, not of some political plot against him. I also remind him that when I was Chair of the Education Committee, we found that education, skills and rehabilitation in prisons were the first things to go to the wall when there was overcrowding.

There was no report from the independent inspectorate about this matter. We are increasing the amount of education in prisons where we can. I have just announced a doubling of the amount of education that is done by youth offenders in the youth offender estate. We are also launching a new secure college, which will have an education-focused curriculum. For reasons that completely escape me, the Opposition oppose replacing a prison-type institution that has bars on the windows with something more akin to a school or college that does positive skill building. I think they are bonkers.

The fact that crime is down suggests that reoffending rates are coming down too. Will my right hon. Friend set out the coalition Government’s progressive, forward-looking rehabilitation measures that will reduce reoffending rates still further?

If I may, I will correct my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right that crime is falling. The number of first-time entrants into the criminal justice system is dropping as well. The challenge for us is that the level of reoffending has barely changed. That is the next frontier. That is why we are reforming the way we support and rehabilitate offenders, why there is a greater focus on education in the youth estate, and why there is mentoring and support for those who get short sentences. That is the way to take crime reduction to the next level.

I expect to recruit about 80 to 100 temporary staff, and of course we have a recruitment process all the time. Like any big organisation with tens of thousands of employees, we have a constant process of people moving on and people being recruited and trained. As I outlined earlier, we need some 80 to 100 officers, but I want to build up a much larger reserve so that if we get fluctuations in future we have a pool of people we can draw on, in the same way as the health service and education system do.

I agree entirely with the thrust of policy from the Secretary of State and, of course, the excellent prisons Minister. In Wellingborough, we have a prison that is, rightly, temporarily closed, but which could be opened very quickly. The problem is not capacity across the nation; it is overcrowding in London. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss the possibility of reopening the prison in Wellingborough?

I assure my hon. Friend that I am well aware of the situation in Wellingborough, and I do not intend to take any steps to dispose of that prison, because it is sensible for us to have reserve capacity available. I have no immediate plans to change the status of Wellingborough from being a mothballed site.

A prison population of 86,000 would be far nearer 75,000 were it not for the large number of foreign national offenders in our jails. Surely it is possible to negotiate with the high-volume countries, such as Nigeria, Jamaica and Pakistan, for them to take back their offenders. If they will not, we should send them the bill, which is approaching £300 million a year. Will the Secretary of State put this issue at the top of his to-do list to address the issue of the number of people in our jails?

As my hon. Friend knows, this is a matter of great concern to Ministers. We are also seeking to speed up the formal deportation process through the Home Office. We need to reduce the numbers significantly, but it is proving to be a more stubborn and difficult task than any of us would wish. My hon. Friend should not, however, believe that we have anything other than a clear aspiration to do this. The sooner we can reduce that population, the sooner we can ease some of the other pressures on our prison system, or put in prison one or two other people we might want to see there.