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Prison Places

Volume 583: debated on Tuesday 1 July 2014

5. What steps he is taking to ensure that there are sufficient prison places to accommodate people who receive custodial sentences. (904567)

As of today, there are 85,542 prisoners in England and Wales, and capacity for 86,489, providing headroom of 947 spaces. We are changing the role of prisons that we do not need for their original purpose, bringing back into use capacity we did not need in the past, and building new accommodation at four existing prisons. As a result, 2,000 additional places will have been opened by April 2015, and we will have more adult male prison places at the end of this Parliament than we inherited. In the next Parliament, we will open a new prison in Wrexham, providing a further 2,000 places.

Nineteen-year-old Craig Hepburn from Scotland was visiting Marsden in my constituency in 2012 when he was killed. One of Craig’s killers, Anthony Driver, was out on licence at the time of the offence. Anthony Driver may be able to apply for early release in November 2019, which means that he will have served only six and a half years for Craig’s manslaughter. A sheriff commented at the trial that the community was safe only when Anthony Driver was behind bars. What consideration is there of the danger prisoners pose to their local community when they are considered for early release?

I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s concern. Of course, from what he says, the individual in question was sentenced for manslaughter. That would be a determinate sentence. The courts will decide how long the sentence should be, and the release date comes automatically, as the law stands. He will know that this Government have legislated for extended determinate sentences, where people can spend the entirety of their sentence in custody. He will also know that we are keen to reduce the incidence of automatic early release. We have already done so for very serious violent offences—for child sex offenders, for instance—but we are keen to go further.

Under this Government, the use of the emergency gold command has doubled in two years, and the riot squad has been called out 60% more times. Is this not an inefficient use of resources, which is dangerous for prisoners and prison staff?

The hon. Gentleman needs to look carefully at the figures. He is right that there have been significant increases in the number of times that help has been asked for in prisons, but the majority of those incidents are not serious. When the Tornado team is called out to serious incidents, that too is registered. That is at half the level it was in 2007 when his party was in power.

What is my hon. Friend doing to ensure that there are sufficient prison places to allow prisoners with families to be close to them, given the proven benefits for reintegration and the preservation of family life?

My hon. Friend is right about that. That is why we are pursuing a model of resettlement prisons so that in the closing months of the custodial part of a prisoner’s sentence, which is when resettlement is uppermost in their mind, they are in a prison close to the area into which they will be released. That is a fundamental part of the reforms we are introducing to ensure that people have the support and supervision they ought to have when they go through the prison gate and into the community so that we can reduce reoffending.

From the Minister’s earlier response, one might think that everything in the Prison Service is fine, so how many prison officers short is the system?

We always try to provide the right number of prison officers at any given moment, and we are going through a process of what is called benchmarking to ensure that we have the right number to deliver the regime we need. It is true, of course, that there is a short-term problem following an increase in the prison population that nobody saw coming, including the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues. We are dealing with that problem by seeking to recruit prison officers who have recently left the service. That is the responsible thing to do, and we will carry on doing the responsible thing.

Can the Minister tell us how many people are currently at large, having escaped or absconded from our prisons, and how many are currently sunbathing on the roofs of our prisons? On that point, will he give us an assurance that the next time prisoners escape on to the roofs, prison officers will not hand out sun lotion as they did last week?

I will deal with my hon. Friend’s second point first. The answer is yes; that will not happen again. We have looked very carefully at that incident to ensure that there are no so-called health and safety policies that encourage such behaviour. As he knows, I made my views about it quite clear last week. On his first point, every incident of absconding is troubling and we need to crack down on it. That is why we are increasing the penalties for those who abscond and ensuring that only the right people find themselves in open conditions in the first place. He might be reassured to know that the level of absconding is 80% lower than it was under the previous Labour Government.

The Minister is a nice bloke, but he is giving the impression of being both complacent and out of touch. He will be aware that governors of overcrowded public prisons are being told to squeeze in more offenders without any additional resources or help. Can he confirm whether privately run prisons are taking on additional prisoners and, if so, how many, and what premium will they be charging the Government to get them out of their hole?

Let me try to help the right hon. Gentleman with some facts. First, we certainly are asking private sector prisons to take some additional places. That is part of a contractual arrangement that is very similar to the one that was in place under his Government, which is perfectly standard business. Secondly, we are asking some prisons to take additional prisoners and asking some prisoners to share cells, which we do not think is unreasonable, in order to deal with the short-term spike that nobody anticipated. I suggest that the wrong thing would be to do as his Government did, which was to run out of prison places, then run out of police cell places, let thousands of people out early and then deal with the consequences. That is not a path we intend to take.

When assessing the number of prison places, will my hon. Friend ensure that prison places in open prisons, such as Ford in my constituency, are filled only by prisoners who have been rigorously risk-assessed? Does he understand that when prisoners abscond from Ford prison and the police warn the public not to approach them because they are dangerous, that undermines confidence in that risk-assessment process?

I do understand that, and of course it is important that we stand behind the principle of open prisons assisting in the rehabilitation of prisoners and making it less risky for the public when they are finally released, but my hon. Friend is right that only the right people should be in open prisons. We are tightening up the rules on how people move through the system into open prisons. We are sending the clearest possible message that prisoners who abscond from their sentence and abuse the trust they were given in an open prison will not get a second chance.