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Prison Capacity

Volume 723: debated on Wednesday 30 November 2022

Before we come to the statement, I want to make the point that it is not acceptable for either the Opposition or me to get a copy of a statement at 12.59 pm. I have to say that this is not the first time, and it seems to be a continual problem for the Government in that somehow they do not like to be held accountable. Not providing a statement in advance means that the Opposition cannot take the measures that are needed to hold the Government accountable. It is not acceptable, and I say to the Whips and those on the Front Bench that you should get your act together, because you cannot carry on taking the House for granted in this manner. It will not happen, and it is time Ministers were more accountable.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. May I open with a sincere apology for what you have just referred to? With the way timings have worked out today, we got this wrong, and I apologise for it. I assure you and the Opposition that it was not deliberate. I appreciate that that does not help with the practicalities of this, but I want to assure you and the Opposition that this was not a deliberate move on our part.

The first responsibility of Government is to keep people safe. That means taking dangerous criminals off the streets, and to do that we must always ensure that we have sufficient prison places available to serve the courts. This Government have been decisive in our tough approach to crime. We are well on our way to the recruitment of 20,000 additional police officers. We have legislated to introduce tougher sentences for the most serious crimes, with rape prosecutions having increased by 3% between the year ending June 2021 and now, and by 49% since 2019, and we are committed to driving down the backlog of outstanding court cases following the pandemic.

We have long anticipated the prison population rising as a result of those measures, and that is why we are delivering the largest prison building programme since the Victorian era, with 20,000 additional places. We have already created over 3,100 of them, including the recent change of use of His Majesty’s Prison Morton Hall and our brand-new prison, HMP Five Wells. A further 1,700 places are due to come online with occupation in tranches from next spring with the opening of HMP Fosse Way. This is in addition to the thousands of further places that will become available through additional house blocks—for example at HMP Stocken, which is due to finish construction next year—and major refurbishment programmes across the existing estate. Just a few weeks ago, I attended a ground breaking ceremony at the site beside HMP Full Sutton in Yorkshire, where we have started construction for the next new prison, which will hold 1,500 category C prisoners when it opens in 2025.

However, in recent months we have experienced an acute and sudden increase in the prison population, in part due to the aftermath of the Criminal Bar Association strike action over the summer, which led to a significantly higher numbers of offenders on remand. With court hearings resuming, a surge in offenders is coming through the criminal justice system, placing capacity pressure on adult male prisons in particular.

The public rightly expect us to take the action necessary to hold offenders who have been sentenced by the courts. That is why I am announcing today that we have written to the National Police Chiefs’ Council to request the temporary use of up to 400 police cells, through an established protocol known as Operation Safeguard. That will provide the immediate additional capacity we need in the coming weeks to ensure the smooth running of the prison estate, and to continue taking dangerous criminals off the streets. I thank the National Police Chiefs’ Council for its support in mobilising this operation. We already routinely work hand in glove with police forces across the country to occasionally use police cells to hold offenders overnight. The triggering of Operation Safeguard is not an unprecedented move. It is an established procedure that has been used before to ensure that our prison system can operate effectively and safely during periods of high demand. It last happened in 2006, and then in 2007 to 2008.

With the expected increase in offenders coming into the estate over the coming weeks, it is right that we give police forces as much notice as possible of the short-term need to use their cells, so that together we can safely and adequately ensure availability of the spaces needed. The activation of Operation Safeguard will ensure that His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and police forces can jointly plan how and where those places will be accessed. We are working with prison governors across the estate to ensure that we safely maximise the places available within our prisons. This plan, alongside our existing plan to provide 20,000 modern places, will ensure that we have enough places to cut crime and keep the public safe.

The capacity pressure is specific to the adult male estate, and there is ample capacity in the women’s and youth estates. We have delivered on our commitments to reduce the number of young people and women in our prisons, helping us to tackle the drivers of crime by focusing on rehabilitation. The Government are working to drive down reoffending, and we are investing £200 million a year by 2024-25 to get prison leavers into skills training, work and stable accommodation. We are investing to make prisons safer and more secure, rolling out almost 7,900 next-generation body-worn video cameras to 56 prisons. In March we completed our £100 million security investment programme to fight crime in prisons, including tackling the smuggling of illicit items such as drugs and mobile phones.

In conclusion, I thank the police for their support and pay tribute to the frontline prison staff and police officers who work tirelessly every day to keep the public safe. Taken together with our programme to expand the prison estate, I have every confidence that the commencement of these measures will ensure that we continue to deliver justice, protect the public and reduce reoffending, as the public would rightly expect, and I commend this statement to the House.

It was disappointing to have only five minutes’ advance notice of the statement today.

This is yet another crisis created by this shambolic Tory Government, and it is hard to think of a more damning indictment of their failure on law and order than the fact that they have now run out of cells in which to lock up criminals. That is hardly surprising when, under the Tories, 10,000 prison places have been lost. Not only that, but 663 police stations have closed. Who knows how long it will be until this contingency plan needs a contingency plan all of its own?

While we find ourselves with not enough cells, in response to a recent parliamentary question we discovered that over the past five years the Tories have spent more than £1 million on maintaining closed prisons—more evidence that we can no longer afford the cost of the Conservatives. Our prisons are already failing in so many areas—almost every inspectorate report tells us that. Just last week Exeter prison was given an urgent notification, with crumbling estates, dangerous staff shortages, prisoner on prisoner violence, and rehabilitation all but non-existent. Ultimately, the public pay the price and they are being kept less safe.

But that is just part of the story of this Government letting the public down, with burglars and rapists being left to roam our streets, criminals let off, and victims let down. Our communities are now less safe and secure, and people across the country are scared. Women are tired of walking down the street at night with keys between their hands. Pensioners are tired of their homes being broken into. Hard-working people are tired of being hit with fraud.

It did not have to come to this. This prisons crisis is a crisis made in Downing Street, and the result of 12 years of Tory failure. This has not happened because more criminals are being caught, because the opposite is true. Prosecution rates for crimes as serious as rape, burglary and robbery are at historic lows. The justice system stands on the brink of collapse, with 20,000 fewer police, 10,000 prison cells shut and 250 courts closed. Victims are told that there are no police when they dial 999, and then they wait years to get justice, if it comes at all.

This is a Tory Government who are soft on crime,. The Justice Secretary is too focused on fighting for his job, rather than fighting criminals. Once again, the Tories are too busy saving themselves rather than doing what is right for the country. Party first, country second; criminals first, victims second. Our country needs a Government who are serious about protecting victims of crime. A Labour Government will get more police on the streets and allow victims to get their say. A Labour Government will rebuild a justice system that does not see criminals run loose. It is time that the Conservatives moved aside and let the party of law and order take control—the Labour party.

The Government make no apologies for all we are doing to keep dangerous criminals off the street, and I make no apologies for the programme to recruit 20,000 more police officers, or for tougher sentences for the most serious crimes. It is good to report that reoffending rates are down, although of course there is further to go. It is good that prosecutions are up by 7% over the last year, and convictions up by 10%, but still, as ever, there is further to go. Our No.1 priority, as the public rightly expect, is to keep our country safe.

At no point in the past five years have fewer than 1,000 cells been available across the entire prison estate, so we have not run out of prison places. This statement does not reflect a failure to plan ahead. We have absolutely been planning ahead, and we have stuck to our expansion programme and brought forward capital works. There has been a highly unusual acute short-term surge, with increases of more than 700, and more than 800 in the last two months. This is the first time ever that we have seen that sort of increase for two consecutive months. We have a number of capacity increase options, but they are not available in that short a timeframe.

Using the established protocol with the police allows us to manage the surge while continuing to deliver that ambitious expansion. I say it is an established protocol, and the hon. Lady will recognise Operation Safeguard because it was used extensively by the previous Government before 2010. It was last used in October to December 2006, and again between January 2007 and October 2008. On this occasion we are enacting a temporary use of Operation Safeguard to manage short-term pressures, precisely to ensure that we do not run out of places. Meanwhile we are investing record amounts in prison maintenance to ensure that prisons remain safe and decent while complying with modern fire safety standards. We continue with our expansion by 20,000 places, which is the biggest growth since Victorian times.

The Minister is right, of course, to take this urgent action, and to say that this is not the first time it has had to be done. Does he recognise that two factors are at play here? One is the underlying upward trend in prisoner numbers over the past couple of decades. Those numbers have risen exponentially, and perhaps there is a case for us to look again at whether it is appropriate to be holding non-violent offenders in custody, as opposed to the dangerous people who we do need to lock up. Secondly, the Minister refers to the levels of investment in maintenance, but as he will know, the Justice Committee has more than once pointed out that even with increased spending on maintenance, there is still a significant backlog and shortfall in the maintenance budget. Many prison cells are therefore out of commission and not usable, when they ought to be brought back into use. What is being done to accelerate the maintenance programme to get more cells back into use?

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for those important questions and points. He is right that the prison population has been growing of late, although it is not at its highest level ever. Part of that is because of tougher sentences for the worst offences, which I think is right and what the public expect and want. For other types of crime, it is important that we utilise alternatives to custodial sentences—for instance, drug desistance and advanced tagging, which is much improved—which can, on occasion, be better for getting certain individuals back on the straight and narrow.

My hon. Friend also rightly asked about maintenance, and accelerated maintenance. In fact, that is precisely what we have done. Two and a half times as many cells are currently undergoing capital works than would ordinarily be the case, precisely because we have brought forward some capital work to improve the estate. We are indeed planning for the future.

I thank the Minister for his statement. I ask him to look at Durham police’s model—and I will add that, even with the uplift, Durham constabulary will still have 100 fewer officers than in 2010. The checkpoint scheme was launched by the late Ron Hogg when he was police and crime commissioner, and a University of Cambridge study found that, of the 2,660 offenders who went through it, only 6% reoffended, saving the taxpayer more than £2 million. I suggest that, for low-risk offenders, that is better than just putting them into prison. It has the academic work behind it that proves that it works. It needs now to be expanded elsewhere. I would welcome his coming to Durham to look at the scheme.

I will be honest: I was not familiar with that particular scheme. I imagine that, in the right hon. Gentleman’s usual fashion, he will ensure that I am fully versed in it by the time I am next at the Dispatch Box. I look forward to learning more.

The recent sudden growth in the adult male custodial population started during my brief tenure in the Ministry of Justice. I know that the excellent staff in HMPPS immediately began planning, and I think that the measures announced today show rightly the preparations that have been undertaken to cater for that future upsurge. Of course, it is essential that we ensure that our prisons can accommodate those whom the courts send to custody. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that we continue to build the capacity that will be needed now and into the future?

I commend my hon. Friend and thank him for everything that he did while he was prisons Minister at the Ministry of Justice, where he is much missed. He is right to identify both the short-term and long-term programmes that are needed, and I agree with him entirely about the value of long-term planning.

Way too many people who are seriously mentally unwell are still being held in prison. I know that Government guidance is that they should be moved to secure hospitals when they have been assessed as needing hospital treatment within 28 days, but that is simply not happening, so they are getting more ill, which is possibly putting their lives at risk, and that makes prisons far harder to govern. Will the Minister assure me that those people will not be among those being held in the 400 police cells and that we can accelerate the transfer out of prison of people who need to be in hospital?

The hon. Lady made two important points. First, there is quite rightly screening and prioritisation to do with individual characteristics, including individual risks, when considering where people will go and who might be in the relatively small group of people going to a police cell. Of course, there is prioritisation, with those with underlying mental health issues or perhaps at risk of self-harm going straight to prison. On transfer from prison to secure hospital and the 28-day guidance, as she will know, that will become a statutory right subject to reform of the Mental Health Act 1983 passing through its stages in the House, which is important.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one measure that could be taken to release capacity in the prison estate is to follow the recommendations of the Justice Committee report on imprisonment for public protection prisoners and resentence the 3,000 such prisoners who have been imprisoned for an inordinate length of time and deserve to have their fates decided in a different way, rather than remaining in prison, perhaps indefinitely?

As ever, I thank the Select Committee that covers the Department for its work, including on that report. As my hon. Friend knows, a response to that particular report will be coming, and I ought not to cut across that process.

I draw Members’ attention to my role as co-chair of the justice unions parliamentary group. In all honesty, using police cells and custody suites to house prisoners for any extended period of time shows the utter failure of Westminster’s justice policy. Insufficient capacity to hold prisoners is directly linked to the staffing and workload crisis in probation. Staff under excessive pressure are more risk-averse and therefore more likely to recall offenders to prison. Does the Minister recognise that one key solution to the crisis is for probation to be properly resourced and therefore for workloads to be reduced, because probation can take the pressure off prisons?

The right hon. Lady raises an important point about probation, which is an incredibly important profession. It can be an attractive career for many people, with a real, strong sense of public service and wanting to help our whole society. We are recruiting at the moment. We need more people to join the probation service and are keen for them to do so. I hope that she will join me in encouraging that.

I think that the right hon. Lady mentioned the extended use of police cells. I want to reassure her and the House that this is not about long periods of time. It is about one or two nights for an individual. In most cases, it is one night and, the next day, that individual would be prioritised for reallocation to a prison.

Mr Speaker, you will be aware that, in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, we are keen to see scumbags locked up for a longer period of time. But, unfortunately, at this moment in time, 12% of the prison population are foreign national offenders. What is the Ministry of Justice doing to get those people out to serve their sentences elsewhere?

Foreign national offenders are a significant minority of the prison population and it is important that we have a good process to remove them. As my hon. Friend will know, in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, we changed the law to enable removal at the nine-month point rather than at 12 months. Of course, we have also signed the agreement with Albania, and we are keen to sign similar agreements with other countries in the EU and the wider world.

I thank the Minister for his answers. In Northern Ireland, the prison population has increased by 3.2% this year. Justice is devolved in Northern Ireland, as he knows, but nationally prison staff increasingly need help to cope with the prison population. What discussions has he had with his counterpart at the Northern Ireland Assembly in relation to prison capacity, to share ideas and thoughts on how to move forward and on steps to reduce the number of those in the prison population in the next year?

The hon. Gentleman is right that this is a devolved policy matter, but I am open—indeed, keen—to speaking to colleagues in the devolved Administrations and other jurisdictions. I always say that there is no practical limit to how much we can all learn from each other.

I believe that the Government have fulfilled their promise to end the automatic release of prisoners halfway through their sentences. Am I right in thinking that that will have added a certain amount of pressure on cells and accommodation? To what extent has pressure been increased by that policy? Can the Minister assure the House that there is no question of people being released earlier than they otherwise should be as a result of such pressure?

Yes—twice. We are not embarking on the policy that the previous Labour Government instituted in 2007, along the lines that my right hon. Friend mentioned. He is also right that a later point of release does add pressure. I am afraid that I am not in a position to give a mathematical factorial answer on that, but he is right to identify that as one factor. This is about keeping inside those people who have committed the most serious offences.

Two thirds of people released from prison without somewhere to live reoffend within a year. That is far higher than the overall reoffending rate. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we hope to relieve pressure on prisons and improve outcomes, we need to end the merry-go-round, stop Friday releases for vulnerable people and ensure that people have the room to access statutory services that provide them with better access to accommodation rather than setting them up to fail?

The criminal justice system and imprisonment have a number of different objectives, but what they all have in common is public safety. The single most important thing we can do to make people feel safe as they go about their daily business is to reduce reoffending by people who have already been through the system. One aspect of that is making sure that on release people have access in a timely and efficient way to the services they need to get accommodation, to start looking for a job and to receive medical treatment if needed. That is harder when a lot of people are all released at the same time on a Friday. I know that my hon. Friend has a landmark private Member’s Bill coming to the House on Friday to address this specific question and I wish him well with that.

The answer to the issue of capacity should never be to soften sentences for people who are not safe to have within our community. However, when I was on the Education Committee, I was very concerned to hear that about 30% of those in prison have learning disabilities. The prison education report we published suggested that every prison should have a special educational needs specialist, and that everyone coming into the prison estate should see an educational psychologist. Will my right hon. Friend find time to meet me to discuss the report and how we can work together to try to ensure that more people with learning disabilities do not end up in the criminal justice system because they get the support and diagnoses that they need?

It is always a pleasure to meet my hon. Friend and discussing that report would be an admirable reason to do so. There is much more awareness of this issue now than in times past. Whether it is SEN or low prior attainment in English and maths, such characteristics are more represented in the prison population than in the general population. We now have neurodiversity specialists in prisons, and we can do much more with educational materials to recognise SEN and the different ways that people learn. As my hon. Friend suggests, ideally we want to do more of that much earlier in the journey, so that people do not become incarceration cases at all. That is a harder nut to crack, but I would be delighted to talk to him about that.