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Prisons and Probation: Foreign National Offenders

Volume 747: debated on Tuesday 12 March 2024

With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a statement about criminal justice in England and Wales.

Keeping our people safe requires a relentless focus on cutting crime, cutting reoffending, and making sure that those who pose the greatest risk are imprisoned for as long as necessary to protect the public. That is why it is welcome that crime has fallen significantly over the last decade, in particular with falls of over 50% since 2010 for offences of violence and burglary. In addition, the reoffending rate has fallen over the last decade from 31% to 25%. That has happened not by accident, but as a result of prioritising measures ranging from the tagging of acquisitive offenders post-release, to giving the police the powers they need such as stop and search.

At the same time, to take the worst offenders out of society for longer, we have taken action on sentencing, and those committing the most serious crimes are being sentenced to 40% longer behind bars. That is because, first, we acted to end the injustice of automatic release at the halfway point for the worst offenders. Instead of getting out at the 50% mark come what may, serious sexual and violent criminals must now serve at least two thirds of their sentence in custody. Rapists are now serving nearly three years longer on average than they did in 2010, and we are going even further by legislating to ensure that rapists service their whole term behind bars.

Secondly, we have increased sentence maximums for the worst offenders, such as those who cause death by dangerous driving or who cause the death of a child; and, as a result of our reforms currently before the House, those who kill in the context of sexual or sadistic behaviour will in future expect to spend the rest of their natural lives behind bars. Life should mean life for those who commit the most heinous crimes.

Thirdly, we have introduced a power to enable the Secretary of State to block the release of offenders such as Robert Brown, where release would pose an unacceptable risk to society.

Meanwhile, we are pushing ahead with the biggest prison building programme since the Victorian era. We are on track to deliver 10,000 new prison places by the end of 2025 and are committed to building 20,000 places overall. Today I can announce that we are going even further to make sure that we have the prison places we need to continue locking up serious and violent offenders for longer. I want to focus in particular on foreign national offenders, whom I will call FNOs.

The number of FNOs has increased over recent years to 10,500—around 12% of prisoners—in England and Wales, at an average cost to the taxpayer of around £47,000 per prisoner per year. These foreign criminals are not only putting a strain on the public purse but reducing the capacity of the prison system. We believe that they should, wherever possible, be removed back to their countries of origin, and we have made progress: last year the Government returned from prison and the community nearly 4,000 foreign criminals, which is a 27% increase on the year before—and we are going further.

In October, I set out in the House our plan to reduce the FNO population. We have extended the early removal scheme from a maximum period of 12 months to 18 months, so that eligible FNOs can be deported up to six months earlier. Almost 400 have already been removed from the UK through this and similar schemes since January. That is a 61% increase compared with the equivalent period a year earlier. We have also signed a robust new agreement with Albania, which has restarted transfers of Albanian offenders—the largest single cohort in our prisons—and we are legislating in the Criminal Justice Bill to rent prisons overseas, as other European countries have done.

This is important progress, but we must build on it by making sure that even more FNOs are removed from the country and spurious barriers to their removal are quickly removed. I can tell the House that we will radically change the way that FNO cases are processed. We have created a new taskforce across the Home Office and Ministry of Justice, including the Prison Service, Immigration Enforcement, and the asylum and modern slavery teams. We have surged 400 additional caseworkers, who will be in place by the end of March, to prioritise these cases, and we will streamline the end-to-end removal process.

We are also expanding the number of FNOs we can remove—for example, by bringing forward legislation to allow us to remove foreign offenders with limited leave to remain under conditional caution, and amending our deportation policy so that we can remove those on suspended sentences of six months or more. We are making more use of the diplomatic levers we have to remove people back to their home countries, including by expediting prisoner transfers with our priority countries; concluding new transfer agreements with partner countries such as Italy; and being prepared to make use of the powers provided under the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 to restrict visas for any country where no progress on FNO removals can be made. That will allow us to deport more FNOs directly from prison in 2024—more than double the 1,800 we removed last year and more than in any year since 2010.

Let me now turn to the unsustainable growth in our remand population since the pandemic and the Criminal Bar Association action. This is important. When covid hit, we were confronted with two momentous judgment calls. The first was whether to order mass release of prisoners. Public health advice in this country, as in many others, was to release thousands and thousands of prisoners, given fears that the pandemic would rip through the prison estate and take countless lives. We declined to do that, and in the event—although every death is of course a tragedy—the total number of lives lost in prisons was under 200, thanks to the excellent efforts of His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service officers. Other nations took a different approach. In America, where I discussed the matter recently with my counterparts, tens of thousands were released; in California alone, the figure was 11,000. In France, nearly 13,000 were released. It is for each nation to take their own course, but I am clear that we made the right decision for public safety in our country.

The second judgment call was whether to heed the clamour to end jury trials. I believe that would have been a grave mistake, shattering a fundamental British freedom and dismantling the centrepiece of our justice system. The decisions that we made were right for access to justice, right for public protection and right as a matter of principle, but have contributed to the increase in the number of defendants held on remand while awaiting trial or sentencing by over 6,000 since 2019 to about 16,000 today.

Let me turn to what we are doing. On pre-trial detention, the Lady Chief Justice has confirmed that if bail applications are made to the magistrates court or renewed before the Crown court, the courts stand ready to hear them within the short time limits provided in the criminal procedure rules. We are also exploring at pace with the judiciary the roll-out of a remote nationwide pilot Crown court capable of hearing new bail applications. The pilot would monitor whether these additional measures result in an increase in the use of tagging and appropriate support packages in bail applications.

To support that, the Government will invest £53 million of additional funding to expand the bail information service—part of the productivity package announced by the Chancellor at the Budget—which will enable our court system to operate as efficiently as possible by increasing the court-based staff and digital systems that can provide critical information to the judiciary, making the bail process more streamlined. To support that work, a further £22 million of additional funding will be available over the next year to fund community accommodation. We will also increase awareness about the availability of tags—especially high-tech GPS and alcohol monitoring tags—to ensure that offenders can be monitored in the community where appropriate.

We will also extend the existing end-of-custody supervised licence measure to around 35 to 60 days. We will enable that to happen for a time-limited period and work with the police, prisons and probation leaders to make further adjustments as required. That will be only for certain low-level offenders. Where necessary, electronic monitoring will be applied to enhance public protection. Ministers will, of course, continue to keep use of this measure under review. The extension has been requested and supported by leaders in the Prison Service and the police.

All these measures rely on a probation service that focuses its resource on the most critical points of the justice system, especially when an offender is first released from prison. In 2021, the Government reunified the probation service, which brought together all probation functions into a single national organisation. We have invested £155 million of extra funding each year in the service and onboarded more than 4,000 trainee probation officers since then, and I will be taking steps to refocus probation practice on the points that matter most to public protection and reducing offending.

From April, we will reset probation so that practitioners prioritise early engagement at the point where offenders are most likely to breach their licence conditions. That will allow frontline staff to maximise supervision of the most serious offenders. Similarly, for those managed on community orders and suspended sentence orders, probation practitioners will ensure that intervention and engagement is prioritised towards the first two thirds of the sentence, as experience shows that that most effectively rehabilitates offenders. To be clear, none of the changes will apply to those convicted of the most serious offences, including those subject to multi-agency public protection arrangements.

I express my deep gratitude for the efforts of all those working in the criminal justice system: prisons, probation and courts staff, the police, prosecutors, lawyers and the independent judiciary. They are exceptional public servants. The Government will do what is necessary to remove foreign national offenders from our country and we will do whatever it takes to ensure that the British people are kept safe from the most dangerous criminals. I commend this statement to the House.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. Late in the hours of yesterday evening, the Government tried to slip out quietly an announcement that they will be releasing prisoners up to two months early to deal with the lack of space in our prisons. Let us be in no doubt that this is the most drastic form of early release for prisoners that the country has ever seen, yet in the Secretary of State’s 11-page, 10-minute statement it merited just one paragraph. This measure will cause shockwaves and deep concern across our country and he seems to think that a quiet written ministerial statement published late last night and one paragraph today is good enough. It is not.

Prisoners will now be released not 18 days early but up to an unprecedented 60 days early. No other Government have ever found themselves having to do that on such a scale. It is nearly three times the number of days on licence seen under any previous scheme. Let me be clear that there are consequences. This scheme will seem wrong in principle to victims and the public—that people who have done wrong and have been sentenced under due process of law can be released as much as two months before a court intended. That means that people who have broken the law and, in many cases, pose an ongoing threat to the law-abiding public are directly benefiting from the Government’s complete incompetence.

It is small wonder that the Government have refused all requests to be transparent about the scale and the impact of the scheme. That is no way to run the criminal justice system—or, indeed, the country—not least because when the Secretary of State announced the scheme last October, he was explicit that the power would

“be used only for a limited period and only in targeted areas.”

He said that the scheme was to be

“a temporary operational measure to relieve immediate pressure.”—[Official Report, 16 October 2023; Vol. 738, c. 59-60.]

Last month we learned from a leak to the media that the scheme had been expanded to more prisons and, according to unpublished guidance to prison governors, activated for an “undefined period”. He will surely acknowledge that this will strike many people as a novel definition of “temporary”.

Now we learn that the scheme is due to be expanded very significantly—an unprecedented 60 days ahead of when a prisoner would ordinarily be released. I repeat the questions that I first raised all those months ago. How many prisoners have been released early under the scheme to date? Which prisons are using the early release scheme? Which types of offenders are being released early under the scheme? Are domestic abusers and stalkers eligible for release under the scheme? Why has it been expanded to early release of up to 60 days? Why has the scheme been activated indefinitely? Will the Secretary of State finally commit to publishing all the relevant statistics about the early releases scheme on the same basis that prison data is published—on a weekly basis, rather than the wholly inadequate commitment to publish on an annual basis, not least because there will have been a general election before then?

The Secretary of State has acknowledged, at last, that all the changes put real and profoundly concerning additional pressure on our already overstretched and understaffed probation service. He tells us that there will be a reset for probation to ensure that it prioritises early engagement, but it is not clear what that means or what part of its vital work he is suggesting probation officers will not do as a result of today’s statement. What is glaringly absent is any additional resource to support the thousands of cases that will now have their release dates brought forward.

It is wholly inevitable that rushing out such measures will increase the risk to the public. I hope the Secretary of State will have the honesty to admit that in his response. Again, what measures have been put in place to ensure that probation has the time and the resources to assess risk adequately and protect the public? Has there been a risk assessment of the expansion? If so, will he publish it? How will the Government ensure that inexperienced probation staff are not left unsupported to supervise dangerous offenders?

The Government tell us that they will free up more spaces in our prisons by cracking down on the number of foreign national offenders who are taking up space that we can ill afford to spare when they have no right to be in this country. The Secretary of State has not pointed out that the numbers that the Government deported last year are significantly lower than those they inherited in 2010—5,383 foreign national offenders were deported in the last year of the Labour Government. Meanwhile, thousands of foreign national offenders are living in the community post release for several years without being removed. We welcome any improvement that the Government intend to make on this pretty poor record, but if the public are to believe that any of these measures will make the necessary difference, the Secretary of State needs a more credible plan, such as a new returns and enforcement unit with up to 1,000 new staff—more than double his 400 announced today.

Unprecedented is a term that is far too often bandied around in politics, but these changes are, by any measure, truly extraordinary. The Secretary of State has not been transparent with this House or with the public. They deserve answers, and it is about time that he started giving them.

I thank the hon. Lady for her points. She addressed a number of issues, but not the fact that when Labour were in government, it ran a similar scheme for three years. Does she want to explain how many were released during that scheme? I am sure that she will welcome the opportunity to update the House. She talks about risk, and she is right to raise these important issues, but it is also important that we set them out clearly and calmly. First, unlike the Labour scheme in which those who had been sentenced to under 12 months were released with no licence conditions, everyone will have a licence condition. We need to be clear about what that means. Under Labour’s scheme, which ran for three years, there were no licence conditions at all. Under our scheme there will be licence conditions.

Secondly, Labour’s scheme operated in a blanket way across every prison. Ours is targeted and calibrated. Thirdly, and importantly, under this scheme there will be the opportunity for a gold command veto, where the governor has concerns about an individual—[Interruption.] If the hon. Lady could just listen for a moment. Those concerns will be escalated to a panel of senior officials, who will make a decision based on the offender’s history, the proposed bail address and the conditions that could be imposed—not to contact, not to enter, to abide by a curfew or potentially to be tagged. If the governor has concerns about safety, that person will not be released. That safeguard was not available under the Labour scheme, which ran for three years. It is critical to prioritising public safety, which is our focus.

In the hon. Lady’s response there was the eloquent sound of silence in relation to the specific questions that this Government and every Government around the world face: should we have let out thousands of prisoners? She has given no answer to that question, but it is important, because if she aspires to stand here, she will have to say whether that should have taken place. Not doing so has contributed to the pressures that we face, but it would have been the wrong thing to do, because it would have prioritised prisoner safety over public safety. We did not do it, and we were right not to do it. Principle has a cost, and we have taken a sensible decision.

The second thing that the hon. Lady did not address is whether we should have listened to those who clamoured for the end of jury trials. I do not think she is suggesting that we should have, but there is an inevitable effect to that. When we came into office, the number of cases in the Crown court was around 48,000. Pre-covid, it was 39,000, but as it has gone up, inevitably as a result of keeping the jury trial system, a higher proportion of people have been in custody awaiting trial. That is a matter of remorseless, arithmetic logic. There are an additional 6,000 people now. We made the right decision, but we have to take a sensible step.

The final point that the hon. Lady failed to address is what she would have done in these circumstances. She knows, as I know, that she would have taken exactly the same step. To seek to make political capital is beneath her.

I commend the Secretary of State for his characteristically thoughtful and measured approach. Does he agree that it does no one any good service to try to reduce this issue to simplistic arguments? The truth is that dealing with prison capacity, where everyone has recognised for many years that there are real pressures, demands a careful set of checks and balances. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that those are in place? Does he also agree that we need to be honest with the public in saying that, however much we try, prison places are expensive and finite. Therefore, the system must make judicious and intelligent use of prison, which includes locking up those who are dangerous and having alternative ways of dealing with and punishing those who are not dangerous to the community. Is that not the objective?

My hon. Friend makes an exceptional point. We have to proceed on the basis of evidence, not emotion. We choose to lock up the most dangerous offenders for longer, which is why those who murder in the context of sexual or sadistic behaviour should be in custody for the rest of their lives, because the threat to the population is so great. Where people can be reformed using technology, which was not available a long time ago, we should use that, not just because that works as a matter of common sense but because the data shows that it works.

On my hon. Friend’s specific point, anyone who looks at this issue calmly and in an adult way will see that there have been pressures in moments in history. There was one in 1997 and another in 2007, when Jack Straw had a terrible argument with Lord Falconer about the use of cells in Inner London Crown court. Those of us who have been in the system remember that. The key is whether to deal with that in a sensible, calibrated and proportionate way. We will take every step to look after the safety of the public, and we will not score political points in the process.

Last week, the Prisons Minister and I visited Wormwood Scrubs, where we found doubling up in single cells, with unshielded toilets, and overcrowding affecting people’s time out of cell and access to work. The education service was described as poor, and food budgets are £2.70 a day. Staff told us that assaults on officers are not being prosecuted. What is the Lord Chancellor doing to improve conditions in our Victorian prisons, as that is vital for the welfare of staff, the rehabilitation of prisoners and the protection of the public?

First, I commend the hon. Gentleman for visiting his local prison, as doing so is extremely valuable and I am grateful for his feedback. He raised a number of issues and I would be happy to write to him, but may I just deal with one thing in particular? We ask prison officers to do an extremely difficult job; they need to be robust, but sometimes they have to be sensitive. To assist them in doing so, we are ensuring, first, that they are paid properly, and so we accept every last penny of the Prison Service pay review body recommendation. Secondly, we are rolling out body-worn video, so that they know that if a situation looks like it is escalating, the evidence will be there—that provides a powerful deterrent effect. Thirdly, and finally, we are reducing attrition. I hope he will agree that experienced prison officers are the ones who can make those tough decisions on when to be tough and when, metaphorically speaking, to offer that hand of support.

Clearly, there is pressure on the prison estate. I appreciate that some of the challenge to the Justice Secretary’s statement today is about many thinking that we are not keeping in prison people who should be there, but there is also a problem of some people being sent to prison who should not be there. He will be aware of my police officer constituent who one minute was hailed a hero for apprehending a violent criminal and the next found himself in Wandsworth prison.

There is a slight irony, given this statement, that the Government intend to put further pressure on the estate through clauses in their Criminal Justice Bill proposing the imprisonment of beggars and rough sleepers. Given what he is saying today, will he consider supporting the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), and supported by myself, my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) and many others from across this House, that would remove the intention to imprison rough sleepers and beggars?

My hon. Friend assiduously raises matters on behalf of her constituents and is going to be such a loss to this House. She indicates in that question why she will be. Of course, I cannot comment on the specific circumstances relating to her constituent, because of the independent trial process. The Criminal Justice Bill contains Home Office measures, but I will ensure that the Home Secretary is aware of the points she has raised.

The number of cases disposed of by our courts is down by 200,000 from its pre-pandemic level—a reduction of 12%. What is the Secretary of State doing to eliminate that backlog? What impact does he think there will be on prison numbers in the event that he is successful?

That is a fair question. It is always worth remembering that more than 90% of cases are disposed of in the magistrates court, where we are getting through a very significant number. He makes a fair point about the Crown court, because we are prosecuting 32% more rape offences than before, so the plea rate is lower, because—guess what?—people do not plead guilty to rape in the way that they might plead guilty to handling stolen goods, for example. So we address that by putting additional money into the system, with £141 million going into legal aid, and by ensuring that section 28 is used, with pre-recorded video evidence and so on. We make no apology for the fact that we have to let the system take its course on these appalling crimes and we will do everything we can to increase resources so that people—victims and witnesses—get the justice they deserve.

I very much support the carefully considered moves announced today by my right hon. and learned Friend, which reflect the reality of the pressures on our prison estate and on our excellent prison officers, following the extraordinary impact of covid. I especially welcome the additional steps he has announced to remove more foreign national offenders. He spoke of a reset in probation, so will he set out in a little more detail how he hopes it will reduce reoffending and so cut crime? What we all want to see, of course, is fewer victims of crime.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. Probation is critical and I have made a point since coming into this role of speaking not only to senior probation officers, important though they are, but to probation officers on the frontline. That has been an incredibly instructive experience. One I spoke to in Luton and Dunstable told me that the measures we have taken to roll out 12 weeks’ guaranteed accommodation were the most significant steps that any Government had taken in the 30 years he had been a probation officer. The reset I referred to will follow evidence, not emotion. In other words, it will allow probation officers to calibrate and prioritise their resource to those parts of the licence period where reoffending is most likely to take place. That is common sense and it follows the evidence. Ultimately, measures such as that are why reoffending has gone down from 31% to 25%, thus saving a number of people from being victims of crime in the first place.

I thank the Minister for a comprehensive response, as always; he is certainly across his subject. It is great that action has been taken to ease prisoner overcrowding. An element of concern must, however, be expressed at the thought of criminals being released early, even though their crimes are being deemed “low level”. What procedure will be followed to ensure that those being considered for early release pose absolutely no threat to the public? What is the Minister’s plan should one reoffend upon release?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that matter because it is important that we in this House, no matter where we sit, ensure that a clear and accurate message goes to the public. The people who are out will be out on conditions. If a condition is breached—this is not necessarily about committing an offence—not only will they be recalled for the period of the end of custody supervised licence, but they could be recalled for the entire balance of their sentence. That is an important point to understand. We could be talking about a contact condition, a residence condition, a co-operate with probation condition or a “not to go to Strangford town centre” condition. These things are important conditions to ensure that the public are protected and society is kept safe.

I welcome today’s statement on foreign national offenders, but this is ultimately about law-abiding British people. Does the Justice Secretary agree that we should instantaneously remove any right to remain at the end of their sentences for those who abuse our hospitality by committing the most serious crimes?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about this; people who come to our country and enjoy its hospitality should expect short shrift if they repay that with crime, because that is an offence against not just the individual, but our entire community. That is why we are taking robust action to deport foreign national offenders. I am afraid to say that this is action not shared by the Opposition; in 2020, a letter was sent to the then Prime Minister urging him not to allow a planeload of foreign national offenders to take off. Who signed it? It was the shadow Secretary of State.

Is the Lord Chancellor alive to a principal concern and source of frustration among Crown court judges: the frequent delisting of cases at short notice, with all the consequences that then follow for delay and increasing numbers of prisoners on remand, occasioned by a growing shortage of criminal barristers? That, in turn, will lead to a reduction in both the quantity and quality of future judges.

I am so grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that issue, because ensuring that there is a vibrant profession is crucial, not only in order for the machine of justice to continue, but to provide the pipeline to which he referred. As for the specific issue of listing or delisting, as he referred to it, that is a judicial discretion—it is a matter for the judges. However, he is right about wanting to ensure that there is a pipeline, which is why we are investing more than £140 million into legal aid, so that instead of talented young professionals thinking, “I am off to the private sector to earn a fortune at the chancery Bar,” they will be there at the legal aid Bar, following in the footsteps of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), the Chair of the Justice Committee, prosecuting and defending criminals so that we can ensure that justice is served in our country.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that under the new scheme victims will see justice prevail, while foreign national offenders will efficiently be processed to leave the country? That contrasts with what happened under the previous Labour Government, who had people who had already served their sentence languishing in prison beyond their sentence while the deportation court caught up with the process.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is a matter of basic justice. The British people expect that those who offend against our country, as well as against victims of crime, should receive short shrift. That is why we are absolutely clear that if violent thugs who rape, murder, steal and rob are in our country from overseas, we will put them on a plane and get them out.

Bills Presented

Bereavement Support (Children and Young People)

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Christine Jardine, supported by Wendy Chamberlain, Mrs Flick Drummond, Mr Tobias Ellwood, Richard Foord, Tim Loughton, Rachael Maskell, Jim Shannon and Munira Wilson, presented a Bill to require specified organisations and public bodies to inform children and young people of local, national and online support services available to them following a bereavement; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 April, and to be printed (Bill 176).

Personal Protective Equipment at Work (Protected Characteristics)

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Emma Hardy presented a Bill to require employers to ensure that personal protective equipment provided at work to people with certain protected characteristics within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010 is suitable for the wearer; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 7 June, and to be printed (Bill 177).