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Prisons: Overcrowding

Volume 706: debated on Wednesday 10 December 2008


Asked By

My Lords, the Government are currently pursuing a substantial expansion of prison capacity, which is designed to increase the number of prison places to 96,000 by 2014.

In addition, the Government have taken steps to promote confidence in community sentences where that is appropriate, including an additional investment of £40 million funding for probation services this year.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. I am sure that we will all be pleased about the community sentences. The prison population, as the noble Lord has told us, is going up, which is perhaps not surprising when more than 1,000 new imprisonable offences have been created since 1997. The number of places is going up, but we are told that the amount of money available is going down by £1 billion over the next three years. Will the Minister confirm that the only results of these realities are that prison conditions will get worse, the rehabilitation service will be spread more thinly and prison will become even more ineffective? Would it not be more sensible to make these savings by scrapping the plans for Titan prisons, which are universally unpopular? I am sure that the Minister will have noticed that only yesterday they were condemned all around the House.

My Lords, it is vital that we plan to build the prison places that we expect we will need. We are committed to providing enough prison places for those who should be behind bars: the most dangerous, the seriously persistent offenders and the most violent. The Government make no apology for saying that prison is the right place for such people and, in doing so, we are committed to delivering value for money. We believe that what the noble Baroness described as Titan prisons—I prefer to call them prison clusters—offer the best value-for-money solution for providing additional capacity and to modernise the prison estate. It is not just about additional capacity. These prisons will enable us to seize an important opportunity to modernise the estate by decommissioning worn-out, ineffective prisons and using these gains in efficiency to support improvements in the delivery of what we all want to see: rehabilitation by delivering the interventions that help prisoners away from a life of crime.

My Lords, is it the case that the “Titanic” prisons, as I think they would be better called, were to have cost £350 million and they are now going to cost £450 million? Would it not be better to spend the money on modernising existing capacity and building small prisons local to the prisoners, so that they can be supported by their families as they should be?

My Lords, first, the estimate for the construction costs of the new prison clusters remains £350 million at 2007-08 prices. The estimate of £450 million that the noble Lord mentioned, which was provided to the Justice Committee earlier this year, was not an increase in the construction costs; it merely was the original estimate inflated for the years in which we expect these prisons to open—namely, some years ahead, in 2012-14. It is not an increase in costs in the terms that he asked in his question. We think that a mixture of prison building is important. These prisons will, of course, be put in places where it is already difficult for family and friends to visit those in prison. Indeed, we think that building them where we plan to will help.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for what he has just said about the extra investment in the probation service. Can he confirm that it is the Government’s intention, as far as they can, to put far more emphasis on rehabilitation and preventing reoffending, because this is where too much of the money goes down the drain at the moment? I agree with him exactly about locking up people who have been convicted of violent offences, but should not the emphasis now be more on prevention and then rehabilitation by investment in services like the probation services and voluntary organisations which have contracts to support the work that they are trying to do in prisons and beyond?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that we, this Government, have increased by 67 per cent in real terms our spending on probation since we came to power. That is very important. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 introduced robust community sentences that include a wide range of requirements, including unpaid work, drug treatment and curfews. These are very important sentences indeed. Of course some people have to go to prison, but the vast majority, or a large number, of those who commit crime do not. We want to ensure that there are proper community sentences for those, and that is why this Government have spent so much money on probation.

My Lords, would the Minister like to confirm what was implicit in his answer to my noble friend Lord Elton, that the Government are expecting 30 per cent inflation over the next four to five years?

My Lords, I am always wary of taking on the noble Lord, particularly on a subject he knows so much about. The cost in 2012-14—forgive me if I am repeating myself—will be £450 million.

My Lords, does the Minister have any information or statistics about the mental health impact on IPP prisoners who have already served their sentence but are still in prison?

My Lords, no, I do not have statistics about that. He will know, because there was a Question on IPP prisoners a few weeks ago, that we think that the reforms we made to the original IPP proposals in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act earlier this year will help IPP prisoners. The legislation that was passed and the processes that result from it will, we hope, alleviate what the right reverend Prelate is quite right to say is a serious situation.

My Lords, given what the Minister has said, can I assume that he agrees that our prisons are full of people for whom they are completely unsuitable, such as petty criminals with learning difficulties and mental health problems? Given that our rates of imprisonment are much higher than those of our continental neighbours, would it not be a good idea to carry out research as a matter of urgency into alternatives to imprisonment which have been found to work in other countries?

My Lords, research into alternatives to imprisonment has been going on for an extremely long time and will continue. Of course we accept that there are people in prison who should not be there. That is one reason why we look forward so much to the report of my noble friend Lord Bradley in January, which will deal with the issue of mental health and those in prison. We are working all the time to try to make sure that only those who need to be in prison are there, and to find alternatives for those who do not need to be there. The lesson for all outside is that people should not commit crime.