Skip to main content

Prisons: Population

Volume 734: debated on Thursday 12 January 2012


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what proposals they have to reduce the size of the prison population.

My Lords, the Government have embarked on a series of policies to make the public safer—in particular, by breaking into the cycle of reoffending. Our policies, including measures in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill now before this House, are expected to impact favourably on the size of the prison population.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that since the coalition came to power, the number of people in prison has risen to a record figure of over 80,000, the highest ever for England and Wales, and that, even if the impact assessment on the legal aid Bill works out fully, that will barely bring the prison population down to what it was before the coalition came in? Is it not fair to say that the Government have given up on this?

My Lords, on the contrary, what the Government have not done is to play the numbers game. People are in prison as a response to offences committed and sentences imposed by the courts. Simply making arbitrary decisions on prison numbers is pointless, but what we are doing is putting into place policies which, as I have said, particularly tackle what I think is one of the major problems in the upward trend in our prison population—that is, the unacceptable level of reoffending. That is why we are putting a lot of effort into policies on the rehabilitation of offenders.

My Lords, will my noble friend bear in mind how many times we have seen news of a prisoner who has been let out of prison early causing great trouble, including murder? We must always keep an eye on the danger of letting people out of prison too early.

My Lords, that is the mirror image of the Question put by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. There is no doubt that every time you release a prisoner, there could be a danger of reoffending. That is why the assessment is very thorough and the management—the Opposition Front Bench is nodding as though I was saying something brilliant. I am not changing policy at all, and what we are certainly not going to do is let out 80,000 people early because we have mismanaged the prison building programme. If anyone wants to talk about mismanaging prisons, we can look at the record over 10 years of the previous Government. In terms of the question asked by my noble friend Lady Knight, it is absolutely correct that Ministers are aware of public concern about the management of ex-prisoners. That is why we take great care in these matters and why, when we look at the alternatives to prison, we make sure that the public have confidence in the policies we put in place. That is the reality.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the greatest deterrents to the commission of crime is the fear of being caught? How is this helped by a 20 per cent cut in police funding?

Again, there are great nods from the Opposition. Apparently the reality of the necessity for cuts has reached the Leader of the Opposition, yet any specific cut is met with shakes of the head. The police are being asked, as are many others, to carry through efficiency programmes, but we remain confident that they will deliver in terms of public safety while carrying out the programmes that have been requested of them.

Does the Minister agree that more important than when a prisoner is released is whether, when he is released, enough has been done while he is in custody to ensure that he does not quickly return to prison by reoffending?

That is exactly the point that my right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor made. It is the rehabilitation of offenders that we must look at. Yes, people who have committed serious crimes should be put in prison but, unless you are going to keep them in prison for ever, you are going to release them at some stage. Therefore, the policy aim must be to put in place programmes of rehabilitation to avoid reoffending wherever possible. It was put to me on a prison visit that the best chance of avoiding reoffending is for prisoners to have the prospect of a job, a place to live and a relationship. Those are difficult things to put in place but that is, and will continue to be, the thrust of our policy.

My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House about any progress that is being made in reducing the number of women in prison, both on remand and following sentencing? I know that he shares my view that this carries a huge cost—not just a financial one but in particular a social one.

My Lords, there are about 4,000 women in our prisons at the moment, and anyone who takes a moment to study these matters will say that that is far too large a number. We are taking forward a range of measures to look at how women who have committed crimes outside the prison regime can be treated. I pay tribute here to the landmark Corston report from the previous Administration. We are pursuing most of the recommendations, as did the previous Administration, but, like them, we have found the key recommendation specific to small units too costly to pursue. It is widely said that women need a different kind of treatment and I believe that to be the case. This is a serious problem and one that we are taking seriously in terms of initiatives on drugs, debt and treatment outside. Those are the facts.

My Lords, when the Government were in their first flush of enthusiasm, they were full of claims as to how much smaller the prison population would be by the time of the next general election. Who was playing the numbers game then? How times have changed. Particularly bearing in mind the increase in crime that is now being reported, what is the current forecast of what the prison population will be at the next election in May 2015? What a contrast all this is with the days of the previous Labour Government, when crime was being reduced by 43 per cent.

The commitment that we have made is to try to bring in a raft of policies that address specific problems about reoffending which are key to the size of our prison population. I am not going to play a numbers game; indeed, we never have. I look across at some of the heads shaking and nodding opposite, but I personally find this matter far too serious to play a numbers game.

I know that they do not like it but the fact is that during their period in office the Labour Government oversaw a massive increase in our prison population without tackling at any time scandalous levels of reoffending, ranging from 50 to 70 per cent.

Time, yes; and it is time that the Labour Opposition faced up to their appalling record on crime.