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Prisons: Overcrowding

Volume 754: debated on Monday 16 June 2014


My Lords, I wish to repeat as a Statement an Answer given to an Urgent Question in the other place by my right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor. The Statement is as follows:

“Let me start by challenging the premise of the Question posed by the right honourable gentleman. We do not have a prison overcrowding crisis. Today’s prison population is 85,359. This is against total useable operational capacity of 86,421. This means we have more than 1,000 spare places across the prison estate.

By next April we will have opened an additional 2,000 places. This includes four new house blocks, which will start to open from the autumn. We also have a number of additional reserve capabilities to cope with unexpected pressures. At the time of the election next year, we will have more adult male prison places than we inherited in May 2010, despite having to deal with the financial challenges that the previous Government left behind.

Since last September, the prison population has started to rise again. This has happened for a number of reasons. They include the significant increase in the number of convictions for historic sex abuse. Those people committed appalling crimes, and probably thought they had got away with it. I am delighted to be finding the space for them behind bars.

Because that increase was unexpected, I have agreed to make some reserve capacity available to ensure that we retain sufficient margin between the number of places occupied and the total capacity of the system until the new prison buildings come on stream later this year. What this means in reality is that, in a number of public and private prisons, a few more prisoners will have to share a cell for a few weeks. We may not need these places but I would rather they were available in case we do.

I am also taking steps to address what I believe is a weakness in our prison system: that we have had no access to the kind of temporary or agency staff that you find as a matter of routine in our health and education systems. I am therefore establishing a reserve capability among former staff to give us the flexibility to adapt to short-term changes of population by bringing reserve capacity into operation. We have some staff shortages in London in particular because of the rapid improvement in the labour market, and this will help us to cover any gaps.

Let me also set out for the House how we are managing the prison estate. My objective is to bring down the cost of running the prison estate while maintaining capacity levels. An important part of that is replacing older, more expensive prisons with new or refurbished capacity that is less expensive to run. So far this Parliament we have opened 2,500 new places, with a further 2,000 places due to open in the next nine months. This has enabled us to close a little over 4,500 places in older prisons in the past two years, saving a total of £170 million during the current spending review period.

In addition, we have launched a benchmarking programme across the prison estate to bring down costs. I introduced this programme in the autumn of 2012 as an alternative to privatisation, at the request of the Prison Governors Association and the unions. The leaders of the Prison Officers’ Association described my decision to do so as a ‘victory’ for them. I am grateful to our staff for their hard work in taking these changes forward.

This programme of change has been praised by the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office. The NAO said recently:

‘The strategy for the prison estate is the most coherent and comprehensive for many years, has quickly cut operating costs, and is a significant improvement in value for money on the approaches of the past’.

We will end this Parliament with more adult male prison places than we inherited, more hours of work in prisons than we inherited, more education for young detainees than we inherited and a more modern, cost-effective prison estate than we inherited. That is anything but a crisis”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating his right honourable friend’s Answer but, as far as this side is concerned, it does not begin to deal with the questions that have been raised in the past few days. Last week, the highly respected Chief Inspector of Prisons voiced serious concerns over the impact on prisoners and staff of overcrowding in the prison estate. He referred to a rising trend of suicides and self-harm, of tension and violence, and of the inability to offer meaningful work or recreation. It was frankly astonishing to hear the Secretary of State for Justice airily dismiss these concerns on the “Today” programme, sounding like a political Dr Pangloss of whom Voltaire would have indeed been proud. He seemed to think it was only a matter of prisoners doubling up in their cells for a few weeks until the crisis passed, as if that was merely a trifling inconvenience for the prisoners and—as importantly if not more so—for those whose task it is to ensure good order and their safety.

When will the Government acknowledge and act on the facts that violence against prison staff has increased by 45% since 2010; that there has been a 60% rise in the number of times the prison riot squad has been called out; and that the use of Gold Command to deal with serious incidents has doubled in the past two years? It is time for the Secretary of State to stop playing to the gallery, to start listening to the chief inspector and to deal properly with the crisis in the service.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Bach, suggests that there is a great degree of overcrowding. He will know, because he is experienced in the field, that there is a difference between the certified capacity and the certified normal accommodation. It is true that, in the short term, some prisoners have to double up, but they double up in the context of cells that have been approved for occupation by two, and of infrastructure that has also been approved in the prison in which they reside. Of course, in an ideal world most of these cells would be occupied by one person, but none the less these are prisoners who are in their cells in circumstances where there is temporary overcrowding and where they are in fact serving a prison sentence.

I reject the suggestion that the Secretary of State is somehow cavalier about the problems of so-called prison overcrowding. Of course, any death in custody or any self-harm is a matter of great anxiety to all those concerned with the management of prisons. We are fortunate in having prison officers of a very high standard and prison governors who are concerned for the welfare of prisoners.

It is difficult to ascertain exactly what is causing the increase. The fact is that, unfortunately, the suicide rate among young males is reflected to some extent by an increase in the general population outside prison as well. Every death is subject to an investigation by the police and the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and there is, of course, a coroner’s inquest. The Secretary of State has commissioned an independent advisory panel on deaths in custody to review self-inflicted deaths of 18 to 24 year-olds in custody from 1 April 2007, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, who I am glad to see in his place.

The Government are by no means complacent about any incident of self-harm or death and are doing their best to avoid such consequences. However, it does not help the morale of prison officers or the welfare of prisoners generally to manufacture some crisis which, in truth, is no more than and no different from the situation that prevailed in many years when the party opposite was in government. For example, the so-called overcrowding figures were higher between 2003 and 2010 than they are now. This is a storm that has been manufactured and does not help the welfare of prisoners.

My Lords, whether or not the present shortage is under control, as the Statement asserts, can the Minister assure those of us on these Benches that the Statement should not be taken as suggesting that the more prison places there are the better? Will he confirm that the Government’s aim remains to achieve a reduction in the prison population by reducing reoffending and keeping offenders out of custody through rehabilitation where possible? Is that policy not achieving some success? Does he also accept that an obvious way to free up necessary space in prisons is to enable the early release of the 3,500 prisoners who have already passed their tariff date for release but are still serving indeterminate sentences for public protection, which were, after all, abolished by the Government to their credit in 2012?

My Lords, the Government take no pride in the increase in the prison population, of course, but it is a matter for the judges to decide the length of sentences and whether an individual is sent to prison. It is the Government’s job to ensure that there is prison capacity to deal with the sentences that are passed. The Government are indeed anxious to prevent the cycle of reoffending. As my noble friend quite rightly says, the Transforming Rehabilitation programme is particularly designed to deal with the many short-term prisoners—less than 12 months—who have unfortunately simply gone in and out of prison as a matter of routine. He is right to refer to the fact that the Transforming Rehabilitation programme, which went on stream in June, is going to mean that for the first time those prisoners have support outside prison from the probation service and that they receive contact with the probation service before they leave prison. That should help to reduce the prison population in the long term.

As to his observation about IPP prisoners, to whom I know he was referring, of course there is some anxiety about this. The Government, as he correctly acknowledges, repealed the relevant legislation. Steps are being taken to ensure, in so far as it is possible, that prisoners can be released when it is safe for that to happen. That will sometimes involve prisoners going on appropriate courses, but it should not be thought that simply going on a course automatically makes them appropriate for release. It is a matter for anxiety and the Government are particularly concerned that those who should be released are released and that the prison population should be kept as low as it can be, commensurate with public safety.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that there are many ordinary, decent, right-thinking members of society representing all manner of political persuasion or none who find their minds exercised by two considerable ironies? One is that while for many years the level of crime has been falling substantially, the prison population has nevertheless been going in a totally different direction. Secondly, and perhaps more fundamentally, despite the historical traditions of decent and law-abiding attitudes in the United Kingdom, of all the major countries of Europe we, per 100,000 of population, incarcerate many more than any other major country. I am not entirely certain of the figures for France, Italy and Germany, but they are far below ours. The figure for Britain, I remember, is 149 per 100,000. Is there no possibility of a deep and searching study into those two considerable ironies?

My Lords, as the noble Lord says, the level of crime has gone down under this Government. Sentences are longer than they were, as the sentencing guidelines suggest. Unfortunately, while serious crime remains a problem, that is unlikely to change. I take the noble Lord’s point, but I cannot announce any investigation from the Dispatch Box.

My Lords, the House has just given a Second Reading to the Serious Crime Bill, which creates new imprisonable offences and provides for longer sentences for existing offences. Does the Minister not think that the Home Office should think more carefully before it introduces torrents of legislation that place great pressure on the Prison Service, which is already highly stressed and at the limits of capacity?

The Serious Crime Bill is intended to deal with serious crime, which unfortunately is a problem. If serious crime is committed, sadly it will result in sentences of imprisonment.