Skip to main content


Volume 788: debated on Thursday 8 February 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the size of the prison population and conditions within prisons.

My Lords, on Friday 2 February the prison population in England and Wales was 84,511. Work is under way to modernise the prison estate, closing some of the older prisons and creating in their place high-quality rehabilitative establishments.

My Lords, 75 of the 119 prisons in England and Wales have populations in excess of the certified normal accommodation standard. The latest figures show a 12% rise in both assaults and self-injury in prisons. The chief executive of the Howard League tells me that, in 30 years in the sector, she has never known conditions to be so bad. When is this Brexit-paralysed Government going to treat prisons and prison reform as a national priority? How bad does it have to get? Will the noble Earl tell us when he last visited a prison to see conditions for himself?

The conferment of a hereditary title is welcomed. Mrs Keen will be very pleased.

This is of course a serious issue. The demands on our prisons are a long-term issue, not a short-term problem, and we intend to address it with a programme of new prisons. Perhaps I may say that the question of capacity in our prisons has been with us for well over 15 years: indeed, we are not quite at the same sort of ceiling of use as we were even 10 years ago. As regards crowding levels, I regret to say that, since 2004, they have remained persistently at about the same level on a measure in percentage terms of between 24% and 25%—but, as I say, we are seeking to address these issues with our programme of new establishments.

My Lords, are the Government content that we have the fifth-highest incarceration rate in the EU—exceeded only by Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia? If not, what do they propose to do about it?

The Government are not content with such a situation and we are addressing more widely the issue of how and when we can develop non-custodial sentences to a greater extent. One of the pressures on the existing prison population has been the development of sentencing with regard to historic sex abuse, where long-term sentences have been imposed on a large number of people. That has put further pressure on the prison population.

Is the noble and learned Lord aware that the National Careers Service has been doing sterling work in our prisons to educate and prepare both young and older people leaving prison? The contract for this work is going to be terminated on 1 April and there does not seem to be any remedy in place. I would also like the Minister of State to reply to the letter from the Prisoner Learning Alliance, which has still not been answered, asking what will be done after 1 April for those people who are trying to get something out of prison so that they can leave prison with something.

My Lords, the NCS is due to expire on 31 March 2018 and will do so on that day. There would have been an option to extend it for a further period of six months, but consideration of the variable delivery of services, and of in-custody services in particular, led to a determination that the contract should not be continued. Alternative means are now being considered.

My Lords, I understand that the Sentencing Guidelines Council takes no account of the prison population. What would happen if we changed the rules so that the council did take account of the population and had a duty to make sure that we do not exceed the certified normal accommodation of the prison system?

My Lords, we have not exceeded the certified capacity of the prison population, even over the last 20 years. We came very close in 2007, at which time the Labour Government had to introduce an executive licensing system to take pressure off the prison population—but at present we remain below capacity.

My Lords, research by the Ministry of Justice shows that women’s centres have a statistically significant effect on decreasing reoffending rates, are substantially cheaper than keeping women in custody and often allow families to stay together. Will the Minister use his department’s evidence to invest in women’s centres that treat women holistically as the best way forward for many women?

The right reverend Prelate makes a very good point. We will shortly be setting out our strategy for female offenders. At present there are about 3,900 female offenders in custody. The Government are investing about £1 million between 2016 and 2020 to support local areas to respond to the needs of female offenders and to adopt a multiagency approach to their particular issues and problems.

My Lords, when the noble and learned Lord answered the Question he said that, of the 84,000 people in prison, a large number were due to historical abuse convictions. Can he tell us how many of the 84,000 are due to historical abuse?

No, it is not possible for me to give that figure. However, it is an indication of the pressures that have developed on the prison population.

My Lords, the Minister accepts that there are great problems within the Prison Service. They seem to correlate with the result we now have of constant changes in the Lord Chancellor or Minister of Justice—I say that seeing the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, in his place—and the fact that Ministers have to learn about prisons, which is not an easy task. So we get a situation where good reforms are overlooked and mistaken reforms are implemented. Does he think that there is a solution to this?

Speaking from a personal perspective, I hope that there is a solution in the form of some consistency and constancy of ministerial appointments in particular departments—but I quite understand the noble and learned Lord’s concern. Within the Ministry of Justice we are pursuing a consistent policy with regard to prison improvement.