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Prison Capacity

Volume 826: debated on Tuesday 6 December 2022


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday 30 November.

“The first responsibility of Government is to keep people safe. That means taking dangerous criminals off the streets, and to do that we must always ensure that we have sufficient prison places available to serve the courts. This Government have been decisive in our tough approach to crime. We are well on our way to the recruitment of 20,000 additional police officers. We have legislated to introduce tougher sentences for the most serious crimes, with rape prosecutions having increased by 3% between the year ending June 2021 and now, and by 49% since 2019, and we are committed to driving down the backlog of outstanding court cases following the pandemic.

We have long anticipated the prison population rising as a result of those measures, and that is why we are delivering the largest prison building programme since the Victorian era, with 20,000 additional places. We have already created over 3,100 of them, including the recent change of use of His Majesty’s Prison Morton Hall and our brand-new prison, HMP Five Wells. A further 1,700 places are due to come online, with occupation in tranches from next spring with the opening of HMP Fosse Way. This is in addition to the thousands of further places that will become available through additional house blocks—for example, at HMP Stocken, which is due to finish construction next year —and major refurbishment programmes across the existing estate. Just a few weeks ago, I attended a ground- breaking ceremony at the site beside HMP Full Sutton in Yorkshire, where we have started construction for the next new prison, which will hold 1,500 category C prisoners when it opens in 2025.

However, in recent months we have experienced an acute and sudden increase in the prison population, in part due to the aftermath of the Criminal Bar Association strike action over the summer, which led to a significantly higher numbers of offenders on remand. With court hearings resuming, a surge in offenders is coming through the criminal justice system, placing capacity pressure on adult male prisons in particular.

The public rightly expect us to take the action necessary to hold offenders who have been sentenced by the courts. That is why I am announcing today that we have written to the National Police Chiefs’ Council to request the temporary use of up to 400 police cells, through an established protocol known as Operation Safeguard. That will provide the immediate additional capacity we need in the coming weeks to ensure the smooth running of the prison estate, and to continue taking dangerous criminals off the streets. I thank the National Police Chiefs’ Council for its support in mobilising this operation. We already routinely work hand in glove with police forces across the country to occasionally use police cells to hold offenders overnight. The triggering of Operation Safeguard is not an unprecedented move. It is an established procedure that has been used before to ensure that our prison system can operate effectively and safely during periods of high demand. It last happened in 2006, and then in 2007 to 2008.

With the expected increase in offenders coming into the estate over the coming weeks, it is right that we give police forces as much notice as possible of the short-term need to use their cells, so that together we can safely and adequately ensure availability of the spaces needed. The activation of Operation Safeguard will ensure that His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and police forces can jointly plan how and where those places will be accessed. We are working with prison governors across the estate to ensure that we safely maximise the places available within our prisons. This plan, alongside our existing plan to provide 20,000 modern places, will ensure that we have enough places to cut crime and keep the public safe.

The capacity pressure is specific to the adult male estate, and there is ample capacity in the women’s and youth estates. We have delivered on our commitments to reduce the number of young people and women in our prisons, helping us to tackle the drivers of crime by focusing on rehabilitation. The Government are working to drive down reoffending, and we are investing £200 million a year by 2024-25 to get prison leavers into skills training, work and stable accommodation. We are investing to make prisons safer and more secure, rolling out almost 7,900 next-generation body-worn video cameras to 56 prisons. In March we completed our £100 million security investment programme to fight crime in prisons, including tackling the smuggling of illicit items such as drugs and mobile phones.

In conclusion, I thank the police for their support and pay tribute to the front-line prison staff and police officers who work tirelessly every day to keep the public safe. Taken together with our programme to expand the prison estate, I have every confidence that the commencement of these measures will ensure that we continue to deliver justice, protect the public and reduce reoffending, as the public would rightly expect, and I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, in response to the prison capacity update Statement read in the other place, I draw Members’ attention to my role as co-chair of the Justice Unions Parliamentary Group.

Using police cells and custody suites to house prisoners for any extended period of time is, in my opinion, an admission of failure by the Government. Does the Minister agree that insufficient capacity to hold prisoners is directly linked to the staffing and workload crisis within the probation service? Staff under excessive pressure are more risk averse and therefore more likely to recall offenders to prison. Does the Minister recognise that one solution to the crisis is for probation to be properly resourced and for workloads to be reduced? Does he agree that probation can take the pressure off prisons?

There has been a 13% rise in licence recalls in the last year. This should have indicated to the Government that prison places were not sufficient to meet the current demand. The Prison Governors Association has said that the use of police cells would place extra pressure on the police service and increase risk to prisoners. The association said:

“The use of police cells under these conditions is an exceptional measure and, in our view, should be reserved for unforeseen circumstances where no other options exist. We do not believe the circumstances that sees this announcement are unforeseen and we believe there are other options open to Government.”

Do the Government agree with the Prison Governors Association?

If the cost of Operation Safeguard is to be met from within the prison budget, what will be cut to pay for these prisoners being placed in police cells? What is the cost of using the police estate, and when do the Government plan to end Operation Safeguard?

Prisons are in crisis. Almost every report from HM Inspectorate of Prisons tells a tale of failure. Just two weeks ago, HM Prison Exeter was given an urgent notification, with crumbling estates, dangerous staff shortages, prisoner-on-prisoner violence and rehabilitation all but non-existent. Ultimately, the public pay the price because they are being kept less safe.

In the other place, Sir Bob Neill, chairman of the Justice Committee, pointed out that, even with increased spending on maintenance, there is still a significant backlog and shortfall in the maintenance budget. Many prison cells are therefore out of commission and not usable, when they ought to be brought back into use. What is being done to accelerate the maintenance programme to get more cells back into use?

Finally, the Minister will be aware that many of the people in the criminal justice system are mentally unwell. Can he assure me that these people will not be among those being held in the 400 police cells as part of Operation Safeguard?

My Lords, this Statement betrays a panic reaction to a crisis of the Government’s own making. Can the Minister say whether the Government finally accept that their policy of increasing time served in prison and their acceptance of prison sentence inflation have increased the number of prisoners? Do they accept that their policies have failed to cut our appallingly stubborn reoffending rates?

Understaffing and overcrowding have given our prisons revolving doors, reducing the chances of education, retraining and rehabilitation within prisons; yet in this complacent Statement, the Government accept no blame. “More rape prosecutions”, they say. Can the Minister say how many more convicted rapists are in prison now than were in 2019?

Then the Government blamed the criminal Bar strike. For years they have paid scandalously low fees to criminal barristers, who finally felt forced to take action. I remind the House of my registered interest as a practising barrister, although I have conducted no criminal cases for decades. If they had settled six months earlier, on the terms that were ultimately offered, how many police cells would now be unnecessary?

How do the Government plan to create more prison spaces, as they say they do, apart from the building program, without yet more overcrowding or even more shunting of prisoners around the prison estate to wherever space may be found, disrupting training, release preparation, visiting arrangements and family relationships, all of which are essential to rehabilitation?

I say yes to body cams, as mentioned in the Statement, and yes to preventing smuggling, but may we please have an end to short-term, panic responses to increased prisoner numbers, for which the Government’s failures alone are responsible, and have a corresponding increase in concentration on rehabilitation?

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for the points just made. Before I reply to them, I should say that Operation Safeguard is a temporary measure to meet a recent surge in demand for prison places and to keep the public safe. This is due in part to an exceptional number of prisoners held on remand as a result of the barristers’ strike, and the surge in offenders receiving custodial sentences. The prison population rose by over 1,500 in October and November, a highly unusual increase, which has caused pressure on the adult male estate but not the female or youth justice estates.

Operation Safeguard is a long-standing scheme, also used by the Labour Government, which allows about 400 police cells to be made available for prisoners to be held temporarily before they are moved to prison. It enables better management of the reception process, and in the main, it is anticipated that prisoners are held in police cells for only one night before being moved into a reception prison. This operation enables the police to mobilise their operations and work more closely with HMPPS.

Turning to the various points made, the Government do not accept the link made in relation to the probation service by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby. We are doing our very best to increase resources for the probation service, to recruit more probation officers and to improve the service to the best of our ability. This extra pressure has been rather unexpected. The Government do not accept that no other options exist; otherwise, we would not have triggered Operation Safeguard, the Government’s primary duty being to keep the public safe. The operation will come to an end as soon as possible, but I cannot give a date.

We are pursuing the prison maintenance programme as far as we can. We have gone around in a circle to some extent: the maintenance work, which was increased recently, has left us with fewer cells. Within the operational possibilities, improving maintenance in prisons is a priority.

As far as mental health is concerned, respectfully, I entirely agree that vulnerable offenders, whether suffering with their mental health or otherwise, should not be part of Operation Safeguard. My information is that those prisoners are not being held in police cells and that prisoners are properly assessed before they move to prison cells.

On the other points raised, the question of sentencing is a matter for the courts. It is right to point out that reoffending is falling, albeit slowly. But it is falling, and we seem to be on a good track in that regard. The Government are fully committed to the rehabilitation of prisoners. On earlier occasions in this House, we have discussed the steps taken, including education in prisons; employment advisers in prisons; accommodation for prisoners being released; and equipping prisoners with an ID pack consisting of a bank account, national insurance number and so forth. That rehabilitation programme is contributing to the steady, albeit slow, fall in reoffending. I hope I have dealt with the main points raised.

My Lords, can the Minister point to any empirical evidence or analysis that demonstrates that the doubling of the prison population in the last 40 years has made this country more law-abiding and less violent? Is he able to commit the Government to a new prison policy that is based on merit and not headlines?

My Lords, I am not in a position to comment on the last 40 years, but, respectfully, I would not make any link between the Government’s policy on prisons and the other matters to which the noble Lord referred. On the second part of his question, as I said just now, sentencing policy is a matter for the courts and not the Government.

My Lords, I think I am correct in saying that we have the second highest incarceration rate in the western world by far, after the United States of America. I have been around for the last 40 years and, in recent years, successive Governments—Labour and Conservative—have tended to introduce an annual criminal justice Bill increasing the maximum sentences for offences that have featured most in the popular press of the previous 12 months. As there is no evidence whatever that the length of sentence has any effect on the incidence of crime, and as the Minister also acknowledges the value of rehabilitation—it is the most valuable service prisons can give the public, because it saves them from future offences that might be committed, unless people go straight when they leave—does he agree that reversing the trend on sentencing and concentrating more on rehabilitation work, which he rightly praises, would be a valuable change in criminal justice policy if the new Government were to adopt it in the next two years?

I thank my noble friend Lord Clarke for that question. The Government place the highest premium on rehabilitation and reducing the reoffending rate. The Government’s position is that this is not the moment to consider a change in sentencing policy.

My Lords, will the Minister look at, and be so kind as to bone up on, the draft mental health Bill? A section of it deals with the prison population and the inadequate treatment currently given to those with mental health problems. There are some beneficial changes coming, but we need much more. They address only the really vulnerable, and there are many people in prison with serious mental health problems that are not being addressed. The way forward is to give them greater support and assistance. In that context, we perhaps ought to take a more liberal view and not solely employ psychiatrists but bring in therapists to assist with rehabilitation.

I thank the noble Lord and will certainly bone up on the mental health Bill, as he suggests. It is true that the proportion of prisoners suffering from mental health problems is too high. We, as a Government and as a nation, should try to do something about that, and I hope the mental health Bill will represent progress in that regard.

My Lords, my friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester much regrets that she is not able to be present today. I know she shares my concern over this Statement since we, like others who have spoken, believe that the emergency use of police cells for prisoners is deeply worrying. We greatly welcome the increase in the number of police officers but feel that it is connected to the larger number of people going to prison, and that that should not be the case. Initially I wanted to ask about rehabilitation, but that question has already been addressed. I accept that the question of sentences is for the courts, but can the Minister help us by saying what the Government are doing to promote community and non-custodial sentences, rather than people simply going to prison?

My Lords, as I have just said, that is an area for the courts. Judges, of course, have fairly extensive training in sentencing and I think I can fairly say that no judge would send anyone to prison if a community or other sentence was a realistic option.

My Lords, I concede that many members of the public want tougher sentences for serious crimes, but can the Minister comment on a key point made at the North Wales Women’s Centre’s 21st anniversary in Rhyl that I was at the other day? They made the point that far too many prisoners are locked up for short, two-week sentences for non-violent crimes, rather than the Government investing in alternatives to custody. Secondly, if capacity is at such a crisis point, will the Government use the opportunity to finally deal with IPP sentences? They were so awful they were abolished in 2012, but still thousands on IPP are languishing in prisons indefinitely. It is time to end them and free up the space.

My Lords, in relation to the comment from Rhyl in north Wales, I entirely take the point that is being made. Unfortunately, the courts sometimes feel that a short sentence is the only available, or the best, option in those circumstances—and that, as I have already said, is a matter for the courts. As far as IPP prisoners are concerned, the Government will respond to the recent report from the Justice Committee of the other place, I hope next week.

My Lords, my noble friend said that female prisoners were not involved in today’s announcement, and I completely understand that. However, is it not time to move to a stage where men who are physically male are not allowed to share or be incarcerated in women’s prisons? Surely, we can have enough respect for women to end this deeply unfortunate practice.

My Lords, action is being taken on transgender issues in the prison estate. I do not have the details with me, but I will write to my noble friend with the up-to-date position.

My Lords, the Minister has already said that if the Government had an alternative, they would put it in place. The issue of IPP sentences has been mentioned: 1,988 men are held under IPP charge. They should be set free. The former Prime Minister from the Minister’s own party decided that that was no longer an appropriate sentence, and why the Government persist with it is a bemusement. The number of those held on remand has tripled in the last 15 years and many of those remand prisoners who are young black men do not need to be held in prisons. They are being treated in a discriminating and racially inappropriate manner, simply because of suspicion. The Government ought to end the excessive use of prison for remand.

The matter of prisoners being held on remand, particularly black prisoners, is again a matter for the courts, before the question of remand or bail comes. The Government respectfully would not accept that it is a matter of racial discrimination. If it were, it would be regrettable—I can certainly say that. I would point out to your Lordships that, in terms of young offenders, and in particular young black offenders, there is very significant success in diversion from the court process, away from youth courts and so forth, so that the number of young offenders coming before the courts has fallen very significantly in recent years.

My Lords, in my experience, overcrowding in prisons leads to reduced security, which concerns me. The Minister will be aware of the recent case of David Norris, the murderer of Stephen Lawrence, who was found with a mobile phone in his cell at Dartmoor for the second time. Will the Minister tell the House what action the MoJ has taken to stop this egregious breach of security?

My Lords, I cannot comment on the specific case, although I know that action has been taken. Again, I can follow up with details of what action has been. The Ministry and HMPPS do all in their power to reduce overcrowding wherever possible. I accept the noble Lord’s observation that this needs constant attention.

My Lords, it is interesting that the whole increase is in the adult male estate. It is also interesting that there is a tremendous emphasis on not having women in prison, one of the reasons being that they are primary carers and that relationships are important to them. We have something like 4,000 women in prison and 80,000 men in prison. We do not have the same emphasis for the men. The Statement talks of rehabilitation and my noble friend has also mentioned employment, education and training. There was no mention of relationships, yet the Government’s own data says that prisoners who have family relationships are 39% less likely to reoffend than those who do not. I suggest that the Minister and all other Ministers mention family relationships as part of the reducing reoffending programme, because 39% is not a statistic that we should ignore.

I accept my noble friend’s points about family relationships and their importance. They should be borne in mind in the rehabilitation programme and in post-release care.

Community service orders are far more effective than short-term sentences. As a large number of cases go through magistrates’ courts, are we making effective use of such sentences? If not, why not?

As I think I said earlier, I am sure that a court would always prefer to impose a community sentence if it can.

I would like to correct the Minister. He said in an earlier answer that part of the problem was the barristers’ strike. That is absolutely not true. Part of the problem is that the Government are not funding them properly; that is why we have such a problem. On a wider issue, the Government have started sending climate change protesters to prison for quite long periods of time. I suggest that it would be more appropriate to send the climate criminals to prison and let the protesters out.

I apologise for my earlier intervention. The Prison Officers’ Association tells us that there is some space in our prisons: even after the need to do more repair and maintenance, there is still capacity there. But the association says it cannot use that capacity because of recruitment and retention problems. What are the Minister and the Government going to do to staff up our prisons so that they can use the space that they have?

We are working hard on a recruitment programme for prison officers. I do not have the exact figures in front of me, but I think we have recruited an additional 5,000 or so in recent times. I will give the noble Lord the exact figure as soon as I can obtain it.

My Lords, many prisoners arrive illiterate or barely literate, yet earlier this year His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons said that

“it is astonishing that prisoners can serve their sentence without being taught to read or to improve their reading skills”.

So they leave prison illiterate, cannot find work and reoffend. Will the Minister undertake the cost-saving measure of ensuring that every prisoner is taught to read?

My Lords, in relation to specific costs, no, but in relation to the general question of whether we should improve and develop educational facilities in prison, particularly so that prisoners can read, yes, the Government entirely agree with that aspiration.

My Lords, I serve on the Joint Committee on the Draft Mental Health Bill, which has been mentioned before. In a secure mental health hospital, there will be prisoners who are civilian patients as well as people who have been transferred from the prison estate. Hopefully, of course, they are treated and then are well enough to go back into the prison estate. However, do we have an issue here of people still being within secure mental health hospitals, where beds are scarce, because they cannot be moved back into the prison estate?

We do have an issue, as my noble friend puts it, around managing mental health in the community and among prisoners. I hope the Mental Health Bill will help to address that. This is an ongoing problem of which the Government are well aware and to which we are working towards solutions.

My Lords, I would hope not only that those in prison are able to read but that we are doing everything we can in the education system to ensure that no child leaves school without being able to read and write. What are the Government doing to ensure that children and young people are made aware of the dangers of prison and illegal acts much sooner in the system, so that we are not catching people after they have offended?

My Lords, that is a question directed to the education system and slightly outside my present brief. But I would hope that everything is being done to educate children in following the right way of life.