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Arrests and Prison Capacity

Volume 838: debated on Wednesday 22 May 2024

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given earlier in the House of Commons.

“I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk about public safety, about the record number of police officers in this country—3,000 more than under the last Labour Government—and about the fact that, according to the crime survey, there is less than half the crime today than there was under the last Labour Government. There were 620 homicides in the last year of the last Labour Government, compared with 577 in the last year. I am delighted to talk about all those excellent criminal justice results.

I believe this urgent question was prompted by a letter circulated about a week ago by Chief Constable Rob Nixon in his capacity as criminal justice lead for the National Police Chiefs’ Council, in which he referred to short-term prison place pressures over a period of eight days, expiring tomorrow. I have spoken to Chief Constable Rob Nixon in the last half an hour and he has confirmed to me that the contingencies referred to in the letter were not required. He said the contingencies were not required because the prison place situation in practice did not merit it; he said there have been no delays to arrests that he is aware of; and he has said that, while a small number of people were conveyed to court in police cars and there was a small number of delays to arrival at court, no one who should have got to court did not do so. I am delighted to confirm to the House that the contingencies referenced in the letter did not materialise, and that the short-term fluctuation referenced in the letter will be over tomorrow”.

My Lords, public safety must at all times be our primary concern. The fact that we now have a shortage of prison spaces and that these contingency measures were even considered is worrying. The Government have said they have not put the measures in place this time, but of course this shortage of prison spaces has been building for a long time and is having a knock-on effect throughout the criminal justice system. I agree with the need for contingency planning, even when the outcome is worrying. Can the Minister tell me, within contingency planning, what would be the priorities for the arrest or non-arrest of suspects?

In conclusion, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, for the assiduous and courteous way in which he has dealt with many questions, debates and lots of legislation. He must be one of the most hard-working Members of this House, and we appreciate it.

I thank the noble Lord very much indeed for those remarks. They are very kind, and I am very grateful for them.

Obviously, public safety is the Government’s priority. We fully expect the police to arrest anyone who has committed a serious crime and poses a risk to the public. Police chiefs have been very clear today that officers will arrest anyone they need to in order to keep the public safe. The NPCC has suggested that, to its knowledge from daily engagement with forces, no arrests have been delayed because of the impact of Operation Early Dawn.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his acknowledgement that contingency planning is obviously a necessity. Frankly, any serious organisation should prepare for contingencies all the time. There were some strange remarks relating to that in the House of Commons. I think it is odd that was perhaps highlighted as a thing.

I acknowledge the comments about prison capacity, but we have made significant progress with regards to building capacity, which I am happy to talk about.

My Lords, on behalf of these Benches, I echo the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby. Although I do not normally shadow this portfolio, I recognise the Minister’s hard work.

Groups such as the Howard League have repeatedly said that sentences of 12 months or less are associated with higher reoffending rates. Given that our prisons are dangerously close to capacity, despite what the Minister has said, what steps are the Government are taking to reduce short-term sentences, which would have the dual benefit of decreasing prison populations and lowering recidivism rates?

I thank the noble Baroness very much for her remarks, which I very much appreciate. Obviously, much of the debate around sentencing involved a Bill that we may or may not see—we probably will not—so I will talk a bit about what we have done on prison building. We have delivered the largest prison-building programme since the Victorian era, with 10,000 of the 20,000 additional places to be delivered by the end of 2025. We have already delivered about 5,900 of the 20,000 places. Last October, a series of measures was announced that will help to ease the pressure further. I mentioned the Sentencing Bill and we will also further the 20,000 portfolio. In October last year, we announced an investment of £30 million to acquire the land we need to build more prison places, and we are intent on delivering an additional 460 RDCs across the estate. There is a considerable amount of work going on. I accept of course that there are short-term capacity problems, but that is the point of having contingency planning.

My Lords, the Minister referred to short-term capacity problems, but we have a long-term situation, extending over decades across many different Governments, of very high numbers of people in prison in the UK. The current rate of imprisonment in England and Wales is 146 people per 100,000 of population. By comparison, the Republic of Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany and the Nordic states all have a rate of imprisonment of less than 90 prisoners per 100,000 of population. Surely, the Government being forced to request chief constables to pause non-priority arrests and operations is a reflection of the fact that we have just kept shoving people into jail, without giving the jails the capacity to rehabilitate. That is causing damaging impacts on communities, prisoners’ families and prison workers, as well as on the prisoners, who will nearly all be released back into the community eventually. Is it not time to look again at the continual push to lock up more people, when, as the noble Baroness on the Lib Dem Benches said, there is so much evidence that that is not working?

The noble Baroness raised some very interesting points, which I will address in a second. To be clear, we have not asked police chiefs to stop arresting people, as I have already said. On the impact on communities, I suspect that criminals roaming free probably has a lot more impact on local communities than having them inside. On the international comparisons, I am not sure how we achieve them or draw any meaningful conclusions from them. The fact is that we make our own laws, which is what we are elected to do. Perhaps it will be a Green Party policy that we should let criminals out—good luck.