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Prison Overcrowding

Volume 630: debated on Tuesday 31 October 2017

11. What assessment he has made of the effect of overcrowding and staff numbers on recent serious disturbances in prisons. (901522)

I have seen a number of incidents in prisons. Every incident in any prison has its own unique situation, which is why we always investigate incidents in prisons very thoroughly. Obviously, we hold some of the most challenging individuals in society in our prisons, so incidents do sometimes occur. Our job is to minimise the risk and manage those incidents when they happen.

The chief inspector of prisons has said that staffing levels are simply too low for a decent regime to be run. We need prison officers on the frontline, not filling in for cuts elsewhere. Under this Government, we have lost 6,000 prison officers. Will the Minister take some of the responsibility for the crisis in prisons such as the one in Walton?

Obviously, I take a keen interest in the hon. Gentleman’s local prison, where the staff complement is exactly as it should be. It is one of the 10 pathfinder prisons in which we are implementing the new offender management model. I discussed the staffing situation there with the new national chair of the Prison Officers Association, and he commended the fact that staff numbers there are at full strength, but that does not mean that there is not more to do across the estate. We are halfway to our target of 2,500, and I am confident that we will achieve that.

The chief executive of the Prison Service has stated that, because of overcrowding, the Government will not be able to proceed with planned closures, throwing the financing of their prison building plan into disarray. In the light of concerns that the Ministry of Justice will not be able to build new prisons without selling off the old—the model on which its building plan was based—will the Minister today guarantee that no new prison places will be built from private funds?

The hon. Gentleman seems to have forgotten that we have a duty to house those who are sentenced by the courts. The prison population in England and Wales is 86,000; we have a duty to provide accommodation for them to serve their sentence in. We still have a commitment to investing £1.3 billion in the prison estate to create 10,000 additional prison places during this Parliament.

The Minister will be aware that one of the main causes of overcrowding in our prisons is the very long delays in our criminal justice system and the number of prisoners on remand. I wrote to him about Cordell Austin’s very long delay on remand; he was first arrested back in May 2016 under a very large joint enterprise case, but was acquitted in August this year. He is still in prison after nearly 18 months, and his oral hearing is not due until December; originally, we were told it would be next year. Are these not the sorts of cases that need attention, and do not hearings need to be prompt?

Justice for those going through the system has to be swift. May I correct an assumption in the question? The reason why the prison population has increased in England and Wales is that more people convicted of sex-related offences are serving longer sentences. Given our duty to protect the public, it is right that when these people are convicted by the courts, they serve their time. The hon. Lady mentioned a case in her constituency and what she perceives to be the injustice there, but I would not generalise from that case and say that that is why there is overcrowding in our prisons.