UK proposal on combating prison overcrowding [UK HL]

Statement on the prison population delivered to UK House of Lords, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, June 19, 2007 [announcing a plan to ease prison overcrowding].

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now make a Statement on the prison population.

The Ministry of Justice has been in existence for five weeks. I announced on 9 May my department's approach to penal policy. I announced that we would continue to protect the public by providing prison places for those whom the courts determined needed custody, and that this would include us asking the Sentencing Guidelines Council to review its guidance; that we should make best use of the best community sentences where evidence showed that they reduce reoffending and offer more effective punishment; and that we would continue to deliver in line with the recommendations of the 2003 review of my noble friend Lord Carter, including end-to-end offender management and public service reform.

Today, I shall provide details to your Lordships of how the Government will ensure that all those whom the courts send to prison can be accommodated. I will update the House on the detail of the inquiry of my noble friend Lord Carter into prisons, announce the building of further custodial places, and set out further measures to improve the functioning of our prisons and to reduce reoffending.

We have made the public's protection from the most dangerous criminals a priority. We are bringing more offenders to justice than ever before—25 per cent more than when we came into office. Those who commit violent or sexual offences can now receive an indeterminate prison sentence. The length of time for which criminals are sent to prison has increased, with the average custodial sentence in crown courts rising by 25 per cent between 1995 and 2005. More people are being sent to prison than ever before. This means that, overall, there are 40 per cent more serious and violent offenders in prison than in 1997. Since 1997, the prison population has increased from 61,467 to 81,016 today, which is a record high.

Nationally, crime is falling. There are 5.8 million fewer offences than in 1997, but we know that we need to go further. We have been working intensively with 44 of our most deprived communities, where crime and disorder are highest, to reduce crime further. Early indications show that this work is making an impressive impact and that crime is falling in those areas at twice the rate of the national average. We are determined that the public be protected from dangerous offenders, and that court sentences and other orders be obeyed.

We have taken steps to increase resources spent on community punishments and interventions designed to address the causes of crime among offenders. The tough community sentences that we have developed have proved to be more successful in reducing reoffending. As I announced in May, we will therefore extend and expand such schemes.

We have built over 20,000 more prison places since 1997, with a commitment to 8,000 more by 2012. We have increased expenditure on probation by 70 per cent in real terms over the past 10 years and, as an example of our commitment to addressing the causes of crime, we have increased the expenditure on drug treatment programmes in prisons from £7.2 million in 1996—97 to £79 million in 2007—08.

To help accommodate the current pressures, I can announce today that Her Majesty's Treasury has made available new money to build an additional 1,500 places over and above the 8,000 already announced. We will be starting work immediately on 500 of those extra places. The first of these additional places will come on-stream in January 2008.

As I announced on 9 May, I have asked the noble Lord, Lord Carter, to look at the future of the prison estate and we will take decisions on the optimum timing and composition of the further 1,000 places announced today in the light of the noble Lord's report. I am today publishing the terms of reference to his review; as they make clear, the noble Lord will look at the long-term future of the prison estate and the supply and demand of prison places.

These additional measures will bring on more prison places, which are much needed. The prison estate is near to full currently. To ensure that we can accommodate all those sent to prison by the court, as a temporary measure we will continue to rely on police cells and, when necessary, court cells. We are grateful to Chief Constables in England and Wales for making police cells available to us when necessary and to Her Majesty's Court Service for over 100 court cells. The use of police cells may be necessary until the end of the year at the latest, pending the increase in capacity from some of the 8,000 coming on-stream, and then in the beginning of 2008 the additional prison places that I have announced today.

In addition to the increased prison capacity, I have today authorised the issuing of guidance to prison governors to allow them to make wider use of the prison rules provisions to authorise release on licence for offenders who are coming to the end of their sentence. The guidance will authorise the release on licence, in accordance with existing prison rules, up to 18 days before their release date to those who have been sentenced to a determinate prison sentence of four years or less. This is a temporary measure.

Release on licence is not the same as executive release. Releasing people on licence means their sentence continues and will be granted only to those who meet the eligibility criteria, set out in the guidance which I will place in the Library of the House. The criteria exclude offenders convicted of serious sexual or violent crimes, those who have broken the terms of temporary licence in the past and foreign national prisoners who would be subject to deportation at the end of their sentence. It will apply only to those who are not released on home detention curfew. While on licence, the offender will remain the subject of his sentence and will be liable to recall.

The guidance comes into effect on 29 June. I will keep the operation of the guidance under review.

In addition, yesterday saw the launch of a new bail accommodation and support service, which will enable the courts to make better use of bail in appropriate cases. The accommodation will also be available for prisoners who would be eligible for home detention curfew if they had suitable accommodation.

The measures that I have announced today are designed to ensure the Government will be able to accommodate all those the courts send to prison. We will respect and give effect to the orders made by the courts.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

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