HC Deb 05 December 1985 vol 88 cc412-3
3. Mr. Jim Callaghan

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what was the prison population of England and Wales at the most recent convenient date; and by what percentage this has risen since the same date in 1979.

Mr. Hurd

On 20 November 1985 the prison population was 46,930. On 30 November 1979 it was 43,036. That represents an increase of 9 per cent.

Mr. Callaghan

Is the Secretary of State aware that, per head of the population, the United Kingdom sends more people to prison than any other major Western European power, with the exception of Turkey? Is he aware also of the dramatic increase in the number of people in the United Kingdom who have been sent to prison during the last 10 years? Is he aware further that it costs £12,000 to send a person to prison in the United Kingdom? As four out of five prisoners are sent to prison for non-violent crimes, would it not be more sensible to give non-custodial sentences to those who are guilty of less serious crimes?

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Gentleman seems to suppose that I send people to prison. I do not send people to prison. The courts send people to prison, having listened to the evidence. For serious cases it is right that there should be serious sentences, which often means custodial sentences. I agree with the hon. Gentleman to the extent that for the less serious cases the courts should look carefully at alternatives before awarding custodial sentences.

Mr. Rowe

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the staffing levels in a prison in my constituency have fallen to the point where it has become almost impossible for the prison to continue the regime for which it was set up? May I ask him to look at this matter with great care?

Mr. Hurd

I shall look at the point that my hon. Friend has raised. In general, we are providing this year for an increase in prison staffing.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that the record prison population over which his Government preside imposes considerable strains on both prisoners and staff and that this problem should be dealt with by developing alternatives? Any response which means the closure of prison workshops, as has been suggested, will be bitterly resented and opposed by those both inside and outside the prison service and be regarded as a return to the custodial and punitive penal system, from which we thought we had got away a long time ago?

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Gentleman knows that there have been many problems with prison industries—over the products, the firms with which contracts have been signed and the staff requirements involved. We are reviewing the matter, but we have not yet reached a decision.

Mr. Greg Knight

Does the figure that my right hon. Friend has given include those who have been sentenced to terms of imprisonment but who for the time being are unlawfully at large? Is he aware that in Derbyshire no fewer than 72 people have absconded this year from just one prison—Sudbury? Should this not be a cause for concern? Will my right hon. Friend look into it urgently?

Mr. Hurd