§ 7. Mr. Grocott
To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what is his latest estimate of the prison population.
§ Mr. Grocott
Can the Home Secretary confirm that the Council of Europe figures clearly show that the prison population in this country is the highest in western Europe and that as many as two thirds of offenders are reconvicted within two years of being sent to prison? Does he think that we have that dreadful record because the British people are uniquely delinquent or does he think, as I do, that the Government are uniquely incompetent when dealing with crime prevention, particularly reoffending?
§ Mr. Clarke
I am aware of the Council of Europe figures, although I always treat international comparisons with care. It is not the case that the levels of crime—for example, violent crime—in this country are particularly high when compared with other European standards, but they are quite high enough. The public require the Government to provide the courts with a full range of penalties and require people to be committed to prison where the severity of an offence justifies it. We are about to bring into effect the Criminal Justice Act 1991 to give the courts a wider range of effective penalties. The courts may decide to use non-custodial sentences in appropriate cases, where previously they may have given prison sentences.
§ Sir Ivan Lawrence
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, desirable as it no doubt is to reduce the prison population, it is absurd to expect judges to reduce the prison population by obliging them, under the Criminal Justice Act, to take no account of a man's previous convictions?
§ Mr. Clarke
The Criminal Justice Act tries to bring greater rationality into sentencing by setting out more clearly the matters that courts should and should not take into consideration. I have no doubt that the courts will continue to use the penalties at their disposal to the fullest effect that they think necessary to protect the public. I am sure that the Criminal Justice Act will not inhibit judges' ability to do so.
§ Mr. Sheerman
Is it not amazingly complacent for the Home Secretary not even to mention in his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) that, at the end of March, 11 prisons were overcrowded by 50 per cent? There are now almost 2,000 prisoners held in police cells. Is it not the Home Secretary's job to resolve the problem quickly? Will he start talking to judge Stephen Tumim and listening to his recommendations, rather than pursuing the silly policy of privatising prisons?
§ Mr. Clarke
I have already welcomed judge Tumim's report. An independent inspector of this kind is an added incentive to raising standards. There is still overcrowding in our prisons, but it has dropped dramatically in the past two or three years. We have somewhat reduced the capacity of our prisons by introducing a programme to get rid of slopping-out by the end of 1994. I believe that the whole House supports that. Five prisons are under construction or have been commissioned; they will add 3,000 extra places. We are producing more capacity for the prisoners and improving the regime in the prisons. We have quite a long way to go, but there has been a spectacular improvement in the past two or three years.