HC Deb 09 June 1997 vol 295 cc778-9
3. Mr. Boswell

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what plans he has to curb the rate of growth in the prison population. [916]

Mr. Straw

Within a broad sentencing framework laid down by Parliament, who is sentenced to imprisonment and for how long is a matter for independent decision by the courts. On present trends, the prison population is likely to rise in the foreseeable future. In the longer term, the growth in the prison population should be affected by action that we are taking to deal with the appalling delays in the criminal justice system and, above all, by our policies to tackle youth crime to stop so many young offenders graduating to adult crime and adult prisons.

Mr. Boswell

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new position. He will have heard the earlier exchanges on the importance of differentiating between dangerous criminals and society's demands for their incarceration. Does he accept that we simply cannot go on building prisons for ever? Will he take the longest and most careful possible look at the distinction between those who must be in prison for the public's safety and those for whom alternative approaches may be appropriate, whether or not he gets the benefit of his social policies in due course? Will he undertake to look carefully at the situation in Onley in my constituency, where his proposal for a second prison is giving rise to a great deal of concern on the part of my constituents?

Mr. Straw

I thought that there was a reason for the question, and it emerged right at the end. Everybody wants criminals locked up, but not in his own backyard.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his congratulations. Despite the debates that took place at the end of the last Parliament about mandatory minimum sentences, every single person currently serving a prison sentence is in prison because of sentencing decisions made under the Criminal Justice Act 1991 by independent sentencers. Any Government must take account of the public spending consequences of a rising prison population. At the same time, we must recognise that, after a period of 18 years during which crime doubled, there are many serious criminals whom courts consider it appropriate to lock up in prison.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Does the prison system that my right hon. Friend inherited from a Conservative Government really work, or will there have to be revolutionary changes in it?

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend is right to say that prison works for some prisoners. It plainly works to incapacitate prisoners. Of the 60,000 people currently in prison, the courts have made their own independent judgment that that is the most appropriate place for them to serve their sentence. Like almost every other hon. Member, I do not want people to be sentenced unnecessarily to prison, but sentencers will not use community sentences to the extent that perhaps they should, unless and until there is more public confidence in those sentences, and the public can be assured that their safety is guaranteed as far as possible when people serve community sentences.

Madam Speaker

Before I call the next speaker, may I ask Ministers to remember that they are addressing the House and not the individual who put the question? We would all like to hear the answer, and I like to see handsome faces, even if they are only in profile.

Miss Widdecombe

I invite the right hon. Gentleman to note that I have two prisons in my backyard, of which I am extremely proud. Considering that he will have to house the population growth and additional prisoners as a result of the previous Government's very apt sentencing policy, will he clarify once and for all what hitherto has been fudged on a number of occasions? Will he tell the taxpayer and the public at large whether he will honour current private sector contracts and let all prisons be privately managed in future under the private finance initiative?

Mr. Straw

I apologise for the fact that I was turning away from you, Madam Speaker. That was a serious omission on my part.

I made it clear before the election that we would honour existing contracts that were in the pipeline. I said that in a lecture to the Bourne Trust in January 1995. With regard to renewal, that depends on value-for-money considerations, as I made clear on 19 May.

Mr. Flynn

When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State drafts his welcome new law which will apply to hon. Members and introduce prison sentences for acts of corruption, will he ensure that that Act applies retrospectively?

Mr. Straw

Much as I would be tempted to make such an Act apply retrospectively, it is an important principle that Parliament should not pass retrospectively Acts which make into crimes previous acts that were not crimes.