HC Deb 30 March 1998 vol 309 cc889-90
10. Mr. Rhodri Morgan

What estimates he has made of the level of the prison population in England and Wales on 1 April (a) 1998, (b) 1999 and (c) 2000. [35160]

Ms Quin

The prison population is projected to be 65,100 at the end of March, 69,000 by March 1999 and 72,400 by March 2000. However, projections exclude proposals not yet implemented, such as home detention curfew, which may reduce the need for additional prison places by about 3,000, and the new community sentence provisions and orders, which the Government are introducing, particularly under the Crime and Disorder Bill.

Mr. Morgan

I thank my hon. Friend very much for that comprehensive reply. Does she agree that, financially and administratively, it would be very imprudent to think of signing 25-year contracts with Securicor, the Corrections Corporation of Connecticut or whatever company for extra prisons if we do not know whether the prison population will rise, as it did under the Home Secretary's appalling predecessor, or fall, as it did under the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke)?

Ms Quin

I am sure that my hon. Friend will realise that, given the projections that I described, it would not be responsible not to plan for that accommodation. At the same time, the question is not just of choosing between approaches adopted by two previous Conservative Home Secretaries. There is our own Labour Government approach, which will make for a better criminal justice system in terms of reducing delays, increasing bail support and making much better use of probation and electronic monitoring.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley

The Minister will be aware that many share her concerns about the increasing prison population. Obviously, some people need a prison sentence, but there are others for whom a community sentence would be much more appropriate. The Minister could try education and exhortation, or she could introduce additional sentences; ultimately, however, there is central funding for prison sentences, while community sentences are funded locally. Behind the rhetoric, the Government have starved local probation services and those providing community services of cash. Will she tackle the perverse financial incentive in the system that makes a prison sentence easier?

Ms Quin

The cut that affected the right hon. Lady's probation service was introduced by the Conservative Government. There is central funding for the probation service, which we want to be properly resourced in future. We are looking at the issues as part of the comprehensive spending review. We can build confidence in community sentences, which can be effective and challenging, and we look forward to such sentences operating even more successfully in the future.

Mr. Grocott

Can my hon. Friend confirm that levels of crime were dramatically lower—and that a prison population of 40,000 was regarded as dangerously high—under the Labour Government of the 1970s? Can she further confirm that the enormous pressure on the Prison Service and the increasing prison population today is a direct consequence of one shameful statistic—that crime doubled under the Tories?

Ms Quin

My hon. Friend is absolutely right on both points. The Government's approach—particularly in the Crime and Disorder Bill, the work on crime prevention and early intervention with young offenders—will mean that, over time, fewer people will come into the prison system because we will have taken more appropriate measures earlier.

Mr. Llwyd

I endorse the Minister's comments on community-based sentences, but may I remind her respectfully that such programmes will need to be properly financed if they are to be used more? If community sentences are used more frequently, they can be economic in terms of low reoffending rates and compared with the cost of keeping someone in prison.

Ms Quin

The measures in the Crime and Disorder Bill will be resourced. That is important. Many probation services do an excellent job, but there is tremendous variation across the country. For that reason, it is important to identify the best and most cost-effective programmes and build on them for the future.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Will my hon. Friend take a hard look at the statistics on women in prison, as the increasing number of women being committed to prison is quite frightening? One wonders whether the severity of the sentences reflects the severity of the charges. It is always right that people should be punished, but the families pay an inordinately high price.

Ms Quin

I assure my hon. Friend that I take a particular interest in women in prison. We are committed to ensuring that the delays in the system, which seem to affect women on remand in particular, are curbed. We must act to ensure that people are not held unnecessarily in prison; we must also ensure that those who are imprisoned are those who present a risk to the public and have committed serious offences.