HC Deb 08 July 2002 vol 388 cc589-91
1. Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight)

What is the (a) design capacity of the prison estate and (b) number of prisoners therein. [64745]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Hilary Benn)

On 5 July 2002, the in-use certified normal accommodation of the prison estate was 64,232, and the usable operation capacity was 71,653. As of this morning, the total prison population was 71,360.

Mr. Turner

I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that my constituents will find it much easier to support his proposal for a fourth prison on the Isle of Wight if he can promise to recruit staff and to source supplies locally, to bring the street lights and sewers on the prison estate up to adoptable standard, and—most importantly—to guarantee that released prisoners will not jump local people in the housing queue, but will be re-housed where they committed their offences?

Hilary Benn

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the current planning application follows on from existing planning permission for a 416-place prison on the site. I understand that, next week, he will meet Home Office officials to talk about the matters that he has raised today. I am very happy to give him the assurance that, as ever, the Prison Service does all that it can to ensure that local materials are used and local sourcing is undertaken when new prison places are provided. I am aware of the particular issues relating to lighting, highways and so on that he raises. Officials are looking at them, and it certainly is our intention that prisoners will be returned to their home area when they complete their sentence.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

Although this Government have many excellent policies, is not the worst that which locks up increasing numbers of children and young people in prison? Should we not abandon that policy and ensure that the very small number of young people from whom society needs to be protected are maintained in secure accommodation under the auspices of the Children Act 1989?

Hilary Benn

As my hon. Friend will be well aware, the Government have made a particular priority of their youth justice reforms—both to speed up the time between the committing of an offence and sentencing, and to develop effective alternatives to custody for those for whom such alternatives can prove successful. I hope that he accepts that the most effective thing that we can do is to ensure that we bring effort, resources and reform to bear on reducing the chances of young people reoffending. If that proves successful, it will not be necessary for such young people to remain in custody, and they can go on to lead what we hope will be useful lives.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

How far does the prison estate's design capacity take into account the need to avoid harm and self-harm among prisoners? In particular, when does the Minister propose to respond to the urgent request that I made three weeks' ago for him to look at conditions in Wandsworth jail? One of my constituents recently fell from, or was thrown from, the top storey of the building to the floor beneath, leading to critical injuries because of the lack of safety facilities.

Hilary Benn

I am aware of the specific case that the hon. Gentleman raises. It is being looked into, and I shall respond as quickly as I can. However, he raises an even more important and fundamental point—the work that the Prison Service is doing to reduce the incidence of self-harm under the safer custody initiative. At Winchester prison last week, I chaired a meeting of the round table group that is considering self-harm and suicides in prison. There has undoubtedly been a real change in the approach of prison staff, particularly in the six prisons in which the new safer custody initiative is being piloted. However, both sides of the House will share the genuine regret that, so far this year, the number of suicides in prisons has been higher than for the same period last year.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

Does my hon. Friend agree that we should send people to prison as punishment, not for punishment, and that, having punished them by taking away their liberty, we should concentrate on policies that will ensure their rehabilitation in the community? In keeping with the point that was made earlier about housing, is not the rehabilitation of prisoners, rather than simply punishing them, key to ensuring that we keep prison populations down?

Hilary Benn

I agree. The deprivation of liberty is clearly part of society's way of saying to offenders that they must be held to account for what they have done. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the best long-term public protection measure is to reduce the chances of such people reoffending. That is precisely why we have undertaken work in prisons to increase drug treatment and testing. Ten years ago, there was almost no such provision in prisons. It was prison officers and staff in the pioneer prisons who, by looking at the offenders before them, recognised that that was what was needed if we were to have any hope of reducing reoffending in the way that my hon. Friend has described. We are investing to make that happen, but we need to do more because, in the end, that is the best way to protect the public.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

While I do not disagree with what the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) said, is it not the case that 1 million crimes a year are committed by prisoners who have been released early? Perhaps they do not spend enough time in prison. Surely that point must be considered when assessing the broad canvas of prison sentencing policy.

Hilary Benn

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, under the home detention curfew scheme the average period of early release is six weeks, and the scheme has a more than 90 per cent. success rate. He is right in one respect: prison is the place where we need to put dangerous, violent or persistent offenders who do not respond to the rehabilitation work that we are trying to develop. The great majority of prisoners will come back into the community and that is why it makes sense to invest in effective rehabilitation as the best way to protect the public.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

Can I assume that the Minister regards the record number of prisoners in England and Wales—which has been announced in the same week as I understand we will see a further increase in crime figures—as a sign of failure, not success? If that is the case, in addition to reducing the number of young people in prison, do the Government put a high priority on taking many mentally ill prisoners out of prison and putting them into secure health service accommodation? Are the Government willing to endorse the view of the Lord Chief Justice and Mrs. Cherie Blair that courts should not send non-violent women offenders to prison at the present rate of near record numbers—to great harm to them and to society at large?

Hilary Benn

First, we will have to wait for the crime figures to be published this week. Secondly, I endorse the statement made by the Lord Chief Justice and by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor, who—while they recognise that decisions about sentences are properly matters for the courts—have made it clear to sentencers that they should look carefully at the choice of custody for those offenders for whom prison may not be the most effective form of sentence. The hon. Gentleman's point about women and other prisoners reinforces the argument about the need for effective rehabilitation, having regard to family ties and job prospects on leaving prison. Compared to the population as a whole, prisoners are more likely to have low skills, little previous employment and a record of exclusion from school. That legacy of social exclusion does not excuse their crime, but it makes a powerful case for trying to address those causes of crime to try to reduce the chances of reoffending.