HL Deb 03 December 2002 vol 641 cc1027-30

3.2 p.m

Lord Hurd of Westwell

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking to deal with the results of overcrowding in H M prisons.

The Minister of Stale, Home Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

My Lords, the Government are providing additional prison capacity. They have announced that £60 million will be made available to provide 740 additional prison places by March 2004. We have recently approved Prison Service plans for two new prisons. Sentencing is a matter for the courts, but, as my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and my noble and learned friends the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney-General said in their recent statement, dangerous, violent and sexual offenders should be given custodial sentences for as long as punishment and public protection require. In addition, seriously persistent offenders who continue to offend, despite being given every reasonable opportunity for rehabilitation, should normally expect to receive a custodial sentence. For less serious offenders, consideration should be given to effective, non-custodial sentences. The government reform of the criminal justice system introduced tough new community sentences that can provide robust and effective alternatives to custody.

Lord Hurd of Westwell

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and acknowledge my involvement with the Prison Reform Trust. It is remarkable and perhaps sad that when the Minister introduced the Government's penal policy in the debate on the Address he did not spare a word for the grossly overcrowded state of our prisons. How many prisoners today are eating, sleeping and going to the lavatory while sharing with another prisoner a small cell designed for one?

Can the Minister assess the effect on programmes for education, training and family visits of the churn; that is to say, the present habit of shunting sentenced prisoners up and down the country repeatedly to try to solve the problem of overcrowding? If this continues, will not our prisons, a crucial but often forgotten public service, become, not part of the cure for crime, but nurseries for future crime?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, in response to the first question, in October 2002, approximately 15,000 prisoners were held with another prisoner in cells designed for one. The key performance indicator in that respect was that only 18 per cent of the prison population should be held in such cells. The figure is about 21 per cent.

As regards the churn, where figures are available, 6,358 of a total prison population of about 72,500 were transferred between prisons in October 2002. Pressure on accommodation will inconvenience prisoners and disrupt programmes, but the Prison Service seeks to avoid this as much as possible and encourages establishments to place the necessary holds on prisoners studying for basic skills qualifications. The number has increased from 5,771 in October 2001. I express my gratitude to the noble Lord for giving notice of his supplementary questions.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, does the Minister not accept that one result of overcrowding is undoubtedly the serious dilution of an already thin provision of education? To take just one example, with the numbers in Forest Bank prison in Greater Manchester, which has a very good education and training record, having risen rapidly from around 700 to nearly 1,000, it can provide education for fewer than half of its inmates.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the effect of current numbers in prisons inevitably dilutes the ability of the Prison Service to provide basic education and skills, which make a real contribution to stopping reoffending and must be one of its vital aims. That is partly because of the transfers, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, and because there are more prisoners. All prisons are required to provide a core curriculum, which includes basic skills, information technology and preparation for work, all of which lead to nationally recognised awards and qualifications. The more people there are in prison, the harder it is to provide that.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the director of the Prison Reform Trust, in an article nine days ago in the Observer, underlined the Lord Chief Justice's comment that we now imprison almost double the irreducible minimum to which the Lord Chief Justice referred. To respond simply by having an increased prison building programme has all the disadvantages and attractions of widening the M25. Will the Minister consider convening as a matter of urgency the widest gathering of interested parties to give top priority to reducing prison numbers so that the Prison Service can do the job for which it is intended and not be diverted by this enormous and irrational pressure to lock up more and more people?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the Lord Chief Justice, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and my noble and learned friends the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney-General made clear that, apart from the categories of case that I mentioned in my Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, consideration should be given to alternatives to custody—for example, curfews, strong community sentences or fines—so that reoffending can be effectively reduced. Separately, we also need to consider how, when people are released from prison, steps can be taken to help them to reintegrate in society to ensure that they do not reoffend.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, does the Minister accept that there are now 20 per cent more women in prison than there were last year and that the number now is approximately 4,000—twice as many as when Labour came to power in 1997? How have we created this anomaly in the criminal justice process whereby we incarcerate proportionately more women than men? Why are community sentences not used as often in the case of women, who commit less serious crimes than men?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, we do not incarcerate more women than men. The number of women incarcerated has gone up as a proportion, although that is now flattening out. It is difficult to identify the main reason from the figures, but one of the largest categories of offence for which women have been incarcerated where that has not been so in the past is drug-related offences. That appears to be one factor that has driven up the female population in prison.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend accept that the only answer to overcrowding in prisons is to reduce, where proper and acceptable, the number of people sent to prison? Does he accept that, where appropriate, non-violent offenders should in general receive non-custodial sentences; that such sentences cost 10 per cent of the cost of custodial sentences; and that the chances of people committing further offences while they are on non-custodial sentences are no greater than when they are locked up in overcrowded prisons? If he agrees, what is he doing to encourage and push the courts into awarding non-custodial sentences whenever appropriate?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, as I said, for dangerous, violent and sexual offenders and seriously persistent offenders, custody appears appropriate. In other cases, consideration should be given to noncustodial sentences. That point has been made in the joint statement by my noble and learned friend and my right honourable friend in another place. That is what we are doing to try to support the point made by my noble friend.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, does the Minister agree with the recent report—

Lord Grocott

My Lords, we are well into the 35th minute. I think it is time we moved on to the next Question.