HL Deb 15 May 2002 vol 635 cc289-91

2.59 p.m.

Lord Elton

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking to address overcrowding in prisons.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the Question standing in the noble Lord's name on the Order Paper today is not the same as yesterday's. Given that it is a topical Question I register a protest as civil servants work their socks off in a very short time to provide briefings for Ministers. Although I accept that the subject still relates to prison overcrowding, the Question is not the same as yesterday's. Therefore, I intend to answer the Question as it was originally tabled.

The Prison Service is aware of the increasing risks to control and continues to monitor the situation closely. The Government will provide the places necessary to accommodate safely and securely those sentenced by the courts and have recently announced in the Budget funding to build 2,320 places at existing prisons. A further 1,290 places will be provided by the new prisons which are planned at Ashford, near Heathrow, and at Peterborough. There is a programme of other activities to try to reduce the prison population.

Lord Elton

My Lords, in thanking the Minister for that reply I must say in parenthesis that the Question is, I think, in the terms in which I tabled it. There was a "double shuffle" by the authorities, who thought that it was not sufficiently clear, but that does not concern us this afternoon.

I thank the noble Lord for his Answer. Does he regard the measures he has just described as somewhat short term? Does he not agree that even criminals start life as children? As he so well understands the power of the Treasury to influence policy, will he point out to his right honourable friend at the Exchequer the cost-effectiveness of diverting children from getting mixed up in crime at the beginning of their lives by core funding more voluntary agencies that understand this work and whose staff and members are dedicated to it?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I absolutely accept that the idea is to stop people going to prison in the first place by stopping them committing crimes. But if they do commit crimes, we are absolutely firmly committed to take the line that serious criminals will go to prison. As we all know, not all of the 70,575 people who are currently in prison are serious criminals. We all understand that. I might add that at the present time 10 per cent of the prison population is composed of foreign nationals. We do not have enough repatriation programmes, which is another matter on which we are working.

I point out, as I think I did recently, that, although it is not in the voluntary sector, the Youth Justice Board ran its "summer splash" programmes in over 100 schemes last summer in the most deprived areas of England and Wales with the support of local communities, the voluntary sector and the police. Some 20,000 young people were kept off the streets. It was estimated that in the estates where the "splash" schemes ran there was a 36 per cent reduction in domestic burglary and an 18 per cent reduction in youth crime. The points that the noble Lord raises are absolutely bang on in the sense of stopping people going to prison in the first place, particularly the younger element as the prison population is skewed towards the younger element. However, the fact of the matter is that the Government are duty bound to provide the places required by the courts which send people to prison.

The Lord Bishop of Durham

My Lords, I am glad that the Minister has just raised the question of the younger element, as a high proportion of the younger element are in prison on remand. What steps are being taken to shorten the time in which people are kept in prison on remand, which must have a direct relevance to the original Question?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, we are trying to speed up the process in the criminal justice system. I regret that off the top of my head I cannot give the right reverend Prelate a figure for the total on remand although I suspect that I have it somewhere. It is obviously too high. People are usually held on remand for good reasons but sometimes we all read about cases, on which it is best not to comment, where there does not seem a good reason why those people are held on remand.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the present rate of overcrowding makes the proposition so often repeated entirely valid; namely, that this is a very expensive way of making bad people worse?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I agree that it is expensive. It would be even more expensive if we had to use police cells, for example. However, we are looking at increasing the capacity. We are even looking at purchasing another floating facility. The issues have to be dealt with. While the courts are sending people to prison and more criminals are being caught, the Government are duty bound to provide that capacity. But we have to consider sentencing policy and we shall be bringing forward legislation in the next Session on sentencing policy. Therefore, I suspect that we shall have full and frank debates on that issue in the next Session.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, can the Minister explain why when the crime rate went down between 1995 and 2000 the prison population went up? As he has been robust in commenting on sentencing policy from time to time, has he discussed with his colleagues why we have so many people on remand in custody, why we have mentally disordered offenders in our prisons and why we imprison so many women and children? Has he looked at the case of Mrs Amos, who has been sentenced to imprisonment for the truancy of her children?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I have not looked at that case because, frankly, it is sub judice. I understand from the news this morning that there was a court hearing today. I should love to comment on it but I cannot do so as it would constitute interference with the process. I said earlier that we all hear of cases where remand is rightly used and of cases where remand is used in inexplicable circumstances, particularly if the original prison sentence has caused a change in behaviour, which it does in some cases. I repeat the point I made earlier; namely, that there has been a large increase in the female prison population which we have discussed before. As I have already mentioned today, there has also been a substantial increase in the number of foreign nationals in the prison population. Some 10 per cent of the prison population is composed of foreign nationals. One country accounts for a third of that total. Nearly 90 per cent of those foreign nationals have been accused of having committed offences which are drug import or drug export related.