HL Deb 30 April 2003 vol 647 cc691-4

2.43 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the number of offenders serving prison sentences in England and Wales has been increasing.

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

My Lords, the prison population on Friday 25th April 2003 was 72,890. This is a 4 per cent increase from the equivalent Friday one year ago. Of that total, the number of sentenced prisoners was 59,991 and the number of remand prisoners was 12,897.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for his reply. Are the reports correct that the number of prison inmates is now the largest since records have been kept and that by 2006 it is forecast that more than 90,000 places in prison will be needed and fewer than 80,000 places will be available? If that is so, do the Government seek a reduction in custodial sentences?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, in response to the question on whether the number of inmates is now the highest since records began, I do not know when records began, but it is certainly the highest in living memory. As far as capacity is concerned, there is an on-going building programme under the 2000 and 2002 budget allocations. Two new prisons are being built. In addition, in the most recent Budget the Chancellor assigned further money to the building of more prisons.

Do we think that fewer people should be sent to prison? It is for the judge to decide in each case whether custody is appropriate. Custody would normally be appropriate for serious offences, for dangerous and sexual offenders and for persistent offenders. As regards estimates of the prisoner population, as a rule we consider that it is unwise to speculate what the total may be in three or four years' time.

Lord Acton

My Lords, can my noble and learned friend say whether the number of women prisoners, which has increased enormously in recent years, is still increasing?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, there were 4,454 female prisoners last Friday, which is an increase of 2 per cent on the previous year. It rose more dramatically in the past so it is levelling off now, but it has risen during the past few years.

Lord Ackner

My Lords—

The Lord Bishop of Worcester

My Lords—

Noble Lords


The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, I hear the call of the Lord—it is the Bishop!

The Lord Bishop of Worcester

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House for identifying my wish to speak with the voice from above. I know that the Minister is as concerned as many of us about the effect of the rate of reoffending on prison numbers. I know that a great deal of attention is being given to that issue. Would he be prepared to look at the issue of confidentiality between the various agencies involved in resettlement'? There is some concern that it would not be possible for the necessary level of co-operation to occur between and among the agencies concerned with resettlement. That would affect the ability of the resettlement programme to achieve the reduction in reoffending which, for example, the Social Exclusion Unit report—and I am sure that the noble and learned Lord himself—would wish. Will the Minister let it be known what, if any, obstacles to co-operation inter-agency confidentiality might present?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, yes, the Government would be prepared to look at that extremely important issue. If the employment service, the housing authorities, the social services, the prison authorities and the probation service can share information within the law, that would frequently help the resettlement prospects of the individual offender. One of the great difficulties is that the precise law is incredibly complex and there is no confidence among many agencies as to exactly when they can share information. It is an issue which needs to be considered. It has been highlighted in the Social Exclusion Unit report on how best to promote resettlement and it is something that we are considering.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, I have two short questions and that is why I sought to speak before the right reverend Prelate. First, what proportion of those in prison have been found guilty of offences within two years of leaving prison? Secondly, what is the average length of prison sentence now? Has it gone up, remained the same or gone down?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, in terms of the rate of reoffending within two years of release—let us assume 1998 is the date of release—for all prisoners, the reoffending rate is 59 per cent; for adult male prisoners, it is 55 per cent; for young male prisoners, it is 74 per cent; and for all female prisoners, it is 52 per cent. I cannot tell the noble and learned Lord off the top of my head what the average length of prison sentence is but I shall write to him.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, will the Minister explain why, when the crime rate is falling, the prison population is rising? Does he know that we are now top of the league in terms of prison population in western Europe?

The noble and learned Lord just gave the figures in respect of offenders. Eighty-four per cent of juvenile offenders are reconvicted within a period of two years. What advice can be offer to sentencers to ensure that intensive training, supervision and severance programmes are in place and that the probation service has sufficient resources to deal with these youngsters?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, first, as regards the relationship between the increasing number of people being held in prison and a reduction in the crime rate, I think that everyone is unclear about whether there is a link and, indeed, what it is that makes the crime rate rise or fall. However, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that there is some connection between the two.

Secondly, the noble Lord asked me what advice I would give to sentencers. Obviously I would advise that one of the most important roles played by sentencers is to meet the need to reduce the rate of reoffending. Seeking to reduce the rate of reoffending helps society as a whole. More resources must be provided for the probation service. Since 1997, the amount of money given to the service has risen in excess of 50 per cent because this is such an important issue.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, did the original figure quoted by the Minister include people being held on remand as opposed to convicted prisoners? If it did not, can he tell me how many people are being held on remand? They might end up not going to prison, although in the meantime they are occupying prison space.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the figure did include those being held on remand. In my response, I broke down the figures. The total figure was 72,890. Sentenced prisoners—that is, those who have been convicted of a criminal offence—total 59,991. Those being held on remand—that is, awaiting trial—total 12,897.