HL Deb 24 February 2004 vol 658 cc114-20

2.59 p.m.

Lord Dholakia asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are the latest available figures for the prison population.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the prison population as of Friday, 20 February was 74,594. Of that total the number of sentenced prisoners was 61,365, and the number of remand prisoners 13,224.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Despite the number of initiatives taken by the Government the prison population remains unacceptably high. We now head the league table in western Europe and are overtaking Portugal in this particular process. Does the Minister agree that 60 per cent of those who leave prison reoffend within two years and that we now imprison twice as many women as we did when Labour came to power? Does he also agree that we need less rhetoric about how prison works and that we should make more use of non-custodial alternatives?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, of course I agree with the noble Lord that it would be much better for sentences to be served in the community. However, it is for the courts to determine sentencing and where someone should be sent. We have to bear that very important consideration in mind. If a crime is sufficiently serious and it is right to send people to prison, then of course they must be sent to prison. That is what the public expect; they expect to be protected. The Government have taken many initiatives to expand other alternatives to prison. The noble Lord has been among those who have praised us for doing exactly that.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

My Lords, I commend the Minister on the extra effort that the Prison Service is putting into dealing with some of the causes of reoffending by people within a couple of years of their release from prison. However, given that more crime is alcohol related than drug related, can he explain why there is no specialist, ring-fenced, accredited alcohol treatment programme in prisons in England and Wales?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, there are accredited programmes for dealing with alcohol and drug abuse and those programmes have been very successful. I think that the Government should be congratulated on the level of investment they have put into the health service within the prison estate, and on their initiatives to try to encourage people on release to be free of drug and alcohol abuse—factors which obviously have an impact on the rate of re-offending.

Lord Laming

My Lords, although sentencing is a responsibility of the courts, the courts nevertheless need to be reassured that the probation and aftercare service is being developed to make non-custodial sentences and aftercare attractive and effective propositions for courts. Do the Government have a robust strategy to develop the probation service?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we have set up the National Offender Management Service, which brings together the probation service and Prison Service considerations to which the noble Lord referred, so that we have a coherent, cohesive and all-through service. The Government have also taken the important step of setting up the Sentencing Guidelines Council so that advice and guidance are available to the judiciary in the process of sentencing. We think that that will help ensure a better geographical spread within sentencing strategy and ensure that, where there is a conviction, the sentence is most appropriate to the crime.

The Earl of Dundee

My Lords, the Minister may give the impression that these prison figures are acceptable. Does he agree that current trends threaten to increase them even further? At what higher level, therefore, would he regard such figures as unacceptable?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, it is not for me to make a judgment on what is or is not acceptable. It is the Government's job to provide and ensure that there is adequate provision for those who are quite properly sentenced by the courts and sent to prison. It is also for the Government, as I said earlier, to ensure that an adequate range of sentences is available to the courts so that they can deal most appropriately with the lesser-order criminal activity and offences. That is exactly what we have done.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that there are only 600 places left in our prisons? Will he explain to the House what are the Government's plans when that limit has been reached?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, as I understand it, as of today the prison population is about 510 below the total usable operational capacity of the prison estate. A number of changes are being implemented at a number of establishments to make available more places for prisoners. These adjustments will mean a rapid increase in usable operational capacity, by about a further 350 additional places. In the longer term we want to reform the correctional services—an objective in which we have been aided by the advice and support of Patrick Carter. We are trying to provide a range of more effective options for sentencers. There is always proper planning for contingency measures and an examination of other opportunities for safely increasing the capacity of the prison estate.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, does the Minister accept that Schedule 19 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, inserted by the Home Secretary as his reaction to being told that he could play no further part in the sentencing of murderers, results in sentences for all serious offences increasing by at least 50 per cent? If he does accept that, what estimate do the Government give in relation to what the figures will be as a result?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I do not think that we accept the noble and learned Lord's assertion. I therefore do not think that I could make a useful prediction based on that assertion.

Lord Judd

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that one objective of penal policy must be effective rehabilitation? Does he not therefore agree that one of the grave consequences of the overcrowding is that it is very difficult to do all the work that the Prison Service would like to do in the cause of rehabilitation? Does he not further agree that the pressure of numbers in prison, coupled with the fact that many people in prison are mentally sick and should not be in prison at all, is leading to an unacceptable level of deaths in custody?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I think that one should begin by saying that any death in custody is unacceptable. No one wants to see suicides in custody. The Government, and particularly the Prison Service, take the matter extremely seriously. Staff are trained to deal and cope with exactly those sorts of problems. A risk assessment programme is in place where it is thought that a prisoner might self-harm.

The noble Lord is right that there are stresses and strains within the Prison Service; no one would want to gloss over that fact. However, the Government are investing much more in education within the prison estate. By the end of January 2004, the prison system, including public and contracted prisons, delivered 34,792 basic skills awards against an original projection of just 30,000 for that year. I think that that emphasises the fact that we are expanding educational activity in prisons, which is very much in line with the expanded budget for education in the Prison Service.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, do the Government have an explanation for why we have a much higher prison population per capita than any comparable western European country? Is it that we are more wicked, or the system more vindictive, or what?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I do not know whether we are more wicked or not. I like to think that, by and large, we live in a liberal, peaceable community. However, when people offend they must be dealt with and they must face the full consequences of the law. I think that we all accept that fact.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, referring to the Minister's reply to the right reverend Prelate, does he not agree that the definition of "usable operational capacity" is the maximum safe overcrowded—I repeat the word "overcrowded"—capacity of the prison estate? In view of that, what assessment has the Minister made of the effect that sentencing policy, both currently and over the next 10 years, is expected to have upon the prison population in England and Wales? How has any such assessment affected the Government's building programme?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we have made very careful assessment of the likely increase in the prison population. However, it is notoriously difficult to be precise in these matters. Some estimates last year suggested that we would have a rather larger prison population than we currently have, but that has not turned out to be the case. Following development of the building programme, by 2006 there will be operational capacity of 78,700 prison places. Statistics are notoriously easy to misinterpret but one good and, I thought, rather cheering statistic on which I alighted in my briefing indicates that the number of young people in prison is now I per cent less than it was this time last year, and that for juveniles aged 15 to 17 the figure is some 5 per cent less than the comparable figure for last year. That indicates to me that the Youth Justice Board is doing very important work and provides greater optimism for the future.

Baroness Stern

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that the number of women in prison has increased by 67 per cent since 1997. Of the 4,500 women locked up, more than half report a background of domestic violence and more than a third have been sexually abused. Does the Minister consider that putting those women in prison for the minor crimes that they have committed serves justice and reduces crime?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, it is hard to make a sweeping assertion that all of the women to whom the noble Baroness referred—it is obviously extremely unfortunate that they are in prison—are in prison for minor offences. I have no doubt that they will have been properly convicted by the courts for offences that merit a period of time in custody. While those women are in prison of course it is right that, following an assessment, correctional programmes are put in place which deal with the very many problems to which the noble Baroness referred. During my visits to female establishments within the Prison Service I was most impressed by the quality of the work that was carried out in particular to deal with matters such as self-harm, abuse, drug abuse, and so on. It is such work that we need to invest in to ensure that people do not reoffend and can usefully lead a valuable life outside prison.

Lord Elton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the figures are double what they were in the 1980s when I served as prison Minister and that we regarded that as disgraceful? What sense of urgency is there in overcoming the problem of reoffending? How do the Prison Service and the probation service establish that no prisoner leaves prison without a means of support and shelter so that he is not driven immediately into crime again?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, as I have said on many occasions, it is for the courts to determine whether it is right for someone to go to prison. Of course, in sentencing they will act on the information that is before them to determine whether a sentence is appropriate. While prisoners are in prison it is right to establish—this is what we try to do—an appropriate programme of education so that prisoners can usefully lead a life outside prison that will enable them to keep free of crime and becoming involved in new crime. We are not complacent about the issue of recidivism. It is part of our determination to ensure that rates of re-offending come down.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe

My Lords, as regards the increased investment that this Government have made in the treatment of prisoners with alcohol and drug-related problems, can my noble friend assure us that there is a proper tracking system in place to ensure that if re-offending takes place a linkage is made with any treatment that has been given previously so that we can then assess whether the treatment is working effectively or not?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord asks a very pertinent question. For that very reason the Government decided to embark on a more coherent strategy linking the Prison Service and the probation service so that when offenders are released from prison they have the opportunity to receive counselling, advice, guidance and referral to the services which try to get to the root of their alcohol or drug abuse problem and thereby reduce the level of reoffending. That is one of the areas in which we have invested heavily over the past few years.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, does the Minister agree that many women prisoners have a high incidence of churning about and movement from one prison to another, therefore increasing the social damage incurred by their imprisonment in separating them from their families? Have the Government looked into the possibility of trying to return the large number of female drug runners or mules who are in prison in this country—they come mostly from the Caribbean islands—to the countries from which they originate to finish their prison sentence there because that particular section of the prison population has increased very rapidly in recent years?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Baroness puts her finger on a very pertinent problem. My understanding is that there has to be a prisoner transfer agreement in place between this country and the country from which the so-called drug "mule" has come. Therefore, certain issues need to be examined in that regard. This is something that we keep very carefully under review in terms of policy and it is a matter that we are obviously considering at all times.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware—this is a short question—of what happens to those prisoners who are seriously mentally disturbed but cannot be sectioned because they are untreatable and are sent from one prison to another? What happens to them? Is he aware of the problem?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am aware of the problem. I have visited a number of health centres within the prison estate. I am well aware of the difficulty to which the noble Lord refers. The Prison Service tries to develop an appropriate programme for each individual. That is obviously given very high consideration when dealing with the health, particularly the mental health, of each individual prisoner. However, it is not an easy problem to deal with, particularly as at various points of a prisoner's sentence he or she has to be moved from one establishment to another.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, how many girls under 17 are in prison and how many of them are pregnant or have babies?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I apologise to your Lordships' House as that is not in my key statistics list. However, I am more than happy to try to find out those figures, write to the noble Baroness and share them with your Lordships' House.

Lord Clark of Windermere

My Lords, is not making more use of community service awards one way of reducing the prison population? Can the Minister give us an assurance that magistrates in England can confer community service awards on people who reside under different judicial systems such as the one that applies in Scotland?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I shall have to think about that question. If the noble Lord will bear with me, I shall probably have to write to him precisely on how that might work.