HC Deb 19 March 1985 vol 75 cc459-60W
Mr. Irving

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what is the current prison population and what proportion this represents of total prison capacity; whether he has any proposals to seek to reduce the number of imprisonable offences within the context of petty crime; what is his long-term policy on imprisonment; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Mellor

The prison population on 8 March 1985 was 45,198, nearly 16 per cent. above the certified normal accommodation.

My right hon. and learned Friend has no present proposals to remove imprisonment as the maximum penalty for minor offences which are currently imprisonable. This would be unlikely to have any significant effect on the prison population.

We support the view reflected in judgments given by the Court of Appeal that the most serious offences, especially of violence, call for long periods in custody, but otherwise a custodial sentence should be avoided where possible and, if unavoidable, should be for the shortest period which is reasonable in the circumstances of the case. Among the measures which we have taken to encourage the appropriate use of non-custodial measures are the enactment in the Criminal Justice Act 1982 of strengthened non-custodial powers for the courts and the provision of additional resources for the probation service to enable more offenders to be dealt with satisfactorily in the community.

The recent increase in the prison population is attributable in large measure to an increase in the number of prisoners awaiting trial. The measures which my right hon. and learned Friends the Lord Chancellor and the Home Secretary are pursuing to tackle court delay have the object, among others, of reducing time spent on remand in custody. We have also brought forward proposals, in the Prosecution of Offences Bill, for a system of statutory time limits on the period before trial.

Our prison building programme is designed to provide enough accommodation for those who have to be imprisoned. With its expansion and acceleration, we have the prospect of achieving an end to overcrowding by the end of the decade.