Select Committee on Home Affairs Third Report



The inquiry

1. In the last five years the prison population has risen by more than half, from 43,195 to 65,000 in 1998; it is expected to rise to over 82,000 within the next seven years.[1] Lord Bingham of Cornhill, the Lord Chief Justice, has argued that "the reason for this exponential increase...[is] the vocal expression of opinion by influential public figures that custody is an effective penalty... Judges and magistrates have been the subject of criticism...for imposing what are widely portrayed as excessively lenient sentences".

2. The rapidly growing prison population creates serious problems. One of these is the expense: the average annual cost per prison place is £24,271.[2] Another is the effect of the increase on the Prison Service. Lord Baker of Dorking, the former Home Secretary, stated that the recent increase in the prison population meant that "no element of the public sector will be subjected to such strain and tension. The enormous responsibility placed on prison officers, prison governors and the administration of the Home Office is almost unbearable. That seriously damages the regimes of prisons".[3] Lord Bingham was also concerned that "injustice may be done, by the imprisonment of those for whom that penalty is not strictly necessary".[4]

3. The rapidly rising prison population, and the problems associated with it—the requirement of justice to avoid unnecessary imprisonment, the strain placed on the Prison Service, the detrimental effect on regimes and the cost—provide the context in which our inquiry was held and demonstrate the importance of finding effective alternatives to prison for those who can safely be punished in the community.

4. However, even if the Prison Service were not under such strain, there is a second reason for examining non-custodial sentences, in particular community sentences. They are used for the vast majority of offenders: in 1996, 133,000 offenders were made to serve community sentences,[5] 1,073,000 were given fines, and 163,300 were bound over to keep the peace/be of good behaviour or discharged. It is important that these sentences are effective and seen to be effective. Unless the public has confidence in them, then far from being able to use alternative sentences as a means of reducing the prison population, there will be calls—as is already the case—for still wider use of imprisonment.

5. In addition to the written evidence we received from official bodies, voluntary organisations, academics, interested individuals and others, the Committee took oral evidence from the Association of Chief Officers of Probation (ACOP); Mr Peter Coad, Mr David Fraser (retired Senior Probation Officers) and Professor Ken Pease (a criminologist); the Penal Affairs Consortium, National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NACRO) and the Howard League for Penal Reform; the Magistrates' Association, the Justices' Clerks' Society and a representative of the Metropolitan Stipendiary Magistrates; Sir David Ramsbotham, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons; Lord Bingham of Cornhill, the Lord Chief Justice; Mr Graham Smith, CBE, HM Chief Inspector of Probation; the National Association of Probation Officers; and Joyce Quin MP, Minister of State, Home Office, with officials.

6. The Committee's work was assisted by visits we were able to make during the inquiry to a variety of projects operated by probation services and other agencies. Members of the Committee visited Greater Manchester (where a meeting was held with the local Electronic Monitoring/Crime (Sentences) Inter-Agency Group and visits were made to Securicor Custodial Services' Monitoring Centre, the Greater Manchester Probation Service's drug treatment and testing programme at Bolton Probation Centre, its Probation Programmes Unit and the Probation and Bail Hostel at Chorlton, and also to Manchester Social Services' Ridgeway Youth Justice Centre); Scotland (where Members visited the Airborne Initiative, the NCH Intensive Probation Project in Greenock and the Dumbarton Project); North-East England (to the Teesside Community Sentence Demonstration Project and to Northumbria Probation Service where visits were organised to community service and employment, training and education projects and to Cuthbert House Bail Hostel); and Lancashire (to visit the Youth Works project in Blackburn, Burnley's 'Dordrecht' Initiative and for presentations on the work of Lancashire Probation Service's Callum Centre in Blackpool and its partnership initiatives in Pendle). In addition, the Committee visited the Thames Valley Police restorative justice programme, and, in London, the Inner London Probation Service's Sherborne House Probation Centre and the Dalston Youth Project. These visits added greatly to our understanding of the issues involved and we are very grateful to all those who participated or assisted with their organisation. During our visits, we were consistently impressed by the commitment demonstrated by all concerned. Probation officers, the police, volunteers and others all showed impressive dedication to their work with offenders in the community.

The use of custodial sentences and the prison population

7. The Prisons Minister announced in a written answer on 9 March 1998 that the prison population was "around 65,000", and that this was predicted to rise to around 82,800 by the year 2005.[6] Since 1993 the rise in the population has been rapid. On 31 March 1993 the prison population was 43,195;[7] this means there has been an increase of over 50 per cent in the prison population in just five years. Home Office research indicates that in recent years the increase in the numbers of young people and women in prison has been particularly marked: in 1997 the average number of young prisoners was 10,810, an increase of 12 per cent on 1996; the average number of women in prison was 2,680, an increase of 19 per cent on 1996.[8]

8. The Criminal Justice Act 1991 sets out a sentencing framework which establishes that courts may only impose a custodial sentence where they are of the view that the offence (and offence(s) associated with it) are "so serious" that only a custodial sentence can be justified. The increased population results from a greater use of custodial sentences by both the Crown Court and magistrates' courts. There was a rise in the proportion of offenders given immediate custody when sentenced for indictable offences at the Crown Court, from 44 per cent in 1992 to 60 per cent in September 1997, and a similar rise from 5 per cent to 10 per cent in magistrates' courts. Over the same period there was an increase in the average sentence length, for offenders aged 21 and over, at the Crown Court from 21.0 months to 23.9 months. At the same time the rate of recorded crime has been falling: the 1996 Criminal Statistics, England and Wales, which gives figures for the past ten years, states that the number of notifiable offences recorded by the police in 1986 was 3,847,400; by 1991 the figure had risen to 5,591,700; since then it has fallen each year, the figure for 1996 being 5,036,600.[9]

9. Lord Bingham, the Lord Chief Justice, has stated why he thinks this increase has occurred: "Given the temper of our society in the last five years, I do not find it surprising that the prison population should have increased by 50 per cent, reflecting the more ready resort to custody by sentencers and an increase in the length of sentences imposed. The tenor of political rhetoric has strongly favoured the imposition of severe sentences; this rhetoric has been faithfully reflected in certain elements of the media; and judges accused of passing lenient sentences have found themselves routinely castigated in some newspapers. Against this background judges have, understandably, sought to avoid the unwelcome experience of passing sentences which the Attorney General has sought to refer to the Court of Appeal for being unduly lenient. So we have the extraordinary paradox, that judges and magistrates have been roundly criticised for over-lenient sentencing during a period when they have been sending more defendants to prison for longer periods than at any time in the last 40 years. The increase in the prison population is not explained by any recent increase in sentencing powers, and I have no doubt that it is related to the pressure of public opinion".[10]

10. One important influence on public opinion is the pronouncements of the Government on these issues. The previous Government was associated with a "prison works" approach.[11] This approach was criticised by a former Home Secretary who stated that "It was a mistake of the previous government to believe that just one phrase—'prison works'—was necessary. The phrase has a spurious and superficial logic. It is superficial because if a criminal is in prison, clearly he cannot be committing crime outside. It is spurious because it does not take into account the effect of overcrowded prisons on the criminal and the fact that 99.9 per cent of all criminals will one day be released. Society will then find that prisons do not work".[12]

11. One result of this greater use of custodial sentences has been overcrowding in prisons. The Prisons Minister told the Committee that "There is pressure on the existing system".[13] Recent figures indicate that 60 per cent of prisons are overcrowded, and that seven prisons are at least 50 per cent overcrowded,[14] with Shrewsbury being the worst affected, housing 335 prisoners in an institution designed for just 182. Also, specific sections of some institutions are heavily overcrowded, for example, the young offender section of New Hall Women's prison near Wakefield had space for 44 youngsters but held 89; and Feltham's juvenile unit had the capacity for 100 juveniles aged 15 and 16, but held 208.[15]

12. Another result of increased use of custodial sentences has been to erode the quality of prison regimes. As Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, told the Committee: "the problem about overcrowding is that it is not just whether there are places enough for people to spend the night in prison. It is what happens to them by day. What worries me is that in keeping them in, they have not actually got the activities to occupy them by day. There are too many of them sitting around idle. What we have been trying to impress on the Prison Service is the need for them to build into the infrastructure, to support the extra numbers wherever they go in, with workshop places, instructors, extra staff, extra activities, places and so on".[16] The fact that the quality of regimes is eroded by the continuing need to imprison ever-increasing numbers of prisoners is fully accepted by Mr Richard Tilt, the Director General of HM Prison Service, who wrote to the Committee in response to Sir David's comments: "The Prison Service accepts the need to build in infrastructure and support to back up new accommodation...however, providing additional prisoner places must take priority and, in some instances, there will be a time-lag before ancillaries are in place to provide necessary support to new places".[17] The National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NACRO) stated that, "the increase in prison numbers was leading to more restricted and less rehabilitative regimes".[18]

13. The average number of hours prisoners spend per week in 'purposeful activity',[19] which has been falling since 1994/95, is an indication of this deterioration in regimes. Figures for the last five years are as follows:

Purposeful activity[20] (hours per week)











The Home Office KPI for purposeful activity for 1997/98 was 22.5 hours per week, reduced from a target of 26.5 for the previous year.[21] The previous Home Affairs Committee drew attention to the importance of purposeful activity in its report, The Management of the Prison Service (Public and Private) when it stated that "so far as achieving the fundamental minimum of reasonably secure and humane accommodation of the prisoners committed to their care allows, the target of further progress in the quantity and quality of purposeful activity should become the Government's main priority for the prison system".[22] The target for 1998/99 has been set at 24 hours.[23]

14. The rising prison population caused near-universal concern amongst the witnesses from whom we took evidence. The Association of Chief Officers of Probation (ACOP) thought the prison population was too large, and drew attention to what they considered to be the irony of an increasing prison population at a time of falling recorded crime.[24] Mr Paul Cavadino, on behalf of the Penal Affairs Consortium, told us that his organisation would "like to see fewer people in prison".[25] The Howard League for Penal Reform, referring to the "unprecedented quantum leap in prison numbers 1993", encouraged the Government to "strike a course which heads away from the culture of severity".[26] Mr Tim Workman, a Metropolitan stipendiary magistrate representing the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, also told the Committee that the prison population was too large.[27] Perhaps the most robust evidence the Committee received suggesting that the prison population was too large was from Sir David Ramsbotham, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons. In oral evidence to the Committee he stated that perhaps 70 per cent of female prisoners did not need to be in prison; that 30 per cent to 40 per cent of young prisoners did not need to be there; and that 30 per cent of all adult prisoners did not need to be given custodial sentences.[28] It should be emphasised that no witnesses challenged the role of prison in dealing with certain types of serious offender.

15. The rapid rise in the prison population looks set to continue. Most witnesses to this inquiry had concerns about this and some, like the Chief Inspector of Prisons, explicitly called for a reduction in the prison population. However, one group of witnesses who gave oral evidence to the Committee felt that the prison population should be larger: Mr Peter Coad and Mr David Fraser, retired senior probation officers, and Professor Ken Pease, of Huddersfield University, argued that only prison sentences offered adequate protection to the public and, given the level of crime, more criminals should be given custodial sentences. Professor Pease thought that prison should be targeted more at the most prolific offenders and that the population should be increased by around 10-20,000.[29] Mr Coad's written evidence states that "if the sentencing patterns of the 1950's had been applied to offenders in the 1990's, 300,000 would now be in prison".[30] In oral evidence, Mr Coad and Mr Fraser argued that the prison population should "go as high as is necessary to protect the public from persistent offenders" and that this would entail a prison population of 200,000 "to begin with".[31]

16. The increased prison population places enormous strains on the Prison Service and, given the budget constraints in which it operates, has an adverse effect on the regimes of prisons and the amount of rehabilitative work which can be done in them. An indication of this is the reduction in the number of hours prisoners are spending in purposeful activity. The Government must not allow the rapidly increasing prison population to diminish the quality of regimes and must be prepared to fund the Service to this end. We welcome the fact that the target for purposeful activity for 1998/99 has been increased.

17. The rapidly escalating prison population makes it of paramount importance to investigate credible alternatives to custody and to use them wherever appropriate. Prison will always be necessary for the most dangerous and/or persistent criminals, but it must be closely targeted on them, with other offenders being given non-custodial sentences which are effective and in which sentencers and the public have confidence.

18. We note the insistence of HM Chief Inspector of Prisons that there are many people in custody who do not need to be there. We do not seek to question the judgements of sentencers but we do ask the Government to consider urgently the use and desirability of custodial sentences for those offenders—young offenders and female offenders—mentioned by Sir David Ramsbotham.

19. We emphatically reject the suggestion that a prison population of 200,000 is either desirable or feasible.

1  Prison Service Annual Report and Accounts, April 1992-March1993, p. 3 and Official Report, 9 March 1998, c16 (figures are for March in each year). Back

2  Home Office Annual Report 1998, p. 81. Back

3  Lords Hansard, 25 March 1998, c 1244. Back

4  Speech to the National Probation Convention, 12 November 1997. Back

5  Criminal Statistics England and Wales 1996, Home Office, Cm 3764, p. 153.


6  Official Report, 9 March 1998, c16. Back

7  Prison Service Annual Report and Accounts, April 1992-March 1993, p. 3. Back

8  The Prison Population in 1997, Home Office Statistical Bulletin 5/98, pp. 1-3. Back

9  Criminal Statistics England and Wales 1996, Home Office, Cm 3764, p 44. Note also, however, the results of the latest British Crime Survey (BCS), which stated that while recorded crime had fallen by 8 per cent from 1993 to 1995, BCS figures, which surveyed people's experiences and perceptions of crime, had risen by 2 per cent. (The 1996 British Crime Survey, Home Office Statistical Bulletin, 19/96, p. 3). Back

10  Speech given to the Police Foundation on 10 July 1997. Back

11  The previous Government's White Paper 'Protecting the Public', Cm 3190, 1996, stated that "The Government firmly believes that prison works. First, by taking offenders out of circulation it prevents them from committing yet more crime... Second, prison protects the public from dangerous criminals... Third, prison-and the threat of prison-acts as a deterrent to would-be criminals... Finally, time spent in prison can be used to rehabilitate offenders". (para 1.12). Back

12  Lord Baker of Dorking, Lords Hansard, 25 March 1998, C. 1244. Back

13  Q 817. Back

14  Shrewsbury (84%), Northallerton (68%), Exeter (65%), Canterbury (63%), Preston (63%), Leicester (61%) and Low Newton (50%). Back

15  The Howard League Information, 19 May 1998, pp 1-4. Back

16  HC 615-i, 1997-98, Q 2. Back

17  HC 722-i, 1997-98, Annex D, para 1. Back

18  Appendix 9. Back

19   Purposeful activity is defined as time spent at work, education, training, physical education, and other activities such as offending behaviour programmes; it does not include association, visits, or time spent outside the establishment. (Prison Service Business Plan 1994/95, Annex A).  Back

20   Second Report from the Home Affairs Committee, Session 1996-97, HC 57, (March 1997), para 91 and Home Office Annual Report 1998, (April 1998, Cm. 3908), paras 12.6-12.8. Back

21  Home Office Annual Report 1998, (April 1998, Cm. 3908), paras 12.6-12.8. (We were told that "subject to final auditing" this target has been exceeded, with the average for 1997-98 being 23.2 hours (Q 904.) Back

22  Second Report from the Home Affairs Committee, Session 1996-97, HC 57, (March 1997), para 95. Back

23  Official Report, 5 June 1998, col. 381. Back

24  Q 1. Back

25  Q 343. Back

26  Appendix 8. Back

27  Q 463. Back

28  Q 587, note also the discussion of the sentencing of women at paragraph 218. Back

29  Q 214. Back

30  Appendix 4, para 13. Back

31  Q 185 and Q 195. Back

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Prepared 10 September 1998