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6. Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): In how many prisons the population was in excess of the certified normal accommodation on the latest date for which figures are available; and by what percentage the prison population has changed over the past 10 years. [183089]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins): There were 81 prisons operating above their certified normal accommodation figure on 30 June 2004. All those prisons are within their operating capacity, which is the total number of prisoners that an establishment can hold, taking into account control, security and the proper operation of the planned regime. The prison population has increased by 54 per cent. since 1994.

Sir Teddy Taylor : The official figures for June, which are published in the weekly review—although the Government have not published figures since 2002–show that 82 of the 141 prisons were above their certified uncrowded capacity, and 11 were operating above their maximum capacity. In Preston and Leicester, overcrowding was classified as 89 per cent. and 83 per cent. Given those facts, is there not a crisis that has to be faced? In particular, will the Minister say why he believes that the number of women prisoners has increased by 173 per cent. in the past 10 years?

Paul Goggins: Eighty-one prisons are above their certified normal accommodation figure, which means that 57 prisons are not above that figure. There is no getting away from the fact that our prisons have been under huge pressure. One of the ways in which we deal with that pressure is by building additional places. That we have continued to do. The operational capacity as of today, is 76,395, which is an increase of more than 500 in recent months.

I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the 173 per cent. increase in the number of women offenders going to prison over the past 10 years, but they were sent to prison by sentencers, not by the Government and not by Ministers. However, because of the Government's policies, I can tell him that the number of women in prison today is lower than it was this time last year.

Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West) (Lab): Do the Government have a view of what should be the maximum overall size of the prison population? What signals should the Government be giving the judiciary on the appropriate use of imprisonment?

Paul Goggins: The Government have an idea about that figure. We believe that, if we rebalance our correctional system appropriately so that we ensure that those who need and deserve to be in prison because they have committed the most serious offences are in prison
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while those who have not committed such serious offences are on community penalties, we can hold a stable prison population below 80,000.       

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): I welcome the Minister's genuine commitment to trying to get to grips with the scandal of overcrowding, but may I draw his attention to his own overcrowding targets for this year? They state that in publicly run prisons, overcrowding must not exceed 24 per cent. of the prison population, but in privately run prisons, the figure is 34 per cent. Will he tell the House why, on overcrowding, he has one target for public prisons, but an easier target for private prisons?

Paul Goggins: The private prisons tend to have more modern facilities than the older prison stock that the Prison Service has at its disposal, but the hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. What is most interesting is that, with our commitment to increasing the number of places available, by the end of this year we will have an operational capacity of 77,600, and by the end of next year it will be some 79,400. We are prepared to ensure that we have fit-for-purpose accommodation for those who are sent to prison by sentencers, but we are also building up the alternative, so that sentencers can confidently give people community sentences that are effective.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): The Minister wants to have it both ways. Will he confirm that in order to rebalance the correctional system, as he puts it, and to save money, the Government are proposing to extend the home detention curfew scheme so that offenders serving seven years for drugs offences or street robbery can be set free early? Does he think that that policy will be popular with law-abiding citizens?

Paul Goggins: Yes, I do want it both ways. I want people who need and deserve to be in prison to be in prison, and I want those whose offences are less serious and are first-time offenders to be on community penalties, putting something back into the communities where they have offended.

I confirm now that this Government have no intention of extending the home detention curfew scheme.

National Crime Squad

8. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): If he will make a statement on the status of National Crime Squad officers on transfer to the serious organised crime agency; and what surveys his Department has conducted into the views of NCS officers on such transfers in the last year. [183091]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Caroline Flint): No decisions have yet been taken with regard to terms and conditions, but we hope to make a statement of approach on this matter shortly. We are undertaking a wide-ranging and inclusive consultation process. I was pleased to visit the NCS office in Wales on 16 June, where I heard the positive views of officers about the creation of the
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agency. We also discussed some of their concerns about transfer and terms and conditions, and I hope that I offered them some reassurance.

Mr. Heath: I hope so, because this is an important development that the Minister knows we support, although we would perhaps do things slightly differently. Is she aware that, among the Police Federation members in the National Crime Squad, more than 95 per cent. of the 900 officers who responded, out of a total of 1,200, said that they would not be happy to transfer to the NCS full time in the knowledge that it would be absorbed into the new agency; and that, in the first quarter of this year, more than 80 officers have left the NCS? That is very serious, and it means that we are losing highly trained, experienced and able officers from the new agency. Will she now go back to the Police Federation and the individual officers and talk to them about their concerns, so that we can ensure that we start the agency in the best possible way?

Caroline Flint: Of course we want to start the agency in the best possible way. That is why we are not rushing into the situation and why we have a programme team at the Home Office that is working with the NCS and the other component parts of the new agency and is in discussions with the Association of Chief Police Officers. There are also monthly updates and regular bulletins and meetings involving the police officers who currently work with the NCS. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said, the terms and conditions package will be guided by the principle that no one should be disadvantaged by moving into the new organisation. I shall be very happy to facilitate a meeting for the hon. Gentleman with Bill Hughes, director general of the NCS.

Women Prisoner Suicides

11. Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): What steps he is taking to reduce the number of suicides amongst women prisoners. [183094]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins): The number of self-inflicted deaths among women prisoners is a very serious concern for the Prison Service and for me. The suicide prevention strategy that I announced on 31 March 2004 applies across all types of prisons and to all prisoners, both male and female. A specifically targeted and separate suicide prevention strategy is being developed for women.

Ms Munn: I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. What steps are being taken to ensure that women are given community sentences wherever possible, not just because they relieve pressure on prisons and the overcrowding that we have been discussing, but because they relieve pressure on families, particularly where there are single mothers and children may be left without their carer?

Paul Goggins: My hon. Friend is right that when a mother goes to prison, her children are affected the most, and therefore a mother should be placed in prison
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only when the circumstances warrant it. The Government are developing a range of community alternatives to prison, and I am discussing improvements to court diversion schemes with ministerial colleagues in the Department of Health. We are ensuring that the bail information systems in our prisons are suitable, and I am currently reviewing hostel accommodation to make sure that women who can be accommodated in the community are accommodated in hostels rather than in prisons.

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