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Of course, hon. Members will have studied carefully and remembered those words. I remind the House of them in view of the Lord Chief Justice’s remarks at the weekend. That remains my framework for addressing these issues in the medium term. However, it is the case that in the short term the prison population has risen sharply over the summer period and today stands
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at 79,819. I want to highlight two factors among others that specifically contributed to that increase over the summer and during the year.

First, the Criminal Justice Act 2003 is beginning to have a real effect. The House will know that the Act introduced tough new sentences—indeterminate sentences—to answer the public demand that life, where appropriate, should truly mean life for those judged to be a danger to the public. It also introduced more flexible community orders which would be a more effective alternative to prison for lower level offenders. The evidence so far is that our courts are making good use of indeterminate sentences so that dangerous people are staying in prison for longer, but they are not yet using community orders as fully as they might. That was the point emphasised this weekend by the Lord Chief Justice. That leads to increased pressure on prison places above that anticipated in the short term.

Secondly, I made a commitment to the House to consider, find and detain as many of the previously unconsidered 1,013 foreign national prisoners as we could. In addition, I made a further commitment: I said that we would not release those foreign national prisoners who ought to be considered for deportation before such consideration had been completed and we would continue to detain them until that was done. Working through that process of dealing with the backlog while maintaining the deportation consideration for everyone who is released from prison will obviously contribute towards a higher prison population until the position is fully resolved. I shall return to details of that later in my statement.

I want now to set out some of the actions that have been recommended to me since July to alleviate the pressure, and my response. It has been proposed to me that I should agree to the early release of prisoners into the community. I have considered that carefully, but I do not believe that it is appropriate at this time and I have rejected it. My view is that it should be used only in the last resort. I have, however, accepted the recommendations of the prison authorities in a number of other ways: first, in the re-roling of two women’s prisons to take male prisoners, which is a sensible use of resources; secondly, in providing maximum flexibility within the prison estate to allow transfers to the open estate under severe restrictions in addition to those transferred as a matter of course. That measure was focused on lower-risk offenders serving short sentences for non-sexual or non-violent offences. Prisoners have been transferred only after careful risk assessment.

Thirdly, we will improve processes for dealing with foreign national prisoners. I hope that by the spring of 2007 we will reach the position where the consideration of deportation for all foreign nationals will begin six months before the end of their sentences. We are making steady progress towards that as we deal with the backlog. That would ensure a reduced requirement for detention after the normal release date and therefore a reduced pressure on the prison population.

Fourthly, I have today accepted the recommendation to implement the formal use of police cells, known as Operation Safeguard. Implementation will be on Thursday 12 October. The use of Safeguard is not ideal, but it is tried and it is tested. I am extremely grateful for the
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support that we have received from the Association of Chief Police Officers and from individual chief constables, as well from the Metropolitan police. Those measures should help to alleviate the position in the short term.

In addition to that, I can today tell the House that on top of the medium and long-term proposals that I set out in our July plans and to which I referred earlier, I am also developing further measures. Specifically, we are in negotiations and consultation to convert a former Army barracks into prisoner accommodation. Similarly, we are in negotiations to utilise a former secure hospital in Ashworth East near Liverpool. We are expanding our immigration estate by 300 places by March 2007 and by a further 400 places by 2008, and we are exploring further innovative ways of extending immigration detention capacity for those who are detained as a result of immigration considerations, thus releasing pressure on the prison estate. We will, of course, continue to work closely with the private sector to get the best of what it can offer us, and we are continuing to encourage the courts to make effective use of bail, taking advantage of electronic tagging and alternative accommodation.

I have also agreed an additional package of measures to improve the processing of foreign national prisoners. The immigration and nationality directorate has been taking a robust approach to the deportation of European economic area nationals, which has been defeated consistently in the courts. We will be changing the law to strengthen the link between criminality and deportation, but in the meantime we are no longer taking unproductive cases to the courts at the taxpayers’ expense, with negative results. We are introducing an incentive scheme to persuade prisoners to return voluntarily to their own country. As we have always treated Irish citizens in a way which reflected the close historical, community and political ties between the United Kingdom and Ireland, and the existence of the common travel area, we are considering treating those citizens as a special case. In addition, the director general of the immigration and nationality directorate, Lin Homer, is writing to the Home Affairs Committee today to provide a further breakdown of the progress made on the 1,013 prisoners released without consideration of deportation, and I will arrange for a copy of that to go into the Library of the House.

Finally, in the longer term, we have already outlined plans for a prisons building programme for 8,000 places by 2012, and what is required beyond that will be given further consideration. We have also outlined plans for the greater use of community sentences, a scheme for payback to the community, and the rehabilitation of prisoners. I hope the measures that I have taken will alleviate the pressure in the short term and will complement the measures that I outlined to the House in my statement in July. I commend the measures to the House.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): May I start by thanking the Home Secretary for advance sight of his statement? May I also take this chance—my first opportunity—to congratulate him on his management of the alleged terrorist plot in August, which, if I may say so, I think he handled rather well? I am breathless in
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my admiration for the brazen way in which he claimed credit in his statement for the Tory initiative on increased penalties for knife crime, but of that more later.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It is called chutzpah.

David Davis: As my hon. Friend says, it is called chutzpah.

Regrettably, I cannot say the same of the Government’s sorry handling of the crisis in our prison system. There is no excuse for the catastrophe facing the country.

In the past five years, the Government have received warning after warning that they were going to run out of cells—warnings from the Opposition, from the Prison Reform Trust, from their own advisers, and even from the chief inspector of prisons. In 2002, the lowest Home Office projection for the prison population by this year was 87,000, which is significantly higher than the capacity that it now has. When the Home Office could have acted to provide the necessary extra prison places, it failed to do so. Last year, long after it knew that it had a looming crisis, it even sold off a prison ship, cutting prison places by another 400.

Even on the current Home Secretary’s watch, the Department has been lackadaisical and slow to act. On 24 May this year, he was quoted in the press as saying:

That is quite proper for a Home Secretary, yet I have a memorandum written by his private secretary only the day after, detailing a discussion of this crisis and considering the option of administrative release—the early release of prisoners to free cells. We know that that proposal was quashed by No. 10, but why were not all the proposals that the Home Secretary has put before us today initiated then, in May, before we had a crisis? Why do we have to have a crisis to get action out of this Government?

The Home Secretary’s predecessors attempted to head off this problem by way of a combination of early release and community sentencing. To justify that, they pretended that community sentences were equally tough as punishments, deterrents and methods of rehabilitation. None of that is true. Nine out of 10 of those who go through Labour’s flagship programme—the intensive supervision and surveillance programme or ISSP—reoffend within two years. The Home Secretary talked about more tagging: 75 per cent. of young criminals on tags reoffend within one year.

The Government’s strategy for rehabilitation is not only failing outside prison; it is also being destroyed inside prison. Owing to prison overcrowding, in order to create places in individual prisons, vast numbers of transfers occur. Last year, there were 98,000 transfers between prisons among a population of 80,000. That means that prisoners are frequently uprooted before they complete courses designed to rehabilitate them and to equip them for an honest life in the outside world. As a result, under this Government reoffending rates for prison have gone up from 56 to 67 per cent. Does the Home Secretary accept that that increase in
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reoffending rates—the greatest in the history of our prison system—is a direct result of the Government’s neglect of this area?

The various proposals that the Home Secretary has detailed might now be unavoidable, but only two—the action to remove or swap out foreign prisoners, and the re-roling of women’s prisons—are relatively low risk and low cost. Both of them should have been done months or even years ago.

Using police cells will be costly and will probably also be counter-productive. The last time this Government implemented Operation Safeguard, it cost more than £10 million, tied down policemen who should have been catching criminals rather than acting as part-time prison warders, and clogged up the police cells so that there was nowhere to put criminals who were caught. Does the Home Secretary accept that that will happen again this time, and if not why not?

Does the Home Secretary recognise that by accepting the transfer of category C prisoners to open prisons he is sanctioning an increase in risk to public safety? He might talk about risk assessment, but he must know, even now, that this is a very imprecise technique. Otherwise, how does he explain the rash of murders committed by prisoners on probation and parole? Does he recognise that each of his proposals will buy him only a matter of weeks or perhaps months? Even his conversion of an Army barracks will buy him only just over one more month.

The programme that the Home Secretary has laid before us today might get him to just past Christmas, but what will happen then? Will there be even more inappropriately given, non-custodial sentences or even earlier releases? Does he accept that the prison capacity failure has harmed every stage of the criminal justice system? It will handicap policemen from catching criminals. It has meant that criminals who should be in prison are either not sent to prison or released too early, and even when some criminals go to prison, the process has been rendered so chaotic that reoffending rates are climbing to record levels.

The Home Secretary must recognise that he cannot blame this on the civil servants, prison officers or judges. This crisis—this catastrophe—has arisen because this Government, by the policy that they have chosen to follow, have been derelict in their duty to protect the public.

John Reid: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments about the events of August and the counter-terrorist measures that were taken. Far from in any way attempting to lay blame today with any officials or with anyone outside those who are responsible—i.e., me—I would much prefer to join him in laying some plaudits at the door of those who worked on that counter-terrorist operation. As I said, that is not a reason for complacency, but all of us should take all opportunities to put on the record our thanks for the dedication of those people who work night and day to protect this country from terrorism, and I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman allowed me the opportunity to do that.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned statistics and inadvertently illustrated just how difficult it can be to judge the trend. He said that the lowest estimate for
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this year was that 87,000 prison places were needed, but in fact, that is some 7,000 places above the capacity and the requirement at which we are operating. So it is not an exact science, but I have, I think, been quite straight with the House in three areas. First, I accept responsibility, because I am the Secretary of State for home affairs. Secondly, I have not hidden from the House that there is pressure on prison places, which is why I have not only discussed this issue in detail here, but within six weeks of coming in, discussed it with our colleagues at the Treasury and got agreement for another 8,000 prison places. Thirdly, and as I have said today, I have been considering further measures to deal with this issue. It is not true to paint this as a crisis; we did not discover it over the weekend. I have known since we went in about the pressure on places, and I have tried to manage the short, medium and longer term, and to outline these issues before the House with as much honesty as I can.

Let me then ask for a little honesty on a couple of subjects that the right hon. Gentleman raised. He was very selective in his discussion of reoffending rates. He chose to discuss the intensive supervision and surveillance programme because he knows that the hardest category of people to prevent from reoffending is young people, and that the hardest category among young people to prevent from reoffending are the worst offenders among young people. That is precisely why he chose to discuss that category.

Let us deal with some other reoffending categories, such as home detention curfew. The right hon. Gentleman is prepared continually to run down anything that happens outside custodial sentences, but the reoffending rate for home detention curfew while tagged, since it began in January 1999, is only 4 per cent., which is an unparalleled low level of reoffending. More than 130,000 people have been released on home detention curfew, and given the low reoffending rate of 5 per cent., I should have expected that extraordinary statistic to fall from the right hon. Gentleman’s lips while he was at the Dispatch Box.

The House will also be interested to know that for adults—not youngsters—the overall community sentence reoffending rate is too high, at 53 per cent. over two years, but that is 14 per cent. lower than the figure for those who serve prison custodial sentences. So probation is not obviously and self-apparently worse in all circumstances, and the right hon. Gentleman would do better to give a balanced view. Moreover, the overall reoffending rate is not 90-odd per cent. for juveniles; it is some 41 per cent. over one year. So it is wrong to take one specific area and to suggest that everything is the same.

Let me deal finally with prison building. It is absolutely true that we are under pressure, which is the reason why I am bringing in these measures. I hope that the situation has been managed over the past five or six months in a way that copes with the present pressures on prisons, as well as with the foreign national prisoner crisis. I hope that the hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition Benches—and they are all gentlemen[Hon. Members: “No!”] I beg your pardon, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), who is very obviously a lady, was hidden by the desk; I must have it moved. My profuse apologies, Mr. Speaker. Re-roling prisons is one thing; re-roling ladies on the Front Bench is quite another, more offensive, thing.

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I hope that those on the Opposition Front Bench will support me in my attempt to ensure that no foreign national prisoners are released from prison before they have been considered for deportation. If that is the case, while we work to the early lead time that is necessary in order to ensure that we can give six months’ notice so that people will be considered before release, there will be pressure on prison places. I would have hoped that the Opposition would accept that. But the truth of the matter is that while the right hon. Gentleman has been making a dreadful, dreadful fuss because we are a couple of hundred short of maximum capacity— [Interruption.] The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) shouts, “A crisis.” Let me give the figures for April 1997, which we inherited. In April 1997, after 18 years of Conservative Government, the total capacity of our prison system was 60,353. The actual prison population was 60,131. They were 223 short of absolute total capacity after 18 years. We will not take lectures from them on this.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): As a staggering total of one in seven of our prison population are foreign nationals, will the Home Secretary tell us a little more of his conversations with other Governments about our wish to deport those people who are clogging up our prisons? Would it not be cheaper wherever possible to pay the country of origin to look after these prisoners so that they serve their sentence there, not in this country; and is not a real test of whether people should be in this country whether they have committed crimes?

John Reid: To start with the second part of my right hon. Friend’s question, my view on that is known. Foreign nationals who come to this country, take its privileges and demand the rights and hospitality that it bestows upon them, should match that by showing responsibility, and failure to do so is clearly signified in the breach if they commit a serious crime. That is why anyone who is in that position should be automatically presumed to face deportation.

With regard to the first part of my right hon. Friend’s question, yes, I agree. At the moment there is a series of obstacles to asking foreign prisoners to go back to their country of origin. We are examining all of those obstacles in detail to see how, either by persuasion or by the obligation of law, we can overcome them. As part of that I have been discussing with my European colleagues, as late as Thursday of last week, this very issue. That would be an additional weapon in our armoury to ensure that we keep in prison in this country those who ought to be there for as long as they ought to be there, but remove from prison those who ought not to be there, either because they need treatment or because they should be back in their country of origin.

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I too thank the Home Secretary for advance notice of his statement and for dealing with the unprecedented events of this summer on behalf of us all, and I thank him for keeping me and, I know, other Opposition Members informed of events as they unfolded.

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All Governments get caught on the hop by unexpected events. It is in the nature of things that disasters creep up on Ministers with little warning. It is also in the nature of things that that happens to Opposition parties too. Any reasonable observer will forgive a little Government panic when unpredictable events take over, but what possible excuse is there for a Government to fail to heed not one, not several, but continuous and repeated warnings of crisis in our prisons stretching back several years? Listening to the complacency of Ministers, the public would be forgiven for thinking that it is just a matter of a little temporary discomfort for prisoners themselves. The truth, of course, is altogether more serious. Overcrowded prisons prevent prisoners from being rehabilitated and so have a direct effect on increased levels of crime in our villages, towns and cities, inflicted by ex-prisoners who now reoffend at an historically unprecedented rated. No one should be under any illusions: public safety is yet again at stake because of Government incompetence. The Home Secretary has come to the House today in an attempt to camouflage a series of stop-gap, emergency measures as a carefully considered package, yet his proposals have raised more questions than long-term answers.

First, the Home Secretary’s statement does not explain why it is estimated that more than 500 foreign prisoners who should have been deported at the end of their sentences are still languishing in prison. The Home Secretary has said that he has set a target of spring next year to sort out the matter, but why take so long? Just a few days ago, a prison governor told me about a foreign prisoner who is desperate to be deported back to Asia and who has no idea why she is still in prison in this country a full nine months after her sentence finished. What possible explanation can the Home Secretary give for such woeful bureaucratic foot dragging?

Secondly, when will the Home Secretary not only, as he has done today, pay lip service to, but confront in practice, the fact that far too many individuals in prison have acute mental health problems—as many as one in 10 are estimated to be functionally psychotic? Rather than spending millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money in a frantic effort to build prison cells as quickly as they are filled, does it not make more sense to invest that money in building more secure mental health treatment capacity?

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