Prison population 2022: planning for the future Contents


The Committee’s inquiry

1.When we launched our inquiry in September 2017, all the indicators of prison safety were illustrating a deterioration in prison standards, year-on-year. There were concerns about the impact of 15% budget reductions over the 2015 to 2020 spending review period on the safety and decency of the prison estate, in addition to the reduction in the number of prison officers between 2010 and 2015. The prison population had risen by 20% over the previous 15 years and growth in the prison population had recently exceeded prison population projections, placing pressure on the prison estate which had limited headroom. Future projections indicated that the population would continue to grow up to 2022, despite England and Wales together already having the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe. The Government had committed to expand the prison estate by 10,000 places and to closing outdated prisons. This provided a timely opportunity for us to undertake an inquiry on the size of the prison population and the Government’s strategy for managing it.

2.The Ministry of Justice as a whole, which funds public and private sector prisons, is under very significant financial pressure. Mike Driver, Ministry of Justice Chief Financial Officer, confirmed to us when giving evidence that the Ministry was managing a funding gap in its finances of £1.2 billion across 2018–19 and 2019–20.1 The projected rising prison population therefore presents a challenge.2

3.The terms of reference were:

4.We have held eight evidence sessions and have taken evidence from 21 organisations, covering a wide range of stakeholders and commentators, as well as those tasked with delivery. We heard from Ministers on 23 June 2018 and 11 December 2018. During the course of the inquiry, the Committee held one-off evidence sessions following highly critical inspection reports on HMP Liverpool and on HMP Birmingham, and where relevant, we have incorporated some of the evidence taken at these sessions into our report. We also held an informal seminar looking at cross-cutting issues related to crime and attended evidence sessions held by the Health and Social Care Committee on its inquiry into Prison Health.

5.The first section of this report sets out the Ministry’s current approach to managing the prison population, and the present and projected make-up of the prison population. Chapter 1 looks at the Ministry’s current strategy for prisons, as well as the financial sustainability of its approach. In Chapter 2, we first summarise the evidence we received on the nature of the present prison population. In particular, we heard that many groups within the population have complex and challenging needs. We go on to consider current projections for how the prison population will change in the near future. Chapter 3 looks at the factors which are contributing to the current and projected growth.

6.The second section of the report looks at two of the Ministry’s objectives as set out in its Single Departmental Plan. They are: getting the basics right by providing decent, safe and modern prisons that tackle criminal activity and drug abuse, whilst providing strong incentives for prisoners to reform (Chapter 4); ensuring a sustainable prison population by exploring options for, and building confidence in, non-custodial sentences and by tackling reoffending though a cross-Government approach (Chapter 5). Our concluding remarks are set out in chapter 6.

7.Our inquiry was not explicitly about making recommendations for how the prison population could be reduced, although some of the evidence we received makes reference to this. Our intention in undertaking this work has been to shine a light on the size and nature of the prison population, and the Ministry’s plans to manage projected rises, and to draw conclusions about the sustainability of Government policy. During the course of our year-long inquiry, the Government’s policy focus has shifted from primarily concentrating on prison safety and decency and modernisation of the prison estate, to an acknowledgement that the rate of imprisonment is too high and that it could be reduced through sentencing reforms.

8.We concluded taking evidence in December 2018, and while the report was in preparation the Secretary of State for Justice, Rt Hon David Gauke MP, set out on 18 February 2019, his vision for a “smart” justice system and posed three fundamental questions about the existing approach:

Does our approach to sentencing reduce crime when reconviction rates are so high?

Are we running prisons in a way which maximises opportunities for turning offenders around?

Should we be looking for better and alternative ways of punishing people for their crimes?

9.We evaluate the evidence we received in the light of this significant shift, which had been hinted at by Ministers during the course of our inquiry, and make conclusions and recommendations to assist the Government as it pursues answers to these questions and its welcome change in direction, and as we approach the 2019 Spending Review.

1 Q56 Mike Driver]

2 Q457 [Simon Boddis]

Published: 3 April 2019