HC Deb 17 January 2000 vol 342 cc537-9
1. Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

How many prisons are overcrowded. [103961]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng)

Measures of overcrowding vary. At the end of November 1999, based on the measure preferred by the Prison Reform Trust, 62 establishments exceeded their uncrowded capacity. However, no prisons exceeded their safe maximum capacity.

Mr. Brake

Will the Minister confirm whether it is to become official Government policy to use prison hulks to tackle overcrowding? Will the life of HMP Weare be extended beyond the agreed finish date of 2003? Is he actively looking at whether HMS Invincible could be used as a hulk ship, as reported in the weekend's press?

Mr. Boateng

The hon. Gentleman ought not to believe everything that he reads in the press—even in Focus. HMP Weare has proved to be an unalloyed success, and we have made no final decision about its future. We will ensure that the courts have at their disposal all the accommodation necessary to hold prisoners safely and securely. We are determined to hold prisoners in that way, not least because our concern—unlike that of the Liberal Democrats—is not, first and foremost, the number of people in prison, but how best we reduce crime.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

What are we doing to empty the prisons of the mentally ill?

Mr. Boateng

My hon. Friend will be aware that we have instituted a programme of reform of prison health care. One of the main strands of that is to improve communication and co-operation between the NHS and the Prison Service, precisely to identify more speedily and readily places in medium secure and high secure units for those who more properly belong there.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

The Minister will be aware of the strong feeling in north and mid-Wales that there is no local prison, and that the prisons serving the area are inconvenient, with prisoners not in their own communities. If there is a need for additional prison capacity, will he look at the possibility of an additional prison in north and mid-Wales and of using European funds to help finance it?

Mr. Boateng

I would be delighted to do that. On my visits to Wales—including visits to prisons—I have been made aware of the sentiment in relation to the need for more local provision. I have had some communication on the issue with the Assembly Members concerned and I will bear the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion in mind.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

Does not the management of prison capacity have undesirable side-effects, such as the movement of prisoners hundreds of miles away from their friends and relatives? Does it not disrupt education programmes? Will my right hon. Friend look at those difficulties?

Mr. Boateng

We have in mind the need to make sure that we locate prisoners as near as possible to their family centres and that we take steps to ensure that the reintegration and rehabilitation of prisoners is not undermined by capacity issues. My hon. Friend will appreciate the operational imperatives in terms of ensuring that we have a system that is suitably flexible to enable us to hold prisoners in conditions of safety and security. He will be aware that we have reduced overcrowding in our prisons from the high level that we inherited. However, there is no room for complacency and we keep a close eye on the figures.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

I welcome the Minister's statement that HMP Weare has been a resounding success, given all that Labour said about the use of a ship when we introduced it. What percentage of prisoners are in cells designed for one prisoner, but being used by two? What percentage of prisoners are in cells designed for two prisoners, but being shared by three? In how many prisons has slopping out returned—on however limited a scale—as a result of bringing back into use old accommodation?

Mr. Boateng

It was my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary who brought HMP Weare into play, and it was he who took steps to solve the problem of prison overcrowding. Before the right hon. Lady casts any strictures in our direction, she should consider her own record in government. In 1996–97, prisons were at 106.2 per cent. capacity; now the figure is 105.6 per cent.—it is lower. There is worse: in 1997–98, the last year for which the Conservatives had stewardship of the Prison Service, the figure was 108.1 per cent. The right hon. Lady is in no position to cast aspersions in our direction. We are on course to meet—

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

What about answering the question?

Mr. Boateng

The right hon. Gentleman should not get so aerated. If only he would contain himself, we would come to the answer.

In 1990–91, under Conservative stewardship, the average number of prisoners held three to a cell designed for one was 2,677. That number has certainly not been exceeded today. The figure is on target for the key performance indicator by which one measures the number of prisoners in overcrowded cells. We are clearing up the mess that the Conservatives left us.

Miss Widdecombe

The Minister must be hard of hearing. What percentage of the prison population is sharing two to a cell designed for one? I shall ask the questions very slowly so that he can look up the answers. What percentage of the prison population is sharing three to a cell designed for two? In how many prisons has slopping out, which we eliminated completely, returned as a result of bringing old accommodation back into use? Those are three simple questions. If he does not know the answers, let him admit it; but I always knew the answers to such questions when I was in his position.

Mr. Boateng

The right hon. Lady might have known the answers, but she did nothing to tackle the problem. We are tackling it, and I will write to her with the specific answers that she seeks.

Miss Widdecombe

We take it from that that the Minister does not know the answers to three simple questions.

I do not know whether it is trne that the Prison Service is considering the use of aircraft carriers. If it is looking for temporary accommodation, that suggests a shortfall in prison places. I have two very simple questions: is the Minister planning any additional permanent accommodation over and above that already announced; and, if so, how does he intend to pay for it, given the very clear statement of the then Chief Secretary, the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn), who said in a letter to the Home Secretary that he would entertain no further claims on the reserve for the purposes of easing pressures in overcrowded prisons?

Mr. Boateng

The right hon. Lady need have no fear about the availability of funds for building the new prisons needed to fulfil the requirements that the courts impose on the system by way of holding prisoners in safe and secure conditions. We have three prisons currently under construction—Forest Bank, Onley II and Marchington—and there are plans for three more at Ashford, Peterborough and Ashworth. Those will all be funded and will fulfil the current requirements for the prison population.

Last year, 67,800 prison places were required. In 2001–02, we will have 71,400 places. That is what the Government are doing to address the under-resourcing of the Prison Service under the right hon. Lady's stewardship. We face up to the problems and address them, while ensuring that we also address the causes of crime: she and her Government flunked them.