We are taking immediate action to increase the number of prison places, with an extra 2,500 places to be available by the end of 2004.
We will continue to press sentencers to use community sentences rather than short-term prison sentences for non-dangerous, less serious offenders.
The Minister will be aware that the Home Office projection suggests that it is highly likely that the prison population will reach 80,000 this year. Furthermore, the Carter report recommended that the population of those in custody should be stabilised at about 80,000. Does the Minister accept that recommendation? Will he set clear targets that will address slowing down and reversing the trend of an ever-increasing prison population?
Patrick Carter predicted in his report that if we did nothing to rebalance the correctional services, the prison population would be about 93,000 by the end of the decade. With the reforms that he recommended, it is possible to maintain a stable prison population at about 80,000, and that is what we intend to do. In the short term, we shall certainly make available the additional prison places that I mentioned in my initial reply—about 2,500 by the end of the year. It is important that the message goes out to sentencers that wherever possible community penalties should be used instead.
In his report, Patrick Carter emphasised the increasing severity of sentences. Someone is five times more likely now to be given a custodial sentence for shoplifting than was the case 10 years ago. That is hardly justifiable. Community sentences should be used wherever appropriate.
My hon. Friend may be aware that the Fawcett commission on women and the criminal justice system, in which I have been involved, is about to report. One of its findings is that two thirds of women in prison, who are contributing to the overcrowding problem, are there for dishonesty. Does he agree that society pays a price if people are put into prison unnecessarily, as the result may be family break-up, home break-up and loss of jobs? Is it not time to evolve the principle that carers, whether male or female, ought to be the last people to be put in prison, and that that principle should start to emerge in sentencing policy, unless, of course, those people are dangerous and violent?
As my hon. and learned Friend will recognise, the nature of the offence is crucial when sentence is passed, but she is quite right to point to the additional dimension for women who are put in custody—namely, their child care responsibilities. She will know that just over a week ago I published the women's offending reduction programme, which highlighted various actions that we are taking, such as improving bail information systems in prisons for women and improving mental health care for women offenders outside prison. I am also looking closely at our use of bail hostels to make sure that we are making maximum use of them as an alternative to prison. The issue of women in prison is high on my agenda, and I intend to continue pressing forward and making sure that wherever possible low-risk women offenders who have not committed particularly serious offences are dealt with outside prison.
The Minister is incredibly complacent when he says that a couple of thousand prison places are coming on-stream at the end of the year, because we need prison places now. The operational capacity of our prisons has dropped this week from 75,191 to 75,073, so he has just eight places left before the system is completely and dangerously full. Does he agree with the general secretary of the Prisoner Governors Association, who said this morning that the Prison Service is now taking more chances with the prisoners that they are sending out of the system? What assurances can he give us that, despite the crisis that he has created, he will not permit the premature release of unsuitable prisoners?
I assure the House that I am not complacent about my responsibilities—nor do I hide away from the pressures. May I correct the hon. Lady's figure on the operational capacity of our prisons, which today stands at 75,291? It is important to put on record an accurate picture.
We have provided 14,700 additional prison places since 1997. Before the end of this year, we will add a further 2,500. We are not complacent, and will not release people into the community if there is a risk. However, if they are low-risk offenders and if it is appropriate to deal with them in court via a community sentence, that is what sentencers should be doing.
May I point out to my hon. Friend that one effect of overcrowding is an increased rate of recidivism? Young people in particular in the secure estate do not get the education that they deserve in prison, and have disproportionately high rates of illiteracy. That problem is not addressed properly in prison. Will my hon. Friend explain to the House why spending per capita in 2002 on education in the secure estate was only two thirds of the equivalent figure in secondary schools, when those are some of the most vulnerable people?
We continue to increase investment in education in our prisons. In the current year, we expect 50,000 basic skills qualifications to be gained in our prisons. If we are to tackle recidivism and create the opportunity for people to stay free from crime, it is essential that they are better educated and have a better chance of gaining employment. I assure my hon. Friend and the House that I regard that as a high priority.