It is estimated that a continuation of recent trends in the use of custody would result in a prison population of 93,000 by the end of the decade. The reforms that we are making should enable us to rebalance the system and achieve a stable and lower population.As a result of the investment that we are making, there will be 79,500 available prison places by 2006.
I know of my hon. Friend's personal commitment to prisoner welfare. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 means that there will be more robust community sentences and a reduction in the number of short sentences, which are ineffective in reducing wrongdoing, but there is concern out there that the increase in the number of prisoners and the small number of new places coming on stream make the situation unsustainable. Can he give an assurance that that pressure will be relieved in the near future?
My hon. and learned Friend is right to point to that pressure. We will continue to expand the capacity of prison places. By next year, we will have 77,600 prison places. By 2006, we will have 79,500 places. He is right to point out that many very short prison sentences are a waste of time. They are long enough for people to lose their homes and jobs but not long enough to do the resettlement and educational work that such prisoners need. It is far better for non-dangerous offenders, particularly first-time offenders, to be dealt with in the community with a robust community sentence.
Given the projected increase in the prison population and the urgent need to cut recidivism, the hon. Gentleman will certainly agree, as he has just indicated, that prison education must be a top priority. In that context, what proportion of people currently leaving prison still can neither read nor write and what is the Government's public service agreement target for improvement in that regard?
What I can say to the hon. Gentleman, and I am sure that he will be pleased to hear this, is that, as this has been an area in which the Government have invested, we have seen a significant increase in the number of people who learn to read and write while in prison. The most salient point is that, last year, 50,000 basic skills qualifications were gained in our prisons. Those prisoners can now read and write, take their place in society and reform their behaviour.
My hon. Friend will know that one of the key objectives of the National Offender Management Service was to reduce the projected figure from 93,000 to 80,000 by the end of the decade. Can he tell us exactly how he expects NOMS to do that, because it is not NOMS that will be in charge of sentencing policy, but the Sentencing Guidelines Council?
My hon. Friend is right. In the end, it is not politicians or legislators who send people to prison, but sentencers. That is why the role of the Sentencing Guidelines Council will be central to our reforms. The chief executive of the National Offender Management Service has a key role to play in informing the council about what is effective in sentencing. The NOMS will provide, for the first time, effective management of offenders through the whole system, joining the bit of the sentence served in prison with the bit served in the community. By doing that, we believe that we will further reduce reoffending rates.
The Minister is responsible for planning for the prison population. So serious is the overcrowding in our prisons that 64 per cent. are over the limit for keeping prisoners in decent conditions and 15 are over the danger line for safety as we speak. There are more suicides and self-harming by prisoners and the justice unions report increases in acts of organised indiscipline, hostage situations and threats. What is the Minister going to do about this shambles of Government policy? Will he speed up the prison building programme, or will he rebalance the programme by letting more and more prisoners out early to join the 1,100 who have committed further crimes while under curfew orders?
Those figures are not correct, but I welcome the hon. Lady's concern for the welfare of the people in our prisons. For example, it is welcome that she is concerned about the number of people who committed suicide in our prisons last year. I hope, therefore, that she will join us in supporting the strategy that I put in place for reducing self-inflicted deaths in custody. But services such as that cost money and given she and her colleagues want to wipe £700 million out of the budget of the Home Office, where would that money come from? I have set out our prison-building programme and the extra places that we intend to provide, but that costs money. We will provide it and she would not.