Prisons

Oral Answers to Questions — Home Office – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 31st January 2005.

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Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The capacity of each prison is limited to numbers that minimise the risk to safety and security. There are currently 74,100 people in prison and 77,168 usable places. A new 840-place prison will open in Peterborough in March to add to the 17,000 extra places that have been built since 1997.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

Do not the Government face a specific problem in housing women prisoners? The latest figures that I have show that, although the number of men in prison has increased by 50 per cent. in the past 10 years, the number of women has increased by 173 per cent. Is the Minister satisfied with the care that is given to women prisoners, given that many of them come from the most terrible backgrounds and deserve a great deal of sympathy?

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The hon. Gentleman has a good record on raising those important issues in the House. I am pleased to tell him that, last Friday, the women's prison population was 4,261—down by 3 per cent. from last year. Contrary to previous trends, the women's prison population is beginning to decrease. In the past 10 years, the number of women in prison tripled yet last year, for the first time, it started to reduce. That constitutes a success but I do not dispute that many women in prison suffer from a range of problems, as he said, and targeting our support at them is therefore especially important.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

Is my hon. Friend aware of the anxieties that have been expressed that pressures on the Prison Service mean that some accommodation is mothballed and that that contributes to overcrowding in the places that are used?

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I am not aware of any specific instances. If my hon. Friend wants to send me details, I will be happy to look into the matter. I am sure that he acknowledges that, since 1997, we have increased prison places by 17,000. A further 3,000 are on their way. They are real prison places, unlike the promises that the Conservative party makes.

Photo of Mark Oaten Mark Oaten Shadow Secretary of State for Home Affairs, Home Affairs

Does the Minister acknowledge that overcrowding leads to other problems in prisons and that that is why 74 per cent. of young prisoners leave and reoffend? Last year, 17,000 prisoners self-harmed and 95 committed suicide. Two thirds of our prisoners have the reading skills of an 11-year-old and, last year, 10,000 drug-related crimes took place in prison. Do not those figures suggest a shambles in our Prison Service?

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

No. I reject the contention that it is a shambles. The hon. Gentleman raises important issues. We have said that prison must be there for dangerous and serious offenders but that we need a system of more rigorous community penalties for those who are serving sometimes fairly futile short sentences. We are beginning to rebalance matters. The projections are lower than they were initially, so the new sentences are beginning to kick in. There is a huge programme of work to examine suicide in prison because that is a matter of great concern. There are also plans to ensure that we provide sufficient places for prisoners so that the courts are not influenced by that factor in their sentencing decisions. When they need to send people to prison, we will ensure that they are accommodated. Providing useful activity—for example, literacy, numeracy or information technology—for people in prison is a top priority to try to ensure that we break the cycle of reoffending when people are released from custody.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

I am ashamed to have been a Member of Parliament over the past eight years, during which 16 children have died in prison. That is coupled with the ghastly fact that we have closed down 24 places in local authority secure children's homes, where those children could have been kept safe. Is it not time for the Home Office entirely to review the position of children in prison to ensure that there are no more deaths?

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I understand my hon. Friend's concern, and every Member of the House will agree that the death of any young person in custody is a terrible tragedy. It is important to have appropriate accommodation for young people, but I am afraid that, in some circumstances—when they could present a serious threat to the community, for example—it is appropriate for them to be held in custody.

This is a matter that we take very seriously and my hon. Friend is right to say that we need adequate secure accommodation. Indeed, many young people are held in local authority secure accommodation. I understand the depth of his personal feelings on this issue, but it is important that young people, as well as adults, are held in the right accommodation and that we get the balance absolutely correct.

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Shadow Minister of State (Home Office)

I am surprised that the Minister should come to the Dispatch Box so ill informed. Last week, the chief inspector of prisons said that our prisons were still 24 per cent. overcrowded and operating perilously close to capacity. Money has been taken from the Prison Service's budget to resolve the financial crisis in other parts of the Home Office, which has led to a four-month recruitment freeze and the mothballing of more than 1,000 prison places. Will the Minister confirm that the service is now considering reducing the number of offending behaviour programmes for prisoners and, in the words of the director general of the Prison Service, merely sustaining

"the basic operation of the Service"?

Is this the way to run the Prison Service?

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

It is this Government who are running the Prison Service and providing extra capacity. As I have said, 17,000 extra places have been created since 1997, and a further 3,000 are on the way—

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The hon. Lady shakes her head, but these are real places for real prisoners. A brand-new prison will open in Peterborough in March, providing an extra 360 places, particularly for women—an issue raised by Sir Teddy Taylor—and there will be 450 places at the Bronzefield prison. This Government have taken the issue seriously by ensuring that we have the right capacity and by developing modern, purpose-built premises, with proper facilities for education and useful work, to house our prisoners. The hon. Lady should ask the shadow Chancellor how many cuts in prison places would result from his budget proposals.