Prison Capacity

– in the House of Commons at 5:33 pm on 16 October 2023.

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Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice 5:33, 16 October 2023

With permission, I shall make a statement on the criminal justice system in England and Wales.

The first duty of any Government is to keep their people safe, and that is why those who pose a danger to society must be locked up. The Government are categorical that the worst offenders should be locked away for as long as it takes to protect the public. We have increased the sentences for offences including knife crime, causing death by dangerous driving—now a maximum of life imprisonment—and causing or allowing the death of a child. We have ended automatic halfway release for serious sexual and violent offenders, so they will serve two thirds of their sentence behind bars, and, in the most dangerous cases, all of their sentence behind bars. We are changing the law to make whole life sentences the default for the most heinous type of murder, so that for society’s most depraved killers, life means life and murderers end their days in prison.

Today, I can announce that we will be going further. We will legislate so that rapists, as well as those convicted of equivalent sexual offences, will serve the entirety of the custodial term handed down to them by the courts. A 15-year custodial term will mean 15 years behind bars.

There have been inaccurate reports in the media, claiming that judges have been told not to send rapists to prison. Let me be categorical: this is untrue. Sentencing is a matter for the judiciary acting impartially and in accordance with the law. It is a fact that under this Government the most serious and dangerous offenders are being locked away for longer. In the case of rapists, average sentences are nearly a third longer than in 2010. That is the right thing to do to keep the public safe.

To continue to put the worst offenders away for longer, we must use prisons better, and always so that there are sufficient spaces to lock up the most dangerous criminals. We must reform the justice system so that it keeps the worst of society behind bars, rehabilitates offenders who will be let out and presents the least serious, lowest risk offenders with a path away from a life of crime. That matters, because intelligent reform means less crime.

I have been candid from the moment I took on this role that our custodial estate is under pressure. Today, the prison population in England and Wales is greater than it has ever been—nearly double the level it was three decades ago. That is not principally because of the growth in the sentenced population: instead, it is the remand population, principally made up of unconvicted prisoners awaiting trial, which has surged in recent years, from 9,000 in 2019 to more than 15,000 in 2023. That is more than 6,000 more people in our prisons out of a total of some 88,000. That is because in the white heat of the pandemic we took the right and principled decision not to jettison hundreds of years of British history and abandon the jury trial system. We did that because the jury trial system is the bedrock of our freedoms. But covid restrictions inevitably meant that the flow of trials slowed and, in turn, the remand population grew. That growth was exacerbated by industrial action last year. In addition, the recall population is also significantly higher than in 2018, partly because we are rightly ensuring that offenders who do not comply with their licence conditions are returned to prison.

The Government have taken unprecedented steps to meet demand. We are building 20,000 modern rehabilitative prison places—the largest prison-building programme since the Victorian era. By doubling up cells where it is safe to do so, speeding up the deportation of foreign national offenders and delaying non-essential maintenance projects to bring cells back into use, we have freed up an extra 2,600 places since September last year alone. On top of that, we have continued to roll out hundreds of rapid deployment cells at prison sites. Altogether, we have been bringing on capacity at a rate of more than 100 places a week—the fastest rate in living memory, and possibly in 100 years.

We are going further. Today I can announce up to £400 million for more prison places, enough for more than 800 new cells. When we legislate to keep rapists behind bars for the whole of their custodial term, I will ensure that commencement is dependent on there being sufficient prison capacity. There is already an obligation to lay before both Houses of Parliament a report as to how I have discharged my general duty in relation to the courts. To ensure public confidence, a new annual statement of prison capacity will be laid before both Houses. It will include a clear statement of current prison capacity, future demand, the range of system costs that will be incurred under different scenarios and our forward pipeline of prison build. That will bring greater transparency to the plans and will set out the progress that is being made. I have also already commissioned urgent work, to conclude before the end of the year, to identify new sites for us to purchase. That is backed by a down payment of up to £30 million in funding to acquire land in 2024 and launch the planning process.

We must do whatever it takes to ensure that there are always enough prison places to lock up the most dangerous offenders to keep the British people safe, to ensure that criminals can be brought to justice, and to maintain safety and decency in the prison estate. We have decided to use the power in section 248 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 to allow the Prison Service to move some less serious offenders out of prison on to licence up to 18 days before their automatic release date.

Let me be clear: this will not apply to anyone serving a life sentence, anyone serving an extended determinate sentence, anyone serving a sentence for an offence of particular concern, anyone convicted of a serious violence offence, anyone convicted of terrorism or anyone convicted of a sex offence, and this power will be used only for a limited period and only in targeted areas. Every offender will be placed under strict licence conditions that provide a step down from custody to living in the community. They may include the following: first, being made to wear an electronic tag when that is needed for the offender to be managed safely; secondly, a condition not to contact a named individual, directly or indirectly; thirdly, having to live at an address approved by the offender’s probation officer; fourthly, attending appointments; and fifthly, a condition not to enter certain areas such as particular postcodes. I should also make it clear that breach of those conditions could lead to offenders’ being recalled to custody for the entire second half of their sentences.

This will be overseen by the probation service—a probation service into which we have injected £155 million a year to recruit staff to bring down case loads and deliver better supervision of offenders in the community. In addition, HM Prison & Probation Service leadership will retain discretion to decide on further exemptions from release on advice of governors when concerns remain. Let me make it clear that this is a temporary operational measure to relieve immediate pressure contributed to by remand.

However, if we are to protect the public and reduce crime, we need to go further to use our prisons better. At the heart of the long-term plan for prison reform that I am announcing today is a simple mission: cut crime. To deliver that, we need to do three things. First, we need to ensure that the most dangerous offenders are locked up for longer, away from the public and unable to commit crime. Secondly, we need to ensure that prisons are geared to help offenders turn away from crime, to change their ways and to become contributing members of society. Thirdly, we need to ensure that more lower-level offenders get the tough community sentences that are shown by the evidence to cut reoffending and hence to cut crime.

Let me put that last point in another way: prisons should not ruin the redeemable. It is clear that all too often the circumstances that lead to an initial offence are exacerbated by a short stint in prison, with offenders losing their homes, breaking contact with key support networks and, crucially, meeting others inside prison who steer them in the wrong direction. When they are released just a short time later, they all too often reoffend, fuelled by addiction or mental health issues that cannot possibly be addressed effectively in such a short space of time. The fact is that more than 50% of people who leave prison after serving less than 12 months go on to commit further crimes. The figure is 58% for those who serve sentences of six months or less. However, the figure for those who are on suspended sentence orders with conditions is 22%.

Meanwhile, the cost of this is £47,000 per year per prisoner. The taxpayer should not be forking out for a system that risks further criminalising offenders and trapping them in a merry-go-round of short sentences, so the Government are determined to grasp the nettle and deliver a better approach. We will legislate for a presumption that custodial sentences of less than 12 months in prison will be suspended and offenders will be punished in the community instead, repaying their debt within communities, cleaning up our neighbourhoods and scrubbing graffiti off walls. We can do this more intelligently with modern solutions for a digital age.

I can announce today that we are doubling the number of GPS tags available to the courts, to ensure that offenders can be monitored, to track them to ensure that they are going to work, and also to ensure that their freedom is curtailed in the evenings and weekends, with robust curfews of up to 20 hours a day. We will make further use of new technologies such as alcohol monitoring tags. This will enable us to strengthen and expand successful step-down programmes such as home detention curfew, which we will keep under active review. If offenders breach the terms of their curfew or other requirement of their suspended custodial sentence, or commit another offence, they can be hauled back before the court and forced to serve that sentence in custody.

What we are not doing is getting rid of short sentences altogether. I know from my time as a prosecutor that that is sometimes the right and just option. Prolific offenders who are unable or unwilling to comply with community orders or other orders of the court must know that their actions have consequences, and they will continue to feel the full force of the justice system. Building on our antisocial behaviour action plan, the Home Secretary and I are looking at what more we can do to punish those so-called lower-level offenders who are a blight on our communities. For some offenders, the proper sanction is, I am afraid, the clang of the prison gate.

We will also remove foreign offenders who should not be in the United Kingdom taking up space in our prisons at vast expense to the taxpayer. There are over 10,000 foreign nationals in our prisons. It cannot be right that some of them are sat in prison when they could otherwise be removed from our country. That is why we will extend the early removal scheme so that we have the power to remove foreign criminals up to 18 months before they are due to be released—up from 12 months now—getting them out of the country early and no longer costing taxpayers a fortune.

To support that, more caseworkers will be deployed to speed up removals, and the Home Office will also look at measures to do more to remove foreign nationals accused of less serious crimes more quickly. We will continue to strike new prisoner transfer deals like the one agreed with Albania, ensuring that criminals from overseas serve their time at home rather than in Britain. We will bring forward legislation to enable prisoners to be held in prisons overseas—an approach taken by Belgium, Norway and Denmark in recent years.

More must be done to stop people spending long periods of time waiting in prison for their trial. As I have set out, there are now more than 15,000 defendants on remand in our prisons. Remand decisions are properly for independent judges, but we will consider whether to extend the discount to encourage people to plead guilty at the first opportunity, because when more offenders plead guilty, that saves time in the court and cuts the number of people in our prisons on remand, but most importantly it saves victims the ordeal of giving evidence in court. We will also be reviewing the use of recall for offenders on release who infringe the terms of their licence. It is right that ex-prisoners who commit new crimes or serious breaches while on licence should be returned to prison. We want to ensure that the system is working effectively to mitigate any risk posed by offenders while not having people in prison on recall longer than necessary.

We will take decisive action to address sentences of imprisonment for public protection. We put a stop to these discredited sentences a decade ago, but it is true that there remain about 3,000 IPP prisoners in custody despite their original tariff expiring years ago. IPPs are a stain on our justice system, so I am looking at options to curtail the licence period to restore greater proportionality to IPP sentences in line with recommendation 8 of the Justice Committee’s report, and I will come back to the House on that in due course. This will not compromise public safety. Those found by the Parole Board to pose a risk to the public will not be released.

As I have set out, we are taking decisive action to make our prisons work better in the long term. We are building more prison places than at any time since Disraeli was speaking from this Dispatch Box. We are rolling out hundreds of rapid deployment cells across the country to increase immediate capacity. We are going further and faster than ever before to remove foreign criminals from our prisons.

To govern is to choose. We choose to lock up the most dangerous criminals for longer to protect victims and their families. We choose to reform the justice system so that criminals who can otherwise be forced into taking the right path are not trapped in a cycle of criminality. That is the right long-term plan for our justice system, and I commend this statement to the House.

Photo of Shabana Mahmood Shabana Mahmood Shadow Secretary of State for Justice 5:48, 16 October 2023

Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.

The Secretary of State was on his feet for about 15 minutes, his statement is about 2,500 words long, he did an op-ed at the weekend in The Telegraph, and there have been endless briefings to the media over the last few days. Yet in all that verbiage there has been not one word of apology to the British public for failing in the first duty of Government, which is to keep our citizens safe. As everybody knows, the first stage of rehabilitation is to acknowledge mistakes and make a sincere apology to those affected and let down by those actions, or, in the Secretary of State’s case, inactions. His failure to do so today is utterly inexcusable. It is a damning indictment of this Government’s collective failure.

Our prisons are completely full. We have been sounding the alarm for many years now, as overcrowding has skyrocketed. As of today, the public will undoubtedly be less safe. Although the Secretary of State has said that sentencing delays will apply only to those deemed “low risk”, he knows that in 2021 more than 20,000 offences were committed by those on bail, including more than 200 sexual offences. So the public need to know: what steps will he be taking to mitigate the risk of increased offending that will arise as a result of the delayed sentencing? How many cases in total are we talking about? How many of those involve sexual and violent crimes? What is the plan to reach out to victims and assure them that the convicted offender in their case will be taken off the streets as quickly as possible?

The reason we are in this position is that the Government have consistently broken their promises to deal with the rising prison population. As far back as 2016, the Government pledged to build 10,000 new prison places by 2020—the Public Accounts Committee found that they had managed just 206. So the Government went ahead and pledged 18,000 prison places, but still with no plan. A year later, they said that they would make it 20,000 by the mid-2020s. According to the latest figures, there are no more than 8,200 places set to be built by the end of 2025, which represents a shortfall of 60%. The Government have known about this problem not only for the whole time this Secretary of State has been in Parliament, but ever since the Prime Minister was the Chancellor, and they have done nothing. It beggars belief that the funding has been allocated but the Government still cannot get these prison places built—so much so that they are looking to rent space in prisons abroad, with no indication of how much that will cost. Given this woeful record, why should anyone believe that the Government will build those 20,000 prison places that we need? What update can the Secretary of State provide on the number of new prison places that are guaranteed to be built before the end of the year?

Will the Government consult on the changes to short sentences? Will any such consultation include victims? The Secretary of State knows that the use of community sentences has halved since 2011. How will the Government persuade the courts that these sentences are the solution? How can he reassure the public that this is not just a green light to offenders? He will know that this plan will take time to go through Parliament. What will his Government do in the immediate term to address the problem? So far, it sounds as though his plan is to move some prisoners abroad and to let others out early. Is that all he has got?

On the deportation of foreign national offenders, last year the Government managed to deport only 2,958 foreign national offenders, which is less than a third of the total number in our prisons and about half the annual number before the covid pandemic. Why should the public believe the Government when they claim that they can get a grip on the number of foreign national offenders in our prisons, given that they have failed to do so until now? What difference will bringing forward the deportation of foreign national offenders by six months make to the prison population—and by when? Let us be clear: the public need to know that today an offender—including, potentially, a sex offender—can go to court and be found guilty by a jury but instead of being locked up behind bars, where they belong, the inaction of this chaotic Conservative Government means that they can walk free. Can the Secretary of State tell the House today that not one individual convicted of a serious sexual offence is out on the streets as a result of a lack of prison places?

As the Secretary of State said, to govern is— [Interruption.]

Photo of Shabana Mahmood Shabana Mahmood Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

As the Secretary of State acknowledged, to govern is to choose. His Government have chosen to fail victims and to fail the public. and to offer too little, too late to turn our failing criminal justice system around.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

What a very disappointing response. I was surprised to hear that newfound interest in locking up rapists. Lest we forget, this Government are prosecuting more alleged rapists, convicting a higher proportion and imposing longer sentences than Labour, and ensuring that a higher proportion of those sentences is being spent behind bars.

It is important to aim off a little bit when looking at what is said in the Chamber by Labour Members. The hon. Lady refers to foreign national offenders, but I remember very well that back in 2020 we wanted to ensure that a plane full of rapists and murderers could leave the country, yet a letter came to the Prime Minister, saying:

“Dear Prime Minister, We, the undersigned,”— have—

“grave concern over Home Office plans to deport 50 people”.

It went on to say:

“The flight and all future charter flights must be suspended”.

Shall we see who was on that flight, Madam Deputy Speaker? There was a man who had thrust a bottle into his victim’s face, leaving him scarred for life, in what was described as a “horrifying attack”—that is grievous bodily harm. Another person, who had been imprisoned for attacking a 17-year-old girl twice and abducting her, and who had sex with a 15-year-old, then lied about it and “vandalised” her life, according to her mother, was called “devious, callous and manipulative” by the judge. The hon. Lady signed a letter asking that he should not be deported. We will take no lessons from the Labour party in being tough on criminals. [Interruption.] She seems still to justify signing that letter. Does she not regret that decision? I think she might want to think about it again.

The Conservative party will get foreign national offenders out of this country. We have brought on the largest prison building programme since the Victorian era: 100 cells per week. [Interruption.]

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

We will always take the steps that need to be taken to keep the British people safe.

In respect of community orders, the hon. Lady is right that it is important that they are robust and enforceable. That is why I was at pains to point out that we are doubling the number of tags—I suspect we will go much further and triple the number of tags. By the way, they are not the old radio frequency tags that were used when I was prosecuting. They are GPS tags that mean that judges and those appointed to the bench can ensure the monitoring of where that individual has gone, to make sure that they go to work and that their liberty is deprived at the weekend. That is the kind of robust penalty we support.

Our ability to ensure that people are under curfew for over 100 hours a week was in our legislation, which was opposed by—guess who?—the Labour party.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee

I commend the Lord Chancellor on his thoughtful, considered and serious statement that deserves a thoughtful and considered response, which it has not entirely had. Does he agree that it is right and proper that we are frank with the British public that prison is an extremely expensive way of dealing with people, and that it should be reserved for those who are a threat to us, not simply those with whom we are perhaps justifiably angry or irritated?

Does the Lord Chancellor agree that it is right to take on board some of the recommendations of the Justice Committee’s report in relation to IPP prisoners—those sentenced to imprisonment for public protection? I welcome what has been said about remand, which we know is also important. As well as reducing the qualifying licence period, can he help us a little more on what else he will do to take on board the recommendations about IPP prisoners in the report? What is the timeframe for moving swiftly towards reducing the remand population?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I thank my hon. Friend for his typically thoughtful and considered response. He is absolutely right that we have to make choices about what we do in respect of the custodial estate. We choose to ensure that the most dangerous people are locked away for longer, which is right, so that the punishment fits the crime and so that we protect the British people. This is not simply a political statement but a statement of evidence, and the evidence, not just in England and Wales but in the Netherlands and elsewhere, shows that short sentences are disproportionately associated with recidivism. Of course we should learn the lessons from that.

My hon. Friend rightly raises the issue of IPPs, which are a stain on the justice system. That point is made even by the person who came up with the idea. We will take steps, and I thank the Justice Committee for taking on this difficult issue and for coming up with some very sensible proposals. I will be announcing more, but the central point about licence length is critical. It seems to me that this 10-year licence length means that it is very hard for people on IPP to think they will ever be free.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Labour/Co-operative, York Central

I have a constituent who has been in prison for 18 years under IPP. He is due to be up for parole towards the end of the year. The Secretary of State says he will be bringing forward a review. How long will that take, and how will it impact on people awaiting the Parole Board?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

First, I make it very clear to the hon. Lady and her constituent that we will not take steps that put the British people at risk. The Parole Board will have to make an assessment, in the normal way, on whether a person is safe to be released. If they are considered safe for release, the question is then about the duration of the licence period that remains. IPP effectively continues to hang over them. I am looking at that particular area at the moment, but I want to be clear that it is a sensitive area. We are trying to unwind a very ill-starred policy, but we have to do so in a way that ultimately keeps the British people safe.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon

I commend my right hon. and learned Friend for his statement. In so many ways, it echoes and builds on the work we did together in the Department.

I emphasise the importance of building a technologically sound, innovative and direct alternative to short-term prison sentences, which I think this statement presages. We need to get on with that work, because short-term sentences have to be a last resort, as they clearly do not help to cut crime. What more can my right hon. and learned Friend do to redouble efforts to ensure that the prison building programme that started when I was in office is delivered on time, and that we overcome some of the constant barriers of planning permission and other administrative obstacles?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

l pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend. I talked about tough decisions being made in the white heat of the pandemic, and he is the one who said that we will not get rid of the jury system on our watch. My goodness, he was right to say that. It was a tough call, but it was manifestly the right one.

Lest we forget, Five Wells and Fosse Way have opened and HMP Millsike is currently under construction, going alongside Garth, Gartree, Grendon/Spring Hill and other prisons. My right hon. and learned Friend is right that there has been an issue with planning. I have said that, with an additional £30 million, we will identify further sites in 2024 and get the planning permission well in advance, because we cannot have a situation in which these critical building programmes are held up by the planning process. We are changing to a new approach, and we are putting on the afterburners to make sure those prisons get built.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

I declare an interest as an honorary life member of the Prison Officers Association.

In his statement, the Secretary of State celebrated the fact that the prison population has risen to 80,000. When I was elected in 1997, it was a scandal that we were at the 40,000 level. Part of the problem is the lack of crime prevention, but there is also a failure of rehabilitation. The statement mentioned probation, but there was no mention of prison staff. There is a desperate need for adequate prison staffing if we are to secure the rehabilitation of prisoners. What will be the staff-prisoner ratio in our prisons following these reforms?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of prison staff, as they are ultimately the most important factor, beyond the nature of the prison estate, in making the difference to whether prisoners are kept safe and rehabilitated. We are increasing the number of prison staff, and I think an additional 700 staff were recruited in the last period for which figures are available. The other important point is retention, and we are starting to see a positive trend in retention.

I also make the point that those prison officers who stuck by their duty during the pandemic and went into work when it was tough to do that—when their parents and friends would have been telling them not to do so—are the ones who ensured there was not a complete catastrophe in our prisons in terms of loss of life, and they should take enormous credit for that.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Conservative, Witham

I completely agree with the Lord Chancellor’s last point about prison staff during the covid pandemic, and I am very grateful to him for pointing out that the approach to FNOs must continue. He will know that between 2019 and 2022, some 12,000 FNOs were deported, despite, as he so eloquently pointed out, opposition from Labour Members. They were writing letters personally to the Prime Minister and myself. What assurances will the Lord Chancellor give the public going forward—this is about the direction of travel on this issue—that they are protected, and that offenders who are out and released back into the community, with GPS tags, do not pose a threat to the public? He will recall that in 2008, when the Labour party was in government, similar policies were pursued and there were major issues, with hundreds reoffending and prisoners on the run despite being recalled to prison.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I thank my right hon. Friend; no one did more in government to ensure that serious foreign national offenders were on planes getting out of the country. She did an exceptional job and I pay tribute to her for that.

On public protection, the whole point of the suspended sentence order is that the magistrate will say to the individual, “The crime that you’ve committed crosses the custody threshold. I am going to impose a suspended sentence order, potentially with a curfew and unpaid work”—or whatever the other conditions are. That order is then a sword of Damocles hanging over the person. If they do not comply, they are brought back before the court and they serve that sentence in custody. The choice for that offender is very clear: do what they should and abide by the order of the court, or they will hear the clang of the prison gates.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

As Home Secretary, Lord David Blunkett introduced indeterminate imprisonment for public protection sentences. Lord Blunkett has since said that he regrets injustices caused by the awarding of those IPP sentences. In February this year, 372 of the 2,456 women serving sentences in prison were serving indeterminate sentences. How many women are still serving IPP sentences who have already served their full tariff?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The hon. Gentleman is right, and I remember when IPPs came in; they were created by the Criminal Justice Act 2003. I was a barrister at the time and I remember that under the legislation we were required effectively to apply for them and that judges were required to hand them down. There has been an understanding, in the intervening 20 years, that they have not operated as they should. They have created a sense of total despair, hopelessness and, most importantly of all, injustice.

How we deal with this issue is difficult in circumstances where the Parole Board has judged that people remain a danger to society. That is the issue. There is no easy solution where we say simply, “Let people out”, because we know in doing so that they could commit crimes and harm our fellow citizens. So we cannot do that, but what we will do is take every step, including providing additional psychological support so that individuals can prepare for parole hearings, and we will look at the issue of licences. We will not compromise on public safety, but we will do everything we can to scrub out the stain of those misguided sentences.

Photo of Rob Butler Rob Butler Conservative, Aylesbury

The success of our prisons is not about having the highest possible number of prisoners in them; it is surely about prison rehabilitating offenders so that there are fewer victims of crime in the future. I strongly welcome the measures that the Lord Chancellor has announced today, especially on not putting people in prison who do not need to be in prison. Does he agree that we can cut crime substantially with much more effective use of technology, including the GPS tags that he mentioned, creating almost a virtual prison? That will be justice for the digital age under this party rather than for the Victorian era, which the Labour party seems to prefer.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

My hon. Friend speaks clearly and persuasively, with the benefit of great experience as a magistrate. In my experience, magistrates courts overwhelmingly want to ensure, of course, that the punishment fits the crime, but they also want to ensure that the individual is taken away from the path of crime and ultimately rehabilitated. So of course my hon. Friend is right. Other countries have used technology very effectively. Where there are lessons to learn, we should learn them, but we will not compromise on ensuring that there is punishment. We can just deliver punishment with technology even more effectively.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

The Home Affairs Committee produced a report a while ago on the investigation and prosecution of rape and serious sexual assault, and we found that those cases were disproportionately affected by the backlog in the courts. Of course, few cases—less than 2%—are actually getting to the courts, and even those are taking too long, so with these reports that judges are now going to delay sentencing, what does the Lord Chancellor have to say to the victims of rape and serious sexual assault who wait far too long for justice? It seems like it is going to be an even longer wait.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The right hon. Lady is right when she says it is important to try to reduce the period of time that people are waiting. I absolutely get that point, but in the interests of balance, it is equally important to note the following. More people are being prosecuted for rape than in 2010, and a higher proportion are being convicted; the sentences are a third longer, and defendants are spending a higher proportion of those sentences in custody; we have introduced reforms that mean that complainants can pre-record their evidence; we have rolled out over 800 independent sexual violence advisers to support people; we have created the offences of coercive and controlling behaviour and have stood up a 24/7 rape support helpline. All that we do and more.

I can tell hon. Members that compared with when I was prosecuting this stuff, the difference in the experience and the rights of victims of sexual violence is night and day. As I say, complainants now have the right to make pre-recorded evidence; they can have court familiarisation visits; and they have the right to an ISVA, to seek a redetermination in the event that the CPS decides to reduce a charge, and to make a victim personal statement. We do all this because we care passionately about wanting to support victims of sexual offences, and we will continue to do so.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

I strongly welcome the proposal to deport more foreign criminals, and I also support the idea of finding something better than prison for non-violent offenders. Will that include, wherever possible, their need to have a job legally and to pay compensation to those against whom they have committed fraud, theft and other financial crimes?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

My right hon. Friend makes two excellent points. It is worth reflecting on the fact that since 2019, we have deported around 15,000 foreign national offenders. A huge amount of work has taken place, and that will continue, albeit at an even greater pace.

The second point he makes is fundamental. Judges already have the power to impose a compensation order in the event that someone is convicted of a crime, but their ability to do so is determined by the funds that are available to that individual. How much better it is if the individual can go out and do an honest day’s work to generate more income, so that they can, in a small way, put right the crime they have committed and the damage they have done.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the Minister very much for his statement and his comments. I am mindful that this is about England and Wales, but I have been contacted over the past few years by a number of people who have been victims of perpetrators of some of the most bestial crimes in the country. The Government and the Minister have replied to some of the questions I have asked and some of the comments I have made to his Department, but can he tell me today whether those victims will be elevated to a more prominent position, and whether looking after them will be given greater priority? Their feelings—how those crimes have hurt them—must be a priority for Government.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

As is so often the case, the hon, Gentleman is absolutely right. We have to ensure that victims are not spectators in the criminal justice process, but participants in it. That is why we have rolled out the victims code, which contains 12 core entitlements to ensure that victims can be kept updated about the progress of the case and informed about special measures and how they give their evidence, as well as the right to court familiarisation visits, the right to make a victim impact statement and a right of review, as I have indicated. We have also ensured that victims’ funding has been quadrupled since 2010, we have doubled support for rape support centres, and so on. That is over and above creating the new offences to ensure that those victims can get justice. All this we do and more, and we do so because we want to put victims first.

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley

Rape, and child rape in particular, is an abhorrent crime. Ensuring that those perpetrators serve their full sentence in prison will clearly act as a deterrent and reassure the public, but what steps is my right hon. and learned Friend taking to ensure we have the prison places to lock up dangerous rapists and child rapists in particular, so that victims know that those perpetrators are always behind bars?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Those are some of the most appalling crimes, which shatter not just the lives of the victims, but potentially those of so many others, including the victims’ friends and families, and he is absolutely right that we need to make sure there is always sufficient custodial capacity for that to take place. That is why I am announcing today that we will roll out a programme to buy the very locations we need next year, with additional money, to ensure that, well in advance of the prison builds needing to come on line, we have the planning permission in place so that there is the pipeline of places to ensure that justice can be done.

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Labour, Easington

To be fair to the Lord Chancellor, from the length of his answers there is no doubt he is against shorter sentences. [Laughter.]

My question is about overcrowded and understaffed prisons that make rehabilitation almost impossible. Many prisoners now leave jail more criminalised, more traumatised and, indeed, more dangerous than when they first arrived. While the measures outlined today may make a positive impact, the Government must go further. Will the Secretary of State commit to tackling the crisis in prison officer retention by starting with the Prison Officers Association’s key demand to reduce the pension age, which it insists has a massive effect on morale and, therefore, on the retention of prison officers?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I thank the hon. Gentleman. In fairness, that was quite a good joke; it was not bad—

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The hon. Gentleman made some fair points, and I will get back to him.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament

The Lord Chancellor is clearly well on top of this subject, so may I bowl him a couple of googlies? What safeguards will there be to prevent deported foreign criminals from coming back here if they are not imprisoned overseas? Will he be very careful before going down the road of plea bargaining, as in the States, whereby there is a perverse incentive for the innocent to plead guilty because of the huge disparity in the sentences they may receive?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

To take the second point first, I am so pleased to hear my right hon. Friend say that. There are certain things that really are important in our jurisdiction: first, we do not do plea bargaining; secondly, we do not have political appointment of judges; and, thirdly, we have a jury system. These are incredibly important things. We do not talk about them enough in this Chamber, but they are immensely important to our basic freedom. I was delighted to hear that and, yes, he can be sure that we are not going down the road of plea bargaining.

On the point my right hon. Friend makes about ensuring people cannot come back, that is precisely the point. It is not just and it is not sensible to have people costing the taxpayer a huge amount of money in British prisons if, when they are out, they are never coming back anyway. That is central to our plan to ensure that, as we expand the ERS window, we put in place every necessary measure—in compliance or in consultation with our international counterparts—to ensure that once people are out, they are never coming back.

Photo of Liz Saville-Roberts Liz Saville-Roberts Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Women and Equalities) , Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Attorney General)

The second largest prison in Europe is HMP Berwyn in north Wales. As of today, I understand that it houses 1,989 prisoners. Any solution to the well-documented problems of violence at HMP Berwyn since it opened six years ago is continuously undermined by the failure to retain staff because working conditions are so extreme. Will the Secretary of State recognise that warehousing offenders in gargantuan prisons creates chronic problems and is not fit for purpose?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am very glad the right hon. Member has mentioned Berwyn. I went to Berwyn, and she is right that we always want to recruit more prison staff, but let us pause for a second just to note how fantastic some of the work is in that prison. I was there in the jobcentre—in effect, there is a jobcentre within the prison—and people were having Zoom interviews with their potential employers on the outside. That is one of the reasons why reoffending has dropped while we have been in government from 32% to 24%, and it is one of the reasons why crime is down overall. She mentions the 1,900 or so people, but let me say—lest we forget—that the Labour party promised, before it left office, that there would be three Titan prisons with 2,500 people in them. Did they happen? Did they heck.

Hon. Members::


Photo of Greg Smith Greg Smith Conservative, Buckingham

There was a great deal to be welcomed in my right hon. and learned Friend’s statement, but can I unpack the capacity question? When he is successful in deporting more foreign national offenders, that will free up capacity. When he is successful in the home detention curfews and better use of technology, that will free up prison capacity, leaving the spike as the covid backlog is caught up with creating a temporary problem in capacity. Therefore, would it not be better to meet it with the temporary provision of cells in the existing prison estate, rather than going the whole hog and devastating communities such as mine in Grendon Underwood and Edgcott by building mega-prisons?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

May I first put it on the record that no one could be a more doughty defender of the interests of the people of Buckingham than my hon. Friend, who raises with me time and again the concerns of his constituents about Grendon Springhill? I will continue to have those important conversations with him, knowing fine well that his constituents’ interests are being vigorously advanced.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Creative Industries and Digital)

The ministerial code says that all major announcements of Government policy should be made to the House first, yet half of what has been announced today was preluded by an op-ed written by the Secretary of State and in briefings to national newspapers over the weekend. That is a breach of the ministerial code, and when I asked Sir Laurie Magnus, the independent adviser on ministerial interests, whether he would investigate such breaches, he said, “Yes, in theory.” Would it not be a good idea, especially considering that the Secretary of State thinks that short and minor sanctions lead to recidivism, if there was a substantial sanction against Ministers who do that, and he reported himself to the independent adviser?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am afraid that I do not accept that point.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

May I say what a pleasure it was to hear the Lord Chancellor’s statement, which represents a big step forward for our criminal justice system? He and I have long shared the view that we do not lock up the violent for long enough and there are smarter ways of dealing with the non-violent. On that note, I applaud his expansion of the tagging programme. I have two questions. First, on GPS tags, does he intend to expand the acquisitive crime pilot? Currently, in 19 police force areas every burglar and robber released from prison is GPS tagged to reduce reoffending. Secondly, while we are not short of sobriety tags, which he will know I am extremely keen on, the problem is that judges are just not using them, so what steps will he take to expand judicial enthusiasm, given how much alcohol drives low-level crime?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

My right hon. Friend did exceptionally important work in ensuring that the supply and roll-out of alcohol sobriety tags, and indeed other tags, proceeded at huge pace, and they make a significant difference. On his point about uptake, plainly sentences are a matter for the independent judiciary, but I do think that more can be done to ensure that judges and magistrates are aware of the sheer extent of the technology available, and the steps that can be taken to properly curtail people’s freedom in appropriate cases by way of punishment, and to ensure that they have the tags to steer people away from addiction. Ultimately, that can be the best way to ensure that people are properly rehabilitated and become contributing members of society once again.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

The Secretary of State reminds me of the unfortunate astronaut who by mistake is still circling the moon somewhere, out of touch, when he only expected to be up there for three months. Those of us who have been down on planet Earth for the last 13 years know about the resources devoted to the Ministry of Justice, which has faced the worst cuts of any Department. Is he aware that we have been promised a royal commission on justice three times in the Queen’s Speech, which will now be the King’s Speech? Today’s statement was supposed to be an update on prison capacity. He has covered far more than that. Is he aware, for example, that joint enterprise is responsible for 1,000 young people who should not be in prison being in prison? Why can he not wake up and do something about them?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I know that the hon. Gentleman cares passionately about joint enterprise, but I must tell him this: joint enterprise is the legal doctrine that means that the getaway driver is culpable, or that the person who supplies the firearm in a murder is held properly accountable and found guilty. Those are important tools that the Court of Appeal considered carefully in the case of Jogee. Getting rid of joint enterprise would mean that a lot of people who have helped or encouraged the commission of offences get away—in some cases, with murder.

Photo of Danny Kruger Danny Kruger Conservative, Devizes

I declare an interest as the founder and chairman of a charity that works in prisons. I very much support today’s announcement of an expansion of prison capacity and tagging, both of which are necessary and right. I understand that the Lord Chancellor was inspired by Texas prisons. I visited some Texan jails and saw that they are doing two things right. The first is sentencing, with tough justice ensuring that people get the sentences that they deserve. The second thing that they are doing in Texas to reduce the jail population is getting rehabilitation right and, crucially, relying on civil society—outside organisations get access to prisoners before they are released and then support them afterwards. I think that the Government are getting it right on sentencing, but does the Lord Chancellor agree that we need to do more on rehabilitation, particularly by involving civil society?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

My hon. Friend is completely correct. We in this Chamber all know that the context for offending—not an excuse, but the context—can be deep-seated problems of addiction, homelessness, relationship breakdown and so on. One thing I am pleased about is that the Department of Health and Social Care is investing over half a billion pounds, with more than 1,600 additional staff, to ensure that drug treatment is available to those who need it. For our part, we in the Ministry of Justice have launched a pilot of three intensive supervision courts in the Teesside and Liverpool Crown courts to ensure that those whose offending behaviour is driven by substance misuse can get the treatment they need to get them off drugs and off the driver of their offences.

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Exchequer Secretary (Treasury)

As my constituents have pointed out to me, there is a shoplifting epidemic under the Conservative Government. The police often do not deal with burglaries and other such crimes because of a lack of resources. Conviction rates for rape and sexual violence are at record lows. Now that our prisons are full, the Government propose to release prisoners early or try to ship them abroad. That is all because of a lack of foresight and action. Why are the Government so weak on law and order, and when were they first warned about a crisis and a lack of places in prisons?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

There are more people in prison than ever before, which rather suggests the opposite of what the hon. Gentleman says. He also says that the conviction rate for rape is lower, but that is completely wrong—it is higher. Does he know who was Director of Public Prosecutions before? The Leader of the Opposition.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Conservative, Eddisbury

Despite resulting in lower reconviction rates, the use of community orders has halved in the last decade, so will today’s announcement start to reverse that trend? In trying to do so, will my right hon. and learned Friend consider increasing the use of pre-sentence reports and speeding up the roll-out of community sentence orders where we are trying to get people treated?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

That is an excellent question. In appropriate cases, pre-sentence reports are vital because the probation service can provide the sentencing judge or magistrate with all the surrounding information about the offender so that they can impose a sentence that meets the seriousness of the case while also being rehabilitative and appropriate. That requires trained probation officers who are experts in their area. That is why we have invested £155 million in addition, each and every year, to ensure that the probation service has the resource it needs. I know from my time as a practitioner that the reports the probation service provides are essential to ensure that justice can be done.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Labour, Warrington North

The Times reports that

“Lord Justice Edis, the senior presiding judge for England and Wales, has ordered that sentencing of convicted criminals who are currently on bail should be delayed” from today. According to that report, the order did not specifically exclude rape convictions, which judges have expressed alarm about, given the already abysmal conviction rates of well below 2%. What message does the Secretary of State think such an order sends to victims of sexual violence who are deciding whether they have enough faith in our broken justice system to come forward? When do the Government expect sentencing to restart?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

It is incredibly important that no one from this Chamber deliberately or inadvertently gives the impression that rapists are not going to be sentenced. They are going to be sentenced; the sentences imposed will be, on average, a third longer than those imposed in 2010; and they will serve a higher proportion of those sentences in custody. We are prosecuting more people for rape than in 2010 and, as I say, they are being punished more severely, so let the message go out that people who offend against women—and it is overwhelmingly against women—and behave in such a barbaric way can expect not just to hear the clang of the prison gate, but to be reflecting on their actions for a very long time.

Photo of James Daly James Daly Conservative, Bury North

Will my right hon. and learned Friend give the House a guarantee that judges or magistrates will retain the discretion to impose short-term custodial sentences in the interests of public justice and public protection? In the circumstances, does he foresee a change to the sentencing guidelines for the raft of offences covered by the 12-month sentencing threshold? Does he foresee that all such offences will now be sentenced according to the one test he has outlined?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

My hon. Friend has been a practitioner in the courts, so he understands, as all practitioners do, that there are offenders who, I am afraid, show themselves unwilling to abide by the order of the court, or incapable of doing so, and even if the court is prepared to say, “There should be a suspended sentence in your case,” they will breach it. In those circumstances, magistrates and judges must have the power, in the final analysis, to send that person to immediate custody. We will always ensure that they have that power. That is important for the rule of law and to send the message that there will be consequences if a person flouts an order of the court.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Employment Rights and Protections)

I want to ask about licence conditions, and particularly those that prohibit the offender from contacting certain people or entering certain postcodes. It is obvious that such conditions are about protecting victims and their families. My concern is that the Lord Chancellor’s statement did not make it absolutely clear that breaching such conditions will lead to a return to custody. It is important for victims to hear that those kinds of transgressions will result in an immediate return to custody.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful and appropriate query on behalf of his constituents. In any case, before an individual falls to be released under the sentence that has been applied—in other words, when they get to the end of the custodial element of their sentence—probation officers will sort out, in advance, the package of licence conditions, which could include, as the hon. Gentleman indicated, instructions not to contact someone directly or indirectly, a residence condition, or a condition on contact with probation officers and so on. The point is that if they breach those conditions, they are liable to be recalled and—here is the important point—not just for the period of that release but for the entire balance of their sentence. In other words, if somebody was sentenced to 18 months and fell to be released at the nine-month mark, but a week later they breached the probation conditions, they would fall to serve the entire balance of the sentence of nine months. That is important. Metaphorically speaking, that sword of Damocles is hanging over that offender to ensure that they stay in line and do not commit further offences.

Photo of Nicholas Fletcher Nicholas Fletcher Conservative, Don Valley

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his statement. I believe in zero tolerance and long sentences for the most serious crimes, but I also believe in prevention rather than cure. With 96% of the prison population being men and many young boys destined to spend their lives in and out of prison, will the Lord Chancellor use his position in Cabinet to work with his colleagues on reducing the number of boys who are on that path? Will he also back my campaign for a Minister for men? We are letting boys and young men down and it simply is not fair on men or women, or on the taxpayer as a whole.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we want to ensure that all prisoners, and certainly young men, are steered away from crime. We now have a much better understanding, as a nation, of some of the drivers of some offending. That is why, under our watch, when prisoners come into jail there will be a neurodiversity assessment to explore their background. We could potentially discover a brain injury—Sir Chris Bryant has gone, but I know that he takes an interest in that subject. The whole approach we are now taking is to ensure that those who can be redeemed are redeemed, but that those who are frankly beyond redemption and are a threat to society are locked up, and locked up for longer. That is the right approach.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Solicitor General

In a parallel Government universe, the Secretary of State’s proposals for directing short-term prisoners into community sentences might be an idea whose time had come, but it requires experienced probation staff in post, properly organised and challenging community work, and genuine rehabilitation initiatives. His Government’s evisceration of the justice system means that none of that is available, and he is doing it now only because of their mismanagement of the about-to-burst prison estate. Has he not been set up to fail?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

No, that is wrong. The first part—that this is an idea whose time has come—is correct. I spoke about this when I was a Back Bencher in a speech at the Conservative party conference, of all places. I have come to this as a realisation for some time. What is encouraging is that the Government are putting enormous additional resource into the probation service, because I reckon that it is ultimately critical to the success of community orders; it does a phenomenal job. We are putting more resources in and recruiting more, and we will do everything we can to strengthen the system.

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Conservative, Warrington South

My right hon. and learned Friend knows that magistrates think carefully before they commit anybody to custody, because they know that once somebody is sent to prison for a short sentence, their life can spiral downwards very quickly: they can lose their home, their job and, often, their family. Does he agree that more robust community sentences are needed, particularly in relation to drug rehabilitation, which is the root cause of so much offending? Will he set out what steps he is taking to ensure that those on community sentences are suitably supervised?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. His observation that magistrates do all they can to avoid sending someone to custody and do so only when absolutely necessary was well made. The reason why this reform will be so important is that under a suspended sentence order, the magistrates are saying in effect to that individual, “You must engage in a sensible and productive way with drug rehabilitation. If you don’t, you will go to prison.” That provides the most powerful incentive for that individual to break the cycle of offending while not locking them up, which, as my hon. Friend indicated, would mean they could lose their universal credit, not get the mental health treatment they require and break the family relationships that can be so important to keeping people away from crime.

Photo of Mary Foy Mary Foy Labour, City of Durham

Four years ago, the Secretary of State’s Department announced limits on short-term sentencing, which were then scrapped, and now they are back. That is four years wasted; years when Ministers sat on their hands, ignoring a crisis of their own making. Meanwhile, prison officers have had to deal with the consequences of health and safety concerns, overcrowding and violence, all undercut by low pay and poor terms and conditions. Will he apologise to prison officers—especially those in the City of Durham—and will he lower the retirement age?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Prison officers in the City of Durham and elsewhere do an exceptionally important job. That is why I was pleased to accept the recommendation of the independent pay review body to ensure that the pay uplift was fair and decent, and recognised the stunningly important work that they do. That is why we have rolled out £100 million in prison security to ensure that prison officers have body-worn video cameras and other security measures to keep them safe. We will always do everything we can—whether with recruitment, pay or helping to drive retention—to keep prison officers safe and our prisons well resourced with prison officers.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that I have been notified that HMP Wealstun in my constituency will get new cells. Will he write to me on when those will be completed by and what conversations he has had with the governor on being able to staff them to capacity? Many of the prison officers are constituents of mine.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I thank my right hon. Friend for the care and attention he takes in respect of this matter. I will be delighted to write to him in the terms he suggests.

Photo of Kate Osamor Kate Osamor Labour/Co-operative, Edmonton

Earlier this year, I secured a Westminster Hall debate on the criminalisation of ethnic minority and migrant women who are themselves victims of violence. Sadly, 57% of women in prison or under community supervision are victims of domestic violence—a shocking statistic. Will the Lord Chancellor commit to amending the Victims and Prisoners Bill to ensure statutory defences for those victims of domestic violence accused of offending, to prevent more unjust convictions?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I thank the hon. Lady for the care and attention she gives to this topic. It is worth reflecting that around 5% of the overall prison population are women, so it is overwhelmingly men who are in custody. On the point she raises, she will be aware that there are already defences available—duress, self-defence and so on—that can be invoked by individuals facing charges. We think that strikes the right balance, but I am of course happy to have a conversation with her about any representation she might wish to make.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Conservative, Chelmsford

A rapist should be prosecuted, they should be sentenced and they should serve that sentence, and I thank the Lord Chancellor for making that very clear today. In Chelmsford we have a small number of people who have been charged with antisocial behaviour, a low-level crime, and are waiting to go to the magistrates court, but they are causing havoc on our high streets as they reoffend. Can he assure us that those persistent offenders will still be judged? I know that, as an Essex MP, Madam Deputy Speaker, who was here earlier, will have wanted to know about the situation in our local prison at Chelmsford: there were 708 prisoners there last night, so only 15 empty spaces, but there are 27 cells that could be repaired. Could the Lord Chancellor possibly look into repairing those cells?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

On that last point, we have put a great deal of funding into the maintenance of Chelmsford prison, but also HMP Liverpool and Birmingham in particular. On the first point my right hon. Friend raises, about recidivist offenders, it is precisely because we are concerned about people committing so-called low-level offending that we want to ensure that magistrates retain the power to send people to prison. If people show defiance and that they are incapable or unwilling to abide by the terms of the order of the court, there is a simple answer: they will go to prison and they will learn to reflect on their actions in custody.

Photo of Karl Turner Karl Turner Labour, Kingston upon Hull East

I welcome some of what the Justice Secretary said in his statement, especially on the implementation of the recommendations of the Justice Committee on IPP sentences. They were always a terrible idea, in my view, and they have been used badly. However, it should not be a surprise to anybody that, after 13 years of deliberate and savage underfunding, the criminal justice system is on its knees and our prisons are full to bursting. If it is right that the senior presiding judge, Lord Justice Edis, is saying to sentencing judges, “Adjourn sentence,” is that his fault, or is it the Justice Secretary’s fault?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, on IPPs, was absolutely right, and I am delighted to hear that he agrees. However, he is making a bad political point on the second matter, and it is not borne out by the arithmetic. In 2010 the total number of cases was around 48,000—he is shaking his head; we can argue about opinion, but this is fact. The position prior to the pandemic was around 40,000. The position we have at present is a function of that pandemic, and we are frank about that. That is why we are taking steps not just to increase the number of judges—we have recruited an additional 1,000—but putting up to £141 million into legal aid, something he should support. We will do everything we can to expand capacity in the system to ensure that we can deliver justice for all.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s statement and his focus on protecting the public. He mentioned that we are changing the law to make whole life sentences the default for the most heinous types of murder. He will be aware that one of the cases that led to that change in the law was the release by the parole board of the “monster of Worcester”, David McGreavy, a multiple child murderer. Unfortunately, last week, Worcester Crown court saw the sentencing of another monster of Worcester, Anthony Roberts, for a savage sexual assault on a 71-year-old woman. He had previously been sentenced to life for attempted murder of a 15-year-old girl. Will my right hon. and learned Friend meet me to hear the concerns of my constituents about this appalling case and about the case to be made for attempted murder, aggravated by sexual assault, to be treated alongside those heinous murders?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Of course I will—what an appalling case. I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend. On the changes to whole life orders that we have introduced following the dreadful Sarah Everard case, where there was sexual violence followed by murder, it is in such cases that we insist, as a matter of fairness and basic natural justice, that someone who behaves in that way should expect to end their days in custody. That is what the British people think, and that is what we think too.

Photo of Tahir Ali Tahir Ali Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

My constituents are increasingly victims of the scourge of dangerous and antisocial driving. They have contacted me demanding tougher penalties for those who cause death by dangerous driving. I welcome the Lord Chancellor’s statement that sentences have been increased for offences including death by dangerous driving to a maximum of life imprisonment. Will he confirm that prison capacity is not an obstacle to ensuring that dangerous drivers serve the prison time they deserve?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. Dangerous driving shatters lives and families, which is why we thought it was right, in recognition of the sheer harm that it causes, that the maximum sentence should go from 14 years to life. I make the point, gently, that we would have welcomed support from the Opposition, which unfortunately we did not get. Notwithstanding the point that he raised, it is important for independent judges to decide on the facts of the case. We welcome the fact that the Sentencing Council is in place to impose guidelines to ensure that judges have everything they need to ensure consistency but also condign punishment.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Conservative, Bournemouth East

I welcome the Lord Chancellor’s statement today, and I congratulate him on clearly being on top of a difficult brief, and on confirming today that those serious and violent criminals are being locked up for longer. Could he expand on the reoffending rates of those on short sentences versus community sentences? Does he believe that the general public—and victims, potentially—might support them, because those convicted are seen as doing good when they complete their community service in public?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I thank my right hon. Friend for getting absolutely to the heart of it. Those who are sentenced to short custodial sentences—under 12 months—statistically go on to reoffend 55% of the time. Yet for those who have suspended sentence orders with conditions—such as unpaid work or to address mental health issues or whatever—22% commit further offences. There is a massive reduction. We want to ensure that once people have served their sentences and atoned for the crime they have committed, they can go on to become law-abiding, contributing members of society.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

Last man standing, Mr Deputy Speaker. No early release for me. The Secretary of State’s statement would be all the more impressive had it not come after 13 years of continuous Conservative Governments. They promised to create 20,000 extra places by the mid-2020s, but we have seen a net increase of 300. We have lost some places to dilapidation, and those that have replaced them amount to a net increase of only 300. Only a few weeks ago, we were told that the Government were implacably opposed to early release. I take it that he has dropped his idea of buying places in foreign prisons. The truth is that the management of the system has been completely chaotic for 13 years. When will we see the increase in prison places that the Government have been talking about?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The first thing to say is that our prison programme is the largest since the Victorian era—20,000 places. If I may say so, that stands in stark contrast to Labour. Jack Straw stood at this Dispatch Box and said, “We will build three titan prisons, each one of them 2,500”. Did it happen? No, it did not. This is the party that has put the money behind it. In fact, it was this Prime Minister, as Chancellor, who did that. We are rolling them out. By the way, I will make no apology for taking offline old and inadequate accommodation and replacing it with modern, secure, decent prisons. That is something the hon. Gentleman should welcome.

Photo of Jackie Doyle-Price Jackie Doyle-Price Conservative, Thurrock

My right hon. Friend will be well aware that people who have been through the care system are overrepresented in our prisons, as are people with neurodiverse conditions, as he has mentioned, and many existing victims of crime and abuse. It is a mark of a civilised society that when those people first touch the criminal justice system, we take the opportunity to support them to make them functioning members of society, not simply lock them up and throw away the key. We have heard all that across the Chamber, but that message does not survive the retail nature of our politics. Will he assure me that the Government will continue to walk the walk and talk the talk on those messages?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

More than many people in this place, my hon. Friend combines compassion with clarity of thought. She absolutely demonstrated that. It is incumbent on all of us to advocate for basic fairness and decency and what works, and I can think of no more powerful advocate than my hon. Friend.

Photo of Lee Anderson Lee Anderson Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

I welcome the Lord Chancellor’s statement that foreign criminals—who, by the way, cost the taxpayer an absolute fortune—will be taken out of their comfy cell, put on a plane and sent back to where they came from. What assurances can he give me that those planes will actually take off the tarmac and not be blocked by lefty lawyers, human rights campaigners and silly letters signed by that lot over there?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

As always, my hon. Friend makes a robust point. It is not right that the British people, having suffered the crime in the first place, should then have to pay for the privilege of locking people up for longer at a cost of £47,000 a year. We will send them back. The only people who will try to block it—who will try to block rapists, murderers and grievous bodily harmers—will be the Labour party. And we know that because they have tried to do so already.

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill

May I thank the Lord Chancellor for his pragmatic statement? I also thank the prisons Minister for his engagement over the weekend. I really welcome progress with IPP sentencing, on which I have a clear constituency interest, but what I really want to ask about is custodial sentences of less than 12 months being suspended. Is there a presumption that those needing to pay a debt to the community will do so in the very communities in which they offend?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

What an excellent point to end on. It is critical that where a community is offended against, the offenders make that community whole—in other words, that they do the work, whether it is scrubbing graffiti, clearing wasteland or planting trees, in the community to try to atone for their guilt and to repair some of the damage they have done. I am delighted that, increasingly, police and crime commissioners are working together with local probation services to identify the stuff that needs doing in their community so that when defendants go straight, they also look after the community that they have wronged so badly in the first place.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means), Chair, Restoration and Renewal Programme Board Committee, Chair, Restoration and Renewal Programme Board Committee

I thank the Lord Chancellor for his statement and for answering questions for just a minute short of one hour and 20 minutes.

Before we move on to the next statement on transport, may I make an announcement? Wendy Morton is pulling the debate on knife crime this evening. We have another two statements to go, which could easily take us to 8.30 or 9 o’clock. I think she has sensibly made the decision that we should have that debate at another time, and I hope that that can be facilitated as soon as possible.