Prisons

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:51 pm on 24 October 2023.

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Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Shadow Minister (International Trade), Shadow Minister (Justice) 2:51, 24 October 2023

I thank the Minister for his speech, and for a valiant attempt to defend 13 years of failure, not just within our prisons but across the wider criminal justice system. The Opposition will be supporting this order—the change to the timing of release for foreign national offenders—because the Government have got themselves into a mess and, once again, it is the job of the Opposition to help them get out of that mess. We will be supporting this change because we are a responsible party, and because we know that the crisis in our prisons needs to be addressed. The order is a necessary measure to tackle the overcrowding crisis in our prison estate. However, I want to make it clear that it is a half-baked measure, cooked up in a panic in the Department. It is a change that has neither been consulted on nor planned, one that comes as part of a quick rush to address the overcrowding crisis—a crisis that has been long coming, but I will get on to that later.

Mr Deputy Speaker, we are both old enough to know that this is a theme under Conservative Governments. I recall that, back in the 1990s, prisons were so poor that prisoners were escaping with ease—the Conservatives are in such dire straits that they have begun recycling their scandals. It is no wonder that the public, having been through this, know what failure looks like. That is what we are confronted with today: a failure to protect the public, a failure to protect victims, and a failure by the Government to ensure that our prisons have enough space.

I will cover three areas in my remarks: the lack of planning around our prison population, the implementation of this new programme, and the wider issues around victims. Let us first look at the lack of planning. The overcrowding crisis in our prisons has been looming for years, with the National Audit Office, the Justice Select Committee and the Chief Inspector of Prisons all having warned the Government about it. In 2020, the Government were told specifically by the National Audit Office that they were unlikely to be able to build the 20,000 prison places they promised by the mid-2020s on time, yet the Government ignored that warning. I guess those 20,000 prison places are in the same place in the sky as the 40 new hospitals and 50,000 new nurses.

Back in 2016, the then Conservative Prime Minister said of the Prison Service that

“the failure of our system today is scandalous”.

If it was scandalous in 2016, I am not sure what word we would need to use now—perhaps something rather unparliamentary. When asked about this failure, the Government and the Ministry of Justice will point to the new prison places they promised, yet only around 25% of those places have been delivered. Plans for new prisons have been delayed and I understand from a report in The Guardian that one MOJ official said that badgers—yes, badgers—were to blame for a delay in building a new prison. The crisis has got so bad that the Government have been forced to use police cells as alternatives to prison places.

We should also remember that this is not the first time that the Government have made promises about the removal of foreign national offenders. Back in 2015, the then Prime Minister, the former Member for Witney, spent £25 million to help Jamaica build a new prison—of course, like a lot of the promises he made, it fell through. Successive Conservative Governments have made promise after promise on foreign national prisoners, and those promises have fallen through every time. This is not even the first time that this policy has been looked at: we saw changes regarding foreign nationals in recent legislation, and the Government considered changes to the early removal scheme last year.