Arrests and Prison Capacity

– in the House of Commons at on 22 May 2024.

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12.39 pm

Photo of Yvette Cooper Yvette Cooper Shadow Secretary of State for the Home Department

(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary to make a statement on the impact on public safety of the request to chief constables to reduce arrests in response to the prison capacity crisis.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department

I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk about public safety, about the record number of police officers in this country—3,000 more than under the last Labour Government—and about the fact that according to the crime survey there is less than half the crime today than there was under the last Labour Government. There were 620 homicides in the last year of the last Labour Government, compared with 577 in the last year. I am delighted to talk about all those excellent criminal justice results.

I believe this urgent question was prompted by a letter circulated about a week ago by Chief Constable Rob Nixon in his capacity as criminal justice lead for the National Police Chiefs’ Council, in which he referred to short-term prison place pressures over a period of eight days expiring tomorrow. I have spoken to Chief Constable Rob Nixon in the last half an hour and he has confirmed to me that the contingencies referred to in the letter were not required. He said the contingencies were not required because the prison place situation in practice did not merit it; he said there have been no delays to arrests that he is aware of; and he has said that while a small number of people were conveyed to court in police cars and there was a small number of delays to arrival at court, no one who should have got to court did not do so. I am delighted to confirm to the House that the contingencies referenced in the letter did not materialise, and that the short-term fluctuation referenced in the letter will be over tomorrow.

Photo of Yvette Cooper Yvette Cooper Shadow Secretary of State for the Home Department

I have to say that the Minister’s response is shocking: telling people they have never had it so good when faced with this crisis in the criminal justice system shows just how out of touch he is. The state of crisis in the criminal justice system after 14 years of Conservative Government is now so dire that police chiefs were asked to arrest fewer people because the system could not cope. At the Operation Safeguard silver update they were asked to consider pausing any planned operations where large numbers of arrests might take place to ease the pressure within the criminal justice system—because this Tory Government, in power for 14 years, had so catastrophically failed to manage the criminal justice system or build the basic prison places promised.

Last week alone there were 280 prisoners in police cells overnight; we have got early release, massively expanded, starting tomorrow, including for domestic abusers; and now this serious impact on public safety of Operation Early Dawn telling the prisoner escort service not to collect prisoners from police stations to take them to court because there are not enough places, with police forces having to pick up the pieces instead. The NPCC said in its letter in the strongest terms that that is unsustainable and that it risks public safety.

Will the Minister tell us what assessment he did when these letters went out, and when the crisis reached this point, of the scale of the challenge? Who, in these circumstances, does he think it is acceptable not to send to court because of his Government’s abject failure on law and order? Violent criminals? Domestic abusers? Repeat shoplifters? And which big operations involving lots of arrests does he think should be paused in these situations? Crackdowns on drugs rings or grooming gangs? Swoops on people smugglers? And when should they be paused until?

Where is the Government plan? Arrests have already halved since the Tories came to power, and charge rates have already dropped through the floor. The legacy of 14 years of Tory government on law and order is more criminals let off, more victims let down. Britain deserves better.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department

The right hon. Lady likes to pontificate in an animated fashion, but the fact is that, according to the crime survey, crime has halved since the Government of which she was a part left office. She feigns indignation about the early custody release scheme, but she forgot to mention that, under the last Labour Government, it ran for three years and saw 80,000 people released early.

The right hon. Lady referenced the letter from last week. I have a message here from Chief Constable Rob Nixon, sent to me about 45 minutes ago, updating me on the actual situation, so let me just read out to the House what it says. The National Police Chiefs’ Council criminal justice lead said: “There have been no delays to arrests.” He said there have been some minor delays in getting people to court, but everyone who needed to got there. A small number were conveyed by police, but there was limited operational impact. He says: “There has been no compromise to public safety, and the contingency of delaying arrests was not activated as it was not necessary.” That is from the National Police Chiefs’ Council, sent 45 minutes ago. Those are the facts, and I suggest the right hon. Lady sticks to them. [Interruption.]

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

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this important debate, which touches upon not only public safety but the whole way in which our justice system operates, is best dealt with in a calm fashion? It is perfectly reasonable to adopt contingency measures, which we hope are often not needed, but the most important thing is to ensure that all parties in this House commit to a consistent and sustained investment in all aspects of the criminal justice system, because we cannot decouple policing from the courts, prisons and the whole of the process. That is the sensible debate that the country needs to have.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department

My hon. and learned Friend, as always, puts it very well. He is quite right that investment is important. That is why there are record numbers of police officers. It is why 20,000 prison places are in the course of being constructed, 5,900 of which are currently operational and 10,000 of which will be operational by the end of next year. It is why more money is being put into the Crown Prosecution Service. It is why my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor, who is here on the Front Bench, is ensuring that legal aid is properly resourced, as is the criminal Bar. Those are all extremely important initiatives to ensure that the public are protected. The ultimate measure of public protection, of course, is the overall level of criminality, which, as I have said once or twice before, has halved since the Labour party left office.

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

Obviously, public safety is paramount in all of this, and I do want to say to the Minister that the fact that contingency plans were being drawn up is itself worrying. I accept what the Chair of the Justice Committee, Sir Robert Neill, says about this being a sensible step to take, but it is indeed very worrying that we have to have contingencies in place. If in the future these contingency plans are activated, what happens if the police decide not to prioritise an arrest and in the meantime that person goes on to harm someone? I am thinking of non-contact sexual offences and, in particular, retail crime, which the Home Affairs Committee has been looking at recently.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department

The right hon. Lady is right to say that arrests of offenders of the kinds she describes are extremely important, and at no point would I ever expect, even in the contingency outlined—in fact, it never came to pass, as I have set out—that offenders of the kinds she references would not continue to be arrested. That is critically important. The ECSL 70 measure—end of custody supervised licence for up to 70 days—which comes into effect tomorrow, is designed to ensure that such scenarios never come about, because as Policing Minister I want to make sure that we never see the situation she describes.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Will my right hon. Friend accept that the action by the leader of the National Police Chiefs’ Council is against the separation of powers principles? We make the law in this House, and we expect it to be implemented and administered without fear or favour. What seems to be happening is that unelected chiefs, such as the NPCC leader, are interfering with the administration of justice. Does my right hon. Friend agree that things would be a lot better if the Criminal Justice Board had not failed to meet for two years, which is apparently what has happened? Will he accept that we need to start putting things right? The Times today describes it as a failure of administration.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department

I am happy to confirm that the Criminal Justice Board, chaired by my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor, meets very frequently. Indeed, I attended its most recent meeting just three or four weeks ago—with the Lord Chancellor, other Ministers, police leads, senior members of the judiciary and the Crown Prosecution Service, and many others—so I can categorically confirm that it does exist and it meets regularly.

On my hon. Friend’s question about the police, the police are rightly operationally independent. It is not for Ministers to direct how they discharge their duties; they discharge their duties appropriately with their professional standards and professional judgment, and we support them in doing so. Operational independence for the police is important, as I am sure everyone on both sides of the House respects.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice)

It is obvious from the Minister’s demeanour that he does not like to be called to account, but he should reflect on the fact that the mere fact such a letter was written, and in the circumstances in which it was written, is a cause for concern, which he should be taking seriously. It is symptomatic of a wider malaise in the English and Welsh criminal justice system. Last year, 215,933 burglaries went unsolved across England and Wales—an average of 592 a day. Is that not something the Minister should be addressing, rather than getting a little bit worked up with the shadow Home Secretary?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department

I may have got worked up, because the allegations being made were, in my view, unfounded and unsupported by the facts. I was simply trying to put across the facts—both the numbers and also the quotes from the relevant policing lead—which flatly contradicted the dystopian picture that the shadow Home Secretary, characteristically, was seeking to paint. To answer the right hon. Gentleman’s question, we of course take such matters seriously. The Lord Chancellor is working night and day to increase prison capacity, both by building new prisons expeditiously and by pulling every lever at his disposal to build more capacity within the existing estate. The prisons are pretty full because the police have done a good job at identifying, catching and incarcerating dangerous criminals. A thoughtful approach, of the kind called for by the Chair of the Justice Committee, my hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Neill, has been taken. That is why, with the implementation of the end of custody supervised licence tomorrow, the issues and contingencies provided for in the letter of last week will no longer be required. It was an eight-day period and, thankfully, those contingencies were not in fact required.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay

It is reassuring to hear from the Minister that the contingencies were not required, but also interesting to see that the letter was actually issued. Given his reactions here today to that, what process has he put in place to ensure that he is consulted before any such instructions or suggestions are issued?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department

As a former Home Office Minister, my hon. Friend has a great deal of experience in this area. The police are operationally independent, but we liaise closely with them and the National Police Chiefs’ Council. I have regular discussions with Gavin Stephens, who chairs the NPCC, and, in relation to this matter, with Chief Constable Rob Nixon, who is the criminal justice lead, and with Deputy Chief Constable Nev Kemp of Surrey, who is the lead for custody. I will take this opportunity to place on the record my thanks to police up and down the country for their careful management over the past seven days, which has ensured that our fellow citizens have been kept safe.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

North Yorkshire and West Yorkshire police have just arrested 62 people in a county lines operation. They seized swords, a machete and a crossbow, and took 3 kg of cannabis, crack cocaine and heroin off the streets, alongside the misery and violence that characterises county lines gangs. I am so grateful to them for that work, but are the Government suggesting that they should have allowed it to continue until further notice under these contingency plans, all because the Government have so mismanaged the criminal justice system and the collapse in prison places?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department

First, prison places have not collapsed; I think there are more prison places now than in the recent past. I congratulate North Yorkshire and West Yorkshire police on that operation, which the hon. Lady said led to 62 arrests of dangerous criminals. As I have said, none of the contingencies referenced were activated, and there was never any question of dangerous criminals of that kind not being arrested. That is exactly the kind of operation we like to see. I am speaking from memory, but I think we have closed down something like 6,000 county lines in the past four years. I am delighted to see such operations successfully putting dangerous criminals where they belong: behind bars.

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland

I am glad to hear that the contingency contained in the letter was not required. We can tell how tough this Government are being on crime and criminals by the very heavy population in our prison estate. The long-term solution is to build more prisons. Can the Minister update us on when he estimates the prison building programme will catch up with the prison population?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department

The Justice Secretary and the Prisons Minister, my right hon. Friend Edward Argar, who is also here, are building prison capacity rapidly. By the end of next year they will have added 10,000 prison places, including at sites such as HMP Millsike, which will be open shortly. We are embarking on a huge prison construction programme, which is on top of the fact that we already have record numbers of prison places. The fact that we have filled those up with criminals, serving typically longer sentences, is testament to the successful approach to law and order that this Government have taken.

Photo of Florence Eshalomi Florence Eshalomi Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Last Friday I attended a community meeting in my constituency with a group of residents, our local safer neighbourhood team and some of our elected councillors. It was in response to a fatal shooting of a young 26-year-old. The residents spoke about having the reassurance of knowing that the suspect had already been arrested, thanks to the work of the local police. What is the Minister’s message to my constituents, and many others across the country, where suspects will now not be arrested as a result of this guidance?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department

First, I pay tribute to the hon. Lady’s local police for the work they have done. I gently refer her to my previous answers: there have been no arrests that ought to have taken place but did not as a result of this contingency. The way she framed her question completely ignored the answers I have previously given. The contingencies referred to in the letter were not in fact required, so her constituents and everybody else’s can be assured that the police are continuing to do their job of arresting dangerous criminals.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

I thank my right hon. Friend for the update to the House. In London we have the challenge of the Metropolitan police failing to meet their recruitment targets. The police are under incredible pressure at weekends, policing hate marches and other demonstrations in central London. Police are being drawn in from outside London to carry that out. Now that the mayoral election is over, what action is my right hon. Friend taking with the Mayor of London to ensure that the Met police meet their recruitment targets, and that the police are trained properly and can get on with the job of catching criminals?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department

My hon. Friend is right to raise the question of police numbers in London. Whereas across England and Wales as a whole we have record police numbers and 42 of the 43 police forces met their recruitment target, there was one that did not: the Metropolitan police under Sadiq Khan. In fact, its numbers unfortunately have shrunk in the past year, rather than grown. I therefore attended the police performance oversight group, which is the special measures group chaired by the chief inspector, just a few days ago, attended by the commissioner and the deputy Mayor, Sophie Linden. Unfortunately, Sadiq Khan did not see fit to show up to that meeting. One of the points I made forcefully was the importance of growing police numbers in London. It is the only force in the country to miss its target, and that must be turned around.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

Let me get this right: the Government are boasting that they appointed 20,000 extra policemen and women to prevent crime and protect the public; criminals create and undertake crime; and an instruction is given to the police not to arrest them because the prisons are full. The Government’s defence is, “It’s all right; the instruction was never acted upon.” Can the public have any confidence, if it is possible for the police to give instructions today, and maybe again next week, not to arrest criminals? Can we really believe that crime is being taken seriously in this country?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department

Crime is taken very seriously, which why it has fallen by 6% in the past year and 55% since 2010. The right hon. Gentleman referred to a period of just eight days when a contingency was considered but not used. The Lord Chancellor, rightly and in a thoughtful and measured manner, has taken steps that will take effect tomorrow to ensure that such a contingency is not required in future. That is a responsible way of handling the situation.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Labour, Birmingham, Yardley

The Minister has stood in front of us today and said, “It would never be any of the kind of crimes you’re talking about.” The Prime Minister said last week at Prime Minister’s questions:

“No one would be put on the scheme”— the early release scheme—

“if they were deemed a threat to public safety.”—[Official Report, 15 May 2024;
Vol. 750, c. 249.]

The Minister is basically saying the same today, yet my inbox is full of cases of where perpetrators of domestic violence, rape, sexual violence and child abuse against multiple victims are being released early from prison. Does he think that someone who has raped someone, gone to prison, come out and done it again is not deemed a threat to the public?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department

I can answer the hon. Lady’s question specifically: the early release scheme that the Lord Chancellor established expressly excludes serious violence and sexual offenders, including rapists. There is an additional safeguard, which did not exist in the previous Labour Government’s equivalent scheme: a governor’s veto of early release if they believe there is a threat to public safety.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

I am glad that the Minister has brought the Lord Chancellor and the Prisons Minister with him, as they can explain how 70-day early release—Operation Early Dawn—means that criminals either will not be locked up or are being let out early. Is the truth not that he is presiding over operational failures in policing, the courts and the prison system, and is responding to them with ad hoc panic measures?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department

The police are successfully reducing crime, for which I thank them. In the last calendar year—the most recent year for which figures are available—there were 30,000 more successful outcomes, which typically means a prosecution, than the previous year. The courts and prisons systems in England and Wales—as in Scotland and around the world—are under pressure, candidly speaking, largely as a result of the post-covid environment and delays that built up in the system during covid, which have not yet cleared. That is not unique to this jurisdiction. Those people released according to the criteria that I mentioned are closely supervised under licence, and subject to recall should they breach that licence.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

My constituent Johnny Wood’s sister Jackie was tragically killed by four men driving a stolen lorry in 2018. They were convicted of dangerous driving, but one of them has been released from prison, having served only half his sentence—just five years. He is reported to have broken his banning order from the local area while under supervision from the Probation Service. Johnny and his family have been let down by every part of the system over the last six years. What is the Minister’s message to Johnny, and what specifically can he do to help in this case?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department

I have every sympathy for victims such as the hon. Lady’s constituent, and the truly tragic case that she outlines. If she would like me to look into particular policing aspects of that case, I would be happy to help. If it is a prisons, probation or sentencing-related issue, my right hon. Friends from the Ministry of Justice stand ready to help her and her constituent.

In relation to automatic release on to licence, under the last Labour Government all offenders ended up getting automatically released at the halfway point. This Government have substantially reduced that, including for offences such as rape. I recall in a Bill Committee a couple of years ago that Labour MPs voted against a measure to keep rapists in prison for longer.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Science, Research and Innovation)

Over the weekend I was almost in tears reading a letter from a local primary school of an account of one of their young mums who felt so intimidated by antisocial behaviour on her estate that she was unable to walk her young son to school in the morning. The school tried to provide a social worker to escort her, but they also felt intimidated. What message does it send to the school, the mum and her child about the safety of our streets when chief constables feel it necessary to deprioritise arrests on the Minister’s watch?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department

Cases of the kind that the hon. Lady describes would not have been in the scope of the contingency outlined in the letter of a week ago. The antisocial behaviour that she described is completely unacceptable. I am sure that many Members are parents and would want their own children to go to and from school safely. The Government have launched an antisocial action plan, one of the elements of which is a funded scheme for antisocial behaviour hotspot patrols. That started just a few weeks ago, so I would urge the hon. Lady to speak to her local police and crime commissioner—I think a newly elected one in Northumbria, if memory serves me correctly—and to ask that one of the funded hotspot patrols be set up in the vicinity of that school to try to tackle the issue that she described, because no parent should have to face that.

Photo of Mohammad Yasin Mohammad Yasin Labour, Bedford

Figures published last month showed that Bedfordshire police has the slowest response time to 999 calls, because of understaffing. Does the Minister realise how ridiculous it sounds to ask the police not to police and to arrest fewer people, because his Government have broken the justice system and are allowing criminals to get away scot-free?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department

That is a completely inaccurate characterisation of the situation. The eight-day period provided for a contingency that was not required. I have read to the House an assurance from the relevant National Police Chiefs’ Council lead that arrests were not forgone or cancelled as a result of the contingency. More widely, as I have said, we have record police numbers and lower crime than 14 years ago, and I would have thought that we would all welcome that.

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

The issue with prison capacity is partly a crisis of reoffending. Dartmoor prison was subject to an inspection last year, and was awarded only one out of four because of inadequate education and work opportunities. HMP Dartmoor holds a large number of people convicted of sexual offences, but the report says that there were no accredited programmes for rehabilitation. Sexual offences in Devon and Cornwall rose by 19% in the year to 2023. Does the Minister accept that the prison capacity crisis is partly about reoffending, and what is he doing about it?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department

The Justice Secretary has assured me that Dartmoor is a well-run and well-regarded prison. One of the reasons why my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice, here on the Benches, are presiding over such a large increase in prison capacity is to ensure that prisoners are better rehabilitated in the prison estate. The hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned reoffending: preventing reoffending is critical. Much offending is connected with drug addiction—some estimates suggest nearly half—so getting more people into treatment is important, both in the courts system and in the prison estate. It is critical that, as people leave prison and re-enter the community, the drug treatment they received in prison continues in the community. We call it continuity of care, and it has increased quite dramatically recently—I would like it increase even more. That is one of the ways that we will reduce reoffending, which, as he said, is an important policy objective.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Labour, Birmingham, Yardley

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker, I wonder if you could help me to get some answers. The Minister said during the urgent question that certain criminals who are a risk to the public would not be released, unlike Charlie Taylor, the inspector of prisons, who said that high-risk prisoners are being released under the scheme.

I have heard of a case where it took the court 29 months to hold a sentencing hearing on actual bodily harm against two different people as part of a domestic abuse situation. The prisoner was sentenced to four years, and was deemed to be such a risk because of previous sexual violence convictions that he was put on remand. On the day of the sentencing hearing, he was released immediately because he had been identified as suitable for early release. Yet the Minister told me today that no one with a history of sexual offending, who was a risk to the public or who had committed domestic abuse would be released. That is just one of many cases. I wonder whether the Prime Minister or the Minister has misled the House. Could you advise me how I could take that up?

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I thank the hon. Lady for her point of order. I am sure she meant to say that she was indicating that any misleading of the House would be inadvertent. I am not responsible, obviously, for responses from Ministers, but the Minister, who is still here, will have heard her comments, as will have those on the Treasury Bench. Does the Minister wish to speak further to that point of order?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The hon. Lady raises an individual case and I am sure the Lord Chancellor would be happy to look at an individual case for her. She mentioned someone released on sentencing. Of course, the court or the probation service will look at time served on remand already, so a prisoner may have been on remand for quite a long time at the point that they come to a sentencing hearing.

To repeat the more general rules, which are Ministry of Justice policy: the release under licence up to 70 days prior to the ordinary release point does not apply to any prisoner serving a sentence of more than four years; it does not apply to any prisoner serving a sentence for serious sexual or violent offences; and the prison governor can veto the release of a prisoner considered to be a danger. Those are the safeguards, but if the hon. Lady wants to debate the matter in more detail, I am sure my colleague the Lord Chancellor would be very happy to do that.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I thank the Minister for stating his position. I suggest that perhaps the offer of a further discussion with the Lord Chancellor would be appropriate. I am sure the hon. Lady will come back after that if she feels there are further points she wishes to make. She is very experienced in knowing how to make her views known in the House, so I am sure that that is probably the best way forward for now.