End of Custody Supervised Licence: Extension

– in the House of Commons am 12:37 pm ar 8 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Shabana Mahmood Shabana Mahmood Shadow Secretary of State for Justice 12:37, 8 Mai 2024

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice if he will make a statement on the expansion of the end of custody supervised licence scheme.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question.

Protecting the public is our No. 1 priority, so it is right that we take tough and decisive action to keep putting the most serious offenders behind bars, and for longer, as the public rightly expect. We are carrying out the biggest prison expansion programme since the Victorian era, and we are ramping up removals of foreign national offenders.

We have a duty to ensure that the prison system continues to operate safely and effectively, with offenders held in safe and decent conditions. This means ensuring that no prison exceeds a safe maximum operating limit. ECSL allows lower-level offenders to be released before their automatic release date. In March, the Lord Chancellor stated that we will

“work with the police, prisons and probation leaders to make further adjustments as required.”—[Official Report, 12 March 2024;
Vol. 747, c. 157.]

This extension is in line with what he said.

ECSL operates only when absolutely necessary and is kept under constant review. I know that many Members of this House will be concerned about the early release of offenders into the community, but I make it clear that only offenders who would soon be released anyway will be considered for ECSL.

We have put in place safeguards, including that the Prison Service retains the discretion to prevent the ECSL release of any offender where early release presents a higher risk than if they were released at their automatic release date. There are strict eligibility criteria, and anyone convicted of a sexual offence, a terrorist offence or a serious violence offence is ruled out. Public safety will always be our No. 1 priority, and all those released will still be subject to probation supervision and stringent licence conditions.

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

Here we go again. Never in this country have a Government been forced to release prisoners more than two months early. This is the price that the public are paying for a justice system in crisis and a Government in freefall.

The early release scheme has now undergone three major extensions in just six months: it was quietly started in October, when the Government began releasing prisoners up to 18 days early; in March it was slipped out that it had been expanded from 18 to 60 days; and now it has emerged through a media leak that it has been extended once again, this time to 70 days. Worst of all, the Government are doing all of this in secret. They have not responded to any freedom of information requests, parliamentary questions or even the Justice Committee with any useful details about this scheme. The Government are releasing prisoners but not the facts. The strategy is clear for all to see: say nothing, try to get away with it and get to the other side of the general election. It is shameless and, frankly, a disgrace.

The public and this House rightly expect the Minister to be transparent and honest, so let us see whether he will answer these basic and simple questions. Why the increase of early release to 70 days? How many offenders have been released in the six months since the scheme became operational? How will they ensure that the probation service has the time and resources to adequately assess risk and protect the public? And will he give a guarantee to the House today that this secretive scheme will not be extended again?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I am grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for her question and would gently say a number of things to her. First, she suggests we were sneaking this out in October and March; that included statements to this House and was entirely transparent. On the hon. Lady’s party’s record, it operated an early release scheme for three years between 2007 and 2010, which leaves her on rather shaky ground. She talked about a media leak. This was an operational decision with operational guidance sent out to His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and prison governors as well as other stakeholders, including, if I recall correctly, the probation union, for a minor change that was already reflected in the points made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Justice in March to this House.

The hon. Lady talked about data. The Secretary of State has been consistently clear that we will publish the data on an annualised basis, in exactly the same way as we do, for example, for deaths in custody and supplementary breakdowns of the prison population. We have been clear that we will always ensure that the prisons system has the spaces for the courts to be able to send people to prison. We are making an appropriate operational decision to ensure that continues to be the case.

The hon. Lady also rightly asked about probation, and I suspect that in our exchanges the one thing on which we might find ourselves in agreement is paying tribute to those who work in our probation service. As she will know, since 2021 we have increased the budget for the service by £155 million, with 4,000 additional probation officers in training. We have worked with the leadership of our probation service on this scheme and the probation union was one of the bodies we notified on the changes to the operational guidance.

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

This is a perfectly rational, sensible and pragmatic response to the pressures in our prisons, and the Minister should take credit for it. However, I do ask him to reconsider the point about the transparency of data—precisely because it is a sensible thing to do, there is no reason why we should not release the figures in better time. But the underlying problem, which all parties in this House must face up to, is that the pressures in our prisons, to which the Justice Committee has repeatedly referred, stem from decades of underfunding by Governments of all parties? Prison costs £46,000-plus per year for each place, so it is a very expensive way of dealing with people, and not always the best means for handling lower-level offenders. May we have a more intelligent debate on sentencing and the purpose of prison, and perhaps we could start with the Minister committing to bringing back the sentencing Bill, which would enable us to have a more nuanced approach?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for his questions. He rightly highlights the ongoing capacity challenges and a number of the drivers of those, one being that the average custodial sentence in this country has gone up from 14 months to about 21. In addition, the remand population has gone up from about 9,000 to some 16,500, partly as a result of the covid backlogs in the courts system and partly as a result of the Bar strike. On the publication of data, I gently and respectfully refer him to the answer I gave to his Committee and at the Dispatch Box just now. It is important that alongside recognising the pressures the system is under, we are taking steps to increase capacity, both by increasing the removals of foreign national offenders and doing it at a faster rate, and through having built almost 6,000 new prison places. That is in stark contrast to the record of the Labour party, which built not one of the 7,500 Titan prison places.

Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

Court backlogs are sky high; prisons are dangerously close to capacity, which is why this policy had to be implemented; and the Government are claiming, as the Minister has just done, to be carrying out a big prison expansion programme, yet their record is appalling. In 2016, in response to the Taylor review, the Government committed to building two secure schools for young offenders. Since then, the budget has spiralled out of control and not one of those schools has opened. Does this not all just prove that the Conservatives cannot be trusted with our justice system?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

The hon. Lady knows that I have a huge amount of respect for her, but even by Lib Dem standards that was stretching the bounds of credibility a little, not least because, as she will be aware, we have built two new prisons. We also have one in construction and two that have completed planning, and one that is subject to a planning appeal. As for the secure school, she should look forward to its opening in a matter of days.

Photo of Rob Butler Rob Butler Ceidwadwyr, Aylesbury

Will my right hon. Friend expand a little on the great improvements being made to increase capacity? Will he tell us a little more about the progress on ensuring that more foreign national offenders are removed to their own countries? Will he expand a little, as this seems to be badly understood by Opposition Members from all parties, on quite how much of a prison building programme the Government have? Will he say something on the number of prisons and the number of spaces that that will create, and on the consequent prospects for the rehabilitation of offenders and, in time, having fewer victims of crime?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

My hon. Friend is right to highlight that and I pay tribute to his work in the justice system not only in this House, but prior to his being a Member of it. I believe—I will, of course, correct this if I am slightly out—that about 16,000 FNOs have now been removed. It is timely that as I say that, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary appears in the Chamber, so that I can pay tribute to him and his Department for their work on delivering that. On prison places, I set out to Munira Wilson the progress on the six new prisons. Alongside that, we have built a vast number of rapid deployment cells and new house blocks, so we are expanding our prison capacity rapidly. As I say, that stands in stark contrast to the failure to deliver on the Titan prison places by the Labour party.

Photo of Rebecca Long-Bailey Rebecca Long-Bailey Llafur, Salford and Eccles

Napo has said that

“the ECSL scheme is an unmitigated failure and has not only been extended without parliamentary scrutiny but represents an increasing risk to public safety”.

The Secretary of State knows that our probation service is in crisis and cannot cope without a significant increase in support and resources. Will the Government be providing that?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady. As I said to the shadow Secretary of State, I have great respect for the work done by those in our probation service. Indeed, I have met the probation unions in the past. Although we do not always agree, I have huge respect for the work those unions do in representing their members.

I would make two points. First, to say that it was done without scrutiny in this House stretches the bounds of credibility. There have been two statements by the Secretary of State and multiple oral parliamentary question sessions, and I have undergone a polite but thorough grilling at the Justice Committee by its Chair. I do not think it stacks up to say that this has not been subject to scrutiny.

On the hon. Lady’s underlying point, I set out earlier that we are investing in probation. There is £155 million of additional investment a year since 2021 and there are 4,000 more probation officers and staff in training.

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Ceidwadwyr, Warrington South

A moment ago, the Minister set out the significant increase in the number of people being held on remand—I think he said it had increased from 9,000 to 16,000. What work are the Government doing to address court backlogs? What steps are being taken to look at other routes for monitoring people who are on remand, who could perhaps serve their remand period in the community under a tagging system?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

To correct myself, there are now 16,500 people on remand in the prison population. On court backlogs, we have increased the investment in our courts and the number of sitting days, and we are seeing progress. Obviously, courts take the decision on whether to remand or bail someone, and we can help that process by giving the courts the information they need. We continue to invest in the Bail Information Service, which gives sentencers reassurance about the information they need to make a judgment call about whether someone is safe to be bailed. We are increasing our investment in the community accommodation service, so that when someone is not bailed because they do not have a stable address, there is an increased opportunity for them to have an address, giving sentencers the opportunity to bail them.

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

As the Minister and the Chair of the Justice Committee know, I have been in the House long enough to know when something is a sticking plaster. Perhaps the extension is necessary, but it is a sticking plaster. How many Queen’s Speeches since 2010 have included a thorough look at the justice system with a royal commission? That has never happened. We all know that building prisons does not solve the crisis. We need radical reform of the whole justice system, which will need extra resources and real motivation from an incoming Labour Government. Does the Minister agree with me?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, with whom I have occasionally tussled across the Chamber. I agree with some of what he says. He will not be surprised that I do not agree with his last statement because, judging by the track record up to 2010, I fear it would be another case of being let down by Labour. I am grateful for his typically thoughtful comments and his looking at the bigger picture behind the challenges we face.

It is right that we are putting those who commit the most serious crimes in prison for longer to protect society and ensure they pay their debt to society, but it is also important that we look at how we rehabilitate people when they are in prison. We all want those who have served their time to come out and live their lives, within bounds, in the community, and to be constructive and positive contributors to society. That is why we are focusing on providing education in prison and getting people into employment. I am grateful to the Minister for Schools, my right hon. Friend Damian Hinds, for his work and focus on that area, both when he was Secretary of State for Education and as my predecessor. There are currently measures before Parliament, for example in the Sentencing Bill, that offer the House an opportunity to think about other ways to do things.

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)

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Llefarydd. This announcement comes after nine prisoners have recently lost their lives in HMP Parc in Bridgend. The Ministry of Justice says it will not step in. A private prison in Wales is an unaccountable anomaly that fails everyone—victims and prisoners alike. While we await the long anticipated devolution of justice, will the Minister tell me why, after 25 years, there is still no clarity over which ombudsman is responsible for health in Parc?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. We may disagree in our views on the devolution of justice to Wales, but she raises an important issue about the deaths in the past few months in HMP and YOI Parc. I visited Parc recently and spoke to the governor and director, those in custody and those working at Parc. I have to be cautious about what I say, given that the matter will be before the coroner and the ombudsman. I will be appearing before the Welsh Affairs Committee next week, when I suspect some of the issues will be debated. I am happy to have a discussion with the right hon. Lady, but it is right that I do not stray at the Dispatch Box when these matters are before the coroner and the ombudsman.

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

I thank the Minister for his answers to all the questions. The scheme was initially designed to allow short-term early release by a matter of days, yet some releases are now early by some 70 days. Does the Minister understand why victims of crime are anxious that so-called “soft crime” criminals are getting an easier time? Victims of crime are told that perpetrators have been released early, so the victims can prepare themselves to see those perpetrators down the town or at the local supermarket, for example, which can be extremely disconcerting, even if it is not unexpected.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

Mr Speaker, I reassure you that I was due to be meeting the Member whose constituency HMP Parc is in at this moment in time, but I am here at the Dispatch Box. The meeting has been rescheduled and there is a date in the diary. As I promised at the last oral questions, that meeting has been arranged.

Jim Shannon is right to highlight that point. Our ECSL protections are significantly more stringent than those used by the Labour party when it ran its scheme for three years. Unlike its scheme, ours allows governors to veto the release of any prisoner when they think early release will create a risk to victims. There are a number of exemptions from the scheme and it allows for rigorous conditions to be placed on the release licence, be it tagging, exclusion zones or curfews. Prisoners will be well aware that if they breach those conditions, which are put in place to protect victims, they will hear the clang of the prison gate and be recalled.