Prisons and Probation: Foreign National Offenders - Statement

– in the House of Lords am 8:30 pm ar 13 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Tuesday 12 March.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a Statement about criminal justice in England and Wales.

Keeping our people safe requires a relentless focus on cutting crime, cutting reoffending, and making sure that those who pose the greatest risk are imprisoned for as long as necessary to protect the public. That is why it is welcome that crime has fallen significantly over the last decade, in particular with falls of over 50% since 2010 for offences of violence and burglary. In addition, the reoffending rate has fallen over the last decade from 31% to 25%. That has happened not by accident, but as a result of prioritising measures ranging from the tagging of acquisitive offenders post-release, to giving the police the powers they need such as stop and search.

At the same time, to take the worst offenders out of society for longer, we have taken action on sentencing, and those committing the most serious crimes are being sentenced to 40% longer behind bars. That is because, first, we acted to end the injustice of automatic release at the halfway point for the worst offenders. Instead of getting out at the 50% mark come what may, serious sexual and violent criminals must now serve at least two-thirds of their sentence in custody. Rapists are now serving nearly three years longer on average than they did in 2010, and we are going even further by legislating to ensure that rapists serve their whole term behind bars.

Secondly, we have increased sentence maximums for the worst offenders, such as those who cause death by dangerous driving or who cause the death of a child; and, as a result of our reforms currently before the House, those who kill in the context of sexual or sadistic behaviour will in future expect to spend the rest of their natural lives behind bars. Life should mean life for those who commit the most heinous crimes.

Thirdly, we have introduced a power to enable the Secretary of State to block the release of offenders such as Robert Brown, where release would pose an unacceptable risk to society.

Meanwhile, we are pushing ahead with the biggest prison building programme since the Victorian era. We are on track to deliver 10,000 new prison places by the end of 2025 and are committed to building 20,000 places overall. Today I can announce that we are going even further to make sure that we have the prison places we need to continue locking up serious and violent offenders for longer. I want to focus in particular on foreign national offenders, whom I will call FNOs.

The number of FNOs has increased over recent years to 10,500—around 12% of prisoners—in England and Wales, at an average cost to the taxpayer of around £47,000 per prisoner per year. These foreign criminals are not only putting a strain on the public purse but reducing the capacity of the prison system. We believe that they should, wherever possible, be removed back to their countries of origin, and we have made progress: last year the Government returned from prison and the community nearly 4,000 foreign criminals, which is a 27% increase on the year before—and we are going further.

In October, I set out in the House our plan to reduce the FNO population. We have extended the early removal scheme from a maximum period of 12 months to 18 months, so that eligible FNOs can be deported up to six months earlier. Almost 400 have already been removed from the UK through this and similar schemes since January. That is a 61% increase compared with the equivalent period a year earlier. We have also signed a robust new agreement with Albania, which has restarted transfers of Albanian offenders—the largest single cohort in our prisons—and we are legislating in the Criminal Justice Bill to rent prisons overseas, as other European countries have done.

This is important progress, but we must build on it by making sure that even more FNOs are removed from the country and spurious barriers to their removal are quickly removed. I can tell the House that we will radically change the way that FNO cases are processed. We have created a new taskforce across the Home Office and Ministry of Justice, including the Prison Service, Immigration Enforcement, and the asylum and modern slavery teams. We have surged 400 additional caseworkers, who will be in place by the end of March, to prioritise these cases, and we will streamline the end-to-end removal process.

We are also expanding the number of FNOs we can remove—for example, by bringing forward legislation to allow us to remove foreign offenders with limited leave to remain under conditional caution, and amending our deportation policy so that we can remove those on suspended sentences of six months or more. We are making more use of the diplomatic levers we have to remove people back to their home countries, including by expediting prisoner transfers with our priority countries; concluding new transfer agreements with partner countries such as Italy; and being prepared to make use of the powers provided under the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 to restrict visas for any country where no progress on FNO removals can be made. That will allow us to deport more FNOs directly from prison in 2024—more than double the 1,800 we removed last year and more than in any year since 2010.

Let me now turn to the unsustainable growth in our remand population since the pandemic and the Criminal Bar Association action. This is important. When Covid hit, we were confronted with two momentous judgment calls. The first was whether to order mass release of prisoners. Public health advice in this country, as in many others, was to release thousands and thousands of prisoners, given fears that the pandemic would rip through the prison estate and take countless lives. We declined to do that, and in the event—although every death is of course a tragedy—the total number of lives lost in prisons was under 200, thanks to the excellent efforts of His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service officers. Other nations took a different approach. In America, where I discussed the matter recently with my counterparts, tens of thousands were released; in California alone, the figure was 11,000. In France, nearly 13,000 were released. It is for each nation to take their own course, but I am clear that we made the right decision for public safety in our country.

The second judgment call was whether to heed the clamour to end jury trials. I believe that would have been a grave mistake, shattering a fundamental British freedom and dismantling the centrepiece of our justice system. The decisions that we made were right for access to justice, right for public protection and right as a matter of principle, but have contributed to the increase in the number of defendants held on remand while awaiting trial or sentencing by over 6,000 since 2019 to about 16,000 today.

Let me turn to what we are doing. On pre-trial detention, the Lady Chief Justice has confirmed that if bail applications are made to the magistrates’ court or renewed before the Crown Court, the courts stand ready to hear them within the short time limits provided in the Criminal Procedure Rules. We are also exploring at pace with the judiciary the rollout of a remote nationwide pilot Crown Court capable of hearing new bail applications. The pilot would monitor whether these additional measures result in an increase in the use of tagging and appropriate support packages in bail applications.

To support that, the Government will invest £53 million of additional funding to expand the bail information service—part of the productivity package announced by the Chancellor at the Budget—which will enable our court system to operate as efficiently as possible by increasing the court-based staff and digital systems that can provide critical information to the judiciary, making the bail process more streamlined. To support that work, a further £22 million of additional funding will be available over the next year to fund community accommodation. We will also increase awareness about the availability of tags—especially high-tech GPS and alcohol monitoring tags—to ensure that offenders can be monitored in the community where appropriate.

We will also extend the existing end-of-custody supervised licence measure to around 35 to 60 days. We will enable that to happen for a time-limited period and work with the police, prisons and probation leaders to make further adjustments as required. That will be only for certain low-level offenders. Where necessary, electronic monitoring will be applied to enhance public protection. Ministers will, of course, continue to keep use of this measure under review. The extension has been requested and supported by leaders in the Prison Service and the police.

All these measures rely on a Probation Service that focuses its resource on the most critical points of the justice system, especially when an offender is first released from prison. In 2021, the Government reunified the Probation Service, which brought together all probation functions into a single national organisation. We have invested £155 million of extra funding each year in the service and onboarded more than 4,000 trainee probation officers since then, and I will be taking steps to refocus probation practice on the points that matter most to public protection and reducing offending.

From April, we will reset probation so that practitioners prioritise early engagement at the point where offenders are most likely to breach their licence conditions. That will allow front-line staff to maximise supervision of the most serious offenders. Similarly, for those managed on community orders and suspended sentence orders, probation practitioners will ensure that intervention and engagement is prioritised towards the first two-thirds of the sentence, as experience shows that that most effectively rehabilitates offenders. To be clear, none of the changes will apply to those convicted of the most serious offences, including those subject to Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements.

I express my deep gratitude for the efforts of all those working in the criminal justice system: prisons, probation and courts staff, the police, prosecutors, lawyers and the independent judiciary. They are exceptional public servants. The Government will do what is necessary to remove foreign national offenders from our country and we will do whatever it takes to ensure that the British people are kept safe from the most dangerous criminals. I commend this Statement to the House.”

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 8:55, 13 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, prisoners will now be released not 18 days early, but up to 60 days early. No other Government have ever found themselves having to do that on such a scale. It is nearly three times the number of days on licence seen under any previous scheme. I have some questions for the Minister.

How many prisoners have been released early under the scheme to date? Which prisons are using the early release scheme? Which types of offenders are being released early under the scheme? Are domestic abusers and stalkers eligible for release under the scheme? Why has the scheme been expanded to early release of up to 60 days? Why has the scheme been activated indefinitely? Will the Minister commit to publishing all the relevant statistics about the early release scheme on the same basis that prison data is published—that is, on a weekly rather than an annual basis?

The Government tell us that they will free up more spaces in our prisons by cracking down on the number of foreign national offenders taking up space that we can ill afford to spare, when they have no right to be in this country. The Government reported that 4,000 criminals from prison and the community were deported in 2023. This number is significantly lower than the number they inherited in 2010 when the Labour Government left office; 5,383 foreign national offenders were deported back then.

Meanwhile, thousands of foreign national offenders are living in the community post release for several years without being removed. We welcome any improvement the Government intend to make on this poor record. But, if the public are to believe that any of these measures will make the necessary difference, the Secretary of State needs a more credible plan, such as a new returns and enforcement unit with up to 1,000 new staff— more than double the 400 new staff announced.

I turn to the extra spending the Government have announced for the Ministry of Justice in the Budget and in yesterday’s Statement. The Budget—I quote from the Red Book—committed

“£170 million to deliver a justice system fit for the modern era. This includes £55 million for the Family Courts … £100 million into prisons to support rehabilitative activities … and £15 million to introduce digital solutions … in the courts”.

In yesterday’s Statement they mentioned £53 million to extend the bail information service and £22 million for community accommodation. The Statement also mentioned the £155 million per year first mentioned in 2021, three years ago, for the Probation Service. What it did not mention was any extra money for probation, with all this extra work that the Probation Service is likely to inherit as more prisoners are released on licence.

My real question is on the overall budget for justice. The Red Book says in table 2.1 that the department expenditure limits for justice for 2022-23 were £9.3 billion; that is the actual outturn. In 2023-24 it is £10.5 billion, which is the planned outturn, and in 2024-25 it is £10 billion, which means there is £0.5 billion less money for the justice system in the next two-year period. This is a cut. The Government are keen to trumpet their spending increases, but where will these cuts come from in the justice system if the Government are to stick to their budget?

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice)

My Lords, this 11-page Statement contains a series of self-congratulatory assertions from the MoJ on everything from falling crime, longer sentences, new offences and deporting foreign national offenders to the response to the pandemic. The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, has pointed out the weaknesses in some of those assertions. But there is one thing in this Statement that is new. Buried on page 9 is the obscure passage:

“We will also extend the existing end-of-custody supervised licence measure to around 35 to 60 days. We will enable that to happen for a time-limited period and work with the police, prisons and probation leaders to make further adjustments as required”.

What a masterpiece of obfuscation.

On 16 October last, the Government announced their plan to allow up to 18 days’ early release, for a limited period, to meet what they called “acute and exceptional demand”. That period has now been extended indefinitely and, subject to further adjustment in future, to allow for early release between 35 and 60 days before scheduled release dates. This announcement betrays the panic in government that it has simply run out of prison spaces—and the crisis is going to get worse.

We now have a prison population of 88,220 on last Friday’s figures, against a maximum operational capacity of around 85,000 men and 3,300 women. The Daily Telegraph reports that there are just 238 male and 118 women’s places unfilled. Those figures exceed a far lower design capacity of 79,507, less than the MoJ’s certified normal accommodation of 80,000. Furthermore, the few unfilled places are dotted around the prison estate, so prisoners are shuffled from prison to prison, impacting on education and training, community contacts, family visits and relationships with staff and other prisoners. Can the Minister provide figures for the extra prison transfers caused by place shortages since last October’s Statement?

Then we have other harmful measures, such as the use of police cells for holding prisoners in custody. Will the Minister write to us with the statistics for the use of police cells for prisoners since the October Statement? Then there are the temporary prefab extra cells. Will he say what extra facilities for exercise, training, education and even eating have been provided for the increased numbers in the affected prisons? Then there are inevitably unexpected disasters, such as the discovery of radioactive gas at Dartmoor and the enforced closure of 184 cells between November and February.

The 10,000 new places by next year and 20,000 new places long term have been on the table for ages but, even if they all work out, they hardly scratch the surface. Increased sentences and increasing time served, loudly trumpeted in this Statement, serve only to increase the prison population, which is predicted to rise by March 2028 to a central estimate of 105,800, an increase of roughly 17,000. Will the Minister explain the maths?

Five Wells and Fosse Way, with a total capacity of 3,600, are already open and so are included in present capacity. Are they double-counted as part of the 10,000 due this year, mentioned in the Statement? Millsike in Yorkshire will open later this year and will have a capacity of 1,500. As to the remaining 10,000 places, not a brick has been laid and none is likely to be available until some time between 2027 and 2030. Gartree in Leicestershire, with a capacity of 1,700-odd, has outline planning permission but the detail has yet to be approved. Grendon in Buckinghamshire, with a capacity of 1,500-odd, has only just been approved by the Levelling Up Secretary. In Lancashire, the new prison in Chorley for 1,700 is the subject of a planning appeal which has not even commenced.

There was a consultation in 2021 about two possible new prisons at Wethersfield, near Braintree in Essex, but the MoJ says that no decision has yet been taken. Please will the Minister tell us more about the planning progress for these prisons? When is building predicted to commence? When might they open, and with how many places? Where is the budget? Have I left anything out? Again, will he please explain the maths and the figure of 20,000 for the promised new places?

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

My Lords, in order to respond to the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede and Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, it is as well that the House reminds itself of the background against which the Government are acting: the unprecedented circumstances of the Covid pandemic. During that time, extraordinary pressure was placed on our justice system and the Government took certain difficult—but, as it turned out, wise—decisions in relation thereto.

Recognising the importance to our judicial system, to our system of justice, of jury trials, we did not suspend them. Recognising the importance of custody as one of the tools in our penal system, we did not introduce wholesale release of prisoners, as happened in other states, such as France, where 12,000 people were released from prison, I believe. Factor into that the action taken by members of the Bar in relation to their salaries, and we are in a situation where we have unprecedented strain on the system, which the Government are now seeking to work through.

That is the background to the steps that the Government are taking, bearing in mind at all times their principal desire to protect the public and to cut crime by taking dangerous criminals off the streets. That is the Government’s intention, and the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, in reference to the Statement, quoted the figure of 20,000 additional prison places. The figures are indeed stark, as both noble Lords pointed out to the House. As a result of the factors that I have mentioned, both the remand population and the recall population in prisons in England and Wales have risen.

The Government’s response to this has been to push ahead with a programme amounting to the largest expansion of the prison estate since Victorian times, with 10,000 of the additional places to be delivered by the end of 2025—of which 5,900 have already been delivered. In addition—again, I recognise the questions from the noble Lord, Lord Marks, about facilities for prisoners—short-term measures have been put in place across the prison estate to expand capacity by the equivalent of around 2,000 places since September 2022. That has involved measures that would otherwise be considered undesirable, such as the doubling up of cells and the delay of non-urgent maintenance work, but the point is that these have been taken as temporary measures in relation to these unprecedented circumstances.

Noble Lords from both Front Benches referred to foreign national offenders. As the House has heard, last October, and again with a subsequent announcement this month, a series of measures has been announced to ease the pressure, including deporting more foreign national offenders and moving some lower-level offenders on to supervised licence up to 18 days before their automatic release date. In addition, our Sentencing Bill will help cut reoffending rates by creating a presumption that custodial sentences of less than 12 months will be suspended.

The work the Government will carry out includes tabling an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill to extend conditional cautions to foreign national offenders with limited leave to remain; amending deportation policy so that foreign national offenders given suspended sentences of six months or more, up from the current 12 months, can be deported; expediting prisoner transfers with priority countries such as Albania, the country with the largest individual component within the 10,000-plus foreign national offenders currently in our prisons; concluding new transfer agreements with partner countries such as Italy; radically changing the way in which foreign national offenders’ cases are processed, creating a new task force and allocating 400 more caseworkers to prioritise these cases and streamline the process of removal.

I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Marks, once again, who referred to the end-of-custody supervised licence provisions. I have a number of observations to make on that. It is clear, in my submission, that further action is needed in the short term, and in order to do that, as the House has heard, there has been a programme to increase the number of days some lower-level offenders could be moved from prison and on to licensed conditions in the community before their automatic release date. As the House has heard, this will be increased to around 35 to 60 days. This will take place for a limited period, again recognising the current extraordinarily acute pressures on the system. We will work with the police, the prisons and probation leaders to made adjustments as they are needed.

I emphasise that this remains a temporary, targeted measure aimed at anyone convicted of serious crimes, such as crimes of a sexual nature. By “serious”, I do not necessarily confine myself to seriousness in terms of sentence; there is seriousness in terms of impact. I am looking also at people convicted of stalking offences and at domestic abuse cases, not just their seriousness to individual victims but to the community at large. These will not be affected, and those who break the rules imposed will face a return to jail.

We are conscious also of the impact our changes may have on probation, so on top of the extra £155 million a year being put into the Probation Service, from April we will reset probation so that practitioners prioritise early engagement, at the point at which offenders are most likely to breach their licence conditions, allowing front-line staff to maximise supervision of the most serious offenders. In many ways, this will simply instrumentalise a process that already happens quite naturally: if a person appears to be making good progress and satisfies those responsible for his management that that is the case, it is right and proper, I submit, that their attention should be focused on persons more in need of support, rather than having support spread out across the full period of somebody’s licence. That, I submit, will permit the maximisation of supervision and the most effective use of resources and time.

Reference was made to the use of police accommodation under a system known as Operation Safeguard, which is a matter of permitting police cells and other accommodation of that nature to be used in order to address acute capacity pressures caused by the barristers’ strike, building upon the pandemic. Across the country, 163 cells were available under Operation Safeguard, and His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service has the authority to activate a further 200. The background to that is in relation to custody of persons being moved from location to location in order to attend court.

Other developments in hand include the rolling out of a national scheme to consider bail applications and to consider the balance as to whether bail or remand is the appropriate disposal in relation to somebody awaiting trial.

A question was posed as to the change in the point of release from 18 days up to between 35 and 60. As the House has heard, a similar scheme was operated in 2007. That scheme was different, and the early ECSL—end-of-custody supervised licence—scheme that is being introduced has a range of safeguards. The scheme operating between 2007 and 2010 released some people straight into the community without any supervision and led to the early release of some prisoners convicted of terror offences. Naturally, it is appropriate that fresh provisions look to such lessons as might be learned from previous schemes, and seek to build upon and correct them. I submit that the ECSL scheme that has been announced is different. Everyone is being moved on to supervised licence with strict conditions, including tags and curfews where necessary. The 2007 to 2010 scheme led to more than 80,000 prisoners being released; by contrast, the ECSL scheme is talking about a small proportion of people who are being moved on to supervised licence. Reflecting the concerns that I know are shared across the House about the impact on victims, complainers in crime who are perhaps affected or concerned by the possibility of release, if they have signed up to the victim contact scheme, they will be notified about an offender’s release where that takes place under the ECSL scheme.

In addition, I will say something about the resources being invested. As I think the noble Lord, Lord Marks, said, some 400 probation officers have applied—that exceeds the recruitment target the Government had in place over the years 2020-21 and 2022-23. I submit that that is a significant number. In addition, a sum of £53 million will fund more than 200 new bail information officers who will support the courts in reaching decisions as to bail and remand.

I think mention was made of the bail accommodation scheme, which provides temporary accommodation for individuals released from prison on home detention curfew, and provides a secure community-based alternative to remanding an individual in custody. I can speak from professional experience of the dreadful consequences that can follow from a person being released unexpectedly from custody into liberty where inadequate provisions are made for that person’s readmission into society by way of accommodation and support, or where no steps have been taken to prepare that individual, or to provide for him or her the physical needs of accommodation, food and money.

In those circumstances, each of the buildings in the bail estate houses up to four people, and residents are supported by visits to provide support and to address any wider issues. There is female-only accommodation, supported by CCTV, and funding is available that will be expanded across the remainder of the estate over the next six months.

The overall intention of the Government is to address this backlog that has grown up—this increasing strain on the resources of our criminal justice system—by additional cash, an increase in resources and, by that, an increase in the number of prison places to be made available over the next few years. As I say, the ambition is 10,000 new places—of which 5,900 are already in place—by 2025.

I was asked a number of very specific questions by both noble Lords who have opened for the Front Benches. I am very conscious of the fact that I have not provided detailed, specific, numerical answers to certain of the questions put to me, but officials are in the Box. If noble Lords are content, I will either correspond myself or, more likely, my noble and learned colleague Lord Bellamy, who is the Minister in the Ministry of Justice, will correspond with noble Lords, in an endeavour to give them answers which they will consider satisfactory to the questions they posed.

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, I have two specific questions. The first point is that the early release scheme will put an additional burden on the Probation Service. The noble and learned Lord quoted the £155 million which was first raised in 2021. Can he confirm that there is no specific additional money for this additional work by the Probation Service as a result of yesterday’s Statement?

The second question is more wide-ranging. I wrapped up my contribution by pointing to the £0.5 billion cut in next year’s justice budget. As I said, the Government are keen to trumpet the extra spending. How are those two numbers reconciled, between the cut in the budget and the extra spending that the Government have just announced?

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

I am grateful to the noble Lord for clarifying certain of the remarks that he made initially and putting them down into two specific questions. I regret to say that they fall within the category of information which I have sought but do not readily have available. So, with the noble Lord’s leave, I will correspond with him on that matter.

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice)

My Lords, may I clarify one point? First, I am very grateful for the indication that we will have in writing the specific answers to the specific questions we asked, but I make it clear that we regard it as of great importance to clarify the numbers of prison places against the projected increase in the prison population, on the Government’s own figures and in light of the measures that have been introduced, increasing time served and sentences. The significance of that is to test whether the places on tap will be enough to match the increase in the projected prison population. If those answers could be given specifically, I would be very grateful.

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

I hear what the noble Lord has said. He makes a series of good points and we will write to him on those. I will ensure that those specific matters feature in the letter.

House adjourned at 9.24 pm.