End of Custody Supervised Licence Scheme: Extension - Commons Urgent Question

– in the House of Lords am 3:18 pm ar 13 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 3:18, 13 Mai 2024

My Lords, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given in the other place on 8 May by my right honourable friend Minister Argar, concerning an extension of the end of custody supervised licence scheme to a maximum of 70 days. The Statement is as follows:

“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.

This extension is in line with what the Lord Chancellor 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 be subject to probation supervision and stringent licence conditions”.

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 3:21, 13 Mai 2024

My Lords, the ECSL scheme was launched last October as a temporary response to the capacity crisis, which has seen the prison population soar to 88,000. At that time, it was for 35 days’ early release. The Government’s narrative was that this would relieve increasing pressure on prisons and allow probation staff to manage clients back into the community safely and effectively. That has not worked sufficiently, so they are increasing the early release to 70 days. Does the Minister agree with me that this shows that the Government have failed to properly manage the prison estate for capacity, safety and basic decency? Does he also agree with me that there needs to be a renaissance in our probation services so that we make more use of community orders and suspended sentences, rather than ever increasing the prison population?

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I think the House is well aware of the pressures on the prison estate. We have had considerable difficulties in recent times, particularly with a highly increased remand population and the ongoing effect of Covid. The Government have embarked on the largest prison building programme since Victorian times. We have opened two new prisons, and there are two more on the way for which outline planning permission has now been achieved. We are working as well as we can to deal with the situation, but temporary measures are unavoidable, I am afraid, as the Labour Government found when they were in power some time ago. I agree with the noble Lord that sentencing, in terms of community orders and suspended sentences, is very much a subject that should continue to be considered fully.

Photo of Lord German Lord German Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol

My Lords, the Government’s approach to this has been rather haphazard. We have moved from 18 to 70 days, and it does not look as if this is getting any better. Has the Minister any news on the Sentencing Bill and the Government’s proposals for people with sentences of 12 months or fewer generally not going to prison? Secondly, when does the Minister expect Dartmoor to be able to take its full quota of prisoners again, having been emptied of most of them?

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I am not in a position to update the House at the moment on the Sentencing Bill, except to say I understand that it will indeed be progressing through the other place in early course. I will write to the noble Lord about the situation at Dartmoor, on which I am not at this moment informed.

Photo of Lord Garnier Lord Garnier Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, I declare my interest as a trustee of the Prison Reform Trust. Would my noble and learned friend accept that there is much of merit in the ECSL scheme, but there are not just prisoners who are going to be released early but also IPP prisoners who are still in prison 10 to 15 years after their tariff? Only last month or the month before, we heard how an IPP prisoner took his own life because he was beyond hope. There are far too many people in prison far too long. Could targeting that not be a way of reducing the prison population and emptying those cells that the Government seem so keen to fill up with other people at the other end?

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, the subject of the IPP prisoners will be fully discussed in the Report stage of the Victims and Prisoners Bill, now scheduled for next Tuesday. Noble Lords will be aware that extensive government amendments have been tabled with the clear intention of reducing the population of IPP prisoners.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Llafur

As somebody who has faced the dilemma that the current Lord Chancellor faces, I am not unsympathetic to the position of the Government. I understand they are doing it because the prisons are too full. Could the Minister explain what effect the fact that the prisons are too full is now having on the way the Government are dealing with the backlog in the Crown Court? There are 66,000 cases waiting to be tried in the Crown Court. I assume there is no desire to speed them up, because the prisons will get fuller and fuller.

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, the Government are working as closely as possible with the judiciary to reduce the backlog in the Crown Court as early as possible.

Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP

My Lords, more prisons are now in special measures than have been for some years, including flagship prisons such as Wandsworth. Reports on how they got into this position mention low morale, drug use, violence and some terrorist elements exercising control over prisons. While having sympathy with the Government in so far as they do not, in and of themselves, determine how many people are in prison, I ask: have we not reached the point where the system is in part broken? Therefore, we need a radical appraisal of how it is going to continue. With so many significant prisons now in special measures, it is perfectly clear that something is radically wrong with the whole system.

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, there are certainly problems in some prisons, but the overall picture is by no means as painted. We have had major refurbishments at sites including HMP Birmingham, HMP Liverpool and HMP Norwich. Your Lordships may have seen the picture of Liverpool the other day in the papers. It was a most impressive refurbishment. Constructions of new houseblocks at four prisons are going on; we have opened HMP Fosse Way and HMP Five Wells. I would encourage noble Lords to visit those very modern and effective prisons. We now have outline planning permission for two more.

Photo of The Bishop of Manchester The Bishop of Manchester Bishop

My Lords, I declare that I am a trustee of the Clink Charity: we are involved with training people in prison for qualifications for restaurants, catering and the like. Those last few weeks in prison are often a crucial time for prisoners gaining the qualifications they need to get a decent job when they are released. I am sure every prisoner wants to go as soon as they can, but is the Minister aware, and will the Government take consideration, of the effect of prisoners not receiving their qualifications because they have not quite been completed by the time their advanced release date comes?

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, it is a priority of this Government to improve employment opportunities for persons in prison. I would like to pay particular tribute to the Clink Charity, which has done excellent work over the years. The rate of prisoners in employment six months after their release has significantly increased under this Government, and various steps, which I think I have outlined on previous occasions, have been taken to improve the qualifications of prisoners leaving prison.

Photo of Lord Jackson of Peterborough Lord Jackson of Peterborough Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, is it not incumbent on this and future Governments to focus on prolific offenders, those who have committed more than 16 offences, and hyper-prolific offenders, who have committed more than 45? In so doing, we could cumulatively redirect funding for less serious prisoners to rehabilitation and reducing recidivism to make sure that that group has a better chance of making good when they leave prison.

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My noble friend makes a very serious point, which has considerable force. The Government are well aware of it and will take it forward.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, 50 years ago, when the prison population was about 40,000, some of us proposed radically—and, it was thought at the time, dangerously—that non-state or semi-state organisations, institutions and enterprises should play their role in reorganising the Prison Service and that there should be a radical appraisal, as we heard called for a moment ago, of the nature of custody and penalties so that we could be more in line with other countries on the proportion of people in prison in relation to population. We are still miles ahead, except for America. Can my noble friend reassure us that, whichever party is in government, there will be a serious, organised effort to grip this custody issue and bring us into line with civilised patterns in other countries and away from the problems with overcrowding and drugs and the endless stories of difficulties to which we are at present subjected?

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, if my noble friend is suggesting that we need a radical and thorough debate on sentencing policy and the use of custody, I entirely agree with him. Any Government would need to take that very serious issue forward.

Photo of Lord Bailey of Paddington Lord Bailey of Paddington Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, has any assessment been made of the impact of prisons being so full and there being such a long backlog in court? One of the biggest drivers of crime in the poorest communities in this country is the idea that you will get away with it. I have been speaking to a number of people at street level who are saying that the jails are too full to send anybody there, which they say is a driver for new criminals to get involved.

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, the purpose of this measure—the increase in the early release under licence scheme—is absolutely to make sure that there is always space in jail for offenders. People who commit offences can expect to go to jail if their offence merits it.