Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)




  1. Good morning, Minister, and welcome back again; Welcome also to Mr Sutton and Mr Narey. I read somewhere, Mr Narey, you are the first head of the Prison Service to be reappointed, in recent years at least. Is that right?
  (Mr Narey) That is correct.

  Chairman: Congratulations on that achievement! This is going to be a general evidence session covering a wide range of topics, all of which I imagine will be familiar to our witnesses and to most of the Committee. We are going to start the ball rolling today on prison numbers.

Bob Russell

  2. Minister, we are told that in October the prison population reached 68,127, which I understand is the highest ever. Is that a measure of success or failure?
  (Beverley Hughes) It is a measure of the fact that the courts are sending more people, and certainly more people than we would like, to prison. It is a measure of success for the Prison Service that they are continuing to be able to cope effectively with those rising numbers, although clearly from my point of view I would prefer the numbers not to be rising, at least at that rate; because in terms of the issue we are here to talk about today, which is effective rehabilitation and resettlement, then clearly the larger the number of people in prison the more difficult it is for the Prison Service to really work effectively with prisoners to address offending behaviour, and factors that contribute to offending in the first place, and thereby to reduce re-offending when prisoners are released.

  3. Other than the courts actually sending more people to prison, what other factors are there; and do you foresee an easing of the pressure in the future?

  (Beverley Hughes) Certainly on a medium-term basis, what we have been trying to do in Government is to make sure that we can provide effective alternatives to custody. That is the reason why we have established a national probation service with a focus on effective alternatives to custody, with enforcement with national standards, so that we can begin to demonstrate, I hope, to sentencers, and indeed to the wider public, that alternatives to custody can be at least as effective, if not more effective in terms of the broader picture, than custody for many offenders. Clearly, custody will always be needed for persistent offenders, for people who commit serious violent or sexual crimes, and we are very, very clear about that. There is also potential clearly within the prison population for some of those people to be managed and to be deterred from further offending whilst remaining in the community under robust and rigorous supervision. The establishment of the national probation service, the development of alternatives to custody, the whole What Works Programme, the better integration of the prison and probation service have been very important steps forward. Home Detention Curfew is another measure whereby, subject to assessment of risk, prisoners can make their re-entry back into the community earlier. We are trying to send very strong messages, where the court is satisfied that the risk is appropriate, that an alternative to custody can be an appropriate means of disposal for many, many offenders.

  4. I want to just press the point and try and get clarification. Are you therefore saying that the prison population is going to fall, remain the same or increase? I am not quite sure from your answer which direction we are going in?
  (Beverley Hughes) I think you probably are aware, Mr Russell, that in terms of anticipating the prison population we produce a number of projections—high, medium and lower projections. Certainly on the basis of the trends we have seen over the last 12 months or so, we are revising those projections because the Prison Service has to be able to receive all of those people whom the courts send to it. We cannot have a waiting list in the Prison Service; and we have to make sensible predictions on the basis of trends. In terms of the potential for the future in the medium to the longer term, then clearly insofar as we can persuade sentencers that alternatives to custody are effective, in terms of the reforms that we want to bring in through the proposals of Halliday, in terms of a more effective combination of custody and supervision in the community, that is actually very hard to predict. What I can say is that what we want to see is a stemming of this continued rise because that is not an effective way—it is not necessarily the most effective way—to deal with many people in prison at the moment; they can be effectively dealt with in the community. We have to convince sentencers, and we have to convince the public. We have to give the public confidence in alternatives to custody. The What Works Programme demonstrating effectiveness is an important part of that equation.

  5. Are you planning new prisons; if so, how many currently are on the drawing board?
  (Beverley Hughes) There are two prisons at the moment earmarked particularly for women at Peterborough and Ashford that you are probably aware of, that have been commissioned and will come on stream within the next two and a half years, I think.

  6. It takes two and a half years from start to finish when a decision is made?
  (Beverley Hughes) I think one should be operational in the summer of 2003, and the other one shortly after that.

  7. If the prison population continues to grow in the way it has done, you will need more than two new prisons, will you not?
  (Beverley Hughes) We are still well below operational capacity; but obviously the prison numbers we have at the moment do involve a degree of overcrowding—two people to a cell. We are under our target for that still but, nonetheless, that has an impact on the way in which prisoners can be worked with effectively. We are still substantially under operational capacity. There has also been the development of some ready to use facilities in and around the Estate to cope with particular pressures in particular areas. We have increased the capacity of the Prison Service recently through ready to use units. We have re-rolled Downview, as you know, to cope with the really quite extraordinary rise in the number of women. Women are still a small proportion of the overall prison population but the rise there has been of the order of about 20 per cent in the last 12 months in the number of women coming into prisons. We have had to take action to cope with that particular pressure, which has included re-rolling one prison, planning to re-roll and in the process of re-rolling a second prison now to provide the extra places we do need for women prisoners.

  8. I am a little confused. You used the phrase "overcrowding" and "below operational capacity". I cannot quite square those two statements.
  (Beverley Hughes) There are a number of figures that the Prison Service is using to assess how it is coping with the population. There is a figure for our operational capacity which is a judgment as to the maximum number of people we think we could cope safely with in prisons, and that stands at 70,559 at the moment. That is the maximum we would want to see in the current capacity. The population at the moment is just over 68,000—68,300 and something—as of 28 November, so we are still under the number we could safely cope with. Accommodating that 68,000 does involve about 16 per cent of prisoners living in a cell which is made for one but having two people in it, and that is the definition of "overcrowding".

  9. Finally, Minister, how is that overcrowding affecting the ability of the Prison Service to run decent and humane places?
  (Beverley Hughes) I think we are making great progress in relation to running a decent regime, and also to developing the opportunities for prisoners in terms of education, drug treatment and offender behaviour programmes, and I hope we will talk about that—I know the Committee wants to. Clearly, the larger number of people we have and the extent to which we have overcrowding is another factor that a governor will have to take into account in terms of how he or she can organise the prison; and, therefore, is another factor in terms of how easy it is to make sure that those opportunities, that development, that modernisation, achieves its potential in the way that we think the resources at the moment could allow it to. It is a further constraint really on realising the potential in prisons at the moment.

Mr Malins

  10. Minister, I want to be helpful, do you know why the suspended sentence on imprisonment is not in regular use at the moment?
  (Beverley Hughes) I would have thought that was more a question for some of your own colleagues, in that it is a matter for sentencers as to the sentences they give.

  11. It is not easy. I am suggesting in a really helpful way that we should change the law on suspended sentences. It is a terribly useful tool in the judiciary's armoury. Up until not long ago when the court thought it was appropriate they could make a sentence of imprisonment suspended. Under the powers of the Criminal Courts Act 2000 it can now only be imposed in exceptional circumstances. The Court of Appeal interpret that very, very restrictively. The result is that only a handful are passed every year. Can I tell you that sentencers across the country are looking to the Government to put the law back to what it was, so that they are actually empowered to pass a very useful sentence, of a prison sentence suspended, on many more occasions? It would help the prison population. What do you say?
  (Beverley Hughes) Thinking back to my own past, I remember being a probation officer in the late 1970s when we had suspended sentences. I am just drawing from memory here and I cannot put my head around what the actual figure told us at that time, but certainly it was my impression that in some instances people would get a suspended sentence and without the additional support and supervision there was a great danger when somebody breached a suspended sentence that they went to prison very quickly. One thing I will say is that one of the Home Secretary's responses to the Halliday proposals, which talked about custody plus, was to consider an alternative, a variant on that, which he at the moment is calling "custody minus"; which in a sense would be a form of suspended sentence, but crucially different from what happened in the past would be that the person was under supervision, and that the custodial sentence would only be activated clearly if there was a breach. In the initial phases the person would have the benefit of supervision and so, hopefully, the possibility of breach might be less than it was with the previous straight suspended sentence.

  12. Could I urge you and your colleagues to have a look at this question of suspended sentences and the 2000 Act, because I really do say that the judiciary are crying out for this power at the moment and think it would be very useful. All I would ask you is to have a look at the issue over the next two or three months?
  (Beverley Hughes) I certainly will agree in the context of what we are looking at in terms of Halliday. I think we would want to look much more clearly than I have been able to do this morning with you at the research at that time in terms of what the overall impact of suspended sentences was telling us; and whether or not, because of the potential to breach very early, it actually meant that more people were going to prison anyway as a result of that without the supervision element.


  13. Could I ask you, Minister, to go away and think about Mr Malins' point and, indeed, consult with the research and drop us a note on your conclusions?
  (Beverley Hughes) I will certainly drop you a note, Chairman.[9]

  14. Electronic monitoring—has that helped reduce the number of people in prison; is it working?
  (Beverley Hughes) I think the Home Detention Curfew was not brought in, as you will know, specifically as a measure to reduce pressure on the prison population; it was brought in as an attempt to facilitate that transition from custody to community in a helpful way. I want to put that on the record and make that clear. I think in terms of the number of people, based on the very robust risk assessment that accompanied HDC, we anticipated that a smaller number of people have been released on Home Detention Curfew than was originally hypothesised might be the case. We are re-looking at that because, I think, perhaps understandably, governors have been cautious in the way they have implemented the risk assessment. The Director General (and he may want to say a word about this) has recently written to governors to say, "Without in any way increasing the risk, please, governors, look at how you are operationalising the Home Detention Curfew and see, within the parameters of the risk assessment, whether or not there are other people who could be safely released than those you are releasing at the moment". We think there is some potential for using HDC, but I would want to stress that we do not want to compromise the risk assessment and that must prevail.
  (Mr Narey) HDC, although I accept it was not introduced for this purpose, has provided a great help in keeping the population at manageable levels, particularly reducing the levels of two in a cell overcrowding. It has also been a tremendous success. The proportion who successfully fulfill the period of tagging is more than 95 per cent—considerably higher than we ever believed it would be; and because we have that cushion I felt able, with the Minister's support, to say to governors not to take undue risk but just to ease off a little. My guess is there might be between 300-500 additional prisoners whom we might very gradually get out for effective supervision in the community, but I also will have to keep a very, very close eye on the failure rate and if it starts to deteriorate put the brakes on again. I do not want the scheme to fall into disrepute.

  15. To what do we attribute the 6 per cent rise in prison numbers in the last year at a time when most types of crime (not all) were falling?
  (Beverley Hughes) Obviously we are looking at that in some considerable detail. As you say, most recorded crime is falling, although there are some offences—robbery in particular—that are still showing an increase. It may be partly a reflection of that. I think it is also clear that more people are being remanded in custody and are spending rather longer in custody at the moment. The custody rate has increased. More people are being given a prison sentence; and perhaps reflecting those offences that are still increasing, like robbery, there is a slight increase in the length of sentence being given overall on average. These trends are much more marked for women, as I have mentioned.

  16. Did you say more people were spending more time in custody on remand?
  (Beverley Hughes) Yes. The average length on remand has increased slightly.

  17. In the Lord Chancellor's absence perhaps you could have a stab at this—I thought we were cutting back on waiting times for court cases?
  (Beverley Hughes) We certainly want to see that; but we have seen the impact of the trends in crown court, particularly when offenders are committed to crown court. There are some longer waiting times there now and that has been reflected in the length of time people spend on remand when they are committed to crown.

  18. To what do we attribute the longer waiting times?
  (Beverley Hughes) I think there is some evidence that the crown courts have experienced some difficulty in coping with the number of cases they are now receiving. You will know that cases are now committed directly. There is a backlog of cases generally in many crown courts and it is that which is causing the delay.

  19. In your previous job you wanted to cut these waiting times, did you not?[10]

  (Mr Narey) Yes. Waiting times at magistrates' courts fell between two years and one year and remains stable. It is the waiting times specifically in the crown court . Largely for reasons which we do not yet know, the crown court are making greater use of remand. I think one of the reasons may be that when a magistrates' court has committed a case triable under indictment only to the crown court, it would seem more likely to put the defendant on bail than the crown court had done. The crown court had inherited these new cases and seemed to be using custodial remand rather more eagerly. In addition, there is a backlog which the Minister has stated, which simply means that the crown court people are waiting rather longer for the case to come to trial.

9   See Appendix, Ev. 26-27. Back

10   Narey, M. (1997) Review of Delay in the Criminal Justice System. Back

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