The government is spending millions of pounds to house inmates in police cells because of prison overcrowding, Channel 4 News can reveal.

Data from 13 police forces obtained using Freedom of Information requests reveals that the Ministry of Justice spent at least £4.9 million to put prisoners up in police cells. The true total figure across England and Wales is likely to be higher as some forces did not provide data.

On average, it costs taxpayers approximately £47,000 to house a prisoner for a year, according to the Ministry of Justice. That’s around £130 a day.

But our stats reveal instances where central government shelled out thousands of pounds for a single night’s accommodation. And some police forces told us they received six figure sums for providing cells that weren’t ever occupied.

The arrangement is part of Operation Safeguard, an agreement between the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the Ministry of Justice that was last used by Tony Blair’s Labour government.

In November 2022, the prisons minister Damian Hinds triggered Safeguard, saying it would “provide the immediate additional capacity we need in the coming weeks.” But far from lasting weeks, Operation Safeguard was extended nationwide in February. And this temporary measure is still being used.

Sky-high costs

Channel 4 News has also obtained a log showing that police cells were used to house prisoners on 871 occasions between February and June.

And our FOI data reveals forces in the North West and North East of England were called upon most. Greater Manchester Police cells were used 209 times, Lancashire’s 125 times and Northumbria Constabulary’s custody suites 98 times.

West Yorkshire Police’s custody suite at Normanton near Wakefield was used to house 77 prisoners in total. The force incurred an overtime bill of £263,000 -  around three and half thousand pounds per prisoner per night. That’s more than 27 times the average daily cost of housing someone in the prison estate.

We can reveal the government paid Avon and Somerset Police more than a quarter of a million pounds to provide cells, but up to 5 June, no prisoners had been sent there. The same happened in Essex and South Wales, where forces received £219,003 and £690,639 respectively.

‘It’s a crisis’

Police forces are reimbursed for their costs by HM Prison Service and a set charging scheme is in place. But Labour’s Alison Lowe, West Yorkshire’s Deputy Mayor for Policing, told us Operation Safeguard pointed to wider failings in the criminal justice system.

“Even though all the costs are covered, we need a system for people in West Yorkshire and beyond that works for the longer term,” she said. “Currently, it’s a crisis,” she told us. “It’s a mess.”

Mark Fairhurst, National Chair of the Prison Officers’ Association, the union representing prison workers, told Channel 4 News: “We can’t keep up with demand. So the new-build prisons will fill rapidly. And we’re still waiting for planning permission in certain areas to build new prisons. That creates a backlog.

“Cells designed for one are now inhabited by two. That keeps pressure on the entire system. It’s a boiling kettle about to explode.”

The government has promised to build 20,000 new cells by the middle of the decade. It has opened brand new prisons at Five Wells and Fosse Way since 2022 and construction is underway on the UK’s first all-electric prison at HMP Millsike in Yorkshire. But we understand the government only expects to have delivered 8,000 places by May 2025 and planning delays mean the remainder of the 20,000 are subject to planning permission.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council told Channel 4 News: “Operation Safeguard is a temporary operation activated in exceptional circumstances… ensuring overnight places are provided for prisoners when required in a safe and secure way.

“Policing continues to conduct its operational business without any detriment; arresting criminals, securing them in custody, with well-established plans in place to make best use of available custody facilities across force areas.

“Our custody staff are highly skilled, professional, and hard-working. They are used to working in a challenging and high-risk environment.”

The Ministry of Justice told us that Operation Safeguard “has enabled us to deal with… exceptional capacity pressures”. It says it has delivered “the biggest expansion of prison places in a century including six new jails…” and “created short-term capacity by doubling up cells where it is safe to do so and delaying non-urgent maintenance work.”