15 May 2024

Prisons ‘in such a bad situation’ says Justice Select Committee Chair

Data Correspondent and Presenter

Prisons in England are now so full that people newly charged by the police are having their court appearances delayed because there might not be a cell available if they’re sent to jail awaiting trial.

The Ministry of Justice says it’s tackling the situation with a scheme known as Operation Early Dawn, which began on Wednesday.

We spoke to Conservative MP and chair of the Justice Select Committee, Sir Bob Neill.

Ciaran Jenkins: This emergency measure was triggered late Tuesday, which meant that early Wednesday morning, magistrate hearings all over England could just be cancelled with virtually no notice because of a lack of prison places. Does that sound to you like a government that’s got this under control?

Sir Bob Neill: It speaks of a real pressure in our prisons. I think it was necessary to do, actually, because we are in such a bad situation. But what it comes back to is, in fact, a history of underfunding of the criminal justice system under the governments of both parties, not just under this government. And I’ve always said that we haven’t spent enough on the justice system. Equally, neither did the previous Labour government either. Probably going back 30, 40 years, we have not put enough resources into the justice system. And we have not had a serious conversation with the public about what the purpose of imprisonment is and who are the right people to be sending to prison and who are not.

Ciaran Jenkins: Let’s turn now to another emergency measure, the early release scheme. Because as we heard, the chief inspector of prisons reported “a high-risk prisoner had his release date brought forward under the scheme, despite having a history of stalking, domestic abuse and being subject to a restraining order. He was a risk to children.” And today, Rishi Sunak said in PMQs “no one will be put in this scheme if they were deemed a threat to public safety.” Is what Rishi Sunak said true?

Sir Bob Neill: It ought to be, because in fact the scheme is designed to have serious safeguards. The lord chancellor has been quite clear about that, but it is important that that is delivered in practice, and I think that’s the risk because of the pressures on staffing in the prisons. It is not of itself, again, an unreasonable scheme. In fact, the Labour government ran an early prisoner release scheme as well back in the day. But it is important not only that we are very clear that anyone with a history of violence, anyone who’s got a more serious offence over a certain amount, should not be on the scheme. But we need to make sure that we have enough experienced staff in the prisons to enforce that. And that, I think, is the worry in some cases.

Ciaran Jenkins: Bob, we know some of the high risk prisoners are being released, like stalkers and domestic abusers. So does that mean it’s not working?

Sir Bob Neill: It clearly needs to be kept very careful monitoring on. It’s capable of working, we need to make sure it does and it has worked in the past. But it comes back again to our point that we need to be more effective, cleverer sometimes, about the way we triage the use of prison. In the end, most prisoners are going to be released. My concern is that because of the state of overcrowding in the prisons, and in particular the lack of experienced staff, that makes it very hard to put in place the sort of rehabilitation measures, and the pre-release measures, which would make it much easier to reassure people that people were being released into secure accommodation, into jobs, or had the proper probation appointments to keep proper tabs on them. That’s the real problem we’ve got.