The number of inmates in British prisons will remain near record levels for six years after a government U-turn on sentencing reforms, Whitehall’s spending watchdog warns.
Some 86,000 people were imprisoned in England and Wales in June, compared with the all-time high of 88,179 in December 2011, Prison Service figures show.
The government ditched plans to halve sentences for offenders who submit early guilty pleas. That would have saved taxpayers £130m. Instead, 4,000 more inmates than expected will remain imprisoned in 2015, the National Audit Office said.
The National Offender Management Service (Noms) is now “scrambling to find savings elsewhere”, Margaret Hodge, chairwoman of the Commons committee of public accounts, said.
The original sentencing reforms were designed to give the Ministry of Justice greater influence over what it described as “the unsustainable rise in the prison population”.
Noms will find it harder to achieve savings as it will be more difficult to close older, more expensive prisons as a result, the NAO said.
“The agency’s fragile financial outlook is at the mercy of events, such as last August’s riots, and sentencing decisions of judges and magistrates over which it has little control,” Ms Hodge said.
“Even the slightest changes in the prison population can lead to the agency’s plans being further knocked off course.”
“Given the delays in making savings by closing prisons, the agency’s 2012-13 savings target of £246mn is more challenging,” the NAO report said.
Ms Hodge went on: “The National Offender Management Service is less than halfway through its cost cutting programme, but is already lagging behind its target to curb spending by £884m before March 2015.
“This figure must be hit if the Ministry of Justice is to stand any chance of achieving £2bn annual savings by the same deadline.
“The National Offender Management Service has delivered spending reductions and achieved value for money since the last spending review,” Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said.
“However, its spending is vulnerable to even slight changes in demand, over which it has no control, and it has very little flexibility to absorb unforeseen costs.
“There are therefore risks to the agency’s ability to make sustainable savings over the long term, when the prison population is unlikely to fall significantly and the agency’s funding will continue to reduce.”