Blair defends ministers' prisons advice
Hélène Mulholland and agencies
Wednesday January 24, 2007
Tony Blair insisted today that a letter sent to judges by senior ministers urging them to find alternative punishments to prison was "simply reminding the courts of existing sentencing policy".
The prime minister was forced on the defensive by David Cameron after the government urged judges and magistrates to jail only the most dangerous and persistent criminals in a bid to ease prison overcrowding.
Pressed on the matter today at prime minister's question time, Mr Blair said that ministers had merely reminded judges and magistrates of the sentencing options available to them in the courts. Challenged by the Tory leader to give an assurance there would be no more early-release schemes to ease the pressure on prison places, even if that meant using prison ships and extra prison wards, Mr Blair said: "All options, of course, are kept under consideration all the time."
Mr Blair rounded on the Tories for voting against extra investment for prisons in the past.
The parliamentary spat took place after it emerged that Mr Reid, Lord Falconer, the lord chancellor, and Lord Goldsmith, the attorney general, last night wrote to judges and magistrates to call for alternative punishments to be meted out because prisons are too full. The letter is understood to be the first in a series of measures designed to ease prison overcrowding over the coming weeks and months
The prison population of England and Wales is hovering around its capacity of about 80,000 places.
The Home Office revealed today that it had reopened a prison wing which was closed at the weekend after being condemned as unfit for human habitation.
A spokeswoman said the A-wing at HMP Norwich would be brought back into short-term use to house prisoners on remand from the courts.
The BBC has also reported that prison spaces are in such short supply that about 480 people had to stay in police cells on Monday, and that cells in the Old Bailey - the Central Criminal Court in London - were also made available this week.
David Davis, the shadow home secretary, said earlier today: "It is outrageous that sentences are being dictated by the prison capacity and not by the crime committed.
"Yet again we see the public are being put at risk by the failure of ministers.
"Offenders who should be sent to jail won't be, and all because the government failed to listen to our and other calls to address the lack of prison capacity over the last few years."
Nick Clegg, the home affairs spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said that the situation ranked as the "worst" in a litany of government failures.
Mr Clegg said that the government had only itself to blame for a "lamentable state of affairs".
"A mixture of arrogance and incompetence led the government to ignore warnings about prison numbers, which were first expressed several years ago.
"There is a strong case to review the mix of offenders sent to prison, but these short-term panic fixes will provide nothing but temporary sticking-plaster solutions to a much deeper crisis."
The Home Office has defended the letter to magistrates and judges, saying that it was a necessary stopgap measure before a further 8,000 prison places begin to become available in the spring.
A spokesman for the Home Office said that "a few hundred" of these places would be available by spring, with all 8,000 ready by 2009.
Mr Reid said: "It is necessary to a civilised society that those who are a danger to our society are put away.
"The public have a right to expect protection from violent and dangerous offenders.
"Prisons are an expensive resource that should be used to protect the public and to rehabilitate inmates and stop them reoffending.
"However, we should not be squandering taxpayers' money to monitor non-dangerous and less serious offenders."
A Home Office spokesman said: "We are accelerating accommodation arrangements where possible and examining all options for extra capacity in the prison estate as a matter of urgency."
Ken Jones, the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, insisted that part of the jail overcrowding problem was down to police catching so many serious offenders.
Mr Jones said: "There have been falls in those imprisoned and remanded for less serious crimes, for example motoring offences.
"Our priority is public protection and, although there is a case for a wider debate about the use of custody, evidence suggests that it is the more serious offenders that we are bringing to justice who are driving up the prison population numbers."
But the Prison Reform Trust, a pressure group, blamed overcrowding on "scaremongering tactics" by ministers.
The group's director, Juliet Lyon, said: "Ministers are right to call at last for jails to be used more sparingly, not because they are full to bursting, but because the government's own scaremongering tactics have blocked prison beds with petty offenders, vulnerable women and children, addicts and the mentally ill.
"The government has been guilty of criminal negligence to allow prisons to get into such a terrible mess without intervening earlier in a planned way."
Paul Cavadino, the chief executive of Nacro, the crime reduction charity, said: "Courts should only be imprisoning dangerous or persistent offenders in any event, not just at times of extreme overcrowding."
He added: "Prisons cannot do an effective job of rehabilitating offenders if they are constantly lurching from one overcrowding crisis to another."