Shine A Light

A call for better prison policy in a time of austerity

As prisoner numbers soar in England and Wales MPs express grave concerns about rising suicides and increased assaults.

House of Commons Justice Committee
18 March 2015

Sir Alan Beith: 'We need to get away from arguments about which party is hard or soft on crime.'

In a major report published today, the Justice Committee concludes that levels of prison safety have reduced when measured against all criteria. The Committee supports the Government’s rationale of running prisons more efficiently and reducing expenditure through benchmarking and through replacing old prisons, but believes that it is of crucial importance that in doing so safety, decency, security and programmes of rehabilitation are maintained. (PDF here)

The report of a year-long inquiry into the impact of the Government’s programme of reforms and efficiency savings across the prison estate concludes that the combination of estate modernisation and re-configuration, efficiency savings and changes in operational policy, including to the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme, have made a significant contribution to the deterioration in safety. The Committee says increases in assaults on both staff and prisoners, together with the increase in suicides in prisons, are matters of grave concern.

The Committee also found that the fall in staffing levels stemming from redundancies and increased turnover, which at their most acute have resulted in severely restricted regimes, are bound to have reduced the consistency of relationships between officers and prisoners, and in turn affected safety. The Government failed to plan adequately for the risks inherent in staffing shortages and responded sluggishly when the problems they cause became apparent.

Despite recent reductions, the cost of each prison place remains high, and pressures on the prison system mean it is unlikely to fall in the near future. In particular, the success of the new-for-old capacity programme depends for its success on the ability of the MoJ to save money from further prison closures. This will not be possible if the population continues to grow, says the committee, as there will be insufficient places to meet demand.


The committee calls for a media and political debate on prison expenditure, arguing there is a need to re-evaluate how custody, and alternatives to it, are used in a cost-effective way which best promotes the safety of the public and reduces future crime: without such a debate, says the Committee, there is a very real danger of unmanageable growth in the prison population that will prevent prisons from reducing future crime.

Sir Alan Beith MP, Chair of the Justice Committee, said “Prison has been treated for too long as a ‘free good’. Failing to evaluate its cost effectiveness is fiscally irresponsible, particularly in the context of reduced public funding. We need to get away from arguments about which party is hard or soft on crime, and have a political and media debate which focuses on the three things which people care about: evidence of what works, public safety, and the effective use of taxpayers’ money.”


Prison staircase (NOMS)The Government’s new-for-old policy in relation to the prison estate is creating large, multi-purpose prisons. Meanwhile, questions about the relationship between the size and effectiveness of institutions remain unaddressed. The Committee argues that reconfiguration of the estate should have provided an opportunity to build smaller, more specialised establishments, for example, for young offenders and female offenders, in line with its previous recommendations. 

The Government has accepted that prisons are dealing with a more challenging mix of prisoners. The Committee therefore recommended that staffing levels may need to be revised upwards to ensure prisons are able to return to earlier levels of operational performance.

Further problems which the Committee also called for the Ministry of Justice to address include:

  • ·         low morale amongst prison officers and problems of retention of staff across the prison estate, and the impact of changes to the role of prison governors;
  • ·         the level of pressure prisons are working under, which risks undermining the positive impact of the “through-the-gate” support envisaged under the Transforming Rehabilitation programme: the increase in overcrowding prisons has undermined constructive regimes designed to encourage rehabilitation and so limited opportunities to reduce reoffending.
  • ·         the resources for capital investment in existing infrastructure that could aid efficiency in public sector prisons have not been found while private sector prisons have given priority to such investment. The Committee says that in-cell technology, for example, has the potential both to save money and improve prisoner and staff safety.

Sir Alan Beith MP concluded: “The Committee has repeatedly emphasised the dangers of allowing the prison population to escalate and consume huge resources which could be better spent on preventing crime, for example, by dealing with drug and alcohol addiction and further expanding programmes, like the Troubled Families programme. The public look to the criminal justice system to demonstrate that crime is taken seriously, but that means tackling and preventing crime effectively, not merely locking up more and more offenders at massive cost to the taxpayer.”





Prisons: planning and policies, published here on 18 March, 2015, is the Committee’s Ninth Report, HC 309. (PDF here)

The Committee’s members are: Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith (Liberal Democrat, Berwick-upon-Tweed) (Chair), Steve Brine (Conservative, Winchester), Rehman Chishti (Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham), Christopher Chope (Conservative, Christchurch), Jeremy Corbyn (Labour, Islington North), John Cryer (Labour, Leyton and Wanstead), Nick de Bois (Conservative, Enfield North), John Howell (Conservative, Henley), Rt Hon Elfyn Llwyd (Plaid Cymru, Dwyfor Meirionnydd) Andy McDonald (Labour, Middlesbrough), John McDonnell (Labour, Hayes and Harlington) Yasmin Qureshi (Labour, Bolton South East). 

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