risons are under “huge pressure”, a Government minister admitted on Thursday, following reports that judges have been told not to send some rapists and burglars to jail because they are full.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay refused to confirm or deny reports that courts would not be able to jail convicted criminals due to prisons nearing capacity.
He told Sky News: “It’s a longstanding convention ministers don’t comment on leaks. The Lord Chancellor will make a statement to Parliament on Monday.”
But he said that jails are “under huge pressure”, and that is the case in “many countries”, adding it is due to the Government ensuring prisoners are in jail “for longer” and because of “pressures as a result of Covid”.
“We have an absolute commitment to protect the public,” Mr Barclay added.
Lord Edis, the senior presiding judge in England and Wales, has ordered that sentencing of convicted criminals who are currently on bail be delayed from Monday, The Times reported.
Those spared being put behind bars could include convicts found guilty of burglary and rape, the newspaper said.
It quoted an anonymous senior judge as saying that they had been “ordered/strongly encouraged” during a meeting not to send to jail a defendant who appears before them on bail due to concerns that cells are at capacity.
The Judicial Office, which supports the judiciary, said it would not comment on what was said during an internal meeting.
The independent body said it could not confirm whether new guidance on sentencing had been issued to judges.
Labour, responding to the report, said it was a “damning indictment of the state of our prisons” under the Conservative UK government.
Security minister Tom Tugendhat said the report was “new on me” so could not comment without speaking to the Justice Secretary.
He told Sky News’ Politics Hub programme that a “wave of prosecutions… and therefore a wave of detentions” were coming through the system following delays caused by coronavirus and the barristers’ strike.
The senior Tory said: “We’re making sure that those who commit the most sexual acts are not able to get early release and that is putting extra pressure on our prison places.
“We’ve already got 2,500 more prison places now and we are increasing that to 20,000 more.”
The UK’s prison population has grown substantially since the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and, according to the latest figures, there are now 88,016 prisoners locked up.
As of October 6, capacity across the whole prison estate stood at 88,667.
Andrea Albut, president of the Prison Governors’ Association, recently said jails in England and Wales are “bust” of space and may run out of places to house offenders this week.
She said male jails are running at more than 99.6 per cent of capacity and women’s prisons are 96 per cent full.
It comes after Justice Secretary Alex Chalk told the Conservative Party conference last week that the Government plans to rent prison spaces from foreign countries in order to address the increasing demands on the UK’s prison system.
The Tory administration plans to create 20,000 extra prison places by the mid 2020s, but those proposals are reportedly delayed due to planning disagreements.
Ministry of Justice (MoJ) officials said the numbers of people on remand — when a defendant is held in custody while awaiting trial — has soared from 9,500 before the pandemic to 15,000 as of June.
A spokesman for the department said: “Our first priority is to keep the public safe from dangerous criminals.
“That is why we have ended automatic halfway release for serious sexual and violent criminals and increased the average time spent in prison by three years – cutting violent crime by nearly 50% since 2010.
“However, the criminal justice system has seen unprecedented growth in the prison population, following the pandemic and barristers’ strike, particularly among those awaiting trial, with 6,000 more prisoners on remand than pre-pandemic.
“The Prison Service has already put in place measures such as rapid deployment cells and doubling up cells to help manage these pressures, and the Government is carrying out the biggest prison building campaign since the Victorian era to build 20,000 new places, making sure we always have the places we need.”
The Times also reported that some prisoners will be released early as of next week under proposals from justice ministers to lower the prison population.
It is understood that while early release measures are an option to ensure legal obligations on safe prison capacity are met, no decision has been made by ministers on triggering such an order.
Shabana Mahmood, Labour’s shadow justice secretary, said: “It is an absolutely damning indictment of the state of our prisons that this Tory government is unable to either get criminals locked up or keep them there.
“The prison estate is a mess. Prisons are overcrowded and have become breeding grounds for more crime.”