Sadiq Khan, the Shadow Justice Secretary, took to these pages earlier to claim that ‘This Government’s disastrous prisons policy is putting the public at risk.’ He’s been trying to claim for months that we have a prison crisis, and it is quite simply not true.
Let’s start with some simple truths.
The figures published yesterday showed that prison overcrowding is falling.
And it’s much lower than it was under Labour.
That the amount of practical work, often with employers who will give a job to those prisoners when they are released, is rising steadily.
And it’s far higher than it was under Labour.
That the number of people who self-harm in prison is lower than it was two years ago.
And it’s lower than under Labour.
The number of assaults on staff is lower than it was under Labour.
The number of positive drug tests is lower than it was under Labour.
The number of escapes from custody is lower than it was under Labour.
The number of people who abscond from open prison is a fraction of what it was under Labour.
And all of that is being achieved by a prison service that has had to reduce its costs substantially, as has the rest of the public sector as we deal with the mess that Labour left behind.
Yes there are some challenges. The rate of suicide in prison has increased significantly – and that’s a worry. It’s a trend that is happening across society, not just in prisons, particularly among young men. It’s something we are looking at carefully. No one has yet come up with a credible explanation.
But it’s not to do with cuts. We know that because this has also been an issue in prisons which have seen no change to staffing and in some places where staffing has increased.
We’ve also seen an increase in the number of serious assaults in the past year. There are various reasons for this, but in particular our staff say they are dealing with more complex prisoners with mental health problems than has been the case in the past. Any assault on a prison officer is unacceptable, and we are working with the Crown Prosecution Service to make sure every assault is prosecuted. That never happened in the past.
And we are pushing through a complex change programme to cope with lower budgets. I am grateful to our hard working staff for the work they are doing to deliver this change.
But this wasn’t a creation of ministers. It was put forward by staff and governors themselves as an alternative to privatisation of prisons, and it is the plan that they designed which is being put into place in prisons. So when the unions raise concerns, it is worth remembering that they themselves shaped the changes we are putting in place.
But if I would politely remind the unions that they designed that change programme, I take a rather more robust view of Labour’s position. They claim that there is a crisis in our prisons. Let me tell them what a real crisis looks like.
A real crisis is when you have to buy in thousands of police cells all over the country every night because you have mismanaged the prison system and run out of places.
A real crisis is when you have to introduce a special scheme to let prisoners out weeks ahead of their normal release date because you haven’t enough room for them all – leaving many of them to commit crimes all over again when they should have been behind bars.
A real crisis is when you have four prisoners a day walking out of open prisons, not four prisoners a week.
All of that happened when they were in power, and with much higher budgets than today. They have no right to lecture anyone else about prison management.
And now they say they would match our spending plans next year, and yet oppose all the difficult decisions we are taking to deliver those plans. It’s a ludicrous position to take.
We have a simple strategy for prisons. I want the courts to be able to send everyone who deserves it to prison. So we are increasing the size of the adult male prison estate by 3,000 places during this parliament. Prison numbers are rising as more serious offenders, like sex offenders, go to jail. We are opening more places to cope – 2,000 extra in the next nine months.
I want the regime to be tougher – so we’ve removed many of the privileges that victims and members of the public simply didn’t believe should be a part of prison life. And that doesn’t include books, which are still freely and rightly available in prisons.
To do all of that, I want our prison system to be more cost effective. So we have looked at best practice across public and private prisons, and are bringing down costs to the level of the best – as our staff and unions recommended.
So to Labour I say this. If you are seriously hoping to be in power this time next year, it’s about time you started setting out what you would do differently. Because so far all I have heard is serial oppositionism, and no real strategy at all.
Chris Grayling is Secretary of States for Justice and Conservative MP for Epsom and Ewell.