Justice Questions, June 2008

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): In less than a year, the Government have released more than 26,000 prisoners early because there are not enough prison places, including 5,000 violent offenders and even terrorists. Ministers are keen to detain suspects without charge for ever longer periods, but they were happy to release convicted terrorists early, until we found out about it. Since his predecessor described the end of custody licence scheme as "temporary", will the Justice Secretary now be more precise than he was earlier and tell us exactly when he hopes to scrap it?

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): I answered the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) about that. I wish that I could be more precise, but let me tell the hon. Gentleman, lest he was not listening when I was talking about this before, that our record on ensuring sufficient prison places for offenders is infinitely better than that of the previous Conservative Administration. At one stage, they did not have a couple of hundred prisoners in police cells; they had 3,500, and the numbers continued year after year. Every so often, when the previous Government ran into a crisis, instead of ensuring that more prisons were built, what did they do? They just released another 3,500 or more.

Nick Herbert: I note that the Justice Secretary did not deny that he knew that the Government were releasing terrorists early before scrapping the scheme. Let me help him, since he will not say precisely when the scheme will be scrapped. Last month, the Prime Minister said that he would not even take a decision on early release until there were 86,000 prison places. That will not be for at least a year. Is that what the Justice Secretary meant when he said that the Prime Minister was"cautious in his decision-making"?

Also, can the Justice Secretary confirm that at least another 30,000 criminals will therefore be freed early before the Prime Minister stops dithering and finally scraps this appalling scheme?

Mr. Straw: First, the scheme needs to be put into perspective. I regret that it has had to be used, but it is about releasing offenders two and a half weeks earlier than they would otherwise be released and it applies in the context of overall sentences having increased, not decreased, over the past 10 years, which is one of the reasons for the pressure on prisons. I wish that I could be a soothsayer, as the hon. Gentleman seems to imply, and say exactly what is going to happen to the numbers jailed by the courts and the number of prison places available in future-the latter is a little easier to predict than the former. All I can say to him, however, is that we are working extremely hard to ensure that the record increase in prison places since 1997-twice the rate achieved under the previous Administration-accelerates even faster so that we can end the scheme as quickly as possible.

Nick Herbert