Cutting prisoner numbers needs a prevention plan, not half-baked thinking

The recent Lords debate on how we can keep people out of prison showed parliament at its best
Lord Elton told an interesting story in the Crossbench debate last Thursday about the overcrowding in our prisons. With the prison population almost touching 86,000, we have had mad situations where once recently there were 20 prison officers to look after 1000 prisoners.

Prison officer numbers are down 7,000 from 25,000 a decade ago. Yet the population of prisons has increased and, with it, the loss of any idea of rehabilitation. You can’t turn people in a different direction when officers don’t have the time to even escort prisoners from one block to another.

Much of the two-and-a-half-hour debate centred on reducing the prison population by not giving out such long sentences, releasing more offenders more quickly, and addressing the appalling statistic that 46 per cent of prisoners leaving are wrongdoing within the year.

If we want to reduce the prison population, we have to stop producing the people who make up the population
What the discussion was about was managing resources and limiting the increase by sentencing changes. And of course addressing the reasons why people end up in prison in the first place.

Also, as raised by Lord Lee of Trafford, some fascinating thinking by groups like Timpson, the key-cutting, shoes and watch repair shop chain that takes 10 per cent of its staff from those recently released from prison. And by this kind of innovation, you reduce reoffending and therefore can reduce the population size.

Over 35 peers were each given three minutes and the ideas and observations came thick and fast.

Lord Elton was prison minister 45 years ago in the days when Willie Whitelaw was in charge. He described how, on one occasion, if they had put another 12 people in prison, they would have had to summarily release people who hadn’t yet completed their sentences because they had reached over-capacity.

He said it was tight and painful, but what did he do when he left office? He did not start advocating the building of more prisons. Instead, he started a charity to work with children to stop them moving towards criminality. He said it was extraordinary how little money was involved in bringing a little bit of help to tap into the enthusiasm, energy and enterprise of people who might otherwise go towards wrongdoing.

I was gobsmacked as I listened. I had given my own three minutes where I talked about just that. That if we want to reduce the prison population, we have to stop producing the people who make up the population. That with us failing 37 per cent of our children in schools, and prisons always full of people who did badly in education, you can see that there’s a failing machine, failing to function.

And that as Lord Elton realised, that for all of the incredible things you can do to get people out and keep them out – things done by fantastic groups like The Clink, or Blue Sky – not getting them in in the first instance is a much wiser proposition.

For as Freedom Bakery in Glasgow, a bakery that teaches inmates to make artisanal bread inside for a job outside, has reported, a reformed person who stays in work for two years after release saves the taxpayer about £940,000.

What an incredible waste of human and tax resources! That’s where the big sums don’t add up. With reoffending costing between £9.5bn and £13bn a year, we’re spending our money unwisely.

There should be a box-set of great moments in Parliament. This debate would get into such a box-set

The range of knowledge and opinion really does underline the high-level of debate possible in the House of retired judges and politicians, mixed in with business, teaching and medical expertise.

Prisons are becoming not just overcrowded and places of dread, with suicide way above the national average, as Baroness Hollins emphasised. The mental health problems of such an environment cut deep; they are becoming unmanageable, or perhaps just about manageable, as prison officer cuts leave us perilously near meltdown. As recent outbreaks of riots have shown, the boiling point is high.

The UK Government has an ambitious plan to add 10,000 new places, with the phasing out of the old and appalling Victorian jails. More prison officers, more mental health support, more of everything. And, if it comes, it is certainly needed.

But at the other end of the scale, as Lord Elton said, and as I concurred, we have to stop the production of social failure that socially disables people in their early lives and opens the way for crime to breed.

There should be a box-set of great moments in Parliament. Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, a former Supreme Court Justice – who initiated our discussion – brought us together to try and kick a hole in this terrible blight on our society, as many peers pointed out. This debate would get into such a box-set.

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I got in a little comment that I hoped wouldn’t be taken as too illiberal. When they talked about how tough sentencing had become, how much longer and more often used, I pointed out part of my story. Of the poor 14-year-old boy, who got sent to a detention centre and given a vicious, mind-altering ‘short, sharp shock’. His crime? Stealing a bike.

Or the same child 12 months later being given a three to five-year custodial sentence for embezzling £5. The child, now grown, stood before different lordships last week and pointed out that there wasn’t some golden age from which we’ve now retreated.

Of course, now the meat has to be truly attached to the bone and the proof of the pudding is still to be found in the eating. We look for delivery, although we know there are alternatives to more prisons.

More libraries? More diverse schooling that taps into the genius of the young? More educators and social trainers? And, of course, more social service supporters to lift people’s perspectives away from wrongdoing, and towards do-gooding.

Watch Lord Bird’s speech at or read it at

Main image: Freedom Bakery