Crisis in prison system shows the Conservatives are no longer the party of law and order - Andrew Vine

Serious convicted offenders are going to be walking free in Yorkshire this week, despite judges believing they ought to be in jail. That is because, as of yesterday, crown courts have been told to delay the sentencing of offenders on bail because Britain is running out of prison places.

So the person in the next seat on the bus or train, or queuing behind any of us at the supermarket might conceivably be a rapist, a sexual abuser of children or a serial burglar who a judge believes ought to be in prison for reasons of public safety but is instead, for now, at liberty.

What an appalling state of affairs. And what an indictment of Government mismanagement of the entire criminal justice system, which is creaking from top to bottom as a result of being starved of resources for years.

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The traditional Conservative claim to be the party of law and order is a sham that does not stand scrutiny. Tough talk is not backed up by action and a public that expects protection from crime and retribution for those who commit it is being failed.

A file photo of a door being closed by a prison guard. PIC: PAA file photo of a door being closed by a prison guard. PIC: PA
A file photo of a door being closed by a prison guard. PIC: PA

Last week, Lord Justice Eldis, the senior presiding judge for England and Wales asked his colleagues in the crown courts to delay sentencings, which means at least some offenders they consider should be locked up remain free.

There is no room for them. The country’s jails, which can hold more than 88,600 prisoners, are almost full, and with the Ministry of Justice forecasting that the prison population will rise above 94,000 by 2025, this is a problem that will only get worse.

Last year, a similar crisis saw 400 police cells pressed into service to hold convicted prisoners.

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It is a measure of how the Government has mismanaged the issue that ministers are considering sending prisoners to jails abroad, which smacks of desperation and will undoubtedly be the subject of legal challenges by offenders objecting that their families are unable to visit.

The inability of courts to jail those who deserve to lose their liberty has been a long time coming and the warnings of those who work in criminal justice have been ignored by ministers, whose arrogance is now coming back to haunt them.

Talk to any police or prison officer, or those involved in the management of offenders outside prison, and they will tell you that the system is at breaking point.

In August, writing in The Yorkshire Post, South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings warned that prisons were running out of space, and more needed to be done to rehabilitate offenders to bring prisoner numbers down.

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He is right, of course, that reducing crime must involve rehabilitation to reduce high re-offending rates, but efforts to do so are being compromised by the same Government failures to fund the system properly.

One measure of that was the strike by barristers – about as far from a militant group of people as it is possible to get – over their pay.

And last week, at about the same time courts were being asked not to imprison offenders, the Police Federation warned that there are simply not enough officers to attend every crime, despite chief constables’ pledge to do so.

Meanwhile, supermarkets have to lock away or security-tag everything from joints of meat to jars of coffee in an effort to stem the tide of shoplifting.

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Ministers have lost the plot on crime and punishment to such a degree that they are descending into absurdity.

Witness the intervention of policing minister Chris Philp, who urged the public to carry out citizens’ arrests of shoplifters, an irresponsible thing to do because it potentially exposes people to assault or wounding, and a course of action that would be strongly discouraged by any police officer who knows the realities of trying to detain an offender.

The Government’s record on law and order is woeful, and stretches across the whole of its time in office.

Theresa May, who has just published a self-serving memoir in which she makes great play of her sense of duty, presided over massive cuts to police numbers while Home Secretary, and then appeared surprised when crime went up.

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Her successor as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, trumpeted the recruitment of 20,000 extra officers as a great leap forward, conveniently avoiding mentioning that it would only restore numbers to the level they were at before Mrs May’s cuts.

The stark reality is that on this Government’s watch, our society has become a less safe place, despite the prisons being stuffed to bursting.