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  • Writer's pictureDanny Shaw

It's a stretch

The Chancellor of the Exchequer is to invest billions of pounds in new prisons.

That was the gist of a key section of a Daily Telegraph front-page story about Rishi Sunak’s forthcoming spending review.

But haven’t we heard promises about new prisons before?

In November 2015, when George Osborne was Chancellor, the Government announced funding for an extra 10,000 prison places in England and Wales, including nine new jails. Five were to open by 2020.

None of them ever did.

The only new prison to be completed since then, Berwyn, in North Wales, had been in the pipeline well before the 2015 announcement with building work already underway.

In fact, only two of the nine proposed new jails got the go ahead - HMP Five Wells, Northamptonshire, which is due to start taking inmates next year; and Glen Parva, Leicestershire, which should be ready in 2023.

So much for that 2015 pledge.

Not to worry: in August 2019, the Government, with Boris Johnson by now in charge, made a fresh commitment on prison building - up to £2.5bn would be spent on an additional 10,000 places. These 10,000, we were told, were separate to the original 10,000 which had failed to materialise as anticipated.

As part of these new, new 10,000 places, ministers said four jails would be built, two at sites, yet to be identified, in south-east England; one in north-west England; and one next to HMP Full Sutton, East Yorkshire. Capacity would also be expanded at four existing prisons with the construction of new house-blocks.

A year on, we're bracing ourselves for yet another statement about building new prisons. The Telegraph says £1.25bn will be “injected” into the penal system as part of a £4bn settlement over four years, leading to an extra 18,000 places. The details will presumably be set out in the next day or so. Let’s hope the Chancellor, or the Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland, makes clear whether these are new spending undertakings or part of the 2019 plan. Do the extra 18,000 places include the 10,000 promised last year and the 3,500 expected when Five Wells and Glen Parva open? If so, where will the remaining 4,500 places come from? Is this genuinely a new announcement - or simply flesh on the bones of a previous announcement in the hope of generating fresh headlines? It’s a trick that governments of all persuasions are not averse to playing.

Safe, decent and secure modern prisons, which make the best use of technology to increase access to education, training and family contact, are to be welcomed, particularly if it means outdated and costly facilities can be shut down. They also create work for the construction industry and, when finished, steady jobs for the local area.

But there is a huge difference between promising to build new establishments - and delivering on the promise. As the Government found when it tried and failed to get planning consent for a 1600-place new jail at Port Talbot, South Wales, the process is far from straightforward. Even when approval is granted, it can take many years for the prison gates to open.

There’s a bigger question too: can the Government afford a prison building project on this scale?

Between 2017 and 2019, the Ministry of Justice and the Treasury had to redirect some of the planned capital spending on the 10,000 prison places promised in 2015. The money went instead, according to Buckland, towards "day-to-day" spending to “manage wider pressures in the justice system”.

The pressures have not gone away. Since the coronavirus outbreak they have intensified, with backlogs of court cases; growing delays for victims and defendants awaiting trial; and mounting concerns that offenders completing their sentences have not undergone adequate rehabilitation and have little prospect of employment or housing.

Promising thousands of new prison places may command popular support - but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t happen.

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