Mr Speaker, on this side of the House we have been calling for an end to the government's reckless early release scheme for some time. In principle, it is something to be welcomed. But as always with this government, you have to check the fine print.
The House will recall that the introduction of the early release scheme was a direct result of this Prime Minister's failure. As Chancellor, he choked funding for the prison cells the Home Secretary had asked for, the capacity required to meet official projections for the prison population.
The consequences of that failure have been stark. 80,000 criminals let out of jail early. Including 15,000 violent offenders and two terrorists. Those released went on to commit 1,500 crimes, including several rape and murder offences.
Given this record, Mr Speaker, it is vital to bring the scheme to a close. That must be done by providing the cells to house the prisoners, and protect the public. Yet over the last 6 months, the Justice Secretary has shelved plans for a prison in North Wales and one in Dagenham.
That leaves a gaping hole in the government's plans. Can the Justice Secretary confirm that, on the Government's own projections, taking into account planned increases in capacity, prison population will exceed operational capacity by July 2011? They are his department's projections. Can he confirm them?
Mr Speaker, not only do we have his department's projections. I have personally received a letter complaining that the Justice Secretary has been warned by his officials that prison population will continue to rise over, without adequate capacity in place, creating a crisis of overcrowding within 2 years. He has a track record of ignoring government legal advice. Can he say categorically that he has not received any official advice warning that ending early release cannot be sustained for more than a temporary period?
Mr Speaker, today the Minister of State has also released a written statement to the House announcing a new contract which will promote the use of Home Detention Curfew.
The Minister is explicit. She says the government wants and I quote:
'courts and prison governors to make greater use of conditional bail and early release on Home Detention Curfew' than they do at present?
It seems what the Justice Secretary gives with one hand he takes with the other. Can he confirm that this will not simply mean more early release under another label?
Mr Speaker, let there be no doubt. On this side of the House we want an end to early release. But, it would compound the very recklessness of the scheme to end it when that can only be done temporarily. Or to re-introduce it under another name.
On 9 February, the Minister of State was asked whether the government had plans to end early release.
She denied such plans, but stated that the government would end early release, and I quote, 'as soon as is practically possible'.
What in less than two weeks has rendered what was then practically impossible today possible?
Could it be the timing of the end of the scheme, on 12 March just weeks before an election is called which only confirms our fears that the government is acting out of political desperation, not the national interest.
Is the Justice Secretary talking tough on crime before the election, to make it tough on us after?