Reid Unveils Prison Crisis Package

A sweeping range of incentives to persuade foreign prisoners to go home was unveiled last night by John Reid, the home secretary, in an attempt to defuse the jail overcrowding crisis.

Prisoners from countries outside the European Economic Area (EEA ) – which comprises the 25 EU nations plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein – will be offered a package worth between £500 and £2,500 to go home, rather than face detention while they are considered for deportation. Others will be encouraged to serve the remainder of their sentences in jails in their home countries.

“It costs £37,000 a year to keep someone in prison. It’s a lot cheaper than keeping them in prison,” said one Home Office official. The Home Office stressed last night that the incentives were not a cash handout. “The support will take the form of education, accommodation, medical care, training, or assistance with starting a business,” a statement said.

Mr Reid also in effect gave the green light to foreign prisoners from inside the EEA to stay in the UK at the end of their sentences – in the short term at least – by announcing that the Home Office would no longer contest appeals against deportation. This move in effect quickens their release by abandoning the detention of prisoners held while deportation is considered. The government has been defeated by EEA nationals in several cases in the courts. In the longer term Mr Reid promised he would change the law “to strengthen the link between criminality and deportation” and ensure the government won more cases.

As expected, the home secretary announced a return to 2002’s Operation Safeguard, under which up to 500 prisoners will be held in police cells. The Metropolitan police and 18 other forces have agreed to take prisoners. Mr Reid said the scheme was “not ideal, but it is tried and tested”. The home secretary told the Commons that the prison population yesterday stood at 79,819, slightly down on the weekend figure but only 234 short of the newly calculated limit on prison capacity of 80,053.

“Why do we have to have a crisis to get action out of this government?” David Davis, the shadow home secretary, demanded. Mr Reid insisted that the government had the situation under control, but the system faced short-term pressures, he said, created by the introduction of tough new sentences in the 2003 Criminal Justice Act and his initial decision to refuse to release foreign prisoners at the end of their sentence before they had been considered for deportation.

The government says that by December a converted army barracks in Dover will provide an extra 200 prison places. A former secure hospital in Ashworth, near Liverpool, will soon offer a further 350 places. Mr Reid said that two women’s prisons are to take male prisoners, on the advice of the Prison Service.

The Liberal Democrats accused Mr Reid of offering a “bribe” to foreign prisoners. Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem home affairs spokesman, said: “What has the home secretary been doing for the last six months if his efforts to solve the foreign prisoner crisis now amount to a vague pledge to sort the problem out by next spring, and an even vaguer plan to bribe them to go back home?”

Mr Davis said: “By definition, these are not people who you can trust to be honest. Have we got the border controls to make this work? The answer is no. How will we stop these people ripping off the taxpayer and coming back?”

There are about 8,000 prisoners from outside the EEA in jails in England and Wales. Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said Mr Reid’s statement “amounts to nothing more than a ragbag of desperate measures that at best will buy a few weeks’ respite”.

Main points

· Police cells to be used to house up to 500 prisoners

· Packages worth up to £2,500 for prisoners from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) to return home

· Appeals against deporting prisoners from EEA countries no longer contested

· More inmates to go to open prisons

· 200 prison places to be created by December in a converted army barracks

· Two women’s jails to take men

· Former secure unit in Liverpool to be converted into a prison

· Encouragement of courts to use electronic tagging rather than prisons

· Greater use of community punishments

· 8,000 extra prison places by 2012