Crime victims' cash goes to upgrade prisons

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The Independent Online
A looming crisis in the prison service has forced the Home Office to take pounds 90m from funds intended for victims of crime and spend it on extra cells and improved security in jails, it emerged yesterday. The Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme was budgeted to pay out pounds 262m in the year up to April 1997, but the Home Office now believes it will need less than two-thirds of that amount.

The move was immediately attacked by groups representing victims, and by Labour MPs who argued that the fund had already been cut after changes introduced in April. But Home Office sources stressed yesterday that victims would not suffer and that everyone awarded compensation would be paid.

The emergency measure comes because of the rapidly rising prison population and the Treasury's refusal to provide extra funds. The additional pounds 90m this year is to pay towards an extra 4,500 places in prison, and help upgrade security at five "core" local prisons used to house some high- risk Category A inmates. The decision follows months of lobbying by the Prison Service amid dire warnings of overflowing jails and likely disorder. Estimates predict a population of 60,000 by autumn next year, compared with the 55,000 now behind bars.

Penal reformers and Labour MPs believe the decision of Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, to divert money from the CICS reveals the desperation of ever-spiralling prison costs . Jack Straw, shadow home secretary, said: "Nothing better illustrates the Tories' failure on law and order than the spectacle of the victims of serious violent crime having to foot the bill for the crisis in our prisons."

In April Mr Howard was criticised for his decision to change the CICS from one where victims were paid according to their circumstances, to a cheaper tariff-based system.

Helen Peggs, spokeswoman of Victim Support, said: "If the Home Office thinks there is spare money available it should go to victims of crime. Richard Tilt, Prison Service director general, welcomed the cash since the system faced a budget cut of 13.3 per cent over three years.