Tories accused over jail costs

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Ministers were accused yesterday of misleading Parliament and the public by falsely claiming that private jails are cheaper than those run by the state.

Anne Widdecombe, minister at the Home Office, told a Prison Service conference last month that private prisons were between 15 and 20 per cent cheaper than their state counterparts. She was explaining the loss of 3,000 jobs in the state sector at a time when inmate numbers were at record levels.

In January, William Waldegrave, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, told the Commons: "Private sector prisons have demonstrated greater efficiency than those retained and run directly in the traditional way."

But internal finance documents - obtained by Labour - showed that for the six months ending in September last year, some state prisons cost less per inmate than those in the private sector.

Comparing five similar prisons - two private and three state-run - Labour said the average cost to the taxpayer per inmate in a private jail was pounds 18,740, compared with an average pounds 18,590 in state jails.

The prison at Doncaster, run by the Florida-based companies Serco and Wackenhut, cost pounds 19,694 and was the most expensive.

George Howarth, Labour's spokesman on prisons, said: "Home Office ministers have consistently argued that cuts in the prison budget can be met by the process of privatisation.

"The statistics we have revealed clearly show that claims made by the Government are without justification.

"The information that we revealed today has been available to the government since September. Home Office ministers must have known about them."