Defendants wait in prisons for trial: Probation officers concerned by cuts in bail places. Jason Bennetto reports

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DEFENDANTS awaiting trial are having to stay in prisons because many bail and probation hostels are full following the Home Office decision to close 270 places, says a survey today.

The extra cost of keeping in jail vulnerable people who have not been convicted could be more than pounds 4m a year, the report says.

The disclosure comes as the prison population is about to top the record 50,000 level. Yesterday the total was 49,615 in England and Wales.

The survey, of 37 bail hostels, found that during the first three weeks of August occupancy levels were at 86 per cent on average. Government guidelines say the hostels should not be more than 80 per cent full.

Some hostels in Yorkshire, Manchester and the West Midlands had no places left, says the study by the National Association of Probation Officers. The probation service in the West Midlands has suspended the bail information scheme, which helps lawyers to find places for their clients at five prisons.

Yesterday the Home Office denied there was a problem and said that a survey it carried out in July found there were many spare places still available in hostels.

Courts send defendants to bail hostels if they are considered a 'low risk' and are not expected to run away, interfere with witnesses and commit offences. There are 104 hostels in England and Wales with 2,560 places. Residents have to observe a 11pm-7am curfew.

Last November the Home Office announced that 11 bail hostels would close by the spring, quoting a survey showing the low occupancy rate of 65 per cent during August 1993. The probation service and opposition MPs warned then that the move was based on an abnormal fall in the number of people being given bail.

The expected savings from the cut in hostel places is pounds 3.7m during the next two years. The association calculates that a similar rise in the prison population would cost pounds 6.2m per year.

Harry Fletcher, the assistant general secretary, said: 'The Home Office's closure plan was misguided and based on unreliable and untypical data. Now the system is at crisis point.'

A Home Office spokeswoman said: 'Our most up- to-date figures say there are more than 500 vacancies.'

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