Sending prisoners abroad to cost at least £200m and won’t happen until 2026, government’s own report warns

Justice secretary Alex Chalk plans to send prisoners to jails abroad to ease overcrowding

Holly Bancroft
Social Affairs Correspondent
Wednesday 22 November 2023 15:12 GMT
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The government’s own report highlights major flaws in the plan

Plans to send UK prisoners to jails abroad will cost at least £200million and won’t happen until 2026, the government’s own assessments show.

Justice secretary Alex Chalk pledged at the Tory conference in October to send criminals overseas in a desperate bid to ease overcrowding in England’s prisons.

But new impact assessments published as part of the Criminal Justice Bill reveal that Ministry of Justice (MoJ) officials think the plan will likely cost £202.9million over 10 years. That could amount to £35,000 per prison place per year, but officials admitted prices were “highly uncertain”.

The MoJ expects to be able to send at least 500 prisoners to foreign jails, and up to 1,000, but the most likely scenario is 600 places, officials predict.

Justice secretary Alex Chalk has pledged to send criminals abroad, to relieve pressure on UK prisons

When the plans were unveiled, the government cited similar measures introduced in European countries including Norway and Belgium which saw hundreds of prisoners sent to the Netherlands. But no further details on where prisoners could be sent have been revealed.

The estimated cost of the plans range from £169.1million to £338.1million, but the most likely figure is around £200million, the report says.

This excludes the cost of healthcare for relocated prisoners so the totals would likely be higher. However, the assessment acknowledges that “the full costs of this policy are unknown” as the plan depends on which countries agree to take inmates.

The plan will only deliver a “marginal operating cost saving”, according to the current estimates.

Officials said the estimated annual cost of £35,000 per prison place abroad should not be directly compared to the cost per place in the UK, which is £46,696. Instead they say £1,800 per place is saved each year by sending prisoners abroad.

This leads to savings of £700,000-£1.4m over the 10 years.

Officials also assume that the policy wouldn’t start until April 2026 and expects each prisoner to serve two years in a foreign jail before being returned to the UK.

According to the assessment, prisoners who are sent abroad would have the same frequency of family visits as those kept in the UK – in accordance with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which states that everyone has a right to a private and family life.

“It has not been determined who would bear the cost of these visits”, MoJ officials wrote.

They acknowledged that criminal defence lawyers would also be affected by the policy as “they will be required to either speak over the phone or travel to the foreign jurisdiction”.

In the assessment summary, MoJ officials said that “without intervention, the government is at risk of not being able to provide prison places to all those sentenced and overcrowding within prisons may continue”.

The chair of the Prison Governor’s Association, Andrea Albutt, has previously warned that there are only a “few hundred” spaces left in adult male prisons in England and Wales, saying: “We are now bust on prison places”.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “It costs around £47,000 to lock up prisoners in the UK so this law change aims to reduce costs and mirrors similar schemes already used by Belgium and Norway.

“The costs are estimates as we are still in early discussions with partner countries and delivering value will be a priority in any agreement.”

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