‘Secret’ plans to release prisoners 70 days early ‘risk public safety’, warns probation union

Exclusive: Union leaders warn it is becoming increasingly difficult to protect public from potential reoffending

Andy Gregory
Wednesday 08 May 2024 18:21 BST
New plans to release prisoners up to 70 days early were rolled out ‘under secrecy’, Labour has alleged
New plans to release prisoners up to 70 days early were rolled out ‘under secrecy’, Labour has alleged (Alamy/Getty)

New government plans to free prisoners up to 70 days early to free up space in full-to-bursting jails pose an “increasing risk to public safety”, the probation union has said.

Justice secretary Alex Chalk first unveiled plans in October to free inmates early up to 18 days early to ease pressure on the buckling prison system, before quietly extending this “to around 35-60 days” in March, when The Independent revealed leaked documents showing that women’s prisons were also eligible.

Emails to prison and probation staff leaked to The Times now show the government has once again been forced to extend the so-called end of supervised custody licence (ECSL) scheme, this time to 70 days, starting from 23 May.

The government insisted the newly revealed changes were ‘entirely transparent’
The government insisted the newly revealed changes were ‘entirely transparent’ (iStock/Getty)

Dubbing the new rollout under “a cloak of secrecy” a “national scandal”, Labour’s Shabana Mahmood told MPs: “The government is releasing prisoners but not the facts. The strategy is clear for all to see – say nothing, try to get away with it, and get to the other side of the general election. It’s shameless and frankly a disgrace.”

Insisting to the Commons that the new extension was “entirely transparent” and in line with Mr Chalk’s previous statements on the scheme, prisons minister Edward Argar cited the fact that operational guidance had been sent out in advance to prison and probation leaders, including the probation union Napo.

But speaking to The Independent, the union’s general secretary Ian Lawrence said: “I think the minster is being economical with the truth in terms of so-called engagement with my union.

“Of course we’ve been involved with consultation to try and shape the schemes to deal with issues [arising from the ECSL scheme]. But that does not mean we agree,” he said, calling for an urgent meeting with Mr Chalk – whom he last met in November.

He added: “We have spent many months trying to convince the secretary of state that in order for early release schemes to work in an effective and safe manner, it has to be recognised that the probation service is also over capacity, and that the members we represent are also now at breaking point.”

Releasing prisoners early merely ‘kicks the can down the road’, the Prison Governors Association warned
Releasing prisoners early merely ‘kicks the can down the road’, the Prison Governors Association warned (Getty/The Independent)

“The ECSL scheme is an unmitigated failure and has not only been extended without parliamentary scrutiny but represents an increasing risk to public safety.”

Alleging that ministers had “failed to heed our warnings” on relieving the workload of probation staff and improving their pay, Mr Lawrence warned that the union was now considering whether to ballot members for potential industrial action.

And he warned that Napo was also exploring the possibility of mounting a legal challenge to the government over the early-release scheme, telling The Independent: “We don’t believe our members are able to safely manage these offenders.”

“We’ve never been against the idea of people coming off sentences early,” he said. “We just don’t believe our people can cope with it to the extent they’re being asked. That just means mistakes will happen, people will go on to reoffend and could well mean serious further offences down the track. That’s our major concern.”

Also citing the “huge burden” on probation officers, Prison Governors Association chief Tom Wheatley similarly warned that the early-release scheme’s multiple extensions “mean that ensuring that the public are protected is becoming more difficult”.

“ECSL doesn’t solve the problem of prison capacity, it simply ‘kicks the can down the road’ and allows the system to limp on,” Mr Wheatley told The Independent.

“As we limp along, more and more effort is needed to keep going; this is continually distracting our members away from their duty to rehabilitate prisoners. The criminal justice system is in a death spiral.”

But due to poor planning and brinksmanship by successive governments, there is no other option but to extend the scheme, Mr Wheatley said, adding: “It just so happens that it is this government which holds the cards as we go bust.”

Urging ministers to take a longer-term approach to reducing the prison population, the veteran prison governor said: “Drastic action is needed now to avert irreversible damage being done and there must be cross party co-operation to introduce meaningful headroom in prisons.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We will always ensure there is enough capacity to keep dangerous offenders behind bars. We are carrying out the biggest prison expansion programme in a hundred years, opening up 20,000 modern places, and ramping up work to remove foreign national offenders.

“To ease the short-term pressures on prisons, in March we announced an increase in the number of days governors could, under existing powers, move some offenders at the end of their prison term on to licence. These offenders will continue to be supervised under strict conditions such as tagging and curfews.”

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