Labour declines to rule out ending early prisoner release scheme

Labour’s head of justice has declined to rule out her party ending the Tories’ early prisoner release scheme, despite Sir Keir Starmer saying he was “critical” of the strategy.

The plan introduced under Rishi Sunak allows certain prisoners to be released up to 70 days before the end of their sentence in an effort to ease overcrowding in prisons in England and Wales.

The Tories had previously promised to deliver 20,000 new prison places, and 6,000 have been created so far.

Labour said it would ensure the delivery of the remaining 14,000 by unblocking the planning process and boosting the prison-building programme.

Shadow justice secretary Shabana Mahmood declined to rule out ending the early release scheme, as she said Labour would need to “lift the bonnet” in government before knowing the true extent of the crisis in prisons.

She told the BBC: “I think actually the Government needs to level with the public. We all know that prisons are running at either 98% capacity or 99%.

Wakefield Prison, Yorkshire.
Patrol outside Wakefield Prison, Yorkshire, as the shadow justice secretary spoke about Labour’s plans for prisons (PA)

“It is a dereliction of duty that the Government hasn’t actually released all of the figures about their early release scheme – they’ve actually been doing that in secret.

“It would be irresponsible for me from opposition, without seeing the data about the number of offenders that have been released or having all of that information, to make those decisions now.”

When again asked if she would rule out continuing early release, Ms Mahmood said: “It would be irresponsible to make those decisions from opposition without all of the information to hand.

“An incoming Labour government, if we’re privileged enough to win, would have to lift that bonnet and see what horrors await.”

Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg
Shabana Mahmood appearing on the BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg (Jeff Overs/BBC/PA)

At a campaign event in Essex, Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer said he was “critical” of the early release scheme for prisoners but added that “tough decisions” would have to be taken.

The former head of the Crown Prosecution Service and barrister said: “I am critical of the Tories’ early release scheme because what’s happened is that they’re releasing early prisoners who should still be in prison and that’s a shocking state of affairs.

“Like the many problems that they have left for the country, if we do come into power we’re going to have to fix it.

“Now that will involve building prisons, that will involve taking tough decisions because the money has been allocated for prison building but there are tough decisions about planning and getting those prisons up.”

General Election campaign 2024
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer helps to serve drinks during a visit to 3 Lock’s Brewery in Camden. He has said he was critical of the Tories’ prisoner release plans (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

On Sunday Sir Keir also reiterated his commitment not to raise income tax, national insurance or VAT in a future Government, despite a report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) that tax rises would be necessary to maintain current levels of departmental funding.

Ms Mahmood said solving overcrowding in prisons is “not a money problem”.

She told the BBC: “Part of the reason we’ve got overcrowding in our prisons is because the Government has run out of space because they haven’t delivered the full 20,000 prison spaces that they said they will do by next year.

“It’s actually not a money problem in that respect.

“The money has already been allocated in the Ministry of Justice budget, it’s actually a failure of the Government because they’ve allowed the planning system to get in the way and they’ve allowed complaints from their Members of Parliament, backbenchers in particular, to stop any building in our country.

“So this is actually about the Government having the will to get prisons built on day one.

“We would designate prisons as being of national importance, so that those decisions are ultimately made by ministers rather than the usual planning process.”

In a further law and order offering, the party wants to set up 80 new specialist rape courts across England and Wales to fast-track cases as part of plans to tackle violence against women and girls that will be included in Labour’s manifesto this week.

Elsewhere on the morning rounds, Ms Mahmood defended her party from allegations they had changed so much they were unrecognisable from the Tories.

Responding to a comment made by Green Party co-leader Carla Denyer during Friday’s seven-way BBC debate that Labour had “changed into the Conservatives”, Ms Mahmood said: “That’s exactly the kind of stuff you’d expect from some of the smaller parties.”

She told Sky News: “There are billions of pounds worth of difference between us and the Tory Party, because we will make different decisions.

“For example, levying VAT on private school fees, we will get non-doms to pay their fair share, we’ll make sure oil and gas giants pay their fair share with the proper windfall tax.

“That is a big difference between us and the Tory Party.”