Prisoners could be held in police cells in a bid to reduce “acute and sudden” overcrowding in jails.
Justice minister Damian Hinds told MPs the Government has asked to use 400 police cells to hold inmates after a surge in overcrowding in male prisons over the last few months – the “first time ever” such a rapid increase has occurred.
It comes after there was an “unprecedented increase” in the number of offenders coming into prisons in the North of England, according to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).
But critics said the problem could have been predicted and that the decision paints a picture of a Government in chaos.
In a statement in the Commons on Wednesday, he said: “In recent months we have experienced an acute and sudden increase in the prison population, in part due to the aftermath of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) strike action over the summer which led to a significantly higher number of offenders on remand.
“With court hearings resuming, we are seeing a surge in offenders coming through the criminal justice system, placing capacity pressure on adult male prisons in particular.”
He added: “I’m announcing today that we’ve written to the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) to request the temporary use of up to 400 police cells through an established protocol known as Operation Safeguard.”
Shadow justice minister Ellie Reeves described the news as “yet another crisis created by this shambolic Tory Government”, adding: “It is hard to think of a more damning indictment of this Government’s failure on law and order than the fact they have now run out of cells to lock up criminals.”
Plaid Cymru Westminster leader Liz Saville Roberts said the use of police cells to hold offenders “shows the utter failure of Westminster’s justice policy”.
The Prison Governors’ Association said the circumstances were “not unforeseen” and warned that the plan will “cost the taxpayer more” and put “additional pressures on an already stressed criminal justice system”.
The organisation argued that the measure will “inevitably reduce the available numbers of police personnel to attend their core, frontline duties”, adding: “What we see today is a Government in panic. They have had sufficient time and warning to realise spaces were running out.”
The Police Federation of England and Wales said the plan was “ill-conceived” and claimed it put officers and the public “in danger”, adding: “Police cells are not a replacement for prison cells. They are short-term holding places for when people come into police custody and should only be used for that purpose.
“Police officers lack the training to act as custodian prison officers. This is another example of police officers being taken for granted and expected to fill the gap for other public and emergency services. We are expecting police officers to be social workers, mental health specialists, ambulance drivers and now prison officers.”
Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, warned the move may only “buy as little as a fortnight’s relief” in light of the growing number of prisoners, adding: “It’s a short term fix to a completely avoidable long-term problem.”
Juliet Lyon, chairwoman of the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody, said: “At best the Ministry of Justice has adopted a Mr Micawber ‘something will turn up’ approach to a brewing crisis and at worst it has taken a reckless approach to prison safety.”
The CBA also hit back saying the backlog of cases and “consequential surge in the remand population is due to funding cuts to the criminal justice system that pre-dates our action.”
The problem is “specific” to male prisons but youth jails and women’s prisons have “ample capacity”, Mr Hinds said as he stressed the country has “not run out of prison places” and the emergency measures – which will provide the “immediate additional capacity” needed – “do not reflect a failure to plan ahead”.
Operation Safeguard is an “established protocol” which has been used before in periods of “high demand”, including between 2006 and 2008, he said, but added: “There has also been this highly unusual acute short-term surge, increases of over 700, and then over 800 in the last two months.
“It is the first time ever we have seen that sort of increase for two consecutive months.
“There are a number of capacity increase options that we have but they are just not possible, they are not available in that short timeframe.
“At no point in the last five years have we had fewer than a thousand cells available across the entire prison estate,” he told MPs.
The MoJ said the public would “rightly expect us to take the action necessary to create the extra spaces we need” and that “keeping the public safe and cutting crime by taking dangerous criminals off the streets remains our number one priority”.
Deputy Chief Constable Nev Kemp, who leads the NPCC’s work on custody, said police have “contingency plans” in place to launch the “temporary measure” and will work with Government to make sure arrangements are as “safe and efficient as possible”.
He added: “Policing will continue to conduct its operational business, arrest criminals, and secure them in custody, with well-established plans in place for prisoners to be placed in neighbouring force custody suites should the need arise.”
As of Friday, the prison population stood at 82,839 with a “useable operational capacity” of 84,035, indicating just over a thousand spaces are available.
It is understood some spaces are always kept free so prisons have the capacity to operate safely and respond to any unforeseen circumstances.