Starmer Says ‘Shocking’ Prisons Are the UK’s Most Urgent Crisis

(Bloomberg) -- Keir Starmer said the overcrowding crisis in UK prisons was his main domestic priority and signaled the “terrible state” of public services left by Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives meant unpopular decisions were unavoidable.

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“Some of what we’ve found is shocking,” Starmer told reporters during a trip to the NATO summit in Washington on Wednesday, when asked what he and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rachel Reeves had found since being granted full access to the government’s books after Labour’s election win last week.

“Not so much about the finances, but I have to say on prisons,” a visibly angry Starmer said. “The situation is worse than I thought it was. I’m pretty shocked that it’s been allowed to get into that situation.” The government will say how it intends to manage the situation shortly, he said.

The issue is politically sensitive as appearing tough on law and order is regarded as a prerequisite for electoral success in the UK, where the issue dominates especially the right-leaning press. But years of underfunding has left the justice system on the “precipice of failure,” according to the Prison Governors Association, which recommends that all prisoners should be released automatically after serving 40% of their sentence to tackle overcrowding.

The previous Conservative government had drawn up a plan to release some prisoners early to try to ease the overcrowding, and Starmer has said he would have no choice but to enact it. He indicated he would try to prevent violent criminals and sex offenders from having to be released early.

Last year, the Ministry of Justice resorted to desperate measures, making a £253 million claim on the government’s emergency reserves and plundering the investment budget for £190 million to cover day-to-day costs. Departments only make reserve claims after exhausting every other option.

Starmer condemned what he called “the terrible state that we’ve been left” in the justice system.

“Forget Labour, Conservative,” he said. “It is shocking for our country to have got into a state where we have too many prisoners and not enough prison places. To a point where any government is now in a position where it has to release prisoners early. That is a shocking indictment.”

While the Tories will struggle to credibly blame Labour for the crisis, the issue still carries major political risk for Starmer’s government. The right-wing media and Nigel Farage’s Reform UK party take a hard line on prison sentences and will look for ways to present Labour as soft on crime.

Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions, has frequently talked about prevention and intervention as a way of solving crises in the justice system, as well as in healthcare. But it needs to work to avoid a right-wing backlash.

Labour has appointed Timpson CEO James Timpson, who has advocated for the rehabilitation of prisoners and employs people with criminal convictions in his company, as minister for prisons, parole and probation.

In a past interview with Channel 4 News, Timpson said Britain was “addicted” to sending people to prison and suggested only a third of prisoners should be there. Starmer has defended Timpson’s “huge experience” and said tackling recidivism would be a priority for a Labour administration.

Starmer said his government is working through problems it inherited. “What I’ve done at the moment, as you’d expect, is to prioritize the most significant and the most important. And prisons is top of that list, I’m afraid,” he said.

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