Barclay refuses to say if judges have been told not to jail some criminals

The move follows growing concerns over prison capacity across the country. Credit: PA

The UK government is facing renewed scrutiny over the state of prisons, following reports the sentencing for convicted criminals could be delayed due to overcrowded prisons.

According to the Times newspaper, Lord Justice Edis, the senior presiding judge for England and Wales has urged courts to temporarily delay sentencing hearings from Monday for some convicted criminals currently on bail.

The move follows growing concerns over prison capacity across the country.

The latest data from the Ministry of Justice indicates the current prison population in England and Wales has risen to 88,016 – an increase of more than 6,000 compared to this time last year, when the number stood at 81,423.

'Other countries like Ireland and France have had a very similar challenge' said Steve Barclay

But the number of cells available is 88,667 – meaning that just 651 spare prison places remain, and government estimates suggest that prison populations could reach up to 106,300 by March 2027.

Speaking to ITV News this morning, Health secretary Steve Barclay refused to confirm or deny the reports but admitted the prison system was under pressure. 

"The government doesn’t comment on leaks and of course sentencing is a matter for the judiciary which is broadly independent in terms of how it determines sentencing decisions,” he said.

“What we are clear of on the government is our commitment to building more prison places.

"Covid delayed jury trials, that in turn has meant that there are more people on remand and that has had an effect of creating pressure on the prison system, and that it is in common with other countries like Ireland, or France who have had a very similar challenge to meet."

Officials who I have spoken to are keen to stress that no formal announcement has been made, with justice secretary Alex Chalk likely to provide an update to parliament on the matter next week.

But the Labour Party have accused the government of presiding over a "broken criminal justice system".

"People up and down will be asking: if this government can't fulfil the basic duty of keeping criminals locked up, why are they still the government?, "argued Labour’s Shadow Justice Secretary Shabana Mahmood.

The MoJ said there are 6,000 more prisoners on remand than pre-pandemic Credit: Anthony Devlin/PA

A spokesperson from the Ministry of Justice said its priority was keeping the public safe, and pointed to government policies such as ending automatic halfway release for some violent criminals.

“However, the criminal justice system has seen unprecedented growth in the prison population, following the pandemic and barristers’ strike, particularly among those awaiting trial, with 6,000 more prisoners on remand than pre-pandemic,” they added.

“The Prison Service has already put in place measures such as rapid deployment cells and doubling up cells to help manage these pressures, and the Government is carrying out the biggest prison building campaign since the Victorian era to build 20,000 new places, making sure we always have the places we need.”

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