Billericay MP and Opposition Whip John Baron posed an important question yesterday about the building of new prisons:
"The Government have again refused my freedom of information request for a list of possible sites for the new titan prisons. The Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik), has written to me saying that the
“release of the information you seek would inevitably lead to increased speculation…thereby affecting our ability to procure land for the sites eventually chosen at a reasonable market value”.
So I must ask the Secretary of State the following question: is that not a blatant admission that any subsequent consultation involving local residents will be a complete sham, given that the Government intend to buy the sites before informing local residents? What is he going to do to put that right?
Mr. Straw: I understand that in most, although not all, areas of the country there is concern whenever there are proposals for new prisons to be built; regardless of the size of the prison, that has been an almost eternal verity. I must say to the hon. Gentleman that his party is committed—on some days, at least—to increasing the prison population. Part of his party’s Front-Bench team says that it wants to increase it to 101,000, rather than to 96,000, as we have proposed. That will mean more prisons, and they have to be placed in individual constituencies.
On the hon. Gentleman’s specific issue, we have a duty to the taxpayer to protect the public purse, so we must provisionally identify sites. Typically, when the sites are identified an option is taken on them, subject to planning permission. Planning permission, and the consultation relating to it, is a very public and highly visible process. I hope that we shall not get into a situation where the Conservative party wills the end of an increase in the prison population but every time there is a proposal to will the means it opposes that increase in prison numbers."
A year ago Jack Straw announced that three Titan jails would be built to hold 2,500 inmates each. That is much bigger than any current prison in England or Wales (Wandsworth held 1,461 inmates this time last year).
Although London, the West Midlands and the North West are areas where demand for prison places exceeds supply (albeit not demand on the part of criminals!) experts have suggested that a large-scale prison would be a security risk in or around London. As an Essex MP, Mr Baron may well therefore be concerned that a Titan prison could be built in his constituency.