‘Emergency’ scheme to release prisoners early extended again as ministers accused of ‘cloak of secrecy’

7 May 2024, 18:39 | Updated: 7 May 2024, 18:57

United Kingdom - Liverpool - HMP Liverpool
Offenders reaching the end of their sentence could be released more than two months early. Picture: Getty

By Fraser Knight

LBC understands a scheme to release prisoners early is being extended for a second time - to 70 days - to help ease pressure on overcrowded jails.

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A senior probation source revealed the news had been shared with staff in an internal email, meaning offenders coming to the end of their sentence could be moved out of cells more than two months early, from 23rd May.

The End of Custody Supervised License (ECSL) programme was announced in October to initially let some offenders out 18 days early, to clear out cells in a prison estate with fewer than 1400 spaces for new inmates.

But the move to extend the scheme, first to 35 days in March and now to 70 days from the end of May suggests little progress has been made.

Ministers have slipped the extension announcements out quietly, but one probation officer told LBC the move was "concerning" given how stretched the service is already.

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Steel gate inside infamous Reading Prison where Oscar Wilde was incarcerated, Reading, Berkshire, UK
The Ministry of Justice said only "lower level" offenders are eligible for the scheme. Picture: Alamy

He added that the reality of the scheme was that sometimes case workers are being given less than a day’s notice to make preparations for an offender’s release.

The Ministry of Justice insisted only "lower level" offenders are eligible for the scheme and that it is temporary, time limited and geographically targeted.

But no end date has been given to staff. Instead a warning was issued that previous measures had failed to make any meaningful difference.

'National scandal'

Labour’s shadow justice secretary Shabana Mahmood slammed the government for using “a cloak of secrecy” to make the extension announcement.

She said: “The public has a right to know the truth. The Conservatives’ cover up of this early release scheme is unprecedented.

"They are still refusing to answer how many prisoners have been released early, which prisons are using the scheme, and which types of offenders are being put back on our streets.

“This is a national scandal, and Rishi Sunak must come clean with the public today.”

Sex offenders, terrorists and any criminal serving more than four years behind bars are not eligible for early release under the "emergency" plan.

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Shadow Justice Secretary Shabana Mahmood
Shadow Justice Secretary Shabana Mahmood has criticised the governmnent over the scheme. Picture: Getty

A spokesperson for the MOJ said: "We will always ensure there is enough capacity to keep dangerous offenders behind bars.

“We are carrying out the biggest prison expansion programme in a hundred years, opening up 20,000 modern places, and ramping up work to remove foreign national offenders.

“To ease the short-term pressures on prisons, in March we announced an increase in the number of days governors could, under existing powers, move some offenders at the end of their prison term on to licence.

“These offenders will continue to be supervised under strict conditions such as tagging and curfews.”

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