Row over 'get out of jail free cards': Starmer mocks Sunak for banning rainbow lanyards in prison reform clash at PMQs

15 May 2024, 12:28 | Updated: 15 May 2024, 12:44

Rishi Sunak vs Keir Starmer at Prime Minister's Questions | Watch Live

Kieran Kelly

By Kieran Kelly

Sir Keir Starmer has mocked Rishi Sunak's government's focus on banning civil servants from wearing rainbow lanyards, while at the same time, letting 'dangerous' criminals out of prison early.

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In today's PMQs, Sir Keir quizzed the prime minister on his "chaotic" prisons policy, which could see criminals who pose a threat to children released from prison.

Sunak, who Starmer labelled “some kind of jumped-up milk monitor”, was also mocked on "his seventh relaunch in 18 months" after the prime minister gave a speech this week warning the country would not be safe under Labour.

In response to Sir Keir's attack on the government's policy on banning lanyards, Sunak accused the Labour leader of being "soft on criminals".

But Sir Keir hit back: "He's literally letting criminals out early."

"Doesn't he think that rather than confiscating lanyards like some jumped-up milk monitor, he should stop issuing get-out-of-jail free cards to prisoners considered a risk to children?" he went on.

Sunak replied that Sir Keir has "no ideas and no plan for the country".

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It comes amid warnings that dangerous prisoners have been released early from jail under the government's plans to ease overcrowding.

Charlie Taylor, the chief inspector of prisons, raised "serious concerns" about the scheme, giving examples of high-risk prisoners released early.

They include a domestic abuser who poses a risk to children.

The high-risk offender was freed early despite "having a history of stalking, domestic abuse and being subject to a restraining order".

Announcing the policy last year, the government said it would cover "low-level offenders" who would be freed up to 18 days early under strict supervision.

Read more: ‘People will die’: Warning as freed prisoners go ‘unmonitored’, as probation service cuts supervision

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

But, as LBC reported, the scheme was extended this year first to 35 and then to 70 days early - to help ease pressure on overcrowded jails. One probation officer said the move was "concerning" given how stretched the service is already.

Mr Taylor's concerns came to light after an inspection of HMP Lewes, in East Sussex, found serious problems with drugs, violence and self-harm.

As well as the domestic abuser, he highlighted another inmate at HMP Lewes who had been released early despite drug and self-harm issues.

He was freed despite "appeals for the decision to be reversed and staff having serious concerns for his and the public's safety".

He was homeless on release, and was recalled to custody before the watchdog's inspection had ended.

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Mr Taylor said the way the policy was being enacted was "undermining" safe releases of prisoners.

Release dates for some high-risk prisoners had been "brought forward at short notice, forcing already stretched resettlement agencies to redraw existing plans from scratch in as little as two or three weeks".

Mr Taylor called the situation "entirely predictable" and "simply not sustainable".

"Although some of these issues may, I hope, reduce as the scheme embeds, more fundamentally, an urgent conversation is needed about who we send to prison, for how long, and what we want to happen during their time inside," he added.

Labour's shadow justice secretary Shabana Mahmood accused the government of a "cover-up" over its early release scheme and said: "The public will rightly be worried to hear of cases where violent prisoners are being released without a proper assessment of the risk they pose to the public, and specifically children.

HMP Lewes
HMP Lewes. Picture: Alamy

"It's being left to prison inspectors to tell the public the truth because this Government is refusing to level with them on the scale of the prisons and probation crisis."

Justice Secretary Alex Chalk previously came under fire amid accusations of a lack of transparency about the plans.

Andrea Coomber, chief executive of charity the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: "It is imperative that the Government publishes data on the early release scheme's operation and makes a commitment to transparency as a matter of urgency.

"While action to ease pressure on jails is necessary, this temporary measure is no substitute for what is really needed: a more sensible response to crime that puts fewer people behind bars and more money into services that can help them."

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: "While we will always ensure there is enough capacity to keep dangerous offenders behind bars, this scheme allows us to ease short-term pressures on prisons by moving some lower-level offenders at the end of their custodial term on to licence.

"These offenders will continue to be supervised under strict conditions such as tagging and curfews, and the prison service can block the earlier release of any individual who poses a heightened risk."

Alex Chalk
Alex Chalk. Picture: Alamy

It comes after LBC reported that released prisoners will stop being supervised after serving two thirds of their licence.

That police is to reduce pressure on overworked probation service workers.

One senior officer in the service said the move to reduce staff supervision was "dangerous", will mean "warning signs are missed" and that "people will die" because of it