There are three reasons why we have prisons: to protect the public from violent offenders, to provide a form of punishment to those who commit crimes, and to rehabilitate those who do break the law so they can become members of our communities once more.
Given the amount of money which a custodial sentence costs the taxpayer – around £40,000 per annum – why then do we have situations where offenders leave prison only to end up sleeping rough and spiralling back into a life of crime?
The links between homelessness and offending are clear. Fifteen percent of newly sentenced prisoners reported being homeless before entering custody, and a third of people seen rough sleeping in London in 2015/16 had experience of serving time in prison. Approximately 66,000 people leave prison every year, yet we do not consistently collect data on who is leaving with no fixed abode, making it difficult to estimate the true scale of the problem. However, a recent review of Bronzefield women’s prison and young offender institution found that 103 women left with no fixed address in the six months prior to the inspection.
There are many recommendations which the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Homelessness which I Co-Chair made in our report earlier this year which would help to address this issue. However, there is one which the Government could make very quickly.
Prisoners who are being released from a custodial sentence can apply for a discharge grant to help cover the costs they incur on their first day of freedom. The problem is that the discharge grant is £46 – an amount set in 1995 and never increased since. Whilst there is the possibility of applying for an extra grant of £50 if you have already found accommodation for your first night (and this additional sum is paid directly to the accommodation provider), our inquiry heard that this was incredibly uncommon.
Very few people leave prison with any savings and the safety net provided by the discharge grant has been eroded by 22 years of inflation. There are very few places in the country where £46 will be able to cover a night of unplanned accommodation – certainly not in any cities – and so many prison leavers are unfortunately being left in a situation where they spend their first night of freedom sleeping rough on the streets. The inability to spend their discharge grant on accommodation also leads to the possibility of them spending the money on substances to help cope with a night out in the open.
It should come as no surprise to us that a prison leaver that is having to sleep rough on their release from prison, possibly intoxicated with no money will give serious consideration to re-offending in order to get sent back to prison and secure a roof over their head. This is why we hear of so much anecdotal evidence of prison leavers committing offences that they know will see them sent back to prison.
Our report recommends that the Government should increase the value of the discharge grant to £95, pledge to increase its value annually in line with inflation and make it an automatic payment to all prisoners being discharged rather than requiring them to apply. The House of Commons Library estimates that the cost of implementing these changes in the first year would be just over £4million, and then annually increases of around £200,000 to match inflation.
Hardly a significant figure to help stop prisoner leavers falling through the cracks and being pushed back into a life of crime.
This Government has rightly taken action to tackle homelessness. The Homelessness Reduction Act and its Duty to Refer will help stop some of the most vulnerable members of society ending up on the streets before they’re able to apply for help.
However, for a small amount of money we can make sure that those who leave prison and want to play a positive role in our communities can afford to not spend their first night of freedom sleeping rough.
Will Quince is the Conservative MP for Colchester