The number of prison escapes has been falling since the 1990s

18 September 2023
What was claimed

Prison escapes under the Labour government were almost ten times higher than under the Conservatives.

Our verdict

This figure is correct, based on official data for England and Wales, but doesn’t tell the whole story. The number of escapes fell sharply during Labour’s time in office, and was higher still under John Major’s Conservative government. The figure also only includes escapes from prison rather than escapes during transit. When all escapes are taken into account, there were around five times as many under Labour.

At Prime Minister’s Questions on 13 September 2023, the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak claimed that “prison escapes under the Labour government were almost 10 times higher than under the Conservatives”.

Mr Sunak made a similar claim a few days previously to both ITV News and Sky News, while Conservative party chairman Greg Hands was among those to repeat the claim on X (formerly Twitter). 

It is true according to official data published by the Ministry of Justice that there were roughly 10 times as many prison escapes in England and Wales under the last Labour government as there have been under the Conservative and Conservative-led governments since 2010. But Mr Sunak’s claim is missing important context. 

The number of prison escapes has been falling since the 1990s, and dropped dramatically during Labour’s period in government. The figures quoted by Mr Sunak also only include escapes from prison rather than escapes during transit, which account for the vast majority of escapes, and when all escapes are taken into account there were around five times as many under Labour. 

Statistics on their own have limitations. The way they are presented is a crucial part of how they are interpreted and understood by the public. If data is presented without context or caveats, it can give an incomplete or misleading picture. 

All the figures in this fact check relate to escapes in England and Wales, as the criminal justice systems in Scotland and Northern Ireland are both devolved.

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Escape data

The Ministry of Justice’s prison escape statistics cover April to March each year. As a result, the figures don’t exactly correspond to the periods Labour and the Conservatives have been in government (May 1997 to May 2010 and since May 2010 respectively). But data from the closest available years appears to support Mr Sunak’s claim. 

Between the years ending March 1998 and March 2010 the data shows 146 prisoners escaped from prisons, compared to 15 between the years ending March 2011 and March 2022. 

These figures only count escapes from actual prisons. The vast majority of escapes by prisoners occur when they are in transit, such as being taken to court or hospital, under the care of either HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) staff or private contractors. 

When both prison and transit escapes are taken into account, there were 696 between the year ending March 1998 and March 2010 and 148 between March 2010 and March 2022. This means the total was around 4.7 times higher under Labour. 

(None of the figures above include escapes by ‘Category A’ prisoners—the most dangerous class of offenders where “everything possible” is done to prevent escape—as these are counted separately. But such escapes are very rare, with only five recorded in total since 1995.)It’s worth noting a Ministry of Justice graph which was referenced by some in the wake of Mr Sunak’s claim doesn’t show either the total number of prison escapes, as referred to by Mr Sunak, or the total number of escapes. Instead it shows the number of escapes from prison and HMPPS escort, but doesn’t include escapes under contractor escort (or Category A escapes).

Downward trend

While the figure used by Mr Sunak was correct, what his claim failed to make clear was that the annual number of escapes had already fallen dramatically by the time the Conservatives entered government in 2010. They were also substantially higher during the previous Conservative administration.

Ministry of Justice data goes back to 1995-96, and shows under John Major’s Conservative government there were 122 escapes including 52 from prison in 1995-96 (not counting three Category A prisoner escapes) and 131 escapes including 33 from prison in 1996-97. After Labour took office, this fell to 105 escapes including 23 from prison in 1997-98, and 90 including 28 from prison in 1998-99.  (Comparisons with the years before 1995 are harder, as we don’t have data from the same source or the same format. According to records in Hansard, in the calendar year of 1990 there were 316 escapes including 197 from prison, and in 1991 456 escapes including 311 from prison, but we’ve not been able to confirm whether this data uses the same definitions as used post-1995 so it may not be directly comparable.)

Since Labour took office in 1997, the number of escapes has fallen dramatically.

In the first five years of the Labour government, from 1997-98 to 2001-2, there were a total of 435 escapes including 107 from prison. In its last five years, from 2005-6 to 2009-10, there were 114 escapes including 12 from prison—a sharp fall.

During the first five years of the Conservative government, from 2010-11 to 2015-16, there were 65 escapes including 6 from prison (not counting Category A prisoner escapes, of which there were two in this period). In the most recent five years for which we have data, from 2017-18 to 2021-22, there were 55 escapes including 3 from prison. 

Improved security

While there may be a number of different factors behind the decline in the number of escapes since the early 1990s, improved security is likely to have been a key driver. The period coincides with the opening of three new, purpose-built high security prisons (HMP Belmarsh and HMP Whitemoor in 1991 and HMP Woodhill in 1992) designed to house Category A prisoners 

Prior to this, many escapes were found to be the result of poor containment in Category C prisons. These establishments are described as “training and resettlement jails that hold prisoners whose escape risk is considered to be low but who cannot be trusted in open conditions”. A programme of upgrades began during the early 1990s to upgrade perimeter fencing in such establishments to make escape more difficult. Initiatives were also enacted to reduce the number of escapes of those under escort. 

We have approached the offices of Mr Sunak and Mr Hands about their claim, and will update this article if they respond. 

We deserve better than bad information.

After publishing this fact check, we contacted the Ministry of Justice to highlight some limitations to the way the published data on prison escapes is presented, and to suggest some ways of addressing this. 

The Ministry of Justice is yet to respond.

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