The government has run out of prison places and has had to ask police to use 400 cells to make up for the shortfall.
Prisons Minister Damian Hinds told MPs there had been an “acute and sudden increase in the prison population” in recent months and, as a result, the Operation Safeguard contingency plan had been launched for the first time since 2007.
He said the government had “long anticipated” the rise due to bringing in additional measures to tackle crime, and had been “planning ahead” for it.
But Mr Hinds blamed strike action by the Criminal Bar Association, saying it had led to more people being held on remand and with court hearings now returning to normal, the government was “seeing a surge in offenders coming through the criminal justice system, placing capacity pressure on adult male prisons in particular”.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice added: “We are experiencing an unprecedented increase in the number of offenders coming into prisons in the north of England, partly as a result of the impact of the pandemic and the barrister strike action over the summer months.
“The public would rightly expect us to take the action necessary to create the extra spaces we need, and so we are working with the police to use a small number of cells in the short term so we can continue to put offenders behind bars.”
But shadow justice secretary Steve Reed accused the government of leaving “murderers and rapists to roam our streets”, claiming that had “cut the number of cells that they should be locked up in”.
He said: “Despite reports of rape and sexual offences hitting record highs, the Conservatives cut more than 10,000 prison places since 2010, while the Justice Secretary (Dominic Raab) is more interested in the fight to save his job than the fight against crime.
“Our country needs a government that is serious about protecting victims of crime.”