Skip to main content

Criminal Justice System

Volume 454: debated on Monday 4 December 2006

2. What progress has been made with the review of rebalancing the criminal justice system; and if he will make a statement. (106791)

The Home Secretary has set out a substantial programme of reforms, which have time scales for change stretching to 2008 and beyond. We are making good progress in delivering what we said we would deliver and some of the commitments he made in July have already been met, but the collective impact of the programme as a whole will give us the criminal justice system that this country deserves.

In most areas of public services, the community is becoming more and more involved in the design and scrutiny of those services. Criminal justice should be no different. I am particularly interested in the concept of community payback, whereby offenders do compulsory unpaid work in neighbourhoods, with priorities decided by residents. Will the Minister inform the House how that concept is being implemented?

I am happy to do that. Much progress has been made on community payback in terms of visibility to ensure that the public are confident that criminals are delivering projects that the community wants delivered. I assure my hon. Friend that in the north-west much work is being done on community sentencing. The public pick the schemes, the schemes are sent to the magistrates, and the magistrates sentence using those schemes. Then they are carried out, there is an award ceremony and everyone feels the benefit. That is a thoughtful response in relation to the criminal justice system. I hope that we can expand that throughout the country.

What is the Minister doing to cut the huge volume of police paperwork, much of which is driven by the courts? For example, over recent years, the requirements of the courts in respect of disclosure have sometimes resulted in whole man years of police time being used on fishing expeditions on behalf of the defence.

The Home Secretary has, in consultation with Ministers, ensured that we consult the police and all the other bodies that are involved in trying to cut bureaucracy and paperwork, so that the public have confidence in the criminal justice system. That is what we want to try to achieve. We will look at all aspects in trying to reduce bureaucracy and to ensure that the public have every confidence in the system.

Despite the recent highly misleading “Panorama” programme about the probation service in the Bristol area, and indeed the Home Secretary’s unfortunate speech at Wormwood Scrubs, is not the probation service driving down the reoffending rate? Has it not been doing so for some time since the last reform? In that light, does the Minister agree that we should invest more in a publicly run probation service with direct employees, rather than abandoning it to the whims of the market?

I know that my hon. Friend takes a close interest in the issues relating to the probation service, and I am happy to put on record the Government’s thanks to the service for the work that it carries out. We are all committed to tackling the reoffending rate, which is around 60 per cent. I know that that figure is disputed by the National Association of Probation Officers, the probation officers union, but we all need to agree that we have to cut reoffending. There has been a 47 per cent. increase in the funding to probation. I want us to look innovatively at unpaid work and at the resettlement of offenders to try to cut reoffending.

Ten days ago, Angela Schumann was sent to prison following her attempt to commit suicide with her two-year-old daughter by throwing herself off the Humber bridge. We also know from the NACRO that three quarters of the schemes to move mentally ill prisoners from prison into specialised facilities are unsuccessful because of lack of beds.

When rebalancing the criminal justice system, will the Minister and his Home Office colleagues look at rebalancing spending priorities and perhaps at using some, if not most, of the £1.5 billion allocated for building to provide yet more overcrowded prison places to expand secure and semi-secure mental health treatment at centres, which do more to cut reoffending and so cut crime?

The hon. Gentleman makes a pertinent point about how to try to refocus some of the spend. On capacity issues and the prison population, clearly it is right that we protect the public and find the appropriate accommodation for dangerous offenders, but as he says, we need to look at the prison population, how to tackle reoffending and the mental health issues that he raised. I am prepared to look at that, including in discussions with the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), on the Mental Health Bill. Lots more work can be done. We must look at the criminal justice system in a thoughtful way. I am happy to continue discussions with the hon. Gentleman.

Last Friday, Lord Ramsbotham, who has no political axe to grind, described the criminal justice system as being in meltdown after a decade of failure in crime and punishment, and he went on to say that the Government’s handling of it was “absurd. Broken. Chaotic”. To what extent does the Minister think that he can do something about that by not passing legislation in a hyperactive way and by just getting on with the business of mending what his Government have broken?

First, I do not accept what Lord Ramsbotham said. I respect him as a former chief inspector of prisons, but I think he is wrong. I have had a number of opportunities to discuss with him the issues that he raises, and it seems to me that although he might not have any political axe to grind he certainly wants to oppose the Government on every aspect of what we put forward, so I shall find those conversations even more difficult in future.

The hon. and learned Gentleman asked what I can do. I will do what the Home Secretary has said should be done, which is to rebalance the criminal justice system by ensuring that where legislation is necessary we bring it forward, but also that where we can make the system work better, we do that.