Wednesday 14 March 2007
[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Roy.]
I and others requested this debate because of our concerns about the state of on-course betting. As the Minister will know—his officials will certainly have briefed him, and we have had a conversation about it—I have concerns related to a constituent and, beyond that, to wider issues about others who are involved in on-course betting. First, I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests.
The Minister and other colleagues will know, if they have looked back at it, that I held a similar debate two years ago in which I spoke about the problems emanating from the setting up of the National Joint Pitch Council back in 1998. My concerns were that the setting up of that body, which oversees and regulates the ring on race courses, was inefficient and chaotic. Many things were done without good reason and were unacceptable. Many bookmakers lost significant elements of their livelihood, and some lost their livelihoods altogether as a result, particularly in the southern area, which contains some of the most important race tracks in the world, such as Ascot, Newmarket and others that have become household names. At that time, I made the point that an agreement had been made to establish a formula whereby bookmakers would be integrated. It was essentially based on seniority, with any ties that would have been settled going back to starting dates.
I have since looked at the list from that time, and I have had two people do that integration, which was done without any great problem. One of them, Mr. Boden, made it clear that it could have been done in accordance with that formula, which was agreed at the time by the National Association of Bookmakers and the Horseracing Betting Levy Board as the correct way to do it. I showed in the last debate that, in the southern area, that was somehow not done as a result of key figures in the NJPC. That has led to incredibly weak and chaotic management of the NJPC, and bookmakers and on-course race-goers have suffered. That chaos has allowed other forms of betting to come on, and has disguised the fact that such things are often to the detriment of race-goers. I know that others will want to raise issues concerning Betfair online betting and so on. I am concerned that the bending and changing of the rules, and their arbitrary and chaotic nature, has led to the possibility of fraud in the system. It needs to be rectified immediately.
The issues have moved on since I last spoke to the House about them in July 2005. Almost everything that I have discussed since has confirmed my major concern about the behaviour of the NJPC and about its creation. More particularly, I have become much clearer about the extent to which the NJPC, the levy board and others have been prepared to disguise the events that took place and to block any call for a full inquiry.
Let me deal with some of the points that I raised in that debate; I hope that colleagues have had the opportunity to read the speech. In particular, I want to deal with the chaos and the failure to register some of the issues surrounding VAT and sales. In the last debate, I raised concerns about possible VAT fraud as a result of the chaotic management. Since then, I have spoken to a number of bookmakers. One in particular—I am prepared to give his name to the Minister afterwards—maintained that the sale of his pitch was not registered correctly, and others have said the same. He believes that VAT was not paid correctly as a result.
I have also spoken to a rails bookmaker, who told me that when he sold his position in 1998 he paid a full fee of some 26 per cent., in accordance with the rules, on a sale totalling some £210,000. That amounted at the time to some £56,000. It was at that level because it was not done in the auctions. He went on to say that there is one rule for the smaller bookmakers, but that when it came to the larger ones the NJPC failed to stick by their own rules. In 1998, Morgan Grenfell bought Coral from Ladbrokes for approximately £390 million. It appears that, strangely, it did not incur transfer fees as the individual bookmaker had done. Coral had an official position on the rails at the time and, like Mr. Wallis—the individual to whom I spoke—would surely have been due under the rules to pay such transfer fees.
NJPC rule 17.4 states that on the registration of any change in the shareholding of any authorised bookmaker, when the authorised bookmaker holds a senior position or positions, the appropriate registration fee and transfer fee shall be paid for each seniority position held by the authorised bookmaker. Rule 5.6 makes it absolutely clear that if a case involves
“the legal or beneficial interest in more than 50 per cent. of the shares”
of an authorised bookmaker
“details of such…control or interest must be disclosed in writing to the NJPC…within fourteen days of the commencement”.
That is clear, but Mr. Wallis said that a spokesman for Coral told him that when such a suggestion of a fee was raised by the NJPC, Coral threatened to take the NJPC to court and the NJPC quietly let it slip.
Interestingly, a year later, when Cinven and CVC bought William Hill, they received no request from the NJPC for a transfer fee. It appears that there is one rule for the big groups and one for the small. I raise that point because it illustrates the chaotic and incredible management of the NJPC, which has led to most of the problems.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that smaller on-course bookmakers have been hit by the closure of silver rings, for example, in places such as Kempton, and the threatened closure of silver rings at other race courses in the south of England? They lose a major capital asset, and the NJPC seems unable to co-ordinate any coherent compensation claim.
My hon. Friend is right. He makes an important point, which is illustrated by what I am saying, and I will develop it for the sake of the Minister. The organisation has been from the outset a complete chaotic mess. The result is damage to bookmakers and race-goers. The case that my hon. Friend raises is right; a number of people have said that to me, too.
Another example is the case of an individual trading under the name of Jack West, who told me that he discovered in the first auction in December 1998 that an unlicensed bookmaker—a pitch could not be bought by someone who was not a licensed bookmaker—had been allowed to purchase pitches against the NJPC’s rules. In fact, even worse, the NJPC had used the name of West, without his knowledge, to cover the transaction so that it would not appear that the sites were sold to unlicensed bookmakers. There were all sorts of similar things going on, involving Irish bookmakers and others who were not registered in the UK.
I had hoped to take part in the debate but sadly I have to leave to chair the Committee considering the Crossrail Bill. It is one of the great joys of my life, but I apologise for that.
My right hon. Friend has already raised two worrying issues. Does he think that the whole matter is a question of incompetence or is there slightly more to it? I have read the speech that he made on 6 July 2005, and it appears that he raised some important issues at that time. Those issues have not been taken note of and I fear that it is more than just incompetence. Something is going on that should be made known to the betting public of this nation who put considerable trust in the regulatory affairs of bookmakers. The issue is vital.
I am sorry that my hon. Friend has to go to chair the Committee on the Crossrail Bill—ever since I have been in the House people have gone to Crossrail and, as far as I can make out, some of them have never returned, which some people may say is a good thing.
The reality is that I do not know the answer to my hon. Friend’s question, but I know what bookmakers tell me and if any organisation in Britain with such an amount of money going through it was charged with running an operation in the way that the NJPC is run, there would have been inquiries from day one. If the stock market was in that position, there would be a hue and cry about it. However, with racing everything is swept under the carpet and nothing is done, which leaves the industry open to fraud. I am concerned that some of the people responsible and who benefited at the time are still around in the NJPC and are elsewhere involved in the decisions to be taken about racing in the future. Again, that would never have been allowed in any other organisation, yet in racing such issues go by the board.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that a key concern should be to protect the consumer—the person who puts the money on at the race course? Will he comment on the practice of laying bets off not on-course, but on the internet, which takes money out of the industry and is completely unregulated?
The hon. Gentleman has raised yet another vital point. I will not go into detail about that issue today because I know that other hon. Members wish to speak about it, but the chaos of the current situation has opened the door to exactly such a proposition. I have heard that some organisations offer the opportunity to regular or big punters to get the best price—deals that simply beggar belief, have damaged on-course racing and opened the door to those who are taking the money out, as he mentioned. I know that another hon. Member will make a speech about that issue, but I will say that if the NJPC had been set up and run properly, we would not be in such a position. The Minister needs to take account of that.
On the specifics of my last speech, I believe that the Department has been casual about this issue for too long. For years, the NJPC denied that when it was set up, it was meant to integrate the list for the southern area for reasons that I will come to in a moment. It denied that the full list of relevant seniority was passed by the southern area to the then general manager and chief executive, Mr. Clive Reams, in 1998. Although the denials of the levy board and the NJPC were emphatic at that time and at the time of my last debate in 2005, they have now had to do a complete volte-face and accept that those lists were provided exactly as they should have been and in sufficient detail to enable the integration in accordance with what was then the correct formula—the Stevenson formula. The levy board and the NJPC maintained in sworn statements in two court cases that those lists were not provided—that is a form of perjury. No one has raised that issue at all although it materially changed the cases in which they were involved. It is outrageous that for a period of time those officials continued those falsehoods and knew that their statements were not true.
We have also discovered that a bookmaker, Sam Harris, was at the same time threatening the NJCP with court action. The reason I have raised that important point is to ask why the NJCP and the levy board were maintaining that the changes made to the Stevenson formula—and we can prove that those changes happened—were done because the lists were not provided, which we now know not to be true. The answer is because the only rationale and reason for changing the formula was that the lists were not provided. Once that reason is eliminated, a pattern of events unfolds in which an individual has arbitrarily changed the rules. That individual, Mr. Reams, spoke to a journalist, and I have a note of the conversation in which Mr. Reams made it quite clear that he had changed the lists. He said that the change was put to the levy board yet it was clear that the board was told that it was necessary because the list was not provided correctly. He went on to say that many bookmakers lost out during the course of the change, which was not approved by the National Association of Bookmakers. I will show that not only was it not approved, but the association did not even know about it.
If the changes were not made because the lists were not given to the NJPC correctly, why were they made? I believe that that is linked to the case of Mr. Harris. In September-October 1998, Mr. Harris made the calculation that his pitch position at Ascot would not be correct as it was not good enough. He has clearly told me that he threatened Mr. Reams and the NJPC with legal action and, in the midst of that process, Mr. Reams arbitrarily changed the way in which disputes would be settled from starting dates to pitch positions. That had never been the agreed formula and no other areas had integrated bookmakers in that way. That would have benefited Mr. Harris and others. It is clear that in advantaging one or two people, many others were disadvantaged, including my constituent, Mr. Morrill.
Since then the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has carried out a cursory examination of what it described at the time as the timelines because, following a request from us, the Department had to decide whether an inquiry was necessary. I was astonished that despite the evidence given to the Department, we received a whitewash statement saying that everything was all right because changes had already been agreed. When I read the DCMS’s report I was astonished because I know that the views of those who were party to what happened did not bear it out. The key conclusion of the report is that the situation was okay because Mr. Reams had the power to make the changes and because the levy board was informed. However, we know that the levy board was not informed about the real reason why he made the changes and that there was no discussion with the National Association of Bookmakers, which was party to the original Stevenson agreement. It is an incredible supposition that those changes were ever agreed.
I remind the Minister that the NJPC had full responsibility for the integration of all bookmakers in accordance with the Stevenson report. Every other area did what it was requested to do by the NJPC and they all did so under the Stevenson formula. The one exception was the southern area, which did not because the NJPC acting under Mr. Reams, who decided arbitrarily to change the process, did so. Someone cannot change a formula applicable to the whole of racing in this country just for one area, without informing anyone they have done so or discussing whether others should also do so. What a chaotic mess. I cannot imagine any other national organisation acting in such a way.
Mr. Boden is a highly respected figure and was chairman of the National Association of Bookmakers when the Stevenson formula was set up. He subsequently became chairman of the Racecourse Association and SP Bookmakers Association—the midlands equivalent of the southern area Bookmakers Protection Association. He is absolutely clear that he and others who used the formula carefully applied it in their areas, as they had been requested to do. They did not make arbitrary changes as they knew that they were not allowed to do so. In the case of the southern area, for internal reasons relating to illness, the NJPC was requested to make the integrations. As we have established, it provided the list and the only reason for Mr. Reams seeking to change the formula would have been if he had received incomplete lists—we now know that he did not. Therefore, he must have had other reasons for changing the formula, which we are certain were linked with individual requests from bookmakers. However, worse than that, despite changing the formula he applied the Stevenson formula to some people and the new formula to others. Some people have benefited because they had pitch positions that are key and others have been left with seniority. In other words, not even the whole of the southern area was treated in the same way; some people were treated in accordance with Stevenson and, halfway through, Mr. Reams decided to do it differently for others.
A crucial letter was sent to the Department from Mr. Stevenson, in which he rebuts the series of statements made in the DCMS’s report and completely dismasts it. The letter shows that approval was never granted by the National Association of Bookmakers. In its report, the Department said that the integration of the southern area was carried out by Mr. Stevenson of the NAB and Clive Reams, the chief executive. In January, Mr. Stevenson responded to the report, saying:
“I have never had access to nor ever seen the southern BPA lists.”
He had nothing to do with the integration of those lists; it was left to Mr. Reams. It is amazing that that letter was not used to change the report.
Furthermore, the DCMS report maintained that Mr. Reams had faxed a letter to the southern area BPA referring to a revised formula that referred to the changes in the lists. In his letter responding to the report, Mr. Stevenson made it absolutely clear that he had
“no knowledge the Southern BPA replaced the Stevenson formula in preparing the new bookmaker lists by a revised formula”.
He made it clear that he had no understanding of that, and he went on to deny the DCMS statement that he had any knowledge that the so-called revised formula had been structured.
Worse than that, the Department’s report then made a significant number of sweeping statements saying that the number of appeals in the southern area was between 20 and 30, and that the appeal panel had judged them against the revised formula. Actually, there were some 300 appeals. Mr. Reams arbitrarily decided that only 20 or 30 should go forward to the appeals panel, at which he produced his summary statement—there was no other documentation—so that the panel could decide who should have been accepted and who should not. The panel accepted his statements. How remarkable.
One of the problems seems to be that the appeals system is run by the original decision makers and that cases cannot be reviewed further by anyone independent of them. I referred a constituent’s case to the ombudsman, who said that he could not deal with it. He said that although he could deal with levy board decisions, the case involved an NJPC decision; the NJPC was responsible for appeals and there was nowhere else to go.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The biggest problem was that the people hearing the appeals were all rooted in the original process and had no independence. Mr. Reams sat in front of them and gave them the summary documents. One member said later that he thought it was all over pretty quickly and that he did not know what the hell it was about. They certainly were never told that a new formula was in place. I have an interesting point to make about that later. The hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head.
The key is that there were more than 20 or 30 appeals, and Mr. Reams had arbitrarily ruled the others out. It is remarkable—one could not imagine it happening in any other organisation—that those hearing the appeal were unable to draw on any minutes because no minutes were taken during the appeals process. How lucky! It is staggering that an appeals tribunal took place with no minutes taken; certainly none were in the files—very convenient, say I.
Mr. Stevenson said in his letter—a letter that the DCMS refuses to pass on to my constituent—that to the best of his knowledge the national formula for the construction of the NJPC, unless it was the Stevenson formula, was not altered by anyone, and to suggest that the methodology was altered with his knowledge and agreement was “preposterous”. Here we have it. One of the key figures on the appeals panel, who was stated by the Department to have been present when the original changes were made, knew nothing of the changes or of a new formula. He was making decisions about bookmakers’ appeals on the basis of a formula that no longer existed; it had been changed but no one knew about the changes.
The DCMS is wrong. Mr. Reams did not give the correct reasons for the changes to the formula—and he did not inform the NAB that any changes had been made. As far back as September 2000, Mr. Marriott, the chairman of the NJPC, said that
“the principle of integrating away bookmakers had been established by the levy board before the NJPC came into existence and the precise method was agreed with the NAB in the summer of 1998.”
Mr. Marriott, too, seems to have been completely in the dark. The whole basis of the DCMS report has therefore crumbled.
In a letter dated 4 May 2006, in response to the Department’s statement, the southern area BPA maintained that it did not make contact. The Department’s document said that the during the appeals process calls were made to the southern area BPA, but the latter says that it did not receive any such calls. The Department seems to have accepted everything that the NJPC said, despite the fact that a huge number of documents from the files have strangely gone missing and that no minutes were kept of the appeals process. The Department seems to be saying, “Well, that’s all right then.” It is like asking the Department what it has to say and the Department replying, “That is jolly good. We have settled the argument now.” That appears to be what the Department has done.
The DCMS seems to believe that because Mr. Reams says that he informed the southern area BPA of alterations to the formula that it had indeed been informed. The Department seems to think that that was okay. In fact, the southern area had no power to change the formula. It made clear in a later press release that it did not agree with the system as reformed by Mr. Reams. Referring to the changes, it stated in September 1998:
“Sadly, that has not been the case and the system in use appears to have a number of flaws”.
However, it was not entitled to appeal against the process. Mr. Reams had established early on that one could not appeal against the formula; so the southern area and the bookmakers could not have appealed against a formula that had been changed without their notice. Even if they had known about it they could not appeal against it, so they were dismasted from the beginning and unable to make any progress.
I ask this question of the Department. Can it say to me and my colleagues, honestly and genuinely, that we have a system under which bookmakers who disagree with what has happened to their pitch positions are not allowed to appeal against the process that made them go into those position, and that because they appealed on the basis that the process that had been agreed had been changed arbitrarily, their cases were dismissed?
In other words, the whole appeal was a waste of time. How can people appeal about something that is not the same as what they are appealing about? Imagine in a court of law saying to a judge, “I want to appeal your decision,” and the judge saying, “Well, I’ll tell you what the rules are after you have told me what you want.” That is what we have here. It was made up as they went along. It is appalling. The rules were bent and changed, and appealing was a pointless exercise—as was discovered when most appeals were strangely dismissed out of hand.
Mr. Stevenson denies any involvement, contradicting the DCMS. Mr. Marriott denies knowing about the changes. I have even spoken to Mr. Fairbairn, who sat on the panel, but he had no recollection of any new formula being presented to the appeals tribunal. It is clear that at the heart lies Mr. Reams, who was—how shall I put it?—economical with the actualité.
It is absolutely clear that the chaotic state of affairs that existed when the NJPC was set up led to serious problems not only for my constituent and the hon. Member for Hove (Ms Barlow) but to those involved in the 300 other cases dismissed out of hand, not to mention those who did not bother to appeal because they had some sense of what was going on.
The levy board had a duty of care to oversee the changes and to ensure that the NJPC was set up openly, that it was in a strong position and that its affairs were conducted in an honest way. The board utterly failed in that duty, and the NJPC has since failed in its duty to clear up the mess. It is impossible to imagine any other organisation being allowed to continue like that without trying to resolve the problems.
Worse than that, the people who run those organisations are making statements in court that they know to be fundamentally untrue. The basis of the blocking was the refusal to accept and admit that such things could have happened. I am astonished that the Government have not decided to overhaul the system and to make reparation. I ask only for a full and proper independent inquiry into the setting up of the NJPC and its subsequent running.
We know that the Office of Fair Trading has been highly critical of the NJPC, including its present appeals process and its limiting access to the ring of a number of bookmakers. If we do not overhaul the system, we risk opening the door even wider to things that I know others will want to speak about, such as online betting and off-course betting, which are unregulated, are taking over and will frankly leave punters open to abuse. Far too many people involved in the process have subsequently benefited, and one has to ask to what degree fraud has taken place.
I ask the Department to take this opportunity and have the courage to say, “Enough is enough.” Unless we clean the house and clean it properly so that those who were damaged can have reparation, the Department will not be fulfilling its own duty of care. I know the Minister. We have had conversations on a number of occasions and I have a high degree of respect for him. I hope that in this case he will simply say to his officials, “This is not good enough. You do not accept the word of the NJPC or the levy board. We want a full and proper inquiry. Let’s clear this up before we establish racing in a new format at the end of the year. Otherwise, that will risk going the same way as this did.”
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) on selecting this subject for debate in the week of the Cheltenham festival, where the public face of racing is at its best. We know that jockeys are trying and that horses are trying. The crowd, the atmosphere and the craic are a great advert for racing. I would love to be able to report that I managed to pick the 40-1, the 50-1 and the 16-1 winners from yesterday, but sadly I did not, although I do have a fancy for a horse called Finger On The Pulse in the 4 o’clock, which might be worth an each-way bet today. I recognise that that statement could come back to haunt me, as this debate is being recorded.
The horse racing and gambling industry is at a crossroads. Allegations of fixed races, jockeys being charged and horses being doped do not present a positive image of the racing and gambling industry. My comments will concentrate on Betfair. Gambling is big business in the UK, generating £50 billion every year. Betfair takes up to 5 million bets a day—an astonishing number—and it takes those bets on the premise that every punter has a fair and fighting chance of winning, but how many people realise that they might be placing bets after the result is known, the race has been won, or the goal has been scored? That, to be frank, is where Betfair comes into disrepute.
Punters can be in a bookmakers or at home watching a so-called live transmission, not realising that the pictures are subject to a delay of six or even seven seconds. That is a long time in a horse race and even longer in a dog race, where the dog from trap 1 can be past the winning post when the rest of the dogs are not even at the final bend. I pay tribute to the News of the World campaign, which has highlighted the problem in recent months. It recently showed two pictures: one from terrestrial television and one from SIS—Satellite Information Services. On both the televisions, the time was exactly the same. On one of the televisions, the favourite and its market rival were coming to the last jump; that was on the delayed screen. On the real screen, which was showing the actual time of the race, the favourite had fallen at the last. People were betting in running on the favourite losing. People who knew that the favourite had fallen were betting on that. Many punters who were betting on the favourite did not realise that it had fallen at the last hurdle.
Clearly, someone who is betting in running and watching the race on a delayed screen is at a major disadvantage to someone who is at the track or someone watching on a different monitor. As I said, the problem is more pronounced in dog racing, where we are talking about one length per second—people can imagine the consequence of a six or seven second delay.
Horse race betting is about studying form. It is about watching the horses in the paddock and being aware of the breeding. It is about the punter versus the bookie, not about a punter versus a punter, particularly when one individual has an in-built advantage. Horse race betting is about identifying the winner before the race. It is not about betting to lose. It is not about betting in running when an individual could, frankly, be cheated out of his money.
A constituent of mine, Henry Spurway, was a traditional bookmaker in Scotland who with his company, Easibet, entered into partnership with Betfair in October 2002. He was not aware of these issues. He got the first licensed betting exchange in the UK and initially the concept was very successful, but problems associated with in-running betting and betting to lose lost him a substantial amount of money in a relatively short time. He has initiated a campaign, which I support, to ban in-running betting and backing to lose. Henry can be contacted at henryspurway.co.uk.
The problems that I have described apply not only to horse racing and dog racing, but to all sports. Let us imagine Tiger Woods on the final green, looking to birdie to win a tournament. I am watching a screen that is showing in accurate time him making that putt. Someone else is watching a screen on which the pictures are delayed by five, six or seven seconds. If I know first whether Tiger Woods has birdied that hole or missed that putt, I have an advantage over other people who are betting on the outcome. That applies to football and the taking of a penalty kick; it applies to cricket and tennis—indeed, all sports are affected and it is totally unacceptable.
Betfair claims that 400,000 punters use its system. How can that number of individuals be policed? In The Times a few weeks ago, on 20 February, Alan Lee stated:
“I am equally uncomfortable about Betfair patting themselves on the back for wrong-doers being brought to task. For while it is true that the name-sharing agreement between Betfair and the Horse Race Authority has aided the detection of corruption, this inconveniently ignores the fact that such corruption has first been facilitated by the betting exchanges. Peter Savill, in his time as chairman of the British Horse Racing Board, likened the scenario to a shopkeeper leaving his doors unlocked every night whilst also installing security cameras.”
Mark Tompkins, trainer and chair of the Newmarket Trainers Association, said on 25 February that
“if we had no betting exchanges a paper trail would not be necessary as people wouldn’t be betting to lose. If someone got rid of exchanges tomorrow, he’d be doing racing a big favour.”
He also said in the article:
“I’d prefer to see no betting exchanges. Hong Kong, for instance, won’t have them.”
Hong Kong is one of the leading betting arenas in the world.
My predecessor as MP for Livingston, Robin Cook, said that in life he enjoyed two thumps—the thump of ballot boxes going on to a table at the end of an election night, and the thump of hooves on a race track anywhere in the UK. I share Robin’s love and passion for horse racing. In-race betting and betting to lose are damaging racing’s image. Those practices have been described as a cheat’s paradise and I do not disagree with that description. It is time that they were banned.
I strongly support the initiative of the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith). His constituents, a constituent of mine and others have been comparing notes, as it were, to make the case stronger.
I have three points to make. First, the history of the self-employed people whom we are discussing—people who are not employed by a great state enterprise and who are trying to conduct their business, to be productive in the economy and to use their initiative—has been marred since the arrangements were changed nearly 10 years ago by the real administrative incompetence of the National Joint Pitch Council. I have records of a litany of unanswered letters and of complaints not dealt with. They were compiled by someone who kept meticulous records in an effort to do business as a successful self-employed person should. It is not satisfactory that, when the arrangements changed nearly 10 years ago, an organisation was created that was incapable of dealing fairly with day-to-day administration. That was the first cause of consistent complaint.
The second was the subject of my intervention on the right hon. Gentleman. The location of someone’s pitch is a personal matter and people feel strongly about it because it can give them an advantage on a particular course. It seems to me that, if one is dissatisfied, one is entitled to an independent adjudication that is properly conducted on the basis of rules that are known in advance and of which a record is taken, so that if anything goes wrong the matter can be considered somewhere else.
In my view the appeal process should be independent. Had I been aware of the proposed arrangements before the changes were made, I would always have so argued. I am the chair of the governors at a primary school. If we turn someone down for admission, the appeal goes to a group of independent people who can tell the school to accept the applicant. I think that all hon. Members would accept that that system is the right one. The lack of proper, independent systems is a fundamental flaw that the authorities in the racing world have never dealt with. It is not sufficient for the Horserace Betting Levy Board to say that it has oversight, but that appeals are none of its business.
The third point is that there is a legacy, certainly of incompetence and arguably also of corruption and preferential treatment based on personal motives, which causes disadvantage to individuals, many of whom have worked in and served the industry for a long time. None of us is arguing for a system in which, for example, being born in Chingford or Bermondsey or Devon would confer an automatic advantage over someone born in Ireland, for example. We are arguing that there should be rules that are agreed to be fair with the industry, and which are known and stuck with. People could then join a queue to make their application for a pitch.
Cash flow is not an easy matter for self-employed people. I have been to race meetings and I have put money on horses, and my parents were keen on racing and taught me to understand its importance. However, as the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) said, based on his much greater experience, the reality is that finances in that type of business can be really tight in some cases. We are not talking about millionaires who have lots of money to invest and for whom the problems that we are discussing are unimportant. You can win a lot, but you can lose a lot too. Reparation is therefore an issue, and I want to add my plea for it to happen. My plea to the Minister is that, by whatever mechanism can be agreed—including on a cross-party basis in the House, and between those whom we represent—there should be an independent review of what has gone on, so that if people have clearly been disadvantaged there will be a way to give recompense.
The people whom we are talking about are alive and well and have not given up battling. They have merely failed to succeed in breaking through the existing mechanism, so we need another one. We look to Government to intervene, because it must be better to act politically and in the public arena than to go through the courts. There is huge interest in the success of the racing industry in this country; it is an important industry. If our race courses are to be places where people, including tourists and visitors, want to go, they need to know that the system is fair; and if we are to produce employment in the racing industry for people from this country, it is important that they, too, know that the system is fair. People will not enter the business if they think that they will be disadvantaged or that information will be withheld from them without recourse.
I hope that the Government response will be much more positive. Many people have been fighting this battle for a long time—years and years—but it is not too late to put things right. It is not too late to create a system that, when the arrangements change in the autumn, will be fair and will be seen to be so, with independent processes for dealing with complaints.
I too shall speak briefly, because I know that the hon. Member for Hove (Ms Barlow) wishes to say a few words.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) on having procured the debate. I know from my own experience of initiating Westminster Hall debates that it is often on the second or third bite of the cherry that one sees action. He is absolutely right that the Department has a duty of care to ensure that the allegations of preferential treatment are put firmly to bed. He did not use the word “corruption”, but the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) did. There should certainly be a level playing field—that is essential. Many of the concerns that were brought to light in my right hon. Friend’s speech would undoubtedly be open to judicial review.
I suspect that outsiders who are watching the debate might think that some of the discussion has been at cross-purposes. I say with the greatest respect to the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) that he was talking about online betting. I shall do so, too. I believe that online betting is here to stay in this country. It should be encouraged and promoted to ensure that the best managed, most innovative and most ethical players can succeed, so that players who would tar the industry can be pushed away, rather than pushed underground. Remarkably, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, some 5 million bets a day are made on Betfair, and I suspect that we ain’t seen nothing yet. We shall see far more online betting. However, that is not to say that the antics of the National Joint Pitch Council can be relegated to the past, because the sector of betting with which the council is connected will remain an important part of betting.
I confess that I am not a great race-goer. I was offered the chance to go to Cheltenham today, but because I am not a race-goer and because of the important debates that are taking place in the House today, I turned the offer down—although, as it happens, I shall miss the vote tonight because I have to attend a state dinner with the President of Ghana at the Guildhall, which gives me an excuse on matters of conscience. None the less, I should like to say a few words about the in-running betting that is offered by the UK betting operators.
I am close to Mark Davis, who is one of the managing directors of Betfair, and he has alerted me to some of the issues. It is only fair that some of them are put on the record, because when all is said and done I think that Betfair does a tremendous job. It is at the cutting edge of online betting, which is the way of the future. We need to embrace online betting, because it could bring tremendous tax revenues into the country. More importantly, we need to ensure that there is an acceptable regulatory framework so that those tax revenues do not go offshore, as has happened in the past.
All betting operators—including all the traditional high street UK bookmakers—offer in-running betting on most sports. Punters who bet on those sports generally watch the relevant events by means of what might be described as live TV pictures. The hon. Member for Livingston alerted us to the high-profile campaign in the News of the World about some of the problems that can arise in that regard. Depending on which TV channel an individual is watching, they might see the action with a few seconds’ delay. That applies also to normal television, if one compares satellite transmission with terrestrial channels. By definition, that means that other punters, or traditional bookmakers offering services to those markets on a race course, might have a slight advantage if they are watching the event on a different channel with a smaller time delay. However, it has always been the case that a host of variables can give an advantage to one gambler over another. The punter who has a copy of Racing Post might have an advantage over one who looks only at The Daily Telegraph. Likewise, an online punter with access to a broadband internet connection will have an advantage over another who relies on a slower connection, such as a dial-up service.
If we look beyond sport, it might be argued that some of us would know a by-election or general election campaign result half an hour or so before it became public knowledge. I doubt that the result in Cities of London and Westminster or in Livingston would be so important that tens of thousands of people across the nation would want to bet on the outcome, but a small number of insiders would clearly be aware of the result before it was publicly announced, and it could be subject to ongoing betting.
I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman says, but it is only fair to put on record the fact that Betfair is the only operator that alerts its customers to the potential for picture delays. It includes a health warning when it advertises its spread betting and its various other options for betting on events, and that alert takes the form of a clear notice on the screen showing each of the horse racing markets in which Betfair offers the in-running option.
In September 2007, as has been pointed out, the Gambling Commission will become the regulator for all gambling in the UK. That is a positive step forward. One of the commission’s regulatory objectives will be to ensure that gambling is fair and open. Logically, therefore, it falls within the commission’s remit to consider whether the platform provided by a certain form of betting or UK betting operator undermines that objective. I hope that the Minister will ensure that the commission has the power to look at such issues and that it will have a vision of the way in which the gambling industry will develop over the next 20 to 30 years in terms of bookmaking, the issues raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green and online betting, which is definitely the face of the future.
There is much more that I should like to say, and I hope that we shall have an opportunity to debate some of the broader issues—particularly online betting—but I appreciate that the hon. Member for Hove wants to make a contribution. I shall therefore bring my comments to a close and ask the Minister to give serious consideration to what has been said.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) on securing this important debate and on all the years of investigation and hard work that he has put into the issue. The cases that he highlights are not only important to our constituents, but have ramifications for the bookmaking community and the industry as a whole. The principles at stake are those of justice, accountability and transparency.
The bookmaking industry forms an essential part of our leisure sector and provides jobs and security for thousands of people across the country. Many of our oldest bookmakers are family-run businesses established over successive generations. Spectacles such as Royal Ascot and the grand national form part of our national calendar and are watched and admired the world over.
The legitimate gambling sector is a well established part of our leisure economy, but the case to which I wish to draw attention highlights corruption and abuse at the very heart of the National Joint Pitch Council—the regulator that was established to prevent such things from occurring. The case of my constituents Don and Garry Morrill should be of concern to the millions of people throughout the United Kingdom who are associated with or support the bookmaking industry, be they customers, business people or the thousands of employees in the industry.
The Morrill family has been trading as Taffy Ltd Bookmakers for generations. Don Morrill’s first experience of the industry was as a 14-year-old boy when he worked alongside his grandfather. He experienced at first hand the excitement of a race meet and wanted to walk in his family’s footsteps by continuing the family business, which had been in operation since 1929. When his uncle passed away in 1974, Don Morrill took over the running of Taffy Ltd bookmakers.
The allocation of pitches on a race course is determined by the length of time that an individual has been trading as a bookmaker—a procedure known as seniority, as we have heard. The greater the bookmaker’s seniority, the better their choice of pitch on the race course. The position of a pitch makes a huge difference to a bookmaker’s business turnover. The system was designed to ensure that the longer a bookmaker had been trading, the higher up the list of seniority they would be. It was used throughout the last century until its replacement by the NJPC in 1998.
The bookmaking community has always worked hard to regulate itself to ensure the fairest system of allocating pitches on the race course. Pitches may be inherited only from father to son, but due to my constituents’ exceptional circumstances, an agreement was reached in 1974 with the National Association of Bookmakers national pitch final appeals committee under the unforeseen contingences rule. As a result, Don Morrill was able to retain a pitch on the race course, although he had to build up his seniority over the next 24 years.
It takes years to build up seniority, and the close-knit nature of the bookmaking community means that everyone is aware of everyone else’s position. That concept of seniority and the manner in which the regional NJPC has allocated pitch positions under the new system, which was introduced in regulations in 1998, are the crux of my constituents’ case. If the NJPC is to be the basis for the new regulatory body that will be put in place from September, it is of the utmost importance that my right hon. Friend the Minister takes a closer look at the current procedures for the allocation of pitches at race tracks in the southern region. In particular, I ask him to pay close attention to those individuals who oversee the current system.
When large sums are involved, there is always a danger that people will try to find ways to use the system for their own financial ends. In the case of my constituents, the select group of individuals whom we have heard mentioned—Tom Clarke, John Stevenson and Robin Grossmith—have placed themselves in such a position that they have been able to oversee not only the allocation of pitches, but the appeals procedure, which is virtually without precedent in the sporting world.
The activities of the soon-to-be-defunct NJPC have resulted in serious breaches of trust, which specifically involve the NJPC’s ex-general manager, Clive Reams. When my right hon. Friend looks at the evidence, he will also find a catalogue of mistruths and misleading statements from Tim Moore, the chief executive officer, and the NJPC’s current management.
When one looks at the evidence in the case, the proof is overwhelming. As the current regional system stands, there is no national independent appeals body to which bookmakers can take a regional dispute. The NJPC’s current set-up has enabled a select group to position itself so as to act as judge, jury and executioner—a far from satisfactory situation, as I am sure my right hon. Friend will agree. Such breaches of trust have been committed by the very people whose job it is to ensure that all transactions and pitch allocations are undertaken in a fair and just manner.
We are talking about earnings varying by thousands of pounds as a result of a bookmaker’s pitch position on a race course. Bookmakers with lower seniority have been found to have been given the choice of a better pick position, despite the fact that their seniority is far less than that of my constituents. Other long-established bookmakers have also found that certain individuals have inexplicably gained better track-side positions. There is evidence that those individuals are known acquaintances of those whose job it is to oversee the fair allocation of pitches.
When my right hon. Friend looks more closely into the situation, he will see the same names time and time again. Indeed, the situation has been noticed and raised by people other than my constituents. As we have heard, of the more than 900 bookmakers nationally, 292—mostly in the southern area—have lodged complaints about the allocation and auctioning of pitches. Of those complaints, which come from almost one third of bookmaking businesses, only 8 per cent. have been addressed, with 92 per cent. pre-judged by the southern region NJCP, which is headed by Clive Reams.
Tony Fairbairn, a former independent member of the NJPC, as well as ex-NJPC manager Mark Wharton and ex-NJPC official Terry Lang, assert that despite Mr. Reams’s claims to the contrary, they never attended any independent appeal panel to look into the 292 complaints that were brought to the NJPC. They further claim that any appeals were in fact “binned” by Mr. Reams. Indeed, in a letter to the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, David Bowden, the former head of the National Association of Bookmakers, acknowledged that the application of the methodology to my constituents’ seniority had been “manifestly unjust”.
I believe that the unjust application of the pitch allocation system is not confined to my constituents. Ladbrokes, which is acknowledged to be the second oldest rails bookmaker trading in Brighton, is placed no higher than 10th on the pick list at Brighton race course. How can the second oldest rails bookmaker in Brighton achieve second place in one region, but a place no higher than 10th in another? William Hill, the oldest bookmaker in the country, was similarly placed in a lowly position in the southern lists; it chose to pay £18,000 to secure the No. 2 position at auction, with the commission going directly to the NJPC, rather than fighting for what rightfully belonged to it.
I believe that a full independent inquiry into the current circumstances of the southern region, and of the NJPC in particular, is essential, not only to establish the facts but to assure customers and bookmakers alike that the Government take fraud seriously in all its forms. If such an inquiry were to confirm that irregularities had occurred, recompense should be given to those who lost out under the system. During any investigation, it would wholly wrong for any members of the NJPC who are involved in the current situation to be involved in any new regulatory body being set up within the industry.
Although the present system was welcomed by those working in the industry when it was introduced in 1998, it has enabled certain people to abuse the changes in regulations for their own financial benefit and to act as judge, jury and executioner in any case or complaint brought to them. We are looking to change the rules that govern how people are to gamble in this country. It is imperative that both the public and the Government are able to make the changes in the full knowledge that all potential avenues of corruption have been adequately dealt with. Full transparency should be an absolute requirement in any process that is implemented in the future.
My constituents fully acknowledge that in ever-changing times the gambling sector itself needs to adjust and adapt. They welcome the Government’s efforts to devise a fair system in which people who wish to enter the profession can do so. It is wrong, however, on the implementation of a new system for a select few people to be able to act as judge, jury and executioner, with no recourse to appeal. Who—to employ a much used expression—watches the watcher?
An independent national body would be able to provide the necessary detachment needed when a regional grievance was raised. It would also ensure parity across the whole country and make sure that any rules and regulations were applied fairly to all, with no conflict of interest. As for the specific case of my constituents, they believe that time is running out to address their concerns about the operation of the soon-to-be-defunct NJPC. Don and Garry Morrill have been let down by a system that has allowed many people working in their industry to abuse their positions and remain in them without any significant checks or balances on their actions. It would be wrong of the Government to introduce NJPC mark 2 without adequately dealing with the serious shortcomings of the current system.
I applaud the Government’s commitment in seeking ways for the betting system to remain fair and open. Greater transparency benefits us all. When the new system is introduced in September we should do everything we can to ensure that the new procedures are transparent. The vast majority of members of the bookmaking community conduct themselves in an honest and above-board manner. They pride themselves on their work and the service that they provide. With the future well-being of their industry in mind, they feel that confidence is essential to maintaining their professional reputation. The House needs to do everything possible to ensure that the practices of a few cannot tarnish the reputations of many.
I shall be very brief. We have had an excellent debate and are now really waiting for the Minister’s response. I just want to congratulate the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) on raising the subject. He has done so before, and I am horrified that we are here debating it again and we are still in the same situation. There are allegations of incompetence, the word “corruption” has been used, the rules clearly are not fair and there is no fair or just appeals system for people who find that the rules work against them.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said that we need cross-party consensus, and I agree. I am quite prepared to meet the Minister to discuss how we can move on and resolve the problems in a way that is not party political but that will enable us to achieve consensus and progress. We need to bring justice to a system that, judging by what we have heard today, appears to be either corrupt or incompetent, depending on one’s interpretation.
I too will be brief, because it is important for the Minister to have the maximum time in which to answer the points that have been raised today. The situation is serious. Confidence in gambling is crucial. With respect to the remarks of the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine), I shall say only this: the debate about online gambling has only just begun and it has many episodes yet to run.
The National Joint Pitch Council will cease to exist in September when the relevant section of the Gambling Act 2005 is implemented. However, the fact that that much-criticised organisation is in its final days does not mean that it should escape rigorous investigation of the many serious allegations that we have heard. It has been investigated by the Office of Fair Trading and, in a fairly half-hearted way, by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. In one English region alone, 300 appeals have been made against its decisions. It is responsible for the administration of betting with bookmakers, and it is telling that, time and again, it has been in court defending itself against disgruntled bookmakers, the people whom it is meant to serve. It is incredible to hear that appeals are considered by those who were involved in the original decisions. That flies in the face of any sort of natural justice. Then, to cap it all, we hear that no minutes are kept.
The concerns continue. I, like other hon. Members, praise my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), and others who have raised continuing issues about the NJPC. We, and the Minister, must deal with the fact that it is somehow always the small man who gets it. This is a story about the big boys against the little boys; it is a story about ad hoc rule making and flagrant rule breaking. Yet nothing has been done about it, and it has taken my right hon. Friend’s hard work to bring it yet again to the Minister’s attention. I look forward to hearing what the Minister will say.
In its nine years of existence, the NJPC has irreparably damaged many bookmakers’ businesses. It is time that we had an independent inquiry into its workings, so that confidence can be restored to the regulation of the industry before the Gambling Act 2005 comes into force. There are huge concerns, not only in this House but among the general public, about the Act. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity of the debate to restore the confidence of hon. Members and the public in what will happen after September. Irrespective of whether conspiracy or incompetence is responsible for the problem, nothing but a full independent inquiry will do.
The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) has usefully drawn attention to a subject of considerable interest to his constituent, which he has tenaciously prosecuted for a long time. I acknowledge other hon. Members, too, with an interest in horse racing or bookmaking. As the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate, it would be inappropriate to comment on any particular allegation, but it is right that I should address the serious allegations that several right hon. and hon. Members have raised.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that on-course bookmaking must be properly regulated, and I hope that my contribution will show some ways of ensuring that that will happen. It is also essential that gambling remains crime-free and that it is carried out in a fair and open way. Those things are the basis for, and the key objectives of, the Gambling Act 2005, which now covers this area. It will bring bookmakers within the jurisdiction of a new national regulator, the Gambling Commission, for the first time.
I will come back to that point, but perhaps it would be useful if I were to start by outlining the history behind the establishment of the National Joint Pitch Council, the involvement of the Horserace Betting Levy Board and the Government’s association with those bodies.
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the levy board is a non-departmental public body, NDPB, that operates in accordance with the Betting, Gaming and Lotteries Act 1963, as amended. Its main functions are to collect payments from bookmakers and use them for the three statutory purposes set out in the 1963 Act: the improvement of breeds of horses; the advancement or encouragement of veterinary science or veterinary education; and the improvement of horse racing.
Since 1972, the board has also had responsibility for issuing certificates of approval to race courses, providing for the location of betting rings for on-course bookmakers. At that time, the National Association of Bookmakers had responsibility for the administration of betting rings, under an agreement with the Racecourse Association, the RCA. However, in 1997, after seven years of disputes, that agreement was terminated by the RCA. To ensure that betting rings were properly administered after the termination of the agreement, the levy board instigated a review.
Following extensive consultation, the review recommended that a new administrative body should be established. It was to be known as the National Joint Pitch Council. It is a condition of the levy board’s certificates of approval that race courses observe the national pitch rules that the board has endorsed. The NJPC is not a public body, but a company limited by guarantee. Its functions are essentially administrative and relate to the conduct of bookmakers on race courses. In particular, the NJPC has introduced much-needed modernisation into the betting ring.
The right hon. Gentleman has suggested that the introduction of the auction of on-course betting pitches has allowed crime to infiltrate that market. He has further implied that the NJPC has turned a blind eye to that infiltration. I should remind him that the auction of pitches was implemented by the NJPC, at the request of the levy board, to ensure greater freedom and transparency in the on-course market. I should further remind the right hon. Gentleman that the fact that pitches are auctioned demonstrates that the process is transparent, since auctions take place with scores, if not hundreds, of people present. Pitches may be bought and sold only by bookmakers who have permits issued by the magistrates court and who are then subject to further NJPC authorisation hurdles. The right hon. Gentleman suggested that he could supply evidence. If that is the case, will he please provide it? We would refer it to the right people, be that the police or the new Gambling Commission. The system was a marked improvement on the dead man’s shoes arrangement that existed pre-1998, and the vast majority of people said that that was so. Furthermore, the Office of Fair Trading looked into the operation of the on-course market and found no problems with the auction arrangements.
The right hon. Gentlemen has also implied that organised crime groups might be forming cartels to influence the starting price used by off-course bookmakers across the country. Again, it might be helpful if I were to explain a little about how starting prices are set and used. In 2004, the method used for setting the starting price was revised by the starting price regulatory commission—an entirely independent body chaired by Lord Donoughue. At that time, he stated that his priorities for the new system were total transparency and integrity. Indeed, he insisted on opening up the new system to press scrutiny during its testing period and, to this day, the starting price for each race is overseen by an independent starting price validator employed by the Press Association.
The importance of the starting price is that it is used in licensed betting offices up and down the country. I should remind hon. Members that the off-course industry is under no obligation to use the starting prices from on-course bookmakers. It is widely considered that the starting price arrangements benefit the customer because the on-course market is highly competitive and highly efficient, and therefore drives down off-course margins. It is perhaps for that reason that some bookmakers are beginning to consider setting their own starting prices without reference to on-course prices. If the right hon. Gentleman has any evidence of criminal conduct concerning the setting of starting prices, I urge him to draw it to the attention of the police.
The Minister has heard from several contributors, including the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) and myself, about the failure to have an independent appeals system in respect of pitch allocation. Will the Minister address that? Will he tell me whether the Department has examined that and whether it accepts that the present system—I appreciate that there will be a new system from September—has a fundamental flaw?
The answer to that is that we have examined the matter. I believe that the hon. Gentleman received a copy of a lengthy letter that was sent on 13 October 2006 to Mr. John Morrill. I shall put a copy of it in the Library, if I have permission to do so.
Reference has been made to the appeals system. The letter stated:
“You…have…claimed that you were treated unfairly during the NJCP Appeals process that followed the integration, on the basis that your appeals were not upheld. Those appeals were judged against the revised formula set out in the NJPC fax of 20 November 1998. I agree with you that it is regrettable the NJPC has not maintained better records of the appeals panel and I have taken this issue up…However, it is clear that the NJPC was explicit that the appeal panel would hear appeals on matter of mistaken fact only, and not on complaints regarding the methodology. I have not seen your appeal papers, but I understand that you did not seek to challenge the facts relating to your start date, to which the new methodology was applied. Again the Department has not seen any evidence to suggest that the NJPC acted improperly in not upholding your or”—
the other appellant’s—
I shall quickly finish this point. The problem is that we do not have time today to deal with the important questions that the right hon. Gentleman raised about why the southern area was different from the rest of the United Kingdom.
The letter put the matter succinctly, stating:
“On 18 August 1998 John Stevenson wrote to the NJPC Chairman suggesting that the ‘Stevenson Formula’ was over complicated. He also highlighted concerns that the commencement dates used in the formula only went back one generation thus disadvantaging longer standing bookmaker families. On 6 October 1998 the decision that the NJPC should integrate the lists on behalf of the BPAs was reversed, and it was agreed by the NJPC and NAB that local BPAs would integrate their own lists using the Stevenson Formula and forward these integrated lists to the NJPC. All but the Southern Area BPA, integrated their own lists. Many (but not all) went through a number of iterations of their integrated lists, consulting members and amending the lists several times before they were finalised and submitted to the NJPC. On 25 September 1998 the Southern Area BPA informed the NJPC that it was not in a position to integrate its own lists. Therefore, and with agreement between Southern Area BPA and NJPC, the Southern Area forwarded its home and away bookmaker lists to the NJPC to be integrated using the ‘Stevenson Formula’. On 21 October the NJPC wrote to the Southern Area BPA confirming that the ‘Stevenson Formula’ would be used for integration and requesting that any amendments to the home and away lists submitted be forwarded to the NJPC no later than 23 October 1998, otherwise the previously submitted data would by used for the integration. The NJPC has confirmed that all data necessary for integration of the lists was, after some delay, received from the Southern Area. The integration of the Southern Area lists was carried by John Stevenson of the NAB and Clive Reams, the then Chief Executive of the NJPC.”
The Minister ought to get from his officials a copy of the letter that Stevenson wrote in response to the report. He has denied all that and made it absolutely clear that he had nothing to do with that and that he did not know of any change to the Stevenson formula. It is interesting that the Minister’s officials have not put that on his desk, because they should have. The critical point is that Reams made those changes without any clear reason or the authority to do so, and that he lied about having to do so because he did not get the lists. All the way through, thereafter, the levy board said that it did not have the lists, but it did—the Minister just said so—so there was no reason to change the formula. There is a real discrepancy.
We are not going to resolve this issue in the debate. I will look into this matter with my officials. At the end of my speech I shall say how we think matters should proceed.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for referring to the important issue of money laundering. We must ensure that there is integrity in all sections of the gaming and gambling industry. If we do not, everyone will suffer. The Government take the prevention of money laundering extremely seriously in every industry, including on-course betting. In 2000, the NJPC engaged two former senior police officers to investigate possible money laundering in the betting ring, and they found no evidence of that. However, it would not be appropriate for us to leave matters there. The prevention of money laundering is the responsibility of the Government and law enforcement agencies, and we continue to monitor the gambling industry to identify risks as they arise. That is vital in a continually evolving industry that is subject to the technological changes that have been described this morning.
Bookmakers are not subject to the Money Laundering Regulations 2003, but they are subject to the principal money laundering offences established in the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, which carry prison sentences of up to 14 years. Again, I say to the right hon. Gentleman that if he has any evidence of money laundering, which we take very seriously, he should present it to the police.
My Department is far from complacent on these issues. The right hon. Gentleman accuses us of not taking repeated allegations seriously, but nothing could be further from the truth. The British gambling sector has an excellent reputation worldwide and on-course bookmaking is no exception to that. I am determined that it will remain so. Ensuring that gambling is conducted fairly and remains crime-free is a high priority for the Gambling Commission. Indeed, the Gambling Act 2005 sets those considerations out as the commission’s priorities.
From September 2007, all bookmakers will be licensed by the Gambling Commission instead of by local magistrates. The national gambling regulator now carries out joined-up checks on the suitability of all applicants for gambling licences, including bookmakers. Those checks will go well beyond those under the previous arrangements. The commission will maintain a national register of all on and off-course bookmakers and will have robust powers to investigate, seize evidence and prosecute, if necessary.
I am aware that constituents of the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Ms Barlow) have expressed concerns about the infiltration of crime into the on-course market. I am also aware that the right hon. Gentleman’s constituent has long been pursuing the NJPC for breach of contract and that the parliamentary ombudsman and two separate courts have heard and dismissed his claims and awarded costs to both the NJPC and the levy board. I agree that we must be vigilant about the risks, but we must also take care not to impose unnecessary and disproportionate measures. The new licensing regime that is being introduced under the Gambling Act—
This is important; I hope that the right hon. Gentleman takes note. The new regime provides an appropriate regulatory structure for on-course betting in Britain. The regime addresses the three objectives of the Act, which are to keep gambling fair, to keep it crime-free and to protect the vulnerable, particularly children. However, I appreciate that some on-course bookmakers are still unhappy about some of the NJPC’s past decisions, particularly when the on-course bookmakers picking lists were combined in 1998.
The Minister said that my constituent and the hon. Lady’s constituent have been to the courts, but the key point that I have made today is that the levy board and the NJPC simply perjured themselves in those court cases. They said that the lists were not available and that was why the changes were made. We now know that that is not true; the Minister admitted that just now. In essence, we have had a whole game of subterfuge. Surely that alone is enough to ask why there has been no real inquiry into this case.
It is very serious to say that people have perjured themselves. If one makes those serious allegations, one has to make them stand up. The courts are there to make sure that matters stand up. We make the laws and they carry them out. That case has to be a matter for the courts, not the Government.
I want bookmakers, the Gambling Commission and all those with a role to play in ensuring that the new licensing system is fit for purpose to be involved in the process, and I will look for a positive way forward. It is important to resolve these problems while we are modernising and bringing in the measures in the new Act. To that end, my Department hosted a round-table discussion last month between representatives of race courses, bookmakers, the levy board, the NJPC and the Gambling Commission to discuss the future administration of on-course betting. The hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) was wrong to say that the NJPC will go out of operation. It will not, but it will change its role.
Following those discussions, a working group was set up to consider possible solutions and will report shortly. The points that have been made this morning by hon. Members on both sides of the House will be put to that group, and we will ask it to consider in particular the appeal process and whether it is fair and transparent. I shall ask the Gambling Commission to report, and will ensure that its report is placed in both Houses so that it can be further scrutinised. I shall reflect on this morning’s debate and consider whether further representations should be made to the working group to ensure that it takes all concerns into account. It is not in my interests or those of the gambling industry to have this kind of cloud hanging over it. I am determined to clear matters up and ensure that there is transparency and integrity.
We live in a fast-moving world, and globalisation is affecting every sector of our lives, whether that involves the Tesco store that takes over the corner shop or technology moving at such a pace that matters have to be managed differently. Unfortunately, there are casualties as a result. We might not like that, but it is a fact of life. We are trying to manage this important sector of the industry, and we have a great record. I believe that we have kept this industry crime-free since 1968, and that it probably has the greatest integrity of any such industry anywhere in the world. We are determined to take that forward with the new Act, particularly by setting out in it for the first time measures to ensure that punters have a fair bet, that the industry is kept crime-free and that the vulnerable are protected. Those are the Gambling Commission’s main aims in carrying out its duties.
The Minister said that there is not enough time to go through all the detail of what has been said here today. When he reflects on the debate, will he consider having a cross-party meeting to discuss these matters in greater detail and to consider whether they need to be taken forward? It seems to me that they do.
Well, the right hon. Gentleman has met my officials several times. If a dialogue is needed, hon. Members can meet my officials or me before we have the discussion with the working group. That might not be a bad idea, but I assure hon. Members that this matter is extremely well documented. We have gone through it in detail and the right hon. Gentleman has had two court cases and been to the Office of Fair Trading and the ombudsman.
What is the composition of the working group? I add my voice to that of the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross), because many issues have not come up in the debate, such as the conduct of auctions, which the Minister brought up himself. Will they also fall within the remit of the working group?
Thank you, Mr. Benton.
We will lose Eurostar services at Waterloo International when they move to St. Pancras. That will be a genuine loss for many of my constituents because it will add an hour to train travel to the continent, and unless they revert to the airlines it will be more burdensome. Because they supported Eurostar services, my constituents and others in the South West Trains area willingly gave up one of their tracks to make the Eurostar service possible. Now, with Eurostar moving and Waterloo International being vacated, we would like our track back and the associated platforms turned over to domestic use.
The Minister will be aware that in the past 10 years passenger numbers on South West Trains are up by close to 50 per cent. Network Rail’s route utilisation strategy in 2005 forecast that that increase would continue at the rate of about 19 to 20 per cent. over the next 10 years. We questioned those figures at the time, and I understand from conversations with the industry that there is now general consensus that planning in the route utilisation strategy for a 20 per cent. increase in passengers over 10 years is now recognised as being fundamentally flawed. The Minister will also be aware that the Association of Train Operating Companies has today produced a new report that predicts that the number of passengers on routes served by South West Trains into Waterloo is set to rise by 50 per cent. over the next 10 years. Those are the sort of numbers that the rest of us were talking about. ATOC based its figures on growth acceleration since last spring.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in developing her excellent initiative her proposal for using Waterloo International is a much more cost-effective, immediate and practical way of dealing with overcrowding than the bigger and longer-term solutions, such as the proposal for double-decker trains, which is often advanced to solve the problem?
I thank my hon. Friend, who is right. The opportunity presented by the vacation of Waterloo International platforms is a quick hit for dealing with immediate overcrowding and lack of capacity.
The original route utilisation strategy anticipated only 20 per cent. growth on South West Trains and said:
“There is no practical scope to run additional trains into London Waterloo in the high peak, and the existing trains are at their maximum permitted length”.
South West Trains recently said:
“As passenger numbers rise inexorably, overcrowding will get continuously worse unless more capacity can be provided”.
However, conversations with the chairman and chief executive officer make it clear that the new South West Trains franchise does not allow for that additional capacity. A few additional services are being added to the lines and will come on stream in the early-morning hours over the next year. The existing programme of increasing the number of carriages from eight to 10 on a number of trains will be completed, but that seems to be the absolute limit of any capacity growth in the franchise arrangements.
The main wheeze for dealing with the additional number of passengers seems to be to remove seats from trains. The Minister will be aware that the plan for Desiro 450 trains is to remove five or six seats per carriage. However, I am glad that following local protests the plan to create further space by removing toilets seems to have been reversed. The toilets will remain, but five or six seats will be lost in each carriage. That seems to be the main mechanism for dealing with the growth in demand.
To understand whether more is required under the franchise, we have tried to obtain a copy of the invitation to tender from March 2006, which should no longer be a commercially sensitive document because the franchise has been tendered. We want to see the invitation, not the final negotiations, and we hope that the Minister will tell us today that we can have a copy of that document, because it will give us a sense of the framework in which South West Trains is supposed to operate and deliver.
I remind the Minister that when I last had a debate on this subject in October 2005, the then Minister, the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), said:
“The Department for Transport is now beginning to examine the options, and the initial analysis should be completed by spring next year”—
that is, spring 2006.
“That will allow the conclusions to be fed into the franchise specification and tender documents for the South West Trains franchise, which is due to go out to competition next spring.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 21 October 2005; Vol. 437, c. 1168WH.]
We anticipated that new growth would be built into the franchise and our concern is that that does not seem to have happened.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) said, Eurostar’s move to St. Pancras and its vacation of the Waterloo International platforms provides one of the few quick hits for some relief for South West Trains’ hard-pressed commuters and passengers. Given how unpleasant life is on the service, my constituents would be furious if those Waterloo International platforms were standing idle after October 2007 and not being redeveloped or used for domestic train services. As you will be aware, Mr. Benton, it is not uncommon for trains to sit outside Waterloo station because no platform is available. That damages reliability of service and adds to overcrowding. I understand from previous conversations that the cost of adapting the Eurostar platforms is about £10 million, which is peanuts in rail terms.
I spoke earlier about getting back our track, which was sacrificed to the Eurostar service. To get it back, the Nine Elms viaduct would have to be removed, and that would cost around £30 million to £80 million, which is rather more, but not a supreme amount of money in rail terms. However, South West Trains has said in conversations that there are no plans whatever in place to use the platforms or to do anything about the Nine Elms viaduct. My local newspaper, the Surrey Comet, telephoned Network Rail and was told in no uncertain terms that no decisions had been made about the future of Waterloo International and that as the delays were so long and as decision making moves at a snail’s pace, even if there were a decision the earliest those platforms could be made available for domestic services would be 2010. That snail’s pace of decision making makes us want to tear our hair out.
In the longer term, we need greater solutions than simply getting hold of the Waterloo International platforms. We need longer trains. The Minister will be aware that because of the tight physical envelope that Waterloo represents, the flexibility that those international platforms could offer would allow other platforms to be lengthened. The picture begins to build up. We are anxious that there is a scheme and a timetable so that we know that every train will eventually have 12 cars. We realise that that means upgrading other platforms along the line and tackling the nightmare that is Clapham Junction, but we want some sort of commitment to such a programme and some sort of timetable.
I support the London orbital scheme because if every train stopped at Clapham Junction station as part of a London orbital arrangement, that would relieve the heavy traffic that comes to Waterloo and then disperses around London because Waterloo is not the ideal destination. The London orbital scheme is by far the cheapest way of taking pressure off rail, bus and Tube services in central London. I received a note from the City of London corporation, which is very supportive of the orbital project, saying that overcrowding on the platforms at Waterloo is now so bad that in the three-hour peak period, 85,000 passengers use them. The note continued:
“Passenger congestion on the main concourse and the links to and from the underground lines are becoming a significant problem at peak hours.”
I shall move on quickly to allow my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) to add some comments, because his constituents, like those of my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham, are equally affected.
Other parts of London are receiving new rail capacity. The second section of the channel tunnel rail link is near completion, Crossrail is moving ahead—so we understand—and the East London line and the Thameslink 2000 project are progressing, so it is not surprising that commuters in south-west London feel forgotten.
Over the past two years, I have frequently pressed the Government for assurances that Eurostar’s soon-to-be vacated platforms at Waterloo will be used to ease congestion for long-suffering commuters on South West Trains. Network Rail suggests that the earliest point at which we can envisage the platforms being in use for local people is 2010, simply because the necessary decisions have not been made. That is unacceptable, and the timetable is unacceptable. While the Government move at a snail’s pace, commuters are crushed into crowded carriages every day, and they are utterly frustrated when trains stand outside Waterloo for lack of platform space. Those passengers pay inflation-busting fare increases year on year, only to be told that seats will be removed from their trains to squeeze on more people.
I want the Minister to acknowledge the overcrowding that my constituents and other commuters experience on South West Trains, and I want him to assure us that the Government’s answer will be longer—eventually 12-car—trains, and not the further removal of seats, which is turning our rail network into a “standing mode”, a technical term that is much in currency. I should like him to confirm that we can see a copy of the South West Trains franchise invitation to tender, so that we at least know what to expect from the current arrangements. I want him to provide both an absolute assurance that the work to adapt Waterloo’s Eurostar platforms will begin as soon as they are vacated, and a timetable for the work’s completion.
Will the Minister provide an assurance about funding and a timetable for implementing the long-term solution of 12-car trains, which includes timings for the removal of the Nine Elms viaduct, the lengthening of platforms along the line and the necessary investment in Clapham Junction? It would also be good to receive an update about the progress towards a London orbital line.
One of my constituents, having suffered an impossible journey, wrote to me and said that if we could get him a reliable service into Waterloo on South West Trains, he would
“skip down the steps of Waterloo, declaiming the enlightened beneficence of south west trains and the rail regulator,”
and we would tell him to add the Department for Transport to that list.
My constituents are asking not for the impossible, but for a civilised rail service. They pay high fares, they do what they are supposed to do, leaving their cars behind to use rail services to commute into London, and they want a timely response from the Government.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) on securing the debate, and I endorse everything that she has said. I should declare an interest as someone who uses the train every day to travel from Surbiton to Waterloo in order to reach Westminster. From that daily experience, which I and my constituents endure, I know that there is a great deal of anger about the Government’s failure quickly to provide a clear lead on the issue. My colleagues and I have been bringing it to the Department’s attention for two years.
A peak return ticket from Surbiton to London went up by 36 per cent. this year, thanks to the Mayor of London’s rezoning policy, which the Department did not challenge. My constituents face a 36 per cent. rise in fares, overcrowded trains and no sign of any relief, so the Minister will understand why they are so cross. The lack of capacity that produces such overcrowding has been brought to the Minister’s attention for some considerable time, and given the pressing macro need— climate change—for more public transport, it seems absurd that the Government have not grasped that major opportunity. As my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) said, it will provide the taxpayer and the Department with value for money, and the Government should grab it with both hands.
Following the questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park asked, I have two specific queries. First, why has there been a delay in decision making? The decision ought to be a no-brainer. Secondly, why has there not been any planning for an interim solution, such as the small amount of investment that would be needed to enable at least some trains to access the Eurostar platforms and relieve congestion elsewhere on the station? We want answers to those questions and to the questions that my hon. Friend asked, so I hope that the Minister will answer them today or in writing, because we are beginning to lose patience.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) on securing the debate. Before I turn to my general comments, I shall respond to a few of her questions, many of which are answered in my prepared notes.
The debate is important to the hon. Lady and her constituents, so I make an appeal to her, because sometimes I am discouraged as these debates tend to be pejorative and partisan. First, she said that she and her constituents were disappointed at Eurostar’s move from Waterloo to St. Pancras, but later she said that her constituents were going to get their track back—track that had been sacrificed to Eurostar. She might want to consider whether Eurostar’s move from Waterloo to St. Pancras is good or bad, because she seems to be saying that it is both.
The hon. Lady wants me to acknowledge the overcrowding on the South West Trains franchise, which of course I do. I am well aware of the difficulties for many commuters using many commuter services into major conurbations in Britain. However, her comments implied that she wants the Government to intervene in South West Trains’ decision in the past year to remove seats. I have said on several occasions that it is not the Government’s role to intervene in the operational decisions of any train operating company. Perhaps it is Liberal Democrat policy to take control of such measures, but it is certainly not that of the Government.
I should like some clarification, because from conversations with South West Trains, I understand that in its response to the invitation to tender for the franchise, the plan to remove the seats was embedded as the cheapest mechanism for dealing with increased passenger demand. When the Government say that it is nothing to do with them, it is a rather disingenuous way of disclaiming their responsibility for setting the framework of the franchise so that it can cope with passenger numbers.
On this occasion, the hon. Lady is entirely wrong. The South West Trains franchise includes commitments to increase capacity on peak-time services, and I shall come on to that, but it does not specify the way in which the capacity should be achieved.
The hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) also talked about inflation-busting fares. First, in response to the hon. Gentleman, ticket rezoning was not the Mayor of London’s initiative, but that of the Department for Transport. It was an excellent initiative, which was widely welcomed, and it will pave the way for the use of Oyster card pay-as-you-go fares throughout Greater London. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is clearly unhappy about that.
Although some passengers, including some of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, will have to pay extra fares, overall the decision to rezone is revenue-neutral. There are winners and losers, but as a result of rezoning, overall the train operating companies will not take any more money than they did before. That probably will not be included in the hon. Gentleman’s press release about today’s debate. Since the Liberal Democrats make great play of the need for smart-card ticketing and other innovations that encourage people on to the rail network, I am surprised that he takes such a parochial view about something with major, positive implications for the rail network.
I can confirm to the hon. Gentleman that it was necessary. On the invitation to tender, my understanding is that it will be published. I am happy to write to the hon. Members for Richmond Park and for Kingston and Surbiton to confirm when that will happen.
I know that the hon. Member for Richmond Park asked a number of parliamentary questions on the future use of Waterloo International in February, and I hope that the debate will add to the information that I gave in my answers and provide a useful update to the House following the previous debate on the subject in October 2005.
Waterloo is a vital part of the national rail network and is especially important to the users of South West Trains services. About 150,000 passengers use the station during peak periods each day and up to 750 services a day are operated by South West Trains, making Waterloo one of the busiest stations in the country. I am pleased to report that operational performance is much improved since the introduction of the revised South West Trains timetable in December 2005. The industry standard public performance measure of trains arriving on time now stands at 89.7 per cent.
Passenger growth on the relevant part of the rail network is expected to continue in the coming years, as the hon. Lady said, although I doubt whether anybody in the industry could be found who would bet a large amount of money on whether that growth will be 20, 25, 30, 35 or 60 per cent.
I did pick up that reference, and I am sure that ATOC itself will not guarantee a particular rate of long-term patronage growth—nobody does. The predictions are useful, but they are all indicative.
Passenger growth is expected to continue and the franchisee has planned a number of initiatives to address it, including extra rolling stock and the reconfiguration of the interiors of some trains to increase their capacity, as the hon. Lady mentioned. I shall have more to say on both points.
The hon. Lady said that she has been pressing the case for the former Eurostar platforms at Waterloo to be put to domestic use following Eurostar’s departure for St. Pancras. I am sure that she noticed that in October 2005 my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South-West (Mr. Darling), then the Secretary of State for Transport, announced that the platforms at Waterloo International would be retained for domestic passenger use. I am delighted to welcome the hon. Lady on board that campaign. I can confirm that the move to St. Pancras will take place on 14 November this year.
My right hon. Friend’s announcement was widely welcomed for removing the uncertainty that had inevitably grown up about the future of the international platforms at Waterloo. In the period since the announcement was made, my officials have been working with others in the rail industry to determine how the platforms should best be used to maximise the benefits while ensuring value for money. A number of studies have been undertaken since 2005 to assess the scope and benefits of converting the international platforms for domestic use. A feasibility study was completed in March 2006 by Halcrow and concluded that, in the short term, running some existing South West Trains services into the international platforms could deliver worthwhile performance benefits. It also reported that the longer term prospects for making full use of the international platforms needed further development.
Meanwhile, in early 2006 the Department undertook a competition to find a new operator for the south-western franchise, and in September the franchise was awarded to Stagecoach. The new contract included a number of service improvements that Stagecoach is now required to deliver. Several are especially relevant to today’s debate, including an increase in capacity, with 21 per cent. more mainline peak seats and a 20 per cent. increase in peak suburban capacity; the deployment of 17 additional class 450 units, and a rolling stock refurbishment programme to deliver extra capacity. Trains must be lengthened on almost all peak services to the maximum length that can be accommodated at station platforms; there will be an additional morning peak service from Basingstoke to Waterloo, and 10-car trains will be introduced on Windsor to Waterloo services in 2010, which I hope the hon. Member for Richmond Park will particularly welcome.
Also included in the specification for the franchise was a “priced option” requiring bidders to identify the costs and benefits of using the Waterloo International terminal for domestic train services, assuming that the physical work to convert the station had been completed. The priced option from Stagecoach for the south-western franchise provided more evidence that further development was needed to secure the longer term benefits of making full use of the international platforms.
Building on the findings of the Halcrow study, my officials are now focusing on two phases of further development work, both of which involve close co-operation with key stakeholders including Network Rail and South West Trains. That work will be in advance of any wider, longer term redevelopment by Network Rail, about which I shall say more later. In summary, there will be two phases of work. First, there will be a short-term solution to convert the international platforms as quickly as possible following Eurostar’s move, providing the capability for some existing South West Trains Windsor line services to use the international platforms and so delivering performance benefits quickly. The intention is that that capability will be available not from 2010 but from December 2008. Secondly, in the medium term we will want to make use of the international platforms as part of a wider strategy to provide crowding relief to some of the busiest trains using Waterloo.
The objective of the work is provide the capacity, through the use of the international platforms, to operate longer mainline suburban trains into Waterloo. That will relieve overcrowding and provide capacity for growth in advance of wider Network Rail redevelopment proposals for the station. Looking beyond the short term, Network Rail is developing a comprehensive redevelopment plan for Waterloo aimed at relieving congestion on the station concourse and allowing longer suburban mainline trains to operate into the station.
We must be aware of the important links between any station redevelopment project and the wider regeneration of the north Lambeth area and the south bank. Network Rail’s scheme is a major project and, if implemented, would require major reconstruction of the existing concourse. A significant amount of work has still to be done by Network Rail to develop a scheme that has a robust business case and is affordable. That means that full implementation is still some way off—we do not expect it before 2015, and it is highly likely that additional mainline suburban capacity will be required before then. That is why the current development study is being used to develop a range of options to address that requirement in the meantime.
Preliminary conclusions from the study suggest that making full use of the international platforms could address the significant crowding now experienced on mainline suburban train services using Waterloo. One option is to use the platforms for Windsor line services. Other trains could then “shuffle” across the remaining platforms at the station, which in turn would allow the current mainline suburban services that are restricted to the eight-carriage platforms—platforms 1 to 4—to move to platforms 5 to 8, which can accommodate 10 carriages. There might then be a case for platforms at stations along the mainline suburban routes from Waterloo to be lengthened. That would make it possible to run longer suburban mainline trains into Waterloo, providing significant crowding relief and capacity for growth.
Such a “shuffle across” would require some changes to the track layout on the approaches to Waterloo. The study is therefore assessing the scope of infrastructure modifications that would be required to improve capacity and operational flexibility. Track and signalling modifications would be required, and the scope and cost of the potential modifications is currently being determined.
I think that the hon. Gentleman will accept that I have been rather generous in allowing interventions so far.
There are other potential works that could provide further capacity on the approaches to Waterloo. An example is removing the flyover at Nine Elms, which the hon. Lady mentioned, providing eight running lines. The benefits of that and other options are still being determined, but we expect that more information will be available in the spring.
I am grateful to the Minister. He has given a full report, which shows the benefits of the debate having been secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park. Will he undertake to meet myself and my hon. Friends, or allow us to meet some of his officials, so that we can understand in greater detail the plans that he has outlined? They are so important to our constituents.
As I said yesterday in another conversation, my door is always open although I may not always be in. Of course I am happy to meet any of my parliamentary colleagues to discuss issues of concern to their constituents. If the hon. Gentleman wants to write to my office, we will make an arrangement.
A recommended option for the short-term conversion of the international platforms to domestic use will be selected in the spring. Our aim is to implement the preferred option by December 2008. We hope by the spring also to have identified a range of options for the longer term. That is when we will focus on further capacity improvements to the approaches to Waterloo, including the “shuffle across” that I described earlier, and the ability to run longer trains. If a positive business case can be made and the necessary funds found, further development work will take place to identify a preferred option in close dialogue with Network Rail and Stagecoach South Western Trains. At this stage it is not possible to confirm implementation time scales, but the objective will be to develop a cost-effective and implementable scheme as quickly as possible.
Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.
Drugs Policy (Prisons)
It is a great pleasure to be speaking from the Floor of the Chamber under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. As you know, I frequently occupy the seat that you are currently occupying. May I ask you to convey to Mr. Speaker my gratitude for permitting me the opportunity to raise the issue of drugs policy in prisons?
When I first decided to pick up the baton and run with it, I knew very little about the subject. I had some feelings about drugs, but I had no idea of the problems that they cause in Her Majesty’s prisons. I have learned a good deal more about drugs thanks to Lexington Communications, which sent me an executive summary and a full copy of the report by—let me get the title right—the Royal Society of Arts commission on illegal drugs, which was a two-year study by academics, drug workers and senior police officers on illegal drugs, communities and public policy. I have read some of the report and I shall probably try to read the rest of it, because it is engaging. I was also helped by the Library, which sent me its debate pack, which is also full of relevant material.
What I want to talk about is not really drugs, but the manner in which we try to regulate, manage and control the use of drugs in Her Majesty’s prisons and the difficulties that that presents to the loyal service of prison officers, who are doing their best to cope with an increasingly difficult situation. I should like to touch on a number of the increasingly difficult problems.
The high availability of drugs in prisons has a corrosive effect. I am afraid that anxiety is growing about the inadequacy of current Government policy to combat the supply and distribution of drugs, which are reported to have reached epidemic proportions in the United Kingdom generally. Researchers estimate that the UK has 360,000 problematic drug users. Britain has a higher recorded rate of opiate use than anywhere else in the world, and our consumption rates of cocaine and amphetamines are arguably the highest in Europe. The Home Office has estimated that the social cost of drug abuse in Britain alone is between £10 billion and £17 billion a year. We should therefore be in no doubt about the scale of the problem.
Western attempts to destroy the opium poppy crop in Afghanistan have met with fierce opposition in Helmand province, where British armed forces are currently engaged. The harvest is now 30 times what it was in 2001. The industry is worth $3.1 billion, and the local population depends on it, of course. That cycle of dependency is mirrored in the British drugs trade, which is apparent in our local communities and even in our prisons.
According to the recently published report to which I have referred, the current system is “crude, ineffective” and “riddled with anomalies”. The authors of the report urge a radical overhaul of drugs policy to take account of the criminal, social and health problems that drug misuse causes. Polling evidence indicates that the public are ready to consider an alternative approach to tackle the spiralling drugs culture—an approach that advocates pragmatic reform and addresses the harm inherent in the current system.
The Prison Service is struggling to cope with the high availability in its prisons of illicit drugs, the prevalence of which is blighting local communities. Cell searches regularly turn up large quantities of drugs. Substantial investment in treatment programmes to wean offenders off addiction is futile without stringent measures and resources to fight the supply and distribution of illegal drugs in prisons.
Selling drugs in prison is a lucrative business because drugs command a large fee when smuggled in. Various methods are deployed to circumvent measures to detect and eradicate the supply, sale and distribution of drugs, the sources of which are numerous. Prisoners’ friends and relatives are often found trying to smuggle drugs into prisons during visiting time. It has been known for prisoners to use children to shield themselves from the view of CCTV while they swallow the drugs or insert them in some quite intimate places. Drugs have been found hidden in clothing or nappies: as prisoners are permitted physical contact with their children, they can retrieve drugs from clothing with relative ease. Prisoners are highly aware that prison staff will not intervene to intercept the passage of drugs, in order to safeguard the child from further risk of harm.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this excellent debate. I tabled a question to the Home Office the other day about the number of prison staff investigated for trafficking drugs or prohibited articles. The reply from the then Minister, the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), was that 64 members of staff were investigated last year, but she also stated that it was not possible to determine how many of them were found to have had such items in their possession. Surely the Home Office should know what is going on and be much more open in its replies to hon. Members.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He is a very experienced Member and well versed in the legalities of this country. I shall be coming to that very point as I move further into my speech.
Smuggling practices can be difficult for prison staff to detect, owing to the different methods used by male and female smugglers. Female couriers secrete drugs in cling film or balloons, swallowing the items before they are arrested. Visitors are regularly found, or are caught on CCTV, removing illicit items from their person or attempting to pass drugs to the prisoner. Visitors smuggle drugs in their mouths and place them in food items that are available from the visiting hall.
Drugs command a large fee once they are in the prison system. Drugs smugglers are paid between £50 and £100 to bring in illegal substances, with little or no risk to the prisoner concerned. Both prisoners and their visitors flagrantly defy the controls put in place to stem the flow of drugs into prisons. Ex-prisoners who are still heavily involved in the drugs trade carry out visits, as do strangers. Prisoners often ask staff whether visitors have arrived, only to be informed that their visitors are sat at the table waiting for them; the prisoners, not knowing who their visitors are, cannot recognise them. There is a form of discipline involved that is pre-organised.
People are encouraged to breach their bail conditions by entering prisons packed with drugs. Vulnerable prisoners are bullied, usually by drug dealers, to persuade friends or members of their families to smuggle drugs into prisons. In many cases violence is used to intimidate and frighten prisoners. Assaults on prisoners and staff have dramatically increased as a result of greater vigilance to stop the influx of drugs on prison visits. At present, staff intervention offers the only means of halting the supply of drugs on prison visits, but that endangers both the staff and others.
Prisoners suffer assaults if they fail during a visit to acquire drugs intended for another prisoner. Slashings across the face and scalding with hot water or hot sugar to intensify the pain and scarring are common brutalities. Addicts in prison acquiring drugs on tick, with no money to pay the dealer, are threatened and their immediate families are intimated to recover the debt owed.
To avoid the pressure to smuggle, visitors have pleaded with officers to be banned from prisons or have admitted that they have made attempts to introduce drugs. However, prisons do not act on such information or seek to establish the reasons why visitors smuggle drugs. When denied access to family visitors, prisoners may begin to self-harm and it is thought inadvisable to provoke that kind of reaction.
For every drug capture in the visitors’ hall, it is thought that 20 successful passes go undetected by staff or CCTV. Staff can monitor only prisoners identified as a problem. Desperate to fight an escalating drugs trade, the Prison Service resorted to using sniffer dogs to detect drugs on prisoners and their visitors, which proved to be extremely effective. However, the regular training that the dogs require to maintain successful detection rates is not adequately resourced. When the dogs are retrained, no contingency measures are put in place. As a result, the drugs trade within regains its foothold on the system and starts again.
Prisons are seeing an increase in drug smuggling through prisoner correspondence. Letters in and out of prison are censored by correspondence departments, which find on average 10 to 12 items containing drugs a day. Another ruse used by prisoners and smugglers to evade detection is falsified legal correspondence. Letters from solicitors are privileged and officers are prohibited from opening them. Drugs are usually detected by a manual check of the mail, an X-ray or sniffer dogs, yet vast quantities still get through to the inmates.
Prisoners are permitted to receive items of clothing and although X-ray machines screen items sent into prison, drugs are found stitched into the labels of garments.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the subject of his debate. Does he agree that drugs can enter by less sophisticated routes? At Pentonville, my local prison, cannabis and other drugs are simply being thrown over the wall.
The hon. Gentleman must have read my script; I am coming to just that issue.
CCTV cameras are not fit for purpose. People brazenly throw drugs or firearms components over prison walls, safe in the knowledge that although they can be seen doing so, the cameras are not sharp enough to distinguish features. Criminals can therefore escape easily without fear of detection. The problem is compounded by a shortage of cameras and broken-down equipment that waits months for repair, the cost of which is prohibitive to the Prison Service. New CCTV operators require formal training, which, not unlike the cameras, is in short supply. When evidence of drug smuggling is gathered, prisons are unable to prosecute offenders because the evidence is not sufficiently robust to substantiate a charge and punitive action.
At present, the Prison Service carries out mandatory drug tests on only 10 per cent. of the prison population, yet figures show that more than half the prison population are using drugs. That means that drug testing is four and a half times below the level required to tackle substance misuse—and that does not take into account the many addicts on our streets and in our local communities. Unsurprisingly, prisoners on drugs go to great lengths to avoid giving samples for testing. They carry non-drug users’ urine in phials about their persons to obtain clean test results if they are subjected to a random test.
Of course, non-drug users are quick to realise that there is money in selling samples of drug-free urine to addicted prisoners. Despite the best efforts of staff to search prisoners before they are required to provide a sample, prisoners still manage to cheat the system. Prison officers’ powers are limited because they are forbidden to carry out intimate searches that would expose that illicit practice. However, even that deterrent would be unlikely to be of consequence to a determined user, who faces no retribution on failing to produce an unadulterated sample. If he is caught with drugs in his urine, nothing happens. Officers carrying out the tests are unable to conclude with any certainty which prisoners are on drugs.
The Prison Service is to be commended on its commitment to assist offenders to overcome addiction. It has invested heavily in drug treatment programmes. Prisoners who sign up to such schemes must consent to compulsory drugs testing, but that condition is proving to be no hardship, as prisoners can choose when to be tested and commonly falsify the results. If they have signed up to be tested occasionally, they can simply go to prison officers and say, “I’m ready to do my test now.” That takes them out of the system until their next turn around. Treatment programmes evoke sympathy, but are all too often labelled as the definitive solution in the war on drugs. They are not a panacea, or why would prisoners who enter prison without a drug problem be discharged from prison with one? The problem is growing because of our inability and the ineffective system within prisons.
Drugs are common in all prisons in England and Wales, yet it seems that methadone substitutes are the currency of choice for dealers and distributors. To feed their habits, many addicts resort to crime such as violent robberies and the targeting of the most vulnerable in society, especially the elderly, as they seek money for drugs. When addicts request help, doctors prescribe methadone substitutes, which can be purchased illegally for between £1 and £5 a tablet, but command anything between £50 and £80 in prison. A booming trade ensues, creating an unscrupulous yet profitable business. Once an addict is in possession of a prescription, it is not uncommon for him to sell it or the medication separately so that the drug finds its way once more into the local community and distribution system within the prison.
Prison staff provide an essential and valuable service to the public. Working in an extremely challenging environment, prison officers risk their personal safety to confront—without appropriate back-up—volatile, abusive and illegal behaviour on the part of visitors and prisoners. Much greater, sustained public sector investment is needed in the Prison Service to address the steady increase in the availability of drugs in prisons, and particularly to combat drug smuggling. Extending treatment programmes to tackle the effects of drugs by preventing consumption is all very well, but that is of limited use without rigorous measures to stop their supply and distribution.
Drugs use in prison—the scourge of substance misuse in the community—is often framed in the context of crime figures, and the trade itself is portrayed as a problem confined to and orchestrated by a limited number of dangerous criminals. Focusing our attention exclusively on achieving unrealistic targets in the fight against crime fails to acknowledge and confront the scale of the problem, leaves prisons unable to cope and consigns our communities to decay. Urgent action is required. The Prison Service needs support, resources and an unequivocal commitment to tackle the supply of drugs in addition to any efforts to treat addiction. Eliminating the passage of drugs into prisons would enable communities inside and outside to recover from a culture of criminal violence that is intolerable, insupportable and unendurable.
The evidence clearly shows that the Prison Service is currently ill equipped to prevent the supply and distribution of illegal drugs in prison, which have reached epic proportions. At best, the Prison Service is merely holding back the tide of the drugs trade. At worst, it is being swallowed up by it. A problem of such magnitude and of concern to us all demands immediate action. It is recommended that the Government commission an investigation urgently and identify what resources can be made available to the Prison Service to fight the cause of the problem, and not just the symptoms.
That is the end of my formal brief, and I am happy to have put it on the record. I also engaged in interviews with officials from the TUC and the Prison Officers Association, who are all concerned about the matter. In my closing remarks, I shall mention some of the points from the minutes of our exchanges.
The more hardened criminals, I was told, coerce more vulnerable inmates into allowing their families to be used as mules, as they are called, to carry in drugs, and a compliant inmate and his family can earn as much as £200 to £300 a visit. The problem is not only the drugs, but the cycle of violence that they cause inside and outside the prison. I am told that it is easier to obtain illegal substances inside jails than in society. Cell searches regularly turn up large quantities of drugs, not just the odd wrap. Unofficial transactions inside are based not only on drugs but on mobile phones and, of course, the threat of violence—where would we be without the threat of violence? That leads me to point out that I would like to be part of the debate upstairs this afternoon, but there we are.
The cameras employed are not fit for purpose. If we can take photographs from space with the Hubble telescope, and heaven knows what else, why cannot we improve the standard of the CCTV cameras to provide a more discernable image outside? I would have thought that deploying more and better cameras would be a fairly simple and, if we engage in bulk buying, cheap exercise.
I have mentioned the national uniform testing regime under Prison Service rules, where 100 randomly selected prisoners a month are, as they say, MOT’d. Of course, once those 100 have been MOT’d and been given their clearance, they can carry on, safe in the knowledge that they are hardly likely to be tested again for some time. According to the team that I interviewed, of the last sample of 100 who were tested, 44 tested positive. Some tested positive for Subutex, which is an increasing element of the problem.
Responsibility for health in prisons was passed across to primary care trusts last April. I am sure that it was done for the best of reasons, although some in the service say that there are doubts about whether it is any better now than it was before. One of the serious problems that it has led to is that inmates can now more easily obtain paracetamol. One might not think that is a problem, until a prisoner overdoses on paracetamol. That, too, might not seem to be a problem, but when that inmate has to be taken to the local hospital for attention, staff have to be taken out of the prison to engage in escort duties. The complement of staff in the prison is reduced, which places increased duties on those who remain behind.
I want the Minister to admit that the Prison Service has a problem, that it is getting worse and that it needs attention. It is not merely a question of throwing money at the problem: we have to examine critically and clinically the regimes that we have that disallow staff conducting searches and scrutinising prisoners’ and visitors’ activities in the prison. I am told that many claims are made for the Phoenix therapeutic course, which supposedly weans voluntary participants off drugs, but in many cases it has the opposite effect. Those who have signed up can go along for their test whenever they feel like it, get clearance, and then go back and continue to do what they were doing before. We must be careful about accepting statistics that are derived from such sources of information, and circumspect about the validity of the claims that are made.
I have some direct questions for the Minister. He is a straight man and I have known him well for quite a long time. Does he agree that there is a growing problem? Does he agree that it needs more attention? The most I can ask in such a debate, in this place and at this time, is whether he will agree to investigate the subject on our behalf.
The hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) has done the House a service by introducing the debate this afternoon. What came through in his comments was the considerable frustration of prison officers who have to deal with the problem every day. Sometimes we josh about the Prison Officers Association, but prison officers do a difficult job with great patience and are much to be commended. I have a slightly different take on the subject; one of the great advantages of being a Back Bencher is that one can have a slightly different take on things. We have to accept that a culture or subculture of drug taking has become endemic in parts of society. The test for the Prison Service is the reoffending rates.
Prisons are bloody miserable places, and that is not because people are not being properly looked after. We tend to have an image of prison rather like the television series “Porridge”, with jolly old lags having fun teasing the prison officers. Actually, they are mostly full of rather pathetic people who are addicted to substance abuse, drug abuse or alcohol abuse and who have practically no levels of literacy or numeracy.
We should start from the principle that the punishment is being deprived of freedom, that prison takes away a person’s freedom, and that society takes away that freedom for a period based on a tariff. The objective should be to try to ensure that when that person is released from prison they do not reoffend. The reoffending rates in this country are pretty horrific. Generally, people go back to the communities from where they have come and offend again—they burgle or steal to feed a drugs habit. Perhaps we need to accept that certain prisons and certain wings of prisons will be places essentially to rehabilitate drug and substance abusers.
The reason that I am taking part in the debate is that I spent part of last Friday in Oxford with a charity and non-governmental organisation called SMART, which is in part funded by the Home Office. It does excellent work. Many of the people working on the SMART project are ex-drug users who have been clean for a long time and spend a lot of time mentoring and helping people who have a drugs problem. They said to me, “Look, it’s very difficult for us. We want to help people in prison, but by the time our team has got clearance from the Criminal Records Bureau”—as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, prison governors understandably want to ensure that drug abusers do not come into prison under other guises—“it is difficult for us to exercise mentoring abilities in prison, but we have been through this. We have done it.” Bullingdon prison is in my constituency, and maybe we should just accept that one wing at Bullingdon, for example, will be a therapeutic wing for people who are there to try to get off drug abuse by whatever means are possible.
We also need to support organisations such as SMART, which themselves and with volunteers meet people coming out of prison literally at the prison gate. They say that the money that such people are given as a discharge grant often disappears in the car park, so they meet them at the prison gate and mentor them. They take them and find them accommodation, which is often not easy. They support them through those crucial few days and weeks and try to find them a job. It is not easy to find a job if one is not literate or numerate or has poor skills. Again, that needs to be addressed in prison.
We have a system that goes back, I suspect, to the late ‘60s, when there were a number of prison escapes and we classified prisoners as A, B or C under the Salmon reforms. Perhaps serious drug abusers and dealers should be in a particular category so that they spend time simply ensuring that when they leave prison, they have no more excuses and cannot say that they cannot get work. They should have no excuses for not going clean and staying off drugs.
I understand the frustration of prison officers—they rightly believe that someone is taking the Charlie out of them by abusing the system—but we might need to rethink what prison is about. Parts of prisons, or some prisons, should be seen almost as therapeutic centres. The punishment is taking away prisoners’ freedom and detaining them for their tariff, but the objective is that when they leave prison they do not reoffend. I do not wish to caricature the hon. Gentleman’s speech, but if the prison experience is simply a game in which prisoners try it on with prison officers, all that happens is that when they come out into society they persist in trying to take on the system for life. We need people who come out of prison and want to get on with their lives, get clean of drugs, find employment, settle down and not reoffend.
A large number of my hon. Friends wish to take part in the debate—indeed, it is so popular that not one but two members of the Opposition home affairs Front-Bench team are taking part. I wish finally to say that we all owe a debt to a report issued the other day by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. One of the most alarming things in it was the estimate that there are something like 70,000 professional drug dealers in the country—those who make drug supply a business. There should be no mercy for those people, who look upon dealing in drugs as almost an industrial enterprise.
All of us suffer, whether our constituencies have run-down housing estates or are in relatively prosperous areas, like mine. In my constituency places such as Banbury and Bicester, just off the M40 extension, are soft targets and drug dealers come in. The SMART team told me that in Banbury or Bicester people can text for drugs, and that it is as easy to get a delivery of drugs as to order a pizza. They were not being in any way alarmist, just matter-of-fact. I find that extremely frightening, and I hope that we can continue to ensure that police forces—drug squads used to deal with this issue, but it is now part of serious crime—have the resources to bear down on people, often in cities, who see the supply of drugs as a business. They are truly evil, and every effort should be made to disrupt and prevent their activities and bring them to justice. They prey on our communities and our children.
In the limited time that I wish to take I shall not go into the report of the Royal Society of Arts, save to say that I disagree with the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry). I was disappointed by the vagueness of many of its conclusions and the attempt to be all things to all people. That is the problem with drugs policy and has been for generations. It is a cross-party problem and has been for generations, and it affects our prisons significantly, as was pointed out clearly by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook), who needs to be congratulated on his initiative in securing the debate.
It never fails to amaze me that we do not learn from abroad or, in this context, from home. Scores of lessons can be learned from abroad, but we British seem not to bother learning them, especially on drugs policy. At home, I tell the Minister that there is a secure unit, where nobody gets out and it takes rather a long time to get in. It is in my constituency and has 1,700 or 1,800 employees, all unionised, and is the biggest Prison Officers Association branch in the country. It is Rampton, and those who go there do so with many different addictions.
Anyone who wants to study addiction in this country can examine what happens in Rampton, an environment that drugs do not get into. They do not get in because the POA members there are honest citizens. It is so difficult to get in and out, even for those who work there, that if there was ever a bad apple among them, they would have to be incredibly inventive to manage to smuggle anything in. There is little evidence of drugs circulating in Rampton, so the nature of addiction and addictive disorders can be studied there for a lifetime. We do not use that experience.
If people who have addictive personalities—a small proportion of those who are on addictive drugs—cannot get their drug of choice, they take something else. In a place such as Rampton it is boot polish, meths—the old story—or anything that is available. If nothing is available and such people are locked in their cells, they adopt a different addictive abnormality. That is documented at Rampton in individual detail, and we have not used that evidence to inform our drugs policy, as we should. There is a lot to learn, and I strongly recommend that the Minister considers that and meets the POA at Rampton. Its members there are probably more informed on the matter than they realise.
I wish to challenge one aspect of Opposition policy, not to score points but to contribute to the debate. On what the hon. Member for Banbury said, his party suggested in the Scottish elections that £100 million should go on residential rehabilitation in Scotland. We have residential rehabilitation—it is called prison. When I did my heroin inquiry I spoke to the majority of heroin addicts in my constituency, virtually all of whom had been in and out of prison regularly. I found that many of them had committed crimes in order to get into prison. Why? Because that was the one break that they could give their families from their repeated low-level offending. There were countless examples of people fighting to claim responsibility for the same crime because there was a potential prison tariff. Prison is a rehabilitation for them—I call it a comfort break from the lives that they live outside.
What does that mean for policy? The problem in prison is that there is a whole group of people who have offended and many of whom are bad instinctively. Some of them are there purely because they have a drug addiction and steal repeatedly because of it. What we do not do in this country is treat them.
Everybody wants to be an expert on drugs. If someone in prison had cancer, they would get treatment, and there would be no surprise as to how that was done. When it comes to drugs policy, all sorts of people earn a good living talking about drugs and doing things about them, but the people who should be treating drug addiction are the doctors. The evidence from my constituency, as from most parts of the world, is that doctors who treat addiction have a far better chance of getting rid of it. In terms of prison policy, that means that the treatment opportunities available outside prison should also be used inside prison.
I congratulate the Government on what they have done in that respect. I pushed hard to get methadone maintenance programmes into prisons, and the Government agreed to introduce them, after a lot of pressure. In that respect, I read an article today about some of the successes at Wandsworth prison. Such moves help staff in prisons, who tell me that their key fear relates to dealing with prisoners who get access not to drugs, but to needles. Such prisoners may start threatening or stabbing prison officers, and that is a particular problem where needles are shared and there is a danger of hepatitis C, which is the most common problem. I would not want to be in the position of those prison officers, with prisoners sharing needles and potentially stabbing me as I went about my everyday work, because that could be life threatening to me.
What we need is effective GP provision, but what I see in prisons is a mish-mash of vague ideas. There is this vague concept of rehabilitation, which is all things to all people, and my advice to Conservative Members is that they should define it. My definition is that people get the same treatment inside prison as they get outside and that the first thing they do when they leave prison, rather than being ferried around by countless police officers and drugs workers, is continue their treatment with their own GP, in their own GP practice, in their own community. The evidence from my constituency, like the evidence from Sweden, France, Australia and other countries, is that that approach works. It does not work for everybody, but it has the same success rate—about 60 to 70 per cent.—as with any other illness that involves relapses.
That is the policy that we need and it is a sensible policy in prisons. If it is to be effective, we should give additional punishments for what would then be the unnecessary use of needles in prison. We should target such use in particular because it would break the logic of drugs treatment in prisons and it is the biggest hurt and danger factor for prison officers and other staff.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). To pick up on his comments about Rampton prison, I was a criminal solicitor for 12 years and visited a number of prisons, including Rampton. As his remarks show, the absence of a supply of drugs at the prison and the way in which residents are treated there is exceptional in some ways. That is not least because residents in Rampton are there primarily under mental health provisions and are very much at the extreme end of offending. Rampton is also exceptional in terms of the resources that go to it, as opposed to other prisons, and resources are an issue for several prisons, not least my local prisons of Pentonville and Holloway.
As I said, I made several legal visits to prisons over a number of years, but it was not until Monday that I had the opportunity, with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), to visit Pentonville and Holloway to see a little more of what they were like inside. I certainly would not describe the experience at Pentonville as a comfort break—far from it. Given the structural problems faced by prisoners in inner-city prisons such as Pentonville, those who seek, quite properly, to bring about true rehabilitation—I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s words in that regard—face great difficulties from the word go. The problems that Pentonville has had in dealing with basic safety issues have certainly been well documented. Those who come to Pentonville and other prisons have chaotic lives, which are predominantly affected by alcohol, drugs and poly-substance misuse. They also have low literacy levels—those of a 12-year-old, on average—and there are problems with family breakdown and the like. When people come to the prisoner reception area in that state, it is difficult to think of anything to do with rehabilitation, and stability is the first port of call.
In the cells at Pentonville, I saw how opportunities for rehabilitation in the general sense of the word are limited by the time spent in the cells. This may not be the case, but my clients told me that they spent 23 hours in a cell. There would be two of them, eating there, using the toilets there and the rest of it. Efforts are being made to introduce some kind of activities, but they are extremely limited, not least by capacity. Pentonville is full, and the prospect of making the place safer is prescribed by that limited capacity. Indeed, that is true up and down the country, and when the Minister deals with drugs policy and rehabilitation, he needs to respond to the basic point that our prisons are full. How can we deal properly with rehabilitation in those circumstances?
To bring hon. Members up to date, Pentonville has responded to the report about it and to concerns about deaths in custody, and it is now seeking stability, which is an improvement. Such changes have come about because of the introduction of the Central and North West London Mental Health NHS Trust as a provider, and that is to be commended. However, progress is extremely limited and consists, in effect, of simply being able to give low-level prescriptions for methadone and being more sensitive to the needs of those arriving in the prison. As I suggested, that sensitivity is limited, with prisoners queuing up to be assessed to see whether they need treatment. That leads to methadone. The focus is on trying to maintain prisoners on a stable and safe level, but that seems to be about it. That is probably all that Pentonville will be able to manage structurally, although it now has a separate unit to deal with substance misuse, which is extremely welcome. The unit’s managers are making every effort, but their actions are prescribed by several things, including, not least, the prevailing structure and funding.
My hon. and learned Friend and I also visited Holloway on Monday. Holloway is the most improved prison and has received awards for the improvements that it has made in terms of rehabilitation. Again, it has a separate unit to deal with substance misuse, and the whole environment there is much more conducive to rehabilitation; it is based not so much on the Victorian prison set-up as on a hospital regime. In that, it is similar not least to Rampton.
The improvements at Holloway were also based on clear leadership, and leadership is vital in our prisons. We talk about the problem of revolving doors, and I certainly saw that with my clients, who were in and out of prison, having been affected by alcohol and drugs. That is a particular problem for prisons such as Pentonville, which has many short-term prisoners who go off to other prisons or out the door. At Holloway, however, the issue has been leadership. As with other prisons, what happens at Pentonville is affected by the governors, who do not stay long, but move on after 18 months at the most. Holloway, however, has had steady leadership over a number of years, which has enabled it to introduce improvements. It has therefore been able to make significant progress on drug rehabilitation, and that is to be commended.
Unfortunately, such progress is limited. One trigger point for drugs policy and intervention funding from the Government appears to be deaths in custody. Obviously, such things make the headlines and affect politicians, but dealing with them does not necessarily deal with the underlying problems or reward good progress. Holloway is making good progress on rehabilitation and good management and has been able allocate and ring-fence moneys.
However, there are problems for other prisons. Indeed, Holloway itself is not getting any extra resources for the integrated drug treatment system. That money has not come to Holloway or Pentonville. As for Wormwood Scrubs, £500,000 of its allocated money has been taken away and £325,000 has gone to Brixton because it had a death in custody. So the money is not necessarily being used to deal with rehabilitation or management systems.
There is concern about integrated drug treatment systems, which have effectively been cut by 60 per cent. from the projected funding of £20 million in 2006-07. Funding was supposed to rise to £40 million.
I accept the figures that the hon. Gentleman gives—he has raised the matter with me in parliamentary questions before—but does he accept that the integrated drug treatment system represents new and additional support for drug treatment in our prisons? I accept what he says about Holloway and Pentonville, but the fact that the money is there is a step in the right direction.
It certainly is a step in the right direction, but it has been taken from some prisons that had included it in projections as part of their budgets and planning for rehabilitation. There has been a cut to in-year funding and also for the future, so the good progress that has been made in Holloway may not be sustained to get us beyond the point of simply parking people on a maintenance programme. That may keep them safer, but it does not necessarily lead to the recovery and treatment that everyone wants. We need to get to a stage at which the 28-day programmes are in place, something that the integrated drug treatment systems would make possible.
In conclusion, I want to discuss the way forward. Good progress is being made. The Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust—RAPt—is making good progress in prisons such as Wandsworth, where it is making use of 12-step programmes with a therapeutic element. Those programmes work, ensuring that we do not just maintain people but try to move them towards recovery. The chief executive, Mike Trace, says that it gives results, because recovery and being drug free mean that people can rebuild their contribution to society, including work and family relationships.
Elsewhere, Grendon has its critics, but it has also received plaudits. A recent Home Office report on reconviction rates showed that treatment had an effect on men who attended Grendon, compared with a matched sample of other men. The outcome was certainly affected by the fact that they were there for a good period of time—at least 18 months—rather than going in and out of the door of Pentonville. I invite the Minister to respond with his view of the progress that he saw at Grendon, and how the radical view taken there to therapy might be applied elsewhere.
Another example is “Beyond”, the Bristol Believe project’s holistic approach to reoffending, in which issues such as debt, money management, family structures and relationship issues are dealt with. Those should be attended to, in addition to maintaining people and dealing with their underlying health problems. It is possible to look further afield, too, and what happens in other countries has been mentioned. A successful participant in the RAPt programme made the point that we cannot just deal with issues of safety, but must deal with the whole person, challenging previously negative attitudes and patterns of behaviour, and looking at the link between someone’s drug use and their life. That person now takes responsibility for his life. He says that no one else can make the changes and that he cannot blame others for his behaviour. He now has the opportunity, with a national vocational qualification, to bring other people through to the level of rehabilitation and recovery.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) on securing this extremely important debate. I have just received the annual report of the independent monitoring board that inspects Forest Bank prison just outside my constituency in Salford. It is a young offenders institution as well as a prison for adults, and it is all male. The report is for December 2005 to November 2006, and I thank the chairman, Eileen Howard, and her colleagues, for all their hard work in monitoring the prison on behalf of the prisoners and staff.
The prison opened in January 2000 with a population of about 800, although invariably it has more people than that. Fifty per cent. or more of the inmates come from Bolton, many of them from my constituency. I have visited the prison, which is run by Kalyx Ltd, so it is one of the unusual private prisons. Anne Owers, the chief inspector of prisons, was very critical of the prison in the year before the annual report that I have just received. Drugs were getting inside in staggering numbers. I saw tables full of drugs. The report contains the following figures, and this is a picture of a good year when there has been a crackdown: 9.885 kg of cannabis, 220 g of heroin, 93 g of cocaine, 43 g of amphetamines, 427 g of steroids and 62 g of Subutex. It will not surprise hon. Members to learn that they were ordered by mobile telephone, and that 355 mobile telephones were confiscated during the year in question, as well as, I dare say, many SIM cards as well. Those are all sold and bought in prisons.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North referred to debts incurred in prison. Those debts extend beyond prison too, as does the intimidation of families. People are visited regularly, and there are no invoices for buying drugs, so those on the outside must take the recommendation of the criminal who knocks on their door collecting debts about the amount of drugs bought by their relative in prison. That leads to massive intimidation.
I want to draw attention to an important fact. The prison put up a vertical net to stop drugs being fired into the exercise yard from an adjacent canal bank, whose tow path is at roughly the height of the prison wall. It is claimed that that has worked, but I have challenged that claim, because crossbows are now being used to clear the top of the net. The people involved are very clever, and will find a way around anything. However, the matter that I want to point out to the Minister relates to the reduced mandatory drug testing rate of 5.8 per cent. in this prison. According to the report—this is not my advice to the Minister but that of an independent monitoring board—the prisoners have switched to using buprenorphine, or Subutex. There are two reasons for that. The first is that the prison dogs cannot detect buprenorphine, which is frankly as good as heroin—it will give that kind of buzz if enough is taken; the second is that in many prisons the mandatory drug testing does not cover buprenorphine. I advise the Minister to check that, but that is what the report says. Mandatory drug testing for buprenorphine is not happening in Forest Bank prison.
I chaired the release of the Royal Society of Arts report the other evening in John Adam street, and the panel discussion was very exciting. We had a dinner afterwards at which the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) was also present. I think that he will agree that the discussion was extremely vigorous, and some very important people were present, including top cops from around the country. The Science and Technology Committee also recently produced a report on the ABC classification of drugs. If I had been fortunate today and Mr. Speaker had reached Question 14 at Prime Minister’s Question Time, I would have asked the question that I put to my hon. Friend the Minister now: in light of the Select Committee report and the RSA report, and, indeed, many other reports going back to Runciman and beyond, is it not time that we looked again at the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971?
In many people’s opinion the Act is out of date and we should include in it tobacco, alcohol and other substance abuse. One of the recommendations of the RSA report was that we should now have a misuse of substances Act. It agreed with the Select Committee that the ABC classification of drugs is useless and that we should consider the Blakemore and Nutt harm index, which I understand was published in The Lancet last week. We should base our drug policies on a harm index, rather than on a useless classification that we argue about all the time. It is surprising where ecstasy lies on the harm index—it is quite low down—and where alcohol lies. It is much higher up. Heroin and cocaine are at the top, of course.
Finally, I want to draw attention to the integrated drug treatment system for prisons, which I understand is now handled by the primary care trusts in the regions where the prisons are. I am disappointed at the 60 per cent. cut this year from £28 million to £12 million. I accept the Minister’s explanation that it is extra money, but it was made available in recognition of the fact that drug treatment services in prison were pretty hopeless and had to be improved. People who go to prison without a drug habit who are not lucky enough to be put on a drug-free wing are intimidated to such an extent that they start taking drugs. Non-drug takers can end up as drug addicts. Indeed, if they start to exchange needles—if they get to that state—they will get HIV, hepatitis C and other blood-borne diseases. That is a shame.
A point not made so far is that 73 per cent. of male and 70 per cent. of female prison inhabitants are mentally ill. We should not treat only the drug addiction. All available therapies are needed to treat mental illness in prison, and we should allow dual diagnosis and allow people to be treated both for mental illness and for drug addiction if they are dually diagnosed.
I have been told by inmates at Forest Bank prison about the easiest way to bring drugs into prison. A person who goes to court will see his relatives there. The drugs are passed from the relatives to the prisoner; the prisoner is then transferred back to the same prison—or sometimes to another—and the drugs go back with him or her. I have heard that prisoners are not searched on return from court; it is not realised how many drugs come in via that route.
I am very interested in the subject, and I have a lot more to say but I want to give the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) the chance to speak.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) on securing this important debate. I shall be brief.
Ford prison, as the Minister knows, is in my constituency. Over the past five years, it has been having problems with prisoners absconding from prison at the rate of about two a week. I believe that drug problems are a contributory factor, and I want to explain why.
In 2005, the full report of the prison inspectorate said that nearly half of prisoners at Ford had easy access to drugs; it said that they were largely soft drugs but that
“cannabis was the primary drug found on mandatory drug testing”.
However, the report of the independent monitoring board of November 2006 came to a rather more worrying conclusion. It said that as a result of an increase in the number of shorter term offenders going to Ford prison, a move towards class A drugs was prevalent there. The board said that that was of considerable concern, and it asked the prison to consider providing a drugs dog and to make additional funding available for staff and surveillance to improve the situation.
Following a freedom of information request in February, Brighton’s evening newspaper The Argus claimed that Ford prison was among the worst 40 prisons for drug taking and that one in seven inmates now failed mandatory random drug tests. That situation was thrown into sharper relief as a result of a meeting that I had with prison officers in the House last month that was convened by the Prison Officers Association.
Officers from Ford prison said that drugs were being passed into the prison but that the police and the Crown Prosecution Service had not been sufficiently supportive of those officers who intercepted them, and that when prison officers apprehended traffickers little was done. In particular, the officers said that children as young as 15 were being used as drugs traffickers. Reports of the arrest of a 15-year-old outside the prison have since been confirmed by Sussex police, but as yet no action has been taken and the circumstances of the case are not yet clear. I have written to the Minister about that, and we are due to visit the prison next week—I thank him for the invitation—but if true, it is a serious matter. I urge him to look into the case as part of his inquiry into the continuing security problems at Ford prison.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) on securing the debate, which has provided us with an ideal opportunity to discuss an important and sometimes overlooked subject. I commend other hon. Members for their contributions, particularly the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) who touched on an area that I think is particularly relevant and interesting—the cycle of reoffending. People come out of prison with low numeracy and literacy, often having never done any meaningful work, and having had no fixed abode before going to prison, they have nowhere to live after their release. It would be an extremely enlightened employer who chose to take on someone in such circumstances. How people in that position can be helped to stand on their own two feet and to establish themselves in mainstream society is a huge challenge for us all.
There is no doubt that drug use in prison has reached epidemic proportions. The majority of people going to prison are problem drug users. In 2005, a Home Office spokesman estimated that there were about 39,000 problem drug users in the prison system at any one time—that is about half of the United Kingdom’s prison population. Of them, 66 per cent. of males and 55 per cent. of females sentenced had used drugs in the previous year. Drug use is not the exception in prison; it is more likely than not for those who pass through our prison system.
Other hon. Members who have spoken today touched upon some of the ways in which drugs can be smuggled into prison. They include social visits, the postal system and receptions and occasionally prison staff. Sometimes they are thrown in over the perimeter wall and, as we heard from the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), sometimes they are brought in through receptions after court visits. I understand that in 2005-06 400 visitors were arrested on suspicion of trying to smuggle drugs into prison. However, compared to the scale of the problem, 400 arrests seems a modest tally. The very existence of drugs-free wings tells its own story: it tells of the acceptance of the scale of the problem and of the attempt by prison authorities to manage the problem rather than tackle it. That is the scale of the problem that confronts those responsible for maintaining order and discipline in prison.
The problem is not new and it is not as if the Government have not been alerted to it. Many speakers referred to the RSA report that was published only a few days ago. It stated:
“The inadequacy of drugs treatment in prisons is a serious gap in the chain of treatment for offenders envisaged by the Drugs Intervention Programme…Treatment in prison bears little relation to need but depends more on what happens to be available.”
In a slightly oblique analysis, the report also stated that
“The Home Office favours centralised solutions that impede delivery of a devolved, joined-up policy.”
The RSA report follows on from many other reports that have touched on similar themes. In 2001, a Turning Point report pointed out:
“The growth in the numbers of people identified as suitable for treatment through the criminal justice system is not matched by an increase in available provision. This needs to be addressed urgently.”
The Prime Minister’s delivery unit said in 2005 that
“significant segments of the problem drug-using population are not in current contact with treatment services.”
In August 2006, a Home Office report found that drug use is endemic in prisons. In 2006, the Prison Reform Trust found that no more than 10 per cent. of prisoners with drugs problems were likely to be in intensive rehabilitation in any one year. Only one in 10 prisoners who could usefully be in rehabilitation are receiving that level of assistance.
As is widely reported, we have the highest prison population per head of population in western Europe. That militates against the effective treatment of those in prison. As we heard earlier, ever since responsibility was transferred from the Home Office to the national health service, the NHS budget and the available resources have not necessarily met the expectations that some may have had. I understand that as a result, only 17 prisons are due to benefit from NHS largesse—fewer than one in eight of the major prisons.
Time is short, but before I conclude I wish to make four constructive suggestions. They are more, I confess, to do with reducing demand for drugs than trying to cut supply, which I appreciate is a problem. We all will the end, but getting there is not necessarily that simple.
First, although we can discuss what constitutes drug treatment, it is the availability of drug treatment that is important. Currently, there are only 2,500 residential drug treatment places; such a place costs about £6,000 less per year than a place in prison. The idea that many people find attractive is to use drug treatment centres as an alternative to custody for low-tariff offenders—not just because it saves money, although there is the potential for financial savings, but because it is more likely to have a long-term benefit, such as that mentioned by the hon. Member for Banbury.
Secondly, there should be a presumption in most cases that could result in a very short prison sentence—perhaps of less than three months—that rigorous community punishments might be more effective. It is extremely worrying when people who are not addicted to drugs are sent to prison and leave perhaps two months later having formed an addiction. They have often also been introduced to lots of criminals and their methods, of which they had not previously been aware. That is not in anybody’s long-term interests.
Thirdly, we should try to improve drug treatment for people who suffer from mental health problems. There is a close correlation between mental illness and drug abuse, and many people with severe mental disorders are languishing in prison when they could be treated far more effectively using different mechanisms.
Finally, coming back to the point made by the hon. Member for Banbury, far more discipline and structure should be put into the lives of prisoners in terms of education, training, and work. We should also enable people to save money when they are in prison, as that would ease their passage back into society when they are released.
I do not pretend that any of those measures are a solution; of course they are not. However, I hope that they will contribute to success in solving a problem with which I am sure politicians from all parties are keen to grapple.
As all previous speakers have said, this is an important debate and the fact that there is a debate on the Floor of the House on Trident, which is important too, does not detract from that. Both debates are of equal, but different national importance.
It is all too easy in a debate such as this to get what I call analysis paralysis. We produce facts, figures and evidence from the various reports that we consider it appropriate to use, but we do not come to any firm conclusion at the end of the debate. That is partly the result of having a debate of only one and a half hours: I suspect that the House could quite usefully have a two-day debate on drugs policy in prisons, and even then a satisfactory conclusion might not be reached. None the less, it would be useful to have such a debate because, having shadowed the Minister and Baroness Scotland for 15 months or so, I have found that prisons are a secret world. It is difficult for those of us who go in and out of prisons on a fairly regular basis for official reasons to gain any purchase that would be of interest to hon. Members.
I was particularly struck by the speech of the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). I must write to the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) because on Friday I am visiting Lowden Grange prison, which is not too far from the Bassetlaw constituency. I was particularly struck by the hard-headed—not hard-hearted—analysis that he provided. It is significant that a hospital—Rampton—is able to prevent drug importation, whereas, according to the figures for 2005, Forest Bank prison had about 405 inside-prison finds of illicit drugs. I do not know the reasons for that difference. In Grendon, which is a therapeutic prison in Buckinghamshire, there was one drug find in 2005, yet in what I would call a bog-standard general-line prison the incidence of drugs finds is much higher.
My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) was kind enough to mention that I had visited Pentonville and Holloway with him last Monday. I wish that more MPs would make a point of visiting prisons, because if they could see what goes on in prisons they would realise, first, the appalling conditions in which many prisoners live and, secondly and more importantly, the appalling conditions in which many prison officers work.
We care little and do not talk much about the conditions in which prisoners live. I say that with a degree of guilt because I sentence people to prison as a Crown court recorder. I do so because that is what Parliament requires of me and in the process I separate off my political mind. None the less, we expect irresponsible, illiterate drug addicts who cannot add up and are socially and economically inept to come out of prison after the time that they have served as angels. In fact, we do very little with people when they are in prison that is of purposeful and positive use. As I have said, it is a secret world. Some prison officers work for 20 or 30 years of their adult lives doing their best to look after the most irresponsible and difficult collection of people that one can possibly imagine, yet we pay little attention to the difficult circumstances in which they work.
What are we going to do about the problem? Three interesting reports on the subject have been published in the past two years or so, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) for initiating this debate because it allows us, if only briefly, to highlight some of the facts contained in those reports. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons annual report 2005-06, which was published not long ago, has a section on the problems of drug use and drug dealing and what we do about trying to recover drug addicts in prison. It is well worth reading and, if I had more time, I would take the House through some of the recommendations in that report in greater detail.
The social justice policy group—which was not of my party, although it was chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith)—also produced a report. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate is on the addictions working group, and it was in that guise that I went with him last Monday to Pentonville and Holloway. He is quite right to describe the marked differences between the regimes for dealing with drug addiction in Pentonville and in Holloway. As he said, Holloway is like a women’s hospital—at least the part of the prison dealing with substance abuse and addiction is. Pentonville was a bolt-on bit to a Victorian prison where—I repeat this because it is important—there are some fantastically dedicated prison officers and health staff doing a terribly difficult job, in appallingly cramped conditions, dealing with an appalling turnover of prisoners.
Last October, I spoke to a prison officer from Pentonville who said that in the nine months from January to September 2006, they had already had 50,000 prisoner movements through the reception area. How can a stable resettlement and rehabilitation process be run in such conditions? How can someone be taught to read and write, and to deal with their anger and inability to express themselves in a coherent fashion rather than use violence? How can damaged and damaging individuals, such as those I have seen in the Crown court before I sent them off, be turned around? How can prisoners be drawn back from drug addiction and substance abuse in those conditions? They cannot.
Within a few months, many such short-term prisoners—inadequate, damaged and damaging people—go back out on to the street. There, they have no contact with the primary health care system—they are not the kind of people who would have that. They do not have doctors, or a regular job; they live hand to mouth in a chaotic way. Yet we expect them to appear at the probation office at a given time on a given date to take part in some drug rehabilitation or recovery course. It is simply unthinkable that they will do so.
Essentially, at the end of their prison sentence, we throw such people out of the back of an aeroplane without a parachute. We expect them to land safely back in the community and behave themselves. We do not teach people responsibility in prison—in prison people have responsibility removed from them, and afterwards they are put back out on to the street—irresponsible once more—to go back on the carousel. I see them again in the Crown court, JPs see them again in the magistrates courts, and prison officers and health staff see them back again on the prison estate.
I think of our visit to Holloway the other day. It was particularly true of some especially vulnerable women prisoners there, who are drug addicts, that prison is the only place where they feel safe. It is the only place where they are not preyed upon by pimps or drug dealers. It is the only place where they feel that there is some order in their lives.
If I could translate the regime at Rampton into the wider male and female prison estate, something might be achieved. I am a Conservative, and I do not want to see endless use of public money without a proper underlying planning system. When I was at Grendon, however, I asked the prison governor, “Are you a hospital with bars, or a prison with doctors?” He said, “I am a prison with doctors, but if I was a hospital with bars my budget would be about five times as much.”
We have a choice. We can brush the problem under the carpet and say that prisons and prisoners do not matter, or we can apply our minds sensibly and coherently to dealing in a civilised and humane way with a vast social problem. That problem is to be found outside prisons and inside prisons. The people who take drugs outside prison end up in prison, and the people who take drugs inside prison end up outside prison.
I appreciate that I am trespassing on the Minister’s time, but I am really quite passionate about this subject. I want the Government, not to feel that they are being bashed by the Opposition because they are not doing enough—although they are not—but really to grasp the problem and deal with it in a sensible way. Progress will be slow, and it will take a lot of work, political capital and bravery on the part of Ministers. If the Government do take up the challenge, however, it might be that the reoffending problem mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) is dealt with. It might be that we can deal with the disgusting practice of 15-year old children being used as drug mules to take drugs into prison. It might be that we can also reduce the problems that the hon. Members for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) and for Taunton (Mr. Browne) described.
I have said enough. Actually, I have not said half enough, but I must stop. I urge the Government to take some serious steps. They must not simply brush the problem under the carpet. It is too important.
I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) for securing the debate. He focused on the problem of drugs in prisons from the perspective of the Prison Service. I fully appreciate that, and I am grateful to him for putting on the record, as shall I, our thanks for the work of prison officers and of the Prison Officers Association.
The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) has said that the work is difficult, and I wholeheartedly agree with his comments about the world of prisons being a secret one. The quality of the debate today is the result of hon. Members’ experiences with prisons in their constituencies or of professional involvement over many years. I certainly do not see the debate as one that has focused on party political points, except for some of the comments of the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne), and they were only incidental.
There is clearly a major problem to face. I have been the prisons Minister since May 2006. When I was appointed, I reflected on my experience and my opinion of the criminal justice system as an elected MP and before that as a councillor. I have to say that previously I had put offenders in somebody else’s box—they were something that the criminal justice system dealt with. They were not my responsibility. I had to concentrate on education, health, regeneration and the variety of things that we wanted for our communities. The reality, however, is that offenders are from those very communities. As such, although they have to be punished if necessary, they must afterwards be reintegrated into those communities. That is what needs to happen, and I agree with the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) that the task is one of tackling reoffending. Whatever the issues around the supply side, we all agree that the prison population is too high and that we need to drill down and discover the reasons for reoffending. In economic terms, reoffending costs the country £11 billion.
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. However, the hon. and learned Member for Harborough has referred to the fact that only a short time remains for the debate, and getting to the core of all the important points that hon. Members raised will be difficult. I do, however, give a commitment to reflect on the debate and read the Hansard report, because there have been some good ideas and proposals that merit consideration, particularly in relation to stopping drugs entering prisons by the routes that have been described, some of which are ingenious.
It would be wrong not to set the context as the hon. and learned Member for Harborough did. Hon. Members present in the debate are experienced in the problems that are faced by prison officers and inmates, but many of our colleagues in the House and in our wider communities are not au fait with what is happening in prisons. They see the banner headlines that say that sentences are too long or do not fit the crime, but we need to try to get people to understand what is really going on in our prisons. As the hon. Member for Banbury said, prisons are not comfort zones. Anybody who has been in a prison knows that the regime is a difficult one, including for the people who work in prisons—officers and governors and the like.
It appears that hon. Members have not appreciated the increase in spending on drug treatment. Spending has gone up from £7.2 million in 1997 to £78 million, which is a 974 per cent. increase. However, I agree that it is still not enough to tackle the difficulties that must be faced. We must look at how to improve the situation. Part of that must be stopping illegal drugs entering prisons, but I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who faced the drugs issue head on in his own constituency, on his own initiative. He gathered evidence and made recommendations on drug treatment and on how to deal with drugs in our society.
We will consider what has been said about Rampton. If it is so successful, we should learn the lessons that it has to offer. As has been said, Rampton is a hospital. The money that is coming in from the health service is key. I understand the point that was made by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) and I acknowledge the work that he has been doing in connection with his local prisons—Holloway and Pentonville—and the visits that he has made in a professional capacity. The money is additional money. I accept that it was not as much as was anticipated, and had the money not arrived that could have been seen as a cut. However, the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that Wandsworth has now received its full year’s worth of money. Deaths in custody had nothing to do with it. The relevant considerations were actually geographical spread and geographical need. As I have said, however, the money is additional spending, and it embodies what the hon. and learned Member for Harborough has asked of the Government—that we consider the detail of what can be done in our prisons.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North mentioned the RSA report, which was published only the other day. We have some concerns about the data that were used in that report, and I would be happy to speak to him about that after the debate.
As ever, there is not enough time to respond to the points that have been made by those who have contributed to the debate. If there are specific points on which I need to get back to hon. Members, I shall do that. I give a commitment that the Government will consider what has been said, including suggestions on how we can stop illicit drugs getting into prisons. Lots of effective work has already been carried out by prison officers and prison governors. The leadership of our prisons is a major issue, and I was grateful for the comments about Holloway and Pentonville. However, leadership is not about one person; it is about the whole management team and the whole prison arena. I believe that we will be able to work together and I hope that we have many more debates such as this one.
Dairy Farming (South Derbyshire)
It would be easy to make a debate on this subject a tale of woe, because there is certainly woe to tell. Nearly half the people with dairy holdings in Derbyshire have left the industry in the past 10 years, and they have left for good reasons: it simply has not been possible to sustain a business with the prices that they are able to obtain for their product. However, I do not want to make the debate a tale of woe. I want to set out why I believe that after, sadly, a further period of pain—a period of pain that the Government can assist with—we have the makings of a highly successful industry, which will both provide solid employment for farmers and their staff and be an important contributor to environmental quality in our countryside.
The UK has many natural advantages in this respect. We have high-quality grassland in abundance. It is far easier to produce milk in this country than it is in, for example, southern Europe, and we have relatively large farm units—that was the case even before the consolidation process of the past few years—where it is possible to obtain economies of scale.
We have some disadvantages as well. We have what is essentially a large bulk commodity marketplace. Half the milk produced in our country is consumed at its most minimally processed level—as liquid milk. Not surprisingly, therefore, that is priced by supermarkets at a bulk commodity rate as a shopping bag filler and nothing more. It is always a shock to me when I visit a supermarket and pick up the mineral water that it is more expensive than an equivalent volume of milk produced by local farmers.
The story goes on, because a significant additional proportion of milk production is processed further but is still of very low quality. I am referring to waste cream, which we do not consume in liquid milk and which is largely exported to the continent, and to powder products, which are of relatively low value. Only a very small proportion—about a quarter—of our production goes into higher added value product of one kind or another. That is one of the core reasons why there is a problem with the dairy industry in our country.
Why is the debate about dairy farming in south Derbyshire and not dairy farming anywhere? Well, south Derbyshire is a bit different. It is a lowland area of the country and, by and large, dairy farms are larger in south Derbyshire than they are elsewhere. For example, the farmer with whom I have been talking about this subject over the years has a 350-head herd, which is, by UK standards, large. The average herd size is a bit over 100 now, so that farmer has a very large farm unit. He is not particularly unusual. His herd is large in south Derbyshire terms, but herds comfortably over 100 are not particularly unusual in the area, so we already have relatively efficient large-scale units. We also have a reasonably good road infrastructure, whereby it is possible to collect the milk economically for processing. In some parts of the country, just the logistics of getting the milk to the processor are tough.
What we have to do is challenge one or two assumptions. There is an assumption in this country that food must be cheap. When we go to a supermarket, we tend to look at the price first. Those of us who go on holiday on the continent know that the world is looked at in a rather more complicated way there—and milk is also looked at in a rather more complicated way there. If people look at the liquid milk display in a typical French or Italian supermarket, they will find a very small space set aside for the basic product, but a large area set aside for processed product that has high added value content. We have work to do, which I shall return to, on changing the customer’s expectation of what milk is actually about.
Another difficulty is that over time demand for milk is falling in this country. It is not falling dramatically, but eating habits at breakfast, which are one of the big drivers for demand, are changing.
In a normal market, the pressures of low prices and constant low profitability would produce a market solution relatively rapidly. The businesses involved would either change their business model dramatically or go out of business and cease production, bringing production levels down to a level that is sustainable in the marketplace. That does not happen in dairying; in fact, it does not happen in most farming. There are several reasons for that. One is that we are talking about long-term investments in animals and areas of our countryside, but we are also talking about fixed habits.
Neil Kinston, whose farm I mentioned, has been farming that area for 50 years. It would be a huge wrench to disturb that family’s hold on that particular bit of south Derbyshire countryside and to move them into a completely different activity. One of Neil Kinston’s sons has chosen to emigrate to New Zealand, because he sees the opportunity of a freer marketplace there. I remember talking to him about it. I have visited New Zealand and it is a different world; it is a huge challenge. I want to draw one comparison on that later.
After a relentless period of low prices, we are starting to see some effects. I was constantly staggered that, up until and even beyond foot and mouth, milk production remained at or even slightly above quota levels. Since then, there has been a gentle decline, which seems likely to continue. Herd numbers have been falling sharply in Derbyshire. That has been true, to a greater or lesser extent, across the country. Herd sizes have gone up, because other people have taken on the spare capacity that is produced, by buying quota or leasing it from those who are giving it up.
The calculations that I and others who are informed in the industry make are that if current trends continue, demand and supply will roughly balance somewhere around 2011-12. At the moment, there are still substantial surpluses and a buyers’ market in milk, and a buyers’ market when someone is trying to sell a commodity is death. They have no purchase at all and it is a constant struggle to achieve a fair price.
There is the prospect that at some point the market will change, and we are starting to see some changes occurring. Supermarkets are beginning to identify farmers they particularly favour who can produce to a particularly high level. We see greater use of local branding by supermarkets, even for milk. If people go to Waitrose, for example, they can find a picture of a smiling farmer and a smiling cow, if you can get it to smile, saying something about what the milk is. It is a local milk. It is known to the person coming to buy it in the supermarket because it comes from somewhere near where they may live. That type of clear identification is partly a response to supermarkets looking a little further into the future and saying, “We’re not going to be able to buy what is in effect spot milk wherever we like. At some point, we’re going to have to select carefully who we trade with, and they’ll be picking who they’re going to trade with, too.”
More specialist markets are emerging. Organic milk went through a terrible period after a flood of people got into organics. As a result, we had an organic milk lake, but no appropriate buyers. Some suppliers then found themselves with the ultimate farmers’ problem of investing in going organic, but not getting the expected price premium. That situation has reversed as organic milk demand has increased, and there are certainly opportunities for more growth.
There are also opportunities for growth further down the supply chain. I reiterate that we have to find a way of shifting the balance regarding liquid milk and higher-value processed milk. We must also consider who should get that higher value. It is critical that we look into the production of flavoured milks, cheeses and yoghurts, although yoghurt uses only small amounts of milk. There should be active, ongoing research into such products, as well as the various desserts that use milk as a key component.
The processing sector has been complacent. Companies are used to processing large quantities of white liquid and shunting it out in containers. That is their business, but they have not been innovative. There have been many innovations in the milk products that come here from places such as Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands. Innovation has been a core activity of those businesses because they could not flog liquid milk there in the quantities in which it is consumed here. Leading-edge thinking has tended to come from those businesses; we have to turn that around. There is a role for the Government in that. There needs to be greater emphasis on research support for developing new products for downstream, higher-value milk products.
There are signs that we can succeed if we make those changes and get the balance between supply and demand much closer to one that places sellers in a more advantageous position. If we do those things, the natural advantages of our industry will come into play and dairy farmers should have an effective income and a strong place in the marketplace. What can we do to help that come about?
First, we need to consider how we regulate the sector. I return to the relationship with supermarkets, most of which have assurance schemes that basically say, “We are going to buy stuff from you; we’d like to come and check your farm and look at how your dairy operates to ensure that we are getting the highest standard.” There is then a hygiene service that does many of the same things. We should examine the overlaps between the assurance scheme checks and the hygiene checks and minimise the hassle and bureaucracy that farmers have to deal with.
Secondly, I go back to what happened with Milk Marque, the co-operative that was co-owned by farmers. It used to purchase virtually all the milk that was produced in this country and sell it on, but it was not efficient or effective. It was rightly broken up in 1999, but on the wrong grounds—that it was an anti-competitive model. The milk market is becoming more complicated. Milk is a European product that has by-products and downstream activities, and we have to consider relationships with continental Europe.
Other companies regularly buy into our sector because they have none of the constraints that our farmers have. Arla, which controls MD Foods, dominates the marketplaces in Sweden and Denmark in a way that we would never permit under the rules here, yet it can come here and trade freely and buy our businesses. I have to say, though, that it also innovates in helpful ways. We need to free our farmers to do the same. They got a tremendous chill when Milk Marque was broken up. We have to make it clear that the opportunity remains to build successful, integrated co-operative activities. Some 90 per cent. of the milk that is produced in New Zealand goes through Fonterra, which is a farm-owned co-operative. Is there a monopoly issue there? No, there is not.
We have to take a more international and adult view of how competition works in the sector, including by helping some farmers to leave it. We could use the kind of early retirement schemes that are used in other EU countries. Such schemes can facilitate older farmers who are grinding out their lives and who will not be able to cope to the end to leave in dignity and pass on their activities to those who can take advantage of the opportunities of the future. As I have said, we also need support for research and new product development. Some of the resources that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has available, such as additional marketing activity, should be targeted at those sorts of ideas.
There are concerns in my constituency about controls on slurry and nitrates. If farmers are called on to invest heavily in concrete bunkers to hold slurry and prevent its dispersal, they will need assistance, in current economical terms, to do so. If that obligation is imposed on them, it will be the final straw for many farmers and they will not be able to deal with it. For many, it will take significant capital investment to achieve that goal. Given that it is a public health goal and there is a reasonable scientific basis for it, there ought to be some means of assisting farmers to deal with that requirement.
It would also be helpful to clarify policy on bovine tuberculosis, which affects my area. Farmers want to reach an agreement on how best to control its spread. No one likes killing badgers—I do not—but we would like some certainty about how matters are to proceed. We have had a long study of the options, but no clear answers or direction from the Government.
We have powerful brands, including some in Derbyshire. Some regional development agencies have developed food strategies that look at local brands and their identification with foods. We could put more resources into that area and into strengthening the ability to exploit local brands in downstream activity.
There is hope and there are prospects. This industry can be a successful, innovative and quality industry of the future, but we need a period in which some farms are lost, some are made bigger and there is a turnover of personnel to produce the outcomes that I suggest. The Government could help during that period of, perhaps, four or five years. The recent increases in milk prices are appreciated, but marginal, in restoring profitability to most milk units, and we are still some way from having sustainable prices of more than 20p a litre. Until we have greater equilibrium in the marketplace and farmers have more control over their future, we require hardy folk to make tough decisions, and we need the Government to help them with some of those decisions and to enable change.
It is a great pleasure to debate this issue—perhaps I should say discuss, given the number of hon. Members present—with my old and dear hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd). The debate has reminded me that he tries to be constructive in all his remarks and in his often trenchant critiques of policy. He started by saying that this was not a tale of woe, although he rightly acknowledged that genuine grief exists, and that he wanted to focus on the positive. He talked about the makings of a healthy and successful industry. That is right, because, as he pointed out, the UK has many natural advantages and we must make better capital on the back of those.
My hon. Friend has highlighted the key areas for debate, and I want to respond on those. He talked about economies of scale and the price of food. He identified liquid milk as a commodity and spoke of the need to add value by processing or by niche marketing. He also mentioned the ways in which the Government can and perhaps should be contributing to that. Crucially, he highlighted the need for innovation in the industry to help to add that value and he rightly identified the need to minimise bureaucratic overlap. In touching on all those issues, he has hit on the essential components of the highly successful industry that we both want.
I shall try to respond in more detail on each of those areas that my hon. Friend highlighted and to discuss some issues that I did not pick up during my introductory remarks. In terms of value, dairy farming accounts for around 17 per cent. of UK agricultural production and is the single largest agricultural sector at £2.5 billion. Household expenditure on dairy products in the past 12 months totalled £7.3 billion. I understand that that makes dairy the second largest grocery category in the UK. The dairy sector is therefore of great importance.
It is important to have a considered debate on the many challenges that the dairy sector undoubtedly faces. It must face up to some harsh realities. My hon. Friend correctly pointed that out, but he was also right in wanting not to talk the sector down but to look to the signs of success and growth. He acknowledged that pressure on farm-gate prices will remain. It is important for the sector to be realistic about the prospects for farm-gate prices; they are unlikely to return to the levels seen in the mid-1990s. I accept that farm-gate prices are not high enough for some to be able to sustain their businesses and that costs have increased across the supply chain.
The acknowledgement of that by Sainsbury’s and Tesco, and their resulting action to increase prices, is therefore welcome. The Government believe it to be in the long-term interest of buyers to establish fair and sustainable arrangements for dealing with their suppliers. It is good that there has been some acknowledgment of that, even though some might say that it is overdue. A number of retailers have initiatives to encourage closer working relationships with identified suppliers, some of which attract a price premium. We must also be aware that a considerable proportion of milk is sold through middle-ground retailers and catering establishments, or as food ingredients, as well as being internationally traded as a commodity product.
The Competition Commission has found that the four largest grocery retailers account for less than 25 per cent. of volume sales of raw milk processed in the UK. It is important that we are careful not to place too much emphasis on the major supermarkets, as others have their part to play. There have also been some positive developments in the contractual arrangements between processors and producers. Those relationships, which should help to develop greater transparency and trust, are to be encouraged.
We hear a lot about paying a fair price for milk. If it is not the price agreed between a willing buyer and a willing seller, then what is a fair price? How would a fair price be determined without reference to the market price? Is it the average cost of production, in which case there would be handsome winners but many losers? What about those farmers who cannot match those costs of production? Should we subsidise inefficient producers at the expense of consumers? How would such an approach encourage efficiency gains? How would it help international competitiveness? All those questions go along with that line of argument.
The industry needs to move away from the fixation on price and fix its attention on profitability. There remains a worrying disparity in the costs of production between the most and least efficient dairy farmers. In 2003, it was found that there was, on average, a 12p per litre differential between the most and least efficient dairy farmers. That is not sustainable. Given such a wide variation in costs, we return to the question of what constitutes a fair price. It is worrying and somewhat incredible that many dairy farmers are still unaware of their own production costs. We welcome moves to encourage awareness of costs of production as they may help to provide the information for producers to make timely business decisions.
Even with current farm-gate prices, there are dairy farmers who are able to make a profit. We may rarely hear of them, but they do exist. Such farmers deserve our encouragement and praise. One such example is James Hague from Daisy’s Dairy, who some may have heard on “Farming Today” last Tuesday. He and his wife are new entrants into dairy farming and are producing, processing and marketing their own milk. They are making a very healthy profit by adding value and are providing a quality product and service, for which their customers are willing to pay a premium. Clearly, not all farmers can follow the same path, but individual producers have to continue to play their part as well by reducing costs and becoming more efficient and, above all, by innovating and adding value through processing and the use of niche markets, as my hon. Friend suggested.
The rest of the supply chain also has its part to play in cutting costs and maximising efficiency. There has been considerable investment in processing capacity and, as a result, we have some world-class processing plants. There are also some less efficient plants, just as there are efficient and less efficient producers. This is why, through the dairy supply chain forum, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is part-funding a study benchmarking processor efficiency on an international level. The Milk Development Council is also conducting a similar study benchmarking producer efficiency. We have also invested more than £1.3 million through the agricultural development scheme to help the dairy sector address issues of efficiency.
As my hon. Friend notes, increasing the value of dairy products is key. A 1989 report by Coopers and Lybrand for a milk marketing board concluded that
“the present pricing system and allocation arrangements for raw milk in England and Wales will hinder the development of an industry which is internationally competitive”.
The UK processing industry is finally beginning to throw off that legacy and is now producing more value-added, innovative and branded products. To see that we need only consider the recent successes with added-value liquid milk such as Cravendale or Night Time Milk, or the plethora of branded cheeses, such as Seriously Strong or Cathedral City.
While on the topic of cheese, I want briefly to discuss the debate about cheese and children’s diet started by the Food Standards Agency. Cheese has a high saturated fat and salt content, but it is also an excellent source of protein, calcium and other beneficial nutrients and minerals. I hope that parents will use common sense when feeding their children and will include cheese as a key part of a balanced diet. They should not be put off by the tick-box approach of a few people in white coats.
Another recurrent theme is concern about the numbers of dairy farmers leaving the sector. My hon. Friend alluded to that. It is not a new phenomenon. In 1943, there were more than 100,000 dairy farmers, but by 1994, there were 28,000—there are now about 20,000. According to the Milk Development Council’s “Dairy Supply Chain Margins 2005-06”, the rate of farmers leaving the industry has hardly changed in the past five years and is about 6 to 6.5 per cent. The trend of declining producer numbers is not restricted to the UK. In some parts in the EU, such as Spain, the number of dairy farmers leaving the industry has been much higher than in the UK. There is a similar trend in the USA and Canada, reflecting a global trend towards fewer, larger herds in developed economies. Those economies of scale are exactly what my hon. Friend was talking about; they are the clear driver.
My hon. Friend asks about an early retirement scheme. As the Curry report stated, a retirement incentive scheme is unlikely to offer value for money compared with the large costs likely to be involved. One of the report’s further recommendations was that DEFRA should produce a supporting pack of advice for farmers considering retirement. At the launch of “Fresh Start” in December 2004, we issued two publications that responded to that recommendation.
Concern has been expressed recently about the apparent decline in milk production. As my hon. Friend acknowledged, it has remained relatively stable—around the 14 billion litre mark—since quotas were introduced. Production is below quota this year, as it has been more often than not since 2000, but it must be remembered that milk quotas are a ceiling on production, not a target. Producers should produce for the market, rather than for the target.
Recent statements that the UK will soon have to import liquid milk are overly pessimistic. We currently export more liquid milk than we import. DEFRA has commissioned a study which will be published later this year. It will assess the potential for GB-European trade in liquid milk—
Youth on Youth Crime
I am grateful for this short debate. I believe that youth on youth crime is one of the most pressing social and crime challenges facing this country today. Too many teenagers live a “Lord of the Flies” existence with no real framework of security. Behaviour can escalate violently, sometimes to a fatal level, before being significantly addressed. Gun crime and knife crime might remain relatively uncommon, but youth on youth mugging is routine, and that is the area to which most of my comments are directed, not because it is the only crime committed daily against young people—it is not—but because it is emblematic of the lack of action against the overall problem.
Mugging is a frightening and violent crime. The Home Office survey on the impact of personal theft showed that 40 per cent. of muggings leave victims injured, and that 40 per cent. are carried out using a weapon, usually a knife. In my local London borough of Wandsworth last year, 38 per cent. of recorded mugging victims were 11 to 16-year-olds, and 40 per cent. of identified suspects were also 11 to 16-year-olds. An average 11 to 16-year-old in Wandsworth had a 1 in 20 recorded chance of being mugged last year. In London, which accounts for around half of all muggings nationally, a third of recorded muggings were against 11 to 16-year-olds, but a massive 49 per cent. of all suspects were also aged 11 to 16. In London last year, 271 children aged 10 or under were recorded as having been mugged. Detection rates for mugging in London were around 10 to 12 per cent.
The problem is that those figures are, at best, only a partial picture of what is really happening. There is poor transparency of the real level of youth on youth crime, including mugging, and that is a key reason for insufficient focus on youth on youth crime. The British crime survey does not interview children under 16. The Government set great store by that annual victimisation survey, but it does not talk to young people about their experience of crime. Civitas estimates that because of that it misses 500,000 crimes. Given what we now know about the mugging statistics to which I referred, surely that is indefensible.
The latest British crime survey also estimated that just 21 per cent. of actual muggings make it into recorded figures so, going back to my earlier statistics, the one in 20 chance of an 11 to 16-year-old being mugged in Wandsworth is probably more like a one in four chance. Moreover, if detection rates are 10 to 12 per cent. of the 21 per cent. of recorded muggings in London, just 2 per cent. of actual muggings have a suspect identified. Virtually all muggings in London go unaddressed as far as the offender is concerned.
The experience of young people who are mugged and its impact on them should not be underestimated. We know that such terrifying experiences can stay with children and shape their adult outlook. How can we expect young people to grow up to be positive, productive members of the community when that community, of which they are junior members, makes so little response to the important issues that they face? I hear regular stories of students being lined up by assailants and asked to show their mobiles so that a decision can be made about the best mobile to take. SIM cards are often returned to victims, which is humiliating because the offender robs the victim and then pretends to do them a favour.
I hear stories of young people being marched to a cash point by other young people to get money. One parent told me that she was frantic about where her teenage son was when he had not returned home late on a Friday night. She finally got through to him on his mobile to be told, “I can’t talk now Mum. I am being mugged.” Two youths had frogmarched him to a cash point, which was broken, so they frogmarched him to the next nearest one, which was some distance away. He was just getting money out of the cash point and the offenders were loitering round the corner when the mother called to find out where her son was.
Many young victims know the perpetrator of crimes against them, who may be another school student. I am told that victims are often warned about the escalating violence that will occur if they talk to police or parents. Offenders may live on the same estate and know where the victims live. I have no doubt that fear of reprisals is one of the main factors making it difficult for victims to go to the police, so under-reporting occurs. That is tragic, because the behaviour of offenders is often prolific. We must find a way of turning that prolific behaviour against the offenders instead of it working against the victims, who are caught in a layer of scared silence.
Gang-style networks are often behind the offending with theft takings being fed into the local drugs economy. There has been much discussion in the media recently about the prevalence of gangs, particularly in places such as London, and I want to discuss briefly my local experience of gangs. I have several gangs in my area, but I will not give them credence by mentioning them by name. They are essentially postcode driven, and there seems to be no real join-up process. Membership seems to be automatic, and depends on where people live. Young people locally tell me that it is a problem to live in Wandsworth, for example, and to go to school in Merton where a different gang is based. Students travelling by bus to and from school may be asked which gang they belong to: the Wandsworth one where they live, or the Merton one where they are at school. They may not and generally do not want to be in either, but they feel at a greater risk of being mugged if they say no. Saying that they are part of a gang gives them some sort of protection from the wider group, and in the absence of frequently patrolling police, they feel that that is a pragmatic response to enable them to remain safe on often dangerous estates. What a damaging perception! If our young people feel that being part of a gang is the only way to stay safe, we have truly let them down.
Those secondary school students say that they are desperate to see more police patrolling the streets, and that they do not want to belong to gangs. I have heard stories of secondary school students being mugged by people who routinely say that they are a member of the local gang, even if they are not that involved, because that can encourage compliance by victims who are aware of how violent gangs can be.
The main gang in central Wandsworth even has its own MySpace page, which has a rest-in-peace memorial to one of its members who was recently knifed to death in Mitcham. That is the world that teenagers inhabit. It is a “Lord of the Flies” existence in which violent crime is committed, especially if it is youth on youth, with apparent impunity. The statistics that I outlined show that muggers are unlikely to be caught and prosecuted, even when the police have an idea of who they are, because getting the necessary evidence to bring a successful case in court is extremely difficult. Victims are scared of going to the police for fear of reprisals to them and their family.
A group of local secondary school children recently visited Parliament. One girl asked what I knew about local gangs, and said that she hated what was going on in her area and on her estate, but that the police seemed unable to do anything about it because it was so widespread. She said that she had seen everything: knives, guns, the lot. What happened? Another student at the back of the room told her to stop snitching.
There is massive pressure on students not to discuss what is going on, but they look to the local community, schools and police to provide a secure framework in which to grow up, but in many places, especially in urban areas and cities, that is not happening. They feel that they are left to fend for themselves.
I want to talk about a way forward. Is the situation irretrievable? I do not believe that it is, but there are no easy or quick solutions to the vicious cycle of violent crime and non-reporting. I shall suggest some areas of policy development. First, we must ensure that our recording of crime is set up to monitor successfully the particular problem of youth on youth crime.
I said that the British crime survey does not interview people under 16. That is clearly inadequate and a fundamental flaw. Today, I am writing to the Office for National Statistics to ask it to consider extending the British crime survey to include children aged 11 and above. Will the Minister assure me that the next British crime survey will be broader and include younger interviewees?
Similarly, although internet reporting of crime is increasingly possible, it is cumbersome. Web-based reporting of crime must improve and assume a greater role, and incidents must be routinely e-mailed to local police. Perhaps we can encourage young people to e-mail police on the basis that they will receive a reply only if there is a sufficient body of evidence for the police to take action against an offender. Otherwise, the message is that if the young person reports a crime, they risk having to go it alone in launching a prosecution. E-mail reports might not all be recorded as muggings as they ought, but at least the police would routinely gather more incident reports and intelligence. Better reporting, and therefore better information, must be the key to taking action.
We must also recognise that frightened teenagers who have been mugged are unlikely to feel comfortable visiting a police office. My local police shop in Putney is open from 10 am to 1 pm daily, and is not easy to reach in short school lunch breaks, or especially when children are not allowed off the school site. It must be possible to make more effort to improve web-based and e-mail reporting, so will the Minister outline the role that the Home Office could play to make such reporting easier for young victims, and to support the efforts of local forces?
Young people have sent a clear message that they want more daily policing on the ground, especially in some of our city estates, to keep them safe. Whatever increase there has been in police numbers throughout London, in my borough of Wandsworth, there are now fewer trained, uniformed police officers than there were in 1997. The relationship between the police and schools is more significant than we previously realised, and in some cities, it is the most important link with the community in the fight against crime. The development of that relationship must start early, and perhaps routinely in primary school. For students in secondary school, a close relationship with community police officers is critical, and some schools are working closely with local police. In my constituency, Southfields community college has a very close and positive working relationship with local police, but many schools are reluctant to acknowledge that they have a problem, for fear of bad publicity, which does not help to develop that relationship.
The data that I have gathered and presented pose some real questions for the workings and establishment of safer neighbourhoods teams of police and safer neighbourhood panels. The teams set local policing priorities, and I am greatly concerned that, inevitably, they do not prioritise youth on youth crime, because so few young people are involved with safer neighbourhood panels. The panels may quite rightly prioritise the curbing of antisocial behaviour among young people locally, but the brunt of their—often criminal—behaviour is borne much more by their peer group than by the broader community. What assessment has the Home Office made of how well the safer neighbourhoods policing model is building youth on youth crime into local priorities?
In the long term, we must tackle the underlying reasons behind criminality. My party’s leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), has talked about the need to support families, which is no doubt a critical part of the solution. It must sit alongside much stronger community policing, whereby there are enough police on patrol to address low-level behaviour before it has the chance to escalate and become such violent behaviour as mugging; we must combine it with education about children’s responsibility to one another to report crime and keep themselves, as a group, safe; and we must also examine the potential to create a school version of neighbourhood watch.
Finally, a key factor is a greater emphasis on the eradication of the drugs culture that underpins so much crime. Until we start winning the battle against drugs, we will fight youth on youth crime with one hand tied behind our back, because so often the people involved in such crime are the foot soldiers for drug-related gangs managing their turf.
I realise that I have taken some time to outline my concerns about youth on youth crime, but I am truly worried about the consequences for our country and our communities if my concerns are not taken on board. Owing to its long-term impact on victims, and owing to the escalation of criminal behaviour, tackling youth on youth crime must be at the heart of our UK crime strategy. At the moment, it is not.
We have high hopes for our children and young people, and from us they seek a secure community in which to grow up. Too many of them do not grow up in such communities, and I hope that the Minister will be able to provide young people, who are at the sharp end of youth on youth crime in Britain, with more than just platitudes when he responds to the debate.
I am not usually accused of mouthing platitudes; I usually try to answer the question. Before I read my speech, which raises some important issues, I shall deal with some of the specific points that the hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) has raised.
It was remiss of me not to begin by congratulating the hon. Lady on securing this important debate, and I also welcome to these discussions the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire). He and I have had many discussions about such issues.
I shall refer to a couple of specific points, so that I do not miss them when I make my general points. We have reviewed crime statistics, and as a consequence, we are reviewing the design of the British crime survey to include people aged under 16. On the hon. Lady’s specific points about the survey, we are considering the way in which we develop it, so that we include the points that she has made. I hope that that provides some reassurance to her.
On the issue of reporting crime and the use of e-mail and the internet, the hon. Lady will be interested to know that, in October, I went to Leicester where there is a project called E-Cops. It is not necessarily targeted at young people, but people can e-mail the neighbourhood policing team with their concerns about what is happening in their area. I have spoken to the chief constable of Leicestershire, Matt Baggott, who is also the Association of Chief Police Officers’ leader on neighbourhood policing, and the project will, I hope, spread throughout the country. I agree with the hon. Lady that for young people in particular, e-mail and the internet is a way of reporting crime more safely and securely, and E-Cops, which is used in Leicester, is a very good example of that.
The hon. Lady made another point about neighbourhood policing, which is crucial to giving young people confidence on the street. We are always examining the effectiveness of neighbourhood policing, the models that are developed throughout the country and the way in which they provide reassurance to people on the street. We often do not talk about the other important factor: the need to provide a deterrent. There must be a consequence for people on the street who act wrongly and against the law. We must ensure that they are caught and punished, and alongside all our other work, neighbourhood policing helps in that aim.
On the issue of police and schools, the hon. Lady will be aware of the safer schools partnership. Throughout the country, there are up to 500 such partnerships. Individual police officers are designated local schools; they work to reassure young people, and they are a good means of reducing and detecting crime. Only recently, my hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety and I met Lord Adonis from the Department for Education and Skills to discuss with the police how we can accelerate the roll-out of safer schools partnerships throughout the country, because it is an exciting and interesting model.
Community support is a vital part of the issue, and it is essential that we involve all parts of the community—not only the police, but schools, health bodies, local authorities and all partners in the community. The hon. Lady made that point, and she will be aware that with our review of the framework for police performance indicators, we will introduce an assessment of performance and community safety from April 2008, which may lead us to undertake more of the initiatives that she mentioned.
With those opening remarks, I hope that the hon. Lady will realise that I am keen to try to respond to Adjournments debates like this one, in which hon. Members raise significant issues. I shall try to answer some of the points that she raised, in particular her point about the British crime survey and the reporting of crime among the under-16s.
I should like to focus attention on what the Government have done to improve the youth justice system over the past 10 years, notwithstanding some of the points that the hon. Lady made. In 1997, the norm was the existence of single agency services, operating with different sets of priorities. The police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts were slow and inconsistent. Standards of regimes in young offender institutes were much lower than they are now. Today things are different. There has been a transformation in how we think about youth justice. Many agencies now have a single vision of preventing offending by children and young people. We have created new structures to plan and deliver youth justice services, through youth offending team partnership. Multi-agency working is a given.
Innovative and groundbreaking legislation was at the heart of that change. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 created youth offending teams. The multi-agency nature of those teams has served as a blueprint for other public sector reforms. The Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 and the respect agenda have pioneered a twin approach: providing young people with support packages to help address behaviour early on, backed up by strong enforcement. The hon. Lady talked about the importance of early intervention and tough enforcement—not either/or, but both operating together. The Children Act 2004 focused effort on ensuring that all children and young people succeed in life, regardless of their backgrounds or individual circumstances. Over the past 10 years a lot has been done.
I turn to the situation today with youth on youth crime. Do we live in a lawless society in which our children roam the streets in violent gangs? The answer is no. As I say in many debates about young people, it is imperative to stress that the majority of our young people throughout the country do not offend. They do not harm anyone and they do not bully anyone. They live good and proper lives. It is imperative that we continue to make the point that the vast majority of young people in our society make a huge contribution to it. For example, more young people volunteer than any other age group. They are also more likely to recycle, because they care about the environment in which they live. Although this debate is focused on problems, it is crucial to set them against the fact that only a small minority of young people offend and cause problems in our community. Of course they need to be dealt with, but if we do not get across to our young people the fact that we not only value them and understand their problems but recognise that the vast majority of them are decent, we will face real problems.
Why is that important? It is because young people are the victims of the majority of crime, which is another important point that the hon. Lady made. That is why young people want something done about the problem. We are often portrayed or caricatured as a Parliament that is out of touch—a load of older, middle-class men and women who do not understand life on the street. Well, we do understand life on the street. A minority of people cause a problem and the majority of young people, who are decent, want something done about it. They want us to work with them to do that, because they are the victims.
I feel strongly about the need to praise the majority of our young people because, as I am sure Opposition Members will confirm, when we talk to young people in schools, in uniformed organisations or in youth clubs, they say, “Yes, target those who cause problems, but don’t tar all of us with the same brush.” That is an extremely important message that we need to get across.
Youth offending has in fact not risen since 2003. Indeed, the 2005 offending, crime and justice survey showed that only about 1 per cent. of young people aged 10 to 25 had committed burglary or robbery in the past 12 months. However, as the hon. Lady mentioned, there is increased concern among all of us about violent offending by young people. As the tragic events of the previous month and the example that she gave show, the use of guns by young people in particular remains a concern, as does the use of knives. I hope that I do not need to stress how seriously the Government and, to be fair, the whole of Parliament treat the issue. Prevention is a key plank of the Government’s recently announced three-point plan on guns.
However, youth on youth crime is a complex issue and generalisations are not easily made. It is true that young people are more likely to be victims than any other age group, and at the hands of other young people. They are also particularly subject to repeat victimisation. There is also an overlap between youth victimisation and offending. Research shows that 15-year-olds who have been victims of certain types of crime are seven times more likely to have offended than those who have not been victims and that 56 per cent. of young people who have committed an offence have also been victims of crime themselves. The designation of victim and offender is therefore not always clear-cut.
Despite those complexities, however, we have focused our response on crimes that we know young people commit and on the settings in which they happen. We know that robbery is a particular concern for young people. We have therefore introduced significantly more powerful interventions to tackle mobile phone robbery, through the mobile phone crime reduction charter, which includes challenging targets for the industry on the blocking of stolen phones, which we think will have a significant impact on such crime. We will follow that up with a public information campaign to reinforce the strong message that stolen phones do not work.
The charter also supports the safer schools partnership and the “Out of your hands” educational programme, which are aimed at providing young people with information and advice to help prevent them from becoming victims of robbery. Of all robberies against young people of school age, 67 per cent. happen during the day. We are working with local partners to improve supervision on school buses, enable third party reporting in schools and youth leisure sites, and promote better use of CCTV for detection.
Crucially, we are also supporting local action. For example, in February an innovative pilot project was launched for school pastors to operate at St. Joseph’s academy school in Lewisham. We need to do more of that sort of work. The pastors will provide a visible presence at peak times in and around schools, and on transport links, to deter robbery. They will also counsel potential offenders to attempt to prevent them from getting involved in criminal activity.
They do not have any particular powers. However, I recently went to Peckham and met people from the Ascension trust, which organises the street pastors. It was quite astonishing to talk to people whose only power was the power of faith. That was their motivation. They would go out on the street on a Friday and Saturday night—I hope to go with them in a few weeks’ time—and just by being around and talking to people, including some of the difficult young people, they were having a dramatic impact on crime. If I remember rightly, three quarters of the trained street pastors were women. I found it quite remarkable that the project was having that impact.
Leaving aside some of the other remarks that I was to make, I close by saying that, as with drugs or any other issue, we must not get into an either/or situation. Is the answer tough policing? Of course it is. Is there an issue about the police being around on the streets? Of course there is. Is the answer about ensuring that those who offend are caught and that there is a consequence? Of course it is. Is the answer also about trying to understand some of the problems in our communities without damning everyone? Of course it is. Is the answer about trying to reclaim streets so that people such as the street pastors can walk around? Of course it is.
I do not want to demonise all young people, but there is a particular problem with some people. Dealing with them will involve the police, the community and the local authorities, and doing all that we can to replace some of the social glue that has gone missing. If we do that, we can offer hope and optimism for the future in all communities throughout the country.
It being Five o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.