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Volume 463: debated on Wednesday 18 July 2007

Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in expressing our profound condolences to the family and friends of Guardsman Daryl Hickey of 1st Battalion the Grenadier Guards, who was killed in Afghanistan last week. He died doing vital work in the service of our country. We owe him, and others who have lost their lives, a deep debt of gratitude.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings today.

With eight out of 10 prisoners in some prisons testing positive for class A drugs, the Prime Minister will be acutely aware of how drugs and drug addiction are fuelling crime in our constituencies. However, will he also acknowledge that many of us are concerned that people who suffer from multiple sclerosis and other debilitating conditions have been waiting since 2001 for the cannabis-based medicine Sativex to be licensed for use in the UK, as it is in Canada? Is it not about time that we had a drugs policy that does not criminalise the sick, but tackles the drugs that do the most harm?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I would like to pay tribute to the work that he has done on behalf of MS sufferers in all parts of the country. The use of the drug Sativex is now under review by the medical authorities. I can also say to him that next week my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will publish a consultation document to review our drugs strategy for the future. She will be asking the public to comment on new ways in which we can improve drugs education in this country, give support to people undergoing treatment—we have doubled the numbers in treatment, but we need to do more—and give support to communities that want to chase out drug dealers. As part of that consultation—the Cabinet discussed this yesterday—the Home Secretary will consult on whether it is right that cannabis should be moved from class C to class B.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Guardsman Daryl Hickey, who was killed in Afghanistan on Thursday. He died serving our country.

Three weeks ago, the Prime Minister started letting prisoners out of jail early under his early release scheme. Can he tell us how many prisoners have been let out, and how many of them were convicted of violent offences?

The figures were given to the House on Monday by the Secretary of State for Justice. I think it is true to say that around 1,700 people were released. It is also true to say that they included nobody who was serving a sentence for a serious violent offence, nobody who was subject to the registration requirements of the Sex Offenders Act 1997, nobody who had previously escaped from custody, nobody who had breached temporary release conditions and nobody currently serving a sentence for failing to return after temporary release. All those conditions, and others, meant that people were not released.

The Prime Minister needs a new briefer. Three hundred and forty-four of those criminals were convicted of violent offences. Those are the facts. What the Prime Minister has effectively said means that 25,000 prisoners will be released early this year, all from a Government who told us that they would be tough on crime. It has been alleged that there are cases where police and probation staff objected to the release of individual criminals because of the risk that they posed, but they were overruled. Has that happened?

I must correct the right hon. Gentleman. We said at the time that when we released people early—and remember, it was 18 days early, not a year, not six months, not nine months, but 18 days early—nobody who was serving a sentence for a serious violent offence would be released. We made it absolutely clear at the time, and it is disingenuous for the Leader of the Opposition now to come back and say the opposite. On any individual cases of probation that he raises, I assure him that the Justice Secretary will investigate, but let us remember that we also announced at the time—and the Conservative party must tell us what its views are on this—[Interruption.] Oh yes. We also announced at the time that we had increased the number of prison places by another 1,800. That is on top of the extra 8,000 places, which means that we have increased the number of prison places in this country from 60,000 to 90,000. We have provided resources for 140,000 police and 16,000 community support officers. At no time have the Opposition said that they would match us in the resources that we are providing.

Those 344 criminals who were released had been convicted of violent offences, such as violence against the person. Is the Prime Minister saying that he does not think that is serious? On whether police and probation staff have been overruled, Harry Fletcher, one of the leaders of the National Association of Probation Officers, said that in many cases probation and prisons staff—[Interruption.]

He said that in many cases probation and prisons staff objected to the release of violent criminals but they had been overruled. Why did not the Prime Minister know about that?

I have said to the right hon. Gentleman that I will ask the Justice Secretary to write to him on the matter of individual cases, but the terms on which people were released were made very clear at the time. Prisoners serving a sentence for serious violent offences, sex offences, escaping custody, breaching temporary release—we listed the 15 conditions that would not allow people to be released, and it is wrong for the right hon. Gentleman to come back and say that we have broken the word that we gave to the House of Commons.

So the Prime Minister had no idea that prison staff and probation staff were being overruled and that criminals were being released on to our streets when those staff thought that they posed a real risk. That is the truth. Some of the criminals who have been released went on to commit further offences. What would the Prime Minister say to the victims of those criminals who were released early?

I have investigated what has happened as a result of the Home Secretary’s statement on Monday. Everybody who was released was released after debate within the Prison Service and the probation service about what should happen, and it is wrong for the right hon. Gentleman to say that Ministers did not listen to any discussion that took place. [Interruption.] On the issues of future policy that he raises, I come back to tell him—[Interruption.]

I come back to what I said. On Monday, the Home Secretary made a statement and listed the number of people who had been released, then listed the number of people who had been recalled. Many people who have been recalled have come back as a result. I understand that less than 1 per cent. of those who have been released have been recalled, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that the figures are very low.

So that’s it. The Prime Minister has nothing to say to the victims of the prisoners whom he released early. The very least that they should expect is an apology from the Prime Minister. He says that discussions go on about whether those criminals should be released. He does not know what is going on. The probation circular sent to the probation service states on page 2:

“The Probation Service is not required to conduct a risk assessment or an accommodation check prior to a prisoner’s release”.

He does not know what is going on in his prisons. The Government told us repeatedly that the scheme would be a temporary measure. Can the Prime Minister confirm that it definitely will not become a permanent part of our criminal justice system?

We will continue to review it. Early release is not something that happened just under the Labour Government—it happened on two major occasions under the Conservative Government. The right hon. Gentleman raises the question of the individual assessment. Each person who was released was assessed against the criteria that I have read out to him. As for anybody who has committed any offences, yes, I regret it if anything has happened, but let us look at the evidence that is before us before we draw conclusions, as he is trying to do. The new announcement that we made a few weeks ago was that we were building more prison places. I thought that the right hon. Gentleman would support that. The new announcement that we made in recent months was that we are going to increase community policing. There are now going to be neighbourhood policing units in every town and city of England. He should be supporting that. Unfortunately, his shadow Chancellor says that there is no more money for law and order. That is the position of the Conservative party.

The Prime Minister does not know what is going on in the prisons and he does not even know what his own Ministers are saying. Last week, the Lord Chancellor said that this could become a permanent feature of the criminal justice system. This Prime Minister does not know who is being released, does not know whether they are violent offenders, cannot tell us whether probation officers have been overruled, does not know how many crimes have been committed, will not apologise to the victims of those crimes, and will not tell us how long this scheme will last. Is it not the case that when it comes to this Government and law and order, it is the same old broken promises, the same old incompetence, and the same old Labour?

This from the party under which crime doubled, the party under which the number of police officers fell, and the party whose shadow Chancellor has said—[Interruption.] They should listen to what the shadow Chancellor is telling them. He said:

“lots of Conservatives…come up to me and say we’ve really got to put more money into”—

this and that—

“we need more soldiers, we need more police, and so on. Now those are all very good things but they do cost money and part of our discipline, part of the test of whether we are ready for government is whether we can resist these additional draws on public expenditure”.

That is the Conservative party—all talk, no real policy. He said he was the future once, and all he can do is talk about the past. [Interruption.]

May I ask my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister if he will meet children’s charities that work with children who run away or go missing from home or care so that we can find out how we can better protect those children from harm?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has taken up the case of the hundreds of runaway children who, during the course of the year, go missing and cannot be found, and the fact that we do not have properly co-ordinated services to do so. I agree that we should encourage all local authorities to take this more seriously, and we need a national system by which we can find missing children. I look forward to meeting children’s charities, as I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families will do in future, to talk about this very grave problem.

May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s expression of sympathy and condolence?

Yesterday’s Rowntree report confirmed that the gap between the rich and the poor is as wide as it has been for 40 years. How does the Prime Minister propose to deal with that unfairness?

I do not accept this. What has happened in the past few years is that the number of people taken out of poverty as a result of the policies of this Government has risen very substantially. While child poverty trebled under the previous Conservative Government, it is coming down now. While pensioner poverty was very high, it is coming down now. I accept that in every advanced industrial country inequality is a major issue, but I have to read to the right hon. and learned Gentleman what Professor Danny Dorling, the co-author of the report said:

“we…looked at the groups who were…the poorest of the poor…that group had actually reduced in size in the last ten years and it also became less geographically concentrated. And that almost certainly is due to Government policies.”

There are people earning less than £18,500 who now pay more tax as a result of the Prime Minister’s last Budget. Why does not he close the loophole for the very rich that he has created and use that money to cut tax for low and middle-income families? Why not legislate for the many, not the few?

The one thing that would happen to people earning less than £18,500 under Liberal party policies is that they would be worse off. The reason for that is that each one of all the major measures we have taken—the new deal, tax credits and the child trust fund—was opposed by the Liberal party.

Q2. . The political situation in Darfur is too fragile, and the humanitarian crisis too dire, to contemplate any further delays in deploying the hybrid peacekeeping force. Will the Prime Minister tell the House the approach he will deploy at the United Nations to show whether our Government have the spirit and soul to lead a global campaign to extirpate the spreading moral stain that threatens utterly to engulf this region of Africa? (150181)

My hon. Friend has taken a major interest in Darfur, and he will know that the International Development Secretary is in Darfur at the moment looking at the situation on the ground. As a result of the conflict in Darfur, 200,000 people have died. There are 2 million people who are homeless and displaced as a result of it, and 4 million people who would starve but for food aid.

It is urgent that the international community reach an agreement on the appropriate response. We are sponsoring a United Nations resolution to bring an African Union and UN force into the region as quickly as possible. I believe that, even before that force arrives, there should be a cessation of violence on the ground, and the President has a responsibility for making that happen. We would then be prepared to give emergency economic aid so that the people of this area are given the chance of a better livelihood, but we are prepared to take further sanctions against the Government and people in that regime if they do not cease the violence, stop the militias and make sure that people have a decent living standard in a region that for too long has suffered from poverty, famine and war.

May I ask the Prime Minister if he will personally take time out of this busy day, first, to confirm that it is still the policy of his Government, as it has been of previous Governments, not to deport people to countries that have the death penalty, and in which they are in danger from the death penalty? Is he aware that in nine hours, this country is going to deport a Christian lady, Samar Razavi, who apostasised in Iran and fled that country? She is under a death warrant from Iran, but has been refused asylum. I do not ask him to comment on asylum; will he please look at the case with an urgent view to intervention?

Of course, I will look at the case that the right hon. Lady has brought to me—we shall look at it in detail immediately. I have to say to her that it is our policy not to deport to countries where torture is being practised. We are trying to sign new agreements with individual countries where they will guarantee to repatriate people, but on the condition that there will be no torture. We have signed three agreements already, and there are many more that we wish to sign and we will try to move this matter forward. I hope that the right hon. Lady will give us all the details today so that we can follow it up.

Q3. Yesterday, I held an Adjournment debate on the coroner’s report into the tragic death of four cyclists from Rhyl cycling club in January 2006. The coroner made some strong recommendations. What measures can the Prime Minister take to ensure a complete review of how police call centres handle ice-related accidents and of cross-border co-operation between local authority gritting departments. What measures can he take to ensure that legal advisers, solicitors and insurance companies cannot deliberately prolong and frustrate coroners’ inquiries and that there is a review into why the Crown Prosecution Service did not take action against the driver in this terrible accident? (150182)

I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending condolences to the families of the four cyclists who were killed in this tragic accident, which took place in January 2006. I want to pay tribute to the dignity with which those families have conducted themselves following this terrible event. It was on 27 June that the coroner raised a number of very serious concerns about what had happened, and I can reassure my hon. Friend that I will look into each of these with my ministerial colleagues. I understand that the Minister of State, Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), who has responsibility for policing, has already agreed to meet him and the families, and I was informed this morning that the Minister has also asked to meet the lead police officer for roads policing to discuss how the lessons highlighted by the coroner can best be learned. It is incumbent on us all, when a serious accident has caused such loss of life, to investigate all the circumstances and see what lessons we can learn.

Q4. Over the past year, one third of all small shopkeepers have been violently attacked, often by baseball bats and knives. As the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) asked earlier, how can letting out thousands of prisoners early help those people? Do not those shopkeepers, who serve all our constituents, deserve better after 10 years of this Government? (150183)

I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the length of sentences for people who are convicted of those crimes has been increased. That is one of the reasons why more people are in prison, even after crime has fallen. He should know that the number of people in prison has risen from 60,000 to nearly 80,000, and that the number of prison places will increase to 90,000 in the next few years. We are increasing not only the sentences inflicted on people who commit those crimes but the prison places available. Again, I hope that he will support us, as we have increased the number of police and community support officers so that we have neighbourhood policing that enables the shopkeepers that he mentioned—and all residents—to be properly protected.

The Government’s policy of helping lone parents get into work has assisted thousands of families in constituencies such as mine to get out of poverty. However, for many, child care remains expensive and many employers are still reluctant to allow flexible working. What further steps will the Prime Minister take to help those parents who are trying to give their families a better life by getting off benefits and into work?

I hope that my hon. Friend’s work in her constituency will be repaid by the announcement that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is about to make. It has always been our intention to get more lone parents into work, providing them with the child care and training facilities that are necessary for them to do that.

Since 1997, the number of lone parents in work has been raised by more than 200,000—it has gone from 43 per cent. to 57 per cent. of all lone parents. In the next few years, we can make enormous progress, in partnership with employers. Today, I met a group of employers, especially from the retail sector, including all the major names—ASDA, Sainsbury, Marks and Spencer, B&Q—that wish to employ lone parents and others who are currently on the inactive register. They are prepared to give them training and support into work; we are prepared to help through the new deal for lone parents. It means that we will reduce the age at which benefit is claimed by lone parents for young children who go to school and it will be claimed as a separate benefit from income support. It also means that there are huge opportunities—perhaps 250,000—in addition to existing provision for lone parents and others to get into work.