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Volume 469: debated on Tuesday 11 December 2007

The Secretary of State was asked—

Probation Trusts (Leicestershire)

1. What assessment he has made of the likely impact of the creation of probation trusts on the provision of probation services in Leicestershire. (172657)

Leicestershire and Rutland has been in the top three performing probation areas for a number of years. It applied to be in the first wave of probation trusts starting on 1 April 2008 and was accepted. The emphasis on local delivery and local commissioning will give Leicestershire and Rutland greater flexibility to meet local needs and will enable it to strengthen its performance further.

“Contestability”—as two words—is a prerequisite for prominent pugilists and synchronised swimmers, but as one word, it is an unnecessary framework for the delivery of offender supervision on the evidence of its application within probation so far. Will the Minister confirm that she still opposes outsourcing by dogma and explain how imposing on probation trusts a competitive market, with its attendant secretive contract culture, will not crush the co-operation that is so vital in ensuring the success of this public service in Leicestershire and elsewhere? Is this not just a privatisation that dare not speak its name?

My hon. Friend has been consistent in his opposition throughout the passage of national offender management legislation, and he continues his reputation in the House for asking witty questions—a tough thing to do with Question 1—but I disagree with him. This is not privatisation; it is about local autonomy and flexibility within a best value setting. I can tell my hon. Friend that, as we said during the passage of the legislation, there will be no compulsion to outsource. Ministers have given guarantees about work remaining with probation trusts. I expect Leicestershire and Rutland to go from strength to strength in providing even better quality services than they have thus far.

Adult Reoffending

The Government are committed to reducing adult reoffending and the latest figures show that it is down by 5.8 per cent. since 2000. We are now consulting on a new strategic plan to build on our success in reducing reoffending.

This is a good time of year to be talking about the power of redemption and the Minister’s words on the progress being made are extremely encouraging. I particularly welcome some of the imaginative schemes that emerged from the preceding and the current Department—work done with young offenders via HMP Kirkham near Blackpool, and the good work done in local communities. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that when offenders get out of custody and into the outside world, access to jobs and skills will be crucial in preventing reoffending? Does he also welcome, with me—[Interruption.]

My hon. Friend is exactly right that employment is one of the keys to the prevention of reoffending. He will know that, in two test-bed regions in the west midlands and the eastern region, we are trying to link employers outside in the community with work undertaken by offenders serving sentences in prisons. It is key that we look at the skills that people need when they leave prison and try to work with employers outside to prevent reoffending. The corporate alliance is doing some sterling work to link employers with offenders and ensure rising levels of employment.

Seventy per cent. of the defendants whom I have to sentence are addicted to crack cocaine or heroin. They go to prison, take more drugs, come out and reoffend. Does the Minister accept that drug residential rehab beds are a much better form of treatment than prison and are, in fact, cheaper?

The hon. Gentleman is right in the sense that a very strong drug problem is linked to offending. One of the key pathways that we need to work on is how to reduce reoffending through work on drug abuse. I am happy to look further into his suggestions. We have put many resources into the prison system, and he will know that this year some 24,500 drug users are benefiting from clinical services in prison. I want to see more done, because stopping the drug problem and helping to prevent people from going back to the drug culture when they leave prison is one of the key ways in which we can reduce reoffending.

One of the most successful intervention projects in my own area has taken young people with a track record of multiple car thefts and involved them instead with work on building and racing stock cars. The wheelbase motor project, at a fraction of the cost involved in keeping such young people in prison, has been able to keep them out of prison and out of reoffending. The problem it has faced, however, is access to long-term secure funding. Has the Minister been able to look at how we can take the most successful interventionist projects and give them the security of funding that the voluntary sector often lacks?

I know that the scheme that my hon. Friend mentions is very important. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor has visited the scheme and supports its objectives. I am keen to look at any imaginative scheme that can help to prevent reoffending. As the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), said in answer to Question 1, we are now looking into how we can involve the voluntary sector, the private sector, local government and other agencies in working with the Prison Service and the probation service to add value to our attempts to prevent reoffending. I am particularly interested to look further into the schemes that work. If possible, I will gladly visit the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) to see that scheme in operation next time I am in Nottingham.

According to the Government’s report “Re-offending of adults”, of those who spend up to a year in prison 70 per cent. reoffend, of those who spend up to two years in prison 49 per cent. reoffend, and of those who spend more than four years in prison only 35 per cent. reoffend. Does the Minister accept that that means that the longer people spend in prison the less likely they are to reoffend, and if he does, why does he keep letting them out early?

I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should increase the length of prison sentences for some crimes of a lower order. What we need to do is what the Government are trying to do—tackle persistent offenders, and consider how to deal with issues relating to drugs, numeracy, literacy and employment.

One of the reasons why lower-level sentences are not working is that people go through a revolving door, but that does not lead me to conclude that we should increase the length of sentences for those serving under 12 months. I take the view that we should consider what we can do to prevent the causes of crime by tackling drug problems, placing people in employment and trying to introduce some order to what are often chaotic lives.

Does the Minister accept that the factors that contribute to reoffending among women are rather different from those that contribute to reoffending among men? One of the most significant factors for women is contact with their children. Does the Minister share my disappointment that the Department’s spending plans for new prisons do not include substantial investment in small units of the kind envisaged in the Corston report, enabling women to stay closer to their children and maintain contact with their families, thus making them less likely to reoffend?

I know that my hon. Friend takes a keen interest in this issue. I am pleased to tell her that we have accepted in principle my noble Friend Lady Corston’s recommendation on small units, and that I have asked the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), together with my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), to take work forward over the next six months dealing with how we can make Lady Corston’s wish for small custodial units a reality. We also wish to consider—this is important—what we can do to remove women from custody altogether through community-based sentences for those who commit the low-level crimes referred to by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies).

Donations (Political Parties)

3. What guidance his Department has published on compliance with the law governing donations to political parties. (172660)

4. If he will issue guidance to hon. Members and other members of political parties on the law on donations to political parties. (172661)

The law relating to donations to political parties is principally set out in part IV and schedules 6 and 7 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Under that Act, it is for the Electoral Commission to issue guidance on the operation of the law. That guidance is available on the commission’s website, I have a copy here which I should be happy to pass to the right hon. Gentleman.

Would it help if, rather than contemplating more legislation, the Labour party started to observe the law that it passed itself? Can the Secretary of State explain how it is that some trade unions pay the Labour party individual affiliation fees for more than 100 per cent. of their members, and will he advise the trade unions to stop that particular abuse before the police do so?

The right hon. Gentleman answered the end of his own question towards the end of his comments. Let me make it clear that there is absolutely no evidence that the trade unions have failed to observe the law, and the requirements made of them under both trade union and electoral law legislation. There was none up to 1998, when the Neill Committee on Standards in Public Life reported. At that stage the Conservatives, in full possession of all the evidence about levels of compliance, said that they had no plans whatsoever to change the law governing trade unions, and the Neill committee said the same. During the Hayden Phillips inquiries, however, we have accepted that changes are necessary, and I accepted that when I spoke in the House last Tuesday.

The test is really for the Conservative party, however. The Conservatives said that they welcomed the publication of Hayden Phillips’s report and accepted his main recommendations: exactly those words were used by the right hon. Members for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and for Horsham (Mr. Maude). The question now is whether they will match their promise with undertakings to meet what Hayden Phillips set out.

I listened carefully to the Secretary of State’s answer to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory). Is the Secretary of State seriously condoning the Soviet-style practices of trade unions, which are affiliating more members to the Labour party than they themselves have as members? Many of those members do not have the opportunity to direct where affiliation fees are paid, and many of them vote Conservative.

What I can do is congratulate the hon. Gentleman on being able to read an article by Matthew Parris in The Times last Saturday that contained the ridiculous reference to Soviet-style operations. I admire his mimicry, if nothing else. I also say to him, yet again, that when we asked the Electoral Commission whether it had any evidence of a failure to comply with the spirit and the letter of the law in respect of trade union contributions, it said that it had none. The certification officer has reported that over the past 10 years three complaints have been made, only one of which has been upheld. We accept that the law in this area needs to be brought up to date—that has come out through the inquiries by Hayden Phillips in which we have participated—but the question for the Conservative party is whether, having accepted the full gamut of what he proposed, including spending limits at local and national level, it will back fine words with support for this policy.

We are talking about smoke and mirrors, and funding of political parties. Does my right hon. Friend think that we could be told how Conrad Black got his peerage? Can we be reassured that the reason was nothing so grubby as to involve money? There is no logic as to why even the Conservative party would have asked that man. He does not attend the House of Lords—he soon will not be able to do so—and was not a national of this country, so I want to know why he was preferred over and above the many thousands of Conservative party activists.

I am afraid that the Conservative party moves in a mysterious way, and it is not for me to speculate as to those reasons. In our White Paper on House of Lords reform, we committed ourselves clearly to ensuring that the same disqualification rules apply when peers have been convicted of a criminal offence as apply to Members of this House—and the sooner, the better.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, after the Tories introduced legislation enforcing requirements for the trade unions to hold ballots every so many years in order to take part in political donations, that money was clean at the time when Asil Nadir gave £400,000-odd to the Tory party, which never came back? Does he also agree that that trade union money was clean in 1998 when the drug baron in China gave $1 million to the Tory party for a printing press in Reading—money that was never given back? In other words, throughout this period the trade union money has been clean and the bosses’ money to the Tory party has been dirty all the time.

My hon. Friend, as ever, is entirely accurate. The simple truth is that whatever smokescreen the Conservative party now wishes to erect around the issue of trade union money, it was the Conservative party, as he, I and others in this House recall, that sought time after time during the 1980s to change those laws to make it more difficult for trade unions to make contributions to the Labour party. The Conservatives thought that the ballot system would result in trade unions eschewing association with the Labour party, but through democratic voting, it turned out that they were wrong.

Does the Lord Chancellor agree that when these important laws on political donations are broken, ignorance of the law can never be an excuse? Does he further agree that it is even more ridiculous to claim that no intentional wrongdoing has taken place, as some of his party have claimed?

What I say to the hon. Gentleman, because I am a generous fellow, is that on this occasion I agree with the Leader of the Opposition. In his press conference on 3 December, he made an important reference, saying that all parties make mistakes and that all of us have done this over the years. So we know that innocent mistakes and mistakes of compliance can be made.

It is utterly astounding that the Lord Chancellor talks about the Conservative party when what is in question this afternoon is, as the Prime Minister himself has said at the Dispatch Box, that the Labour party has broken the law. I wonder what the Lord Chancellor is afraid of, because it is he who is hiding behind a smokescreen. The Government make the law and then try to find every possible way to get around it or indeed to break it. Does he accept that it is the Government’s very integrity and trustworthiness that are now at stake? It is his party that has broken the law and brought our democratic process itself into disrepute. It is his party that is in power, so the question is not what we are going to do, but what he is going to do to restore the faith of the British public in our democratic system.

I like the hon. Lady and she is held in great affection by the House, but synthetic ranting will not do her much good. It was this Government who established a full-scale inquiry into party funding in 1997 when the Conservatives had refused it for years. We introduced the laws on transparency that have ensured that, when they are transgressed, those failings are exposed. As the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), spelled out when she wound up last Tuesday’s debate, no one on the Labour Benches excuses for a second things that have happened inside the Labour party that we greatly regret. We have made that absolutely clear, but my responsibilities are as a member of the Government, and we are proud of the legislation that we have introduced. I hope that there will be backing for what Hayden Phillips proposes, including for changes to the present lack of transparency in respect of unincorporated associations, which include not only the Midlands Industrial Council, which funded the campaign of the shadow Minister of Justice when his constituency of Arundel is miles away from the midlands, but Marginal Magic, which funded the Conservative campaign in Ludlow at the last election.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that what is required is speedy legislation in the new year in order to stop the sort of abuse by which Lord Ashcroft is trying to buy up marginal constituencies? Is not that the sort of practice that should have stopped in the 19th century and can my right hon. Friend promise us that we will not have to wait too long for such a change in the law?

There is certainly an important case for changing the law—if it is possible, although it may not prove so—as Sir Hayden Phillips recommended. I hope that we can gain all-party agreement on that, but it may not be possible. Meanwhile, there are some important questions for the Conservative party to answer in respect of the tax status of some of its major donors. All of us remember last Tuesday when, time and again, the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) gave a carefully crafted but indirect answer to clear questions that were posed to him.

Carter Review

I set out the Government’s plans to implement the Carter review in my statement to this House on 5 December. I announced an additional 10,500 prison places to come on stream by 2014, including up to three very large “titan” prisons, as recommended by Lord Carter, and funding towards that programme of £1.2 billion capital and resource. I will also establish a judicially led working group to consider the advantages, disadvantages and feasibility of a permanent sentencing commission.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Given the Home Secretary’s short-sighted and damaging decision this week not to implement in full the findings of the police pay review, what assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the Prison Service’s ability to manage prisoners in police cells, if police officers work to rule?

I am afraid that I do not accept my hon. Friend’s description of the decisions that the Government as a whole made on public sector pay, including pay for police officers. We have great admiration for the police. We have worked very hard—I did when I was Home Secretary, and all my successors have done so—to ensure that the police are properly rewarded, and they are. That is shown in high levels of retention and very high levels of interest in recruitment to the police service. On the so-called Operation Safeguard, which concerns the use of police cells, I have had no information whatever to say that it is likely to be affected by any suggestions of the kind that my hon. Friend mentions.

While additional prison places are clearly long overdue—I am delighted that the Government have announced that a substantial number will be constructed in the coming years—does the Lord Chancellor not accept that what the Prison Service requires is more vocational training facilities and more genuine educational facilities, so that when people come out of prison, they have been rehabilitated and are given the opportunity to apply for jobs in the real world outside, and do not resort to criminality?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman welcomes my announcement on Carter. It builds on the 20,000 places that have been provided in the past 10 years—that is twice the rate under our predecessors. The figures include 1,400 places this calendar year and 2,300 next year. I accept what he says about the importance of expanding education and training in our Prison Service. They have improved dramatically in the past decade. More than 23,500 offenders were engaged in learning in the Prison Service this June, and spending on offender learning has almost trebled since 2001, but we can still do more, and I am glad to have the hon. Gentleman’s support on that.

We must also address the quality of the existing provision of prison places. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend’s Department has drawn his attention to the inquest results on Martin Green, my constituent who died in Blakenhurst prison in the summer of 2002. It is perhaps revealing that the inquest took so long to arrive at a conclusion. Is my right hon. Friend prepared to meet relatives of Mr. Green to discuss the appalling lack of care that the inquest revealed? I have seen the post-mortem results, and the case has the nearest resemblance of any that I have seen to that of someone from a concentration camp—a victim of the Nazis.

I do not want to comment on that individual case, except to say to my hon. Friend that of course I will make arrangements to see the bereaved relatives. Our hearts go out to the family and friends of any prisoner who dies in such circumstances, and indeed to the staff concerned. The Prison Service has worked extremely hard better to identify prisoners who are at risk of self-harm, although it cannot be a perfect science, and to reduce considerably the number of deaths in custody.

May I bring the Secretary of State back to the issue of the titan prisons that he announced? Will he tell the House on what Lord Carter bases his conclusion that such gigantic prisons will be more effective than smaller, local prisons? That seems to go against the evidence that the inspectorate has gained over many years. On the face of it, Lord Carter appears to suggest very large, low-staffed, panopticon-style prisons of the sort that have brought the Californian prison system to its knees.

There is absolutely no comparison between anything that happens, or will happen, in the Prison Service in England and Wales and the appalling situation faced by the Californian prison system, where hundreds of prisoners are currently packed into gymnasiums. The Californian state now spends more on the prison service than on education. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman in that respect. Lord Carter bases his proposals on cost-effectiveness, and on his view on the effectiveness of such large prisons. As to whether the prisons will be local, yes, they can be. For example, there is an urgent need for more prison accommodation in London and the south-east, particularly to the east of the great conurbation. I see no reason why a local prison cannot be provided within a very large establishment, as with three smaller ones. Finally, it is perfectly possible within the perimeters of a large establishment to operate different regimes, so that one has the benefits of scale as well as the benefits of smaller prisons and better regimes.

Despite the fact that the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), offered supportive words to my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) about drug addiction in prisons, why did drug treatment and rehabilitation barely get a mention in Lord Carter’s review or the Secretary of State’s response last week? How will the Secretary of State ensure that prisons have a purpose other than warehousing addiction to drugs and a propensity to reoffend?

The purpose of prisons has improved dramatically, as has the reality in the past decade. We do not have warehousing of prisoners. That is an easy thing for the hon. Gentleman to say, but he should go back to the situation that existed 10, 20 or 30 years ago. He should look at the riots that took place in prisons and the continual inquiries that had to take place. He should take note, too, of the fact that there has been a 997 per cent. increase in drug treatment in prisons since 1996-97, with record numbers engaged in such treatment. If he supports that, fine, but he must recognise the great work that has taken place over the past 10 years.

If we cut reoffending we would not need to build so many prisons. May I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) about prison education? Will my right hon. Friend assure me that per capita spending on education for young people in the secure estate will be, and will remain, at least at the level of per capita spending on secondary school pupils?

My hon. Friend asked me a very specific question, so I shall write to him. However, a great effort has been put into education in secure establishments for young people as well as in establishments for adults. Ultimately, the responsibility for cutting offending rests with criminals, but we can provide facilities and support, as we have done for young offenders and their families. However, offenders must make a decision—it is their responsibility, as it was their decision to get involved in crime—to get out of crime. We will help them, but they have to make that decision.

Data Protection

The Ministry of Justice has procedures and guidance governing security, information security and data protection, designed to identify and control the risk of the unauthorised release of personal data. They include ensuring that our sites are physically secure and protected from unauthorised access; ensuring that our employees are reliable through checks on their background; providing guidance to staff on general security, with separate guidance on IT security and data protection issues; and procedures for assessing IT systems. We also have systems for monitoring and checking compliance, and those policies and procedures extend to our contracted IT suppliers.

Of course, there can never be a cast-iron guarantee that human errors will not occur or that there will never be any unauthorised releases of information, so we must remain vigilant. Even before the deeply regrettable incident at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the Prime Minister commissioned the Walport-Thomas review under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice into the way in which personal data are used and protected in the public and private sector. In addition, we previously announced that we would amend the Data Protection Act 1998 to increase the penalty for knowingly and recklessly misusing personal data, so that those found guilty of that offence could be imprisoned for up to two years.

The Information Commissioner has said that he should have powers to carry out spot checks in Government Departments and other bodies to ensure that they comply with data protection legislation. Does the Minister agree with Richard Thomas?

Yes, we do. We are implementing that, and giving Richard Thomas the powers.

Will my hon. Friend give us an assurance on personal data and confirm that prisoners’ medical records are securely contained but can be regularly accessed by GPs?

The data protection rules must apply to everybody but, where necessary and with proper protections, access will be given to the appropriate people.

Will the Minister of State confirm that C-NOMIS, the computer programme for the National Offender Management Service, is designed to track data on individual offenders from court into prison and thence when they are released back into the community? Is it true that Roger Hill, the Director of Probation, has announced that C-NOMIS is to be put on hold and scaled back for use in prisons alone, thus undermining its whole purpose? Is this not a case of £155 million down the drain, and yet another example of Government incompetence?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his ingenuity in managing to ask that question during a question about data protection. The answer to his question is no, it is not true.

European Court of Human Rights

7. How many cases brought by prisoners under human rights legislation went to the European Court of Human Rights in the last five years. (172664)

The Government are not routinely informed by the court of all applications containing complaints against the United Kingdom. Therefore, no statistics are held centrally on the number of applications against the UK made by prisoners in the past five years. However, since 1 January 2003 judgments or admissibility decisions in at least 41 ECHR cases in which the applicant was a prisoner have been communicated to the United Kingdom.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the ruling in the House of Lords at the end of October that the 12-month rule on applications under human rights law did not apply in Scotland. Thus, £70 million in compensation may be paid to prisoners. With the recent case of a prisoner who was denied IVF treatment getting a €5,000 award from the court through the convention, does my hon. Friend think that the convention is tipped the wrong way, and that it is time we started thinking of victims and put an end to this ludicrous state of affairs?[Official Report, 18 December 2007, Vol. 469, c. 1MC.]

My hon. Friend refers to the judgment in Somerville and others v. Scottish Ministers. The Government are disappointed by the Grand Chamber’s judgment and are studying it with great care. As he says, it has an effect on time scales for bringing actions, but clarifies the legal structure of the Scotland Act 1998. Careful consideration is required across Government here in Westminster and by Scottish Ministers.

On my hon. Friend’s general point, allegations of breaches of convention rights are dealt with by the courts, which weigh the evidence and decide the outcome according to law. If, at the end of that legal process, the outcome is such that the Government believe that a change in the law is necessary, the appropriate legislative arrangements must be made.

There are 11,211 foreign national prisoners in prisons in England and Wales, making up 14 per cent. of the prison population. Is it the Human Rights Act that prevents those people from being returned to secure detention in their own countries? My understanding is that their consent is required before they are returned to their country of origin. Most people in this country would like to see them sent back, even if they did not consent.

The hon. Gentleman needs to be brought up to date with some of the facts and figures. The Government have managed to get 100 agreements with other countries in order to have foreign national prisoners returned. The 14 per cent. that the hon. Gentleman mentions is the second lowest percentage in the whole of western Europe. If he really wants to find where problems lie, he needs to look elsewhere.

In these cases, has there been any dialogue about the barbaric practice of handcuffing women to beds when they are in labour and giving birth?

My hon. Friend refers to a disgraceful practice during the last Conservative Administration. I can assure her that this Government will make sure that such practices do not occur under our watch, or ever again.

Can the hon. Lady advise the House of the position under the human rights legislation of a householder or a property owner who defends their property, family or possessions from a burglary and is subsequently accused of assault? Can they be given the full protection of the law?

I know that the hon. Lady takes a considerable interest in this matter, and I believe that she introduced a private Member’s Bill on the subject some time ago. I understand her concerns, and she is quite right that such a person is entitled to full protection under the law, and would get it.

Prison Service (Lancashire)

8. What assessment he has made of trends in levels of recruitment into the Prison Service in Lancashire; and if he will make a statement. (172665)

Since 2000, the average recruitment of prison officers in the north-west, including Lancashire prisons, has been 200 a year. Taking account of turnover and the provision of increased capacity, the Prison Service expects to recruit 340 new officers in the north-west by March 2009, and a new national recruitment campaign will be launched in January 2008.

As my right hon. Friend is aware, retention is a key issue, and the way to achieve that is through morale within the Prison Service. He may or may not be aware—I have mentioned it once before—of morale at Wymott. What can he do to ensure that morale is lifted and that the Prison Officers Association and the governor get on better working terms, so that retention is key to the prison’s future?

As I said in last week’s debate, I shall be happy to receive any representations that my hon. Friend wishes to make so that I and the management team can address specific issues. The resignation rate among officers in Lancashire this year is just 1.3 per cent. against the national figure of 2 per cent. I shall certainly consider the issues that he raises, but there is strong stability in the Prison Service staff in Lancashire at the moment.

Youth Reoffending

Between 2000 and 2005, youth reoffending reduced by 2.5 per cent. The Youth Justice Board has worked with partners to improve practice to ensure that the right performance frameworks and indicators are in place, and to put in place a delivery plan to reduce reoffending still further.

Given what my right hon. Friend says and the real achievements of the youth offending team, the Prison Service and probation officers in Tameside and Stockport, what more can the Government do to ensure that once young people have served their punishment, they receive the support, help and intervention necessary to keep them on the straight and narrow, particularly in relation to housing and access to the employment market?

My hon. Friend raises important points. We need to ensure that we reduce reoffending among under-18s in custody, which stands at approximately 76 per cent. We need to consider what help we can give with accommodation, and pilot projects are operational. We also need to ensure that we invest in skill development and learning, which is why I welcome the Prime Minister’s establishment of the joint unit between the Department for Children, Schools and Families and my Department to work together to manage the Youth Justice Board so that we can consider education and skill development, which are key to the prevention of further reoffending.

Does the Minister agree that one way to stop young people from reoffending is to have fairness in the justice system? My constituent, Mr. Shalish Patel has been charged with a serious offence and is correctly remanded in prison, but in Birmingham, not at the local remand prisons of Bedford or Woodhill, and his family is particularly concerned—

Order. The person concerned has been charged, so the matter is sub judice and it would be best to move on.

I welcome the drop in youth offending rates, but what is being done to spread examples of best practice in different parts of the country to ensure that we have a unified approach so that levels can drop still further?

The Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), and I are looking carefully, through the inter-ministerial group on the prevention of reoffending, at what works, and with the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes), through the joint management of the Youth Justice Board, we are considering good practice. The YOTs do a tremendous job. I have seen examples at first hand throughout the country of where they have made real interventions in reducing crime, and I am sure that that is true in Portsmouth, where my hon. Friend has taken a great interest in preventing youth crime. I shall certainly be considering whatever good examples hon. Members can produce with a view to putting them into practice throughout the country.

One of the difficulties of preparing people in prison for life outside is the constant movement of prisoners, which prevents them from completing education and drug treatment courses. Is the situation any better for young offenders than it is for the rest of prison population?

We need to do better on the whole question of drug use and drug treatment for young people. As the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) said, one of the key drivers of youth crime is involvement with drugs, both before entry to prison or youth offending institutions and sometimes, sadly, afterwards. We need to do intensive work on the issue, and I am keen to see how we can build on that. At the moment we are examining drugs policy in young offender institutions.

Donations (Political Parties)

10. What recent representations he has received on compliance with the law on donations to political parties. (172668)

As far as I am aware, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor has received no representations on compliance with the law on donations in his capacity as Secretary of State for Justice.

The Minister is a wise lady. Why does she not accept that the law must be upheld even when those breaking it claim ignorance and say that there was no intentional wrongdoing? When will she treat union donors on a par with other donors and get on with the cross-party talks?

We have already been over that ground in some detail, both last week and earlier today. We certainly believe that the law must be upheld. I assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor has already set in train arrangements to meet the other political parties so that cross-party talks can begin again. I hope that the Conservative party will take a more positive attitude than it has during the past couple of months.

Topical Questions

My principal responsibilities are to help protect victims and the public, to help secure a reduction in offending and reoffending better to support the delivery of justice, to promote a vigorous democracy and to create a culture of rights and responsibilities.

Can the Secretary of State confirm reports that half those who received indeterminate sentences of imprisonment for public protection in 2005 for sexual assault or paedophile offences received a tariff of two years or less? Will he also confirm that under his proposed reform those dangerous offenders would no longer be eligible for an IPP and would be released, regardless of the risks that they posed?

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), Home Secretary at the time, has confirmed and as I have noted from Hansard reports of debates in Committee, the House and the other place, when the proposals for indeterminate sentences of imprisonment for public protection went before the House, there was never any suggestion that the IPPs would be used for very short sentences. When the amendments to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill are discussed, we will be able to debate the detail of the issue. I am determined that IPPs should remain available for serious, persistent and dangerous offenders.

I should also say that it is very rare for courts to sentence such offenders for tariffs of less than two years. It must be a matter of concern to Members on both sides of the House, as it is to sentencers and the Parole Board, that inadequacy in the drafting of the legislation has meant that in one case a tariff of 28 days was issued. That is unsatisfactory in terms of public protection. In many other cases, there have been very short tariffs as well.

T2. Since June, more than 160 offenders, including those convicted for sexual and violent crimes, have been released early from prisons in Norfolk. Why are the Government letting prison capacity rather than the crime dictate the length of sentences? (172648)

We discussed that issue last Wednesday during the debate on the Carter report. The truth is that all parties have always accepted, albeit implicitly, that prison capacity determines to a degree the overall level of sentences. That is why even the Conservative party, in rather atavistic mood, has eschewed the idea of the Americans, who now sentence people to five times the level of imprisonment in this country.

We are seeking a more rational approach—and I thought that we had the support of the hon. Gentleman’s Front Bench—so that when proposals for changes in sentencing are made in advance, the effect on prison capacity and resources can be properly taken into account. The House and the Government can then make a good judgment about whether to provide the capacity. I should also say that we have already increased the prison population twice as fast as the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported. An extra 20,000 places will be provided in the period to 2014.

T3. Has this splendidly attentive team of Ministers spotted the petition placed on the No. 10 website by my constituent, Richard Ellison, protesting that he and other magistrates must retire from service at the age of 70, irrespective of their capability in continuing to serve their constituents? Do my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench agree that in this day and age, with an EU directive on age discrimination, UK regulations on age discrimination, and the demographic changes that have taken place, it is outdated to rely on an age bar alone? (172649)

The answer to the first part of my hon. Friend’s question is, yes, we have spotted the petition that his constituent has placed on the No. 10 website. He is right that the recent age regulations could be applied to judicial office-holders, including magistrates. We have no plans at present to raise the retirement age, despite the protestations of some of the more venerable Members behind me, but we obviously keep the matter under review.

T4. Is the Department aware of any prisoners who have been released early in the west country and who have offended again? If the Department or the Prison Service has released any such dangerous prisoners early, what steps are being taken to alert the local police to that possible eventuality? (172650)

The local police are routinely informed of releases of prisoners, including those released under the end of custody licence scheme. I will write to the right hon. Gentleman with details of those who have been released in his own area of the west country. The end of custody licence scheme simply releases prisoners 18 days earlier than they would otherwise have been released, and they remain on licence during that period. Quite a number have been recalled because of the strength and efficacy of our recall arrangements.

T6. A couple of weeks ago, a report by Mind entitled “Another assault” revealed that people with mental health problems suffer shockingly high levels of crime and victimisation but are reluctant to report incidents, not least because when they do, in an overwhelming number of cases, they receive a poor service from the criminal justice system. What is being done to increase confidence in the criminal justice system on the part of those who have mental ill-health problems? (172652)

My hon. Friend is right that there are certain vulnerable groups who find it hard to deal with the criminal justice system when they come into contact with it. He will be aware that we have taken a lot of steps in the past few years to try to support victims of crime and to ensure that we can take them through the criminal justice system in a much more supportive environment than has necessarily been the case in the past. Certainly, victims of crime who have mental ill health would benefit from the work that is being done, but I would be the first to admit that we need to continue to work hard and do more to ensure that victims of crime who are vulnerable for whatever reason, including those who have mental ill health, are properly supported through the system, and we are determined to do that.

In June, Andrew Mournian was jailed for 20 weeks for battery after attacking his partner, Amanda Murphy. He had previous convictions for violence and assault. On 18 August, having been released from jail, Mr. Mournian again attacked Mrs. Murphy, but this time he brutally murdered her. He was convicted last week. It now transpires that Mr. Mournian had been released early from prison under the Government’s end of custody licence scheme, and he killed Mrs. Murphy five days later, when he should have been behind bars. What does the Secretary of State have to say to Mrs. Murphy’s relatives about the Government’s decision to release such offenders early?

This was a shameful murder, and as with any murder, our heart goes out to the relatives and friends of the victim. But I hope, since the hon. Gentleman wishes to make something of this terrible incident, that he will take note of what the learned judge—a senior High Court judge, Mrs. Justice Swift—said in her sentencing remarks. When sentencing Mournian to life imprisonment and ordering that he serve a minimum tariff of 14 years, she said that she did not believe that the defendant’s early release had led to Miss Murphy’s death. She went on to say that the defendant would have carried out the attack whenever he was released.

It is a huge matter of regret that this happened at all, but it is extremely difficult, given what the learned judge who heard the details of the case said—and neither the hon. Gentleman nor I have done so—to say that his early release was a contributory factor to this murder.

The Secretary of State just told the House that one of his principal duties was to ensure public safety. It will be of no consolation at all to the relatives of Mrs. Murphy to be told by anybody that she might have been murdered at some future point. The fact is that her murderer should have been behind bars at that point. He was not because the Government had failed to provide enough prison places and had released that offender on to the streets, along with, it must be said, 11,000 other offenders, including violent offenders released early—before the end of their sentence and without risk assessment. Lord Carter’s report last week said that end of custody licence—

Order. I am always reluctant to stop a Front Bencher, but topical questions are meant to be sharp and brief. If a Front Bencher is going to come in during topical questions, there cannot be long supplementaries. A Front Bencher is the same as everybody else; it is one supplementary, and the hon. Gentleman has gone on to another matter.

On the substantive point, I have already answered the hon. Gentleman. We regret the fact that the early custody licence was necessary. On the whole, it has worked to ensure the safety of the public. Of the 11,000 offenders released on to ECL, we have been notified of only 1 per cent. having committed a further offence. That is a much lower rate of reoffending than is found among prisoners normally released.

The second thing that the hon. Gentleman has to appreciate is that these are offenders, whatever crimes they have committed, who would have been released 18 days—two and a half weeks—later. [Interruption.] It is not an excuse. Whatever points he wants to make, he has to take account of the remarks made by the learned judge in this case. She was convinced that this man would have carried out the attack whenever he was released.

T5. The Justice Secretary will be aware that more than 2,000 of the 11,000 prisoners released early were serving time for violent offences. Should he not be reviewing the criteria so that absolutely no violent offenders at least are released early from prison? (172651)

If I may say so, the right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We keep the criteria under continuous review. At the moment, we judge that there are sufficient places. We shall certainly, as a first step, remove any offenders of violence from the list, and my aim is to abandon ECL altogether, once we see that there is space to abandon it safely.

T7. May I ask my right hon. Friend what the reoffending rates were for Coventry and the west midlands in 1997? (172653)

Off the top of my head—[Laughter.] I keep many figures in my head, but I am afraid to say that the reoffending rates for Coventry and the west midlands are not among them. However, I can tell my hon. Friend that reconviction rates have improved considerably and for prisoners serving over four years—[Interruption.] I do not know what the difference between reconviction and reoffending is according to the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes), unless he has a way by which people can be convicted without going to court. The reconviction rate has shown a 13.4 per cent. improvement for those serving sentences of four years or more.

T8. Does not the Minister realise that there is real concern nationally about the early release scheme? He has confirmed that more than 25,000 offenders will be released every year under this scheme. How many more people are going to be subject to brutal murder or attack unless he acts on this matter? (172654)

I have answered the burden of the hon. Gentleman’s question. We are talking about a release 18 days before those offenders would have been released in any case. My constituents may be different from his, but ours are a good cross-section of the British people. My constituents are pleased about the fact that crime has gone down by 30 per cent. in the past 10 years, which includes violent crime, while burglary has gone down by 50 per cent. That compares with the terrible record of the Administration whom the hon. Gentleman supported, under whom crime did not go down, even by 1 per cent., but doubled over 18 years.

T9. Given that the Solicitor-General has said that rape is an incredibly difficult crime to prosecute, how will my right hon. Friend ensure that all parts of the criminal justice system work together to support victims and secure better rates of conviction? (172655)

We are working hard better to improve convictions for rape. The number of offenders who have been convicted of rape has increased significantly. The proportion of those who are brought to court has gone down, however, because of the even bigger increase in the numbers being prosecuted. We are currently running a consultation on “Convicting Rapists”, which was published in the spring, which is looking at all sorts of detail in the process, including whether to allow adult victims of rape to give video-recorded evidence at trial, whether to define in law a rape complainant’s capacity to give consent to sex where drink or drugs are involved and many other matters, because we are all of the same view: we have to improve the conviction rate for this terrible crime.

T10. According to the Government’s own research, 40 older people in this country are the victims of elder abuse every hour of every day, whether that be theft or violence against the person in their own home. When will the Government act on the recommendations that the Law Commission made more than 10 years ago and put in place the necessary protections for such vulnerable adults in our society? (172656)

The Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), is working closely on that, better to ensure that the reports and recommendations of the Law Commission, where they enjoy a consensus throughout the Chamber and in the other place, can be more swiftly enacted than in the past. Since the Law Commission was established in the 1960s, it has done important work, but there is no question but that we need to do better at implementing its recommendations.