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Volume 471: debated on Tuesday 29 January 2008

The Secretary of State was asked—

Powers of Attorney

1. How many applications in relation to enduring powers of attorney have been lodged with the Office of the Public Guardian since 1 October 2007. (182466)

From 1 October 2007 to 18 January 2008, the Office of the Public Guardian received 6,318 applications to register enduring powers of attorney and 2,746 applications to register the new lasting powers of attorney, which replaced enduring powers of attorney when the Mental Capacity Act 2005 came into force on 1 October.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Sir Mark Potter, the president of the family division, states that since opening for business on 1 October 2007, the Office of the Public Guardian has been all but overwhelmed by the unexpectedly high level of business, particularly in relation to enduring powers of attorney. Can the Minister give the House an assurance that the OPG has the resources it needs to carry out the tasks that Parliament set it in the 2005 Act, particularly in relation to enduring powers of attorney, which are very important for many people?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. These are people who are at their most vulnerable, so it is vital that we get the service right. It is true that the OPG received far more applications than it had initially expected and that there was a small backlog in some areas, but I have investigated thoroughly and I can assure him, and the rest of the House, that it has been rectified. For example, more than 85 per cent. of calls to the contact centre are being answered within the 60-second target. Things are moving in the right direction.

Electoral Systems

I made a written ministerial statement on 24 January, announcing the publication of the review of voting systems. Copies of the review have been placed in the Library.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. In responding to the review, Ministers have said that it is an important contribution to the debate about the strengths and weaknesses of different voting systems, and the options for electoral reform. As the review is essentially desk research, it raises the question of where that debate will take place. Is there not now a case for asking voters—engaging the public in the debate—what kinds of different electoral systems can best contribute to different forms of politics and what they want from their political system in this country?

It was precisely for that reason—to inform the kind of debate that my hon. Friend wants—that we published the review. This is an important issue, and we look forward to hearing the results of that debate.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that whatever changes may be made to the voting system—this paper is clearly an important one—it also matters how the system of voting works? Does he also agree that the changes that his Government have initiated in the past have not been an outstanding success, and that one of the things that dignified our democracy in the past was the absolute integrity and assurance of our voting system? Will he please put it back to what it was?

I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman on the first part of his question, because of course such matters are fundamentally important. However, I do not agree with the second part. We have always taken the integrity of the voting system seriously. The legislation that we have passed has had that absolutely at its heart, but we have a problem—as I hope the hon. Gentleman will recognise—with the disengagement of significant parts of the electorate from the political system. All of us owe it to our electorate to do whatever we can to increase participation. That is what has driven our reforms, and it will continue to drive our approach, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the integrity of the system remains fundamental.

But did we not set up the Electoral Commission to consider these ideas? Since its creation, we have seen voting turnout decline, confidence in politicians fall, and the Council of Europe has criticised our postal voting. We give that outfit £27 million a year. Why?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his contribution, although I am not sure that it is fair to suggest, as he seems to do, that all those phenomena are the fault of the Electoral Commission. We are reforming the commission. We want it to improve its performance and we are confident that it will do so.

Has the Minister noted that Signor Prodi has recently pointed out that proportional representation has made it almost impossible to govern Italy?

As always, the hon. Gentleman makes an invaluable contribution to the debate.

Will my hon. Friend take evidence from Scottish councillors who are now enjoying—if that is the correct word—the single transferable vote electoral system? It means that we have more than one councillor a ward, and as a consequence, instead of one councillor being directly accountable to his or her constituents and visiting the community council, two or three have to turn up at gala day committees and such like. That has a very detrimental effect on their health.

That is another valuable contribution to the debate and I am delighted that the review of voting systems has already produced such an interesting collection of views.

Is it not the case that this so-called review of electoral systems is actually little more than a cover for the Government’s abject failure to address existing electoral issues, such as the need to counter rampant electoral malpractice, poor voter registration levels, hopeless electronic voting projects and the dire need for sensible party funding proposals?

Up until this moment, we have heard an interesting collection of views on the review of voting systems. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not feel able to address the issue at point. The answer to his question is, in short, no.

I do not know what latitude the Minister has to look into the way in which European Union elections are operated. We have a problem with parliamentary elections for Westminster, but the turnout in European elections is much lower. Can he look into that so that we could perhaps return to the old system and, instead of the discredited proportional representation list system, we could have proper European constituencies, with one MEP representing one set of people?

Of course we will look into that. The whole point of the review of voting systems is to invite contributions to the debate about something that is fundamentally important to the health of our democracy.

Parliamentary Candidates (Expenditure)

3. What steps he plans to take to limit spending by parliamentary candidates between elections. (182468)

The issue of expenditure limits has, as my hon. Friend knows, recently been considered by the Constitutional Affairs Committee, by Sir Hayden Phillips’s review and during inter-party talks. The Government were committed, under the Queen’s Speech, to bring forward proposals on party finance and expenditure, and work on that is in hand.

My right hon. Friend will know that the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 removed the triggering of election expenses from electoral law. That has led to a situation in which tens of thousands of pounds are already being spent by some candidates in marginal seats as though an election had already been called. That is being done on the basis, presumably, that they hope that the candidate with the most money, rather than the best policies, will win the next election. Although the issue of triggering was not covered by the Hayden Phillips inquiry, will my right hon. Friend consider reinstating the 1983 legislation on the triggering of election expenses?

It is a moot point whether the legislation or its subsequent interpretation has made it more difficult to enforce limits locally, but it is clear that a combination perhaps of the detailed drafting of the Act and its subsequent enforcement has had a consequence that no one on either side of each House ever intended—indeed, the opposite was the case, as the then Conservative spokesman in the Lords, the late Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish put on record in Committee in the other place at the time. All of us at the time believed on very good evidence that that part of what became the 2000 Act was faithfully implementing Lord Neill’s conclusions—shared by all the parties, as he said, who gave evidence to his Committee—not just to maintain the existing controls, but in his words, to buttress them.

Does not the Lord Chancellor except that, after the events of the past few weeks, we need not only rules that work, but rules that everyone stick to? On that basis, will he now bring forward as a matter of urgency the proposals set out by Sir Hayden Phillips—not just the bits that suit any one party, but the whole package—fundamentally to reform the system of party funding before irreparable harm is done to our democratic systems?

As the hon. Gentleman in particular knows, the all-party talks were operating on a good consensual basis until earlier in the summer last year, and I am very reluctant to proceed without a consensus, because the system of party funding should not advantage or disadvantage in a partisan way one party or another. He will also know that the recommendations in the report of Sir Hayden Phillips were “welcomed”—that was the phrase used—by the then Opposition spokesperson, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), and it is a matter of concern to us that the Conservative Opposition have moved far away from what was proposed. But it is also clear that there was, and I believe there remains, a complete consensus. Anyone who reads the record going back to the recommendations of Neill, back into the 1980s, and back to the debates on the 1999 draft Bill, which became the 2000 Act, will see that everyone in every part of both Houses believed—indeed, the Conservative Opposition in the other place proposed an amendment to clarify the law to make this clear, although at the time Ministers thought that was not needed—that the 1983 controls would continue to operate and be completed by the national controls that Neill proposed.

I thank my right hon. Friend for what I took to be a clear statement of an intention to close the loophole, whether by legislation or by guidelines. If legislation is used, what is the earliest date by which he would hope to close that loophole, given the clear statement in an article in The Times earlier this month that the deputy chairman of the Conservative party is already pouring money into constituencies?

I do not know which deputy chairman my hon. Friend is talking about, but if it is the one that I have in mind, that person is on record, as he was in the other place in a speech that he made in November 2006, saying that there should be no controls whatever on expenditure by parties.

As for any proposals, as the Queen’s Speech said, we are committed to introducing proposals in respect of party finance and expenditure. The Government have yet to make the final decisions, but they will be made shortly.

Does the Lord Chancellor recall that the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs produced its unanimous report on the basis that both spending between elections and trade union funding for the Labour party needed to be addressed? It was therefore a balanced package. If he were to proceed on those lines, he could hardly be accused of being partisan for doing so.

I do indeed recall that, and the proposals in Hayden Phillips’s report cause difficulties, albeit not symmetrically, certainly for both the main parties and to some extent for the Liberal Democrat party as well, but those proposals were, and are, a package—not some kind of à la carte menu—and they need to be proceeded with on that basis. That is my profound concern. Meanwhile, as I say, I have now looked with great care at something that was not directly considered—I am not seeking to make any point—either by Hayden Phillips or, indeed, in the Select Committee report, which I have not only read, but have with me today, for the purposes of greater accuracy. It is absolutely clear, as I have remembered and is now confirmed, that Neill wanted to build on the 1983 controls and absolutely no one on either side of the House thought otherwise, so much so, as I have said, that the late John Mackay—Lord Mackay, who was the Conservative spokesman in the other place and who was well known in this House—moved amendments to address concerns about local controls being dissolved. He was reassured—as it turned out, in error, but in good faith—by Ministers that those controls would not be undermined in any way.

Does the Lord Chancellor accept that it will not be easy to impose spending caps of the type advocated, and that fraud and avoidance will be relatively easy? Given that, will he work hard to bring forward a package of proposals supported throughout the House that recognises the historical link between trade unions and the Labour party?

The truth is that controls of any kind can be evaded, which is a criminal offence, or avoided, which may be just within the law but is not within the spirit of the law. It is incumbent on all parties to ensure that we do not go down the same route that some taxpayers—one fully understands why—go down. It is equally important, as the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs pointed out, that account is taken of the different parties’ different circumstances. That used to be the Conservatives’ approach, but I regret to say that they have abandoned it.

It also needs to be put on record yet again that the Conservative party made major changes and tightened controls on trade unions’ political funds throughout the 1980s. Although we did not like those changes, we came to accept them in the mid-1990s. When Neill reported in 1998, he not only said that he had no proposals to change them but quoted the Conservative party’s official evidence to him:

“The question of trade union funding of parties is not a matter of direct concern to the Conservative Party. We recognise the historic ties that bind the trade union movement with the Labour Party…The Conservative Party does not believe that it is illegitimate for the trade union movement to provide support for political parties.”


Data Protection

4. What consideration his Department has given to bringing forward proposals to strengthen data protection. (182469)

The Ministry of Justice is considering how to take forward proposals to enable the Information Commissioner to inspect all public sector organisations without prior consent, the introduction of new funding arrangements for his office and new penalties under the Data Protection Act 1998 for the most serious breaches of data protection principles. We will be launching a consultation on those issues soon, and will take whatever action is necessary as a result of the reviews being carried out by Sir Gus O’Donnell, Kieran Poynter, Dr. Mark Walport and Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but given that in the past eight years about five laptops have disappeared every month from a single Department, the Ministry of Defence, does he agree that the time is now right to consider the Liberal Democrat proposals to make reckless handling of data a criminal offence—proposals that the Government dismissed out of hand at the time?

As I said, we are looking at how to take measures forward, and considering new legislation will be part of that. We are in active discussion with the Information Commissioner about how best to do so.

The Minister will be aware that many schemes for shared services are going forward throughout Whitehall. Given that, in the case of the Department for Transport, that would mean incorporating very large amounts of data, will he bear in mind that that is not always the best way to organise one’s affairs?

Sorry—my hon. Friend. I am extremely grateful to her for reminding me of that fact. She will recognise that there are huge benefits in data sharing to citizens and everyone who uses public services, but of course we must be cautious about everybody’s right to privacy and the security of data. That is precisely why we asked Dr. Mark Walport and Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, to conduct a review. They will report within the next few months.

Following on from the previous question, does the Minister agree that the greater the centralisation of data and the more personal data collected, the more valuable they are to criminals and terrorists? Is he looking to the increase that one would expect in hacking and the possibility—it has already happened with records in this country—of huge bribes being paid? Once the data are gone, the horse has bolted from the stable.

As I have just said, there are clearly important issues of principle that predate the recent and very regrettable incidents that have taken place. There is no question but that there is a serious problem with the way that data are kept in both the private and the public sector. That is not specific to the public sector, and it is to do with the changing way that records are kept electronically, which has changed dramatically in the past 10 to 15 years. Both the private and the public sector must change the way that they do business in order to keep up with that. That is precisely what we are doing and why we have had the reviews. To suggest, however, that there is no case for keeping any data at all ever is simply incredible.

I am pleased to hear what the Minister said about some of the things that the Government are thinking of doing, now that they have been proved to be so incompetent in the handling of secure data, but I wonder why the Minister is still dithering. There is a Bill in the House of Lords—the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill—into which amendments could be inserted that would deal with the matter by creating an offence of recklessly mishandling data. The Minister could do that right now, instead of holding more reviews and thinking about it. I am delighted that he said that the Information Commissioner is to have greater powers. I hope that means that the Information Commissioner will be able to undertake spot checks of Government Departments—

Order. The hon. Lady should be asking a supplementary question, not making a speech. Perhaps the Minister can reply.

Speaking personally, I am always happy to listen to the hon. Lady for as long as she wants to talk. However, may I point out to her that we are already introducing legislation to deal with the offence of knowingly and recklessly misusing data. I remind her that it was this Government who brought in the Data Protection Act 1998 and who have continued to make sure that it is updated and meeting the needs of the circumstances. I remind her that her party showed so little interest in the matter that it was not mentioned in their 2001 manifesto or in their 2005 manifesto. I am delighted that the Conservatives are now taking an interest in it and I hope she will support the measures that we are introducing to deal with those issues.

Courts Staff (Pay)

5. What progress has been made on the introduction of regional pay rates for courts staff; and if he will make a statement. (182470)

Five regional pay ranges were implemented for staff joining Her Majesty’s Courts Service with effect from 1 August 2007. Existing staff have been given the option of taking up a four-year pay deal, including the five regional pay ranges, or remaining on existing terms and conditions. We expect 95 per cent. of staff to opt for the new arrangement.

My hon. Friend will be aware that there is a great deal of disappointment among court staff at the introduction of a system of pay that is divisive and unfair—an old-fashioned and discredited form of regional pay. Let me give a couple of examples to show why the system is unfair. Staff in Sheffield are paid at a different rate from those in Leeds, and staff in both cities are paid at different rates from the pay in Liverpool and Manchester. Another example is that court staff at Mold Crown court are paid at an enhanced rate of pay simply because that is the headquarters of the regional manager.

The last point that my hon. Friend made is not an accurate reflection of the differences between Mold and Wrexham. Regional pay is a reality which Her Majesty’s Courts Service is reacting to, not creating. Ninety per cent. of staff have opted into the deal that is set out in the new arrangements. The aim is to create a single set of conditions to replace more than 50 existing schemes that Her Majesty’s Courts Service inherited when it came into being, in order to address three issues—recruitment and retention, low pay, and rewarding good performance. One in four staff, a majority in the lowest grades, will see a 20 per cent. increase in their pay over the next four years. That is a good thing, and the staff are voting with their feet and opting in.

Could the Minister tell the House why differential pay rates based on gender are, rightly, unlawful and absolutely wrong, but differential pay rates based on geography seem to be a good idea?

The Courts Service is reacting to regional pay, not creating it. Such pay is based on local labour markets and jobs available in the relevant area; there is no discrimination based on anything other than the local realities. Recruitment, retention and being able to do the job that the Courts Service is there to do are the basis of the arrangements. So far, 90 per cent. of staff have opted into them.

Will my hon. Friend have another look to see whether it is possible to withdraw the lowest regional pay range? I do not know whether she is aware that—in Wales, certainly—the majority of court workers affected are women. The wages of people in Wales are already lower than those in the rest of the UK, and that sort of proposal makes it much more difficult to close the prosperity gap.

I am always happy to look at things when Members suggest that I do so, and I will do so. However, I reiterate that 90 per cent. of staff have already opted into the arrangements. Built into those arrangements is an intention over the next four years to increase the lowest pay rates significantly over other pay rates. We will do that. The arrangements will improve pay for those on the lowest bands more than for those at higher levels.

The Minister will know that the company Serco provides staff for Crown courts and magistrates courts across the London area. Those staff bring prisoners to court and then up from the cells into the dock. Is the Minister aware that courts in London are in some chaos at the moment because Serco appears to be dreadfully understaffed, not having enough people to do the job properly? Is that because the company is not efficient enough, or are the Government simply not paying the proper rate to get a proper job done?

The arrangements are contracted. Serco has standards to meet; if the hon. Gentleman is saying that those standards are not being met, I shall be happy to look into specific instances that have been brought to his attention. However, the arrangements are made on the basis of a contract and as far as I am aware, they are working well.

Freedom of Information Act

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 has now been in force for three years and appears to be working well, although we keep it under continuous review. We are not proceeding with amendments to the fees regulation. However, we are consulting on whether to extend FOI coverage to a range of organisations that are in the private sector, but carry out public functions. An independent review of the 30-year rule is under way and due to report this summer.

I welcome that response, and agree with the direction of travel that the Secretary of State is taking. Does he agree that it is a nonsense that the British Potato Council is covered by the 2000 Act but private water companies, which provide an essential and monopolistic service, are not? Furthermore, the British Railways Board, which simply exists in a cosy corner somewhere, is covered, but Network Rail is not. Will he sort that out?

I fully understand the hon. Gentleman’s point and thank him for his earlier remarks. As the boundary between the public and private sectors for the delivery of what are essentially public services has moved, so we believe that the arrangements should move as well. That is why we are consulting on the matter.

Would the Secretary of State consider amendments to the 2000 Act that would protect the public’s right to the information but guard against repeated, petty and often exorbitant requests that are made frequently and do nothing to add to freedom of information?

There is already a large array of safeguards in the Act and within the practice of the Information Commissioner. If the hon. Gentleman has specific examples of concern to him, I am ready to follow them up, including with the commissioner.

Redditch Prison

7. What discussions he has had over his merging of Her Majesty’s Prisons Blakenhurst, Hewell Grange and Brockhill as HMP Redditch. (182472)

The Prison Service discussed the merger internally, with staff associations and trade unions, and consulted a number of agencies, including Worcestershire county council, over the change of name to HMP Redditch. Following representations, I have agreed to an extended consultation on the name of the site; the deadline for submissions is 1 March.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. As he will be aware, the three prisons that are to be called HMP Redditch reside in the Bromsgrove local authority area and the Bromsgrove parliamentary constituency. Could he be clearer about whether he consulted his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, in his sister Department, on the decision to call the prison HMP Redditch, which has been controversial in the neighbouring seat?

As I said, the consultations took place with people who work in the prison, the local council—Worcestershire county council—and a number of other agencies. Following representations from Redditch borough council, Bromsgrove borough council, the hon. Lady and the Secretary of State for the Home Department, my right hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), I have decided to allow for a further period of consultation on the name of the proposed cluster of prisons. I think that that is fair, and I hope that the hon. Lady will welcome it, examine it in detail and give us her response before 1 March.

Reading today’s written statement from the Secretary of State, it seems that it is not just these three prisons that are being merged. Whatever the merits of the Redditch decision, will the Minister specify three steps that he has taken since 1 January that will expeditiously improve public safety, cut reoffending, reduce prison overcrowding and deal with the public perception that the only thing that we hear from within the Ministry of Justice is the scraping of deckchairs around the decks of the Titanic?

The hon. and learned Gentleman does himself a disservice. He knows that we are putting the greatest resources into new prison places in the history of Government, that we will put in place 16,000 extra prison places between now and 2011-12, and that we are securing a greater reduction in reoffending than ever there was under the Conservative Government. On the question of HMP Redditch, or whatever we finally agree to call it following the consultation, I would say to him that the clustering will save £650,000 in the next financial year and £860,000 in the financial year after that. As regards efficiencies, we are acting on them while he is simply talking about them.

Private Sector Prisons

8. What recent representations he has received on the performance of prisons run by private sector organisations. (182473)

Since 9 May 2007, I have received a number of submissions in relation to the performance of prisons run by private sector organisations. I am also provided with regular updates on the performance of private prisons through the independent monitoring board reports and the National Offender Management Service quarterly reports.

Private prisons have been an utter disaster, with abject assessments on the key requirements of security, maintaining order and reducing reoffending. No wonder 90 per cent. of them languish in the lowest poor performance quartile of the 132 jails in England and Wales: see early-day motion 752. Why is this track record of private contractors allowed to continue, with the love affair with the profit motive producing environments that the chief inspector of prisons, no less, describes as

“unsafe and unstable for both prisoners and staff”?

I know that my hon. Friend has some reservations, dare I say it, with regard to the private prison sector, but I would say to him that direct comparisons between public and private sector establishments on the scorecard are not appropriate and that private prisons are providing a valuable function in the custodial estate. He will know that we are looking at a new assessment framework to see how we can drive up standards in both the public sector and the private sector. I hope that he will share the Government’s aspiration to ensure that we undertake proper assessment and tackle underperformance where it exists.

What is the quality of the provision made in private prisons for education, training, skills and rehabilitation so that more people come out of prison able to enter a proper responsible life outside prison? It is important that those facilities be provided. What is the level and quality of that provision in our private prisons?

I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a great interest in this matter, which is important because the quality of education, training and employment can affect the prospects for limiting reoffending when people leave prison. I recently visited Parc prison, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon), and other private prisons, where significantly good work is going on to match employers with offenders, to look at investment in training, to ensure that people are prepared for life outside prison, and to help to reduce reoffending. There will always be variations in the level of provision and variations between some private prisons and some public prisons. The job of Government is to drive up quality throughout the public and private sectors to achieve the end that the hon. Gentleman shares with us.

Northumbria Probation Service

9. What assessment he has made of the likely effect of budget changes on services provided by Northumbria probation service. (182474)

Northumbria’s probation budget will increase by more than 2 per cent. in 2008-09. The regional offender manager and probation staff are examining the service levels based on that increase.

Is the Minister aware that the probation service has said that it expects a 5.31 per cent. deficit by March 2011? That could impact on the service offered to offenders, and lead to the loss of 24 posts. It could mean that 24 trainee probation officers are not put in post, which would be a waste of £800,000 of public money. There are also threats to employees’ terms and conditions. Is that what the Minister meant when he met me last year to say that things were going to get better?

I say to my hon. Friend—I hope that he will accept this—that this year Northumbria’s budget will increase from more than £25.484 million to more than £25.995 million, which is an increase of more than 2 per cent. Northumbria has been able to recruit 24 trainee probation officers. The national staffing levels in the probation service have risen by more than 49 per cent. from more than 13,000 to more than 20,000 in the past 10 years of Labour Government. The number of staff in post in Northumbria stands at 644, and the regional offender manager and the probation service will try to live within the 2 per cent. increase for next year. I met my hon. Friend in Northumbria during the summer, and I am happy to meet him again to discuss the issues should he so wish.

Peers (Disqualification)

10. If he will bring forward proposals to disqualify from membership of the House of Lords those peers who are not UK residents for tax purposes. (182475)

The Government are developing proposals on disqualification criteria as part of their comprehensive package on Lords reform. A cross-party group is currently considering that and other matters, and its views will be reflected in a White Paper on Lords reform to be published in due course.

I hear what my friend says, but is it not an absolute disgrace and a scandal that people such as Lord Laidlaw, a Conservative peer and donor who is a tax exile in Monaco, are serving in this Parliament? For all I know, there may well be others. Is this not a matter of urgency? I appreciate what my friend said about the forthcoming White Paper on Lords reform, but the issue has to be tackled. People outside this place would be incredulous that people who do not pay our taxes are making our laws.

I may not speak with the same passion as my hon. Friend on this subject, but I can tell him that the Government believe that Members of the House of Lords should pay tax in the United Kingdom. As I told him when he introduced his private Member’s Bill on Friday, we are prepared to endorse the principles behind it. If amendments are tabled in Committee to deal with this matter, we will be more than prepared to consider them.

Female Convicts

12. What recent consideration he has given to changing the types of establishment in which female convicts are detained. (182477)

The Government’s response to the Corston report makes a commitment to consider the future of the women’s custodial estate. A project has been set up to examine Baroness Corston’s recommendation that the women’s estate should be replaced with smaller, geographically dispersed custodial units. I hope that that project will report to Ministers in April.

Can the Minister give some indication of the time scale? The Corston review was published about nine months ago, and can be contrasted with the Carter review, which recommended the expansion of male prisons. It seems as if all the available money is being targeted at the men, while women are being left in conditions that are totally unsuitable, given that 70 per cent. of female prisoners have mental health conditions.

I do not accept that—and the figures that I have suggest that 80 per cent. of female prisoners, rather than 70 per cent., have diagnosable mental ill health. The hon. Lady is not right to suggest that the approaches are separate. There is no doubt that the work that we are doing through the project to which I referred, which will establish more detail about how the reconfiguration of the women’s estate would work, as well as how smaller units would work and the extent to which they would be appropriate, will inform our estate strategy. Lord Carter referred in his report to the need to ensure that investment under that programme is made in such a way that it can assist in ensuring that women are not disadvantaged in the custodial system. The hon. Lady has made it clear that the needs of women are often different, and I agree with her. That is why I am the ministerial champion whose role is to ensure that we implement in a sensible way the 40 of the 43 recommendations in Baroness Corston’s report that we have accepted. These approaches can go hand in hand.

Rape Victims

14. What steps he is taking to ensure that victims of rape are adequately supported and protected by the criminal justice system. (182479)

We are extending the network of sexual assault referral centres, which are piloting the use of independent sexual advisers to provide advocacy and support for victims, and providing funding for voluntary organisations to support victims of sexual violence. We have also introduced specialist police officers and prosecutors who can provide support to victims and help to make sure that rape is properly prosecuted.

During the past 10 years, the number of reported rapes has more than doubled, but the number of prosecutions has remained obstinately low at under 6 per cent. One of the main reasons for that is the failure of many women to pursue prosecutions. Will the Minister outline a little further what is being done to encourage and support women to do that?

I think that the figure that my hon. Friend mentioned refers to the conviction rate, rather than the prosecution rate. He is correct, however, that attrition—complainants withdrawing their complaints—is one of the main reasons why those conviction rates are still unacceptably low. The cross-government action plan on sexual violence and abuse focuses on increasing the level of support that the criminal justice system gives to victims to enable them to take their complaints forward, to ensure that we get more convictions. The sexual referral centres deal with that process. There were only five of them in 2001, and there should be at least 36 by the end of this financial year. The independent sexual violence advisers, who currently work in 38 areas, can give support and advocacy to ensure that complainants proceed through what is often a difficult process to make sure that there are convictions. For the convictions that do occur, the average length of sentences has increased. In 1984 the average length was just under two years, but by 2005 it had increased to just under seven years. It is worth ensuring that we send a signal, locally and nationally, that sexual assault and violence will not be tolerated in our society.

Topical Questions

I have today issued a written ministerial statement on a new structure for the Ministry of Justice. The key changes will take place in the National Offender Management Service—NOMS—where Her Majesty’s Prison Service and the probation system will be brought together under a streamlined headquarters and regional structure to improve the focus on front-line delivery in prisons and probation, and to improve efficiency.

Last year, almost 61,000 prisoners were held in police cells throughout the country at a cost of almost £460 a night. Lord Carter’s review recommends the extension of Operation Safeguard to help to relieve prison overcrowding. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the £28 million black hole will not be extended, that public money will not continue to be wasted, and that police officers will be able to police rather than becoming part-time prison officers?

On the latter point, that practice is paid for out of overtime, which is one of the reasons for the high cost, so there is no evidence that it is detracting from the availability of officers on the ground. The hon. Gentleman will know that crime has decreased consistently in his constituency. In the Metropolitan police area alone, an additional 3,500 officers have begun work during the past 10 years. As for police cells, we are working hard to ensure that there is sufficient supply to cope with demand so that we do not have to use them. Although I understand the concern, the last people entitled to complain about the situation are members of the Conservative party, which consistently used police cells to a much greater extent than we have ever done, or are likely to do. Under the Conservatives, this practice peaked with 3,500 cells being used in one particular month.

T2. Believing that prison sentencing should reflect the crime committed and not prison capacity, my constituents do not want incompetence from this Government when they plan prison expansion. In his statement to the House on the Carter prison review, the Secretary of State said that it would cost £1.2 billion to provide an additional 10,500 places by 2014. Why, then, when questioned by the Justice Committee, did he say that the cost would be nearly double that? (182492)

I have explained in some detail to the Select Committee, and, indeed, in a further letter to the Chair of the Committee, that the £1.2 billion related to the current comprehensive spending review period—I had thought that that was obvious to anybody—with some additional funding to cover the purchase of the land for the so-called titan prisons. No Government have ever been able to give precise estimates of expenditure for the following spending period. That is why the total cost, including some element for capital receipts—although that is open to a wide margin of error—is estimated to be £2.3 billion.

T4. On the day when my right hon. Friend has made a further announcement about the creation of a regional structure in England, does he agree that it is high time to make progress on regional Select Committees in England, to hold regional Ministers and bodies to account? (182494)

As my hon. Friend will realise, that is a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House. I know that extensive consultation is taking place on it. Let me make it clear that the changes in the structure that I have announced today will apply to the operation of the probation service and the Prison Service in Wales, too, for which I am also responsible. We propose that there should be a single regional manager for both prisons and probation in Wales.

T3. In the words of the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), Sutton magistrates court “serves the community of Sutton…and it does so to a high standard.”—[ Official Report, 5 July 2006; Vol. 448, c. 277WH.]With the clustering of courts now proceeding, and Sutton magistrates court losing staff to Croydon, making it more difficult to access files and pushing up overhead costs, will the Secretary of State reconfirm that there is no planned closure of the court? (182493)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, closure was considered under a proposal made in 2002. A final decision was made by my then hon. Friend Christopher Leslie, who was a Minister in the Department for Constitutional Affairs, and announced at the beginning of 2006. I am not aware of any plans for closure now. If there are any, I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman is made fully aware of them quickly.

The Justice Secretary says that today’s reorganisation of his Department will provide a sharper focus on reducing reoffending. Yet he also plans to bar voluntary groups from working with prisoners on Friday evenings. Is locking prisoners in overcrowded cells from Friday afternoons to Monday mornings what the Government mean by end-to-end offender management?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will decide to welcome the changes, which build on those that have been in train for the past 10 years. They have brought prisons and probation closer together and ensured that we have a much more effective Prison Service. The issue is whether we are ensuring, through the Prison Service and the probation service, that as well as suffering proper punishment, more offenders are trained so that they do not reoffend when they leave prison. The record on that is clear. The changes to the week are the result of financial constraints, but the question for Conservative Members is whether they would increase spending on prisons, as well as the rest of public spending. [Hon. Members: “You’re in government.”] We are in government, but they claim to be an alternative Government, and they need to put up or be quiet on the matter.

The right hon. Gentleman has just confirmed that he is locking up prisoners over weekends to cut spending. How can he justify wasting more than £1 billion of taxpayers’ money on the National Offender Management Service—an organisation that he has, after only three years of its existence, effectively scrapped in all but name?

The hon. Gentleman had good notice of my statement, but he obviously has not read it. The claim that we are scrapping NOMS is the opposite of the truth. I know that he was hoping for that, and I am sorry to disappoint him. The money invested in NOMS has worked well to ensure that reoffending is decreasing. There is a much greater focus on education, leading to a dramatic increase in training prisoners, and drug rehabilitation funding has increased tenfold. For the first time since the war, a Government have presided over not an increase in crime but a major reduction in crime throughout the country.

T8. Can we have a review of the law relating to wills? How is it that all our wills will be disclosed and subject to public scrutiny, but those of the royal family are not? By what logic or fairness are the wills of the royal family covered up? What are the limits to the royal family? Presumably we are all ultimately members of the royal family, but I would like to know where the boundaries lie. There might be an exception for the Head of State, but not for all the others. It is time the system was modernised and democratised, and I expect this Labour Government to do something radical for a change. How about it? (182498)

I certainly am not a member of the royal family—indeed, under the current law I doubt whether I would ever be allowed to be one. And I am going to disappoint my hon. Friend further, by saying that there is a long-standing convention that allows the president of the family division to decide whether the wills of the royal family should be open for inspection. My hon. Friend may wish to take that up with the president of the family division, because unfortunately, we have no plans to change the law in that respect.

T5. On 16 January the Prime Minister said that the Bail Act 1976 was to be reviewed and that “if any changes in the law are necessary, we will make them.”—[Official Report, 16 January 2008; Vol. 470, c. 925.]However, in his speech to the Parole Board earlier this month, the Secretary of State said that there “must be independent judicial decisions based on the law as it is”.Can the Secretary of State confirm that a review is taking place, and say whether there are any plans to change the law? (182495)

There is no inconsistency at all between what I said and what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said. The point that I was making to the Parole Board, which I shall repeat now, is that judicial decision makers, whether they be magistrates or judges, have an extraordinarily difficult job to do in predicting the future behaviour of offenders, on the best evidence available and in the context of a general presumption, from which I hope the Opposition do not resile, that people are innocent until they are found guilty. The Opposition may sometimes forget that, but it is rather fundamental to the operation of our law. What I am doing is looking in a measured way at whether we should take further steps to strengthen the law in that respect, particularly in the light of the Weddell case, and I am happy to take representations from all parts of the House on that.

T6. Can the Secretary of State for Justice explain why a patient in an NHS hospital has only £3 a day spent on their food, yet a criminal locked up in a police cell has £12 a day spent on food? Will the Secretary of State enlighten us as to why the figure is four times more for a criminal in a cell? (182496)

As ever, the hon. Gentleman, who comes from the same great county as I do, asks an important question. The issue is an interesting one, and I shall revert to him and the House on the matter.

Will the Secretary of State give the House an assurance that financial constraints will not mean a cut in education in prisons? Education plays a key role in ensuring that former prisoners do not reoffend.

I shall certainly try to give my hon. Friend that assurance, because education is crucial in both developing the skill levels of individuals in prison and preparing them for life outside prison. She will know that there are many good education schemes in prisons in London, which are designed to link prisoners with employers outside and to try to ensure that they have proper employment opportunities at the end, because employment is key to reducing reoffending.

T7. Will the Secretary of State give an indication of the time scale in which he hopes to bring forward future developments in moving towards a fully elected House of Lords? (182497)

All-party talks are currently taking place, which I am pleased to say are proceeding pretty well, and a White Paper reflecting them will be published, I very much hope, before the summer.

The Lord Chancellor may recall that when he was Leader of the House, I raised with him the issue of suicide websites and was grateful for the sympathetic response that he gave. I raised the issue following the suicide of a teenage constituent, where there was evidence that he had been influenced in taking his own life by so-called suicide websites, which actively encourage people to commit suicide. Following the terrible news about a dozen young people in Wales who had taken their own lives, where there may have been a link through the internet, it is encouraging to know that the Government are looking to take action. Will the Secretary of State tell us precisely what is proposed, and when we might expect such websites to be banned?

I applaud the hon. Gentleman for raising this terrible issue. Our hearts go out to the families of the children who have committed suicide in these circumstances. We are grateful to have his support, and we are actively looking at what we can do to control those websites. There are inherent difficulties, because many of them are based overseas, but we want to take action as quickly as we can. I have just been passed a note to say that the Law Commission, which has also been looking into the issue, has made recommendations that the Government are considering.

In the light of the Prison Governors Association’s report, which excoriates the performance of private firms involved in the management of prisons, will the Minister encourage the involvement of in-house teams to run the three titan super-prisons planned for the years to come?

My hon. Friend will know that we are examining in detail how to progress the concept and principles of titan prisons. He will also know that we are expecting shortly to produce a consultation paper outlining a number of issues, including location, management and the potential competition for the sites, either in the public or in the private sector. I hope to be able to make announcements, with my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor, on these matters shortly.