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Topical Questions

Volume 471: debated on Tuesday 29 January 2008

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.