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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 475: debated on Tuesday 29 April 2008


The Secretary of State was asked—

Crime Reduction (Small Businesses)

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on sentencing and other policies to reduce crime against shopkeepers and small businesses. (202043)

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I take very seriously the need for the whole criminal justice system to be as effective as possible in tackling crime against shopkeepers and small businesses. The number of people convicted of theft from shops and sentenced to prison immediately has doubled in all courts in the past decade, while the average sentence length for all theft and handling cases tried at Crown court has increased from 11 months to 13 months. The Government will soon respond to the Sentencing Guidelines Council regarding its draft guidelines on theft and burglary from non-dwellings.

Shoplifting, theft, graffiti and vandalism and violence against small businesses and shopkeepers hasten business closures and are leading to the wider decline of our town centres and greater communities. The threat of jail for shoplifters and yobs must remain, but will the Secretary of State work with the Home Secretary to ensure that police forces, including that in Northamptonshire, use the powers that are already available to them to issue fixed penalty notices to offenders aged under 16?

I entirely share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about levels of shop theft, burglary and robbery. He will be aware that in Northamptonshire there has, fortunately, been a decline in all those crimes in the past five years, particularly recently, as there has across the country. However, the levels are still too high. In answer to his specific question, yes I will work with the Home Secretary to encourage forces to issue fixed penalty notices to under-16s in appropriate circumstances, because the experience in my area, in Lancashire, is that FPNs work effectively.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments that he will not treat this subject lightly and that there will be stricter sentencing. At least, I hope that that is what he is saying. Currently, small businesses and shopkeepers are suffering attacks, violence and robberies, whereas companies such as Tesco can get protection from Securicor and other security companies. Attacks on small businesses are also attacks on the people who work in them and the customers who use those shops, and simply lead to further closures.

Small shops are a vital part of local communities in urban and rural areas, so we take very seriously the need to ensure that the whole criminal justice system—from the police through to the courts—works effectively. As I have spelled out, we have been encouraging the courts to be tougher, as they have been, on theft from and burglaries of shops and other small businesses as well as large businesses. That is why the number of people sentenced to immediate imprisonment has more than doubled in recent years, and why sentence lengths at Crown court for more serious offences are rising.

Sentencing is extremely important to my constituents. Indeed, they like to read about the sentences that have been given by the local magistrates court, which is why I am disappointed to hear from my local newspaper, The Herts Advertiser, that for the past seven months the St. Albans magistrates court has not been providing the lists of offences to be considered in the court. What offices could the Secretary of State use to encourage the practice of making those lists more public? We have been assured that there is no data protection conflict issue, but the current situation means that local reporters cannot cover those cases and draw attention to the offences that are blighting the community.

I am not surprised that the hon. Lady is concerned about that. If I may, I shall arrange to meet her, perhaps after oral questions, to take down the relevant details and follow the matter up.

Has the Justice Secretary seen early-day motion 1358, tabled in my name and that of other hon. Members, about crime against small businesses? If so, he will know that it praises the campaign of the Federation of Small Businesses, which is extremely concerned that the under-reporting of crime might be leading local police forces to take it less seriously than they should. Given that less than 40 per cent. of crimes against small businesses are reported, what measures will the Secretary of State take to encourage businesses into full reporting? Every crime should be reported.

I have seen the early-day motion to which my hon. Friend draws the House’s attention. It is vital that small businesses report crimes against them; in fairness to the police, they are likely to be aware of crimes only if they are reported. I think that levels of reporting are pretty consistent. The better news is that, across the country, crime against businesses, particularly shops, is going down. However, we need to do more. Along with reporting specific crimes, I encourage small business federations, at a local level, along with larger retailers, to work through community and crime reduction partnerships to ensure that there is more effective policing and that other work is undertaken to reduce crime in their areas.

The Havering chamber of commerce and industry has long been concerned about the level of crimes against Upminster’s many small businesses and it would like to see these statistics recorded separately. Will the Minister agree to record crime against business separately so that its real level can be acknowledged and greater steps can be taken to combat it?

I am very keen on ensuring that the data are not only accurate, but much more specific. I am not passing the buck, but this is the direct responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and I will certainly raise the matter with her. Some specific business crimes are separately recorded—for example, robbery of business properties, shoplifting and burglary in other buildings, which in practice refers to businesses. I will certainly follow up the hon. Lady’s point.

Youth Referral Orders

The referral order at 44 per cent. has the lowest reconviction rate of any court sentence for under-18s. It is the primary community sentence for young offenders appearing in court for the first time who plead guilty and comprises about a quarter of all juvenile community sentences.

I am very grateful for my right hon. Friend’s response and for the good record in respect of youth referral orders. Is he satisfied that there are sufficient resources on the ground to ensure that these quite complex orders can be properly managed and that young people can get the services they need to become constructive and functioning adults?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her comments. She will know that these orders have been successful and that some 28,722 were made in 2006-07. The question of resources is indeed important. Following some challenges in my hon. Friend’s own area of Northamptonshire, the local authority has reversed funding cuts to youth offending teams recently—indeed, it provided £165,000 of additional funds to support the referral order process. As I say, the issue of resourcing is very important and there is a priority for youth crime prevention. In our forthcoming youth crime action plan, we will be looking to see what further steps we can take to support youth offending teams and their disposal at local level.

My constituents on the Swinemoor estate in Beverley want more effective action taken against the tiny minority of hooligans on that estate. I congratulate Inspector Alan Farrow and his team on their efforts to protect the public, but what assessment has the Secretary of State made of extending penalty notices for disorder to the under-16s?

We are looking into that issue. The question refers specifically to the youth referral order. I commend the work of the police in such areas as Beverley. I was in Humberside only a few weeks ago, looking into how the probation service was working with the Prison Service and other community agencies to tackle antisocial behaviour and other related issues. I think that it is important to look into what further support we can give, and we are currently looking into extending prevention notices. The youth referral order has been a success with a 44 per cent. reconviction rate, which is a good figure for the Government, showing the performance in respect of this particular order.

It gives me no pleasure to say that right across the country, thousands of communities—especially the parishes of Downton and Redlynch in my constituency—are dreading the onset of summer. During warm, light summer nights, a minority of young people—many drunk and on drugs—will cause low-level crime, intimidation and harassment and use bad language across these communities. When people talk to the police, the league tables on the wall are pointed out and they are told that crime is dropping. When will someone get the point that people are no longer reporting low-level crime and are not bothering to tell the police because the police do not have the resources to respond? It is no good anyone in this House trying to convince my constituents that crime, particularly among young people, is falling, with or without the youth referral orders. The problem really must be tackled if there is to be continuity of confidence in our local police and justice system.

I think the hon. Gentleman does a disservice to the work of the police in his own community. He will know that the police actually take these issues very seriously. Over the past 10 years, we have had a 30 per cent. reduction in crime and we have more police on the streets than ever before. I am happy to receive representations from the hon. Gentleman on these important issues. Such low-level crime is significant because it damages the quality of life of people not only in villages but throughout the community. The referral order is successful in bringing individuals to court. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the range of disposals we have introduced in the past 10 years, including antisocial behaviour orders and the power for police to take young people to their parents, he will see that a number of significant measures are in place. As I said, I am happy to receive representations from the hon. Gentleman, but if he looks at the facts he will see that the Government have done a tremendous amount of work in reducing the levels of such crime.

Civil Legal Aid

3. When he last met representatives of the legal profession to discuss the future of civil legal aid. (202045)

My noble Friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath has regular meetings with representative bodies and individual providers, including the Law Society, with whom my Department and the Legal Services Commission have recently reached an agreement over legal aid contracts. That agreement will give stability and certainty for civil legal aid providers, and heralds a strong commitment to a new collaborative working approach.

I am grateful for that answer. The Minister will know that the Ministry, along with the Legal Services Commission, has just settled a damaging dispute with the legal profession about civil legal aid contracts. Can she confirm that as a result of settling that dispute there will be sufficient numbers of lawyers taking up civil law contracts for legal aid and there will be sufficient money to pay them for the contracts, and that we will not have more court disputes between the sides over the adequacy of the scheme for the future?

I am happy to be able to say to my hon. Friend that I think I can with confidence state that those things will happen. As he will know, increasing provision is going into legal aid. The reaching of an agreement on these contracts has, obviously, been difficult at times, but it is very important that we have done so. That shows that we can work together and achieve an agreement that makes sure that the most vulnerable will receive the access to justice that they deserve.

What steps can the Minister take to ensure that legal aid and other legal costs that will come about as a result of public inquiries that are currently under way in Northern Ireland do not spiral out of control as they have done in the Saville inquiry?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and we are very conscious of the effect that some past inquiries have had on the whole system. We monitor this very carefully, and we will ensure that we get proper value for money in every aspect of our legal aid budget.

I welcome what my hon. Friend the Minister said about the agreement that has been reached. However, will she agree to monitor the provision of legal advice, particularly on immigration and family law issues, under the new financial arrangements, because there is a fear in my constituency that there will be an increasing shortage of that provision?

My hon. Friend makes an important and serious point. Expertise and sensitivity are required in the two areas he mentions, and it is important that we make sure they are properly covered by legal aid provision. I welcome the support we get, particularly from the not-for-profit sector, in dealing with many such cases, and I will ensure that my noble Friend Lord Hunt monitors provision in those areas.

May I put it to the Minister that her replies so far have been incredibly complacent? Is she aware that law firms up and down the country are giving up legal aid work on housing, immigration, mental health and family law cases? All of that was predicted in a Select Committee report of last year, which the Government completely ignored. Does she agree that the end result will be legal aid deserts and some of the most vulnerable people in society being denied justice?

No, I do not agree at all with the hon. Gentleman, and I am disappointed that he felt he had to ask that question in the way he did. He will know that the increase in spend from the Legal Services Commission has gone up by 73 per cent. in the six years to 2006-07. We have looked into legal aid deserts in the past, and the new way of commissioning and the new contracts are in place particularly to make sure that legal aid deserts do not occur.

The third thing to mention is that we want to ensure that legal aid gets to those most in need—those who are dealing with mental health or housing issues, or with the immigration or family law matters that my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (David Lepper) mentioned. This Government’s approach to this series of reforms has aimed to protect those most in need.

Will a young person who is seeking an injunction against family members under the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 be able to access aid from September when the Act comes into force?

Again, my hon. Friend raises a very important issue. I want to be able to tell her and the House that yes, young people will be able to access legal aid in those circumstances. It is vital that we ensure that everyone is aware of the provisions of the 2007 Act, that people feel able to access aid, whether through the not-for-profit sector or through women’s or youth organisations, and that, come September, young people will be able to get the protection that they deserve and need.

Court Buildings (Wales)

The former Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice Lord Falconer made a statement on 25 June 2007 about a £400 million investment in new courts in England and Wales. My hon. Friend might be interested to learn that Her Majesty’s Courts Service asset management committee considered a strategic outline case for a new courthouse in Newport on 23 April 2008. Further work is now required before a final funding decision can be reached.

Newport has needed a new courthouse for 25 years, and an inspection in 2002 deemed the current facilities unfit for purpose. Please could the Minister talk to the Treasury about speeding up the financial approval for this project, as it is the No. 1 priority in terms of new court buildings in Wales?

I am very happy to discuss with my hon. Friend the details of the stage that we have reached in examining potential investment in that courthouse. I accept that Her Majesty’s Courts Service, regionally and nationally, has decided that the magistrates court in Newport is the most pressing priority in that area. I am happy to discuss the matter further with her, should she wish to do so.

I congratulate the Government on changing their mind on the Llandrindod Wells magistrates court, which appears to be continuing. I believe there are plans for a new court, as an area that is almost the size of Greater London is being served—although rather fewer people live there. The criminal justice system is still not well served because the custody cells have been deemed unfit for purpose, so prisoners have to be taken 30 miles to Brecon or Newtown. While the new magistrates court is being built, can we also be given a new police station, because the area would then be well served by the criminal justice system? Will the Minister visit the area so that she can understand the situation?

I am happy to take up the hon. Gentleman’s offer to visit his part of the world and to look at service provision across the criminal justice system. I congratulate him on his attempt to join up government from the Opposition Benches—that is not an easy thing to do even from the Government Benches. I would be happy to talk to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to see what plans there are to deal with the issues that he raises.


5. What proportion of prisoners were not in work or education programmes in the last period for which figures are available. (202047)

I do not measure the figures in the way in which the hon. Gentleman has requested, but I can tell him that provisional data for 2007-08 indicate that, on average, per prisoner, 7.7 hours of education and 12.5 hours of work activity were undertaken each week.

Obviously that sounds absolutely marvellous, but the Minister will be aware that one of his colleagues said in a written answer that I believe was given yesterday that the average prisoner does 36 minutes a day of vocational training. We all know that prisoners are half to a third less likely to reoffend if they can get a job afterwards. How much more productively could the remaining 23 hours 24 minutes be used?

On average, each prisoner will undertake more than 25 hours of purposeful activity each week. That does not include just work or education; it could include issues related to preparation for release or a range of matters concerned with assessment of their offending behaviour. A considerable amount of work is being carried out at local level. We are looking strongly at the idea of working wings and at working with private sector partners such as Cisco and Bovis to help to support employment.

As the hon. Gentleman recognises, employment, skill levels and training are key to helping people to get back into work on their eventual release from prison. Last year, we undertook some 12 million hours of work in prison industries, producing £30 million of goods, and thousands upon thousands of prisoners underwent vocational training to learn important skills for their release.

Does my hon. Friend agree that finding opportunities to improve education and creativity in unique ways is essential? Will he join me in welcoming the opening on 22 May of the Hay literary festival in Parc prison? A 10-day literary festival will be launched, with two books written by past and present prisoners in Parc, so the Hay literary festival will be in the prison as an outreach. Is that not a unique opportunity to promote reading and writing among prisoners and to give them the chance to enjoy new literature?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing that to my attention. As she knows, I visited Parc prison last year and found it to be an effective centre in addressing literacy, numeracy and vocational training. She will know the importance of community outreach: representing outside events in prison is an important way to maintain links between prisoners and the community. I commend the fact that some prisoners are using their time productively to learn new skills and to contribute to things that they may do when they leave prison. I hope to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency again later this year.

I pay tribute to the Minister and to the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), for their commitment to helping to enhance the education of prisoners who suffer from dyslexia and dyspraxia. Will the Minister work with other Departments to seek to spread to other prisons the pilot scheme that has been going on in Chelmsford prison, from within the prison system, to reduce levels of illiteracy and to enhance the ability of those suffering from dyslexia to learn to read and write so that when they leave prison their enhanced educational capacity means that they are less likely to reoffend?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point in that way. He will know that I visited Chelmsford prison in July last year and met here in the House later in the year some of his constituents who are involved in schemes in the prison to help to raise literacy and numeracy levels. The work that is undertaken in Chelmsford, often by voluntary organisations, is key to helping the prison service to raise the basic level of literacy and numeracy for individuals in prison. The House will know that many prisoners enter prison with low levels of literacy and numeracy, and low levels of self-esteem as a result. One way to help prevent them reoffending is to ensure that we raise their skill levels, especially if they have conditions such as dyslexia. We focus especially on how to raise their skill levels to help them to obtain employment in the community.

Many constituents who write to me in support of longer jail sentences also favour effective forms of prison-based rehabilitation through work and education. However, while the problem with drug supply in prisons persists, the presence and menace of highly addictive narcotics militates against such provision. What role does the Minister think that the zero-tolerance approach to drugs in prison, advocated by the Prison Officers Association, has in offering all prisoners the real chance of rehabilitation and recovery from addiction and of benefiting from the sort of work and education programmes to which the main question refers?

We have to do two things. The first is to try to prevent drugs from entering prison, and we have had great success with mandatory drug tests. Secondly, we must help prisoners to get off drugs while they are with us. Some 70 per cent. of prisoners enter prison with a drug problem, and there are always challenges with individuals trying to get drugs into prison. We have dogs, CCTV and the help and co-operation of the police, but we need to control it more, which is why we have recently commissioned a review to consider what else we can do.

Is the Minister aware that in Dartmoor recently a considerable number of prisoners who were undertaking education and rehabilitation programmes or who were out on work placements were summarily removed with virtually no notice and were moved to another prison hundreds of miles away? That undermined all the work that the prison officers had been doing and decreased the support of the outside companies that had been prepared to take people on work placements.

The hon. Gentleman will know that that issue was raised at the previous Question Time by the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox) and another hon. Member whose name escapes me at the moment. I have written to them both recently, and will send the hon. Gentleman a copy of that letter. It explains the circumstances and what we are trying to do to compensate Dartmoor and to re-sort the arrangements.

Prison Work Programmes

6. What progress has been made on increasing the number of private and third sector organisations involved in work programmes in prisons. (202049)

Since the launch of the Corporate Alliance for Reducing Re-offending, we have established links with many employers and, as was noted in the Ministry of Justice’s prison policy update published in January, we want to expand and further develop these links. I will undertake a ministerial-led forum with the private, public and third sectors in May to discuss how we can further work together.

That is indeed good news. I am glad to hear of the work that my right hon. Friend is doing. Does he agree that it is a concern that the Prison Service might have to impose a core day on all closed prisons? That would mean less time for prisoners to carry out such activities, which are so vital to their rehabilitation. Will my right hon. Friend look into the matter and ensure that there is sufficient time for those excellent activities to take place?

The proposals for the core day to which my hon. Friend refers try to reorganise the operation of the Prison Service to meet the needs of the prison and the needs caused by challenging financial circumstances. We are looking at how to ensure that the same amount of time is invested in prisoners’ rehabilitation and employment and in developing their other skills, but in a different time frame during the course of the week. I do not expect that prisoners will lose out as a result of the changes.

Is the Minister aware that City livery companies—not least my own, the Worshipful Company of Weavers—provide considerable assistance to Her Majesty’s prisons, particularly in the purchase of equipment that enables meaningful training and other work to go on in prison? Will the Minister further encourage the work of the livery companies of this country? They often do work in prisons, which is unheralded but worthwhile, to help those who need help.

I pay tribute to the work of the livery companies and the many private sector companies that consider what help they can give to support the work of prison industries and to help with employment and training opportunities outside prison. I want to make links with livery companies, businesses, small businesses, local government and national Government to ensure that we can try to match skills acquired in prison with placements for employment outside prison. Employment is key to preventing reoffending.

Is the Minister aware of the work of Safe Ground, a voluntary organisation that works with prisoners’ families to help them to plan their future after incarceration? Will he consider how families can be involved in helping rehabilitation and reducing reoffending?

I would be grateful to learn more about that organisation from my hon. Friend. Her point is vital. Having links and maintaining contact with families, as well as hopefully maintaining that contact after people are released from prison, are extremely important. It is a sad fact that many children of prisoners go on to a life of crime. We need to do a tremendous amount of intensive work to maintain family links and to support families’ contact with prisoners.

Is it not the reality that the chief inspector of prisons has said that there is insufficient purposeful activity in prisons and that she assessed no closed male prison as performing well? Could the Minister provide or put in the Library the statistics on the amount of purposeful activity in each of our prisons so that we can see which prisons are performing well and which are not? These questions have a sort of “Groundhog Day” quality about them. Until we try to work out who is doing well and who is not, we will continue to go around this track.

That is a very helpful suggestion, and I will certainly look at whether we can produce those figures for individual prisons. As I mentioned in an earlier answer, prisoners in the system in England and Wales spend 25.3 hours a week on average in purposeful activity, including education, training, work, preparation for release, effective courses and community work on a range of matters. I will look at the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, and if possible, I will take up his very helpful idea.

Criminal Justice System

7. What assessment he has made of the effect of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 on public confidence in the criminal justice system. (202050)

Between March 2003 and December 2007, public confidence that the criminal justice system is effective in bringing offenders to justice rose by 5 percentage points. Other measures of confidence have also increased: respect for the rights of the accused is up by 3 percentage points; witnesses being treated well, up 4 percentage points; victims’ needs are met, up 6 percentage points; and effectiveness in tackling youth crime, up 3 percentage points.

I thank the Minister for that answer. He knows, because I gave this information to the Secretary of State’s office, that my late constituent, Mr. Kevin Davies—a young man with learning disabilities and epilepsy—was imprisoned and tortured by criminals in a chain of events that ended in his death. As a result of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, passed by this Government, his three captors will be released from prison in just three years’ time, after having served just half their sentence. Kevin’s family feel very badly let down by the justice system. What can the Minister say today to help to start restoring their confidence in that system?

I start by expressing my sympathy for the tragic loss suffered by the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. I am sure that I speak for the entire House in extending my condolences. We recognise that the criminal justice system cannot put right all the hurt caused to the victims of such tragic crimes and their loved ones. Of course, we must be sensitive, and we are. That is why we keep sentencing and offences under review, so that we can ensure the best possible outcomes and strive to seek to secure justice for all.

The changes that the hon. Gentleman referred to—I can understand the hurt and anger felt by his constituents—took place in 2003 and did not introduce the system of licensed release. For many years, long before that Act and long before this Government came to power, prisoners were eligible for release on licence from halfway through their sentences. I point out that, under a Conservative Government, prisoners were eligible from a third of the way through their sentence. We have tightened up procedures for supervision on licence. We continue to keep them under review. If offenders—

Order. It is important that perhaps the Minister writes to the hon. Gentleman. We do not have the time.

Is not an even greater threat to public confidence the way that the system is administered? In the report on the appalling death of Richard Whelan, inspectors identified

“a lackadaisical or nonchalant approach within the criminal justice system”

to things such as enforcing bail conditions, communication between parts of the system and bailing to non-existent addresses. What is going to be done about that?

We recognise that the criminal justice system has failed in certain areas. We are setting up a working party to look at that, and I understand that the Solicitor-General will take charge of it. I am sure that we will report to the House in due course on the lessons to be learned.

In evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs, Helen Newlove and Paul Carne—both of whose very close relatives have been killed; they are therefore the relatives of the victims of crime—mentioned in particular their concern about the rights of victims and their relatives in respect of the granting of bail and even their position in courts, as there are no designated places for victims to sit in courts. Can something be done to address those concerns?

We recognise that, in the light of those cases, we need to look at the system again. Both the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor have expressed their determination to do that. The Lord Chancellor is carrying out a report at the moment, and I am sure that he will bring that report to the attention of the House shortly.

The need for public confidence cannot be greater than when sentencing terrorists. Is it not therefore totally unacceptable that convicted terrorists who are serving determinate sentences under the 2003 Act are still eligible for automatic release at the halfway point of their sentences? How many more dangerous terrorists, such as Yassin Nassari, may not now be released up to 18 days early but will still be released automatically when only half their term of sentence has been served?

I point out that a gamut of offences are covered by the term terrorism; I am sure that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that. The most serious terrorists are generally sentenced to indeterminate sentences, so his concerns do not apply.

Party Funding

8. What recent discussions he has had with trade unions on party funding and rules governing donations to political parties. (202051)

In my capacity within the Labour party—I lead on party funding—I have had, and continue to have, periodic meetings with the trade unions and, of course, all others, including the hon. Gentleman’s party, whenever it wishes to meet me.

During the Secretary of State’s friendly chats with the trade unions, did he point out that it would be inconsistent to cap donations to political parties from individuals and businesses while allowing the trade unions to pour money into Labour party coffers through the device of the political levy?

I have been well aware of the complexities of the situation. Not least of the matters that made it much more complex is the way in which the Conservative party has dramatically shifted its position on the issue. Originally—just a year ago—it fully welcomed Hayden Phillips’s proposals as the basis for agreement, but as was said by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who used to speak on the subject for the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives then “walked away” from those talks without any justification whatever. [Interruption.] It is a little bit of education for the Conservative party, which has a very short memory.

My position in respect of trade union funding is that which the Conservative party set out in its evidence to the Neill committee some years ago. It said:

“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.”

What I would like to know is what exactly has changed since then.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the concerns of the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) are perhaps a bit misplaced? The system for trade union money is, of course, very well regulated and very open. By contrast, a recent Rowntree report said in respect of the 20 most marginal Tory and Labour constituencies in the 2005 election that £53,000 was put into Labour coffers by six trade unions, while a quarter of a million pounds was given by the shadowy, shady organisations of Lord Ashcroft and Lord Steinberg, and by the Midlands Industrial Council. Who is fooling whom on this one?

My hon. Friend is correct, and I hope that the Conservative party is taking serious notice of the Rowntree report, which includes the following rather stark conclusion:

“Although the approach taken by the Conservatives in 2005 was fully within the law, it may be argued that it represents a challenge to the principles on which spending limits are based”.

We want what was proposed by Hayden Phillips—an all-party agreement so that we deal with the issue across the piece. It remains a matter of great regret to me that at the eleventh hour the Conservative party walked away from the talks, and from the basis of a draft agreement that had been brokered with it in the months leading up to those talks.

Prisoner Suicides

9. How many suicides occurred in prisons in England and Wales between March 2006 and March 2007; and if he will make a statement. (202052)

There were 73 apparent self-inflicted deaths in prisons in England and Wales in the 12 months between 1 April 2006 and 31 March 2007.

Does the Minister recognise that from Leeds to Lewes and from Cardiff to Chelmsford the number of prison suicides continues to rise? In 2007, there were 92 such deaths—an increase of 37 per cent. When will the Government take action to ensure that our prisons are appropriately staffed and that there are enough suicide-watch cells available, so that we can reduce that increasing figure?

Of course I take careful note of the trends that develop over time in respect of that issue. The hon. Gentleman will know that random fluctuations occur, and that year-on-year figures are not the best way of following underlying trends, whereas three-yearly figures are. However, one suicide in prison is one too many. All the staff in the Prison Service—everybody working on the issue—and I are doing our utmost to improve the capacity that we all have to defend and protect the people concerned, many of whom are extremely vulnerable, from the impulse to do themselves harm.

It should be remembered that good care and support from staff save many, many lives, but such instances are under-reported or unreported. Prison staff are at the front line in trying to make sure that we reduce the number of suicides and self-inflicted deaths in prison. They go a good job generally, but we deal with a difficult and vulnerable population, many of whom wish to do themselves harm. We must redouble our efforts, and that is my intention.

The Secretary of State for Justice famously said recently that he was not losing any sleep over the parlous state of overcrowding in the prison estate. It is in the most overcrowded prisons that the suicides tend to happen. There were 800 suicides between 1997 and 2007. While the Secretary of State was not losing his sleep, individual prisoners were losing their lives. Will the Minister please apply her mind to breaking the back of overcrowding? Although prisoners deserve to be in prison, they should not be placed in such circumstances—about 75 per cent. of them have at least two mental illnesses—that they are driven to take their own lives or self-harm in huge numbers. It is no good this complacent Government displaying a complacent attitude while the criminal justice system is in the state that they have presided over.

I absolutely reject the charge that any complacency whatever is displayed by the Government or by Ministers in the Ministry of Justice in respect of prison suicide and self-harm. We are working extremely hard with the Prison Service staff and those in safer custody units across the prison estate to try to minimise the impact of self-harm, suicide and self-inflicted deaths on individuals, many of whom are extremely vulnerable and go into prison with risk factors. It is a complex area. I do not believe that there is any direct evidence that overcrowding in itself leads to increased numbers of deaths, although clearly some aspects of overcrowding can lead to increased distress in individual circumstances. These are individual matters, but it is absolutely not the case, and I reject the suggestion, that the Government or the ministerial team are complacent about the matter.

Topical Questions

My principal responsibilities are to help to protect victims and the public, to secure a reduction in offending and reoffending, and to promote a rigorous democracy. I am delighted about the contribution that the agencies for which my Department is responsible have made towards a further significant reduction in crime, which was announced last Thursday. We are the first Government since the war to have secured a significant reduction in crime, rather than the continual increases in crime that took place under previous Administrations.

With increasing public concern and frustration about the leniency of many custodial sentences handed down to those convicted of murder, does the Secretary of State believe the time is right to review the minimum tariff for conviction of murder, which currently stands at only 15 years and which, as we all know, is decreased by so-called good behaviour? Is it not time that life meant life?

I am always happy to receive representations about sentences, including those for the most terrible crimes. However, I point out to the hon. Gentleman that where a tariff is set, as there is for life sentences, there is no remission for good behaviour. The prisoner must serve the full period of that tariff—15 years in the case that the hon. Gentleman quotes, and in many cases very much longer—before he or she is eligible for any application for parole.

T2. Freedom of information is central to increasing public confidence in the civil service, whose core values the Secretary of State described as impartiality, integrity, honesty and objectivity. Sadly, in recent FOI correspondence, Ministry of Justice officials confess that the Department for Constitutional Affairs failed during most of its brief life to keep or publish a central register of private hospitality received by senior civil servants. What is the Secretary of State doing to remedy that lamentable lapse? (202034)

As my hon. Friend knows, I took over a new Ministry last June and it has been all very good since then. I should also say to my hon. Friend that I want the maximum of information to be brought out, including about private entertainment by officials. Earlier, I had an endorsement from the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) for the fact that, in general, my Ministers and I always seek to provide the maximum of information, whether in parliamentary answers or responses to freedom of information requests.

Next week marks the first anniversary of the Ministry of Justice. Yesterday, one independent report condemned a culture of complacency in the criminal justice system; another warned that our electoral system is at “breaking point”. Apart from releasing 25,000 prisoners early, what does the Secretary of State think his Ministry has achieved in the past year?

My Ministry has achieved a considerable amount in the past year, including a dramatic reduction in crime, as I mentioned just a few minutes ago—if Conservative Members paid attention, such nugatory questions would not have to be put by their Front Benchers. There has been a one-third reduction in crime, including a one-third reduction in violent crime—[Interruption.] I am asked what contribution we have made, and I have mentioned exactly that contribution, because we are responsible for about half the criminal justice system.

I am delighted to say that at long last the Leader of the Opposition has accepted, under questioning, that that reduction in crime, which he had been denying, has happened. He was asked in a BBC interview whether overall crime figures were falling and finally he said, “Yes—absolutely, absolutely.” On that occasion, if on no others, he was dead right.

Back in 2004, the Government said that they were sympathetic to individual voter registration. Yesterday, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), said that she was still considering the issue. The Government have waited four years, but we still have local elections this week under an electoral system that, as the Rowntree report said yesterday, is “vulnerable to fraud”. Will there be individual voter registration in time for the next general election—yes or no?

The hon. Gentleman knows that establishing individual registration and ensuring that it works effectively will go beyond 2010. That is the truth of it, and it would be the truth for any political party. In any case, as he knows, if the next election is fought in 2010, it will be based on registers that will be completed this October through to December.

As far as postal votes are concerned, I remind the hon. Gentleman that the decision to extend postal voting was made on an all-party basis in about 2000-01. I accept, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), who is in direct charge of the issue, that we have to tighten the system further. It has already been tightened, but it needs to be tightened further. However, that is not directly germane to the issue of individual registration. We need to deal with postal voting—in my view, as soon as we can—to introduce individual registration as well.

T5. Having campaigned strongly on the issue, I very much welcome the Government’s initiatives for separate special areas for witnesses and victims at magistrates courts, including my own in Blackpool. What feedback has the Secretary of State had on the impact of those initiatives, and what plans does the Ministry have to expand them? (202039)

In the past 10 years, there has been a quiet revolution in how victims and witnesses—particularly those for the prosecution—are treated within the criminal justice system. We are anxious to build on that experience and extend it. Becoming a witness in court, particularly if the person has also been a victim of the crime, is a frightening and sometimes terrifying experience. The more assistance that the victims and other witnesses for the prosecution are given all the way through the system, the better—to ensure that those guilty of the crimes are convicted.

T3. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), has recently replied to a large number of questions that I have tabled on postal voting, and I am grateful to her for those full and detailed replies. However, does she not agree that it is no longer sensible for postal votes to be sent out only 11 days before polling day? Many of them do not get to the people abroad who wish to vote in time to be returned and counted in the election. Will the Under-Secretary consider lengthening the time allowed for the process and ensure that the postal votes are sent out more than 11 days in advance, so that postal voting abroad is meaningful? (202035)

I have indeed replied to the hon. Gentleman on this matter very recently but, although I have some sympathy for his concerns, I repeat that two important points need to be made. First, we have already extended the time from six to 11 days, because the administrators also felt that more time was needed. Secondly, after candidates have been nominated, the administrators need time to make sure that the nominations are valid and to order and produce the ballot papers. There is a balance that we have to get right. People living abroad who retain the right to vote in this country can opt to use a proxy vote if the postal vote is not suitable.

The Select Committee on which I have the honour to serve under the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) is currently looking at the costs and benefits of alternative forms of punishment. In view of the deterrent effect that the confiscation of criminal assets in connection with drug dealing has had, does the Secretary of State feel that it is time to consider charging the costs, or part of the costs, of imprisonment or other punishment to the criminal rather than to the taxpayer?

The Prison Act 1952 provides that the costs of running prisons have to be met from the public purse. If my hon. Friend were to think about the consequences of trying to charge prisoners for prison, he would see that they could be very difficult. Indeed, Charles Dickens made it clear that, even in the early 19th century, felons in criminal prisons did not have to pay the costs of their prison accommodation—although, as it happens, debtors did. We want to ensure that criminals pay for the crimes that they commit through compensation measures, and we also want compensation orders to be better enforced.

May I return to the report on Anthony Joseph, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) raised earlier? Does the Secretary of State agree with the report’s conclusion that there was nothing to suggest that Joseph was suffering from a severe mental illness? After all, serious concerns had been raised about Joseph’s mental state since he was 15, and he had reported self-harm to the prison authorities—itself a warning sign. Moreover, the fact that prisoners are 10 times more likely to suffer from severe mental illnesses than members of the general public means that simply being in the system is another warning sign. Does not the case show that there is an urgent need to ensure that resources are directed not to massive prison building programmes, but to mental health screening and treatment?

There was a failure in this case, and it is a matter of huge sorrow to everyone involved. There has been a thorough inspection of what happened, with the aim of ensuring, as far as is humanly possible, that such things do not happen again. The hon. Gentleman asks about mental health provision, but we do need to provide more prison places. One result of our getting on top of crime and criminality is that more people are prosecuted for serious offences and are being sentenced to jail for longer. That is fundamental if, having got crime down by a third in the past 10 years, we are to get it down even further. That said, however, we have greatly improved mental health provision in prison, and Lord Bradley is looking at how we can improve it further. We are also looking at more effective ways to improve mental health facilities outside prison.

T7. Recently, The Times reported that the president of the family division had raised concerns with the Lord Chancellor about the reduction in the number of non-molestation orders taken out by women victims of domestic violence. At the same time, the number of reported domestic violence incidents has increased, and there has been a 23 per cent. increase in prosecutions and a significant rise in the number of convictions. Are women safer or less safe following the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004? (202041)

My hon. Friend referred to the concerns of the president of the family division. I have met some of the judges in the family division to discuss these issues. We are trying to gather together some evidence from their experience and elsewhere to see whether this concern has to be urgently addressed. Since the introduction of the special domestic violence courts, we have a far higher success rate in convictions, with over 70 per cent. of convictions as a result of those courts.

The introduction of independent advisers has been hugely helpful in encouraging women to come forward to get protection and to take the case through the justice system. We are concerned about these issues and we are in discussions with the judiciary about them. However, following the Act and the work that this Government have done in trying to protect vulnerable women from domestic violence, we should be grateful that this happening. We should not only monitor the concerns that are being outlined but ensure that more women come forward in order to stop this heinous crime.

T4. Is the Secretary of State aware that over the past five years 1,723 documents have gone missing on their way from Government Departments to the national archives, and that those highly political files include some on the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, the Iranian embassy siege, and Cabinet Office documents relating to how the European Union perceives the United Kingdom? Will he place a list of those missing documents in the Library, press all Departments to find those missing documents, and report back to the House in due course? (202036)

I am now aware of the extent of these missing documents. I will certainly look into it. The hon. Gentleman will understand the quite intense difficulty sometimes of proving that something is missing until someone is looking for it, but I will do my best and inform the House.

T8. Given the potential for terribly tragic consequences when the different parts of the criminal justice system fail to work together effectively, do Ministers agree that good, effective information and communication technologies are not merely desirable but essential; and do they accept that public procurement of such systems in the criminal justice system has not yet been good enough and needs to be better? (202042)

The answer to both my hon. Friend’s questions is yes. Ensuring that there is adequate sharing of information between the different criminal justice agencies and that each agency thinks across the piece is fundamental to ensuring that the kind of tragedy that has occurred in this case does not occur again.

T6. When will the Government come forward with their plans for a modern, fair, sympathetic and open coroners system for inquests, about which there has been so much concern; and have they accepted that secret inquests, or inquests without juries, are not a good idea? (202040)

As the hon. Gentleman will know, detailed proposals were published with a draft Bill in respect of a major reform of the coroners system, and we hope to bring that forward in the next Session.