The Secretary of State was asked—
Public Office (Misconduct)
The higher courts have made it clear that the threshold for the common law offence of misconduct in public office is a high one. A unifying factor appears to be the existence of some improper, dishonest or oppressive motive in the exercise or refusal to exercise a public function rather than a mere abuse of power. The Committee on Standards in Public Life, in a consultation paper in 1997, recommended the partial replacement of this common law offence of misconduct in public office with a new statutory offence of misuse of public office. In 1998, as Home Secretary, I reported to a parliamentary Joint Committee on the difficulties of defining the proposed new offence. The Joint Committee on the Draft Corruption Bill concluded in 2003 that such a Bill was not the appropriate vehicle for giving a statutory definition of misconduct in public office. I am unaware of any representations made to me since on this matter.
The Secretary of State seems to be admitting that the law is flawed. Is it really appropriate that an offence created by a judge in 1783 that is punishable by life imprisonment is used against someone who simply receives material that may embarrass his own Government?
May I say to the hon. Gentleman that a great many offences in the criminal calendar are based on common law—they trace their provenance to decisions of the courts made, in this case, in the 18th century? Such offences are continually redefined and refined by the higher courts of the land. There have been two leading authorities, among others, published on the definition of misconduct in public office—one in 1979 and another in 2004. Although the Committee on Standards in Public Life considered the matter, it recommended only a partial replacement of the offence of misconduct. As I have reported to the House, the Joint Committee on the Draft Corruption Bill considered whether to propose the inclusion of a statutory definition of misconduct in public office, but decided against doing so.
Would the Secretary of State tell us how many civil servants have been arrested under this offence, how many of those civil servants were subsequently charged, and how many of those who were charged were then convicted in the courts? If he cannot answer today, will he ensure that an answer is put in the Library as quickly as possible?
An answer was given in April of this year about the number of offences for which there have been convictions dating back to the past 10 years. I have asked the statisticians in my Department to provide further particulars of those offences. When they are available, I will make them available to the right hon. Gentleman and to the House.
This does seem to be an enormously elastic offence. I believe that the most recent successful prosecution was that of a female police officer who was operating on the side as a prostitute.
Will the Secretary of State comment on the case of Sally Murrer last week? That prosecution failed, the upshot of which appears to be that journalists are immune, as are their sources.
It is not appropriate for me to comment in detail on that case except to say that I note that the hon. Gentleman is celebrating, or endorsing, the acquittal in that case, which was made under article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998. If the Conservatives are now changing their position in respect of the incorporation of the European convention on human rights, so be it.
I also point out to the House that the Joint Committee on the Draft Corruption Bill, which considered under paragraph 77 of its report making misconduct in public office a statutory offence but then decided not to propose that, included a number of luminaries from the Opposition Benches, including the Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), in whose opinion this offence did not need statutory definition. From the look on his face, he has forgotten that, but I have here a copy of the report and the minutes of proceedings.
As it happens, I am the wrong person to ask because I am not in favour of leaking and I do not do it. As far as investigations are concerned, when I was a special adviser in 1976, there was a police investigation into the leaking of a limited circulation annexe of the Cabinet minutes in respect of child benefit. I had seen that limited circulation annexe and I was therefore interviewed by Commander Haversham of the Yard and a sergeant who reminded me very much of Mr. Oddjob from the James Bond movie—those were the days before the Police and Criminal Evidence Act came into force. I was exonerated because I did not leak any more at that time than I have subsequently.
How does my right hon. Friend feel he should have been judged if, when he was at the Home Office and effectively the police authority for London, he had rung someone who was part of an ongoing inquiry by the police to discuss their case? Would that have been a matter of misconduct, and would it have been a resigning issue?
It certainly would have been misconduct with a small “m” because it would have almost certainly compromised a police investigation. I suspect that there would have been demands for my resignation not just from the Opposition, but from those on the Labour Benches as well.
My right hon. Friend was our first Home Secretary in 1997, and has extensive experience of police authorities throughout the land. There are 44 police authorities in England and Wales, including the British Transport police. Outside of London, can he think of a single instance when a chairman of a police authority has contacted a close personal, political and professional friend after they have been bailed as a potential criminal suspect? Further to the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), should we be looking to redefine misconduct in a public office to incorporate reprehensible behaviour of that kind?
I cannot think of a single occasion when a chairman of a police authority acted in the way that my hon. Friend described. As for the definition of that common law offence, the general view up until now has been that taken by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough when he considered this matter as a member of the Joint Committee on the Draft Corruption Bill—he decided that it did not need further statutory definition at that stage.
Given that it was the intention of the Government, to their credit, and of this House, when passing the Freedom of Information Act and modifying the Official Secrets Act, that unauthorised disclosure of information not involving national security or intelligence should be dealt with as a disciplinary matter within the civil service and not by the criminal law, if it emerges that the police have extended the meaning of the offence of misconduct in public office beyond corruption to apply the criminal law to leaks, will it be the Government’s intention to bring in statutory law to restore the intention of Parliament?
I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the question whether there should be a conviction is a matter for a jury, not for police officers. They merely make arrests and, in certain circumstances, lay a charge on the advice of the Crown Prosecution Service. The judicial authorities, in respect of misconduct in a public office, make the components of such offences clear. I have said that there is a higher bar in respect of such offences, but ultimately, it is a matter for a jury to judge. I understand that that is also the view of the Opposition.
With respect, the Secretary of State did not answer the question of the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley). The central point is this: what should be the relationship between misconduct, leaks in the civil service and national security? The one thing that we learned from the Government’s account of the events leading up to the arrest of the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) is that they think that there should be no police investigation unless there is some sort of potential threat to national security. Will the Secretary of State accept that there is a case for removing the possibility of the use of that offence in the case of leaks by civil servants that do not involve national security?
The issue has not arisen, but when it has been more calmly looked at, the nature of the offence of misconduct in public office, albeit as a common law offence, which the higher courts have defined and refined in recent years, has met with general approbation. I know of no direct provenance for the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that, even if there is continued, wilful misconduct by an official in breach of their office, the criminal law should apply. That would be a very odd circumstance. I do not wish to comment on current investigations, and I shall not.
I respect the Justice Secretary’s desire not to comment on current investigations, but the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) made was surely that the Official Secrets Act 1989 was supposed to remove such matters from the ambit of the criminal law. The legislation removed swathes of activity by civil servants from the ambit of the criminal law. Is the right hon. Gentleman concerned that that is being undermined by an attempt to recriminalise using the common law offence?
I would point out that the revision to the Official Secrets Act in 1989 was welcomed, but the matter has been considered since then. The Committee on Standards in Public Life considered it in 1997. As Home Secretary, I looked at the matter in 1998, and it was further considered, including by Conservative Front Benchers, by the Joint Committee in 2003. It was accepted then that the offence did not need urgent statutory redefinition. I suspect that, if it were statutorily redefined, we would end up with the same definition as that currently set out in the authorities, for example, the Crown Prosecution Service’s 2007 charging manual. It makes it clear, as I have already said, that the bar for a prosecution, as well as a successful conviction, is high.
We fully accept that leaks of issues concerning national security—actual leaks about actual national security—should be subject to criminal sanction. However, is not the Secretary of State for Justice worried by suggestions that criminal sanctions should be applied when there is the potential for a national security issue leak to arise, but no such leak has occurred?
As I said to the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) and others, I know of no provenance for suggesting that the Government have ever subscribed to the view that there are no circumstances in which criminal investigations could take place in such matters, except when a breach of national security has occurred. That applied to the Opposition, too, until the past 10 days.
Since Conservative Members claim that they wish to go into government and that they are ready to do that, they need to reflect on what is necessary for the good governance of this country, regardless of the party that is in office. Let us consider an abstract situation, in which an official who works on a ministerial corridor continually leaks. That is deeply corrosive. [Hon. Members: “Sanctions.”] It is not just a matter of that. Such behaviour is deeply corrosive for the whole system of governance and may require a more extensive sanction than simply dismissal.
With respect, the Justice Secretary is simply not answering my hon. Friends’ questions. The 1988 White Paper on reforming the Official Secrets Act stated:
“The objective of Official Secrets legislation is not to enforce Crown Service discipline—that is not a matter for the criminal law—but to protect information that in the public interest should not be disclosed.”
Does the Justice Secretary agree that the purpose of the reform, which restricted the criminal law to information that is damaging to national security, will be completely defeated if there are prosecutions under a common law offence for matters that Parliament clearly intended should be treated as disciplinary issues?
When Lord Hurd, the then Home Secretary, originally came to the House to make his proposals for changes in the Official Secrets Act in 1988, he did so to deal with a particular mischief in the operation of the Act. He did not, as I recall, come to the House to propose a root-and-branch reform of all areas of the law relating to conduct in public office. Moreover, he had no proposals at that stage to reform the common law offence, which, as we have heard, had existed since the 18th century, of misconduct in a public office. Further, when the Committee on Standards in Public Life reported in the middle of 1997 and when I responded to the then Joint Committee in 1998, I do not recall anybody from the Opposition ever suggesting that the offence should be excised altogether from the criminal law. The only issue was whether it should be partially replaced by a statutory offence. That was turned down by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough.
When Lord Hurd, the then Home Secretary, came to the House and presented the Bill to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred, he said:
“We ask the House today to agree in principle that the criminal law should be prised away from the great bulk of official information.”—[Official Report, 21 December 1988; Vol. 144, c. 460.]
The right hon. Gentleman was simply wrong in his recollection of what Lord Hurd said. The amended Official Secrets Act specifically requires the prosecution to prove that any disclosure of Government information would be damaging to national security. Leaks that reveal Home Office incompetence, for instance, may be damaging to the reputation of this Government, but they do not damage national security. Is it not typical of Ministers under this Government to confuse their narrow party interests with the interests of the country? Will the Justice Secretary now answer this straightforward question: should the common law offence of misconduct in a public office be deployed for prosecutions of recipients of Government information where national security is not at stake? Yes or no?
Lord Hurd makes my point, because he spoke about removing the criminal law from “the great bulk” of what amounts to leaking, and so it has been, and without question by a very long way. However, he did not talk about removing the application of criminal law absolutely. On the hon. Gentleman’s second question, what he is asking me to do, which is entirely inappropriate for a Minister responsible for the judiciary, is to intervene in a continuing criminal investigation. [Interruption.] That is the invitation that he is making, but I am afraid that I shall decline it. Were the unlikely situation ever to arise of his being in my place, I hope that he would decline it in the same way.
As for the hon. and learned Member for Harborough, I am surprised at his wittering from a sedentary position. It is no good his complaining: he put his name to this report from the Joint Committee on the Draft Corruption Bill in 2003, which specifically said:
“We have…considered adding separate specific offences to the Bill such as…making misconduct in public office a statutory offence (with a wider definition of public office).”
The Committee then said that it did not think that the Bill was “the appropriate vehicle”. He considered the proposal, thought about it and then rejected it. That happens to be our position, too. We have not changed our position; the Opposition have.
Shoplifting (Sentencing Guidelines)
The hon. Lady has made a number of representations on sentencing guidelines for shoplifting offences and we have met representatives of retail trade organisations to discuss available disposals for shoplifting. The independent Sentencing Guidelines Council has today published its definitive guideline on sentencing for theft from a shop.
May I thank the Justice Secretary for the kind words that he recently said about me to the Magistrates Association? May I also refer him to the representations that the association has made on this issue? Will his hon. Friend the Minister go so far as to admit that the Magistrates Association still has concerns about fixed penalty notices being imposed for first time offences, about fines going unpaid—[Interruption]—she should feel free to answer for herself, rather than conferring—and about community sentences not being completed? Does he or she therefore share my concern that there should be a court—
The hon. Lady is simply showing the great interest in this matter that my right hon. Friend was right to say that she has shown over a long period of time. We are aware that the Magistrates Association has concerns, and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), who has responsibility for the Courts Service, will meet its representatives tomorrow and will no doubt have an opportunity to discuss some of those concerns. I should like to point out to the House that more people are prosecuted for shop theft than receive penalty notices for disorder, that the use of custody to punish shoplifters has increased in percentage terms since 1997, and that the courts are empowered to make custodial sentences for this crime and, where appropriate, do so.
Are not the Minister’s remarks a little complacent? Paragraph 11 of today’s announcement by the Sentencing Guidelines Council makes it clear that burglars and shoplifters who steal to feed an addiction will get a lesser sentence. She must be aware that the retail sector is suffering from a chronic recession, so this must surely be the worst possible time to downgrade and devalue those offences. Is not there a danger that this will encourage even more retail crime, and a likelihood that this will be seen as a shoplifters’ and burglars’ charter?
I absolutely refute the hon. Gentleman’s latter point, as no doubt would one of his hon. Friends on the Conservative Front Bench, who last year was urging us—quite rightly, in my view—during the passage of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 to ensure that those who commit crime through addiction get proper treatment. Indeed, early-day motion 132, tabled by the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), makes that very point, and urges the Sentencing Guidelines Council to ensure
“that the sentencing guidelines are enforced to ensure that offenders with drink or drug problems are issued with sentences that recognise those problems with an appropriate rehabilitation order”.
That is all that the Sentencing Guidelines Council, which is independent of the Government, is saying—that drug rehabilitation orders should be given, where appropriate, to try to ensure that those who commit crime in part as a result of their addiction have a chance to get rid of that addiction. The evidence shows that those who complete those tough community orders are only half as likely to reoffend as those who do not complete such orders.
The interaction between the judicial system and parliamentary privilege is well settled, and specifically defined in the sub judice rules of Parliament. The rules were extensively revised by this House in November 2001, following the recommendations by the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, and set out on page 437 of the current edition of “Erskine May”. The issue occasionally arises incidentally in ministerial discussions but, as it is a matter for Parliament and not for the Executive, I can recall no occasion on which it has been an agenda item for ministerial deliberation.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. He will know that the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 created three categories of material susceptible to searches, one of which was legally privileged material. If the police think that a piece of evidence is legally privileged, they are unable to seize it. Has the Secretary of State considered whether it would be worth extending that definition to include items that are subject to parliamentary privilege, so as to make clear the legal position and to put it beyond doubt?
Yesterday, the Leader of the House suggested that a High Court judge might be the appropriate person to grant a warrant, if one were required, for a police search of these premises, and of Members’ correspondence in offices or homes around the country. How would that proposal be carried forward, given that, according to the Government’s motion, the Committee to consider the matter is not allowed to meet other than for the purpose of electing a Chairman, and that the Prime Minister has indicated that nothing will change until he has had the results of that Committee’s inquiry?
On the specific proposition, as the Queen’s Speech made clear, there will be a police Bill and a Bill in respect of justice and coroners. The right hon. Gentleman is an experienced parliamentarian, and I would be astonished if he could not ensure that amendments to achieve what he suggests were in order, if he wished to table such amendments. Of course we would be happy to consider them without waiting for a particular report from a specific inquiry.
Would the Secretary of State resist the temptation to freeze into statute law the complex system of principles and precedents that constitute parliamentary privilege, as if an Act attempted to do so, it would be judiciable outside the House, whereas privilege is in fact better defended by ourselves as it has been over the centuries? In any case, many of us have little faith in the Government’s ability to deal with this in an unpartisan way, especially in the light of recent events, so any Bill that they bring forward could further weaken the powers of this House and allow outside authorities unnecessary further access.
On the issue of parliamentary privilege—in other words further defining what is in article 9 of the 1689 Bill of Rights—I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege said in 1999 that the matter was best defined by this House. However, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) spoke about changing criminal procedures and if the House wished to proceed with that—I am not committing the Government, but we would certainly be happy to consider it—it could be effected only by a change in the general criminal law because it applies not only to behaviours in the House or in respect of the House, but to outside agencies such as the police.
On the subject of interaction with the judicial system, the Justice Secretary recently thought it right roundly to attack what he described as “nervous judges” for applying the Human Rights Act, which made the European convention on human rights justiciable in our courts. Although we came to expect the right hon. Gentleman’s successors as Home Secretary to abuse judges for party political advantage, are we now to expect the Lord Chancellor, whose statutory duty is to uphold the independence of the judiciary, routinely to make attacks on judges who apply the laws enacted by Parliament at his Government’s request?
I think that that is a slightly extravagant interpretation of what I said. I think that citing my comment on nervous judges as if it were an attack on the judiciary is an abuse of language. The article also made it clear that I had been extremely careful not to pass any adverse comment on the judiciary—nor have I. I recognise my responsibilities in respect of the protection of the independence of the judiciary acutely.
Civil Service Impartiality
The constitutional renewal Bill, which we published in draft in March, included proposals to enshrine in statute the core principles and values of the civil service, which include impartiality. The Government reiterated their commitment to continue to take forward their proposals in the Queen’s Speech last week.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that impartiality remains important for some quite junior civil service posts? Does he agree, for instance, that appointing a civil servant who had stood as an Opposition candidate only four years ago to work in the private office of the Home Secretary would be inappropriate?
I am obviously not going to comment—just as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State refused to comment—on ongoing police investigations, but I hope that the whole House will agree that, whatever party Ministers come from, they must be able to rely on the impartiality of the civil service—and at all levels. That is fundamental to the civil service: those core civil service values are set out in the civil service code and they actually form part of a civil servant’s terms and conditions of employment.
But why cannot the civil service clauses be detached from the rest of the constitutional renewal Bill and be proceeded with in this Parliament, as they had widespread support and were anticipated in several Government manifestos?
Quite simply because they do not need to be. We intend to proceed with our proposals for the constitutional renewal Bill. May I say that we published those proposals in draft because they are constitutional and we believe that they deserve the widest possible scrutiny? Indeed, we have had the benefit of extremely important scrutiny from the Justice Committee, the Public Administration Committee and, indeed, from the Joint Committee on the draft Bill. We have benefited from all that scrutiny, we are drafting the clauses as we speak and we will introduce those proposals.
I do not wish to be too critical of what we have discovered today to be the erstwhile occupation of the Minister’s boss, but does the Minister not agree that one of the elements most corrosive of civil service impartiality over the past 10 years has been the explosion in the number of special advisers employed by the Government? What would he do about that?
I certainly do not agree, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman was not referring to his boss, the leader of the Conservative party, when he spoke of corrosive elements in our public life. I am sure that he was not—I am glad to receive that confirmation from the hon. Gentleman.
I do not agree that the civil service is being corroded. I think that we should be proud of our civil service, which plays an extraordinarily important role in our constitution. If the hon. Gentleman reads the evidence given to Select Committees by the current head of the civil service, he will see that the latter paid tribute to the important role played by special advisers in our constitutional arrangements.
Some of us remember being special advisers and protecting the impartiality of the civil service, and I pay tribute to the Lord Chancellor for what he did in that respect long ago. However, the Minister has said once again that the constitutional renewal Bill will be coming forward. As was pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who served on the Committee that examined the draft Bill, it is an important piece of legislation, and we were all looking forward to it. We all consider the impartiality of the civil service to be the very cornerstone of our democracy. Action has been promised again and again, yet we do not see the Bill in the timetable now. If it is really to come forward, can the Minister tell us when it will do so?
We plan to present proposals in April or May. [Interruption.] This is not news, however excited Opposition Members may be about it. We have made our intentions clear. I hope Members agree that we need to take constitutional proposals seriously, and to reflect on the scrutiny that they have been given by three Committees of the House. However, we will present those proposals, and given what the hon. Lady has said, we expect to receive the Conservative party’s support for every measure of this kind that we present in future.
The Government regularly undertake research on the effectiveness of various sentencing disposals, including both custodial and community-based sentences.
Ministers have consistently told us that tough, firm community sentences can be more effective in reducing reoffending than short spells in prison. Given that our prisons are bursting at the seams and 92 per cent. of young men given a first-time short custodial sentence reoffend within two years, does the Minister really believe that sending 34,613 people to prison in the last year alone is the best way of tackling recidivism?
The hon. Lady needs to understand that we consider both custodial and non-custodial sentences to be important parts of the judicial system, and that courts must have the flexibility to be able to pass sentences that they believe to be appropriate. Last year alone, more than 6 million hours were spent serving non-custodial community-based sentences. The hon. Lady and her party need to reflect on what is important for the victims of persistent young offenders, and what is important in terms of the flexibility of the court system.
Does the Secretary of State think it appropriate that prison staff at HMPs Whitemoor and Peterborough are, at a cost of more than £3,500 to the taxpayer, running errands to pick up takeaways for inmates in the name of diversity? Does he think it acceptable to my tax-paying, law-abiding constituents that that is happening under his Government?
Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) about custodial sentences of three months or less, can the Minister tell us what impact such sentences have on convicted offenders who are addicted to hard drugs?
My hon. Friend makes an important point in reflecting what the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), said earlier about the importance of ensuring that sentencing deals with those who are addicted to drink or drugs. That is one reason why flexibility must be at the disposal of the courts: they must be able to ensure that those who commit crimes because of their addiction can be properly dealt with in an appropriate fashion.
The Minister was right in the answer she gave to the original question, but does she not agree that, regardless of whether the sentence is three months, three years, 13 years, 23 years or 30 years, it should involve genuine rehabilitation, including education and training?
Indeterminate imprisonment for public protection—IPP—sentences are an important part of sentencing options for the protection of the public. The Government will ensure that there are prison places for those whom the court sends to custody.
I thank the Minister for that answer. As he knows, I have been in correspondence with him and other Ministers in the Department since October of last year about my constituent, Mr. W, who is in prison serving such a sentence. The time has come when he could have been considered for parole, had he been able to gain access to the courses which were a condition for that. He could have been considered in March, but he cannot access those courses. I understand that there might be up to 800 prisoners in similar circumstances.
The Minister will also know that, through the changes made in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, sentences with such attachments to them can no longer be given. Will he look at my constituent’s case and consider whether he and others like him might be brought under the terms of the 2008 Act, and thus be made eligible for parole rather than left in the current Catch-22 situation?
It is important that individuals serving IPP sentences access the courses, and I recognise that there were initially some difficulties because of the numbers coming through. We have tried to put extra resources in to prioritise IPP prisoners who are post tariff, and I am confident that in short order such prisoners will be able to undertake the courses that they need to attend to progress through the system.
The hon. Gentleman asks me to ensure that we look at Mr. W’s sentence; as he knows, that is ultimately for the Parole Board. I will certainly re-examine his correspondence and write to him again, but it will ultimately be for the Parole Board to decide whether Mr. W can be released because his offending behaviour is no longer a risk to the public.
Do we keep any data on the number of prisoners who are former psychiatric patients or who have learning difficulties? A recent report by Mind suggested that many such individuals, especially those with learning difficulties, were slipping through the health and social service net and ending up in prison and adding to the overcrowding.
My hon. Friend will know that there will be a number of people on IPP sentences who have such difficulties. He will also know that I, along with my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary, have given my noble Friend Lord Bradley the opportunity to examine these issues, and I expect him to report to me early in the new year on matters such as how we might address diversion of individuals with mental health problems and how we can provide better support for such individuals in prison.
Secure Training Centres
The operation of secure training centres is constantly monitored by the Youth Justice Board. Current indications are that the secure training centres are performing well.
Last year, physical restraint was used more than 2,000 times at secure training centres. That is more than 10 times for each child who was detained. Does the Minister consider that to be proportionate, and will the report, which has twice been delayed, finally be published on the deadline of next Monday?
As the hon. Lady will know, I have given a commitment to the House to publish the report, which we commissioned jointly with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, by December 15. Subject to the business of the House, I propose that that will be undertaken by that date. This is a complicated issue, which is why the report’s response has been delayed for some time. For the protection of staff and of some young people themselves, and for the protection of individuals against self-harm, there is, in my view, a need for restraint to be continued, but we are looking at this matter. I will report to the House very shortly, and I hope the hon. Lady will examine the report and respond to it in due course.
Criminal Justice System
The comprehensive spending review 2007 settlement agreed for the Ministry of Justice requires us to live within the funding available. Budgets for 2009-10 will be agreed shortly, and we will then be in a position to inform Parliament more fully of the impact of this work on the Ministry of Justice. We are prioritising and protecting front-line services, but we are looking at how we can improve performance and efficiency across the Department. We are, of course, involving our Department’s trade unions in ongoing discussions in this regard.
My hon. Friend will be aware that this week has been designated justice week by the justice trade unions, and they will be lobbying the House tomorrow on their concerns about future budgets. Has she seen the report launched yesterday by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, which demonstrates that although the Government have increased resources within the individual budgets of prisons, the probation service and the courts, that has not matched the work loads? Would she therefore be willing to meet a delegation from the justice trade union group to discuss the report and its implications for future budget planning?
On my hon. Friend’s last point, I would of course be more than happy to meet him and any delegation that he wishes to bring in respect of the particular point that he makes. I have not yet had a chance to see that report, but I would be very happy to read it.
The House may wish to be aware that on Monday last, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I launched the introduction of high-visibility jackets for offenders undertaking community orders of unpaid work—that scheme is called community payback—and also that an announcement has been made of a review of how legal advice should best be delivered locally, not least to take account of the impact of the recession.
The Government have again refused my freedom of information request for a list of possible sites for the new titan prisons. The Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik), has written to me saying that the
“release of the information you seek would inevitably lead to increased speculation…thereby affecting our ability to procure land for the sites eventually chosen at a reasonable market value”.
So I must ask the Secretary of State the following question: is that not a blatant admission that any subsequent consultation involving local residents will be a complete sham, given that the Government intend to buy the sites before informing local residents? What is he going to do to put that right?
I understand that in most, although not all, areas of the country there is concern whenever there are proposals for new prisons to be built; regardless of the size of the prison, that has been an almost eternal verity. I must say to the hon. Gentleman that his party is committed—on some days, at least—to increasing the prison population. Part of his party’s Front-Bench team says that it wants to increase it to 101,000, rather than to 96,000, as we have proposed. That will mean more prisons, and they have to be placed in individual constituencies.
On the hon. Gentleman’s specific issue, we have a duty to the taxpayer to protect the public purse, so we must provisionally identify sites. Typically, when the sites are identified an option is taken on them, subject to planning permission. Planning permission, and the consultation relating to it, is a very public and highly visible process. I hope that we shall not get into a situation where the Conservative party wills the end of an increase in the prison population but every time there is a proposal to will the means it opposes that increase in prison numbers.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point, and I am sure that we have all used the advice that the citizens advice bureaux make available for our constituents. He is right to say that, as we look at how we provide advice locally, their role is important. In doing some research in this area, Lord Bach will ensure that the role that the bureaux play in the local community is kept in being.
The two issues are very separate. The refurbishment was decided on back in 1999, although the name of the then Home Secretary who made that decision escapes me. If the hon. Gentleman is making a serious point about efficiency savings, I should point out to him that none of the efficiency savings that we will make would compare with the slashing and indiscriminate cuts to which his leader has now committed himself, which would make a recession into a depression by gratuitously putting thousands of people out of work.
My hon. Friend will know that visibility is important to provide confidence in community sentences. I have ensured that local decisions can be taken if there are real concerns about health and safety, but there is no evidence to date that high-visibility jackets increase the likelihood of attack. Any attacks that have occurred during community-based activities have been perpetrated by known individuals against specific individuals and would, I suspect, have happened whatever garb or attire they were wearing.
Just for the record, the Act of Settlement 1707 provided that the Lord Chancellor was the Lord Chancellor of Great Britain, including Scotland. On the specific point, I am considering the results of the consultation and we will come forward with proposals in due course.
Is my right hon. Friend satisfied with the number of candidates for the magistrates’ bench coming forward from ethnic minorities? Are benches such as Bradford or Keighley representative of their local areas, and if not, what will the Department do about that?
The representation of those from black and minority ethnic communities and, separately, of women in the magistracy is better than in other areas of the judiciary, but it is widely recognised that we still have a very long way to go in that respect. We, the Magistrates’ Association, the chairs of the benches and particularly the advisory committees on magistrates’ appointments that operate at a county level are trying to do a great deal to improve the representative nature of magistrates.
Will the Secretary of State for Justice look at the case of Graham Key, who took his life after being sentenced to prison for two years in August of this year? The prison ombudsman is considering the case. Will the Secretary of State give a commitment to consider the whole case and the circumstances leading up to that prosecution?
As the hon. Gentleman is aware, coroners and the greater system are funded through the local government settlement. There is absolutely no budget line in the Ministry of Justice in respect of the operation of any coroner’s court. I am fully aware of the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised and it is now the subject of discussion between the relevant London boroughs and my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Communities and Local Government and for the Home Department.
Enforcement is far better than it was 10 years ago, when the hon. Gentleman’s party was in office. Sometimes sentences are not completed because people are sentenced further and end up in jail on a longer sentence. I hope that the hon. Gentleman supports visibility and community involvement, and that he recognises that community sentences are a strong punishment and a strong deterrent that can sometimes help to prevent reoffending.
Is the Secretary of State aware that in its attempt to save money Her Majesty’s Courts Service has frozen the implementation of an energy demand management solution of the kind produced by a company in my constituency, Plexus Technology, which would have begun to save the Courts Service money within as little as three months and would have reduced its carbon footprint? Does he not agree that on the face of it that is both nonsense and a false economy and that he should look into it?
I know that the hon. Gentleman shares our wish to see more purposeful activity in prison. He will be pleased, I am sure, to know that only yesterday I hosted a seminar in the Ministry of Justice with more than 60 employers to consider how they can link up with prison industries and provide skills and training in prison to help people to go through the gate to employment on leaving prison. That has been an important contribution, and a similar contribution has been made to managing drugs and drug use in prison, managing alcohol in prison and dealing with mental health in prison. Our objectives for 2009 are to improve our performance in all those areas in order to improve our reductions in reoffending across the board.
Is the Lord High Chancellor aware that, before the dreadful case of baby P, the number of child protection cases brought by local authorities had fallen dramatically in the period since April this year, when court protection fees were increased from a flat £150 to £4,500? As a result, in London there has been something like a 40 per cent. drop in the number of child protection cases being brought. Does the Lord High Chancellor believe that that has anything to do with the huge, swingeing increase in the fees, for which local authorities have not been properly compensated?
Absolutely not. First, local authorities have been compensated to the tune of £40 million a year for the next three years. Secondly, the number of child protection cases fell in April, before the fees came into effect, and again in May, after the fees came into effect. Thirdly, the number of child protection cases across the country is rising again. Fourthly, the Association of Directors of Social Services says that its members deny absolutely the suggestion that a local authority would not take a child protection case to court because of the size of the fee.