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Topical Questions

Volume 485: debated on Tuesday 9 December 2008

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.

T2. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in many cases the high quality of legal advice provided by citizens advice bureaux is enhanced by their capacity to look behind the individual legal issue that has been raised at the root causes and to tackle those causes through the provision of information and guidance? Will he ensure that in any efforts to save money and to make the community legal advice system more cost-effective those benefits are not lost? (240251)

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.

T3. Given that savings of £1.3 billion are to be made over two years, possibly involving as many as 10,000 redundancies in his Department, is the Lord Chancellor not a little embarrassed about the bill of £133 million for the refurbishment of the Department’s offices in Petty France? (240252)

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.

T8. Although I approve of sentenced offenders doing work in the community in appropriate circumstances, can the Minister assure me that the possibility has been considered that the brightly coloured jackets that are now proposed for them may make them more vulnerable to attack? (240257)

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.

T4. Six months ago, in response to Conservative proposals to clamp down on offenders who commit crimes while on bail, the Lord High Chancellor of All England published a consultation document. Given the number of murders committed by offenders while on bail, what is the status of that consultation and why have no new powers in relation to bail been included in the forthcoming coroners and justice Bill? (240253)

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.

T5. May I ask the Lord Chancellor of Great Britain, the master of the universe of nothing—[Laughter.] In all seriousness, it has been 18 months since the very serious consultation on bringing greater transparency to the family courts concluded, and we have had no statement or recommendations from the Government. Will those recommendations form part of the coroners and justice Bill outlined in the Queen’s Speech? (240254)

I intend to make a statement to the House on that very matter before we rise for the Christmas recess.

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?

T9. Will the Justice Secretary answer soon my second letter about the costs of the inquest into the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes? As he knows, the inquest is taking place in Lambeth, the borough where the shooting happened. The costs are now estimated to be more than £4 million—£1 million for each of the four boroughs responsible for the coroner’s court, including mine in Southwark. Surely either the national Government should take a share of the responsibility or the cost should be shared among the 32 London boroughs policed by the Metropolitan police. (240258)

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.

T6. The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), referred earlier to the introduction of high-visibility jackets last week for those serving community sentences. Will he now turn his attention to getting people who have been issued with community sentences to turn up to undertake them? For the last year for which information is available, 94,000 community sentences were issued but only 42,000 were completed. There is not much point in having high-visibility jackets if nobody is turning up to do the work. (240255)

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 am very happy to follow up the specific point that the hon. Gentleman has raised, both directly and with the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), who is handling this matter.

T7. The punishment of going to prison is the loss of one’s freedom, but what is really important is that people do not go to prison more than once. What will Ministers do in 2009 to try to ensure that we reduce the risk of reoffending and have as much purposeful activity in prisons as possible, so that people overcome substance abuse and get skills and training so that they do not reoffend? (240256)

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.

T10. What is the total cost to public funds of the Libra project? When the National Audit Office looked at this, the cost had already grown to £390 million—nearly three times what was originally planned. Mr. Alex Allan, the then permanent secretary at the former Department for Constitutional Affairs, has disclosed a further £97 million on top of that. That was about 18 months ago, so what is the current figure? (240259)

I shall have to write to the hon. Gentleman with the details. I shall do so, and of course place them on the record of the House at the same time.

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.