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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 489: debated on Tuesday 17 March 2009


The Secretary of State was asked—

Electoral Registration

The Government have committed to ensuring that the electoral register is both comprehensive and accurate and that we do everything possible to tackle electoral fraud. We have introduced new and strengthened penalties for electoral fraud for that reason and new requirements for personal identification for voting. Also for that reason, the Electoral Administration Act 2006 imposed a new duty on electoral registration officers to take all necessary steps to ensure that there is a comprehensive register. That has helped to increase voter registration for parliamentary elections by nearly 800,000 over the past three years. We recognise, however, that there is more that can be done in all those areas, and we will do it.

I am grateful to the Minister, but is he aware that the integrity of the electoral register can be maintained only if the people who are eligible to be on it are the only ones who can register? What can be done to prevent people who do not have indefinite leave to remain in this country from registering and voting? Does he believe that it is unsatisfactory for someone facing a deportation order not only to have registered to vote but to have actually voted in the 2005 general election in Chelmsford? When the electoral registration officer took the matter up with the Home Office—

If the hon. Gentleman has individual circumstances in his constituency that he wants me to follow up, of course I shall do so. His general point about the integrity of the register is absolutely right. We have already taken many measures to deal with that, and we are going to take further measures. That is why, for example, we are going to bring in a process of individual voter registration beginning next year.

Will the Minister look at how the security of the postal voting system might be improved? Before each election, I am contacted by electors who say that they have not received the postal ballot paper that they have applied for, and when I ask the electoral registration office to issue them with a duplicate, it says that it is not allowed to do that because its records show that the ballot paper has been dispatched. That elector loses their vote, and nobody knows what has happened to it. Similarly, when completed ballot papers are returned to the electoral registration office, they are very often not received. Is there some way in which the security of that process can be tightened?

Again, I am very happy to look at any individual circumstances that the hon. Lady may want to bring to my attention. Of course, we are constantly looking at how we can improve the procedures. That is why we have brought forward measures in the past few years and will continue to bring them forward as needed. If she wants to write to me or come and see me about individual circumstances, I am always happy for her to do so.

Opposition Members rightly mention election fraud, which is serious. Does my right hon. Friend agree that an equally serious issue is the 3.5 million UK residents who are missing from the register? Measures introduced in Northern Ireland some years ago resulted in 13 local authorities there having the lowest registration rates in the whole country. What lessons has he drawn from the Northern Ireland experience?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the importance of maintaining the comprehensive nature of the register as well as its integrity. Those two things are fundamental principles for the electoral registration system in this country, which is the foundation of our democracy. Of course it is right that we must ensure that the integrity of the system is upheld and enhanced at every moment, but we must also ensure that the register is kept as comprehensive as possible. That is why we are bringing in new measures in the Political Parties and Elections Bill, which is currently going to the other place. It is why we brought in measures that have already driven up registration by hundreds of thousands of votes in the past three years and why I can assure my hon. Friend that the lessons of Northern Ireland will be taken on board. We will continue to do everything possible to ensure that the register is comprehensive.

Perhaps the Minister will agree that the single most effective measure to prevent fraud is individual registration. In that context, does he understand that many of us believe that the 2015 introduction date is too leisurely and should be brought forward?

I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that individual registration is very important in ensuring the integrity of the register. That is why we are bringing it forward. However, I hope he will agree with me that it is very important that the introduction of that historic shift in how voters are registered in this country is not botched. By “botched” I mean large numbers of voters falling off the register who would otherwise be eligible to vote. I hope he agrees that that would be a blow to our democracy. We must ensure that the comprehensive nature of the register is maintained as we move with all due speed and caution towards a system of individual voter registration. We have discussed the matter at length during the progress of the Political Parties and Elections Bill through this House, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman will be well aware of the reasons why the 2015 introduction date has been chosen.

Surely the lesson from Northern Ireland is that, when new security measures were introduced, not only did numbers on the electoral register fall but they stayed low, stubbornly resistant to increase. Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree that, before any steps are taken, we need to ensure that we have a comprehensive and robust system of electoral registration?

I do agree, and my hon. Friend is right. We need to ensure that the register is comprehensive before we can move to a system, which, all the evidence suggests, could lead to many voters who are otherwise eligible to vote not being able to do so because they are not on the register. We must proceed with two principles firmly in mind and locked together: the comprehensive nature of the electoral registration system and its integrity.

I agreed with everything the Minister said until his last point. Of course comprehensiveness of the register is vital, but electoral fraud undermines democracy. We have called for individual voter registration and all the other measures for more than five years. If the Minister now recognises that that is necessary, he must also recognise that it is urgent. Between now and 2015, at least 13 important sets of elections will take place without individual registration and the other measures that he mentioned. If he genuinely wants to protect the integrity of the ballot, will he convert his new-found enthusiasm for the principle into action? He should give the reforms the urgency that they deserve: 2015 is too late.

I have great respect for the hon. Lady, and many of the points that she makes are true. However, I caution her against undue haste.

If any of us proceed with undue haste, the matter could be botched and many voters, who are eligible to vote, will fall off the register because of the problems. Let us consider, for example, people who are functionally illiterate—an estimate suggests that one in five of the population are functionally illiterate. I very much hope that Conservative Members are not proposing a deliberate policy of disfranchising such marginal and vulnerable voters—[Interruption.] I think they are suggesting they are not, in which case I hope they agree that it is necessary to proceed with caution to ensure that everyone who is eligible to vote is registered and can do so. That is important.

The hon. Lady suggests that proceeding to individual registration is the only way of tackling fraud. It is an important method, but not the only one. We have produced many measures, and studies by the Electoral Commission suggest that, certainly in the past three or four years, incidence of fraud is declining, not increasing.

Burglary (Sentencing)

2. What recent estimate he has made of the proportion of first-time offenders found guilty of burglary offences who are given custodial sentences; and if he will make a statement. (263747)

According to figures recorded on the police national computer in 2007, 22 per cent. of first-time offenders convicted of burglary with no previous convictions were sentenced to immediate or suspended custody. With the Government’s active encouragement and the courts’ active involvement, household burglary has decreased by 55 per cent. since 1997.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, although I think that burglary has increased more recently. When I raised the matter on 3 February, the Justice Secretary said that the Lord Chief Justice had issued

“very strong guidance to sentencers on burglary”.—[Official Report, 3 February 2009; Vol. 487, c. 697.]

He also said that there would be a “toughening up” of sentencing policy. However, the key points in that sentencing document include the following:

“Previous convictions and the record of an offender are of more significance than in the case of some other crimes.”

What exactly does that mean? It seems like a weakening rather than a strengthening of sentencing policy.

I think I have made it clear that the Government and the judiciary feel strongly that we need to strengthen and encourage custodial sentences for burglars when appropriate. Under the previous Conservative Government, the average sentence for burglary was 15.8 months, whereas the average sentence now is 16.7 months. Indeed, 85 per cent. of those who commit a third burglary are now sentenced to custody.

For first-time offenders who are found guilty of burglary and get a custodial sentence, a key component of ensuring that they do not, on their release, commit burglary again is their educational skills—illiteracy among prisoners is high. To stop first-time offenders becoming second-time offenders, what are my right hon. Friend and the Government doing about education in the Prison Service, which is vital?

My hon. Friend is right to say that improving literacy and numeracy and the opportunities to learn new skills and gain employment are key to preventing reoffending. We have dramatically increased the amount of investment and the number of hours available both in young offender institutions and adult prisons to deal with education for literacy and numeracy. There is self-evidently more that can be done, but I give my hon. Friend an assurance that we will continue to do that, because those things are key to preventing reoffending.

Instances of burglary tend to increase in times of recession. Given that prison places are at a premium and given the depth of the recession that we are going through, what steps will the Minister take to ensure that those who engage in criminal activity for the first time face extreme sanction and the knowledge that they should not carry out such actions, and that they do not repeat those offences?

As I said in answer to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), at the moment 22 per cent. of offenders convicted of burglary with no previous convictions are sentenced to immediate or suspended custody. Whatever response the courts make, I am clear that we need to ensure sufficient prison places for those for whom custody is an option in the courts. That is why we will build an additional 3,500 or so prison places in England and Wales this year alone and why we have an ambitious programme to get to 96,000 places by 2013-14. We currently have some headroom in the prison system, but we want to ensure that there will always be places for people who are sentenced. That is why we have the ambitious building programme that we do.

Has the Minister found some new evidence that short periods in prison make offenders less likely to commit further burglaries? If he has not, will he ensure that the courts have available to them community payback schemes, restorative justice and the means to address the original causes of offending, such as drug addiction, rather than spending lots of money on prison sentences that do not work?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that point. A key issue is what we do with people who are sentenced to less than 12 months in prison, because going through the revolving door of prison gates is not conducive to preventing reoffending. We have a menu of options. Ultimately, it is for the courts to decide. Custody will be an option, depending sometimes on an individual’s persistence with burglary or another offence, but I want to see what works. On many occasions, a drug rehabilitation order or a strong and intensive community sentence will be just as important as a short custodial sentence in helping to prevent reoffending.

What is the point of the courts sending burglars to prison, as the Lord Chief Justice recommended in January, if the Government let them out? Some 4,527 burglars have been let out under the Government’s hopeless and benighted early release from custody scheme. Why do the Government not do something useful for once? Most burglars are drug addicts, stealing to fund their addiction. Why do the Government not get them off drugs, either in prison or outside, and do the public a good turn?

The hon. and learned Gentleman will know, because he takes these matters seriously, that a renewed and revised drugs strategy for the next three years will shortly be produced for the National Offender Management Service. He knows that we intend to terminate the end of custody licence scheme as soon as practicable and that we are working towards that end. Unlike the Opposition, who released 3,500 prisoners in a single day, we are committed to ensuring that there are sufficient prison places, that we tackle the causes of crime and that we support both strong community sentences and effective activity in prison. That is what we are doing and I am sorry that the hon. and learned Gentleman does not recognise it.


3. What recent representations he has received on his Department’s plans to exclude juries from some inquests. (263748)

On Second Reading of the Coroners and Justice Bill, I told the House that the Government were open to amendments and suggestions about the proposals. Many hon. Members from all parts of the House have responded to that invitation. In consequence, I am this afternoon tabling amendments fundamentally to recast the proposals. First, the criteria for the Secretary of State’s certification will be significantly tightened. Secondly, the Secretary of State’s certificate will trigger consideration by a High Court judge sitting as a coroner. It will then be for the judge, not the Secretary of State, to decide whether it is necessary to hold an inquest without a jury or whether special measures with a jury would be adequate to protect the sensitive information concerned. There would in any event be a right of appeal to the Court of Appeal.

I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for the mini-announcement that he has made. [Interruption.] No, I am thanking him for it—it is good. He will know that his original proposals caused a great deal of disquiet, so I am grateful that he has tabled those further proposals. I am sure that my hon. and learned Friends will want to look at those amendments in detail as the Bill is discussed next week. Does the Secretary of State think that the amendment he will table reflects the concerns that people had about how removing the jury could effectively remove the reason for an inquest in the first place?

I in turn am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his response. I might be old-fashioned, but I take the view that the place to make announcements is in the House of Commons—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] One does one’s best in that regard.

Of course I understand that the whole House—not least those on the Opposition Front Bench and the Liberal Democrat spokespeople—will wish to reflect on the detailed wording of the amendment, but I hope and believe that it will meet the concerns that have been expressed. First, there was concern that the criteria for the initial certification by the Secretary of State were too wide. The criteria have been narrowed, and it will no longer be sufficient for the Secretary of State to have the opinion that a non-jury inquest is required; they will need to decide themselves that it is necessary.

Secondly—this is crucial, as this objection was raised on both sides of the House—the decision about whether to hold a non-jury inquest will not be a matter for the Secretary of State. It will be a matter for the High Court coroner, and I am sure that he or she will, in every case, look first at whether special measures of the kind adopted in the criminal courts—including the gisting of secret information to a jury—would be adequate. It is my hope that, in most cases, they will.

Would I be right in thinking the special measures will include the use of public interest immunity certificates? The last time this matter was discussed on the Floor of the House, the Justice Secretary said that this would not work because the judge might decline to make the order. However, that would have been appealable, as is this proposal. Am I right in thinking that these measures will include PII certificates?

The difficulty with using just public interest immunity certificates is that, when a PIIC is refused in a criminal case, the prosecution can, in extremis, withdraw the prosecution, but there is no possibility of withdrawing an inquest. That is because an inquest is triggered by a death, not by a discretionary criminal charge. That is why we have come up with this proposal. There will be circumstances—although I think they will be very few and far between—in which the learned judge might decide that the only way the protected information can be the subject of a proper judgment by the court while remaining protected will be for the judge to sit alone without a jury. I hope, however, that in many cases, the judge will come to the view that it will be adequate for the protected information to be gisted or summarised in a safe way to the jury.

Any movement on this issue by the Government is to be welcomed, although Opposition Members will have to study the details of the proposals. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he now accepts the point of principle that there is a difference between removing a jury and holding proceedings behind closed doors? Does he acknowledge that those are different issues that need to be decided separately? Will he also confirm that one possible special measure would be to security-vet the jury?

Special measures involving a jury and the removal of a jury are part of a continuum. The most extreme measure is for a judge to sit alone, and the decision to do so will have been reached in order to protect information that cannot be made public. A judge could decide to protect that information in other ways, however, and it would be for the judge to come to a view on that. I doubt very much that they would form the view that the vetting of the jury would be adequate, but they might do so.

Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that he has consistently argued his case in favour of secret inquests on the basis that two inquests had to be halted because the existing safeguards were inadequate? That is the argument that he put to the House on 26 January on Second Reading. Is he aware, however, that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), has now written to the Committee to explain that one of those inquests—that into the death of Terry Nicholas—was resumed on 6 January? Is that not quite staggering? Surely his argument must now fall apart, because he gave the House inaccurate information.

I think the hon. Gentleman will find that the second inquest was resumed on 6 February, which is a non-trivial fact because it is after I made my Second Reading speech rather than before. This is what the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), has just told me, and if she is wrong she will be given career advice at the end of Question Time and I will make a grovelling apology. In any event, we have always made it clear that the circumstances in which a non-jury inquest might be necessary would be few and far between. I hope that the House will regard it as a good thing rather than a bad thing that, as a result of further examination of the original circumstances that led to the judgment that two of the inquests had to be held without a jury, we have now got the number down to one. Surely that is a good thing.

Restorative Justice (Lancashire)

Lancashire police are among the best performing in the country and one of the leading forces nationally in developing restorative practices. Owing to the successes experienced in areas such as Lancashire, the Government want to see an extension of restorative programmes. To that end, we are currently working with interested groups, including the Restorative Justice Consortium, to develop a national victim-focused restorative justice strategy for adult offenders.

I warmly welcome my hon. Friend’s support for the pioneering developments in Lancashire, which include a peer pilot project for younger people. Will the Minister tell me whether the Government have made an assessment of the impact of this project, particularly on reducing antisocial behaviour among young people, and will he tell me how best practice from the project can be disseminated to benefit my constituents in Blackpool?

Peer panels, to which my hon. Friend refers, are a Nacro-led project. An independent evaluation of them is now in its second year of a three-year pilot, so it is too early to judge the success. Having said that, there has been a lot of positive feedback and we have seen an increasing number of referrals from the police, youth offending teams, schools, primary care trusts and so forth. Any lessons we identify from the pilot will be fed back into the centre further to inform the development of the restorative justice strategy.

Departmental Information Sharing

5. What the Government’s policy is on increased information sharing across Departments; and if he will make a statement. (263750)

Sharing information across Government Departments in a safe and proportionate way, with proper safeguards in place, is vital to the delivery of modern public services. That has always been Government policy.

Many of my constituents are very concerned about clause 152 of the Coroners and Justice Bill, and I greatly fear that, whatever reassurance the Minister can give, unless there is some absolutely categorical mechanism for protecting information, people will not be reassured that their details are safe.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I hope it will give his constituents some reassurance to know that we have withdrawn the clauses that they are worried about.

On information sharing, we have today received the shocking report from the Healthcare Commission on the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. In the course of that report, the commission says:

“We thought that information from the coroner would be useful for the investigation. We were disappointed that he declined to provide us with any information about the number or nature of inquests involving the trust.”

May I ask my right hon. Friend to make some inquiries into why that was so?

I can of course give my hon. Friend that reassurance, and I will write to him as well.

We all greatly welcome the withdrawal of clause 152 from the Coroners and Justice Bill, but can the Minister explain why it is that, although a moment ago the Secretary of State made great play of the fact that he had made the first announcement on jury-free coroners trials to the House, the announcement about the withdrawal of clause 152 was made not to the Bill Committee, of which I am a member, but to the Sunday newspaper The Observer two days earlier?

I think that if the hon. Gentleman looks at the Hansard record of the Committee stage, he will find that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), made it absolutely clear that we would revisit the clauses concerned. Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman that the commitment of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to the principle of parliamentary accountability remains inviolate.

Although I welcome the Secretary of State’s belated U-turn on proposals in the Coroners and Justice Bill for unlimited data sharing across Government, does he accept that the appalling case of John Worboys, who was reported to the police by 85 different women, demonstrates that the Government’s approach, involving relying robotically on databases that are badly run, in fact exposes the public to greater risk?

Let me address several of the points of contention raised by the hon. and learned Gentleman. First, what he regards as a U-turn, we regard as a proper process of parliamentary scrutiny. What should happen with legislation is that the Government bring it to Parliament, it is then scrutinised, and when, on occasion, the Opposition make a reasonable point, we respond appropriately. In the case cited by the hon. and learned Gentleman, it became clear that the powers were drawn too widely. We have therefore withdrawn them, will redraft them, and propose to introduce data-sharing powers in future, precisely because we believe that they can be in the public interest if they are implemented safely and if they are proportionate.

We do not implement such measures “robotically”, as the hon. and learned Gentleman claims. We bring them into play so that they can serve the public, and there are many examples of data sharing which do just that.

The Minister is flannelling his way around the Government’s U-turn, seeking to conceal the fact that he has given no answer to the second part of my question. Last week we learned that £41 million had been squandered on the Department’s IT database, which was designed to enable police, prisons and the probation service to monitor dangerous criminals. Now it has been abandoned. The National Audit Office has referred to

“inadequate oversight by senior management”


“no evidence of Ministerial involvement beyond them receiving standard summarised briefings”.

Presumably the Minister remembers those.

Today we learned that parole decisions on dangerous prisoners were being undermined because of basic failures to provide the timely and complete information required. Does the Minister accept that no database can compensate for the basic human errors that are resulting from the Government’s very poor management and serial incompetence when it comes to data?

The hon. and learned Gentleman really ought to have a look at his questions again before he asks them. He keeps returning to the same points. [Hon. Members: “Robotic!”] Yes—in a robotic way.

The fundamental point remains that the creation of databases can be in the public interest. It is never easy to get these things right, but I think that if the hon. and learned Gentleman looks at the record of the private sector, just as much as that of the public sector, it will be clear to him that we all have a great deal to learn. We are learning those lessons, however. We have put measures in place constantly to improve data security. I entirely accept that we have some way to go, but the fact that there have been deeply regrettable breaches of data security is no reason for us to turn our back on all the public good that can be done by the creation of databases in the public interest, subject to the principles of data protection.

Alternatives to Prosecution

6. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the criteria for dealing with offences by means other than prosecution. (263751)

Policing in England and Wales has always depended for its effectiveness on policing by consent, which in turn has required a high level of discretion within relevant guidelines—not least in regard to arrest, charge and other disposals—to be exercised by police officers and prosecutors. Out-of-court-disposals are, therefore, as old as policing itself. What we have done is ensure that their operation is transparent, consistent and proportionate. While, under us, crime has been falling year by year—by 39 per cent. over 12 years—the level of convictions by courts has been broadly stable.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, but the problem is that if, for example, someone parks their car in the wrong place for 10 minutes, they can get a fixed penalty of £120. Does the Secretary of State not understand that my constituents, along with people all over the country, believe that theft and criminal damage, which are often dealt with by a fixed penalty of £80, are far more serious offences? What will he do to restore public confidence that the punishment fits the crime?

I accept the basis of the hon. Gentleman’s question; parking offences are a nuisance, but the two other offences he mentions are, of course, more serious. As I have said to his party colleague, the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), I am looking at whether penalty notices for disorder involving dishonesty—the only one directly is that of shop theft—should continue to be subject to PNDs or should be subject to normal court process.

Fifty-seven per cent. of serious offenders in Dyfed-Powys escape prosecution and are cautioned. That is compared with an all-Wales average of 36 per cent. and a rate of 22 per cent. in the North Wales police area, which is the local police force of one of the Department’s Ministers. When figures vary so much across police force areas, are they audited by the Department to see whether they comply with any guidelines that are issued for the cautioning of serious offenders?

I have sat in this House for almost 30 years listening to lectures from Liberals and then Liberal Democrats about localism and the need for local areas to decide things for themselves without some central state direction, but now the hon. Gentleman wants a national dirigiste formula to be applied to Dyfed-Powys in the same way as anywhere else, without any local discretion whatever. He therefore needs to think again about the philosophical base of the party that he claims to represent. The other point I would make to him is this: overall, the reoffending rate in respect of reprimands stands at 28 per cent., which is significantly lower than that for those who receive a disposal order or those referred to custody. Reprimands can therefore play an important part in ensuring that offending is nipped in the bud, provided, of course, that the offence is not sufficiently serious to warrant a prosecution straight away.

Child Pornography

7. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of sentences imposed on those convicted of child pornography offences. (263752)

In 2000, we increased the maximum sentences available for production and distribution of indecent images of children from three years to 10 years, and for the simple possession of indecent images from six months to five years’ imprisonment. The average custodial sentence imposed by the courts has increased by several percentage points since the new maximum penalties were introduced.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does she agree that not only are images based on real children unacceptable, but so too are images that people use for these purposes that they have generated either from their own imagination or electronically? Will she give the House an assurance that her Department will not be going down the route of believing that those sorts of images are a matter for the individual concerned and their own conscience?

I can absolutely give my right hon. Friend that assurance. He will have been as surprised as I was when in the Coroners and Justice Public Bill Committee the Opposition spokesman, the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), said that he felt that our clause was, perhaps, over-egging the pudding. I do not for one minute think that taking action against these people in this way is over-egging the pudding. We need to protect our children.

My own discussions with the police dealing with the child sex offender area has confirmed that many of the sentences are clearly inadequate, especially compared with what Parliament intended. Why have Ministers consistently declined to add the child pornographic offences to sections 35 or 36 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, thus allowing appeals against lenient sentences?

I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken a great deal of interest in this area and has worked very hard to try to protect children. We have decided to go down the road that we have because we want to work with the industry, giving it the opportunity to regulate itself. Of course, if that does not work, we are prepared to legislate, if necessary, to ensure that children are properly protected.

Burial Ground Memorials

10. What assessment he has made of levels of implementation of his Department’s guidance on managing the safety of burial ground memorials. (263755)

I understand that those involved—undertakers, local authorities, crematorium managers and the like—have disseminated the recent guidance to burial ground managers. It is a little too early to make a detailed assessment of the implementation, but practitioner representatives have agreed to provide regular feedback and we will be undertaking a sampling survey of burial grounds within the next 12 months.

The new guidelines are a long overdue improvement in health and safety in graveyards, but the January newsletter of the local authority Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management describes them as creating a “dilemma” for local authorities and having “no logical basis”. The Minister has issued excellent guidance to sort out this scandal of health and safety zealousness in graveyards, but the local authorities are snubbing her and the Health and Safety Executive. What is going to be done to pull them into order and get rid of the nonsense of staking graves and laying down graves all across Britain?

It is important that the House recognises the zealousness with which my hon. Friend has pursued this issue, and it is very much down to his campaigning that the guidance has been introduced—I congratulate him on that. My officials have discussed this with the crematorium managers organisations, and they have assured us that they welcome the guidance in principle and that they will participate in arrangements to monitor its implementation. I take this opportunity to say again that where there is no need for a memorial to have been staked or laid down, we would expect the cemetery operator responsible to consider restoring it. The guidance recommends that neither mechanical pressure testing nor stakes should be used routinely, and although there may be the occasional case where careful and sensitive use of such equipment might be appropriate, it is clear that it is not appropriate in the vast majority of cases. We will continue to pursue that policy and encourage local authorities to do so too.

National Offender Management Service

11. What recent representations he has received on the performance of the National Offender Management Service. (263756)

The National Offender Management Service publishes its key targets each year and, from time to time, representations are received about a range of aspects of NOMS performance. I have regular meetings with interested parties and discuss a range of issues relating to NOMS regularly.

Last week’s National Audit Office report on C-NOMIS excoriated senior NOMS management for an information and communications technology project whose lifetime costs have tripled to £700 million in just three years. I exculpate the Minister, who is a very able man of great integrity, but what should be done about the lamentable failures of that ill-conceived, incoherent and incompetent organisation? Perhaps the guilty parties in EDS, Syscon and NOMS could be locked up for egregious negligence as a pilot group in one of the Minister’s fabled titan prisons—if there is one big enough.

I take it from that that my hon. Friend has some concerns about how the project was managed. He mentioned a figure of £700 million. On assuming this office, I took steps to review the C-NOMIS project and to put a moratorium on it when the costs were £155 million, in order to avoid the £700 million bill that I would have expected to receive had the project continued under the proposals at the time. There were difficulties in the project, but we have put it back on track. We have revised the costings, the project will be completed by July next year, at the latest, and thanks to the actions we took it will cost significantly less than was projected in the first place. I take my hon. Friend’s point and I recognise the serious failings that the NAO drew to our attention.

HMP Wymott

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, but concerns remain. Has the governor still got control over Wymott? Who is running the prison? We have seen an increase in prisoner numbers and a reduction in prison officer numbers, so the ratio has changed, and my deep concern is that that is leading to the protests. What can my right hon. Friend do to ensure that the governor has control and to put in more prison officers as the prison population continues to grow?

I have full confidence in the governor. The incident is, obviously, to be regretted, but steps have been taken to improve security at the site, including work on the roof to ensure that access will not be available again. One of the prisoners involved in the incident has been moved, and the other two will shortly be subject to potential disciplinary action. There is positive activity at Wymott—a new prisoner wing for 70 prisoners opened in September 2008—and I have visited it and Garth, which is next door, in the past year. I met prison officers and the governing team, and we have an opportunity to continue to build on the success of the prison. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that we are doing all that we can to ensure that the prison continues to make progress.

Topical Questions

The House will wish to be aware that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), has today announced strengthened regulation of the bailiff industry, including an online register and better criminal record checks. At the same time, we will not extend bailiffs’ powers of entry or the use of force, or commence charging order reforms.

On the issue of my hon. Friend and her career, may I make it clear that the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) was correct and I was wrong. I apologise to the House. By way of mitigation on behalf of my hon. Friend, I should say that Ministry of Justice officials and Ministers were not aware of the decision of the coroner of 6 January until 19 February, which was after Second Reading. I ask for that to be taken into consideration.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the honesty and probity of our legal services are very important for the future of the financial, legal and other services that we will continue to sell abroad? Does he share my concern and that of the Public Administration Committee that many of the big law firms are deeply involved in lobbying? If lobbying and the law become intertwined, we are in danger of experiencing the same problems as we had in accountancy, for example with Enron, when the two responsibilities of management consultants and accountants were merged and disaster ensued. There are some real problems with people who come here as lawyers but who are actually lobbyists, and something should be done.

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, but this is the first time that this particular issue has been raised with me. Of course I will follow up the specific case that he has in mind, but I should also say that this and the other place agreed to establish the Legal Services Board, which now has a tough chairman in Mr. David Edmonds, to ensure the more effective regulation of the legal profession, including cases in which alternative business models are adopted.

T3. I thank the Minister for allowing a free vote on the issue of the keeping of candidates’ addresses confidential, if they so wish, at election time. I also thank him for the excellent assistance that I received from his officials in making it possible to draft such a satisfactory clause, which has now gone to the other place. Given that this House has expressed its view—in a free vote by every party, apart from the Liberal Democrats—does he agree that it would be bizarre if the unelected House were to try to interfere with the clause? Can he give any indication of the attitude the Government will take in the other place on the fulfilment of the wishes of this House? If the matter comes back here, will he guarantee that we will have enough time for a full debate on the subject? (263774)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his graciousness, particularly towards the officials. They are not often mentioned in this House, and when they are it is not always complimentary, but they do a fantastic job and so I am extremely grateful to him for those gracious words.

On the matter of substance, we took the view very seriously that the subject was a matter for this House, and hence there was a free vote. We took a great deal of trouble to ensure that the measure came to this House first, because we thought that it was proper for those who were elected to make a decision on their behaviour during elections and on what information they should make available. I am quite sure that those in the other place will take due account of that and behave appropriately. Of course, we will have to see what they do. When we have seen what they have done, we will make a decision about what will happen when the measure comes back here.

T2. Concern about the number of adults with learning difficulties who remain in prison continues to be very strong. Will my right hon. Friend look carefully at the proceedings of the Westminster Hall debate on adults with learning difficulties that took place a couple of weeks back? In particular, will he look at the comments made by our hon. Friends the Members for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) about the number of adults in the system who do not get the right sort of advice or assistance, particularly when they are trying to go forward for parole? The issue is important and it is one on which it would be useful to hear of some proactivity from the Department. (263773)

I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. I shall certainly look at the debate that took place several weeks ago in Westminster Hall. As it happens, we have also been well engaged with the Prison Reform Trust on this issue. I attended the launch of the “No One Knows” programme last November with the director general of the National Offender Management Service to look at a range of issues to do with how we can support people with learning difficulties. As my hon. Friend will know, a number of individuals have found themselves in prison whose learning difficulties are contributing to their having a much more difficult time there than would otherwise be the case. It is important that we look at the recommendations. As we said at the conference in November, we welcome the recommendations and will look at how we can address them in a serious and practical way.

T4. The Minister will be aware of concerns caused among local communities by ClearSprings’s plans to house offenders on early release in residential areas. Given that ClearSprings has already had to back off from Basildon council once over a row about inadequate consultation, will the Department revise its contract with ClearSprings to ensure that local councils and residents are properly consulted as soon as ClearSprings starts looking in an area? (263775)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his views. He will know that, of the ClearSprings properties across the country, only about 6 per cent. have caused difficulties once operational. We will shortly re-tender for the contract. I am also in discussions with the Local Government Association to decide on a protocol on the question of consultation, which the LGA has almost agreed on a cross-party basis. It is important that probation, police and local councils are consulted on these matters, but the hon. Gentleman should remember that properties are very often the private homes of individuals who are sometimes yet to be convicted, on bail following offences, or returning from prison to the community for the first time. Those homes are private property, so there is an element of discretion around the issues.

T5. Tomorrow, the Political Parties and Elections Bill goes into the House of Lords, where Lord Campbell-Savours will table my amendments, which were backed in this house by 216 MPs but were not reached for procedural reasons. May I ask my friend the Minister why the Government will not table their own amendments to make it unlawful for tax exiles to bankroll UK political parties? (263776)

I have had some private discussions with my hon. Friend, to which he has given a wider audience. As I have explained to him, I think that his intention is shared across the House. However, his proposals would not have the consequences that he seeks. Moreover, there is quite an issue of principle here: it would be eccentric, to say the least, if the eligibility rules governing voting and receiving money from permissible donors, as well as standing for and taking up a seat in a Parliament, were less stringent than those governing giving money to a political party. I think that there needs to be consistency on this, and that is why we need a thorough examination of all these issues of residence and citizenship as qualifications for taking part in our democratic process.

T9. Earlier today, I had a meeting with representatives of the Federation of Small Businesses. They are very worried about the under-reporting of crime and say that, if the crimes that are not reported by business were taken into account, business crime would account for a third of all crime. They told me that one reason for businesses not reporting crime is that they are not convinced that any action will be taken, and that they believe that sentences are very lenient even when it is. What reassurances can Ministers give that the Government are really serious about tackling business crime? (263780)

Although I am in contact with the national Federation of Small Businesses and have great contact with small businesses locally, that representation has not been made to me before. We have increased the number of police officers over the past dozen years, and there has been an even greater increase in the numbers of support staff for the police. We have improved their systems and, as the Liberals are constantly complaining, we have increased the prison population and prison capacity by a third. As a result, the courts can hand out much tougher sentences for people convicted of crimes, including business crime. Once again, the Liberals need to work out what they want. They need to ensure that hon. Members on their Front Bench stop asking us to cut the prison population when those on their Back Benches are calling for an increase in the prison population—which is what we have provided.

T6. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he is giving full and urgent consideration to new information in favour of Michael Shields? Does he recognise the strength of support for Michael, in Liverpool and across the country? (263777)

I do indeed recognise the strength of that support. If I may, I should like to commend the way that my hon. Friend has represented the interests of her constituent and his family. I can answer the first part of her question by saying that, yes, we are giving this matter more consideration—quite appropriately—than I have ever given to any other case of this kind in my roles as Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and now Justice Secretary. As she will be aware, I have asked the Merseyside police urgently to conduct further investigations and interviews of further witnesses so that we can come to a view in the light of the criteria set down by the Court of Appeal.

Norfolk is one of eight areas that have piloted the youth restorative disposal scheme. Will the Minister assure the House that the departmental cuts of £900 million over the next two years will not affect those programmes?

I am happy to look in detail at what the hon. Gentleman says, as will the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson). However, the hon. Gentleman may be aware that I visited Norfolk 10 days ago to open the new headquarters of the Norfolk probation service. I was able greatly to commend the work of Norfolk’s police, probation service, courts and local authorities in working together to get crime down. They have made streets and communities much safer, and we are determined to ensure that that work continues.

T7. We have been waiting for more than 150 years to put the civil service on a proper constitutional footing. The Prime Minister announced that that was to be the unfinished constitutional business that the Government would complete, so will my right hon. Friend confirm that it will be this Government in this Session who will complete it? (263778)

I am very glad to hear that the hon. Lady endorses what my hon. Friend has said. Subject to any unanticipated glitches, it remains my intention that the necessary Bill will be brought forward, and it is currently in the final stages of drafting. The idea is that it will be a carry-over Bill that will be brought forward in the spring and then, if necessary, carried over into the next Session.

What progress has been made in ensuring that regional electoral returning officers can make sure that constituency returning officers obey and implement the law to prevent electoral fraud, because they have sometimes been found wanting?

Of course, we are always looking at how to improve the ways that electoral fraud is tackled, and electoral registration officers have a valuable role to play. We are looking at recommendations by the Electoral Commission in this area; and of course, we will introduce any proposals as soon as they are ready.

T8. My right hon. Friend will be aware that the consultation period on the House of Lords decision on pleural plaques has long passed, and is it not time that we had a result? Will he not consider ensuring that pleural plaques sufferers are looked after, that that decision by the House of Lords is overthrown and that those people will at last receive justice? (263779)

My hon. Friend is correct to say that the consultation period has now finished, and we are now actively considering—indeed, I attended a meeting this morning—the next steps in that respect. Of course, I understand the concerns that he expresses on behalf of his constituents.

Following the conviction last week of my constituent, John Worboys, for a series of very serious offences against women who put themselves under his responsibility, trusting that he would behave, will the Home Secretary assure us that he will have conversations with the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Home Office, so that where people have been arrested on suspicion of very serious offences, none the less and without infringing their liberties that information is not lost when similar offences are clearly being repeated in the same area or elsewhere?

I noticed the hon. Gentleman’s slip of the tongue; I am no longer Home Secretary. I will certainly ensure that what he says is passed on to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and taken into account. Of course, there is a wider issue of similar fact evidence, and one of the issues that we pursued—I do not remember getting a huge amount of help from the Liberal Democrats—was to ensure that it was easier to introduce such evidence in criminal prosecutions. I think that we were told at the time by the Liberal Democrats that that would be the end of civilisation and human rights. Yet again, they need to sort themselves out; they say one thing locally and another thing nationally.

Bill Presented

Protection of Shareholders Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. William Cash, supported by Mr. Frank Field, presented a Bill to make provision for each public company to establish a shareholders’ committee; to make provision about the membership, functions and operation of the committee; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 June, and to be printed (Bill 76).