House of Commons
Tuesday 23 March 2010
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before questions
Kent County Council (Filming on Highways) Bill [Lords]
Bill read a Second time and committed.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Short Custodial Sentences
Overall, the reoffending rate for all adult offenders went down by 15.9 per cent. between 2000 and 2008, and by a greater margin in respect of juvenile offenders. However, there is a problem, which I readily acknowledge, in respect of short-sentence prisoners, among whom the reoffending rate increased in the same period by 3.9 per cent. Those persistent offenders tend to be the most intractable to deal with, having failed on community punishments and failed to deal with their alcohol and drug abuse. The courts, police and National Offender Management Service are putting great effort into directing more of these offenders from crime, including through intensive alternatives to custody, “through the gate” supervision and better management of offenders, which is being piloted in the integrated offender management projects. Those measures are all helping to shape an improved strategy for short-sentence prisoners. In addition, last week I announced a very important initiative with the organisation Social Finance in respect of Peterborough prison, where social investors are to be paid by results to get reoffending down.
I thank the Minister for that comprehensive reply. Does he agree that the ineffectiveness of short custodial sentences, which we both agree about, is not remedied by saying, “Let’s not send people to prison at all”? It would be remedied far better by looking at the reoffending rate for those with long sentences, which is much lower, and by ensuring that people are kept in prison long enough to address their problems with alcoholism, drugs and lack of education.
The Government are the last people to suggest that people should not be sent to prison when the courts require it. One of the main drivers of the 25,000 increase in the prison population since 1997 has been that the courts, quite correctly, have been sending more people to prison and for longer. As for getting the prison population down, the hon. Gentleman should direct his remarks to those on his own Front Bench. It was, after all, the shadow Justice Secretary who said that if he could get back to the prison numbers that existed in 1993—44,000 rather than 84,000—he would have succeeded, and that he would be very happy to have that engraved on his tombstone. I think that it would be rather more of a political tombstone were he to try that. The people in prison need to be there, and what we must do is make more effective use of short sentences.
Many of those given short custodial sentences often have drug addiction issues. Would it not help to reduce reoffending if non-statutory organisations, charities and non-state players were given a greater role in helping to tackle drug addiction, both inside prison and when prisoners come out?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. As has been brought out by the excellent Public Accounts Committee report that came out recently, most of those persistent offenders have drug and alcohol abuse problems. We have increased by 15 times the amount of money spent on drug abuse and better education about drugs in prison, and as the hon. Gentleman might know, we are making much more use of voluntary organisations. Obviously, they have to enter into proper contracts with the state.
The emerging evidence from the evaluations in the six areas where intensive alternatives to custody are being piloted suggests that they are significantly reducing reoffending. I have seen one of them in operation in Derby. There is no doubt that if they are properly planned and executed they can effectively force offenders to face up to the reasons why they are offending, and can establish strong discipline on them in the community. If that works, it is all to the good.
The Justice Secretary failed to point out that the goal to which I aspire on prison numbers is matched by the goal of reducing crime.
Statistics published last week show that the reoffending rate among those subject to drug rehabilitation requirements is even higher than that among those who serve short prison sentences—although those two groups are often the same people. Does the Secretary of State accept that maintaining offenders on methadone is a counsel of failure, and will he give courts the power to impose abstinence-based drug rehabilitation orders to help offenders—with short sentences and long—to give up drugs once and for all?
The hon. and learned Gentleman highlights the fact that the group consisting of short-sentence prisoners is the most intractable to deal with. That is accepted in the round, and a great deal of work is going on to get them away from crime. Some of the “through the gates” work being done in London with the St. Giles Trust and the Metropolitan police has been excellent. Key challenges include ensuring that people are not offending—not when they are in prison, where, on the whole they cannot, but from the moment they leave prison—and dealing with their incredibly chaotic lives. He is really talking about the same thing. The prescription of methadone has to be a medical matter. Simply taking people off any kind of drug on which they are dependent when they are not ready for that will not resolve anything. However, we do have drug abstinence programmes in place.
But is it not small wonder that prisoners coming off short sentences are more likely than not to reoffend, given that, despite the “through the gates” programmes, the delays in assessing prisoners mean that most do not even undertake rehabilitation work until halfway through their sentence—and there is then wasteful duplication of assessments—and also given that up to half of prisoners spend almost all day in their cells?
The hon. and learned Gentleman draws attention to the findings of a National Audit Office report to which I have already referred, which shows that there are some excellent practices and some less than excellent practices in prisons. We are committed to responding very quickly to such issues—a response that includes improving the time that it takes to assess prisoners, as he suggests.
The Ministry of Justice’s court proceedings database does not hold information on offences beyond descriptions in the statutes under which prosecutions are brought. However, I can tell the hon. Lady that convictions for shoplifting rose by 9 per cent. and that some 45,600 penalty notices for disorder were issued for retail thefts under £200 in 2008. The Government take crime against businesses very seriously, and we are firmly committed to working to find effective solutions and responses to crimes against businesses.
I thank the Minister for that reply, but it is a load of twaddle. That 9 per cent. increase, those 45,000 offences and the police computer system that does not recognise multiple offences are the legacy of the Labour Government. The Conservatives will do better.
It would be very interesting to see how the Conservatives would do better, given that they want to tie the hands of the police and crime enforcement officers in relation to many of the measures that we are using effectively, such as those involving DNA and CCTV. Perhaps the hon. Lady should talk to her Front-Bench team and her party leader about changing their policy if they really have a strong message on crime.
The Government receive a wide range of representations on policies to reduce reoffending, ranging from regular meetings with front-line staff, sentencers and third sector organisations to the detailed consideration of more formal reports from parliamentary Committees or external bodies such as the National Audit Office.
The NAO’s report of two weeks ago revealed that reoffending by people released from short-term prison sentences is costing £10 billion a year. We seem to be supporting colleges of crime. Is it not time for some serious research into what works to reduce reoffending, perhaps through something analogous to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence—a NICE for the Ministry of Justice?
It is always difficult to get the balance right between researching into problems and spending money on actually dealing with them. We prefer to spend money on dealing with problems, and that is working. Reoffending has gone down: since 2000 the reoffending rate has reduced by 15.9 per cent., crime is down by 36 per cent. and violent crime is down by 41 per cent. There are 6 million fewer crimes a year than in 1995 and the chances of being a victim of crime are at their lowest since records began in 1981. That is a record of which we are proud.
I know that the Minister is aware that women who offend often have multiple problems such as alcoholism and substance abuse. Does she agree that by addressing those problems through mentoring schemes such as those in the Women’s Turnaround project in Cardiff, which has recently benefited from another Government grant, we will reduce reoffending?
I accept my hon. Friend’s point. I, too, commend the work of Women’s Turnaround in Cardiff, which I have visited and for which, as she rightly says, the Ministry of Justice provides some funding. The project does excellent work in tackling the causes of offending among women who often end up serving short sentences, and whose life situations worsen because of those short sentences, rather than their being able to tackle the cause of their offending.
I will not repeat what I normally say on these occasions about the crime rate falling throughout the whole of the western world since the mid-1990s, but I am encouraged by the tone of both the Secretary of State and the Minister on the issue of reoffending. May I ask them to commit, in the forthcoming election campaign, to sticking to evidence about what works, instead of the debate in the campaign descending to the usual arms race that harms victims of crime in the long run, and undermines the political system in this country?
The victims of crime in this country want crime dealt with effectively, which means not only protecting the public by locking up serious and dangerous offenders—who ought to be locked up—but enabling people who are in prison to tackle the causes of their offending behaviour. We do both, and it is a record on which we are proud to stand.
The Minister will be aware that a lot of persistent reoffenders have low educational achievement, which in turn is often the result of speech and language difficulties from an early age. I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to work done by the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists and other interested bodies on screening tools that could deal with that issue and provide more support in prisons to address the problem.
My hon. Friend is correct: low educational attainment is one of the factors that can cause crime and reoffending, which is why we have trebled the amount we spend on offender learning in our prisons to £175 million over the current three-year period. That has led to 36 per cent. of those leaving our prisons going into education, training or employment. The figure is not high enough, but it is an awful lot better than it was. My hon. Friend is correct to say that we need to be aware of issues such as learning disability that may prevent prisoners from accessing the support and help that exists. We are getting better at remedying that.
As the Minister has just implied, good education courses in prison can indeed dramatically reduce reoffending, but can she explain why the Manchester College was awarded further contracts to run education services in prisons, only to announce soon afterwards that it needed to make more than 300 people redundant? Given that the college seems to have massively overreached itself, on what basis was it awarded the contracts, and what responsibility does the Minister take for this rather sad and hopeless state of affairs?
The procurement of services such as education in prisons is conducted in a proper manner, in accordance with EU regulations and the laws of this nation. There is no doubt about the fact that the college was properly awarded the contract. I cannot comment on the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman refers to—the college’s internal arrangements, and how many people it does or does not employ. That is a matter for the college, but the contracts it has undertaken with us have been properly procured and carried out to a proper standard.
Service Personnel (Voting)
For registration, we have extended the period for service declarations to five years, and the Electoral Commission is leading a drive to increase registration, including providing bespoke registration forms for service personnel in Afghanistan. Proxy votes are available to all registered service personnel serving overseas, and we are also offering a bespoke scheme to expedite postal voting in Afghanistan. For the longer term, we are consulting on measures to provide a comprehensive solution. I have written to Opposition parties asking them to sign up to that commitment on a cross-party basis.
I am sad that the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have a great deal of respect, has his facts wrong in almost every particular. The working group was not set up in January; it was set up last autumn. The hon. Gentleman should not take his information from what he reads in the papers; they are not always right. In this case they are wrong, and he was wrong to quote them. I am sorry that he thinks what we have done is too little, too late—and I am trying to recall all the letters he has written to me about this issue in the past, but I am afraid I cannot recall any. In fact, the Opposition were, sadly, silent on the subject until I started work on it. [Interruption.] I am afraid the record speaks for itself, and it is quite clear. I am happy to show it to any hon. Member who wants to approach me afterwards. [Interruption.] As Opposition Members well know, I have tried to approach the matter on a cross-party basis. It is important for all Members of the House to do everything they can to expedite postal voting for those who want to use it, and to ensure that every member of the armed services is registered to vote. That is the work that we are undertaking. The working party has reported, and if the hon. Gentleman knew what his Front-Bench team know, he would know that I wrote to them a few days ago asking them to support the work proposed by the working group.
My constituent, Corporal Stephen Thompson, who, sadly, was killed in Afghanistan a couple of weeks ago after having volunteered to serve in 3 Rifles Battle Group, was serving his country and protecting democracy in Afghanistan. It is very important, therefore, that servicemen in such a position are able to vote. The Minister said that he would put in place for this election a bespoke postal voting service. Can he assure the House that all the votes of service personnel serving in Afghanistan who use that will get back to their constituencies to count for this election? At the last election, only 28 per cent. of service personnel were able to vote.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I am sure the whole House wishes to express its appreciation of the sacrifice that his constituent made. It is fundamentally important that we all do everything we can, for exactly the reasons that the hon. Gentleman set out. I can assure the House that we have better arrangements for postal voting in this election than we had in previous elections. It is worth reminding the House that every member of the armed services can vote by proxy, should they so wish, and there is no doubt about that vote being registered. But as the hon. Gentleman will know, there are service personnel operating in extremely difficult and arduous circumstances in Afghanistan, often in remote areas. We are doing everything we can to get the ballot forms out as quickly as possible and back as quickly as possible. There will be a significant improvement. I cannot guarantee that every one will be able to be counted, but we are doing everything we can. For the future—this is important—we are now looking into how we can move to electronic voting for the next general election, and we want to get support for that. It is very complicated and will involve huge changes to electoral law. We want to move together on an all-party basis. This will sort the matter out once and for all, and we hope we will have the hon. Gentleman’s support in doing so.
When I was Under-Secretary of State for Defence, a great deal of effort went in, with the Ministry of Defence, to get as many service personnel abroad registered to vote as possible. What role are the local authorities playing, and what efforts are they putting in to ensure that as many personnel as possible are able to vote?
Registration is the fundamental prerequisite to being able to vote, and I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend did when he was at the Ministry of Defence. Huge effort has gone into that, and it is working. In the past year the number of service declarations has gone up by 15 per cent., and we need to get the figure up higher. I think it will be higher by the election after next, and we will do everything we can. We have invited all hon. Members to contribute to the process, and that invitation is still extant. We want everyone to do everything possible to make sure that everyone serving in our armed services can vote.
I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend is doing with his constituents in the armed services and their families to make sure that they can vote. It is fundamental that families serving overseas should have that facility. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), of course local authorities have a fundamental role to play in this. We all have a role, We should do everything we can, and the Government are doing everything they can.
As the Minister has decided to leave the House at the general election, this might be the last opportunity we have to thank him for his consistent courtesy, and to pay tribute to him for his hard work, and for what I might describe as his good intentions. I am grateful to him for the letter to which he referred a moment ago, which he sent me last Thursday—and yes, I can answer that we will co-operate in a cross-party way. He says in the letter that the Government intend to launch a consultation for the next Parliament because members of the working group all agreed that concrete steps must be taken. That is a clear admission that the Government know that they have not taken sufficient steps to make sure that members of the armed forces serving our country abroad will be able to vote. I accept that the right hon. Gentleman may well have tried his best, but why do Ministers not want to hear the verdict of members of the armed forces on 13 years of Labour Government?
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for her kind words, but I am also particularly grateful—this is the really important point—for her agreement to work with us on a cross-party basis. We want service voters to be able to vote. It does not matter who they vote for; it is a fundamental democratic principle that those who are giving their all—and in some cases their lives—in the service of this country should be able, as far as they possibly can, to express their vote, whoever they vote for. It is wrong of her to suggest that anything sinister is going on. These are difficult and complex matters, and I have already said that we have taken a lot of steps to solve these problems. We have made considerable progress, and we are going to go on making progress.
I have said clearly that registration rates are going up—indeed, that they have gone up by 15 per cent. in the last year—and the hon. Lady must agree that that is a significant achievement by local authorities, by the Electoral Commission and by the officers and service personnel themselves, who are driving that increase. We are putting measures in place to ensure that service voters can vote as they want. That is the crucial point. She always overlooks the point that all service voters can vote by proxy, so they are not being denied a stake in the general election in this country. The question—
Members of Parliament (Recall)
The Government have received 74 items of correspondence calling for the introduction of a recall law. We are committed to legislating for a recall mechanism in the new Parliament, and I look forward to discussions with other parties, with a view to reaching an agreed solution.
The Minister says that he supports a power of recall, and of course I welcome that, but is it not disappointing, therefore, that the Labour Whips in another place ensured that an amendment to legislation there, which would have achieved such a power and allowed it to be put in place now, was defeated? In the light of the lobbying scandal and the pressure in favour of introducing a power of recall, rather than talking about it, is it not time for the Government to act?
The hon. Gentleman may not have spotted this, but there is going to be a general election some time before June the third—[Hon. Members: “The fourth!”] Some time before June the fourth. Sorry, Mr. Speaker, I hope that the record can be corrected and the tapes amended accordingly. The issue of recall legislation in this Parliament is, frankly, otiose. It is for the next Parliament to deal with, and we have to get the system right—but it comes as no surprise to this House that the proposals drawn up by the Liberal Democrats on the back of an envelope do not quite do the job that is required.
Can we be specific about this issue? I know from their proposals that the Government support a recall mechanism for the other place, but is the Secretary of State now saying that he also supports a recall mechanism for the Commons? If so, that would be a very great advance, and we would very much welcome it. Indeed, if he has moved on that issue, will he now move on proportional representation, too?
This may well be the hon. Gentleman’s last outing, too, so I pay tribute to him for the work that he has undertaken. However, he needs to get some better briefing, because my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced at the Labour party conference on 29 September that we were committed—
Settlements out of Court
Settlements are primarily matters between the parties to the case. It is a matter, therefore, for the claimant to decide whether to accept an offer at any stage, including, in some cases, before court proceedings have been formally issued. Therefore, we do not hold figures centrally to reflect the number of court cases that end as a result of a settlement out of court.
Did not Mr. Justice Vos, in the Max Clifford case involving the private investigators of Mulcaire, Whittamore and News International, order the disclosure of documents which would have shown the extent of the industrial scale of the defendants’ illegal hacking—so was not News International’s settling out of court with Mr. Clifford a manipulation of the judicial system to avoid compliance with the disclosure orders? Is not this a scandalous process, amounting to a £1 million cover-up to protect Tory director of communications Andy Coulson, then News of the World editor, from being accountable for the gross malpractices for which he was responsible—
I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns. Of course, any further investigation into allegations about phone-tapping is really a matter for the Crown Prosecution Service and the police. However, we are aware of the report by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and we are considering our response to that. It has made some very serious recommendations, and we will of course take those on board and respond in due course.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the recent report on this issue by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which he chairs. In parallel, in January I established a working group on the libel laws, and I have today, by written ministerial statement, published that report. As the latter makes clear, action on libel tourism is urgently needed and will be taken as soon as possible. That will be part of a draft libel Bill that we intend to publish in the new Parliament, as well as other more immediate action that we believe, and the working party believes, could be undertaken by changes in the procedural rules and in judicial practice.
I welcome the Government’s statement this morning, which appears to address a number of the recommendations made by the Select Committee on reform of the libel system. However, on the specific issue of libel tourism, is the Secretary of State aware that only last month the Senate Judiciary Committee voiced support for federal legislation in America to allow US courts to negate the judgments of UK courts in libel actions, on the basis that UK courts do not give sufficient recognition to the need for freedom of expression? Does he accept that that is a matter of profound concern that we need to address as a matter of urgency?
Yes. The hon. Gentleman properly draws attention to the fact that our defamation laws have developed in rather an unbalanced way. They are now, for example, having a chilling effect on legitimate and important scientific research. We therefore have to bring them back, not into direct symmetry with those of other jurisdictions, but into a better balance.
Is the Secretary of State aware that we, too, support sensible and well-thought-out reforms of libel law? Why is the statutory instrument before another place being delayed by certain Labour peers? Does he agree that when it comes to capping success fees, we must strike a balance between controlling excessive costs and ensuring that our constituents have the right to access justice to protect their reputations?
I will answer the first one—the difficult one. I am afraid that I have no control over Members of the other place. I do not agree for a moment with the approach that they are taking. We are strongly committed to producing better sense in the no win, no fee arrangements. I am clear that reducing success fees from 100 per cent. to 10 per cent. will not prevent well-founded claims from being made, but it should put off those who are chancers, along with their lawyers, who have in the past obtained both costs and compensation, wholly disproportionate to the alleged defamation that they have suffered.
Since 1997, the Government have been working to ensure that domestic violence law supports and protects all victims of domestic abuse. We have introduced practical system changes to promote co-ordinated community responses to domestic violence, including the establishment of specialist domestic violence courts. On 19 March, we announced that from 1 April 2010 there will be 141 SDVC systems. That means that the Government’s target of having a total of 128 court systems in place by 2011 will be not only met but exceeded a year ahead of schedule.
I thank the Minister for her detailed response. Will she join me in praising the Cheshire domestic violence partnership, which was recently shortlisted for a local innovation award? It is working extremely well with the special advisers that the Minister has mentioned.
Children who witness domestic violence are also victims. What advice do the Government give to domestic violence partnerships and the courts on supporting children?
Of course I join my hon. Friend in praising the work of the Cheshire domestic violence partnership. The effect on children who witness domestic violence and abuse can be harrowing, and their needs must be reflected in any strategy dealing with the effects of such abuse. The services of independent domestic violence advisers are integral to providing additional support to the victims of domestic violence and their families in both normal criminal courts and family courts. I am happy to write to my hon. Friend about the other services that we are providing for victims, especially through the national victims service.
How can it be just that last year, about 40,000 victims of violence saw their cases not taken to court but dealt with by a caution, and four out of five offenders who made it to court were not ordered to pay compensation? In the dying days of this Government, will the Minister ensure that we have not just a national victims service but national victims’ justice, so that we see more offenders convicted in court and made to pay back for their crimes?
This Government have done far more for victims by introducing the national victims service, which will provide caseworkers for those who are affected by the most serious crimes and those who are the most vulnerable. In addition to bringing more criminal cases, the Crown Prosecution Service continues to improve its performance in respect of domestic violence, and the charge to conviction rate for 2008-09 was 72.2 per cent., exceeding the CPS’s target of the previous year.
Will my right hon. Friend consider visiting West Lancashire and meeting representatives of West Lancashire women’s refuge, who deserve congratulations on their effort and work on the front line in dealing with the fallout from domestic violence and who are keen to discuss with Ministers the positive Government contribution and commitment to funding the tackling of domestic violence?
Prisons (Muslim Gangs)
We take the issue of gangs and security in prison very seriously. We work with our law enforcement partners, including the police and others, to identify and manage risks to safety, order and control.
A former Muslim inmate has said:
“Muslims run the prisons and there’s nothing screws can do about it”.
After 13 years of Labour, this tired Government are making things worse. Does the Minister agree that things cannot go on like this and that it is time for change?
It is complete nonsense to say that Muslim gangs, or any gangs, run prisons. Our prisons are run by the National Offender Management Service and by the staff. We have prison intelligence networks that can identify threats to order and control, and we have ways of ensuring that such threats are tackled effectively. We are doing that as well now as we ever have in the whole 13 years of this Government.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the most important thing is to monitor, and when necessary act against, groups that fall under the influence of Salafist ideology, particularly when they are associated with groups such as al-Qaeda?
The Ministry of Justice has frequent discussions at many levels with the Governments of the Crown dependencies. We discuss many aspects of our constitutional relationship, including on occasion the islands’ relationships with other Government Departments.
I thank the Minister for what he did to help resolve the dispute between the Isle of Man and our Department of Health. However, are not the lessons of that dispute that there need to be more bilateral meetings between Ministers of the Crown dependencies and Whitehall Ministers that avoid the Sir Humphreys, and that the Ministry of Justice needs to reassert its lead role throughout Whitehall as the conduit between Her Majesty’s Government and the Crown dependency Governments?
One lesson of the recent dispute was the persuasive eloquence of my hon. Friend. He deserves a lot of praise for that, and he will be much missed in this House.
This Government take our relationship with the Crown dependencies extremely seriously. Certainly when I was the Minister responsible, I had frequent meetings with them, as does my colleague the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Lord Bach. I am sure that all Ministers in the Ministry of Justice will continue to do that. I know my hon. Friend’s views on the Sir Humphreys and so on, but the officials who deal with such matters are excellent. They do a very good job, on which they should be congratulated.
Prisoners (Republic of Ireland Nationals)
At the end of June 2009, there were 524 prisoners from the Republic of Ireland serving sentences of imprisonment in England and Wales.
Given the cost to the British taxpayer of their incarceration, and that only Jamaican and Nigerian nationals have higher populations in our jails, why is Her Majesty’s Government not returning to secure detention in the Republic Irish nationals who consent to go?
Such arrangements are voluntary. If people wish to go, their returns can be facilitated, and there is no reason why not. We no longer deport—except in exceptional circumstances—at the end of a sentence of imprisonment because of the operation of the common travel area, which means that people can simply return.
I sent a reply to the hon. Gentleman last week. I apologise to him and the House that, because of the depth of consideration required, we were unable to respond within the 20-day statutory period.
In early January, we learned the astonishing news that in 2003 Lord Hutton recommended that material relating to the death of Dr. David Kelly should be locked away for 70 years. That material would have been made public had the matter been dealt with in a coroner’s court. On 27 January, Lord Hutton indicated that he was now content for the material to be released to medical experts, who are threatening legal action against the Government, and I tabled the FOI request to which the Minister replied. The doctors have heard nothing, and my request has been turned down. Where is that material? Will she now comply with Lord Hutton’s request for it to be made publicly available?
Our refusal of the hon. Gentleman’s request is an entirely legitimate and normal use of the exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act. The correspondence to which he refers is a matter of public record and represents nothing new. We have already provided to the Hutton inquiry, by third parties, a clear expectation that its contents would remain confidential. I reiterate the commitment made to him by the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) to revisit the Government’s position should he come forward with any new evidence.
Prisoners Released in Error
While the proportion of prisoners released in error is very small, being about one twentieth of 1 per cent., the Prison Service is making every effort to reduce the number further. All releases in error must be reported immediately and are subject to formal investigation so that lessons can be learned. It is a mandatory requirement that prisons check the correctness of the calculation of a prisoner’s release date and entitlement to release on two separate occasions just prior to release. Prison governors have been reminded of the importance of these checks and the need to follow up any errors immediately.
The fact is that over the past two years the number of prisoners released early has increased by 45 per cent. Does the Minister agree that it is bad enough that the Government have an official early release programme, but worse still that so many criminals are being released early?
I do not really understand what the hon. Gentleman is talking about; his first question was about releases in error, but he is now talking about early release. All that I can say is that we look very carefully to make sure that people are not released in error, but that where they are, they are immediately brought back to custody, as almost all of them are. The figures were not even collected by his party when it was last in government, so at least we know what the situation is now.
Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection
Imprisonment for public protection sentences play an important part in protecting the public. We are currently considering the recommendations of the joint thematic review on indeterminate sentences, published by the prisons and probation inspectorates, for improving the operation of those sentences.
The Secretary of State will know that there are 2,400 post-tariff prisoners cluttering up our prisons. They cannot apply to the Parole Board, because they cannot get on the offender behaviour courses that they have been required to undertake. Does he accept the view of the inspectorates that he has just mentioned, which is that that is completely unsustainable? In fact, does he not agree that it is literally a criminal waste of money?
I profoundly disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Those offenders are not “cluttering up” prisons; they are there because they have been assessed as dangerous by the courts following legislation that we introduced in 2003. There is no entitlement for a prisoner who is on an IPP sentence to be released when his tariff expires. The prisoner has to show that it is safe to release him or her—they are mainly males. The responsibility for proving that it is safe to release the prisoner is on the prisoner. We make available a range of courses, but it is not about ticking boxes; it is about prisoners taking responsibility for themselves. There is no doubt about the effectiveness of the sentence. In my judgment, it is one of the measures that we have introduced that has considerably contributed to making this country much safer and to getting crime down.
I would like to draw the House’s attention to the publication that we issued yesterday, “Declarations of Interests: Guidance for Parliamentary election candidates”, which was produced in response to a recommendation of the Committee on Standards in Public Life on MPs’ expenses and allowances. It follows consultation with the other parties and amendments to take account of their concerns. I hope that it has the full support of the House.
Yes, I can. We now have community payback, which involves offenders in high-visibility jackets. It is popular with the public—they can now see community punishments taking place—and it is accepted by offenders as part of punishment. There are five such schemes taking place in my hon. Friend’s area. There is the Far Cotton alley gates scheme, the Camp Hill lighting scheme, the Safer Lumbertubs initiative and many other projects, all of which are improving the quality of life for her constituents.
There is no way in which I can prevent prisoners from making statements through their lawyers in the newspapers, but I can say, very emphatically, that any such claim would be vigorously and very thoroughly resisted. My sentiments are the same as those of the hon. Gentleman and, I think, the House as a whole. I also point out that we have taken active steps to restrict the availability of legal assistance to prisoners, because it was subject to abuse, and it is now being severely restricted.
We are always ready to look at further evidence, although it obviously has to come from those who are medically expert in this field. However, the evidence that we had to take into account was a report by the chief medical officer for England, along with a parallel report by the medical advisers to the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council.
Does the Secretary of State agree that violence at Her Majesty’s Prison Frankland has affected not only Huntley and other inmates, but prison officers? Can he tell us what steps are being taken to deal with violence and dangerous weapons in Frankland?
First, I want to pay tribute in the House, as I have done privately in letters, to the three prison officers who have been injured, one of whom, Mr. Wilde, has been severely injured. Fortunately, such attacks on, and injuries to, prison officers are not frequent, but when they do take place, they are terrible for individuals, their families and their colleagues at work. They are also a reminder of the inherent danger that prison officers face, particularly in category A high-risk prisons. A lockdown is taking place at the moment—it takes two or three days in high-risk, high-category prisons. It involves going all the way through the prison searching for any kind of weapons. Other measures are also in place to ensure that those two incidents, which we believe are unrelated—but that is the subject of an investigation—do not happen again.
The hon. Gentleman says that they want to do it by linking it to a fall in crime. However, I am clear, and so is my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, that one of the reasons why we have been the first Government since the war to get crime consistently down, rather than up, is that we have been locking up serious, dangerous and persistent offenders for longer; they are being taken out of the system. That is how hon. Members’ communities, and mine, have been made safe. Letting out 40,000 prisoners would be a way of making the country even more dangerous than when the Conservatives were last in power.
Were that to happen, of course it would be worthy of the description that the right hon. Gentleman has used. As I have said, however, all that has happened so far is that there has been a suggestion, apparently by the prisoner’s lawyer, that he will seek compensation. I can tell the House as an absolute fact that that would be robustly and vigorously resisted by the Government, and we have absolutely no intention of making such compensation payments.
The announcement that I made this morning related to the publication of the report of the working group on defamation, which included representatives from both sides of the issue, as it were. I understand the case that the hon. Gentleman is making, although it is quite a complicated one. We are certainly happy to examine further his proposals, but I do not want to pre-empt the results of any such examination.
Next year will represent the centenary of the passing of the very first Parliament Act. Would not a good way to mark that occasion be to do what is provided for in the preamble to the Act—to legislate for a fully elected second Chamber of Parliament?
It would be a fine year in which to move towards a wholly or mainly elected second Chamber. This House agreed on such a move in free votes in March 2007, and it has also been the subject of broad all-party agreement in two sets of proceedings involving cross-party groups. I hope that it can be achieved.
Will the Secretary of State answer the substantive point raised by the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell)? Surely it cannot possibly be right that 2,400 prisoners serving indeterminate sentences who want to attend courses to address their reoffending behaviour are unable to do so. That cannot be either right or economic.
The Prisons Minister—the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle)—tells me that 69 per cent. of those prisoners have the opportunity to attend such courses. Following changes that I made in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 that led to a minimum tariff of two years—so that people were not on imprisonment for public protection tariffs for such a short time that they could not do courses—we are now ensuring that there is a greater opportunity for people to do these courses. But I come back to the point that the responsibility for showing that prisoners are no longer dangerous and that it is safe to release them rests fairly and squarely with those prisoners, and not with the Prison Service.
On the question of the Libyan who was released early from prison north of the border, what discussions, if any, has my right hon. Friend had with our country cousins north of the border, given that it is now eight months after that man’s release, and that we were told at the time that he had only three months to live?
The hon. Lady raises an important issue. I think that she is asking whether staves should be available to prison officers in young offenders institutions for under-18s. I received representations on that from YOI staff over about two years, and I conducted a review. This is quite a difficult issue, in terms of balance, and all the staff are agreed on that. In the event, I endorsed the existing policy, but I have looked into this very actively, and I promise her that it is a policy that has to be kept under active review.
We increasingly involve third sector and other organisations in offender management to make sure that proper arrangements are in place for those leaving prison, so that they do not fall down the cracks or between services and fail to get the support that they need. It is an increasing part of what we do.
We are always looking at ways in which we can tighten up the legislation on antisocial behaviour orders. Before ASBOs were introduced—by me as Home Secretary in 1998, as it happens—there was no provision in the criminal law for dealing with persistent antisocial behaviour. ASBOs have been a successful tool available to local communities, police and the courts in dealing with this behaviour. Where someone breaches an ASBO, they commit an offence with a maximum sentence of five years. What we wish to see is these full powers being better used by the courts.
It makes that individual, whoever they may be, a persistent offender. Whether a community punishment or a short sentence would be appropriate is, I think, open to question. [Interruption.] I am therefore not surprised that the Liberal Democrats are opposing indeterminate sentences for public protection, which are, perhaps, what is needed.
Unfortunately, I did not quite catch all of the hon. Gentleman’s question. Insofar as I understood what it was about, the Government—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. As I was saying, insofar as I understood the hon. Gentleman’s question, the answer is that the Ministry of Justice looks at each case on a case-by-case basis. As I have said to the hon. Gentleman, we can always look at matters again, and we will do so, if necessary.
What is the Secretary of State doing to address concerns from professionals, practitioners and the public alike about the staff shortages and massive casework increases in the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, including the problem of having a period of up to five months during which there has been no allocation of any guardian in a case involving vulnerable children?
I am not trying to excuse the situation, but may I gently point out that CAFCASS in England is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, while in Wales it is the responsibility of the Welsh Assembly Government? I will certainly take up the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has raised. I am aware of the pressure on CAFCASS, which has an impact, in turn, on the operation of the family courts, for which I am responsible.
I would like to provide that reassurance. I have to say to the hon. Lady and the House that ultimately that decision would be for the Parole Board and the courts, and perhaps mental health tribunals. However, I say to her, and through her to her constituent, that all the evidence I have seen in this case—it is a great deal—suggests to me that there are no circumstances in which that man will be released.
It is the job of the Court of Protection to make that assessment under the Mental Capacity Act 2005. The court will look in detail at the individual concerned and take a holistic approach to them. If it so wishes, it may choose to involve experts from across the piece, if appropriate. The hon. Gentleman might be interested to know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice has agreed with the president of the court that a review of its rules should take place, and that issue might be one of those that it considers.
UK Passports (Use in Dubai Murder)
With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I will report to the House on the investigation announced on 17 February by the Prime Minister into the use of counterfeit British passports in the killing of Mr. Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai on 19 January. The UK is continuing to support inquiries under way in a number of countries including in the United Arab Emirates itself. However, at the end of last week the Serious Organised Crime Agency reported to the Home Secretary on its investigation. Its report has now been studied by the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and me, and was presented to the Cabinet this morning.
In the past 24 hours I have spoken to the Foreign Ministers of the other countries whose passports were involved. Their investigations are continuing. It would not be right to release the report in full, for legal and other reasons, but it is right that the House should know a summary of the conclusions that SOCA has reached and the action that we will be taking in response.
First, for the avoidance of any doubt, I should make it clear to the House that in the case of each of the 12 passport holders to whom SOCA spoke, it found no evidence to suggest that any of those individuals were anything other than wholly innocent victims of identity theft. Secondly—this should not need saying—I must add in the strongest possible terms that the UK had absolutely no advance knowledge of what happened in Dubai nor any involvement whatever in the killing.
SOCA conducted an extremely professional investigation. The Israeli authorities met all the requests that SOCA made of them. SOCA was drawn to the conclusion that the passports used were copied from genuine British passports when handed over for inspection to individuals linked to Israel, either in Israel or in other countries. It found no link to any other country. Given that the operation was a very sophisticated one, in which high-quality forgeries were made, the Government judge it highly likely that the forgeries were made by a state intelligence service. Taking that together with other inquiries and the link to Israel established by SOCA, we have concluded that there are compelling reasons to believe that Israel was responsible for the misuse of British passports.
The Government take this matter extremely seriously. Such misuse of British passports is intolerable. It presents a hazard to the safety of British nationals in the region. Also, it represents a profound disregard for the sovereignty of the UK. The fact that that was done by a country that is a friend, with significant diplomatic, cultural, business and personal ties to the UK, only adds insult to injury. No country or Government could stand by in such a situation.
Israel is a democratic country, with remarkable achievements to its name, in a dangerous part of the world. That makes international co-operation even more important. Britain has worked and will continue to work closely with Israel on a range of issues, notably the Iranian nuclear threat, but that co-operation must be based on transparency and trust. The Government are therefore taking a number of steps, based on the evidence of what has occurred in this case, to make clear their deep unhappiness at what has happened, and to seek to ensure that such an abuse does not happen again.
I met Foreign Minister Lieberman on 22 February. At that stage, our investigation was only just starting. I told him then of our deep concern about the incident, and made clear my expectation that Israel would co-operate with the investigation. I met Mr. Lieberman again in Brussels yesterday. I set out the findings of the SOCA report, our intended actions, and our determination to ensure that this affair is never repeated. I handed over a letter seeking a formal assurance from him that in the future the state of Israel would never be party to the misuse of British passports in such a way.
Diplomatic work between Britain and Israel needs to be conducted according to the highest standards of trust. The work of our embassy in Israel and the Israeli embassy in London is vital to the co-operation between our countries. So is the strategic dialogue between our countries. Those ties are important, and we want them to continue. However, I have asked for a member of the embassy of Israel to be withdrawn from the UK as a result of this affair, and that is taking place.
Members will be concerned about the fate of the British passport holders involved. As one of them said, to go to bed as a citizen and wake up as a wanted terrorist is shocking. We have provided consular assistance for the 12 people whose identities and passports were misused. As part of that, we offered them all new biometric passports, which are being rolled out to the whole British population and, being considerably more difficult to counterfeit, should give them the confidence that they need that they can still travel safely on their British passports. Eleven of the 12 have so far been issued with new biometric passports.
To alert other British nationals to the risk that their passports might be misused in the same way, I am today amending our travel advice on Israel to make clear the potential risk, and to set out the steps that people can take to minimise that risk.
The middle east is not a place for woolly or wishful thinking. The Israeli people crave and deserve legitimacy and security. The United Kingdom will not compromise its support for that, but the actions in this case are completely unacceptable, and they must stop.
I commend the statement to the House.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement, and for setting out the measures that are to be taken. Let me say at the outset that the Opposition agree with them. We should all regret having to take such measures against a country that is a friend of Britain and with whose diplomats we enjoy good relations, but we cannot permit cloning of, interference with or misuse of British passports by another state. If the Foreign Secretary is truly satisfied, on the basis of all the evidence he has seen, that that has happened in this case, it is right for Britain to take measures both to rectify the situation and to show that it is unacceptable to us.
Is the Foreign Secretary aware that there was a similar case in 1987, when it was discovered that Israel had forged British passports for intelligence operations? On that occasion, the then Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, assured the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Howe of Aberavon, that it would not happen again. It seems that those assurances have not been upheld.
On the results of the investigation, we welcome the fact that Israel co-operated with the Serious Organised Crime Agency in its inquiries. The Foreign Secretary said that he had spoken to the Foreign Ministers of the other countries whose passports were allegedly involved. Can he tell us anything about their own investigations? Can he tell us when he expects those investigations to be concluded, and whether he expects any of those other countries to take similar action in parallel with the United Kingdom?
On the need to prevent this from happening again, the Foreign Secretary will know that as soon as the use of British passports was uncovered last month, we argued that the Government should seek a specific assurance that Israel would never sanction the misuse of British passports in any future operation. We therefore welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary has now formally requested such an assurance from his Israeli counterpart. Will he make it clear, however, that it is not just a question of an assurance that no future counterfeiting will take place, but a question of an assurance that there will be no further use of any British passports that may already have been copied? That last assurance will be of particular concern to British travellers who may fear that other versions of their passports are in circulation.
Did the Foreign Secretary receive any indication from the Israeli Foreign Minister that such assurances could or would be given, and will he intend, if they are received, to change the Foreign Office travel advice relating to Israel accordingly?
The Foreign Secretary said that the biometric passports introduced four years ago are more difficult to counterfeit. Does he consider these new passports to be as invulnerable to counterfeiting as it is possible to make them, or will the Government review whether any other steps are needed to protect the integrity of British passports? Is there any suggestion that British passports are more vulnerable than those of other countries, including other EU countries?
Finally, on the effect of this on relations with the United Arab Emirates, can the Foreign Secretary say any more about what assistance SOCA and other British authorities have provided to the Dubai authorities at their request and whether this is continuing? Has he had any indication from the UAE Government that more stringent rules will be applied to the issuing of visas to British citizens visiting or resident in the country?
There are many issues on which Britain and Israel quite rightly work closely together: a two-state solution to the middle east peace process, diplomatic action over Iran’s nuclear programme and the expansion of trade between our countries to the benefit of all our citizens. But such relations and co-operation must be able to take place in an atmosphere of mutual trust, and it is necessary for that trust to be reaffirmed so that relations can be as productive as they should be. We therefore think that the measures taken by the Government are right and that the Israeli Foreign Minister, as he considers the Foreign Secretary’s letter, should know that it comes with united support across this House.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support. As the House knows, there is publicly available history here, dating back to the 1980s, upon which it is reasonable to reflect in the light of the incident that has most recently taken place. It is right to be extremely cautious when saying anything about the investigations that are being conducted by other countries. They are continuing, as I said in my statement, and I did not press the Foreign Ministers to whom I spoke yesterday, and this morning actually, for details. All of them were clear that these investigations were being conducted by independent authorities in their own countries and needed to be carried to their conclusion. That is right. They did not give me a time frame for when they would conclude, either. It is right to make it clear to the House that no country had as many passports involved in this sorry affair as the United Kingdom; no other country was even close to double digits.
We are clear that we keep our travel advice up to date, so the response that we seek from the Israeli Foreign Minister in reply to my request for a specific assurance will of course affect what our travel advice about the situation and its consequences.
In respect of biometric passports, the Government believe that they are as invulnerable as possible, which was, I think, the right hon. Gentleman’s phrase. They are certainly not more vulnerable than passports from the rest of the EU. The link to biometric fingerprinting is obviously important in this case in strengthening the security of the passports.
Finally, on the UAE, its investigation is continuing. It is too early for the Foreign Minister of the UAE to have given me any suggestion of a tightening of his visa regime but it is important that we continue to support the UAE in its investigation, which it is carrying out in an extremely professional way.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for giving me an advance copy of it. Now that SOCA has concluded that British passports were indeed misused by Israel, may I join him in expressing our deep concern? It is indeed intolerable that a close ally should treat Britain and British nationals in this way. I fully support the proportionate measures proposed by the Foreign Secretary today. It is difficult to get the correct balance when dealing with a state such as Israel that is a close friend of this country, but I believe that he has judged it well.
I have three areas for brief questions. First, will Ministers and SOCA work with other countries whose sovereignty may have been breached by Israel on these occasions to assist them in their investigations? In answer to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the Foreign Secretary touched on this, but is Britain offering our support to those countries with their investigations?
Secondly, given that it is alleged that these counterfeit passports were used in an extra-judicial killing by Israeli agents, has the gravity of that misuse been weighed in the balance in the Government’s response? Thirdly, and more widely, although I strongly agree with the action that the Foreign Secretary has taken today, may I invite him to reflect on how the expulsion of a diplomat in response to passport fraud, serious though that is, might look to Palestinians in Gaza, the west bank and elsewhere, who have been the victims of more serious breaches of international law by Israel? Given the action that he has taken today, can he assure me that when it comes to policy issues such as the blockade of Gaza and illegal settlements on the west bank, the Government are willing to back stronger condemnation of Israel, as President Obama and other EU countries now appear willing to do? We are right to feel like wounded friends of Israel over these passports, but we must also be ready to be more critical friends of Israel over matters that are harming the peace process and are also not in Israel’s long-term interests.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who speaks for the official Opposition, for their support. It is important that a united message goes out from across the political parties about the necessary nature of the measures that we have taken today, significant though they are.
On the hon. Gentleman’s questions, first I should say that, when asked, SOCA is available to help partner agencies around the world. Secondly, the matter of gravity that the SOCA investigation was looking into was confined to the passport counterfeiting, cloning and so on; SOCA was not conducting an investigation into the alleged murder in Dubai. SOCA’s investigation was narrowly construed, but none the less it has wide-ranging ramifications alongside the other inquiries that have been taking place.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman will know that it is my very strong view that engagement with the people and Government of Israel is essential if we are to convey to them the concern we have about issues such as Gaza, which he raised. The situation in Gaza was discussed yesterday at the Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels as part of a wide-ranging discussion following the Quartet meeting with the Quartet envoy, Tony Blair, yesterday. So the measures that we have taken today, including those relating to a member of the Israeli embassy, relate to the investigations that have taken place in the run-up to this announcement.
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on being the first western statesman to take specific action against the serial crimes committed by the Israeli Government? However, he surely must recognise that anybody passing through the corrupt passport control and airport security system at Ben Gurion airport is liable to have her or his passport cloned and abused. If he wishes to have any further information about my own personal experiences of those corrupt systems, I shall pass it on to him.
My right hon. Friend has certainly added to the gravity of the situation with the issue that he has raised, and I certainly would like to see whatever information he has available. I think that not only the measures that we have announced but the advice that we have given on the Foreign Office website as of now will provide a degree of warning and protection for any traveller to Israel and will allow them to mitigate the risks that they might face.
Like the Foreign Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), I consider myself a friend of Israel, but on this particular occasion I think that we have a legitimate grievance. May I take the Foreign Secretary back to his statement? He has made much of his discussions with the Israeli Foreign Minister, in which it seems that most of this pressure has been about what will happen in the future. Surely what we need to establish from the Israeli Government is an acceptance that they were involved in this incident, not just a suggestion that they should not be engaged in similar incidents in the future. May I ask the Foreign Secretary to press his counterpart in Israel to admit at some stage that the Israeli Government were involved in this before admitting that they will not do anything similar in future?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I can say to him that in my meeting with the Israeli Foreign Minister—also in Brussels, as it happens, last month—I pressed him very strongly on the circumstances of this incident. He said—he has said this publicly—that he had no information relating to the incident. Although I understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making, I am sure he will also recognise that there is an ongoing criminal investigation in the UAE into the alleged murder that is the primary focus of the legal side of this affair. It is helpful, though, for him to have made his view clear about the seriousness of this issue. Israel has a huge amount to gain from adherence to international law and international obligations and it is very important that a message goes out that we expect that in all cases.
May I ask the Foreign Secretary to clarify whether the diplomat leaving London will be selected by the Israeli ambassador or whether a specific person is being expelled whose fingerprints have been found in relation to this matter? If it is the latter, this is a very limp response. If the person is guilty of being part of this fraudulent dealing with our passports, the House should be told.
As I said very clearly in my statement, the request for an individual to leave—and the decision of the Israelis to accede to that request—was made by us. It was linked, precisely as I have said, in the work that we have done to the investigations that have taken place. We were very clear with the Israeli authorities about the basis on which we were asking for an individual to leave.
What the Foreign Secretary has described is a criminal conspiracy to facilitate murder, probably contrary to UK domestic law under the terrorism legislation. That being so, has the Foreign Secretary considered what officials not in the Israeli Government or elsewhere, not covered by diplomatic privilege, may be liable to criminal sanctions before the UK courts? If he has, what steps does he intend to take to pursue that matter, for example through the issuing of international warrants of arrest?
As we have discussed in this House many times, the procedures for arrest—never mind for prosecution—are not ones that are in the hands of the Government. The measures that we have taken in this case have obviously been carefully weighed and walked through with legal advisers as well as with others who were conducting the investigation. I think that that is the right basis on which to leave it.
I welcome the statement from my right hon. Friend, and given the fact that this extra-judicial murder was an affront to British interests and British subjects, it was quite inevitable. However, this action was not aberrant—it was a measure of the impunity and illegality with which Israel acts. At this very moment, as we speak, 1.5 million Palestinians are illegally trapped, blockaded and destitute in Gaza, and in the west bank their land and their water are stolen daily and defenceless children are shot. When are we going to take this forward on a greater level and condemn more actively than we do the wider actions of an ally that is rapidly becoming a rogue and pariah state?
I am pleased to be able to say that we discuss often, in this House and elsewhere, the situation in the middle east and, specifically, the situation in Gaza as well as that in the west bank. One has to choose one’s words and cases carefully. My hon. and learned Friend is right that settlement building, if that is what he was referring to, is not only a roadblock on the road to any kind of peace settlement or Palestinian state, but illegal. It is contrary to international law and that is something that we make very clear. We should continue to recognise that there is a strong British national interest in a resolution of the conflict at the heart of the middle east that is based on a Palestinian state that is able to live alongside Israel but that is also based on Arab states being able to normalise their relations with Israel on the basis of the Arab peace initiative, which was published in 2002.
The point that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) made is just as important even if one is not dealing with an alleged killing. The courts of England send people with no previous convictions to prison for passport forgery and their sentences are measured in years. What does this story tell us about the integrity of the Government’s proposals for identity cards? Does it not undermine the Government’s case?
I am delighted that the hon. and learned Gentleman has raised that point, because it makes a very strong case precisely for the national identity register that we propose. I think that many people, if they can be diverted from the issue at hand for a moment, will see that the determination to have a national identity register precisely fits into the sort of concerns that people have about identity theft. Actually, the case is made for the proposal that the Government have put forward, and I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will reconsider his opposition to it.
In his statement, the Foreign Secretary said that
“we have concluded that there are compelling reasons to believe that Israel was responsible for the misuse of British passports.”
That being said, why is only one diplomat being removed and why not much higher up the chain? Does the Foreign Secretary believe that the Israeli Government were culpable in the act of deception over the passports and the murder, or does he believe that some quasi-state authority in Israel undertook it in the name of that country?
I make no allegations about quasi-state authorities in this case. Let me address the point that we should have moved, as my hon. Friend put it, higher up the chain. He is saying that we should either have expelled the Israeli ambassador or have withdrawn our ambassador from Israel. I do not believe that that would have been the right thing to do. In fact, it would have been a retrograde thing to do, because it is vital that we are able to express with passion, commitment and principle to the Government of Israel the feelings from across the House and within the Government. It is essential that we are able to do so in this country and in Israel itself. The last thing that we should be advocating is the isolation of Israel; we do not advocate the isolation of Iran and we do not advocate the isolation of Israel either. That would be quite the wrong lesson to draw from this affair. However, it is important that my hon. Friend recognises that the decision that we have taken about this case and about the withdrawal of a member of the embassy’s staff is designed to be targeted and effective, and I believe it will be.
Does the Secretary of State understand that his statement today displayed remarkable restraint and fastidiousness? He described the operation as “sophisticated” and said there was “compelling” evidence, in relation to passports, of the involvement of a state intelligence agency. From that, he concluded that
“Israel was responsible for the misuse of British passports.”
What factors stand in the way of his reaching a similar conclusion regarding the killing in Dubai itself?
My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) said that the steps I was taking were unprecedented, and the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) says that we have been fastidious, so I look forward to their arguing that out. Perhaps we have struck the right balance. On the alleged murder in Dubai, the investigations are continuing and we wait to see what the UAE authorities conclude on that matter.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement and the action that he has taken, as well as the speed with which SOCA has completed its report. I appreciate that aspects of the report ought to remain confidential, but will he confirm that they have been shared with the head of the Identity and Passport Service and the head of the UK Border Agency?
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement, which referred to the “killing” in Dubai, whereas the heading on the Annunciator referred to the alleged “murder”. I seek assurances that the Government are not trying to signal some ambiguity as to the criminal character of state-sponsored assassination. He has told us what Foreign Minister Lieberman told him yesterday, denying any knowledge. Does he believe Mr. Lieberman? If not, how can we believe any assurances that Mr. Lieberman gives in future?
I believe that in Israel the system for governance of the intelligence agencies is rather different from the system in this country, as the Foreign Minister explained. The Foreign Ministry does not have the line of responsibility for foreign intelligence in the way that it does in this country, where the Secret Intelligence Service is responsible to me. That is not how the system works in Israel, and I take at face value exactly what the Foreign Minister said to me a month ago and yesterday.
In 2004, relations between New Zealand and Israel were put on hold after a robust reaction from New Zealand to Israeli sovereignty violations. In 2005, the then Israeli Foreign Minister apologised to New Zealand. Will the UK be demanding from Israel the same respect it showed New Zealand, especially given that UK passports were used to facilitate a murder? Will the removal from the embassy be random or specific? Are the people to be chosen by Israel or by the UK?
We actually answered that earlier—in the second question. It is not a random selection, and it is made not by the Government of Israel but by us.
If the hon. Gentleman goes back to the 2004 case, he will find some significant differences from this case. I think that the information that I have seen about it is available in the public domain. However, he will see clearly from my statement the degree of concern that we have, and the measures we have taken.
I welcome the Government’s robust action and I oppose the isolation of Israel. Nevertheless, why does the UK continue to regard successive Governments of Israel as friends and allies of the UK, when they repeatedly demonstrate—as in this passports case—that they pay little or no attention to the UK and we appear to have no real influence whatever over Israel?
I am not entirely with my hon. Friend in his description. We have some strong shared interests with Israel and we do some important work together. However, in cases when Israel flouts the friendship between our countries, it is vital that the Government speak up without fear or favour, which is what we have done in this case.
I think we can rest assured that even Mossad will think twice before trying to steal the identity of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman).
Given the importance of the proportionate response that the Foreign Secretary has rightly outlined to the House, how was it that the BBC, nearly two hours before he made his statement to the House, put up a news item headed, “Britain to expel Israeli diplomat”, quoting diplomatic sources? Should that not have been said in the House first?
I am glad to have the opportunity to tell the hon. Gentleman that of course the House should be the first to hear. I have been assured that there is no suggestion of the Foreign Office being the source, and I am determined that when we have something to say it should be said here first.
I commend my right hon. Friend on his decisive action in expelling a so far unnamed diplomat from the Israeli embassy, although he is of course welcome to name him. I have the diplomatic list, from the ambassador to the defence attaché, who, to refer to the previous question, just happens to be a Colonel Kaufman.
May I urge my right hon. Friend to take similar action every time Israel disregards the law, whether it is by building settlements, building the wall in occupied territory, the annexation of east Jerusalem, targeting civilians in Gaza or the use of human shields?
We are clear that it is important that Israel has diplomats in this country. We think it is important that we are able to engage with them in a way that allows them to reflect in their own society, and their own country, the degree of passion in this country. I assure my hon. Friend that on the issues he has raised we speak very clearly to the Israeli embassy as well as to the Israeli people.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have given you prior notice of it, and I have given prior notice to the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), whom it concerns. There is, as you know, a planning application in my constituency for intensive dairy production at a place called Nocton. It has aroused intense feelings and opposition, part of which is founded on animal welfare considerations. The hon. Member for Carlisle tabled early-day motion 1037 which addresses the issue both in general and in particular, mentioning my constituency as the site, or at least that is the implication. He did not discuss this with me in advance; I am sure that he intended no discourtesy. I do not think that there is guidance on the matter, so I am looking only to guidance for the future.
May I suggest that in future, when an hon. Member tables an early-day motion which affects another Member’s constituency directly, the Member tabling the early-day motion should inform the other Member in advance, very much as he or she would if he or she were going to the other Member’s constituency? I do not for one moment challenge the hon. Gentleman’s right to table the early-day motion, but it would have been helpful and, I suggest, courteous for me to have been told in advance.
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving me advance notice of his point of order. Clearly, as he indicated in what he said, the matter is of specific relevance to his constituency. The House is well aware of the conventions about visiting other Members’ constituencies, and about mentioning each other in debate. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman rightly observes, we do not have a practice on giving notice about tabling motions, but he has made his point very effectively. I know that others will thereby be conscious of the matter.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) is a barrister, but I was hoping that you would find me innocent of the crime, Mr. Speaker. I did not mention the right hon. and learned Gentleman, and I did not specifically mention his constituency. I referred to Lincolnshire; I did not know the site was in his constituency. The precedent that could be set is that if any hon. Member tabled a question about any constituency, he would have to tell the hon. Member concerned. I hope that you will find me innocent.
What I would say to the hon. Member for Carlisle is that I have sought to respond to the point of order from the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) in measured terms, just as he spoke in measured terms, and so did the hon. Member for Carlisle. I do not view the matter, if I may say so, in terms either of guilt or of innocence. The situation that has arisen is quite specific, a repetition of which could occur. Rather than formulate a new rule or piece of guidance on the hoof, I would prefer to rely on the general good sense and natural courtesy of right hon. and hon. Members.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I tried to catch your eye before the Foreign Secretary had left. In his answer to me, the right hon. Gentleman said that he had specifically said, with reference to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who the person to be expelled was. In fact, he did not. At 1.52 pm the BBC news site said that it was likely to be the London head of the Mossad secret service. I got more information from the 1.52 pm release from the BBC than I did from the Foreign Secretary at the Dispatch Box a few moments ago. May I ask that we are told first, in the House from the Dispatch Box, if somebody is to be expelled from the UK?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order, and I endorse what he and other right hon. and hon. Members have already said on the matter. In fairness, I think the Foreign Secretary, who is no longer in his place, made very clear his own belief and insistence that matters of public importance should first be disclosed or reported to the House, rather than to the media. It is fair to say—I will deal with the specific point that the hon. Gentleman made—that Ministers cannot be held responsible for what is speculated about in the media. If there is specific evidence—
Order. I will come to the hon. Gentleman, who is in a state of overweening excitement.
If there is specific evidence that something has been disclosed externally first, the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) knows that I would regard that as an extremely serious matter. I do not think this is quite such a case. I note what he said; those on the Treasury Bench will also have noted what he said.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I quote briefly from the BBC posting at 13.52, which has been referred to? It says:
“BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen said the person to be expelled is likely to be the London head of Israel’s secret service, Mossad. Diplomatic sources stressed the British government has stopped short of accusing Israel of the murder.”
That is a fairly clear indication that that report was written as a result of conversations with someone connected with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
I still believe, if I may say so to the hon. Gentleman, that we are in the realms of speculation. We have not got a concrete finding. If I had not known him for 26 years and five months, I would think that he was trying to continue the debate, but as I have known him for 26 years and five months—
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Later today, under items 9 and 10 on the Order Paper, the House is due to vote without debate, under Standing Order No. 118(6), on two orders. They are local government structural changes to create unitary authorities in Exeter and Norwich. They were considered yesterday afternoon by a Delegated Legislation Committee, and yesterday evening in the other place. In the other place, an extraordinary thing occurred: on the Norwich order, a motion to regret and delay the matter was passed after a Division; and on the Exeter order, the Government accepted the motion put forward to delay its implementation without seeking to divide the House.
Given that there can be no debate, is it in order for this House to be asked to vote on those two orders when it is not now clear whether the Government intend to proceed with them, or to delay them in accordance with the stance that they adopted in the upper House? Could we at least ask that the Minister be brought to this House to explain the Government’s position before we vote on something that may turn out to be a false premise?
The hon. Gentleman has raised his point of order with all the force and lucidity that one would expect from a practising barrister, but I fear that I am going to have to disappoint him somewhat when I say that what happens in another place is not a matter for the Chair. The hon. Gentleman vents his displeasure at the fact that the Government have tabled the matters upon which the House can vote but which will not be open to debate, but that is a matter for the Government and not for me. It may be that he is putting in a bid for an increase in the powers of the Speaker, but as things stand I have no such power.
The hon. Gentleman has just very pithily done so.
Sustainability of Livestock Farming and Food Production (Strategy)
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Mr. Peter Ainsworth, supported by Mr. John Gummer, Mr. David Amess, Alan Simpson, Dr. Nick Palmer and Andrew George, presented a Bill to require the Secretary of State to prepare and implement a strategy to improve the sustainability of livestock farming and the sustainability of the consumption of livestock produce; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 April, and to be printed (Bill 94).
Fire Safety (Schools)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the compulsory installation of automatic fire sprinklers in all new-build educational establishments; and for connected purposes.
The purpose of the Bill is simple: all new-build nursery, primary and secondary schools, academies and technology colleges should be fitted with sprinkler systems in order to reduce the damage caused by fire and to save lives. I am aware that this is a very topical issue. The Welsh Assembly has passed the Legislative Competence (Housing) (Fire Safety) Order 2010, which proposes the installation of fire sprinklers in all new residential premises in Wales. There was clear support for that in the Assembly. There is also a Bill going through the other place—Lord Harrison’s Building Regulations (Amendment) Bill.
Approximately 1,400 schools in the UK are damaged by fire each year—roughly 20 schools per week. That is only the reported figure; there may be many smaller fires that go unreported. The Arson Prevention Bureau states that almost a third of school fires occur during the day, putting the safety of staff and pupils at risk. According to the 2007 figures from the Department for Communities and Local Government, 42 per cent. of the fires in that year were arson. It is estimated that fewer than 200 schools of the 28,000 are fitted with sprinklers. According to the Department for Communities and Local Government, the cost of school fires stood at £58 million from 2000 to 2004, with the total cost estimated by the National Union of Teachers to be in the region of £100 million. In 2006, six fires resulted in damage of £1 million each. That is enough to employ a substantial number of new teachers and provide new building facilities.
Fire causes untold damage to school buildings and facilities. We can all recall examples of school fires in our own constituencies that have caused great damage. As I said, the true cost is estimated to be about £100 million per year. However, fires also have many serious knock-on effects such as necessitating the hire of temporary accommodation for staff and pupils. The National Foundation for Educational Research estimates that the education of approximately 90,000 children is disrupted each year by school fires and that those from disadvantaged backgrounds are most likely to be affected. Coursework can be lost and exams postponed due to fire. It can lead to a drop in morale among staff and pupils. It can have an impact on those in the wider community who use the facilities for adult education or sports, for example.
The published Government guidance for fire safety in schools, “Building Bulletin 100: Design for Fire Safety in Schools”, states that
“all new schools should have fire sprinklers installed except for a few very low risk schools”,
subject to a risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis. The value of sprinkler systems has been applauded by the Government as a weapon against arson. To quote from “Building Bulletin 100”,
“Sprinkler systems installed in buildings can reduce the risk to life and significantly reduce the degree of damage caused by fire.”
That is a welcome statement, but installation is not currently compulsory. Government statistics state that 70 per cent. of new-build schools are fitted with fire sprinklers, but it is not a legal requirement. Although “Building Bulletin 100” is to be commended for the importance that it attaches to sprinklers, it is not enough for the Government merely to expect new schools to be fitted with sprinklers; it should be mandatory for all schools.
The figures for 2007 show that 58 per cent. of school fires were accidental. That means that a school classed as being at low risk from arson attacks would still be at a high risk from accidental fires. In my constituency, for example, the west midlands fire service reported a 100 per cent. increase in accidental school fires in 2008-09. They could have been caused by many factors, such as an electrical fault. We need to ensure that all schools are as safe as possible for our children and to protect against all types of fire, accidental or deliberate. Fire sprinklers would help to achieve that.
It is for local authorities to determine their policy on fitting sprinklers. However, while some local authorities, such as Coventry city council in my constituency, have a clear policy of fitting sprinklers in new schools, some do not. There is no unified stance across local authorities. There is also a worrying trend that private finance initiative projects need not comply with Government guidance on this issue, as they do not come under local authority jurisdiction. For example, in Coventry, there was recently a fire at Woodway Park school. The building is derelict, but it took 60 firefighters to fight the blaze. Crucially, the PFI project next door, Grace academy, has just reopened after a fire that cost £15 million. That school does not have sprinklers. One must argue that if one school can burn down, there is an equal risk to the school next door. I do not believe that the Government envisaged PFI projects opting out of the guidance, so there needs to be a mandatory requirement.
There are many benefits associated with fire sprinklers. They reduce deaths; there have been no fire deaths in UK buildings fitted with a fully maintained sprinkler system. Sprinklers act within three to five minutes of a fire starting and help control and contain it in a small area of a building. They improve firefighter safety, as the fire is controllable. Fires are smaller and more controlled, which limits the rebuilding costs. Recent research estimates that property damage has been reduced by 80 per cent. where a sprinkler is fitted. They also have environmental benefits, as they use less water to tackle fires. It is estimated that fire hoses uses 1,000 litres a minute, whereas fire sprinklers use only 60 litres per head per minute. Water is also used more efficiently, as sprinklers act earlier.
My Bill would make a simple change that would have a huge impact on schools’ fire safety. Schools should be one of the safest places for my constituents and residents around the country, and my Bill would help achieve that. Powered sprinklers are a simple, efficient way to increase fire safety in schools. They minimise the property damage caused by fire and dramatically reduce the risk to life. Many organisations, such as the west midlands fire service and the Chief Fire Officers Association support this Bill for the mandatory installation of fire sprinklers. I commend it to the House and thank the west midlands fire service and everybody associated with it.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mr. Jim Cunningham, Mr. Michael Clapham, Mr. Brian H. Donohoe, Mr. Geoffrey Robinson, Mr. Brian Jenkins, Mr. Ian McCartney, Annette Brooke and Rosie Cooper present the Bill.
Mr. Jim Cunningham accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 April, and to be printed (Bill 93).
Cluster Munitions (Prohibitions) Bill [Lords]
Considered in Committee
[Sir Alan Haselhurst in the Chair]
Clauses 1 to 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Application of section 2
I beg to move amendment 1, page 2, line 33, leave out subsection (3).
This is a probing amendment. As the Bill is currently drafted, clause 4(3) limits the application of the offences defined in clause 2(1) and (2) to British nationals and companies alone when the alleged offence relates to actions outside the United Kingdom rather than to those on UK soil. My amendment would remove that limitation and extend liability equally to people and companies that were not British and that had committed the offences defined in clause 2.
My question to the Minister is this: why have the Government chosen to include the limitation in clause 4(3) of the Bill? It is conceivable that the offences defined in the Bill could be committed by people who are resident here but who are not British citizens. Plenty of people who live here are legal but temporary residents and others have indefinite leave to remain; there are Commonwealth citizens; European Union nationals in Britain exercising their rights under the treaty of Rome; and some who have always been resident in Northern Ireland identify themselves as Irish rather than British citizens under the terms of the Belfast agreement. All those people could—hypothetically—commit one of the offences defined in the Bill, but they would seem to be exempt from prosecution in respect of an offence committed outside the UK, whereas their next-door neighbour committing the same offence could, on my reading of the Bill, be caught by it and convicted.
Therefore, the purpose of the amendment is to get the Minister to elucidate the purpose of that exclusion and to see whether the Government believe it is justified and whether they are prepared to review it.
I share my hon. Friend’s concern. He said that it is a probing amendment, but of course, in the context of the Bill, which comes from the House of Lords and is now in its final stages, the Minister’s answer will have to be definitive; otherwise, it will not be a probing amendment and it will be made very rapidly.
The measure seems extraordinary, because clause 4(2) states:
“Section 2(2) applies to assistance, encouragement and inducements in the United Kingdom or elsewhere”
and clause 4(3) confines the application to conduct that arises under clause 2(1)
“and to assistance, encouragement and inducements”
that arise under clause 2(2).
However, “conduct” arises only in respect of clause 2(1) and the other matters—
“assistance, encouragement and inducements”—
apply only in respect of clause 2(2).
We are often accused—particularly those of us who are lawyers—of being rather pedantic, but the truth is that legislation is about law. I am not suggesting that the Minister would do this in the context of the debate, but it would seem rather absurd to accuse us of being either pedantic or pernickety when we draw attention to inconsistencies. There are strange aspects to the Bill, and given its object, I concur with what my hon. Friend said. I look forward to both an explanation and a definitive answer from the Minister, because we are in the later stages of our consideration of the Bill, and what he says may determine what we do after Committee stage.
I understand the nature of the argument made by the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), but I want to explain why I think he is wrong.
Clause 2(1) applies to conduct in the United Kingdom or elsewhere—that is about conduct—and clause 2(2) applies to
“assistance, encouragement and inducements in the United Kingdom or elsewhere.”
However, clause 4(3) applies to what happens outside the United Kingdom. Although it is perfectly legitimate for us to extend the provisions that we make for British people who engage in such activity outside the United Kingdom, creating an offence for people who are not British and who are from other parts of the world, over whom we therefore have no jurisdiction, would be inappropriate. Article 9 of the convention on cluster munitions, on which all our legislation has been based, obliges states parties to impose penal sanctions to prevent any prohibited activity from being
“undertaken by persons or on territory under its jurisdiction or control.”
Obviously, the rest of the world is not under our jurisdiction or control. That is why we have not sought to act against foreigners abroad. We are acting against British people abroad, and against anybody in the UK, but not against foreigners abroad.
That is at the nub of the point that I raised on Second Reading. Things are not quite as simple as the Minister makes them sound. Bosnia is a classic example; in that case, cluster munitions were used by British forces, and were inevitably transferred to other forces because of where those munitions ended up. Where would we be if the Bosnians chose to use those munitions, given that we are entirely responsible for that situation? I would be happy to be told that negotiations will ensue. The Minister is looking quizzical, but that is a real-life case; cluster munitions are still there, and could be used by a third party.
I am not sure that my hon. Friend is right on that last point about there being cluster munitions that could be used by a third party there. We are destroying all our stockpiles, full stop. That will all be done by the end of 2013. We are moving forward to try to make sure that all countries sign up to and ratify the convention, so that cluster munitions become a thing of the past. It would be a step too far, and not a step that the convention requires us to take, to legislate for those who are not British and not operating in the United Kingdom.
I understand the Minister’s argument, but surely it leads us towards the following perhaps unlikely, but still possible, hypothetical situation. Two people live next door to each other in a British city. Both go abroad, commit one of the prohibited actions defined in the Bill, and return to Britain. As the action took place overseas, the British citizen could still be prosecuted, but his next-door neighbour, who is a British resident but of a different nationality, could not. That seems to introduce a contradiction into the Bill.
I will not deal with a theoretical, a hypothetical or a speculative; as may be judged from my demeanour, I will go straight to the issue on which the Minister and I have had so many disputes—the European Union. In the United Kingdom, which is a member of the European Union, the situation that my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) has set out could easily arise. The Minister has repeatedly asserted the virtues of measures such as the European arrest warrant. There is a thing called aiding and abetting, and there is the question of accessories, too. A whole range of criminal law considerations can arise in relation to matters of the kind that we are discussing. The provisions deal with questions relating to offences—that is what clause 2 is all about. Those offences are serious. Indeed, a person guilty of an offence
“is liable, on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 14 years”,
so we are dealing with very serious matters. Will the Minister confirm that there is indeed a problem regarding the European Union?
No, of course I will not. The important point is that many other countries are already signatories. If a French person lived next door to a British person in the UK, and went to another country and engaged in the use of cluster munitions, he would be offending under French legislation. That is the general way in which all the conventions have proceeded. That is precisely the process that we adopted for the Landmines Act 1998, and there have not been significant problems in that case. Clause 3(3) is a similar, parallel, sort of arrangement, implementing precisely what was in the Ottawa convention.
I think that the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) has a point. If someone is permanently resident in the UK, even though they are a foreign national, they are under British jurisdiction in the UK and have British permission to stay in the UK the whole time. Is the Minister saying that it is legally impossible for us to continue that jurisdiction when they travel abroad and then return to the UK? Surely that cannot be the case.