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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
23 March 2010
Volume 508

Justice

The Secretary of State was asked—

Short Custodial Sentences

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1. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of short custodial sentences in reducing reoffending. [323384]

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10. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of short custodial sentences in reducing reoffending. [323393]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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My right hon. Friend mentioned that the Government are pursuing intensive alternatives to custody. Will he tell the House what effect that approach is having in reducing reoffending?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

Retail Crime

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3. How many people have been prosecuted for offences related to retail crime in the last 12 months. [323386]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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That was a highly inappropriate answer, Mr. Speaker, and I should like to withdraw, and beg leave to introduce an Adjournment debate on this issue.

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Order. I am grateful to the hon. Lady, but in any event I am intending to move on to the next question.

Reoffending

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4. What recent representations he has received on policies to reduce levels of reoffending. [323387]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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)

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5. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that service personnel serving abroad will be able to vote in the forthcoming general election. [323388]

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11. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that service personnel serving abroad will be able to vote in the forthcoming general election. [323394]

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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.

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Sadly, that is too little, too late. Given that the working group was set up in January, why has it not yet reported, and can the Minister confirm that a working group set up in January will have no impact whatever on the next election?

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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.

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Order. Replies, though comprehensive, are rather long. We need to speed up a bit.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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I congratulate my right hon. Friend on what he has done in achieving such a high return among service personnel. Does that extend to the families of personnel, many of whom are in Germany and elsewhere in the world?

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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.

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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?

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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—

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Will the Minister give way?

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Order. I must ask the Minister to resume his seat. I have very gently indicated that answers must be shorter.

Members of Parliament (Recall)

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6. What recent representations he has received on proposals for a system for constituents to recall hon. Members. [323389]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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—

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We were not invited.

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It was hardly a private meeting; it was in the middle of the leader’s speech. In that speech on 29 September, the Prime Minister announced his commitment, and that of the Government and my party, to a recall mechanism for this House.

Settlements out of Court

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7. How many court orders were not executed as a result of a settlement out of court in the most recent period for which figures are available. [323390]

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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.

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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—

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Order. This is in danger of becoming a mini-speech; the hon. Gentleman has already made his point with force and alacrity.

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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.

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On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of that reply, I hereby give notice that I shall be making an application to raise this matter on the Adjournment.

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Once again, I had in any case decided to move on to the next question.

Libel Tourism

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8. Whether he plans to take steps to reduce the incidence of libel tourism; and if he will make a statement. [323391]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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That was two questions, but one answer will suffice.

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Take the easy one.

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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.

Domestic Violence

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9. What steps his Department is taking to assist victims of domestic violence. [323392]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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I am very happy to do whatever I can to support the good work that my hon. Friend is doing in her constituency.

Prisons (Muslim Gangs)

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12. What recent assessment he has made of the extent of the operation of Muslim gangs in prisons. [323395]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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I agree with my right hon. Friend, and I can tell him and the House that such activity does go on in our prisons. The statement quoted by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) is sheer nonsense.

Crown Dependencies

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13. What recent discussions he has had with the Governments of the Crown dependencies on their relationship with Government Departments; and if he will make a statement. [323396]

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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.

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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?

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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)

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14. How many Republic of Ireland nationals are serving sentences in prisons in England and Wales. [323398]

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At the end of June 2009, there were 524 prisoners from the Republic of Ireland serving sentences of imprisonment in England and Wales.

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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?

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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.

FOI Request

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15. Although it is not entirely necessary, for the avoidance of doubt, I draw hon. Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. When does the Ministry of Justice plan to respond to the freedom of information request submitted to it by me in January 2010? [323399]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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Is the Minister satisfied that no foreign Government were involved in the sponsorship of the question that she has just answered?

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I suspect that that is not a matter for me.

Prisoners Released in Error

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18. What steps he plans to take to reduce the number of prisoners released in error. [323402]

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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.

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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?

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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

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20. What progress has been made on plans to review the operation of indeterminate sentences for public protection. [323404]

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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.

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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?

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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.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [323409]

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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.

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Will the Justice Secretary indicate what action he is taking to give communities more of a say in the criminal justice system? In particular, will he say what work is being done in West Lancashire?

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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.

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T2. It has been reported that Ian Huntley, who murdered two little girls, can claim £20,000 in compensation from the Ministry of Justice for having been attacked by a fellow inmate. Does the Secretary of State think that that is fair and just? [323410]

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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.

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T3. Will the Justice Secretary commission fresh medical evidence on pleural plaques, because it has come to light that the medical evidence on which he relied in coming to his judgment on pleural plaques came from a professor who openly admits that he has never come into contact with a pleural plaques victim? [323411]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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T4. Given that, in recent years, overall crime rates have been falling, while the number of people in prison has been increasing, what assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the possibility of reducing the prison population by half, and what impact does he think that would have on overall crime rates? [323412]

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I know that it is a dream of the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) to get the prison population down to what it was in 1993—44,000 instead of 84,000.

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By reducing crime!

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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.

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T5. Returning to the Secretary of State’s admirably robust response to my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), will he confirm that this would be compensation culture gone absolutely mad, and will he also confirm that there are no conceivable circumstances in which a prisoner could receive compensation for violence— [323413]

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Order. I think we have got the gist of it.

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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.

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Cash-for-crash criminals and clipboard solicitors are causing our vehicle insurance premiums to rise astronomically. What action is my right hon. Friend’s Department taking to try to prevent such cases from coming to court?

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We are greatly tightening up on legal aid. Also, the major report by Lord Justice Jackson on fundamental reforms to the way in which legal costs are assessed should deal with some of the abuses to which my hon. Friend has referred.

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T6. Unlike in the United States, corporations and associations in this country are allowed to sue for libel rather than just for malicious falsehood. The Secretary of State’s announcement this morning did not say that he was going to change that provision. Given the tendency of associations such as Nemesysco, Barclays, Tesco and the British Chiropractic Association to use our libel laws unjustly to restrict free speech, will he now consider such a change as part of libel law reform? [323414]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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I have had no discussions with the Justice Secretary in Scotland about this. That is a separate jurisdiction; it made its own decision and must take responsibility for it.

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T7. I thank the Justice Secretary for the lockdown at Frankland prison in County Durham. Is he aware of recent similar incidents at young offenders institutions, whose prison officers are crying out for the tools to enable them to do their job properly? Will he conduct a thorough review of this issue to ensure that those prison officers can perform the tasks that we entrust them with? [323415]

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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.

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Link workers are a primary source for prisoners on release, supporting their reintegration into the community. How are the Government supporting this group, ensuring that it is adequately resourced and not undermined?

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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.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that the rules or legislation governing antisocial behaviour orders need to be looked at again in light of the serious percentage of reoffending taking place?

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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.

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T8. If a smug individual were to break a law, rule or regulation once, that is unfortunate; what advice would the Secretary of State give if they did so 37 times? [323416]

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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.

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T9. I am grateful—[Interruption.] I am very grateful indeed for the support from the Conservative Benches. May I ask the Minister this very simple question? Are the Government going to accede to the request by Lord Hutton of 27 January to release information relating to the death of Dr. David Kelly to the medical experts who have demanded it? Are they going to release that information? [323417]

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Unfortunately, I did not quite catch all of the hon. Gentleman’s question. Insofar as I understood what it was about, the Government—[Interruption.]

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Order. The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) is in a state of almost uncontrollable excitement.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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Will the Secretary of State reassure my constituent whose relative was murdered by the Yorkshire Ripper many years ago that he will never be let out of prison, because of his heinous crimes?

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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.

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T10. Under the Mental Capacity Act 2005, the court can determine that an adult does not have the right to decide where she lives, on the basis of the opinion of an expert appointed by the Official Solicitor. Do Ministers believe that a psychologist or psychiatrist should be required for such an assessment, or would a social worker be sufficient? [323418]

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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.