Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 514: debated on Tuesday 20 July 2010


The Secretary of State was asked—

Prisoner Release (Risk Assessment)

1. What steps the Prison Service takes to communicate to police forces its assessment of the mental state of and threats posed to the public by prisoners immediately prior to release. (9411)

Police forces are notified of all prisoner releases. Procedures are in place in each prison under the national security policies to ensure that security information about offenders is analysed and shared with the police and other agencies if it is considered that it will help the police to protect the public from serious harm.

I referred to the mental health care and status of prisoners. The recent tragic events in Newcastle, on Tyneside and in Rothbury have highlighted how important the provision of good mental health care in prisons is. Will responsibility for that provision be given to local GPs in the reorganisation of the national health service, or will it be under the control of the prison?

First, I agree with the hon. Lady that it is important that we ensure adequate mental health care for prisoners, a very large number of whom suffer from mental health conditions. She will appreciate that I cannot comment specifically on the case to which she referred, which is the subject of an Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation and a police investigation. We are now considering carefully how the Government’s health reforms should fit in with how we want to provide health services in prisons.

I thank the Minister for being careful not to speculate about matters that are the subject of inquiries and possible criminal proceedings. Is he aware that the people of Rothbury were extremely supportive of the police in the difficult task that they carried out, and that the police were very appreciative of that support at a time when the whole community felt seriously threatened?

I am sure that my right hon. Friend’s comments will have been noted. As he knows, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), visited Rothbury yesterday and met local police and residents to discuss those issues. However, my right hon. Friend will understand that the Government cannot comment further, given that two people have been charged with conspiracy to murder and that there is an IPCC investigation.

Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise the importance of multi-agency risk assessment conferences in communicating between prisons, the police and others on any ongoing threats posed by specific perpetrators of domestic violence, and therefore in stopping that ongoing violent criminality in particular cases? Given that domestic violence accounts for 14% of all violent incidents, that almost 80% of victims are women, and that increasing focus on taking that crime seriously led to a 64% fall in its prevalence between 1995 and 2008, will he guarantee that MARACs will continue and even that they will be placed on to a statutory footing?

I am afraid that I cannot offer guarantees to the hon. Lady, but we can say in relation to that specific case that it is very important that all the lessons are learned about appropriate information sharing. The Government understand the significance of the domestic violence issues that she raises.

Administrative Penalties

The Government are undertaking a full assessment of sentencing policy to ensure that it is effective in deterring crime, protecting the public, punishing offenders and reducing reoffending. We are considering our approach to out-of-court penalties as part of this work.

I thank the Minister for that answer. By 2007, fewer than half the offenders brought to justice—on the previous Government’s measure—had ever seen or been passed through the dock of a court. A man who glassed a pub landlady recently was cautioned, and a serial thief was issued with a dozen on-the-spot fines. What plans does he have to reverse Labour’s pay-as-you-go crime policy, and does he agree that magistrates courts have a vital role to play?

The number of out-of-court disposals administered each year has risen by 135% since 2003. Such disposals now account for 40% of all offences brought to justice. However, during the same period, the number of convictions at court has remained broadly stable, suggesting that out-of-court penalties are expanding the number of offenders who are dealt with rather than being used as an alternative to prosecution.

Community Service Sentences

Our plans are to ensure that community sentences are tough, effective and rigorously enforced, and that they punish offenders, but steer them off drugs and alcohol and into employment. We are conducting a full assessment of sentencing policy, including asking judges and magistrates for their views on which community sentences are the most effective.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Many of my constituents hold to the old-fashioned notion that justice should not just be done, but be seen to be done, and they do not have much faith that community service sentences will deliver on that. How can he reassure my constituents that community service sentences will be robust and not a soft option?

We believe that making community sentences tougher in delivering punishment—especially looking at the operation of community payback—and more effective in delivering rehabilitation, restoration and the protection of the public, will help to show that people can have increasing confidence in such sentences. Achieving those objectives will be an important element of our assessment of sentencing policy.

If the Minister is to increase the number of community sentences as the Justice Secretary wishes to do, can he give the House an indication of how much money he intends to transfer to the probation budget, given that it has an in-year cut this year of £20 million? Can he also tell us which sentences of under six-months he thinks are inappropriate, given that at present they are available for offences such as assault on a police officer, domestic violence, child abuse and firearms offences? Indeed, three quarters of people sentenced to under six months have committed seven or more offences.

On the latter point, the right hon. Gentleman will have to wait until the sentencing review when we will bring forward our detailed proposals, which—I am sure—will hang together in a properly co-ordinated manner. He must also appreciate that the economic inheritance that this Government received—[Interruption.] There is no point hon. Members groaning. It is a fact of life that an increase in budgets in the environment that we inherited is simply not going to happen.

With regards to the sentencing review, will the Minister consider the use of more judicial discretion—unfortunately removed by the previous Government—thereby trusting our judiciary?

My hon. Friend has alighted on a principle that the Justice Secretary has already enunciated.

Human Rights Act 1998

In the coalition agreement, the Government committed to establishing a commission to investigate the creation of a Bill of Rights. The scope of the commission and its terms of reference will be announced in due course, but it is my expectation that in the course of its work the commission will consider the experience of the Human Rights Act 1998.

I am grateful to the Lord Chancellor for that response. Does he agree that, on the 10th anniversary of the implementation of the Act, domestically enforceable and universally applicable human rights are one of the best checks on Executive power that we have, and does he agree with the remarks that he made in The Daily Telegraph on 27 June 2006 that to repeal the Human Rights Act would be an act of “xenophobic and legal nonsense”?

We are going to review in due course every aspect of the working of the Human Rights Act in the light of that 10 years of experience. I agree that there are very important protections for human rights, and there is no question of moving away from the European convention on human rights. The coalition agreement does not contemplate that. Actually, the changes that have taken place in British common law, with the huge enlargement of the scope of judicial review—which includes reviews of all ministerial decisions and of legislation current in the House—have also greatly altered the scene. Sometimes that gets confused with the European convention on human rights. I have given a range of views in the past and no doubt we will consider those views carefully in the light of the report that we eventually get from the commission.

Is the Lord Chancellor aware of the book by the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) and Peter Oborne entitled “Churchill’s Legacy: The Conservative Case for the Human Rights Act”? Will he encourage his right hon. and hon. Friends to read it and thereby dispel the many myths about the Act? The Human Rights Act exists for all of us: what is not to like?

The European convention on human rights was produced after the second world war, largely at the instigation of Churchill and others, to ensure that the whole continent developed in line with those values for which the British had fought the war. The principal architect and draftsman of the convention was a man called Maxwell Fyfe. I recall that history because it is relevant to this issue, and we have to improve public understanding of the application of human rights in British law as well as reviewing the operation of the Act.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that he had had a range of views on whether the Human Rights Act should be repealed, but he has actually had one view, which he has repeated over and over again—he even described the Prime Minister’s proposal as “anti-foreigner”. Given that consistency, which I commend the right hon. and learned Gentlemen on and welcome because it was supporting a Labour policy, and given that, as he well knows—because he is a very bright man—the issue is not the European convention on human rights but the Human Rights Act passed by this Parliament, will he now rule out the abolition of the Act?

I do not mind being quoted from my freelance days on the Back Benches. However, in their enthusiasm to find quotes, people find the odd word and attribute them to things. I never accuse any of my colleagues of being anti-foreigner. Part of the confusion about the European convention tends to be that somehow it is not British, which I just addressed in pointing out that it was drafted by David Maxwell Fyfe and very much supported by the British Government and both main parties at the time. The Human Rights Act has now had 10 years, and it is time to review it. There is a range of views and sometimes concern in this country about exactly how it relates to Parliament and where our constitution now is on these matters. In due course, we will set up a convention to advise us on that.

Magistrates Courts

5. How many representations he has received (a) in favour of and (b) against his recent proposals to close a number of magistrates courts; and if he will make a statement. (9415)

We are four weeks into a 12-week public consultation process. As such, the responses to each of the 16 consultation papers have not yet been collated and analysed. This will happen once the consultation closes on 15 September. However, I can confirm that, as of 15 June, there had been 20 letters to Ministers in this Department from hon. Members and Welsh Assembly Members regarding the proposals. Two Adjournment debates on the consultations have also been held.

I am grateful for that detailed response. I have the great pleasure and honour to represent the good people of Dwyfor Meirionnydd, which is 100 miles from north to south and 90 miles from east to west. It currently has two magistrates courts. Under the Government’s plans, however, that will be down to one, making a complete and utter mockery of any idea of local justice. May I ask the Minister to think again and consider carefully—and I mean carefully—all the consultations and replies he gets? In the meantime, will he ask his right hon. and learned colleague, the Secretary of State for Justice, to extend the consultation period, because in my 20 years in this place I have never known a serious consultation to take place during August?

The hon. Gentleman says we should think again, but we are thinking—we are in a consultation process, to which he is entitled and welcome to make comments. There is one court in his constituency on whose closure we are consulting. It is envisaged that work from this court will be transferred to Caernarfon magistrates court, which is approximately 20 miles away. The court in question has a very low utilisation rate, at just 28.9%. It sits two days per week in one courtroom and its facilities are generally considered to be inadequate.

Will the Minister take into account, when making a decision on the closure of the magistrates courts, the facilities and the wider social implications of individual court closures? Barry magistrates court has separate entrances for witnesses and defendants, which is an important consideration in a range of cases, particularly those of domestic violence. Will that sort of issue be a factor?

We remain committed to supporting local justice being administered in magistrates courts, but my hon. Friend would be wrong to confuse community justice, access to justice, efficient justice, speedy summary justice or timely administration with bricks and mortar.

Crown Dependencies

6. What recent representations he has received on his Department’s responsibilities in relation to the Crown dependencies. (9418)

I am unsure quite what kind of representations the hon. Gentleman has in mind. As he would expect, however, the Ministry of Justice constantly receives a wide range of communications in relation to its responsibilities for the Crown dependencies.

The representations that I had in mind were from Crown dependencies such as the Isle of Man. Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman assure me that he and his ministerial colleagues in the other place, who I gather have responsibility for Crown dependencies in his Department, will consult with the Crown dependencies if there is any suggestion that responsibility for them be moved to another Department, so that the important distinction between Crown dependencies and overseas territories is recognised throughout the civil service?

As the hon. Gentleman says, it is my right hon. Friend Lord McNally who takes a lead in our Department on the Crown dependencies. I will certainly take note of what the hon. Gentleman says about any question of changing ministerial responsibility, but I should point out that this is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary. However, I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s views and will ensure that they are disseminated among those responsible.

Complaint Systems (Victims of Crime)

7. What steps he is taking to ensure the effectiveness of complaints systems for victims of crime and others within the criminal justice system. (9419)

Policies are in place in individual criminal justice agencies to respond to complaints from victims and others. Improving the ability of victims to hold services to account and gain redress when things go wrong will be considered as part of a full review of victim and witness policy and services.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. If somebody has a complaint that their situation is being dealt with badly by the system, it is often difficult to know whether that is the fault of the police—in which case there is the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which is an effective system—or the Crown Prosecution Service, which does not have an adequate complaints system, and that means that people fall through the gaps. Will the Government take that into account as part of the review?

We will. I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s long-standing interest in such issues and some of the proposals that he has made in relation to them. We aim to improve the accountability of service providers and redress for complainants through the criminal justice system. It is important that we should address the fact that there can be confusion on the part of victims about whom they should complain to.

Last week an Enfield magistrate complained to me about the waste of court time. That magistrate spends one day a week dealing with prosecutions for dropping cigarette butts. If such cases are to be prosecuted, surely it would be in the best interests of the taxpayer and justice for them to be heard in a town hall, rather than in a courthouse.

It is important for us to look at the opportunities for the administration of justice that lie outside buildings. There has been the development of what became known as the “summary justice agenda”, which is actually administrative justice, with things such as penalty notices for disorder. However, I would be happy to talk to my hon. Friend about whether the case that he has raised has been dealt with in an appropriate manner.

The Minister of State will recall that at Justice questions on 15 June, he said in answer to me:

“We are aware of the important work that the National Victims’ Service is planning to do.”—[Official Report, 15 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 733.]

Given that, I am surprised that there is no reference whatever to the National Victims’ Service in the just-published draft structural plan for his Ministry. I wonder whether he could explain the omission of any reference to that service.

I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman should read anything into that omission. I said then—and I say now—that we are reviewing in full the arrangements to ensure that victims are treated properly by the criminal justice system. Perhaps he will have already seen the strong speech that is to be made by the victims commissioner on such issues this evening. We take those issues immensely seriously, as we do to ensuring that justice is done for victims.

National Offender Management Service

The original objective of the National Offender Management Service was more effectively to deliver prison and probation services in a co-ordinated way. The current structure has not worked as well as predicted and will not best serve the objectives of coalition policy towards the rehabilitation of offenders and the involvement of social investors, and the private and voluntary sectors in this work. Therefore, the structure of the National Offender Management Service is being considered not only as part of the Department’s overall contribution to the spending review, but to ensure the effective delivery of prison and probation services in the light of this autumn’s Green Paper on the new approaches to rehabilitation and the review of sentencing policy. That work will also reflect the three strands of the big society agenda, which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced yesterday: social action, public service and community empowerment.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Can he assist by saying what opportunities will exist for probation trusts when we consider our rehabilitation reforms?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. Today’s probation trusts possess the nation’s professional expertise on offender management. We want to release all our capacity—public, private and voluntary—to effect a revolution in how we provide for rehabilitation of offenders. No organisations are better placed to deliver that than today’s probation trusts. I hope that they seize this chance, which is why I have asked the Probation Association and the Probation Chiefs Association to work urgently with my officials to help shape our Green Paper proposals. I am confident about what probation trusts will be able to achieve.

I recommend the Minister deal with the point that I believe the hon. Lady was raising. In Nottinghamshire, there is certainly a strong case for a probation trust, but irrespective of whether we have a particular type of structure on offender management, do not the cuts to the prison budget—and, indeed, as we have heard today, the cuts to the probation service—show that the big society to which he referred is actually a euphemism for allowing prisoners to roam free within the community at large?

No, it is not. The hon. Gentleman and all his right hon. and hon. Friends are going to have to get used to the fact that we are going to do things rather differently. We are going to pay for outputs, not direct inputs or have targets or over-control our public services by instructing them precisely how to achieve their objectives. One way in which we are going to increase our capacity for offender management is, I hope, to enable probation trusts to be able to affect the involvement of the whole community—including the private, the voluntary and charitable sectors—to increase our nation’s capacity to deal with offenders and to rehabilitate them effectively.

Defendant Anonymity (Rape Cases)

As I told the House in the full-day debate of 8 July, the Government are minded to strengthen anonymity before charge. We want to hear the views of those who may have any new evidence to assist our deliberations, and we will bring our conclusions to Parliament in the autumn. However, since the principal points of judgment around the issue are clear and very narrow—not least in the light of our excellent debate 12 days ago—the Government do not propose to manage a full, formal public consultation.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his answer. Has he considered the fact that, under his current proposals for anonymity up until charge, somebody arrested on suspicion of rape but then charged with sexual assault would enjoy anonymity, whereas somebody arrested on suspicion of sexual assault but then charged with rape would not enjoy anonymity under the coalition’s proposals?

We are now dealing with quite a narrow point because it was agreed in 2003—[Interruption.] It is quite a narrow point; it was agreed on both sides of the House when the Sexual Offences Act 2003 went through Parliament that all people charged with offences ought to have their identity protected until the point of charge. That is the guidance that the Press Complaints Commission put into effect in 2004. There is an issue around the strength of that guidance and, as I said in the debate 12 days ago, we are not satisfied that it is strong enough. We want in the first instance to try to find a non-statutory solution, and given that we had 21 Criminal Justice Acts passed over the 13 years of the last Administration, I am sure that Labour Members will understand why we are loth to find even more statutes to put on the statute book.

Does the hon. Gentleman not understand that the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) is one reason why this idea—it was tried before between 1976 and 1988—was abolished by a previous Conservative Government? It did not work. Given that this idea was in neither the hon. Gentleman’s manifesto nor that of the Liberal Democrats, what possible reason can he have for failing to provide a proper consultation before changing the law in the ridiculous way he proposes to do?

First, when it was ended in 1988, it was not because it did not work. The hon. Lady should have paid rather more attention to the points put forward by the noble Lord Ackner in the 2003 debates when he spoke to his amendments on this subject. She should also note that the nature of rape changed, by definition, in the Sexual Offences Act 2003. All that means that the situation has changed since 1988.

Young Offenders

10. What recent representations he has received on his Department’s policies to reduce the rate at which young people enter the criminal justice system; and if he will make a statement. (9422)

I am not aware of any specific recent representations made on this topic. The Government want to ensure that young people do not enter the criminal justice system unless it is necessary. Our policies will be considered in the context of our comprehensive assessment of sentencing and rehabilitation.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the best way of keeping young people out of a life of crime is to intervene early in their lives, so that they have the social and emotional capability to resist criminality? Will he commend the current project in Peterborough, where an early intervention bond has been created by Social Finance Ltd and St Giles Trust to ensure that offenders do not reoffend and that they leave the criminal justice system at the earliest possible moment? Is he willing to extend that experiment, which was introduced by the last Government, and to consider its possible extension throughout the criminal justice system?

I repeat the support that I have given before to the hon. Gentleman’s campaign for early intervention. I entirely agree with what he says.

We are certainly very interested in the project that is about to get under way in Peterborough. It will have to be evaluated in due course, but my ministerial team will be following closely this system of raising capital finance by means of a social bond, and then targeting the need to reduce the rate of reoffending in a particular group. Reducing reoffending will be a key part of our policy, and this is an important way of trying out one method of tackling it. I hope that it succeeds.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that some of those young offenders are in the criminal justice system owing to their lack of a strong, solid education? What plans has he to try to ensure that something is done about that?

The present Government have an extremely important programme of education reform. Anything that can be done to raise standards of education and training in this country will, I believe, have an indirect impact on the number of people who drop out of society in some way and are tempted to start offending.

I agree that we need to look across the broad range of social policy, considering relationships between crime and housing problems, employment problems and education and training problems, if we are to achieve the improvement in our social fabric which, eventually, will continue to reduce criminality. Meanwhile, some young people are serious offenders. We do need a secure estate, and we do need to prosecute those from whom the public must be protected. I think that we would all welcome any measure that will successfully reduce the number of young people who are needlessly criminalised when they could be diverted into a more sensible way of handling their problems.

Is the Justice Secretary aware that the rate of reoffending and entry into the youth justice system by young people fell by 10% during the last years of the Labour Government? That fall was due not least to the fact that we invested heavily in the three-year youth crime action plan, the third year of which ends this year, 2010-11. It involves issues such as prevention, and includes the Peterborough project that the Justice Secretary has just endorsed. Will he give an indication of what plans he has to continue the youth crime action plan after this year?

I agree that there has been a reduction in the number of people entering the criminal justice system. Notwithstanding my usual caveats about all crime statistics, which can be used by Members on either side of the House to prove practically anything over whatever period they choose, I think that one thing on which we agree is the need to divert from needless criminality young people who can properly, in the public interest, be dealt with in some other way.

The youth crime action plan, and a number of other interesting experiments involving diversion out of the court system in which the last Government were engaged, will certainly be investigated and followed up by the new Government. We are not remotely partisan about the issue. We wish to look further for more outside experience of how best to tackle reoffending and the underlying problems of youth delinquency, in order to take more young people out of court and out of criminality.

Reoffending Rates

11. What the reoffending rate was for prisoners who had served custodial sentences of over 10 years in the latest period for which figures are available. (9423)

Of the 125 adult offenders released from a custodial sentence of over 10 years in the first quarter of 2008, 6.4% committed at least one further offence in the one-year follow-up period. In contrast, among those serving custodial sentences of 12 months or less in 2008, the reconviction rate was 61.1%.

What are the Minister’s views on short sentences for women? Does he agree that community sentences may be more effective in reducing the rate of reoffending by women?

Short sentences for men have proved pretty ineffective, and I think that short sentences for women are even more ineffective and deleterious. We support the conclusions of the Corston report, we are conducting an analysis of the effectiveness of different sentences as part of the current sentencing review, we are committed to reducing the number of women in prison, and a network of women-only community provision is being developed to support robust community sentences.

Perhaps at this point I should throw a bouquet to my predecessor, the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), in recognition of her work in this regard. We propose to build on it.

Does the Minister agree that there is a serious risk of reoffending rates increasing in the next five to 10 years if the prison budget cuts result in less education and rehabilitation of prisoners?

The hon. Lady identifies the challenge we face. We as a nation have to increase our capacity to deliver education and all the other services that are required to assist in rehabilitating offenders. That is why we are going to effect a rehabilitation revolution which will involve that great army of people out there who want to help us and who have so far found our current structures very difficult to engage with. Moving to output-based measures will enable us to use the capacity of all those people who want to help us in the incredibly important work of rehabilitating offenders much more effectively than we have done to date.

Foreign National Prisoners

12. What recent discussions he has had with (a) the UK Border Agency and (b) foreign Governments on the compulsory transfer of foreign national prisoners to detention in their country of origin. (9424)

Ministry of Justice officials have been in regular contact with their colleagues at UKBA to identify suitable prisoners for transfer under the additional protocol to the Council of Europe convention on the transfer of sentenced persons. A number of cases are currently being pursued. Discussions between officials of member states of the European Union on the implementation of the EU prisoner transfer agreement took place in April.

We currently have the pleasure and privilege of paying for the board and lodging of 752 Nigerians in British jails at a time when we are giving that country £132 million a year in development aid. Her Majesty’s Government have been negotiating with the Nigerian Government on the compulsory transfer of those prisoners since 2007. Could we urge them to get a move on?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern about this and note the ten-minute Bill he recently introduced. The Government believe that wherever possible foreign national prisoners should serve their sentences in their own country. Negotiations on a compulsory prisoner transfer agreement with Nigeria will be concluded as soon as changes to Nigerian domestic legislation have been made.

In evidence to the Home Affairs Committee this morning, Lin Homer, the head of UKBA, told us that 14% of the prison population were foreign nationals and that 700 officials were working in her department on this issue. As it is a priority for the Government, is the Minister confident that he has sufficient staff dealing with what is a very important issue?

The Government are determined to improve performance in the removal of foreign nationals and in prison transfer agreements. The right hon. Gentleman will know that only 41 prisoners were transferred this year, but compulsory transfer has been available only since November 2009, so we expect performance to improve.

Universal Jurisdiction Offences (Prosecution)

13. Whether he plans to bring forward proposals to change the law so that only the Crown Prosecution Service will be able to initiate prosecutions for universal jurisdiction offences. (9425)

The Government consider it unsatisfactory that an arrest warrant for such offences can be issued on the application of a private prosecutor on the basis of evidence that would be insufficient to sustain a prosecution. We are urgently considering how to proceed and expect to make an announcement shortly.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that Britain is unable to play a leading role in the diplomatic world if foreign politicians cannot visit this country without fear of arrest?

Of course we must enforce properly in respect of war crimes and other matters of universal jurisdiction where proper cases arise, but I agree with my hon. Friend that it is not in any sense in this country’s interests that people can be arrested upon arrival on a level of evidence that would not remotely sustain a prosecution, which is why we intend to address this matter and to make an announcement in the very near future.

Prisoner Numbers

Over the coming months we will look in detail at the sentencing frameworks for adult and young offenders, as well as at the range of penalties available in the criminal justice system. That means introducing more effective policies, as well as overhauling the system of rehabilitation to reduce reoffending. We will take the time necessary to get it right and will consult widely before bringing forward full plans for reform.

Will the Secretary of State give the House three examples of the kind of criminals currently in jail who will not be in prison under his plans?

I will not anticipate the sentencing review. [Interruption.] No, I will not. The last person I met in jail who clearly should not have been there had been sent to prison because he was in dispute with his ex-wife over the maintenance he was supposed to pay for their children. Of course he was under an obligation to pay for his children, but providing a place for him in jail was not the best use of prison. Anybody who visits a prison will find people who are there for rather surprising combinations of reasons, some of which are far away from those relating to serious crimes.

Prison is the most effective punishment we have for serious criminal offenders. There is a continuing case, and there always will be one, for protecting the public against the activity of serious offenders by imprisoning them. However, in recent years, we have not paid enough attention to how, at the same time, we minimise the risk of reoffending, seek to reform those in prisons and divert them away from future crime, and eventually ensure that there are better and more effective ways of dealing with those who are capable of being dealt with.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend carefully examine the early release scheme pursued by the previous Government, which led to a very high proportion of those released early going on to reoffend, to great harm to the British public?

That was not a policy; that was a catastrophe. The previous Government went through a phase of allowing their rhetoric and some of their policy intentions to outrun any serious common sense and then found that they had to let people out early, before they had finished their sentence, because they could not physically get them into prisons. Whatever else comes out of a sentencing review, I trust that we will avoid any nonsense of that kind in our period of office.

Evidence suggests that 75% to 90% of rapes go unreported, and I hope that the whole House will try to deal with that situation to improve it. Is the Justice Secretary at all worried that his plans to provide anonymity for defendants in rape trials will contribute to fewer rapists going to prison?

I do not think that there is anybody in this House—and there has not been for as long as I can remember—who is not in favour of anonymity for people who make complaints of rape and who does not think it extremely important to encourage women to come forward on all proper occasions to press complaints about the serious criminal offence of rape. The issues surrounding anonymity for the person accused are quite different from that, and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), has just addressed those questions. This is a matter of how far we can protect those people, and others accused of criminal offences, up to the time of charge. That approach was agreed by those on both sides of this House in the not-too-distant past—in the previous Parliament—and it probably will eventually be agreed in this Parliament too.

Short Prison Sentences

15. What mechanism he plans to introduce to reduce the use of short prison sentences; and if he will make a statement. (9427)

We are conducting a full assessment of sentencing policy to ensure that it is effective in deterring crime, protecting the public, punishing offenders and cutting reoffending. Short custodial sentences will be considered as part of that assessment, and we will be asking judges and magistrates for their views on these sentences and on community sentences.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. In the case of non-violent young offenders, will he support restorative justice programmes, such as neighbourhood justice panels, which are much more successful in reducing crime than traditional forms of punishment?

We are very interested in taking further the idea of restorative justice. Some very interesting experiments in youth restorative justice are under way and they will be carefully evaluated. In all these matters, evaluation is extremely important. People come forward with extremely enlightened and attractive views on how reoffending might be reduced or on how youth offenders might be diverted from the prison system, some of which work and some of which, alas, do not. One has to take a realistic look at them and evaluate them after a sufficient experiment to decide what works. On rehabilitation generally, that is one of the main reasons why we will concentrate on paying by results, wherever possible.

Does the Secretary of State accept, though, that short sentences might have a role to play in cases where a probation order or a community sentence has failed?

I am not sure where the idea that I am against all short sentences has come from. A short sentence is usually taken to mean any sentence of less than 12 months. My own view, pending this review, has always been that there is indeed a case for some short sentences where there is no realistic alternative and one is dealing with a recidivist offender. Wherever possible, of course, the pointless short term of imprisonment should be avoided where a really effective and convincing community penalty is available in its place.

Wisbech Magistrates Court

16. What account he took of the availability of public transport in rural areas around Wisbech in his decision to propose the closure of Wisbech magistrates court. (9428)

In selecting courts on which to consult, one of the key principles applied was to try and ensure that people should not have to make excessively long or difficult journeys to attend court. Although it is important, proximity to a court should not be the only consideration—we need also to consider the speed with which cases are dealt with and the quality of the facilities at our courts. We also want to explore ways we can harness technology more effectively so people do not necessarily physically have to attend court when accessing court services.

I thank the Minister for that reply and for the constructive way in which he is consulting. As he says, proximity is not the only factor but what is relevant is how many people are affected by a journey of more than 60 minutes. Will he clarify which year he is using to assess the population given that Fenland has seen a significant increase in its numbers in recent years? Will he allow for the housing trend where planning permission has already been given?

We are consulting on one court in my hon. Friend’s constituency, Wisbech. As my hon. Friend noted, it is envisaged that work from that court will be transferred to Peterborough magistrates court, which is approximately 23 miles away. Travel times and distances will be constant from various locations within the constituency, so population is only one aspect to consider. We must also consider the frequency of court attendance, which is very low in Wisbech, with a utilisation of only 37%.

Topical Questions

My departmental responsibilities remain unchanged, but may I take this opportunity to point out to the House and to the hon. Gentleman that I have today made a written statement setting out plans for the implementation of the Bribery Act 2010? This important piece of legislation from Parliament reflects cross-party support for anti-bribery measures and its effective implementation is a priority for me in my role as the coalition’s international anti-corruption champion—[Interruption.] I used to shadow Lord Mandelson—he had more titles than I have. The new framework of offences will replace the old and fragmented mix of statutory and common law offences and they should facilitate a more effective criminal justice response to bribery. An important part of the implementation is a public consultation on the guidance to be produced under section 9 of the Act. We want the formulation of this guidance to be informed by the expertise of the business community, specialist anti-bribery organisations and others with informed opinions. I expect this process to allow us to publish guidance early in the new year, in time for the commencement of the Act in spring 2011.

May I welcome the Secretary of State’s recent remarks about tackling the causes of crime as well as crime itself? Will he bear in mind the words of John Carnochan, the hard-bitten head of homicide in Glasgow who, having dealt with offenders who had committed serious and violent crimes who were the sons and grandsons of offenders, said that given the choice between 100 extra police officers and 100 health visitors, he would choose the health visitors given his intergenerational experience? Will the Secretary of State will the means as well as the ends in tackling the causes of crime?

I am afraid that the Government have inherited a situation, for which I blame the previous Government, in which we must tackle these solutions against a background of not simply being able to wheel in more resources. The first step is to make cuts in wasteful expenditure now. I accept quite a large part of the hon. Gentleman’s analysis and we should also consider how we look across all Government Departments and all sectors—we must take into account health, housing, employment, education and training at the same time as we consider policing, justice and imprisonment—because the whole picture contributes to the broken society and tackling it will help to contribute to a less criminal society.

T2. In the light of the Legal Services Commission’s recent misallocation of duty solicitor scheme membership and duty rotas for criminal legal aid work, will my right hon. and learned Friend undertake an urgent review of the LSC’s continuing inefficiencies? (9436)

My hon. Friend has just made serious accusations of mismanagement, and I shall certainly consider the issues that he has raised and get back to him shortly.

T4. The Secretary of State should be aware that the Justice Minister north of the border has said that any questions regarding al-Megrahi resided with the United Kingdom Government. If that is true, will the Secretary of State make a statement? If it is not true, can he put the record straight? (9438)

My understanding is that this was a decision solely for the Scottish Government and that it was taken on humanitarian grounds. Plainly, it predates my period of office, and that just about sums up my full knowledge of the situation, so I am not in a position to make a statement.

T3. Following today’s newspaper reports, will the Secretary of State ensure that we will never again release a mass murderer who was convicted by British courts, letting them out of prison on dubious health grounds and where there are murky commercial interests and sending them away to be lauded by a dictatorship? (9437)

My hon. Friend takes a particular view of the facts. From the Dispatch Box, I must take the view that the decision was taken by the Scottish Government on the declared basis of humanitarian grounds. No Minister of the Crown—certainly not me—is in a position to add to that.

Given the proposed review of legal aid, does the Justice Secretary agree that the problems faced by the Refugee and Migrant Justice organisation because of the late payment of fees and the lack of clarity about the number of current cases affected—the Home Office has told me that it is 5,000 and the Legal Services Commission has admitted that it simply does not know—mean that it is vital for the Government to intervene until these problems are resolved to prevent that organisation from going into administration and to avoid the possibility of further chaos, with expense, within our asylum system?

I am pleased that the hon. Lady has brought up this important issue. The RMJ was maintaining that it had 10,000 clients, but the administrators who went into that organisation to put it into administration assessed the number of clients at more like between 4,000 and 5,000. What is important is the clients. We need to move on from the administration of that organisation to concentrating on its clients, and I assure her that the Department and I are doing exactly that.

T5. Having read the published figures that one in seven of our prisoners are non-UK nationals—according to recent statistics, 585 of them are from Vietnam—does the Minister agree that we could save some of the money spent on UK prisons by transferring those prisoners, perhaps also paying or giving aid to their Governments, perhaps up to 25%, to house them in their jails? That would save money for the UK taxpayer and would put foreign prisoners where they belong. (9439)

There are already a number of schemes to encourage foreign national prisoners to go home and serve their sentences there. As I said in the last Justice questions, we will have to work very hard in this respect. I have noted the comment of the Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee about the fact that some 700 people in the UKBA are working on it, which gives some idea of the priority that it has. I assure my hon. Friend and all hon. and right hon. Members that that level of priority will continue. We need to save the money that we should not be spending on imprisoning foreigners in our jails.

Following the revelations at the weekend that some quite shocking restraint methods are authorised in the “Physical Control in Care” manual for use by staff in secure training centres for children, will the Secretary of State introduce an explicit ban on corporal punishment in secure training centres and other youth offender institutions? Will he establish a public inquiry, chaired by a member of the judiciary, to establish the compatibility of practices in secure training centres with article 3 of the European convention on human rights?

Of course, we keep under review the very careful guidance about the use of restraint techniques in those circumstances, and it is a matter of regret that such guidance has to be issued. However, the hon. Lady should bear it in mind that we are talking about children and young people, some of whom are much bigger than I am and who probably have a problem with drug abuse and a history of violent crime. The completely unarmed staff have to be given some instructions in how to control those young people when they are getting out of control and it is not always easy or possible to use totally restrained methods.

T7. All members of the European Union have signed the Council of Europe convention on the transfer of sentenced persons, yet we still have 3,100 EU nationals in our jails. The Secretary of State and I share an enthusiasm for the European Union, so will he co-operate with the EU and repatriate those prisoners? (9441)

Unfortunately for my hon. Friend, I am afraid that that agreement does not come into force until December 2011. I note that the Irish apparently have an opt-out on it and that it will take five years for the Poles to make it fully applicable, but with those exceptions aside, I assure him that we will implement that agreement absolutely as soon as it comes into force.

Does the Secretary of State agree with the retiring chief inspector of prisons Dame Anne Owers that a reason for the reduction in young people coming into the criminal justice system is the effect of Sure Start? If he does agree with her, will he speak to colleagues across the Government about investing in Sure Start, rather than in youth jails, because it is cheaper and works better?

We are, of course, having to address Sure Start, as with every other programme, in the light of the resources—or rather lack of them—that we have inherited as a result of the economic situation, but the Government are concentrating Sure Start on its original priority purpose, which was particularly to target areas of deprivation and social difficulty. That part of Sure Start’s work does indeed have some relevance to what we have been talking about in our exchanges on youth justice and how to keep people out of criminality in their youth.

T8. Will the Minister pay tribute to Winston Churchill, who, exactly 100 years ago today, as Home Secretary, commented:“The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country.”? (9442)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Of course, it is a delight to offer a tribute to the greatest parliamentarian of the 20th century. Right hon. and hon. Members should note that today is precisely the 100th anniversary of one of the great speeches on prison reform, given by Winston Churchill while he was in his Liberal phase. I am delighted that I will mark that anniversary by speaking to the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. I am sure, Mr Speaker, that you will allow me to use the final phrase of that speech 100 years ago, when Churchill said:

“an unfaltering faith that there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man—these are the symbols which in the treatment of crime and criminals mark and measure the stored-up strength of a nation, and are the sign and proof of the living virtue in it.”—[Official Report, 20 July 1910; Vol. 19, c. 1354.]

Those are measures that we will live up to.

And I should say that the people of the Rhondda remember Churchill’s period in relation to the Tonypandy riots. However, the Lord Chancellor has responsibility for marriage law, and he will know that the law forbids civil weddings from including religious readings or music, even though many people who are not able to get married in church or who do not want to do so would like to have such readings. The Government say that they will allow that for civil partnerships, but not for civil weddings. Can we not have a little more equality for heterosexuals?

I am answering this question because I am the only one in the village. [Laughter.] I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for the fact that his question was transferred. The Equality Act 2010 removed the express prohibition on civil partnership registrations taking place on religious premises. In response to that amendment of the law, the Government are committed to talking to those with a key interest in how to take this forward. That will include consideration of whether civil partnerships should be allowed to include religious readings, music and symbols, and the implications for marriage will have to be considered as part of that.

T10. Can the Minister tell the House whether his Department has undertaken any study of the comparative costs of trials in magistrates courts and Crown courts? (9444)

The average daily costs in Crown courts are more than double those of magistrates courts at about £1,700, compared with £800 a day, and Crown court cases take much longer of course. That is why it is imperative that we rebalance cases between magistrates courts, operating at some 64% of capacity, and Crown courts, operating at full capacity, to ensure that we get value for money.

Will the Secretary of State’s Department honour in full, and on the same basis as the previous Government, the release of files relating to the Hillsborough disaster?

The National Archives and my Department will continue to co-operate with the ongoing work to get the files released, which we hope to be able to facilitate. Our Department will play its part, together with the National Archives, for which we are responsible.

On the subject of magistrates courts, will Ministers consider seriously any proposal from magistrates that would have them hearing cases in venues other than courts so that they can continue to deliver local justice locally?

On Sunday evening, Radio 4’s “File on 4” programme made serious allegations about Isle of Man shipping companies’ involvement in sanction-busting shipments of arms to Sudan. Given that the Secretary of State has responsibility for the relationship between the Isle of Man and the UK Government, will he hold urgent discussions with the Isle of Man Chief Minister to ascertain what, if any, truth there is to those allegations?

I will certainly follow up that matter as I did not hear the “File on 4” programme. Obviously, the Isle of Man has a good, functioning system of justice and we can confidently expect it to enforce criminal law and international sanctions to the standards that we would expect. However, I will ensure that we contact the Isle of Man to ensure that everything that can properly be done is being done to ensure that no breach of international sanctions that could be prevented is being allowed to go ahead.

In the light of the Government’s review of non-departmental public bodies, what plans does the Justice Secretary have for the future of the Office of the Public Guardian?

We are reviewing it, although we have no immediate intentions that we are withholding. We are looking across the whole field of the Department, and we will reduce the number of so-called arm’s length bodies, quangos and agencies. The Office of the Public Guardian carries out quite an important function, however, so I do not think that we will make any changes there unless we are quite confident that its key responsibilities can be properly discharged.

The annual report on Parc prison by the independent monitoring board singled out the work of the Prince’s Trust and the excellent staff in the young persons unit for particular praise, which I am sure that Front Benchers will join me in echoing. Every time that we ask for continued investment in such units—the report said that the unit needed more investment—we hear that there is no money, so if the Secretary of State is going to use that excuse, how will the big society ensure that we have less reoffending when these young people come out of jail?

We will produce positive policies on criminal justice, prison reform and the rehabilitation of offenders, but we have to do that on the basis of a realistic appraisal of the current state of the economy. We have inherited the worst financial and fiscal crisis of modern times. We have succeeded a Government who simply borrowed ever more money and who threw money at every problem, often with a considerable lack of success for public protection. I endorse what the hon. Gentleman says about the work of the Prince’s Trust and others throughout our Prison Service, but he will have to find a positive contribution to policy making, rather than saying just, “Let’s borrow and spend more public money,” because that is ruled out for the immediate future.