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Topical Questions

Volume 521: debated on Tuesday 11 January 2011

To begin with a topical statement, I must tell the House that approximately 40 prisoners were involved in a serious disturbance at Ford prison between 31 December 2010 and 1 January 2011, which resulted in parts of the establishment being set on fire. Staff withdrew from the prison’s B wing for their own safety and specially trained prison staff were deployed to regain control of the prison and assist the fire service in its efforts to extinguish the fires.

Last night, there was disorder at Littlehey prison which, I am glad to say, was brought under control quite quickly. To the credit of those staff involved, no staff or prisoners sustained serious injury.

The Prison Service manages some of the most dangerous people in society and we normally have 30 such incidents every year. I pay tribute to the prison staff and the fire service for the skill with which they handle these matters on behalf of us all.

In a statement to the House, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) said that Worksop county court would be transferring to Worksop magistrates court, and he confirmed that in answer to my question. In fact, the opposite has happened. Is he the kind of Minister who is in control of his Department and is his word his authority when he speaks to this House, or is he the monkey to his civil servants’ organ grinder?

The hon. Gentleman speaks with his usual charm. He raised this issue on a point of order yesterday and I was going to write to him today, so I am delighted to have this opportunity to address it on the Floor of the House. I am, of course, sorry for any misunderstanding or inaccuracy regarding county court services in Worksop. That no doubt stems from the fact that the announced closure of Worksop county court and the announced retention of Worksop magistrates court leads to a slightly more complex set of arrangements at the Worksop courthouse than is typical and I am pleased to be able to clarify the matter.

On the closure of Worksop county court, the counter services will cease to be available, but county court hearings will be retained at the Worksop courthouse. However, the administrative work for Worksop county court is already dealt with at Mansfield county court and, as now, court users will continue to be able to contact Mansfield county court by a variety of methods.

I gently remind Ministers on the Treasury Bench that answers to topical questions are supposed to be brief.

T2. Does the Secretary of State share my concern that releasing prisoners with £46 in their pocket, nowhere to stay and a delay of one to six weeks before they can get jobseeker’s allowance makes it more likely that they will reoffend? Will he seek to reach an arrangement with the Department for Work and Pensions so that benefits can start promptly on release? (32703)

My hon. Friend alights on a significant problem. I am in discussions with the Department for Work and Pensions and I hope that we will be able to bring forward proposals that will address that issue.

In view of the serious riot at Ford open prison, does the Minister wish to revise the statement issued by the Ministry of Justice when announcing its public spending cuts—including a reduction of 10,000 in the number of front-line staff—which said that by taking such “tough decisions” it will be able to

“punish and rehabilitate offenders more effectively”?

The National Offender Management Service is undertaking a full investigation into what happened at Ford. Obviously, the behaviour there was deplorable and we must learn every lesson we can about what happened and how we can minimise the risk in future. So far as I am aware, the prison was staffed at its normal level and we had made no changes since we took office to the arrangements under the previous Government. We should not start leaping to conclusions about whether anything was at the heart of these events other than the appallingly bad behaviour of people who had been acquiring alcohol in the run-up to new year’s eve. We are looking carefully at all the circumstances and will draw the proper lessons from that.

Of course it is important to wait until the inquiry, but does the Secretary of State honestly think that Ford would be adequately managed if the number of staff on duty were reduced to four or five to supervise 500 people each night?

That is a totally hypothetical question, given that the prison had the level of staffing instituted by the previous Government to which we have made no change. It is owing to the deplorable record of the previous Government that we are having to ensure better value for money from a reduced departmental budget. It has all exploded in the past few years and now has to be looked at more carefully. However, it is complete nonsense to work out from that that we are going to reduce a particular level of staffing on the night shift at a particular prison. We are approaching the whole thing slightly more sensibly and scientifically.

T3. Will the Minister confirm whether the Department is still contracting with Clearsprings to provide accommodation for ex-offenders? The policy undertaken by the previous Government attracted a lot of ex-offenders to my constituency because of our low rental costs, and actually caused an increase in our deprivation issues and social problems. (32704)

The contract with Clearsprings to provide private rented accommodation to defendants on bail and prisoners released on home detention curfews who are otherwise without an address expired on 17 June 2010. A new three-year contract to provide a similar service was competitively tendered and awarded to Stonham, a registered housing charity. That contract commenced on 18 June 2010. Stonham does not manage any properties under that contract in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Will the Minister clarify whether the homicide victims fund is still in operation, and if so, what size is the pot and when will Ministers be giving charitable organisations the green light to put in a bid?

The homicide victims fund is still in operation. I will write to the hon. Gentleman with the precise number and the details of how it will be funded next year.

T4. The plight and vulnerability of many of the UK’s sex workers and prostitutes was highlighted for the people of Suffolk by the tragic events surrounding the Ipswich prostitute murders. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is vital that we have in place a proper strategy to help the rehabilitation of sex workers when they are released from prison, particularly to break the cycles of abuse and drug and alcohol dependency, and to support those people with mental health problems? Will he also visit my— (32705)

Order. I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but his first question was perfectly good enough. One will do.

My hon. Friend is right. These are extremely important issues, and the successfully piloted sex workers custody and community training course will be rolled out across the women’s prison estate with the aim of enabling staff to support the resettlement needs of women engaged in street-based sex work. Working in partnership with sex workers to support projects, it aims to assist women by breaking down barriers that may prevent them from accessing support.

Following the Minister’s decision to close Rochdale magistrates court, will he meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin) to discuss the matter further?

T5. Will Ministers take the opportunity to look at the latest report by Citizens Advice on civil recovery and consider how we can stop the use and abuse of civil recovery against shoplifters by many retailers up and down the land? (32706)

In view of the case involving six defendants that was dropped yesterday, is the Secretary of State aware that there is a lot of disquiet about the crossing of the line from a police constable going undercover for seven years and his inciting illegal action? Would it not be appropriate for a senior Minister, be it him or the Home Secretary, to make a statement to the House? As I have said, there is a good deal of concern and disquiet about what has occurred.

These are, of course, operational matters for the police. I understand that there is to be an investigation into what appears to have been a lack of proper supervision of the officer concerned, but undercover operations are immensely important across a range of criminal activities, in keeping the public safe.

T6. With the Government’s announcement of the Green Paper, and their intention to cut prison numbers and strengthen community sentences, will the Minister outline to the House his plans for the role of the probation service and probation trusts, given that those two organisations are likely to have a vastly increased work load as a result of the policy? (32707)

First, let me emphasise that the Green Paper does not set out an intention to cut prison numbers and to substitute with community sentences and so on. We have given our best estimate of what we think the consequences of the Green Paper will be. However, the number of people who will go to prison will depend on the courts and their decisions. We expect that the number may be reduced by about 3,000 over the next few years. We are looking in particular at community payback, and at how we can introduce more competition in that—which the previous Government were contemplating—and diversify the way in which it is provided. We need to make community sentences more effective, but the key thing about them, as with everything else, is that they must be appropriate punishments for the crimes that the people concerned have committed.

I have been listening keenly to the Secretary of State’s every word for the best part of two decades, but I want the whole House to hear him, so may I just remind him that he must face the House?

In December I discovered that constituents who were appealing against their benefit decisions at the tribunal service, for which the Ministry is responsible, were having to wait for appointments or tribunal dates for between six and nine months. Given that those individuals will suffer a financial penalty in that time and that a significant number will win their appeals, does the Minister think that that is acceptable? What will he do to remedy it?

The timetable was worsening, but more resources have been put in and we hope that the situation will improve.

T7. Can the Minister please tell me what steps his Department is taking to tackle the levels of drugs that are available in our prisons and the levels of drug addiction among prisoners? (32709)

We announced proposals in the Green Paper on drug-free wings and drug-recovery wings, which will work in conjunction with the wider application of the payment-by-results scheme in the community. That sits alongside all the efforts to police prisons effectively and to keep drugs out of prisons, through the effective use of all the resources available to the Prison Service and the police.

Tomorrow I will be meeting representatives from my local citizens advice bureaux, Merseyside Employment Law and Merseyside Welfare Rights, who are part of the Justice for All lobby of Parliament. They will be raising their deep concerns about the severe impact that the cuts to legal aid will have on people in my constituency who are disabled, have low incomes or are unemployed. Will any of the Ministers here today be meeting anyone from the Justice for All lobby tomorrow?

I have not received a request for such a meeting, although I would be very happy to attend if a request came in. However, as I said before, the point is that we have to cut legal aid; indeed, the hon. Lady’s party has recognised that we need to cut the amount of legal aid paid. It is important that we redirect the scarce resources that remain to the most vulnerable, and that is what we will be doing.

Given his remarks about legal aid and citizens advice bureaux, does the Minister look to local authorities as core funders, or to other Departments to increase such funding?

We need to distinguish between legal aid and general advice. A citizens advice bureau may provide legal aid services, but half do not do so. However, all will provide core advisory services, which are normally funded by local authorities.

I received a reply from the Ministry of Justice saying that the Data Protection Act 1998

“does not cover the…retention and storage”

of the records of deceased persons. That means that hospitals have incentives to lose, mislay or hide records in cases where there is some suspicion about what happened. Can the Minister read my early-day motion 1220 and have urgent discussions with the Department of Health to see whether we can review legislation in this area?

That is a matter where co-ordination with the Department of Health will be required, and I should be very happy to do that work if the hon. Gentleman would like to write to me on the matter.

Does the Secretary of State agree, that, according to the “polluter pays” principle, the best punishment for the people who caused the fire at Ford open prison would be to require them to take part in repairing the damage?

I am not entirely sure how welcome the return to Ford of those prisoners will be to the inmates who remain there and who have just seen their community facilities entirely destroyed. On a wider point, we want to move towards establishing proper recompense for victims, although I do not think that we will be recompensing prisoners in that institution. Restorative justice will now be a principle that we shall adopt extremely strongly.

As part of the consultation for the Green Paper, the Justice Secretary has just announced public meetings in Leeds, London, Nottingham, Bristol and Manchester. Birmingham has the largest legal community outside London, and the west midlands is the largest conurbation, so I am just wondering what he has against Birmingham.

I have absolutely nothing against Birmingham, and I will take that as a bid for a public meeting there. I will write to the hon. Lady to see whether we can effect one.

Before any decision is made to withdraw legal aid for families dealing with special educational needs tribunals, will my right hon. and hon. Friends work with the Department for Education, particularly in the light of its proposed Green Paper on the reform of SEN procedure, to ensure that the families of children with SEN get all the help and support that they deserve?

We have been co-ordinating with the Department for Education on this matter, and the joint views will be going into the Green Paper.