House of Commons
Tuesday 18 September 2012
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Integrated Offender Management Framework
Integrated offender management arrangements are helping to reduce crime and reoffending in local areas through effective partnership working and multi-agency co-ordination. A key strength of the approach is that it makes best use of the resources available locally. Many probation trusts and prisons are following an IOM approach. We hope that local partners will continue to invest in such approaches where they are delivering strong outcomes and offering best value for money.
I spent a day looking at IOM in Scunthorpe recently and was impressed by what I saw. Will the Secretary of State work with colleagues from the Department for Work and Pensions to give probation services using IOM the flexibility to provide intensive support to get offenders into jobs through projects such as Empower in north Lincolnshire, rather than allowing them to languish on an unresponsive Work programme?
Given my last job and my current job, I am probably pretty well positioned to ensure that the two Departments work closely together. I strongly believe in the linkage between the rehabilitation of offenders and work to try to get former offenders into employment, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the two Departments will work closely together to achieve that goal.
On behalf of the Select Committee on Justice, may I welcome the Secretary of State and Lord Chancellor to his office and wish him well?
Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that he is responsible for spending a lot of public money to ensure that people who come out of prison are effectively managed and assisted so that they give up on crime, and that we use prison for those for whom it is necessary, but use other means to get other people away from crime?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words of welcome. I look forward to having many dealings with his Committee, and no doubt some sharp questioning. Let me assure him that I view rehabilitation very much as a significant element of our criminal justice system. It will be a major theme of the work I do at the Ministry of Justice. Although people may have to go to prison in recognition of the offences they have committed, it is absolutely right and proper that we should do everything we possibly can to ensure that they do not go back.
I am pleased to see the Minister in his new role. Will he take a look at the “Choose change” project, which has been running in Manchester for a number of years, working with offenders in prison to prepare for all aspects of their lives on release? It has been an extremely interesting exercise in dealing with all the things that may lead prisoners back into crime on release, and practitioners in Manchester would very much welcome it if the new Minister paid a visit.
The hon. Lady is making an early bid. I can assure her that I have every intention of spending as much time as I can away from Westminster, looking at the work being done in the public sector, as well as by those working with the public sector, to try to understand where we can improve and build on existing successes. I am sure that if I am in Manchester and the opportunity arises, I shall do as she suggests.
Let me take this opportunity to welcome the Justice Secretary to his place—and, indeed, the prisons Minister and the other Ministers to their places. They say a new broom sweeps clean, so let us have a go. The last Justice Secretary thought that indeterminate sentences were a scandal. We are all hoping that the new Justice Secretary, given his comments in the past, is looking at how to introduce some form of risk-based release. However, given the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights this morning, how long are we likely to have to wait?
The ECHR ruling this morning was very much about rehabilitation, about which I feel strongly and which needs to be clear and present in prisons, as well as after prison. However, I am very disappointed by the ECHR decision this morning. This is not an area where I welcome the Court seeking to make rulings, and we intend to appeal this morning’s decision.
No Win, No Fee Agreements
The Government have made it a priority to reform the costs of civil litigation and, in particular, the no win, no fee conditional fee agreements. A package of major reforms is being implemented in April 2013, under the provisions of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. I would also refer my hon. Friend to two written ministerial statements, dated 24 May and 17 July.
Defendants such as the NHS were required to pay inflated success fees under the old regime, as well as after-the-event insurance premiums. In 2010-11, the NHS Litigation Authority paid £200 million to claimant lawyers. Under the new reforms, those costs will be reduced, allowing more money to be spent on patient care.
I, too, warmly congratulate the hon. Lady on her new job. I am sure that she will be an absolute star. May I urge her, however, to think carefully about no win, no fee agreements? Last week, scurrilous and despicable low-lifes in France invaded the privacy of a young woman who is able to take legal action because she is very wealthy, but many people in this country, including the Dowler family, would never have been able to take legal action in a privacy case had it not been for no win, no fee arrangements. Can we please, please ensure that we do not chuck the baby out with the bath water?
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but we firmly believe that, while meritorious claims will continue to be made, unnecessary and avoidable claims have to be deterred. Legal aid will, of course, be available for those who need it most, and for the most serious cases, under the exceptional funding rules.
Police and Crime Commissioners (Victims’ Services)
We expect that the needs of victims will be one of the key priorities for police and crime commissioners and that the effect on victims’ services will be a positive one. PCCs will be ideally placed to commission the most appropriate services to support victims in their area.
Central Government currently spend about £66 million a year on supporting witnesses and victims of crime, and we aim to raise up to an additional £50 million a year from offenders, through the victims surcharge and other financial impositions, to be used for support services for victims and witnesses. The police and crime commissioners will therefore have sufficient budget to enable them to make their own judgments on how best to support victims in their area.
My hon. Friend is right. Individual PCCs in specific areas will be the best placed to understand the needs of the local community and to commission the services to meet those needs, as they will be taking those decisions closer to the people who will be most affected by them. That is the whole thrust of this important reform.
May I first declare an interest, as I am standing as the Labour and Co-operative candidate for police and crime commissioner in south Wales?
Does the Minister agree that the treatment of victims and witnesses remains deeply unsatisfactory in many areas of the court system and in the criminal justice system generally? In providing resources to police and crime commissioners, will he ensure that attrition does not occur along the way and that those resources will be adequate to allow proper, enhanced attention to be paid to the needs of victims?
I am enchanted to hear a pre-bid for additional public spending from a candidate, even before the election. The right hon. Gentleman is demonstrating his experience there. As I have just explained to the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), we are seeking to increase the amount of money that the perpetrators of crime pass directly to the victims, through the victims surcharge, but it will be a matter for the individual police and crime commissioner—whether that will be the right hon. Gentleman or one of his opponents—to decide how best to spend that money in their local area. I am sure that he would agree that such decisions are better made locally than centrally.
People are concerned that funding for Victim Support might be lost following the introduction of the new services, including that for mediation and conciliation. Does the Minister agree that those important services save the police a lot of time and resources?
I agree with my hon. Friend that mediation services do a very good job. He mentions Victim Support, which has, of course, asked all PCC candidates to sign up to five pledges. Many candidates of all parties—and, indeed, independent candidates—have signed up to those pledges. With the range of services involved, I repeat that it will be for the PCCs to make a decision, and they are best placed to do so in their individual areas.
Victims will almost certainly be adversely affected when PCCs are elected in November, but the Government’s plans for the criminal injuries compensation scheme could make that even worse. After we forced last week’s dramatic eleventh-hour retreat, victims rightly want to know the Government’s next steps. Will the Minister confirm whether the Government propose to try once again to shove this deeply unpopular proposal through, rewrite it, apply cosmetic changes in the hope of dampening down the opposition on their own side or, as we hope, to scrap it altogether?
In the first instance, I find it extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman should attack all PCC candidates, including his own right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael), who has just announced that he is a PCC candidate, and that the hon. Gentleman is telling the people of south Wales that his right hon. Friend would not spend the money as well as I would. That is an extraordinary assertion. As for the second half of the hon. Gentleman’s extraordinary question, we will, of course, look at what best to do, and we will want to bring back the scheme, but in a better form so that individual cases can be treated in a more individual and sensitive way. I assure him that if he condemns every PCC candidate as being unable to deal with public money before they are even elected, he really does not understand democracy.
Prisons (Foreign Nationals)
The UK Border Agency removed 4,649 foreign national offenders from this country in 2011, but there is, of course, much more to do, so we are seeking to negotiate more compulsory prisoner transfer agreements and to improve administrative processes so that foreign national offenders are removed at the earliest opportunity. We also hope to reduce the flow into the criminal justice system through conditional cautions and to reduce the number already serving prison sentences through the early removal scheme and the tariff-expired removal scheme.
We would all like to welcome my hon. Friend to his new position and wish him the very best.
Over the last decade, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of foreign prisoners detained in our prisons. Many people in South Staffordshire feel that we are having greater trouble deporting these prisoners because of the European convention on human rights. What my constituents want to know is: what is my hon. Friend going to do to reverse that trend?
My hon. Friend and his constituents are right to be worried. It is true that foreign national offenders will continue to challenge deportation under article 8 of the ECHR, but he will be pleased to know that this Government have changed the immigration rules. New rules came into force in July this year so that only in exceptional circumstances will family life, the best interests of a child or private life outweigh criminality and the public interest in seeing foreign national offenders deported where they have received a substantial sentence. That is a better balance between the interests of foreign criminals and the interests of the British public in being protected from them, which have been neglected for far too long.
May I, too, congratulate and welcome the entire Justice team on their elevation, and wish well those right hon. and hon. Members who have been relieved of their duties?
The Prime Minister said in 2010 that he would
“personally intervene to send back thousands of foreign prisoners”
and alleviate the strain on our overcrowded and overstretched prisons. The last Government negotiated prisoner transfer agreements with more than 75 countries. I know that the Justice team and the Prime Minister believe in taking personal responsibility, so will the Minister tell us with how many countries this Government have finalised a prisoner transfer agreement over the last 28 months, and how many thousands of prisoners have been transferred during that period?
I think that the right hon. Gentleman knows how difficult this exercise is. He knows perfectly well that prisoner transfer agreements are a matter of negotiation, and he also knows that compulsory transfer agreements are much more valuable than voluntary ones. Most of the agreements that he has described his Government as having achieved are voluntary, not compulsory. This Government will attempt to negotiate more compulsory agreements, so that we can continue to send home foreign offenders whom we do not want in our prisons.
Now that we have a fresh, dynamic new regime at the Ministry of Justice, may we please move the subject of foreign national offenders to the top of the Ministry’s agenda? There are more than 10,000 foreign nationals in our jails, and that is far too many. Jamaica, Poland and Ireland are the three countries that send most foreign nationals to our jails, but we have compulsory transfer agreements with none of them. Please will the Ministry get on with negotiating compulsory transfer agreements, so that these people can be sent back to their countries of origin?
Let me say again that I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s concern. He has spoken out about this a number of times. However, I have at least some good news for him. European Union nationals account for about a third of foreign national prisoners. A European Union prisoner transfer agreement came into force in December last year, and EU countries are implementing it this year. I hope that that will not only help to remove foreign national offenders, but rank as one of the very few measures coming out of Brussels of which my hon. Friend wholly approves.
I have no plans to reduce the prison population. The only changes that I want to see in it will result from our returning more foreign national prisoners to their countries of origin, and—crucially—doing a much better job in rehabilitating offenders, so that far fewer people come back to prison.
I am not grateful for that cynical, backward-looking answer, which did not recognise the fact that not one of the fresh, dynamic teams that have been welcomed to the House for the past 42 years has reduced recidivism by one iota. People are still committing crime, and the same percentage of them are returning to prison. Can we say a word of regret for the loss of one of our few civilised, vintage politicians, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who demonstrated that he had a working brain and that he understood the benefits of remedial work in prison? Have we not, sadly, exchanged old lace for arsenic?
Has the new Secretary of State, whom I warmly welcome to his post, had a chance to look at a report from the National Audit Office which was published today? It says that the dropping of the previous Secretary of State’s proposal to let prisoners out early if they pleaded guilty, or to reduce their sentences, would lead to an increase in prison numbers, and that we therefore need to maintain our full prison estate.
I would have been very uncomfortable about inheriting a policy that allowed people to escape prison sentences by pleading guilty early. The National Audit Office report suggests that financial issues might be created for us. I can say that in the two weeks for which I have been in the Department, I have looked at the financial position, and I am comfortable that it is on track to achieve the savings that it should achieve during the spending review period. However, I want to ensure that that happens while also ensuring that the right people are still in our prisons.
One way of reducing the number of short-sentence prisoners would be to extend the intensive alternative to custody programme, which has been pioneered in Greater Manchester. When the Secretary of State makes his early visit to Manchester following the invitation issued earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), will he take a look for himself at how that programme is reducing reoffending, and how it could be rolled out still further?
I have had several bids from the Manchester area, and I am sure that I shall be in the city in the not-too-distant future. I shall happily consider whether I can look at the best projects there. Clearly there is good experience showing how it is possible to increase the likelihood of offenders’ returning to a life of non-offending, and any lessons that we can learn will be welcome.
I welcome the Secretary of State and his team to their posts. Does he agree that, with the annual cost per prisoner standing at about £40,000 and that figure rising to about £100,000 for young people, it is very sensible, partly in order to save money, to look for alternatives, in particular with regard to short-term schemes? Will he at least look at saving money in that way, which would also enable us to deal better with these people and help make sure rehabilitation happens?
My two initial thoughts are that the cost of prisons is too high but, alongside that, that the best way for us to save money is to break the cycle of reoffending that has people going back to prison, and back to prison, and back to prison. We release young people on to our streets with £46 in their pocket, to go back to the same places where they offended before and where the same people are, and we are surprised when they return to prison. That is what has got to change.
Courts (Applied Language Solutions)
The hon. Lady may be aware of problems that occurred when the contract started in January, but the National Audit Office’s recent report, published on 12 September, showed that ALS was filling 95% of its bookings and complaints had fallen. The Department continues to monitor the performance of ALS against the key performance indicators. We published a statistical report in May and plan to publish an updated report later in the year.
I thank the Minister for her response and welcome her to her post. She brings a unique expertise to the team. May I also pay tribute to the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke)? He was a good Lord Chancellor.
The Minister will be aware that there is a legal duty under the Human Rights Act to provide interpreters, and a judge last month said ALS was dreadful—a plague on the courts and incompetent. What steps will the Minister take to ensure there is no waste of public money in delayed and adjourned cases?
The Ministry of Justice acted quickly to put a plan in place when it became obvious that there were performance problems. We are not being complacent and we will continue to monitor performance, but we are seeing some substantial improvements. The framework with ALS is intended to provide better value for money. It also provides an opportunity to reduce a great deal of the administrative burdens that were placed on the justice agencies under the old system. The contract is also expected to save the Ministry of Justice in the region of £15 million a year.
The Minister must be irritated to be spending her first few days in office reading NAO reports detailing her predecessor’s cock-ups. Does she agree with the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee that the NAO inquiry into the language service contract has uncovered some shocking failings which have had a dreadful impact on clients of the Court Service and people who work in the interpretation service? If she does, will she now suspend the contract with Applied Language Solutions, or is she happy to see interpreters with no experience, qualifications or criminal records checks being used in serious and sensitive criminal cases?
Youth Offending Teams
Staffing of youth offending teams is decided by local authorities and their partner agencies, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that between 2009-10 and 2010-11 there were 835 fewer posts, which includes volunteers, part-time and temporary staff. That amounts to a 4% reduction. Over the same period, the number of young people supervised by youth offending teams dropped by 20%
I thank the Minister for his answer. Over the last 10 years we have seen a 25% reduction in the number of young people on the secure estate or in prison, and over the same period youth crime dropped by almost a third. The Youth Justice Board’s focus on young people has been a remarkable success and, thankfully, the board has been retained. Can the Minister explain why his predecessor tried to abolish it?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman about the success of youth offending teams. It is the people on those teams—a mix from different agencies and organisations, working together—who are delivering the improvements he describes. It is not the case that the Government tried to abolish the youth offending teams. The Youth Justice Board is something different, but in any event the Youth Justice Board will stay, and we hope to work very closely with it to ensure that all the good things he has described continue.
Probation Service (Staffing)
Individual probation trusts determine their staffing requirements. The contracts negotiated and agreed with the trusts take account of the need to ensure that services are delivered effectively, efficiently and economically within the resources available. The performance data we collect indicate that probation trusts are making effective use of their resources to protect the public.
Many will recall that the Deputy Prime Minister said before the last election that he wanted to stop prisons turning into “colleges of crime”. Last week, the Minister revealed in a written answer to me that 4,175 offenders in England and Wales had been recalled to prison in the first three months of 2012 and that the rate is actually rising under this coalition, to more than 16,000 a year. Is that happening because the Government are failing on reoffending or because the probation service is totally understaffed?
I do not think it is either of those two things. It is right to be concerned about the rate of recall to prison; the hon. Gentleman is perfectly right to say that. It is also right that I put on the record, because this is my first opportunity to do so, that the probation service comes in for a great deal of criticism but does excellent work. It looks very hard at risk when it releases prisoners from custody and it does its very best to minimise that risk. Where we find that reoffending or breaches of licence resulting in returns to custody occur, we will work hard with the probation service to learn the necessary lessons.
Chancel Repair Liability
Chancel repair liability is a long-standing interest in land under the law of England and Wales, and the Government have no plans to review the law relating to it.
I welcome my hon. Friend to her richly deserved appointment, but I am rather disappointed by her answer. As the October 2013 deadline for the registration of liabilities under this archaic law approaches, more and more parochial church councils will face the kind of acute dilemmas faced by my constituents in Broadway. I urge her to bear it in mind that this law does need fundamental reform, for the sake of fairness and justice.
I am aware that my hon. Friend has an ongoing interest in this area, and I thank him for drawing it to my attention. However, chancel repair liability is a valid property right, which has been upheld by the House of Lords. Properties have been sold subject to the liability, and insurance can be made available. The requirement for registration will help greatly in dealing with the problem of discoverability, but I will, of course, keep the matter under consideration and monitor developments carefully.
Court Proceedings (Televising)
Legislation to amend the current prohibition on televising court proceedings is included in the Crime and Courts Bill, which is currently being debated in the other place. Initially, we plan to allow broadcasting of judgments and advocates’ arguments from the Court of Appeal.
I thank the Minister for that response. Will he give a cast-iron guarantee that when the legislation comes before the House, safeguards will in place to ensure that we do not see a repeat of what happened with sensational trials such as those of O.J. Simpson and Conrad Murray in the United States? Will the Minister assure us that if such things do occur, the judge will be able to stop televised proceedings?
Absolutely, and I think that the hon. Gentleman’s concerns will be shared across the House and, indeed, across the judiciary and the courts system more widely. I am very clear that although this reform is in the interests of transparency, which we hold to be very important, it must not give offenders opportunities for theatrical public displays. Victims, witnesses, offenders and jurors will not be filmed, so I hope that we will be able to avoid the problems that we all want to avoid.
Bill of Rights Commission
The commission published its second consultation in July 2012; this is due to close on 30 September. In accordance with its terms of reference, the commission should aim to report no later than the end of 2012, taking into consideration responses from both consultations.
I apologise, Mr Speaker, for that rush; I was so excited to be asking the question.
Let me first congratulate the whole Justice team and thank the Minister for his response. Will he inform the House where he stands on the future of the Human Rights Act 1998? Is he with his predecessor in wanting it to be retained or would he prefer it to be abolished and replaced by a Bill of Rights? If the latter, which of the rights currently protected by the Act does he believe are no longer worthy of protection?
The hon. Gentleman should never apologise for his characteristic courtesy, which is welcome on both sides of the House. I will tell him what we hope to achieve through the commission: we hope to move to a position in which human rights are once again completely accepted. In this country, “human rights” has become almost a boo-phrase, which is ridiculous. They are the basic rights to which we and all democracies adhere, but in various actions inside the courts and outside, human rights have been abused and this Government will put an end to that.
May I congratulate the Minister on his appointment? Is not an important right the British people’s right to a final say, and, with 80% saying in opinion polls that they want the Supreme Court to have the final decision, is it not right that we should consider how that can be done?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. It is precisely because of the strong feelings that we have set up the commission, which will report in a few months’ time. I hope that then we can have a well-informed debate about how we will take forward human rights in this country, preserving what is essential while avoiding the terrible abuses that have grown over the past few years.
Will the Minister take this opportunity to say something positive about the European Court of Human Rights and the European convention on human rights, which have done so much to improve the human rights of minorities and individuals all over Europe, and stop listening to the neanderthal voices behind him of those who think there is some salvation in walking away from what was a very important step forward in European human rights after the second world war?
As I hope I made clear in my answer to the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), I want to restore human rights and the basic ideas behind them to their place as not only a central part of our political debate but something that is unquestioned on either side of this House or anywhere outside it. That is what we should think about human rights; the problem is that they have been abused in both the European Courts and our domestic courts and in other parts of the system. We need a proper balance and, once the commission has come up with recommendations on that, that is what this Government will achieve.
Prisons (Female Domestic Violence Victims)
Estimating the number of women in prison who have been victims of domestic violence is difficult, as the information is not recorded centrally. However, surveys tell us that half of female prisoners report having been the victims of abuse of some kind. That includes abuse at any age, and is not necessarily domestic violence. The figures could also be a significant underestimate, as the hon. Lady knows, because admissions from victims of domestic violence are not always forthcoming.
I warmly welcome the Minister to her responsibility; she is a rare creature who cares seriously about this issue in her bones and not just in her words. If it is right that half or more of women in prison have been victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse and other kinds of violence, should not those victims be diverted from the criminal justice system rather than incarcerated in it?
The hon. Lady is very knowledgeable on such matters, having worked hard and effectively for a number of years, campaigning for both victims of domestic violence and female offenders. It was to my absolute delight that I was given this brief as a new Minister by the Secretary of State and I hope to draw on some of my experience before I came to this place while I undertake the role. Tackling domestic violence and women’s offending are priorities for the Government and me, and I am delighted to note that the National Offender Management Service has been working very closely with Women’s Aid to develop policies, strategies and training to support women who are in prison and to identify domestic violence. Considerable work needs to be done and I look forward to working closely with the hon. Lady and other Labour Members to drive through change and make a difference in this area.
As a former chairman of Epsom and District Victim Support, I well understand the importance of the support we provide to victims. I am making an early assessment of how to take forward the role of the victims commissioner.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that very welcome answer. Does he agree that when those whose job it is to help victims of crime turn out to make things worse, so that a victim has to complain, the subsequent inertia can make them a victim all over again? When a new victims commissioner is appointed, will my right hon. Friend ensure that their remit is expanded, so that such examples can be taken into account, which are in effect in the civil rather than criminal area?
I am aware of the circumstances that prompt my hon. Friend’s question. He makes a valuable point and I would like to discuss the issue with him further. I am open to providing appropriate and more broadly based support to victims if that proves necessary.
The Ministry of Justice often receives representations regarding coroners.
I add my welcome to the Minister in taking up her new role and also welcome the new chief coroner, who of course takes up his role this week. Will she take the opportunity to disassociate herself from the actions of her predecessor, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), who did much to obstruct the role of chief coroner, and will she welcome the extra accountability the role will bring to the coroner service, particularly in assisting bereaved families?
The chief coroner will take up his role either tomorrow or the day after, and the Secretary of State and I look forward to meeting him shortly thereafter. The first of his new powers will come into force next week. The Government are determined to improve the coroner system. There needs to be much more focus on the bereaved and we must ensure that we minimise delays.
In welcoming my hon. Friend to her new post, may I ask her what is the average length of time for an inquest and whether there is anything she can do to speed up the process? Will she meet me to discuss the case of a young boy who died on the A64 and the trauma suffered by his family during the course of the inquest?
Prisoners must be released in accordance with the legislation laid down by Parliament. Parliament has consistently maintained the view that custodial sentences should be served in part in custody and in part in the community. Sentencers take that into account when determining the appropriate sentence in each case.
I warmly welcome the Minister and the Secretary of State to their roles, particularly given that I tried over the past couple of years to get their predecessors sacked. The Labour Government left us with a situation in which prisoners now have to be released halfway through their sentences, irrespective of how they behave in prison. Does the Minister think that is an acceptable state of affairs and, if not, what does he intend to do about it?
I am grateful to be in line for the same kind of treatment as my predecessor. My hon. Friend will find that I agree with him on many things, but I do not entirely agree with him on this. I think that there is merit in having a period, after a custodial sentence has been served in custody, when we can supervise and monitor offenders and send them back if they misbehave, so I am not in favour, as I know he is, of an entire sentence being served in custody. However, I think that there is scope for reform in sentencing, and we shall certainly look at those opportunities carefully.
My hon. Friend knows well that I feel strongly about this issue. The Government and my predecessor have already made changes to the law, and I am now examining whether they go far enough.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that response and welcome him and his ministerial colleagues to their new positions. Will he consider introducing legislative changes to give certainty to home owners on the level of force they can use to protect their families and properties from intruders?
Prison Officers (Fitness Tests)
Prison Service fitness assessments test whether prison officers are capable of safely and competently carrying out control and restraint procedures on prisoners when necessary. The assessment has been validated by academic study. As with all Prison Service policies, it will be kept under review.
I am sure that the Minister has not yet had time to do the test, but it already means that a large number of prison officers are retired every year. Does he think that it is realistic for people to pass the test when he is raising the retirement age to 68?
The hon. Lady is right; I have not yet had the chance to do the test, but I have to tell her that I fancy my chances, because I understand that the pass rate is something like 99%. For her reassurance, the pass rate for those prison officers who are over 60 is something like 98%. It is worth making the point that most of our constituents would regard it as sensible that prison officers, who have to do difficult, challenging and sometimes very physical work, are fit enough to do it.
Delivering an effective justice system is a key priority of this Government, so I am delighted to have been appointed Secretary of State for Justice and I am grateful to all hon. Members who have welcomed the new team. I am pleased to have such an experienced team who bring a wealth of legal knowledge to their portfolios, building on the excellent work of their predecessors. I should also tell the House that I have agreed with the Chief Whip that, on occasions, when necessary, the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr Evennett), will provide support to the team and the House. Our shared goal is to focus relentlessly on a rehabilitation revolution, improving our system so that it both punishes and reforms offenders.
There are British girls at risk of being taken abroad to be subjected to horrific, permanent violence. I know that the Ministry of Justice has been working with the Home Office on a draft declaration against female genital mutilation for at-risk girls to carry in their passports. Will my right hon. and hon. Friends ensure that the most robust legal language possible is used to maximise the document’s deterrent effect and better protect British girls?
I know that my hon. Friend has worked long and hard for many years to stamp out this abhorrent practice and that it affects a large number of women and girls in Britain today. I assure her that I will look very carefully at the language of the declaration to make sure prior to its being signed off that we will achieve optimum effect.
I look forward to many months of debate with the right hon. Gentleman. I believe absolutely that the rehabilitation revolution should be at the top of the agenda. We want to deliver a system whereby we no longer send young people inadequately supported back out on to the streets, to reoffend and then go back to prison. I believe in having the right number of people in prison. We need our courts to send to prison people who need a prison sentence, but I also believe in doing everything we can to prevent them from going back.
We will wait and see whether the right hon. Gentleman keeps his brief, but I hope we will be debating for more than a few months; we could do with more certainty in the Justice Department. As the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) has pointed out, the National Audit Office has said today that, as a result of this Government’s botched policies over the past 28 months, there is now a £130 million black hole in the MOJ budget. We also know that our prisons and probation services are overstretched. Will the Justice Secretary reassure the House and the British public that, unlike the previous Justice Secretary, he will not risk public safety or let victims down in his attempts to fill the black hole?
I can absolutely give that assurance. As I said earlier, I have looked at the Department’s finances and it is on track to deliver the savings that it needs to deliver. My view is that reform is about delivering more for less, not about endangering public safety.
T5. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons recently said of HMP Liverpool that“resettlement resources were not adequate to meet the needs of the population held, with backlogs of the reviews necessary to address offending behaviour and little planning for short-term prisoners.”Given that HMIP report, what comfort can the Minister provide to my constituents that he is taking seriously the important issue of an overstretched service? (121206)
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I have not had a chance to look at that report yet. I will look at it and come back to him. Generally, resettlement is hugely important. We are keen to see offenders get back into the community and straight into productive work, which is one reason we want offenders to be admitted quickly on to the Work programme that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State introduced so successfully in his last job.
Although good work is being done to encourage initial reforms, decisions such as today’s in the European Court of Human Rights suggest that its focus is wrong. Through the work of our commission and discussions across the coalition, we will put considerable effort into ensuring that the human rights framework in this country is something that we can all have confidence in, as the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) said earlier.
T10. What assessment has the Department made since the riots last year of the initial lengths of the sentences that were imposed, the extent to which those sentences were reduced on appeal, and the extent to which proper pre-sentence reports were available at the initial hearings? (121211)
I have not yet had a chance to look at the detail of the sentencing packages after the riots, but it is clear that members of the judiciary responded in a robust way to a set of circumstances that was wholly and utterly unacceptable, and I praise them for it.
T6. Does the Minister agree that it is perverse that someone who was on probation and had funding for a course, so that he could get the qualifications to get a job, has had that funding withdrawn halfway through the course because he has been taken off probation for complying with everything that the probation service asked of him? (121207)
Further to Question 6, is there any indication that any prisoner has received an inappropriate sentence because of the failings of Applied Language Solutions, given that, as the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), said, it has failed to fulfil 5% of its bookings even after the improvements that she talked about?
That matter is being dealt with by the Home Office and the Government Equalities Office. We are continuing to review it. We regard domestic violence as a particularly serious offence. It does untold damage to the lives of women. The Government will continue to work to find ways of reducing the likelihood of people suffering from domestic violence.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to repeat that we have set up a commission to look at this important issue and that we want to get back to a position where human rights are taken to be one of the basic values of a democratic society, rather than having human rights abused in such a way that the whole concept has fallen into disrepute.
I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. When I took over as Secretary of State, I made a decision to take two weeks in which to get around the task and not make decisions about anything. That means that the Department will not announce the outcome of the tendering process until after the conference recess, but it is better for a new set of Ministers to ensure that they know what they are talking about before they act.
May I warmly and genuinely welcome the new Secretary of State to his post—unlike some Opposition Members—and may I give him a heads up to keep a beady eye out later this year for the report into youth justice by the Justice Committee of which I am a member? I encourage him to look seriously at any credible ideas that seek to divert young people from the criminal justice system in the first place.
I assure my hon. Friend that I will do that. I do not believe that any ministerial team or Department has a monopoly of wisdom, and we will look for best practice and good ideas that will help us to deliver a better level of support to offenders so that they do not come back and reoffend. I particularly look forward to working with members of the Justice Committee. They will no doubt scrutinise our actions intensely, and I hope that we can have a constructive relationship.
My constituent, Lorraine Fraser, tragically lost her son who was brutally murdered by a gang of 30. Four of the murderers received life sentences, but two have been moved to an open prison under the Guittard arrangement, thereby depriving my constituent of the opportunity to attend the parole board, or present a victim impact statement. That has obviously had a devastating impact. Will the Minister agree to meet me and my constituent to discuss that worrying development?
The recent decision by the European Court of Human Rights ruled against Christians who were penalised for wearing a cross at work or taking a stand for their religious beliefs. That has caused great concern, and many people are asking where is the protection and religious freedom for Christians. What steps will be taken to prevent the erosion of justice for those with Christian beliefs, and to provide people with the protection that they should—and must—have?
The Government support people’s right to wear a cross, and the law requires employers to consider whether any provisions or criteria that they adopt would disadvantage employees of any religion. We have discussed court actions in a previous Question Time, and common sense is important on behalf of both courts and employers, so as to allow the legitimate expression of religious views in the workplace.
I understand my hon. Friend’s point, and of course the situation is worse than that because some prisoners actually gain a drug habit while in custody. There is a great deal of work to do, not only with drug-free wings but in reducing drug addiction across the prison estate. We will continue to work on that.
In his previous job, the Secretary of State responded to a debate in Westminster Hall on work capacity assessments, and one issue raised concerned the long backlog in dealing with appeals against decisions made in the Department for Work and Pensions. In his new role, what is the Justice Secretary doing to deal with the backlog of cases in the Ministry of Justice?
Having done my previous job and given my current job, I will obviously examine that matter carefully. Of course, the hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that the backlog was not created under the current Government. We inherited it, on a much larger scale, two years ago.
Too often, victims of crime get inadequate information about their case. What are the Government doing to ensure that better information technology is used so that victims are given the right information at the right time?
I regard the provision of information to victims as one thing that we really need to focus on. I have sat with many victims of crime and their families who have said that one of the biggest frustrations has been not having information about what is going on. I assure my hon. Friend that, although it is early days in the job, that is very much on my mind.
I understand why Ministers chose to withdraw proposals on criminal injuries compensation whereby innocent victims of crime would not have been able to make claims, but I do not understand why they also chose not to press ahead with proposals on victims of overseas terrorism. Will the Secretary of State explain that and say when those proposals will be brought back to the House?
The key issue related to last week’s criminal injuries debate is that I want to ensure that we prepare for the unexpected. I do not see that there is a case for targeting resources at minor injuries that do not have a significant effect on the lives of those affected. I want to concentrate resources on people who suffer life-changing circumstances as a result of crime. However, I want to ensure that we have enough flexibility to deal with unexpected lower-level cases that do not conform with the overall norms of the scheme.
My right hon. Friend will know that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is a non-state organisation that can bring prosecutions in its own name. Unlike the Crown Prosecution Service, however, when it loses cases because it has got either the law or the facts wrong, costs orders are never made in favour of the successful defendant. Will he investigate why the courts never award costs orders against the RSPCA and in favour of successful defendants?
I, too, welcome the new ministerial team, because I am ever hopeful that, unlike his predecessor, the Secretary of State or a relevant Minister will meet me to discuss the scandal of 10,000 people driving legally with more than 12 points on their licences. Will he do so?
Afghanistan (NATO Strategy)
There has been no change of policy in Afghanistan. As I told the House yesterday, the security of our deployed forces in Afghanistan or anywhere in the world remains a defence priority. The safety of our service personnel is an issue that all in government and in the military chain of command take extremely seriously.
In respect of the international security assistance force fragmentary order issued on Sunday, not for the first time the media have become a little overexcited. It might help the House if I quote a press release issued by the commander of ISAF forces in Kabul this morning. He stated that
“recent media coverage regarding a change in ISAF’s model of Security Force Assistance is not accurate. ISAF remains absolutely committed to partnering with, training, advising and assisting our ANSF”—
Afghan national security forces—
“counterparts. The ISAF SFA model is focused at the battalion level and above, with exceptions approved by senior commanders. Partnering occurs at all levels, from Platoon to Corps. This has not changed.
In response to elevated threat levels resulting from the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ video, ISAF has taken some prudent, but temporary, measures to reduce our profile and vulnerability to civil disturbances or insider attacks…The SFA model is integral to the success of the ANSF, and ISAF will return to normal operations as soon as conditions warrant.”
The commander of ISAF Joint Command has effectively directed a change to the level at which partnering and advising are scrutinised and authorised. Most partnering and advising was already at the kandak, or battalion, level and above. The change does not mean that there will be no partnering below that level. The need for that will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and approved by the regional commanders in theatre.
The regional commander in Regional Command Southwest, where British forces are based, is Major General Mark Gurganus, a US Marine Corps general. He has endorsed the approach currently being taken by the UK-led Taskforce Helmand, including mentoring and partnering at below kandak level. That means that the UK partnering and mentoring operations will continue substantially unchanged by this order. It is normal practice that all elements of our operations are subject to oversight by the chain of command, and operations will continue to evolve and risk assessments will continue to be updated. The ANSF capability for independent operations is, in any case, steadily increasing, and our level of partnering activity on the ground has therefore been steadily decreasing.
The personal safety of our deployed personnel remains a defence priority, and we will take every step necessary to minimise the risk to them. We have always kept the level at which we mentor the ANSF under review and will continue to do so through the process of security transition. British commanders on the ground retain the flexibility to mentor at the appropriate level in consultation with the regional commander. We have a strategic plan that takes us to the end of combat operations in 2014 while strengthening the ANSF to take over security responsibility from us. I have every confidence in the way Com ISAF is executing that plan.
May I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question?
At the very least there is confusion with regard to this issue. A NATO statement has made it clear that joint on-the-ground operations have been suspended until further notice. The decision announced in Afghanistan by General Allen has appeared to take the UK Government by surprise. Only yesterday, in Parliament, the Defence Secretary was rightly defending NATO’s continued work with Afghan troops on the ground. When did the Government know of this decision, and were they consulted on the matter?
This announcement threatens to blow a hole in our stated exit strategy, which is heavily reliant on these joint operations continuing until Afghan forces are able to operate independently and provide their own security following ISAF’s withdrawal. As a soldier myself, I know the real value of mentoring—coaching and training—at ground level, and there is no substitute for that. Anything else above battalion level is very much theory. If these operations are not going to take place at ground level, where does that leave our exit strategy? Will our soldiers be coming home early? The announcement adds to the uncertainty as to whether Afghan forces will have the ability to keep an undefeated Taliban at bay once NATO forces have left.
This, in a way, goes to the very heart of what our mission is in Afghanistan. For those of us who opposed our involvement in Afghanistan, there appears to have been confusion from the start. Al-Qaeda was driven from the country in the early stages. The mission has now morphed into one of nation building, human rights and democracy. Laudable though those aims are, they are very different from our original mission. I suggest that we need to be clear about this. Last week, the International Development Secretary talked of nation building. At the same time, the Defence Secretary, when visiting troops in Afghanistan, talked, rightly in my view, about it being wrong to risk the lives of our troops for nation building when they should only protect our vital national security interests. The importance of that distinction is that nation building requires defeat of the Taliban, whereas protecting our national security interests in preventing al-Qaeda from returning does not necessarily require their defeat, given their differences with al-Qaeda.
What is our mission in Afghanistan? Clarity is required. If we are remaining true to our original mission of eliminating al-Qaeda from Afghanistan, should we not now be doing more to encourage the Americans to conduct non-conditional talks with the Taliban in order to explore possible common ground?
There were a lot of questions there. First, my hon. Friend talks about consultation with Governments. This is not a strategic initiative; it is a tactical initiative, taken by commanders in theatre, operating within their delegated responsibility. We would not seek to interfere with the military judgment of commanders on the ground.
On information, I can tell my hon. Friend that this FRAGO was issued on Sunday evening. I was told about that during a meeting on Monday, along with information about several other measures that ISAF has taken. No particular significance was attached to it.
My hon. Friend talks about partnering at below kandak level. I should stress to him that US forces have not routinely partnered below kandak level. It has been the practice of the British-led Taskforce Helmand to partner and mentor Afghan units at tolay—company—and even platoon level. That is not a practice used by the Americans, so the impact of the announcement will be far less significant than he suggests. As I made clear in my opening remarks, General Gurganus, Regional Commander of RC Southwest, has this morning confirmed that he is happy for Taskforce Helmand to continue in its current mode of operations. In other words, he has endorsed the risk assessment and management approach that we have been using. We will continue our operations as we were carrying them out last week in Helmand.
My hon. Friend asks, at the more strategic level, about our mission in Afghanistan. I touched on that yesterday, and he knows my position very well: we can ask British forces to place themselves at risk for the defence of Britain’s national interest, and legitimately for no other reason. I am clear that the mission we are carrying out in Afghanistan is to protect Britain’s national security by denying Afghan space to international terrorists. That is our mission, and that is the mission we will complete.
The Government’s priority in Afghanistan is, rightly, to achieve the mission while protecting our forces and those of our ISAF allies. In that, as in Afghanistan policy more generally, our approach is to support and scrutinise the Government’s actions. While the details of today’s announcement are still not clear, it appears to mark a significant change in the relationship between UK, ISAF and Afghan forces.
May I ask questions about three areas? First, on the training of Afghan forces, if the approach is that we will not automatically and routinely partner with smaller Afghan forces at company level, what impact will that have on the training of individual Afghan recruits by UK forces and on the safety of UK forces, which will increasingly be patrolling without Afghan partners?
Secondly, on the ISAF announcement, the Secretary of State did not even refer to this new ISAF approach yesterday when he made his statement. I know him, and I know that he would not want to keep Parliament in the dark, so many are now assuming that the UK was not fully sighted yesterday on the ISAF announcement. What changed between his making his Commons statement on the UK’s approach and ISAF announcing a different approach just hours later? Did he discuss that with the US Defence Secretary and the Secretary-General of NATO?
The Secretary of State said in response to an earlier question that he knew about the new approach on Monday. Did he know about that before the statement was made? If he did, why did he not share it with the House? If he did not know before the statement, why was he not sighted on it?
Thirdly, on progress towards a 2014 timeline, today’s announcement will undoubtedly have an impact on combat operations and security, so how is ISAF adjusting its assumptions on what can now be achieved by 2014? Yesterday, the Secretary of State announced increased patrols outside the wire of Bastion. How, if at all, will the ISAF announcement impact on his announcement?
To lose a loved one in Afghanistan is heartbreaking. To do so in a cowardly insider attack multiplies that hurt. In dealing with that threat, we rightly seek continued consistency from the Government in their policy in Afghanistan. Our forces and our nation deserve nothing less.
I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman may not have seen General Allen’s press release, and had to write his speech before he heard what I had to say, but frankly he has completely ignored the information that I have given the House. I thank him for his support for the overall policy and strategy in Afghanistan, but I repeat that this is not a significant change. There is no change of strategy. We will continue, in Taskforce Helmand, routinely to partner at tolay level. The United States has never, or not in recent years, routinely partnered at levels below the battalion or kandak, so there is no practical impact on operations. [Interruption.] I will answer the right hon. Gentleman’s chuntering question in just a moment. This is not a different approach.
The right hon. Gentleman asked me specifically when I became aware that this approach had been implemented. It was during a routine meeting in the Ministry of Defence on Monday afternoon, after I had made my statement, when I was in a video telephone conference with the deputy commander of ISAF in theatre. We went through some of the measures that had been put in place. No significance was attached to this particular measure at that time. It is a tactical measure, decided on by commanders in theatre. UK commanders in theatre were aware of the measure and were involved in the discussions, but we do not engage in debate with commanders about tactical military measures; it is not appropriate. It is not a strategic change.
To answer the right hon. Gentleman’s last question, there will be no impact whatever on the additional patrols that I mentioned yesterday around Camp Bastion. This will not make any difference at all to them.
Order. There is notable interest in this urgent question, but I remind the House that there is a motion on a ten-minute rule Bill to follow, and after that there is the pre-recess Adjournment debate, which is to take place under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee; I can assure the House that that debate is heavily subscribed, which means that there is a premium on brevity.
The reason why, in opposition, the shadow Defence ministerial team opposed naming an advance date for withdrawal was the fear that the Taliban would redouble their efforts in the run-up to that date. Given that we are where we are with such a date, is it not obvious that a move towards a strategy of maintaining one or more long-term strategic bases in Afghanistan would show the Taliban the need to negotiate a solution and a settlement? Without that, it will not happen.
My hon. Friend makes reference to the widely held view that US policy favours the retention for the long term of a small number of US strategic bases in Afghanistan. That will be an issue for the United States. I can tell the House that the UK Government have no appetite for a long-term combat role in Afghanistan, and have made it very clear that we will be out of the combat role by the end of 2014.
I do not think that I have ever seen a Defence Secretary so humiliated. Twice he has had to be dragged to the House, instead of having decided to make a statement—first to talk about the original problem, and now to discuss the change of policy. Either his officials are informed but do not tell him things, or he is not in charge of his officials. It is time for this Government to get a grip, and to start telling the generals what to do, instead of re-reading generals’ press releases at the Dispatch Box. The fundamental problem remains the same: I do not believe that our country is willing to accept any more blood sacrifices, now that the strategy of fighting, training and patrolling with the Afghans has been blown away by Washington and the generals in the field. The Prime Minister announced today that the Cabinet will re-examine the policy. I say: the quicker the better.
On the humiliation of Defence Ministers, the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) might want to have a look at the experience of many of his right hon. Friends under the previous Prime Minister who routinely humiliated his Defence Ministers by ignoring them and passing over them. It is very clear to me that politicians and the military have a role. I do not seek to involve myself in the tactical decisions that military commanders make; it is wrong for us to do so. There has been no strategic change whatever. This is a tactical decision for a short period of time; it will be reviewed and reversed, as General Allen made clear, as soon as the situation has stabilised.
The Secretary of State made the welcome comment that the international forces wished to lower their profile at a time of trouble, but then he seemed to imply that that applied only to American forces. What action has been taken to protect British forces? What is the approach to their having to co-operate with people who may intend their death, and would he not move more quickly to Afghans policing dangerous places in Afghanistan?
As I said yesterday, a number of measures have been taken by ISAF and British commanders to improve our own force protection. I cannot go into all the details, but I shall give an example. There is much evidence that there is a much lower risk where long-term partnering arrangements are in place—in other words, where a group of troops are working with a group of Afghan troops on a daily basis—and much more risk where these partnering and mentoring activities are on an ad hoc basis, so that relationships are not built. We have moved to make sure that the overwhelming majority of our contacts with Afghans are on the basis of long-term partnering where relationships are built, and thus greater safety is ensured.
Mentoring is one of the most important ways in which we have increased the capability of Afghan forces, and the Secretary of State has made it clear today that the instruction from ISAF in Kabul will not alter the British relationship to partnering. Does he not recognise, however, that the nuances between tactics and strategy can be lost on insurgents, and that the timing of this is unfortunate, so we must redouble our efforts to make it clear to the forces of terror that they cannot push our strategy off course?
Of course my right hon. Friend is absolutely right: this is the crucial message that needs to be sent to the insurgents. As I said yesterday, the stepping up of these insider attacks is, in fact, a reflection of the success of partnering and mentoring operations. The insurgents’ key fear is that as we withdraw from combat operations we leave behind competent and capable Afghan national security forces who will continue to contain their ambitions. That is what they fear, and that is what they seek to attack in mounting those types of attack, and that is what we will continue to resist.
I am afraid that the muddled response to this fits in with the muddled strategy on Afghanistan. May I ask the Secretary of State a clear question? What advice has he received from commanders on the ground and in this country about whether the level of partnering should be reviewed, reduced or kept the same?
As I said in my statement, the amount of partnering will steadily reduce with the transition to Afghan lead, then Afghan sole control. As a matter of fact, it has been reducing. [Interruption.] I can tell the hon. Gentleman that over the past few days, before that ISAF order was issued on Sunday, UK commanders had already reviewed—I discussed this with them when I was in theatre on Thursday—the activities of British forces to make sure that any unnecessary contact with Afghans was withdrawn during this sensitive period. We are flexible and cognisant of the broader atmosphere. We will take all steps necessary to minimise the risk to our forces consistent with maintaining the key strategy of partnering and mentoring to build up ANSF capability.
Many families in my constituency in the Rhondda watch events in Afghanistan closely because they have sons and daughters out there. The Secretary of State would have inspired a great deal more confidence in the mission and in the work of his Department if he had volunteered to come to the House and make a full statement yesterday or, for that matter, a full statement today, which would be printed and available to the Opposition before he appeared at the Dispatch Box, rather than simply being dragged here to answer an urgent question. It just feels, hideously, as if he is not in control of his brief.
Will my right hon. Friend comment on the fact that American soldiers who are mentoring seem to be slightly safer than our junior NCOs, young officers and soldiers, because they are not right on the front line? It worries me a great deal that we continue to allow our solders to go right to the front line, where they are seemingly in greater danger than their American colleagues.
I do not accept that our soldiers are in greater danger, but it is the case that our model differs from the American model, in that it includes routinely mentoring at company, or tolay, level. That is the model that we have deemed most effective. We have in place measures to minimise the risk to our forces, and those measures are continuously reviewed. As I said earlier, there is clear evidence that where that partnering is on a continuing basis and relationships are built, risks are minimised, and that is what we seek to do.
The role of our brave soldiers at the moment is to act as human shields for Ministers’ reputations. The danger to our soldiers has been prolonged by those on the Front Bench who have the power to stop it. Other countries have removed their soldiers from this dangerous area, and they are not doing what we are doing, which is arming and training our future enemy. Is this not similar to the end of the first world war, when it was said that politicians lied and soldiers died, and the reality was, as it is now, that our brave soldier lions were being led by ministerial donkeys?
I apologise to you, Mr Speaker, but I insist on retaining my accusation of lying. That is far more important than allowing a group of people to send our soldiers to die in vain in a war from which we should withdraw and from which the country wants us to withdraw. I accept the consequences of what I am saying.
I am sorry to say that the hon. Gentleman is ignoring the ruling of the Chair, and in so doing he is behaving, whatever his motives, in a grossly disorderly manner. In those circumstances, I am obliged to name Mr Paul Flynn, the hon. Member for Newport West. Under the power given to me, I name him, and I ask that the appropriate course is now taken by the Deputy Leader of the House.
The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), was named by the Speaker for grossly disorderly conduct (Standing Order No. 43).
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 44), That Paul Flynn be suspended from the service of the House.—(Tom Brake.)
Question agreed to.
The Speaker directed Paul Flynn to withdraw from the House, and the Member withdrew accordingly.
The Secretary of State has made it commendably clear that it is in our vital national interest to stick to the strategy that has been set in Afghanistan. When it comes to the security of British troops, does he take comfort from the words of Brigadier Bob Bruce, who will be leading the 4th Mechanised Brigade in its forthcoming tour of Afghanistan, who has said that we are sending to Afghanistan
“the best prepared and the best equipped…Task Force”
the United Kingdom has ever put into the field?
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, who has been a stalwart supporter of the policy and the strategy, which, as I have emphasised this morning, has not changed. I am grateful to him for those words. It seems to me that although the Opposition protest their support for our policy, they are desperate to try to read into this ISAF operational notice a strategic change when there is no strategic change. It could not be clearer.
Will the Secretary of State share with the House what his reaction was when, during a routine conversation, he was given this piece of information? Did he regard it as no more than routine, or did it begin to dawn on him that it might actually have been a major strategic decision?
As I have said to the House before, this is not a major strategic decision. I will answer the hon. Lady’s question directly. I was given the information, along with quite a lot of other information, during a meeting yesterday. I did not remark upon it, and when the BBC reporting was brought to my notice this morning, it was not immediately clear to me that the matter was something we had discussed the previous day. I was reminded that it had been among the measures that was mentioned to me during the course of the meeting yesterday afternoon. We are talking about one of a number of measures. It is not a strategic change; it is an operational matter being reported from theatre, alongside many others.
I wish to place on record my support for the line being taken by the Defence team and say that I have not received a single message from the military community of Colchester in recent days to say that the Government should alter their current strategy.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I think we might get further if we listened to the military advice, and in this case that is exactly what we have done. General Allen has made a tactical decision, which he is absolutely entitled and right to do, and we should allow military commanders in theatre to execute our strategic plan in the way that is best at the time and that best protects the safety of our troops.
Will the Secretary of State concede, hand on heart, that within two years he will have to bring the British troops home? They cannot be expected to remain in that situation for two years, under attack from the Taliban and completely unconfident of the loyalty of their supposed allies. Is he really going to allow more troops to die for a war that has not been won and cannot be won, and that will become increasingly unpopular with the public in this country?
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman on many things, but I will say this. I recognise, as does everybody in ISAF, along with President Karzai, that the incidence of insider attack is sapping public morale in the ISAF home countries. That is why we are determined to solve the problem—to nip this trend in the bud and ensure we get on top of it. Huge resources have been put in by both the Afghans and ISAF to address the problem, and I am confident that we will see a significant improvement over the coming months.
It has taken a long time to get on top of, and to minimise, the IED threat to our forces in theatre, but it has been done, often with some of the best ideas coming from the squaddies on the ground. In minimising green-on-blue attacks, will the Secretary of State ensure that every squaddie, of whatever rank, is encouraged to come forward with ideas, so that it is not just left to the commanders?
The Secretary of State says that the operational model under which troops work with Afghani forces has not changed, and he recognises that there are differences with the American model. What reassurance can he give the House that our operational model is not placing our troops in unreasonable danger?
I can reassure the House again that everybody, both in the Government and in the military chain of command, is focused on force protection—that is, protecting the security of our service personnel. We do indeed have a different model from the Americans, and if I may say so the British Army is very proud of the fact that it does things differently from our larger American cousins. We pride ourselves on finding different ways to tackle the problems we face, with different levels of engagement. If I may make a generalisation in characterising the way the British Army tries to do things, we try to get closer to the people and lower down the command structures, and we try to be more embedded than the Americans sometimes appear to be. That is our special niche approach and capability, and we have shown time and time again that it can be effective.
The Secretary of State mentioned earlier that a motive for the attacks was the despicable video that was published on the internet. Does he agree that another motive, which I have mentioned to both him and the Secretary of State for International Development, is the use of drone strikes, which have killed nearly 1,000 civilians in Pakistan and a higher number in Afghanistan? Does the Secretary of State not agree that we urgently need to look at reviewing the use of drone strikes, which is considered on the front page of The Times today?
The use of unmanned aerial vehicles to carry out strikes is continuously reviewed, but I do not believe there is any need for a wholesale change to the current approach, which is that UAVs will be used where they are the most appropriate way to execute a particular operation. However, this question came up yesterday as well, and I would just say this to my hon. Friend. We all regret civilian casualties, and ISAF takes huge steps to avoid or minimise them; but when we are talking about civilian casualties, the overwhelming majority that are incurred in Afghanistan are inflicted by Taliban insurgent action. It is defeating the insurgents that will reduce the number of civilian casualties.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that troops from 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment will be continuing their partnering and joint operations with the Afghan police and Afghan army this week, this weekend and over the next few weeks, before they are returned to the United Kingdom next month?
They will indeed be continuing partnering operations. However, in order not to mislead the House, I should say that at the patrol base where the incident took place on Friday, the local Afghan police have been disarmed as a precaution and the 3 Yorks troops are occupying the base on a sole occupation basis for the time being.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Yesterday the Secretary of State for Transport made a written statement of immense importance to the blind, the partially sighted and the disabled, in which he gave the go-ahead to station closures and destaffing of stations in the London Midland region. Together with Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson and the organisations representing the disabled, we have sought to ensure that they have access to public transport and are treated as equal citizens. However, it has been a sorry saga, which has taken an unprecedented amount of time. In the meantime, we have seen destaffing, some evidence of a deal being done behind the closed doors of the Department for Transport and, most recently, Transport Ministers refusing to meet the organisations representing the disabled. Has the Secretary of State indicated his intention to come before this House? Yesterday’s written statement paid scant regard to the needs of the disabled. He should be held personally to account to ensure that they have access to public transport.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I was already aware of yesterday’s written ministerial statement on this extremely important matter. Having listened to him, I must say two things. First: no, I have received no indication from the Secretary of State for Transport that he wishes to make an oral statement to the House on the matter. Secondly, I am not currently able to identify a matter on which it would be proper for the Chair to rule in respect of the hon. Gentleman’s point of order, but I shall continue my search. I shall let him know if, upon reflection, I find a matter upon which I can rule. He is an experienced hand, and he is certainly keen to air his concerns on this matter, and he might wish to develop his thoughts more fully in an Adjournment debate.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Today, it has been revealed that the Metropolitan police has known for 10 years that the News of the World had commissioned a company called Southern Investigations to commit burglaries to secure information and to confirm potentially scurrilous—and, as it turned out, completely baseless—rumours, and that it knew that one of the executives at the News of the World, Alex Marunchak, was directly involved in that. That evidence, which has been given by an undercover police officer, reveals that he knew then that “Ministers, MPs and Home Secretaries” were the targets for those burglaries, because they could be bribed or influenced. You will know, Mr Speaker, that it is a fundamental principle of the House that we should be able to do our job on behalf of our constituents without fear or favour. May I urge you to contact the Metropolitan police, perhaps through the Serjeant at Arms, so as to ensure that all those MPs whom the Metropolitan police knew to have been targeted in this way can be told that they were the targets of this criminal activity?
That could be said to be a point of order, but I always view any paragraphs from the hon. Gentleman as a kind of treatise, and I think that it would be as well for me to reflect upon his treatise before I respond to him, and not to make any rash commitment today. These are matters that he and the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) are especially, and very properly, given to pursuing, on the basis of considerable research and knowledge. I will do him the courtesy of further reflection, and I will revert to him and, if necessary, to the House.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Human Rights Watch has recently published further evidence of failed Tamil asylum seekers who have been deported from the UK by the UK Border Agency being tortured on their return to Sri Lanka. The whole House wants to ensure that this country has strong immigration policies in place, and that they are adhered to, but it will surely also be concerned about those reports of torture. Have you heard of any possibility of a written statement from the Home Secretary, seeking to clarify her policy on the deportation of Tamil asylum seekers in the light of that new evidence?
Regulation of Signage and Ticketing Technology (Publicly-available Car Parks)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision relating to signage and ticketing technology for parking charges used in publicly-available car parks; and for connected purposes.
This is a straightforward Bill. It will get a better deal for the motorist and stop them being ripped off at car parks. Misleading and confusing signs are inexcusable; it should be simple to get the signs and pay machines right.
Last autumn, angry constituents came to see me when a new operator took over a town centre car park in Ebbw Vale. Within weeks, I had received a flood of complaints from blue badge holders. There were criticisms about signage, and about a complicated payment system in which drivers had to enter their car registration number into a fiddly key pad. I am fed up with poor signage in car parks that confuses and confounds the motorist. At that car park in my constituency, motorists were told, in micro-print:
“Do not leave the car park to retrieve change in order to purchase a valid ticket”.
The fact that they are unable to read that instruction before entry makes it hard for the motorist to do the right thing; it also helps the operator to pocket fines. However, the British Parking Association, which oversees the self-regulation of the private car parking industry, told me that that sign was acceptable.
Perhaps the greatest grievance brought to my attention was the extortionate parking charge notices. Like most MPs, I bat for my constituents. I am a reasonable person, and I think that motorists should pay to park on private land. However, I expect parking operators to tell drivers how and what to pay. Signs should be clear and unambiguous, and when drivers do pay, but make a genuine mistake when entering their registration number into a machine, they should not have to pay an additional parking charge of £40, as a constituent of mine was asked to do. They had already purchased a ticket and paid for their parking space, so there was no loss whatever to the operator. My constituent had done the right thing, but was still forced to cough up. That is just wrong.
I have met representatives of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, which passes on vehicle registration data to the so-called approved car park operators. I have also met representatives of the British Parking Association, the industry-funded body, which requires its members to abide by its members’ club code of practice. The BPA told me that it would like statutory regulation of the sector, but that that has been spiked by the Government. When I met the Transport Minister, I was told that an independent appeals service for unfair ticketing would be introduced under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. That safeguard is welcome, but it fails to address the large-scale and deliberately exploitative ticketing operations of some in the sector.
Since raising this issue in Parliament, I have been contacted by people from all over the country who have been hit by car park operators’ sharp practice. Their anger and frustration is backed up by statistics from the DVLA. In 2011-12, the DVLA received 1.57 million electronic requests for driver information. Those requests give drivers’ personal details to car park operators, and the information is used to chase up motorists for payment. The number of requests went up by one third in the past year alone. When a driver allegedly breaks the rules, the car park operator gets their personal details from the DVLA and uses them to send them an instant penalty charge notice. In short, the operators are milking the motorist.
Now, following much consumer campaigning, the BPA is reducing the maximum charge, but it will still be a hefty £100. If drivers do not pay the charge, it increases and a solicitor’s letter often follows. That aptly named “threatogram” can often frighten the motorist into paying up. Such charges can cost the British motorist a staggering £125 million a year. In Stockport, a gentlemen won his case because the judge thought that the signage was poor, and that people could have been forgiven for thinking that they did not have to pay. It turned out that more than 11,000 people in the previous three years had not paid, but, yet again, the BPA thought that the signage was fine.
I am pressing for simple and fair signage. I want clear notices at the entrances to car parks, to let motorists know whether or not they have to pay. Drivers also need to know how to pay, and how much. One idea is to have large signs painted on the tarmac as well. That is certainly a low-cost solution. The BPA tells me that it plans to improve signage, including through the use of larger font sizes. Let us hope that it takes inspiration from the excellent Olympics signage that we have all seen in the past few months; it was first class.
Above all, the BPA must get on with this; otherwise, motorists will continue to be a soft target. I was disappointed, but not surprised, to find that the BPA is giving its car park operators up to three years to change their signs, even though we all expect the operators to make the changes quickly. That will mean another three years of unfair fines for many.
I am also worried about a developing business model for this sector, in which the landowner receives the hourly charge from the motorist but the car park operator receives the income from any extra charges. So, from the car park operator’s point of view, the more confusing the signage is, the better. When it is confusing for the motorist, the car park operators make more money. That cannot be right.
This Bill will end the open season on motorists; it will deliver clear, easy-to-read signs in all car parks used by the public. Payment systems, too, must be as simple as possible. Motorists who pay should not face extra charges when they have done the right thing.
If we want shoppers to use our high streets, we need to make sure they can park at reasonable cost. Confusing and misleading car park signs are quite literally driving consumers out of our town centres. They are going to out-of-town retail centres, where they can park for free. Nobody is arguing for free car parking in our towns. People should pay for parking and the landowner should get a reasonable return. Motorists should not be ripped off, however. This Bill would mean that, in future, motorists can use their local town centre without fear of being fleeced. Crucially, car park operators must clean up their act.
Question put and agreed to.
That Nick Smith, Stephen Barclay, Nic Dakin, Chris Evans, Yvonne Fovargue, Diana Johnson, Barbara Keeley, Ian Lucas, Seema Malhotra, John Mann and Jim Shannon present the Bill.
Nick Smith accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 25 January 2013, and to be printed (Bill 71).
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That this House has considered matters to be raised before the forthcoming Adjournment.—(Jane Ellison.)
One of my constituents, Mrs Collette Pridmore has three children, one of whom—her son, Jacob— suffers from a rare lung disease. Jacob is just eight years old. When Collette got in touch with me, she was extremely worried about her son’s future because she had discovered that the care Jacob receives at the Royal Brompton hospital in London was under threat. Because of the serious nature of his condition, little Jacob needs to spend many weeks each year at the Royal Brompton, where specialist clinical teams have the necessary skills to help him.
Collette suggested I visit Jacob at Royal Brompton and during my visit she arranged for me to meet the doctors and nurses who care for her son. To say that I was impressed would be an understatement. I am sure that many right hon. and hon. Members will know of the good work done by the Royal Brompton, but for those who do not, let me explain something about the services they provide.
The respiratory children’s unit at the Royal Brompton treats some of the most vulnerable children in our country—those with serious lung disease and breathing problems. The Royal Brompton is home to the country’s largest children’s cystic fibrosis unit and the hospital’s experts treat children with muscular dystrophies, severe drug-resistant asthma and a range of other respiratory conditions. These conditions are quite rare, but the concentration of clinical expertise in one place means that knowledge is accumulated and shared, creating the best possible conditions for the care of children such as Jacob. The hospital also carries out research with Imperial college constantly to improve the treatments available.
My visit to the Royal Brompton was inspirational. I saw the very best that the NHS has to offer—the best specialist skills and an incredibly caring environment. These services provided by the Royal Brompton, however, are now at risk. Why? In one word—reorganisation. The threat to close the Royal Brompton’s children’s respiratory services is really not the finest hour for health service reorganisations. This is not an academic exercise; it is about the future welfare of some pretty sick and vulnerable children such as Jacob.
Unfortunately, Jacob’s doctors do not think they will be able to carry on caring for him in the long term, because their intensive care unit is being closed. Without the back-up of intensive care, they will not be able to offer the expert services they do now, because they think it will be unsafe to do so. So why is the intensive care unit being closed? Is it to save money? Is it because it is not a very good unit? Is it because no one needs it? The answer is none of those.
On 4 July this year, a committee of primary care trust chief executives, as part of the reorganisation of children’s heart services in England, made the extraordinary decision to end children’s heart surgery and intensive care at the Royal Brompton. As one of the best-performing and largest centres in England, many Members will have had constituents who have been treated there. The proposed closure will have severe knock-on effects on children’s respiratory medicine.
Although not all Royal Brompton’s young patients need the intensive care unit, many do need it should they deteriorate very quickly. Sadly for Jacob, this has happened to him on several occasions. Jacob’s doctor, Dr Claire Hogg, told me that without an intensive care unit on site, her only option, if Jacob became particularly unwell, would be to try to get him to the specialist intensive care unit at another London hospital which, depending on traffic, could be up to an hour away. To a sick little boy or girl, this could be a lifetime away—quite literally.
A couple of weeks ago Collette Pridmore brought some of the Royal Brompton’s doctors to visit me here. I was shocked by what I learned. Dr Duncan Macrae has discovered that new figures published after the review of children’s heart services took place show that the rate of population increase, particularly the child population, is far greater than previously estimated, most specifically in London where the child population is increasing at almost twice the national average.
This decision, leaving just two centres to offer children’s heart surgery for London and the south-east, was taken using 2006-based national population projections, which have been shown greatly to underestimate the numbers. Equally worrying is the recent data from the UK central cardiac audit database, showing that the number of children having heart operations is increasing year on year. How, then, did the review of children’s heart surgery, using out-of-date statistics on both population growth and the number of children needing surgery, come to the conclusion that London and the south-east can manage with two rather than three children’s heart surgery centres?
The review decided that the Royal Brompton should close its specialist centre and intensive care unit, despite the fact that the hospital is one of the biggest and best centres in the country. Scandalously, the intensive care units and children’s heart units at the other two London centres do not currently have enough beds for Royal Brompton patients, and at least one of them will have to spend large sums of money building new facilities. At a time when the NHS is strapped for cash, that alone is a good reason for reversing the decision to close the Royal Brompton hospital.
The proposed closure is not the result of Government policy. That is not to say, however, that the new Health team, now led by the Secretary of State for Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt), cannot intervene. I very much hope that Ministers will agree to meet me and some of the medical staff from the Royal Brompton to discuss our concerns and to see what can be done to reverse this crass decision.
My local NHS says that it needs to reconfigure services because it has
“to deliver £370 million savings each year...a reduction of around 24% in…costs.”
As a result, it plans, through a programme ironically called “Better Services Better Value”, to close a wide range of services at my constituency’s local hospital, St Helier. Most of the controversy has focused on the closure of our A and E and maternity units, but we also face losing our intensive care unit, neonatal ICU and renal unit, as well as about 50% of St Helier’s 390 in- patient beds.
Since I last raised this subject in the House in July, a number of interesting things have happened. First, the right hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow)—whose constituency, like mine, is on the borders of St Helier—lost his job as a Health Minister and launched a withering attack on the plans, describing them as “dangerous and flawed”. As a Minister in the Department for Health, he would know; although I imagine that he wanted to stay and to continue to be collectively responsible for St Heller’s demise.
Then the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), whose constituency contains St Helier, decided that he was so upset about the plans that he would take a principled stand by joining the Government as deputy to the man who is responsible for what has happened in the NHS over the past two years. Congratulations are due to him for showing his disapproval so strongly.
Ten days ago, Michelle Baker and Karen Russell, mums from my constituency and part of the Save St Helier campaign, organised a picnic with a purpose outside the hospital. Thousands of local residents joined in, and although it was billed as a fun day, we were deadly serious. The leader of Merton council, Councillor Stephen Alambritis, a former football referee, was cheered as he brandished a red card at the plans, while the medical director of “Better Services Better Value” was booed as he was handed our petition, signed by more than 30,000 people.
In other developments, it is becoming increasingly clear that, behind the scenes, the case for the closure is falling apart. NHS South West London was originally due to rubber-stamp the proposals in July, but the decision was unexpectedly postponed at the last minute. Then, last month, the team proudly issued a press release stating that a decision would be made on 27 September and that
“the aim is for it to go out to public consultation from 1 October”.
Dr Finch said that he was
“excited by the huge potential of the BSBV programme.”
Now even that decision has been put off for at least another month. Perhaps the delay is connected to polls of GPs and patients that showed that a majority were against the closure, but I suspect that that it is mainly due to the publication of the National Clinical Advisory Team’s report on the plans.
NCAT reports represent a key step in any hospital reconfiguration and need to be properly scrutinised, so on 17 July I requested a copy of the report under the Freedom of Information Act. Under FOI rules, I should have received a copy by 14 August, but it was not until a week later that I received one, along with a press release claiming that NCAT had
“given the Better Services Better Value review the green light to move forward”,
“we are very pleased that the NCAT team have agreed that our proposals should be supported”.
However, although the press release gave the impression that everything was running smoothly, that impression was extremely misleading.
The most fundamental criticism of the closure plan is that it is predicated on the assumption that 60%—yes, 60%—of emergency patients can use primary care instead of A and E services. Obviously, it is very much in GPs’ interests for BSBV to succeed. It is led by local GPs, and they clearly have an interest in ensuring that more patients use primary care rather than hospitals, whether or not that is what patients want, because the money follows the patient.
NCAT has looked at the 60% target and, ever so politely, has laughed it off. The report says:
“The assumption that 60% of ED”—
“patients have conditions that can be managed by clinicians from primary care demands detailed… analysis. Elsewhere in the UK a consistent finding is…far lower, usually in the order of 15-20%. Reconfiguration based on the higher figure may not achieve the anticipated benefits.”
NCAT goes on to say:
“The ED consultants interviewed suggested that the primary care workload in their departments is in the order of 15-20%”
“The estimate of 60% is often derived from coding data...patients who have no x-rays, no specific treatment, no follow up and are not admitted are regarded as ‘minor’ and therefore it is assumed that they could be seen by primary care clinicians. It is recognised throughout the NHS and particularly in emergency care, that such data lack reliability”.
The report also questions the assumptions behind the proposal that St Helier could be saved by becoming South West London’s elective hospital. It is hard to see why any patient would choose to travel so many miles from Croydon, Wandsworth or Kingston to a hospital that had lost so many services, to receive treatment that they could receive at their local hospitals, or why any ambitious staff member would want to work there.
“The concept of a planned in-patient care or elective hospital serving the whole area was generally supported”
by clinicians. It continues:
“However there was no evidence that this would free enough in-hospital capacity to absorb the additional acute workload for the remaining three hospitals.”
The report adds:
“There was concern that the links between acute medical services and the community were not dependable.”
NCAT admits that, although most experts consider it a bad thing for maternity units to deliver more than 6,000 babies a year, South West London’s three remaining maternity units would have to deliver 6,500 babies each—in addition to the 2,500 babies delivered in midwife units and the 880 delivered at home.
“Successful implementation…depends on a multitude of supporting improvements in primary care, community services and professional practice that are not well defined in the proposals.”
Worse, it admits:
“The reconfigurations are based on an optimistic view of capacity, recruitment, meeting increased demand in primary and community care and the challenges posed by the introduction of new ways of working.”
I could go on and on.
On the basis of such optimism, 200,000 people will have to make longer journeys to hospital in an emergency. An A and E department will close, although the number of A and E visits will rise by 20% in the next five years. Tens of thousands of women will have to worry about how they will give birth at hospitals further from home, and a maternity unit will close, although the number of births will rise by 10%. Thanks to the combination of cuts and GP commissioning, a flawed decision to close St Helier is about to happen. It will not work, and it must be stopped.