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Volume 558: debated on Tuesday 5 February 2013

The Secretary of State was asked—

Prison Review

We are reviewing what is called the incentives and earned privileges scheme to ensure the public can be confident that any privileges earned in prison are gained through hard work and good behaviour. We want this to be a comprehensive review and its findings will be available in due course. I can tell my hon. Friend that, for example, the situation whereby some prisoners have access to Sky subscription TV channels, which many of our constituents cannot afford, will not be allowed to continue.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on placing mentoring at the centre of prisoner rehabilitation. My constituent Mary Stephenson is running a scheme called “belief in change”, which is currently under threat from the withdrawal of EU funding. Would my hon. Friend meet me and Mary Stephenson to see whether there is anything we can do to help assist that project?

I am happy to meet my hon. Friend and his constituent. He will be pleased to learn that the system we have in mind for dealing with the rehabilitation of offenders will reward those who have good ideas—ideas that work—in driving down the reoffending rate. He is right that we want to see more mentoring, as we believe it is very effective. Many other things will be affected, too, and we look forward to hearing about them.

Last month, the Secretary of State announced the immediate closure of seven prisons. When will the replacement prison, referred to in the same statement, be constructed?

The hon. Gentleman knows that what we announced was to investigate the feasibility of a large prison. We also announced that we will build 1,200 places or thereabouts at prisons that already exist. We will look carefully at all proposals made to us for suitable sites for a large new prison. As the hon. Gentleman knows, one possibility is a site in north Wales, which councillors in his area are extremely keen that we consider carefully.

In widening the system’s capacity for delivering work, what progress has the Minister made with getting ONE3ONE Solutions on to the Government’s preferred supplier list?

My hon. Friend will know that we are very keen to look not just at direct contracts from Government work but at other work for ONE3ONE Solutions to pursue. We want to make sure, of course, that there is a balance to ensure that ONE3ONE Solutions is not closing out jobs that could be provided to British firms elsewhere. We will want to make sure that it has the maximum opportunities to pursue those jobs within prison that will help prisoners learn skills—both hard skills and soft skills—as this was an agenda that my hon. Friend was successful in pursuing as my predecessor.

Much was made in the Government’s announcement on the prison regime at the weekend of the ability of gay inmates to share cells. As far as I am aware, that is already not permitted, so will the Minister inform us how many gay inmates have been sharing cells with their partners, or is this further evidence of the announcement being designed to chase the headlines?

The point that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was making—frankly, I would be surprised if the hon. Lady disagreed with it—was that it is clearly not appropriate for someone to live in that form of domestic arrangement while in custody. It is important that prisons are safe, secure and decent, but it is equally important that their regimes are properly austere and that the public have confidence in the way in which people act while they are in prison.

I think the Minister makes my point for me: the Government do not know the figure, and this was clearly about the headlines. However, while the Secretary of State has been fretting over the weekend about the pocket money, the trainers and the overalls of inmates, he has failed to keep the most dangerous prisoners locked up. Indeterminate sentences help keep offenders inside until they are safe to release. The governor of Whatton prison, Lynn Saunders, told The Guardian:

“I think I am fairly liberal in my attitude—I haven’t come across anyone”

serving indeterminate sentences for public protection—

“in this prison who I didn’t think should have an IPP. Not one.”

Why did this Government abolish indeterminate sentences, putting the public’s safety at risk?

I think the hon. Lady knows very well that we have replaced IPP sentences with extended determinate sentences. We have also introduced a mandatory life sentence for a second very serious violent or sexual offence. Those are entirely sensible sentencing approaches. The position with IPPs had become a disorganised and chaotic one, which we could not allow to stand. I am afraid that that is another classic example of the last Government’s introducing a measures that they had not thought through properly.

I also think that the hon. Lady is entirely wrong to minimise the seriousness of the need to ensure that the regime in prison commands public confidence. If she believes that the public take no interest in what happens to prisoners while they are there and in the privileges to which they have access, I think she is wrong, and if she believes we should leave the position as it is, she should say so.

I do not know whether the Minister wants an Adjournment debate on the subject, but I am sorry to tell him that that answer was far too long. We need to speed up.

Probation Service (Low and Medium-risk Offenders)

2. What assessment his Department has made of the effect of his proposals for the probation service on low and medium-risk offenders. (141241)

The proposals in our “Transforming justice” consultation paper are designed to deliver a criminal justice system that punishes offenders properly and helps them to get their lives back on track. We want providers of rehabilitation services to tackle the root causes of offending, and to ensure that they have the right package of support to help offenders to turn their lives around. We will announce further details of our proposals once we have considered the responses to the consultation.

Lower-risk, profitable components of the probation service are to be handed to the private sector. Yet again, the Government are simply putting public money into deep private pockets and bringing additional costs into the system. Given the year-by-year decline in reoffending, why are they intent on unleashing a potentially risky and certainly costly upheaval of the existing system, rather than investing to improve it?

The first point to make is that we do not think that what we propose will be more expensive than the current arrangements. Quite the reverse: we think that it will save the taxpayer money. The second point is that we intend to bring in good ideas from not just the private sector but the voluntary sector, so that we can start to drive down those all-important reoffending rates. The argument for opening up rehabilitation to other agencies, private and voluntary, was advanced by the last Labour Government during the passage of the Offender Management Act 2007: we are simply implementing their idea. However, I note that the hon. Gentleman was not persuaded on that occasion either.

Will my hon. Friend assure us that providers will be commissioned to tackle the root causes of reoffending, and that they will help offenders to turn their lives around by, for example, providing mentors and signposts to employment training opportunities, as well as mental health and anti-addiction services?

There are many reasons why someone might be leading a chaotic lifestyle, and if we really want to get to the bottom of reoffending and to turn lives around, we need to address them. My hon. Friend is right to focus on addiction, and he is also right to focus on employment. We know that one of the most effective ways of rehabilitating people is to get them into work, and that is certainly the sort of thing that we expect providers to do under the new system.

May I ask the Minister about community sentences? If an individual has not performed as he or she should, who will assess, against the usual criteria, whether there has been an actionable breach? Will it be an inexperienced privateer, or will it be a fully qualified probation officer—who, incidentally, will have had no previous contact with the individual concerned?

The straight answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that a public sector probation officer will make the judgment on whether a breach should be subject to action. Those providing interventions will be obliged to supply information about what has happened, but the judgment will be made by the probation officer.

The hon. Gentleman ought to recognise that, in a great many cases, a large number of the interventions provided for those who have been sentenced under community orders are made by the voluntary sector. It is not true that probation officers currently do everything themselves, and the flow of information between them and those who do is generally very good.

Probation Service

The Ministry of Justice recently published the consultation paper “Transforming Rehabilitation—a revolution in the way we manage offenders”, which sets out our plans for reforming the way in which offenders are rehabilitated in the community. The consultation closes on 22 February 2013, and we will announce further details of our proposals once we have considered the responses.

Under the Secretary of State’s proposals, services will be fragmented across a wide range of providers and will be rewarded through payment by results, which will prevent public sector probation trusts from competing for those services. So how will he ensure that the high levels of performance now provided by probation trusts in protecting the public and reducing reoffending will be maintained?

Let us be clear about why we are doing this: reoffending rates in this country have barely changed in 10 years, and it is not true to say that we are getting the kind of performance across the probation service that the hon. Lady suggests. There is good work being done in the probation service, in the voluntary sector and in the private sector, and my aim is to have a package of proposals that brings to bear the strengths of all three in reducing reoffending rates.

Why have the Government come up with the idea that the commissioning of probation services should be done by a national body, rather than a local or regional one, given that that undermines the way in which local bodies concerned with preventing crime can work together and the ability of local and regional voluntary sector organisations to take part?

There are two reasons. First, we do not believe that the expertise exists on a localised basis to procure payment by results in an ambitious way—the kind we are proposing. Secondly, many probation trust management teams are enthusiastic about being part of the contracted-out world themselves, so I hope and expect that we will see some of them forming partnerships and creating new bodies that will take the service forward.

Joint Committee on Human Rights

I have not met the Joint Committee on Human Rights since I became Secretary of State for Justice. I was due to attend an evidence session before the Joint Committee on the Government’s human rights policy on 18 December 2012, but the meeting was postponed and will now take place on 12 February 2013.

I look forward to the Secretary of State’s visit. When we were debating the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, before he took over as Secretary of State, his Department gave a commitment to review legal aid, particularly in relation to immigration and asylum, a year later. The Committee is now addressing that issue in relation to unaccompanied minors. Will he look at the evidence being given, address that issue before he comes to meet the Committee and see whether we ought not to amend the legal aid arrangements so that vulnerable people with immigration or asylum issues get the proper legal support and advice they need?

I am very happy to give that commitment and to look at that issue before the evidence session, and I look forward to discussing these issues with my right hon. Friend and his colleagues.

It seems that the Government’s process on reviewing human rights legislation is, to put it kindly, somewhat slow, at a time when the practical implications are more urgent than ever, not least in relation to gay marriage, which we will debate later. Will the Secretary of State speed up the process, as everyone wants to see that?

As my hon. Friend knows, I feel strongly that we need to make changes to the human rights framework. Unfortunately, it is my belief that there is not a majority in this House for such changes, and it will therefore fall to a future majority Conservative Government to deliver them.

Criminal Proceedings: Delays

5. What recent assessment he has made of the level of delay in criminal proceedings involving vulnerable witnesses. (141244)

We want the criminal justice system to move faster, and deliver justice sooner for vulnerable witnesses and victims. We are looking at how to tackle delays across the criminal justice system to improve efficiency.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Victims of child sexual exploitation, already traumatised by their horrific experience, face gruelling cross-examination in court, often by multiple defence lawyers, in the process of justice. Does she agree that justice for those vulnerable witnesses is not served by lengthy adjournments—I am glad that she does—and that having specialist training in tackling child sexual exploitation would help judges better to balance the needs of victims and the accused in court proceedings?

I fully understand and sympathise greatly with what the hon. Lady has said, and I agree with her that concerns can affect a witness’s willingness to participate in the criminal justice system. That is why the Ministry of Justice is embarking on a strategy to improve efficiency and the effectiveness of the system. That work will look at the entire process, from offence to completion of the case. I have recently written to her about a case in her constituency. I hope she has received that letter and I am happy to meet her to provide further reassurance.

Does the Minister agree that the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 provides the right special measures to support vulnerable and intimidated witnesses so that they can give the best evidence possible?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I would also add that the special procedure measures that are now available in the form of pre-trial familiarisation visits, support from the witness service, separate entrances, exits and waiting areas, and access to a live link can help to reduce the stress and anxiety of going to court. We are considering what more we can do to improve support, including using new technology to change how evidence is given.

The Minister said in her recent interview with The Times that she believes that the new Victims Commissioner

“feels a wonderful opportunity…to see victims put at the heart of the justice system”.

Is that why the Victims Commissioner will do only 10 days a month and why, two months after the announcement, she still has not started? Is the Minister not guilty yet again of failing victims of crime?

The Victims Commissioner is a very able woman who is able to multitask, like many of us. We have had a number of meetings with her and she, like me, wants to put victims and vulnerable witnesses at the heart of the criminal justice system, where they belong. We are prioritising victims of serious crimes, victims who are persistently targeted and the most vulnerable victims so that they get the support and care they need.

Work Capability Assessment

Some 103,000 appeals against decisions related to the work capability assessment were disposed of between April and September 2012. The estimated total associated cost was £23.5 million. In the previous financial year, 189,000 appeals were made, at an estimated total cost of £45 million.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. As he knows from his previous responsibilities, many of those appeals were a result of incorrect initial decisions in a work capability assessment. Given that Department for Work and Pensions figures that I have obtained show that more than 35,000 people in the support group have to repeat the WCA, including people with cancer, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and other progressive conditions, does the Secretary of State not accept that there would be less cost to his Department and therefore to the public if we stopped reassessing people who are not going to get better?

Of course, that is really a matter for the DWP. It is my job to provide an appeal route for those who wish to appeal, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that before I left my previous job I asked officials to change how we reassessed people who had been through an appeal so that there was a more sensible length of time between appeal and reassessment.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be far more efficient throughout the entirety of government if the decisions that were made were right the first time? The work capability assessments have not delivered that since they were introduced by the previous Government. Will he talk to colleagues in the DWP to try to ensure that decision making is right first time in the interests of Government efficiency and of the people who undergo a lot of anxiety and worry as they go through the appeals process?

My hon. Friend will know that that was a matter of great concern to me in my previous job. None of us benefits from getting decisions wrong and a huge amount of effort has been put into getting them right. Of course, our Department must provide a route for appeals when they are necessary, but I can assure him that a huge amount of effort goes into trying to ensure that we get decisions right first time.

Magistrates’ Sentencing Powers

7. If he will consider increasing magistrates’ sentencing powers from a maximum of six months to a maximum of 12 months for the purpose of making greater use of magistrates’ courts. (141246)

We are considering a number of ways to make the best use of magistrates’ courts, including the option of increasing magistrates’ sentencing powers. Our priority in the short term, however, is to extend supervision to short-sentenced prisoners to ensure they receive supervision on release to help them stop offending.

The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) has clearly been undertaking work experience on a farmyard. We are grateful for his contribution.

Kettering is fortunate to have an excellent bench of magistrates and the whole nation should be grateful for the tremendous unpaid work carried out by 24,000 magistrates up and down the country. Is the Minister aware that £40 million could be saved in the criminal justice system were he to undertake this simple revision of magistrates’ powers? Justice would be better, cheaper, quicker and more local as a result.

I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s high regard for magistrates both in Kettering and around the country. They are indeed volunteers who do a very good job. I am aware of the Magistrates Association’s proposals and the costings and savings that have been suggested. Those proposals bear scrutiny, because there will be second-order effects such as potentially more people in prison and more defendants electing to have a Crown court trial. As I said, the main thing to do is to ensure that people do not reoffend, which is why we have concentrated on extending supervision to short-sentence offenders.

Does the Minister accept that that puts pressure on jury service? A constituent of mine—an elderly 69-year-old lady who is not ill but slightly infirm—has been asked to do her third stint of jury service, and she has to take three buses to get to court. Is there anything the Minister can do about pensioners who have been asked numerous times to do jury service, are not capable of doing it, and do not want to do it?

I am slightly confused about why the hon. Gentleman is asking that question in relation to magistrates courts, which do not have juries. As the question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) might well have the effect of more cases being heard in Crown courts, there would be more demand for juries. Jurors such as the constituent of the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) would be more in demand, so I am not entirely sure that his question is in accordance with the original question.

I declare an interest, as my wife is a magistrate. Occasionally, she comes home in tears of frustration, because she and her colleagues have not been given the powers to enable them to do the job in the way in which they wish to do it. Will my right hon. Friend seriously consider extending sentencing powers so that they can take some of the waiting and the queues out of justice in future?

I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that the queues, as he put it, in Crown courts in particular are coming down. We will consider the proposal from the Magistrates Association and others to increase the maximum sentencing length, but that has to be considered along with many other reforms that are needed to improve the process of justice throughout the criminal justice system.

I think that that sounded like a no to extending magistrates’ powers. In addition, a third of indictable offences of violence were dealt with by issuing cautions last year, rather than their coming to court. While the cautioning of violent and dangerous criminals is being dealt with outside court, minor offences are being sent to the Crown court. Does that not look incompetent, even by this Government’s standards? What does the Minister have against magistrates, and why is he treating them with contempt?

That is the most absurd interpretation of what I have just said—that I was considering the proposal originally made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone). May I tell the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), given his way with the facts, that the use of cautions has come down considerably since the Government of whom he was a supporter were in power?

Offender Rehabilitation

8. How he plans to ensure that the voluntary and charitable sectors play a full role in the rehabilitation of offenders. (141247)

Retaining the expertise and dynamism of the voluntary and community sector within the justice system is central to our approach. We have already announced an extra £500,000 of grant funding to support voluntary sector organisations, helping them to compete for contracts. My team and I are meeting a large number of such bodies early in this process to ensure that they are as fully on board as possible.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his reply. His recent statement on transforming rehabilitation has the potential to be hugely positive for the voluntary sector, but it is crucial that charities can compete for contracts on a level playing field. What action have the Government taken to make sure that charities are not at a disadvantage when competing for contracts on a payment by results basis?

I would make two points to my hon. Friend. I absolutely agree with his premise but, first, the cash-flow element of the proposals that we have introduced will not be as tough as that for the Work programme. Part of the task is to pay for the requirements of the court, so the cash-flow situation will be rather different. Secondly, I am making sure that we really engage the social investment sector, which can play an important part in ensuring that voluntary sector organisations can compete on that level playing field and win on it.

The Secretary of State will know that we privatised and contracted out hospital cleaning, and that led to MRSA. We privatised and contracted out school meals, and that led to turkey twizzlers. Why does he think that in relation to the probation service—such an important service—privatising and contracting out will lead to a better end?

If I am not mistaken, the right hon. Gentleman was a Minister in the previous Government who introduced the legislation that makes these changes possible. The Opposition say one thing one day and another thing the next. The truth is that reoffending rates in this country have barely changed in a decade, despite extra money being spent, and I want to bring those rates down.

Prison Estate

Our strategy for the prison estate is to replace accommodation that is old, inefficient or has limited long-term strategic value with cheaper modern capacity. We also have a rolling programme of maintenance that prioritises our investment across the prison estate.

Stafford prison was built in 1794 and is one of the most cost-effective in the estate. Last week the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), and I visited Stafford and heard from prisoners of the work done by Joanne Tomlinson on anxiety management and how it had transformed their lives. Does my hon. Friend agree that modernisation is more about what goes on inside prisons than about the bricks and mortar?

I certainly agree that what people do is just as important as where they do it, and I congratulate those involved in the work that he described at Stafford prison. However, very often what people do is despite the environment in which they are working, rather than because of it, and my hon. Friend will accept readily, I am sure, that where we can provide newer accommodation, it will make it easier for people to do the good work on rehabilitation that he and I both support.

Does the Minister agree that with 800 or 900 prisoners a year from north Wales going outside north Wales, there is a need for prison accommodation in north Wales, but that the debate that he is having now would be better served by more discussion, more plans and a meeting with Members of Parliament to see whether we can reach some consensus?

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s support for a prison in north Wales. He might want to discuss the matter with his hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), who may not necessarily agree with him. It would be wise for everyone to consider very carefully the proposals that will come forward for suitable sites. We will do that. We have identified north Wales as one of the places where there is a strategic need, so we will consider carefully any proposals that are made.

Prisoners: Drug Addiction

10. What recent estimate he has made of the proportion of prisoners (a) entering and (b) leaving prison with an addiction to a class A drug. (141249)

A survey of 1,435 prisoners sentenced to between one month and four years in 2005 and 2006 showed that 45% of prisoners reported having taken a class A drug in the four weeks before custody. No recent estimate has been made of the proportion of prisoners leaving prison with an addiction to a class A drug.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but may I gently suggest that it would be worth while to have more recent estimates and to address the situation of offenders as they leave prisons? Has she ruled out suspicions of collusion by any prison staff in explaining why access to drugs in prisons is so widespread?

As I said, we do not have the figures on the number of prisoners leaving prison with an addiction to a class A drug, but this Government are absolutely committed to stopping drugs entering prisons and getting prisoners off drugs for good.

We cannot break the devastating cycle of drugs unless we deal with the issue of drugs in prisons. Why does not the Government adopt the recommendations of the Home Affairs Committee, which are simple: mandatory testing of prisoners when they enter the prisons, and mandatory testing when they come out of prisons? That will give her all the figures she needs in order to deal with this serious problem.

We feel that investing in comprehensive testing may not be the best way to tackle the problem, but the Government welcome the Home Affairs Committee report, “Drugs: Breaking the Cycle”, and we will of course give careful consideration to all the findings and recommendations.

The Minister will be aware that at Ford prison in my constituency the independent monitoring board has reported that 85% of the prison population is involved in the use of spice, a synthetic cannabinoid. I am not convinced that current orthodoxies in the Prison Service to combat drugs in our prisons are working: is she?

Our plans to transform rehabilitation will radically change the way in which we manage offenders, and they will also provide much more effective support for offenders on release. Fewer prisoners are testing positive for drugs than at any time since 1996. However, there is still much more to do, and that will involve our working very closely with the Department of Health and others to provide the best possible recovery services.

18. I am provoked by the very complacent answers that we have had. All the Government are offering is warm words on this. They say they have no recent evidence, but we all know from our own experience that not one single prison in the whole of Britain is free of illegal drugs. If the Government have no evidence of people going in as shoplifters and coming out as heroin addicts, the rest of society does have it. Should not the Government adopt a policy that is at least robust and realistic and look at the traffic between prison officers and prisoners on drugs? (141257)

As I made clear, we are looking carefully at the excellent report by the Home Affairs Committee. However, we genuinely believe that our transforming rehabilitation plans will provide much better continuity of care and help to get prisoners off drugs in the long term.


11. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the legislation on squatting in residential premises introduced in 2012. (141250)

The offence came into force only on 1 September 2012, but early indications are that it is being enforced, and reports suggest that it is deterring would-be squatters from occupying other people’s homes.

There are indications that as a result of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 squatters are increasingly targeting commercial properties. What plans does my right hon. Friend have to evaluate the size of the problem of squatting in commercial premises nationally and to take action to amend the law if necessary?

I can assure my hon. Friend that we are monitoring this closely, because it is possible that displacement squatting, as it were, is happening. We are in the early stages of collecting evidence. If he has specific examples from his own constituency of squatters occupying non-residential buildings, we will look at it very carefully, because squatting is a damaging offence.

Community Sentences

12. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of alternatives to short-term prison sentences. (141251)

14. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of alternatives to short-term prison sentences. (141253)

The Ministry of Justice has published evaluations of the effectiveness of community orders and custodial sentences in reducing reoffending. Reoffending rates are still too high, and that is why we have set out plans to transform rehabilitation.

While there has been a very welcome fall in crime and antisocial behaviour, many victims still feel alienated by the justice system and its impenetrable sentencing guidelines. Will the Minister speed up the move to restorative justice so that victims can feel much more engaged and the community will benefit from the justice system?

My right hon. Friend makes a good point. We do want to mainstream restorative justice, and we are working hard with the Restorative Justice Council to make sure that we go forward in a controlled and sensible manner.

Government pilots show that restorative justice programmes have caused a 14% reduction in offending. What steps are the Government taking to roll out schemes more widely throughout the country? Will the Minister give a specific pledge to protect funding for projects such as the Sycamore Tree foundation at Haverigg prison in Cumbria?

There is a framework, and we are looking at capacity and quality. I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with full details.

Does the Minister agree, though, that we have far too many people in prison and that when they get to prison not enough is done to turn them into good citizens? Is there not plenty of evidence that effective treatment outside prison, in the community, works? Can we not improve those alternatives, because the probation service is crucial in helping to make them effective?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good and interesting point. Obviously, who goes to prison is a matter for the independent judiciary. Prison is absolutely the right place for some offenders, but I agree that for other offenders credible punitive community sentences can be a more appropriate disposal.

Has the Minister considered the effectiveness of short-term prison sentences for women, not only in reducing reoffending but the disruption and damage caused to dependent children by custodial sentences of a few weeks in prison?

Yes, I have considered that very carefully. Indeed, I have visited a number of facilities. I visited a wonderful facility in Gloucester a couple of weeks ago and will visit Alana House in Reading on Thursday to look at the exact issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised. Community sentences must, however, be credible as sentences and with the public. They cannot be fluffy options. They should have a punitive element and they should absolutely challenge the woman, or the man, to change her life. That is why the Crime and Courts Bill will require every community order to have a punitive element.

Prison Places

We will always ensure there are sufficient prison places for offenders sentenced to custody by the courts, and we will seek to do so increasingly in cheaper, more modern accommodation. We intend there to be at least as many adult male prison places at the end of this Parliament as there were at its start.

When considering any future extension of the prison estate, will my hon. Friend consider the Isle of Sheppey as a suitable location for that expansion?

We will consider all reasonable bids. My hon. Friend knows that we have looked, and are looking, into the feasibility of a new large prison. We have identified three parts of the country where we think there is a particularly strong case, but we will look carefully at any reasonable bids.

But of the Minister’s Department’s plans to resurrect Titan prisons, an Economist headline said, “You can’t keep a bad idea down”. Why the U-turn in Tory prisons policy after four years?

Do let us remember whose bad idea it was. We are not resurrecting it; we are talking about a prison that is economically viable and that will save the taxpayer money, but it may not and almost certainly will not be exactly what a Titan prison was. There are many ways of doing this. We could, for example, have a number of smaller institutions on one site and still achieve the same economies of scale. The hon. Gentleman should not believe that this Government will make the same mistakes as his made.

Prisoner Transfer Agreements

15. What progress his Department is making on the use of prisoner transfer agreements to allow the removal of foreign prisoners. (141254)

We are working hard across Government to remove foreign national offenders from this country. Last year we removed more FNOs under prisoner transfer agreements than the year before. We recently made our first transfer under the European Union PTA and signed a compulsory PTA with Albania, which is the first time we have done so with a high-volume FNO country.

They have. We signed the agreement with Albania earlier in January, which is very recently indeed. We hope that we will start making returns under that agreement very shortly. As I have said before, it is important that the agreements, wherever we can negotiate them, are compulsory prisoner transfer agreements so that prisoners do not have the choice about going back.

Judicial Review

As set out in our recent engagement exercise “Judicial Review: proposals for reform”, our policy is to reduce the burden on public services of ill-founded judicial review applications, while protecting access to justice and the rule of law. We are working with the judiciary to ensure that we achieve that balance.

Has the Secretary of State not seen Liberty’s response to his consultation on judicial review, which finds no statistical or any other evidence that it impedes growth or stifles innovation? Why does the Secretary of State believe it is right to remove rights from local communities and vulnerable people in immigration cases just to find an excuse for why this economy has not grown in five of the past nine quarters?

The problem with judicial review is that it has mushroomed beyond any expectation. It started with a few hundred cases when it was first introduced and there are now more than 10,000 a year. Often, those judicial review processes are based on a public relations exercise or an attempt to derail the reform temporarily by using a technicality. Judicial review should be a genuine process to challenge the public authorities when they get it wrong; it should not be an excuse to fly a kite.

Employment and Support Allowance

17. If he will develop a feedback process to the Department for Work and Pensions on the reasons for the overturning of employment and support allowance decisions by tribunal judges. (141256)

The provision of feedback on reasons for tribunals’ decisions is a matter for the judiciary. However, as the hon. Lady will remember, in my previous role we put in place new arrangements last year. Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is now working with the DWP to evaluate the findings so that decision making can be improved wherever we can do so.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. However, his successor as employment Minister, the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban), told the Work and Pensions Committee that it was important to expand the reasons given by tribunals far beyond those on the dropdown menu, so that opaque statements such as “cogent oral evidence” are not given as the reason for an appeal being upheld. Will the Secretary of State confirm that those reasons will be expanded greatly?

Of course, the intention of the change was to identify relevant information that would improve decision making. We have learned quite a lot from the dropdown menu. The two Departments will of course discuss any improvements that will increase the quality of decision making and reduce the number of appeals.

Topical Questions

Since becoming Justice Secretary, I have embarked on a programme of delivering more for less and of boosting public confidence in the justice system. We are consulting on transforming rehabilitation and will shortly be considering reforms to youth justice.

In the past, my Department has routinely undertaken 12-week written consultations in some areas, including legal aid. I want to be clear that although the Government still want to hear the views of stakeholders and the public on many matters, they should no longer expect a 12-week consultation, even where that has been the practice in the past. Instead, in line with the new Cabinet Office principles, we will take a fresh look across all areas at whether, how and for how long we should consult, according to what is appropriate and proportionate in each case.

I was going to use this opportunity to follow up on my previous question, but since I got a good answer, I will not bother.

I think that the hon. Gentleman has created a precedent, but I do not know whether it will ever be followed.

I only wish that I had received a good answer from the Justice Secretary. He has been busy in recent weeks chasing headlines with general statements on everything from Titan prisons to spartan prisons, and from gay prisoners to smacking children. May I ask him about the specifics? I note that his junior Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), could not answer earlier, but then he did not do the media appearances. When will the first Titan prison open, where will it be and how much will it cost?

We are not planning to build a Titan prison. We have a very good model for prison development in Oakwood, which opened recently in the west midlands. That site has multiple blocks and first-class training facilities. To my mind, it is an excellent model for the future of the Prison Service. We are looking at a number of sites and hope to reach a decision in the next few months on the best option. I would like to open a new generation prison as quickly as possible, because it will save the taxpayer money and the facilities will be better.

Four weeks ago, the Justice Secretary announced to the BBC, Sky and anyone else who would listen that he was going to open new super-mega Titan prisons in the near future and that he would undertake feasibility studies. Given his comments on Sunday, can he tell the House how many current prisoners are gay and are sharing a prison cell with another gay person?

I do not know how many people in prison are gay. I want to ensure that the regime in our prisons is appropriate, commands the confidence of the public and provides an appropriate environment for rehabilitation and training. We must have a prison system in which everyone can have confidence.

T3. An increasing number of international companies are looking to the UK for its legal services. That trade creates billions of pounds for our economy. Will the Minister tell the House what plans there are further to promote British legal services abroad? (141267)

As my hon. Friend knows, our legal firms and educational establishments are great assets to this country. The Ministry of Justice continues to work very closely with UK Trade & Investment and the profession to promote those wonderful services overseas. I am sure that my hon. Friend would take great joy in looking at the Unlocking Disputes campaign, which is a good example of recent fruitful activity.

T4. The Teesside coroner takes almost twice as long as the national average to conclude inquests, causing further anguish to grieving families. This matter has been raised many times with the Ministry. Why on earth, given his failing and unprofessional service, is the coroner still in post? What steps will the Secretary of State take to remove him? (141268)

I will not give a detailed response in the Chamber but I am happy to discuss the issue with the hon. Gentleman. I take seriously any concern about the effectiveness of the judiciary—which is, of course, independent—and I also take seriously my responsibilities as Lord Chancellor. I will look into the issue.

T8. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what steps he is taking to improve the youth detention system, and in particular to ensure that the great work done by secure children’s homes continues? (141272)

As I indicated earlier, I intend to bring forward shortly a consultation paper on the youth estate. Our challenge at the moment is that across the youth estate we are detaining a small number of young people at a very high cost and with an unacceptably high reoffending rate—something like 70%. I want to see whether there is a better way of doing things to reduce that reoffending rate and help turn the lives of those children around.

T5. This morning I met Bill Waddington, chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association. Despite what the Minister said in response to an earlier question, I was assured that there has been a sharp increase in cautions for serious offences, including sexual offences and violent assault. That is soft on criminals and harsh on victims. Will the Secretary of State meet me and Bill Waddington to discuss the issue? (141269)

I take seriously the issue of cautions being administered for serious offences. Indeed, one of the first things I did as Justice Secretary was commission work on the issue, and I am due to meet senior police officers to discuss it in the next few days. I do, however, caution the House to be careful. For example, we would all view a caution for rape as completely unacceptable, but in some cases where the victim is absolutely unwilling to give evidence it may be the only way to get something on the record about an offender. We must be careful about this issue and try to get it right.

T10. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the potential to reduce reoffending by providing treatment in prisons for gambling addiction? (141274)

We recognise that prisoners have a variety of causes for their offending and my hon. Friend is right to highlight one of them. We want to ensure that prisoners have access to the necessary schemes and interventions—both in prison and through the gate to the outside—to deal with whatever their issues may be. I will certainly look carefully at what my hon. Friend says about gambling and at whether more can be done.

T6. Just when MPs of all parties are seeing growing demand for housing, including as a consequence of the Government’s welfare and benefit changes, eight Shelter housing advice centres are scheduled to close. Those centres are lifelines to those in housing need, often at a time of crisis in their lives. Will the Secretary of State meet me and hon. Members from all political parties who are concerned about how to support those in housing need in their constituencies? (141270)

We will always discuss concerns that Members of this House have about their constituencies, but Labour Members must understand that we are dealing with an unprecedented financial crisis. We inherited from them a situation in which this country was borrowing £1 for every £4 that it spent. That inevitably means tough decisions that they may not always like.

Magistrates courts in Swindon and Wiltshire are about to make important decisions about the allocation of crime and family work. Will my right hon. Friend work with me and those on local magistrates benches to ensure that very long journeys in order to access justice do not become the norm?

I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that. Like me, I am sure that he will welcome the work done by the Courts Service to produce alternative ways in which people can give evidence—video links and so on—which mean that some unnecessary journeys and waiting times in courts can be removed.

T7. There are 500,000 victims of sexual offences but only 5,600 convictions. Why does the Secretary of State think that the number of sex offenders who are prosecuted is falling under the coalition Government? (141271)

We take the whole issue of sexual offences very seriously, which is why one of the coalition commitments is to expand the availability of rape crisis centres. I visited the team running one such centre in Devon last week, and I pay tribute to them for their work. The Government will do everything they can to ensure that offenders and people who commit serious sexual offences are brought to trial. Any ideas that come through our rape crisis network of ways we could do that will be listened to.

I want to refer to the Justice Secretary’s proposals to reform the probation service. I have received a communication from the police and crime commissioner for Wiltshire who expresses grave concern about the degree of consultation prior to that announcement, and about the level of involvement and discretion that the commissioners will have in providing those services locally.

One thing we are doing before launching our policy is consulting on the broad direction of travel. That creates an opportunity for police and crime commissioners and others with an interest to take part. We are listening.

T9. Most people accept that there is a need for change in the motor accident claims sector, but is the Secretary of State satisfied that new plans to raise the small claims limit from £1,000 to £5,000 will ensure that accident victims continue to find adequate independent local advice and access to justice? (141273)

I think the new plans will do that. Indeed, I think there is a case for saying that the small claims court limit of £5,000 is too low. I am keen for people to have access to a proper legal process, but the benefit of the small claims court is, in part, arbitration. The plans make the process simpler and cleaner for people who have been through a difficult time.

Last month in Bradford, Qamar Malik was one of the last people to be locked up on an indeterminate sentence for public protection. Malik is a dangerous, predatory paedophile who was convicted of kidnapping and sexual assaulting a six-year-old girl and of twice attempting to abduct a 12-year-old girl. Under his IPP, he will not be released until he is considered safe to be released, but under the Government’s new regime people such as Malik will be released whether or not they are safe to be released. How does that make my constituents any safer?

My hon. Friend knows how I hate to disagree with him, but he needs to recognise that we are replacing IPP sentences with measures that are just as tough and a lot more effective. The truth is that if someone is convicted of offences of a very serious nature, the judge has the option of passing the ultimate indeterminate sentence—a life sentence—if that is merited. We are therefore taking measures to protect the public. We are replacing an ineffective sentencing regime with a much more effective one.

As the Minister progresses his plans for probation services, what consultations has he had with the devolved Administration? When did he last meet the Justice Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and were probation services on the agenda?

I last met the Northern Ireland Justice Minister about 10 days ago and am meeting him again tomorrow. No doubt probation services will be one thing we discuss.

Given the renewed threat that convicted terrorists will pose to society on release and the amount of security and intelligence resources that will have to be devoted to monitoring them, will the Minister confirm that the use of automatic early release would be entirely inappropriate for them?

Our expectation would be that people receive an extended determinate sentence for an offence of terrorism, under which release would not be automatic. I hope that reassures my hon. Friend.

Further to that question, the Minister recently confirmed in a written answer that 12 terrorists convicted under the Terrorism Act 2000 and the Terrorism Act 2006 will be released from prison this year. How does he intend to ensure that the probation trusts responsible for their supervision have the necessary additional resources?

The right hon. Gentleman knows that the arrangements made for offenders of that nature will be multi-agency public protection arrangements. We want to ensure that local authorities and all other agencies responsible for joining in under MAPPA have the support they need. We will look carefully at what he has said and ensure that that happens in each of those examples.

Magistrates courts play a key role in the administration of justice in the UK, but too often their operation can be deeply chaotic—it can be unclear when cases will be heard, cases start and stop, and it is hard to follow proceedings. Will the Department consider reorganising how magistrates courts work so we get efficient and clear administration of justice in them?

I am at one with my hon. Friend on that. I visit magistrates courts and was at Maidstone recently to see a very well run magistrates court—it is well run not least because the court officials and those feeding the court can use new technology, which, increasingly, will speed up the process.

I thank the Ministry of Justice for granting the appropriate licence to the university of Leicester to exhume the remains that have turned out to be those of Richard III. Will the Minister confirm that under the terms of the licence, it is up to the university to decide what to do with the remains and that the university has handed them to Leicester cathedral and that Richard III will be buried there?

On behalf of the whole House, I congratulate all of those who have been involved. It is an historic occasion and an extraordinary piece of history. I hope everyone will come together for a proper service to mark the occasion, and for a formal internment in the cathedral.

I have been in touch with the Youth Justice Board about the decision to change Ashfield young offenders institution into an adult prison. I am told that young offenders from the Bristol area will now be sent as far away as Feltham. I am concerned about their contact with their families, chances of rehabilitation and so on. What reassurance can the Minister give me that those facts will be taken into account?

The hon. Lady puts her finger on one of the great difficulties we have with the youth justice estate. As numbers drop, it is inevitable that we will need to re-roll capacity, and that could mean young offenders and their families being further away from home. However, we will do everything we can for each reallocated young person to ensure that they are as close to home as we can make it. She will recognise that not everybody at that young offenders institution comes from the Bristol area, so it may be that some will be nearer to home.

Order. I am immensely grateful to the Minister. I am sorry to disappoint colleagues, but Chris Ruane will have to have the last question.

You have not disappointed me, Mr Speaker. The prisons Minister misunderstood the position of my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) on the issue of a prison for north Wales. Will he meet north Wales MPs of all parties to discuss this important issue, in the interests of clarity?

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is interested in clarity, because Government Members have been somewhat confused about what the Labour party in north Wales wants. Perhaps it would help if the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends were to meet their local councillors and decide what the Labour party in north Wales wants. We will then be happy to talk to them.