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Topical Questions

Volume 563: debated on Tuesday 21 May 2013

I would like briefly to update the House on our proposed changes to the regime in our prisons. I think that the public rightly expect that prisons should be a place of punishment and rehabilitation. For too long prisoners have been handed privileges such as in-cell television, DVDs and association time as a reward for simply keeping out of trouble. That is not just unfair at a time when the rest of the country is doing without; it is a shamefully wasted opportunity. That is why we have announced a major overhaul of our incentives and earned privileges schemes in prisons. We want to see prisoners earning their privileges by working hard to turn their lives around. We have banned certificate-18 DVDs, subscription TV will be removed by the summer, prisoners will in future have a longer working day, and if they behave badly or do not engage with rehabilitation activities they will be stripped of their privileges. That is designed to improve confidence in our prison regime and to encourage positive rehabilitation activities within our prisons.

I would like to ask the Secretary of State about his plans to privatise the probation service. Following the Olympics security debacle, why does he believe that companies such as G4S are suitable providers to manage low and medium-risk offenders, including prolific burglars, drug-users and those convicted for domestic violence, if they could not manage Olympic security? How will he guarantee public safety?

What I want for our probation service is the best of the public, private and voluntary sectors: the public sector has high-quality skills in managing the risk of harm; the private sector can deliver a more efficient system, so that we can release funds to support those offenders who get no support at the moment; and the voluntary sector has the kind of mentoring skills we so desperately need to help people turn their lives around.

T4. Our criminal justice system may be the most expensive in the world, perhaps by a factor of two or three times, and yet we continue, as a state, to pay many practitioners several hundreds of thousand pounds a year more than we pay surgeons or scientists. This practice is of course enthusiastically supported by the Bar Council, and apparently by Opposition Front Benchers. Can the Secretary of State confirm that his consultation will at last bring to bear competition and market forces? (156201)

It certainly brings competition to bear. We are trying to take tough decisions on legal aid in a way that, where possible, impacts on the top end, not the bottom end, of the income scale. That is what we believe in, and I am surprised that Labour Members appear to disagree with us.

Has the Secretary of State read his interview with the Law Society Gazette this week? I would not blame him if he had not, because it is a bit of a car crash. Does he stand by the passages where he says that he has no evidence of a lack of public support for legal aid but has received “lots of letters”, where he is “unsure” where £160 million of Department spending has gone, and where he defends taking away a choice of solicitor because

“people in our prisons and…courts come from the most difficult and challenged backgrounds”

and are not

“great connoisseurs of legal skills”?

Not surprisingly, I do stand by interviews I give. We are now three years into this Government and Labour Members have no answers to any of the challenges we face. We have big financial issues to deal with and we need to create a system that is affordable. They have no alternative suggestions about how to do that.

The Justice Secretary has one answer: payment by results.

Last Friday, the Justice Secretary was forced to investigate alleged overpayment to G4S and Serco on the tagging contracts. Today the Financial Times is reporting that he has suspended outsourcing prison contracts to Serco, Sodexo and Amec. Should not he review all current contracts with the chumocracy of private firms who get the MOJ’s shilling, including Capita’s disastrous running of the interpreters contract, and should not he suspend plans to hand out another £500 million of probation contracts to more of the cosy cartel?

Sometimes Labour Members are breathtaking. I am not going to say much to the House today about the investigation that we are carrying out into the tagging contracts; I will provide that information in due course. I simply say to Opposition Front Benchers that the contracts we are investigating date back to 2005 and were signed and put together by the previous Government.

T9. . What can the Secretary of State do the reverse the increase in the compensation culture in the UK? (156206)

Our whiplash consultation closed on 8 March. We looked into the use of independent medical review panels and increasing the small claims compensation threshold. A response to the Government’s consultation will be published in autumn this year after the Transport Committee’s inquiry into whiplash.

T2. What plans does the Minister have to monitor the banning of referral fees in personal injury matters and to review the payment of referral fees in conveyancing? (156199)

We have already introduced changes that ban referral fees, and we are looking at other reforms that will tighten up the whole culture that exists around personal injury and similar claims. There is good work in parts of the legal profession in doing genuine work on behalf of genuine claims. However, there are too many question marks in the system. Now that we have made those changes, the challenge is for the insurance industry to bring down policy prices. If it does not do that, we will not hesitate to take action in the other direction.

T10. I strongly back the Government’s plans to get prisoners to do a full day’s work, but how can we make sure that they do not undercut the jobs of other UK workers whose businesses have higher costs than businesses in prisons? (156207)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; there is a balance to be struck in this respect. We want more prisoners to be working, but we also want to make sure that jobs outside prisons are not unfairly undercut. That is why, as he knows, we have a code of practice that we have recently strengthened to ensure that that does not happen and that, where we can, we bring work in from abroad to be done in our prisons or use work in prison to support contracts that provide work outside the prison gate.

T5. Our criminal justice system is strengthened in its ability to deal with international crime through our co-operation in the EU’s justice and home affairs policies. Does the Secretary of State agree that this is another powerful reason why we should remain a full member state of the EU? (156202)

I believe that we should co-operate fully internationally, not simply in the European Union, but elsewhere, to combat international crime. I do not want this country to become part of a European justice system. That is what divides us.

Chris Huhne and his former wife were released from prison recently after serving just two months of an eight-month sentence. In surveys that I have conducted, an overwhelming majority of my constituents believe that prisoners should serve their sentences in full. Aside from locking them up for longer, Mr Speaker, will the Secretary of State say how long he thinks people should serve in prison before they are released?

On this matter, I have a lot of sympathy with what my hon. Friend says. He may have sensed from my recent comments that I am looking closely at this area. I hope to be able to provide further reassurances to him in due course.

T6. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that he and the Government have no plans to withdraw from the European convention on human rights? (156203)

It is not the policy of the coalition Government to withdraw from the European convention on human rights. My party is looking at what proposals we want to put to the country at the next general election. The vast majority of the population want changes to our human rights framework. If the Labour party disagrees, I look forward to having that debate.

Further to the Secretary of State’s statement about prisons at the start of topical questions, does he agree that far too many drugs are still circulating in prisons? How far is he getting with his zero-tolerance policy, which is aimed at staff and visitors because the drugs are not coming into prisons with the prisoners?

My hon. Friend is right that too many drugs are still coming into prisons, but he will be reassured to know that the rate of positive drug tests is coming down. As he will know, we must also tackle the misuse of prescription medication in jails. We are addressing all those problems to the best of our ability and will continue to do so.

T7. There are some excellent local voluntary sector organisations that have valuable experience of working with offenders. How will Ministers ensure that small organisations with expertise are not shut out from rehabilitation work, while a handful of large private sector companies with little experience but deep pockets stitch it up? (156204)

The answer to the hon. Lady’s question has two parts. First, when we assess the bids for rehabilitation work, the bidders must demonstrate that they will support smaller organisations to carry out the work with them. Secondly, there must be contract management to ensure that as the contracts proceed, the smaller organisations are looked after and have a sustainable future. We will do both those things.

In common, I am sure, with colleagues across the House, I am dealing with the case of a chaotic, long-term drug addicted prisoner who has been in and out of the revolving door of prison. I could not be more supportive of the Government’s rehabilitation revolution. However, before anybody will take that person on, he has to demonstrate behaviour that, being chaotic and addicted, it is very hard for him to demonstrate. It seems to me that that is a small gap in the new arrangements. Will the Minister meet me to talk about how we can bridge that gap and get people to the stage where they can take advantage of the new arrangements?

I am very happy to discuss that matter further with my hon. Friend. I hope that she will be reassured that all offenders who leave custody or receive a community order will be allocated to a provider and will be expected to undergo whatever rehabilitation is appropriate.

T8. I welcome the extension of supervision to short-term prisoners, but I am concerned that Ministers continue to refuse to give an estimated additional cost for that provision, claiming that it depends on competition. Ministers must have made an estimate for the fixed fee that will be paid up front before any bonus for success. Will the Minister say what the fixed fee is likely to cost? (156205)

I understand why the right hon. Gentleman finds our position frustrating, but we cannot give a specific figure because it depends entirely on what price the bidders tell us they can do it for. I can tell him that the cost of providing for the additional 50,000 offenders will be covered by the savings that we make through competition. Opposition Members who dislike the idea of competition in this field must tell us whether they support the extension of the provision to short-term offenders. If they would not pay for it through competition, how would they pay for it?

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what he considers to be the most intolerable aspects of the United Kingdom’s current relationship with the European Union?

Given that I do not have the time at the Dispatch Box that I might choose to discuss the matter, I would simply say that the European Commission’s recent decision to publish a justice scorecard assessing justice systems across Europe, and making recommendations for their improvement, is one that this country neither welcomes nor intends to co-operate with.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact on miscarriages of justice of his proposals on criminal legal aid?

I am very confident that what we are doing, which involves encouraging the litigation part of our system to operate more efficiently and making changes to the top end of the income scale for the Bar, but also protecting incomes for the junior Bar, will be the best way of delivering an effective balance between proper justice and something that is affordable to the taxpayer.

What is the latest number of foreign national offenders in our prisons, and what progress is being made on sending them back to secure detention in their own countries?

Off the top of my head I think there are about 10,300 in our prisons at the moment. We are making progress, as I explained earlier, not only with individual compulsory prisoner transfer agreements such as the one that we have already negotiated with Albania, but with more effective use of the European Union prisoner transfer agreement. Something like 200 cases under that agreement are currently being considered for deportation by the Home Office.

A Bar Council and ComRes poll published this morning shows that more than 70% of the British public are concerned that the legal aid cuts will result in injustice, and lawyers in Newcastle believe that they will increase costs to the taxpayer. Will the Secretary of State meet me and a delegation from Newcastle to listen to concerns on that vital issue?

I have already met a number of lawyers from the north-east and Newcastle, and I will listen to all the representations that I receive to try to get this as right as I possibly can. However, the hon. Lady should not believe, and no one in the House should believe, that the Administration can avoid difficult financial decisions. I am trying to take those decisions in the way that provides the best balance between justice and value for the taxpayer, and that is what I will continue to do.

There seem to be ways of both making substantial savings and providing a better service and improving the way in which the courts operate, particularly by using more digital information so that documents do not get lost and fail to arrive in court at the correct time. What work has the Ministry of Justice been doing to try to achieve that?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend that the digitisation of the whole criminal justice process, not just in the courts but including the police, is absolutely essential to ensuring not only that we continue to provide proper justice but that we do so more speedily and efficiently. A huge amount of work is going on inside the Department, and announcements will be made.

The Ministry of Justice estimates that approximately 60% to 90% of young offenders have communication needs. What is it doing to increase speech and language therapy services in young offenders institutions?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that that is a significant problem among young offenders both inside and outside custody. She may know that the comprehensive health assessment tool is currently used to identify those problems as early as we can, so that we can do something about them. As she knows, we believe that it is important to have a greater focus on education for all young offenders in how we structure the secure custodial estate for young offenders, and we are looking at that carefully having just closed a consultation on it.

We are looking seriously at the matter, which is one for Members of all parties to consider. If any hon. Member has experience of it in their constituency, we would like to hear about it, including the impact that it has had on businesses. We in the House have perhaps more awareness than anybody else about what is happening on the ground, and I would like to hear from hon. Members about it.

Order. I was going to call the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), but she has been perambulating around the Chamber and I had lost sight of her. If she wishes to ask a question, her time is now.

I am very grateful, Mr Speaker. I was going to ask the Secretary of State about legal aid. A vulnerable constituent of mine was charged on four separate occasions, and her solicitor, whom she appointed, was able to support her throughout. That ability is under threat from the legal aid proposals. Why is the Secretary of State proposing restrictions on access to legal aid for the vulnerable and those who cannot afford to pay?

I am not proposing that access to legal aid for the vulnerable be removed. Every person brought before a court or into a police station, and every person charged with an offence, will have access to legal aid for a defence unless they have sufficient means to pay for it themselves.

Given that a third of prison suicides take place in the first week, what risk assessment have the Government made of the changes to the regime in the first two weeks?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows from his previous ministerial experience, risk assessments are made for every prisoner when they arrive in prison. The changes we have announced to the prison regime are about ensuring that prisoners understand at the earliest possible stage that if they comply with the regime and engage with rehabilitation, they will be able to earn privileges. If they do not, they will not, but that does not affect the risk assessment process. I also point out that where there are exceptional reasons due to a particular vulnerability, governors have discretion not to apply those provisions.