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Topical Questions

Volume 568: debated on Tuesday 8 October 2013

I would like briefly to update the House on proposals for tougher sentencing. I am sure the House will agree that it is simply not acceptable that offenders who commit some truly horrific crimes in this country are automatically released from prison without serving the full sentence regardless of their behaviour, attitude and engagement in their own rehabilitation. The last Government enshrined this automatic early release in legislation. I intend to change that. Given the financial mess left behind by the Labour party it is not possible to end automatic early release for all offenders straight away, but it is my intention to take the first step in that direction. I will shortly be introducing legislation to ensure that criminals convicted of rape or attempted rape of a child or of terrorism offences will no longer be automatically released at the halfway point of their prison sentence. Instead they will have to earn their release by the Parole Board. This means that many serious criminals will end up spending significantly longer in prison.

According the Prison Advice and Care Trust, 66% of women in prison have dependent children, but although a minority are looked after by their fathers while their mothers are prison, it is very uncertain who is caring for many of those children during their mother’s sentence. What are the Government doing to ensure sentencers properly take account of the best interests of dependent children in making sentencing decisions?

We are looking very carefully at the whole issue of the women’s estate, and I very much recognise the issue to which the hon. Lady refers. It is obviously difficult not to imprison somebody guilty of a serious crime, but at the same time I believe we need to do everything we can to move women in detention closer to home and closer to family. When we announce our plans for the women’s estate in due course, I hope she will see we have taken that factor heavily into account.

T3. I am chair of the all-party group on child and youth crime, and although crime is falling, too many of our young people are being sucked into a life of crime, and too many are becoming involved in, or victims of, violence. What does the Secretary of State plan to do to stop this cycle of abuse? (900390)

My hon. Friend is right. He will recognise there are two encouraging statistics and one depressing one in this context. The two encouraging statistics are the number of young people coming into the criminal justice system in the first place and the number of those who are incarcerated, but he is right: the one that is depressing is the rate of reoffending, which is over 70%. We need to take a look not just at rehabilitation more broadly, as he knows we are doing, but specifically at the youth custodial estate. He will hear, in very short order I hope, what we plan to do to reform that.

This Justice Secretary and his Government have failed to stand up to G4S or Serco, which, as my hon. Friends have reminded the House, failed with the electronic tagging of prisoners and with the transfer of prisoners, and are failing in Oakwood prison, and he is refusing to rule out both companies from the process in relation to probation. Why should we believe that his plans for privatising probation will fare any better?

It is important to make two points. First, the investigation into the contracts for electronic monitoring refers to events that took place in 2009 and to contracts that were let in 2005 by the previous Government. It is also important to bear in mind that these very serious issues are currently subject to investigation by the appropriate authorities. The right hon. Gentleman will therefore understand that there are strong legal reasons—this is easy to avoid when in opposition but not when in government—why we have to be measured about what we say, and I intend to continue to do that.

He may be six foot four, but he is weak. Experts, the Ministry of Justice’s own risk register and Opposition Members have all warned about the dangers to public safety from putting private companies such as G4S and Serco in charge of people who have committed serious and violent offences in the way the Government plan—and all this is to be done with no piloting. Why is the Justice Secretary playing fast and loose with public safety?

Let us be clear what our proposed probation reforms do. At the moment, and during all the years the previous Government were in power, anyone who goes to jail in this country for less than 12 months walks on to the street with £46 in their pocket, but no help and no supervision whatsoever, and the majority of them reoffend. It is time that changed, and that is what our reforms will do.

T4. Does my right hon. Friend agree that some offences merit a greater punishment than just a slap on the wrist? What action is he taking to reform the use of cautions? (900392)

I completely agree with what my hon. Friend says, and it is why my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor has announced that simple cautions will no longer be available for those cases that must be heard in a Crown Court and for a range of other offences, such as possession of a knife, supplying class A drugs and a range of sexual offences against children. That is exactly the kind of toughening of the system that the public want to see.

T6. In light of the announcement of a new prison for male prisoners in north Wales, will the Justice Secretary assure me that he will re-examine the provision for female prisoners, given the inordinate distance to travel to HMP Styal? (900394)

I am going to sound like a stuck record at this rate, but I am afraid that I must tell the hon. Lady what I have told others earlier. She knows that we are looking at the female custodial estate, and one of the reasons why are doing so is, as she mentioned, the distances travelled by visitors, family and friends to visit people in custody. We will announce—in a relatively short time, I hope—what we intend to do, and she will see how we attempt to address the point she raises.

T8. The wrong decision to close HMP Blundeston in my constituency was taken after a detailed evaluation of every establishment across the prison estate. Please can the Minister publish the evaluation report for Blundeston and confirm that it took full account of both the building improvements that have taken place in the past two years and the work done by staff in that period to make Blundeston a high-performing, well-run and cost-effective prison? (900396)

As my hon. Friend would expect, I cannot agree that the wrong decision was taken, but I can reassure him that we carried out a full and proper assessment of what was going on not only at Blundeston, but across the estate. The reason I cannot publish that is, as he will immediately understand, that it is a comparative analysis and so would cause considerable consternation among prisons that did not quite make the cut. However, we will do everything we can to ensure that those currently employed at Blundeston are properly looked after, and we will work with him in any way we can to address the future use of the site. He and I have spoken about this matter many times, and I am sure that those who work at the site and have him as their representative will be very grateful for his interest.

T7. Will the Minister publish the risk register for his probation privatisation plans, so that the public can see at first hand the dangers they are being exposed to as a result of this reckless rush to dismantle and fragment our probation service? (900395)

Let me tell the hon. Gentleman what I think would be a danger to the public—to continue to release people on to our streets after short sentences and with a high risk of reoffending with no supervision whatsoever. It should never have happened, it is unacceptable and the sooner it stops the better.

The most difficult questions for a judge to consider must include those cases whose chances of success may be deemed borderline. Where does that leave important questions such as those posed by my late constituent Tony Nicklinson, who had locked-in syndrome and sought the right to die? Would the Minister deny legal aid to him and others who survive him?

Every case must be judged on its own merits. We cannot provide legal aid for every possible case that can be pursued, but we will retain a system that provides legal aid in cases in which the courts and the Legal Aid Agency, which judge the entitlement to legal aid, think it is appropriate to do so.

T9. The Secretary of State has the legal and constitutional responsibility to determine where the mortal remains of King Richard III are reburied. He would be unwise, in my view, to support the claims for reburial in Leicester, in my constituency of York or anywhere else without consulting widely and setting up an advisory panel of experts, as I proposed in an Adjournment debate before the summer break, and as Mr Justice Haddon-Cave proposed in his recent judgment on the matter. Is that something that the Secretary of State will now do? (900397)

I am well aware of the strong feelings about that case, but we reached an agreement with Leicester university, which funded and carried out the dig, and I think we should stick to the agreements we reached.

I am aware of my hon. Friend’s long-standing interest in that important document. I urge patience, but reassure him that his patience will be rewarded very shortly.

As a former Legal Aid Minister, I recognise the hard decisions that have to be made on legal aid. Civil legal aid and judicial review are fundamental to our system. It has been fundamental since Magna Carta; if the state decides to take away someone’s home or children, or refuses to give them appropriate education, they ought to be able to challenge that. Will the Secretary of State look again at the issue, given the small amounts of savings he has suggested that there will be?

I hate to correct the right hon. Gentleman, but he talks about people’s entitlement to judicial review since Magna Carta. That took place in 1215—we will be celebrating its 800th anniversary shortly—whereas judicial review was introduced in 1974.

What is the latest total for the number of foreign national prisoners in our jails and what steps have been taken in recent months to send them back to secure detention in their own countries?

The last time my hon. Friend asked me that question, I did not have the number to hand. I still do not, but I can tell him that it is in the order of 10,800. He and I are in full agreement that that number is too high. As for the second part of his question, as he knows we are attempting to negotiate compulsory prisoner transfer agreements with a number of countries. We already have one with the European Union. I know how enthusiastic he is about EU measures, so he will be pleased to know that we are making real progress in sending people back under the EU PTA. We will continue to work hard to do so.

Local multi-agency public protection arrangements, introduced under the previous Labour Government, have been highly successful in protecting the public from high-level violent and sexual offenders. Concerns have been expressed to me that those arrangements might be centralised, making management of such offenders difficult and putting the public at risk. Will the Minister assure me that the Government do not intend to make that worrying scenario a reality?

Under our proposed reforms, multi-agency supervision arrangements will remain in the public sector and will continue to be subject to local decision making, which will take between local branches of the national probation service and local agencies such as the policy and local authorities.

I hope that the Secretary of State has read the front page of the Daily Mail today, highlighting the 202 cases that the UK has lost at the European Court of Human Rights. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the European convention on human rights and the European Court of Human Rights, with its pretend judges, have become a charter for murderers, rapists, terrorists and illegal immigrants and that the sooner we scrap the Human Rights Act and get out of the European convention on human rights the better?

I share my hon. Friend’s belief in the need for change. It is my intention that the Conservative party should go into the next election with a clear plan for change, and it will. This is now a clear dividing line between us, because the shadow Secretary of State has only today reasserted his belief that the current human rights framework is right for this country. We disagree, and I look forward to fighting that battle over the next 18 months.

When the Minister quotes the Offender Management Act 2007, will he do me the courtesy of looking at the Hansard for that period, when the Minister in question—that is, me—said that the vast majority of probation boards would stay in public ownership?

I quoted directly from the Act, and the right hon. Gentleman knows that I quoted correctly. I was asked a question about what the Act says. I quoted what it says. How he might have meant it to be interpreted is something else. I am afraid he and his hon. Friends must recognise that if they passed a law they did not mean to pass, that is not our problem but theirs.

The British people are sick and tired of those given long custodial sentences being released early as a matter of right. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice recently made an announcement on those given the longest custodial sentences, but can he confirm to the House that it is his intention in due course to remove the automatic right of those who serve custodial sentences to an automatic discount?

I do not like the concept of automatic early release at all. My hon. and learned Friend will be aware of the financial limitations that we face at the moment, which is why I made a start with the most serious and unpleasant offenders, but it is certainly my desire, when resources permit, to go further on this.

A few months ago, in response to a question from me, the Secretary of State or one of his Ministers suggested that he would be setting up a new system for ensuring that tribunal judges dealing with work capability assessment appeals would give good reasons. Has that new programme been instituted, and when can we expect a statement on how it is working?

This is specifically the responsibility of the Department for Work and Pensions, but I can tell the hon. Lady that extensive work has been done. Much more detail is now being provided to the Department for Work and Pensions by the Courts and Tribunals Service, and we will continue to explore ways in which we can ensure that decision makers in Jobcentre Plus understand fully the reason for a decision in a tribunal.

Capita submitted the lowest tender and was awarded the contract for court interpreters, but since then has faced more than 2,000 complaints, comprising 30% of its assignments. What is the Department going to do about that, and has it any plans for re-tendering that service?

If I can correct my hon. Friend, the original contract was given to a small company, which was subsequently taken over by Capita, and it was actually Capita that did the work to improve performance, which was clearly unacceptable at the start. The contract is now performing at a pretty high level. We will continue to look for ways to improve it, but it is a whole lot better than in the early days, when quite clearly performance was not at all acceptable.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that transparency must be at the heart of any procurement reform in his Department— transparency for the taxpayer, and transparency for companies competing for Government contracts?

I absolutely do, and given the problems that we clearly have with procurement, and our inheritance from the previous Government of mismanaged contracts, we are now putting in place comprehensive work to ensure that we have a contract management system that is absolutely fit for the 21st century, which is fair and transparent, and deals with suppliers properly and appropriately, but also looks after the interests of the taxpayer.

I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues, to whom, as they know, I could happily listen indefinitely, but we must now move on to the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, who has a statement for us.