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Topical Questions

Volume 575: debated on Tuesday 4 February 2014

This Government are committed to reducing the number of foreign nationals in our prisons. While Labour was in power, the number of foreign prisoners more than doubled, at great expense to the taxpayer. Since 2010, we have begun to clear up Labour’s mess. We have reversed that rising trend, and we are now looking at every option to send more foreign criminals back to serve their sentences in their home countries. Earlier this month, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright) travelled to Nigeria to sign a compulsory prisoner transfer agreement between our two countries, and I congratulate him on doing that. This is a significant achievement for the UK, particularly as Nigeria has one of the highest foreign national populations in our prisons. The agreement will be ratified in the coming months, and we expect to see Nigerian offenders being sent home within a year.

The Secretary of State is working hard to improve the chances of those who have completed a prison term. Does he agree that locally managed schemes such as Future Unlocked, which he visited in Rugby last year, have a key role to play in achieving that objective?

I very much enjoyed that visit, and I pay tribute to the work being done in Rugby. In setting out our probation reforms, we have taken steps to ensure that smaller organisations not only have the opportunity to participate in that way but have the simplest possible mechanisms to enable them to do so, with transparency of risk in the supply chain, with common contracts to save on bureaucracy and with measures to prevent anyone being used as what is commonly known as bid candy. We want to guarantee that supply chains will remain intact—without changes—through our consent.

Having seen the way in which the Ministry of Justice has been taken for a ride by G4S at Oakwood prison and by ALS in relation to the court translator services—both of which contracts were awarded by this Government—will the Secretary of State tell us just how bad a private company running a probation contract will need to be in order to be sacked?

Let me tell the House what being taken for a ride is. It is what happened under the last Government, under the contracts for electronic tagging, and we have been dealing with that and clearing up the mess in the past few months. I will take no lessons from Labour Members, who presided over an appalling system of contract management and exposed the taxpayer to considerable risk, leaving behind the mess that we have had to clear up. They are shocking, they were shocking, and I will take no lessons from them.

The Justice Secretary has been in the job long enough to understand that the way it works is that I ask the questions and he answers them. He and the Minister with responsibility for probation claimed that the main reason for privatising probation is that the savings can be used to provide probation services to those who currently do not receive them as their sentence is less than 12 months. The Justice Secretary has refused to publish costings and to pilot his plans, and he is already two months behind schedule. I will ask him a simple question, and I hope to get an answer: by what date will all those on sentences of less than 12 months be receiving through-the-gate supervision?

We will begin rolling out the part of the reforms set out in the Offender Rehabilitation Bill in the latter part of this year. I say to the right hon. Gentleman that he represents a party that was in government for nearly 15 years, during which time tens of thousands of offences were committed by people on short sentences who had no supervision when they left prison. The Labour Government did nothing about it. We are doing something about it, and it is not before time.

T2. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 is one of the great achievements of this Government but it left a few issues unresolved, one of which relates to humanist weddings, which are very popular in Scotland but currently not allowed here. The Act required the Secretary of State to conduct a review. What progress has been made on it, so that we can get on with allowing such weddings to happen? (902364)

My hon. Friend is right to say that the Government made a commitment to have a review, and we will do that. We will be starting it soon, and we will have a consultation. We intend to have the results of the review by the end of the year.

T3. The Secretary of State had previously been adamant that no further contracts would be awarded to Serco until it had received a clean bill of health from the Serious Fraud Office. Will he therefore explain why he awarded it a contract for the extension of Thameside prison on 20 December? When is a contract not a contract? (902365)

I can only assume that the hon. Gentleman was not in the House last June when I made the original statement about the electronic tagging situation and said that I had decided, in the interests of justice in this country, to proceed with two extensions at prisons run by the two organisations involved. I was completely clear about it, I explained why at the time and he clearly was not listening.

T4. Residents in Monmouthshire were recently very concerned when a man convicted of manslaughter absconded from Prescoed open prison. Will the Minister ask his officials to look into the risk assessments being used before prisoners are transferred to Prescoed to ensure that they are suitably rigorous? (902366)

We expect that the risk assessments in all these cases are rigorous. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to this case, and I will, of course, look into it and find out what has happened.

T7. Sunderland’s courts are in urgent need of rebuilding, as the Department has previously recognised, spending nearly £2 million in preparation. I am grateful for the meeting that took place with the Minister, but we have been in limbo on this since 2010. When will a decision be taken? (902369)

As the hon. Lady acknowledges, we have had a meeting, and I can assure her that of the 500 buildings the court estate encompasses, the ones to which she refers are very much at the forefront. She will appreciate, however, that we have a large estate and we keep matters under review, and we will keep her and her colleagues informed as soon as we are able to do so.

T5. More than half of the prisoners serving indeterminate prison sentences have passed their tariff date. Will the Secretary of State look at the parole and risk assessment process and review all cases where prisoners have complied with their sentence conditions but significantly exceeded their tariff? (902367)

As my hon. Friend knows, we have abolished those particular sentences because we do not believe they are the best way to deal with such serious offenders. However, that is not a retrospective change, and a number of prisoners in the estate are still serving such sentences. He will also appreciate that the decision on whether someone is released from such a sentence is to be taken by the independent Parole Board, not by Ministers. He must also recognise that the tariff is the minimum period to be served in custody, not the maximum. None the less, we will do everything we can to ensure that the process of these sentences is as efficient as it can be.

T10. The Secretary of State may recall that some years ago the police used a method called “trawling”, which became discredited, in order to find evidence about allegations against teachers and social workers. That destroyed many innocent people’s lives through false allegations of abuse. I understand that Operation Pallial is using trawling again, and many other hard-working social workers and educationists are being put in limbo and having their lives ruined. (902372)

I will happily discuss that issue with the National Crime Agency, which is in overall charge of that area, and will write to the hon. Gentleman with the results of my investigation.

T6. Does the Secretary of State agree that prisoners released on licence who reoffend or breach the terms of their licence should serve the remaining part of their original sentence in prison in full? If he agrees, what is he doing to ensure that that always happens? If he does not agree, why not? (902368)

As my hon. Friend knows, I have a lot of sympathy with him on these matters in areas such as breach of licence and automatic early release. For resource reasons, I cannot do everything that he would like me to do, but when he reads the Bill that is due to be laid before this House tomorrow, he will find things in it that are at least a step in the right direction.

There are 33 firms doing legal aid-backed criminal work in South Yorkshire, but only one in four or five will get duty contracts in the future, which means less competition, less choice and less access to justice. Surely what we are seeing is the slow, lingering death of legal aid at the hands of the Justice Secretary.

The argument for consolidation in the legal aid world goes back well before the last election to reviews carried out, and arguments made, by the previous Government. Our current reform proposals allow those firms to retain own-client work, which is what they argued for. What we are setting out around duty work is designed to ensure that, in tough times, we can guarantee that everyone arrested and taken to a police cell will always have access to legal advice.

T8. I welcome the Government’s transforming rehabilitation programme to cut reoffending, but will the Secretary of State reassure me that those suffering from mental health problems, both inside and outside prison, will also get the help they need? Will he outline what steps or initiatives his Department is taking, in conjunction with the Department of Health, on the matter? (902370)

My hon. Friend will know that, in relation to sentencing options, the courts have a number of choices they can make over mental health disposals. On the point he makes about co-ordination, he is right that the best thing we can do is ensure that people with mental illness are diverted away from the criminal justice system as soon as possible. To that end, we have been working with the Department of Health on liaison and diversion programmes. We are spending a considerable amount of money on that this year and over the next couple of years. We expect to have full coverage of all police custody suites and courts in the next three years or so.

Given the continuing high level of tribunals overturning Department for Work and Pensions decisions, particularly in employment support allowance cases, why did the Department offer up to the Deregulation Bill a provision that would take away the duty on the Senior President of Tribunals to report on the standard of decision making? Surely reporting on that might lead to better decisions being made in the first place.

The hon. Lady will be aware that the Ministry of Justice, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service and the Department for Work and Pensions have been working very closely to ensure that decisions by tribunals on social security and child support matters are passed on to the DWP. That is happening and, as a consequence, DWP decisions are being influenced and its decision-making guidelines have been changed.

T9. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State knows my interest and that of other colleagues in the reform of the criminal law of child neglect. Will he update the House on the progress he is making with regard to reviewing that particular provision of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008? (902371)

My hon. Friend is correct that this is an important area in which I have had fruitful discussions with Action for Children about the best way to make progress, and I hope to be able to report further on those discussions shortly.

Why is the Legal Aid Agency expanding the public defender service and recruiting barristers when reports from as far back as 2007 have found that it is between 40% and 90% more expensive than the independent professions? Furthermore, it cannot act in cases of conflict.

The public defender service was, of course, set up by the previous Labour Government, and it is always important to ensure that it is staffed properly.

The Secretary of State will recollect the prisoner deportation shambles of 2006, when huge numbers of foreign prisoners were allowed to stay in the country on release simply because of administrative incompetence. Will he assure me that foreign prisoners who should be considered for deportation are now properly being so considered?

My hon. Friend will know that that is primarily a matter for the Home Office, but none the less I can assure him that those of us who work in the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office do everything we can to ensure that foreign national offenders are deported as soon as they can be.

The House will be disturbed to learn today that since the CPS guidance on rape was amended in 2011 the number of people charged with rape over that period has fallen by 14%. There is concern that cases are being dismissed that could be successfully prosecuted. What will the Secretary of State do to ensure that the CPS has the appropriate resources to ensure that no victim of rape in this country is let down?

I am sure that the hon. Lady heard the answer I gave a few moments ago about the action we are taking with the Director of Public Prosecutions, police and crime commissioners and chief constables to look beneath the detail of that and ensure that all proper cases are referred. I am happy that the facts do not bear out her accusation that this is anything to do with resources, as in nine police areas the number of referrals has gone up over the two years since the new guidelines came in.

The maximum sentence for causing death when driving disqualified, uninsured and drunk is only two years and because of the rules of custodial sentences, the actual sentence served is only eight months. Does my hon. Friend agree that that only increases the sense of injustice felt by my constituent Mandy Stock, whose husband was killed in that way in Tredworth, Gloucester?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the advocacy he has engaged in on behalf of the Stock family. He will recall that we discussed the points he makes in the debate last Monday and I am happy to repeat what I said to him then, which is that the Government are considering carefully all that was said in the course of the debate and whether the sentencing is right for such offences. As he knows, we have particular sympathy for his points about those who cause death while disqualified.

On 23 January, the House of Commons voted 120 to three to release papers relating to the Shrewsbury 24. What is the Government’s response to that vote in the Commons?

As the right hon. Gentleman will remember, as he was in the Chamber for the debate, two things are happening. First, next year there will be a Cabinet Office review of the papers that are held and, secondly, a court reconsideration is in process. As a Government, we are ensuring that we increase transparency wherever possible but there will always be some papers that must be withheld on the basis of national security.

How many foreign national offenders are there in our jails, how does the figure compare to last time and when does the Minister expect the first Nigerian to be sent back?

Once again, I was ready for this one. There are currently 10,692 foreign national offenders, and when I last reported to my hon. Friend the figure was 10,789. The figures are heading in the right direction—

No, they have gone down. Let me correct the hon. Gentleman, whose mathematics is faulty. Last time, the figure was 10,789 and this time it is 10,692. I hope that is clear.

On Nigeria, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, we will make every effort in conjunction with our colleagues in Nigeria to remove Nigerians by the end of the year.

That is obviously the Wright effect, or the Hollobone effect, or possibly a virtuous combination of the two. Who knows? I will leave the House to muse on the matter.

One of the many excellent things the Secretary of State inherited from the previous Labour Government was an outstanding Probation Service in County Durham, which is now at risk from the Government’s privatisation. Will he now pay attention to the many issues raised in the Select Committee on Justice’s report of 22 January, and scrap that botched privatisation?

I do not recall the Justice Committee asking us to scrap our plans. Although good work is being done around the country by probation officers, we cannot go on with this situation in which 50,000 offenders are released from prison every year and left with no supervision on our streets, so that tens of thousands of crimes are committed, with victims around the country. We cannot go on in that way.