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Volume 583: debated on Tuesday 1 July 2014

The Secretary of State was asked—

Reoffending Level

We remain on track in delivering our reforms to transform rehabilitation and bring down reoffending rates. Since 1 June, the new national probation service and community rehabilitation companies have been working together to manage offenders. The competition for new owners of the 21 community rehabilitation companies will conclude later this year.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. What progress has his Department made in establishing a network of resettlement prisons?

We are on track to establish the network of resettlement prisons later this year to coincide with the commencement of the mentoring and supervision of under-12-month offenders. This part of our reforms is enormously important. It will mean that offenders will spend the last few months of their sentence in or just outside the geographic area into which they will be released in order to ensure that we have a proper through-the-gate service to plan, prepare and implement arrangements for their release.

What account has the Secretary of State taken in his plans for reducing reoffending of the need to help women, in particular, out of the cycle of crime and reoffending?

I can confirm that arrangements were put in place in the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014 to ensure that there is a statutory obligation to make arrangements for women. We want to ensure that both men and women have full access to through-the-gate support and preparations for release. The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), is working on a number of innovative projects in the women’s estate to ensure that we do the best possible job of preparing women for release and deal with their particular circumstances, especially when they have young children and families.

In a written answer, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright),confirmed that the top five repeat offences include theft, assault, drink-driving, criminal damage and drug possession. What steps are the Government taking to address those repeat offences?

One of the key changes we are pushing through in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, which is currently in the other place, will ensure that repeat cautions are not used in the routine way they have been in the past. My view is that if somebody systematically commits a particular offence they should be brought quickly before the courts. Although a caution might initially be appropriate, it is certainly not a tool that should be used again and again.

Has my right hon. Friend made any recent estimates of the cost of reoffending both in financial terms and in terms of the harm it does to society?

The official National Audit Office estimate is that about £13 billion a year is spent by our nation as a whole on dealing with the consequences of reoffending. Reoffending is now a particularly significant part of our national crime picture. We have seen crime rates and the number of first-time entrants to the criminal justice system fall, so more and more of our problem is with reoffending and that is why it is such a priority for us.

I am very much of the view that mentoring is an important part of the way we support former offenders as they come through and leave the prison system. It is essential that we help them get their lives back together again, particularly given the fact that many of them come from the most difficult of backgrounds. I am encouraged by the number of voluntary sector organisations that have expressed an interest in and put their names forward for the transforming rehabilitation programme. The voluntary sector will play an extremely important part in the way things develop in the future.

When did the Secretary of State last meet the Secretary of State for Health to discuss mental health services and drug services? They are under pressure in many areas and it is vital to follow that up in order to support people coming out of prison by ensuring that they have access to those services.

I completely agree with the hon. Lady. The last conversation I had with the Health Secretary about this was a week ago. We intend to do joint work on it and I see it as my Department’s next big priority. It is something we have to tackle and to tackle effectively.

My constituent Gwen MacDonald has worked for more than 20 years in the probation service in Sheffield. When she asked why she had not been selected to move with the national probation service—she was to move to one of the new companies instead—when someone who had been in the service for only six months had been selected, she was told that it was because the selection was done by drawing names from a hat. Does that not show an utterly shambolic approach to probation? Does it not say everything about this Government’s approach, and what is the Secretary of State going to do about it?

What the hon. Gentleman says is absolute nonsense. Names were not drawn from a hat. There was a carefully constructed process of selection and a proper appeal mechanism for those who were unhappy with where they had been allocated.

Recorded rates of reoffending are going to plummet in Bassetlaw because police cells have shut, there are fewer police, and now 800 years of local justice are to be ended by getting rid of the criminal court. Does the Secretary of State not worry that he will wake up one night with destroying local justice on his conscience? What is he going to do to ensure that we can have reoffenders prosecuted locally in Bassetlaw?

I am not aware of the individual circumstances of the hon. Gentleman’s local court, but I can tell him that any changes being made to the listing procedures in our courts in Bassetlaw are being made at the instigation of local committees, local magistrates and other representatives of the justice system, who are taking a decision in the best interests of the area.

It is important that we reduce reoffending so that we have fewer victims of crime, but far too many victims are being failed by our criminal justice system. Yesterday, a serial victim of domestic abuse was almost forced to disclose her safe address during a court hearing; she was saved only when the local Member of Parliament intervened. Months have passed since the Government blocked our proposals to prevent such cases from happening. When is the Secretary of State going to protect victims with a proper victims law?

The Opposition always talk about laws. What we have is a victims code, which was put in place last year and was widely welcomed by victims’ groups. We are also following innovative new approaches, such as the scheme being trialled now to protect vulnerable witnesses by keeping them outside the cordon of the courtroom. I am always open to ideas about how we can improve the situation. Victims are a priority and will continue to be so.

As an avid reader of the Bradford Telegraph & Argus the Secretary of State will know that 104 people are driving on the streets of Bradford who have amassed 12 or more points on their licence—some have as many as 20. Does he believe that that is an acceptable state of affairs? Is he worried about this rate of serial reoffending in Bradford?

It is of course utterly unacceptable that that is the case. We are in the process of both tightening up and looking at further ways to tighten up our driving laws. The Criminal Justice and Courts Bill now contains provisions to deal with disqualified drivers and we are reviewing other aspects of the motoring system, to ensure that it is acting appropriately and justice is being done. We shall certainly take account of the experience in Bradford in that review.

How does the Secretary of State propose to reduce reoffending when, at the last count, workshops in HMP Risley in my constituency had been closed on 110 occasions because of a shortage of staff? He knows full well that one of the best ways to prevent reoffending is training and education, so when is he going to get a grip and make sure that there are enough prison officers available to deliver that?

We have increased the number of hours of work being done each year in our prisons by about 2.5 million, and we intend to continue to do that. We are in the process of doubling the amount of education available to young people in the youth estate, and the hon. Lady knows that Warrington has such a facility at Thorn Cross prison. We intend to continue to identify ways to deliver purposeful activity in prisons, so that people have the best chance of not reoffending.

Keith Williams

2. What factors the Parole Board took into account in deciding to release on parole Keith Williams who was convicted of rape in 1999. (904564)

As my hon. Friend knows, the Parole Board is independent of Government, but in all cases where the board has the power to direct release it issues guidance to its members on the range of factors to be taken into account in making an assessment of risk.

Why was it that after his first Parole Board hearing, Keith Williams was denied parole, and after his second hearing, armed with the same facts, he was given it? Is it not worrying that two different groups of people can come to completely polar-opposite conclusions?

I understand entirely my hon. Friend’s concerns about the case, and my sympathy and, I know, hers goes to the victim of Keith Williams who is her constituent. I understand the position in this case to be that a mistake was made in the first instance by those within the Ministry of Justice, for which I apologise, regarding the disclosure of the victim impact statement to the defendant and his solicitors; but the second time the matter was considered by the Parole Board, the board received different information, including a psychological report it had not seen before. My hon. Friend will understand that, because the board is independent and reaches its own conclusions, I cannot undo what it has decided. What I will do is make sure that the maximum reassurance over the licence conditions that were imposed is provided to her constituent.

Probation Service

Reoffending rates remain unacceptably high, particularly among short-sentenced offenders. By bringing in a diverse market of providers, paying by results for reductions in reoffending, and extending rehabilitation to all offenders leaving custody, we can bring down these reoffending rates. We are on track to deliver these essential reforms by 2015.

What reports has the Secretary of State received of cases going unsupervised since the 21 community rehabilitation companies were formed on 1 June? If he has received any such reports, what does he intend to do about them?

We have been bedding in the new system over the past month. I have been monitoring carefully what is happening. For example, the level of recalls has not changed significantly as a result of the changes. We are pushing ahead with the changes, and the organisational changes in particular, while the probation service is in the public sector to ensure that we can iron out the inevitable teething problems that accompany such a change. I am confident that good progress is being made, and public safety remains our No. 1 priority.

What is the Secretary of State’s latest estimate of the costs of his disastrous reorganisation of the probation service?

As a result of the reforms to the probation service, the criminal justice system will save money in the coming years as reoffending is brought down. It has for a long time been a travesty that those who go to jail for less than 12 months receive no supervision, support or mentoring at all when they leave. If we could just bring reoffending levels among that group down closer to the rates of those who do receive support and supervision, we would see a massive reduction in the costs of our justice system.

Integrated offender management, working between the police and probation, is a proven way of helping to reduce reoffending and improving the work of the probation service. What is my right hon. Friend doing to bring the role of police and crime commissioners closer together with that of the probation service?

In the tendering process we required the bidders to take into account and demonstrate how they would reflect the local policing and police and crime commissioner priorities to ensure that we have a joined-up system. In a world of payment by results, if a local integrated offender management system is working well, it would be crazy for those involved in probation not to seek to take part in it if it would reduce crime levels, reduce reoffending and help them improve what they do.

What is the Secretary of State doing to retain expertise and local knowledge in the probation service during these changes?

We have been working very hard to ensure that we have a new strong leadership team. I am encouraged by the group of people who have come forward to take leadership roles in both the national probation service and the CRCs. Many of the existing chief executives have moved into those new positions. We also have a new generation of leaders who have emerged from the next rung down. From what I see on the ground, they are already delivering strong leadership and a sense of direction.

Listening to the Secretary of State, one would think there was nothing at all to worry about. Unfortunately, already we have seen lost files and staff unable to access information; charities are pulling out; and four of the mutuals intending to bid for services collapsed last week. Given all these problems, it seems pretty clear that even if he will not—I know he will not—abandon his plans altogether, a delay to the project would be the safest and perhaps the wisest thing to do. Will the Secretary of State please revise his timetable and resist the temptation to press ahead regardless of the risk to the public?

I keep hearing from the Opposition about the need to delay and to amend the timetable. We are spending most of the second half of this year, from the start of June through to the end of the year, making sure that the new system beds in properly, and we are dealing, in the public sector, with the teething problems that will inevitably arise. That is entirely consistent with what the hon. Lady is asking for; it is what we are doing.

Acting for the Public Good

4. What steps he is taking to tackle the perception that people taking voluntary action for the public good can run the risk of being sued for negligence. (904566)

We want people to feel able to take action for the public good without worrying about being sued if something goes wrong. We have therefore introduced the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill to provide reassurance that if that does happen the court will take full account of the context and the fact that they were acting for the benefit of society. [Interruption.] I hear the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) saying that it is rubbish, so he is opposed to clamping down on the health and safety culture and to backing our citizens. I would rather be where I stand than where he stands.

The Secretary of State is absolutely right. There is a growing perception that people risk being sued for things like clearing snow from their path, leading a school trip or helping in an emergency situation. I know he would agree that the Government should protect everyday heroes in our constituencies who get involved in such things. What further steps would help to address these important issues and the lack of common sense that people think takes place in the system at the moment?

As the Bill moves through the House and on to the statute book, I hope every hon. Member will make their constituents aware of the change that we are pushing through. But there is another important part of the Bill that my hon. Friend has not mentioned, which is the responsibility piece—the ability for us to provide a deterrent to an employee who tries it on in the face of a responsible employer who has done the right thing, when someone in their employment has done something stupid and still tries to sue. As part of our long-term economic plan, I want to see those responsible employers protected against spurious claims, and that is what the Bill will do.

The Minister will know of my great interest in a proper system of citizenship training in this country and citizen service. Given the recent statement by a senior officer from Manchester that it was a dangerous place to be after a certain time of night at the weekends, surely the officer is not suggesting that volunteers should replace policemen.

I noted those comments with a little disappointment, because as far as I can see, incidents of crime and antisocial behaviour are falling not rising. If there is a particular problem in Manchester, that is clearly something that the police and crime commissioner there will have to deal with. However, I am encouraged that throughout the country our communities are becoming safer, not more dangerous.

Prison Places

5. What steps he is taking to ensure that there are sufficient prison places to accommodate people who receive custodial sentences. (904567)

As of today, there are 85,542 prisoners in England and Wales, and capacity for 86,489, providing headroom of 947 spaces. We are changing the role of prisons that we do not need for their original purpose, bringing back into use capacity we did not need in the past, and building new accommodation at four existing prisons. As a result, 2,000 additional places will have been opened by April 2015, and we will have more adult male prison places at the end of this Parliament than we inherited. In the next Parliament, we will open a new prison in Wrexham, providing a further 2,000 places.

Nineteen-year-old Craig Hepburn from Scotland was visiting Marsden in my constituency in 2012 when he was killed. One of Craig’s killers, Anthony Driver, was out on licence at the time of the offence. Anthony Driver may be able to apply for early release in November 2019, which means that he will have served only six and a half years for Craig’s manslaughter. A sheriff commented at the trial that the community was safe only when Anthony Driver was behind bars. What consideration is there of the danger prisoners pose to their local community when they are considered for early release?

I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s concern. Of course, from what he says, the individual in question was sentenced for manslaughter. That would be a determinate sentence. The courts will decide how long the sentence should be, and the release date comes automatically, as the law stands. He will know that this Government have legislated for extended determinate sentences, where people can spend the entirety of their sentence in custody. He will also know that we are keen to reduce the incidence of automatic early release. We have already done so for very serious violent offences—for child sex offenders, for instance—but we are keen to go further.

Under this Government, the use of the emergency gold command has doubled in two years, and the riot squad has been called out 60% more times. Is this not an inefficient use of resources, which is dangerous for prisoners and prison staff?

The hon. Gentleman needs to look carefully at the figures. He is right that there have been significant increases in the number of times that help has been asked for in prisons, but the majority of those incidents are not serious. When the Tornado team is called out to serious incidents, that too is registered. That is at half the level it was in 2007 when his party was in power.

What is my hon. Friend doing to ensure that there are sufficient prison places to allow prisoners with families to be close to them, given the proven benefits for reintegration and the preservation of family life?

My hon. Friend is right about that. That is why we are pursuing a model of resettlement prisons so that in the closing months of the custodial part of a prisoner’s sentence, which is when resettlement is uppermost in their mind, they are in a prison close to the area into which they will be released. That is a fundamental part of the reforms we are introducing to ensure that people have the support and supervision they ought to have when they go through the prison gate and into the community so that we can reduce reoffending.

From the Minister’s earlier response, one might think that everything in the Prison Service is fine, so how many prison officers short is the system?

We always try to provide the right number of prison officers at any given moment, and we are going through a process of what is called benchmarking to ensure that we have the right number to deliver the regime we need. It is true, of course, that there is a short-term problem following an increase in the prison population that nobody saw coming, including the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues. We are dealing with that problem by seeking to recruit prison officers who have recently left the service. That is the responsible thing to do, and we will carry on doing the responsible thing.

Can the Minister tell us how many people are currently at large, having escaped or absconded from our prisons, and how many are currently sunbathing on the roofs of our prisons? On that point, will he give us an assurance that the next time prisoners escape on to the roofs, prison officers will not hand out sun lotion as they did last week?

I will deal with my hon. Friend’s second point first. The answer is yes; that will not happen again. We have looked very carefully at that incident to ensure that there are no so-called health and safety policies that encourage such behaviour. As he knows, I made my views about it quite clear last week. On his first point, every incident of absconding is troubling and we need to crack down on it. That is why we are increasing the penalties for those who abscond and ensuring that only the right people find themselves in open conditions in the first place. He might be reassured to know that the level of absconding is 80% lower than it was under the previous Labour Government.

The Minister is a nice bloke, but he is giving the impression of being both complacent and out of touch. He will be aware that governors of overcrowded public prisons are being told to squeeze in more offenders without any additional resources or help. Can he confirm whether privately run prisons are taking on additional prisoners and, if so, how many, and what premium will they be charging the Government to get them out of their hole?

Let me try to help the right hon. Gentleman with some facts. First, we certainly are asking private sector prisons to take some additional places. That is part of a contractual arrangement that is very similar to the one that was in place under his Government, which is perfectly standard business. Secondly, we are asking some prisons to take additional prisoners and asking some prisoners to share cells, which we do not think is unreasonable, in order to deal with the short-term spike that nobody anticipated. I suggest that the wrong thing would be to do as his Government did, which was to run out of prison places, then run out of police cell places, let thousands of people out early and then deal with the consequences. That is not a path we intend to take.

When assessing the number of prison places, will my hon. Friend ensure that prison places in open prisons, such as Ford in my constituency, are filled only by prisoners who have been rigorously risk-assessed? Does he understand that when prisoners abscond from Ford prison and the police warn the public not to approach them because they are dangerous, that undermines confidence in that risk-assessment process?

I do understand that, and of course it is important that we stand behind the principle of open prisons assisting in the rehabilitation of prisoners and making it less risky for the public when they are finally released, but my hon. Friend is right that only the right people should be in open prisons. We are tightening up the rules on how people move through the system into open prisons. We are sending the clearest possible message that prisoners who abscond from their sentence and abuse the trust they were given in an open prison will not get a second chance.

Mesothelioma Victims

10. If he will take steps to ensure that mesothelioma victims do not have to pay legal costs from their damages. When the Government’s no win, no fee reforms apply to mesothelioma claims, it will be up to claimants’ lawyers whether they wish to charge their clients a success fee. There is no requirement for them to do so. (904572)

Given the revelation of the secret agreement between the Government and the Association of British Insurers to stitch up victims of mesothelioma, and the pathetic attempt to cover the tracks, will the Minister confirm his opposition to any non-transparent agreements or arrangements between the Government and commercial third parties that potentially negatively impact on mesothelioma sufferers’ compensation?

First, I put on the record the hon. Gentleman’s deep interest in this issue; he secured an Adjournment debate about it earlier this year, to which I responded. As for the so-called secret deal with the insurance industry, may I just say that there was no secret deal?

One of the factors that drives up costs is the problem of discovering documents relating to medical and HMRC records. What discussions is my hon. Friend having with other Departments to make sure that we can speed up the process of disclosure?

It is vital that we have the necessary discussions with other Departments. We are working on that, at pace, to ensure that we get the best possible outcome for those at the end of that chain.

Does it not tell us everything we want to know about this nasty Government—doing a rotten deal with Tory funders in the City to the detriment of dying people?

The hon. Gentleman does neither himself nor his party any credit by using such language. A document has been made public and no deal was done with it—that is the fact. It would help the House if the hon. Gentleman dealt with facts rather than supposition.

Shared Services (Newport)

11. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on jobs in Newport of the privatisation of Ministry of Justice shared services. (904573)

The Ministry of Justice is entering into detailed discussions with Shared Services Connected Ltd regarding future delivery of its back office administration services. Subject to contract, the majority of Ministry of Justice shared services staff, including those at Newport, will transfer to SSCL under TUPE. Their jobs will be protected in their current location for at least 12 months from the date of transfer, expected to be in mid-October 2014.

Shared services in Newport have been a brilliant success, saving at least £10 million a year for the country. Steria has wasted £56 million without providing a report of any use. Are my constituents right to go on strike and feel anger against an ingrate Government who reward failure and punish success?

I very much regret the fact that the Government set about a path that led to that £56 million write-off—I mean the Government in office when the contract first started, before the 2010 general election.

Let me say to the hon. Gentleman and those staff in Newport, who have done a good job for us and will continue to do a good job for the services we provide across Government in the future: the reality is that we are having to take difficult decisions. The hon. Gentleman is part of a party that aspires to be in government in nine months’ time. That party needs to realise that if it is—God forbid—elected next year, it will have to take difficult decisions as well. It does not appear to have realised that.

Will the Minister confirm that there will be absolutely no offshoring of jobs as a result of the process, that jobs are safe for the next 12 months at the very least and that he and his senior officials, who have been very willing to discuss the issue with me in a calm fashion, will continue to be open to Members of Parliament with real concerns?

I give my hon. Friend that latter assurance absolutely categorically. Let me address the issue of offshoring. In my previous job, I said on the record that I did not want Departments that I ran to offshore UK jobs. My position on that has not changed.

The question concerning the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) is not about which Government awarded the original contract to Steria; it is about whether, having wasted £56 million, a company should be rewarded with a contract double the size. Which Minister in their right mind would reward failure in that way?

The contract was awarded through the Cabinet Office as a result of a proper procurement process, and appropriate legal advice was taken.

A total of £56 million has been wasted by this Government, rewarding failure, as my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said, by one of the Secretary of State’s pet foreign private providers while offshoring hundreds of jobs to India. Why does he not face up to his responsibilities? He is right about one thing: as recently as February he told my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark):

“I have a track record of saying that I do not believe in offshoring UK jobs”.—[Official Report, 4 February 2014; Vol. 575, c. 131.]

He is saying one thing and doing another.

The hon. Gentleman clearly wrote that question before I answered the previous ones. Let me be clear again: the difficult decision that we had to take about the write-off was taken about a project launched by the previous Labour Government. As I said a moment ago, my position on offshoring has not changed.

Foreign National Prisoners

12. What steps his Department is taking to return foreign national prisoners to their home countries to serve their sentences. 15. What steps he is taking to increase the number of convicted foreign prisoners returned to their home country. (904574)

We are working hard to negotiate compulsory prisoner transfer arrangements with high-volume countries and have recently signed agreements with Albania and Nigeria and a memorandum of understanding with Somaliland.

Progress in transferring prisoners under the European Union prisoner transfer agreement is slower than I would like but we are starting to see the number of transfers increase as more countries implement the agreement. All foreign national offenders sentenced to custody are referred to the Home Office for it to consider deportation at the earliest possible opportunity.

Does the Minister share my concern that there are 10,695 foreign nationals in our prisoners, costing the taxpayer almost a third of a billion pounds a year? The top three countries are Poland, Jamaica and Ireland. Will he outline to the House what the difficulties are in convincing our allies to take back their own citizens? Would it help to speed up the process if nationality was declared at sentence?

On the last point, we are in favour of all process improvements we can make, starting at sentence and working on through the system. The right hon. Gentleman is right that we face many difficulties. One of the most significant that we have discovered is that individual prisoners make legal challenges to deportation and transfer, many of which are based on human rights legislation. We therefore need to look again at that legislation to determine what we might be able to do to move things along more quickly.

The right hon. Gentleman will know that the Immigration Act 2014 gives us more opportunities to do that. It restricts the number of challenges individual foreign national offenders have and ensures that in some cases they can register their appeal and have it dealt with after being deported, not before. There are a number of measures that we can pursue.

My constituents in Bury, Ramsbottom and Tottington will be pleased to hear of the action the Minister has taken, but with one in eight prisoners a convicted foreign criminal we still need to do a lot more, particularly about those prisoners who refuse to be returned because of human rights claims. What more can be done to get robbers, rapist and murderers, who have shown no respect for the rights of their victims, returned to their home country without claiming that their own human rights are being violated?

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is important to look at what the Immigration Act will do. It will enable a better balance between the interests of the general public and the interests of the individual who is claiming, for example, that they have a right to a private and family life under article 8 of the European convention on human rights. As I said a moment ago, the Act will also restrict the number of appeals that individual has. But I think we can do more, and, as he knows, if the country has a Conservative Government after the next general election we will see further changes to our human rights legislation.

As my hon. Friend knows, I think that the best thing for us to do is to send them back, but inevitably the difficulties that we have spoken of this morning will get in the way. That is why we are doing what we are. He is well aware that this Government are utterly committed on this issue. We would certainly like there to be more removals under compulsory prisoner transfer agreements. He may know, as may the House, that the number achieved under those agreements by the previous Government was not high, although it was at least a round number.

King Richard III

13. If he will meet hon. Members and civic and Church leaders from Leicester and York to discuss how the reburial of the mortal remains of King Richard III can be done in a way which acknowledges King Richard’s close association with Yorkshire. (904575)

I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s interest in this matter, but I am afraid that I cannot encourage him by suggesting that there should be a meeting. The position is very clear. The university of Leicester applied for a licence to exhume the remains. That was challenged in the courts. The administrative court decided in May that the Secretary of State was entirely correct to grant the licence and it has been given to the university of Leicester. I understand that the intention is for King Richard III to be reburied in Leicester cathedral.

I do not want to raise the matter of the licence, but I ask the Minister, in the interests of fairness, to reconsider. It is 16 and a half months since the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright) said in this House that many of the points that I had raised in the debate “deserve further consideration”. On 12 March 2013 in Westminster Hall—Vol. 560 of the Official Report, column 30WH—he said:

“We would be happy to facilitate a meeting between the people”

from York and Leicester to discuss the burial arrangements. Those arrangements need to be discussed.

A commitment was given by the Government. For the past 16 and a half months, they have said that they could not act on that commitment because the matter was before the courts. It is no longer before the courts. Will the Government therefore fulfil the commitment that they made, so that there is an inclusive funeral that does not exclude people from the north of England, who have strong feelings about the matter?

These remains have certainly occupied the attention of the House for a long time already. The hon. Gentleman is right that the offer of a meeting was made, but there was then a court challenge. The court challenge failed and the position is now absolutely clear: the licence was applied for properly and the university of Leicester can proceed. There will not be a meeting to facilitate that, but I am sure that the university and Leicester cathedral will ensure that other people’s interests are taken into consideration. King Richard III was the King of all England and did not just have particular interests in certain parts of the country.

Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to all those who have been involved in the recovery of the remains of Richard III? As the House will know, he was discovered under a car park in the city of Leicester. I am very pleased that, following the judicial review, he will remain, long stay, in that city.

My hon. Friend is quite right that it was a car park with an unusual interest. There was a belief that Richard III was buried in the grounds of the Greyfriars church. His body was found. The tradition is that bodies are buried in the nearest Christian church that is appropriate. As the MP for the area where the Rose theatre was discovered, I know that one can never underestimate the exciting things that can be discovered by good archaeologists.

As the Minister said, Richard III was the King of all England, not just of York or Yorkshire. Is he aware that the Dean and Chapter of Leicester cathedral see it as their responsibility to rebury the remains of King Richard and to commemorate his memory on behalf of the whole nation, and not just for Leicester or York?

I have every confidence that the Dean and Chapter of Leicester cathedral will do that job for the nation. I understand that they intend to apply for an extension so that it may be done in the spring of next year. I believe that it will be a great credit to Leicester and will bring great joy to the people of Leicestershire that a King of England is buried in their county.

Interpreters and Translation Services

14. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of provision of interpreters and translation services in court. (904577)

There have been dramatic improvements in performance in the last two years and we continue to manage contracts to ensure that the improvements continue. We appointed independent assessors to carry out a review of interpreter quality standards earlier this year and look forward to receiving their recommendations shortly.

The reality is that a constituent of mine who was sitting on a jury had to have the court adjourned for four days while it looked for a translator. Why have the payments to Capita Translation and Interpreting increased from £7 million to £15 million over the past two years?

It is always regrettable when there are such individual circumstances, but the hon. Lady will appreciate that I cannot comment on specific cases. However, dramatic improvements in performance have occurred in the last two years and Capita routinely fills 95% of requests. On funding, I hope that she appreciates that in the first year of the contract, £15 million of British taxpayers’ money was saved.


18. What steps his Department is taking to encourage use of mediation so that going to court is a last resort. (904581)

This April, a statutory obligation was introduced for separating couples to consider mediation when there are children or family implications. Obviously, they do not have to go through with mediation, but it must be considered, and is supported by legal aid. Last week Sir David Norgrove produced a report for me, which I commend to my hon. Friend. It suggests that we could significantly increase the number of disputes that go to mediation—currently, about 30% go to court—and that 30% could probably be resolved by mediation in the future.

Court orders for access arrangements for young children are a snapshot of the circumstances prevailing at a particular time, but such circumstances change rapidly as children grow up and their parents’ relationships and personal situations change. As a return to court to vary a court order can be harrowing, divisive and costly, will the Minister assure me that the Government will redouble their efforts to make mediation a meaningful alternative?

We are doing absolutely all we can to do that. We have consulted with the mediation industry and done publicity locally and regionally. The Government have an obligation to ensure that, whenever possible, disputes do not take place in public, as that exposes the private lives of families and children in particular. We believe that we can significantly reduce, down to 5%, the number of cases that go to court, and significantly increase—up to 30%, we hope—the number of cases resolved by mediation. We will do absolutely everything we can, and I am sure that we will see progress over the months ahead.

Topical Questions

I wish to inform the House about the real progress that we are making on judicial diversity, and pay tribute to the work being done by the Judicial Appointments Commission on increasing the number of women in the judiciary. I am pleased that the latest statistics from the commission show that nearly half of all appointments are being taken up by women. There are now 21 women in the High Court—the highest figure ever—and following recent appointments, 26 women are being added to the circuit bench, and 29 to the district bench. A clear picture is emerging that the proportion of women in the judiciary is increasing year on year. That good work needs to continue, but I am pleased with the progress.

I am pleased that today the equal merit provision comes into force: where two or more candidates are of equal merit, selection can be based on gender or race for the purpose of increasing judicial diversity. I congratulate the commission on its work, and reiterate the commitment that I as Lord Chancellor, the Government, the Lord Chief Justice, and the chair of the Judicial Appointments Commission share in achieving a more diverse judiciary that reflects the society it serves.

It has come to light that Sodexo plans to bid for contracts to run 12 of the 21 probation areas. Does the Minister feel comfortable in trusting such vital work to a company that cut its staff budget so drastically that prisoners in Northumberland were able to riot?

First, I cannot comment on the nature of the organisations that have submitted bids. We have a good mix of organisations from a wide range of different circumstances across the country, I am pleased with the progress, and we will make further information available in due course. I have been to the prison in Northumberland since the trouble there, and I have no reason to believe that the event was connected to the public or private status of the prison—my understanding from staff is that it was started by a number of prisoners who were upset that their working day had been extended by an hour.

T3. We have seen another celebrity convicted of a string of appalling child sex offences—someone who used and abused their position and their power. Is it not time that we had an overarching inquiry into the culture at that time and those historical sex offences, so that we can bring closure and learn lessons for the future? (904555)

Order. Of course, no sentencing has yet taken place—a fact of which I am sure the Minister is well aware, and will frame his response as he thinks fit.

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker; I was about to make that point. I would also make the general point that there is clearly a large number of important criminal investigations going on at the moment, so it would be sensible to let them take their course before we decide what it is best to do next in this important and sensitive area.

We have been saying for a while that Government policies would lead to a prison crisis, and they have. The wrong sort of offenders are being sent to the wrong sort of prison. That is not just our view but that of the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb). When Michael Wheatley absconded last month and allegedly committed further offences, the Justice Secretary said that he would bring in new rules to prevent such occurrences from happening again. Today, the media are reporting that two men—one a killer, the other serving an indeterminate sentence—have absconded from Spring Hill prison. The police have warned the public not to approach the pair. Why is the Justice Secretary finding it so difficult to keep the public safe?

This is a matter of particular interest to me as that prison is in my own constituency, as the Secretary of State might know.

Mr Speaker, I can reassure you that the proportion of offenders who are sent to open prisons and who subsequently abscond is 20% of what it was when Labour was in power a decade ago. My question to the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan)is—[Interruption.] Over the past few weeks, as this has become a more high-profile issue—[Interruption.] I do not believe that it is sensible for this country to scrap open prisons. I believe it is sensible to have tougher risk assessment procedures and not to transfer people to open conditions if they have previously absconded, and we have put those changes in place in the past couple of weeks. To listen to the right hon. Gentleman, anyone would think that he believed in scrapping open prisons altogether. Actually, they are helping to rehabilitate offenders. They need to be there; they are there for prisoners who are in the last few months of their sentence. Almost everyone who goes to an open prison behaves well and is able to be released safely at the end of their sentence. Is he actually saying that that should change?

Nice soundbite, but people are absconding after the Secretary of State has made his changes. So much for keeping the public safe. Let me move on to the subject of temporary licence. Not only are the wrong sort of offenders being sent to open prisons, but the wrong sort are also being released on temporary licence. The use of these ROTL procedures has increased by 24% since 2010, with breaches of licence arrangements up by a staggering 57% in that period. Can the Secretary of State confirm that, in 2012, this Government relaxed the rules on temporary licence, and that PSI 21/2012 accepted that

“there will be an increase in the number of ROTL applications”?

The number of prisoners absconding from open prisons and while on temporary licence is a fraction of what it was a decade ago. I keep going back to that point. It is all well and good for Labour Members to rail against things when they are in opposition, but they now purport to be a potential party of government and yet they have nothing positive to say on how they would manage the system differently. I have tightened the regime and introduced tougher penalties for those who abscond. If the Opposition think that we should close down open prisons altogether, they should say so.

T5. Hereford county court is a highly effective and important local institution. However, there is a break clause in the lease for the court premises for this next year. If the court has to move, has the Secretary of State considered co-locating it with other public services in Hereford? Can he reassure local people that, whatever happens to the premises, Hereford will continue to have a county court? (904557)

I can tell my hon. Friend that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is aware of the break clause in the lease for Hereford county court’s premises for next year. The Courts and Tribunals Service continues to keep the use of its estate under review to ensure that it meets operational needs.

T2. Judge Robert Martin has heavily criticised the Government’s welfare and justice changes, saying that the work capability assessment is in a state of “virtual collapse”, and that the loss of legal aid funding“has severely reduced the help and support available to claimants to pursue their legal rights”.Why does the Justice Secretary think that it is acceptable to deny access to justice to people who are sick, disabled or poor? (904554)

I think we need to put things into perspective here. Before the reductions to legal aid were made, Britain had one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world, costing the taxpayer £2 billion. After the reductions have gone through, £1.5 billion will still go towards the legal aid system. That is a lot of money; it is one of the largest amounts being paid into any legal aid system in the world, and I can assure the hon. Lady that £1.5 billion buys a lot of legal aid.

T7. Will my hon. Friend the Prisons Minister update my constituents on his Department’s success or otherwise in regard to the sale of Reading prison? (904560)

As my hon. Friend knows, we do not decide what the future use of the site will be as that will be a matter for the local authority. I am always keen, however, to keep parliamentary colleagues updated at key points in the process, such as when a site goes on the market and when we have reached the point of negotiating successfully with a preferred bidder. I will of course do the same for him, and if I can give him any more information I will seek to do so.

T4. In a written answer on 6 May, the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) listed several domestic violence programmes for women in prison. His answer included some programmes that I am told do not actually exist. Can he tell me how many women are waiting, or being transferred to other prisons, to get the programmes they need? If he does not know now, will he write to me with the answer? (904556)

I do not have the figures with me and I will of course write to the hon. Lady with the answer. From my visits to women’s prisons, I know that that is an issue that is on the agenda of every single governor, is regularly discussed with the prisoners themselves and is regarded as an extremely high priority. I will supply the facts she needs and would be happy to meet her to discuss the matter.

T8. I recall a time under the previous Government when few prisoners did meaningful work in prisons and the interests of victims were left at the prison gates. Can the Minister provide an update on how much money has been raised from the implementation of the Prisoners’ Earnings Act 1996 for the benefit of victims? (904561)

I cannot do so off the top of my head, but of course I will write to my hon. Friend and give him that information. As he heard my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor say earlier, the number of hours worked by prisoners has increased considerably under this Government. We have made sure not just that they have more work to do, but that they are given every incentive to do that work. They will need to work or engage in other types of productive activity if they want to earn their privileges, and they will no longer be able to sit in their cells and watch television all day.

T6. The director of Ministry of Justice Shared Services has said that any proposals to offshore MOJ work in the future would need specific agreement from the Ministry. Can the Minister confirm today, for the benefit of staff in Newport and Bootle, that he will give no such agreement? (904558)

To reiterate what I said earlier, my views on outsourcing UK jobs are on record. I made them clear when I was an Employment Minister, and my position has not changed.

T9. Stafford prison has a very good record in securing paid work for prisoners to carry out, including reshoring work from the far east. What support is he providing to others across the estate to continue that good progress? (904562)

My hon. Friend is right. Reshoring is an effective way to provide more commercial work for prisoners to do, giving them not just purposeful activity but some of the skills and training they will need to earn a law-abiding life outside prison. In terms of what more we can do, he may know that in 2012 we set up an organisation called ONE3ONE Solutions which assists us to negotiate more commercial contracts and provide more work in prisons.

Staff at the Ministry of Justice Shared Services department in Bootle face privatisation, as do those in the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Newport East (Jessica Morden) and for Newport West (Paul Flynn). Given the shambolic write-off of £56 million on a previous Steria contract and the job cuts that followed the last privatisation the minute the 12-month moratorium ran out, what confidence can my constituents and those of my hon. Friends have that the privatisation of Shared Services will not cost them not only their civil servant status, but their jobs?

We are going through a complex process of change to deliver these services across the Government, rather than Department by Department. I cannot give long-term guarantees for the future. I have explained what the situation will be for the next 12 months and I have explained my position on the offshoring issue.

In the area of unpaid employment tribunal awards, I welcome the commitment from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to creating a penalty for those who do not pay awards handed down. Does the Minister agree, and will he commit the MOJ to supporting the proposal?

I am looking into the matter and I will be happy to come back to my hon. Friend at a later date.

I thank the Prisons Minister for meeting me and Billy Bragg recently to discuss the issue of guitars in prisoners’ cells. I welcome the fact that the Minister confirmed that his decision will be taken on the security advice that he receives. Has he had that advice, has it told him that this is a manageable risk, and when does he expect to be able to make an announcement?

May I, in turn, thank the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he conducted that meeting and for the very helpful information he was able to provide to me on that occasion? I am doing what I said to him that I would do, which is to look carefully at the security advice to ensure that it is robust, and that we make a sensible decision on the point he has asked me to consider. I will do that as quickly as I can.

Posting revenge pornography on the internet is an appalling crime. Does the Secretary of State agree that the law needs to change to ensure that perpetrators are properly punished, and that the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, which is currently being considered in the other place, could provide the Government with an opportunity to do just that?

I thank my right hon. Friend both for her question and for the contribution she made in the debate last week. She has done a very important job in raising this issue, which is clearly becoming a bigger problem in our society. What I say to her today is that the Government are very open to having a serious discussion, with a view to taking appropriate action in autumn if we can identify the best way of doing so.

Last month, Judge Rook argued that all advocates taking on sexual offence cases should be required to undertake specialist training, so that vulnerable witnesses are questioned in a fair and appropriate way. Does the Minister agree that this will protect witnesses, particularly children, from the distress of harsh cross-examination? Will he set out what discussions he has had with the Bar Standards Board on this issue?

There are a number of interesting ideas on the very important issue of how we protect vulnerable witnesses. As the hon. Lady will know and I am sure will welcome, we have now introduced a pilot scheme whereby young, vulnerable witnesses do not have to go through the whole courtroom ordeal. In three courts, they can now be interviewed beforehand and the interview recorded and played back to the jury. That is one of a number of ideas we are taking forward to ensure that young and vulnerable witnesses in particular are given better protection than they have ever had before.

As was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), meaningful work and training has an important role to play in reducing recidivism and encouraging rehabilitation. In developing future policy, will the Minister consider the success of the social investment bond at Her Majesty’s prison Peterborough?

The answer to that is yes. As my hon. Friend knows, the excellent work in Peterborough has formed a large part of our thinking in rolling out our transforming rehabilitation reforms across the country. What is being done there is a very good example of what can be achieved if rehabilitation is followed through out of the gate and into the community.

The Minister will know I have grave concerns, which are shared by the chief inspector of prisons, about the negative impact of overcrowding in Durham and in other prisons in my constituency. What specific steps is the Minister taking to alleviate this problem?

It is worth putting on the record the fact that the most recent figures show that the level of overcrowding in our prisons has fallen, not risen. Of course, there are challenges in parts of the prison estate—

Go and look at the figures. I can assure the shadow Secretary of State that the most recent figures show a reduction in the level of overcrowding in prisons. We are not in the position, as the previous Government were, of having to let prisoners out early because we have run out of space in our prisons.

Essex has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the country. My right hon. Friend will be aware of two tragic murders that occurred in Harlow. On speaking to the parents of one of the victims, I was told that they felt that the support they were given after their daughter’s horrific death was inadequate, with the Crown Prosecution Service and others appearing to be poorly trained, and with inconsistent service from Victim Support. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give those parents that families will, in future, receive proper support when they have been victims of crime?

I am, of course, aware of the tragic case to which my hon. Friend refers. He will know that the Home Secretary commissioned Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary to look at how the police respond to domestic violence, and action will be taken on that. He is right that other parts of the criminal justice system, including the CPS and the courts, need to take great care in how they treat victims and bereaved families. I know he has been in correspondence with the Minister with responsibility for crime reduction at the Home Office, and he is taking a close personal interest in how to progress.