House of Commons
Tuesday 1 July 2014
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
Transport for London Bill (Lords)
Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill to be read a Second time on Tuesday 8 July.
Buckinghamshire County Council (Filming on Highways) Bill (Lords)
Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill to be read a Second time on Tuesday 8 July.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
19. What progress he has made on changes to the provision of probation services. (904582)
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
8. How many people are in prison in England and Wales. (904570)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Shared Services (Newport)
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?
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?
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
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.
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.
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)
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?
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.
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)
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 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?
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.
Israeli Teenagers (Abduction and Murder)
(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, if he will make a statement on the effect that the murder of three Israeli teenagers abducted by Palestinians will have on the middle east peace process.
I visited Israel and the west bank from 17 to 19 June last week, just after the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers. The whole House will share our sadness that last night the Israeli Government confirmed that they had recovered their bodies in the west bank. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said, this is an appalling act of terror. There is no reason, belief or cause that can justify the abduction and killing of innocent civilians. We send our deepest condolences to the families of Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrach.
The Government remain in close contact with both the Israeli and Palestinian authorities. The urgent priority is to hold those responsible to account under the rule of law, and we stand ready to do everything possible to help. The Home Secretary has been in Israel and the west bank this week and has had discussions with political leaders on both sides. I welcome President Abbas’s condemnations of the abduction. We are encouraging Israel and the Palestinian Authority to continue to work together to find the perpetrators. I saw evidence of that co-operation during my visit and it is vital that it continues in the days and weeks ahead. It is also vital that all parties avoid action that could escalate the situation further. All security operations must be handled with due care, restraint and a proportionate use of force.
It is too early to be clear about the full implications for the middle east peace process, but we will do our utmost, with our allies and partners, to keep open the prospects for a return to negotiations on a two-state solution, which is, and remains, the only way to resolve this conflict once and for all.
I thank the Minister for that full answer. I am sure the whole House would endorse his comments about passing our sympathies and prayers to the families directly affected and also to the nation of Israel. I cannot help but reflect on what the feeling of this House would be if three teenagers from Wellingborough had been abducted and murdered by terrorists.
May I press my right hon. Friend on a few issues? It is true, I believe, that overseas aid to the Palestinian Authority has been used to provide salaries for the families of convicted Palestinian terrorists. Given the propaganda celebrating the abduction of the Israeli teenagers, should we review that? Will the Government support the Israeli Government not only in their actions to track down the perpetrators of this evil crime, but in dismantling the infrastructure of the Hamas organisation?
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that part of the Palestinian Fatah-Hamas unity Government is a terrorist organisation that carries out such dreadful crimes? It seems completely illogical that it can be thought of as part of a democratic process. Will he also set out his concerns a little more about how this incident will affect the ongoing peace process? Unless such terrible acts of terror can be stopped, I do not see how we can move the peace process forward.
I thank my hon. Friend for his questions and, indeed, for securing the urgent question.
On the question of salaries, as luck would have it, the Minister of State, Department for International Development, is sitting next to me, and he absolutely confirms that this is not true; it is an old rumour. The money is paid through a World Bank trust fund to vetted people, who are nominated civil servants.
As for the actions of the Israeli Government, we have had extensive consultations with the Israeli Government. We absolutely understand that this is an extraordinarily difficult time in the region and that tensions are running high. Indeed, for Members of all parties who have not been there recently, it is difficult to understand how this event has consumed Israeli society. While I was there, it was running on the tickertape 24 hours a day. It is crucial that any actions that the Israeli Government take are precisely targeted to find the perpetrators and that, in doing that, they avoid a more general escalation.
On the question of Fatah and Hamas, the technocratic Government are signed up to the Quartet principles. If anybody in that Government were an active member of Hamas, which remains a terrorist organisation, that would absolutely be the end of this Government’s dealing with them and would be a very serious matter indeed. That is not the case at the moment; they are fully signed up to the Quartet principles.
As to the effect on the peace process, it is an absolutely pivotal part of British Government policy at the moment to try to create the conditions under which the peace process can be restarted. Everything we are doing is to try to rebuild those conditions, which is absolutely to the benefit of both sides. If this situation goes on, with further settlement building on the one hand and applications to international organisations on the other, there will not be another chance. I urge all Members, with whichever side they sympathise, to do everything possible to de-escalate the situation and encourage both parties to return to the negotiating table.
I thank the Minister for his answer to the urgent question.
Today, Israel is united in grief at the appalling murders of Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach. The whole House will unite in expressing the most profound sympathy to the families and loved ones of the murdered young men, whose photographs today convey to us the heinous crime that this is. Those of us who are parents can barely contemplate what those close to the young men are going through. It is imperative that those responsible for these crimes be brought to account, and I call on everyone to co-operate to achieve justice. This was an appalling act of terror, intended to increase the suffering, bloodshed and injustice that have too long scarred the region.
With every tragic casualty in this conflict, the prospects of peace seem ever further away, but now is the time for the international community to unite around those parties on all sides that are willing to take difficult steps to make progress towards peace. In the light of that, will the Minister set out what contact he has had with his Israeli and Palestinian counterparts in the past 24 hours? Will he set out his assessment of the impact these latest tensions are likely to have on the Palestinian unity Government and the Israeli Government’s policy towards them?
The Minister will be aware of the Israeli Government’s insistence that Hamas is responsible for the kidnapping and murder of these three innocent young men, but will he provide the British Government’s assessment of today’s claims of responsibility for the murders by the jihadist group, Supporters of the Islamic State in Jerusalem?
These are perilous times and the risk of further bloodshed is high. The US Under-Secretary-General Jeffrey Felton was right to say that both Israelis and Palestinians should exercise maximum restraint to prevent tensions from escalating further. I hope the Minister will assure us that the British Government will now seek to work with international allies to call for calm, to encourage dialogue and work towards peace in an effort to overcome this moment of great and grave danger.
I thank the Opposition spokesman for his support and for the way in which he set out his case. We absolutely agree with him that this is a moment for exercising maximum restraint. Let me answer the hon. Gentleman’s three questions in order.
On contact with our Israeli counterparts, I have already communicated with Minister Livni, who is my direct counterpart, and I saw Minister Steinitz when I was in Israel a week ago, and he saw the Foreign Secretary when he was in this country at the end of last week. The Home Secretary has been in both Israel and the west bank for the past couple of days and has seen interlocutors on both sides. That contact is strong and ongoing.
On the impact on the Palestinian Government, this is a serious moment and I absolutely welcome President Abbas’s strong condemnation of the actions, both overnight and indeed in his speech in Riyadh a week ago. When I was in Israel, both sides acknowledged the security support that had been given by the Palestinians in the early stages of the incident.
As for who is responsible, it is too early to say. The British Government have no firm evidence, and nothing from the Islamic state in Jerusalem. It is fair to say to the hon. Gentleman, in the spirit of openness and honesty, that the Israeli Government are very clear about the fact that Hamas was responsible. When I was in Israel 10 days ago, there was some indication on the Palestinian side that that might be correct, but we have no hard evidence in London to back that up.
I sometimes fear that the only thing that unites people in the region is grief for their children. Whatever may be the causes of conflict, children are never the perpetrators, and they never deserve to be the victims.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that men of violence know exactly what they are doing, and know exactly what to provoke in response? There is no justification for this wicked crime, and Israel is right to seek justice on behalf of the families, but will the Foreign and Commonwealth Office urge—even now, at such a critical time—that more effort be put into the peace process? Until this is settled, there will be another incident, and another, and another, until the men of violence get what they want, which is a conflagration that will add to the explosions in the area, and the men of peace will find that it is too late.
I hope that, if I say that I could not have put it better myself, my right hon. Friend will take that in the right spirit, given that he did my job just before me. He is absolutely right to draw attention to the impact of this on children. As we see in conflicts across the world, they are so often the innocent victims.
My right hon. Friend has my absolute assurance that the Foreign Office will do everything possible to reinvigorate the middle east peace process. We may speculate on the many possible causes of what has happened, but the fact that renegade elements opposed to the peace process have used it to bring down that process is clearly a very likely explanation.
I commend the Minister for his balanced response. May I ask him to send the heartfelt sympathy of, I am sure, every Member in the House—very much including myself—to the grief-stricken families of these abducted and murdered youths? What has been done to them has no conceivable justification of any kind.
Will the Minister also send our sympathy to the families of the five Palestinians whom Israeli troops murdered during their search for the missing youths in a collective punishment which has involved hundreds of arrests and the looting and ransacking of houses? Nothing whatsoever can justify the murder of these Israeli youths, but it is very important indeed to see it in the context of a conflict that will go on until there is a fair settlement.
Absolutely. The sympathy of the Government, and indeed, I am sure, the sympathy of everyone in the House, will be with all those who have lost family members, friends and relatives in this conflict. It has often struck me, in the context of the middle east, that there cannot really be a hierarchy of victimhood, and our sympathy must be with all who have lost their lives. If this tells us anything, it is that we must renew and deepen our search for a peaceful settlement in the middle east, one that recognises the concerns of both sides. It was an absolute tragedy that, having put in so much work and effort personally, the United States Secretary of State was unable to conclude an agreement at the end of March, but that is not a reason for not trying any further, and we must deepen those efforts.
I join the Government in expressing sympathy for the parents of the teenagers and all the people of Israel in this moment of grief, in condemning the killings unreservedly, and in welcoming their condemnation by both Israeli and Palestinian authorities. Does the Minister agree that this underlines the importance of bringing together in a peace process all parties who are prepared to engage in that process, even when the conflict has involved the ultimate tragedy of the deaths of children on both sides?
Yes. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s contribution; he has made a point that has been made by any others. If this proves anything, it proves that the path of violence will lead only to further escalation and more deaths of children and others across both the west bank and Israel. It proves, if proof were needed, the importance of trying to get the middle east peace process back on track, and of delivering a solution for both sides in the conflict.
These are cold terrorist murders of three teenagers on their way home from school. What does the Minister think should be done to address the unremitting messages of hate that come from Palestinian media? They are partly responsible for this situation and are a grave impediment to peace.
I shall give the hon. Lady an answer that draws on my personal experience. As she may know, I was a soldier for 10 years, and took part in campaigns against terrorism, and when we lose people—civilians or soldiers—in these situations, that is precisely the time when we need to show leadership and show restraint. Absolutely all efforts should be directed at finding the perpetrators but it is very important that all those actions are directed at doing that, and nothing wider.
One’s heart goes out to the parents of the murdered children and to the Israeli nation which mourns its dead. This has happened just two weeks after the Palestinian unity Government have come into effect. I believe the Minister has just said that if Hamas turns out to be the perpetrator, he will reconsider the British Government’s attitude to the unity Government. Will he clarify exactly what he means by that and the likely consequences if Hamas turns out to be the perpetrator?
Yes I will, and may I thank my right hon. Friend for the work that he and his Committee do in this area? It is important to note that the technocratic Government have absolutely signed up to the Quartet principles and, as far as we can see, no member of Hamas is part of that Government. If members of Hamas are, indeed, proved to be part of this and responsible for these actions, that would clearly be a very serious moment indeed, and we would have to examine very precisely the link between it and the technocratic Government. At this stage it is too early to set that hare running, because we do not have the full facts in front of us, nor do we have any absolute evidence as to who was responsible, so I think that has to be a question for another day.
There was absolutely no excuse for the murder of the three Israeli teenagers in the west bank. It was an appalling crime and it is a tragedy for their families and friends. Does the Minister agree that Palestinian teenagers and children who also die, in Israeli strikes and military operations, have names, faces and families, for whom their deaths are equal tragedies? He rightly referred to the importance of the rule of law. Will he say to the House, in the appalling situation we are in at the moment, what he thinks are the responsibilities under international law of the Palestinian Authority and what are the responsibilities of the Israeli Government as an occupying power in the west bank, and will he confirm that collective punishment of the Palestinian people is a crime under international law?
Yes, I absolutely understand why the hon. Gentleman asks that question, particularly given his role as the chairman of the all-party group on Britain-Palestine. The role of the technocratic Government is very clear. These youths were not abducted in an area that is inside their security control, but it is perfectly possible—but not yet confirmed—that the perpetrators of this crime did come from an area that was controlled by them. It is absolutely their job and responsibility to co-operate with the Israeli Government in bringing the perpetrators to justice, and it is absolutely the responsibility of the Israeli Government to ensure the action they take is precisely targeted at the perpetrators and no wider.
Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker.
Hamas is Hamas is Hamas: it is a terrorist organisation whether it is part of the so-called unity Government or not, and Hamas has celebrated the kidnapping of these children and their murder. Surely it is now time to cut off relations with the Government given that they are co-opted with a terrorist organisation. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, far from showing restraint, the British Government should give Israel every possible assistance to take out the Hamas terrorist network so that that country can be sure that her children will be secure in the future?
Let me answer those two questions in reverse order. The British Government will give the Israeli Government every possible assistance to find the perpetrators of this appalling crime. We have made that commitment to the Israeli Government, and I made that commitment when I was in the west bank 10 days ago. That remains the case. As far as Hamas is concerned, nobody should be under any illusions about this at all: Hamas is a terrorist organisation and remains a terrorist organisation, and one that is proscribed by the British Government. The key thing about the technocratic Government was that they signed up to the Quartet principles and renounced violence and no member of Hamas is a member of that Government.
I welcome the Minister’s commitment to doing everything he can to support the peace process in the light of this heinous act, but can he share with the House what recent reports he has received on statements made by the new Palestinian unity Government and President Abbas on the murder of the three Israeli students?
I did not see President Abbas when I was there 10 days ago because he was in Riyadh, where he made a speech that was unequivocal in its condemnation of what had happened. He made another statement last night along the same lines, and Israeli interlocutors whom I saw in Israel were very clear that they had received full security co-operation from the technocratic Government.
The anger and outrage of the people of Israel at the appalling murder of these three teenagers are wholly understandable and shared here because of our special links to Israel, but equally understandable are the anger and outrage of Palestinians at the death of 1,406 children in the conflict since 2000, including 270 in Gaza under air and ground attack in 2009 alone. Would adding to this awful toll by the threatened Israeli reaction be either legal or wise?
In a sense my hon. Friend makes the case for the reconstitution of the peace process and for everybody in this House doing everything possible to avoid an escalation and to get both parties back to the negotiating table. The death toll on both sides throughout this conflict is appalling. This is merely the latest in a long line of incidents that has tried to derail the peace process, and it proves once and for all that there is no future in violence and underlines the importance of getting both parties back to the table.
The Israeli ex-combatants organisation Breaking the Silence responded to these murders by saying:
“We all bow our heads in mourning for the victims from both sides in the past weeks, in the hope for an end to this cycle of bloodshed and occupation.”
Does the Minister agree that that is the right response—that we should send our condolences to Israeli and Palestinian dead and their families—and that, particularly given what the Prime Minister of Israel has said about retaliation, we should stress to all sides that retaliation and escalation are not the way forward?
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. It is difficult at a time like this, when tensions are high on both sides and there is obviously the prospect of a further conflagration. Getting the middle east peace process back on track is more difficult now than it has been for a while, as everybody would admit if they were being honest, but the situation also demonstrates why that is so important. The two-state solution, within the parameters of which everybody is aware, remains the best basis to do that. It will require a very particular formulation of land swaps, which will be difficult, as everybody is aware, but the events of the past two weeks show just why it is so important.
May I place on the record my condolences to the families involved in this tragedy? Having returned from a middle east investigation by the Select Committee on International Development, I have to say that I disagree profoundly with the Minister’s statement on DFID funding to the Palestinian Authority. We do provide funding to the PA and it is absurd to suggest that that money can be ring-fenced; the Palestinian Finance Minister confirmed to me that they do pay Palestinian prisoners in jail, depending on how long their sentences are. Will the Minister confirm that Her Majesty’s Government will support and assist the Israeli and Palestinian authorities in their search for the murderers of these three young boys?
Let me deal with the easier part of that first. The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s second question is yes, we will do everything we can to assist both the Israeli and Palestinian authorities in the search for the murderers. I have followed the progress of the International Development Committee carefully across the region. I have not yet seen the report, but, clearly, if the Committee has evidence to support the allegations the hon. Gentleman has made, that would be a very serious matter, which I am sure the International Development Secretary will wish to take up.
May I join hon. Members in utterly condemning these brutal murders? I can well understand that today those in charge in Israel would want to retaliate, but as a good friend of Israel may I ask that we encourage them and men of good will to exercise restraint? Could we use every possible avenue—after all, we have good channels of communication with both sides and with the Americans—to see whether we can row back from a bleak place towards a peace process?
Let me give my hon. Friend some comfort on all this. If he looks at the international reaction to it, he will find that it has absolutely reflected the points he makes. President Obama’s statement last night contained enormous sympathies for the families of all those involved; one of the victims was a dual Israeli-American citizen and President Obama absolutely expressed that sympathy. He went on to make the point that any reaction must be targeted and proportionate. That is absolutely a line that our Prime Minister has followed up, and that is being followed up in all our ministerial contacts and by our embassy in Tel Aviv.
May I, too, associate myself with the remarks made by the Minister, the shadow Minister and, in particular, my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman)? May I also place on record my sympathies to the families of the murdered young Israeli men? May I also press the Minister further about what specific measures the Government are taking to help to de-escalate tensions, which are rising quickly, and to restore some balance between the Israeli and Palestinian Governments, and in the region?
That is a difficult question to answer briefly, as I am sure you would wish me to do, Mr Speaker. The British Government give long-term and short-term support. The long-term support relates to the work we are doing with the Palestinian Authority to build up capacity and to relieve poverty. I saw many of the schemes during my visit last week, including the training at the police academy and the schemes where we are helping Palestinians with planning issues. Our shorter-term support is about the work we are doing with our ministerial contacts, our embassy’s contacts and the consul-general’s contacts in east Jerusalem to work not only for de-escalation but, crucially, to find the perpetrators of this appalling crime.
I very much welcome this urgent question on what I have described elsewhere as brutal and sickening murders. Does the Minister agree that if urgent questions were sought each time a Palestinian was treated brutally and murdered by the Israeli defence forces, we would, sadly, be here most weeks? Does he also agree that the violence perpetrated by both sides must be condemned equally, and that such violence is not and cannot be in the interests of the Palestinians or the Israelis if we are going to work towards a solution to this dreadful conflict?
I doubt that anybody in the House, or anybody involved in the politics of the middle east, believes that a further escalation between the two sides in this conflict is in anybody’s interest—that way lie more deaths similar to the ones we have seen overnight. On whether a life is worth more or less one side of the line or the other, I say it absolutely is not; there is no hierarchy of victimhood, and people suffer equally.
The Minister will not have been surprised that everyone in this House has condemned the cold-blooded murders of the three boys. Obviously, we send our sympathy to their parents, as we do to the parents of children on both sides of the conflict who have lost their lives. Does he not agree, however, that the Northern Ireland situation presents the way out, to a large extent? The killings took place over many years on both sides; many argued and fought for a settlement, which fortunately came about. If it has not entirely resolved the situation in Northern Ireland, it has certainly substantially reduced the number of people killed—children and adults alike.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. I do not know whether he knows this, but I served as a soldier in Northern Ireland in 1987-88. I remember that when I left the Province at the end of my six-month tour, I thought it was utterly inconceivable that the problem would ever be solved, yet, through the good work of good people on both sides, a peace settlement has now been achieved. That probably reveals the central theme of this morning: when the situation seems bleakest is precisely when we need to strive hardest to try to find a solution.
May I associate myself with all the words of condolence? If you will forgive me, Mr Speaker, may I also add, at the start of the mourning period for the families, a Jewish condolence and wish them long life and no more suffering? Does the Minister agree that one way to bring this current crisis to and end would be for the Palestinian Authority to turn in the people who committed this heinous crime, so that justice can be done through the legal process?
May I start by associating myself with my hon. Friend’s expression of condolence? In answer to his question, I say yes, absolutely. Let me give him reassurance by saying that while I was there, it was abundantly clear to me that the technocratic Government were co-operating in security terms with the Israelis, as the Israelis acknowledged. If that Government have any information that they have not handed over that would help bring those responsible to justice, I urge them to hand it over now.
I commend both the weight and the balance of the Minister’s words. As well as condemning the dreadful murder of these three teenagers, in response to the terrible abduction I join other hon. Members in deploring the unjustified deaths of Palestinian youths in recent times. Does the Minister recognise that in any conflict there comes a point where both sides have to recognise that they cannot be secure against each other and that they can be truly secure only with each other? We hear about “both sides”, but does he accept that many people on both sides in the middle east do not see themselves in the violence of either side in the middle east? It is to those peace-minded people, Palestinians and Israelis alike, that we should offer solidarity today, as we offer sympathy to the mourning families?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. He makes a key point about the importance of the peace process and what is needed to achieve it. It has often struck me when dealing with the politics of this region—this is not something that is confined to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories—that it is always easier for people to return to violence than it is to make the difficult compromises and decisions necessary to move the peace process forward. That is why, throughout history, those who have achieved peace processes are held in such high regard.
Many of my constituents will be disappointed to hear from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office the rather well used and tired phrase “proportionate response”. Perhaps the Minister, who I know is a decent man, could advise me on what I say to my constituents about what the FCO regards as a proportionate response to three teenagers being murdered and missiles being fired at Israel on a daily basis.
I am sorry that my hon. Friend feels that way. Let me be absolutely clear about this: it is utterly unacceptable that people in the Gaza strip fire missiles at Israeli citizens. As he knows, I attended a funeral in January on the edge of the Negev. Precautions had to be taken because we were under threat from missile attacks, which is utterly unacceptable in any way, shape or form. The correct response to the kidnapping and murder of three teenagers is to find the perpetrators and to bring them to justice. We expect exactly the same response in that part of the world as we would find here—no more and no less.
Like everyone else, we must condemn the terrible murder of these three teenagers, and the same must apply to Palestinian teenagers as well. I ask the Minister to urge restraint on the Israeli Government, because we have a volatile situation throughout the middle east, and we do not want to give to these terrorist organisations any cause to use the Palestinian-Israeli situation as an excuse for further violence.
Absolutely, yes. Everything that we and leaders right the way across the world have done is about ensuring that the reaction to this is properly targeted and—to use that slightly woolly term—proportionate. The key thing is that all the resources are targeted at finding those responsible, but that will clearly not be the case if people are pursuing other agendas. Such a targeted campaign will, I have no doubt, be carried out by the Israeli Government. The Palestinian Authority must play a full part in helping them to achieve that. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that was clearly the case when I was there 10 days ago.
I applaud the Minister for his response to these appalling murders, but with respect may I say that he did not answer as fully as he might the question from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman)? These murders take place against the background of the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners by the Israelis as a signal of good intent for the peace process, and of a constant stream of hate and abuse from state-sponsored TV and media in the Palestinian Authority. Surely this House and Her Majesty’s Government need to make it clear to the Palestinian Authority that this background of hate and contempt for Israel must stop if we are to have a meaningful peace process.
I am very sorry if I have not given my hon. Friend the reassurance that he needs that the British Government are absolutely 100% committed to making that message clear to the Palestinian Government. We have made it absolutely clear to the Palestinian authorities that that sort of behaviour is unacceptable. As I have already said, I did not realise that there was any truth in these allegations. I have been specifically reassured that there is not. If the International Development Committee has evidence that that is not the case, we will be keen to see it. To be fair, when the technocratic Government were formed, they were very clear that they would sign up to the Quartet principles, which is an internationally agreed standard. They were absolutely clear and unequivocal on that, and they gave those undertakings to us, the Americans and the Israeli Government.
The whole House is right to condemn these truly horrific murders, but we should not allow them to diminish the quest for peace in the middle east. What measures are the Palestinian unity Government taking to ensure accountable and effective governance to bring about that transformative change that the Minister talks about to renew the Palestinian economy, create jobs, bring about hope for the Palestinian people and ensure that funds are not diverted to terror activities?
There is a whole bundle of questions there. The approach of the Palestinian Government on economic regeneration is led by Prime Minister Hamdallah, whom I met during my recent visit. He is English educated and extremely impressive. He is very fixed on what needs to be done to regenerate the Palestinian Authority. He is absolutely right to point to the need to eliminate corruption in the Palestinian Authority, because that has bedevilled the region and its prospects for economic growth for some time. The Palestinian Authority have given us a series of assurances that they understand the importance of that and that they are taking the necessary action.
Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of the murdered teenagers. A constant stream of evidence substantiates the fact that UK taxpayers’ money is finding its way to the evil terrorist organisation Hamas. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to look again at all the evidence—from the Select Committee on International Development, from Israel and from the Palestinian Authority areas—with the objective that not a single penny of UK taxpayers’ money should find its way to the evil terrorist organisation Hamas?
Let me give my hon. Friend some comfort. It is absolutely the position of the Government that UK taxpayers’ money should not go to fund terrorists. That is 100% the case. If, following the International Development Committee’s visit to the region, evidence has emerged that points to the fact that that is not the case, it would be a very serious matter and I can give him an undertaking that that is something into which the Secretary of State will look as a matter of urgency.
I welcome the Minister’s words that the best way to resolve this issue is to ensure that the peace process moves forward and that a viable two-state solution is found. With that in mind, may I ask him what conversations he has had with the American Government on moving the peace process forward? At best, President Obama has been rather lacklustre in this area, but the process has moved forward under Secretary of State Kerry. What conversations has the Minister had with our American allies about these terrible events and about getting the peace process moving forward again?
Like others, we should place it on the record—indeed one can never do it enough—how much we appreciate the work of the American Secretary of State. He has been tireless in his pursuit of this process in a way that no other American Secretary of State in my lifetime has been. Ultimately, he has become frustrated by the actions of both parties. He has called for a pause in the process for both parties to face up to the consequences of not pursuing the peace agreement, which, I believe, will be very profound for the whole region. I urge him to join us and everyone else to do everything we can not to escalate the situation further and to encourage both parties to get back to the negotiating table.
I listened carefully to what the Minister said about the response of the Palestinian unity Government. Perhaps one of the things that they can do to demonstrate that they are committed to peace is to work closely with the Israeli authorities to bring to justice the people who perpetrated this crime. If it turns out that there is persuasive evidence that Hamas was indeed behind these evil murders, will the Minister return to the Dispatch Box to set out what implications that has for the British Government’s recognition of that Palestinian unity Government?
Yes. In a sense it is a puzzle in two parts. The first thing is who was responsible for this crime. The Israelis are very clear about who they think is responsible. The Palestinian Authority have indicated that that view may be sensible. We need to find out who the perpetrators were, and then we need to find out what, if any, association they may have with the technocratic Government. At the moment, the technocratic Government are absolutely clear that they are fully signed up to the Quartet principles and that they are a non-violent Government and have no contact with Hamas. Indeed, talking to members of Fatah, it is clear that their relationship with Hamas has been desperate. They hate Hamas and regard it as being responsible for the splits that have occurred, so there is some small reason for hope.
Very little shocks me about what occurs in the middle east, but the depravity of the murder of these young men is beyond comprehension for many of my constituents and for me. The Minister asserted that no money from British taxpayers goes to Hamas, but he has now accepted the position of the International Development Committee that that might be the case. Will he put his efforts into facilitating a meeting of a cross-party delegation of MPs so that we can speak to the DFID Minister and present the evidence we have been talking about for many years already?
I gave the answer that I did to an earlier question because I was assured, as I have been in the past, that there were no grounds for believing that. If a Select Committee of this House has uncovered evidence that firmly proves that that is not the case, that is a very serious issue. I can offer my hon. Friend a cast-iron guarantee that we will take that up. Indeed, the very fact that it has been found by a Select Committee will ensure that the Department responsible has to answer those questions.
Would the Minister care to reflect that, in rightly praising Secretary of State Kerry, he might have been slightly unfair to Madeleine Albright? Will he, in the context of this situation, tell us not only what might be proportionate for either side but what signals either side might send to the other that would advance rather than regress the situation?