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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 585: debated on Tuesday 9 September 2014


The Secretary of State was asked—

Court Closures

With the exception of recently published proposals on Abergavenny magistrates court and Caerphilly magistrates court, Bracknell magistrates court, Knutsford Crown court and Spalding magistrates court there are no plans for further court closures.

As the Minister says, the Ministry of Justice is consulting on the closure of Caerphilly court in my constituency. The proposal from the MOJ is, frankly, back-of-the-envelope stuff. It will create enormous inconvenience for my constituents, and what is more, the local MP has not even been consulted. Is that acceptable?

There has been a consultation of which the local MP is aware, and he, like anyone else, is entitled to give his view in that. We are constantly reviewing the courts estate to ensure that it meets operational needs. If any decisions are to be taken on the hon. Gentleman’s particular court, I hope that he will have been active in making his views heard.

Yesterday, leading counsel told the High Court that the Lord Chancellor was causing

“very serious harm to the…criminal justice system”

and described his modus operandi as

“a caricature of fairness: empty abuses, bluff and bully, divide and rule”.

Beyond the closure of hundreds of courts and law firms and the destruction of legal aid, what else does the Lord Chancellor have in mind to undermine the rule of law, which his oath of office requires him to uphold?

I have to say, it really is rich of the Opposition to talk in such terms. Here we have a party that is constantly criticising, yet has said that there will be no more money available in the unlikely event of it being in government. The Opposition really do need to sort out their act: they need to decide whether they are opposing for opposition’s sake, and, if they do want reforms, where the money will come from and how much.

Prisons: Books

Prisoners have essentially the same access to books as they did under the Labour Government. Prison libraries offer the full service offered to all of us by our local public libraries. There has been no specific policy change about books under this Government.

I am grateful for that answer. The answer to a recent parliamentary question confirmed that £106 per prisoner is spent on libraries in prison, and from a recent freedom of information request I learned that in Leeds prison there are 10.5 books per prisoner, and in Wakefield prison 16.9. In contrast, in the libraries in my constituency for the general public, there is only about one book per person. On that basis, does the Secretary of State agree that, rather than prisoners being denied reading material, they are in fact far better served than the general public?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Those who have visited prison libraries will know that they are well stocked and well supported by high-quality staff. In most prison libraries one will find local projects helping prisoners to read, and I pay tribute to the work done by our prison librarians in tackling literacy problems in our prisons. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the fuss made about this issue has been wholly disproportionate and detached from the reality.

But will the Secretary of State give Parliament a report on how many minutes each week each prisoner is able to visit a prison library? We regularly hear reports of lack of staff preventing prisoners from visiting prison libraries, and lack of space preventing toe by toe and similar reading programmes from being mounted.

The challenge we have in our prisons is not making space available in libraries for prisoners to visit but encouraging them to visit. That is why we are pursuing projects such as toe by toe and encouraging literacy programmes. To be frank, I wish more prisoners wanted to go to our libraries.

Will the Secretary of State carefully consider the report published this week from the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, which shows that improved literacy really supports rehabilitation and recommends that prison libraries should be open at weekends?

I will read that very carefully; it is a helpful contribution to how we address the literacy problem. I pay tribute to all the volunteers in the toe by toe programme, and to all the prisoners who can read and devote time to helping those who cannot. It is a path to the enhanced privileges available under our new regime. It is important that we take advantage of all the resources available to us to try to tackle the problem of a lack of literacy in our prisons.

Victims of Crime

May I, with your permission, Mr Speaker, pay my own personal tribute to Jim Dobbin, as it is my first opportunity at the Dispatch Box to do so? Jim was a personal friend and a colleague of all of us in the House. He would, I am sure, have been here at Justice questions because they are the sort of questions he would have been here for. He was a great man.

I would have asked you, Mr Speaker, if I could group Questions 4 and 8, but I do not need to do so now, so I will just answer Question 4. The victims code is a statutory document that places clear duties on criminal justice agencies. We will monitor criminal justice agencies’ compliance with the victims code and my Department will report back in March 2015.

I thank the Minister for his very kind remarks and support him in what he said. Jim Dobbin was a neighbour and a long-standing friend of mine, and a thoroughly decent man who will be sorely missed.

The murdered police constable Nicola Hughes was a constituent of mine. Her father Bryn has set up a charity in her name, particularly to support the families of murder victims. Will the Justice Secretary meet me and Bryn not only to hear about his experience but to discuss how families of murder victims can be better supported, particularly during the court process?

I will be more than happy to meet the hon. Lady and her constituent. I have been very closely involved with this area for many years, not least because my constituent Billy Dove was murdered right outside my constituency office, and the family set up a charity straight after that. I have had the honour of chairing the victims panel. I will be more than happy to meet the hon. Lady and see the work that is being done brilliantly, I am sure, in her constituency.

May I add my condolences to the family of the late Mr Jim Dobbin? He will be sorely missed.

As the Minister will be aware, victims are often secondarily victimised by poor treatment within the justice system. It seems that whereas perpetrators have rights, victims have only codes and charters. What plans does he have to improve the treatment of victims of domestic violence, including those who suffer from coercive control, which I hope—I am still campaigning—will become subject to a law in the coming months?

I pay tribute to the campaigning that the right hon. Gentleman has done over many years. I look forward to him knocking on my door in the next couple of weeks, I am sure, to come in and see me as the new Minister. We are doing everything we possibly can to reverse the way victims are treated, or perceived to be treated, within the criminal justice system. In the past couple of weeks I have used the analogy that we should look at the other end of the telescope and put victims first. That is why the victims panel was set up by the Secretary of State. I look forward to working with many of the victims groups so that we can reverse the feeling that they are being treated unjustly.

May I press the Minister on the countless victims in towns and cities up and down our country who were forced into illegal sex—underage sex—and who were raped and pushed into child prostitution? Up and down the country, they have got no justice. Will this code help them? Will he join my appeal for an early, major debate in the House on that issue as soon as possible?

I will be more than happy to respond to a debate on that very important subject, but it is above my pay grade to decide what the business in the House will be—that decision is for the business managers. The Backbench Business Committee has been enormously successful in this Parliament. I will be more than happy to respond to any debate proposed by the business managers.

I welcome the victims Minister to his post. I know he will share the House’s concern about the number of young people coming forward who have been victims of horrendous abuse. It is very important that they get the support they need to ensure that justice is done. That includes victims being able to give evidence away from a court setting via a video link. There are only a handful of remote sites across the country, and the vast majority are located within court buildings. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has highlighted the traumatic impact that this can have on young victims. One mother described her daughter Iris’s court experience as being “like a second abuse”. Will the Government bring forward plans for more of these remote sites, and will the Minister do more to ensure that victims’ rights are protected, as we have proposed, with a victims law?

I am obviously very aware of the NSPCC’s campaign, not least because, quite rightly, I am signing an awful lot of letters for colleagues at the moment. I have also, in these early days, already met the chief executive and chairman of the NSPCC. We are coming to the end of a pilot of remote video evidence and I am waiting for the evidence of how it has worked. I would like to roll it out as fast as possible, if the evidence shows—as I think it will—that it should be.

HMP Northumberland

The National Offender Management Service regularly carries out assessments of all aspects of security and delivery at HMP Northumberland and will continue to monitor the prison’s progress closely.

May I caution the Minister against reading out what the civil service put in front of him as if that were a satisfactory answer to the question? The situation at the prison has been described by work force representatives as a “powder keg”. The issue is the dramatic reduction in staffing and the increase in the number of prisoners. I urge the Minister to look at the situation and satisfy himself that the prison is safe, because all the advice that the region’s MPs are receiving is that it is not.

I think I can give the right hon. Gentleman some good news. Like all prisons, HMP Northumberland is subject to performance targets and it is currently at level 3, the second highest level. Twelve new recruits have just joined the prison, 13 more are due to start next Monday and 22 reserve staff can be called up to make up any shortfall, so I do not recognise the description given by the right hon. Gentleman.

Does the Minister recognise that adequate staff numbers are essential not only to safety but to rehabilitation, and that I expressed concerns to his predecessor that the public sector bid and the Sodexo bid, which was successful, both involved a significant reduction in staff numbers?

I absolutely recognise what the Chair of the Justice Committee says. As I have just said, we are increasing staff numbers at the prison: 13 more recruits are due to start next week, 12 have already joined and there are 22 reserve staff available. The prison will also have a further inspection next week, so we are keeping these matters closely under review. As I have said, more staff are joining.

Order. I say in all courtesy to the hon. Gentleman that HMP Northumberland is a long way from Wrexham. It may be that the hon. Gentleman has a constituent who is incarcerated there and if he can solemnly assure the House that that is the case, I shall be happy to hear him; otherwise, he might prefer to wait for another question.

We will leave it there for now, but the hon. Gentleman will be heard. I feel sure of that—he always is.

I have constituents in HMP Northumberland and I visited the prison this summer. May I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests? When I met the management and individual prison officers this summer, I was impressed by their hard work, dedication and commitment to the prison. Does the Minister agree that we should get behind them and not endlessly snipe at the prison and its staff?

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing a bit of balance to our discussions on HMP Northumberland. I thank him for what he has said. Of course, there are some pressures in our prisons, but prison officers are doing magnificent work every day. Frankly, it is time that was recognised and celebrated.

Criminal Convictions

6. What estimate he has made of the number of offenders given a non-custodial sentence in the past three years who had more than 100 previous convictions. (905238)

There are far too many people in that situation. I am clear that there must be tough penalties for serious or repeat offences. More people are going to prison and for longer under this Government. The basis of the hon. Gentleman’s question is precisely why I am taking steps in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill to ensure that we toughen up the system of cautions so that they are no longer available for serious or repeat crimes. We have also taken steps to ensure that all community penalties contain a punitive element.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but I am sure that Members throughout the House and the public outside will be deeply concerned that in 2013 more than 1,000 people were given a non-custodial sentence despite having 100 previous convictions, while 30,000 offenders were given a non-custodial sentence despite having committed 30 or more previous offences. Should not more consideration be given to residents, particularly in deprived neighbourhoods, who have to put up with persistent and repeat offenders in their communities?

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. That is why we have brought forward a number of the measures in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, which is now in the other place. I hope that it will reach the statute book by the end of the year, and that it will deliver much-needed change.

Does the Secretary of State agree that sustained and meaningful employment is very important in reducing high reoffending rates?

I absolutely agree, which is why I think that a combination of the efforts that this Government are putting into that—the work being done to increase the number of employment opportunities within prisons; the work being done by the Work programme to help the long-term unemployed, particularly those who have been offenders; and, indeed, this Government’s great success in creating a fast-improving labour market—are all contributing to tackling the problem to which my hon. Friend rightly refers.


7. Whether the offence of treason is available for use by prosecuting authorities against UK citizens participating in jihad in the middle east. (905239)

The coalition Government take very seriously the potential threat posed by a small number of British citizens who have travelled abroad and participated in conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Those who participate in foreign conflicts may be prosecuted for offences such as terrorism under the Terrorism Acts 2000 and 2006, murder or conspiracy to commit murder, and offences under the International Criminal Court Act 2001 for breaches of international humanitarian law. It is of course the case that treason remains on the statute book, although the last prosecution was in 1945.

ISIS, al-Qaeda and other groups are sworn enemies of our country and hate everything we stand for, and British citizens who go abroad to take part in jihad—or holy war—are giving aid and comfort to the Queen’s enemies. The British public want to see some exemplary prosecutions for treason so that the seriousness of this international terrorist activity can be fully and properly recognised.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. All Ministers in all Departments are very clear both that we need to use effectively the powers we already have and that we have to take new powers, which have been announced by the Prime Minister, to fill any potential gaps in the protections we have. The powers will be targeted, proportionate and effective, and they will ensure that we meet our commitment to international law and human rights.

As a Liberal Democrat Minister, may I make it absolutely clear on behalf of all the team in the Ministry of Justice that we as a Government will take all the measures necessary to keep our country safe? We have already announced that there will be new powers to take passports from people temporarily while investigations are made to prevent them from travelling to places such as Syria and Iraq.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with the Law Commission’s 10th programme for law reform, which states that the offence of treason should be looked at again because it is outdated and needs improvement? It covers many offences that we would not now consider to be offences, and it is not actually useful law. Will he get his team to look at that?

As I said, the offence of treason has not been used since 1945. It dates from a much earlier statute. The Law Commission has not looked at it recently, but there is no reason why it should not come forward with a proposal to do so. On this issue, the Government are absolutely focused on making sure that people who go abroad and either commit serious offences abroad or when they come back to this country are prosecuted now and effectively. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that we need to make sure that we have the full panoply of powers while respecting our international obligations, and that there are plenty of such powers without using the offence of treason.

Victims of Crime

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will not read out the answer I read out earlier when, as is understandable, the hon. Lady was not in her place. I just reiterate that the victims code is a statutory document that places clear duties on criminal justice agencies. The Department will report to the Criminal Justice Board in March 2015. As I said to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), I will keep an enormously close eye on how this is being done, and if we need more powers we will take them. We intend to spend £100 million, which includes a lot of money coming from the perpetrators of such crimes, across all Departments to help victims.

On 14 January, the Minister’s colleagues in the Foreign Office wrote to me extolling the virtues of having signed the EU directive that means the families of victims of crimes that happen in Europe should expect to be able to enjoy the same rights as they would in their home countries, and on 7 April they wrote to tell me that it is the Minister’s responsibility to make that happen. Will he therefore meet me, my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) and the families involved in the Tyrell Matthews-Burton case? The victim’s family and the witnesses have all been told that they have to raise the funds themselves to be able to go over to Malia to give evidence in this terrible murder trial. I am sure that he would agree that the victim’s voice not being heard is not what we would expect to see at home.

Of course, whether the new Minister or not, I will be more than happy to meet the hon. Lady and her constituents, and the other hon. Lady’s constituents—I think that is the sort of role I should be playing—and look at the case closely, which I have not yet had an opportunity to do.

I think that the hon. Lady was referring to an hon. Gentleman, if memory serves me correctly. I would not want the Minister to suffer from gender confusion.

Previous grooming trials have been characterised by intimidatory and vicious cross-examination by defence barristers, and often by multiple defence barristers. Will the Minister assure us that steps are being taken to stop that happening?

Although I cannot interfere in the role of barristers in the courts, we are looking at the matter very closely and have piloted the use of video conferencing so that evidence can be given remotely or from behind a screen. It is vital that victims have the confidence to become witnesses, and I will do everything in my power to ensure that they have the support they need to do so.

Colin McGinty was murdered almost 14 years ago. His parents recently gave a victim statement remotely, but the chair of the parole panel forgot to turn off his microphone and they overheard him say that their views would be disregarded. No doubt the Justice Secretary is explaining what happened. They have received an apology for what happened, which was incredibly distressing, as Members will understand. Can the Minister confirm that the Justice Secretary’s written advice is that victim statements are an important part of rehabilitation because of their role in the demonstration of empathy and remorse by offenders, and will he ensure that that is put clearly to the Parole Board and to parole panels?

I have not yet had an opportunity to look at the full details of the case the hon. Gentleman refers to, but I know that there is an ongoing investigation to find out how it happened and to ensure that it does not happen again. I can only emphasise, as a human being, that it must have been horrible to hear that being said in the background. We must ensure that it does not happen again. The Secretary of State met the group only last week to discuss the matter.

Insurance Fraud

I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government are committed to tackling insurance fraud. We are banning lawyers from offering inducements in personal injury claims and are legislating to penalise fundamentally dishonest claimants. We are also consulting on a requirement for lawyers to undertake previous claims checks on whiplash claimants, which will combat fraud at source.

It is estimated that insurance fraud and exaggerated claims cost some £2.1 billion last year, with motor insurance alone costing about £811 million. Ultimately, it is not the insurance companies that pay out, but the consumers, who pay for it through higher insurance bills. What further measures is my hon. Friend taking to tackle the compensation culture in this country?

The compensation culture to which my hon. Friend refers means that honest drivers are having to pay higher premiums because of abuses, especially in whiplash claims. That is why the Government have put in place measures to deter unnecessary speculative and exaggerated claims, while ensuring that genuine claimants can come forward and have proper redress. In the first phase of our measures, which will start next month, there will be fixed costs of £180 for medical reports, which in the past had been as high as £700.

There have been many examples across the whole United Kingdom of scams being carried out by a number of individuals with different insurance companies. Is it not time that insurance companies exchanged ideas and ensured that they are forensically competent in dealing with fraud?

The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. That exchange of ideas is happening, and we are encouraging it to happen more.


Overall reoffending rates have barely changed over the past decade. Under our transforming rehabilitation reforms, we will draw on the best services from across the public, private and voluntary sectors in order to deliver better rehabilitation support to more offenders, reduce the number of potential victims and make our communities safer. For the first time in recent history, virtually every offender released from custody will receive statutory supervision, rehabilitation and mentoring support in the community.

A4e recently pulled out of a £17 million contract to deliver education and training in London prisons. It has been suggested that one reason for that is staff shortages so severe that there are not enough officers to escort prisoners to classes. If prisoners who want to learn cannot even get to the classroom, what does that say about the Government’s so-called rehabilitation revolution?

May I encourage the Justice Secretary to look at innovative ways of tackling reoffending? My neighbouring constituency in Barnet is looking at using GPS monitoring in new ways that go beyond traditional electronic monitoring and the Serco-G4S expensive model, and into ways that tackle the behaviour of some of the most prolific offenders. It is having great results.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The arrival of GPS tags in this country provides a great opportunity for the criminal justice system in a variety of different ways. We will have first access to that technology in a form that is sufficiently robust to be used in courts if necessary later this year, and I think it has great potential.

The right hon. Gentleman needs to know that the cost of reoffending is now the same as holding the London Olympics every single year. There is now more overcrowding, less education, and more violence in our prisons than ever before. Why will he not admit that the only intervention his Government have made in the past four and half years that has had the effect of reducing reoffending statistics is the one when he decided to change the way he would calculate those statistics?

I am afraid I have to correct the hon. Lady. At the moment our prison system is at its least overcrowded for 10 years, and the number of prisoners going through education is set to increase significantly this year.

Will the Secretary of State say what action his Department is taking to reduce the trend in shop theft, particularly where that might fuel a drug or substance habit?

That is one reason why I think it is important that we address the caution system, because it has been possible for somebody who commits an act such as shop theft simply to receive a caution again and again. Those people must come to court to be dealt with properly by our magistrates, and that is why the measures in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill are so important.

Transforming Rehabilitation Programme

Transition to the new probation structures took place on 1 June, and bids to run community rehabilitation companies were received at the end of June. More than half the bidders include a voluntary, mutual or social enterprise organisation, and mutuals continue to feature strongly. The contract winners for each CRC will be announced by the end of 2014, as planned.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is deeply worrying that a recent survey of probation workers shows that more than 90% disagree with the view that the changes will provide value for money for the taxpayer, or improve service provision for users—they talk about spiralling work loads, stress, and dysfunctional IT? When will he stop ignoring the experts and admit that the best option to reduce reoffending and protect public safety would be to cancel the probation sell-off and re-integrate the two parts of the service at the earliest opportunity?

I take greater comfort from the fact that 90% of probation officers chose not to respond to their union’s survey and are getting on with the job, the excellent work they do on a day-by-day basis, and their good work to help the new systems bed in.

I find the Secretary of State’s complacency extremely worrying. Two hundred probation officers turned up last week to lobby their MPs, all of them consistently reporting that the system is not working. The Secretary of State refused to undertake pilot schemes in advance of these reforms, but he did enact what he described as assessments called test gates. There have been three of those. The fourth was meant to start on 1 June but I believe it has not started yet. Will he publish all the information from the test gates, so that we can see what they have reported regarding the implementation of the reforms?

These reforms are going exactly according to plan and no test gate was due to start in June. We are on time and the teams on the ground are making good progress. I and my colleagues have visited the trust’s successor organisations, and members of my team are going out to hear what is happening on the ground. This is a nine-month process of delivering change in the public sector, before we reach the point of a change of ownership. We are trying to ensure that the new system is bedded in well, and so far I am happy with the progress being made. There is, of course, still work to be done, but good progress is being made.

As usual, the Justice Secretary has his head in the sand. He was warned against his plans to privatise the probation service, but he ignored those warnings. Preferred bidders were supposed to be announced this week, but now he tells us it will be before the end of the year. There were supposed to be dozens and dozens of private companies, charities and voluntary groups bidding for the contracts, but there are not—in some areas, only one company is bidding for a contract. Staff—both those who respond to surveys and those who do not—are complaining of chaos at the probation service. Morale is at a record low and experienced and dedicated staff are leaving. Given that, are there any circumstances in which he would put a stop to the botched privatisation of the probation service?

I am afraid the right hon. Gentleman is plain wrong. He needs to stop listening to the trade unions; of course the trade unions still think this is a bad idea, but in reality our reforms are bedding in well and we will deliver the changes necessary to provide support and supervision to people who get none at the moment. The Labour party has no answers about how it would deliver that.

On competition, the right hon. Gentleman’s facts are plain wrong. I think we have 86 bids, with an average of four bidders in each area and a good mix of organisations from the public, private and voluntary sectors,. I am completely confident that we will shortly deliver a really innovative approach to rehabilitation, despite the blind opposition of the Labour party.

Courts Rebuilding Programme

Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service continues to keep the use of its estate under review to ensure that it meets operational requirements.

Last November, I and my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) met the Minister to press the case for the much-promised rebuilding of Sunderland’s court complex, but unfortunately, since then, nothing has happened. Will he now join us, visit Sunderland and see the state of the existing court buildings and the impact these new courts could have in the regeneration of the city centre?

The hon. Lady is right to refer to our meeting about this matter and will be aware that in March we announced a court reform programme to ensure that the courts and tribunals of this country met the expectations of the public in the 21st century. Any decisions about the site in Farringdon row in Sunderland will be taken in the context of that reform programme. Currently, no decisions have been taken about the site.

Unless the Ministry of Justice commits capital funding to Wrexham magistrates court, it will be in the peculiar position of having no custody facilities. Will the Minister commit capital funding to construct cells at the court?

As I just said, a reform programme has been announced. It will take a comprehensive view and all matters will be considered.

Court Estates Reform

The court estate reform programme has been important in improving efficiency through the closure of poor quality and underused court buildings. Through the programme, 140 courts have closed and these closures are expected to generate estimated savings of £152 million. The last court in the programme, Alton magistrates court, closed last week on 5 September 2014.

The Minister will know that our courts in Gloucester are barely fit for purpose. Land was bought for new courts by the previous Government, but they diverted the funds elsewhere. Will he confirm that the site will be marketed as soon as possible to help city regeneration, that the successful bidder for HMP Gloucester will be announced soon and that a new justice centre in the city centre will be considered positively for all courts and tribunals once the justice review is finished?

First, may I commend my hon. Friend for the diligence and conscientiousness with which he has pursued the interests of his constituents? I fully appreciate the circumstances of the courts in Gloucester and am mindful of the prison’s closure and the position of the car park. As I have said, a court reform programme was announced in March and any decisions will be taken as part of that programme.

Restorative Justice

14. What progress his Department has made on increasing the provision of restorative justice programmes for offenders. (905246)

Restorative justice can play an important role in empowering victims by giving them a voice and enabling them to explain the real impact of the crime and hold offenders to account. There is a clear link between the use of restorative justice and a reduction in the frequency of offending. The coalition Government have committed almost £30 million for restorative justice services for the three years up to next year, with most of this distributed through the police and crime commissioners as part of our broader approach to funding victims’ services.

The Cheshire police and crime commissioner recently made a welcome grant to the Prison Fellowship for its restorative justice programme, the Sycamore Tree project. This is the first PCC funding in the country for this project, which the Prison Fellowship is seeking to expand but is finding difficult to access owing to data provision requirements for funding. Will the Minister join me in recognising the excellent work going on and meet me and the Prison Fellowship to discuss how PCC funding can be accessed by it across the country?

Of course I will meet the hon. Lady who I know has been a strong advocate for the work of the Prison Fellowship and the Sycamore Tree project. As I understand it, funding for public sector prisons amounts to £917,000 over three years. I am sorry about the data problem, but I am sure we can help with that. The Government are clear, however, that our £30 million pot is money raised from offenders to support the victims of crime. It cannot go to prisons or prisoners; it is for activities outside the prisons to make sure that people do not reoffend.


15. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of joint working between probation trusts and police forces to reduce reoffending. (905247)

I think we are all agreed that to tackle reoffending to protect the public, it is critical for the national probation service and community rehabilitation companies to work very closely with our local police forces.

Operation Castlemain is a police-led initiative to tackle street drinking in Hereford. Local probation officers and other agencies join police on the streets in areas where street drinkers are known to congregate. The result is a better environment for the public, closer working relations between the police and probation service and a higher profile for probation with people at risk of offending. Will the Minister join me in praising this excellent example of joint working?

I will praise the work going on in my hon. Friend’s constituency and work that is going on around the country. Joint working and joint partnerships are important. I would also like to pay tribute to street pastors who do a fantastic job in constituencies, including my own.

Open Prisons

Open prisons are subject to inspection by Her Majesty’s inspectorate to measure performance in four key areas: resettlement, purposeful activity, safety and respect. Alongside this, the Ministry of Justice operates an internal audit assurance mechanism. Open prisons are subject to audit in the same way as the rest of the prison estate and are awarded a rating based on assurance against national baselines. HMIP and internal audit outcomes are combined with scores from other performance measures to give an overall performance rating on the prison rating system. All open prisons are currently rated as 4, which is exceptional, or 3, meeting targets.

I thank the Minister for that response, but Sudbury prison is neither effective nor meeting its targets. The local newspaper recently ran a story with the mugshots of 24 prisoners who were still on the run from Sudbury prison. We recently had four prisoners absconding in five days and two have disappeared in the last month. My constituents are concerned for their safety. This is not working; what is the Minister going to do about it?

I recognise my hon. Friend’s concern, but let me give him some helpful facts. The list of 24 Sudbury prisoners unlawfully at large that was recently published by Derbyshire police includes cases from 1992 onwards, with half occurring before 2006. Absconds have reduced by 80% in the last 10 years, and this Government have recently made significant changes to the way prisoners are assessed for eligibility for open prisons and to receive relief on temporary licence.

Following representations from me and others to the Minister’s predecessor, I welcome the fact that the Government reversed their decision on having steel-strung guitars for prisoners in prison cells. Will he update us on how the reversal of that policy is going? Have there been any problems, and does he recognise the value of music as a rehabilitative force in our prisons?

I think that one of the first letters I received after my appointment was from the hon. Gentleman about this issue. I was pleased that we were able to resolve it. As far as I am aware, there have been no issues and no difficulties. I believe the new policy is settling down well.

Prisons: Violence

My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General visited Swaleside, one of the prisons in my hon. Friend’s constituency, on 2 May this year, and spoke to prison staff there. As a new Minister, I have been visiting as many prisons as possible, and I look forward to visiting a prison in my hon. Friend’s constituency in due course.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s reply, but does he accept that the Prison Service is undergoing a great many changes, and that, as a result, the three prisons in my constituency face a number of challenges? I am delighted that he has agreed to visit my constituency, and I hope that he will be able to talk to the prison officers who have been affected by the changes and tasked with implementing them.

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said. I have visited prisons on a very regular basis, and have observed that, while they are certainly subject to some pressures, excellent work is being done. I talk to prison officers regularly as well, and I look forward to talking to those in his constituency.

Probation Service

The probation service has warned of the disruptive effect of splitting up the probation system, and is already being proved correct. Dedicated officers in Shields tell me that long-standing and trusting relationships with clients have been cut short, which has made those individuals more difficult to engage, and, worse, more likely to reoffend. Why have the Government ignored those warnings?

Government Members are not happy with the very high reoffending rates that we have had for decades, and we are determined to do better. We shall be introducing supervision for prisoners who have been sentenced to less than one year, and we believe that our reforms will be highly successful. We are ambitious to end the cycle of reoffending that has blighted our communities for far too long, and we are doing something about it.

Topical Questions

Given all the questions that have been asked, I think it would be helpful for me to update the House properly on the progress of our rehabilitation reforms.

On 1 June we established new structures in the probation service for a period of shadow running and testing. Twenty-one community rehabilitation companies are now managing low and medium-risk offenders, initially in the public sector, prior to the award of contracts later in the year. The new national probation service has also been established, to advise the courts, manage high-risk offenders and take enforcement actions. Those functions will remain in the public sector. I am grateful to staff for their hard work as the changes bed in.

In parallel, we are making good progress with the competition for ownership of the community rehabilitation companies. Strong competition remains in all regions, with more than 80 bids received and an average of four bidders for each area. More than half the bidders include a voluntary, mutual or social enterprise organisation, and mutuals continue to feature strongly. All bidders have experience of working with offenders.

Nearly 1,000 organisations have registered as potential partners in the wider supply chain, including more than 700 listed as voluntary, community or social enterprise organisations. We remain on track to sign contracts with successful bidders by the end of the year.

There have been some strong reports recently from the chief inspector of prisons. For example, Glen Parva has been described as “unsafe”, Wormwood Scrubs as “filthy and unsafe”, and Doncaster as a “prison in decline”. I know from my experience as prisons Minister that it is never easy, but has the Secretary of State any belief in his ownership of the causes of those problems?

It is, of course, unfortunate that press coverage is always of the bad reports. Today we saw an excellent report from Chelmsford, and two weeks ago we saw an excellent report from Parc youth offender institution. This year the chief inspector has rightly been looking at prisons in which there have been challenges in the past, but, as the right hon. Gentleman will know if he visits prisons around the estate, a great deal of very good work is being done by our teams. They are undergoing a process of change caused by budget pressures, but they are doing a first-rate job. For every report that questions performance in one prison, there are many others that show that a first-rate job is being done—as he himself will remember.

T4. The Secretary of State has long argued that we should increase magistrates’ sentencing powers to 12 months for one offence. I hope that he can now clear up some confusion on the issue, because that provision was a manifesto commitment which was then abolished under the Secretary of State’s disastrous predecessor. My amendment proposing the introduction of the new sentencing power was rejected by the Government as recently as June, but the Prime Minister has now told the Magistrates Association at a reception that it will happen before the next election. Can we clear up the question of where we actually are, and can we crack on with doing something that would save money and would also be incredibly popular? (905261)

I love doing things that are enormously popular and I also like doing things that are right. Magistrates’ sentencing powers are being reviewed and I will be able to come back to the House at its very early convenience, I hope, with some ideas.

The Secretary of State has previously said, and he said it again today, how proud he is of his prison reforms. The Ministry of Justice’s own figures show that suicides are up 69% in a year. More people died in prison last year than ever before. Self-harm is up 27% since 2010. Serious assaults are up 30%. The riot squad has been called out 72% more times than it was in 2010 and one in five prisons are now rated as “of concern”, double the figure 12 months earlier. We heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) that four reports by the chief inspector of prisons have been pretty damning; the reports on Glen Parva, Doncaster, Isis and Wormwood Scrubs. What will it take for the Secretary of State to accept that we are in the midst of a prison crisis?

As always, the right hon. Gentleman paints a very partial view of what is going on in our prisons. Our prisons are less overcrowded than they have been at any point since 2001. They are less violent than they were under the last Government. More work is being done in our prisons today than under the last Government. The number of prisoners going through education is rising. Today we have an excellent report on Chelmsford prison, which I visited last week. Two weeks ago, we had an excellent report on Parc prison in south Wales.

There are staff shortages in parts of our prison system but across the prison system we have a dedicated staff working hard and doing the right job. I take very seriously the issue of suicide in our prisons. We saw a rise in numbers earlier in the year. We saw a fall in numbers across the summer. We may see a rise or a fall in future. These things are difficult to track. We work very hard to tackle what is a real problem.

This is classic, head-in-the-sand syndrome.

“The Government cannot pretend any longer that there is no crisis in our prisons.

Even their own backbenchers say the system is shambolic.

Mr Grayling’s priorities, regardless of his budget, must be the security of the public and prison officers—and the welfare of inmates.

His department’s failing on all three.”

Those are not my words. They are from an editorial in The Sun. The House should bear in mind that the Secretary of State was appointed by the Prime Minister to appeal to the red tops. What has gone wrong?

I will think that I have a problem in our prisons when I am forced through bad planning, as the last Government were, to release tens of thousands of prisoners weeks early to commit crimes that they should not have committed. I will know that I have a problem when I have to hire thousands of police cells when we do not have enough space in our prisons. The truth is that we have space in our prisons. They are less overcrowded. We are increasing education. They are less violent than they were under the last Government. We face challenges given budget pressures but we are doing a much better job than they did.

T6. It is an intolerable burden on British taxpayers that they should be funding the cost of so many foreign prisoners. Can the Secretary of State inform us what action is being taken to reduce the number and return more of them to their home country? (905263)

I share my hon. Friend’s concern about the issue. Reducing the foreign national offender population is a top priority for the Government. Last year, we removed 5,097 foreign national offenders compared with 4,072 in 2012-13 and 4,539 in 2011-12. Whereas this Government have begun to reduce the foreign national population in prison, the number of foreign nationals in our prisons under the last Government more than doubled.

T5. Has the Secretary of State given specific advice to prisons, probation services and magistrates about historic sex abuse? If so, what is it? (905262)

No. It is for the courts to pass sentences. It is for our prisons and probation service to deal with the matter. The national probation service will focus on the most dangerous sex offenders. Our prisons are managing increasing numbers of historic and current sex offenders. We now have a number of prisons that specialise in that and are doing excellent work with those offenders. Let us hope that those numbers do not continue to rise, but if they do we will be ready to tackle that problem.

T10. As a former prison assistant governor, I take a great interest in the rehabilitation of ex-offenders, so I am very proud of my constituent, Jason Turner, a former drug addict who is today launching his film, “Making your past pay.” He turned his life around after 22 years of crime and addiction, and the film features Benjamin Zephaniah aiming to show offenders how they can turn their lives around. Does my hon. Friend agree with my constituent Jason that offenders seeking to rehabilitate should never allow themselves to be defined by their past? (905267)

My hon. Friend is rightly proud of her constituent, and the objective of the Ministry of Justice is to make sure that people do turn their lives around, as her constituent has done. All credit to him, and we believe our transforming rehabilitation reforms will do that for many more people.

T7. There have been reports that a number of offenders remain unallocated to supervising officers following the division of the probation service into probation and community rehabilitation companies, with obvious concerns for public safety. The Secretary of State has said that he will only proceed with the transforming rehabilitation programme if he is confident it is safe to do so. Will he now undertake to publish the findings of the test gates, including the upcoming test gate 4, so that the public can have that reassurance? (905264)

I have expressly asked the chief inspector of probation to come to my office and talk to me if, in the course of the work he and his team do, he identifies any part of the reforms that are jeopardising public safety. He has not done so.

The Ministry of Justice’s own figures show that more than half of the parties in family courts are now unrepresented by a solicitor. There are concerns from the legal sector that this means that people are not getting fair hearings, and actually hearings seem to be taking longer. What plans has the Department got to review this?

Before the legal aid reforms, one party did not have legal representation in about two thirds of private law cases. It is common for the courts to deal with people who represent themselves. The Department is very watchful of what is happening, but we have already supported organisations such as Citizens Advice and Advicenow to produce more guides. There is also support for the personal support unit, and there is new material for litigants in person, and new leaflets and online advice and guidance, as well as judicial support and advice. We expect to make further announcements of support to deal with this matter in the very near future.

T8. The mentally ill constitute a large group of those who have taken their lives in prisons—in the most recent year, there has been the highest number since 2007. Much of this has been traced by commentators to the harsher policies introduced by the current Secretary of State. Does he not feel any shame that mentally ill people are paying this terrible price for the Government’s crude populism? (905265)

Let us be clear first of all: any suicide in our prisons is one too many, and I and my colleagues, and the team in the National Offender Management Service, take these issues very seriously indeed. We are working very hard to address the issues as to why people take their lives. As I said, we saw an increase earlier in the year and a fall during the summer. I hope we will continue to see a fall, but we might see an increase; these things do not follow a pattern. The reality is that we have looked at all the cases and there is no common pattern to them, but I absolutely refute any suggestion that we are disinterested in this or want to create an environment that allows this to happen. Indeed, I have said publicly that I regard dealing with issues of mental health in prisons as the next reform that this Government should embark on.

In his recent written statement on the Office of the Public Guardian, the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), alludes to a future segmented supervision model for deputies. Will he act to reduce the number of people forced to pay through their estate for expensive solicitors to act as deputies, and find them better value alternatives instead?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his continuing interest in this matter, and I hope that he has found the response to the consultation helpful. It makes it absolutely clear that we want to be much more hands-on in terms of managing the role of deputies who are responsible for other people’s estates, to reduce the number of allegations of abuse and misuse of funds and to ensure that vulnerable people are better protected by the courts. I also hope he will have noticed that I have ensured that if anyone wants to make a decision about who should manage any future decisions relating to life or death, that decision will have to be made in person with someone there to witness it, so that there can be no risk of anyone failing to understand the decision they are making.

T9. I very much welcome the decision by the victims Minister to meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) and the families of Tyrell Matthews-Burton. May I make so bold as to ask that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), who has responsibility for courts and legal aid, should join us at that meeting? He is already aware of the case, having recently written to me to confirm that one of the gentlemen charged with taking part in the fight in which Tyrell was killed was convicted of carrying a knife just five days before the event but had his sentence suspended so that he could go on holiday. (905266)

I think the hon. Lady might be pushing it a bit with our diary secretaries in trying to do that. If she wants a speedy meeting with me, I suggest that we have that meeting. I will get a full briefing from my colleagues and I will know exactly what is going on.

Further to the reply given to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), will the Lord Chancellor join me on a visit to Bury and Rochdale magistrates court so that he can see for himself the excellent work that the magistrates are doing and see that the capacity exists for their sentencing powers to be increased from six months to 12 months?

The colour is green; we are proceeding successfully with an issue that the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues never dealt with. A third of those who have community orders, and a third of those with long sentences, reoffend within a year, but the figure is nearly six out of 10 for those on short sentences. We are going to deal with that issue now.

How many foreign national offenders are there in our prisons, and what concrete steps are being taken to send them back to secure custody in their own countries?

We have 10,834 foreign national offenders in our prisons. We have signed prisoner transfer agreements with the European Union, Albania and Nigeria and, as I said in an earlier answer, we removed 5,097 foreign national offenders last year. I can assure my hon. Friend that this is a priority for me, as it is for him.

The number of prison suicides has risen by 50% since the coalition came to power. The Secretary of State sits on his hands and simply says that the numbers go up and down; he has no explanation for that. However, his own chief inspector of prisons says that this is down to overcrowding. Is he wrong?

We have looked carefully at this matter, as have the ombudsman and a number of others. There is no common pattern to the suicides.

May I ask the victims Minister to meet me and to review the handling and sentencing of repeat antisocial behaviour offenders? In my constituency, there are two cases of people on year-long ASBOs, but the victims feel that the sentencing has been carried out solely on the basis of the most recent offence rather than the pattern of behaviour.

As well as being the victims Minister, I am also the police and criminal justice Minister. I am sure, given that portfolio, that my hon. Friend and I will have a very good meeting.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights has reported that the Government do not appear to have carried out an equality impact assessment of secure colleges. Many experts, and many in this House, are concerned about the impact of those colleges on girls and young children. Why has no impact assessment been carried out and what is the Minister going to do about it?

Any introduction of under-15s and girls to those colleges would be carefully phased; they would not be placed in such a college from its opening. At the moment, seven out of 10 young offenders reoffend within a year. They cost on average £100,000 and sometimes up to £200,000. The hon. Lady will know very well that details of assessments have generally not been released by any Government.