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Topical Questions

Volume 585: debated on Tuesday 9 September 2014

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.