House of Commons
Tuesday 9 September 2014
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
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.
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
4. What steps he plans to take to enforce the code of practice for victims of crime. (905236)
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.
5. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of governance and security at HMP Northumberland. (905237)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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 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
12. What progress his Department has made on its courts rebuilding programme. (905244)
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.
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 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 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.
17. What steps he is taking to reduce the level of violence in prisons. (905249)
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.
We are monitoring the performance of the probation service closely as we implement our reforms.
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.
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.
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)
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?
What colour is the probation service change programme on the Cabinet Office evaluation scale?
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.
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?
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.
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.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on Afghanistan. First, I want to pay tribute to the courage and commitment of our armed forces in Afghanistan, where 453 UK service personnel have been killed serving our country and many hundreds more have sustained life-changing injuries. At the NATO summit in Wales last week, the international security assistance force—ISAF—nations joined together in honouring the sacrifice made by those killed or injured during the mission in Afghanistan. Our servicemen and women continue to risk their lives every day, even at this late stage in combat operations. Just a few weeks ago, on 5 August, an attack at the national defence university outside Kabul cost the life of US army Major General Harold Greene and injured many more, including two UK personnel. I know I speak for everyone in this House when I say that our thoughts go out to the general’s friends, family and colleagues, and to all those who were wounded.
It is a testament to the bravery and sacrifice of our armed forces that Afghanistan is no longer a safe haven for international terrorists of the kind who spawned the 9/11 attacks, and that it now has the tools to maintain its own security. Our troops have helped build the Afghan national security forces from scratch to a strength of approximately 350,000 personnel, capable of battling the insurgency without our help and of sustaining our progress in eliminating the terrorist threat to the UK that once existed in Afghanistan. Afghan forces are now leading 99% of combat operations across Afghanistan and proving increasingly effective. Nowhere is that clearer than in the successful security operations to protect both rounds of presidential elections in April and June. With minimal support from ISAF, they prevented insurgents not just from significantly disrupting the elections, but from prosecuting a single high-profile attack on either polling day.
Significant challenges remain, and it is clear the insurgency will continue to test Afghan forces, particularly in Helmand, but when the Taliban had some short-term success earlier this year, capturing isolated checkpoints and rural areas in northern Helmand, the Afghan national security forces quickly regrouped, reinforced the area and reclaimed much of the lost ground. To maintain this progress, the ANSF needs our sustained support—and they will get it; at the NATO summit, international partners reaffirmed their financial commitment to the ANSF post-2014. At the Chicago summit in 2012, the UK committed £70 million per annum to this crucial activity. In Wales last week, we confirmed that we will continue to fund the ANSF at this level for at least the next three years.
As part of the evolution of our support for security in Afghanistan, we are continuing to draw down our troops. We now have only about 4,000 personnel in theatre, and have redeployed more than 70% of our vehicles and equipment. All UK combat forces will have left Afghanistan by the end of this year. The focus of our assistance is now the Afghan national army officer academy, which aims to provide the professional and effective leaders the army needs to maintain security in the years to come. I would like to take this opportunity to thank our coalition partners—Australia, New Zealand, Denmark and Norway—which are working alongside us at the academy to develop the future leaders of the Afghan army.
Since my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development made the last quarterly statement to the House on 14 May, the academy has reached full operating capacity. The third kandak of recruits, including the first female blook, have commenced training. That is an important milestone for the academy, and we look forward to continuing to support the Afghans in its development. However, for that to happen, the new Afghan Government will need urgently to agree the US-Afghan bilateral security agreement, and the NATO status of forces agreement.
As well as an effective military, Afghanistan needs political progress and stability to safeguard its future. The elections in April and June were an important step. The fact that they took place in a process managed by Afghan institutions was no small achievement for a people who until 10 years ago had never had the right to choose their leader.
A constitutional, peaceful transfer of power from President Karzai to his elected successor will be a milestone for Afghanistan and a source of pride and hope for its people. The enthusiasm for the elections was demonstrated by the large number of people who participated, with more than 7 million voting in the first round.
The UK continues to provide support to the electoral process and good governance. We have committed £20 million to help Afghan election bodies manage the 2014 and 2015 presidential and parliamentary elections. We are providing £4.5 million for a separate programme to increase women’s participation, and we have made £7.5 million available to help strengthen political institutions and processes.
The presidential election process has been challenging, but we welcome the agreement between the presidential candidates to support a full audit of the ballots cast on 14 June and for the winner to establish a Government of national unity. We welcome the joint statement to NATO from the two candidates on 4 September, which reaffirmed their commitment to a Government of national unity.
The UK helped the audit by providing dozens of observers as part of an international effort, and now that the audit has been completed, we encourage Dr Abdullah and Dr Ghani to continue to work together to build a Government of national unity. We have made it clear that our efforts are in support of the democratic process, and not any individual candidate. The choice of Afghan President must be for the people of Afghanistan to make.
Although there were reasonable and legitimate concerns with the electoral process, they do not justify threats of violence or extra-constitutional measures. Such measures would only imperil Afghanistan by risking the international community’s future financial and security support for the country. Afghan leaders now need to come together to build on the progress and construct the positive, peaceful future that the people of Afghanistan deserve. I spoke to our ambassador in Kabul just a few moments before coming into this Chamber, and the situation remains unresolved. We continue to use all our influence to encourage both candidates in the presidential race to resolve the impasse over the election; to respect the outcome of the audit; and to engage candidly in the political process towards a deal to form a Government.
We look forward in due course to working with the new Government as they build on the achievements of the past decade. We should be proud of the advances in basic services and economic development that we have helped to bring about. Some 6.7 million children now attend school, almost 3 million of whom are girls—there was virtually no female education under the Taliban. Some 15,000 km of roads have been rehabilitated, and 60% of the population now live within two hours’ walk of a public health facility, compared with less than 10% having any access to health care services in 2002.
There has also been significant progress on human rights, particularly women’s rights, since 2001, but we recognise that the gains made are fragile. We continue to remind the Afghan Government of the need to abide by their international commitments and the Afghan constitution to ensure the equal rights of all their citizens and to respect freedom of worship.
To help safeguard those gains, the UK will continue to support the Afghan Government’s efforts to build on the progress made, to grow their economy and to provide basic services and opportunities to all Afghans, including women. We are providing £3 million to strengthen access to justice for women in up to six provinces across Afghanistan. We contribute to the comprehensive agriculture and rural development facility—CARD-F—programme, which operates in five provinces, including a pilot programme in Helmand and a new intervention in Parwan. The programme promotes sustainable growth in legal rural incomes and employment. We also contribute to the strengthening provincial administration and delivery—SPAD—programme, which helps local government bodies in Bamyan deliver better public services in accordance with communities’ needs and priorities.
We are acutely aware of the challenges that the new Government will face. Although the Afghan economy has improved considerably over the past decade, it still remains extremely fragile. The draw-down of international forces, a continued reliance on a volatile agricultural sector and delays to mining projects all mean that the economy remains vulnerable to shocks. The protracted election process has also affected economic growth.
Afghanistan also faces significant fiscal challenges. The new Afghan Government will need to take urgent steps to manage expenditure, increase revenue collection further, address the fragility of its financial sector and strengthen governance and transparency. We will have an opportunity to discuss those issues when the UK Government co-chair the London conference on Afghanistan with the new Afghan Government in November. That conference will be an opportunity for the international community to reaffirm its support for Afghanistan’s development, to review progress against commitments made at the Tokyo conference in 2012 and to shape our future development partnership with Afghanistan, including the delivery of critical reforms, in the period after combat operations.
This country should be proud of what we and the Afghan people have achieved since 2001. Our focus now is on helping the Afghans to build on the gains of the last decade and, through our enduring commitment to their security, continuing to protect the UK from harm. I commend the statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for an advance copy of the quarterly statement. Given the scheduling of the statement, as he is aware, I shall be responding on behalf of the shadow Foreign Secretary.
Let me join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the British service personnel who have served and continue to serve in Afghanistan, to their families, who support them every step of the way, and to the 435 killed serving our country. They are in our thoughts every time we meet to discuss Afghanistan in the House. I join him in offering condolences to the families of the two UK personnel who were injured in the attack at the Fahim national defence university, which took place since the last such statement.
This has been a significant week in securing the future of Afghanistan following the ISAF draw-down by 2015, so we welcome the progress made at last week’s NATO summit, as outlined by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. It is clear that Afghanistan is a different country from what it was before operations began, and the whole House will agree that the priority now must be to agree a strategy for consolidating the gains achieved through such sacrifice. That strategy must include a political settlement for Afghanistan, a stable security agreement, support from regional allies, the continued engagement of international partners and the defence of human rights. I shall take each of those in turn.
As the Foreign Secretary indicated, progress in Afghanistan crucially depends on Afghan leaders resolving their post-election differences and agreeing to form a unified leadership for their country. As talks and dialogue between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani continue, the internationally backed process still holds the promise of being Afghanistan’s first democratic transfer of power, so will the Foreign Secretary tell the House what progress is being made in the negotiations? Does he agree that the process is particularly important given the need, as he mentioned, for a status of forces agreement to be reached with the Afghan Government, for which, of course, an Afghan Head of State is needed? Both candidates are committed to signing the agreement, but disputes about the results of the election have delayed any signature. Does he agree that an agreement is urgently needed so that the non-combat mission can be officially launched and the vital planning work can begin?
Alongside vital political progress, Afghanistan’s future stability will inevitably require a strong and stable Afghan security force. Despite the important pledges made at last week’s NATO summit, which we welcome, there is still a real risk of there being a shortfall in funding for the Afghan security services after the international draw-down. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that more still needs to be done to ensure that continued resources are available to the Afghan security forces in the long term?
What is his assessment of the Government’s confidence in the internal cohesion of those Afghan forces and their capabilities in the face of sustained pressure in the months ahead?
With the end of the ISAF mission by the end of the year, the nature and scope of our engagement with Afghanistan will change. The Foreign Secretary made it clear that Britain’s post-2014 contribution will be focused on the Afghan national army officer academy, but are there any plans for the UK to contribute to broader non-combat missions in Afghanistan? With those forces remaining in a training role in Afghanistan for some time following the 2014 draw-down, can the right hon. Gentleman reassure us about the levels of force protection that are envisaged?
Alongside our armed forces for many years now have been brave and committed British civilians from NGOs and Government officials, who have worked hard as part of an international aid effort to help to build peace and progress in Afghanistan. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that given events in Afghanistan and elsewhere, threats to their safety could become more significant? What steps are being taken to ensure the protection of international aid workers in Afghanistan?
Recent events across the middle east have highlighted to all of us the effect that outside actors can have on the internal dynamics of a state. In Afghanistan it has long been the case that certain regional players, specifically neighbouring countries including Iran, hold the key to securing the long-term peace and stability we all want to see. There is still a real danger, if the neighbouring countries pursue individual agendas leading to instability in Afghanistan, that all of them, as well as the wider international community, will suffer from the fallout. What is being done to ensure the sustained and ongoing engagement of regional partners, in particular Pakistan?
The progress the Foreign Secretary has outlined is welcomed by the whole House, but the continued commitment of NATO allies to the future security and prosperity of Afghanistan is still the key. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the protection of human rights remains a cornerstone of Afghanistan's future stability and security, and that the UK, along with allies, has a vital role to play in promoting this? We welcome the Government's hosting the development conference on Afghanistan in November. Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the conference will place a significant emphasis on the protection of girls and women in post-2014 Afghanistan? In particular, will Afghan women's groups and activists be appropriately represented at the conference, and can he assure the House that their voices were also heard at the NATO summit?
The Foreign Secretary described the significant gains made by women and girls since the Taliban lost power, but there remains a very real fear that that could be put at risk by the Taliban’s re-emergence at a political level, so will he act on Amnesty’s call for the UK to improve its support for human rights defenders, especially women, some of whom it was my privilege to meet recently? Will he draw up a country-specific plan, including appointing someone as a focal point in our embassy in Kabul? What assurances has the Foreign Secretary sought to ensure that those gains will be protected as part of any future negotiations over a political settlement with the Taliban and other insurgent groups?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the constructive tone of his remarks. I am delighted to learn, as I am sure everyone in the House is, that the shadow Foreign Secretary is not abroad somewhere, but working hard in and for the United Kingdom today.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about progress on the presidential negotiation. I think I mentioned in my statement the current state of play there. The audit is complete. I am told that the results of the audit will be made available privately to the candidates on the 11th or 12th of this month; there will then be a 48-hour period in which they can lodge formal complaints with the electoral complaints commission, with a public announcement expected on the 15th of this month. Notwithstanding the result of the audit, we are urging the two candidates to continue to work together on the political process to form a Government of national unity, and that is where we are focusing our effort at the moment.
We have made our commitment on the funding of the ANSF, and many other nations have made commitments. The US, which is leading the funding effort, continues to chase the recalcitrants—those who have not yet signed up. My understanding, though, is that the United States is committed to meeting the funding deficit, if there is one after the hat has returned, having gone around the loop.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about Afghan national security forces’ capabilities. From my time as Defence Secretary, I can say to him with complete honesty that everyone I ever spoke to in the UK military had been positively surprised by the progress that the ANSF made in terms of both quality and the speed with which they delivered. They have continued to surprise us by their capabilities, the rapidity with which they have taken overall responsibility and the enthusiasm with which they have embraced the responsibility for defending their own country.
Regarding the UK mission post-2014, our principal military contribution will be the Afghan national army officer academy. I think the right hon. Gentleman is aware that the level of our personnel contribution there will draw down quite rapidly after 2016, because this is essentially a train the trainer programme: we are building a cadre of Afghan trainers who will be able to staff the academy in the future. I can give him the assurance he seeks that we will maintain adequate force protection levels for our people for as long as they are there. I cannot tell him what that level will be, because to some extent it depends on how many troops other parties, particularly the United States, have in that part of the country, but we will work closely with them. We will also have advisers in Government security ministries—small numbers of high-level people who will exercise a significant influence and help the Afghan security ministries to reform their effort to support the Afghan national army in the field.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about protection for UK aid workers. That is an issue, as we will have a continuing significant aid programme. Most of that will be delivered through Afghan aid intermediaries, but we will have a number of UK aid workers, who will be Kabul-based after the end of this year. We will make sure that proper arrangements are in place for their protection.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that a key factor in the future stability of Afghanistan will be the attitude of its neighbours, particularly Pakistan but also Iran. We have an ongoing and very close dialogue with Pakistan. We are the sponsors of the trilateral dialogue between Afghanistan and Pakistan, mediated by the UK. Both the Afghans and the Pakistanis have made it clear to us that they find this initiative of the Prime Minister extremely helpful and they want it to continue, so we will continue to facilitate that discussion.
On the NATO ISAF commitment, anyone present at the NATO summit will have been struck by the resolute commitment of the ISAF nations to protecting the legacy in which they have invested so heavily, and the measured way in which the Afghan Defence Minister representing the Afghan Government set out his position and the commitments that were made. Of course there is uncertainty about the outcome of the presidential election. The good news is that both candidates are well known to the UK and the ISAF allies, and their positions on the security agenda and foreign policy are almost identical. We expect to be able to work very well with whichever one eventually becomes president.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about human rights and the conference in November. There will be a significant human rights component to the conference. The Afghan Government made significant commitments on both human rights and anti-corruption at Tokyo, and the western and other financial commitments to support Afghanistan’s development were made in response to those. We will want to remind the Afghan Government of the solemn commitments that they have made and to ensure the mechanisms are in place for monitoring delivery. There will be a significant presence at the conference of Afghan non-governmental organisations, including the human rights activists the right hon. Gentleman mentions.
There are clearly difficulties in the Afghan economy, with revenues down by 30% and civil servants not being paid, and the Foreign Secretary has spoken of difficulties in the agriculture and mining sectors. This will drive young men into the arms of the Taliban, and it would be ironic if the economy undermines the security situation. What progress has been made in offering support or advice, or enlisting international institutions, to help the Afghan economy?
My right hon. Friend makes a valid point. The Afghan economy is fragile, even though it has very significant potential. We all know—perhaps, rather closer to home, we were reminded of it yesterday—that uncertainty is the enemy of smooth economic development and sustained growth. Once the new Government are in place, this will become a major focus for our effort and that of other allies.
When the Foreign Secretary was Defence Secretary, he suggested that if the status of forces agreement was not signed by the end of September, we may consider accelerating the draw-down of our troops. Does he now assess that the outcome of the presidential election, or a dateline for that, is sufficiently certain that that will not be necessary?
We keep this situation under continuous review. We have two candidates who disagree about the outcome, but nobody disagrees that one of them has won. They are both absolutely committed to signing the bilateral security agreement and the status of forces agreement at the very beginning of their presidential term. At some point, this agreement must be signed. Practical decisions have to be taken by the UK and other countries in order to get our forces out by 31 December if an agreement is not in place, but our working assumption for now is that it will be put in place within the next few weeks.
The Foreign Secretary referred to our enduring commitment to the security of Afghanistan. He will know that the former Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Admiral Jim Stavridis, was very keen that the United Kingdom should leave a residual force of 1,000. We will be leaving about half that number. If this commitment is to mean anything, what will be the mix of the residual forces, and is the Foreign Secretary confident that they will be able to do the job?
I should first say that Admiral Stavridis’s comments, as my hon. Friend very well knows, were made in the context of a much higher total number that he was then bidding for to the Pentagon and other ISAF partners. The force that we leave behind will be focused around the training force in the Afghan national army officer academy, the life support troops working with them, the force protection element around that, and a detachment of engineers to support the small helicopter lift capability that we will need to retain in order to get people safely in and out of the officer academy. We are confident that that self-contained force will be adequate for the purposes we have set out.
The Foreign Secretary is aware of my concern about the early withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan given the continuing economic, political and security instability. Does he, on reflection, still think it was the right thing to do to withdraw troops this early?
Yes, I do. When the original announcement of the decision to end the ISAF combat mission in December 2014 was made, lots of people said that the ANSF would never be ready, that we could never build it up to its strength of 350,000, and that we would never be able to maintain stability on the ground. In fact, all those things have been achieved. The ANSF has built up its numbers and has demonstrated capability and commitment on the ground. In a sense, the ISAF draw-down has been a forcing mechanism for the Afghan Government, the Afghan people and the Afghan national security forces, and it leaves them stronger as a consequence.
I am very proud of the achievements of international forces and services in Afghanistan, including those associated with Gloucestershire, such as 1 Rifles, the allied rapid reaction corps, and of course GCHQ. However, with security once supported by international forces in Libya and Iraq threatening to unravel, does the Secretary of State agree that it is as important to the international community as it is to the Afghan national security forces that we deliver all the financial and technical support necessary to ensure their future success?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right—that is of course essential. The analogy with Libya can be misleading, though. The problem in Libya is a power vacuum. In Afghanistan, we have a Government clearly in control of most of the country, we have the basic institutions of civil government in place, and we have the 350,000-strong armed forces who are in control of most of the country. That is a very different situation from the one in Libya.
Prior to the NATO summit, Mr Rasmussen looked forward to a new chapter in our relationship with Afghanistan. What hope is there for that new relationship, with further and continuing Taliban violence and the election result as yet still undeclared?
The situation is not perfect, and I am not pretending that it is. We would have preferred a clear and decisive outcome to the presidential election that was accepted immediately by the losing candidate. That is not what we have, although we are very optimistic that the stalemate will be resolved over the next few days. With regard to continuing Taliban violence, nobody ever doubted that there would be a continuing insurgency. The question is whether we have created strong enough institutions of government, strong enough civil institutions and strong enough armed forces to contain that insurgency and allow the normal life of the country to go on and to function. Of course, once the new Government are installed and foreign forces have withdrawn, thus removing one of the principal bones of contention for many of the insurgents, there must then be a move towards a peace process that reconciles the elements of the Taliban who are willing to give up violence with the existing forces of the Government so that we have long-term and sustainable peace in Afghanistan.
My right hon. Friend has one or two problems on his plate at the moment, as he will be only too well aware. There are now reports of a pan-Islamist fundamentalist link-up between the Taliban and so-called Islamic State. Would he like to share his views on that? Is there any truth in it?
There is some evidence for it. My right hon. Friend will probably have seen evidence on his television screen of individual Taliban commanders. The Taliban are not a monolithic organisation but individual insurgent commanders who have indicated an attraction to the ideology of ISIL. That will be a problem that has to be managed. Everything is relative, is it not? A few years ago, we talked about the Taliban as an extreme Islamist movement. In the light of what we have seen in ISIL, it is probably fair to say that much of the Taliban agenda looks more like a nationalist agenda. It remains our belief that significant elements of the insurgency in Afghanistan are capable of being incorporated into a peace process. There will be small elements that are ideologically opposed to any compromise, and they will have to be dealt with very harshly.
The Foreign Secretary’s welcome admission of the fragility of the situation in Afghanistan was illustrated by the actions of Lieutenant-Colonel Enayatullah Barak, who did not reach Newport, although he was planning to be his country’s standard-bearer, because he sought asylum at Heathrow airport from what he regards as the hell of life in modern Afghanistan. Now that we are faced with many grave decisions on military activity in future, would it not be appropriate that this House looks to the decision that we took in 2006—when only two of our soldiers had died in combat—that led to 453 of them dying? That was the decision on going into Helmand. Should we not now plan to discover what went wrong with that decision?
The military, at least, regularly look at decisions that have been taken and consequences that flow from them, as part of their lessons learned process. We should be proud of what we have achieved in Afghanistan. Notwithstanding an individual who has decided that life in the UK looks more attractive than life in Afghanistan, the fact is that for ordinary Afghans life has got enormously better over the past few years.
This country has been in a state of almost constant war for the past 30 or 40 years, and for the first time in most people’s living memory they have the beginnings of a functioning democracy; a rapidly growing, though still fragile, economy; human rights on a scale that they have never seen before; and access to health care, education and transport infrastructure that their parents could never have dreamed of. That is real and tangible progress, and we should be proud of the part we have played in it.
Nevertheless, I put it to the Foreign Secretary that those of us who are critical of our Afghanistan policy point to the mistake made when we allowed the original, narrowly focused objective of defeating al-Qaeda, which we succeeded in doing and could have sustained, to morph into a much broader mission of nation-building, which we have struggled to sustain and which will ultimately result in the Taliban regaining control over large chunks of Afghanistan. What lessons can the Foreign Secretary draw from this episode with regard to our policy in the region generally?
My hon. Friend insists on looking at this with a glass-half-full mentality. Enormous gains have been made in Afghanistan and I simply do not accept that the inevitable outcome of this process is that the Taliban, as he says, will regain control of large areas of territory. I hope that a process of genuine reconciliation between the Taliban and the Government of Afghanistan will begin as soon as a new Government are in place. If my hon. Friend is inviting me to recognise the risks of mission creep, I promise him that I am up for that. I recognise entirely that when we go into any exercise, political or military, we need to be clear about the objectives we are seeking to achieve and we need to be extremely resistant to the temptation to allow the mission to creep.
What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had, either in his current role or previously, with Pakistan about how to stop the bases in Pakistan being used by elements of the Taliban that may not be reconciled to the new political arrangements? As he knows, the Durand line was drawn by a colonial administrator and does not reflect the Pashtun communities on both sides.
I am discovering in my new role that many lines representing the borders of many countries turn out to have been drawn with a red pencil by somebody in the Foreign Office many years ago. I visited Pakistan in my previous role and had many meetings here with previous Pakistani Prime Ministers and Presidents. Progress is being made along the border. A significant Pakistani effort is going on at the moment to deal with insurgents on the Pakistani side of the border in the North Waziristan agency area. It is essential that we continue to make the case that calming this border is in the interests of both countries. There are insurgents on both sides of the border operating across the border in the other country. The situation has to be a win-win for both countries in order to make it sustainable.
My right hon. Friend might have noted that the Iranian authorities have just arrested a number of Afghan and Pakistani citizens on their way across Iran to join the fight for the Islamic State in Syria. Will he acknowledge the significant number of common interests we share with Iran in combating the Islamic State and on issues such as drug interdiction coming out of Afghanistan, and will he act accordingly?
I recognise, of course, that we have a number of areas of shared concern, the rise of ISIL being one and concerns about the flow of drugs another. My hon. Friend will know that we are on the brink of reopening our embassy in Tehran and we hope that that will be the beginning of a sustained but properly calibrated re-establishment of good working diplomatic relationships with Iran, hopefully on the back of a comprehensive agreement of the outstanding nuclear proliferation issue, which we hope to see later this year.
May I ask the Foreign Secretary for two assurances? First, is everything being done, even at this late stage, to ensure that the Afghan security forces are at the highest level of capability? Secondly, although I completely agree that we should be proud of what we have achieved, will the Government take the opportunity at some point to learn the lessons from our commitment? It is important that we understand what we got right and what we got wrong, to inform the conduct of our foreign policy in the future.
I have some sympathy with that last point, but think that if such retrospectives are to be effective, we need to allow a little air gap so that the dust can settle and we can look at the issues from a proper historical perspective. I think that means that it will be an issue for the next Government to consider in a proper and timely fashion after the general election.
In response to the hon. Gentleman’s first question, even at this late stage we are, of course, still building the Afghan national security forces. The emphasis has moved from the front-line forces—the fighting capability is good—to making sure that their logistics are improving so that those front-line forces get the support they need in the field.
I very much welcome the Foreign Secretary’s announcement about the engagement with Pakistan and the work being done to reduce the porousness of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Will he bring us up to date on the latest plans for the ownership and future use of Camp Bastion and Camp Shorabak and whether they might have a role to play?
The state of play when I was last in the Ministry of Defence, which was eight weeks ago, was that Camp Bastion will be transferred to the Afghans. That has been agreed in principle: the Afghans want to take control of it. At that stage, there was an issue about how the perimeter would be secured without stretching the forces of 215 Brigade, which is responsible for that area of Afghanistan. In principle, however, a reduced perimeter Bastion will pass into the control of the Afghan national security forces on 31 December.
The Foreign Secretary has rightly drawn attention to the very difficult and hard-won progress on equal rights and human rights, not least with regard to the 6.7 million people—3 million of whom are girls and young women—who are now in school. Based on his analysis of the fragility of that progress and the fragile economy and politics of Afghanistan, how confident is the Foreign Secretary that it can be protected?
The Afghan constitution guarantees the rights of all Afghan citizens and we have to press the future Government of Afghanistan to ensure that the constitutional rights of all citizens are met. We also, of course, have a crucial lever in the Tokyo agreement, which provides that the substantial international aid support to Afghanistan over the years to come is specifically predicated on Afghan delivery on human rights, women’s rights and anti-corruption. By the way, this is not an agenda that we have to force on senior Afghans—all senior Afghan political players embrace it—but it is a deeply conservative country and they have to push this message down the line and make it work in practice across the provinces, towns and cities of Afghanistan. The conference in November will have a significant focus on how we ensure that the Tokyo commitments are delivered and that we work together with the Afghan Government to make that happen.
From his time as Defence Secretary, the Foreign Secretary will recall the argument that the hard-won gains in places such as Afghanistan could easily be reversed unless a strategic base or bridgehead area was established for the medium to long term in the region. Given what has happened in Iraq, where equally optimistic predictions about the long-term resilience of Iraqi forces were made, what would we expect to see in terms of a long or medium-term American presence if the status of forces agreement is eventually signed?
The US intention, subject to the bilateral security agreement being signed, is to have a continuing presence of US forces on the ground in Afghanistan, both for counter-terrorism activity and for the protection of US interests, but clearly I cannot speak for the US Government beyond the plans that they have already announced.
I just want to pick up my hon. Friend’s analogy, which many other people have sought to draw, between the Iraqi security forces and the Afghan national security forces. Afghanistan is a country of multiple ethnicity; yet we have not seen the kind of ethnic tensions in the Afghan national security forces that have clearly been present in the Iraqi security forces, and which are widely believed by western observers to have been instrumental in the failure of those forces to halt the ISIL advance earlier this year.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s information about the £3 million that is being provided for securing access to justice for women. Further to his response to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) about confidence in protecting women’s and girls’ rights and ensuring that they are secured, what are the Government doing and what will they do at the Tokyo conference specifically to make sure that that happens?
I think that the hon. Lady means the London conference; the Tokyo conference took place in 2012, when the commitments were made. At the London conference, we will very much look to reassert and get reaffirmation of those commitments by Afghanistan. We can do two things: we can use the leverage of the very significant aid and support that we provide to Afghanistan, and we can use our direct ability to provide support to the indigenous institutions that monitor and promote such agendas. Many hon. Members who have been to Afghanistan have had the opportunity to meet quite incredibly brave Afghan human rights activists, including women who have come to the British embassy to talk to us about what they are doing. In what is still a deeply conservative country, they take some considerable personal risk to promote the agendas in which they believe.
I am very pleased that the UK Government are still contributing to the comprehensive agriculture and rural development facility with the view to establishing sustainable agriculture, which will make a huge difference to the stability of Afghanistan and to expanding the economy. The UK once had a responsibility for bearing down on poppy growing in Afghanistan. Does it still have that responsibility, and how much progress has been made?
No, that is not our responsibility. An Afghan ministry is specifically devoted to poppy and drug eradication, and various initiatives are going on in different parts of the country. I have to say that the drug eradication programme is not one of the most strikingly successful elements of the package being delivered in Afghanistan. It is clearly an area in which significantly more work is required in the future.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. Much progress has been made. There is a question, however, about whether the Afghan national army is ready and able to take on the role whenever the UK withdraws from Afghanistan. I ask this question because the Iraqi army was well trained by the US army and the British Army and it was well equipped, but whenever the battle came from ISIS, it evaporated like snow off a ditch when the temperature rises. That prompts this question: what reassurance can the Foreign Secretary give the House that what happened in Iraq will not happen in Afghanistan? Along with the training and the equipment, is there a sincere and deep commitment there, and is the officer training college an integral part of ensuring that the Afghan national army can take on and continue to defeat the Taliban?
The officer training college is clearly vital, because good leadership is the key to an effective fighting force. The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that the Afghan national army has shown itself to be very capable in a fight. There are questions about the sustainability of its logistics, about some of its senior command and control elements, and about the way in which the Ministry of Defence is organised and how it interacts with the army—these issues are all being addressed—but there are no questions about the willingness of Afghan soldiers to engage in combat, or their ability when they do so. If hon. Members talk to any British service people who have served on the front line in Helmand, gone out on patrols with Afghan soldiers or seen them in fire-fights, they will say that there is no doubt about their commitment, bravery and willingness to fight. In Iraq, the situation was exacerbated by a sectarian Government who were clearly not governing on behalf of the whole of the Iraqi people, and by an army that reflected and was fatally undermined by those sectarian divisions. Those conditions do not exist in Afghanistan.
I had the privilege some time ago of visiting Camp Bastion to see the incredible work that our servicemen and women have done there. Given those achievements, is my right hon. Friend convinced that the numbers, with the 350,000 personnel in the Afghan national security forces and those going through the officer academy, are sufficient to maintain lasting peace for the future?
The surge number of 352,000 was not arrived at randomly; it was very carefully calculated, and we believe that it is sufficient. It is not sustainable in the long term, but the US has made it clear that it, along with other allies, is prepared to commit the financial resources to sustain that number at least until 2017. By that time, we hope to be in the position to see a gradual reduction in the number needed to maintain internal security.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that our emphasis must now shift from military involvement towards securing an enduring political settlement by good governance measures, such as encouraging the two presidential candidates to work together, and particularly by providing financial advice on tax-raising powers, as we have for several years?
Good governance is, indeed, one of the essential ingredients. I think my hon. Friend is aware that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has provided advice to the Afghan Treasury on how to improve its tax yield, which is an essential element in stabilising the Government’s finances. We will continue to provide advice and support to the Afghan Government, but we will also continue to encourage the peace process and, once the new Government is in place, to encourage outreach to moderate elements of the Taliban in the hope of reaching a comprehensive peace settlement.
The London conference will be an excellent opportunity to continue to remind the Afghan Government, as my right hon. Friend has said, of their need to abide by their international commitments to ensure the equal rights of all their citizens and to respect freedom of worship. How much success has he had in such discussions so far?
As I have said already, the Afghan constitution guarantees the human rights of the citizens and their right to freedom of worship. The Afghan Government made pledges to respect human rights and freedom of worship at Tokyo. However, we are not naive: we recognise that there can be a gap between what is written on a page of the constitution and what is delivered on the ground, and we will focus on that in the months and years ahead.
Most of the equipment in use in Afghanistan—the big kit, as it were, or the serious bits of equipment—will be brought back to the UK. Indeed, the vast majority of it has already been brought back to the UK, rehabilitated and brought back into core for the future use of the British Army as part of its Future Force 2020 posture. If equipment cannot be brought back but is of sustainable use to the Afghans, which means that they can sensibly use and maintain it—it is no good leaving them kit that they cannot service and maintain—then it will, where appropriate, be gifted to them. Equipment that fits into neither category will be destroyed so that it cannot possibly fall into the wrong hands.
Six years ago, 16th Air Assault Brigade, with personnel from all four battalions of the Parachute Regiment, undertook an extremely dangerous mission in transporting a huge turbine through hazardous terrain to the Kajaki dam. Will the Foreign Secretary tell us how much electricity it is generating?
As the hon. Gentleman well knows, the turbine has still not been installed. However, the last time I was in Afghanistan, a US team was looking at what could be done to bring it into operational use, because doing so could satisfy the electricity deficit in Kandahar.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the follow-up to the Hallett report on the on-the-runs administrative scheme, which was laid before the House on 17 July.
In response to the report’s recommendations, and on the basis of the advice I have received and considered, I have decided that the statement I make today is the fairest, promptest and most effective way to reduce the risk to future prosecutions and to provide the clarity called for in the report. I make this statement on behalf of the Government, having consulted the independent police and prosecuting authorities, who have seen this statement and agree that it represents the best way forward.
Lady Justice Hallett emphasised on a number of occasions in her report that the letters, however phrased, were not an amnesty. They were not a commitment by the state that individuals would not be prosecuted, whatever the strength of the case against them. They were only ever meant as statements of the facts, as they were believed to be at the time, as to whether or not an individual was wanted for questioning by the police. They were not intended to preclude investigation or prosecution on the basis of new evidence emerging after they were sent or fresh assessment of the existing evidence. However, in the light of her report, and in the light of the Downey case, it is clear to me that urgent clarification is needed on what comfort, if any, can be derived from those letters now.
There are two key points that it is important that all concerned should be clear about. First, the letters described by the Hallett report, issued in whatever form, or any similar or equivalent statements not made in letters, do not represent any commitment that the recipient would not be investigated or prosecuted if that is considered appropriate on the basis of the evidence available now. Those who received individual or composite letters, or any other form of indication, stating that they were “not wanted” and who derived comfort from that should cease to derive any such comfort. In short, the recipients should cease to place any reliance on those letters.
Secondly, decisions about investigations and prosecutions will be taken simply on the basis of the intelligence and/or evidence relating to whether or not the person concerned committed offences. That means that in any of their cases, and whatever was said in the letters sent to them or in statements made in the past, decisions taken today and in future will be taken on the basis of the views formed about investigation and prosecution by those who now have responsibility for those matters. Their views might be the same as those that led to the letters being sent in the past, or they might be different. It is the views of those who take the decisions now or in future that matter. All the evidence will be taken into account, regardless of whether it was available before the letters were sent or whether it has emerged subsequently.
That does not mean that all those who received “not wanted” statements in the past are now considered “wanted”; it simply means that they are in the same position as any other member of the public. If there is considered to be evidence or intelligence of their involvement in crime, they will be investigated by the police, and if the evidence is sufficient to warrant prosecution they will be prosecuted. That was always the intended status of the scheme, but the issues raised by the Downey case and highlighted in the Hallett report have made today’s clarification necessary.
I regard that as the appropriate position to take, and not an unfair one, for the following general reasons. The implementation of the scheme was highly unsatisfactory and suffered from a series of systemic failings, as the Hallett report set out for the House. It was developed piecemeal and without appropriate direction. There were various different forms of letters, and the content of a number of them was unsatisfactory. We know that errors of fact were made, and it may well be that errors of judgment were also made when cases were considered under the scheme. It is now clear that at least some of the letters were issued on an unreliable basis. The defects in the scheme identified by the report mean that there is a serious risk that that will turn out to be the case in relation to other letters as well.
The public interest in investigating and prosecuting serious crime is too important for there to be a risk of it being undermined by a scheme that, as is now clear, suffered from such significant flaws in its implementation. There is a particularly strong public interest in decisions about investigation and prosecution being taken on the basis of the current views, based on assessment now of all the evidence, of those responsible for investigating and prosecuting serious crime.
The letters have generated a serious degree of confusion about precisely what their legal effects might be, whether alone or when set alongside other facts, as in the John Downey case. It is very important for there to be clarity, particularly in the context of serious crime. It is to be recognised that, correctly or not, some of the recipients will have derived some comfort from a “not wanted” letter. It might be that some “not wanted” letters were issued in error or were based on flawed judgments at the time, and that the recipients of such letters were given a degree of comfort that was in fact unwarranted, even on the basis of the information at the time. That is greatly to be regretted. Such errors should never have occurred.
However, two points are to be noted in any such cases, in addition to the more general points I have just made. First, the public interest in mounting an investigation or prosecution, if the evidence warrants it, would remain very powerful. It should be a rare case indeed in which such an error should prevent such a prosecution—all the more so if the crime in question is a very serious one. Secondly, those who have received such statements now know in clear terms what position the Government take. They now have fair and clear warning that such comfort as they might have derived from the statements can no longer be taken. There is no continuing basis for any reliance on past statements. The scheme is at an end.
All those who sought or received statements through the administrative scheme should take note of today’s statement. I have deliberately made it in the public setting of Parliament, recognising and intending that it should be widely publicised as a result. I will take further steps to disseminate it. I will be drawing it to the attention of each of those who made requests on behalf of named individuals, reflecting the channels through which the communication of the original letters was made. In these ways, I can be confident that fair and proper notice will have been given to those affected by this statement, including those to whom letters were sent under the scheme. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement. The continued pain of the families and friends of the Hyde park victims should be at the forefront of our minds today, as well as all those in both communities who have never had truth or justice in relation to their own injuries or the loss of loved ones during the troubles. The outcome of the Downey case undoubtedly caused further distress to people who have suffered enough and deserved better. That is why I felt it was right to apologise for the catastrophic error that occurred in this specific case. I repeat that apology today.
However, it is also right to be robust in reminding people of the hard realities and tough choices that faced those striving against the odds to end the violence and secure a historic political agreement. Decisions were made and things done to make possible a peace process that, for all Northern Ireland’s challenges, has stood the test of time, a peace process that ended 30 years of troubles and brought to an end the killings, brutality and fear that destroyed too many lives.
If anyone thinks that it was easy, they have neither studied Northern Ireland’s history, nor reflected on the current political stalemate across a range of issues, a stalemate caused partly by an inability to compromise and partly because some of the issues touch festering sores not healed by the passage of time. In that context, the First Minister’s comments today should be welcomed as a frank acknowledgment that although much progress has been made, the current situation is unsustainable.
As the Secretary of State has repeatedly said, the OTR scheme was neither unlawful nor offered an amnesty to recipients of the letters. Lady Justice Hallett confirmed that to be the case. The clear intent of the scheme was to inform people not being sought by the police or prosecuting authorities that that was their status at the time their letter was sent. It was also clearly the intent of the scheme to make them aware that if any future evidence of a crime became available, they would be subject to appropriate action by the criminal justice system. However, Lady Justice Hallett found that errors had been made in at least two cases in addition to Downey, and identified the possibility that there may have been other examples where the basis or content of letters was questionable. In those circumstances the Government are right to seek to minimise the risk that other victims could be denied justice in the future. All Northern Ireland’s parties accept that the needs of victims must be at the centre of any new approach to dealing with the past. If that commitment is to mean anything, the Government had no option but to issue today’s clarification on the status of the letters.
I have some questions for the Secretary of State. How long does she estimate that it will take for the Police Service of Northern Ireland to assess each case covered by the OTR scheme, and is she satisfied that it has sufficient resources to undertake that work? Does she agree that while there may be circumstances where an agreed truth recovery process could protect people from incriminating themselves, an across-the-board amnesty would fail the non-negotiable test of creating a system to deal with the past that puts the needs of victims at centre stage? Is she willing to accept that there is an urgent need for the UK Government—where appropriate, supported by the Irish Government—to create and facilitate a process in support of the Northern Ireland parties that can seek to end the stalemate on the Haass issues, including the past and welfare reform? I conclude by thanking Lady Justice Hallett once again for her thorough and balanced report.
I thank the shadow Secretary of State for his support for the statement. Like him, I think that the concerns of victims must lie at the heart of our response to the OTR scheme, and I apologise to them for the error that was made and the pain that the Downey case has caused. I am happy to reiterate that apology. As the hon. Gentleman said, I also recognise that the First Minister’s comments today in the Belfast Telegraph are an important statement to which I will give careful thought. It is important that these matters are discussed with care across the Northern Ireland political parties. As I said in a speech to the British-Irish Association last week, it is important that progress is made on welfare reform, as well as on flags, parading and the past.
In response to the last question by the shadow Secretary of State, I say clearly that the Government will continue to do all we can to bring all the parties back to the table on those matters, and facilitate and push for an agreed way forward.
How long it will take the PSNI to assess all the cases processed under the scheme is primarily a matter for it, and it would not be appropriate for me to speak on its behalf. It has indicated, however, that it could take years and will not be done in a matter of months. We also had a recent statement by the Chief Constable that his resources will impact on his ability to deal with legacy issues of this sort, and the resources available to the PSNI are affected by the current debate on welfare reform. It appears that the in-year cuts being made to the PSNI’s budget will have an impact on its ability to deal with legacy cases, so I expect they will also impact on the speed with which it can consider these cases.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. On matters to do with OTRs we should always consider the victims, and victims’ families will welcome her statement today, confirming the view of Lady Justice Hallett that the letters could never have been considered in any way to represent an amnesty, and that should fresh evidence come forward those who received letters will be subject to the full force of the law. Will the Secretary of State confirm the Government’s robust view that an amnesty was never appropriate, and that all applications for the royal prerogative of mercy received by the Government have been refused by the Government?
I am happy to confirm what I have said on many occasions: this was not an amnesty, and that has been confirmed by all those who have appeared in front of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. I believe it is confirmed by Lady Justice Hallett, and it was confirmed by Sir Nigel Sweeney in the Downey judgment. The Government have always strongly opposed amnesties, which is why they opposed the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill. If we had inherited a scheme that involved an amnesty, we would have stopped it immediately. This was not an amnesty, and we will not be introducing an amnesty under any circumstances.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and the fact that she made it in the House after discussions with the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. I think that is appropriate, and I know a lot of people will appreciate the statement today. I also welcome the clarion certainty of the statement that this shameful episode is now over. Many people in Northern Ireland will welcome the fact that a line has been drawn under this.
Last week at the Select Committee the Secretary of State reiterated her appropriate and contrite apology for this matter—indeed, that was echoed by the Labour Front-Bench spokesman. In the Committee yesterday, however, the former chief of staff of the then Prime Minister, Mr Jonathan Powell, refused to apologise. Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be appropriate of the author of the scheme also to recognise that it was wrong and apologise?
The hon. Gentleman has obviously taken a close interest in this matter, and he is right to view today as drawing a line under it and reaching an end to what has been a painful episode for many people. On the evidence given to NIAC by Jonathan Powell, I think it is a matter for him whether he chooses to apologise. As I said in relation to the scheme, although I would not necessarily have done everything in the same way as the previous Government, or necessarily agreed with their overall approach to OTRs, I recognise that they were striving for a peaceful settlement in Northern Ireland, and dealing with an extremely difficult situation and difficult judgments.