House of Commons
Tuesday 14 May 2019
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
Security Situation in Sri Lanka
We remember the appalling terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday with enormous sadness and continue to assess the security situation. Operations are ongoing, and we assess that it is very likely that terrorists will try to mount further attacks.
What steps would the Secretary of State like to see the British media take to report more responsibly on terrorist attacks, especially following the decision by The Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror to publish edited footage of the Christchurch murders despite a public request from the New Zealand police authorities not to do so?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. All Members of this House are proud that the media in this country are among the freest and most vibrant in the world, but it is important that they exercise that freedom with responsibility when reporting terrorist incidents. The broadcasting of the Christchurch footage was regrettable, and I very much support the comment by the Prime Minister of New Zealand that we should not use the name of the perpetrator of the attacks to give him the glory that he was seeking.
One way to improve the security situation is to raise prosperity through trade. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the Secretary of State for International Trade on improving our trading relationship with Sri Lanka after Brexit?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. I have discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade on trade issues nearly every day, and Sri Lanka is one of the many countries where we want to be able to continue with tariff-free and quota-free trade. We look forward to pursuing those opportunities post Brexit.
Is the Secretary of State able to say anything about the security arrangements for those members of various Sri Lankan communities who have had to go into camps for their own protection as a result of the attacks?
If the right hon. Gentleman is talking about people with security concerns in this country, they should obviously talk to their local police force about their concerns. In terms of what we are doing in Sri Lanka, we have sent a team from the Metropolitan police counter-terrorism command to help families affected by the atrocity, and we have also sent the Foreign Office’s rapid deployment team to help families who wish to cut short their holidays.
The unity we saw after the Easter Sunday bombings has sadly been threatened by reprisal attacks against ordinary Sri Lankan Muslims and refugee communities from Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Will the Secretary of State do everything possible to encourage the Sri Lankan Government to provide those innocent people with the shelter and protection they need?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that important point. We all have to recognise that the purpose of that attack—and, indeed, the attack in Christchurch—was to stir up hatred between people of different faiths. That is why it is important for all leaders, both political and religious, to promote a message of tolerance. I thank the hon. Gentleman for doing that, but he is absolutely right to say that the Sri Lankan authorities need to do it as well.
I had a productive meeting with the United Nations Cyprus consultant Jane Holl Lute on 8 January this year, and my officials are in regular contact with her. I welcome the meeting of the two Cypriot leaders on 26 February, and we are supporting those efforts. In March, the Prime Minister met the Cypriot President, and the Foreign Secretary met Cypriot Foreign Minister Christodoulides to discuss how the UK can further support any future settlement.
Will the Minister join me in condemning the decision of the Turkish Government to begin drilling for oil and gas in the territorial waters of Cyprus, which not only jeopardises the chances of a successful resumption of the peace talks but risks a return to open conflict? Will he call on Turkey to immediately withdraw its drill ships from Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone?
Yesterday, I met the Turkish ambassador and had very constructive discussions with him. The position of the UK is that, in line with the UN convention on the law of the sea, exploratory drilling should not proceed in any area where sovereignty is under dispute.
Does the Minister agree that it will be impossible for talks between the two sides to restart with a view to getting reconciliation and a settlement while the Turkish incursion into Cyprus’s EEZ continues?
We would obviously like to see the de-escalation of any tensions and constructive talks to resume. We are doing our utmost as a guarantor power to play our role in that, and I hope that all the participants can get together and talk seriously once again about how some kind of settlement can be reached.
Did the Minister have any discussions with the Turkish ambassador about the re-run of the elections in Istanbul? Is there a possibility that we may be sending election observers?
Yes, I did have such discussions, and I sought assurances from the ambassador that an invitation to election observers would soon be forthcoming, so that the election in Istanbul can be seen by the world to be free, fair and transparent. I believe that we have made good progress on securing such an invitation.
There has been serious speculation that we may be willing to hand over some land from our British sovereign bases in the event of an agreement in Cyprus. Has the amount of land been agreed?
It has been the case for many years that we have been prepared to part with some of the sovereign base land. In that sense, our position remains unchanged.
I have a constituent who was assaulted by bouncers at a club in Cyprus and is now in the regional neurological centre with severe injuries. The authorities in Cyprus have dragged their feet during the investigation, but they have suggested that the perpetrators may have melted away across the border into northern Cyprus, where they are out of touch. Does the Minister agree that the continued division poses a threat to British tourists in Cyprus?
I extend my sympathy and concern following that assault. It is not the first such case in which people who are believed to have perpetrated a violent crime have fled to the north in order to exclude themselves from Cyprus’s jurisdiction. I hope that we are offering sufficient consular support, where appropriate, and we will of course follow up any other diplomatic efforts that we can make to pursue those who committed the crime.
Chagos Islands: International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion
The Foreign Secretary spoke to Mauritian Prime Minister Jugnauth about the British Indian Ocean Territory on 27 April. The Prime Minister met Prime Minister Jugnauth and the Mauritian permanent representative to the United Nations in New York in March to discuss a range of issues, including the British Indian Ocean Territory.
It must be difficult for Foreign Office Ministers to find the UK’s colonial legacy landing inconveniently in their laps, but what is at stake here is not just Chagossian justice, but the UK’s standing in the new post-Brexit world order. The UK must get on board and work with, not against, the UN, the ICJ and the rules-based order. It has to recognise that it cannot throw its weight around anymore. Will the Department engage constructively with the UN to determine where sovereignty really lies for the Chagossians and, ultimately, accept that sovereignty should lie with the people?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, that has never been the UK Government’s position. In fact, the Chagos archipelago has been under continuous British sovereignty since 1814. But he can deduce from my earlier answer that conversations are ongoing and that we are making strong representations. The whole world benefits from the security provided by having this base in the Indian ocean.
Whatever the outcome of the sovereignty situation, another issue is that the marine preservation zone has made it possible to protect fish stocks for large parts of the eastern coast of Africa. Wherever we end up, we must preserve the marine preservation zone.
We are proud of the UK’s record in creating not just that zone, but others around the world. They are incredibly important for the world’s oceans and demonstrate the importance of working together both globally and through the Commonwealth to preserve oceans and fish stocks.
Oman: Shihuh Tribe
The Government are aware of the concern surrounding the imprisonment of members of the Shihuh tribe in Oman. Her Majesty’s ambassador has raised this with the Omani Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Muscat. We continue to monitor the matter closely and are exploring the allegations further. Discussions on human rights form part of our bilateral exchanges with our close ally and partner Oman, including at the recent joint working group on 25 April. I look forward to meeting the Omani ambassador for the first time next week to discuss a wide range of issues.
I welcome the Minister to his place for his first Question Time. I am glad he is aware of the case of the Shihuh tribesmen from Musandam who have been given life sentences for something as trivial as communicating with human rights groups. Amnesty International has said that the convictions are “grossly unfair,” with credible claims that torture has been used to extract confessions. Will he undertake to speak to his Omani counterpart about this particular case and make it clear that the UK expects to see all citizens of Oman treated equally and fairly?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. This Government take their obligations in respect of human rights extremely seriously. When speaking to our friends and allies, we make this point and share best practice all the time. As I said, I will be seeing the Omani ambassador shortly and have no doubt that we will discuss a range of issues. I suspect this case may form part of that discussion.
Spanish Parliamentary Election: Gibraltar
We look forward to working with the next Spanish Government to enhance the prosperity of Gibraltar and, indeed, the neighbouring regions of Spain. Whichever Government are in office in Spain, we will remain steadfast in our support for Gibraltar and will not discuss or agree any proposals that compromise British sovereignty.
Given the recent attempts by the Spanish Government, with the backing of others in the EU, to exploit the Brexit negotiations with illegitimate sovereignty claims, can the Minister reassure the House that, whatever the political developments in Spain, the UK or the EU, we will categorically reject any attempt to erode UK sovereignty over the Rock?
Yes, I can give that assurance. Indeed, we completely disagree with the language that has been put into recent EU documents describing Gibraltar as a “colony.” Gibraltar is a full part of the UK family and has mature and modern constitutional relationships with the United Kingdom.
Last year I had the opportunity to visit Gibraltar with the armed forces parliamentary scheme, which made me very aware of Spain’s dependence on Gibraltar for job opportunities and economic interactions. Has the Minister had the opportunity to remind Spain of the importance to it of Gibraltar’s economy?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point out that this is a symbiotic relationship with mutual benefits. If one side tries to do harm to the other, both will find themselves harmed. I hope that the good relationships—economic, tourist access and everything else—can continue harmoniously once we have left the European Union.
So illustrious is the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) that, in addition to chairing with distinction the Select Committee on Justice, he also chairs the all-party parliamentary group on Gibraltar. His burden is a heavy one, and he should be heard.
I am deeply flattered and touched, Mr Speaker. For completeness, I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I know that the people and Government of Gibraltar will very much welcome the firm commitment of my right hon. Friend the Minister to our continuing support for British sovereignty. Will he also confirm that, whatever form of government is arranged in Spain after the elections, we will stress that it is in the interests of Spain, Gibraltar and the United Kingdom that we depart from the European Union in an orderly fashion that preserves the free flow of goods and people across the border and our strong economic ties? That will be to the advantage of all sides. A deal is necessary for Gibraltar’s sake, as it is for the sake of Spain and the UK.
Yes, indeed. My hon. Friend does an excellent job as chairman of the all-party group. Indeed, we were in Gibraltar together for its national day, thus allowing me to be the second shortest Member of Parliament attending the events. As he rightly says, I hope that the good relationship between Gibraltar and Spain can continue after Brexit, to the advantage of everybody.
Of course, SNP Members very much support the rights of the people of Gibraltar to self-determination. Their sovereignty should rest with them—and the sovereignty of the people of the Chagos Islands should rest with them. What conversations is the Minister having with other EU states to ensure that Gibraltar is not left behind in the carving out of any deal?
We very strongly defend Gibraltar’s rights—indeed, I work closely and personally with Fabian Picardo, the Chief Minister, and his excellent team. Through the Department for Exiting the European Union, regular meetings take place and we make sure we fully defend Gibraltar’s interests. I can happily and readily give the hon. Lady the assurance she is seeking that we will not let them down.
Saudi Arabia: Diplomatic Relations
I most recently met Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs al-Jubeir on 25 April and I also visited Saudi Arabia on 2 March. We have a long history of co-operation in support of regional stability, alongside frank conversations on areas of concern, including Khashoggi and human rights.
According to his Minister, the Saudi Government’s execution of 37 people was simply
“a deeply backwards step, which we deplore.”—[Official Report, 24 April 2019; Vol. 658, c. 749.]
But that is only one of many of the Saudi regime’s crimes, including responsibility for up to 60% of civilian deaths in Yemen. Does the Foreign Secretary agree with my concerned constituents that, when it comes to arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the UK should put morality before profit and end these sales?
Well, we do, which is why we have some of the strictest arms export restrictions of any country in the EU; last year, 226 export requests were refused. The executions to which the hon. Gentleman referred are barbaric. I referred to them and discussed them at some length with the Saudi Foreign Minister when he came here on 25 April. This remains a human rights priority country and we do raise these issues regularly.
Is there a point where our proper concern for the Realpolitik will be overtaken by alarm at the shocking behaviour of the kingdom?
There are many things that concern us about the human rights record of Saudi Arabia, and we call them out. This year, for the first time, we are hosting a ministerial-level conference on media freedom, which was in part prompted by the appalling murder of Khashoggi. We also have to recognise that we have to work with a number of countries in that region if there is to be peace and stability, and Saudi influence has been very important in the ceasefire that is beginning to take root in Yemen; it started last weekend.
Ministers repeatedly reassure the House of the representations they make to Saudi Arabia on human rights and, in particular, on the execution of dissidents. Can the Foreign Secretary give us one or two examples of where these representations have been successful: of lives that have been saved?
What I can tell the right hon. Gentleman is that in the case of Saudi Arabia there is a big domestic reform agenda, the Vision 2030 process, which has involved, for example, allowing women to drive for the first time and allowing women to travel abroad more freely. There have also been some releases of women’s rights activists. Whether that is as a direct result of British pressure or not, I cannot say. But do we make those representations? Yes, we do.
Perhaps the greatest role for the Foreign Office is to be peacemakers. What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with Saudi Foreign Ministers, and indeed with the Iranian Government and other Governments in the middle east, to try to encourage ecumenical dialogue between the Shi’a and Sunni traditions within Islam?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the UK, because of our historical links in the region, can play a positive role in bringing peace to troubled corners. The best example of that is what has happened in Yemen. Despite the fact that the conflict was started by the Houthis four years ago, I was the first western Foreign Minister to meet the Houthis—I met them on both 13 December and on 1 March. I was also the first western Foreign Minister to visit Yemen to see the other side, the Government of Yemen. We have played a constructive role in a ceasefire that appears to be taking root.
Following on from the earlier answer, I am glad that the Foreign Secretary appreciates the Labour Government’s achievement in bringing in the strictest rules on arms exports, but my constituents will want to know why, given the human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and the fact that it is one of the countries of concern for his own office, we are granting any export licences at all.
Let me explain to the hon. Lady what those rules are that Robin Cook introduced in 2001. They are stricter than the European guidelines and say that we do not give arms export licences if there is a risk of a breach of international humanitarian law. That judgment is made by someone at arm’s length, not by a politician, and the Foreign Secretary and Trade Secretary then take that assessment into account when they make the decisions. That is a better system than one that politicises these decisions. It is a Labour process that we are sticking to and the hon. Lady should be proud of it.
Given the continuing crisis in the Mediterranean sea, with many hundreds still fleeing and making the perilous journey across that seascape, what issues are the Government raising with Saudi Arabia to try to ensure that it offers some practical and sensible help for people in the Mediterranean?
We do have discussions on that issue, particularly in respect of Libya. In fact, I met the Libyan Prime Minister at the end of last week, and Saudi Arabia has made generous offers when it comes to financial assistance to try to stabilise the situation in both Libya and Yemen. That is another example of the benefits of having a practical relationship with a country like Saudi Arabia.
The UK remains deeply concerned about Hezbollah’s actions and behaviour in the region. As the Home Secretary outlined in February, Hezbollah’s destabilising role in the middle east led to our proscription of the group in its entirety. We continue to condemn Hezbollah and all armed militia groups for seeking to amass illegal weapons and arms, and for putting the security of Lebanon and Israel at risk, in direct contradiction of UN Security Council resolution 1701.
I offer my strong congratulations to the Minister on his new role; he is a good man.
I strongly welcome the Government’s decision to proscribe Hezbollah in full earlier this year. Israel recently revealed that it has exposed Hezbollah cells in border villages on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. Does the Minister share my grave concern and agree that were the Golan Heights to be under Syrian control, the security risk would be catastrophic, not only for Israel but for the entire region?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his generous words, and I share his concerns about this matter. We condemn Hezbollah—we could not be clearer than that—and have gone further than most countries in doing so. However, we consider the Golan Heights to be occupied territory, which is contrary to international law. We do not believe that the Golan Heights are part of the territory of the state of Israel.
I too congratulate the Minister on his new appointment.
I welcome the Government’s recent decision to proscribe the whole of Hezbollah, but will the Minister tell me what more we are doing to confront people in this country who encourage the group’s terrorism?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her comments.
We have proscribed Hezbollah, so it will not be able to demonstrate and spread its message of hate, contrary to the interests and values of this country. I do not think we could have done much more, immediately, to make it clear that the organisation is beyond the law and that people who campaign for or show support for it are committing a criminal act.
Hezbollah, as a proxy for Iran, promotes terrorism and instability right throughout the middle east. Last year, Hezbollah built six terror tunnels between the border of Lebanon and Israel, for the purpose of promoting terrorism and ruining any chances of peace; why has all that not been taken more seriously?
I hope the hon. Lady will understand that it is most definitely being taken seriously. Hezbollah is a clear and present danger: it destabilises the region and also offers instability in this country, which is why we have proscribed it in its entirety. That proscription has now taken effect—it happened in March—and I very much hope not only that it will assist in ensuring that activity in this country is curtailed but, more particularly, that when we are dealing with the region we make it absolutely clear that Hezbollah has no place in the middle east’s future.
I too welcome the Minister. Will he confirm that Hezbollah is in Syria working as a proxy for the Iranian regime and the Assad Government, and has played a malign role, killing many, many innocent people in the Syrian conflict?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. Hezbollah is a force for evil in our world today, which is why we have taken the strong action we have against it.
Hezbollah is arguably the most successful export to come out of revolutionary Iran. Does the Minister share my serious concern that we are talking not just about Hezbollah but about the presence of the Revolutionary Guard of Iran in Syria today? Does he share my serious concerns about the new threat this poses on the northern borders of Israel?
We need to understand what is happening in Syria and the fact that so many proxies of one sort or another are active and engaged in it—it is a maelstrom of such activity, and we need to deal with that. I think we know which countries are behind support for this in Syria, and all we can do is do what we can to maintain good relationships, as far as we possibly can, with those countries in the hope that our good counsel will prevail and that we will be able to curtail some of these unpleasant groups.
President Trump: State Visit
The Prime Minister and I are delighted that the President of the United States will come to the UK for a state visit in June. It will be an opportunity to celebrate our close and special relationship in areas such as trade, investment, security and defence, and Venezuela.
Many would say that the President should not be getting a state visit at all. In this country, when a bully elbows their way to the front of the queue, we might remonstrate in a politely British way, but we certainly do not reward that bad behaviour by inviting them back for tea. Could the Government perhaps be tactful and polite about this and say that we are all going to be rather busy in June—especially the Foreign Secretary, perhaps—and say that it might be better to reschedule for a later date, preferably long after the President is slung out?
Can we just deal with this ridiculous anti-Americanism on the Opposition Benches? One million jobs in this country depend on US inward investment, more than 400,000 American troops died in the second world war, and the President is coming here to mark the anniversary of D-day. We should honour that relationship, which goes far beyond differences in partisan politics.
One of the first foreign Heads of State I remember seeing address our Parliament was President Xi, who came here in October 2015, shortly after I was elected. This was an opportunity for us to listen to a Head of State from an important partner in the economic community. Does my right hon. Friend not agree that listening to partners and allies, particularly those with whom we share important intelligence and defence relationships, is how diplomacy is done?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I just think that as we celebrate 75 years since the end of the second world war, we should remember that we have the freedoms we enjoy in this House, which we exercise on a daily basis, because America was prepared to stand by our side at a critical moment. That eclipses all other short-term considerations.
Yesterday, three historical allies of the United States—France, Germany and the United Kingdom—made a statement on Syria that was extraordinarily disturbing. Has the Foreign Secretary made it his priority, whatever happens and whatever kind of visit this is, to seek partners in the US to take on the forces that have seen 120 people killed in Syria in recent days and 180,000 people displaced as this conflict goes on and on and on?
I thank the hon. Lady for bringing to the House’s attention the extremely concerning situation in Idlib. We had an agreement that we hoped would hold in order to avoid brutal bloodshed there, and we are very concerned—she is absolutely right about what is happening. I met the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo not only when he came to London last week but yesterday in Brussels, and we talk about all the issues concerning the middle east. We must recognise that America is trying to create stability and security in the middle east, and a lot of the malign forces and the problems we have in Syria are caused by the intervention of Russia, which made it difficult to conclude that conflict in the way that I think we would have wanted on both sides of the House.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) on assuming the role of Minister for the Middle East. I wish him well, and I hope that he has rather more success than I had in solving some of the problems in the region.
In his assessment of diplomatic priorities with the United States, will my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary ask that at all levels the US gives rather more support to the UK’s efforts at the UN to bring an end to the crisis in Libya? Would he welcome greater support through the Inter-Parliamentary Union from parliamentarians around the world, including friends in Canada, who are seeking to help? We could do with more support from United States friends.
My right hon. Friend is very modest about his time in the Foreign Office, as he did an enormous amount of patient diplomacy behind the scenes to try to solve these intractable problems, not least in Libya. I discussed the Libyan situation with Mike Pompeo yesterday, and I agree that this is an area where we all need to work together closely at the UN.
This House supports and values our relationship with the American people, but that does not equate to a free pass for President Trump’s unacceptable behaviour. When the Secretary of State puts together the agenda for this state visit, may I suggest that he begins with a training course on bullying and harassment, follows up with a science lecture on the climate emergency, and finishes off with a crash course in diplomacy?
I just point out to the hon. Lady that the person who is coming to this country for a state visit is the Head of State of the United States of America. There is no free pass for policies on which we disagree with the Trump Administration—climate change is one, and the Iran nuclear deal is another. We discuss all of them the whole time, but that does not mean that we should not respect the office or the country.
My right hon. Friend is precisely right, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) on his new ministerial post, which he will fulfil very well. May I perhaps gently remind those who do not accept this that America remains, and is likely to remain, our most important ally in the world? We may not agree with everything that it does or everything that it says, but this invitation is from our Head of State to its Head of State. We should accept that—we should not be condescending—and these barbed comments, driven by anti-Americanism, are extremely embarrassing.
I agree with my right hon. Friend. It is very important to recognise that even today, even under this Administration—we are very open; we do not agree with them on everything—about a third of the cost of defending Europe is met by American taxpayers. We should recognise that contribution, and recognise that the security blanket that the United States has provided for the world over the past 70 years or so has been absolutely fundamental to our prosperity.
I too congratulate the Minister for the Middle East on his appointment.
This Parliament has followed the lead of Scotland’s First Minister in declaring a climate emergency. That was the right thing to do and should be a diplomatic priority for this visit, so will the Foreign Secretary express our concerns about US actions at the recent Arctic Council that meant that an accord could not be signed because the US wanted to water down the commitment?
As so many Members have congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) on taking up his new post, I need to do the same. He is an outstanding colleague, and we are delighted to have him with us on the Front Bench.
We share the concerns of the hon. Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins) about what happened at the Arctic Council. This is an area where we have a number of disagreements with the approach taken by the US Administration. That is one reason why we think it is important that the UK win its bid to host COP 26—the big climate change conference that is due to take place next year—to demonstrate European unity on this issue.
In areas like climate change, trade and defending the NHS, we must continue to work with our European partners in the European Parliament and other institutions to counter the damaging policies pursued by the Trump Administration. Will the Foreign Secretary tell the President that those are backward steps, not the forward-thinking steps that we should pursue in Europe?
I think that the hon. Gentleman needs to look at the whole picture of America’s contribution to peace and security around the world. There is enormously destructive behaviour by states such as North Korea, Iran and Russia. American has led the charge in expelling more diplomats post Salisbury than any other country in the world; it is trying to create a peaceful accord with North Korea; and it is taking action against some of Iran’s activities. That is immensely important. We enjoy the benefits of that security, and we should not take it for granted.
Last month we saw the Trump Administration threatening to veto a UN resolution against the use of rape as a weapon of law unless all references to the reproductive rights of women were removed. Even more disgracefully, we saw the UN accept their demands. Can the Secretary of State explain why a President like that deserves the honour of a state visit?
With the greatest respect to the hon. Lady, who makes excellent contributions to debates in this House, I just wish that Labour got its priorities right. This is a party whose leader says that Hamas and Hezbollah are friends and refuses to go to a state banquet with the President of the United States. The resolution she talked about actually passed. The United Kingdom supported it. We do not agree with America on everything, but we do think we should show respect for its enormous contribution to world peace.
Persecution of Christians Overseas
I think that today the whole House will want to remember the six people killed on Sunday at mass in a Catholic church in Burkina Faso when a gunman arrived, stormed the church, killed the priest and then set fire to the church. That shows why this is such an important issue to address.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer and associate myself with his comments. I further thank him for the work that he has done by personally raising on his recent travels abroad the appalling persecution of Christians abroad, especially in countries like Nigeria. What has he learned from those trips about what more we can do, as a Government, to tackle the appalling persecution of Christians in the region?
I had a roundtable of faith leaders at the British high commissioner’s residence in Nigeria, and we had a very good discussion on this issue. The main thing that I took away from that discussion is the immensely important role that politicians have in developing countries in not fanning populism and hatred between religions in election campaigns, which is a very easy route to go down but can have immensely damaging consequences.
I welcome the recent publication of the Bishop of Truro’s interim report on the persecution of Christians. Does my right hon. Friend feel that there is now a strong case, based on the bishop’s early findings, for the Government to be even more public and more forceful in calling out persecution where it is identified?
I think there is. We will obviously await the bishop’s final report. The concern we had, and the reason that we commissioned the report, was a sense that while we have, rightly, called out persecution of people of other religions—the Rohingya in Burma, for example—we have been more reticent in doing that when it is Christians, yet 80% of all the religious persecution in the world happens to Christians.
Will the Foreign Secretary pay tribute to the work that Christian Churches do in helping, across Africa and across the world, countries that need help? This is Christian Aid Week. Christian Aid does wonderful things, working in clinics and so on. Perhaps we could use our soft power to widen the perception of that work.
I had the privilege, the week before last, of seeing the work done by a Catholic charity in the slums of Kenya. I know that former Prime Minister Gordon Brown was incredibly moved by the work of the Churches when he did his big trip to Africa, so in Christian Aid Week, along with everyone in this House, I salute the tremendous work of the Churches in poorer countries.
According to the recent report by Open Doors UK, 3,731 Christians were killed in Nigeria last year—the highest number in any country. This is a matter of huge concern for all of us, and it has an impact on community relations within the UK as well. What specific steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that that there are not negative consequences for community relations—for example, within the Nigerian diaspora? What steps is he taking with the Home Office to ensure that it is aware of this when considering applications for asylum from Nigerian Christians?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. The best the UK can do is to try to address that problem at source. I visited Maiduguri in north-east Nigeria the week before last. There is a big security issue and a big poverty issue, and because of organisations such as Islamic State West Africa and Boko Haram, there is an enormous amount of fear in local populations. We are working with the Nigerian Government and have offered them more help to try to resolve those problems, so that we do not face problems back here.
UK Soft Power
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer Questions 10, 11, 14, 15 and 19 together. [Interruption.] What a terrible bunch they are on the Opposition Benches!
Needless to say, our engagement with Europe goes well beyond EU membership. To ensure that the UK’s soft power potential is maximised after Brexit, we have already strengthened our diplomatic network, increased programme funding and produced bilateral strategies for each and every EU country. Globally, the FCO continues to support funding for, among others, the BBC World Service, the British Council and Chevening scholarships. We regard that as a key part of post-Brexit diplomacy.
With around 350 million people each week tuning into BBC radio and television programmes worldwide, and with the British Council, which my right hon. Friend mentioned, we no doubt have far greater soft power than other countries of our size—perhaps the biggest in the world—but is there more, even more, that the Government could be doing?
We could always be doing much more. From our tradition of democracy and our internationally acclaimed justice system, to our inclusive values of free speech, freedom of religion and gender equality, many of which have been raised in questions today, we hope that we are promoting our values globally through the influence and reach of our diplomatic network.
I am keen to accommodate colleagues with very important inquiries. I hope they can help each other by being extremely brief.
What representations has my right hon. Friend made to his counterparts about tackling the growing and potentially devastating problem of antimicrobial resistance?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning that. We believe the UK is at the forefront of international efforts to tackle antimicrobial resistance through a variety of UN agencies. We were instrumental in drafting a UN political declaration on AMR, agreed by no fewer than 193 member states at the General Assembly in September 2016.
The British Council all-party group, which I chair, is conducting a wide-ranging inquiry into our future soft power relationship with our European partners. Does the Minister agree with our early finding that we could better co-ordinate our efforts, and will he meet the all-party group as part of our inquiry?
We have strengthened our diplomatic network, increased programme funding and produced bilateral strategies for each and every EU country, as I mentioned. I am happy to engage with the British Council APPG, which my hon. Friend so skilfully chairs—or at least, that is what it says here. [Laughter.] I am being a little unfair to my hon. Friend. He is a fantastic chair of the group, and of course I will co-operate with the inquiry in every way he wishes.
With China creating more emissions than the EU and USA combined, how can the UK use its soft power and influence as a global leader in reducing carbon emissions to encourage other nations to follow our example?
Our soft power influence globally on climate change is extremely strong and—I think we all would recognise—extremely important. The Climate Change Act 2008 has inspired numerous other countries, not least New Zealand, which is promoting its own legislation in this area along those lines. We are working with Canada and have launched the Powering Past Coal Alliance, and the UK has hosted international zero-emissions vehicles and carbon capture, utilisation and storage summits in recent months.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Somerset on reaching the final of the one-day cup? With the cricket world cup here in the UK just a fortnight away, does he agree that sport is one way in which we can promote British values and strengthen relationships around the world?
That is a classic piece of shoehorning of a very high quality, upon which the hon. Gentleman is to be congratulated.
I congratulate Somerset on reaching the Royal London cup final, Obviously, that comes alongside commiserations to my hon. Friend’s local football club. Those of us who follow league two will realise that Yeovil Town has gone this season, but I hope it will bounce back very shortly. That will make the headlines in the Yeovil Express, I am afraid.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: sport is a major soft-power asset. We believe it does help to project and connect the UK internationally, not least with the cricket world cup that is imminently upon us.
The hon. Gentleman talks about the flight, and it is worth pointing out, as I have said—I am the City of London MP—that some jobs have of course been lost, but not to one particular place; they have actually gone to places such as Amsterdam, Luxembourg, Dublin and others. The truth of the matter is that financial services will work very closely together and there will be a mutuality of interests and an equivalence, not least because of the importance of London as Europe’s capital market, regardless of Brexit.
The British Council is a key agency of the Foreign Office. My constituent Aras Amiri was yesterday given a 10-year sentence on trumped-up charges by Iran. Will the Foreign Secretary meet me urgently this week, and will he update the House in a statement on what can be done in this terrible situation?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising that point. I know this matter is very close to her heart, not least because of a constituency interest. The Foreign Secretary will meet the family during the course of this week. I personally believe, as I am sure everyone does, that the sentencing of any individual purely on the basis of their employment with an entirely legitimate institution is entirely unacceptable. We deeply regret Iran’s attitude towards entirely legitimate organisations such as the British Council.
Will the UK use its soft power with India in particular to raise the case of a group of Christians who were beaten during a prayer meeting on 3 May? What are the Government going to do to raise the escalating number of cases of Christians being persecuted, particularly in India?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he says. The earlier exchanges made it very clear how seriously we take the issue of the persecution of Christians. India is one of many countries where there has been an increased worsening in recent years, and we will obviously take up at consular level all the cases to which he refers.
May I ask the Minister of State to use all his soft power and diplomatic skills with the French Government over the next three weeks, and urge them to ensure that the 71 veterans of la Libération who are still waiting to receive the Légion d’Honneur to which they are entitled get those honours before the 75th anniversary of D-day on 6 June?
I must confess that I will travel to Paris next week for the OECD ministerial meeting, and I will endeavour to have a line—those from my private office are waiting in the wings here—to make sure that we speak to counterparts about this injustice.
The UK remains committed to a two-state solution to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and we maintain a regular dialogue with our international counterparts about the peace process. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Asia and the Pacific met Israeli Ambassador Mark Regev on 30 April, and raised our concerns about recent Israeli comments on west bank annexation. We wholly condemn rocket fire by Hamas and other militants. We urge the parties to make progress towards a long-term agreement, and we look forward to the details of Mr Jared Kushner’s proposals.
The successful conclusion of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians is absolutely key to peace in the region; we accept that. Does the Minister not agree that the continued rejection of peace talks by Hamas and its continued commitment to the destruction of the state of Israel are real problems, and that until that is addressed it is very difficult for Israel to sit down and negotiate with Hamas?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. I strongly urge Hamas to desist from its activities. There is no way we can proceed towards a two-state solution until we have revocation of violence. Particularly from his position of strength as a Northern Ireland Member of Parliament and somebody who is well used to these matters, he speaks extremely wisely.
I welcome the Minister’s condemnation of any proposals to annex Occupied Palestinian Territories, but we know that President Trump will announce the “deal of the century” shortly after he visits this country next month. It might include proposals that support the Netanyahu Administration’s idea of going ahead with annexation, so what will the Minister do to prevent that, and what will he do if they do?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the question, but I am certainly not going to speculate on the matter he raises. Apropos the Foreign Secretary’s remarks a few moments ago, we are America’s closest friend and ally, but that does not prevent us from criticising it from time to time; that is what being friends is all about. [Interruption.] The shadow Foreign Secretary is chuntering from a sedentary position, but I gently point out that on 26 March officials in our embassy in Washington raised concerns directly with US counterparts regarding the United States’s decision to recognise the Golan Heights as part of the state of Israel, which is unacceptable.
The hon. Gentleman does not chunter, because he is a very well behaved young man.
A perception that the west applies the rule of law partially undermines our ability to broker peace, so what steps are the Government taking to ensure that the international rule of law is applied equally to the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements and to terrorist elements within Palestine?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is right that we need to be fair and equitable, and nowhere more so than in the middle east. I point to the postponed demolition of Khan al-Ahmar in area C of the west bank as an example of a positive intervention. We urge Israel to convert that postponement into something permanent. Although we are clearly friends with Israel, and indeed equally, I hope, with the Palestinians, that enables us from time to time to give a word to the wise, and that is what we will continue to do on both sides.
While unemployment in Gaza is at 50% and two thirds of Gazans live in poverty, over half of Hamas’s budget goes on military expenditure. Would not the lives of civilians in Gaza be improved, and the prospects for the peace process enhanced, were Hamas to spend its money, time and effort on the civilian population, rather than on building up its rocket arsenal?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Good governance means doing the things he describes. If Hamas aspires to run its territory as a good Government, it must address the concerns of its population. I will just point out that we have supported Gazans recently by addressing critical water and sanitation needs through a £2 million grant to UNICEF, and we have announced £2 million for the International Committee of the Red Cross for medicines and surgical supplies, so we are doing our bit.
I join colleagues in welcoming the new Minister for the Middle East to his post. Although I applaud the sterling work that other Foreign Office Ministers have been doing to cover the absence, it really is a disgrace that, at a time like this, we should have 50 days without a dedicated Minister for such a critical region. Does he agree that it is also a disgrace that Prime Minister Netanyahu is proposing to give the Israeli Government and Parliament the legal authority to ignore rulings from the Israeli Supreme Court and to put himself personally above the law?
I have to say to the right hon. Lady that in general we would support the Israeli Government, who are the only democracy in the middle east and a firm friend of this country. Where we find that our friends are doing something that we consider to be edgy or with which we disagree, we will certainly be keen to discuss that with them. I will meet the Israeli ambassador shortly to discuss a range of issues, and that matter might form part of our discussions, given that the right hon. Lady has raised it on the Floor of the House.
We of course support Israel, but we also support the rule of law. We can all see where this is going. Exactly one year on from the slaughter on the Gaza border, Netanyahu is taking a further giant step away from democracy and the rule of law by giving himself immunity against prosecution and complete impunity when it comes to attacking the freedoms of Israeli Arabs, ignoring the human rights of Palestinians in Gaza and completing the annexation of the west bank. Does the Minister agree that now is finally the time for the British Government to take a different step by recognising the state of Palestine while there is still a state left to recognise?
The crux of the right hon. Lady’s question is whether the British Government would recognise the state of Palestine, and I think she can anticipate my response. We support the two-state solution, when the time is right. That inevitably implies that we will support—recognise—the state of Palestine, but in the meantime we are engaged in building institutions that are necessary to sustain such a state. As I said earlier, that means building institutions across the piece, and we will continue to do that.
Time is short, so I have three brief one-sentence updates for the House. First, following my trip to Africa, I can announce that the Africa investment summit will happen on 20 January 2020.
Secondly, I know that the whole House was greatly relieved by the pardoning of the Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and I thank the Burmese Government for listening to representations made by us and many others.
Thirdly, I think the whole House will want to congratulate and thank United Nations envoy, Martin Griffiths, and the head of the UN monitors, General Michael Lollesgaard, for their extraordinary efforts in Yemen, which have led to the Houthis redeploying out of Hodeidah, which is the first real ray of sunlight since the Stockholm talks.
I welcome the decision by the Sultan of Brunei not to sentence LGBT people to death by stoning, but it is still a crime to be gay in Brunei. Will my right hon. Friend use his influence to urge the Kingdom to repeal that law?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. That is a very good example of some important lobbying by both me and the Minister of State for Asia, because that law is totally repugnant to us and our values. We recognise Brunei is a sovereign state, and it is for it to make its own laws, but that is contrary to British values.
Last year, the Foreign Office provided rent-free accommodation in a £20 million mansion to the Foreign Secretary’s predecessor and bought a £12 million luxury penthouse flat in New York, but in April failed to pay the cleaners at King Charles Street on time. When they did get the money, it was at the wrong rate. How can the Foreign Office claim, as it does on its website, that it supports
“our citizens…around the globe”,
if it cannot even pay them at home?
If we failed to pay any of our staff on time, I take full responsibility. It is the first I have heard of that issue and I will look into it rapidly. But I do think it is important that Britain has residences around the world, where we entertain foreign Governments and do our diplomacy, that we can be proud of and that reflect our role in the world.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work, both as the former Minister for prisons, with all-party groups and in raising the issue regularly with me. He is right that we have a range of different programmes. Our new Secretary of State for International Development, having recently been prisons Minister, is casting a fresh eye on that important issue.
The hon. Gentleman is right, and we have noted with great concern the widespread concern in Hong Kong about the proposed changes, including the protests of 28 April and the disorder on the floor of LegCo in relation to the extradition laws that are currently going through. We are considering the potential implications, including how they may affect UK citizens, and will push to ensure that one country, two systems remains intact.
Shall I say diplomatically that I was as intrigued by those media reports as my hon. Friend was?
We have not had good relations with the Houthis since the start of the Yemen conflict. I have met them twice, most recently on 1 March and before that on 13 December, and we are establishing a sort of relationship. We can start to raise that issue.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The honest answer to the demonstrations organised by Greta Thunberg and others is that while we have done more than many countries on climate change, we have not done enough. The biggest single thing we can do is to host a really impactful COP 26—the next big climate change conference—in 2020 to demonstrate global leadership on this very important issue.
Yes, there was. The hon. Lady has campaigned consistently on this issue, but I must be honest with her. There is a security emergency in Libya, with a very unstable situation on the ground, so that took up the bulk of our time. I did say that when the security issues have been resolved, it is a priority for us to return to that issue.
Does the Foreign Secretary share concerns that the proposed new arrangements to allow extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China will undermine confidence in Hong Kong as an international financial centre, break the firewall between the two legal systems and significantly contradict the Sino-British declaration?
As my hon. Friend is aware, we are deeply concerned in that regard. We are dealing with and speaking about potential extradition implications, not least with our outstanding consul general, Andy Heyn, out there in Hong Kong. The one country, two systems model needs to work well, and it is in China’s interest for that to happen, not least for the reasons she pointed out about the importance of Hong Kong as an international financial capital.
I thank the hon. Lady. She can be sure that I will visit Iraq again—it is a long time since I was there, in 2003. I support the points she made.
The thing with Iraq at the moment is that we appear to have rolled back Daesh, but there is a lot of work still to be done, particularly in and around Irbil, to ensure that those who perpetrated these dreadful crimes on the Iraqi people are brought to account. Work in that respect is ongoing. I look forward to seeing it on the ground.
What co-ordination is taking place between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DFID to ensure that British aid is given in pursuance of defined foreign policy goals?
I am the living embodiment of that, as is my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East.
Very well done.
I call Ms Marie Rimmer. She is not here, but the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) is.
I congratulate the new Minister and thank him for agreeing to meet me and my constituent this afternoon, so early in his tenure. What assessment has he made of the chances of the ceasefire in Yemen bearing success and opportunities to help people such as my constituent, Luke Symons, who is being held captive there?
I look forward to meeting the hon. Gentleman and his constituent later. The news from Hodeidah is good in relation to prosecuting the Stockholm proposal, but it is early days yet and of course we await the UN certification that there has in fact been an improvement in the situation—we expect news later today perhaps. We should welcome the progress made, however, and I look forward to seeing him later.
While recognising our own challenges here, the Foreign Secretary has rightly championed democratic values all over the world, so will Ministers join me, even as we await the formal results of the winners, in congratulating the 193 million Indonesians who participated, on an 80% turnout, in the presidential and general elections recently?
I would be delighted. They are lucky also to have an excellent trade envoy. I look forward to going to Indonesia later in the year and meeting counterparts in the new Government. We have a tremendous opportunity to do a huge amount of work with that very important country.
Better late than never. I was genuinely perturbed by the hon. Lady’s absence from the Chamber, but she has now beetled into the place and we will hear from her.
The human rights of Palestinians are quite clearly very close to the top of our list of priorities. The hon. Lady touched on Israel, the annexation of territory and the involvement of the US. Let us be clear. We want to see a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. I hope that makes our position clear.
At the start of Christian Aid Week, the focus of the organisation is on its maternal health work in Sierra Leone, where, since the Ebola crisis, 10 women die every day in childbirth and one in nine children die before their fifth birthday. Will the Foreign Secretary put Britain’s weight behind the campaign calling on the IMF to write off the loans it made to the African country to fight the Ebola outbreak?
My hon. Friend was a superb Public Health Minister, and it is good to hear he is still leading by example with his cycling. On maternal health in Sierra Leone, he will be glad to know that our bilateral programme there will deliver health services to 2 million women and children by 2020.
The ongoing tensions between Iran and the US concern many of my constituents, particularly those who would like to see a world without nuclear weapons. Is the Secretary of State considering making the UK a signatory to the UN treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons?
We are strong supporters of nuclear non-proliferation. We think it is one of the biggest and most important things achieved since the nuclear non-proliferation treaty of 1970. In this area, we take a different approach from the US, and I raised those concerns very openly with Mike Pompeo yesterday.
There are strong and growing trade links between the midlands and China. May I commend to my right hon. Friend the midlands engine bid to host the next UK-China regional leaders meeting later this year?
It seems an eminently sensible idea, although there are great trade links between much of the UK and many cities in China, and we look forward to the formal bid. I am sure the Department will consider it very seriously.
We will hear remaining colleagues if they guarantee to use no more than one short sentence each.
One of the key aspects of the Stockholm agreement was prisoner transfers. What progress has been made on that in Yemen?
We have not implemented all elements of the Stockholm agreement—that is one reason why it has taken so long since the meeting on 13 December. The UN special envoy decided that the best way to break the logjam was to identify the most important part of it, which was the redeployment of troops from Hodeidah. Now that is happening, we will seek to implement the rest of the agreement as quickly as possible.
Will the Foreign Secretary update the House on what the Foreign Office is doing to help the British Council employee who was recently sentenced in Iran?
We are awaiting details, but I propose to meet relatives of that individual later this week, because we are very concerned about what has happened. Then, obviously, we will do everything we can to support the individual.
Azerbaijan, a country with a terrible human rights record, will soon be welcoming Chelsea and Arsenal football fans. What advice does the Foreign Office offer on the likelihood of their experiencing racism, homophobia or other hate crimes?
I advise all travelling fans to study the published travel advice, which is always very carefully prepared and which is available on the Foreign Office website.
It is good to hear of the role played by the Churches in establishing the UK’s soft power, but could it work the other way round? We have a great many vacancies in the highlands. As and when someone from overseas applies to become a minister or a priest, may I look to the Foreign Office and the Home Office to assist that applicant in every possible way?
I was not aware that priests were on the shortage occupation list, but I shall be happy to look into the matter. My own church has had a vacancy for quite a long while, so this could be the answer.
I am extremely grateful to the Foreign Secretary. As ever, we have observed one simple fact today: Foreign Office is box office. The level of interest is great; the number of questions continues to rise; and Ministers can go about their business with an additional glint in their eye and spring in their step.
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit the killing or taking of hares during the breeding season; to repeal the Hares Preservation Act 1892; and for connected purposes.
One of the things that we all need to learn when we are first elected to the House is that it can be surprisingly difficult to get things done. A Minister who remains in one place for long enough will, slowly but surely, get important issues over the line, but not everything. For me, following my time in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, modernising our rules relating to hare preservation and, in particular, a close season on the shooting of hares remains unfinished business.
Hares are an iconic and much-loved species, famed for their boxing behaviour in March. However, their population has fallen to an estimated 800,000, from what was thought to be about 4 million in the mid to late 19th century. Our hare population is under increasing pressure from disease—including the rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus, which was identified in hares in January this year—and also from illegal hare coursing.
Let me take this opportunity to commend the work that the police are doing to tackle the illegal gangs who are responsible for hare coursing. Yesterday, I spoke to Phil Vickers, the national lead on these issues. We are now seeing far more police co-operation and co-ordination nationally. Police forces in Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Humberside and North Yorkshire are working together and sharing intelligence. The police estimate that about 150 hardened individuals are responsible for the majority of these illegal hare coursing events. Last year, the police prosecuted 47 individuals in Lincolnshire alone, so progress is being made. The police would welcome some changes in the law, such as a provision to make it easier for them to seize dogs and recover the cost of kennelling them, but that will be a matter for a different piece of legislation on a different day. My Bill addresses the shooting of hares.
The Government estimate that about 300,000 hares are shot each year, mostly during February and March. That figure sounds quite high, so when I first heard it, I felt some scepticism, and I took the liberty of talking to a gamekeeper on the Babworth estate, Jonathan Davis, about how it was possible for it to have become so high.
The figures are broadly as follows. There are 3,900 registered shooting estates in the UK. It is estimated that about 80% of them do not shoot hares, mainly because those in the shooting community increasingly recognise the plight of our hares and want to play their part in protecting them. However, around 20% of shooting estates—that is 780—still run organised hare shoots. They typically run across three days and the average take per day is 100 hares. If we add to that some of the more informal hare shoots that take place on farms, especially in Lincolnshire and East Yorkshire, we quickly realise that an assessment of 300,000 hares killed per year is indeed realistic, and if we set that against the estimated population of just 800,000 hares nationally, we see that that is of great concern.
A key tenet of all game and wildlife conservation is that we should protect species during their breeding season. That is why we have statutory close seasons on everything from ducks and pheasants through to deer, woodcock and geese. There are also animal welfare issues in targeting species during their breeding season. A baby hare—a leveret—will be dependent on its mother for typically four weeks after it is born, and if its mother is killed, the leveret will perish, which is a welfare concern.
As long ago as 1892, our Victorian forebears recognised the need to protect hares during their breeding season. The Hares Preservation Act 1892 introduced what was called a close time during the breeding season and it delivered this close time in those days through implementing a ban on the sale of hares or hare meat during the months of March to July inclusive. This 127-year-old law remains in force today, but it predates the advent of refrigeration and freezer technology, and it was also introduced in an era when hares were hunted predominantly for food, not shot, as now, for sport. As a result, the 1892 Act is hopelessly out of date; it is no longer effective. It is, indeed, no longer even enforced. It also leaves in place a peculiar anomaly and legal uncertainty in some areas that a game pie sold from the freezer by a pub cannot be sold during the months of March to July inclusive even though the hare may have been killed during the winter months.
My Bill would replace the 1892 Act with its ban on sale with a modern-day close season prohibiting the killing or taking of hares during the breeding season. Northern Ireland and Scotland already have such legislation in place; indeed, virtually every other European country that has a brown hare population protects its hares. We in England and Wales are unique so far in failing to do so, and this is an oversight that must be addressed.
In Scotland, the close season runs from the beginning of February, and I am open to discussion about precisely when the close season should be for England and Wales. My starting point is that at the very least it must replicate the provisions of the 1892 Act and cover the months from the beginning of March to the end of July, but there is a very strong case to have protection at least from the beginning of February, possibly even earlier, since we know that hares are capable of breeding during February, and in practice the shooting estates that still run hare shoots do not really shoot hares during the winter months because they are targeting game birds, and there are also safety concerns in shooting hares in a shoot if they are targeting, for instance, pheasants. What they actually do, when the close season for game birds begins at the end of January or beginning of February, is have another month or two when they run hare shoots; that gives them a commercial income during February and March.
I should add that I am also open to making provision to license culling in certain circumstances to prevent severe damage to crops, or to have some kind of limited farmers’ defence as provided in other legislation such as the Deer Acts.
Occasionally, this House passes small but important legislation, which can get forgotten or even neglected over time. Despite multiple better regulation initiatives by Governments of all colours over the decades, Ministers and Whitehall have collectively repeatedly decided that now is not the time to take action. This House has chosen not to repeal this hare legislation because it recognises that its intent and purposes are as valid, or more valid, today than ever before, yet this House and successive Governments have failed to take the action necessary to make this legislation effective in a modern era.
I want to persuade the House that now, finally, is the time to put this right and introduce a modern close season to safeguard our hares, because in January this year the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs identified the rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus 2, which has devastated our rabbit population, in hares for the first time, and estates right across East Anglia are reporting a worrying concern. With the instant die-off of hares and many hare carcases being found, it is clear that the RHDV2 is having a devastating effect.
As our hare population—what is left of it—faces this threat, it is essential that we act now to reduce the mortality of our hare population and to afford our hares the protection they deserve.
Question put and agreed to.
That Neil Parish, Jim Fitzpatrick, Norman Lamb, Sir Roger Gale, Henry Smith, Theresa Villiers, Helen Goodman, Simon Hoare, Sir Greg Knight, James Cartlidge, Jeremy Lefroy and George Eustice present the Bill.
George Eustice accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 390).
Prisons and Probation
[Relevant document: Ninety-fourth report of the Committee of Public Accounts, Transforming Rehabilitation: Progress Review.]
Order. For the avoidance of doubt, I should make it clear that under the Order of the House of yesterday the debate on the two Opposition day motions can last up to six hours; in other words the second of those debates must finish by shortly before 7 pm—my guestimate is 6.58—not at 7 pm as stated in error on the printed copies of today’s Order Paper. A correction has been issued and the online Order Paper is correct.
I beg to move,
That this House notes HM Chief Inspector of Probation’s recent conclusion that the privatised probation system is irredeemably flawed and that public ownership is the safer option; recognises that the Public Accounts Committee concluded that probation services are in a worse position than they were in before the Government embarked on its reforms; further notes the Government’s decision to return HMP Birmingham to public ownership following repeated failures under G4S; is concerned by the Government’s plans for at least two new prisons to be privately run; and calls on the Government to end its plans to sign new private probation contracts and contracts for new privately-run prisons.
Today’s debate will address the widespread failures that affect our justice system as a result of privatisation. Over the past 12 months this issue has shot up the justice agenda after two flagship privatisations ran aground. The Government had to cancel the privatised probation contract two years early. The failing probation companies had proved incapable of tackling reoffending and were financially unsustainable despite the Government handing a £500 million bail-out to them. There was also the decision to return HMP Birmingham to the public sector after unprecedented failures by the contractor G4S.
Yet despite the recent high-profile failings in the privatised justice sector the Government are on the verge of signing yet more private prison contracts and yet more probation contracts, throwing more good money after bad. But just how bad does it have to get before the Conservative party ends its obsession with the private sector? Today, Members have a chance to show their rejection of this flawed policy. The Opposition motion has one simple demand: it calls on the Government to scrap their plans to sign new private probation contracts and contracts for new privately run prisons. As usual, the Government will probably claim that we in the Opposition are driven by ideology in our commitment to ridding the justice system of the scourge of privatisation, but the reality is that only one party in this debate is driven by ideology. It is the Conservative party, whose insistence that the market is always best has proved so costly to our railways and our utilities and so dangerous to our justice system.
My hon. Friend is right to say that these reforms—as the Government call them; I call them destructive measures—are driven by ideology, including the completely misguided idea of splitting the probation service into higher risk services being covered by the National Probation Service and lower risk ones being covered by private companies? Does he agree that, although the Government were warned from the outset that that split would be disastrous, they proceeded with it in any event, in the teeth of all the evidence?
My hon. Friend makes an important point very eloquently. As she says, splitting probation into two and part-privatising it has been a disaster. From the outset, the Labour party was among those warning the Government not to take that dangerous road.
If Conservative Members will not listen to the views expressed today on the Opposition Benches, I respectfully encourage them to take seriously the words of Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former Secretary of State under Margaret Thatcher. Just last month, he wrote in the Financial Times that
“contracting out prisons to the private sector has been a serious mistake.”
He also made a point about the incarceration of human beings for profit—which I wholeheartedly share—when he said:
“The physical deprivation of the citizen’s liberty should not be the responsibility of a private company or of its employees.”
Even if Conservative Members do not share those moral principles, the record of privatisation in leaving the public less safe and the taxpayer out of pocket should put an end to this failed experiment. That is why change is needed: privatisation has been proven not to work.
Nowhere has the experiment of justice privatisation been so thoroughly tested as in the United States of America. Members might be surprised to learn that we have a greater proportion of prisoners in private prisons than the United States federal Government prison system does. That is quite astounding. Concern over safety and value for money in private prisons was one of the reasons behind the Obama Administration’s 2016 decision to plan a gradual phase-out of private prisons by letting contracts expire. Sadly, that decision was overturned by Trump. In the memorandum announcing the plans to phase out private prisons, the US Department of Justice said that
“time has shown that they compare poorly to our own Bureau facilities. They simply do not provide the same level of correctional services…and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and…they do not maintain the same level of safety and security. The rehabilitative services…such as educational programs and job training, have proved difficult to replicate and outsource”.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful argument. He has referred to the United States of America, and I would like to refer briefly to the prison estate in Wales, which presently has 800 more places than necessary for Welsh offenders, many of whom are none the less imprisoned in England. All our female offenders are sent to England. In no way can it be said that the prison estate in Wales has been designed with the rehabilitation needs of Wales as a priority. Will the hon. Gentleman join me and his colleagues in the Welsh Government in calling for the full devolution of criminal justice, and especially of prisons and probation? Join your colleagues in the Welsh Government.
The hon. Lady makes an interesting point, and we can of course learn from the experiences in Wales and Scotland. I will touch on probation and wider justice later in my speech.
The UK Government are looking at creating new women’s centres. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the priorities in developing policy for women offenders should ideally be the far more practical solution of installing a women’s centre in Wales so that our female offenders do not have to be imprisoned in England? Does he agree that that would be a far better policy response by the UK Government?
I tend to agree with my hon. Friend on that point, as on virtually everything else.
There is so much wrong with our prisons and with our wider justice system. It is overcrowded and too reliant on ineffective short prison sentences. It is also too punitive, and insufficiently focused on turning lives around. Slashing hundreds of millions of pounds from prison budgets and axing thousands of staff members have also been key drivers in what we must now call this justice emergency. Across the board, the scale of justice cuts is eye-watering, totalling 40% under the Conservatives. These cuts often go hand in hand with privatisation and, as budgets fall, there is a greater push for the private sector to step in.
About 20 years ago when I was on the Home Affairs Committee, we visited private prisons in the United States. In those days, boot camps were in vogue; they were going to save a lot of money. They never worked in the United States, however, and that should have been a lesson for the Government here when they privatised the Prison Service. The same thing has happened in our benefits system. Does my hon. Friend agree that this just does not work in social policy and rehabilitation?
I certainly do. I do not think that this Government or our society should see the United States of America as the example to follow in relation to incarceration and justice. People on both sides of the House should take note of the expanding campaign among progressives in the Democratic party in the United States against private prisons.
Under the Conservatives, the driving down of prison staffing levels and prison budgets was an attempt by the current Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling)—who will feature again in this debate, as he does in so many others—to lower the cost of public sector prisons to those in the private sector. That has proven to be a dangerous race to the bottom, and private and public prisons are now far too dangerous.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a really frightening and terrible statistic from the Ministry of Justice that private prisons are 47% more dangerous than public prisons?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. That fact should weigh heavily with the Government. It means that they should not dismiss this debate as being ideological driven and that they should instead look at the objective facts and think about what can be done to turn this situation around. Violence is at record levels, with an assault being recorded every 20 minutes in our prisons. The number of prisons labelled as being of “serious concern” is the highest for years. It is not enough simply to end prison and probation privatisation, but it is a necessary step if we are going to create a justice system that focuses on rehabilitation and public safety—values that are not consistent with maximising private profit.
We heard earlier about the need for a women’s centre in Wales. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a tragedy that women, including those who have faced abuse in their lives, are leaving prison today with no accommodation to go to? Too many women are in that position, which is why the network of women’s centres is so important.
Women’s centres play a crucial role, and their work needs to be expanded. The female prison estate is a case study in illustrating that short-term custodial sentences do more harm than good to the individual, to wider society and to the public purse. My hon. Friend makes an important and powerful point.
Returning to private prisons, I want to focus on staffing levels, disproportionate violence, overcrowding, the lack of accountability, the extra costs incurred by the taxpayer, and the funds that could go towards public investment that actually go into private profits.
The hon. Gentleman has been making a case predicated on ideology. To be clear, is it his view that there should be no private involvement in the prison estate whatsoever as a matter of principle, or is he arguing for a mixed economy but merely better management and supervision of private providers to ensure equity of service?
We are looking for an evidence-based approach. Given that privatisation in the justice system has been such a failure, it seems rather strange that the Government’s response seems to be to carry on digging while in a hole. As I will say later, even answers to parliamentary questions on private prisons often do not provide statistics and answers about, for example, the necessary staffing levels to sort out the crisis in our prison system.
Could there be a compromise here? For example, the service itself could be provided by the Government, but the voluntary sector could provide some elements of rehabilitation and probation.
The voluntary sector plays an important role in our justice system and will continue to do so under a Labour Government.
Eight years ago, HMP Birmingham became the first publicly built, owned and operated UK prison to be transferred to the private sector. That is why its return to the public sector after such catastrophic failings under G4S should be a watershed moment. HMP Birmingham was the most violent prison in the country. When the state stepped in in August 2018 and took back control from G4S, what did it then do? It immediately brought in extra prison officers and moved hundreds of prisoners out—a clear indication of private sector understaffing and of the overcrowding that results from the private sector putting profits first.
The crisis at Birmingham Prison was not localised; G4S has failed across the justice sector. It has been forced to give up youth prisons after abuse allegations. Horrific treatment in its immigration and detention centres has been exposed. The security giant is also still under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office for its role in the electronic tagging scandal, which included charging for dead people. Let me be honest: its role in our justice system should have been suspended there and then, but the Government appear to be in hock to it, which is no wonder given that it has Ministry of Justice contracts worth £5 billion.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government could learn lessons from the public sector HMP Berwyn in Wrexham? A measured approach over a number of years has meant a gradual build-up of the number of men in the prison. In addition, the fact that it is directly accountable to, for example, me as the local Member of Parliament and to others in this House means that we can look closely at the situation and that we can address difficulties when they arise.
My hon. Friend makes some important points. No one is saying that the publicly run prison system is without problems, because the crisis extends across public sector prisons, but my hon. Friend explains eloquently that lessons can be learned from the experience at places such as HMP Berwyn. His point about accountability is crucial. With a privatised justice system and private prisons, accountability, which is so important for our democracy and so important to turn the justice crisis around, is sadly deficient.
On accountability, the previous prisons Minister, the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), was going to resign if he did not improve the prisons, so I wonder whether we will hear about the current prisons Minister’s attitude to that. The previous pledge was based on improvements at 10 institutions, including Wormwood Scrubs in my constituency, but of course there are another hundred or so prisons. We want to get away from this ad hoc approach. We need consistency across the Prison Service.
My hon. Friend, who makes an important point, has always been a passionate advocate for the improvement of conditions at Wormwood Scrubs. He is right that the former prisons Minister had pledged to disappear from that role if he did not improve things in those 10 prisons.
He has! [Laughter.]
He has, but under different circumstances. The key point is that the 10 prisons were cherry picked and were not the 10 worst. If we are to turn this justice crisis around, we need a serious, measured, objective approach based on the evidence, not on chasing headlines for political promotion.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the statistic that there are 47% more violent incidents in private prisons than in those in the public estate, revealed in The Guardian yesterday, is truly shocking? We hope to hear more from Government Members about how they are going to tackle that dreadful new finding.
My hon. Friend is completely correct. The statistic she refers to demands a constructive response from the Government in this debate. Given statistics such as those revealed in The Guardian yesterday, the Government cannot just dismiss this Opposition motion as an ideological fixation.
Last year, the Sodexo-run Peterborough Prison became the first women’s jail in years to be deemed insufficiently safe, showing that the problem goes far beyond the failings of one company—the aforementioned G4S—because this is about the failure of an entire ideology. Serco, where the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), once worked as a spin doctor and which has Ministry of Justice contracts worth £2.5 billion, was forced to repay millions of pounds after scandals involving separate contracts for tagging and for escorting prisoners to court. Despite repeated failures, the 13 private prisons currently managed by G4S, Serco and Sodexo are set to be added to, starting with Wellingborough and then Glen Parva. The new prisons are to be built using the Birmingham model—built with public money and then handed over to the private sector to make profits at public expense.
Who will run the new prisons? Have the Government learned lessons from the failings of G4S and the like? Sadly, in response to my written parliamentary questions, the Government have refused to tell me who is most likely to run them, hiding behind the cloak of commercial sensitivity. However, the Secretary of State has indicated that G4S, Sodexo and Serco are all interested, so I wonder whether he will say today that he will exclude the companies that currently run prisons from bidding, given their record of failure. I have already asked him this question in writing, but why have the Government decided to ban the public sector from even bidding to run new prisons at Wellingborough and Glen Parva? Given that most prisons are in the public sector, it seems strange that the public sector is to be banned from competing in the bidding process. Some may conclude that the system has been stacked in favour of the private sector again.
There is a lack of openness about who will be running the private prisons, something which I have come up against time and again when raising my concerns. Requests for information about a key public service that should be available are denied due to commercial sensitivities, which is surely not right. One method of cost cutting for private prisons is obviously to cut staffing levels, even though understaffing is a key driver of prison violence, and there are real fears that that is happening. However, the Government refuse to reveal how many officers are employed at private prisons, despite numerous parliamentary questions and even requests from members of the Select Committee on Justice.
The prison officers’ union has raised concerns that private prisons have higher prisoner-to-officer ratios than public prisons, yet the Justice Secretary recently told me that his Department
“does not mandate staffing numbers in privately operated prisons. It is the responsibility of the contractor to determine and maintain the number of staff necessary to discharge the requirements of the contract”.
It is simply bizarre that state prisons have to publish staffing figures quarterly but private prisons do not. Again, we see how the private sector is allowed to hide in a shroud of secrecy while delivering public services.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not just about the level of violence as a result of higher prisoner-to-staff ratios but about the lack of rehabilitation services and the inability of staff to help inmates to learn, for instance, how to read and write? That is one of the reasons for reoffending when they come out.
That is an important point. Rehabilitation is key to an effective criminal justice system and to turning lives around and keeping communities safer. It is not just about violence; it is also about the failure to offer proper rehabilitation programmes, properly staffed and properly funded.
Opposition Members, experts and staff believe that private firms could be deliberately understaffing prisons to boost their profits. It is clearly in the public interest that staffing levels in private prisons be routinely published, just as they are routinely published for publicly run prisons.
If the Government want to reassure the public that private profit is not being put before the safety of prisoners, staff and wider society, will the Secretary of State today commit to making private companies come clean on staffing levels and publish them on the same terms as public prisons do? That is a very reasonable request.
One set of data that private prisons do have to publish is on assaults, which only adds to fears that privatisation is putting rehabilitation at risk. I put on record the shocking new figures that came to light in The Guardian yesterday, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) alluded, on the scale of violence in private prisons. The figures come from an analysis of the Government’s answers to my parliamentary questions, so there is no doubt about their accuracy.
Despite comprising just 13% of adult prisons, private prisons are disproportionately represented among the most violent. Three of the 10 most violent adult prisons are private—that is 30%—as are five of the top 20, or 25%. In the most violent category, male local prisons, four of the five private prisons have an above-average level of assaults. That is 80% of all such private prisons. The figures show that private male local prisons are over 40% more violent than their public equivalents.
Labour has made it clear that, in office, we will scrap privately run prisons. The Tories should follow Labour’s lead and drop their ideological obsession with privatisation but, if they will not, the very least they should do—in the light of these figures and the other issues of safety, transparency and accountability that I have set out—is halt plans for more private prisons and establish an independent inquiry into whether privatisation is creating a threat to safety in our prison system. Again a very reasonable request, and I look forward to the Secretary of State’s answer.
Private prisons are also disproportionately overcrowded, with the 2018 House of Commons Library briefing suggesting that, although just over half of public sector prisons are overcrowded, this rises to 85% in the private sector. The fear is a simple one: more prisoners means more money for private operators, which is one of the many perverse incentives created by running prisons for profit. More analysis is needed on those figures. Again, an independent inquiry could look into whether private prisons are, indeed, more overcrowded.
As I have mentioned, the slash-and-burn approach to prison staffing and budgets was an attempt to drive down public sector costs to those of the private sector. That was done under the tenure at the Ministry of Justice of the current Secretary of State for Transport. Perhaps he should be responding to this debate, as our justice system is full of examples of his dangerous obsession with outsourcing and privatisation. It is not too late for his successor to take a different course.
Prison maintenance, for example, was privatised in 2015, with contracts worth around £500 million handed to Carillion and Amey. The £115 million planned savings to the state never materialised, but our prisons paid the price. Cells were left with smashed windows, while inmates lived in squalor and, in some cases, were unable to access towels and even soap.
Take HMP Liverpool. Inspectors found the prison to be rat-infested, with Dickensian conditions as thousands of basic maintenance jobs had not been completed. After the collapse of Carillion, the Ministry of Justice set up a new public facilities management company to replace the work of Carillion, but it has refused to rule out reprivatising this work, and let us be clear that Amey is still underperforming in too many prisons. Will the Justice Secretary commit today to bringing all maintenance contracts back in-house when they expire?
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech and some excellent points. One of the findings of the Environmental Audit Committee’s review of sustainability practices in the Ministry of Justice is that contractors are unaware of their obligations. One site of special scientific interest, an important nature area, was being mown by the contractor with no oversight of the environmental sustainability issues at the prison. Does he agree that any new contracts must be managed in-house in order to have control over the future sustainability of the prisons estate?
Order. Notwithstanding colleagues’ appetite for interrogation, which is often insatiable, and the natural courtesy of the shadow Secretary of State in wanting to accommodate colleagues, I am cautiously optimistic that he is approaching his peroration simply because of the number of colleagues who wish to contribute to the debate. That is not binding. I am merely expressing my cautious optimism.
This House is a place for cautious optimism, which is very appropriate—not perhaps on all sides.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) makes an important point about environmental sustainability. When there is not sufficient accountability, when profit is being pursued, the price is often paid not only by prisoners and wider society but by the environment. I am glad that the public are increasingly mindful of those important issues.
In 2013 the then Justice Secretary announced the break-up and part-privatisation of the award-winning probation service. Can anyone guess who it was? Of course, it was the current Transport Secretary. Probation does not get the attention of the Prison Service, but it should because it manages a quarter of a million offenders in our communities—around 400 in each constituency on average.
After part-privatisation, 21 private sector community rehabilitation companies manage, or rather mismanage, 150,000 offenders. The Conservatives’ part-privatisation of probation has been a reckless and costly experiment that has failed to protect the public, fragmenting and damaging an award-winning service. Serious reoffending has soared, supervision is severely overstretched and hundreds of millions of pounds have been wasted on bailing out a broken system. It could well be the current Transport Secretary’s most damaging failure—a high bar indeed.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will give way on this last occasion.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. The HMI Prisons report on the CRC in York highlighted the devastating impact on the morale of probation officers, who do fantastic work, particularly due to the change in culture and excessive workloads. Is that not only completely unacceptable but detrimental to those who depend on the probation service for their rehabilitation?
My hon. Friend is right to be a passionate advocate of the important work, done in difficult circumstances, by our probation workers. They need to be valued more. Their importance in our justice system needs to be more fully recognised by this Government. Ending the part-privatisation of probation would be one way of doing that. What was an award-winning service is now fragmented and damaged. The level of serious reoffending has soared, supervision is seriously overstretched and hundreds of millions of pounds have been wasted in bailing out a broken system.
The National Audit Office, parliamentary Committees, the chief inspector of probation, trade unions and many more have all condemned this botched probation privatisation programme. Indeed, the chief inspector, in this year’s annual report, labelled the system “irredeemably flawed”. She flagged a catalogue of deep-rooted problems, including the number of probation professionals being at a critical level, with too much reliance on unqualified or agency staff; eight out of 10 community rehabilitation companies inspected since January last year being rated as inadequate; more needing to be done to keep victims safe and to safeguard children; and the fact that a lack of judicial confidence in probation and community punishments may be leading to more custodial sentences in cases that are borderline. She concluded that public ownership is a safer option for the core work, while improvements are not likely
“while probation remains subject to the pressures of commerce”.
There is really no need to add to that. The chief inspector has concluded that public ownership is a safer option and said that the fact that probation remains subject to the pressures of commerce means that improvements are not likely.
With private probation contracts now ending two years early, Ministers have the perfect opportunity to listen to the experts, reunify this fractured service and remove the profit motive from probation once and for all. As we have heard, the current Transport Secretary ignored all the warnings from the Labour party and others, including unions, probation trusts and the voluntary sector, of the obvious dangers of privatising probation. It is essential that the current Justice Secretary learns from his Government’s mistakes, but so far the Government have said that they will be renewing the private sector contracts and in a way that appears mainly designed to help the companies become more financially stable.
Wakefield has two prisons—the women’s prison, New Hall, and Wakefield, a high-security establishment—so this is of great concern to my constituents. Does my hon. Friend agree that the previous Justice Secretary’s decision to abolish local probation trusts and to introduce the profit model into this was one of the worst examples of the reckless, untested and ideology-driven decisions that this Government have made?
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head.
I am now coming to my conclusion, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Conservatives now need to drop this dangerous obsession with running probation for private profit and bring it back in-house, where it can focus on keeping the public safe. We are committed to ending the Conservatives’ failed privatisation of probation and returning the service to the public sector. The former chief inspector of prisons, Lord Ramsbotham, is overseeing our important review of how we best return probation to the public sector. I will be publishing Lord Ramsbotham’s interim report this week. I hope the Secretary of State will meet me to discuss this important report.
Throughout our justice system, outsourcing has been used to lower costs by cutting the pay and conditions of the lowest paid workers. The people who clean the Secretary of State’s office, for example, and the security guards who keep the Ministry of Justice safe have been demanding a real living wage of £10 an hour, so will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to commit to ensuring that all staff in his Department, including those working under outsourced contracts, actually get the real living wage?
In conclusion, the Conservatives promised that privatisation of our justice system would lead to better services and lower costs. The evidence is now in: it has achieved neither. Instead of savings, we have had bail-outs; instead of improving safety, there is disproportionate violence; and instead of accountability, we have had secrecy. Even in the United States of America this debate on a privatised justice system is moving on—it must move on here, too. The Government must now face the facts: privatisation has failed. When in a hole, stop digging. The Government should scrap plans for yet more private prisons and private probation contracts. For those reasons, I commend this motion to the House.
There is an important debate to be had about the involvement of the private sector and the voluntary sector in our justice system. It is right that we ask ourselves: how do we provide high-quality public services? How do we encourage innovation in order to raise standards? And how do we deliver the best possible value for money for the taxpayer? In answering these questions, there will always be debates about whether the private sector or the voluntary sector does too much or too little: do we make use of these sectors in the right way? Do we have the right incentives? And do we have the right supervision? In reaching a fair-minded conclusion, we should approach the evidence in a fair-minded way, looking at good and bad examples, and acknowledging where things work well and where they do not.
I have to say that such a balanced approach was entirely lacking in the speech we have just heard from the shadow Secretary of State. In a fairly lengthy speech, he had time to address this in a proper, balanced way. Instead, what we heard was simplistic, dogmatic and bombastic. The only thing anyone on this side of the House will remember about his speech is his abiding hostility to the private sector. Mind you, at least we will remember something from his speech, which, given his reputation, is more than he will ever do.
On prisons, the hon. Gentleman repeatedly made reference to the difficulties with HMP Birmingham. There is no doubt—I acknowledge this—that Birmingham was a failing prison and the standards at the time of the inspection were unacceptable. Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service had been working closely with G4S to try to resolve the issues, but it became increasingly clear that G4S alone was not able to make the improvements that were so badly needed. That is why we took the decision to step in, doing so at no additional cost to the taxpayer. It was right that we did that. The point I want to make is that where we believe it is right to step in and where we believe the private sector is not the right answer, we will step in.
Can the Secretary of State just tell the House why it took an inspection by the prisons inspector to discover that G4S was failing in Birmingham and why this did not come from his own Department?
HMPPS did have concerns about how Birmingham was operating and the way it was working, and HMPPS was working closely with G4S to try to address this. It became clear, when the inspection was undertaken, that we were required to go further and that the level of intervention we had previously put in was insufficient. That is why we took the steps we did. We stepped in, putting one of our best prison service governors in charge, alongside a strong senior management team and 30 additional experienced staff. I would like to thank all of them for their hard work since we took that decision to turn around a complex and challenging establishment.
Will the Secretary of State admit that this is not just about one prison and that yesterday’s figures in The Guardian showing 47% more incidents of violence in the private estate than in the public point to something greater than one, one-off prison?
When looking at prisons, it is important to compare like with like. Our prison estate contains a range of prisons doing different tasks, with different cohorts of prisoners, which creates different challenges. It is right that we look beyond just one prison, as the hon. Lady rightly says, and that we look beyond HMP Birmingham, where we see that the position is much more complex. The House should not just take my word for it: the chief inspector of prisons has highlighted many examples of excellent performance by private prisons in his inspection reports. For example, let us take HMP Altcourse, which is run by G4S. Its latest inspection highlighted how
“violence and self-harm were decreasing year on year”,
and said: “Purposeful activity was excellent”. It is worth pointing out that HMP Altcourse is not far from HMP Liverpool. They are in the same city and have the same type of prisoner, but we have had significant difficulties with HMP Liverpool. We hope and believe that it is on the mend, but it was none the less one of our most troubling prisons.
The House could also consider young offenders institutions. At Parc, which is also run by G4S, the inspectorate found that
“the establishment was characterised by good relationships, excellent multidisciplinary work and strong leadership.”
We can also look at HMP Bronzefield, which is run by Sodexo. It was described by HMIP as
“an excellent institution where outcomes for the prisoners held were reasonably good or better against all our tests of a healthy prison.”
If we put ideology to one side, we see it is a fact that privately managed prison providers achieve the majority of their targets, and their performance is closely monitored by the robust contract management processes that HMPPS has in place. Privately managed prisons have also pioneered the use of modern technology to improve the running of establishments and help to promote rehabilitation, including through the development of in-cell telephony to help prisoners to maintain ties with their families; opportunities for interactive story-time activities between prisoners and their children; and the introduction of electronic kiosks, which allow prisoners to have greater control over managing their day-to-day lives.
The public sector is only now catching up, and we are now investing in 50 prisons so that they can have in-cell phones, but private prisons got there first. Instead of ideological arguments about who provides the service, we should focus on what works to reduce reoffending and keep the public safe.
If we are talking about ideology, or lack of it, does the Secretary of State not accept that it would have been wise for the Government to pilot the privatisation that was considered before it was introduced in the probation service?
The hon. Lady brings me to probation, to which I wish to turn—
But before I do, I will give way to my hon. Friend.
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Of course, the picture is complex, because there are good and failing prisons in the private sector and in the public sector. One thing that has struck me is the variation in the calibre of leadership. There are some excellent prison governors and some who are less successful. What can be done to ensure that the requisite high level is seen across the prison estate?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Sometimes, Opposition day debates can be a bit of knockabout, but there is a lot that we ought to debate and discuss in respect of the prison system and how it operates, and leadership is a really important aspect. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) and congratulate him on his promotion. He pursued with great vigour the theme of the importance of leadership—of having the right governors and leadership teams in prisons—and it is absolutely key. To be honest, that matters more than whether an institution is run by a private company or by the public sector. The quality of the leadership is a much more important factor. I hope we have an opportunity to debate that issue and others like it in future.
That is what has struck me during this debate: what matters in prisons are the standards under which people are kept and the results that are shown in stopping people reoffending, not who keeps the prisoners. Does my right hon. Friend agree?
That is exactly right. If the private sector is not working, I am prepared to step in—I have no problem with doing that—but the most important thing is that we should look at the outputs and outcomes and base what we do on that, rather than take a simplistic view that the public sector is good and the private sector is bad or, indeed, vice versa. That is the approach that I wish to take.
I will give way first to the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin), then to the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell).
The right hon. Gentleman said earlier that we need to compare like with like; will he give us an example of a brand-new prison in the public sector that can be compared with a brand-new prison in the private sector?
The most recent brand-new prison that we did was Berwyn, and it is in the public sector. The next two prisons will be in the private sector because we want to keep a mixed market and to have a range. HMP Berwyn is a public sector prison. That decision was made by the coalition Government. We are pragmatic on that point.
I shall now give way again. I hope the hon. Member for York Central will forgive me for giving way to the hon. Member for Ipswich first; Ipswich is my home town.
Quality is to follow.
On outcomes, which are the most important thing that we look at, will the Secretary of State explain why Askham Grange prison, which has the best outcomes in the country and the lowest reoffending rates and which is, I must say, in the public sector, is constantly under threat of closure? If we are looking at the evidence, surely the Government should keep the prison open.
When it comes to any decisions about prison closures, we will of course look at the evidence. We are not proposing any prison closures at this point, but we will always look at the evidence. Several factors will determine whether or not a prison closes, but its record on rehabilitation is clearly something that we would very much take into account.
Let me turn to probation. In particular, we have heard much about the transforming rehabilitation reforms that were introduced in 2014. When we consider the reforms, it is important that we recognise the benefits that the private and voluntary sectors have brought to the probation service, even if we accept that there have been challenges—and I accept that there are challenges. We need to acknowledge that with the transforming rehabilitation reforms came the supervision of 40,000 additional offenders being released from short prison sentences. Those were offenders who previously received little or no supervision or support on release, so it is a positive change for public safety. The shadow Secretary of State forgot to mention that reoffending rates for offenders managed by CRCs remain two percentage points lower than the rates for the same group of offenders in 2011. Of course, we want reoffending to be lower still, but it is lower.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on his announcement earlier this year that he was bringing all probation services in Wales back into public management following the failure of the Working Links CRC. Will he commit to ensuring that that welcome and common-sense decision is resourced to succeed? Will he consider it as a possible template for bringing probation services in England back into public control, too?
First, I am of course determined to ensure that that decision succeeds. In July last year, I set out that Wales was going to go down the unified-model route, and we are accelerating that as a consequence of the failure of Working Links.
Before I turn to the wider points, let me put this debate in context. When we debate CRCs, we sometimes forget some of the good examples of innovative and dedicated work with offenders that CRCs are doing. Hampshire and Isle of Wight CRC was praised last week by the chief inspector of probation for offering a comprehensive range of high- quality rehabilitation programmes and unpaid work placements; London CRC is working closely with the Mayor of London on the safer streets partnership to tackle gangs and knife crime; and Kent, Surrey and Sussex CRC is pioneering the first behavioural intervention targeted at stalking offences.
It is often when the private sector can bring wider experience and expertise to bear that it is best able to deliver value for money—for instance, in sourcing unpaid work placements, for which several of our CRC parent organisations can draw on experience in the employability sector. Dame Glenys Stacey has acknowledged that high-quality delivery is widespread. In fact, three quarters of the providers assessed have been rated as good. I was particularly encouraged to hear about the involvement of London CRC in the Grenfell disaster recovery operation: it arranged unpaid work placements with offenders who were helping local residents affected by the disaster. That is exactly the sort of delivery that we want to see: providers able to move quickly, respond to local needs and provide meaningful rehabilitation activity for offenders and for local communities.
In Wrexham, my constituent Nicholas Churton was murdered by someone who was subject to the supervision of a community rehabilitation trust that, on the basis of what the Secretary of State’s own Department says, was not performing adequately. That is a practical result of an experiment with no additional investment; it led to human tragedy. I know the Secretary of State is a reasonable man, and he needs to look again at this situation.
Obviously, that is a tragic case, and, as I have before, I express my sympathies for the family of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent. As regards identifying and attributing blame, I am not in a position to comment on that. CRCs manage those who are assessed as low and medium-risk offenders.
If I can return to my comments, I want to make a wider point about the crucial role that can be played by the private sector and, indeed, the voluntary sector in supporting probation work. It is the dedication and commitment of these organisations, many of them small and community-led, that enables offenders to turn their lives around. The work of the voluntary sector, particularly with vulnerable offenders such as those with learning difficulties and other complex needs, is irreplaceable and the Government are committed to supporting it. We have been clear that the public, private and voluntary sectors all have a clear role to play in building a strong probation service. That does not mean that we cannot learn from the experience of transforming rehabilitation.
I have been clear that under CRCs the quality of offender management has too often been disappointing. I am determined to learn from what has gone well and what has not under the current system. That is why the Government have acted decisively to end CRC contracts early, invest an additional £22 million a year in through-the-gate provision, and to hold a consultation on the shape of future arrangements. I am grateful to all those who have responded to the public consultation, as well as for the work of Dame Glenys Stacey, the Justice Committee and the Public Accounts Committee in providing helpful scrutiny and challenge as we consider how best to deliver a stronger, more resilient system. It is important to recognise, as those partners have, the role of external factors in creating a challenging operating environment for CRCs, but we have also looked very carefully at their findings about the complexities of contractualising offender management and the challenges of ensuring continuity of supervision and integration among providers.
I look forward to bringing detailed plans for the future of probation to the House in due course. I will be driven by the evidence and what works. This must not be a matter of ideology or dogmatism but one of single-minded focus on delivering the probation system we need.
I think the phrase I just used was “in due course”.
It certainly is “in due course”.
Finally, as we debate these issues we should recognise that the challenges in the current system are not down to the work of probation staff. Their hard work and professionalism, in both the NPS and CRCs, is tremendous and I pay tribute to them. Probation is a vocational career, and as part of the future arrangements we are looking to establish an independent statutory body so that probation staff have the same professional recognition as their peers in health and education.
In conclusion, as I said at the beginning, the role of the private sector and the voluntary sector in the criminal justice system is an issue for debate. We should constantly examine and re-examine what the right role should be, but the approach from the Labour party is that this is the only issue that matters. We hear nothing from Labour about how to deal with repeat petty offenders and the role of non-custodial sentences. There is nothing about the measures to properly tackle drugs and violence; nothing about offender management in prisons; nothing about how we are recruiting additional prison officers or getting people jobs through our education and employment strategy. The only thing we ever hear is nationalise, nationalise, nationalise. As Sadiq Khan, one of the predecessors of the hon. Member for Leeds East, said in 2011, defending the Labour Government’s use of private sector prisons,
“our policy was and is based on what works, rather than dogma.”—[Official Report, 31 March 2011; Vol. 526, c. 527.]
That is as it should be. On this side of the House, we will always work to put the public first in reducing reoffending, protecting the public and building a stronger justice system.
Order. As colleagues can see, we have a good number of contributors to this debate. I do not want to impose a time limit, but I would encourage colleagues to speak for about eight minutes each. In that way, we will be able to get everybody in comfortably.
Listening to the Justice Secretary is always a pleasure. He was calm and reflective and is committed to trying to improve services, but he knows that that calmness and reflectiveness hide the shambles of the past six and a half years since his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), took the decision to split the probation service, separating serious offenders and low-level offenders, and to ensure that contracts were given to organisations that evidently—as found by the National Audit Office, HM inspectorate of probation, the Secretary of State’s own Department, the Justice Committee and everybody who has looked at the issue—have not performed to the standards that the Secretary of State would expect or in the way he would expect to protect the public at large.
Let us forget the Secretary of State’s calm demeanour. He knows that his Government have presided over a complete shambles and he will now do his best to make the best of that bad job and to repair the damage.
My points are reflected in what has been said by the National Audit Office and the chief inspector of probation. We know that in 2013 the Ministry of Justice embarked on a reform of probation services and split serious offenders from the national probation service while establishing community rehabilitation companies, which, halfway through their term of office, proved to be costing the taxpayer resources because of their inefficiencies, to be increasing the overall percentage of re-offences per offender by 22%, and to be underperforming. Yes, there was an overall 2.5 percentage point reduction in the proportion of re-offenders compared with 2011; the Government had a target of 3.5%, so the CRCs underperformed against the Government’s own targets.
The National Audit office has had the opportunity to consider this matter and has said quite clearly that there was “patchy” involvement with the third sector, one of the Government’s major objectives. There was
“limited innovation and a lack of progress transforming probation services”,
another of the Government’s key objectives. There were
“significant increases in the number of people being recalled to prison”,
because supervision in the community was failing them. My constituents and others were being impacted by that through higher offences in their area. The NAO found
“ineffective Through the Gate…services to support transition from prison to the community”.
That was a key element for the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell, who should really be answering the debate today to be held accountable for the position in which he has put the Justice Secretary. The objectives set by the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell have not been met.
My colleagues from the Justice Committee—including my friend the Chair of the Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), and others—are in the Chamber today. We did a full report on the state of affairs with CRCs and probation, and we—not Labour Members of Parliament, not former Ministers such as me, but a cross-party Committee—have come to the conclusion that it was a mistake to introduce the transforming rehabilitation reforms without a pilot. We agree that there was a significant overestimation of the ability of CRCs to reduce their costs to match any fall in income when the contracts were agreed. We agreed fully that we were unconvinced that splitting offenders by risk was the right way to split the probation system. We agreed on a cross-party basis that the transforming rehabilitation changes weakened local partnership and local accountability, so there was less joined-up working and collaboration at a local level. These things all matter because it is about preventing crime. It is about turning people’s lives around when they have been in prison and need support in the community.
The Government have not yet accounted for the cost of that failure or for their performance, and they have not explained why bad decisions were made by Ministers, who rushed through proposals without due consideration. The Secretary of State can by all means do a calm, professional job—I tip my professional Member of Parliament hat to him—but he is presiding over his predecessors’ failure, and he has the job of making improvements.
At this morning’s Justice Committee I asked the chief inspector of probation, “Did the changes make the position worse?” She said, having been pressed a couple of times, “Yes, they did.” The Government need to account for that failure. We had 110 years of a probation service that took pride in its staff, with high morale. It delivered an effective service, but within the space of six years, the Government have put people at risk, split the service and reduced competence. We have not had an effective service, which has been shaken up, and it is now having to rebuild.
How does it do that? There is a model in Wales, where the probation service has been brought back together as a public service. I would like to see a justification not for why that has been done but for why it has not been done elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The Government are undertaking a consultation—again, in a calm, collected, professional way, the Minister is batting that ball and taking those hits—and the outcome should be clear: the probation service performed better when it was a unified body, working with serious and lower-risk offenders, and when it had good rehabilitation services, including community payback services under its wing. Yes, it can contract out some of those services to the private sector—a drug charity might provide a good drug rehabilitation service; a local workplace scheme might best be provided by a local charity or a voluntary organisation. When I took the Offender Management Bill through the House of Commons in 2007, that was the private and voluntary sector involvement that we sought. It was not about splitting the service.
I simply say to the Minister, because I am coming to the end of my eight minutes, that I want to know who is accountable for this mess. If the Secretary of State stands up and says, “My predecessors”, that will help. I want to know what has been the consistent impact of this mess. There is a whole range of things that he and I know have gone wrong, and there are services that he and I know are not performing. It is his job to come clean and say those things in a professional way.
What happens next? I do not have time to talk about prisons, but I fully support my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) in the belief that we should bring the probation service back into the public sector to meet the needs of our constituents, reduce crime, and turn offenders’ lives around. I welcome the new prisons Minister, who will respond to the debate. He should stand up and say, “I have looked at this. I have been in office for two or three days. I have come to the conclusion that my predecessors left an unholy mess, and I commit to bring the service back into the public sector.”
It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson), my very well respected colleague on the Justice Committee. I am always immensely grateful for the contribution that he and other Members make to the work of our Committee. There might be the odd difference in nuance and tone, but there is broad agreement between us in the factual conclusions of our Select Committee reports. They are cross-party reports, and they are based on evidence, so I am with him on many of the points that he made.
In fairness, it is right to say that the Secretary of State has struck exactly the right tone. I congratulate him on doing so. It is not the first time in recent weeks that he has made an important speech on prisons policy and on other matters. The tone he struck in looking at the evidence has all too often been missing from the debate on prisons and on justice policy more generally on both sides of the political divide. I therefore welcome his tone and approach, and I broadly agree with where he is coming from.
There is not, to my mind, a need for a rigid, ideological division. There are differences on the evidence on prisons and probation. I think that the evidence of a mixed prisons economy makes it clear that good work is done in a number of private sector prisons. There are failures in those prisons, as there are failures in public sector prisons—the evidence provided by the chief inspector demonstrates that clearly. The issue is not who manages prison contracts—perhaps with the exception of facilities management failures, a specific area—but what we expect prisons and their staff to do on behalf of society and to achieve with the people sent there by the courts on behalf of the state. It is what we do to help them to ensure that prisoners are kept safely and decently, protecting the public, deterring reoffending and turning around the lives of those who go to prison so that they are less likely to reoffend and there are fewer victims of crime as a result.
Under Governments of all parties, we have not managed to achieve that satisfactorily for the past few decades—it is not a short-term thing—and investment is needed in some cases. I welcome the additional prison officers, but greater thought is needed, not just in the House but by society as a whole, about what we expect prison and the justice system to do. Ultimately, we can never make prisons places of rehabilitation and reform unless they are safe—when my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) was prisons Minister he got that absolutely right—but, realistically, we cannot do that unless we continue to put in the number of people that we currently do. To achieve that in a safe fashion that has public confidence, it is critical that we spend much more time and energy in our debate finding robust and viable alternatives that punish people in the community, rather than simply warehousing them in prison institutions, which is counterproductive for everyone. I very much welcome the Government’s willingness to look again at the presumption against shorter sentences, as has happened elsewhere.
There are important things in the prisons debate, but I, too, am not going to dwell on them as much as other matters. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) is going to speak about prisons in particular, but I want to return, as the right hon. Member for Delyn did, to transforming rehabilitation and the probation system.
This morning, the Justice Committee heard from Dame Glenys Stacey, the chief inspector of probation, for the last time, as she is coming the end of her three-year tenure. She has done an excellent job. She has been robust and frank, and she has spoken truth to power, as an inspector should. She has not pulled her punches when necessary. The evidence that she has found is entirely consistent with evidence that the Select Committee found in a number of its reports, particularly one that we have recently published. It is entirely consistent, too, with the findings of the National Audit Office and those of the Public Accounts Committee. When, separately, four bodies produce reports based on essentially the same evidence and come to the same conclusions, the Secretary of the State and the prisons Minister—I warmly welcome him to his post—who have been brought up professionally to work on evidence, know that it is time for change.
I submit urgently to the Secretary of State that, whatever the good intentions behind the transforming rehabilitation programme, partly because of the pace at which it was undertaken, and partly because of the intrinsic nature of the probation service as a social service, which is different from the Prison Service in many ways, it has failed to achieve many of the laudable objectives set for it. It has not created greater diversity of provision and, above all, it has not succeeded in bringing the voluntary sector into probation work in the way that had been hoped. Most importantly, it has—like it or lump it—lost the confidence of many sentencers. If we are to achieve the objective I mentioned of developing robust alternatives to custody so that we do not overcrowd our prisons, it is critical that we have a system of supervision in the community, either as an alternative to custody or on release from custody, that commands the confidence of the sentencer—the judge and the magistrate —as well as of the public. It is very clear that that has not been achieved under the current arrangements.
The point about risk is an important one, as our report stressed. On all the evidence that we heard, the division of risk at the point of sentence and on the basis of the offence is, in reality, arbitrary. It is a snapshot in time that is then frozen for the rest of the offender’s supervision, whereas in reality the evidence is clear that risk will change. If the supervision goes well, it will decrease, but in certain circumstances it may increase. This is not an efficient division of risk to have. It is interesting that a different approach has been taken in Wales. One of the reasons that is worth looking at is that it could enable us not to have that arbitrary division of risk. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friends will look at the practicality of how that works out, because this is a critical issue.
Another significant thing that Dame Glenys stressed to us is the way in which the contracts were written. The problem is that probation work—which is, of its nature, dealing with people with complex circumstances in quite often changing and difficult environments—cannot easily be distilled into a set of contractual requirements, which might be easier to do, in some circumstances, within a closed institution.
The current contractual systems model does not succeed in achieving either innovation or the sharing of good practice, because there is no reward for either of those things. The Secretary of State’s review and consultation now gives us an opportunity to look at that. He was right to terminate the CRC contracts early, because they were simply not delivering what had been sought and intended. It is clear, on the evidence, that just recreating them would not be the answer. It would be more sensible to look at alternatives that, on the evidence, address the systemic problems that we now know are there but were perhaps not foreseen at the time.
There are areas that need to be looked at in relation to people with particular vulnerabilities—for example, the particularly high number of young offenders with black and minority ethnic characteristics going through our probation system, and the particular difficulties of female offenders, many of whom, of course, have themselves been victims of abuse or other types of offence in the past. There is the real problem that we have with through-the-gate services, where clearly not enough is being done to discharge people from prison into circumstances where they will not be tempted to fall back into reoffending. I hope, in particular, that when the Secretary of State looks at new models for dealing with probation services, he will look specifically at the need to secure accommodation for people on release. Indeed, securing accommodation for people who are being supervised in the community as an alternative is central to the probation process. All the evidence clearly says that the best means of keeping out of trouble are a home, a job, and a family or support system relationship.
My hon. Friend is making a fabulous speech. Will he comment specifically on the evidence we heard this morning showing that one in five prisoners have nowhere to sleep on the night they are released?
That was very shocking evidence indeed. Frankly, it is an indictment of every one of us that we are releasing people under those circumstances. I have here a piece of evidence from, I think, a visit to a CRC premises in south-east London, not far from my constituency, that was trying to supervise people who were sleeping in church halls, or sleeping rough in a graveyard or on the night bus. It is an obscenity, frankly, if we are releasing people from prison, with the objective of trying to get them to turn their lives around, and they are trying to live under those conditions. It makes rehabilitation work impossible. Getting those things right is actually much more important than the argument about who owns, manages and runs the service; they are fundamental issues. I believe that the Secretary of State has the opportunity, the willingness and the determination to do that.
Both the Secretary of State and the new Minister of State, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Robert Buckland), are used to working on the basis of the evidence. Both they and I are also proud to hail from the one nation tradition within our party. That tradition reminds us that Conservative Members have always had a long-standing belief in social reform, as Members of other parties do, too. No one party has a monopoly on that. Getting prison and our criminal justice system right is a great cause of social reform, and I believe that the Secretary of State and the Minister get that and understand it. Equally, though, if all the evidence points one way, then that is the decision that the tribunal comes to. If they put those two things together, we have an opportunity to make progress in the coming weeks—I hope—and months.
It is a pleasure to follow the Chair of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill).
This Government’s ideologically driven changes to the probation service have had a catastrophic impact on the justice system in this country. The reports from experts in the industry are damning, the first-hand accounts of those who have experienced the services shocking, and the damage done by this failing service to our communities all too clear to see. The comments we have heard from Members join the growing chorus of condemnation, alongside groups such as the Public Accounts Committee, the Justice Committee and the National Association of Probation Officers, to name but a few.
Perhaps none, however, has been as disparaging as the report on the outsourcing of our probation services undertaken by the National Audit Office. It speaks of significant risks being introduced by a Ministry setting itself up to fail; underinvestment in services by community rehabilitation companies motivated by commercial outcomes over public safety; and, perhaps least surprisingly, given the ministerial architect of the changes, a decision inspired by ideology that has proven a staggering waste of money to the taxpayer—this time, to the tune of nearly half a billion pounds. It is therefore difficult to disagree with the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), that it is
“unacceptable that so many unnecessary risks were taken with taxpayers’ money.”
But for all the talk of decisions taken in Westminster, with the colossal budgets in tow, we must not forget the impact, back in the real world, that these changes have on our constituents, because, more than anything, it is utterly unacceptable that so many risks were taken with taxpayers’ safety. It is residents in our communities, like mine in Barnsley East, who suffer when vital services, such as our probation system, begin to fail. Perhaps nothing demonstrates that more than the case of my constituent Jacqueline Wileman.
Last year, four men stole a HGV lorry and drove it around Barnsley, damaging cars, injuring pedestrians, nearly killing a man and eventually crashing into a house, but not before hitting and killing Jacqueline near her home in Brierley. All four men had existing criminal records, with nearly 100 convictions between them. They had several convictions for driving offences, and one had already been sentenced for causing death by dangerous driving. Two of the men had recently finished probation supervision, and the one who stole the lorry had no driving licence and was, staggeringly, on probation at the time. It can be argued that these men should not have been on the streets and able to commit these tragic crimes in the first place. The lenient sentences handed down to them following Jackie’s death have led to calls being made by her brave family to scrap the maximum sentence for those who cause death by dangerous driving to ensure that they will not be out in a few years to do so again—calls I wholeheartedly support. I have raised this in the House on more than one occasion, and I will continue to press the Government to act to increase the 14-year limit for death caused by dangerous driving as soon as possible.
Questions must be asked of the probation services responsible for supervising these criminals. The Barnsley area is covered by South Yorkshire CRC, which is now the responsibility of Sodexo Justice Services and was recently rated as requiring improvement in the latest inspection by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation. The inspection report noted, among other failings:
“Alarmingly… the large majority of probation staff here are not qualified, and many are not sufficiently experienced at managing risk of harm to others.”
This is a probation service, the effectiveness of which is crucial to maintaining the safety of my community, explicitly failing to manage risk of harm to others. It is a shocking state of affairs, yet a product of decisions made by this Government. Simply put, the safety of our communities and constituents has been jeopardised.
I await the results of the internal review into what more could have been done by the probation service in the case of Jackie Wileman and what lessons can be learned. For her brother, Johnny, the impact on public safety of the outsourced probation service overseen by this Government is clear enough: “If the probation services had done their job properly,” he told me, “my sister would still be alive.”
It is a pleasure to follow the powerful speech by the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) and friends from across the House who broadly take the same view on the progress we need to make with the probation system. I am not going to focus on that. My views are carefully set out in the report of the Justice Committee and have been well rehearsed by my colleagues from the Committee on both sides of the House. However, I noted carefully what the Secretary of State had to say, and I am extremely hopeful that we will have an announcement or statement from him in the very near future. I hope the result will be one that we all applaud.
As ever, I would like to talk about prisons. It always shocks me how empty the Chamber is when we discuss prisons. If we are serious about helping the lowest strata of society, we surely have a fairly obvious place to look to find them. I for one was very grateful that the Opposition chose this subject for today’s debate.
I am fortunate to represent one of the biggest constituencies in the country. The number of my electors is broadly the same as the number of adult men in prison. The point I am making is that there are a lot of people in prison, a lot of families affected and, perhaps more importantly, a lot of future victims who are affected by our failure to treat people and by the breeding of future criminals in prisons as they are run at the moment. We must accept that about a fifth of prisoners are sex offenders and that nearly all of them will be released into our communities. Members know that I spend a lot of my time here arguing in favour of prison reform, but the most compelling reason for me to do that is that we must save future victims from crimes that will ruin their lives.
The Justice Committee has written not only a marvellous report about transforming rehabilitation, but a big report on the prison population—for me, it is our magnum opus—which I hope the new Minister, the hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Robert Buckland), has read and digested and will return to many times during his tenure. I will whizz through the main recommendations of that report and then give him some jobs for the rest of the week.
Our report’s first recommendation is that
“The prison population has become increasingly challenging in nature, with prisoners often having complex health and social needs. Many have learning disabilities or mental health conditions”,
and that the Ministry of Justice needs to
“acknowledge the challenge it faces and demonstrate that it has a long-term strategy”.
Secondly, the prison population is projected to grow, and the existing approach “limits the scope” for the Ministry thinking more laterally about planning for that growth. It states that the “more challenging mix” of those sentenced to custody is likely to be partly attributable to the impact of wider social factors over which the Ministry has no control, but the Ministry and prison officers have to pick up the pieces.
The third recommendation is that
“Trends in ethnicity and the social drivers of complex and challenging behaviour should be more explicitly identified”.
“To close the large gap between the money allocated to prisons by the Treasury and the current costs of running and maintaining them, the Ministry of Justice has estimated that it would have to reduce the prison population by 20,000 places. By the Ministry’s own admission this is not achievable under existing strategies and funding arrangements.”
How will the Minister possibly close that gap?
We have got to take prison reform seriously. This is my fourth Prisons Minister. There have been six Secretaries of State for Justice since 2010. All of them—certainly the Prisons Ministers—have been one nation, compassionate Conservatives. I stalk their every movement, as this Minister will find out, and I count them among my closest friends in this place; I hope it is mutual. It is really important that the current Minister can stay in place for long enough to make substantive change.
Unless he is in the Cabinet.
Oh no, he is not going anywhere—this is a long-term sentence! I have the highest regard for the current Minister. He has done more than his fair share of heavy lifting in the impasse on Brexit. I offer him the following suggestions with affection, but they are urgent, and I wish him to do them immediately.
No. 1, we must accept that diversion from custody is the only answer for sentences shorter than 12 months. To do that, we need robust alternatives, not a “get out of jail free” card. Once we have those in place, we need to re-educate judges, who in my experience—as the Minister knows, I know at least one extremely well—are kind, well-motivated and have seen it all before. We need legislation to reduce the number of short sentences. We have to stop churn through the prison gates.
No. 2, we need a full review of categorisation. It strikes me that several Members here today are well placed to lead that review; I am not looking too hard at any Member on either side of the Chamber. We know from Lord Farmer’s review that being close to family reduces reoffending. Current categorisation is holding us back. We have new evidence about the age of maturity, particularly in boys, which needs to be fed into decisions on where we place people.
No. 3, the Minister needs to have on his desk—in my view, every morning, but possibly every week—figures on the regime, by which I mean hours outside cells and numbers of people in segregation, for every prison in the country. Only then can he truly evaluate what is going on. I would be grateful if he shared those figures with the Justice Committee. While he is at it, could he ask for monthly figures on imprisonment for public protection and share them with us? That would be really helpful.
No. 4, we need to end Friday releases immediately. There is no excuse for releasing people at the end of the week, when services are simply not available to help them.
No. 5, we need to evaluate why and when we make children and young people disclose their criminal records. We know that it ruins their lives. A diverse group of MPs are championing that, from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) to the right hon. Members for Warley (John Spellar) and for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). The Home Office and the MOJ need to decide who is responsible for that policy and act as soon as possible. It is not right for any child’s life to be ruined by an early misdemeanour.
No. 6, for years we described—and I described in court—our sex offender training programmes as the gold standard. A substantial amount was spent on producing those programmes, but they have conclusively been proved to have failed. Can we evaluate the programmes we have put in their place? The number of sex offenders is growing.
No. 7, we need to block mobile phone reception in prisons now—why on earth not?
No. 8, we need to provide a £37,000 scanner for every prison to stop drugs getting in. Everybody from the Minister down needs to go through them. There was a major stabbing of a prison officer in Bullingdon Prison in my constituency last week.
No. 9, prisons are places of radicalisation. We need to grasp that and not lock people of similar views together simply because it makes control easier. A categorisation review might give us evidence to help with that.
No. 10 is on race. We need to be honest. It is not right that a black woman is more than twice as likely to be arrested as a white woman. I am pleased that the all-party parliamentary group on women in the penal system will look into the arrest of women. More than half the inmates held in prisons for young people in England and Wales at the moment are from a black and minority ethnic background. That is an extraordinary figure and not one to be proud of, and real change is needed. In short, I fear there will come a point when the Minister wishes he was back with the withdrawal agreement Bill.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis).
It is no secret that our prison system is in a state of turmoil, with an outdated Victorian-era system that sees countless prisons inspected and issued with reports that reveal dilapidated conditions, overcrowding, violence, self-harm, drug abuse, low staff confidence and poor support. A decent prison system should deliver meaningful rehabilitation and provide offenders with purposeful activity. It is clear that this is lacking across the board.
The urgent notification issued to HMP Birmingham last August by the chief inspector of prisons was damning in its assessment of a failed prison run by G4S. This was followed by the unprecedented decision taken by the MOJ to bring it back under public control, reinforcing the argument that the privatisation of our prisons has failed. Following an inspection in February 2017, the prison operator at Birmingham was given 70 recommendations and targets. By the time of the inspection that triggered the urgent notification 18 months later, only 14 of the 70 targets had been met. Safety was deemed by the inspector to have been a colossal failure. In a survey of prisoners, 71% responded that they had felt unsafe at some point in their stay at Birmingham.
I visited HMP Birmingham, along with other members of the Justice Committee, in October—shortly after it had been issued with the urgent notification and as the new governor was getting to grips with what he had inherited—and it was clear that the system had failed at multiple levels. As the chief inspector noted, we found the prison to be in a state of disrepair, conditions that were unfit to be lived in and staff morale at crippling levels. While these issues are by no means limited to privately run prisons alone, the case of HMP Birmingham has highlighted the dangers and costs faced because of the distinct lack of accountability in its operation.
As well as ensuring that rehabilitation is provided inside prison, it is vital that our justice system has the means by which to monitor and assist offenders throughout their transition back to society. Nowhere has the failed privatisation of our justice system been so apparent as in that of our probation services. The transforming rehabilitation reforms pushed through at the end of the coalition Government were preceded by stark warnings that splitting the workload between a publicly run national probation service and privately-tendered community rehabilitation companies, with payment by results, would have damaging consequences for the management of offenders. The recent reports on transforming rehabilitation by both the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee are deeply critical and prove that these previous cautions were fully warranted.
Last year, I held a Westminster Hall debate on the role of privatised community rehabilitation companies. Data had consistently shown that CRCs had met an average of just eight of the 24 targets set under their contracts, with the worst-performing organisation meeting only four. These reforms have turned probation into a tick-box exercise, rather than something that should be holistic and tailored to individual and specific needs. Since my debate, rather than improve, the situation has stagnated and in some cases has got even worse. It is worth noting that HMIP found that the quality of probation work was noticeably better across the national probation service by comparison with the privatised CRCs.
The role of a probation officer is not just a job, but a vocation. Yet a Unison staff survey of its 3,500 CRC workers has revealed that 25% of staff in CRCs have only occasionally had the equipment, resources or systems they needed to do their jobs properly, while 41 % said they had never experienced a manageable case load, 25% said that their CRC never or only occasionally completed community orders within the required time, and 43% said they never felt valued by their CRC. This fragmented, broken system is having serious consequences for the delivery of meaningful results.
The Public Account Committee report notes that, in 2018 alone, CRCs failed to provide nearly 3,000 prisoners with through-the-gate services. Additionally, there are numerous examples of single phone calls being deemed sufficient when monitoring offenders in the months following release, because that, rather than face-to-face meetings, is the simplest way for understaffed CRCs to meet their targets. The Public Accounts Committee report goes on to conclude that the transforming rehabilitation reforms have failed to reduce reoffending by as much as expected, with the average number of reoffences committed by each reoffender actually increasing. The Justice Committee’s “Transforming Rehabilitation” report has also called for a review of the long-term future of delivering probation services, including how performance might be compared with an alternative system for delivering probation—namely, a community-based approach.
One method to address reoffending rates is to look at abolishing short sentences. This is something that my Justice Committee colleagues and I have been calling for for some time, and I welcome the MOJ’s latest efforts to move to a presumption against their use and towards more of a community sentencing model. However, for a community sentencing model to be effective and for it to get public trust and support, it must ensure that probation services are able to monitor and support offenders in their rehabilitation. On the enforcement of community orders, HM inspectorate of probation found that the publicly run national probation service was reaching levels of good-quality assessment 83% of the time, compared with just 37% among the privatised CRCs.
The privatised approach to rehabilitation has left a system is disarray, and it will ultimately end up costing the Government £467 million more than originally planned, following bail-outs and cancelled contracts. This money could have been put towards better prison conditions and improved community sentencing or, better still, spent on a fully funded, publicly owned and accountable probation service.
In her final annual report, the current chief inspector of probation, Dame Glenys Stacey, concludes that the current model left by the transforming rehabilitation reforms has left us with a probation service that is “irredeemably flawed”. She goes further by saying that the profession as a whole has been diminished with an unhealthy reliance on unqualified staff, a service that has been changed by the impact of commerce and contracts that treat probation as a transactional business. She even says that terminating CRC contracts early and wishing to move to an improved tender process will not solve the issue. In short, her conclusions point to privatisation as the fundamental issue that is failing our justice system. Surely, it is now time to say that the privatisation of our justice system has failed. It is time to bring prisons and the probation service back under public control.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves). Devotees of Mortimer and the Rumpole series will well remember the Penge bungalow murders, so it is appropriate that she has spoken in this debate.
I stand to speak as neither a lawyer, a member of the Justice Committee nor indeed a former Minister, so I am tempted to say that I start with a distinct advantage. However, I particularly want to note the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis). I thought she spoke with incredible care, attention and knowledge, and we were lucky to hear what she had to say.
May I join many across the House in welcoming my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Robert Buckland)? He is, I am tempted to say, one of my oldest and dearest friends in politics and personally. He is godfather to my youngest daughter and she is thrilled that he is now a Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice. He is a fan and an impersonator of Mr Francis Sinatra. He will do this job his way, and he will do it magnificently.
Let me start by stating what I hope will not be controversial: our prison estate needs more money. Since 2010, I would suggest there has been too great a willingness by Ministers to accept overly zealous reductions in departmental funding in one of the most crucial areas of social and domestic policy. Those reductions have clearly affected the physical fabric of the estate, which means that the environment in which prisoners are held and in which our devoted prison staff work has gone down. It does need new funding, and I know that the ministerial team—coming, as others have referenced, from the centre ground-based, one nation Tory tradition—will make a very strong case for that to the Treasury. In making that case, I hope the Minister will underscore what I think is a feeling, certainly across the Conservative Benches, that new departmental money should not be found by milking the probate cash cow.
The hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) spoke about ideology. I have some sympathy with him, but I was also confused by his argument. There is nothing more arid, given the sensitivity and importance of the subject, than rightly to clobber, as I do, those who say, in some sort of Orwellian way, that only the private sector can do these things and we must chase out the public sector—“private good; public bad”—only then to weaken one’s case by adopting at the Dispatch Box exactly the same position in reverse. He seemed to suggest that there was neither merit nor benefit in involving either the third sector or the private sector. Given the magnitude of the task and the importance of getting it right, I suggest—I say this not as a lawyer—that we should be encouraging an attitude of, “All hands to the pump.” I very much agree that we need to ensure that there is a level playing field—for want of a better phrase—in the assessment and monitoring of private and public provision.
I am lucky to have HMP Guys Marsh in my constituency. James Lucas is its first-class governor, and I have met many of the staff there and know that they are devoted in their duty. However, like many others, the prison is infested with spice and has problems with the misuse of mobile phones and the drugs culture generally. It appeared in the national newspapers only a few weeks ago, when the entrepreneurial spirit of the criminal classes was found to be in full tilt after prison staff discovered that dead rats stuffed with SIM cards and drugs had been thrown over the fence for prisoners to find. I raised the matter with the previous prisons Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), and I echo the point to my hon. and learned Friend the current Minister, that, given that one of the prison yards is adjacent to open farmland and a public footpath, a simple security net over the yard would make rat tennis a sport of the past.
We must take our hats off to those who devote their lives to working in our prisons. Many of those who work in our public services face threats of intimidation and violence on a daily basis, but those who work in our prisons do so in a heightened and tense environment. Prison officers face the scourge of “potting”, the uncertainty of what drug-induced state they will find a prisoner in, and worries about the impact on their own health of inhaling drug fumes in the prison environment, as the Prison Officers Association explained to me at our last meeting.
Carillion used to manage HMP Guys Marsh, and it did its best, but what sticks in my mind—this speaks to the point made by the shadow Lord Chancellor—is that a contract involving the private sector is really only as good as those who manage it. Its assessment—I have heard nobody disagree with it—is that the expertise of the National Offender Management Service in managing those contracts was pretty poor. When contract management is poor, it should not be a surprise that the outcomes of the contract are not as good as they should be.
One of the challenges, I suggest to my hon. and learned Friend, is to identify bespoke policies to drive up recruitment in our rural prisons, where property prices are high and housing is often scarce. There are some incentives that could be deployed. Certainly, having talked with the governor at HMP Guys Marsh, I think the problem is not lack of appetite for recruitment, but lack of interest from people in the immediate locality. If we are to attract high-grade prison officers, we need to do something about that.
The third sector is absolutely crucial. I have had the pleasure of meeting Clean Sheet and Astara Training, whose managing director, Victoria Smith, is based in my constituency. I have also seen the excellent work of Eva Hamilton MBE, who runs Key4Life, which has a contract with HMP Guys Marsh. Their work is focused, bespoke and attentive to detail. Those are the sorts of charitable-focused, third-party social enterprises that my hon. and learned Friend and his ministerial team should really be focusing on, to foster their support, engagement and initiative. They work in education, apprenticeships, securing vocational qualifications and drug rehabilitation.
I will close my remarks with this cri de coeur. The aridity of an Orwellian approach of “Two legs good; four legs bad”, whether from the left or the right, will not benefit our country, our society or our communities, and it will certainly not benefit those who work in our prisons or those serving sentences. The state should always have this as a final test: if it is to hold the right to deprive a man or woman of their liberty, it should always consider what impact any decision it makes will have in order to ensure that that man or woman is a one-time visitor to prison. If the state keeps that in mind when making each decision, whether it is the third sector, the private sector or public sector, and with the instincts and experience of the Lord Chancellor and the new prisons Minister, I have every hope that we can get this right.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), and I echo his remarks about the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), who has an incredibly impressive knowledge of this subject—I suggest that she is a little wasted on the Back Benches.
I want to focus my remarks on the impact of prison on prisoners and their families, and to consider whether prisons are fulfilling the role that we expect of them. I am increasingly receiving communications from constituents who are in prison, or visits from their family members in my surgeries, who are deeply concerned about just how safe prisons are. I have met families with grave concerns about suicide risk, repeated incidents of self-harm, lack of attention to mental health conditions, and issues with education and family support.
Most recently I had a father and partner of a prisoner come to see me about a young man who is in prison. He has given himself the most appalling injuries, having forced into his arm a pen and two metal bars. That happened while he was in HMP Humber. His injuries were left untreated for so long that by the time he was moved to HMP Hull, which then took him to hospital for the rods to be removed, the hospital was completely unwilling to do that, because there was too great a risk in taking them out. He has been left in a physical condition that means he has repeated infections, fevers and risk of sepsis, because the prison failed to take action at the time.
There might be very little public sympathy for that young man, but society has accepted that prison is a remedy for criminal acts. We have also accepted that rehabilitation, as well as punishment and public safety, is the purpose of prison. While people are self-harming, they are in absolutely no position to be rehabilitated.
I have no doubt that prison officers struggle with monitoring appropriately all the individuals under their watch, due to staffing numbers, high turnover and high sickness levels. However, sadly, I have also had brought to my attention situations where, for whatever reason, officers are involved not in the safeguarding and management of prisoners, but either in ignoring their needs altogether, because they are quiet and compliant, or in assaults against inmates. Another constituent contacted me to tell me about the times he was assaulted by prison officers, who are in a position of authority and great trust. He claimed that he was seriously beaten on four separate occasions during the 14 months he was in HMP Humber. After he complained to the governor, he found that the CCTV of the incidents had gone missing. I have no way to prove whether that story is accurate, and I take with a pinch of salt some of the claims that are made, but how sure is the Secretary of State that incidents and complaints such as that are recorded? Prisoners are immediately less likely to be believed than those who are employed and in a position of trust. Are those instances investigated?
My office struggles to get any information out of prisons to fully and properly advise constituents and their families in a timely fashion, so what hope do those who are incarcerated have? It has the feeling of an impenetrable service and while we all might expect the walls of prisons to be suitably impenetrable, surely Members of Parliament should be able to get to the bottom of an issue and ascertain whether something has gone awry. How can CCTV footage simply have disappeared? It is a source of great frustration to this man, who was sentenced to three years and three months for joint enterprise in a robbery, that he has now been in prison for 11 years, because of indeterminate life-licence sentencing. He says that he cannot wait until the end of the year for another parole hearing, and will take his own life if this continues. I can imagine how he can get to that point—expecting to be in prison for three years but being there for 11. It seems that the primary reason for this—I have heard nothing to the contrary from the prison—is his mental health status, not his likelihood of reoffending.
The issue of indeterminate sentences is coming up more often. Of course I want to see the public protected, but I had another case in which mental health again has played a huge role in the prisoner’s circumstances. A 15-year-old boy was charged with an offence, then he was sectioned for a month. He was arrested after he came out of hospital and he sat on remand for a year. In 2013, he was sentenced to 220 days with a life licence. Six years later, he is still in custody. He has repeatedly self-harmed. I wrote to the previous prisons Minister about this case, because of the ping-ponging between Rampton and Humbercare about who would take responsibility for his care. I could get nowhere with those organisations, and it took the prisons Minister’s intervention to achieve a resolution. In all that time, his family have struggled to get any information out of the prison, and even to get access to their son. His withdrawal from any contact or communication led the prison to tell the family, “Well, he doesn’t want to see you.” The family has therefore had very little information, but now, thankfully, there has been some movement. It should not take intervention by Ministers for basic systems to be in place to reassure family members. When people are put in prison, they are not the only ones who suffer: their families do too, and they have done nothing wrong. Families often feel out of the loop and find it difficult to get any information. I do not know what it is like for colleagues, but my office has found it extremely difficult to get a good standard of response in a timely fashion from prisons.
My final point about probation is that, at the weekend we saw many reports about how fly-tipping has increased enormously. Locally, dumping in alleyways is a huge issue for residents. Until August last year, our probation service had community payback activity that involved cleaning the alleys. That has now stopped because, apparently, it did not provide a feeling of worth for the individuals. It is private land and the council have no responsibilities over it, but tenants and landlords are not taking responsibility for it. That activity provided a useful public service, and I ask that it be reinstated as a rotational duty for community payback participants. While it may not seem to have any worth for them, it does for the wider community.
It is a pleasure to follow the thoughtful speech from the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), the powerful speech from my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) and the deeply insightful speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis). I am not an expert in prisons, but in 2015 there were riots at Chelmsford prison, and six members of staff ended up in hospital.
Chelmsford is an extremely busy category 3 prison that serves all of Essex. Some of the prison blocks date back to Victorian times. Indeed, as a child I remember watching “Porridge”, which was filmed in Chelmsford prison. When I was first elected a couple of years ago, the prison had not changed much since the 1970s. In fact, it was dire—severely over-crowded, many parts of the prison were in desperate need of repairs, staff levels were dangerously low, violent assaults were increasing and staff were struggling to get to grips with high levels of drug taking. The prison is in the centre of the city so it is easy to throw drugs over the walls and into the prison. The then governor was also extremely concerned about the high levels of mental health problems that he saw in the prisoners. He told me that he saw prison as a microcosm of the problems we see in society. Where we see drug use and mental health issues growing in wider society, they are magnified within the walls of prisons.
There was some good news. The prison recruited many new staff, up to the full complement, but many of them were young and inexperienced, and I was concerned about staff safety. The previous Minister—and I thank him for his work—kindly visited the prison with me and saw at first hand the need for repairs, and we heard from the governor and staff about the lack of ongoing support and mentoring for trainees. That Minister promised action.
When I last visited the prison a few months ago, I was pleased that several actions had been taken. I heard about new mentoring for younger members of staff, and there was a much more positive attitude. Lots of work had been done to reduce the amount of drugs coming into the prison, through mobile phone detectors, netting and better work with the police, including the use of dogs to patrol the outside perimeter. That was helping. I also saw that the state of the prison had improved. The overcrowding had been reduced. The prison was physically lighter and cleaner, and a more purposeful place. Indeed, many of the prisoners had been involved in refurbishing their own areas of the prison, with better lighting, fresh paint and new flooring. The place felt safer in many areas.
The new prison governor told me how passionate she is to try to break the revolving-door cycle and make sure that the people who come into prison have opportunities to learn skills. She started a strategy so that every prisoner, within three days of arriving in the prison, would do a course on food hygiene and safety, and be given a certificate with their new qualification. That also had the advantage that all prisoners could help to serve the food. It set them on a journey to learning, not just being locked up. She told me how she wanted more local companies, businesses and charities to be involved in the prison to help to bring skills, opportunities and training to the prisoners. She was also very pleased about the key worker scheme that was just starting to make sure that prisoners had someone they could confide in, who would talk them through their journey as they were about to leave prison, and make sure that they were helped in that situation.
The governor was also enormously concerned by the seven tragic deaths—every death is tragic—that had happened in the prison in the past couple of years, and the level of violence is still high. There have been improvements, but there is still a way to go.
I do not care who runs our prisons, whether it is the public or private sector, but I want to make sure that our prisons are well run. I am delighted that we have an excellent new prisons Minister and I ask him to come to Chelmsford prison—we are only an hour away—and see what more we can do. The previous prisons Minister promised and delivered changes, but we need more and I hope we can work together to deliver them.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford). In September, HMP Bedford became the fourth jail in a year to be issued an urgent notification. The prison has the highest rate of assaults in the country. Prison officers may not be allowed to strike under the law, but they are certainly protesting with their feet. So bad are the recruitment and retention problems in our prisons that, at HMP Bedford alone, some 77% of prison officers have less than one year of service. The cuts that led to the loss of about 10% of prison officers have resulted in an increase in violence of more than 250%. How can a Government who claim to be concerned about the level of violence in our prisons continue to fail to do their basic legal duty to protect staff and to ensure a safe working environment?
Prison officers do not go into work to be attacked and the courts do not send people to prison to be assaulted. The level of self-harm and drug addiction and suicide and reoffending rates among prisoners have reached record levels. The public expect prisoners to be rehabilitated and reformed so that, when they come out, they are not a danger to society. How can that happen when conditions are so poor?
The decline in HMP Bedford since 2010 is set out in the shocking inspection reports that led to the urgent notification last year. I am committed to building on the positive relationship that I have with the staff and management at the prison, who I know are working hard and doing their best in challenging circumstances.
It might surprise the House to know that I have spent some time in HMP Bedford—I hasten to add, not at Her Majesty’s pleasure but as the director of a charity that worked with prisoners and their families. My hon. Friend talks about the dedication of the staff at the prison and one thing that struck me was the role of the prison chaplaincy there. Chaplains of all faiths and denominations do an incredible amount of work not just in the establishment in his constituency but across the country. I am sure he, and I hope the Minister, would like to acknowledge that and ensure that they get support to play the hugely positive role they can play in rehabilitating those serving sentences.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Last year when I visited Bedford prison I noticed that and I am pleased with the service they have there.
The management at HMP Bedford are working really hard under challenging circumstances, but I remain concerned that the publicly run prison is deliberately being run into the ground and deprived of adequate funding. Meanwhile, money is being used to build the new super-size prison just down the road in Wellingborough, which will be handed straight to the private sector. Questions remain unanswered as to why the MOJ banned the public sector from bidding for that new prison, yet it is happy to hold a competition involving the failed prison privateer G4S and the recently collapsed private provider Interserve. Statistics show that private prisons are disproportionately more violent, dangerous and overcrowded than their public sector counterparts. If that is the Government’s response to the overcrowding and violence crisis in our prisons, it has already failed.
The Government’s refusal to publish the HMPPS estate and transformation team’s report into whether the public sector should be allowed to operate new build prisons has led to deep suspicion. If the Government admit that the public sector is the benchmark, why is it shut out of the bidding process? Marketisation has utterly failed in the prison and probation service and public safety has been compromised. It is time for the Government to listen to frontline workers who know exactly how to turn things around. The Government must end the two-tier workforce for pay, conditions and professional standards in the probation and prison service.
The privatisation of the probation service must be one of the worst decisions ever taken by Government. The hard work of committed probation staff has been totally undermined by the Government’s “Transforming Rehabilitation” reforms, which in 2014-15 broke up the probation service and part-privatised it. Driven solely by political dogma, this failed, dangerous experiment has wasted £467 million of taxpayers’ money. It has failed to reduce reoffending and led to a huge increase in people on short-term sentences being recalled to prison. Reoffending rates for serious offences such as murder, rape and manslaughter are soaring, and our public are now less safe because of the Tories’ profit motive.
The privatisation of the probation service has been roundly condemned. The chief inspector of the probation service, Dame Glenys Stacey, the National Audit Office and the Justice Committee have been critical. The state of the part-privatised probation service is, to quote Dame Glenys Stacey, “irredeemably flawed”. It should be abandoned, with the service taken back in-house.
The privatisation was rushed through by the then Secretary of State, splitting the probation service into two. High-risk offenders were to be dealt with by the national probation service, with the rest dealt with by privatised community rehabilitation centres. Public money is now sucked into private profits, causing damage to the service, staff, users and local communities. The number of probation professionals has dropped to a critical level, forcing them to cut corners, and the profession of probation has been downgraded.
Napo has warned that the reforms have created a two-tier workforce between the CRCs and the NPS for pay and conditions and professional standards, with an average pay gap of 4.5% in favour of NPS staff and worse terms and conditions for CRC staff. Service users need a relationship of trust with the probation service to reduce reoffending. However, the current state of the probation service forces offenders to share personal information about their lives with strangers each time they see a probation officer, hindering their willingness to engage.
Staff are committed to delivering vital work in probation, but working conditions are putting undue pressure on the workforce. The underfunding of CRC contracts has led to a scaling back and to cuts in specialist support for offenders leaving prison, which, as we heard this morning from Dame Glenys Stacey in her report to the Justice Committee, has resulted in more than a fifth of offenders released from prison being released with no fixed abode and many suffering from substance abuse, both of which are high-risk factors that lead to reoffending.
As the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) mentioned, many services provided by the voluntary sector have been cut as a result of the CRC contracts. We have seen a loss in services provided for substance abuse and for housing resettlement for prisoners, following the awarding of CRC contracts, which many CRCs have claimed were badly drafted, although it should be pointed out that their successful bids were based on the MOJ’s specifications.
The CRC contracts were granted to monolithic private sector providers that, like the Titanic, were too big to fail, yet this year we have seen two of the providers—Working Links and Interserve—announce that they have called in the administrators due to financial problems. Having thrown good money after bad, the Government need to stop this charade that the CRC model is anything other than bust. The National Audit Office has said so, the Justice Committee has said so and the chief inspector has said so. When will the Government get the message?
Labour has opposed the privatisation of our probation service from the outset. This once award-winning service, now in the hands of private companies, is crying out to be brought back in-house and devolved to new local probation services with proper local, democratic control and accountability. Both Napo and Unison, representing thousands of members in the probation service, endorse this model of public ownership and local control.
The privatisation of our prisons gives us further evidence of the failings caused by running public services for profit. In October 2018, I visited HMP Birmingham following the serving of an urgent notification by Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons after the major disturbances at the prison in 2016, which resulted in severe damage and four wings being taken out of use. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons carried out an unannounced inspection of the prison in August 2018. The inspectorate found that the prison had been so badly run that it initiated an urgent notification protocol, saying there had been a
“near total failure to address…previous recommendations”
“an abject failure of contract management and delivery”.
The next day, the Secretary of State for Justice issued a contract notice removing the prison from G4S’s control and placing it under the leadership of a governor from Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. This was a shocking outcome for G4S, and few will have had confidence in its ability to run prisons, but, lo and behold, the Government have allowed it to bid for the right to run more prisons.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) said, a Labour Government would take the running of prisons back into the public sector. Time after time we have seen the failures of privatisation in the prison and probation service, only for the Government to reward failure by ploughing more public money into the pockets of private contractors. It does not work and will not work in the future. It all needs to be brought back in-house. If the Secretary of State does not heed the warnings, he risks wasting more public money, making the public, staff and prisoners less safe and rewarding failure. This has to stop. We need to bring it back in-house.
I am always pleased when there is a consensus. I listened carefully to the contributions of Government Members, who claim to be promoters of social reform, but the proposals for social reform introduced under the coalition Government far too often were done also to save money. Social reform cannot be done on a shoestring. That is where these things always go wrong. If Government Members are serious about social reform, everyone across the House needs to think about what those reforms are worth. We should not only value social reform but put the money behind it.
I welcome the new Prisons Minister to his role. His predecessor promised to resign in August if he did not achieve a substantial reduction in prison violence by then. I wonder whether the new Minister will stick to that pledge or whether he will be reshuffled before. The Government have collapsed into paralysis. The House should be full on Tuesday afternoons, but it is not. I wonder whether the Government are able to act any more, particularly on the crisis in prisons, the state of probation services being one example of that crisis. I hope that the promises made will result in some improvement soon.
The partial privatisation of our probation services has been another instance of the Government’s determination to implement a rushed and badly researched policy. The new system was introduced without research or piloting. I asked the Secretary of State about piloting but he did not really answer my question. I hope that if changes are introduced they will first be piloted, before we throw a lot of Government money at them. Rehabilitation should be a holistic project in which an offender and his community feel secure and able to rebuild. This type of work cannot be done on a shoestring and focused on the bottom line.
This is a public project asking what type of society we are trying to create. The Liberal Democrats believe in a society that puts rehabilitation and communities first. Today’s reality could not be further from that. Last month’s Justice Committee report confirms what the Liberal Democrats have been saying for months: our prisons are not fit for purpose. The prison population has exploded, leaving the services unable to cope with the demand. Some 60% of prisons are overcapacity and some now hold 50% more inmates then they were intended for.
This pressure on space has a human cost. Recent statistics on deaths, assaults and self-harm in prisons are shockingly high and increasing. Last year 325 people died in prison, including 92 from suicide, and there were more than 50,000 recorded incidents of self-harm. Government policies mean that this crisis will become more extreme, with the prison population projected to rise by 3,000 over the next three years, unless we do something about it.
What are the long-term consequences for everyone else? We are failing to rehabilitate, with record numbers of ex-prisoners going on to reoffend, and this is putting more strain on a system already stretched to breaking point. Short sentences are one of the many factors in this escalating problem, yet we already know that short sentences simply do not work. Evidence released by this Government proves that community sentences are far more likely to stop someone reoffending. Short sentences target the most vulnerable offenders, especially women: 72% of all women offenders are sentenced for less than a year and 61% of women given short sentences go on to reoffend. Often these months in prison are just long enough for a woman to lose her job, house and children. They find themselves released back into society with no safety net and very little support.
Private probation companies are simply not up to the job, given the state of today’s prisons and the severe lack of integration between these services. Today we have heard story after story of these companies being unable to offer the support they are required to give. Some of these failures are worse than others. Reports from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation last September found that private probation companies were failing to protect survivors of abuse once the abuser had been returned to the community. The report stated:
“Too often we were left wondering how safe victims and children were, especially when practitioners failed to act on new information indicating that they could be in danger.”
Further investigations discovered that only 27% of eligible offenders had been referred to an accredited programme designed to prevent further abuse.
Private probation companies, allowed under the new system to manage low to medium-risk cases, are overstretched. Last September’s report stated that private probation companies viewed home visits as a “luxury”. Domestic factors, such as escalating abuse or unstable living situations, are often determining factors in whether someone goes on to reoffend. It is simply not acceptable that probation companies are not able to act because of the costs involved.
The prisons system and by extension probation services are not considered by most people, who hope they will never encounter them personally, but the way we treat the men and women unfortunate enough to end up in prison matters, not just to the individuals but to our wider communities. Rehabilitation, when done properly, spans both the prisons system and probation. This work must be integrated to be successful. Rehabilitation is not just some soft-hearted liberal project; ultimately, it is about the security of our communities. I call on the Government to reinvest in rehabilitation by reforming standards, increasing resources and improving services to build a safer and more cohesive society, and yes social reform must cost the money that it is worth to us.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), who made important points about the need for social reform and how it does indeed cost money.
I want to speak in particular about the value of women’s centres as a community response to women offenders. I start by paying tribute of course to my friend and colleague the inspirational Baroness Corston, whose groundbreaking report led to the establishment of a wider network of women’s centres across the UK. I have visited one such centre—Eden House, in my neighbouring constituency of Bristol East, Baroness Corston’s former constituency—a few times in the past few years, the first time in my former professional role at Respect, the national organisation for domestic violence perpetrator work, in order to discuss specific interventions for women with complex histories of domestic violence and offending.
Women experience the majority of domestic violence. While there are of course male victims, their abusers are disproportionately male partners, although there are female perpetrators. There is no excuse for the abuse of a partner, female or male, but in my previous work I learned a lot about the differences between the profiles of female and male domestic perpetrators, particularly those with a complex picture of experience as a victim and a perpetrator.
Some women are indeed very violent and controlling and do fit the profile of coercive and controlling abusers, but the majority of those who use violence tend to do so either in self-defence or resistance in the context of a partner who is controlling and on whom they may be dependent. Some of the women I met at Eden House had this complex history. Often it started young—sometimes they had experience of child abuse—and their offending was intricately linked to their experience of abuse as well as to mental health and substance misuse. Those are examples of the specific needs and experiences of women offenders that Baroness Corston identified and of the reasons she concluded that specific women-centred responses were needed.
Baroness Corston also identified three specific groups of characteristics. First, the domestic category covers abusive relationships, but also childcare. Single mothers with sole responsibility for children are much less likely than male offenders to have someone on the outside to look after their home and the children, and are therefore more likely to lose both. Secondly, there is the personal category. Many women offenders have severe mental illness or substance misuse problems, which are likely to get worse if they are remanded in prison. They may also be self-harming, or have eating disorders. The third category is the socio-economic. Women are paid less than men, and are more likely to experience relationship breakdown as economically damaging. They are more likely than men to face under-employment or discrimination because of their parenting responsibilities.
A fourth category relates to the offending itself. Most, although not all, women offenders are convicted of non-violent offences, and present little public risk. They actually present a greater risk to themselves than to others. However, because there are fewer of them, they are more likely to be sent further away when they are sentenced. For other reasons, proportionate to their numbers, they are more likely to be remanded in custody than men. Because of their domestic responsibilities, they may therefore experience further, compounding consequences, such as fewer visits from children and other family members, leading to a further likelihood that their children will be taken into care permanently. Shorter sentences are also less likely to deflect future offending.
For all those complicated reasons, prison makes the lives of women and their children much worse than it makes those of male offenders, although I am not suggesting that there are no complications for male offenders. It is also much less likely that their reoffending rates will be reduced by a prison sentence.
Baroness Corston pointed out that because of those differences, there should be distinct, separate and different approaches. She recommended that community sanctions for non-violent women offenders should be the norm, that responses should take into account women’s vulnerabilities and their domestic and childcare responsibilities, and that the Together Women programme should be extended and a network of women’s centres set up as soon as possible. As I am sure you are aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, the Together Women programme was set up by the Labour Government with £9.1 million in 2005 to develop and test holistic responses to women.
As a result of Baroness Corston’s recommendation, a further £15.6 million was allocated for 2009-11 for the number of women’s centres to be increased to, eventually, 46. At their best, they provide a combination of one-to-one holistic support, help with substance misuse, counselling, therapy, domestic abuse programmes, life skills classes and workshops, referral to other help and, sometimes, on-site childcare and residential facilities. A Ministry of Justice evaluation has found statistically significant differences in favour of women’s centres compared to custodial sentences in respect of the risk of reoffending.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I am short of time, but I will give way.