Tuesday 24 June 2008
Criminal Justice: Women
My right honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Maria Eagle, has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.
On 6 December 2007, my right honourable friend the Minister of State, David Hanson, published a Command Paper—the Government’s response to the report by Baroness Corston of a Review of Women with Particular Vulnerabilities in the Criminal Justice System (Cm 7261).
The paper detailed how the Government planned to respond to the 43 recommendations made by my right honourable and noble friend Baroness Corston in her report. I am today updating Parliament and publishing a report on progress made over the past six months in taking forward the Government’s response, detailing the Government’s continued commitment to bring about real improvements for women offenders in both custody and the community. I have placed copies of the progress report in the Libraries of both Houses. Copies are also available in the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office. Copies are also available on the internet at www.justice.gov.uk/news/announcement 240608b.htm.
Since being appointed as the Ministerial Champion for Women and Criminal Justice matters, I am pleased to report the significant actions which we have been able to deliver against the commitments made in the Government’s response:
in respect of the recommendation that the number of strip searches in women's prisons be reduced, it has been usual practice for women prisoners to be strip searched on leaving and entering prison. This can be intimidating and distressing, particularly for women who have experienced domestic violence or sexual abuse. Pilots are now running in five women's prisons testing a new kind of search which does not require the removal of underwear unless there is intelligence or suspicion at any stage that an item is concealed in the underwear. The pilots are going well and the impact of the new model women’s full search is now being evaluated. The early results are encouraging and I am confident that new arrangements will shortly be in place in all women’s prisons;
the Ministry of Justice will issue guidance to probation areas on making greater use of capacity in the current female approved premises. Areas will be encouraged to consider placing more women in them, who may not necessarily present a high risk of harm to others, but who could benefit from the supervised, structured environment and the support that an approved premises can provide. I expect this guidance will be issued in July 2008;
a site in Bristol has been identified for piloting an integrated approach providing access to a range of community-based services and residential facilities. The target group will be women involved in the criminal justice system, particularly those who may have a range of vulnerabilities or who may be at risk of ending up in custody. The project will be delivered in partnership with other agencies;
the Ministry of Justice has supported financially the establishment and continued development of the women’s Turnaround Project in Wales. The project clearly demonstrates the value of multiagency, multisector work and has rapidly achieved an excellent reputation for working with women offenders and women at risk of offending;
the Ministry of Justice is looking at diverting women offenders from custody into community provision where that is appropriate. Above and beyond Baroness Corston’s recommendations, more pro-active steps need to be taken to reduce the number of women going into custody unnecessarily. Options will be developed over the coming months to create a deliverable plan of action to achieve this;
the Government aim to make better use of the conditional cautioning scheme for women as an alternative to court proceedings. National rollout of this scheme has just been completed and provides offenders who have admitted committing a low-level offence the opportunity to be diverted from court by accepting a caution with conditions. Consideration is being given to testing out a rehabilitative condition for women as part of their caution. In this instance, the main condition will be to attend a women’s centre for assessment. This will link with the Together Women Programme sites to test the benefit of combining a caution with access to the supportive wrap-around services available;
a short project was set up to consider the recommendation advocating small custodial units for 20 to 30 women. The Government accept the principles Baroness Corston developed, but the findings of the project identified significant issues that suggest standalone units of that size are neither feasible nor desirable. In addition, it would not be possible to deliver the range of services required to meet the full range of women’s specific needs. The design of a new 77 place wing at HMP Bronzefield (due for completion in 2009) will provide an opportunity to implement, test and embed a new approach to the physical environment and delivery of regimes that could test out these principles;
the Ministry of Justice Gender Equality Scheme was published on 1 April 2008. The scheme sets out what is being done to promote gender equality and eliminate unlawful discrimination and harassment in all our business areas, decisions and activities. The principles in the Gender Equality Scheme underpin everything we do as a department and will ensure fair and equal treatment for all;
on 30 May 2008, the Ministry of Justice published a national service framework for women offenders. The framework clearly lays out the Government’s strategy for addressing the needs of women offenders, and represents a significant step forward in the Government’s efforts to make the delivery of Baroness Corston’s recommendations a reality;
on 30 May 2008, the Ministry of Justice also published the Offender Management Guide to Working with Women. The guide details some of the issues, challenges, and opportunities that need to be considered when working with women offenders at all stages of the offender process, including the importance of promoting and developing community-based alternatives to custody;
the Prison Service has introduced a set of gender-specific standards for women’s prisons. The standards, which were published on 28 April 2008 in a new Prison Service Order (4800), will ensure that prisons provide regimes, programmes and support that are sensitive and appropriate for women;
a cross-departmental Criminal Justice Women’s Unit has been established with a senior civil servant appointed to head up the unit. This will manage and co-ordinate the work on Corston across all relevant departments; and
the interministerial group (IMG) on reducing reoffending now provides overall governance, ensuring cross-departmental commitment to the actions required. I have convened a sub-group to the IMG to drive the work forward and monitor progress against our commitments. Members include the Solicitor-General and Ministers from the Government Equalities Office, Department of Health, Department for Innovation Universities and Skills, Department for Communities and Local Government, and the Home Office.
Another key commitment is to improve health and social care services for women in contact with the criminal justice system. Health-related commissioning guidance specifically focused on services for women and their families will be developed by December 2008. The Government will also have reviewed and set out recommendations for improvements in the healthcare provided to women in police custody, in court cells and during transportation to prison.
I would like to thank my ministerial colleagues and officials in their departments who have contributed to the progress made and I look forward to continuing working with them, and our non-government stakeholders, in taking forward these commitments further. As the Ministerial Champion for Women and Criminal Justice matters, I will continue to make sure that everything possible is done to ensure that we have a system that is properly responsive to the needs and characteristics of women.
Elections: Weekend Voting
My honourable friend the Minister of State (Michael Wills) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.
The right to vote is the basis of our political system. Strengthening our democracy requires the removal of barriers to the exercise of that right. So the system for delivering elections must be accessible and responsive to the needs of voters. And accessibility must always go hand in hand with the security of the system: citizens need to be confident that their vote will count, and that elections are fair and free from fraud. It is the twin principles of accessibility and integrity that underpin the legitimacy of our electoral process.
In The Governance of Britain Green Paper, the Government set out a programme of work to reinvigorate our democracy and give citizens the means to participate in decision-making at every level. As part of this programme, the Government committed to consult on moving elections to the weekend as a means of making voting more accessible, and so potentially raising levels of turnout.
To meet that commitment, I am today publishing a consultation paper, Election Day (Cm 7334). The paper invites views on the merits of moving the voting day for Parliamentary and European Parliamentary elections, and local elections in England and Wales, from the traditional Thursday to the weekend; and on the best way to do this. The paper sets out a range of issues that need to be taken into account, including practical considerations and the potential cost of holding elections at the weekend, and invites views and evidence. It makes clear that, in the event that elections were moved to the weekend, this would need to be implemented in a way which did not interfere with religious observance.
This consultation paper marks the start of a process of engagement on election day. The Government are committed to exploring new forms of engagement to encourage greater public involvement in policy-making. The Government believe that the question of when elections should be held is an issue that would benefit from this new approach. So the consultation exercise I am launching today will be followed by a citizens' summit at which a cross-section of the public will be invited to consider the barriers to voting and the options available to improve participation levels.
A citizens' summit involves bringing together a broad sample of the public to deliberate and discuss issues of national policy. The Government believe that such techniques can improve the national policy-making process by introducing opportunities for a deliberative dialogue between Government and the public and encouraging people to debate policy options between themselves, to ask questions and to make informed recommendations to their representatives in Government and Parliament. Participants at this summit will be asked to deliberate on the issues, including those raised in the consultation and to make a recommendation on whether elections should be held at the weekend. The Government will respond to the consultation exercise after the summit with their view about the intended way forward.
I also intend that the summit should discuss more widely the factors that motivate people to exercise their right to vote. The sense of a civic duty to vote has eroded over the past 50 years. It is vital for the health of our democracy that we better understand the reasons for this, and what we can do to reverse the trend of falling turnout.
The consultation process on Election Day is an opportunity for a wide debate about how the democratic process can be shaped to the needs and preferences of citizens. But, whatever changes are made, we also need to ensure that the integrity of the electoral process is protected and enhanced.
Government have taken a range of steps in recent years both to modernise the registration process and to improve access to postal voting with all-party support.
Alongside this, the Government have put in place a range of measures to combat attempts to defraud the registration and postal vote processes, including in the Electoral Administration Act 2006. Electoral registration officers have powers to compare registration data with records held by local authorities. Voters now have to supply date of birth and signature, which can be cross-checked when they apply for a postal ballot, and we have given administrators more time to carry out checks.
There is no evidence that overall levels of fraud are increasing. But the Government take the integrity of the electoral process seriously: any fraud is unacceptable, and we are examining how, consistent with the need to ensure that citizens can access their right to vote, the security of both the registration system and the postal vote process could be strengthened. In that context, we plan to consult on issues relating to the security of the ballot. Any change would have to take account of the need to ensure that we do not act to exclude citizens from the democratic process, and of the significant resource commitment that would be required to deliver reform.
The Government are committed to change to the electoral system in a balanced way so that participation increases, and the security and accuracy of the ballot are protected. I hope that all those with an interest in the health of our democratic process will consider and respond to the proposals that I am launching for consultation today.
House of Lords: Members’ Interests
A Register of Interests of Members’ Research Assistants and Secretaries will be published on 25 June 2008, as recommended by the Committee for Privileges and agreed by the House on 26 July 2007 (HL Paper 140, Session 2006-07). The register will be published electronically and will be accessible via the parliamentary website at: www.parliament.uk. The register will be updated regularly.
Northern Ireland: Equality Commission
My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Shaun Woodward) has made the following Ministerial Statement.
I am pleased to announce today the appointment of eight new commissioners, including deputy chief commissioner, to the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.
The appointments follow an open process based on merit. The terms of appointment of the eight outgoing commissioners, Anne O'Reilly (deputy chief commissioner), Annie Campbell, Brian Carlin, Eileen Evason, Tom Haverty, Michael Rae, Audrey Simpson and Derick Wilson end on 31 July 2008. They will be replaced by Jane Morrice (deputy chief commissioner); Stella Burnside; Kit Chivers; Patricia Feeney; Charo Lanao-Madden; David Stevens; Norman Trotter; and Murray Watt, who will take up post on 1 August 2008, joining eight existing commissioners.
The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland is a key institution of the Belfast agreement and plays a vital role in protecting and promoting equality for all members of our diverse society in Northern Ireland. I am grateful for the commitment and expertise that the departing commissioners have brought to the commission.
I am confident that the new appointees will continue their good work and ensure that the commission continues to carry out its important duties effectively.
Qualifications and Assessment: Regulation and Development
My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Children, Young People and Families (Jim Knight) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.
In December, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills and I published a consultation document, Confidence in Standards: Regulating and developing qualifications and assessment (Cm 7281). We detailed plans for the creation of a new independent regulator of qualifications and tests for England—the Office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator (Ofqual), and the evolution of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) into a development agency for curriculum, assessment and qualifications.
The consultation finished in March, and in a Statement to the House on 2 April I confirmed that the proposals had been generally well received and that we were therefore proceeding with these reforms, including bringing forward new legislation. We also confirmed that Ofqual was about to be set up in an interim form, using the QCA’s current regulatory powers. Ofqual was duly launched in its interim form on 8 April.
We have today published a further progress report, including a summary of the responses to the consultation—Confidence in Standards: regulating and developing qualifications and assessment—next steps and confirmation of how in the light of comments we have decided to proceed. I have placed a copy in the House Library.
Ofqual will be a credible and clearly independent guardian of standards across the assessment and qualifications system, securing confidence in that system. Subject to legislation, it will become a regulator with even stronger powers to safeguard standards. The QCA, in its new form as the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA), will be able to focus on advising Ministers on the curriculum and on developing and delivering qualifications and assessments. These reforms have been widely welcomed, including in the responses to the consultation. They are the right thing to do and all will benefit—employers, higher education, the many and various players involved in delivering qualifications and—most important of all—the learners of all ages.
Rates: Non-Domestic Valuations
My honourable friend the Minister for Local Government (John Healey) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.
I have today published a consultation paper, and draft regulatory impact assessment, to seek views on the use of the “contractor’s method of valuation” in non-domestic rating valuations in England for the 2010 revaluation.
Rateable values are assessed independently by the Valuation Office Agency and are generally based on annual rental values. Most are assessed having regard to actual rents but such evidence is not always available. In about 11 per cent of cases, rateable value is based on capital values (found from the cost of construction and land values) which is then “decapitalised” to give an annual value representing the rateable value. This is called the “contractor’s method of valuation”. The decapitalisation rate used in the valuation is prescribed by the Government.
The consultation paper I have published today contains proposals:
to continue to prescribe the decapitalisation rate for the 2010 revaluation;
to retain the existing groupings of properties subject to each of the two decapitalisation rates, and
as to the methodology to be used to determining the decapitalisation rates.
We will make final decisions on these proposals and, in the event of continued prescription, determine the decapitalisation rates in the autumn of this year in light of the consultation responses.
Copies of the document have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses and can be accessed via the Department for Communities and Local Government website at: www.communities.gov.uk/publications/local government/decapitalisationrate.
Scottish Elections: Gould Report
My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland (Des Browne) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.
In seeking to ensure that the events that led to the spoiling of a significant number of ballot papers in the election to the Scottish Parliament in 2007 do not happen again, my overriding priority has been to put the interests of the voter first.
On 23 October last year, Ron Gould reported on his review of the 2007 Scottish elections. I said to Parliament then that the Gould report was a valuable contribution to the analysis of what went wrong last May, and I gave a commitment to provide a full response to the report once I had heard the views of a wide range of interests through consultation and debate. The Scotland Office initiated that consultation through our paper, Sorting the Ballot. Meetings were held with electoral administrators, political parties and the Electoral Commission to hear their views on Gould’s recommendations. In addition, a number of focus groups were held with voters across Scotland. I also welcomed the move from the Scottish Affairs Committee to conduct its own review of the Gould report and its recommendations. The committee reported on 18 May and its recommendations have been taken into account when considering the Government’s response. (I shall be responding separately to the Committee’s report later today.)
Last October, I commended the Gould report to the House. It offered proposals to all stakeholders involved in the administration of elections in Scotland. they aim to improve the way in which Scottish elections are administered and suggest good practices which could inform the running of other elections in the UK. It is my view that all political parties should work together to build on the proposals in the Gould report in order to improve the election process in Scotland. Elections belong to the people, not individual political parties, and that is why we must work for consensus across the board and to ensure that the Scottish voter is put first.
One of the most important steps to put the needs of the voter first is the decoupling of the local government from the Scottish Parliament elections. The decision to combine the elections was taken by the Scottish Parliament. Decoupling will go a long way to delivering the simplicity and clarity that Ron Gould has identified as being needed for elections taking place in Scotland. After the May 2007 elections, when voters were asked by an independent researcher to choose the top priority for the next election, the most popular option was having the Scottish Parliament and local government elections on separate days. This was confirmed by the focus groups referred to above, where the most frequently asked questions were why there were two elections using different processes on the same day and why could they not be held on different days. Responsibility for Scottish local authority elections rests with the Scottish Executive. I therefore welcome the Scottish Executive’s consultation, which was launched on 3 March, on how they might decouple the local government elections from the Parliament elections. It will benefit all those involved with elections if this proceeds.
In my Statement to the House last October, I accepted outright five recommendations which, in my view, could make a significant improvement to the running of elections to the Scottish Parliament. These were a reversion to manual counting; separate ballot papers for the constituency and regional votes; a longer period between close of nominations and the date of election; a six-month cut-off for changes in the law governing the conduct of elections; and consolidation of the legislation on the conduct of Scottish Parliament elections. I am pleased to say that the results of our consultation confirm that these five recommendations have overwhelming support. I would like now to set out my response to the other Gould recommendations on which we consulted.
First, on ballot paper design, the Government accept the Gould recommendation that registered party names should appear first on the regional ballot paper, followed by party description. It is important that voters know which party it is that they are voting for and that they know they are voting for a party rather than an individual in the regional vote. The focus groups in particular highlighted that voters prefer the certainty of the registered party names which are less liable to change than the party descriptors.
While we respect the intention of Gould’s further recommendation that ballot paper ordering should be determined by lottery, a strong case has been made against such a move on the grounds of voter confusion, particularly for those with learning difficulties. There was strong support among the focus groups and others consulted for retaining alphabetical order on the grounds that that is what people are used to and it is easier to find the candidate or party of the voter’s choice.
On the timing of the count, I have decided that there should be no change from the current arrangements; ie, that the count should take place as soon as practicable after the polls close. There was no direct link between the timing of the count and the problems that occurred last May. Convention is that the count takes place overnight as the ballot boxes come in and, as the focus groups showed, voters enjoy the experience of hearing the results as soon as possible. Voters and candidates should wait no longer to know the results than is necessary to count the ballot papers and verify the result. The final decision on when it is practicable that the count should take place, given local circumstances, though, will remain a matter for individual returning officers.
I have considered whether a chief returning officer (CRO) should be appointed with full responsibility for administering all elections. The Gould report sets out a range of functions that a CRO might fulfil. However, the views that have been expressed across the political spectrum and by administrators are not conclusive. A considered examination of the structures required for administering elections in Scotland is necessary. I note that the Electoral Commission has taken the initiative in leading an investigation on this subject and its report is expected later this summer. The Scottish Executive have also indicated that they propose to consult on the detailed options for a CRO for local authority elections later this year. Given the need to ensure a consistent approach across elections in the potential role of a CRO, and the ongoing consideration being given to this issue, I have decided that the Government should work closely with colleagues across government, the Electoral Commission and the Scottish Executive in examining this in more detail before a final decision is reached.
This will take time as any change would require primary and secondary legislation. I am very conscious of the need to make decisions now for the elections in 2011 so that there is no uncertainty about how they will be run. I am conscious also of the need for a period of stability to rebuild confidence in our electoral processes. I do not think it practical therefore to make decisions on a CRO to enable such a person to be in place for the 2011 election. That is not to rule out the concept, but rather to ensure that sufficient time is available to give the matter the consideration it deserves.
The recommendations that we have already accepted, together with the proposed decoupling of elections, will address the issues of accountability that underpinned the reasons why Gould recommended a CRO. These steps will ensure greater clarity in the election process. I accept the recommendation of the All-Party Scottish Affairs Select Committee that there is no compelling case to change the present legislative arrangements for elections to the Scottish Parliament. However, accepting Gould’s view that co-ordination of elections can be improved, I propose to establish, on a non-statutory basis, an elections policy and planning group for the Scottish Parliament elections in 2011. This group, chaired, for the first time, by a senior returning officer, will report to me regularly on progress with the commitments that I have set out today.
Gould also raised commonly voiced concerns about consistency and professionalism among electoral administrators. This, to a large degree, is being addressed by the work of the Electoral Commission in developing performance standards. As this is a new monitoring regime for electoral administrators, we will need to give it time to being established before reviewing whether any further action is required.
By the end of this year, as Gould recommended, work will have begun on consolidating the legislation that governs the Scottish Parliament elections into a single statutory instrument; we have committed to achieving this at least six months before the 2011 elections are held.
Our key task now is to rebuild the confidence of voters. The steps I have set out today are, I believe, the right ones to ensure that the problems of the 2007 election never happen again.
Young Offender Institutions: Physical Restraint
Today my right honourable friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Beverley Hughes) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.
On 8 October 2007, my right honourable friend the Minister of State for Justice and I announced the appointment of Andrew Williamson CBE and Peter Smallridge CBE as independent co-chairs of the review of restraint in juvenile secure settings. The Ministry of Justice and the Department for Children, Schools and Families have joint responsibility for the review.
I am pleased to announce that the chairs reported their recommendations to my right honourable friend and me on 20 June. We welcome their report and will give its recommendations careful consideration. We intend to publish the chairs’ full report alongside our response to its recommendations by the end of October.