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With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to make a statement.
I am publishing today a five-year strategy for protecting the public and reducing reoffending. I believe that most people want three main things from the criminal justice system. They want to see justice done, with people who commit crimes getting caught and punished. They want to be protected from dangerous people so that they can walk the streets without fear. They want a system that gets people back on the straight and narrow, so that time spent in the criminal justice system stops reoffending, rather than just acting as a brief interlude in a life of crime.
More than half of all crime in this country is committed by people who have been through the criminal justice system. Prison does not work in stopping reoffending. The strategy that I am publishing today is designed to meet the challenge of reducing reoffending. I begin with our first duty, which is to protect the public.
The recent record of prisons is good, with no category A escapes since 1996. The best way to keep the public safe from violent and dangerous people is to keep them in prison for as long as is necessary and to improve the way offenders are supervised in the community. The new indeterminate sentence for public protection will mean that seriously dangerous offenders will not be released until the Parole Board assesses that it is safe to do so, which in some cases could be never.
We will do more to protect the public from all offenders who are still assessed as being dangerous. Through the multi-agency public protection arrangements, offender managers will be required to work with all agencies, including the police, to supervise dangerous offenders closely and send them back to prison if necessary. We anticipate bringing forward, as soon as parliamentary time allows, mental health legislation that will improve public protection, while respecting individual rights. Our second and third duties are to punish and to rehabilitate offenders.
The argument that I wish to make today is that prison is only one way of punishing offenders, and that it is best for the most serious offenders, particularly those who are dangerous. However, there are better punishment regimes for others. In particular, properly organised community sentences can be a powerful, effective and tough punishment that offers the best chance of stopping offenders offending again.
I recognise that community sentences need to win the confidence of sentencers, local communities and, most important, the public. The five-year strategy sets out the essential components for success—first, significant expansion of unpaid work in a variety of different settings, which are highly visible to the public and demonstrate reparation and payback to the community; secondly, full use of the range of rehabilitations, including health, education and other support; and thirdly, genuine aspiration to going straight for every individual, with a contract based on strong future prospects of employment, housing and social and family relations.
All those can be delivered only through far stronger partnerships with local authorities and other public services, voluntary and community organisations and individual citizens, in the ways set out in the strategy document. Central to that is managing offenders better, whether in custody or in the community. A named offender manager for every offender will be responsible for ensuring that they are both punished and rehabilitated properly. They will work across prison and probation, which is why we have brought together all our work with offenders under a single organisation, the National Offender Management Service.
We need to develop closer links with communities. Later this spring, we will publish a new strategy for the prisons estate. That will confirm our vision for community prisons, with a modernised prison estate that is focused on reducing reoffending and facilities that can help to bridge the gap between custody and community. To achieve all that, we need to increase support to our staff and bring in the best possible people and organisations to challenge and to support every offender. We need to move to a system that has the flexibility to provide what will best cut reoffending. Many partners from the private and voluntary sector already work in prisons and the community, and the complex problems they face often need better partnerships. Our proposals take this one step further.
The National Offender Management Service, with commissioning at its heart, will harness the dynamism and talents of a broader range of innovative and effective providers from the public, private, voluntary and community sectors. The primary aim will be to drive up standards and reduce reoffending. We expect many successful bidders to be partnerships from the public, private and voluntary sectors, and we will shortly publish a prospectus to set out a phased programme of contestability.
We consulted last autumn on a proposal to change probation boards into probation trusts, which would have contracts with the commissioners in the National Offender Management Service. I will introduce legislation to make that change. We will carefully consider the results of the consultation to make sure that we can overcome any risks and practical difficulties, but still get the benefits of commissioning. We will commit to excellent, well trained and well supported staff, with new occupational standards and better support for good leadership. As we move forward, I intend to give more freedom to high-performing prisons and probation trusts.
We have already made some progress in cutting reoffending, but our progress has been slow and incremental. I have concluded that we need to underpin the measures in our strategy with fundamental structural reform. Taken together, our measures will ensure that we protect the public and also cut reoffending much more significantly, make the public safer, and reduce crime and criminality.
I thank the Home Secretary, as is traditional, for advance sight of the statement, although much of it was trailed this morning in the press and by the right hon. Gentleman himself on the radio. It is called a five-year plan, but it has taken the Government eight years to come up with it. There is much in the Home Secretary's statement with which we agree. The prison estate is overcrowded and the reoffending rate is far too high. On that, there is no difference between us. There is a desperate need for better education and training in our prisons.
About two years ago, the Home Secretary's predecessor came to the House of Commons to announce the forerunner of today's five-year plan, the so-called Carter report. The report contained a number of grand plans, some of which the Home Secretary has reiterated today, but as Lord Ramsbotham, the former chief inspector of prisons, said this morning, little of it actually happened.
Realising that it would be at least 20,000 prison cells short, the Home Office decided to increase the number of community sentences and early releases and deter judges and magistrates from sending criminals to prison in the first place—incidentally, that policy was a complete reversal of the then Home Secretary's public rhetoric. It cannot be right or fair on the law-abiding public to address the problem of prison overcrowding by releasing dangerous or unsuitable prisoners on tags or by simply not sending such people to prison in the first place. Covering up the failure of planning has also proved to be a false economy. The greatest costs of the prison and probation service are not measured in the accounts, because they are the costs of failure— the Home Office has estimated that the cost to the country of reoffending is at least £11 billion.
Failure is the norm under this Government. For example, criminals sent on community punishment should be less hardened than those sent to prison, so their reoffending rates should be better. In practice, however, the reoffending rate among those subject to community punishment is at least as bad, if not worse, than that among criminals who have been sent to prison. The Government's flagship programme for punishment in the community is the intensive supervision and surveillance programme, which the Youth Justice Board has described as the
"most robust and innovative community based programme available".
It has a failure rate of 91 per cent.
Under this Government, reoffending levels have risen to an all-time high—more than 60 per cent. of prisoners reoffend within two years, and the same is true of 73 per cent. of young offenders. There are reasons why that is the case. If a prisoner comes out of jail without a skill, unable to read and hooked on drugs, his chances of going straight are near to zero. And what is the current situation? Half of all prisoners cannot read as well as a typical 11-year-old, and four fifths of them cannot write as well as a typical 11-year-old. Half of all prisoners do not have any of the skills required by 96 per cent. of the jobs available to them, so most are virtually unemployable. That is compounded by the fact that large numbers of them are addicted to drugs, often crack cocaine.
How has that happened? The first problem is chaos in the system. Prisoners do not get the training that they need to get them back on the straight and narrow. Often, those who are lucky enough to start a course never complete it, because they are moved to another prison in the constant reallocations that occur as a direct result of the prison overcrowding allowed by this Government. Drug addiction is getting worse because of the Government's serial failure in that area—for example, drug treatment and testing orders have a failure rate of 80 per cent.
The Government's failure to stop reoffending rates spiralling out of control is no surprise, but so far under this Government community punishment has not been proven to be a success. On the radio this morning, the Home Secretary said that the Government had
"not tried it in a coherent and systematic way".
Will he tell the House why we should expect any different now?
Some of the Home Secretary's proposals sound sensible enough. Sending 10,000 foreign prisoners home sounds sensible, provided that they are locked up in their home country and never come back here—although the fact that the figure is 10,000 in the first place prompts a question about the current management system. Local prisons are not a bad idea, and using charities and voluntary groups is a good idea, but those are minor changes in the face of a massive problem.
The public at large are not protected from a criminal who receives a non-custodial sentence. That issue has been thrown into sharp relief by those criminals who have committed crimes while on early release from prison—criminals who were released early have committed at least 7,000 crimes that we know of, including almost 1,000 violent crimes and at least two high-profile murders. All those crimes would not have happened if the criminals involved had been locked up, as they should have been. Would it not have been more sensible to await the findings of the inquiry into the murder of John Victor Monckton rather than making this statement in advance? Do we not need a thorough and wide-ranging look at the whole question of early release, parole and release on licence before the Home Secretary revamps the system yet again?
I would welcome much of today's announcement if it were the blueprint of a Government fresh into power, but it is not. As for gimmicky initiatives and new powers, we have been there and got the T-shirt—the only difference is that this time the T-shirt has "Community Payback" emblazoned on the back. In the past eight years, we have seen custody plus, custody minus, early release schemes, intensively supervised community service, cognitive therapy for prisoners and so on. The results include rocketing prison populations, high rates of drug addiction and revolving-door prisons with high reoffending rates. It is easy to trot out the figures showing that the current failing system costs the economy billions of pounds. However, hidden in that figure is the cost to local communities that must deal with the effects of criminals who are released on to the streets unreformed, uneducated and still addicted to drugs.
I should also ask about the cost to the offenders themselves. Most of them are largely uneducated, illiterate and innumerate young men aged between 16 and 25, whose crimes result largely from alcohol and drug abuse. They need not only punishment for their crimes, but some help to go straight and make something useful of their lives on release. Is not the taxpayer, who spends millions on prisons and community sentences, entitled to a real return on his investment in the criminal justice system? All that has come from the Government's multiple strategies thus far has been a lot of wasted money and even more wasted lives.
Despite the negative tone adopted by David Davis, I agree with a great deal of what he had to say. The cost of failure is, of course, the key point—by the way, the cost is the result not only of this Government, but of decisions made in past decades and centuries. Every time that we fail to rehabilitate somebody, the cost of failure to society as a whole—let alone to the individual, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly said—is massive.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to identify the massive issues around the people who are in our criminal justice system. The Government are committed to education and health, and the least educated and least healthy people in the whole population are those within the criminal justice system—as the right hon. Gentleman has said, the issues include illiteracy, innumeracy, drug abuse, alcohol abuse and mental health.
Why have we not succeeded in conquering that problem? In my opinion, it is because we have been insufficiently systematic and rigorous, insufficiently determined to focus on the individual circumstances of each offender and insufficiently ready to form a partnership among all agencies. The essence of the right hon. Gentleman's criticism is that not enough has been done to deal with those questions, which is a criticism of the record rather than of this five-year strategy. He is entitled to make that criticism, but I am entitled to say that the result of years of neglect of the prison and probation system is that we have a long way to go to resolve the matter.
I acknowledge the difficulties and say that we must do two things: first, we must focus on individual offenders and implement regimes to get them to go straight; and secondly, we must build a partnership with a more diverse range of providers and other agencies to achieve the changes set out in the strategy. I hope that we will have the support of the right hon. Gentleman's party.
The vision is correct, but the challenge is implementation. Will my right hon. Friend rule out the possibility that vital decisions about the supervision and management of dangerous sex offenders could in the future pass into the hands of private companies? A Minister confirmed that that is a possibility in the Home Affairs Committee last autumn. The introduction of commissioning may centralise funds at least at a regional level, but many hon. Members believe that greater flexibility is needed on the front line to ensure that support for individual offenders is tailored to their needs, the challenges that they pose and the communities in which they live.
I agree with my right hon. Friend that the challenge is implementation. His Committee has taken a consistent interest in the subject, and I hope that we can work together on implementing the strategy.
I agree with my right hon. Friend that we must ensure that the people who are most dangerous to society are under our control in prison. David Davis has identified some of the weaknesses in our regime, and we must resolve those issues in the public sector.
Finally, I also agree with my right hon. Friend that flexibility on the front line is the key issue. Candidly, I do not believe that the relationship between prisons, probation and other services such as education and health and local employers is as strong as it needs to be in communities in Norwich, Southampton and up and down the country.
I welcome the thrust of today's announcement and the Home Secretary's courtesy in providing an advance of copy of the statement.
The Home Secretary is right to say that we are sending too many people to prison, and I welcome the fact that he had the courage to say so. He will know that Liberal Democrat Members have long supported the principle that offenders should be required to pay back their communities for crimes that they have committed. However, the Home Secretary has had time since 1997 to make inroads into this problem, and several important studies have not been acted upon. Can he tell the House whether he intends to implement the recommendations made by the social exclusion unit in 2002, when it called for an increase in the discharge grant and the prioritisation of ex-prisoners on local authority lists? Can he explain why no action was taken on that?
Will the Home Secretary now implement the recommendations of the Home Office review of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, which has been neglected and ignored since 2002? Does he accept that the disclosure rules have left thousands of ex-offenders in a Catch-22 situation whereby they cannot get work and therefore resort to further crime? Finally, if the Secretary of State is committed to ending the scandal of prison overcrowding, why did he abandon the commitment made by his predecessor to cap the prison population at 80,000?
The hon. Lady raises five points. I generally welcome the approach that she has taken.
On the discharge grant, we are discussing with the Department for Work and Pensions whether we can get a better situation as regards the benefits for people leaving prison. On housing, I agree with the hon. Lady that there are serious issues about housing discontinuities. We are discussing with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and housing organisations how best to deal with that. We are also considering issues to do with the rehabilitation of offenders.
I do not accept that the disclosure rules are the problem in respect of ex-offenders being unable to get work; in fact, the reverse is true. Many employers are ready to give work to ex-offenders, but we have not succeeded in engaging with them properly to provide the necessary pathways. We will of course work on that.
On the hon. Lady's final point, for too long our policies in this area have been driven by a discussion about the size of the prison population. In my opinion, prison should be used where it is needed for dangerous prisoners, and we should proceed on that basis. Community sentences should be built up to work in a tough and effective way where they are needed. The process is not helped by picking a relatively arbitrary figure and saying that it is the appropriate size for the prison population.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that public confidence might increase if the public felt that they had a more direct input into recommending or designing the punishment project so that it was more relevant to local communities? Given that it is punishment, should not there be a prompt and visible consequence for non-compliance, no matter what the excuse?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend, and I am grateful to him for raising the point in that way. My view is that unpaid work should be a much higher component in community sentencing than is sometimes the case, that a wide range of potential providers of unpaid work can resolve the issues, and that that unpaid work should be highly visible in a particular locality. We have seen in other countries that the visibility of unpaid work is an important component of the community sentence. We have to be far more ambitious, as is set out in the document, in providing better ways of dealing with that.
Is it not the case that this Government started by talking tough on prison and failing to make the necessary accommodation available, and are now, confronted by the consequences of that failure, shifting the emphasis to community sentencing without making available the resources that might make that work? Would it not be better if the Home Secretary, instead of reannouncing shallow initiatives that enable him to go on to the "Today" programme and pretend that he is taking effective action, simply rolled up his sleeves and got down to the hard graft of making the present system work?
I am always grateful for the comments of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, with his experience in these areas, but with respect I think that he is entirely wrong.
We have to look at the people who are in prison today and consider whether prison is the right place for them. I cite foreign national prisoners—more than 10,000 of them. Is it right that they should be in British prisons rather than in their own countries? I cite remand prisoners. Is it right that they should be in prison rather than being in the courts and moving more quickly through the process? I cite mentally ill prisoners, where there are serious issues about their mental heath care. I cite prisoners on very short sentences caught in the revolving door, where our failure—I acknowledge that word to the right hon. and learned Gentleman—to provide credible and effective community sentences has meant that we cannot do what is needed for those people in the best possible way.
I am not telling the right hon. and learned Gentleman that everything has been got right—I do not think that. I do think, however, that it is fundamentally wrong simply to say that the current system is basically okay and we should work a bit harder at it. We have to focus on every offender and build genuine and diverse partnerships.
On building links with the community, may I bring to my right hon. Friend's notice the outstanding work that is being done by the Bridgewater hostel in my constituency? A key part of its success has been the acceptance of risk in building links between offenders and the community. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that, in looking at other providers, risk is properly recognised and quantified? So far, the private sector has been extremely risk-averse in handling prisoners in the community.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful and important point about risk management, which is insufficiently addressed but absolutely central. However, I do not entirely accept her observation that the private sector has been risk-averse. That is why I said that we will publish a prospectus which means that private sector bidders can look at the particular circumstances and decide how to engage.
As for the voluntary and community sectors, we have not had the right relationship with them to enable them to address the risks in the way that my hon. Friend describes. I do not take the view that one type of provider is good at dealing with risk and another is bad at it, but that risk has to be at the centre of the whole contestability agenda.
I think that most people would agree with the bulk of the right hon. Gentleman's statement. As he knows, community penalties are very successful in reducing reoffending. The way to increase their use is to increase the number of fully trained probation officers needed to implement them. It is extremely disappointing that after months of debate, it seems that the National Offender Management Service will have contestability—privatisation—at its core, yet it is already known that many private prisons are failing.
With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, he misses the point in an important way. I pay credit to the work done by probation officers and, indeed, by prison officers; they include highly professional and almost universally highly committed individuals. However, we have not been very good at working with other organisations, whether in education, health, housing, local government or whatever. That working together offers us the best possible chance of developing community sentences that are much stronger and more effective than they are at the moment. It is not simply a question of expanding what exists now, but of changing its nature to bring a far wider range of participants into the frame.
I should like to draw to my right hon. Friend's attention the excellent work that is being carried out by the Wrexham youth offending service and by the north Wales probation service, whose work I was recently able to see. It is concerned about the proposal for an all-Wales probation service, which it feels may undermine its close links with prisons in north-west England that serve north Wales, which does not currently have its own prisons.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point about the relationship between north Wales and the north-west of England. He is right to say that the police reorganisation proposals, on which he has strong views, must take full account of the implications for probation. I assure him that I shall study carefully the relationship that he raised.
The Home Secretary announced a range of initiatives for improving the skills base and tackling the lack of education and attainment of people in prison. Does he accept that that process does not end when they leave the prison gate? Does he envisage a role for the voluntary sector and charities, such as the Centre for Adolescent Rehabilitation—C-FAR—in Devon, which does incredibly good work in rehabilitating offenders and enabling them to go back into society, but faces a continual battle for Government funding because it was not eligible for any pot of money? If he envisages a role for such charities, will he assure us that funding will be available?
I certainly envisage a role for voluntary and community organisations and I know of the hon. Gentleman's commitment, which was reflected in the question that he asked the Prime Minister yesterday. Partnership with voluntary organisations is central and his point about what happens after leaving prison or after a sentence has ended is important. However, we must bear in mind the need for quality. It is important that we do not say that an organisation will receive funding, whatever happens. We must ensure the quality of the provision.
I am sure that the majority of people agree with my right hon. Friend's comments about the need for stronger partnerships with a range of providers. However, some of us have serious concerns about contestability. Yesterday, I received a reply to a written parliamentary question in which I asked about responses to the consultation on restructuring probation. It appears that there were 748 responses but nobody could tell me how many were in favour of contestability. I suspect that the answer is a small number. I urge my right hon. Friend to reconsider the matter. It would be much easier to make a success of the positive agenda that he presented if we carried probation staff with us rather than having a fight with them over privatisation.
My hon. Friend is right. I give away no secrets by saying that, when the full results of the consultation are published, they will show that, as he suggested, few people supported the original proposals. I also accept that it is critical to move forward in the way that the strategy sets out with the professionals in the service, not against them. However, almost everybody in the service believes that the end-to-end offender management strategy and the partnership approach is right. They are not convinced that our proposals fulfil those two requirements. I am committed to fulfilling them and to trying to tackle my hon. Friend's point.
Does the Home Secretary accept that few dangerous offenders are women and that relatively few women commit violent offences? Yet in recent years, there has been a disproportionate increase in the female prison population. May we therefore have the widest possible range of alternatives, in which the courts and the public can have confidence, to custody for women, including sentences that are especially tailored to women and would be suitable for women with young families?
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. He may have noted an important recent speech by Lady Hale, a former Appeal Court judge, who clearly set out the points that he made. We are considering the matter carefully. There is no doubt that women in prison constitute an important group for whom we could and should look for alternatives to prison in several specific circumstances. We are actively examining that matter and I would be interested in any specific observations that the hon. Gentleman made to work with us on that.
Unusually for me, I want to build on a point that the shadow Home Secretary raised. He made a thoughtful point about education, which is vital. The statement refers to a modernised prison estate that focuses on reducing reoffending and facilities that can help bridge the gap between custody and community. I urge my right hon. Friend to consider a specific difficulty, whereby young people in the secure estate start to engage in education and are then moved to another institution. It can sometimes take weeks for the records to catch up with them, by which time they are moved again. That happens seriatim, they never receive the education and they leave prison still illiterate and unskilled.
My hon. Friend is correct. Although there have been some moves to improve the position, it remains unsatisfactory. I hope that two aspects of the proposals will tackle his concern. First, the move to community prisons will ensure more stability for precisely the reasons that he states and afford a better chance of working with local education institutions. Secondly, the IT systems, especially the national offender management information system—NOMIS—will ensure that the data are handled better. I hope that the strategy will address the central point that my hon. Friend raised.
How widespread is the problem of intimidation of prison officers and their families by drugs gangs to secure a supply of drugs on the inside?
The short answer is that I do not believe that such intimidation is widespread. There are examples of organisations trying to get drugs into prison and we are trying to stop that. The Prison Service makes a constant effort to prevent that. However, I do not believe that the specific manifestation that the hon. Gentleman describes is widespread.
May I follow the point that my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard made? I am convinced that front-line probation and prison staff share the Home Secretary's objectives and that they will welcome his statement about partnership and co-operative working. However, as my right hon. Friend knows, there has been an underlying concern for the past two years that the Government seek large-scale or wholesale privatisation, especially of the probation service, but also of the Prison Service. Will he make it clear that that is not the Government's objective? Will he give us some indication of the scale, range and nature of the private sector involvement that he envisages?
I am grateful for and perhaps surprised by the direction of those comments. The central objective, which is shared throughout the whole service, is to reduce reoffending. That is the test for the precise reason that David Davis identified: by reducing reoffending, we make the greatest savings for society in terms of the overall economic position. The test applies to the public sector, whether the probation service or the Prison Service, voluntary and community organisations that want to work in the field and private sector organisations. That is the appropriate test: not cost cutting and its attendant aspects, but reducing reoffending. To tease out the details of my hon. Friend's important question, we shall shortly publish a prospectus that will go through our approach to different sorts of offender, different parts of the country and so on. By doing that, we will explore how different organisations want to meet the challenge of reoffending among particular groups.
Although I welcome a broader range of innovative and effective providers from the voluntary and private sectors, does the Home Secretary agree that it is important that any bidders or organisations that want to provide the service should receive transparent, precise and clear indications of the quality and other conditions that they should satisfy? I ask that question for a specific reason. My hon. Friend Charles Hendry referred to C-FAR, which was originally situated in my constituency but closed in circumstances with which the Home Secretary may be familiar. It is anxious to revive its valuable work for offenders throughout the south-west region. On the Department's advice, it attempted to engage with the regional offenders' manager. However, there was a spectacular failure to provide the precise indication that it needs of what it must do to receive support from the Department. Will the Home Secretary please examine that? Will he ensure that precise and transparent guidance is given? Otherwise, valuable people who do that sort of work will be deeply disillusioned.
I entirely agree with the point about precision and transparency and acknowledge that that has not always been provided. That is why I believe that publishing a prospectus, which sets out precisely the matters that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, including quality standards and targets for reducing reoffending, is the right way to proceed. Organisations such as that to which he referred can examine the document and decide whether they have a genuine contribution to make.
I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, and the apparent consensus that alternatives to prison play an important role in reducing reoffending for the significant proportion of prisoners with drug problems, mental health problems and learning difficulties. Does my right hon. Friend agree that making tough and effective alternatives a reality will require working with the probation service, using its considerable expertise, and providing it with the resources and training for education and rehabilitation that it will need in order to be effective?
I agree with my hon. Friend, but again I must make the point that it is a question not only of providing the resources to the probation service, but of building partnerships between the probation service and other providers, including local government, which my hon. Friend knows well.
Does the Home Secretary accept that a key ingredient in the problem is that we have not done enough to rehabilitate drug offenders? Will he undertake dramatically to increase the number of residential rehabilitation places available, so that we can cut down on the number of people entering the revolving doors of the prison system?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I hope that he will acknowledge that there has been a substantial increase in the amount of places available for drug rehabilitation. Whether the right way to deal with this is through the use of residential places or other forms of support is a matter of constant, principally professional, debate. However, I accept the hon. Gentleman's point that residential provision has a substantial contribution to make.
I, too, welcome the emphasis on community sentences in my right hon. Friend's statement, and the commitment to an expansion of unpaid work. Does he agree, however, that to win the full-hearted support of probation officers, he will need to ensure that the probation service—especially the London probation service—has the necessary resources and training to supervise that unpaid work? Does he also agree that the key to the success of community sentences—turning them from a soft option to a hard choice—is a well trained and well supported staff, as I am sure the National Association of Probation Officers would agree?
I agree with my hon. Friend and, as he knows, the London probation service is recruiting at the moment. I say again, however, that while it is right that there should be well trained and well resourced staff, they must work in partnership with other agencies. It is important to realise that not all of this can be done exclusively by the probation service. Despite the recent major improvements in the London probation service, there remain central security issues in the whole approach, and they need to be addressed at the same time as these other issues are considered.
I cannot give the hon. Gentleman those precise figures across the Floor today, but I will happily write to him with the information. If the point of his question is to suggest that more time should be spent on education and skills, I agree with him. It is perfectly reasonable to report to Parliament on how much time is spent on those activities.
May I draw to the Home Secretary's attention the concerns of my constituent, Mrs. Anna Westaway, whose son Harry was stabbed in an unprovoked attack in the street while studying at university? Had he been stabbed an inch nearer to his heart, the charge would have been murder. His assailant has been given a poncey community order. Mrs. Westaway and Harry, as well as most of my constituents and I, believe that if someone commits a knife attack in the street, they ought to go to prison.
Obviously, I cannot comment on that particular case. I agree, however, that prison sentences are appropriate for people who commit knife crimes. That is why the Violent Crime Reduction Bill, which is now being considered in the other place, will increase the sentence for those who carry knives. I also believe that the knife amnesty that I announced yesterday will be an important means of taking knives away from the population, and it is being backed by a series of enforcement and education programmes. I take knife crime extremely seriously, but I regret that I cannot comment on the case that the hon. Gentleman has raised; I simply do not know the details. Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. On Monday this week, the Regulatory Reform Committee produced a report that described part 1 of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill as being of constitutional significance. On Tuesday, the Procedure Committee took evidence from the Under-Secretary of State for the Cabinet Office, Mr. Murphy. The Chairman of the Committee subsequently wrote to the Leader of the House requesting that part 1 of the Bill be dealt with on the Floor of the House because of its constitutional significance. Today at business questions, the Leader of the House said that he was considering such a request from my right hon. Friend Mr. Knight. In these circumstances, would it be in order either for the Minister to withdraw the programme motion, or to table an alternative motion that reflects the deep concern of two of our most important Select Committees?
"the most constitutionally significant Bill that has been brought before Parliament for some years".
There are clear precedents for constitutional matters being taken before a Committee of the whole House, but the present committal order, exceptionally, does not allow that to happen with this Bill. If it is not possible for the Government to withdraw the programme motion today, may we at least have an opportunity to debate the matter?
I understand what both the hon. Gentlemen have said. These are obviously serious and important matters. However, the questions raised are for the Minister to respond to. No doubt he will have heard what has been said, and he will respond as he thinks appropriate. For the time being, we can proceed only with the business on the Order Paper.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Have you had a request from the relevant Minister to come to the House to make a statement on the post office strike in Belfast, which is causing major disruption and even paralysis to postal deliveries and collections in the city and across Northern Ireland? This is causing real hardship for local businesses, and for people who depend on the postal service for their benefit cheques. What are the Government doing to try to help in this situation? I would be grateful to hear whether you have had any information on whether the Government are going to inform the House of their plan of action to bring this serious situation to an end.
The matter that the hon. Gentleman raises is clearly serious, but again it is a matter for the Minister responsible for these issues. I have had no notice, so far, that a statement is planned.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I ask for your guidance on what remedies exist when it is felt that a Minister might have given an incorrect answer to a parliamentary question? I believe that that is the case in respect of my question to the Department for Transport, which was answered on
Yet I discovered yesterday that the Thames Gateway South Essex Transportation Board is a committee that exists for those purposes and that Government and Go East members sit on that committee. We need transparency and open government on these important matters.
I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. I can only suggest that he repeat his question to the Minister, and I hope that he will get a more satisfactory answer this time.