Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 5th May 2009.
If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.
The House will wish to know that, last Tuesday, I announced the establishment of an advisory panel on judicial diversity to be chaired by Baroness Neuberger, and on Wednesday I published the "Engaging Communities in Criminal Justice" Green Paper, a consultation document drawn up by my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Attorney-General, and myself. It includes plans for a website on court outcomes, 30 justice pioneer areas, community prosecutors, an expansion of citizen panels in respect of community payback, the introduction of community impact statements in courts and the greater use of community justice techniques.
I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. I recently met prisons representatives, and they are deeply concerned about plans to extend the prison privatisation programme. There is a valid concern that the prison-for-profit culture would make prisons more dangerous for the prisoners, the staff and the public. Will the Secretary of State confirm that this Government will not compromise prison security by further privatisation of the prison system?
We will never compromise prison security for any wider consideration. A number of National Audit Office reports have made it clear that the introduction of a very limited element of the private sector has helped to raise standards in the public sector. That may be an unfortunate conclusion, but it happens to be true.
As to the future, apart from the two entirely new prisons that will be built in the private sector, as I announced last week, all those that are being re-competed—the five so-called strategic level arrangement prisons that have been re-competed, one that came back to the private sector and the two new ones, Birmingham and Wellingborough—will have the opportunity through the public sector to compete against private and third sector arrangements. If they are successful, they will keep the contracts.
Does the Secretary of State agree that a police cell is rarely appropriate as a place of safety for the purposes of sections 135 and 136 of the Mental Health Act? Following Lord Bradley's report, will the Secretary of State ensure that primary care trusts, mental health trusts and police forces start work now to ensure that, without delay, mental health trusts can provide appropriate places of safety locally for those who need them, and that access to mental health services on the NHS is unconditional, just like access to any other treatment under the NHS?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. There have been important improvements in the provision of prison health services, which are primarily mental health services, not least through the ending of the separate prison medical service; however dedicated its staff, it was, frankly, a second-class service. Furthermore, a few years ago this Government implemented the arrangement through which all health services in a prison are provided by the relevant primary care trust.
However, I accept entirely what the hon. Gentleman said. The more that we do to divert the mentally ill from the prison system and police cells and into the proper mental health system, the better.
When does the Secretary of State intend to publish his response to the Government's consultation on pleural plaques? I do not have to tell my right hon. Friend how serious the issue is. Quite a large number of people are literally dying to hear his reply.
Of course, I fully acknowledge the concern of my hon. Friend and other hon. Members on both sides of the House about that issue. Consideration of the responses, of which we have received quite a number following publication of our paper on the way forward, is taking longer than we anticipated, because of the complexity involved. However, I certainly intend that we should come to conclusions before the summer recess.
Following the Secretary of State's decision to permit public reporting, with appropriate safeguards, of proceedings in the family courts, what steps is he taking to ensure that the change is applied fairly and uniformly?
First, given that the press now have access to the courts, we are relying on them to let us, as well as their readers, know about anything that they regard as a failure on the part of the courts to live up to the spirit of the changes. Secondly, we ourselves are monitoring the situation. Thirdly, as I have already made clear, this is only the first phase of the changes. The next phase is the introduction of legislation that will ensure that the reporting and admission regime for all levels of family court is put on the same foundation as that for youth courts. In other words, the press may report the substance of what they witness, but not any information that would lead to revealing the identity of the parties to the proceedings.
A Bangladeshi constituent of mine, who is being divorced by her husband, has been well treated by the Birmingham courts, which have provided screens and interpreters. However, will my right hon. Friend say what steps he is taking to make sure that such women, who have no money or recourse to public funds, can get the legal advice that they need so that they can exercise their rights, rather than being divorced by their husbands and left completely destitute?
I am glad to hear that the courts are giving the lady in question the support that she requires. We are doing a great deal better in supporting innocent parties in forced marriages, but I am certainly ready to talk to my hon. Friend about the specific problems that she has identified, in case there is a gap in the overall support arrangements.
What proportion of the current prison population is made up of foreign national prisoners? Why are Her Majesty's Government not doing far more to return those people to secure detention in their own countries, so that the British taxpayer does not have to pay the enormous bill for their incarceration?
At the moment, the foreign national prisoner population in England and Wales equates to just under 14 per cent. of the total. According to independent data, that is significantly fewer foreign national prisoners than in any other country in the rest of Europe.
The hon. Gentleman's point is important. We have already negotiated 100 prisoner return agreements with other countries, and we are working with other key countries. We are trying to address the issue in a key way. Recently, we have been considering, with the UK Border Agency, a service level agreement to ensure that there is extra help and support and that we speedily deport those due for deportation from the United Kingdom back to their country of origin.
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the rumour that fixed penalty notices are going to be changed, with some offences coming into the system. Will he assure me that things such as crime and fraud will not come under a fixed penalty notice and that the sentence will fit the crime?
There was an erroneous report today—I am very happy to correct it—about further offences being brought within the fixed penalty notice regime. We have no plans to extend the number of offences brought within the fixed penalty notice regime. The principal offence of dishonesty covered by the PND—penalty notice for disorder—system is shop theft. That was introduced for circumstances in which the courts were typically awarding fines of less than the value of fixed penalty notices or the police were issuing informal warnings and taking no effective or recordable action against offenders. However, I have always been uneasy about the inclusion of shop theft in the PND regime, and we are consulting the police and other interested parties, including retailers, as to whether, at least in the short term, we can reduce the scope of PNDs for shop theft.
Now that the Government have pretty much designed out custodial sentences for burglaries, which are rising, preferring a complex web of fines and cautions instead, does the Secretary of State feel some embarrassment that in some parts of the west midlands burglars can commit up to 12 burglaries before receiving a custodial sentence? Is that how he intends to keep the people of the west midlands safe?
The number of burglaries across the west midlands, as well as across the whole United Kingdom, has dropped dramatically in the past 12 years—further evidence that we are the only Government since the war to preside over a reduction in crime rather than an increase in crime.
As for the precise level of sentences that are issued, I inform the hon. Gentleman, in case he has not worked it out, that in this country there is a separation of powers between Parliament, which sets the overall sentencing framework—and Ministers within that—and sentencers, who are independent of the Executive. It is not me or anybody in this House who sentences individuals. Penalties for burglary are quite adequate; it is a matter for sentencers to use them within the guidelines.
One of the consequences of the affair concerning Damian Green is the indication that there is woeful ignorance among senior police officers and civil servants, and probably servants of this House and Ministers, about the implications of article 9 of the Bill of Rights. What will the Justice Secretary do to increase awareness of the implications of our own United Kingdom Bill of Rights of 1689, particularly in relation to article 9, with its ramifications for this place? Will he discuss this now, please? Article 9—you know about that, do you?
I do indeed remember article 9, although I was not here to witness its coming into force— [ Interruption. ] It was marginally before my time. [ Interruption. ] If I could have less levity from my ministerial colleagues, that would be helpful. Of course I understand my hon. Friend's point. This has been a subject of considerable interest in the context of bribery and whether there should be application to Members of Parliament, which it is generally felt there should be. If he looks at our Green Paper on a Bill of Rights and responsibilities, he will see that there is a good discussion of article 9 and the privileges of Parliament.
Given the comments about rehabilitation, what does the Minister think of the recent Ofsted report pointing out that in only three quarters, I think, of the prisons it visited was there the opportunity to gain meaningful qualifications?
I refer the hon. Gentleman back to the points made earlier in response to my hon. Friend Rob Marris. There has been, and will continue to be, an increase in resources and time spent on meaningful activity. We are trying to ensure that people who are in prison have employment skills and literacy and numeracy skills to equip them for life outside prison. The number of people attending those courses has risen significantly over the past 10 or 11 years and will continue to do so, with the sole objective of ensuring that when they leave prison they are better equipped outside than they were when they went into prison.
I greatly applaud my hon. Friend's work on this issue. I recently met her and her colleague on the all-party group, John Bercow, and they made a very powerful case for the inclusion of genocide as an extra-territorial offence within British law. I am currently giving it active consideration with relevant colleagues.
In February, Ministers told us that 1,500 prisoners on indeterminate public protection sentences could not get access to courses, and so could not go in front of the Parole Board. That includes two of my constituents. What progress is being made towards making those courses available, so that those prisoners can come out of prison and free up the places that are so urgently needed for prisoners of other categories?
The hon. Gentleman will know that we have identified a need to drive that forward and are now putting in place extra support for courses, including several million pounds to get IPP prisoners across the line and ready for the Parole Board. He will know also that we have made changes to legislation to ensure that there must be a four-year sentence before an IPP sentence can be applied. Those two factors together will undoubtedly lead over the next couple of years to a reduction in the number of people who are post-tariff but cannot secure a proper hearing by the Parole Board. It is a slow and difficult process to get there, but we are doing what we can to expedite it as much as possible.