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House of Commons

Thursday 20 March 1997

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


Polling Stations (Accessibility)

1. Mr. Gerrard: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what action he is taking to improve the accessibility of polling stations to people with disabilities. [19782]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Tom Sackville): We issue advice and guidance to acting returning officers, who are most directly responsible for selecting polling places and polling stations, and provide grant aid towards the costs of purchasing temporary ramps and polling booths specially adapted to the needs of voters who are wheelchair users.

Mr. Gerrard: Does the Minister recall that a survey conducted at the time of the last general election revealed that 88 per cent. of polling stations had access problems? Does he accept that the vast majority of disabled people want to vote in person? Does he accept also that many of them will not be able to do so at this general election because simple improvements, such as ramps, better lighting or allowing people to vote at a more accessible location, have not been carried out because the Government failed to do what they could, and should, have done in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to ensure that accessibility is not an option, but a legal requirement?

Mr. Sackville: I am certainly aware of the Spastics Society report to which the hon. Gentleman refers. We want to minimise the number of people who have to vote by proxy or by post because of disablement. However, I remind the hon. Gentleman that, since the last general election, we have paid out £175,000 in grants to local authorities to try to help improve access to polling stations. Many of the buildings concerned are primary schools and libraries at which access arrangements are improving all the time.

Mr. Butler: Can my hon. Friend confirm that this is another case where the generosity of the Treasury is unlimited, and that the grants available are uncapped? Is he aware that, in common with many colleagues on this side of the House, I wrote to my returning officer some weeks ago asking him to ensure that arrangements for the disabled were in place before the general election?

Mr. Sackville: My hon. Friend is taking a risk in revealing the fact that the budget is uncapped. It is true

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that any requests for grants for those purposes are met, so long as they are eligible, and that any local authority may seek grant aid to improve access to polling stations.

Rev. Martin Smyth: We welcome that information. Do electoral returning officers act upon the guidance that they are given? We are all aware that polling day is a social occasion, and it is tragic if the disabled are prevented from voting when alternative accommodation may be available.

Mr. Sackville: I assure the House that we have repeatedly reminded electoral returning officers that people have a right to vote, and that the number of those who are unable to vote in person must be kept to an absolute minimum. I assure the hon. Gentleman that improvements are proceeding apace.

Prisons (Drugs)

2. Dr. Spink: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what assessment he has made of the extent of drug taking in prisons. [19783]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Miss Ann Widdecombe): Provisional figures show that of more than 32,000 prisoners tested between April and October 1996 under the random drug testing programme, between 20 per cent. and 25 per cent. tested positive. The vast majority were for cannabis. Further research is in hand to provide a more detailed picture.

Dr. Spink: Knowing how assiduously and effectively my right hon. Friend the Minister of State performs her duties, I ask whether she has found time to visit any prisons in the past few months in order to assess for herself the effectiveness of the work undertaken to cut off the supply of drugs to prisoners. Does she agree that we certainly need to do more work to continue to stop drugs reaching prisoners so that prisons may be austere but reforming institutions, rather than the playhouses that Opposition Members would make them?

Miss Widdecombe: Yes, I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that I have now visited all the prisons in England and Wales. During those visits, I have on each and every occasion discussed the issue of drugs with prison governors. I am pleased to say that I have seen a number of good initiatives, including weekend mandatory drug testing, enhanced use of drug dogs and special initiatives in regard to monitoring visits. All those initiatives demonstrate the clear resolve of prison governors to get on top of the problem, which echoes the Government's own resolve. I fully concur with the sentiment of my hon. Friend--prisons under this Government are decent but austere; that is not what is proposed or has been the experience of prisons under Labour.

Mr. Alton: I congratulate the Minister on her assiduousness in visiting so many prisons--[Hon. Members: "All of them."]--in visiting all prisons, but does she agree that the level of recidivism among prisoners who continue to be addicted to drugs when they leave prison remains a major factor in fuelling the link between criminality and the taking of drugs? Does she agree that it is a curse on generations of young people

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that so many people ply drugs on street corners in cities such as Liverpool? Is that not a powerful incentive for crime? Does she further agree that nothing should be done to encourage the taking of drugs--particularly calls for their decriminalisation?

Miss Widdecombe: I have good news for the hon. Gentleman on the subject of recidivism. He will be pleased to know that the rate of reconviction for those leaving our prisons is now lower than the rate for those serving sentences in the community. That is a tremendous tribute to what our prisons are achieving in rehabilitating the prison population. He is right to say that there is a clear link between drugs and crime and it is imperative that while people are in prison, we should get them off drugs. This is why our efforts are concentrated not only on the supply of drugs and on stopping them getting into prison, but on offering an extensive range of treatment, counselling, therapy and education.

Mr. Rathbone: I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement--and I remind her of the warmth of her welcome at Lewes prison some months ago--but will she remind and reassure the House that in all the prisons where drug testing takes place, sufficient treatment and counselling are in place so that those prisoners who want to come off drugs are given every encouragement to do so?

Miss Widdecombe: Drug testing now takes place in all our prisons, and has done since April 1996. My hon. Friend is right that it is essential to back up that testing by giving prisoners strategies and alternatives to using drugs and the ability to come off them.

Mr. George Howarth: Is the Minister aware that Home Office statistics reveal that the use of hard drugs in privatised prisons is 60 per cent. higher than in comparable prisons in the rest of the prison estate? Will she confirm that those private companies that operate private prisons have donated £2.6 million to Conservative party funds? Is it not the case that private prisons are soft on drugs and that this Government are soft on private prisons?

Miss Widdecombe: The hon. Gentleman is totally at odds with a number of independent reports, including that of Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons, who praised Doncaster prison as a model for the rest of the service. He is at odds with Lord Longford, who said on leaving Blakenhurst that but for the fact he does not much like private prisons, he would like every prison to be run like Blakenhurst. He is at odds with the findings on the Wolds, which is now regarded as a model for the service. He does not understand the achievements of private prisons and is about 10 years behind the times. He is driven by Labour ideology and would do well to look at the increase in rehabilitation. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) draws circles in the air. He is describing Labour's policy, which is a circle that goes round and round. The Labour party does not know what direction it is going in and it speaks with two tongues on privatisation. No wonder the hon. Gentleman draws circles in the air--Labour's policy is one big circle.

Mr. Nigel Evans: Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must send a clear message to people who deal in

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drugs, whether they are in or out of prison: that we will have zero tolerance of drug dealing? Will she therefore guarantee that, when we are re-elected on 1 May, one of the first things that the Conservative Government will do is reverse the wrecking amendments that the Labour party tabled to the Crime (Sentences) Bill, so that people convicted for a third time of dealing in hard drugs will automatically get seven years in prison? Does not that demonstrate that the Labour party is soft on crime?

Miss Widdecombe: Yes. I give the House a categorical assurance that we will reverse those amendments when we are returned to power on 1 May. That will be one of the first things that we do, because we are committed to protecting the public; the Labour party is merely committed to making life easy for the criminal. My hon. Friend is absolutely right when he says that we should exhibit zero tolerance of drug dealing. That is why we want seven-year minimum mandatory sentences for people who are convicted for a third time. The Opposition take the issue of drugs so seriously that they appear to regard it as a cause for mirth. I do not think that they will regard it as a cause for mirth when they who have never won an election in 23 years find that they will not win the next one either.

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