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Mandatory Sentences

7. Mr. Lidington: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what plans he has to implement the mandatory sentencing provisions of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997. [920]

Mr. Straw: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply I gave a few moments ago to the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter).

Mr. Lidington: I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment. Does he consider that a three-year prison sentence for a career burglar is too long?

Mr. Straw: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his congratulations. As I made clear during the passage of the Crime (Sentences) Bill, I do not consider that three years is too long for the typical career burglar. We expect that kind of sentence to be carried forward.

Pistol Clubs

8. Mr. Colvin: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many pistol clubs there are in the United Kingdom; how many there were a year ago; and what was their total membership. [921]

Mr. Michael: The total number of pistol clubs approved by the Secretary of State throughout the United Kingdom is 1,605. Precise information about the number of such clubs a year ago could be obtained only at disproportionate cost. The Government have no information on the number of members of approved pistol clubs.

Mr. Colvin: It seems clear from that reply that a number of pistol target shooting clubs have managed to survive on the basis of small-bore .22 shooting alone. As the Minister will know from the introductory explanatory memorandum to the Firearms (Amendment) Bill, which the House will consider on Wednesday, it is highly likely that none of those clubs will exist if the Bill is enacted unamended. Will he ensure that proper compensation is paid not only to the owners of firearms and ancillary equipment, but to owners of clubs that will lose their premises, their business and their fee income? That would rectify one of the injustices of the present Act and give the Minister, whom I congratulate on his appointment, an opportunity to rectify an injustice and to demonstrate to the House that new Labour really is new.

Mr. Michael: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome and for the implied criticism of his right hon. and hon. Friends in that he is inviting us to go way beyond the compensation allowed for in the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, which was enacted before the general election. Of the 1,440 clubs approved for pistols in England and Wales, only 49 were approved for pistols only--less than 4 per cent. of the total. In any event, it is right that individuals who were affected by the legislation should be compensated. We have no intention of going beyond that.

Mr. Salter: Is my hon. Friend aware that replica pistols that are exact copies of those used in gun clubs

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are openly and lawfully on sale to young children in Reading and elsewhere? Is he further aware that those replica weapons, including imitation Magnum .45s, are indistinguishable from the real thing, and can be, and have been, used in armed robberies? What action does my hon. Friend propose to take to deal with the issue?

Mr. Michael: I am aware of the problem, which has been highlighted on a number of occasions. My hon. Friend will be aware that we have targeted one specific gap in the law for action this Session--that is the continuation of the availability of .22 handguns. We have taken the view that the legislation, which will be debated in the House later this week, needs to be narrow in order for it to proceed through the House quickly. We decided, therefore, that we would not address wider issues. We shall return to issues of the sort that my hon. Friend raises. I shall look carefully at the evidence he has described which, I am sure, he will wish to supplement following today's discussion. We shall certainly wish to address the issue he raises.

Prison Places

10. Mr. Lansley: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what action he plans to take to ensure the continuing provision of an adequate number of prison places. [924]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Ms Joyce Quin): My right hon. Friend outlined the options available for the prison population issues in answer to the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell).

The Prison Service secured additional resources in last year's Budget to speed up refurbishment of Victorian wings and to provide 8,600 new places to ensure adequate prison capacity over the next three years.

Mr. Lansley: Will the hon. Lady ensure that the supply of prison places is sufficient to implement a policy of honesty in sentencing so that there will be no automatic early release from prison?

Ms Quin: As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, we are committed to honesty in sentencing. We are also keen to examine a range of options to improve the system, including speeding up certain aspects of the criminal justice system and cutting delays affecting remand, for example.

Mr. Pike: I congratulate my hon. Friend on her appointment. Does she agree that far too many people in England are held in custody on remand awaiting trial and that we need to take steps at least to equal the position in Scotland and ensure that people are tried as speedily as possible?

Ms Quin: My hon. Friend raises an important matter which we are looking at urgently. It is certainly one part of the system which is crying out for reform.

Mr. Rowe: I am sure that the Minister is aware that over the past 30 years or so some of the best ways of helping people when they come out of prison and preventing young people from going to prison have been

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imaginative schemes created in partnership with voluntary organisations. I am sure that she is also aware that many such schemes are funded by the Home Office in the first instance for a maximum of three years and are then expected to be picked up by the local authorities, which have a lamentable record in doing any such thing. Will she make sure that the balance between the advantages gained by local authorities and by central Government from the successful schemes is examined again?

Ms Quin: As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, my hon. Friend the other Minister of State takes great interest in the voluntary sector and is keen to promote best practice and encourage projects such as those to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. Local authorities have found it difficult to finance many such schemes because of their budgets, but we are looking at ways to ensure that the best schemes can be carried forward successfully.

Women Prisoners

11. Ms Corston: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what proportion of convicted women prisoners in England and Wales are serving sentences for non-payment of fines. [925]

Ms Joyce Quin: At the end of the first quarter of 1997, women sentenced to imprisonment for default on fines represented around 0.2 per cent. of women serving a prison sentence in England and Wales. The number of fine defaulters in prison is now falling steadily.

Ms Corston: I congratulate my hon. Friend on her welcome and excellent appointment. Has she had time to look at Home Office research published last July which found that despite the welcome fall in the number of women fine defaulters, they are generally unemployed and have multiple debts of some £1,300? Would it not be more appropriate to find other means of punishing those women as, in most cases, they have shown not unwillingness to pay a fine but inability to do so?

Ms Quin: I thank my hon. Friend for her kind words of welcome. She has raised an important matter. We must find ways to ensure that imprisonment is seen only as a last resort. We shall look closely at the issue of fine defaulting in the coming months.

Mr. Garnier: I, too, congratulate the hon. Lady on her new appointment. In regard to the main question, has she looked at the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997?

Ms Quin: Yes. We believe that it is helpful in many respects. I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his kind words. As the question refers in particular to women prisoners, I should also like to make it clear that, as a new Minister in the Home Office, women's prisons and the female prison estate are matters that I shall look at carefully in the near future.

Mr. Howard: I, too, congratulate the hon. Lady on her appointment. Will she tell us a little more than the Home Secretary did a few moments ago about the Government's plans to sign new contracts for privately operated prisons?

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Did she share the Home Secretary's previously expressed view that such prisons are "morally repugnant"? If so, when did she change her mind?

Ms Quin: I am somewhat surprised that the right hon. and learned Gentleman should choose to ask a supplementary question on a main question about the proportion of convicted women prisoners serving sentences for non-payment of fines. The main question has already been answered by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. Among other things, we are considering the recommendation of the Home Affairs Committee report, which made some very interesting proposals on that subject.

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