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House of Commons

Monday 13 July 1998

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Prisons (Overcrowding)

1. Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington): When he last visited a prison establishment to discuss overcrowding. [48393]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): We visit prisons to see for ourselves what is happening and to talk to staff, prisoners and members of boards of visitors about matters of concern to them. Issues relating to overcrowding and prison population pressures are frequently raised. Since the general election last year, Ministers in my Department, including me, have made 64 visits to prison establishments, of which I have made nine, the most recent being to the Wetherby young offenders institution on 30 April.

Mr. Corbett: Does my right hon. Friend agree that putting non-violent offenders in prison is often neither the

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most cost-effective option nor the most effective prevention of reoffending? How will the Crime and Disorder Bill inspire public confidence in the belief that punishment in the community is both cost-effective and at least as effective as prison in preventing reoffending?

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend is right to point out that community punishments are significantly less expensive than prison--the average cost of imprisonment is about £25,000 a year, whereas the average cost of a probation order is £2,000. Some so-called non-violent offenders have to be incarcerated because they are persistent offenders, but we are determined to improve the effectiveness of non-custodial sentences through, for example, a national roll-out of tagging and our many reforms to the youth justice system that will ensure that much more offending is nipped in the bud.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): The Home Secretary was kind enough to visit the floating facility at Portland--I think that it was his first visit as Home Secretary. What is he doing to ensure that proper training and work programmes are carried out on such emergency facilities? What is he doing about the future of temporary facilities? Will the floating facility be rebuilt, or will it remain for more than the three years that were originally intended?

Mr. Straw: I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the future of HMP Weare if that is convenient. I place on record my thanks for his support for the facility, despite some public opposition, much of which, I understand, has dissolved--people have accepted that the facility is not only good, but has created 200 or 300 extra jobs. We are committed to improving prison regimes. The House may be aware that we are spending £1.5 million on a pilot to ensure that welfare-to-work facilities are available in prisons before offenders leave.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): My right hon. Friend will know that there have been too many suicides in prison,

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particularly in Preston prison. Does he believe that one reason for that is overcrowding? If so, it is essential that we solve that problem as soon as possible.

Mr. Straw: We are all profoundly concerned about the incidence of suicide in prison, which is significantly higher than in the equivalent age group outside prison. However, the number of suicides among young males is, sadly, rising in the population as a whole. I do not believe that there is evidence that overcrowding--prisoners being held two to a cell--is a cause of suicide. Indeed, many of those who are deemed to be at risk of committing suicide are put with another prisoner in the hope that the risk will be reduced. The Minister responsible for prisons, the Director General of the Prison Service and the whole of the service are taking every possible step to ensure--through counselling, for example--that the risk of suicide is reduced.

Crimes Against the Person

2. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West): What recent representations he has received on the level of crimes against the person in the United Kingdom. [48394]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Alun Michael): Not surprisingly, we regularly receive representations on the level of crimes against the person, often from Members of Parliament in relation to experience in their constituency, but as far as I am aware we have received none from the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Amess: Will the Minister join me in congratulating the police and others on their efforts to detect and combat crime and in particular on their support for closed circuit television? If he will, how can it be right that, last year, Labour attacked the Conservative Government for not approving the CCTV bid in Southend, yet this year, when Southend borough council, which consists of the Labour party and its Liberal friends, put in a similar bid, the Labour Government rejected it?

Mr. Michael: As I said in my first reply, I welcome the hon. Gentleman's new-found interest in the issue. The Government have got on with the task and given the weapons to the police, in partnership with local bodies, to enable them to tackle crime and disorder, including violence against the person. I hope that they will have the hon. Gentleman's support in that.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Will my hon. Friend join me in condemning the horrifying murders of three young children in Northern Ireland, who were done to death for no other reason than sectarianism? Will he take this opportunity to extend the sympathy of the whole House to the parents and the closest relatives of those who were murdered over the weekend? Is it not horrifying that, despite the Good Friday agreement, some people in Northern Ireland still want to use the terrible, murderous methods against innocent people, in this case young children, that were witnessed in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere? Let us condemn these terrible murders and demonstrate the fact that we are on the side of the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland, who also condemn what has occurred.

Mr. Michael: Nothing is more effective than the death of children in concentrating people's minds on the horror

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of violence, wherever it occurs. I certainly share my hon. Friend's view that it should give cause for thought to anyone who wants to continue the atmosphere of conflict. There is nothing in the situation of children of the ages of those who died that can possibly justify what has taken place. Everyone should pause for thought before doing anything that could encourage the continuation of such mindless violence.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield): I associate myself and my party entirely with what the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and the Minister said, but I want to ask about another specific area of crimes against the person: football hooliganism. Does the Minister agree that, if the world cup competition is to be, staged here, we need to convince everyone that everything possible is being done to eliminate hooliganism? Will the Home Office consider setting up an independent group to investigate what improvements can be made and whether any changes will require legislation?

Mr. Michael: No one has taken more interest in that topic than my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. He has had the support of all parties in the House as well as the co-operation of the authorities in France in doing all that we can to tackle the problem and keep to a minimum any contribution that is made by English hooligans to the violence that has so disgraced us over recent months. I know that he intends to consider how to ensure that all possible measures are in place and that he wants to work with the Football Association to find the best way of making the maximum contribution, including through co-operation across the Floor of the House.

Penal System

3. Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey): If he will make a statement on the Government's plans for the penal system. [48395]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): Serious, dangerous and persistent offenders should be sent to prison and should be subject to constructive regimes in a secure and well managed environment. Prison may not, however, be the most effective option for less serious offenders. Our priorities are tough punishment in custody and in the community in ways that carry public confidence and reduce offending. We are looking at options for closer and more integrated working between the Prison Service and probation services.

Mr. Wyatt: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that community punishment needs the confidence of the community?

Mr. Straw: Yes.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): Does the Home Secretary agree that detection and prosecution of those who commit crimes is of paramount importance, along with deterrence? Can he assure the House that there will be the closest possible co-operation between the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts in tackling crime?

Mr. Straw: I would like to give that assurance, and to say that over the past 15 months, the Attorney-General,

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the Lord Chancellor and I have worked hard to bring about closer collaboration between the police, the CPS and the courts and to set up joint planning arrangements. My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General recently published the results of the Glidewell inquiry, which should ensure major reforms in how the CPS relates to the police, including the establishment of coterminous boundaries.

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