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HOME DEPARTMENT

Correspondence

Mr. Ian Bruce: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what plans his Department has to correspond electronically with (a) hon. Members and (b) members of the public. [49806]

Mr. Straw [holding answer 13 July 1998]: The Department currently has only a limited facility for the handling of correspondence from hon. Members and

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members of the public on stand-alone work stations. There is a limited e-mail facility on the Department's main Information Technology Network.

The Department is putting plans in place to connect selected parts of the office to the Government Secure Internet (GSI) at the end of 1998, followed by full interconnection between the core network and the GSI in the first half of 1999. That will enable a full e-mail between the office, Members of both Houses and members of the public.

Mr. Donohoe: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many letters per day his office receives; how many staff are employed to answer these; what targets are set in respect of such letters; and what is the current performance against targets. [50680]

Mr. Straw: On the targets, performance and volume of letters I refer my hon. Friend to the reply given to him by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on 20 July 1998, Official Report, column 363.

It is not possible to say how many staff are involved in answering correspondence in my Department because it is part of the normal duties of a large number of them.

Elmley Prison

Mr. Wyatt: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what are the chemicals used for (a) gardening and (b) farming at Elmley Prison, Eastchurch, Isle of Sheppey. [50481]

Ms Quin: The following five commercial chemical products are used in gardening at Elmley prison: Casoron G; Mosstox; Roundup Biactive; Supertox 30; and Trik. These products are used for the control of weeds and moss within the prison perimeter wall as flower and shrub beds, lawns and paths, and the base of the perimeter fence. Most of these products are used on an annual basis and in relatively small quantities. There is no farming conducted at Elmley.

All three Isle of Sheppey prisons have a "good neighbour policy", and would be happy to discuss any environmental issues with interested parties.

Probation Service

Mr. Opik: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what plans he has to ensure that the Probation Service provides an equal level of service in urban and rural areas; and if he will make a statement. [51028]

Ms Quin: The funding formula used by the Home Office to allocate specific current grant to each of the 54 English and Welsh probation services takes account of demographic factors, including the sparsity of population. The formula is now subject to review, in consultation with the Association of Chief Probation Officers, Central Probation Council and the Local Government Association. Once the allocation has been made, it is for the responsible probation committee in each area to decide how its service's budget should be spent.

Fire Service

Mr. Hancock: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department (1) what assessment he has made of

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the cost-effectiveness of national use of virtual reality simulations for operational command training in the fire service; [50900]

Mr. George Howarth: I refer the hon. Member to the reply I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Rapson), on 21 July 1998, Official Report, columns 435-36.

Dr. Cable: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department how much the London Fire Service has spent on the services of lobbying companies in (a) the last and (b) the current financial year; and which companies have been engaged. [51467]

Mr. George Howarth: I understand from the London Fire and Civil Defence Authority that they spent £11,326 on the services of a Parliamentary Adviser in 1997-98, and have spent £4,659 on such services in the current financial year. The services are provided by GJW Government Relations Limited.

Road Traffic Offences

Mr. Stephen Twigg: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will refer the issue of lenient sentences for road traffic offences to the new Sentencing Advisory Council. [51407]

Mr. Michael: The Court of Appeal has already established detailed sentencing guidelines for serious road traffic offences, in the cases of R. v. Boswell (1984) and AG Ref. 14 and 24 of 1993. Once the new Sentencing Advisory Panel has been established, we will consider whether there are particular categories of offences which should be referred to it and with what degree of priority.

Police Numbers

Sir Nicholas Lyell: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will list the number and rank of (a) police officers and (b) civilian staff employed in the administration support units of (i) the Metropolitan Police and (ii) each other police force in England and Wales. [51468]

Mr. Michael: The information collected annually by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary on the numbers of police and civilian staff deployed to various duties is not at a level which allows the identification of the number or rank of staff assigned to Administration Support Units. This information could be obtained from the 43 forces only at disproportionate cost.

Election Candidates

Mr. Malins: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what assessment he has made of the article in Council Magazine by Julian Malins QC on candidates at general elections. [51485]

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Mr. George Howarth: The article by the hon. Member's brother gives a useful account of the problem of misleading candidates' descriptions on ballot papers. Since the article was written, the Registration of Political Parties Bill has been introduced. The Bill provides that only a candidate authorised by a registered political party may include a description on the ballot paper which is likely to lead voters to associate the candidate with that party. It also enables candidates representing registered parties to include the party's emblem on the ballot paper.

Sentences

Mr. Clifton-Brown: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what representations he has received about provisions contained in the Crime and Disorder Bill [Lords] relating to maximum sentences in magistrates' courts. [49901]

Mr. Straw [holding answer 21 July 1998]: There are no provisions in the Crime and Disorder Bill [Lords] to change the current maximum sentences available to the magistrates' courts (six months custody for a single offence or 24 months in a Secure Training Centre for 12-14 year olds). The new Detention and Training Order (DTO) will enable magistrates to impose a maximum custodial DTO sentence of 24 months for 12-17 year olds.

The Magistrates' Association have written to me on the question of increasing the general maximum penalty of six months available to the magistrates' courts. They have been invited to supply further information.

Mary Bell Case

Caroline Flint: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the outcome of the investigation into his officials' handling of the Mary Bell case. [52075]

Mr. Straw: I have now received the Permanent Secretary's report into the circumstances in which Home Office officials had for some time known of the possibility of a book from which Mary Bell would profit financially, but had not informed Ministers. This was, at my request, an investigation to identify lessons for the future, not a disciplinary inquiry.

Since her release in 1980, Mary Bell has remained under life licence under the supervision of the probation service. Throughout this period, officials in my Department's Lifer Review Unit have received regular reports from the probation officers responsible for her supervision. These have frequently included accounts of attempts by literary agents and the media to induce her for substantial sums to tell her story. Indeed, there are records of such approaches to her even before she left prison.

The probation service is responsible for supervising those subject to life licence and for reporting, on a regular basis, on each individual to the Lifer Unit on their progress. The service has a particular responsibility to ensure that the public is protected from people who have previously committed very serious offences. Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Probation has received a copy of the report of the investigation carried out by the Chief Probation Officer of the Durham Probation Service into their handling of Mary Bell's case, and offered me his own independent assessment of it. In the light of this,

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I am satisfied that the probation service kept my officials properly informed of the plans to publish a book. Given the exceptional difficulties of the case, it is also clear that the service has played a major and positive role in helping Mary Bell keep to the conditions of her licence in the 18 years since her release.

Between 1984 and 1987, my officials were informed that Mary Bell had become interested in producing her own account and had spent some time preparing a manuscript. The supervising probation officer notified them of discussions with a literary agent in 1985 about a possible autobiography. Officials advised the probation officer that the Home Office did not favour publication but had no power to prevent it and would not attempt to put pressure on Mary Bell. Ministers were not informed of these developments and, in the event, the project foundered. Officials heard no more about the possibility of a book until August 1995, when they were informed of her renewed interest in producing her own account.

The probation service notified officials in January 1996 that serious negotiations were under way between Mary Bell, Gitta Sereny and a literary agent. In July, there were informed that a contract had been signed and an advance payment made. Officials responded to these developments along the same lines as their predecessors more than a decade previously, namely by questioning the wisdom of the venture but confirming, correctly, that they had no power to prevent it. Great care was taken throughout to try to protect, through maintenance of an injunction long in force, the anonymity of Mary Bell and her family, in the interests of her young daughter.

Following a probation service letter of 6 March this year, advising that the book would appear shortly and was likely to arouse controversy, officials recognised the need to forewarn Ministers. Because their information was that serialisation of the book would not begin until 2 May they did not, in the event, do so until 23 April, by which time (unbeknown to them) news of the book was already emerging. The initial briefing to Ministers concentrated on the contents of the book, and did not make it clear that officials and the probation service had known about the contract from the outset. Ministers were given a full brief on the history of the case only on 30 April, the day after newspaper serialisation had started and some days after widespread controversy had arisen over the financial benefit to Mary Bell.

The Lifer Unit of the Prison Service Headquarters is responsible for casework on nearly 4,000 life sentence prisoners and around a further 800 lifers now on supervision under licence in the community. Their primary task is to ensure that the lifer system operates in a way which minimises risk to the public. They bear a heavy load and I am satisfied that I have been very well served--as, I believe, have my predecessors--by the conscientious advice they provide on the exercise of my statutory powers in individual cases. The possibility of financial benefit to Mary Bell for a book about her crimes did not involve questions of public risk or any breach of the law or the terms of her life licence. Officials accordingly concluded, as early as 1985, that there was nothing they could do to prevent it and did not therefore believe it necessary to submit to Ministers.

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Ministers are entitled to expect that officials will try to spot events involving their cases which are likely to arouse controversy and provoke concern over the adequacy of the law. I believe that officials acted in this case throughout in good faith and in accordance with a correct interpretation of the law. With hindsight, it is clear that there were a number of occasions on which Ministers might reasonably have been informed of developments in the Mary Bell case. The Permanent Secretary has accordingly recommended to me procedural and other improvements which will help guide Home Office staff in assessing future cases where Ministers may need to be kept informed of developments, even where there is no question of the exercise by them of statutory powers. He and the Director General of the Prison Service are specifically preparing revised internal operating procedures for the handling of lifer cases and arranging for supplementary guidance to be provided to lifer caseworkers and supervising probation officers.

I have asked officials separately to consider whether the law relating to criminal memoirs might sensibly be strengthened.


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