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House of Commons

Monday 6 December 1999

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--


1. Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): If he will make a statement on progress made in combating racism in the police force. [99676]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): Many recommendations of the Macpherson report about racism in the police service have already been implemented, in line with the action plan that I published in March. The promised Bill to extend the scope of the Race Relations Act 1976 in respect of the police and other public authorities was published last Friday. New disciplinary procedures and a code of conduct came into effect in April, making racist language or behaviour a breach of the code. Also in April, I set targets for the recruitment, retention and progression of minority ethnic police officers. In addition, a nationally co-ordinated and funded programme of race awareness training is now under way in police forces.

Mr. Gardiner: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that response. Will he say how many prosecutions for racially motivated offences have been commenced under the provisions of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998?

Mr. Straw: The latest provisional information shows that there have been 99 convictions for the racially aggravated offences provided for under the 1998 Act. Although that is 99 offences too many, in one sense the fact that the prosecutions have taken place shows the importance of making such offences subject to the law.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): Does the Home Secretary recall that, in one of his first speeches after his appointment as Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, Sir Paul Condon condemned racism outright? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, in the almost seven years that he has been Commissioner, Sir Paul has put that approach into practice, with the result that there is now far less racism in the Metropolitan police

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than formerly? As Sir Paul nears retirement, would not this be a good opportunity to congratulate him on what he has done to improve race relations in the metropolis?

Mr. Straw: I am delighted to join the hon. Gentleman in extending those congratulations to the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, whose record on tackling racism is consistent with his broader record of reducing crime in London very significantly during his period in office. It should also be put on record that, even before I introduced the targets for improving the recruitment and retention of black and Asian officers in the police, the Metropolitan police service under Sir Paul's stewardship had made considerable progress in that direction.

Electoral Reform

2. Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): If he will make a statement about reform of electoral procedure and voting systems. [99677]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): The Representation of the People Bill, which will modernise our electoral procedures, received its Second Reading last Tuesday.

Mr. Salter: Does my hon. Friend recall the representations that I made to him earlier this year, in which I drew attention to the fact that the British National party had submitted false European election nomination forms? In that way, because it could claim that it was fielding the requisite number of candidates, it was able to ensure that its disgusting and racist views could be broadcast on national television. How will the newly published Representation of the People Bill deal with that tactic? Does my hon. Friend plan to allow a longer period in which nomination papers can be checked to prevent such abuses?

Mr. O'Brien: We want to ensure that those who nominate candidates for electoral office are properly registered on the electoral register. The Representation of the People Bill will help in that regard. We also want to ensure that people who have the opportunity to use valuable national television and media time to put forward their political views comply properly with the law, and that they are not among those who incite racial hatred.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): Will the Minister name another democratic country in which the electoral procedure and voting system in the second Chamber is effectively the patronage of the Prime Minister?

Mr. O'Brien: In asking about another country, I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is implying that that is what happens here. It is not quite like that. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman needs a lesson on the British constitution: the procedure does not work as he described.

Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea): Does my hon. Friend accept that the provisions in the Representation of the People Bill for a rolling register and postal voting on demand amount to a huge step forward? However, will he

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give further consideration to the suggestion that people who are vulnerable to domestic violence should be able to register anonymously on all published registers?

Mr. O'Brien: One of our concerns has been that the addresses of victims of domestic violence, and others, are widely available because they are on the electoral register. We are examining ways in which we can enable such people to be properly registered to vote, while ensuring that their names and addresses cannot be sold without their consent. In the past, such information has been disseminated by means of a CD-ROM given away free with a magazine, which meant that anyone wanting to find out where another person was could do so easily. The concerns expressed by my hon. Friend are very real, and I hope that we will be able to discuss them when the Bill is considered in Committee. In due course, I hope that the legislation will offer at least some protection for people in those circumstances.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): In his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), the Minister said "It is not quite like that". If so, can he confirm that the millennium peers of whom we have heard will be appointed by the Appointments Commission, and will not be personally appointed by the Prime Minister?

Mr. O'Brien: For 18 years, the hon. Gentleman and his Conservative colleagues were quite happy to appoint various people to the House of Lords with no complaint about the process. By raising the matter only when a Labour Government are committed to modernising the constitution, they merely draw attention to their failure to do anything during those 18 years.

Prisoner Regimes

3. Jane Griffiths (Reading, East): How much the Government are investing in programmes to provide constructive regimes for prisoners. [99678]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng): The Government have a clear commitment to develop constructive regimes that reduce the risk of reoffending. The comprehensive spending review settlement included an additional £660 million for the Prison Service, a substantial part of which--£226 million--is for such regimes, including drugs, education and offending behaviour programmes.

Jane Griffiths: I thank my right hon. Friend for that welcome reply. He will be aware that Reading young offenders institution was recently commended by the inspectorate for its work in education and for having a midwife on site to assist young male inmates with parenting education. Will he join me in congratulating the YOI on that work?

Mr. Boateng: I certainly congratulate Reading YOI on its work, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the care and attention that she has given to it. The CSR allocated £200,000 to the budget in her area, and that will allow the introduction over the next year of expanded educational provision, an enhanced thinking skills course, counselling, advice, referral, assessment and throughcare support--or CARATS counselling--and a detox unit as part of a

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drugs strategy. The appointment of a voluntary drugs testing officer, increased time for probation bail information and capital funding for two safe cells to help to reduce suicides in custody will also make an appreciable difference to the safety of those held at Reading. Importantly, all that will also contribute to reducing the risk of reoffending. Protecting the public is what our policy is all about.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): Will the Minister acknowledge that, according to the most recent Prison Service annual report, purposeful activity has declined to less than 23 hours a week on average, the lowest level since 1991?

Mr. Boateng: I can assure the right hon. Lady that we have put in place a target for 1999-2000 of 24 hours a prisoner a week, and we are well on the way to achieving that goal. This Government, rather than her own, have put moneys into constructive activity in prisons. This Government, rather than hers, have placed a real emphasis on protecting the public. We shall be remembered for that, rather than for justifying chaining pregnant women to their beds.

Miss Widdecombe: The right hon. Gentleman says that he has a target of 24 hours a week, which may be some improvement on the current 22.8 hours a week. Will he acknowledge, however, that it does not begin to match the 26 hours a week that we achieved in 1994-95?

Mr. Boateng: Year in and year out, the provision made for prisoners held under the Conservative Government failed to address the basic levels of numeracy and literacy that determine whether prisoners get jobs when they are released. We inherited a situation in which the literacy and numeracy skills of 60 per cent. of prisoners disqualified them from more than 90 per cent. of all jobs. We intend to address that situation. The Conservatives had 18 years in which do so. They did not do it, but we will.

Miss Widdecombe: May I therefore deduce from the Minister's two answers that, yes, purposeful activity is indeed at its lowest level since 1991, and that, yes, the target is two hours lower than the one we achieved during our term in Government?

Mr. Boateng rose--

Miss Widdecombe: I am glad of the Minister's eagerness, but would he answer one more question? If purposeful activity currently fills 22.8 hours a week, it follows that most prisoners spend an average of only four hours a day in purposeful activity. This is not a trick question, and I do not require an answer to the decimal point, but can the Minister tell me roughly what percentage of the convicted population manages more than six hours a day?

Mr. Boateng: If the right hon. Lady wants an accurate answer, she will understand that I shall write to her and give her an accurate answer--to the lowest percentage decimal point. However, in the meantime, she will understand, from my answers to her questions, that we are

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on the job that she palpably failed to address. Labour is delivering; she failed to do so. The public were put at risk; we are protecting the public.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): Although I recognise the importance that my right hon. Friend puts on numeracy and literacy, will he undertake to review the fact that arrangements are currently not in place so that the relatively small number of long-term prisoners who have passed Open university degrees in prison can pursue postgraduate studies? They are unable to do so not through lack of facilities, but because of the lack of financial resources available to each governor. Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that those prisoners who can show the way in such study will not only benefit themselves, but will offer an example of leadership to many other prisoners? Will he consider the matter as there is currently a deficiency?

Mr. Boateng: I would be only too happy to look at the matter and, indeed, to meet my hon. Friend if that would be of assistance.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Given the revelation by the former Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, now the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), in a written answer in July 1999 to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), that prisoners will have manufactured 260,000 pairs of slippers between March 1997 and March 2000, will the Minister tell the House what assessment he and his right hon. and hon. Friends have made of the job opportunities to which that collective manufacture has led, or will lead?

Mr. Boateng: Two hundred and sixty thousand pairs of slippers, but not one of them fitted the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe).

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