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28 Oct 2002 : Column 530—continued

Open Prisons

5. Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting): What plans he has to review the procedures to be followed by inmates on day release from open prisons; and if he will make a statement. [75315]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Hilary Benn): It is important that prisoners in open conditions can re-establish links with the community, for all the reasons set out in the social exclusion unit report on reducing reoffending. That is the purpose of granting release on temporary licence. The Prison Service is currently reviewing all forms of such release and will report to Ministers in due course.

Mr. Cox : While I note that reply, is my right hon. Friend aware of the enormous publicity that a convicted criminal has recently received as to the sort of lifestyle that he was leading while on day release, including driving to work in his own car and having lunch in top restaurants? Did the prison authorities know about that, and if so, why did they not stop it? Is my hon. Friend further aware that public confidence in the day release system has been seriously eroded? It really is time that prison governors are clearly told what inmates can and cannot do when they are on day release from prison.

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Hilary Benn: Although I entirely understand the concerns that gave rise to my hon. Friend's points, it is important that we do not allow the activities of one individual—who could not in any way be described as a Xquiet man"—to undermine the use of release for rehabilitation and resettlement. The fact is that prisoners on facility or resettlement licences are advised of the terms of those licences, and they are placed on trust to comply with their requirements.

As for travel arrangements, it is not uncommon for prisoners in open establishments to use their own transport to travel to work placements. Indeed, while Lord Archer was at North Sea camp, about 24 prisoners did that each day. The fact that the Prison Service has been criticised both for being too harsh and for being too lenient on Lord Archer suggests that it has got it about right bearing in mind the unusual challenges posed by this particular prisoner.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): May I put it to the Under-Secretary that too many prisoners are held in overcrowded local prisons such as Lincoln and that they could quite well be held in open prisons? It would be a great help if he could expedite the process of categorisation so that yet more people now held in the crowded local prisons could be transferred to the open prisons.

Hilary Benn: I agree about making sure that categorisation is undertaken as quickly as possible, and I have recently raised the issue with the Director General of the Prison Service for precisely the reason that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has given. However, it is important to ensure that the prisoners allocated to open conditions are suited to those conditions. The proof of the success of the current arrangements is that, from memory, about 250,000 licences for leave from open prison were granted last year, and the failure rate is 0.1 per cent. That is testament to the robust nature of the current arrangements.

David Winnick (Walsall, North): Does my hon. Friend accept that more prisoners should be allowed on day release schemes when that is considered appropriate and that any abuses committed by Archer should not be used as an excuse to discourage such schemes? They can be very useful in making sure that, when the prisoner leaves prison, he or she can lead a useful life. Are there not other ways of reducing the prison population? When the offence is less serious or there is no danger of violence, could not non-custodial sentences be used more than at present? Our prisons face a crisis, and I believe that my hon. Friend understands that.

Hilary Benn: My hon. Friend is entirely right to say that the prison system currently faces considerable pressures. He will have heard the statements on sentences made by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, the Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor and about the need to consider the appropriate use of custody and to reserve it, in particular, for dangerous offenders, sex offenders and persistent offenders. My hon. Friend is also right to speak about the importance of allowing prisoners to resettle within the community. My original reply referred to the social exclusion unit report, because all

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the evidence demonstrates that, if prisoners lose contact with their families and lose their job or their home, it is much more difficult for them to resettle when they come out of the prison gates. Having a job is an effective crime prevention measure, because the statistics clearly tell us that a prisoner who walks out of the prison gates with a job to go to is half as likely to reoffend as someone with no job.

Community Policing (Nottingham)

7. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): What recent discussions he has had with the chief constable of Nottinghamshire about community policing, with particular reference to the city of Nottingham division. [75318]

The Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety (Mr. John Denham): My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I have met the chief constable of Nottinghamshire on several occasions on which a variety of issues, including community policing, have been discussed. My right hon. Friend visited Nottingham on 18 April.

Mr. Allen : I thank the Home Secretary and the Minister for the personal interest they have taken in Nottinghamshire constabulary. They will know that we in the city of Nottingham division are losing bobbies on the beat. In addition, our local police stations are losing large numbers of officers to response units—in effect, those stations are being hollowed out. Is the Minister aware that, at a time when the Government are, rightly, being congratulated on having more officers employed in the United Kingdom than at any other time in history, people on some of our estates and in some of our communities are seeing less of those police officers? Will he please keep a watchful eye on the issue, so that the Government's rhetoric about community policing, which we all support, is matched by the reality of policing on the ground?

Mr. Denham: I recognise that my hon. Friend has deep concerns about the reorganisation of policing in the city of Nottingham. There is honest disagreement between him and the chief constable about the implications of the reorganisation—the chief constable would argue that it is increasing the number of officers available for beat work. We need to find a way forward. In January, the city of Nottingham will be subject to a routine basic command unit inspection by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary. Having listened to my hon. Friend, I have written to the regional HMI and asked it to ensure that it examines those matters during the inspection.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): Is the Minister aware that Nottinghamshire, like many other areas, will be a beneficiary of the unfortunate fact that police officers are fleeing the Thames valley in record numbers because of the high cost of living there? Is he aware that, within months, half of our police officers will be probationers? Will he comment on the concern felt by many superintendents about rumours that the Government are to tax pension lump sums? The Police Superintendents Association has announced that 20 to

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25 per cent. of total numbers might be lost. Will he have a word with the Treasury and tell it to drop that stupid plan?

Mr. Denham: We recognise the concerns about the south-east of England, which is why I, as Minister with responsibilities for the police, took the initiative a few weeks ago to bring together a team of people from police forces in the south-east and London to examine those concerns, as well as a range of issues including housing and transport. However, it is worth bearing in mind that in the next couple of years those forces will receive a ring-fenced part of their settlement—equivalent to 2 per cent. of their current pay bill in two years' time—for special priority payments; that funding can and should in part be used to address retention issues. As for the hon. Gentleman's final point, I have no knowledge of any such proposals.

John Mann (Bassetlaw): Is the Minister aware of the fact that, despite the major problems that my community has with drug-related crime, while I was carrying out an inquiry into those problems, the chief constable of Nottinghamshire, as part of his Nottingham city community policing scheme, transferred 10 experienced officers from north Nottinghamshire into the city of Nottingham? Is it not about time that areas such as mine had equal priority with cities in policing matters?

Mr. Denham: All areas have crime problems that must be tackled. My hon. Friend has rightly been persistent in raising his concerns about drug problems, but the chief constable of Nottinghamshire has to be able to make tactical decisions about priorities from day to day, and problems such as crack cocaine and gun-related violence in Nottingham have demanded a response. My hon. Friend mentions 10 officers, but let me put that in context: last year, the number of police officers in Nottinghamshire increased by 55, and this year—according to current projections—it should increase by a further 104. That is a substantial increase.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): Does the Minister not recognise that it is not only in the city of Nottingham—or, indeed, in the county of Nottinghamshire—that there is concern about police numbers, whether for community policing or any other purpose? Does he agree with the assessment that his proposals for the distribution of police grant might result in 34 rural or semi-rural forces—similar to Nottinghamshire's—losing large numbers of police officers? Dorset might lose 270 officers, Surrey 260, North Wales 300, and so the list goes on.

What will he say to people in those areas who, despite the Government's assertions about record numbers of police officers, are seeing their forces being denuded of resources for other forces and the replacement of those resources by a very small number of community support officers? Would not the chief constable of Nottinghamshire, along with every other chief constable, prefer to have the lump sum of resources that he is supposed to have and to make his own decisions about how many officers or community support officers

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he employs to provide the existing—and, preferably, enhanced—levels of policing that people expect in rural and semi-rural areas?

Mr. Denham: The hon. Gentleman should wait to see what happens about the police funding formula. The Government have published a consultation paper that proposes six or seven different options, some of which point in one direction and some in another. It is ludicrous for the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends to calculate the worst possible case for every police force and say that that is what the Government are going to do. I recall that, when his party was in power, police officer numbers were falling. We now have record numbers of police officers, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary recently announced a new target of 132,500 police officers. That option was never on the table in the 18 years when the hon. Gentleman's party was in power.

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