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12 July 2006 : Column 457WH—continued

In fact, the reverse is the case. Mr. Bennett had not remained in contact with that man throughout his life; the man had remained in contact with Mr. Bennett. Mr. Bennett and his wife were guests at the man’s first wedding. When that marriage collapsed, the man formed another relationship and married again, in Suffolk. At that wedding, Mr. Bennett was introduced as his surrogate father. When that marriage collapsed, the man came to Mr. Bennett time and again to seek advice and assistance.

When the first allegations against Mr. Bennett were made by the first individual, he went to the man with whom he had remained in contact throughout his life to ask for a character reference to put before the court. He sought that man out to stand as a witness at his trial. When Mr. Bennett refused to pay him the £5,000 loan for which he asked and to provide him with a character reference to persuade the immigration authorities to allow his new girlfriend to enter the country, he refused to be a character witness for Mr. Bennett and then made allegations against him. That shows how big a travesty of justice this case has been, and it is one example of how people in this country are treated by our legal system.

Compared with some of the sentences that are given out these days, it is incredible that a man of 67 can be sentenced to 11 years in a high-security prison. Murderers do not get 11 years these days; anyone committing murder these days will be out on the streets well before 11 years is up. My constituent refuses to admit his guilt—his religious convictions preclude him from admitting to offences that he did not commit—so he will not qualify for parole and will have to serve the full length of his sentence. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister why is my constituent in high-security conditions? Why is he—a 67-year-old who poses no threat to anybody—in HMP Frankland as a category B prisoner?

Since my constituent has been incarcerated, he has not been entitled to receive his pension. Therefore, not only is he being punished for his crimes, but his wife does not receive the retirement pension that she was receiving before his conviction. Not only has a financial penalty been imposed on her, but she has to find the wherewithal to visit her husband in Frankland prison.

On occasion, Mrs. Bennett has complained about the way in which she and her relatives have been treated when they have visited her husband. Last year, Mr. Bennett’s daughter travelled from Australia to visit him in Frankland. On her arrival at the prison, she was told that because the sniffer dog had become a little
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agitated as she passed it, she would not be entitled to an open visit, and that she could either have a closed visit or re-book. As she had come from Australia, the idea of re-booking was a bit of a no-no. She offered to be strip searched so that the prison authorities could check whether she had anything about her person that could be regarded as contraband, but that offer was refused.

After travelling all the way from Australia, that situation might be regarded as unfortunate; it could just be a sad case of having travelled all that way but that, under the rules, that was the daughter’s lot. However, it happened again. When Mr. Bennett’s brother-in-law travelled from Canada to the same prison to visit Mr. Bennett, he, too, was refused an open visit and told that he could have only a closed visit or re-book. Why on two occasions have visitors travelling huge distances been refused visits to a 67-year-old pensioner in Frankland high-security prison? It beggars belief.

My constituent is required to undergo a strip search every time he moves in and out of the visiting area. We are talking about a 67-year-old man who is made to strip and to “pirouette”, as he described it in his complaint to the prison governor. In other words, he must turn around so that his genitals and buttocks can be examined by a prison officer. That is degrading and humiliating. The next time that Mr. Bennett was strip searched after he had complained to the governor, the prison officer said to him, “Ah, Mr. Bennett, pirouette please.” His complaint form had been passed to the staff, and they began to deride him and humiliate him even further by using his exact words. That is humiliation and harassment of a 67-year-old pensioner who maintains his innocence.

Mr. Bennett also complained that his post had been opened and interfered with; his airmail letters from his daughter in Australia had been opened, read and returned to him. When he complained about that, he was told, “Yes, your letters have been opened. It was a mistake and we will ensure that it does not happen again.” That is not the case; this man is being targeted, his post is being opened and interfered with, and he is being humiliated.

Mr. Bennett’s family is also suffering that humiliation; not just Mr. Bennett but his wife and children are being punished. Even if he is guilty of the offences of which he has been convicted, surely his family should not be treated as criminals in the same way. Surely they should be able to visit him without having to be harassed; surely when his children travel large distances they should be able to visit their father without receiving such treatment.

I have made it plain that I feel that this man has been unfairly treated by the Prison Service, even if he is guilty. I had to telephone him yesterday, because I was worried that my raising this debate would mean that the treatment would worsen. A letter that he sent to me on Monday contained a form that he had been asked to sign by a prison officer agreeing to the release of information from his file. It occurred to me that the Frankland authorities were trying to frighten him into not allowing this debate to go ahead by indicating that their making him sign that form would mean that information would be made public during the debate that might embarrass or humiliate him even further.
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I know that the Minister will dispute that, and I hope he will tell me that the procedure is normal. The way that this man has been treated tends to suggest that if he complains any further the treatment will worsen.

In conclusion, I must ask the Minister whether the Government really feel that a 67-year-old pensioner who was convicted on uncorroborated evidence of offences dating back 20 years should be regarded as a high-security prisoner. Mr. Bennett has indicated that he will serve the full sentence, because he refuses to admit his guilt. Could the sentence be carried out in less extreme circumstances than those in which he finds himself today?

11.15 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on securing this debate, which, as he says, concerns one of his constituents. I fully recognise and understand the passion and strength of feeling that he has shown towards his constituent in this case. He knows that in my ministerial career I look closely at the detail of issues that hon. Members from all parts of the House raise with me. I hope that he will understand the limitations placed on what I am able to say about the sentencing policy. He wants me to go down a particular route that is not my area of responsibility, and he will know that there has been a great deal of media awareness about Home Office Ministers talking about sentencing policy involving the judiciary.

As my hon. Friend said, Mr. Bennett’s case has already been the subject of correspondence between my hon. Friend and myself, and he has also corresponded directly with Her Majesty’s prison Frankland. The permission that was sought from and granted by Mr. Bennett to discuss his case today is normal procedure. If we had not got that permission, I would not have been able to put lots of things on the record today. In addition, the fact that Mr. Bennett has no outstanding appeal is relevant to the remarks that I can make. Had an appeal been ongoing, I would not have been able to make the comments that I am going to make today. I thank Mr. Bennett for giving us the permission to enable me to say the things that I will say today.

As my hon. Friend said, Allan Bennett is a 67-year-old prisoner currently located at HMP Frankland, a high-security prison near Durham. He was convicted and sentenced on 16 December 2003 at Sheffield Crown court to 11 years’ imprisonment. He appealed against his conviction and sentence, and was refused leave to appeal against conviction but had his sentence reduced to eight years. His offences, which he continues to deny, took place more than 20 years ago, while he was working as a residential social worker, as my hon. Friend said. I do not intend to go into detail about the offences. However, as a result of Mr. Bennett’s conviction, he will remain on the sex offenders register for life and is also subject to safeguarding children measures.

On the subject of Mr. Bennett’s denial of guilt, as I explained to my hon. Friend in a letter of 27 June, at the time of his trial the courts would have had the opportunity to hear and consider all the evidence presented to them. The Prison Service has to deal with Mr. Bennett on the basis of his being guilty of the serious offences of which he was convicted.

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Perhaps it would be appropriate at this stage to say something about the conditions in which Mr. Bennett is held. Frankland is a high-performing prison, rated at level 4, which is the highest rating available. It has been so since the ratings were introduced in 2002. Prisons operating at that level are assessed to be:

That does not mean that every decision made in every level 4 prison is correct, that every procedure is carried out 100 per cent. correctly or that every prisoner’s experience of custody is exactly as he or she would want it to be, but it does set Frankland in context: as a prison which is performing very well across the piece.

Mr. Bennett is a category B vulnerable prisoner located on B wing, the specific needs wing, which holds and has a regime more suited to elderly prisoners. B wing has a special needs landing which holds older prisoners who do not warrant 24-hour health care, although there is a nurse assigned to the landing. Mr. Bennett is not in employment because he is retired, but I understand that he attends the gym and undertakes part-time education three times a week, studying IT.

Mr. Bennett denies his offence, so no offence-related work has been carried out. He was last asked about his offence in 2004, when he continued to deny it and stated that he would not take part in the sex offender treatment programme or the enhanced thinking skills programme because he was appealing against conviction. Mr. Bennett is on the sex offender treatment programme database as a denier/refuser. He will be revisited by a member of the psychology department later this month to gauge his level of involvement with the SOTP and an assessment will be made by the end of the month.

Mr. Bennett’s most recent sentence plan was completed on 2 March 2004 at Doncaster. Frankland has a backlog of sentence plans, so Mr. Bennett has not had one since arriving in 2004, but the prison has undertaken to commence one in the next couple of weeks. I am sure that both my hon. Friend and Mr. Bennett will be pleased with that news.

In his letter to me of 10 June, my hon. Friend questioned the suitability of Frankland as a location for his constituent, as he did again today. In my response to him, I pointed out that, after his conviction, Mr. Bennett was classified as a category B prisoner and was eventually transferred to Frankland so that he might participate in offending behaviour work. Although Frankland is in the high-security estate, it holds a number of category B prisoners. Indeed, they make up about 75 per cent. of its population.

A prisoner must demonstrate a reduction in risk if he is to move forward by achieving a lower security category. By declining to undertake any offending behaviour work, Mr. Bennett has been unable to demonstrate a reduction to justify a lower security category. Perhaps significantly, given the comments of my hon. Friend, in the two and a half years that Mr. Bennett has been at Frankland he has not requested a transfer. There is no real reason why he could not be transferred to a non-high-security prison,
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but because he has never applied for a transfer or had a sentence plan, that has not been considered since his arrival at Frankland. Mr. Bennett would require category B conditions unless his sentence planning board advocated a change of category. Prisons closer to his home area of Barnsley in which SOTP is available are Full Sutton, Wakefield, Hull and Manchester.

Mr. Bennett is described, both by staff on his wing and by others, as polite, courteous and compliant with the regime. He is reported as saying that he gets on well with the staff. His level on the incentives and earned privileges scheme is enhanced. Mr. Bennett has had no disciplinary adjudications since he arrived at Frankland, and his behaviour while at Frankland is very much to his credit. Mr. Bennett is subject to Prison Service order 4400, and as such is not allowed children visitors. He has received visits from a number of adult members of his family, who remain supportive.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of Mr. Bennett being strip searched in a manner that the latter found demeaning and humiliating. My hon. Friend wrote to me on 16 May, enclosing two letters from Mr. Bennett; he has already gone into how Mr. Bennett is searched before and after visits, so I do not intend to repeat the detail, but it might help my hon. Friend if I set out the context of the searching of Mr. Bennett. The Prison Service has a well established policy for the full searching, previously known as strip searching, of prisoners. It is set out in function 3 of the national security framework.

All prisons are required to have a searching strategy, setting out the frequency of searching across the establishment. It is recognised that a good searching strategy is not just intended to uncover unauthorised items but to act as a deterrent to prisoners and others. The techniques need to be thorough if illicit items are to be discovered, otherwise there would be no point in searching anyone. However, due attention should be paid to the privacy of the person being searched. The searching strategy must be proportionate to the potential threat to security or to the control of establishments. That is why prisoners held in high-security establishments are subject to more searching than those in lower category prisons. The full searching of such prisoners is necessary in the interests of security, to protect the public, and to provide a safer environment for prisoners, staff and visitors.

The full searching of all prisoners in reception and on leaving a prison are mandatory requirements of the national security framework. So, too, are cell searches, which must always be accompanied by a full search of prisoners. Prisoners held in higher category establishments are subject to more routine searching. The method used for full searching is the same irrespective of the security level of the prison. The national security framework includes step-by-step instructions on how full searches must be conducted for both male and female prisoners. I know that when the security manager at Frankland wrote to my hon. Friend on 18 May he enclosed a number of documents that set out the procedure.

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Essentially, a full search constitutes a detailed visual search of the body, including ears, nose, mouth and hair. It must be carried out by two officers of the same sex as the subject and must be done out of sight of members of the opposite sex. The top and lower halves of prisoners’ clothing must be removed separately so that the person being searched is not totally naked at any time. That is the point that I would like to emphasise, as that was the focus of Mr. Bennett’s complaint. He was treated no differently from any other prisoner in that respect.

All searching staff must adhere to the procedures and are given appropriate training to equip them with the skills to undertake the task in a sensitive manner. The manner and purposes for which full searches are conducted are consistent with the European convention on human rights and prison rule 41(2), which requires that searches be carried out in as “seemly” a manner as is consistent with finding anything concealed. Our methods are still the most effective and least intrusive known to achieve the ends. My hon. Friend also mentioned the claim that, at a search, staff used the term “pirouette” to describe the physical movement of turning around, in order to humiliate Mr. Bennett. The prison told me that it can find no evidence that the term, if it was indeed used, was used maliciously.

As I said at the outset, I do not doubt the sincerity of my hon. Friend’s compassion about Mr. Bennett’s case, and I know that my hon. Friend is concerned about the sentence and what has happened to Mr. Bennett. He continues to champion Mr. Bennett’s case. My hon. Friend will know that he needs to speak to other colleagues, perhaps in the Department for Constitutional Affairs, about the case. On Mr. Bennett’s treatment in prison, I undertake to look further into what my hon. Friend has said in light of today’s debate, to see what can be done.

There is a good relationship between Mr. Bennett and the prison staff at Frankland. We believe that he has not been treated any differently from any other prisoner. The respect and dignity agenda in prisons has improved the situation dramatically; it is very different from what it was in years gone by. I undertake to look again at the circumstances relating to Mr. Bennett. I know that my hon. Friend will continue to be an advocate for him, not only in terms of his life in prison, but in terms of the details of the case.

I wholeheartedly agree with what my hon. Friend said about the family. The family should not in any way be held responsible for the actions of Mr. Bennett. We should be as sympathetic as possible, but we have to measure that sympathetic approach against the security conditions in our prisons. My hon. Friend will know that the prison population, security in prisons and prison capacity are high on the political agenda. I shall not be tempted to go down that route of commenting on sentencing guidelines, but I know that my hon. Friend will have the opportunity to speak to the Home Secretary, the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney-General about the case. I look forward to hearing what progress he makes. I end by saying that I do not doubt my hon. Friend’s sincerity on this matter, and I am sure that we will discuss the case further.

11.28 am

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.

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NHS Services (Hertfordshire)

2.30 pm

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Hon. Members may take their jackets off, if they so desire. We have an interesting debate this afternoon and a lot of hon. Members want to take part, but everyone will get in if we all play fair by one another.

Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak this afternoon on changes to NHS services in Hertfordshire. Before I do so, I want to pay tribute to the many thousands of people who work for the NHS in Hertfordshire and do a difficult job very well. Although I shall highlight some of the difficulties that we face with the NHS in Hertfordshire, I do not want to detract from the great efforts made by those staff.

The debate this afternoon is about changes to NHS services in Hertfordshire, but to be honest we face something that could easily be described as a crisis. I shall outline some of the difficulties that we face. I shall start with the primary care trusts, of which there are eight. All eight are in deficit and under special financial measures, with a cumulative deficit of £37 million in 2005-06.

We must bear in mind when considering such deficits the average per capita allocation to Hertfordshire. In 2005-06, the average per capita allocation was £986, which is £109 less than the average in England. If we had £34 more per head—still £75 less than the English average—the deficits in Hertfordshire’s PCTs would be wiped out. There is another way of looking at it, which is quite constructive when we consider the whole issue. We receive approximately 90 per cent. of the English average, and if we were to receive 93 per cent. there would be no deficits in our PCTs and we would not face the current crisis.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Would not another way of putting it be to say that if we had roughly the same amount as the Minister’s constituency we would be fine?

Mr. Gauke: That is absolutely right. There is a broader issue. To open out the debate for a moment, Hertfordshire is just one example of a county in south-east England that is facing great difficulties. We could consider Surrey, Sussex, Norfolk, Suffolk and parts of London and we would find that the difficulties are concentrated in the south-east in the areas that receive below average per capita funding. There must be a question about the formula. I gave advance notice to the Minister and hope that she will be able to address the issue of the formula that is used in Hertfordshire and whether there are any plans to change it, as it seems to me that there is something wrong with the balance. I can see the argument that deprivation might be a factor, but the balance does not seem to be right when there is such a concentration of deficits in counties such as Hertfordshire.

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