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I should now like to turn to offender management, to which the Government’s general approach is right. I want to make two or three simple points. A really coherent system of offender management that can
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follow offenders through their prison careers, as well as their time after prison, will require greater flexibility and capacity in the prison system than we currently enjoy; otherwise, there is no sensible way to commission the right path for offenders. In turn, that involves taking measures to strengthen the public credibility of community sentences.

I hope that the Offender Management Bill and the associated commitments will deliver three things. First, there needs to be a guarantee that a portion of all community sentences will be carried out in high-visibility uniforms that clearly identify people as carrying out community sentences. Secondly, the Government need to make greater use of attendance centres, so that there is clearly an element of daytime deprivation of liberty in part of some community sentences. I do not believe that tagging is always an alternative to that. Thirdly, and perhaps most radically, there needs to be a recognition that the impact of, say, a 100-hours community sentence is far greater on someone who holds down a job and has family commitments than on someone who is not so gainfully employed. The courts should be given the flexibility to provide longer community sentences for those for whom the impact of a longer sentence is justified and to ensure that that includes job search and everything that goes with it.

The other element of the national offender management system to which I want to refer relates to the introduction of contestability. I am one of those who believes that probation services will benefit by the introduction of new, innovative approaches to delivering services locally. The key test will be the way in which the Government go about introducing contestability. I am sceptical about the idea that any of the commercial companies that might take part or, indeed, the not-for-profit organisations are capable of taking over from a standing start very substantial chunks of the probation service in a city, county or region. We need to be quite modest in our ambitions.

Most of the innovation is likely to come more locally, probably where people are already making links between traditional probation, training, resettlement and housing projects and so on for offenders. As the Bill proceeds, we will need to look very carefully at ensuring that the regional commissioning model does not try to deliver everything at county or regional level, so that much more local and innovative projects can be considered, as that is where the best ideas will come from.

I certainly hope that the Offender Management Bill will enable local authorities and other public sector bodies to bid to provide elements of what are currently probation services. Such things need not be linked solely to not-for-profit organisations or to the private sector. Certainly some local authorities—including Southampton city council, which I want to praise—are doing very good and very innovative work in getting offenders into employment. Some of those public sector organisations could be very useful indeed in providing new ways to resettle offenders and to get them into work. So I hope that local authorities will not be excluded under the Bill.

While that Bill is proceeding, we need to consider whether to take some more radical steps to ensure that the public sector can provide a higher proportion of
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employment opportunities for ex-offenders than currently. In many parts of the country, not least because of A8 migration—those from the eight accession countries—the job market is pretty competitive for people with limited employment skills and limited training who leave prison and are competing with young, able and articulate people from other European Union countries who, to be honest, can do the jobs better. We need to ensure that job opportunities are available to offenders, because getting people into work is probably the biggest single thing that we can do to reduce reoffending rates.

We will be considering sentencing under the Criminal Justice Act 2003. We will need to consider the proposals carefully. Let us be careful not to undo too much of the settlement that was reached in the 2003 Act. There has been a lot of backwards and forwards movement between judges, who are regarded as having too much discretion, and Ministers, who have wanted to interfere too much. Parliament has not had a voice. The 2003 Act attempted to strike the right balance between a sentencing framework in which the judges were heavily involved but in which Ministers had a say, and one in which Select Committees on behalf of Parliament could have an input and people knew where they were. If we move back too far towards saying, “Let’s solve the problems by introducing a bit of judicial discretion here, because it seems to work”, we are in danger of undoing a very important change in the sentencing framework that was introduced under the 2003 Act.

2.8 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham). I hope that he will excuse me if I do not follow every subject that he touched on, but I want to mention the probation service in Hampshire if I have a moment. I want to speak briefly on both transport and home affairs, and to deal with subjects that have not been touched on so far. I shall begin with transport, after a short detour to the section in the Gracious Speech on enhancing confidence in Government statistics.

If people speak to folk in the City, they are absolutely convinced that the Government stand behind the borrowings of Network Rail. If people speak to Ministers, they are absolutely confident that there is no such contingent liability. That misunderstanding is of enormous convenience to the Government because, of course, it displays Government to be more prudent than would otherwise be the case, but both sides cannot be right. The National Audit Office has classified the borrowing as public borrowing; the Office for National Statistics has not. If we are to have a Bill that enhances confidence in Government statistics, perhaps it can resolve that statistical conundrum once and for all.

I want to talk about the Bill on road pricing. If the Government want some political cover while they advance into dangerous territory, I am happy to provide some for them. As with congestion charging, it is an area in which the Government are following, rather than leading. They let Ken Livingstone take the flak on congestion charging, and then moved in behind
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him. Let me ask the Secretary of State for Transport a pub quiz question: who was reported to have said the following, and when?

The answer is John MacGregor, on 25 April 1994. As one of the successors to his post in what is now the Department for Transport, I recall that when the Major Government fell, our policy was that motorway tolls would be introduced, subject to the satisfactory completion of technology testing then under way.

The 1996 White Paper, “Transport: the Way Forward” committed the Government to

After 1997, the trail went cold until July 2003, when the White Paper “Managing our Roads” was published. It included some elegant but essentially bland sentences, such as:


Sir Humphrey would have been proud of that last sentence. To be fair to the current Secretary of State, he has made the courageous statement that such a scheme will come into force by about 2015, depending on the results of a large trial scheme.

Of course, important questions about road pricing need to be answered, but political commitment to the issue has been lacking, and without it, we simply will not get a sustainable and balanced transport policy. We seem to have reversed from the position held in 1994, even though technology has moved on and made the proposal more practical. I believe that road pricing should be introduced with nil net cost to motorists; in other words, the revenue from tolling should be offset by reductions in petrol duty. Road space is a scarce resource, and there is neither the political appetite nor the financial resource to meet current and potential demand by expanding the road network. Indeed, our environmental commitments do not allow us to build our way out of congestion.

We must make more intelligent use of the road space that we have. When practical, we should nudge journeys on to public transport, and discourage journeys at peak times. Crucially, we need to price roads on the same basis as other modes of transport, which have different tariffs at busy times. At the moment, we pay for using the road through vehicle excise duty and petrol tax, but neither is sensitive to costs. Road pricing can reduce congestion and help road users, and it can benefit the national economy, too. The policy can be sold to motorists; indeed, the motoring organisations are not, in principle, opposed to it. I hope that when the Secretary of State for Transport gives his winding-up speech he can advance on what he said in May:

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I believe that it is the Government, rather than the debate, who need to move on.

Mr. Andrew Turner: Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is a model, or pilot scheme, of road pricing that the Government may wish to examine, which, uniquely, does not involve roads? In the stretch of water between the Isle of Wight and the mainland, the cost of crossing depends very much on the time of day and the place at which one chooses to cross. I am sure that it would help the Government enormously to examine that model. Perhaps they would then recognise the need to recompense my constituents for some of the costs of crossing that stretch of water.

Sir George Young: My hon. Friend makes the point that there is water pricing, and if that is possible, so is road pricing. He also makes the point that travellers are accustomed to differential tariffs. I simply propose extending a well established principle to the only mode to which it does not already apply.

The price signals for travel are moving the wrong way. In 1997, the regime for controlled rail fares was the retail prices index minus 1. That gave a clear signal that, in real terms, the cost of rail travel would fall. Since then, that signal has been switched from green to red, as rail fares have increased in real terms. We are promised a White Paper on rail in the new year, and I hope that it will make it absolutely clear that capacity will be increased to meet demand, and that demand will not be choked off, using fares. I hope, too, that there will be something in the White Paper on a particular hobby-horse of mine: rail-cycle integration.

While I am on the subject of bicycles, I should like to address a transport issue closer to home. I hope that we can improve facilities for visitors who come to Parliament by bicycle. We have looked after ourselves, and there is now adequate provision on the parliamentary estate. Visitors, however, must use the underground car park in Abingdon street, or the racks on Millbank. Most meetings take place in Portcullis House, so we need racks on the Embankment outside that building, and I hope that discussions with Westminster city council on the subject will bear fruit.

I want to talk briefly about coroners. I confess that until recently I had not taken much interest, in my 30 years in this place, in the coroner service, but in February 2005 some constituents came to see me about their daughter-in-law, who died in hospital in Oxford in 2001. An inquest was necessary because of the circumstances of her death, which was possibly a suicide, but when they came to see me the Oxford coroner had not yet held the inquest, and that was causing some distress. I wrote to the coroner in February and received an answer in May, telling me that there would be an inquest in July. It did not take place, so I went on writing. Eventually, I had to write to the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, who replied in February this year, saying that the coroner

I was told that the case would be listed for a jury inquest in June or September this year, but the inquest has still not been held, even though the death took
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place more than five years ago. We need a better system. Again, the story is one of slow progress by the Government.

In 2000, Harold Shipman was convicted, on sample charges, of murdering 15 patients, although the real total of victims is likely to be nearer 250. The Government set up two reviews: a judicial inquiry by Dame Janet Smith, and a wider fundamental review of the death certification and coroner systems, led by Tom Luce. Both reviews reported in summer 2003, more than three years ago. They concluded that the death certification and coroner systems provided completely inadequate safeguards against homicide, and had a number of other serious defects, too. In particular, they mentioned the distress that could be caused to bereaved families.

In March 2004, the Government committed themselves to a serious reform of both systems. The coroner service was to become a national service, with new responsibilities for the oversight of all death certificates, but it was to keep its historical responsibilities for investigating deaths reported to it for special examination. The Government’s proposals would largely have remedied the defects identified in the two reports. The Government promised more details within a year, in a White Paper and a draft Bill that was to be published by March 2005. Sadly, that promise simply was not kept, and those proposals have not been followed through. Instead, in February this year, the Minister made a statement that retreated seriously from the Government’s original proposals, as did the draft Bill that we were promised would be included in last Session’s list of Government Bills. It was eventually published in June this year.

Instead of the radical but necessary reform of the coroner and death certification systems called for in both the reports, the Government retreated from the creation of a national coroner service and left virtually untouched the existing system. That will do little or nothing to prevent a new Shipman from killing patients and certifying their deaths as natural. The Government’s proposals totally failed to remedy a defect in the death certification and coroner systems that means that death certification by doctors is completely unsupervised. Ministers did not convince the Constitutional Affairs Committee that their approach was adequate, and Dame Janet Smith told the Committee that the proposals

Given the mauling that the Government took from the Select Committee, it is no surprise that there is no legislation on coroner and death certification reform in their programme. However, we need to make progress, and it is absolutely astonishing that, more than half a decade after the discovery of the Shipman catastrophe, the Government are still unable to come up with, and follow through on, reforms that would adequately respond to the situation.

I want to pick up on a point that the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) made about probation services. The probation service in Hampshire is one of the most progressive and successful in the country. I saw the service in action when I sat at the back during an anger management
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course to which men who had beaten up their partners were sent as an alternative to custody. A young probation officer in her 20s was handling 12 fairly aggressive and at times very disagreeable men, and I was enormously impressed by the way she coped with them.

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend accept that many probation workers in their 20s are completely unable to deal with people on such schemes? I have witnessed the opposite of what he described.

Sir George Young: That underlines the point that I was making: the probation service in Hampshire is well recognised and progressive. I am concerned that the proposed reforms may destabilise it.

I am not against private sector involvement in the probation service but I hope that we can keep good probation officers; I am sure that my hon. Friend will acknowledge that there are good probation officers. I also very much hope that we can keep the links with the statutory agencies—the other bodies necessary for probation services to be successful—and that we can maintain some local connections. Local boards are being abolished but a local dimension is important.

In the remaining time, I want to touch on one more subject. The people in my constituency are fairly tolerant and easy-going, but their patience was tested by the recent news that prisoners were receiving compensation for being weaned off drugs. The matter was raised at business questions last week and the Leader of the House, a former Home Secretary, struggled to find an adequate reply. Such incidents bring human rights legislation into disrepute and funds are diverted from elsewhere.

We were led to believe that this was the Prime Minister’s last Queen’s Speech. The verdict on the Queen’s Speech, as on the Prime Minister, might be that it was a missed opportunity. On reform of the House of Lords, for example, the Gracious Speech says that the Government “will bring forward proposals”. It is a comment on the Prime Minister that with three decent majorities after three elections, at each of which we were promised House of Lords reform, in the 10th year all we have is

the Government “will bring forward proposals”. Perhaps that could be the Prime Minister’s epitaph: he brought forward proposals.

2.22 pm

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): It is always a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) who, in a typically thoughtful speech, raised a large number of issues. On his final point, about House of Lords reform, I will say only that as a unicameralist I am pleased to note that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has given the option of abolition as the first vote available to us.

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