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House of Commons

Monday 4 December 2006

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—

Terrorism (Police Preparedness)

1. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the preparedness of the police to respond to a terrorist incident in London. [106789]

The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Mr. Tony McNulty): My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has asked me to extend his apologies to the House for not being able to attend Home Office questions today. He is representing the Government at the Justice and Home Affairs Council in Brussels.

The Home Secretary and I are updated regularly on police preparedness to respond to a terrorist incident in London or elsewhere by a variety of means.

Gregory Barker: Just one limited radiological event recently showed just how stretched the police and emergency services have been, and even the most rudimentary dirty bomb would pose problems of a completely different order. Can the Minister explain why there has been only one full radiological exercise in London—and that four years ago?

Mr. McNulty: I simply do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s premise that the emergency services have been stretched. I have been intimately involved, if I may put it that way, with what the Health Protection Agency, the Atomic Weapons Establishment and a range of other emergency services have been doing in connection with recent incidents, and “stretched” is not a word that I would use.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): In the aftermath of a terrorist incident in London—which God forbid—the question of costs would soon arise, as it already has in connection with Operation Overt in Buckinghamshire. Last week, the Prime Minister told our local newspaper, the Bucks Free Press, that central Government should cover the costs of Overt. Can the Minister confirm that that is the Government’s view?

Mr. McNulty: As far as I am aware, we have yet to receive the full application from Thames Valley, but when I visited the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and went around the cordon in what felt like the dead of night, that was certainly the assurance that was given. We will look very closely at any submission from Thames Valley relating specifically to Overt, and will view it in a sympathetic light.

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con): When will the Government make telephone intercept evidence admissible in court so that innocent lives can be saved?

Mr. McNulty: Again, I do not fully accept the hon. Gentleman’s premise. He will know that we are looking very seriously at a range of legal frameworks and models that could be used to protect the substance of what we do with intercept evidence, and a report is due in the fullness of time.

We have considered the issue as part of the overall review of terrorism with which the Prime Minister charged the Home Secretary, and the result of those deliberations will be forthcoming at an appropriate time. That will include the important issue of intercept evidence, but I do not necessarily accept the absolute causal link posited by the hon. Gentleman.

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David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): One of the problems that contributed to the tragic shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes was lack of communication between the police on the surface and those in the underground. In the event of a de Menezes incident tomorrow, the same limitation would still apply. The police were offered a temporary solution to the problem three years ago. Why has it still not been fixed a year and a half after the de Menezes disaster?

Mr. McNulty: I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that it is in the process of being fixed. He makes an entirely fair point—

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): That is totally unacceptable.

Mr. McNulty: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, he needs to understand all the elements involved in the process. It is being undertaken, it will be undertaken and it should be undertaken, as one of the key lessons learnt from 7 July. In broad terms I entirely agree that this needs to happen as quickly as possible, and it is happening as part of the roll-out of Airwave throughout the country. I am particularly alive to its importance, not least owing to my limited 18-month experience as Minister responsible for transport in London.

David Davis: That really is not acceptable. The issue has been around, and the vulnerability of the London tube has been known about, since 9/11—since 2001, not since last year. The Government therefore have no excuse.

Let us look at another aspect of the extent of police preparedness. One way to improve the ability of the police both to charge and to convict terrorists—apart from the intercept evidence mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley)—is to allow them to interview terrorist suspects after charge. The Government were offered that option more than a year ago by all Opposition parties. It was non-controversial, it was less draconian than the 90-day period, it would have been very effective in improving both speed of charging and probability of conviction, and it was supported by everyone from Liberty to the Commissioner of the Met. Why has it not yet been implemented?

Mr. McNulty: Again, there are a number of elements in the question to which I would not subscribe. The proposal is being considered as part of a wider review. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, because he is very thoughtful on these matters, post-charge interview is not possible under legislation without at least consideration of the inference drawn from the right to silence. The two go hand in hand.

These matters are being considered, and although it is not definite, we intend to produce at least a preliminary report on the outcome of the review relating to all aspects of terrorism before the break at the end of the year, or very soon thereafter. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that his point, as well as the other point about intercept evidence, will be considered fully. However, neither is quite the panacea that the questions have tried to offer—although I realise that
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that is not what the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting. They may help, which is why they are being considered very seriously.

I shall be happy to report the right hon. Gentleman’s interest to the Home Secretary, who I am sure will wish to discuss matters with him further when the time is right.

Criminal Justice System

2. Mr. Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): What progress has been made with the review of rebalancing the criminal justice system; and if he will make a statement. [106791]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): The Home Secretary has set out a substantial programme of reforms, which have time scales for change stretching to 2008 and beyond. We are making good progress in delivering what we said we would deliver and some of the commitments he made in July have already been met, but the collective impact of the programme as a whole will give us the criminal justice system that this country deserves.

Mr. Wright: In most areas of public services, the community is becoming more and more involved in the design and scrutiny of those services. Criminal justice should be no different. I am particularly interested in the concept of community payback, whereby offenders do compulsory unpaid work in neighbourhoods, with priorities decided by residents. Will the Minister inform the House how that concept is being implemented?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I am happy to do that. Much progress has been made on community payback in terms of visibility to ensure that the public are confident that criminals are delivering projects that the community wants delivered. I assure my hon. Friend that in the north-west much work is being done on community sentencing. The public pick the schemes, the schemes are sent to the magistrates, and the magistrates sentence using those schemes. Then they are carried out, there is an award ceremony and everyone feels the benefit. That is a thoughtful response in relation to the criminal justice system. I hope that we can expand that throughout the country.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): What is the Minister doing to cut the huge volume of police paperwork, much of which is driven by the courts? For example, over recent years, the requirements of the courts in respect of disclosure have sometimes resulted in whole man years of police time being used on fishing expeditions on behalf of the defence.

Mr. Sutcliffe: The Home Secretary has, in consultation with Ministers, ensured that we consult the police and all the other bodies that are involved in trying to cut bureaucracy and paperwork, so that the public have confidence in the criminal justice system. That is what we want to try to achieve. We will look at all aspects in trying to reduce bureaucracy and to ensure that the public have every confidence in the system.

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David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Despite the recent highly misleading “Panorama” programme about the probation service in the Bristol area, and indeed the Home Secretary’s unfortunate speech at Wormwood Scrubs, is not the probation service driving down the reoffending rate? Has it not been doing so for some time since the last reform? In that light, does the Minister agree that we should invest more in a publicly run probation service with direct employees, rather than abandoning it to the whims of the market?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I know that my hon. Friend takes a close interest in the issues relating to the probation service, and I am happy to put on record the Government’s thanks to the service for the work that it carries out. We are all committed to tackling the reoffending rate, which is around 60 per cent. I know that that figure is disputed by the National Association of Probation Officers, the probation officers union, but we all need to agree that we have to cut reoffending. There has been a 47 per cent. increase in the funding to probation. I want us to look innovatively at unpaid work and at the resettlement of offenders to try to cut reoffending.

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): Ten days ago, Angela Schumann was sent to prison following her attempt to commit suicide with her two-year-old daughter by throwing herself off the Humber bridge. We also know from the NACRO that three quarters of the schemes to move mentally ill prisoners from prison into specialised facilities are unsuccessful because of lack of beds.

When rebalancing the criminal justice system, will the Minister and his Home Office colleagues look at rebalancing spending priorities and perhaps at using some, if not most, of the £1.5 billion allocated for building to provide yet more overcrowded prison places to expand secure and semi-secure mental health treatment at centres, which do more to cut reoffending and so cut crime?

Mr. Sutcliffe: The hon. Gentleman makes a pertinent point about how to try to refocus some of the spend. On capacity issues and the prison population, clearly it is right that we protect the public and find the appropriate accommodation for dangerous offenders, but as he says, we need to look at the prison population, how to tackle reoffending and the mental health issues that he raised. I am prepared to look at that, including in discussions with the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), on the Mental Health Bill. Lots more work can be done. We must look at the criminal justice system in a thoughtful way. I am happy to continue discussions with the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): Last Friday, Lord Ramsbotham, who has no political axe to grind, described the criminal justice system as being in meltdown after a decade of failure in crime and punishment, and he went on to say that the Government’s handling of it was “absurd. Broken. Chaotic”. To what extent does
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the Minister think that he can do something about that by not passing legislation in a hyperactive way and by just getting on with the business of mending what his Government have broken?

Mr. Sutcliffe: First, I do not accept what Lord Ramsbotham said. I respect him as a former chief inspector of prisons, but I think he is wrong. I have had a number of opportunities to discuss with him the issues that he raises, and it seems to me that although he might not have any political axe to grind he certainly wants to oppose the Government on every aspect of what we put forward, so I shall find those conversations even more difficult in future.

The hon. and learned Gentleman asked what I can do. I will do what the Home Secretary has said should be done, which is to rebalance the criminal justice system by ensuring that where legislation is necessary we bring it forward, but also that where we can make the system work better, we do that.

National Offender Management Service

3. Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): What recent progress he has made on plans for the future of the National Offender Management Service; and if he will make a statement. [106792]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): The National Offender Management Service is rolling out offender management in custody and the community. The Offender Management Bill, which will support the development of NOMS, was introduced in the House on 22 November.

Mr. Gerrard: I am sure that my hon. Friend will be aware—as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary certainly will be—of the arrangements in Scotland that put statutory duties on the probation service to co-operate and work in partnership with other agencies. Why cannot we enter into such arrangements in England and Wales—I think everyone would welcome that, and it would go some way towards achieving the targets being set—rather than implement the current proposals, which, however they are dressed up, will mean that there are significant possibilities of the privatisation of core parts of the probation service?

Mr. Sutcliffe: There are lessons to be learned from Scotland, but there is a different legal system there that cannot apply to the UK. I certainly do not accept—I am thankful for the opportunity to say this—that the proposals under the Offender Management Bill are about privatisation; they are about providing the best value partnership for the public to ensure that we tackle reoffending, which everybody is committed to doing.

The proposals that we are bringing forward—which I am sure we will debate at length and in great detail over coming weeks and months—will give us all an opportunity to look at the real issue, which is that we need to do something different from now on. The status quo cannot continue, and we need to look into the probation service.

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John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): Is the Minister aware of the report published last week by the Responsible Authorities Group on the effect of local drug rehabilitation services in Weston-super-Mare, about which I have written to the Home Secretary? Does the Minister share my concern that it says that three people who were sent by the probation service for drug addiction treatment in Weston-super-Mare in the last year have died as a result of poor management of their cases by the national probation service, and will he undertake to visit Weston-super-Mare to understand what is going on there—and, potentially, to improve the service?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. I am not aware of the letter to the Home Secretary, but I will look into that, and if it is pertinent for me to visit Weston-super-Mare, I will be happy to do so.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I tabled a written parliamentary question regarding continuing consultation with the National Association of Probation Officers—the representative body for probation officers—and I was somewhat surprised to receive the answer that there has been very little of late. Is it not still, at this eleventh hour, worth going back to NAPO to see whether it is possible to get a proper evolutionary change, rather than what might come forward next Monday?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I do not know where my hon. Friend got that answer, but I have certainly met NAPO on numerous occasions and will continue to do so. It is important that the style of our operation should be that we get to the core of the issues. Clearly, NAPO has its members to protect and it is prepared to stick out to protect them in all circumstances; that is its role. Our role should be to tackle reoffending. We need to look at the best ways we can achieve that.

I have said to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) that this operation is not about privatisation. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) knows that organisations such as the NACRO and Shelter have great expertise in resettlement. Surely he is not arguing against such bodies being allowed to look into resettlement and doing work that the probation service currently does. These issues are important. If we are serious about tackling reoffending, we have to ensure that we get the best possible services for the public.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): As the Minister has rightly said, cutting the reoffending rate is clearly of the essence. Given that the governor of Polmont young offenders institution has stated publicly on the record that his speech and language therapist is his single most important member of staff—in enabling boys to access education in order to express their needs, that therapist is vital to their rehabilitation—will the Minister look sympathetically at amending the forthcoming Bill to commit the Government to ensuring that a speech and language therapist is deployed by every young offenders institution in this country?

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