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11 Dec 2006 : Column 579

Points of Order

3.32 pm

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, of which I have given you advance notice. You will have seen the speculation in the media over the weekend and today about the thousands of post offices that are due to be closed, on which an announcement is expected in due course. You will be aware that that could have a devastating effect on communities, particularly in rural areas. It is absolutely clear that the Department of Trade and Industry has been briefing the media over the weekend on the scale of cuts, the compensation that would be made available to post offices that do close and the continuing amount of subsidy. We understand that a statement is to be made to the House before Christmas, but do you not think that the information should have been made available to the House before being made available to the media?

Mr. Speaker: I will not be drawn into the hon. Gentleman’s argument, except to say that I recall the Leader of the House mentioning last Thursday that a statement was going to be made. Today, I received such information from the Department. I would hope that that statement would be made some time this week—although the Department has said that it will be before Christmas, I would prefer it to be this week. I know the anxiety that he and many other Members have about post offices. The issue affects not just rural areas but city areas such as my constituency. I put it to him that I am expecting a statement this week.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On a similar subject—on which I have notified the Department for Constitutional Affairs—I have a named day question due for answer today, which, I understand is with the responsible Minister, about progress on military inquests. Unfortunately, however, the Minister’s press office notified The Daily Telegraph of information that will be contained in that written answer about the number of inquests still outstanding. Yet again we have an example of the press being briefed before the House. Can you suggest any measures that we can take to ensure that Ministers are accountable to the House, not the media?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman has made the case that information has been issued which was due to be in a parliamentary answer given to him and, of course, the House. I hear from the Government Front Bench that that is not true. Perhaps I can offer to look into the matter and contact the Minister concerned.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that at business questions last Thursday, grave concern was expressed by many Members that there would not be a statement from the Prime Minister this week—preferably today—on the results of the Iraq study group’s report. Have you had any indication that a Minister—preferably the Prime Minister—will come to the Dispatch Box this week to make a statement? If not, have you any suggestions on how we can ensure that these matters are properly discussed?

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Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: Let me respond first to the point of order from the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay). The hon. Gentleman may no longer need to raise his own point of order after that.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there is a system for urgent question applications on which I am able to exercise discretion. What I cannot do is specify the Minister who will come to the House. I received some indication that Foreign Office Ministers would not be available today, and that weighed on my judgment regarding an application submitted by the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). All I can say is that tomorrow is another day, and it is up to right hon. and hon. Members whether they make applications. I shall go no further.

Is that of any help to the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin)?

Mr. Jenkin: You are always helpful, Mr. Speaker. But, further to the point of order, is it not a matter of concern that great events have been taking place in Washington, yet the Prime Minister has not made himself available today? Is it not an issue of accountability to the House that he should be available at the appropriate time?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is expressing an opinion rather than raising a point of order.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Further to the first point of order, Mr. Speaker. As the Leader of the House is present, would it not be for our mutual convenience if he told us when the Post Office statement will be made?

Mr. Speaker: If it is made this week, that will be very helpful.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It had always been my understanding that the thrust of “Erskine May” and the ministerial code of practice was that Ministers should answer questions in the House in an accurate and timely fashion. I should be grateful for your confirmation that my memory is not deficient in that respect, in the light of the answer that I received to an oral question that I put to the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence. When I asked him about Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft and Saudi Arabia, the answer I received referred to the joint strike fighter. I am not certain whether the Minister’s hearing was deficient, but I hope that my understanding of accuracy in answers to questions is correct.

Mr. Speaker: I am responsible for many things in the Chamber, but not for the quality or accuracy of ministerial answers. I will not take the blame for that.

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw) rose—

Mr. Speaker: Perhaps the Leader of the House can help us.

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Mr. Straw: Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I say to the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) that I will ensure that my right hon. Friends at the Ministry of Defence are fully aware of his concern about Saudi Arabia and Typhoon, as well as his entirely separate concern about the joint strike fighter?

As you said, Mr. Speaker, I told the House last week that there would be a statement on the Post Office this week. There will indeed be a statement later this week, and the House will not be sitting on Friday.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), Mr. Speaker. I tabled a question for named-day answer, to which—on the basis of the latest search—I do not think that I have received a reply, asking how many people had been murdered by people who had been released halfway through their prison sentences during the period in which they would otherwise have been in prison. As I have said, I do not think that I have received an answer to the question; yet a great deal of information has—no doubt coincidentally—been released to the press on that very topic. I am beginning to wonder what is going on.

Mr. Speaker: If the hon. Gentleman waits for the reply, we will see whether it ties in with the press statements. Then I can look into the matter.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On a new, separate and entirely unrelated point of order, I seek your guidance. Given that the United Nations last week airlifted no fewer than 82 of its own staff out of Darfur as a result of the latest terror induced by the Janjaweed militias and that no fewer than an estimated 224,000 people in Darfur have been entirely cut off from essential aid supplies on account of the intensity of the violence, have you had any indication, Mr. Speaker, that either the Secretary of State for International Development or the Foreign Secretary intends to come to the House to make a statement about what the Government intend to do to address this very serious situation?

Mr. Speaker: I have had no such indication.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Given that in the last Parliament more than 400 Members put their signatures to an early-day motion on post offices signed by the chairman of the all-party group on sub-post offices, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) and myself, the secretary, and that more than 4 million signatures were delivered to No. 10, do you not agree, Mr. Speaker, that it is just not on for the Government to brief the press and for the Leader—

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Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman heard what the Leader of the House had to say on that, and I am sure that he will be present for the statement. I remind Members that we have the main business of the House to move on to.

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Back in June I tabled a question to the Home Secretary asking how much money had been paid in compensation to asylum seekers. Six months or so later, I received a letter saying somebody would write to me. Nobody has. I contacted the Library. The Library was told by the immigration and nationality directorate that it was not prepared to give out the information. I would just like to say to the Home Secretary that if he is not prepared to tell Members of Parliament, I would be delighted to read about that in the press.

Mr. Speaker: That is not a point of order.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con) rose—

Mr. Speaker: This will be a point of order.

Mr. Hogg: You flatter me, Mr. Speaker. On a point of order, may I remind you of what you know already? Where a Minister—the Leader of the House in this instance—rises and speaks in response to a point of order, it is within your discretion to treat it as a statement so that we can ask questions of the Leader of the House. We are entitled to know when the Post Office statement will be made. There are only three days when it can be made. Under precedent, we are now entitled to ask the Leader of the House when it will be made.

Mr. Speaker: Business questions are on Thursday and the Leader of the House can be questioned then—as the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, as he always questions the Leader of the House on Thursdays.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is a genuine and helpful point of order. A helpful and full statement from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was given to nearly all the media yesterday. Has the Secretary of State indicated when he might have the courtesy to share the contents of the statement—which was on the Child Support Agency—with the House?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Lady should perhaps table some parliamentary questions.

Miss McIntosh: I have.

Mr. Speaker: Why does the hon. Lady seek my advice when she knows these things already?

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Orders of the Day

Offender Management Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

3.43 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (John Reid): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Cutting crime, ensuring justice for victims and preventing reoffending is at the heart of the Home Office’s day-to-day work, but our work must do more than simply meet targets or provide jobs for people. It must be the route to security and opportunity for individuals, communities and our whole society. Preventing crime is but one part of that, but it is an essential part, and this Government have had considerable success: crime is down by more than a third in a decade. That is the result of our focus on tackling crime on the one hand and the causes of crime on the other.

In tackling crime, we have put more police on the streets than ever before and we have gradually introduced neighbourhood policing teams. We have also extended the powers available against antisocial behaviour and we have jailed dangerous offenders for longer for the protection of the rest of society. However, we have accompanied that by tackling the causes of crime, as we promised to do, including, among other elements, mass unemployment, social deprivation, lack of education and poverty.

Tackling crime and its causes has led to a 35 per cent. reduction in crime during the lifetime of this Government—as opposed, of course, to a 100 per cent. increase in crime in the final years of the last Government. Central to this has to be penal policy, of which prisons are of course an essential part. They protect the public, provide punishment and act as a deterrent, but they must also be the start of a process of rehabilitation. That process ought to be a continuum, which is why the supervision of offenders in the community after they leave jail is so important. This must be aimed ultimately at reducing crime and protecting the public through reducing reoffending.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Is it not a matter of concern, however, that some two thirds of prisoners reoffend? Should there not be a change of mindset? When in prison, the loss of freedom is the punishment. Should we not do more in our handling of problems such as solvent abuse in prison, and to improve and enhance literacy, education and training while people are in prison, so that they leave with more skills than when they entered and we can get the reoffending rate down? A two-thirds reoffending rate is a matter of grave concern to everyone.

John Reid: I shall deal with the reoffending rate in a second, but—along with issues such as protecting the public, punishment and deterrence—education and rehabilitation in prison is of course an essential part of prison life. More than 50,000 offenders are completing unpaid work in the community this year alone—a
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30 per cent. increase over the past two years. This year, four times more offenders are being taught basic skills than were taught them four years ago, and this year, five times more offenders are subject to accredited offending behaviour programmes than five years ago. Treatment for drug addiction in prison is up 973 per cent. since 1997. I would not claim for one moment that we are achieving all that we ought to achieve on rehabilitation, but I contest the view sometimes expressed that we are doing nothing or not increasing the amount of educational and rehabilitative course work going on in prisons.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): Has my right hon. Friend had time to look at the work being done in Thorn Cross prison, in Cheshire, where the Cheshire fire brigade is working with young offenders? Early indications suggest that the recidivism rate has dropped dramatically as a result of this exciting attempt to rehabilitate young people. Could that be considered as a possible model for other young offenders institutions?

John Reid: I am familiar with that case, which my hon. Friend has raised before. The relationship that has developed is commendable and has been to the benefit of all involved. Part of the philosophy behind the Bill is to open up rehabilitation and offender management in its widest form to the widest possible contributions from all the sections of society that can contribute. I commend my hon. Friend’s local authorities on developing that scheme, which is representative of what we are trying to achieve across the country through the Bill before us.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): Some of the assertions that the Home Secretary has just made are matters of “fact” whose veracity is open to debate, shall we say. Would it not be a good idea for the Committee examining the Bill in the new year to be able to follow the new House of Commons procedure, which allows such Committees to take evidence? The programme motion in the Government’s name does not permit the Committee to take evidence, but many issues could be resolved if the Home Secretary advised his friends operating in the usual channels to permit it to do so, as the House now permits.

John Reid: I will come to the hon. and learned Gentleman’s first point—the assertion—in a moment. On the second part of his contribution, which was a question, I can say that the provisions of the Bill are neither new nor have gone undiscussed, in any way. The Government’s consultation paper on proposals for reforming probation, “Restructuring Probation to Reduce Re-Offending”, was issued in October 2005. The Government response to that consultation, “Working with probation to protect the public and reduce re-offending”, was issued in March 2006. The proposals for involving alternative providers, “Improving Prison and Probation Services: Public Value Partnerships”, was issued in August 2006. The Home Affairs Committee held an evidence session on the matter in November 2005, and there will be discussions during the Bill’s progress. Many things
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could be said about the Bill, but lack of discussion is not one of them. At some stage, we need to move forward.

It was claimed that I was making questionable assertions. I invite the hon. and learned Gentleman to tell me which of them was inaccurate. More than 50,000 offenders completing unpaid work in the community this year—does he question that?

Mr. Garnier: If the Home Secretary wants me to make my Second Reading speech now, I am happy to do so. If he has concluded his remarks, I shall respond in due course. If he has finished, I am happy to allow him to keep his seat.

John Reid: As we do in these debates, I am merely allowing the hon. and learned Gentleman the opportunity to substantiate the serious allegation that he has just made. I think he said that, at the very least, the facts that I gave at the Dispatch Box could be disputed in their veracity, which, in my understanding of English, is another way of saying that they could be disputed in their truthfulness. Does he dispute the fact that the figure for unpaid work is up by 30 per cent. over the past two years? Does he dispute the fact that this year four times more offenders were taught basic skills than four years ago, or that five times more offenders are subject to accredited offender behaviour programmes than five years ago? [Interruption.] I take it that, as usual, there is an unsubstantiated—

Mr. Garnier rose—

John Reid rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Please take your seat, Home Secretary. This is a debate. The right hon. Gentleman can put rhetorical questions, but there is no point in his pausing or inviting a Member to intervene. He should get on in the time that is allotted for him.

John Reid: In the course of the debate, Mr. Speaker, the House will have noticed that not one of the facts I mentioned—the veracity of which was apparently doubted—has been challenged. That is an elementary matter in debate.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Pursuant to the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), may I put to the Home Secretary a point that I have raised before, but the importance of which has not yet, in my opinion, been fully understood by the Government? Given that the governor of Polmont young offenders institution is on the record as stating that his single most important member of staff is his speech and language therapist, who, by enabling boys to access education and express their needs, can be vital to the rehabilitation process, will the Home Secretary tell me whether he is open to the idea of constructive amendments in parts 2 and 3 of the Bill, to ensure a Government commitment to deliver such a therapist to every young offenders institution in the country?

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