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House of Commons

Monday 19 March 2007

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—

Criminal Justice System

1. Mrs. Siân C. James (Swansea, East) (Lab): What progress is being made on the review of the criminal justice system; and if he will make a statement. [127789]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): The review was published in July last year and set out a clear timetable for delivery. The majority of the things that we said we would do by December were completed on time, and we are making good progress towards meeting our April commitments. We will publish a further update shortly.

Mrs. James: I appreciate the Minister’s response. For the purposes of the review, will he look at the effective work being undertaken against crime and antisocial behaviour in Blaen-y-Maes in my constituency and incorporate that good practice into the review? That represents good progress, not the “hug a hoodie” culture that the Opposition are talking about.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I fully understand what my hon. Friend is saying. I am pleased about the work that goes on in Wales and in her constituency, where she recently made a visit to see it. The work that is going on between the Welsh Assembly, local government and local communities in support of the police is to be commended. We are looking into what can be done in terms of antisocial behaviour orders and community sentencing to ensure that our communities feel a lot safer.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): When the Minister reviews the criminal justice system, will he be very chary about coming forward with any more substantive Bills? The Criminal Justice Act 2003 has proved singularly indigestible. Might I suggest that he spends more time in the Home Office in implementation and enforcement instead of on the process of legislation?

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Mr. Sutcliffe: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is well known for his involvement in these issues, so we take into consideration what he says to us. He will know, however, that the 2003 Act was important in ensuring that protecting the public is our first priority. The Home Secretary has been reviewing all the actions that were taking place in the Home Office. We look at legislation in the context of how appropriate it is not only in defeating crime but in ensuring that the public are protected.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): May I urge my hon. Friend not to listen to the views recently expressed by Lord Woolf on sentencing for people convicted of murder? Most people in my constituency tell me that sentences are not long enough, and they do not find credible the idea that people should be let out even earlier. If we want the public to co-operate with the police and to play their part in tackling crime, they must feel that once people are convicted, they are properly punished.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend, who is clear, as I am, that the public must be protected from people who need to serve the sentences for the crimes for which they are responsible and that the public would expect them to serve. This is a robust debate. It is important that we consider these issues in the context of ensuring that the public have confidence in the criminal justice system. They will not understand if they are not protected from people who commit heinous crimes and are not in prison for the period that they should be.

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): The Minister referred to the importance of the public having confidence in the criminal justice system. The Lord Chancellor said this weekend that for that to happen, clarity in sentencing is required. I entirely agree. Does the Minister believe that there is a problem in trying to maintain public confidence in the criminal justice system given that, for instance, life sentences now average about 11 years in custody and that 53 so-called lifers who were sentenced in 2000 have already been released? Does not he think that it is time to review all this, to abandon some of the doublespeak that surrounds sentencing, and to apply life sentences only in cases where the courts believe that they should be applied and that is to the most serious offenders who should remain in prison for the rest of their lives?

Mr. Sutcliffe: It is important that the courts decide on sentences; that is why we have the Sentencing Guidelines Council, which is made up of the judiciary with Home Office representatives as observers. In the 2003 Act, we ensured that dangerous criminals—people who were a danger to society—had indeterminate sentences. We must ensure that that continues. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would share my view that it is important that the public can have confidence in knowing that dangerous criminals will be in prison. That was not the case before the 2003 Act.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): Under the Government’s vision of simple, speedy summary justice, the police issued 146,000 penalty notices for disorder last year, including to serial
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shoplifters. The offenders do not receive a criminal record, the tickets involve no admission of guilt and only about half are paid before court action. How many of those so-called “offences brought to justice” are enforced? How can they possibly count as sanction detections when there is no real sanction?

Mr. Sutcliffe: The hon. Gentleman wants it both ways. He wants the police to have the flexibility to deal with situations on the ground in our communities but then argues about bureaucracy in the police service. He cannot have it both ways. We are pleased with the simple, speedy, fast and fair system that we are putting in place. Fixed penalties play their part in that.

Departmental Co-ordination

2. Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): What steps he plans to take to improve co-ordination between the different sections and services of his Department. [127790]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (John Reid): Since we published three reform plans in July last year, I have taken several steps to ensure that joined-up services throughout the Department are improved. They include end-to-end processes for offender management, against which the Opposition voted, end-to-end improvement of the surveillance of asylum applications and, from next month, the establishment of the national policing improvement agency. The Department’s reform programmes are also making several changes to structures, processes and ways of working that will improve co-ordination further.

Mr. Gauke: Given that the Home Secretary’s predecessor essentially lost his job because of failures in co-ordination between the immigration and nationality directorate and the Prison Service—even now, I have heard of a case of a foreign prisoner who was released rather than deported because of co-ordination failures—does he believe that progress has been satisfactory and that it would be better served by having the two services in two separate Departments?

John Reid: The non sequitur in the question is that the failings to which the hon. Gentleman referred are a perfect illustration of why being in one Department is no guarantee of good co-ordination. The function of co-ordinating and improving co-ordination is essential, whether it is within a Department or between Departments.

The hon. Gentleman knows that we are improving the National Offender Management Service. We brought proposals for that before the House. We are improving policing by rolling out neighbourhood policing. We are also improving the immigration and nationality directorate—we publish plans and key indicators for that. We are reviewing counter-terrorism, among many other matters, as well as the Home Office plan. We are making progress on all those matters and we will report publicly on them. However, whatever configuration is used for those units, co-ordination in a Department and between Departments is essential.

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Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): On 22 June 2004, I raised in an Adjournment debate the case of my constituent James Bishop, who was killed by a Chinese national, Mr. Yin. Due to lack of co-ordination at IND, he was removed before being prosecuted fully for the offence. I appreciate that the Home Secretary will not have the answer today, but will he write to me to confirm that the promises made during that debate have been fulfilled and that the co-ordination of such cases has been improved?

John Reid: Yes, I undertake to write to my right hon. Friend about the case.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Under the Government, the immigration and nationality directorate has presided over a substantial increase in net migration of up 185,000 in 2005—the last year for which we have figures. Is any other part of the Home Office co-ordinating that figure with the demands of migration on housing infrastructure and the implications for population density, or does it remain the case that the Government see “no obvious upper limit” to migration, to use the words of the Home Secretary’s predecessor?

John Reid: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which is precisely the reason for the need to reconfigure and improve our services in the Home Office. Three of the main issues, among many others with which we deal—international migration, international crime and international terrorism—have grown exponentially in the past decade and a half. We therefore need to undertake improvements and consider reconfiguration to concentrate on managing migration, countering international terrorism and coping with international crime. As part of that, we proposed a migration advisory commission, which would examine independently—and offer independent advice on—a range of issues related to the optimum amount of immigration. That would mean consideration of wider issues than purely and narrowly defined economic matters.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): Why does the Home Secretary believe that turning one dysfunctional Department into two dysfunctional Departments will improve matters for the public as opposed to separating the Home Secretary from responsibility for the shameful state of our overcrowded prisons and the early release of dangerous offenders?

John Reid: I do not think that the Home Office has been dysfunctional in all its aspects. For instance, in the hon. and learned Gentleman’s constituency, there are something like 257 more police officers than there were under the previous Conservative Government, as well as 155 police community support officers. If he looks at the crime statistics for Harborough, he will see that there has been a 5 per cent. fall in burglary and a 25 per cent. fall in the theft of motor vehicles. In terms of reducing crime and putting more police on the streets, the Home Office has been a damned sight more functional than ever it was under the Conservatives. Having said that, we are facing mass migration on a scale hitherto unprecedented globally, international terrorism at a level that was not even contemplated a decade ago, and the international crime associated with
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both, and it is therefore right that we should consider the reconfiguration of our efforts to deal with them. When the facts change, we change our views and our structures. That is what sensible people do.

Mr. Garnier: I can assure the Home Secretary that there are not 247 police officers in the Harborough constituency—far from it. Does he not think that the public have a right to expect from Home Office Ministers some strategic political leadership and managerial competence on prisons, violent crime, drug crime, early release from custody of serious criminals, immigration and asylum, border controls, and getting rather more than one in 58 police officers on to the beat? Instead, over the past 10 years, we have had to put up with a flood of repealed or incompetent legislation, and incompetent, disjointed, headline-grabbing schemes that have had no substance or that have been cancelled or replaced within weeks. Instead of spending time in bars co-ordinating their diaries with lobbyists, should not Ministers be spending their time working for the public and dealing with the mess that they have made—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

John Reid: The hon. and learned Gentleman, who is infamous for stooping low, never surprises us by his capacity to go even lower. Is he complaining that we have a record number of police on our streets, or that we have seen a 35 per cent. reduction in the crime rate? Is he complaining that we have campaigned ceaselessly on a whole range of antisocial behaviours, or that we have put more resources than ever into fighting crime? Or will he admit that, on every single occasion, he and his colleagues have voted against the money, the resources and the energies involved? We do not need to take lectures from a party whose Government doubled crime, when we have cut it by a third.

Drug-related Crime

3. Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of measures to combat drug-related crime. [127791]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): The most recent published crime figures show that the strategy is working. Recorded acquisitive crime, to which drug-related crime makes a substantial contribution, has fallen by 20 per cent. since the onset of the drug interventions programme, which is now getting on average more than 3,000 drug misusing offenders into drug treatment each month. The Home Office is carrying out an ongoing research programme to look at the effectiveness of individual programme components.

Mr. Burrowes: Given that the Minister’s own Department’s report in 2005 on determining the effectiveness of drug treatment interventions concluded that

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why are there so few residential rehabilitation centres, particularly for young people, and why are only 18 prisons offering intensive therapeutic programmes?

Mr. Coaker: We have made considerable resources available to the drugs sector to ensure that services are available, whatever the needs of the individuals concerned. We have introduced the drug interventions programme to ensure that people who commit a trigger offence in the DIP areas can be tested on arrest; those who commit such offences in other areas can be tested on charge. Others might come into the system through the health sector. GPs will then allocate them to services as appropriate. I cannot see the hon. Gentleman objecting to the significant increases in budgets; this year, we have invested £1.5 billion in drug-related services in this country. That is a huge increase, compared with the situation a few years ago.

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that detection is important in combating drug-related crime? Will he join me in congratulating the Wiltshire constabulary, which has detected and shut down crack houses and cannabis farms in Swindon? Does he also agree that local, neighbourhood policing is extremely important for detecting low-level drug pushers and other young people who get involved in drug-related crime?

Mr. Coaker: Since the introduction of the drugs intervention programme more than 69,000 drug-misusing offenders have entered treatment, and many will be treated in Swindon and elsewhere in Wiltshire. The Government’s drugs strategy has succeeded because it is about bringing people treatment not just through the criminal justice system, but through the health service and through self-referral. All that is now working, not only in Swindon but across the country.

Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): Given the link between drug-related crime and drug-infested prisons, does it worry the Minister that at a prison that I visited, often the only penalty imposed on visitors discovered carrying drugs on their way to meet a prisoner was not to be allowed to make a contact visit to that prisoner? When will the Government get tough on drugs in prisons?

Mr. Coaker: The Government are already getting tough on drugs in prisons. The Offender Management Bill, which the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe) has just steered through the House, contains a range of measures to deal with some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

I have already given figures relating to the increase in investment in drug treatment outside prisons. Let me add that in 1996-97, £7.2 million was spent on drug treatment in prisons. In 2006-07, £77.3 million was spent on it—974 per cent. more. Of course, we must ensure that there is good management and that the system is made more effective, and we will do that.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Operation Tarion, conducted throughout south Wales, has—along with a taskforce of police throughout Wales—
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achieved the highest-ever cocaine haul in the area, resulting in many arrests, and police in Bridgend F division have also made a number of drug arrests recently. Successful policing can actually reduce the anxiety of people who observe the prevalence of drugs in their communities. How can we reassure the public when the police succeed in making such high-level arrests?

Mr. Coaker: At a strategic national and international level the Serious and Organised Crime Agency is responsible for the seizure of cocaine and other drugs, but we also have neighbourhood policing. The interaction of police at local level is extremely important. If we are to overcome local anxiety about drugs, the police must engage with local communities—as they do in the best neighbourhood models—and explain to them what they are doing. People across the country tell me that they do not worry when the police take action over dealers in the street; what worries them is dealers’ being seen to act with impunity. When the police take action, as they have in my hon. Friend’s constituency in south Wales and elsewhere, we should get behind them, because people want to see the dealers where they should be—in prison.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): In the courts where I sit, every class A drug addict defendant began his or her life on cannabis. Does the Minister accept that cannabis in its current form is much stronger than it used to be, and is deeply damaging to young and vulnerable people? If he does, will he send a message to the courts and the police to take cannabis much more seriously, and will he raise its classification from C to B to signal our worry about the problem?

Mr. Coaker: I know that the hon. Gentleman has a long-standing interest in this issue. I think the message we must send is that cannabis remains an illegal drug which causes immense harm to communities. We know that skunk causes a particular problem. Recognising that, the Government recently issued a series of television and other advertisements under the title “Brain Store” in an attempt to show young people, in particular, the link between cannabis and mental illness. There will be a continuing debate about drug classification, but I think the message we should send today is that cannabis remains a dangerous drug and is illegal.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Northamptonshire police on their effective programme of crack house closures, especially in the town centre, where they have dealt with a great many drug-related crime problems? Does he agree, however, that the programme would be much more effective if there were cross-party consensus, particularly involving the Liberal Democrat Opposition?

Mr. Coaker: The power to close crack houses was introduced by this Government. As my hon. Friend says, that was opposed by the Liberal Democrats. It is an important tool that the police have available to them to tackle drug-related crime.

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