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2.29 pm

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): I welcome the opportunity to raise two issues of importance in my constituency. I raised the first with the Prime Minister yesterday during Prime Minister’s Question Time: the link between learning disabilities and educational difficulties such as dyslexia, and criminality.

Two Fridays ago, I was fortunate enough to be invited by a remarkable woman in my constituency, Jackie Hewitt-Main, to visit Chelmsford prison and observe a unique project called “Mentoring 4U”. In a voluntary capacity, rather than as an employee of the Prison Service, she had come up with a scheme involving her interviewing all 452 prisoners between the beginning of February and the end of April this year. She discovered that 104 had been to special needs schools or received private tutoring during their educational years. Significantly, 224 of the men—it is a male prison—had learning disabilities. She found that 185 suffered from dyslexia, 30 from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—15 as a result of head injuries—four from learning disabilities, one from dyspraxia and one from Tourette’s syndrome. As part of the wider educational scheme, she established that 324 men had not passed their driving tests—which I must confess surprised me—and 276 had been excluded from school.

The trouble with dyslexia is that until relatively recently many people did not recognise its existence. When I became a Member of Parliament 20 years ago my county council, Essex, would not acknowledge the condition. If a condition such as dyslexia is not recognised, there is obviously no provision to help dyslexic people to minimise or overcome their educational difficulties. All too often, owing to a failure or refusal to recognise the condition, people were written off as stupid or thick. That is hardly a productive or sensible way to try to help people. Fortunately, things have moved on. There is now a greater recognition and understanding of the problems, and a desire to provide help.

The mentoring project in Chelmsford prison, run by that remarkable woman Jackie Hewitt-Main, not
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only identifies prisoners who suffer from dyslexia or other learning disabilities, but—using other people in the prison environment—helps them with literacy problems. It guides and mentors them to ensure that they can make progress.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Many parents look for smaller schools when they realise that their children suffer from dyslexia. Should not local authorities try to provide some form of mentoring or extra assistance for dyslexic youngsters in larger schools, so that they too can be helped?

Mr. Burns: My hon. Friend is right to raise the problems of dyslexia and special needs education in mainstream schools. When it is decided that a child requires a statement, it is crucial that local education authorities ensure that it is done swiftly rather than being put off for what are effectively money-saving purposes. When a statement recommends help and extra tuition, that recommendation should be honoured, and again there should be no delay as part of a cost-cutting exercise. It is crucial that, during school years, children are provided with the help and the aids that they need.

One should not rely solely on what the state provides through the education system. Parents within the home environment should also back up what the schools are doing with extra education, including special needs education. They should provide that when children do their homework and, at weekends, and encourage them to read and to do extra writing lessons and spelling to help to minimise the problems.

The project in Chelmsford prison takes that work beyond the school environment. It is gratifying to go into a prison to see not only dedicated people offering their services to provide that help, but how they have reached out and involved other prisoners, who give their time and experience to help mentor and advise prisoners who suffer from dyslexia. It is an important scheme not only for the immediate benefits that it will bring to individual prisoners, but because, if it can help to minimise prisoners’ educational learning problems, it will encourage them to get a better start when they leave prison. However, that depends on help being provided once they are released back into society, having served their sentence.

The trouble facing the scheme is that, first, it is, to my knowledge, the only such scheme in the country. I think that what is going on in Chelmsford prison should be analysed and introduced in other prisons, so that other prisoners can benefit. Secondly, there is, in effect, a cut-off. When prisoners finish their sentences and go back into society, they have no way of being able to continue the work they have been doing and the help they have been receiving. More should be done to ensure that they can access help, including continued educational help, when they are released. That will help to enhance not only their self-esteem and self-confidence, but their ability to integrate into the work force and society. It will also help to minimise the possibility of reoffending and their returning to prison. I urge the Minister to urge his colleagues in the Ministry of Justice to see what can be done through practical aid to ensure that the good work that has been generated by the project in Chelmsford is not lost
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completely following the release of a prisoner and whether such projects can be extended to other prisons for other people to benefit.

I was heartened by the answer that the Prime Minister gave me yesterday. Not only is he aware of that matter but research has been commissioned across the area of learning disabilities and criminality. He gave a commitment that, when the work had been completed and studied—presumably by Ministers in the Ministry of Justice—it would be released. It will be interesting to see the conclusions and results of that work. I hope that more attention will be given to the matter to ensure that we can build on it.

The Prime Minister, when in opposition, both as shadow Home Secretary and as Leader of the Opposition, created—with, I think, the help of the Prime Minister-elect—the catch-phrase “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.” We can be tough on the causes of crime by identifying a problem of which many people will have been oblivious, because they think more about mainstream problems with criminality and so will not have given the matter much thought.

Secondly, I would like to raise another—I fear, rather more controversial—issue, although I am nervous about doing so because I see the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) in his place. He criticised the Minister for Industry and the Regions for her comments last weekend about the allocation of social housing in our constituencies. I want to raise it because I believe that it is an important issue, but I do not raise it with the same nuance as the Minister did. I want to make a simpler point, which is that there is a problem in many local authority areas with the length of time individuals have to wait before they can expect to be offered social housing.

In my own local authority of Chelmsford, we have 4,940 households on the housing waiting list, of which 3,900 live within Chelmsford and 1,040 live outside the area. If Chelmsford had a surplus of housing to provide to individuals for social housing reasons, there would be no problem. Sadly, however, as I suspect applies to almost every other local authority in the country, it does not have a surplus. Thanks to the Deputy Prime Minister, current house building in the mid-Essex area is considerable and 35 per cent. of it is social housing. Those are the guidelines laid down, so one cannot argue that no extra social housing is being provided in the Chelmsford local authority area.

Someone brought up in Chelmsford, who has always lived there, who is now single and 21, but for a variety of reasons cannot afford either to purchase a house or to rent privately, would go on to the housing waiting list. However, I can guarantee that, because of the waiting list, such a person will not be offered social housing in Chelmsford for a significant number of years. Let me explain what puzzles me. Why are a significant number of people on the Chelmsford borough council housing waiting list living outside the area? Why are all the allocations of housing stock—with a few exceptions, because we cannot have 100 per cent. inflexibility and rigid rules—not given exclusively to people who live within the borough until there is no longer a demand?

Chelmsford borough council rightly has a rule within its criteria that a person has to have a connection with
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the borough in order to get higher up the list to be allocated housing. It also has access to about 50 per cent. of nominations through housing associations. Again, it operates a scheme whereby people must have a connection by living in the borough or relevant area, which will provide extra points to enable them to get on the list. However, 50 per cent. of allocations from the housing associations do not operate that rule, which is where, I suspect, most of the non-residents of Chelmsford are getting their allocations to housing in Chelmsford. That creates a number of problems, not least among those who have lived all their lives in Chelmsford and have to wait a significant amount of time before being considered for housing. Those people are getting frustrated and they find it incomprehensible that someone who may live in another part of the country can come and live in Chelmsford while they still have to wait elsewhere, or continue to live with their parents or in overcrowded housing because they do not have enough points. The Government should look at that matter again.

This is not a criticism; I am trying to be conciliatory. Changes that were made in 2002 have led to this becoming more of a problem, especially in the home counties and elsewhere in the south-east. The pressure on housing there is so great, and the average cost of housing has risen so dramatically that people, especially young first-time buyers, find it more and more difficult to make their first housing purchase in an area so close to London.

I urge the Government to look again at this growing problem. I have deliberately not talked about who might be coming to live in Chelmsford, because there are no hard and fast rules, and because to do so would be irresponsible and foolish and it would be difficult to identify accurately the groups or individuals involved. They will be from across the board, but their common denominator is that they have no connection with Chelmsford. The parliamentary answers that I have received from the Minister for Housing and Planning show that, three years ago, 20 per cent. of the housing allocation went to people from outside the borough who had no connection to it. Two years ago, the figure had fallen to 14 per cent., but last year it had gone back up to 19 per cent. Given this relatively scarce resource, those figures are significant.

The problem is putting a strain on the local community. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will pass on this message to his colleagues in the Government, and that they will look into the matter and try to come up with a reasonable, sensible solution without pandering to other political groupings on the fringes of respectable mainstream politics.

2.47 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), and I appreciate the measured way in which he has put forward his views on the housing situation in his area. It is possible to debate such issues using appropriate language and examples of the problems that we all encounter at our Friday or Saturday constituency surgeries. Our constituents are often concerned about the lack of housing available in particular areas. I will not comment again on the points raised by my right hon. Friend the Minister for
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Industry and the Regions, because I have not given her notice that I would raise those issues in the House today, and because I have said all I want to say about the points that she made.

I agree wholeheartedly with what the hon. Gentleman has just said. It is a matter for the Government, working with the local authorities, to ensure that we are all able to give proper, adequate explanations to our constituents, and that the overall level of housing stock is such that, when people apply for council housing, they do not have to wait months, years or, in one case, at least a decade to be re-housed. I am glad to support the hon. Gentleman and I appreciate the measured way in which he put forward his arguments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) raised a number of local issues in her speech, as is traditional in debates of this kind, but I come to the Chamber with great news: I will not be raising local issues today. That is partly because since our last recess Adjournment debate we have had a terrific result in the local elections: the Labour party has regained Leicester, ending four unhappy years of coalition between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives—

Shona McIsaac rose—

Keith Vaz: I shall give way. Have you won in Cleethorpes as well?

Shona McIsaac: I just wanted to ask my right hon. Friend whether he was aware that four years of Conservative rule in North Lincolnshire ended earlier this month, when Labour took control of that council.

Keith Vaz: Marvellous! This is a good news story for our Whitsun Adjournment debate. We have won not only in Lincolnshire but in Leicester. In my constituency, we have won seats in Hamilton and Humberstone, and in Evington, which we have never won before. We are very pleased with that.

Mr. Evans: I do not want to pour any water on the wonderful party that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady are having, but do they not realise that there were 912 overall gains for the Conservative party that day, mostly at the expense of Labour, with a couple of hundred at the expense of the Liberal Democrats? It was a pretty bleak day.

Keith Vaz: Why does the hon. Gentleman wish to spoil our party? We are here to talk about the positive results, not the negative ones to which he has referred. We did well; good news stories are coming from my hon. Friend and myself and bad news stories are coming from the hon. Gentleman. I wish well Ross Willmott, the new leader of the council, Mary Draycott, the deputy leader, and the rest of the council. They won with a huge majority. The Liberals were reduced from 24 members to six—quite a reduction. The Conservatives remain at seven or eight. When one has a majority of that kind, one has to govern responsibly, and I hope very much—I do not, of course, interfere in local matters—that my colleagues in Leicester will govern responsibly. Judging by what they have said so far, I am sure that they will.

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I want to raise three issues. The first is in relation to the Ministry of Justice, which was formed shortly after the debate in which we welcomed the reappointment of my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) as Deputy Leader of the House. At that stage, I and other Labour Members said how pleased we were that the Ministry of Justice was to be created. I have been campaigning for one for many years. Obviously, there were going to be teething problems in bringing together the responsibilities of criminal justice and the Prison Service under the auspices of the new Secretary of State for Justice, and in taking away those responsibilities from the Home Office and giving it new responsibilities for security policy. Of course there were going to be difficulties, but nobody envisaged the outrage on the part of our judges. I say “outrage” because that is political spin on what is more than the raising of a judicial eyebrow. Normally when senior judges raise their eyebrows, we get very concerned because they do not normally do that. However, it appears that their wigs are on fire; I do not wish to alarm the Clerk of the House. [L aughter. ] They are really upset with what is going on.

As only judges at that level could do, they came to express their upset at the most recent meeting of the Constitutional Affairs Committee. We have not caught up with the Government and changed our name, Madam Deputy Speaker. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House can tell us when we can do so, so that we are a Select Committee scrutinising a Government Department. Lord Phillips, the former Master of the Rolls, and Lord Justice Thomas, the senior Court of Appeal judge responsible for the negotiations, were alarmed at the way in which they had been treated. At the core of the argument is the issue of the independence of the judiciary and the ring-fencing of the courts’ budget under a newly merged and reinvigorated Department of Justice. It is vital that the Government respond to the concerns of the judges.

The Committee had before it the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, who has changed his title on so many occasions that we have forgotten what all of them were. I pay tribute to the noble Lord Falconer, who has been an absolutely great Lord Chancellor. He has been a reforming Lord Chancellor and has modernised our system of justice. He has done it with the ability to get on with people in all walks of life, whether they be judges or consumers of the Courts Service. That is why I was so surprised that when he came before the Select Committee we had reached a situation where the judges were concerned about what was going on.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Does my friend agree that the judges were outraged because they were not properly consulted, which is on the record?

Keith Vaz: Absolutely. I agree with my hon. Friend; they were not consulted. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips, referred to an article of 19 January in The Daily Telegraph—not the usual journal to which we would turn to learn about such things—in which the Home Secretary announced that the Home Office was to be split in two and that the Ministry of Justice was to be created. It was only after that that he had a
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discussion with the Lord Chancellor. Contrary to what is often said about the Lord Chancellor being a great friend of the Prime Minister and therefore knowing everything that goes on, even the Lord Chancellor said to the Constitutional Affairs Committee that he was not aware of the matter until he got a call from someone—a high-level source—to say that the Home Secretary was about to announce it the next day. Therefore, it is clear that my hon. Friend is right: the judges were not consulted.

What has happened since? A working party has been set up, consisting of judges and officials from the former Department for Constitutional Affairs—now the Ministry of Justice—to try to resolve two fundamental issues. The first of them is the budget issue. There is concern that if there is a crisis in the Prison Service or in criminal justice, resources will be moved from Her Majesty’s Courts Service to deal with that. The recommendation is that the Courts Service’s budget should be ring-fenced. The second issue is how to protect the independence of the judiciary. The recommendation is that there should be an inquiry so that it can be properly considered.

The Government have finally got the message. I urged the Lord Chancellor to intervene personally in the negotiations. I told him not to leave that to his senior officials. I said to him that it was good to talk, and I suggested that he should get in touch with the Lord Chief Justice and begin that dialogue. I am not saying this because I or my colleagues on the Constitutional Affairs Committee recommended that, but I was pleased to learn from The Times today that Lord Falconer has picked up the phone and had a good chat with the Lord Chief Justice and that they are beginning to talk about resolving the issue, because it would be a terrible indictment of the modernisation programme that the Government have properly engaged in if, at the 11th hour, we left the judiciary on the sidelines. The Constitutional Affairs Committee has created a sub-committee on courts and the judiciary so that we can keep monitoring the situation and how the courts and the judiciary are dealt with. I am glad that there are ongoing discussions, and I hope that we can be given some good news about them in this debate.

One related issue is the call by the Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith, for a written constitution. I put that matter to the Lord Chief Justice on Tuesday. There has been a lot of discussion about whether we should have a written constitution. I am in favour. Now might be the time to begin that process. As we have a new Ministry of Justice and we are to have a supreme court, which will be housed in a new building opposite the Houses of Parliament, we might have the opportunity to discuss whether we should have a written constitution that entrenches all the rights and responsibilities of the citizens of Britain.

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