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18 July 2007 : Column 332

In both cases, that must be done by affirmative procedure.

That is a significant change. Members of this House and the other place might argue about whether it is sufficient, and I will deal with the vexed issue of timing, but there is a significant difference between where we were and where we are now.

It is clear—not least in respect of the civil injuries compensation measures of a few years ago—that where a Bill is extended by inserting the word “shall” instead of “may”, legitimate and understandable expectations may arise that the measures concerned must be exercised. Neither I nor any other Minister proposes to add this duty to the Bill with the cynical idea that it will not be activated.

I now wish to address the anxieties that were abroad—

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Before the Secretary of State moves on, let me say that his remarks highlight one of the problems in trying to relate a package of amendments to a Bill. I am unable to find in either the package or the Bill a statutory requirement that the Secretary of State should make an order implementing the duties in respect of the persons now designated as being covered. That is what I am looking for, but although it may well be in the package or the Bill, I cannot find it.

Mr. Straw: The precise wording that the right hon. and learned Gentleman searches for is not in the Bill, so it is unsurprising that he cannot find it. I do not accept the gravamen of the point. [Interruption.] As I have said, I will come on to the timing issue.

As has been explained, the problem lies in some of the complexities of bringing the proposed legislation into force in respect of police services and the Prison Service. That has been debated at length. The issue is not whether the power should be extended to custody—that has been conceded—but the exact circumstances. I must take account—as must the Home Secretary in respect of her responsibilities—of the current environment in which both the police and the Prison Service operate. They do not wish for it suddenly to become okay for there to be deaths in custody—unexplained deaths, not deaths by natural causes—and for them not to be inquired into, or for those responsible for negligence or worse in respect of those deaths not to be subject to any sanction.

I hope that all Members concede that there has over recent decades been a huge improvement in the treatment in police custody of persons arrested, from the moment of arrest. In my experience, there were never significant problems in the charge room; problems arose at the time of arrest, during transport to the police station and in the cells. Before we changed the law, one of the tasks that I, when I was Home Secretary, had to perform was act in effect as a final court of appeal on serious disciplinary appeals by police officers, some of which related to events in custody and dated back some years.

There was a sea change as a result of the introduction of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the codes under it, changes in police culture, the courts rightly becoming less tolerant of improper behaviour inside police stations, and the introduction of closed
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circuit television—and subsequently an understanding by the police that they would be much better served if their behaviour in the custody areas and interview suites was recorded. Moreover, if there are unexpected or unexplained deaths in police custody, in almost all circumstances there is an immediate inquiry by the independent Police Complaints Authority. With the Prison Service, the circumstances are different, in that by that stage people have been sentenced—or at least, if they are awaiting trial, are not under interrogation.

3.45 pm

There have been significant improvements in the treatment of prisoners, as I have observed in the 10 years in which I have been in contact with the Prison Service. Improvements had been made before that as well, but we now have an effective inspectorate. The Bill will also place the Prison Service ombudsman on a statutory basis, which is another sign that we have listened to representations.

There are anxieties in the police and the Prison Service that unless they have time to understand fully the extent of these obligations and take steps to implement them, the services—not at a senior level, but at a lower level—will start to become risk averse, and that could have many adverse consequences.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): All of us have to accept that the police and the Prison Service will not be included immediately in the Bill when it becomes law. We have no illusions about that. What worries us—I am sure my right hon. Friend knows that the concern is widespread among Labour MPs and is by no means limited to the Opposition—is that it will be some considerable time before the police, and especially the Prison Service, are included. If my right hon. Friend could give some indication that inclusion will happen not too far in the future—perhaps in five or 10 years’ time—it might satisfy some of us. I know that he is doing his best to try to find a compromise with the Lords, and I am pleased about that.

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to my hon. Friend and to other hon. Members who have expressed their concern in robust but restrained terms. My colleagues and I have listened with great care and this has been an iterative process —[ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) agrees with that.

I ask my hon. Friend and the House to listen to what I am about to say before saying that the period is too long. My concern is to ensure that the proposal is implemented, but that that is done without the police and the Prison Service seizing up because they become too risk averse. Such things take time. Let me make it clear that we are not allowing the services some sort of bye for a period during which they are not under scrutiny. As has been accepted by everyone, those services are always, and properly, under intensive scrutiny, both in terms of their systems and when, tragically, an unexplained death in custody occurs.

A reasonable period for managing the extension of the offence would be, we believe, something between five and seven years. I also believe that we should work on the basis of implementing the extension within an earlier time frame if at all possible. The pledge that I
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give to the House is that I will make every endeavour, as will other Ministers, to get it done in less time if that is at all possible. However, I ask the House not to underestimate the difficulties facing the Prison Service, which were the subject of some exchanges during Prime Minister’s questions, and the police. I should be happy to have a knockabout about why the Prison Service is at capacity, but the truth is that that imposes its own pressures and demands on staff. I have the responsibility of managing those pressures in a way that is safe for both staff and inmates.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and also for the approach that he has adopted, but the period of time that he has identified is troublingly long. The problem is one of management, but he is suggesting that a structural problem exists. Given how the police and the Prison Service have operated over the years, I am very pessimistic about whether structural problems will ever be removed from the system. In respect of management difficulties, however, properly targeted plans and projects ought to be able to deliver the necessary changes in culture and practice within a reasonable time frame. I believe a period of five to seven years is excessively long, and it raises in my mind the anxiety that we are dealing with a structural problem. That should not be the case, because even under pressure, the police and the Prison Service should be able to deliver a level of service that would normally ensure that officers are not exposed to the risk of prosecution under this Bill.

Mr. Straw: I do not disagree with the burden of the hon. Gentleman’s argument, and that is to some extent why I believe that what we are arguing about is not a great deal. As things stand, officers in the police and the Prison Service could easily be exposed to the risk of prosecution, if incidents of the kind that have been described in the past were to happen repeatedly. For example, a prison or police officer who commits an unlawful act that leads to death or injury has always been liable to prosecution: that has happened at various times in the past, and other offences are available that could apply to people responsible for outcomes of that sort.

Thankfully, however, there are only a tiny handful of homicides in prison every year. In addition, there are about 60 to 70 incidents of self-inflicted harm and suicides annually. That is 60 or 70 too many but, tragically, such things are going to happen in the best ordered prison. We are doing a great deal to get the numbers down, and we are also working very hard with the police service to the same end.

I agree that we should try to find a reasonable time that is less than five to seven years. I assure the hon. Member for Beaconsfield that I have no intention of sitting on my hands and saying, “Okay, that’s fine.” However, although I have a lot of experience of the Prison Service, I have in effect been abroad for five years, and I need to take some time to go into the detail about how long the period should be. The same is true of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary at the Home Office.

Finally, the hon. Member for Beaconsfield asks whether we are dealing with a structural or a management problem. One can never be certain, as some problems
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can be both. Structural changes can be dealt with by changes in management practice that are followed by changes in the culture. I do not want to argue about that, but the other truth is that we will benefit if we take some time over the work in hand. Bluntly, I do not want us to find ourselves in the situation that has faced certain organisations in respect of health and safety.

The House of Commons is a famous example of that. An awful lot of time was spent on a risk assessment as to whether someone could go out through the double doors and run up a flag on the mansard-roof of Portcullis house. It was not until I insisted on taking the risk myself that we were able to break through the problem, with the result that the flag is now flying. Funnily enough, the introduction of a bolt changed everything.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Straw: Of course I will, in one second. Some of the cultural issues involved in the problem need to be dealt with in any event, and that is why I promise the House that I shall pursue the matter as quickly as possible. However, I will not promise an overall time scale that I am not presently satisfied can be delivered. It may be uncomfortable for me to say that now, but that is better than being quite properly accused later of saying something just to get the legislation through, and producing a time scale that, for various reasons, we are unable to meet.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Straw: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, after I have given way to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore).

Mr. Dismore: The time scale does seem rather long, but as I have said before, the date is more important than the length of time. May I put two suggestions to my right hon. Friend? First, will he consider coming back to the House with regular reports—say annually—on the progress towards implementation, which might make a significant contribution? Secondly, has he considered the possibility of different dates for different parts of the service? For example, the date for the police could be earlier than the date for the Prison Service, because the police could probably comply with the provisions much more quickly.

Mr. Straw: First, I am happy to provide regular reports. I am open to suggestions, but I am certainly happy to ensure that there is a report at least once a year and, if there is a demand for it, more often than that. I hope that that is acceptable. That is a reasonable way of keeping us all on our toes on the issue. Secondly, it is perfectly possible for the introduction to take place on a phased basis. I certainly have it in mind that we might be able to do that.

Mr. Llwyd: As a criminal lawyer, I was involved in the implementation of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, that Act was phased. Although the Act involved a huge cultural change, it has worked perfectly well. The whole package
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came in, however, in a matter of one year to 18 months. I agree with the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore): the police might be able to come up to speed sooner than the Prison Service. However, this is a worthy Bill, and providing too long a delay for the Prison Service tends to give the wrong message outside the Chamber.

Mr. Straw: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, and he is absolutely right about PACE. I was in practice for only a short while in the 1970s, but the situation then was patently unsatisfactory. People said we should move away from the judges rules and the rather informal arrangements that allowed all kinds of short cuts to be taken, and which ultimately undermined confidence in the police, as well as in the criminal justice system. However, I disagree with him slightly—well, more than slightly—on the time scale. He may recall that the Police and Criminal Evidence Act was introduced in the Parliament of 1979 to 1983, but fell and had to be reintroduced, and then the codes had to be put together. So in practice the time scale was longer, although it may not have been as long as the one that I have suggested in this instance.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): The Secretary of State needs to understand what he is asking the House to agree to. First, he is asking us to agree to a time scale that is not going to appear in the Bill. Secondly, he is asking us to agree to a very long time scale, but he has given us no real justification of why that is needed. He has hinted and implied, but the House deserves to hear the detail of why he thinks we should accept such a long delay. Without that sort of detail, which we have not heard at any stage, the House cannot agree to what he is asking.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman has to make a choice and so, with great respect, has the other place. As a result of the concern that has been expressed by both sides, there has been a significant change in the nature of the Bill. There is a big difference between the inclusion in the Bill of a power that says “may”, and the inclusion of custody in the Bill—where the only issue is when that is introduced. I have made quite significant and categorical remarks about the time scale for phasing in. As the hon. Gentleman may know, those remarks can be adduced in any proceedings if there is an issue of ambiguity.

If I had the detail of exactly why we should have a certain time scale, I would bring it before the House. It is precisely because I have not got that detail, and I need time to produce it, that I have to be cautious in the time scale that I am offering. I am being perfectly frank with the House. Of course, if there were some calculation that showed the time scale should be x rather than y, the House should and would be allowed to see it. However, because of my concerns, the concerns expressed to me by the Prison Service, and the concerns expressed through my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in respect of the police service, we have had to be cautious; I would like not to be so cautious. I have set out an overall time frame of five to seven years, but I have said that if we can get that number of years down, we will do so. I have agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon that we will provide reports on the situation at least annually, and from my experience of government I can tell the
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hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) that that will provide its own momentum, regardless of whether I am still in place leading on the Act in future, as I hope to be.

4 pm

Mr. Hogg: Will the Secretary of State forgive me for reminding him that I have been the Minister with responsibility for prisons? I have had the advantage of presiding over the Prison Service, as has he; in my case, it was at the time when we moved to a private contract for transport to courts. The idea that it takes five to seven years to put in place new systems, give appropriate directions or ensure proper supervision is for the birds. That should be done in a year or two, not five to seven years. That, I am afraid, is a failure on the part of Ministers not to insist. The Secretary of State has got to insist; that is what he is there for.

Mr. Straw: Well, I am quite sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman was altogether a more effective Minister than I am. He was an effective Minister, if I may say so—I will cut out the sarcasm. I would like to be in the position that he set out, but I am not, although I hope to be. Meanwhile, it would be wrong of me to offer a time scale to which we could not adhere. I do not think that there is a great deal of difference between the parties on that point. The last thing that I shall say, because others wish to contribute in this relatively short debate—

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Straw: I wonder whether I might just wind up, as I am taking up other people’s time. We have moved a great deal, and we have extended the time, so that we do not have to consider the matter in the terrible rushed manner that I have sometimes seen used by both parties when in government. We have shifted; there is no question about that.

Mr. Redwood: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way; he is being very patient. It might help his case if he told the House what changes would need to be made to custody arrangements to allow custody to be included in the legislation.

Mr. Straw: If I knew that at this stage—I have been in post for just under three weeks—I would tell the House. I see the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham screwing up his face, but it is precisely because I do not know the answer that I am having to be cautious, and so is my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. That is the truth of it. If I had the information, why would I not give it to the House? Neither my ministerial colleagues nor I have any wish to be in a situation in which there is distrust and suspicion about our motives. It is thought that we have made up our concerns and our caution in respect of the police service and the Prison Service, but we have not. What I have said is not everything, but it is certainly a great deal, and I hope that the House and the other place will now accept the amendments, and what I have said on the record, in the spirit in which they were intended.

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