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House of Commons

Tuesday 11 December 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Probation Trusts (Leicestershire)

1. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What assessment he has made of the likely impact of the creation of probation trusts on the provision of probation services in Leicestershire. [172657]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Maria Eagle): Leicestershire and Rutland has been in the top three performing probation areas for a number of years. It applied to be in the first wave of probation trusts starting on 1 April 2008 and was accepted. The emphasis on local delivery and local commissioning will give Leicestershire and Rutland greater flexibility to meet local needs and will enable it to strengthen its performance further.

David Taylor: “Contestability”—as two words—is a prerequisite for prominent pugilists and synchronised swimmers, but as one word, it is an unnecessary framework for the delivery of offender supervision on the evidence of its application within probation so far. Will the Minister confirm that she still opposes outsourcing by dogma and explain how imposing on probation trusts a competitive market, with its attendant secretive contract culture, will not crush the co-operation that is so vital in ensuring the success of this public service in Leicestershire and elsewhere? Is this not just a privatisation that dare not speak its name?

Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend has been consistent in his opposition throughout the passage of national offender management legislation, and he continues his reputation in the House for asking witty questions—a tough thing to do with Question 1—but I disagree with him. This is not privatisation; it is about local autonomy and flexibility within a best value setting. I can tell my hon. Friend that, as we said during the passage of the legislation, there will be no compulsion to outsource. Ministers have given guarantees about work remaining with probation trusts. I expect Leicestershire and Rutland to go from strength to strength in providing even better quality services than they have thus far.

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Adult Reoffending

2. Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to reduce adult re-offending rates. [172659]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): The Government are committed to reducing adult reoffending and the latest figures show that it is down by 5.8 per cent. since 2000. We are now consulting on a new strategic plan to build on our success in reducing reoffending.

Mr. Marsden: This is a good time of year to be talking about the power of redemption and the Minister’s words on the progress being made are extremely encouraging. I particularly welcome some of the imaginative schemes that emerged from the preceding and the current Department—work done with young offenders via HMP Kirkham near Blackpool, and the good work done in local communities. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that when offenders get out of custody and into the outside world, access to jobs and skills will be crucial in preventing reoffending? Does he also welcome, with me— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. A supplementary question must be brief.

Mr. Hanson: My hon. Friend is exactly right that employment is one of the keys to the prevention of reoffending. He will know that, in two test-bed regions in the west midlands and the eastern region, we are trying to link employers outside in the community with work undertaken by offenders serving sentences in prisons. It is key that we look at the skills that people need when they leave prison and try to work with employers outside to prevent reoffending. The corporate alliance is doing some sterling work to link employers with offenders and ensure rising levels of employment.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): Seventy per cent. of the defendants whom I have to sentence are addicted to crack cocaine or heroin. They go to prison, take more drugs, come out and reoffend. Does the Minister accept that drug residential rehab beds are a much better form of treatment than prison and are, in fact, cheaper?

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman is right in the sense that a very strong drug problem is linked to offending. One of the key pathways that we need to work on is how to reduce reoffending through work on drug abuse. I am happy to look further into his suggestions. We have put many resources into the prison system, and he will know that this year some 24,500 drug users are benefiting from clinical services in prison. I want to see more done, because stopping the drug problem and helping to prevent people from going back to the drug culture when they leave prison is one of the key ways in which we can reduce reoffending.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): One of the most successful intervention projects in my own area has taken young people with a track record of multiple car thefts and involved them instead with work on building and racing stock cars. The wheelbase motor project, at a fraction of the cost involved in keeping
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such young people in prison, has been able to keep them out of prison and out of reoffending. The problem it has faced, however, is access to long-term secure funding. Has the Minister been able to look at how we can take the most successful interventionist projects and give them the security of funding that the voluntary sector often lacks?

Mr. Hanson: I know that the scheme that my hon. Friend mentions is very important. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor has visited the scheme and supports its objectives. I am keen to look at any imaginative scheme that can help to prevent reoffending. As the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), said in answer to Question 1, we are now looking into how we can involve the voluntary sector, the private sector, local government and other agencies in working with the Prison Service and the probation service to add value to our attempts to prevent reoffending. I am particularly interested to look further into the schemes that work. If possible, I will gladly visit the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) to see that scheme in operation next time I am in Nottingham.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): According to the Government’s report “Re-offending of adults”, of those who spend up to a year in prison 70 per cent. reoffend, of those who spend up to two years in prison 49 per cent. reoffend, and of those who spend more than four years in prison only 35 per cent. reoffend. Does the Minister accept that that means that the longer people spend in prison the less likely they are to reoffend, and if he does, why does he keep letting them out early?

Mr. Hanson: I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should increase the length of prison sentences for some crimes of a lower order. What we need to do is what the Government are trying to do—tackle persistent offenders, and consider how to deal with issues relating to drugs, numeracy, literacy and employment.

One of the reasons why lower-level sentences are not working is that people go through a revolving door, but that does not lead me to conclude that we should increase the length of sentences for those serving under 12 months. I take the view that we should consider what we can do to prevent the causes of crime by tackling drug problems, placing people in employment and trying to introduce some order to what are often chaotic lives.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Does the Minister accept that the factors that contribute to reoffending among women are rather different from those that contribute to reoffending among men? One of the most significant factors for women is contact with their children. Does the Minister share my disappointment that the Department’s spending plans for new prisons do not include substantial investment in small units of the kind envisaged in the Corston report, enabling women to stay closer to their children and maintain contact with their families, thus making them less likely to reoffend?

Mr. Hanson: I know that my hon. Friend takes a keen interest in this issue. I am pleased to tell her that we have accepted in principle my noble Friend Lady Corston’s
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recommendation on small units, and that I have asked the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), together with my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), to take work forward over the next six months dealing with how we can make Lady Corston’s wish for small custodial units a reality. We also wish to consider—this is important—what we can do to remove women from custody altogether through community-based sentences for those who commit the low-level crimes referred to by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies).

Donations (Political Parties)

3. Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): What guidance his Department has published on compliance with the law governing donations to political parties. [172660]

4. Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): If he will issue guidance to hon. Members and other members of political parties on the law on donations to political parties. [172661]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): The law relating to donations to political parties is principally set out in part IV and schedules 6 and 7 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Under that Act, it is for the Electoral Commission to issue guidance on the operation of the law. That guidance is available on the commission’s website, www.electoralcommission.org.uk. I have a copy here which I should be happy to pass to the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Would it help if, rather than contemplating more legislation, the Labour party started to observe the law that it passed itself? Can the Secretary of State explain how it is that some trade unions pay the Labour party individual affiliation fees for more than 100 per cent. of their members, and will he advise the trade unions to stop that particular abuse before the police do so?

Mr. Straw: The right hon. Gentleman answered the end of his own question towards the end of his comments. Let me make it clear that there is absolutely no evidence that the trade unions have failed to observe the law, and the requirements made of them under both trade union and electoral law legislation. There was none up to 1998, when the Neill Committee on Standards in Public Life reported. At that stage the Conservatives, in full possession of all the evidence about levels of compliance, said that they had no plans whatsoever to change the law governing trade unions, and the Neill committee said the same. During the Hayden Phillips inquiries, however, we have accepted that changes are necessary, and I accepted that when I spoke in the House last Tuesday.

The test is really for the Conservative party, however. The Conservatives said that they welcomed the publication of Hayden Phillips’s report and accepted his main recommendations: exactly those words were used by the right hon. Members for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and
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for Horsham (Mr. Maude). The question now is whether they will match their promise with undertakings to meet what Hayden Phillips set out.

Mr. Dunne: I listened carefully to the Secretary of State’s answer to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory). Is the Secretary of State seriously condoning the Soviet-style practices of trade unions, which are affiliating more members to the Labour party than they themselves have as members? Many of those members do not have the opportunity to direct where affiliation fees are paid, and many of them vote Conservative.

Mr. Straw: What I can do is congratulate the hon. Gentleman on being able to read an article by Matthew Parris in The Times last Saturday that contained the ridiculous reference to Soviet-style operations. I admire his mimicry, if nothing else. I also say to him, yet again, that when we asked the Electoral Commission whether it had any evidence of a failure to comply with the spirit and the letter of the law in respect of trade union contributions, it said that it had none. The certification officer has reported that over the past 10 years three complaints have been made, only one of which has been upheld. We accept that the law in this area needs to be brought up to date—that has come out through the inquiries by Hayden Phillips in which we have participated—but the question for the Conservative party is whether, having accepted the full gamut of what he proposed, including spending limits at local and national level, it will back fine words with support for this policy.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): We are talking about smoke and mirrors, and funding of political parties. Does my right hon. Friend think that we could be told how Conrad Black got his peerage? Can we be reassured that the reason was nothing so grubby as to involve money? There is no logic as to why even the Conservative party would have asked that man. He does not attend the House of Lords—he soon will not be able to do so—and was not a national of this country, so I want to know why he was preferred over and above the many thousands of Conservative party activists.

Mr. Straw: I am afraid that the Conservative party moves in a mysterious way, and it is not for me to speculate as to those reasons. In our White Paper on House of Lords reform, we committed ourselves clearly to ensuring that the same disqualification rules apply when peers have been convicted of a criminal offence as apply to Members of this House—and the sooner, the better.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, after the Tories introduced legislation enforcing requirements for the trade unions to hold ballots every so many years in order to take part in political donations, that money was clean at the time when Asil Nadir gave £400,000-odd to the Tory party, which never came back? Does he also agree that that trade union money was clean in 1998 when the drug baron in China gave $1 million to the Tory party for a printing press in Reading—money that was never given back? In other words, throughout this period the trade union money has been clean and the bosses’ money to the Tory party has been dirty all the time.

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Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend, as ever, is entirely accurate. The simple truth is that whatever smokescreen the Conservative party now wishes to erect around the issue of trade union money, it was the Conservative party, as he, I and others in this House recall, that sought time after time during the 1980s to change those laws to make it more difficult for trade unions to make contributions to the Labour party. The Conservatives thought that the ballot system would result in trade unions eschewing association with the Labour party, but through democratic voting, it turned out that they were wrong.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Does the Lord Chancellor agree that when these important laws on political donations are broken, ignorance of the law can never be an excuse? Does he further agree that it is even more ridiculous to claim that no intentional wrongdoing has taken place, as some of his party have claimed?

Mr. Straw: What I say to the hon. Gentleman, because I am a generous fellow, is that on this occasion I agree with the Leader of the Opposition. In his press conference on 3 December, he made an important reference, saying that all parties make mistakes and that all of us have done this over the years. So we know that innocent mistakes and mistakes of compliance can be made.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend confirm that any proposed changes to the law on party funding will apply throughout the UK?

Mr. Straw: Almost all electoral law is reserved and therefore any changes will apply throughout the UK.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): It is utterly astounding that the Lord Chancellor talks about the Conservative party when what is in question this afternoon is, as the Prime Minister himself has said at the Dispatch Box, that the Labour party has broken the law. I wonder what the Lord Chancellor is afraid of, because it is he who is hiding behind a smokescreen. The Government make the law and then try to find every possible way to get around it or indeed to break it. Does he accept that it is the Government’s very integrity and trustworthiness that are now at stake? It is his party that has broken the law and brought our democratic process itself into disrepute. It is his party that is in power, so the question is not what we are going to do, but what he is going to do to restore the faith of the British public in our democratic system.

Mr. Straw: I like the hon. Lady and she is held in great affection by the House, but synthetic ranting will not do her much good. It was this Government who established a full-scale inquiry into party funding in 1997 when the Conservatives had refused it for years. We introduced the laws on transparency that have ensured that, when they are transgressed, those failings are exposed. As the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), spelled out when she wound up last Tuesday’s debate, no one on the Labour Benches excuses for a second things that have happened inside the Labour party that we greatly regret. We have made that absolutely
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clear, but my responsibilities are as a member of the Government, and we are proud of the legislation that we have introduced. I hope that there will be backing for what Hayden Phillips proposes, including for changes to the present lack of transparency in respect of unincorporated associations, which include not only the Midlands Industrial Council, which funded the campaign of the shadow Minister of Justice when his constituency of Arundel is miles away from the midlands, but Marginal Magic, which funded the Conservative campaign in Ludlow at the last election.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept that what is required is speedy legislation in the new year in order to stop the sort of abuse by which Lord Ashcroft is trying to buy up marginal constituencies? Is not that the sort of practice that should have stopped in the 19th century and can my right hon. Friend promise us that we will not have to wait too long for such a change in the law?

Mr. Straw: There is certainly an important case for changing the law—if it is possible, although it may not prove so—as Sir Hayden Phillips recommended. I hope that we can gain all-party agreement on that, but it may not be possible. Meanwhile, there are some important questions for the Conservative party to answer in respect of the tax status of some of its major donors. All of us remember last Tuesday when, time and again, the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) gave a carefully crafted but indirect answer to clear questions that were posed to him.

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