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Mr. Hanson: The Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), and I are looking carefully, through the inter-ministerial group on the prevention of reoffending, at what works, and with the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes), through the joint management of the Youth Justice Board, we are considering good practice. The YOTs do a tremendous job. I have seen examples at first hand throughout the country of where they have made real interventions in reducing crime, and I am
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sure that that is true in Portsmouth, where my hon. Friend has taken a great interest in preventing youth crime. I shall certainly be considering whatever good examples hon. Members can produce with a view to putting them into practice throughout the country.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): One of the difficulties of preparing people in prison for life outside is the constant movement of prisoners, which prevents them from completing education and drug treatment courses. Is the situation any better for young offenders than it is for the rest of prison population?

Mr. Hanson: We need to do better on the whole question of drug use and drug treatment for young people. As the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) said, one of the key drivers of youth crime is involvement with drugs, both before entry to prison or youth offending institutions and sometimes, sadly, afterwards. We need to do intensive work on the issue, and I am keen to see how we can build on that. At the moment we are examining drugs policy in young offender institutions.

Donations (Political Parties)

10. Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): What recent representations he has received on compliance with the law on donations to political parties. [172668]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): As far as I am aware, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor has received no representations on compliance with the law on donations in his capacity as Secretary of State for Justice.

Bob Spink: The Minister is a wise lady. Why does she not accept that the law must be upheld even when those breaking it claim ignorance and say that there was no intentional wrongdoing? When will she treat union donors on a par with other donors and get on with the cross-party talks?

Bridget Prentice: We have already been over that ground in some detail, both last week and earlier today. We certainly believe that the law must be upheld. I assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor has already set in train arrangements to meet the other political parties so that cross-party talks can begin again. I hope that the Conservative party will take a more positive attitude than it has during the past couple of months.

Topical Questions

T1. [172647] Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): My principal responsibilities are to help protect victims and the public, to help secure a reduction in offending and reoffending better to support the delivery of justice, to promote a vigorous democracy and to create a culture of rights and responsibilities.

Mr. Dunne: Can the Secretary of State confirm reports that half those who received indeterminate sentences of imprisonment for public protection in 2005 for sexual assault or paedophile offences received
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a tariff of two years or less? Will he also confirm that under his proposed reform those dangerous offenders would no longer be eligible for an IPP and would be released, regardless of the risks that they posed?

Mr. Straw: As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), Home Secretary at the time, has confirmed and as I have noted from Hansard reports of debates in Committee, the House and the other place, when the proposals for indeterminate sentences of imprisonment for public protection went before the House, there was never any suggestion that the IPPs would be used for very short sentences. When the amendments to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill are discussed, we will be able to debate the detail of the issue. I am determined that IPPs should remain available for serious, persistent and dangerous offenders.

I should also say that it is very rare for courts to sentence such offenders for tariffs of less than two years. It must be a matter of concern to Members on both sides of the House, as it is to sentencers and the Parole Board, that inadequacy in the drafting of the legislation has meant that in one case a tariff of 28 days was issued. That is unsatisfactory in terms of public protection. In many other cases, there have been very short tariffs as well.

T2. [172648] Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): Since June, more than 160 offenders, including those convicted for sexual and violent crimes, have been released early from prisons in Norfolk. Why are the Government letting prison capacity rather than the crime dictate the length of sentences?

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): We discussed that issue last Wednesday during the debate on the Carter report. The truth is that all parties have always accepted, albeit implicitly, that prison capacity determines to a degree the overall level of sentences. That is why even the Conservative party, in rather atavistic mood, has eschewed the idea of the Americans, who now sentence people to five times the level of imprisonment in this country.

We are seeking a more rational approach—and I thought that we had the support of the hon. Gentleman’s Front Bench—so that when proposals for changes in sentencing are made in advance, the effect on prison capacity and resources can be properly taken into account. The House and the Government can then make a good judgment about whether to provide the capacity. I should also say that we have already increased the prison population twice as fast as the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported. An extra 20,000 places will be provided in the period to 2014.

T3. [172649] Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Has this splendidly attentive team of Ministers spotted the petition placed on the No. 10 website by my constituent, Richard Ellison, protesting that he and other magistrates must retire from service at the age of 70, irrespective of their capability in continuing to serve their constituents? Do my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench agree that in this day and age, with an EU directive on age discrimination, UK regulations on age discrimination, and the demographic changes that have taken place, it is outdated to rely on an age bar alone?

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Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Absolutely.

Mr. Kidney: We should rely on appraisals instead.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Maria Eagle): The answer to the first part of my hon. Friend’s question is, yes, we have spotted the petition that his constituent has placed on the No. 10 website. He is right that the recent age regulations could be applied to judicial office-holders, including magistrates. We have no plans at present to raise the retirement age, despite the protestations of some of the more venerable Members behind me, but we obviously keep the matter under review.

T4. [172650] Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): Is the Department aware of any prisoners who have been released early in the west country and who have offended again? If the Department or the Prison Service has released any such dangerous prisoners early, what steps are being taken to alert the local police to that possible eventuality?

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): The local police are routinely informed of releases of prisoners, including those released under the end of custody licence scheme. I will write to the right hon. Gentleman with details of those who have been released in his own area of the west country. The end of custody licence scheme simply releases prisoners 18 days earlier than they would otherwise have been released, and they remain on licence during that period. Quite a number have been recalled because of the strength and efficacy of our recall arrangements.

T6. [172652] David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): A couple of weeks ago, a report by Mind entitled “Another assault” revealed that people with mental health problems suffer shockingly high levels of crime and victimisation but are reluctant to report incidents, not least because when they do, in an overwhelming number of cases, they receive a poor service from the criminal justice system. What is being done to increase confidence in the criminal justice system on the part of those who have mental ill-health problems?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Maria Eagle): My hon. Friend is right that there are certain vulnerable groups who find it hard to deal with the criminal justice system when they come into contact with it. He will be aware that we have taken a lot of steps in the past few years to try to support victims of crime and to ensure that we can take them through the criminal justice system in a much more supportive environment than has necessarily been the case in the past. Certainly, victims of crime who have mental ill health would benefit from the work that is being done, but I would be the first to admit that we need to continue to work hard and do more to ensure that victims of crime who are vulnerable for whatever reason, including those who have mental ill health, are properly supported through the system, and we are determined to do that.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): In June, Andrew Mournian was jailed for 20 weeks for battery after attacking his partner, Amanda Murphy.
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He had previous convictions for violence and assault. On 18 August, having been released from jail, Mr. Mournian again attacked Mrs. Murphy, but this time he brutally murdered her. He was convicted last week. It now transpires that Mr. Mournian had been released early from prison under the Government’s end of custody licence scheme, and he killed Mrs. Murphy five days later, when he should have been behind bars. What does the Secretary of State have to say to Mrs. Murphy’s relatives about the Government’s decision to release such offenders early?

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): This was a shameful murder, and as with any murder, our heart goes out to the relatives and friends of the victim. But I hope, since the hon. Gentleman wishes to make something of this terrible incident, that he will take note of what the learned judge—a senior High Court judge, Mrs. Justice Swift—said in her sentencing remarks. When sentencing Mournian to life imprisonment and ordering that he serve a minimum tariff of 14 years, she said that she did not believe that the defendant’s early release had led to Miss Murphy’s death. She went on to say that the defendant would have carried out the attack whenever he was released.

It is a huge matter of regret that this happened at all, but it is extremely difficult, given what the learned judge who heard the details of the case said—and neither the hon. Gentleman nor I have done so—to say that his early release was a contributory factor to this murder.

Nick Herbert: The Secretary of State just told the House that one of his principal duties was to ensure public safety. It will be of no consolation at all to the relatives of Mrs. Murphy to be told by anybody that she might have been murdered at some future point. The fact is that her murderer should have been behind bars at that point. He was not because the Government had failed to provide enough prison places and had released that offender on to the streets, along with, it must be said, 11,000 other offenders, including violent offenders released early—before the end of their sentence and without risk assessment. Lord Carter’s report last week said that end of custody licence—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am always reluctant to stop a Front Bencher, but topical questions are meant to be sharp and brief. If a Front Bencher is going to come in during topical questions, there cannot be long supplementaries. A Front Bencher is the same as everybody else; it is one supplementary, and the hon. Gentleman has gone on to another matter.

Mr. Straw: On the substantive point, I have already answered the hon. Gentleman. We regret the fact that the early custody licence was necessary. On the whole, it has worked to ensure the safety of the public. Of the 11,000 offenders released on to ECL, we have been notified of only 1 per cent. having committed a further offence. That is a much lower rate of reoffending than is found among prisoners normally released.

The second thing that the hon. Gentleman has to appreciate is that these are offenders, whatever crimes they have committed, who would have been released 18 days—two and a half weeks—later. [ Interruption. ] It is not an excuse. Whatever points he wants to make, he has to take account of the remarks made by the
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learned judge in this case. She was convinced that this man would have carried out the attack whenever he was released.

T5. [172651] Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): The Justice Secretary will be aware that more than 2,000 of the 11,000 prisoners released early were serving time for violent offences. Should he not be reviewing the criteria so that absolutely no violent offenders at least are released early from prison?

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): If I may say so, the right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We keep the criteria under continuous review. At the moment, we judge that there are sufficient places. We shall certainly, as a first step, remove any offenders of violence from the list, and my aim is to abandon ECL altogether, once we see that there is space to abandon it safely.

T7. [172653] Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): May I ask my right hon. Friend what the reoffending rates were for Coventry and the west midlands in 1997?

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): Off the top of my head— [ Laughter. ] I keep many figures in my head, but I am afraid to say that the reoffending rates for Coventry and the west midlands are not among them. However, I can tell my hon. Friend that reconviction rates have improved considerably and for prisoners serving over four years— [ Interruption. ] I do not know what the difference between reconviction and reoffending is according to the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes), unless he has a way by which people can be convicted without going to court. The reconviction rate has shown a 13.4 per cent. improvement for those serving sentences of four years or more.

T8. [172654] Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): Does not the Minister realise that there is real concern nationally about the early release scheme? He has confirmed that more than 25,000 offenders will be released every year under this scheme. How many more people are going to be subject to brutal murder or attack unless he acts on this matter?

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): I have answered the burden of the hon. Gentleman’s question. We are talking about a release 18 days before those offenders would have been released in any case. My constituents may be different from his, but ours are a good cross-section of the British people. My constituents are pleased about the fact that crime has gone down by 30 per cent. in the past 10 years, which includes violent crime, while burglary has gone down by 50 per cent. That compares with the terrible record of the Administration whom the hon. Gentleman supported, under whom crime did not go down, even by 1 per cent., but doubled over 18 years.

T9. [172655] Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley) (Lab): Given that the Solicitor-General has said that rape is an incredibly difficult crime to prosecute, how will my right hon. Friend ensure that all parts of the criminal justice system work together to support victims and secure better rates of conviction?

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The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): We are working hard better to improve convictions for rape. The number of offenders who have been convicted of rape has increased significantly. The proportion of those who are brought to court has gone down, however, because of the even bigger increase in the numbers being prosecuted. We are currently running a consultation on “Convicting Rapists”, which was published in the spring, which is looking at all sorts of detail in the process, including whether to allow adult victims of rape to give video-recorded evidence at trial, whether to define in law a rape complainant’s capacity to give consent to sex where drink or drugs are involved and many other matters, because we are all of the same view: we have to improve the conviction rate for this terrible crime.

T10. [172656] Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): According to the Government’s own research,
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40 older people in this country are the victims of elder abuse every hour of every day, whether that be theft or violence against the person in their own home. When will the Government act on the recommendations that the Law Commission made more than 10 years ago and put in place the necessary protections for such vulnerable adults in our society?

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): The Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), is working closely on that, better to ensure that the reports and recommendations of the Law Commission, where they enjoy a consensus throughout the Chamber and in the other place, can be more swiftly enacted than in the past. Since the Law Commission was established in the 1960s, it has done important work, but there is no question but that we need to do better at implementing its recommendations.

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