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Data Protection

4. John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): What consideration his Department has given to bringing forward proposals to strengthen data protection. [182469]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): The Ministry of Justice is considering how to take forward proposals to enable the Information Commissioner to inspect all public sector organisations without prior consent, the introduction of new funding arrangements for his office and new penalties under the Data Protection Act 1998 for the most serious breaches of data protection principles. We will be launching a consultation on those issues soon, and will take whatever action is necessary as a result of the reviews being carried out by Sir Gus O’Donnell, Kieran Poynter, Dr. Mark Walport and Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner.

John Barrett: I thank the Minister for that answer, but given that in the past eight years about five laptops have disappeared every month from a single Department, the Ministry of Defence, does he agree that the time is now right to consider the Liberal Democrat proposals to make reckless handling of data a criminal offence—proposals that the Government dismissed out of hand at the time?

Mr. Wills: As I said, we are looking at how to take measures forward, and considering new legislation will be part of that. We are in active discussion with the Information Commissioner about how best to do so.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): The Minister will be aware that many schemes for shared services are going forward throughout Whitehall. Given that, in the case of the Department for Transport, that would mean incorporating very large amounts of data, will he bear in mind that that is not always the best way to organise one’s affairs?

Mr. Wills: The hon. Lady is right to be cautious—

Mrs. Dunwoody: Actually, I am a Friend.

Mr. Wills: Sorry—my hon. Friend. I am extremely grateful to her for reminding me of that fact. She will recognise that there are huge benefits in data sharing to citizens and everyone who uses public services, but of course we must be cautious about everybody’s right to privacy and the security of data. That is precisely why we asked Dr. Mark Walport and Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, to conduct a review. They will report within the next few months.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): Following on from the previous question, does the Minister agree that the greater the centralisation of data and the more personal data collected, the more valuable they are to criminals and terrorists? Is he looking to the increase that one would expect in hacking and the possibility—it
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has already happened with records in this country—of huge bribes being paid? Once the data are gone, the horse has bolted from the stable.

Mr. Wills: As I have just said, there are clearly important issues of principle that predate the recent and very regrettable incidents that have taken place. There is no question but that there is a serious problem with the way that data are kept in both the private and the public sector. That is not specific to the public sector, and it is to do with the changing way that records are kept electronically, which has changed dramatically in the past 10 to 15 years. Both the private and the public sector must change the way that they do business in order to keep up with that. That is precisely what we are doing and why we have had the reviews. To suggest, however, that there is no case for keeping any data at all ever is simply incredible.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I am pleased to hear what the Minister said about some of the things that the Government are thinking of doing, now that they have been proved to be so incompetent in the handling of secure data, but I wonder why the Minister is still dithering. There is a Bill in the House of Lords—the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill—into which amendments could be inserted that would deal with the matter by creating an offence of recklessly mishandling data. The Minister could do that right now, instead of holding more reviews and thinking about it. I am delighted that he said that the Information Commissioner is to have greater powers. I hope that means that the Information Commissioner will be able to undertake spot checks of Government Departments—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady should be asking a supplementary question, not making a speech. Perhaps the Minister can reply.

Mr. Wills: Speaking personally, I am always happy to listen to the hon. Lady for as long as she wants to talk. However, may I point out to her that we are already introducing legislation to deal with the offence of knowingly and recklessly misusing data. I remind her that it was this Government who brought in the Data Protection Act 1998 and who have continued to make sure that it is updated and meeting the needs of the circumstances. I remind her that her party showed so little interest in the matter that it was not mentioned in their 2001 manifesto or in their 2005 manifesto. I am delighted that the Conservatives are now taking an interest in it and I hope she will support the measures that we are introducing to deal with those issues.

Courts Staff (Pay)

5. Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): What progress has been made on the introduction of regional pay rates for courts staff; and if he will make a statement. [182470]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Maria Eagle): Five regional pay ranges were implemented for staff joining Her Majesty’s Courts Service with effect from 1 August 2007. Existing staff have been given the option of taking up a four-year pay deal,
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including the five regional pay ranges, or remaining on existing terms and conditions. We expect 95 per cent. of staff to opt for the new arrangement.

Mr. Illsley: My hon. Friend will be aware that there is a great deal of disappointment among court staff at the introduction of a system of pay that is divisive and unfair—an old-fashioned and discredited form of regional pay. Let me give a couple of examples to show why the system is unfair. Staff in Sheffield are paid at a different rate from those in Leeds, and staff in both cities are paid at different rates from the pay in Liverpool and Manchester. Another example is that court staff at Mold Crown court are paid at an enhanced rate of pay simply because that is the headquarters of the regional manager.

Maria Eagle: The last point that my hon. Friend made is not an accurate reflection of the differences between Mold and Wrexham. Regional pay is a reality which Her Majesty’s Courts Service is reacting to, not creating. Ninety per cent. of staff have opted into the deal that is set out in the new arrangements. The aim is to create a single set of conditions to replace more than 50 existing schemes that Her Majesty’s Courts Service inherited when it came into being, in order to address three issues—recruitment and retention, low pay, and rewarding good performance. One in four staff, a majority in the lowest grades, will see a 20 per cent. increase in their pay over the next four years. That is a good thing, and the staff are voting with their feet and opting in.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Could the Minister tell the House why differential pay rates based on gender are, rightly, unlawful and absolutely wrong, but differential pay rates based on geography seem to be a good idea?

Maria Eagle: The Courts Service is reacting to regional pay, not creating it. Such pay is based on local labour markets and jobs available in the relevant area; there is no discrimination based on anything other than the local realities. Recruitment, retention and being able to do the job that the Courts Service is there to do are the basis of the arrangements. So far, 90 per cent. of staff have opted into them.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend have another look to see whether it is possible to withdraw the lowest regional pay range? I do not know whether she is aware that—in Wales, certainly—the majority of court workers affected are women. The wages of people in Wales are already lower than those in the rest of the UK, and that sort of proposal makes it much more difficult to close the prosperity gap.

Maria Eagle: I am always happy to look at things when Members suggest that I do so, and I will do so. However, I reiterate that 90 per cent. of staff have already opted into the arrangements. Built into those arrangements is an intention over the next four years to increase the lowest pay rates significantly over other pay rates. We will do that. The arrangements will improve pay for those on the lowest bands more than for those at higher levels.

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Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): The Minister will know that the company Serco provides staff for Crown courts and magistrates courts across the London area. Those staff bring prisoners to court and then up from the cells into the dock. Is the Minister aware that courts in London are in some chaos at the moment because Serco appears to be dreadfully understaffed, not having enough people to do the job properly? Is that because the company is not efficient enough, or are the Government simply not paying the proper rate to get a proper job done?

Maria Eagle: The arrangements are contracted. Serco has standards to meet; if the hon. Gentleman is saying that those standards are not being met, I shall be happy to look into specific instances that have been brought to his attention. However, the arrangements are made on the basis of a contract and as far as I am aware, they are working well.

Freedom of Information Act

6. Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): What plans he has to bring forward amendments to the Freedom of Information Act 2000. [182471]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): The Freedom of Information Act 2000 has now been in force for three years and appears to be working well, although we keep it under continuous review. We are not proceeding with amendments to the fees regulation. However, we are consulting on whether to extend FOI coverage to a range of organisations that are in the private sector, but carry out public functions. An independent review of the 30-year rule is under way and due to report this summer.

Norman Baker: I welcome that response, and agree with the direction of travel that the Secretary of State is taking. Does he agree that it is a nonsense that the British Potato Council is covered by the 2000 Act but private water companies, which provide an essential and monopolistic service, are not? Furthermore, the British Railways Board, which simply exists in a cosy corner somewhere, is covered, but Network Rail is not. Will he sort that out?

Mr. Straw: I fully understand the hon. Gentleman’s point and thank him for his earlier remarks. As the boundary between the public and private sectors for the delivery of what are essentially public services has moved, so we believe that the arrangements should move as well. That is why we are consulting on the matter.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Would the Secretary of State consider amendments to the 2000 Act that would protect the public’s right to the information but guard against repeated, petty and often exorbitant requests that are made frequently and do nothing to add to freedom of information?

Mr. Straw: There is already a large array of safeguards in the Act and within the practice of the Information Commissioner. If the hon. Gentleman has specific examples of concern to him, I am ready to follow them up, including with the commissioner.

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Redditch Prison

7. Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): What discussions he has had over his merging of Her Majesty’s Prisons Blakenhurst, Hewell Grange and Brockhill as HMP Redditch. [182472]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): The Prison Service discussed the merger internally, with staff associations and trade unions, and consulted a number of agencies, including Worcestershire county council, over the change of name to HMP Redditch. Following representations, I have agreed to an extended consultation on the name of the site; the deadline for submissions is 1 March.

Miss Kirkbride: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. As he will be aware, the three prisons that are to be called HMP Redditch reside in the Bromsgrove local authority area and the Bromsgrove parliamentary constituency. Could he be clearer about whether he consulted his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, in his sister Department, on the decision to call the prison HMP Redditch, which has been controversial in the neighbouring seat?

Mr. Hanson: As I said, the consultations took place with people who work in the prison, the local council—Worcestershire county council—and a number of other agencies. Following representations from Redditch borough council, Bromsgrove borough council, the hon. Lady and the Secretary of State for the Home Department, my right hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), I have decided to allow for a further period of consultation on the name of the proposed cluster of prisons. I think that that is fair, and I hope that the hon. Lady will welcome it, examine it in detail and give us her response before 1 March.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): Reading today’s written statement from the Secretary of State, it seems that it is not just these three prisons that are being merged. Whatever the merits of the Redditch decision, will the Minister specify three steps that he has taken since 1 January that will expeditiously improve public safety, cut reoffending, reduce prison overcrowding and deal with the public perception that the only thing that we hear from within the Ministry of Justice is the scraping of deckchairs around the decks of the Titanic?

Mr. Hanson: The hon. and learned Gentleman does himself a disservice. He knows that we are putting the greatest resources into new prison places in the history of Government, that we will put in place 16,000 extra prison places between now and 2011-12, and that we are securing a greater reduction in reoffending than ever there was under the Conservative Government. On the question of HMP Redditch, or whatever we finally agree to call it following the consultation, I would say to him that the clustering will save £650,000 in the next financial year and £860,000 in the financial year after that. As regards efficiencies, we are acting on them while he is simply talking about them.

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Private Sector Prisons

8. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What recent representations he has received on the performance of prisons run by private sector organisations. [182473]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): Since 9 May 2007, I have received a number of submissions in relation to the performance of prisons run by private sector organisations. I am also provided with regular updates on the performance of private prisons through the independent monitoring board reports and the National Offender Management Service quarterly reports.

David Taylor: Private prisons have been an utter disaster, with abject assessments on the key requirements of security, maintaining order and reducing reoffending. No wonder 90 per cent. of them languish in the lowest poor performance quartile of the 132 jails in England and Wales: see early-day motion 752. Why is this track record of private contractors allowed to continue, with the love affair with the profit motive producing environments that the chief inspector of prisons, no less, describes as

Mr. Hanson: I know that my hon. Friend has some reservations, dare I say it, with regard to the private prison sector, but I would say to him that direct comparisons between public and private sector establishments on the scorecard are not appropriate and that private prisons are providing a valuable function in the custodial estate. He will know that we are looking at a new assessment framework to see how we can drive up standards in both the public sector and the private sector. I hope that he will share the Government’s aspiration to ensure that we undertake proper assessment and tackle underperformance where it exists.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): What is the quality of the provision made in private prisons for education, training, skills and rehabilitation so that more people come out of prison able to enter a proper responsible life outside prison? It is important that those facilities be provided. What is the level and quality of that provision in our private prisons?

Mr. Hanson: I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a great interest in this matter, which is important because the quality of education, training and employment can affect the prospects for limiting reoffending when people leave prison. I recently visited Parc prison, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon), and other private prisons, where significantly good work is going on to match employers with offenders, to look at investment in training, to ensure that people are prepared for life outside prison, and to help to reduce reoffending. There will always be variations in the level of provision and variations between some private prisons and some public prisons. The job of Government is to drive up quality throughout the public and private sectors to achieve the end that the hon. Gentleman shares with us.

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Northumbria Probation Service

9. Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the likely effect of budget changes on services provided by Northumbria probation service. [182474]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): Northumbria’s probation budget will increase by more than 2 per cent. in 2008-09. The regional offender manager and probation staff are examining the service levels based on that increase.

Mr. Anderson: Is the Minister aware that the probation service has said that it expects a 5.31 per cent. deficit by March 2011? That could impact on the service offered to offenders, and lead to the loss of 24 posts. It could mean that 24 trainee probation officers are not put in post, which would be a waste of £800,000 of public money. There are also threats to employees’ terms and conditions. Is that what the Minister meant when he met me last year to say that things were going to get better?

Mr. Hanson: I say to my hon. Friend—I hope that he will accept this—that this year Northumbria’s budget will increase from more than £25.484 million to more than £25.995 million, which is an increase of more than 2 per cent. Northumbria has been able to recruit 24 trainee probation officers. The national staffing levels in the probation service have risen by more than 49 per cent. from more than 13,000 to more than 20,000 in the past 10 years of Labour Government. The number of staff in post in Northumbria stands at 644, and the regional offender manager and the probation service will try to live within the 2 per cent. increase for next year. I met my hon. Friend in Northumbria during the summer, and I am happy to meet him again to discuss the issues should he so wish.

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