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Peers (Disqualification)

10. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): If he will bring forward proposals to disqualify from membership of the House of Lords those peers who are not UK residents for tax purposes. [182475]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): The Government are developing proposals on disqualification criteria as part of their comprehensive package on Lords reform. A cross-party group is currently considering that and other matters, and its views will be reflected in a White Paper on Lords reform to be published in due course.

Mr. Gordon Prentice: I hear what my friend says, but is it not an absolute disgrace and a scandal that people such as Lord Laidlaw, a Conservative peer and donor who is a tax exile in Monaco, are serving in this Parliament? For all I know, there may well be others. Is this not a matter of urgency? I appreciate what my friend said about the forthcoming White Paper on Lords reform, but the issue has to be tackled. People outside this place would be incredulous that people who do not pay our taxes are making our laws.

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Bridget Prentice: I may not speak with the same passion as my hon. Friend on this subject, but I can tell him that the Government believe that Members of the House of Lords should pay tax in the United Kingdom. As I told him when he introduced his private Member’s Bill on Friday, we are prepared to endorse the principles behind it. If amendments are tabled in Committee to deal with this matter, we will be more than prepared to consider them.

Female Convicts

12. Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): What recent consideration he has given to changing the types of establishment in which female convicts are detained. [182477]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Maria Eagle): The Government’s response to the Corston report makes a commitment to consider the future of the women’s custodial estate. A project has been set up to examine Baroness Corston’s recommendation that the women’s estate should be replaced with smaller, geographically dispersed custodial units. I hope that that project will report to Ministers in April.

Annette Brooke: Can the Minister give some indication of the time scale? The Corston review was published about nine months ago, and can be contrasted with the Carter review, which recommended the expansion of male prisons. It seems as if all the available money is being targeted at the men, while women are being left in conditions that are totally unsuitable, given that 70 per cent. of female prisoners have mental health conditions.

Maria Eagle: I do not accept that—and the figures that I have suggest that 80 per cent. of female prisoners, rather than 70 per cent., have diagnosable mental ill health. The hon. Lady is not right to suggest that the approaches are separate. There is no doubt that the work that we are doing through the project to which I referred, which will establish more detail about how the reconfiguration of the women’s estate would work, as well as how smaller units would work and the extent to which they would be appropriate, will inform our estate strategy. Lord Carter referred in his report to the need to ensure that investment under that programme is made in such a way that it can assist in ensuring that women are not disadvantaged in the custodial system. The hon. Lady has made it clear that the needs of women are often different, and I agree with her. That is why I am the ministerial champion whose role is to ensure that we implement in a sensible way the 40 of the 43 recommendations in Baroness Corston’s report that we have accepted. These approaches can go hand in hand.

Rape Victims

14. Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): What steps he is taking to ensure that victims of rape are adequately supported and protected by the criminal justice system. [182479]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Maria Eagle): We are extending the network of sexual assault referral centres, which are piloting the use of
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independent sexual advisers to provide advocacy and support for victims, and providing funding for voluntary organisations to support victims of sexual violence. We have also introduced specialist police officers and prosecutors who can provide support to victims and help to make sure that rape is properly prosecuted.

Mr. Bailey: During the past 10 years, the number of reported rapes has more than doubled, but the number of prosecutions has remained obstinately low at under 6 per cent. One of the main reasons for that is the failure of many women to pursue prosecutions. Will the Minister outline a little further what is being done to encourage and support women to do that?

Maria Eagle: I think that the figure that my hon. Friend mentioned refers to the conviction rate, rather than the prosecution rate. He is correct, however, that attrition—complainants withdrawing their complaints—is one of the main reasons why those conviction rates are still unacceptably low. The cross-government action plan on sexual violence and abuse focuses on increasing the level of support that the criminal justice system gives to victims to enable them to take their complaints forward, to ensure that we get more convictions. The sexual referral centres deal with that process. There were only five of them in 2001, and there should be at least 36 by the end of this financial year. The independent sexual violence advisers, who currently work in 38 areas, can give support and advocacy to ensure that complainants proceed through what is often a difficult process to make sure that there are convictions. For the convictions that do occur, the average length of sentences has increased. In 1984 the average length was just under two years, but by 2005 it had increased to just under seven years. It is worth ensuring that we send a signal, locally and nationally, that sexual assault and violence will not be tolerated in our society.

Topical Questions

T1. [182491] Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): If he will make a statement on his Department's responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): I have today issued a written ministerial statement on a new structure for the Ministry of Justice. The key changes will take place in the National Offender Management Service—NOMS—where Her Majesty’s Prison Service and the probation system will be brought together under a streamlined headquarters and regional structure to improve the focus on front-line delivery in prisons and probation, and to improve efficiency.

Mr. Evennett: Last year, almost 61,000 prisoners were held in police cells throughout the country at a cost of almost £460 a night. Lord Carter’s review recommends the extension of Operation Safeguard to help to relieve prison overcrowding. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the £28 million black hole will not be extended, that public money will not continue to be wasted, and that police officers will be able to police rather than becoming part-time prison officers?

Mr. Straw: On the latter point, that practice is paid for out of overtime, which is one of the reasons for the high cost, so there is no evidence that it is detracting from the availability of officers on the ground. The
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hon. Gentleman will know that crime has decreased consistently in his constituency. In the Metropolitan police area alone, an additional 3,500 officers have begun work during the past 10 years. As for police cells, we are working hard to ensure that there is sufficient supply to cope with demand so that we do not have to use them. Although I understand the concern, the last people entitled to complain about the situation are members of the Conservative party, which consistently used police cells to a much greater extent than we have ever done, or are likely to do. Under the Conservatives, this practice peaked with 3,500 cells being used in one particular month.

T2. [182492] Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): Believing that prison sentencing should reflect the crime committed and not prison capacity, my constituents do not want incompetence from this Government when they plan prison expansion. In his statement to the House on the Carter prison review, the Secretary of State said that it would cost £1.2 billion to provide an additional 10,500 places by 2014. Why, then, when questioned by the Justice Committee, did he say that the cost would be nearly double that?

Mr. Straw: I have explained in some detail to the Select Committee, and, indeed, in a further letter to the Chair of the Committee, that the £1.2 billion related to the current comprehensive spending review period—I had thought that that was obvious to anybody—with some additional funding to cover the purchase of the land for the so-called titan prisons. No Government have ever been able to give precise estimates of expenditure for the following spending period. That is why the total cost, including some element for capital receipts—although that is open to a wide margin of error—is estimated to be £2.3 billion.

T4. [182494] Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): On the day when my right hon. Friend has made a further announcement about the creation of a regional structure in England, does he agree that it is high time to make progress on regional Select Committees in England, to hold regional Ministers and bodies to account?

Mr. Straw: As my hon. Friend will realise, that is a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House. I know that extensive consultation is taking place on it. Let me make it clear that the changes in the structure that I have announced today will apply to the operation of the probation service and the Prison Service in Wales, too, for which I am also responsible. We propose that there should be a single regional manager for both prisons and probation in Wales.

T3. [182493] Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): In the words of the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), Sutton magistrates court

With the clustering of courts now proceeding, and Sutton magistrates court losing staff to Croydon, making it more difficult to access files and pushing up overhead costs, will the Secretary of State reconfirm that there is no planned closure of the court?

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Mr. Straw: As the hon. Gentleman knows, closure was considered under a proposal made in 2002. A final decision was made by my then hon. Friend Christopher Leslie, who was a Minister in the Department for Constitutional Affairs, and announced at the beginning of 2006. I am not aware of any plans for closure now. If there are any, I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman is made fully aware of them quickly.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): The Justice Secretary says that today’s reorganisation of his Department will provide a sharper focus on reducing reoffending. Yet he also plans to bar voluntary groups from working with prisoners on Friday evenings. Is locking prisoners in overcrowded cells from Friday afternoons to Monday mornings what the Government mean by end-to-end offender management?

Mr. Straw: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will decide to welcome the changes, which build on those that have been in train for the past 10 years. They have brought prisons and probation closer together and ensured that we have a much more effective Prison Service. The issue is whether we are ensuring, through the Prison Service and the probation service, that as well as suffering proper punishment, more offenders are trained so that they do not reoffend when they leave prison. The record on that is clear. The changes to the week are the result of financial constraints, but the question for Conservative Members is whether they would increase spending on prisons, as well as the rest of public spending. [Hon. Members: “You’re in government.”] We are in government, but they claim to be an alternative Government, and they need to put up or be quiet on the matter.

Nick Herbert: The right hon. Gentleman has just confirmed that he is locking up prisoners over weekends to cut spending. How can he justify wasting more than £1 billion of taxpayers’ money on the National Offender Management Service—an organisation that he has, after only three years of its existence, effectively scrapped in all but name?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman had good notice of my statement, but he obviously has not read it. The claim that we are scrapping NOMS is the opposite of the truth. I know that he was hoping for that, and I am sorry to disappoint him. The money invested in NOMS has worked well to ensure that reoffending is decreasing. There is a much greater focus on education, leading to a dramatic increase in training prisoners, and drug rehabilitation funding has increased tenfold. For the first time since the war, a Government have presided over not an increase in crime but a major reduction in crime throughout the country.

T8. [182498] Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Can we have a review of the law relating to wills? How is it that all our wills will be disclosed and subject to public scrutiny, but those of the royal family are not? By what logic or fairness are the wills of the royal family covered up? What are the limits to the royal family? Presumably we are all ultimately members of the royal family, but I would like to know where the boundaries lie. There might be an exception for the Head of State, but not for all the others. It is time the system was
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modernised and democratised, and I expect this Labour Government to do something radical for a change. How about it?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): I certainly am not a member of the royal family—indeed, under the current law I doubt whether I would ever be allowed to be one. And I am going to disappoint my hon. Friend further, by saying that there is a long-standing convention that allows the president of the family division to decide whether the wills of the royal family should be open for inspection. My hon. Friend may wish to take that up with the president of the family division, because unfortunately, we have no plans to change the law in that respect.

T5. [182495] Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): On 16 January the Prime Minister said that the Bail Act 1976 was to be reviewed and that

However, in his speech to the Parole Board earlier this month, the Secretary of State said that there Can the Secretary of State confirm that a review is taking place, and say whether there are any plans to change the law?

Mr. Straw: There is no inconsistency at all between what I said and what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said. The point that I was making to the Parole Board, which I shall repeat now, is that judicial decision makers, whether they be magistrates or judges, have an extraordinarily difficult job to do in predicting the future behaviour of offenders, on the best evidence available and in the context of a general presumption, from which I hope the Opposition do not resile, that people are innocent until they are found guilty. The Opposition may sometimes forget that, but it is rather fundamental to the operation of our law. What I am doing is looking in a measured way at whether we should take further steps to strengthen the law in that respect, particularly in the light of the Weddell case, and I am happy to take representations from all parts of the House on that.

T6. [182496] Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): Can the Secretary of State for Justice explain why a patient in an NHS hospital has only £3 a day spent on their food, yet a criminal locked up in a police cell has £12 a day spent on food? Will the Secretary of State enlighten us as to why the figure is four times more for a criminal in a cell?

Mr. Straw: As ever, the hon. Gentleman, who comes from the same great county as I do, asks an important question. The issue is an interesting one, and I shall revert to him and the House on the matter.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State give the House an assurance that financial constraints will not mean a cut in education in prisons? Education plays a key role in ensuring that former prisoners do not reoffend.

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The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): I shall certainly try to give my hon. Friend that assurance, because education is crucial in both developing the skill levels of individuals in prison and preparing them for life outside prison. She will know that there are many good education schemes in prisons in London, which are designed to link prisoners with employers outside and to try to ensure that they have proper employment opportunities at the end, because employment is key to reducing reoffending.

T7. [182497] John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): Will the Secretary of State give an indication of the time scale in which he hopes to bring forward future developments in moving towards a fully elected House of Lords?

Mr. Straw: All-party talks are currently taking place, which I am pleased to say are proceeding pretty well, and a White Paper reflecting them will be published, I very much hope, before the summer.

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): The Lord Chancellor may recall that when he was Leader of the House, I raised with him the issue of suicide websites and was grateful for the sympathetic response that he gave. I raised the issue following the suicide of a teenage constituent, where there was evidence that he had been influenced in taking his own life by so-called suicide websites, which actively encourage people to commit suicide. Following the terrible news about a dozen young people in Wales who had taken their own lives, where there may have been a link through the internet, it is
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encouraging to know that the Government are looking to take action. Will the Secretary of State tell us precisely what is proposed, and when we might expect such websites to be banned?

Mr. Straw: I applaud the hon. Gentleman for raising this terrible issue. Our hearts go out to the families of the children who have committed suicide in these circumstances. We are grateful to have his support, and we are actively looking at what we can do to control those websites. There are inherent difficulties, because many of them are based overseas, but we want to take action as quickly as we can. I have just been passed a note to say that the Law Commission, which has also been looking into the issue, has made recommendations that the Government are considering.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): In the light of the Prison Governors Association’s report, which excoriates the performance of private firms involved in the management of prisons, will the Minister encourage the involvement of in-house teams to run the three titan super-prisons planned for the years to come?

Mr. Hanson: My hon. Friend will know that we are examining in detail how to progress the concept and principles of titan prisons. He will also know that we are expecting shortly to produce a consultation paper outlining a number of issues, including location, management and the potential competition for the sites, either in the public or in the private sector. I hope to be able to make announcements, with my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor, on these matters shortly.

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