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House of Commons

Tuesday 11 March 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

foot and mouth disease


Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Detention Facilities

1. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): What recent estimate he has made of the cost of using police and court cells for holding prisoners in 2007-08. [192753]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): The most recent estimate of the cost of holding prisoners in police cells in the financial year 2007-08 is approximately £68 million. During the 2007 calendar year, an average of 181 prisoners a night were held in police cells. Court cells were used to accommodate prisoners overnight between January and June 2007, and again in February this year. Invoices to the value of £1.73 million have to date been paid.

Tom Brake: I thank the Secretary of State for confirming that the cost is indeed very expensive, at £460 a night, which is the price of a family holiday to the Canary islands. Does the Secretary of State not agree that, rather than pressing magistrates to consider non-custodial sentences, which they do already, a more effective way of reducing costs might be look into the care that prisoners with mental health problems receive when they are in prison, which the last report by the chief inspector of prisons described as being

It would enable us to ensure that such care addressed the full range of prisoners’ needs, reducing the risk of their reoffending upon release.

Mr. Straw: If the Liberal Democrats are departing from their support for community sentences, perhaps we should all know.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD) indicated dissent.

Mr. Straw: Apparently that is not the case.

Let me deal with the serious point that the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) raised about the treatment of mentally ill offenders. The chief inspector’s report acknowledges the
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considerable progress we have made in the treatment of mentally ill offenders. We are transferring many more from prisons to more appropriate facilities in the national health service, and since 2003 the NHS has been responsible for health care inside prisons. However, I accept, as I think the whole House does, that we must do more, and we are doing more. In addition, my noble Friend Lord Bradley is currently conducting a major review to see what further imaginative steps we can take to achieve the end that we all want, which is that prison should deal with serious and persistent offenders who do not have serious mental health problems; those who do are better dealt with elsewhere.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I hope that the Secretary of State will be able to look at the costs again. At more than £460, it is almost cheaper to put prisoners in a five-star hotel anywhere in the United Kingdom. That clearly cannot be right. Part of the problem is that it costs, I understand, under £1 to feed a child in school and about £3 to £4 to feed a patient; yet to feed a prisoner in one of those cells costs about £12. Will the Secretary of State look again at the costs associated with keeping prisoners in police cells?

Mr. Straw: I agree with the hon. Gentleman: the costs are too high. Having to use police cells is very much not just a second best, but a third best. I simply say that we use them a great deal less than the Administration that he supported. Of course, he is correct to talk about hotel accommodation, but one can freely leave hotel accommodation.

Mr. Evans: You can leave most cells!

Mr. Straw: For the record, fewer people escaped from prison last year than escaped in a week under the previous Administration in 1992.

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Is it acceptable that yet another weekend has gone by when prisoners from courts on Friday were locked out of their full local prisons to be transported across the country to police and court cells, and then back to court on Monday? Rather than spending the equivalent of a night not just in a four-star hotel, but at the Ritz, on housing prisoners, surely it would be a better use of taxpayers’ money to spend more than £35 million on providing more than 400 new prison places.

Mr. Straw: We have provided additional prison places at twice the rate of the previous Administration—2,000 a year on average, compared with 1,000. None of us believes that the use of police or court cells is acceptable. We want to get prisoners out of them as quickly as possible. However, while the hon. Gentleman’s memory might be short, mine is a little longer. On average, we used 181 police cells a night last year, but the rate was running at 1,100 a night in 1991-92; indeed, back in November 1980, the use of police cells peaked at an astonishing 3,540. I will take lectures from a lot of people, but not from those on the Opposition Front Bench.

2. Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): What consideration his Department has given to acquiring a prison ship. [192754]

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The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): In December last year, we accepted recommendations made by Lord Carter of Coles on prisons, which included the acquisition of a prison ship. We have already made it clear that we intend to commence a new competition for such a vessel.

Angela Watkinson: I thank the Minister for his reply. In October 2006, the Home Office said it was looking for a new prison ship, and in December last year the Secretary of State said that the Ministry of Justice was actively looking to secure a new prison ship. What confidence can we have that this latest effort will not sink without trace, as the last two did?

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Lady should recognise that we have had a competition for a prison ship; I commenced and closed that competition in January this year, because no suitable ships were found. We have commenced a new competition and we will assess the initial market test bids in April this year. If it is economic for the taxpayer—that, I am sure the hon. Lady will agree, should be our criterion—we will start the purchase of such a ship. Our key test, which has not been met to date, is that providing those additional places should be economic for the taxpayer.

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Could that failure to purchase a prison ship have led to this situation in my constituency? A serial robber with more than 100 convictions was able to walk free from an open prison just three years into an 11-year sentence. Will a Minister please agree to meet me to discuss the issue for 15 minutes? It has caused huge concern in my constituency.

Mr. Hanson: I will always happily meet any Member of Parliament about any issue. If the hon. Gentleman had raised the matter with me before he took up the time of the House today, I would have agreed to meet him then. When we do meet, I hope that he will have done his research—looked at the number of absconds and escapes in 1996-97 and compared it with that in 2006-07. He will find that the performance of this Labour Government has been immensely better than that of the Conservative Government. There were 33 category C escapes in the last year of that Conservative Government; there have been only two, to date, in the latest year of this Labour Government. The hon. Gentleman must do his research before bringing his recommendations to me.

Bail Accommodation

3. Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): What his Department’s policy is on housing offenders in bail accommodation; and if he will make a statement. [192755]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): The Government are providing offenders who are eligible for release on home detention curfew but have nowhere to live, and defendants whom the courts decide can safely be bailed, with accommodation and support in the community.

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Mr. Jackson: Unfortunately, ClearSprings Management Ltd has a number of properties in my constituency, which is testament to the disaster of penal policy under the Government. What message does the Minister want to convey to my constituents, given that they see people who should be in prison moving into their neighbourhoods? That has happened without any proper consultation or information for local residents. Is it not time that the Minister reassured the public and that the scheme was scrapped?

Mr. Hanson: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Currently, there are four ClearSprings properties in Peterborough. He knows that there has been consultation with the police, the local probation board and Conservative-controlled Peterborough city council about those properties, but none of them has raised any objections. None of the properties’ neighbours has raised any objections either, and the scheme is working well. The hon. Gentleman has raised objections now during parliamentary questions, but he should discuss the issue with his colleagues at Peterborough’s Conservative city council—they could have stopped the scheme had they raised objections when it was proposed.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that there is very little suitable and safe bail accommodation for women; in fact, many women prefer to be in prison because of the nature of the bail accommodation offered. Does he not agree that more and suitable bail accommodation for women and more support services to go with it are essential?

Mr. Hanson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the purposes of the ClearSprings scheme is to ensure that women in particular can be bailed rather than await their sentences and court hearings in prison. That means that families can stay together and that many children are not taken into care. Ultimately, many of those women may not be given a custodial sentence. The scheme is an economic and efficient use of resources and it helps keep families together. I commend it to the House.

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): The Minister and I have corresponded on the ClearSprings proposals for Bodmin in my constituency. He will be aware that under Government guidelines there should have been consultation with the local authority. That did not take place on this occasion. Will the Minister agree to publish the evidence showing that there is a need for such a facility in Bodmin, and urgently review the instruction he has given ClearSprings to provide it?

Mr. Hanson: From recollection, I should say that I have written to the hon. Gentleman in the past day or so about the scheme that might operate in the North Cornwall constituency. I shall certainly consider his objections. However, the issue remains: if, when ClearSprings proposes a property, the police or the local council object to it being used for such a purpose, it will be withdrawn from the potential use. If North Cornwall district council objects, we will certainly revisit the scheme and examine the hon. Gentleman’s concerns.

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Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): In respect of ClearSprings hostels, particularly the accommodation of offenders on home detention curfew, will the Minister confirm, first, that subject to any risk to the staff working in the hostel there is no exclusion for violent offenders and, secondly, no exclusion for persistent and prolific offenders? If he can confirm both those points, is he surprised that there is a significant level of local opposition to the hostels?

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman will know—I am sure he does—that sex offenders subject to notification requirements under the Sex Offenders Act 1997, violent and sex offenders currently serving an extended sentence, prisoners who fail to comply with curfew orders, fine defaulters, foreign national prisoners, prisoners charged with homicide, causing explosions, possession of offensive weapons, possession of firearms, cruelty to children or racially aggravated offences, among others, are not entitled to home detention curfew. Prisoners who are on such curfew or are on remand in the community rather than taking up valuable prison places are thus prisoners who have committed lower categories of offences. I hope that that will reassure the hon. Gentleman.

Prison Places

4. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): How many additional prison places have been created for young offenders and adult offenders since 1997. [192756]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): An additional 21,000 places have been provided since 1997, of which about 2,500 have been for young offenders.

Miss McIntosh: We learn that prisons are full and that those convicted of burglary and theft will not be given custodial sentences if they are addicted to drugs or other substances. What message are the Government sending to people who have been convicted, and in those circumstances how can he persuade them not to go on and reoffend?

Mr. Straw: I am sorry to tell the hon. Lady that what she says is not correct. The Sentencing Guidelines Council recommendations on certain offenders are intended for consultation. If the hon. Lady or her colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench have comments to make about them, let us receive them. [Interruption.] I have just received some of them. If the hon. Lady goes around prisons now or in six months’ or a year’s time, she will find that a large number of burglars—some prolific, some less prolific—and drug offenders are quite properly there because prison is where they should be. At the same time, however, Conservative Front Benchers have just issued some proposals—the hon. Lady needs to be aware of them—for a “rehabilitation revolution”, so—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): Is it not time that we placed more emphasis on link and support workers so that when prisoners are on release, they have a chance of remaining within their community?
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Currently, 150 prisoners could be released from Holme House prison, yet there are only two link workers, so we would be asking them to do the impossible. We would need fewer prison places if we supported these prisoners more on release.

Mr. Straw: I accept that we have to do more, but we have done a huge amount to improve training within prisons and to improve the link between training, probation and life outside prison; and through offender managers and probation officers we have sought to get serious offenders through prison and then through probation.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Home Secretary about making provision for 20,000 rehabilitation places so that hard drug users aged 18 to 25 can be offered a clear choice: either get rehabilitated and off drugs or go to prison? If we emphasised that if they fail to complete their rehabilitation, they will go to prison, would it not send out a clear message?

Mr. Straw: I have many discussions with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary about drug issues, which are at the root of so much crime—notwithstanding the fact that crime has come down so much over the past 11 years. [Laughter.] It has come down by 30 per cent. across the country, including in nearly every constituency represented by Conservative Members. [Interruption.] Hon. Members should not mock official statistics, which are now under the control of Parliament. Conservative Members are rightly happy to quote statistics against us, but they need to recognise the good work of the police, the probation service and their own local authorities in bringing crime down.

On the hon. Gentleman’s specific point, orders are already provided to courts by which precisely the choice that he mentions is given to drug users and drug offenders. The difficulty is not in laying down the law, but in ensuring that these people who lead very chaotic lives get the point. The reason the number breaching probation has gone up from 300 in 1997 to 5,000 today is partly the enforcement of such orders.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): At 40 per cent. less cost, community sentencing can deal with four times the number of people who are in prison. We know that community sentencing is 14 per cent. more successful in terms of the reoffending rate. Should we not be looking at extending community sentencing, rather than increasing prison places?

Mr. Straw: We have to do both. We need to provide, and we are providing, an increase in prison places at a faster rate than has happened before. Alongside that, we are greatly strengthening the provision of probation. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State announced this morning an additional £40 million of funding for probation.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): In January, the Ministry of Justice claimed that the

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How many of those 2,500 places are the shortfall on the failure to deliver on the 2,500 places promised for 2007 by the then Prime Minister, Mr. Blair? What prospect is there of their being delivered, given that the latest statistics suggest that, since December last year, the number of prison places has in fact fallen by one?

Mr. Straw: The number of prison places has not fallen by one, I assure the hon. and learned Gentleman, because we continue to ensure maximum safe use of existing accommodation. In addition, last year, 1,522 places were provided; this year, he is right to say, we are providing about 2,500 additional places. We will continue to provide additional places up to the net 96,000 by 2014.

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