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Prison Building Programme

10. Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): What his most recent assessment is of progress on the prison building programme. [Official Report, 18 March 2008, Vol. 473, c. 6MC.][192762]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): The Government have announced a programme to provide an additional 20,000 prison places and increase overall capacity to just over 96,000 by 2014. As I explained, the programme has already provided 1,746 places, and it will provide about another 2,500 places this year.

Mr. Hands: Why are the Government pressing ahead with titan prisons? All my experience as a former prison visitor at Her Majesty’s Prison Wormwood Scrubs, which is an enormous establishment, suggests that local and smaller prisons are far more likely to reduce reoffending and increase rehabilitation.

Mr. Straw: What we also know, from the Carter report and much other experience both in the UK and in the United States, is that we must balance the issue of smaller prisons—I understand that they are desired, but they are not desired in the communities in which we may wish to put them—and the practicalities of being able to find fewer but larger sites for large prisons. What we are also determined to do, as we are doing with the cluster on the Isle of Sheppey and we will do with that in the Bromsgrove-Redditch area, is to ensure
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that within the perimeters we improve efficiency by merging back office functions and ensuring that there are different regimes for different categories of prisoner.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): One of the problems we face in south Wales is the lack of capacity in Welsh prisons, which means that many prisoners end up going to prisons further afield—in England—and it is very difficult for families and friends to visit. Can the Justice Secretary say what plans he has to increase the capacity of prisons in Wales? Does he find that many local authorities tend towards nimbyism and very much fight against having local prisons?

Mr. Straw: The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), has both responsibility for prisons and the privilege of representing a Welsh constituency. He is on the case, consulting widely with a view to ensuring that additional prison capacity is available in Wales.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): A not insignificant number of prison places are taken up by foreign prisoners who have completed their sentences. When I tabled a number of questions to the Secretary of State on the number of such prisoners in, for example, Bullingdon prison, the questions were transferred to the Home Office. Surely the Secretary of State for Justice has a real interest in ensuring that foreign prisoners who have completed their sentences are removed from prison and deported. The fewer places they take up, the less pressure there will be to build new prisons.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman is right that I have a very real interest in that. There are many spirited conversations between my officials and those at the Home Office, and between the Home Secretary and me, about ensuring that time-sentenced foreign national prisoners are removed from the country as quickly as possible by deportation or administrative means. That said, it happens that since they then become the responsibility of the Border and Immigration Agency, it falls to the Home Office to answer detailed statistical questions.


11. Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): What measures he has put in place to increase co-operation with other Government Departments to improve the rehabilitation of offenders. [192763]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): The new public service agreements, in particular those on making communities safer and on socially excluded adults, provide important levers to support a cross-Government focus on offender rehabilitation and reducing reoffending. To provide strategic direction for that work, and to promote an effective cross-Government partnership response, the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), and I chair a reducing reoffending interministerial group, which includes Ministers from 15 Departments.

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Nia Griffith: Will the Minister talk to colleagues in the Department of Health about making treatment and support available at all GPs’ surgeries to ex-offenders who have drug-related problems, instead of forcing vulnerable people to travel a long way to centres, en route to which they can be ambushed by drug pushers who are lying in wait for them?

Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We will certainly ensure that we try to support people leaving prison who have a history of using drugs while in prison and before. That is important to the reducing reoffending agenda. Ministers in both the Department of Health and the National Assembly for Wales sit on the interministerial group that I chair. We are considering positive solutions to ensure that we integrate care, so that offenders who leave prison have the support that they need to help them to reduce their reoffending behaviour.

Topical Questions

T1. [192743] Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): This morning I published the report of Her Majesty’s chief inspectors of court administration, of the police and of the Crown Prosecution Service on the historical problems at Leeds magistrates court. I said in an accompanying written ministerial statement that the inspectorate’s report painted a lamentable picture of the historical failure there with regard to court adjudications, most of which occurred between 2001 and 2004. I drew the House’s attention to the fact that, since April 2005, the control and management of the magistrates court service has no longer been a matter for autonomous local magistrates courts committees but one for Her Majesty’s Courts Service, which was established under the Courts Act 2003.

Mr. Chaytor: My right hon. Friend will recall the substantial vote last March in favour of a wholly elected upper House. What progress is he making towards implementing proposals for the reform of the upper House? Does he agree that the question of the voting system in that House cannot be entirely dissociated from the debate about the future voting system for this House?

Mr. Straw: On the progress of the reform of the other place, I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that we have a cross-party group, including representatives of the Opposition Front Bench, the Liberal Democrats, the Cross Benchers and the Lords Spiritual. It is making good progress within the clear mandate set by this House for a second Chamber that is either 100 per cent. or 80 per cent. elected.

The voting system is a matter of great debate among parties, and my hon. Friend and I might have slightly different views on the matter.

T2. [192744] Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): There is growing concern about the explicit details on so-called suicide websites about methods that can be used. What steps can the Government take to control the content of such sites and restrict access to them?

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Mr. Straw: We are as concerned as my hon. Friend, her constituents and people across the country about these appalling websites. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), is looking into the matter urgently. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) will know, dealing with websites—particularly if the servers are abroad—is technically difficult, but we aim to do our best in those circumstances and to make an announcement as quickly as possible.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): May I bring the Secretary of State back to a previous answer that he gave to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon)? There seems to be an inherent contradiction between on the one hand praising the effectiveness of community sentences, as well as the perfectly sensible remarks made by the Secretary of State at the Guardian criminal justice summit, which have been rather unfairly criticised, and on the other hand announcing that more and bigger prisons will be built. Does the Secretary of State not accept that important lessons can be learned from countries such as Denmark, where the crime rate is equivalent to that in this country but the incarceration rate is much lower and the success rate for prisoner rehabilitation is much higher?

Mr. Straw: We want to learn from the experiences of countries across the world. It just happens, for all sorts of reasons, that Denmark has a lower prison population per head than we do. The crucial test of a penal policy should not be the arbitrary figure of the number of prisoners per head of population, but whether the overall policies are working to make our communities safer and to reduce levels of victimisation. I have put the Government’s record in perspective. There is the lowest level of victimisation since the British crime survey was established by the Conservatives in 1981. Crime has come down, but there are still many serious violent and persistent offenders at large. Telling our constituents whether the overall aggregate record is down or up serves no purpose if they have been the victim of a crime.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Reoffending?

Mr. Straw: Reoffending is also greatly improving, and I note that the Conservative party promises to cut 12,000 prison places through its so-called rehabilitation revolution. However, we will learn from anybody.

T4. [192746] John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): The unnecessary staking of headstones in graveyards across the country by zealous burial authorities continues apace. Is there any good news on progress towards issuing some appropriate health and safety guidance so that we can get rid of that monstrosity?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): My hon. Friend makes an important point. I know that he is already qualified as a topple tester. He is right that we must deal with the issue with proportion and so on. We are keen to see that local authorities respond in a proportionate fashion and that they realise the sensitivity of the work
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that has to be done as well as making sure that it is done with health and safety in mind in a way that deals with the matter when the situation is dangerous rather than in an unnecessarily over-bureaucratic fashion.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): Does the Lord Chancellor not understand that it is profoundly un-British to demand that the public swear oaths of allegiance, subscribe to statements of values or fly flags in their lawns? The public will surely see straight through synthetic patriotism. Last week, the Culture Minister attacked the BBC Proms. Why should the public have anything to learn from this Government about Britishness?

Mr. Straw: I am a long-time Prom-goer; I love the Proms. I am entitled to say that I did not agree with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) said about the Proms. My judgment is not hers. As for flying flags, I am proud to be British. We have done a great deal. No party has the monopoly on being British and being proud of it. I remind the hon. Gentleman that some of his colleagues proposed that we did more to ensure that the Union flag was flown from Government buildings and Portcullis House. We have ensured that that is done.

Nick Herbert: But surely 10 years of learning about British history would be more valuable to instil an understanding of British values than a 10-minute ceremony for 16-year-olds? Does the Justice Secretary really think that British values can be reduced to a slogan or a statement of values drawn up by focus groups at the taxpayer’s expense?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman ought to read the report and proposals of my noble and learned Friend Lord Goldsmith—he may have done so but not digested them—and there ought to be proper debate about them. I doubt that the hon. Gentleman’s views are shared by many other people on the Conservative Benches.

Secondly, we now have citizenship ceremonies for new citizens. When they were introduced there was some scepticism about them on both sides of the House, but they have turned out to be valued rites of passage for new British people who are becoming British citizens. There is a lot to be said for our getting across to existing British citizens—born British, not adopted British—what it means to be British. It should not be a party issue.

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Has the Lord Chancellor recently requested a factual paper from the Treasury on the Barnett formula? Even though the formula is much, much older than devolution, the perception of devolution in England is undoubtedly affected by its existence and the fact that it is overdue for reform.

Mr. Straw: I have not needed to request papers on the Barnett formula, because the way it operates is perfectly public. Briefing is available from the Library and the formula has been used by successive Governments, including—in unamended form—the Administration between 1979 and 1997.

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T5. [192747] Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): The Secretary of State will be aware that an organisation called ClearSprings is, on behalf of the Government, buying residential properties in Basildon district to house offenders released early from prison. Given the complete lack of consultation with local residents on the issue, which means that they could wake up one day to find that they were living next door to an open prison, will the Secretary of State cancel those plans for Basildon district, which are being seen only as a way of reducing prison overcrowding by stealth?

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. I looked into a number of the concerns that had been raised recently about ClearSprings properties. There was concern in Basildon and I looked into whether the Conservative-controlled district council, had exercised its veto. I have to report to the hon. Gentleman that had the council done so, we would not be proceeding with the properties in Basildon. The Conservative-controlled district council in Basildon did not veto the proposals—

Mr. Baron: Was it consulted?

Mr. Hanson: It was consulted, as were the police and I am aware of that because my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela E. Smith) also has such properties and has referred to me recent press coverage in Basildon on the matter. The Conservative-controlled district council did not veto the properties.

T6. [192748] Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): Is not the absence of a financial limit on election expenditure on campaigning outside an election period, in effect, the buying of votes? It is an anomaly that ought to be corrected urgently. For that reason, is it not time that we stopped talking about it and actually did something?

Mr. Straw: As my hon. Friend will be aware, the report of the inquiry and review by Sir Hayden Phillips recommended that there was a strong case for limits on spending to apply both locally and nationally for a whole Parliament and not just for a period beforehand. In addition, one of the wholly unintended consequences of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 was that far from local controls being made stronger—as was believed by both main parties—they have actually been made shorter and weaker. We were aware of that, but it is also important, which is why we are giving the matter consideration, that there should be a broad consensus for changes in party funding, because it cannot and should not be used as a partisan tool in the hands of one party or another.

T7. [192749] Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): Today’s extraordinary reports into the events at Leeds magistrates court have uncovered an astonishing example of systematic and deliberate abuse. With regard to the collusion that appears to have happened between Leeds magistrates court, West Yorkshire police and West Yorkshire Crown Prosecution Service, does the Secretary of State agree that it was a deliberate attempt to withdraw warrants when they
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should not have been withdrawn? With regard to the whole episode, does he agree that it may be appropriate to pursue criminal charges, because it was clearly a deliberate attempt to undermine justice?

Mr. Straw: The matter is very serious indeed; I have made that clear. In my judgment, the issue arose partly because of the shambolic way in which the local magistrates ran the magistrates courts committee, and the lack of effective administration. As the hon. Gentleman will recognise, the inspectorate praised the work of Her Majesty’s Courts Service, which took control of Leeds magistrates court, and other magistrates courts, in 2005. The protocol came as an astonishing surprise to me. It is in appendix 12 of the report, which contains the extraordinary phrase about the need to “get rid” of outstanding warrants. He will forgive me, but I cannot comment on disciplinary processes that are taking place, except to say that they are being pursued, as I do not wish to prejudice their outcome.

T8. [192750] Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), does the Secretary of State believe that allegiance should be sworn to the United Kingdom, to Her Majesty the Queen, or to an emerging federal president of Europe?

Mr. Straw: Not the latter, in any circumstances, whether the president is federal or otherwise; I say that to reassure the hon. Gentleman. I should say to him, before he gets too excited about the issue, that if he looks at the pledges that new citizens are required to make, he will see that there is an oath of allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen—we are a constitutional monarchy and, so far as my party and I am concerned, long may that continue—and a pledge of loyalty to other citizens in the United Kingdom.

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