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23 Apr 2008 : Column 442WH—continued

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Maria Eagle): I congratulate all hon. Members who have participated not least, of course, the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) who was fortunate to secure the debate and has used the opportunity to initiate an excellent discussion. Many parties from across the UK have participated and there have been some points of real agreement across the parties, as well as indications of slightly different philosophies regarding the purpose of imprisonment and of the criminal justice system. None the less, there have been many points of
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real agreement across all parties. I will do my best to deal with as many points as possible, particularly the comments of the hon. Gentleman who initiated the debate, but needless to say I will be unable to deal fully with every point. I also wish to put a few things on the record, as hon. Members would expect me to, given that I have had to sit for an hour and 15 minutes and feel extremely frustrated at not having been involved in the debate at an earlier stage.

It is important to point out that since 1997, crime has fallen by 32 per cent.—by a third. That is not unconnected—and on this point I agree in some way with the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson)—with the fact that we are imprisoning more serious and violent offenders. We are catching and imprisoning more offenders and we are imprisoning them for longer. Consequently, we are protecting the public more and offenders do not have the opportunity to do what they might do if they were not imprisoned. It is not wrong to say that there is a connection between those two things.

As a Government, we have made it clear that we believe that imprisonment should be for serious violent sexual offenders and that imprisonment does and should work to protect the public. Protecting the public is a primary purpose of our criminal justice system and the trends in longer sentences for more serious offences and the introduction of sentencing options, such as indeterminate sentences for public protection, have made a real contribution to that. That is not to say that I disagree with the points that have been made by hon. Members from all parties regarding there being some people in prison who perhaps should not be there. I do not disagree with the points made by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) and, by implication, by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) regarding there being some people in prison who revolve around the system because they come out and reoffend. That is accepted, and we accept that imprisonment is not the answer to every single crime that is committed.

Evidence clearly shows that short periods of imprisonment are the least effective way of reducing reoffending. In parenthesis, I should say that during the past 10 years, we have for the first time managed to reduce reoffending among even some of the toughest offenders. Reoffending rates for those coming out of prison have decreased by 4.7 per cent.; for those more generally the figure is 5.8 per cent. It is the first time that we have managed to reduce reoffending, and that is in large part because of the good work done by all those in the criminal justice system—those who work in the prison service and the probation service. I put on the record the thanks and congratulations of the Government to those workers who do what they do often in difficult and dangerous circumstances. They have had some great results during the past few years in reducing reoffending, which is a tough thing to do.

We have some of the best suites of evidence-based programmes anywhere in the world. To be fair, hon. Members have made the point that that is the case, although they have expressed some frustration that we have not been able to do even more than we have done. I understand that, but I point out that during the past 10
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years, in real terms, we have increased spending on the prison system and on services by 37 per cent. That is not to be sniffed at; it is a significant increase in spending and that increase is still going on.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) is deeply frustrated that he cannot respond to the debate today; he is currently in Nigeria trying to negotiate a prison transfer agreement. He would be the first person to say that we are planning on investing more money—some £2.3 billion to try to get ahead of the curve of prison numbers. We are trying to get the estate capacity up to 96,000 by 2014 to get ahead of the curve of the increase in prison numbers. I have to accept that 20,000 more people are in prison now than 10 years ago, when the Government first came into office. We are trying to get ahead of that curve, which will enable us to prevent the constant overcrowding that creates some of the churn of difficult problems, to which many hon. Members have referred.

The hon. and learned Member for Harborough referred to having to move people from prison to prison, which perhaps disrupts some of the other things being done to assist them. That is a consequence of overcrowding. We are trying to get ahead of that curve with the building programme and we fully expect to do so, but it would not be right to say that overcrowding is a problem that has occurred in just the past 10 years. During the time of the last Conservative Government, prisons were frequently running extremely close to capacity. Overcrowding has been a long-term problem.

Predicting whether the prison population will rise, on whichever projection—there is a range of projections—is an art rather than a science and it is not always easy to predict, but the building plans that the Minister of State commended in the previous debate on this issue in Westminster Hall, which were recommended by Lord Carter of Coles, will, we believe, deal with the issue and enable us to move on to focusing much more on reducing reoffending. Hon. Members in all parts of the Chamber agree that that needs to be done.

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy raised several issues relating to probation services. He said that there were restrictions on provision as a result of a lack of resources. I want to deal with some of his points in detail. It is true to say that at the beginning of this year—in January, in particular—probation areas were reporting restrictions to courts in terms of what services were available and what programmes could be offered. There was a particular problem with unpaid work in Staffordshire. There were problems with sex offender programmes in north Wales and some accredited programmes in Cumbria, and some difficulties in dealing with alcohol treatment programmes, but the fact is that most probation areas continue to provide a good service to the courts. The short-term difficulties reported at that time, which the hon. Gentleman was reflecting in his remarks, have been tackled.

There is increased probation funding. When the Minister of State made allocations for this financial year, there was an average increase of more than 2 per cent. in the budget. The funding has gone up further as a result of the £40 million that has been found by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice to boost probation services. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington made specific points about that issue. My understanding is that allocations have been made according
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to a well-known formula. I ask him not to ask me to repeat at this moment precisely what it is, but there is a formula whereby allocations are made to the 42 probation areas. My understanding is that that has been applied and that areas should know precisely what money they now have as a result of the extra resources that have been found. Therefore, they should be in a position to talk in great detail and to plan properly with their work forces in those areas. I hope that that explanation assists in dealing with the point. As a result of the extra money, there is an average increase of 8 per cent. for each board. That should make a real difference in tackling some of the issues that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy raised.

It is great to see the hon. Member for Upper Bann in Westminster Hall, talking about criminal justice issues, which may be devolved fairly soon. One never knows. These things may end up devolved; that is certainly the Government’s aim. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would not want me to leave the Chamber without making that point, which has now been acknowledged. The hon. Gentleman raised important points about the community’s confidence in sentencing. That is a key issue for all members of the public—for all our constituents. They need to be confident about the efficacy of sentencing, the toughness of sentencing, and sentences fitting the seriousness of the crimes. Only if we can show that will they support other initiatives, and all hon. Members who have spoken highlighted the importance of reducing reoffending.

The Government have focused a great deal on sexual offences. There is an understanding that there is under-reporting of sexual crime and that a lot of assurance needs to be given to victims, who quite often will not wish to come forward, because of the traumatic nature of the crime and their fear that they will have to relive it and that that might not be worth it if the perpetrator does not, in the end, receive what they feel is a sufficient punishment.

The Government have realised that the conviction rate is very low, but bringing forward witnesses and victims is the problem. Sexual assault referral centres are being established across Britain to support victims of sexual offences in coming forward. In 34 per cent. of rape cases that are prosecuted, there is a conviction. Bringing forward victims and supporting them in making a complaint is the biggest issue. We currently have 19 sexual assault referral centres across England and Wales, and we aim to have one in every police force area to ensure national coverage by 2011. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be examining closely the evidence that we have from this effort, and perhaps lessons can be learned for dealing with these issues in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for Winchester asked me to deal with several issues. He asked about prisoners’ votes. He asked whether the Government could do much to assist with some practical problems that prisoners have when leaving prison, specifically regarding accommodation, insurance relating to accommodation, and bank accounts. On the latter point, it is possible, working with the banking industry, to try to ensure that prisoners coming out of prison who will be going into jobs are seen as
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potentially good customers of banks. I know from my own experience of visits, and the hon. and learned Member for Harborough will know from his own visits, that many prisoners coming out of prison do get bank accounts. They can sometimes set up bank accounts before they leave, which is helpful. I am sure that that is a question of relationships between the local prison and local bank managers. Nothing replaces good local relationship-building, but work can be done in respect of policy level issues and I am sure that the Minister of State and I would be interested in pursuing any of those issues.

Frankly, insurance is a tougher issue. Insurance is very much a risk-based business, perhaps more so than many others, and although I am willing to discuss the issue with the hon. Member for Winchester and his organisation, I do not have an immediate answer.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington asked whether I would be willing to meet him and other members of the cross-party parliamentary group, most of whom appear to be in this Chamber. In those circumstances I can only say, absolutely, I would be very happy to meet him; my door is always open. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough said that he was to meet Colin Moses and the Prison Officers Association shortly after the debate has ended. Say hello to Mr. Moses and his executive, please; I saw them all yesterday.

Mr. Garnier indicated assent.

Maria Eagle: My door is always open to trade unionists and members of the work force. Meeting regularly is a fine way of finding out what is going on in local areas and on the ground, which does not always come back through other channels. The Secretary of State for Justice, the Minister of State and I make a practice of doing that and are happy to continue to do so.

The other substantive point that the Opposition made was about crowding. I find it extraordinary that they say that they will remove all crowding from the prison system. I do not think that that can be done in the short or medium term, even with the type of building programme that we have initiated, which is the largest in the history of the Prison Service. The challenge set by Carter and the recommendation on prison building—getting the estate up to 96,000 places by 2014—represents a £2.3 billion investment and the biggest and most ambitious prison building programme ever. It will be a challenge to meet that. Even in doing that, we will not necessarily have removed overcrowding, depending on the trend in imprisonment and the increase that we have seen over the past years. That would not enable us to remove overcrowding. I find it extraordinary that the Opposition say that they will remove overcrowding and that without doing so, there will not be humanity or a humane system. That is quite remarkable. I will have to go away and have a close—

Mr. Garnier: Read our paper.

Maria Eagle: I have read it. I do not have time to give full details of why it is uncosted and has a £1.7 billion black hole at its heart. We will have to take that up on a rather more—

Mr. Roger Gale (in the Chair): Order. We now move to the next debate.

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West Midlands RSS

11 am

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): I wish you a happy St. George’s day, Mr. Gale. I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting me this debate on such an appropriate day, as I want to speak up for middle England. I hope to slay a dragon or two, although without St. George’s help.

Phase 2 of the west midlands regional spatial strategy revision—a phrase guaranteed to set the pulse racing—is important. It is about a lot more than housing. Indeed, to be fair to the Minister—I am pleased to see him in his place—some elements of it are welcome. For example, the Worcestershire wildlife trust of which I am a proud member welcomes the clear statements on climate change, sustainable communities and community developments, but—and it is a big but—the issues of greatest concern are the level of new housing building that the Government seem determined to impose on the west midlands and the delay in the final revised regional spatial strategy and, crucially, the local core strategies that that unwelcome intervention has led to.

On 7 January, 18 months of hard work by the regional assembly and local authorities was suddenly torn up in one of the most undemocratic and unwarranted interventions in local affairs by a Minister that I can recall. A letter to the regional assembly from Baroness Andrews, one of the Minister’s colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government, told us that all our efforts had been wasted and that, under her instructions, we must go back to the drawing board. It is no wonder that people are cynical about politics.

The regional assembly’s consultation on the preferred options in phase 2 of the RSS revision was due to end four weeks ago, on 28 March; the Government’s first intervention recommended extending that date to 23 May, to enable consultees to consider the extra evidence that the Government would produce. The assembly pointed out that it would need to take account of the purdah for the local elections, so it suggested an extension to 30 June, and the Government agreed.

However, the Government office for the west midlands took months to appoint expensive London-based consultants to find the new “evidence”—and I put that word in inverted commas. It took until early October. The consultation has therefore been extended to 8 December. The examination in public of the final phase 2 document will therefore not take place until the spring of 2009. Incidentally, as a result, the consultation period is four weeks short of Cabinet Office guidelines, and all that comes on top of the fact that unelected academics in the national housing and planning advice unit are providing an undemocratic input to Ministers on demand and price levels.

Meanwhile, poor old locally accountable district councils such as those in my area—Wychavon, Worcester City and Malvern Hills—are trying to progress their own joint plans. However, they can only guess what the RSS housing numbers will be. In due course, Ministers will doubtless attack those councils for failing to deliver the goods on time, but the blame for the delay rests fairly and squarely on those self-same Ministers. Strangely, the delay means that it may not now be possible to complete the RSS revision process before the regional
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assembly itself is abolished. What a fine mess the Government have got us into.

I wish to make five key points, and I shall have three questions for the Minister at the end. First, we all accept the need for more housing. That is not in dispute. People are living longer; the divorce rate is a sad driver of increased household formation rates; and there is a lack of affordable housing, both rented and owned. However, that does not mean that we should throw houses up without properly considering their long-term impact and, indeed, without establishing whether the current housing shortage is irreversible and permanent.

The Government are relying on new household projections that dramatically increase estimates of housing need over the next 20 years. The big dispute is whether the current rate of immigration will continue. I think that it will not, as we are already seeing net migration back to the countries of eastern Europe. The Government are projecting forward historically unprecedented levels of immigration, and that is a serious error.

The Government also argue that house building levels need to be high to reduce the price of housing so that it is more affordable. They want to reduce house prices. However, people are now seeing house prices fall, and they can tell the Government that that policy objective has been achieved without a single new house being built. High prices were mainly, but not exclusively, the result of the irresponsible lending practices of banks and mortgage companies. Too much money was the main cause, and the Government have put that right, albeit unintentionally. I therefore challenge the Government’s figures. They are too high.

Secondly, the West Midlands regional assembly has already proposed a high number of new dwellings—difficult but manageable if we get the rest of the policy environment right. In its submission to the Government in December 2007, it proposed that 365,600 extra dwellings should be provided in the west midlands by 2026. That is 25 per cent. higher than recent building rates, and 50 per cent. higher than the rate planned under the existing strategy.

I am inclined to agree with the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which believes that a figure of about 285,000 would be a more reasonable response to the present situation. The regional assembly’s numbers may be higher than many would like, but at least the assembly has gone through a democratic and systematic process to arrive at a preferred option for growth.

Based on advice from the academics at the national housing unit, it seems that the Government are now pressing for between 408,000 and 460,000 new dwellings to be provided in that period. To achieve the assembly’s proposed RSS figure for the region, the housing figures for the major urban areas—Stoke, the black country, Birmingham, Solihull and Coventry—have rightly been increased, although there may be practical difficulties in achieving some of those figures without building on green belt land or causing excessive urban intensification.

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