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House of Commons

Tuesday 10 June 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with ClearSprings Ltd about the siting of bail accommodation and support services. [209541]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): I met ClearSprings on 20 May. Decisions on the areas in which accommodation is required for bail accommodation and support services are made by the regional offender managers and the director of offender management in Wales, and are based on data on prisoner origins.

Mr. Benyon: Newbury is to have one of these hostels foisted on it under this contract. What has the Minister to say to people in Newbury who find living in their neighbourhood criminals who should be behind bars, but who are released because of the failure of the Government’s prison system and the overcrowding of our prisons?

Mr. Hanson: The first thing that I will say to residents of Newbury is that there are no properties planned for Newbury. I hope that that will at least—

Mr. Benyon: The Library told me there were.

Mr. Hanson: The Library may well say that to the hon. Gentleman, but I am the Minister, and I am telling him that there are no properties planned for Newbury. If there were properties planned for Newbury, those properties would be there because of the need for accommodation for people from the Berkshire area who are not in prison and have not necessarily been convicted, but may be awaiting trial, and who would be put in prison if they were not bailed to accommodation addresses—their own addresses, rented from private landlords and supported by their own income. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will look into the scheme in detail, but I can assure him that there are no properties planned for Newbury.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): May I tell my right hon. Friend that there is one of those hostels in my constituency, and that he must understand the concern that exists among the public? Bridgewood bail hostel, which is also in my constituency, has succeeded because it is open and transparent about where it is, and because it involves the neighbours. I wish that ClearSprings
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would take the same approach in building good relations with the communities in the areas where it has its hostels.

Mr. Hanson: Obviously it is important for bail hostels to be open, and to be involved with and understood by the community. The ClearSprings addresses are private property addresses, and ClearSprings has a duty to consult the police, probation services and local councils before those private addresses are agreed. Ultimately, they are private addresses, and individuals who are released from prison on home detention curfew, or who are not yet convicted and are awaiting trial, enjoy those properties as private properties.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): From my experience, the issue with ClearSprings over a number of years has been obfuscation and secrecy, often pursued by the company under the guise of so-called “commercial in confidence”. When will the Minister insist on proper accountability for the ClearSprings contract, and transparency for people in my constituency and throughout the country?

Mr. Hanson: I have been very clear with ClearSprings—if I may use that term. It has a contractual duty with the Ministry of Justice to ensure that it consults with local councils, the police and the probation services before entering into an agreement on specific properties in the areas in which it proposes them. I emphasise again that those properties are private properties used by individuals who have sometimes not even been convicted yet, who are bailed to those addresses by the court and are sent there at the request of the court, or who have been released from prison on home detention curfew to properties in the area that they originally came from. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support the scheme.

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Last week, the Minister of State wrote to me that ClearSprings was

How far is the Minister divorced from the reality of offenders being dumped on communities, which are often already blighted by crime, with little or no consultation, and with local authorities left to pick up the bill for resettlement? Is it not time to close that back-door ham-fisted attempt to deal with offending and prison overcrowding, and to suspend the contract with ClearSprings now?

Mr. Hanson: I am disappointed with the hon. Gentleman’s tone. He knows that many individuals who live in Enfield will be regularly bailed by the courts to their properties in Enfield. ClearSprings undertakes to provide properties when no other property is available for people who are homeless in Enfield and who would otherwise be in prison awaiting trial. Those individuals are bailed back to properties in the area from which they come. The courts have asked for that service and want to undertake it. Not everybody who attends a ClearSprings property is convicted. Some of those individuals have been in prison for a long time and are returned to their area of origin on home detention curfew. That would often occur whether or not an
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individual had a property in the area. It is a positive scheme, and I am disappointed with the hon. Gentleman’s approach.

Political Party Funding

2. Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): When he plans to publish a White Paper on the funding of political parties. [209542]

10. Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): What plans he has to introduce legislation on the funding of political parties. [209550]

12. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): Whether he plans to bring forward proposals on funding of political parties. [209552]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): I will publish a White Paper on the funding of political parties very shortly, and aim to introduce legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows.

Martin Linton: I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Will he ensure that his White Paper closes the loophole that allows Lord Ashcroft and others to bypass spending limits by channelling money to parliamentary candidates? Will he also ensure that it closes the loophole that allows Lord Ashcroft to escape— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let the hon. Gentleman speak— [ Interruption. ] Order. Hon. Members may disagree with him, but they should let him speak.

Martin Linton: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Will my right hon. Friend also ensure that the White Paper closes the loophole that allows Lord Ashcroft to escape the ban on foreign donations?

Mr. Straw: It may disappoint my hon. Friend, but at no stage does the White Paper mention any noble Lord, of any political persuasion. However, both with the White Paper and with forthcoming legislation we are aiming to achieve a consensus along the lines of that which existed when Sir Hayden Phillips produced his final report on 15 March last year, which was welcomed by spokespeople for all the parties. Our other objective is to plug a loophole—the Conservatives are on record as saying that they want it to be plugged as much as the other parties do—that arises from the fact that the 1983 trigger was inadvertently abolished by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The Conservatives wanted that trigger to continue, as we all did, and I look forward to there being a consensus in favour of the proposals when I introduce the White Paper very shortly.

Danny Alexander: The relationship between politicians and money has undermined public trust in the political process again and again. Is it not now time to get the big money out of politics? Does the Secretary of State agree that only by imposing stringent caps on donations and expenditure during and between elections can we achieve the fair, transparent and sustainable outcome that is needed to rebuild public trust in the political process?

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Mr. Straw: As the hon. Gentleman will recall, we were actively seeking an agreement based on the recommendations of Sir Hayden Phillips. His party was doing the same, but it is a matter of record that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said that I was “absolutely right” in my description of

Tony Lloyd: When my right hon. Friend talks about building a consensus, does he think that there is a consensus in favour of making sure that the transmission of money from donor to donee should be clear at every stage? That is the case with moneys given by the trade unions to the Labour party, but there has never been clarity about the moneys given through the Conservative party to the 11 members of the shadow Cabinet who took money from private sector donors without ever declaring it.

Mr. Speaker: Order. We must be careful about attacks on hon. Members. Even when the attack is aimed at the shadow Cabinet collectively, the hon. Member making it should notify the Members concerned. The hon. Gentleman must do that in future.

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend will accept that we all have a responsibility to try to work towards a consensus, not least in respect of the matters raised by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander). The Hayden Phillips report was very clear that donations made through unincorporated associations should be made transparent. The White Paper contains clear proposals that I hope will achieve a widespread welcome on all sides of the House, as transparency is essential to the proper functioning of a system of funding for political parties, and to public confidence in that system.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is an excessive disproportion between the amount of money that a parliamentary candidate can spend in an election and the amount that a national party organisation can spend? Does not that disproportion militate towards excessive control from party headquarters, and a reduction in the authority of individual Members?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Under the current arrangements, spending by candidates is effectively limited to the election campaign, although we seek to deal with that by reintroducing the Conservatives’ 1983 trigger. Moreover, campaign spending is narrowly defined and lasts for only a year before any general election. Sir Hayden Phillips recommended that, in addition to or in place of those current arrangements, there should be continuous and comprehensive limits on spending throughout a Parliament. Two of the parties have signed up to that, and I look forward to the hon. Gentleman’s using his usual persuasive powers to persuade his Front-Bench colleagues to do the same. I am making quite a serious point, as the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats are on record as supporting the Hayden Phillips proposals. So indeed were hon. Members on the Conservative Front Bench—I refer the House to
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the statement by the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) on 15 March—but they changed their minds later.

Jon Trickett (Hemsworth) (Lab): But does my right hon. Friend accept that some would argue that there is no real symmetry between the individual decisions of tens of thousands of trade unionists who make donations to our party through their trade union, and the decisions taken, often in secrecy, by non-domiciled billionaires and others of that ilk?

Mr. Straw: The law in respect of those who are non-domiciled is very clear: the only legitimate donors to any political party are voters resident in this country, and those laws need to be better enforced. As for the trade unions, Sir Hayden Phillips made proposals for greater transparency and traceability, which we accepted. As I say, although they would require a change by the trade unions, we have always been ready to deliver on them, as part of a comprehensive package along the lines of that set out in Sir Hayden Phillips’s proposals.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): With £18 million of Labour party debt, and with the party’s income collapsing—90 per cent. of it now comes from the trade unions—will the White Paper be anything other than a partisan short-term attempt to shore up Labour’s empty coffers at taxpayers’ expense, while maintaining uncapped union funding?

Mr. Straw: I know that the hon. Gentleman would wish it to be that, and I am sorry to disappoint him. I point out that even in the 1997 to 2001 Parliament, when we had a big majority and there was no question of our not being able to get the proposition in question agreed to, I made sure that we proceeded on the basis of consensus, and roughly speaking—leaving aside ballots on trade unions’ political funds—so, previously, did the Conservative party. I hope very much that the Conservative party will not adopt the policy that sometimes appears from the pen of the hon. Gentleman, in which it is suggested that his party should adopt a partisan approach. The issue is too important for that, and it is important that no one party believes that the regime of party funding should be used for partisan advantage.

Bill of Rights

3. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): What account he plans to take of the relationship between rights and responsibilities in his proposals for a British Bill of Rights. [209543]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): Together, rights and responsibilities are the cornerstones of a healthy democracy. Fundamental rights are not contingent on responsibilities, but expressing the two together should help to foster a stronger sense of shared citizenship among all those who live in this country. That belief will be central to our proposals for a Bill of Rights and responsibilities, which we will announce shortly.

Linda Gilroy: I thank my hon. Friend for that response. Does he share the concern expressed by the Archbishop of York recently that in a consumer society, it is easy for
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rights to become divorced from limits and obligations, and can he say whether there is a real prospect of a Bill of Rights and responsibilities, in which the two are seen as two sides of the same coin?

Mr. Wills: I very much agree with the archbishop on that. As he pointed out in his recent speech, linking rights and responsibilities has always been very important to the Government. As my hon. Friend will be aware, both the European convention on human rights and the Human Rights Act 1998 implicitly and explicitly recognise the crucial relationship between rights and responsibilities. It is important that we use the opportunity provided by a Bill of Rights and responsibilities to entrench that relationship.

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Are the Government not causing a dangerous muddle by mixing up rights and duties, which can be enforced at law, with social responsibilities, which, however desirable, are unenforceable? Much as the Minister might dislike it if he had a bad-tempered neighbour who was reclusive in character, kept ringing people up early in the morning and was generally getting to be disliked, would such a person lose civil rights because he was not meeting his social obligations?

Mr. Wills: No. I think that the right hon. Gentleman has misunderstood what we are proposing, and that when he sees our proposals, he will be reassured. I hope that he will join us in promoting our very worthwhile initiative.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Will the Minister give an assurance to the House that the new Bill of Rights will in no way diminish our existing Bill of Rights, in particular article 9. Will he assure us, indeed, that he will use it as an opportunity to reinforce article 9? which protects Members of Parliament from interference from outside, from people who would lean on and mislead Parliament before Committees, and that it will protect Members of Parliament from interference from the Executive, including MI5?

Mr. Wills: I can absolutely assure my hon. Friend that we will use the opportunity to build on the Human Rights Act. We are proud of that legislation, and we think it has done a good job; we will build on it, and not resile from it in any way whatsoever.

Sentencing (Knife Crime)

4. Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): Whether changes to sentencing guidelines on knife crime are planned. [209544]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): The Government do not issue sentencing guidelines. The independent Sentencing Guidelines Council recently issued such guidelines in relation to knife crime. In addition, the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Crown Prosecution Service announced last week that in future, in respect of offenders aged 16 and upwards, there would be an expectation of prosecution for possession of a bladed weapon. Last month Sir Igor Judge, head of criminal justice in the Court of Appeal, in the key judgment in the case of Povey, said:

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he was referring to knives—

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