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Mr. Straw: I applaud the work that has been undertaken in Oxfordshire and in the whole Thames valley area, not least that pioneered by Sir Charles Pollard, formerly the chief constable and subsequently a member of the Youth Justice Board. I agree with the hon. Gentleman. In fact, I was discussing this issue yesterday, because we are concerned that the work of the youth offending teams should be much more visible and that much better information should be available to the public about its work—good and, yes, bad as well—so that they can make up their own minds about the effectiveness, in appropriate circumstances, of community punishments such as those to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): When I sat on the local magistrates bench, one of the most depressing and regular occurrences was the reappearance in court of young offenders. It is still the case that three in four young people who go through the prison system are convicted of an offence within a two-year period after that. What further plans does the Secretary of State have to improve the situation as regards employment and housing in the communities into which young prisoners are released?

Mr. Straw: I do not explicitly endorse the figure that my hon. Friend mentioned, but, leaving that aside, the level of reoffending by some young offenders is too high. Of course, we are concerned about that. We are putting a lot of resources into ensuring that when young offenders—who only go into custody if they are serious offenders—are released, there is available to them somewhere to live, which is fundamental if we are to get them out of reoffending, and the prospect of a job. We must also ensure that while they are in youth custody they take the opportunities to improve their learning skills, many of which are lamentably low.

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): Research from Professor Bryan and others confirms that perhaps two thirds of young people entering the criminal justice system do not have sufficient verbal skills to benefit from the education and rehabilitation programmes being offered to them. Does the Secretary of State agree with Lord Ramsbotham and others that there is now an overwhelming case for more investment in speech and language therapy within prisons, and why has his Department not made it?

Mr. Straw: There is indeed a strong case for that, and I can give the hon. Gentleman all the figures on how much resources have gone up by. He will be aware, however, of the pressures on those resources, which will affect any Government, and I am happy to meet him and Lord Ramsbotham to discuss that. Given that young offenders come into the system with such lamentably low educational qualifications, there is a responsibility across the system to address that—in schools, in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and so on. That is one of the important benefits of my joint working with the Secretary of State for the Department for Children, Schools and Families, whereby we are now ensuring that the needs of young offenders, and potential young offenders unless we divert them from such behaviour, are better taken account of in the schools system.

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Probation Services

11. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): What his timetable is for introducing trust status for probation services. [209551]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): The first six probation trusts were created in April. I intend to use the initial year to establish the way in which the benefits of trust status can best be developed to improve operational effectiveness, efficiency and local accountability. I am currently considering whether the timetable for trusts can be accelerated so that all trusts can be in place as soon as possible.

Mr. Kidney: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, and pass on Staffordshire’s thanks for the additional in-year funding that he has given for community sentence solutions. I assure him that we are spending the money effectively in Staffordshire. Is he aware, however, that there are widespread rumours about the uncertainty of the Department’s views on the future structures of the probation trusts, such as whether they will be local or regional, which is causing uncertainty in future planning? Can he make clear that the future delivery of probation services will continue to take place on a local basis?

Mr. Hanson: I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. We intend to deliver probation services in a devolved way at a local level. It is important that such services are provided locally. I am pleased that he welcomed the extra £40 million that we have given to probation services to help to develop alternatives to custody. I know that Staffordshire, along with other probation authorities in England and Wales, is looking at how it can develop support for strong community sentences to ensure that we prevent reoffending and support alternatives to custody.

Topical Questions

T1. [209531] Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): Punishment and reform—protecting the public and reducing reoffending—lies at the heart of my Department’s work. Our aim is to be tough and fair. Crime has come down by a third, prison numbers are up by a third and a major programme for another 14,000 places by 2014 is in progress. I have just published a consultation document on titan prisons, showing how they can provide value for money, but with separate wings for different categories of prisoner. The weekend before last, I received the report on drugs in prison from the former Her Majesty’s chief inspector of constabulary, David Blakey, and I will be publishing it and my response shortly.

Paul Rowen: In the light of continuing revelations about the allowances and salaries of MEPs, including the latest about funding for political parties being channelled through a company, can I ask the Secretary of State for Justice if he has had any discussions with his Opposition counterparts, the Electoral Commission or the Chair of
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the Committee on Standards in Public Life to ensure that British MEPs are brought into the same ambit as MPs?

Mr. Straw: I have had no direct discussions on this matter recently, but I am happy to receive representations from the hon. Gentleman. It might be best if he were to consider the White Paper on party funding, which I shall publish shortly. He has raised an important issue.

T4. [209534] Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): With all the discussion about prisons being a soft option, can my right hon. Friend tell me whether he is aware of any case where prisoners have asked for their sentences to be increased when they go to court, or where they insisted on being banged up to ensure that they have that luxury time?

Mr. Straw: No, I cannot. That question gives the lie to the propaganda that comes from some quarters, but only sometimes, that prisons are cushy. I represented a number of offenders in my early life—the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) has made that a more recent practice—and I never came across one who volunteered for prison, or still less, one who volunteered for prison for a long period. Prisons are tough. We have to ensure that the regime is reasonable, but they are not designed to be like life outside, either in their deprivation of liberty or through their conditions inside.

T2. [209532] Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Is it the Government’s intention that at the end of this Parliament we will have more young people with criminal records, more young people with custodial sentences and more young people in custody than any other comparable country in Europe? If not, can the Government start doing something to reduce the trend to demonise and vilify young people, and to end the practice of suggesting that every time they do anything wrong, they should immediately become criminals with a record?

Mr. Straw: May I just say to the hon. Gentleman that it is important to put this matter into perspective? Very few young people are ever put into custody. The only reason why they are put into custody is that they have committed very serious offences. The number of children aged 12 in custody is seven. Most young people who are put into custody are aged 16 and 17—they are not children; they are often large, unpleasant thugs, and they are frightening to the public. In my judgment, the courts have been quite right to ensure that they are locked up, and locked up for a long time where they have committed grievous offences. Sometimes I read material that suggests that young people aged 16 or 17 are children, but the figures show that seven 12-year-olds are in custody and 1,450 17-year-olds. Of course we have responsibilities, which I discussed earlier, to ensure that when they are in custody, everything possible is done to ensure that they do not reoffend when they come out and that they lead a better life. However, for the protection of the public, I believe that the courts get it right in the relatively low number of cases where they jail offenders.

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T5. [209535] Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Do Ministers accept that reoffending rates are unacceptably high among those sentenced to prison for less than 12 months? Are Ministers aware of a scheme in the west midlands called Connect, which provides close support for prisoners on release from prison, including mentors where appropriate? The scheme has been funded by European funding, which has come to an end. Does the Department have any policy of close support for people in those circumstances in order to prevent reoffending?

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing that to our attention. He will know that we are looking at two test-bed areas in the west midlands and the east region to bring together a range of services to help individual prisoners on release from prison to get into employment and housing, tackle long-term drug issues in the community and deal with problems such as alcohol abuse. He will also know that we are looking closely at promoting the use of community sentences where appropriate—indeed, I published a document last week—to ensure that we have alternatives to custody, particularly short-term prison sentences. Those alternatives can often be much more demanding for an individual, with courses on alcohol, drugs and other issues, than a short-term prison sentence can, as well as tremendously more effective in reducing reoffending. Indeed, I do believe, dare I say it, that some members of the Opposition Front Bench would also support that view, while others would not.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): In less than a year, the Government have released more than 26,000 prisoners early because there are not enough prison places, including 5,000 violent offenders and even terrorists. Ministers are keen to detain suspects without charge for ever longer periods, but they were happy to release convicted terrorists early, until we found out about it. Since his predecessor described the end of custody licence scheme as “temporary”, will the Justice Secretary now be more precise than he was earlier and tell us exactly when he hopes to scrap it?

Mr. Straw: I answered the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) about that. I wish that I could be more precise, but let me tell the hon. Gentleman, lest he was not listening when I was talking about this before, that our record on ensuring sufficient prison places for offenders is infinitely better than that of the Conservative Administration. At one stage, they did not have a couple of hundred prisoners in police cells; they had 3,500, and the numbers continued year after year. Every so often, when the previous Government ran into a crisis, instead of ensuring that more prisons were built, what did they do? They just released another 3,500 or more.

Nick Herbert: I note that the Justice Secretary did not deny that he knew that the Government were releasing terrorists early before scrapping the scheme. Let me help him, since he will not say precisely when the scheme will be scrapped. Last month, the Prime Minister said that he would not even take a decision on early release until there were 86,000 prison places. That will
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not be for at least a year. Is that what the Justice Secretary meant when he said that the Prime Minister was

Also, can the Justice Secretary confirm that at least another 30,000 criminals will therefore be freed early before the Prime Minister stops dithering and finally scraps this appalling scheme?

Mr. Straw: First, the scheme needs to be put into perspective. I regret that it has had to be used, but it is about releasing offenders two and a half weeks earlier than they would otherwise be released and it applies in the context of overall sentences having increased, not decreased, over the past 10 years, which is one of the reasons for the pressure on prisons. I wish that I could be a soothsayer, as the hon. Gentleman seems to imply, and say exactly what is going to happen to the numbers jailed by the courts and the number of prison places available in future—the latter is a little easier to predict than the former. All I can say to him, however, is that we are working extremely hard to ensure that the record increase in prison places since 1997—twice the rate achieved under the previous Administration—accelerates even faster so that we can end the scheme as quickly as possible.

T3. [209533] Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): In view of the fact that shoplifting offences are increasing hugely in number and that fixed penalty notices largely go unpaid, what plans does the Justice Secretary have to review the adequacy of sentencing for those offences, perhaps looking for an element of restorative justice in this area?

Mr. Straw: I thoroughly endorse the hon. Lady’s opinions in favour of restorative justice, which is important. Opinions obviously differ about the success of the fixed penalty notice scheme, but it has been used extensively in the excellent police area of Lancashire. I have talked to police chiefs about the issue, so I know that there is a much higher level of enforcement than the hon. Lady suggests. Overall— [Interruption.] Excuse me, Mr. Speaker, but a gnat—he was not a Tory—was trying to bite me. As I was saying, there is a high level of enforcement and the police would like to ensure that that disposal continued.

T7. [209537] Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): What further steps can my right hon. Friend take to encourage more people from communities that suffer the most crime and antisocial behaviour to come forward as magistrates? In Warrington, despite the efforts made, eight of our magistrates still come from outside the borough. There are many magistrates in certain wards, but some of the most deprived have no representatives on the bench at all. Although I have no doubt that the current magistrates are trying conscientiously to do a good job, should we not ensure that the bench is more representative of the community it serves?

Mr. Straw: I entirely share my hon. Friend’s concern about this matter. The lack of representation from what she describes as more deprived areas across the country has got worse, not better. It is a matter that profoundly concerns the Magistrates Association and the chairs of
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benches as well as my colleagues and me. We are doing a lot of work on this issue, for example, although it may not be directly relevant to my hon. Friend’s constituency, Operation Black Vote has been running a very successful mentoring scheme. I recently attended the final day of the scheme for this year and some hundreds of people from the black and Asian community who had never ever dreamt of joining the magistracy are now ready to do so. I would like to see such schemes extended—there are many already—to cover the white population for people who do not instinctively think about joining the magistracy, but would find it valuable. Above all, they would be able to bring their experience, from living in their area, to bear when they sit in court.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): Does not the Secretary of State concede that there is something grotesquely wrong in the criminal justice system when there are record numbers of prisoners, yet in some categories, the reoffending rate is as high as 84 per cent., while community sentences are not even being started because of lack of resources, and programmes that we know will work, such as restorative justice, are not implemented? Will not the right hon. Gentleman concede that the time has come to put a bit more distance between politics and the criminal justice system, perhaps by setting up a permanent independent commission to evaluate objectively what works and what does not work in reducing crime?

Mr. Straw: I accept the burden of the hon. Gentleman’s last point, which is that there should be independent assessment of what works and what does not, but I do not accept his view that the people’s representatives in this House should not have a role to play in determining the level of punishment and in deciding what should be regarded as criminal behaviour. That is a responsibility—a fundamental one—on the shoulders of every single Member in the House, and so, in my judgement, it should remain.

There will be and there always have been some categories of offender who do not get the point. It is not society, not even the Ministry of Justice, that is responsible for their offending; it is the offenders themselves who commit these crimes. What we have sought to do—I hope with all-party support—is to say to offenders: “We will give you a route out of offending if you want to take it, but if you don’t, you will end up on an indeterminate sentence for public protection and you will not be released unless and until you can satisfy the parole board, an independent body, that the risk of your reoffending is infinitely lower than it was when you entered prison.” I am pleased to say that more and more offenders who are in prison and who realise that they are going to stay in prison for a long time and do not like it, are now getting the point.

T8. [209538] Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): The Minister will be aware that probation officers have voted overwhelmingly to take industrial action, and of the concern expressed by those who work in the criminal justice service about pay levels. Are there any plans to increase the pay offered in that sector?

Mr. Hanson: Obviously, I am concerned that the probation officers union has had an indicative vote to strike, which does not mean that it will take strike
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action. Last week, I met both the current general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers and the future general secretary, who takes over shortly, to discuss these matters. I am confident that we can come to an agreement whereby we can pay probation officers fairly for their excellent work and avoid strike action.

T9. [209539] Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): This Thursday, in a constitutional referendum, voters in the Irish Republic will decide whether to transfer more of their sovereignty to the European Union. Will the Justice Secretary bring forward proposals so that British voters are treated the same and have a right to a referendum before any more British sovereignty is transferred to the undemocratic and costly European Union?

Mr. Straw: I am very sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman on this occasion, although I am sure that it will be a matter of great relief to those on his Front Bench. I remind him that on any analysis the Maastricht treaty and Single European Act were infinitely wider in scope and involved a much more significant sharing of sovereignty than the Lisbon treaty, and a referendum was always refused by the Conservative Administration at the time.

T10. [209540] John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): Considering that the legal services ombudsman has again fined the Legal Complaints Service £250,000 for poor service, what sanctions does my hon. Friend the Minister intend to apply to the regulator for claims handlers, should that service prove over this year to be equally supine and spineless?

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): I think that my hon. Friend draws a rather unfair parallel to begin with. The Legal Complaints Service has improved its handling of complaints remarkably over the past few years, thanks to the much more robust quality and standards imposed, for which we ought to pay tribute to it. In its first year, the claims management service has done outstanding work with local authority trading standards officers, and I have every belief that it will continue that high standard of work.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I am sure that the whole House will be as dismayed as I was that the Minister with responsibility for freedom of information turned down my request for judges’ homes addresses to be released on the same day as those of Members of Parliament. He said that that was because

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