15 July 2008 : Column 121

15 July 2008 : Column 121

House of Commons

Tuesday 15 July 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—

Court House (Colchester)

1. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): When he expects work to start on building a new court house at Colchester. [218558]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Maria Eagle): Subject to the procurement process and subsequent statutory approvals or planning consents, I anticipate that building works will commence in autumn 2009.

Bob Russell: The saga of the delays associated with the new court house in Colchester has now lasted for more than 10 years—equivalent to the combined duration of two world wars. If that is not Government dithering and incompetence on a grand scale, what description would the Minister give?

Maria Eagle: I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman might say thank you for the fact that he is about to get a £16.5 million new court house. I am sure that he would not expect Her Majesty’s Courts Service to proceed to procurement phases of building new court rooms without having satisfied itself and others that it is good value for money. He will be aware that when Her Majesty’s Courts Service was formed in 2004, it inherited many plans from local magistrates courts committees to build courts—far more than could be built. He should be saying thank you to the Government for the fact that his court house is No. 9 on a very long list.

Pleural Plaques

3. Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): What the time scale is for the forthcoming consultation on compensation for people with pleural plaques. [218560]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): The consultation paper on pleural plaques was published on 9 July and the closing date is 1 October. I welcome responses from hon. Members
15 July 2008 : Column 122
and from all those with an interest in this important issue. We will then aim to publish our response to the consultation in November.

Mr. Hepburn: I thank the Minister for that reply. However, could I use this opportunity, just before the recess, to urge the Government to give a rapid, moral and firm response to the consultation so that pleural plaques victims get the justice that they deserve?

Bridget Prentice: I appreciate what my hon. Friend says. Like him, we are concerned about the anxiety experienced by people who have been exposed to dangerous substances such as asbestos. As I said, we will aim to publish our response within a month of receiving responses to the consultation.


4. Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): What progress has been made on the review of the law of homicide; and if he will make a statement. [218561]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Maria Eagle): Since December, we have been considering recommendations made by the Law Commission in its report, “Murder, Manslaughter and Infanticide”, and discussing them with stakeholders. That has included having seminars for Members of both Houses of Parliament. I will publish proposals for wider consultation shortly, with draft clauses attached, with a view to introducing legislation in the next Session. However, we intend to keep the mandatory life sentence for murder, as was made clear in the terms of reference at the outset.

Ian Lucas: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply, although I am disappointed that in the face of so much opinion about the mandatory life sentence, the Government will not look at that very important issue. Does she not agree that at this stage, 40 years after the abolition of the death penalty, it is time for us to think about whether the term of the mandatory life sentence could be looked at again so that more flexibility could be introduced into the system?

Maria Eagle: I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, which is shared by many. However, murder is a unique crime of particular moral and social significance, and the mandatory life sentence reflects society’s abhorrence of it. Within the mandatory life sentence, of course, each individual case is given a tariff by the judge, who is in the best position to know the circumstances of the case. That gives the kind of flexibility that my hon. Friend suggests is sensible in certain instances.

Drugs (Prisons)

5. Chris Mole (Ipswich) (Lab): What steps he is taking to reduce the availability of drugs in prisons; and if he will make a statement. [Official Report, 22 July 2008, Vol. 479, c. 6MC.] [218562]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): Since 1997, we have increased investment in drug treatment in prisons tenfold and greatly strengthened enforcement. One indication of the latter is that positive results in mandatory random drug tests have improved
15 July 2008 : Column 123
from 24 per cent. testing positive 10 or 11 years ago to 9 per cent. There are now 141 intensive drug treatment programmes in 99 prisons. Last week, I published the report of a former chief constable of West Mercia, David Blakey, on what more we had to do. I accepted all 10 of his recommendations. I announced then that we would upgrade our work on corruption and that we would be introducing body orifice security scanner chairs and hand-held mobile telephone blockers into every prison.

Chris Mole: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. When I visited HMP Norwich a few years back, it was clear that drugs were coming over the walls inside tennis balls or dead pigeons, and horrifyingly, were being brought in even in the mouths of infants. Given the ingenuity of the suppliers, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important to continue mandatory testing in prisons, and to extend orifice scanning and the use of the other tools to which he referred to visitors to prisons as well?

Mr. Straw: Yes is the answer. As my hon. Friend indicates, prisoners are adept at using every means that they can to ensure that drugs get into prisons, sometimes by means that are grotesque to imagine, but which take place. That is why, alongside the maintenance of mandatory drug testing, which, three years ago, was found by the Office for National Statistics to be “robust”—in its words, not mine—I asked David Blakey to conduct a review. His report, with its 10 recommendations, is about how we build on the strengths of the current system for preventing drugs from coming into prison, to enhance and improve it.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): As one in five men reporting drug use admit that they started taking drugs in prison, we still clearly have a real problem. Would the Secretary of State consider stating that no prisoners should be released early from their sentence unless they are clear of drugs? Would that not be a great incentive?

Mr. Straw: Whether that figure is correct or not—self-reporting of levels of drug abuse, particularly by prisoners, tends to be rather imaginative to say the least—there is no doubt that we have a drug problem in prisons, which I do not underestimate. In the past 11 years, we have sought to strengthen the means of enforcement and greatly to improve treatment. I will certainly think about whether the sort of incentive—such as it would be—that the right hon. Gentleman mentions would work. In respect of indeterminate sentence prisoners and others who have to apply for parole, their behaviour in prison, and their readiness to undertake treatment programmes and comply with them, is one consideration in the determination of their release.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): In March 2007, I was told that 24,000 prisoners would receive treatment via the integrated drug treatment system programme, and that £6 million would be invested in the psycho-social elements of the IDTS. Have both those targets been met?

Mr. Speaker: Order. If I may say, very gently, to the hon. Lady, I have told hon. Members before that I do not expect supplementary questions to be read out from a note.

15 July 2008 : Column 124

Mr. Straw: If I may say to the hon. Lady through you, Mr. Speaker, I will write to her and place the answer in the Library, because I do not have those figures in my head as I speak. My apologies.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that programmes to get people off drugs in prisons are undermined when so many people are still taking drugs alongside the prisoners involved in those programmes? He mentioned treatment, so does he think it acceptable that the chief inspector of prisons has said that prisoners on drugs


Surely that is an indictment of the actual delivery of programmes in prisons today.

Mr. Speaker: Order. Just to let Ministers know, the hon. Gentleman is reading out a quote from an individual, which is different.

Mr. Straw: We have got the level of enforcement up, and treatment as well, but none of us should be complacent about the continuing problem of drugs in prison because 55 per cent. of defendants who go to prison have a drug problem, and in some local prisons that figure is as high as 80 per cent. A great deal of our crime is drug related, so we continually have to strengthen enforcement and treatment, which is what we are doing.

As the hon. Gentleman said, there is churn in the prison estate because of pressure on numbers, which is something I regret. We have increased prison numbers by well over a third in the last 11 years, which is the fastest rate of increase since the war, and we continue to expand the prison population. Meanwhile, because we are tough on crime, the number of defendants who are, rightly, sent to prison continues to rise.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): In 2007, the last year for which information is available, the Ministry of Justice announced that 5,528 drug seizures took place in the prison estate in England and Wales. Of those, only 1,641 were reported to the police, and only 304 prosecutions were brought in respect of the possession of those illegal drugs. Does the Secretary of State agree that, if we are trying to reduce the dealing, consumption and existence of illegal drugs in the prison estate, it is simply not good enough if prosecutions are not brought for what is a crime outside and inside the prison estate?

Mr. Straw: I agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman that we need to be tough on the introduction of drugs into prisons because it is obviously an offence in prison as much it is outside. However, although we want police and prosecutors charging and prosecuting in all appropriate cases, he knows that there are other means whereby prisoners can be brought to justice through the use of independent adjudicators, which is often a swifter method of punishment because prisoners who are found guilty can have days added to their prison sentence more quickly. Although charging and prosecution can be considered in each case, there are clear sanctions, which I first tightened in 1999—I wish them to be tightened again—against visitors who abuse the regime.

15 July 2008 : Column 125


6. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): How many people were serving a custodial sentence for shoplifting in each of the last three years. [218563]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): The number of persons sentenced and given immediate custody for shoplifting in each of the past three years for which we have statistics are: 2004—13,339; 2005—12,096, and 2006—11,166.

Miss McIntosh: Given the fact that fixed penalty notices are more likely than not to be issued as a sentence for someone prosecuted successfully for shoplifting, will the Minister support my ten-minute Bill, which is on the Order Paper for Tuesday, to replace fixed penalty notices with custodial sentences? It has the support of the Federation of Small Businesses and many other business organisations. Shoplifting damages businesses and retail companies throughout the country and we need the strongest possible penalties. Will the Government be tough on shoplifting and tough on the causes of shoplifting?

Mr. Hanson: We certainly will be tough on shoplifting and, indeed, the causes of shoplifting. The hon. Lady knows that in 1997, the last year in which a Conservative Government were in power, only 12 per cent. of people went to prison for shoplifting. Last year, under the Labour Government, 19 per cent. of people convicted went to prison for shoplifting.

Fixed penalty notices are important—the police have used them and welcomed them, and they have helped tackle many minor shoplifting crimes. I will certainly reflect on the hon. Lady’s Bill, as she knows that the Government will, but I emphasise that the Government are committed to tackling shoplifting as a key issue in the prevention of crime.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): The Minister has alluded to the numbers prosecuted in each of the past three years. Has he any indication of the rise in organised criminal gangs involved in shoplifting? Is it not the case that we need to crack down on repeat offenders and organised criminal gangs, who not only break the law but drive up prices for all legitimate and law-abiding consumers?

Mr. Hanson: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that criminal gangs who get involved in shoplifting should be tackled. Shoplifting is a crime that has an impact on all members of society because when those goods leave the shop, ordinary law-abiding citizens pay the cost on their purchases. In the past three years, for example, the total number of shoplifting offences whose perpetrators have been brought to justice increased from 112,000 in 2004 to 142,362 in 2006. The Government have a major drive to bring people to justice for shoplifting, as the increase in custody and fixed penalty notices has shown.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): But is not the real problem that a huge percentage of our shoplifters are heroin addicts who steal the goods to sell them to get their next heroin shot? Rather than being pleased about sending too many people to prison, is there not
15 July 2008 : Column 126
an argument for increasing the provision of drugs courts and trying to ensure that those people, who are often victims as much as criminals, get the treatment that they need rather than the great expense of prison?

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman knows that I very much agree with that approach. As well as taking people who are persistent offenders into custody, which has been done, we also need to look at what we do about the alcohol and drug abuse that is driving people to that shoplifting. He will know that draft guidelines have been produced by the Sentencing Guidelines Council to look into how we can deal not only with potential custody but sentences that include community-based penalties to address drug and alcohol issues. The draft guidelines are open for consultation, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman responds. I suspect that his response may be slightly different from that of those on his Front Bench, but also that it will have great benefits.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): No, my hon. Friend’s response is not different from ours on the Front Bench, because I entirely agree with what he said. If the Minister takes shoplifting seriously—it is not just shoplifting; it is theft, which is a very serious crime—why do the Government choose to leave that crime and other crimes against business out of the British crime survey? Shoplifting is not a victimless crime; it is a crime against business, and people who own businesses and work in businesses suffer from it. With shoplifting left out of the British crime survey, is it any wonder that people have no confidence in the Government’s ability to enforce the law?

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Lady will recall that her Government established the British crime survey. We have widened its scope, although I am always happy to take representations about what should be included. The facts are these: more people are being brought to justice for shoplifting than ever before; a greater proportion of people are going into custody than under the previous Conservative Government; and we are trying to tackle some of the longer-term issues that the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) mentioned to do with drug and alcohol abuse, which is one of the key drivers of shoplifting crime. I do take shoplifting seriously. It is theft, and it is a loss that imposes a cost on the ordinary, decent taxpayer who shops in those shops and pays extra costs for goods because of the loss through leakages and theft. Shoplifting is something that we need to tackle, and I will happily look into the suggestions that she has made.

Court Fees (Child Protection)

7. Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): What plans he has to consult local authorities on the effect of new court fees for child protection cases. [218564]

12. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): What plans he has to consult local authorities on the effect of new court fees for child protection cases. [218570]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): My Department has made a full cash transfer to cover the costs to local authorities. However, we will be monitoring the overall impact of the recent
15 July 2008 : Column 127
reforms in this area, the better to understand how they are working. That will include monitoring the numbers of cases issued, the stages at which they are resolved and, consequently, the total value of fees payable.

Mr. Brazier: Does the Minister accept, however, that the sharp drop in care proceedings involving such vulnerable children is in part due to the twentyfold increase in fees, for which the funding is not ring-fenced? Her right hon. Friend, the then Minister, said that what was then the Adoption and Children Bill would

Next Section Index Home Page