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She is now the Home Secretary. What has that provision done, other than cause more delays and in some cases prevent the initiation of proceedings, for those very vulnerable children?

Bridget Prentice: First, I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s premise that the drop in the number of cases going through the courts is due to the fees. In fact, the drop in the number of cases going to court happened before the new fees were implemented, which happened only in May this year. We are looking to see what the reasons behind that are; one reason may be that people were gearing up for the publication of the public law outline, which encourages local authorities to use other means to look after and protect children, rather than taking them through the court system.

Mr. Robathan: Could the Minister confirm that the money granted to local authorities is not ring-fenced? If there is a drop in the number of court cases being brought forward, could she comment on the impact that that might be having on the accountability and transparency of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, which is an organisation raised with me the whole time by constituents who are very unhappy about its work?

Bridget Prentice: A total of £40 million is being given to local authorities this year, which will also be given to them next year and the following year. That money is the total allocated, should every case go right through the whole system to the end of court proceedings. In other words, that amount is more than I would expect the local authorities will need if they use other possibilities to deal with the children, rather than taking them through the courts. By monitoring the process, we will be able to see exactly how much money local authorities spend on it. I should also point out to the hon. Gentleman that local authorities take umbrage at the suggestion that they would not use the court system for financial reasons, when they see, rightly, that their statutory duty to protect the child is paramount.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Can my hon. Friend assure local authorities that in return for these massive increases they can expect fewer delays when the courts and CAFCASS start proceedings?

Bridget Prentice: Yes, they should be able to expect fewer delays. The whole point of the public law outline is to streamline the system and to encourage local authorities and other agencies to look at alternative ways of protecting the child before going to the courts. In that way, both CAFCASS and the courts should
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respond far more quickly in dealing with the vulnerable child—that, after all, is who the whole system is supposed to be there to protect.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Does the Minister feel that the new court fees might be prejudicial to the interests and rights of natural parents? She knows of my interest in that matter in protection cases, but does she feel that the natural parents, whose position is of huge importance, might be prejudiced by the new fees?

Bridget Prentice: No, I do not think that the position of the natural parent will be prejudiced by the new fees. The new fees are for local authorities; individual parents are, of course, protected financially in other ways. I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point that it is important that parents are given a voice in the court system. I hope that the new public law outline will ensure that they are heard and that the wider family is also used and supported in the protection of young children.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): We are talking about a staggering increase in court fees of 2,900 per cent. Is the Minister aware that in London, where a pilot study was carried out, there has been a 40 per cent. drop in the number of cases? In Kent, there has been an 80 per cent. drop. Does she therefore accept that councils’ decisions to initiate child care cases are being influenced by these court fee increases? Is this not yet another example of gross incompetence on the part of Ministers, at a time when the physical abuse of children is on the up? Does the Minister agree that there really is a danger that abused children could suffer or even die because of these changes?

Bridget Prentice: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will come to reflect on his remarks and regret that he has put his question in such a way. We are talking about the most vulnerable children in our society and we should talk about them in a way that means that we will do our very best to ensure that they are properly protected. Inflammatory language does not help.

I have spoken to London local authorities and to the judiciary in Kent about the drop in cases, and they cannot give an absolutely concrete reason for that. One reason that London local authorities suggested was that they are putting far more effort and resources into supporting families in the community. Indeed, many of them are very proud of that and they are frankly outraged at the suggestion that they are leaving children in danger. They are making much more effort to avoid care proceedings altogether, which is one of the aims of the statutory guidelines. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will talk to some of those local authorities and to the judiciary to find out exactly what is being done to protect the vulnerable.

Coroners’ System

8. John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): When he plans to bring forward legislation to reform the coroners’ system. [218565]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): As the hon. Gentleman will know, the coroners and death certification Bill was put into
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the draft legislative programme in May. I look forward to working with him and others to ensure that it makes its passage through Parliament in the new Session. In the meantime, I have put in place a number of measures that we can use without legislation to move some of these issues forward.

John Barrett: The families of Scottish constituents and Scottish soldiers who have died abroad must go through a complex procedure, particularly when fatal accident inquiries are involved. With the Cullen review now in progress, what discussions is the Minister having to ensure that the families of Scots who have died abroad are not subject to undue delays during what is a difficult time for them?

Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. I regret the fact that the families of Scottish military who have died abroad have to come to England in order to take part in inquests. While I understand that the Cullen review is going ahead in Scotland, I also hope that the Scottish Parliament will seriously consider making inquest procedure applicable in Scotland so that Scottish families will be able to use it. People may not necessarily be aware that there is no inquest procedure in Scotland, which I think is something to be regretted.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): May I thank the Minister for her reply? Given that the coroners Bill will be going forward only in the next Session, would the Government think better about pushing ahead with part 6 of the current Counter-Terrorism Bill, which could make sweeping provisions in respect of coroners’ courts, giving Ministers the power to sack both coroners and jurors?

Bridget Prentice: I understand what my hon. Friend says, but may I say that it is for my colleagues in the Home Office to respond in detail to those issues. If he puts that question to them, I am sure that he will receive a reasonable response.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): A few months ago, I had a harrowing meeting with the parents of someone who lost their life while in police custody. They were very unhappy with the coroners’ system as they believed that the information provided before the coroner’s hearing was very weak and that not all the relevant evidence had been provided. Before the Bill comes forward in the next Session, can anything be done to beef up the system so that interested parties can acquire more information before they attend the inquest?

Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The most important part of the coroners Bill is the principle of putting bereaved families at the heart of the system, which means ensuring that they get all the information they need beforehand. In some areas, support teams take the families through what the procedure will be; indeed, good coroners do that as a matter of course. We are publishing a draft charter for bereaved families, which is currently out to consultation, and it will include many of the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman. If he has any further specific questions, I would be more than happy to respond to them.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): The proposed Bill will give extended powers to coroners to carry out further investigations. Has my hon. Friend considered the usefulness of psychological autopsies, particularly
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where, as in my constituency, there have been clusters of suicides? They would help to provide a clearer picture of exactly what lay behind the problems so that we could target the relevant services to solve them.

Bridget Prentice: I know that my hon. Friend has taken a close interest in this issue, and we extend our condolences to the families of the young people involved in those recent tragedies in her constituency. My hon. Friend has raised the matter of psychological autopsies before and I have asked my officials to look further into it. If we can come up with a means to make this a useful part of the coroner’s remit, I will come back to her with further information.

Private Sector Prisons

9. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What recent representations he has received on standards of prisoner safety in private sector prisons. [218566]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): Over the past year, I have received a number of submissions concerning the contracted estate.

David Taylor: One of our nation’s 11 private finance initiative prisons is Global Solutions Ltd. Rye Hill in the east midlands, whose safety regime allowed Wayne Reid to be stabbed to death in his cell by three fellow inmates in 2005. How is the Minister tackling such unsafe and unstable establishments, floundering in perverse frameworks that impose 50 penalty points for weapon discovery—ensuring cursory searches—but a single point for self-harm or suicide, thus inverting normal, rational public service values? Aren’t private prisons getting away with murder?

Mr. Hanson: I thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue. Wayne Reid did indeed die in his cell at HMP Rye Hill in April 2005 and two individuals were subsequently convicted of his murder. I regret the fact that Wayne died in those circumstances and I await a letter from the coroner who recently completed the inquest into the death. I expect the coroner to forward a letter outlining some issues for the Government to examine in detail. Together with the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), I have taken a keen interest in the performance of GSL in Rye Hill over the past 12 months. We will continue to look at the performance of Rye Hill and GSL and see what lessons can be learned from the coroner’s verdict on Wayne Reid’s tragic and possibly avoidable death.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Global Solutions also has a responsibility for immigration removal centres. Is the Minister satisfied that he has responsibility for prisons and that the Home Office has responsibility for immigration removal centres? Is not it the basic fact that if people are detained by the state, there should be an expectation on the part of all of us that there is a reasonable standard of care? We have had repeated fires at Campsfield House, which impact not only on the immigration removal centre, but on the whole community, its fear of crime and on the ability to police. There are all sorts of other consequences as well.

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Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman will know that the immigration removal centres are not my direct responsibility, but there is a common inspection regime across the estate. Obviously, I discuss a range of issues, including how we manage the centres and what support we can give, on a regular basis with my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration, who is responsible for immigration removal centres. Indeed, the Prison Service and staff from the prison estate give support on training and back-up to people in the Border and Immigration Agency estate on a regular basis. However, I shall certainly reflect on the hon. Gentleman’s points.

Employment (Prisoners)

10. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): What steps he is taking to assist prisoners in gaining employment on release. [218568]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): The Government have made the employment of offenders one of their key priorities. Our proposals for getting more offenders into employment are outlined in the document “Reducing Re-offending through Skills and Employment: Next Steps” published at the end of 2006 and in the prison policy update paper, published by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice in January this year.

Ben Chapman: As far as I am concerned, once the sentence is served, the slate is clean. At what is the most vulnerable point of an ex-prisoner’s life, will my hon. Friend assure me that all possible co-ordinated assistance is given to ex-prisoners seeking employment so that they turn towards work and away from reoffending?

Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments. One of the key issues in helping to prevent people from reoffending is employment. One of the key drivers for that has to be engagement with employers outside prison, so that people can go through the gate in a positive way to employment on release.

There are some very positive schemes in my hon. Friend’s area of Merseyside which deal with just that involvement. We have a number of initiatives in the north-west, including with the Northwest Regional Development Agency, which offers support officers in 10 prisons, helping to build a successful exit-to-work project, supported by private sector employers across Merseyside in particular. It is important that we have that through-the-gate activity, and we are looking strongly at how we can engage with employers, not just in the north-west, but elsewhere to develop that still further.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): If we truly believe that the punishment is sending someone to prison and that the aim of prison is rehabilitation, then all the money spent on prisons is wasted if we do not have a comprehensive aftercare service. Many people who come out of prison are not looked after and have nowhere to go. As a consequence, many of them reoffend, some deliberately. This is a shocking state of affairs.

Mr. Hanson: I again accept those concerns, because we in government share them. We are currently looking, with fellow Ministers, at how we can help and support people to get access to proper and effective housing, to
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employment and to continuing drugs services, very often at the time that hon. Members have mentioned—when those people go through the gate outside into the community. It is important that prisons serve a rehabilitation function, and both my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and I are concerned to ensure that they do that, particularly in relation to raising skills—employability skills and literacy and numeracy skills—in prison to help people to get employment when they return to the community, as the vast majority of prisoners will ultimately do.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Will the Minister have a look at the scheme run by the National Grid? It has been going for a number of years and there are extremely low reoffending rates as a consequence. It involves a big company working with smaller supply companies. Will he look at its success, and the lessons that have been learned, to ensure that they are disseminated to other large companies?

Mr. Hanson: Indeed. My hon. Friend may not be aware that I visited Reading prison yesterday with my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) and National Grid to discuss ways of bringing about integrated employment. National Grid, a private-sector company, is involving its suppliers and contractors in efforts to provide key employment, and is helping Reading prison—in this instance—to give prisoners incentives to meet training standards to a level that will enable them to be offered employment outside. We are continually looking at that model to establish whether we can build on or improve it, and yesterday, with Mary Harris, we spent a very productive afternoon at Reading prison.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given that over 60 per cent. of the 11,000 people in our young offenders institutions suffer from speech, language and communication impairments that prevent them from gaining effective access to education and training courses, does the Minister agree that, following the publication of the youth crime action plan, it is vital for local commissioners to put together detailed, comprehensive and funded plans for the delivery of speech and language services to young offenders so that they have a better chance of obtaining sustainable jobs well into the future?

Mr. Hanson: I certainly agree, and I commend the work done by the hon. Gentleman for my colleagues in the Department for Children, Schools and Families on that very issue. He will know that the problems relating to literacy and numeracy are acute, particularly among young offenders. We must drive up literacy and numeracy levels—which are well below those that we would expect of people outside young offenders institutions—to enable young offenders both to gain opportunities for employment and to manage their day-to-day existence. Their chaotic lifestyles often result not just from difficult backgrounds, but from a lack of educational opportunity.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): Many discharged prisoners suffer from mental health problems. What form of rehabilitation and psychiatric support are we offering?

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