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15 July 2008 : Column 133

Mr. Hanson: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has commissioned my noble Friend Lord Bradley to examine mental health issues in prisons and young offenders institutions. We need to consider not only what should be done to improve services in prison, but which people are going to prison who might be better served elsewhere. I hope that Lord Bradley’s report will help us to involve the national health service in England, Scotland and Wales, as well as other agencies, in providing aftercare and treatment for people with severe mental health problems while they are in the prison system. In many instances mental health problems lead to offending behaviour and, in tackling such behaviour, we should bear in mind that it is as much a mental health as a criminal justice problem.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): May I echo the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow)? Does the Minister accept that, important as it is for more help to be provided in the education service for prisoners suffering from dyslexia, dyspraxia and other learning difficulties while they are in prison, it is also important to enhance and improve their opportunities to find employment when they leave? Will he ensure that the help that they receive in prison does not automatically stop the moment they leave and re-enter society?

Mr. Hanson: In the spirit of cross-party co-operation on these matters, I will agree with the hon. Gentleman. As he will recall, I visited Chelmsford prison with him last July, and also met a delegation from the prison with him earlier this year to discuss the issues that he has raised.

Continuity of care is extremely important. We must ensure that we do not simply throw people out of the door and allow them to fall back into behaviour that is damaging both for them and for the communities from which they have come. We need to establish a through-the-gate offender management service linking probation with prison, which is what we are trying to do through the merger of the Prison Service and the probation service in the overarching National Offender Management Service.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend consider providing more flexibility in the home curfew system when people are offered employment? A young constituent of mine has been prevented from being considered for home curfew because he is not due for release until next March. However, he has been offered a job, and his family are willing to support him. The provision of more flexibility would enable us to free up spaces in institutions while also giving people an opportunity to turn their lives around.

Mr. Hanson: I will happily look at the case that my hon. Friend mentions if he wants to draw it to my attention. It is important that we not only take risk into account, but that we look at how we deal with employment opportunities.

Court Reports

11. Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): What recent representations he has received from local newspapers on the cost of court reports. [218569]

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The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): I have received a number of representations about charging for court reports from right hon. and hon. Members, from local newspapers in Yorkshire, Hertfordshire and Sunderland and from the Newspaper Society and the Society of Editors. In the light of those representations and having considered the matter carefully, I have decided that, subject to certain common-sense conditions, that information should be provided to newspapers for free. That reverses the policy that has stood since 1989.

Philip Davies: I am very grateful to the Lord Chancellor for that U-turn on those court charges. I understand why the Government were so keen to stop local readers of newspapers from accessing the information that court sentences are now so pathetically lenient. I hope that he will give a commitment to ensure not only that reports will be free from now on, but that they will stay free for ever.

Mr. Straw: It is a reversal of a policy that was implemented originally by the Conservative party, and I think that the hon. Gentleman’s response comes into the category of slightly churlish. I commend to him the response of his colleague, the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main). I was unaware of that policy, which I found unacceptable, until she raised it with me in oral questions at the end of April. I followed it up, I talked to her and decided that it was unacceptable. I have now announced that it has been changed.

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on that excellent decision? Local newspapers such as the Swindon Advertiser are the backbone of local democracy and it is important that we get those reports in our newspapers.

Mr. Straw: The Swindon Advertiser is a great newspaper. It is not quite as great as the Lancashire Telegraph, the world’s most important newspaper. My hon. Friend, with approbation from the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), makes the important point that local and regional newspapers are the backbone of our democracy. It is important that we should do everything we can to support them.

Topical Questions

T1. [218548] Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): The Home Secretary, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families and I have today published the youth crime action plan. That is a comprehensive response to youth crime, building on our reforms in the past 11 years. It spans tough enforcement, early prevention and support to keep young people out of trouble and to help young victims of crime.

Mr. Evans: That is topical, because I want to ask a question about that matter. The youth crime action plan refers to the fact that there will be more knife referral projects, which will mean visits to A and E
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departments in order to see the impact of knife wounds. On Sunday, when the Home Secretary was asked whether that meant visits to hospitals by offenders to see victims, she said, “It does.” Yesterday, she reversed that position. Does the Home Secretary know the difference between her A and E and her elbow? As the position changes every day, what is the policy—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I reiterate that topical questions should be very snappy.

Mr. Straw: It is no good the hon. Gentleman making that criticism of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, which is quite uncalled for, when he cannot distinguish between the Home Secretary and the Justice Secretary. The distinction, I would have thought, is obvious. I sort of gathered that he was in favour of our youth crime action plan, which is good. As the hon. Gentleman knows, he and I share not only a police force that is rated top in the country, but most of a police division that does extremely well. There have already been examples, for example, in the Lewisham youth offending team area, where offenders are taken not to see the victims—the Home Secretary was never suggesting that—but to meet consultants and others who deal with the victims of violent crime.

T2. [218549] Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): Given the current flurry of concern about incidents of violence, does my right hon. Friend agree that every accident and emergency unit in the country ought to learn from the success in Cardiff arising out of the work of Professor Jon Shepherd, a specialist in the accident and emergency unit? He analysed clinically how, where and why violent incidents took place and then worked with the local authority and the police to identify what had gone on, which has resulted in Cardiff becoming the safest city of its cohort, rather than one of the more dangerous. Will my right hon. Friend do what he can to get those principles applied everywhere in the country?

Mr. Speaker: Order. May I repeat my earlier message?

Mr. Straw: Yes, Mr. Speaker. Professor Jonathan Shepherd has done pioneering work, although let me also say that one violent crime—one knife crime—is one too many. He continues to publish important research looking at a large sample of admissions for violence to A and E departments over the last eight years. It shows a year-by-year reduction in the number of people being admitted as victims of crime to A and E departments across England and Wales.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): It is not surprising that the Government have failed to deliver an oral statement on the youth crime action plan, as they were still cobbling it together yesterday. We have already had the respect action plan, the youth taskforce action plan, the crime reduction and drugs strategy action plan, the youth alcohol action plan, the violent crime action plan and the fighting violent crime together action plan. When will the Justice Secretary understand that people do not want more last-minute Government action plans, but that what they want is action?

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Mr. Straw: That was snappy too, Mr. Speaker. What the public understand is that as a result of the action the Labour Government have taken over the past 11 years, we have become the first Government since the war to see a reduction in crime, rather than an increase. Every Conservative Government since the war presided over an increase in crime, and the last Administration saw a doubling in crime. We have seen a consistent reduction in crime including—according to entirely independent research by Cardiff university into A and E department admissions, and according to the British crime survey that the Conservatives established but that we have enhanced—very significant reductions in violent crime. None of us underestimate the current problem of knife crime in certain areas. That is why we have taken action, as the Home Secretary has done by producing the youth crime action plan, which builds on the shambles of the youth justice system—so-called—that we inherited in 1997.

Nick Herbert: That was 10 years ago.

Mr. Straw: Yes, it was 10 years ago, and the system was an utter shambles, which we have reformed and improved so that youth crime has come down. We have built on that, and we have also taken action in respect of knife crime in eight specific areas.

Nick Herbert: The Government’s impact assessment on this plan is also published today. I have a copy with me. It asks what policy options have been considered. Option 1 is:

Option 2 is:

That is the preferred option, so perhaps that is a start. However, in the last week, three more young people have lost their lives in knife attacks. After a decade in office, all the Justice Secretary can offer is yet another apology and yet another crime plan of recycled announcements and lazy gimmicks. Will he confirm that the Government were still amending the youth crime action plan yesterday?

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am sorry, but although it is not for the Speaker to keep interrupting, let me say again that the facility of topical questions is for Back Benchers. Front Benchers are taking the opportunity to come in at this time, whereas before they did so during the tabled questions. There should not be speeches of this nature.

Mr. Straw: The plan has been printed. It was printed yesterday and, as far as I know, no amendments were made yesterday. Proofreading changes may have been made, but that is in the nature of these things.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) seems to be implying that should there ever be a Conservative Government, there will be no knife crime and no violent murders. May I say to him that that is a rash and immature pledge to make? I am deeply sorry about any crimes of violence, as I am about any crimes. What we are seeking to do—by strengthening the way in which the whole criminal justice system works and not least by strengthening the
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support we give to the police and those dealing with crimes against, and by, youngsters—is to ensure that there are many fewer examples of this kind of crime and that many more of those who perpetrate such crimes are brought to justice.

T6. [218553] Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): I have received a letter from the Parole Board regarding my constituent, Ransford Stober, whose parole was revoked 15 months ago and who is still waiting for a Parole Board hearing. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such a delay is completely unacceptable, and can he tell me what he is doing to speed up the Parole Board’s activities?

Mr. Straw: I am aware of delays, not least in cases such as the one that my hon. Friend raises. We are doing a great deal to speed up the system. I am afraid that a couple of years ago, and last year, the Parole Board received an unexpected number of applications relating to those on indeterminate sentences, but we are taking a lot of action, and I shall certainly talk to her about this particular case.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): There are some good ideas in the youth crime action plan, including the extension of restorative justice and more early intervention, for which there is real evidence. Can the Justice Secretary confirm that none of the Scared Straight ideas trailed by the Home Secretary over the weekend come into the plan at all? That is a good idea, because such ideas do not work and they make things worse. Can he say what evidence there is to suggest that the ideas in the plan about making more public the punishment of youths will work to reduce reoffending?

Mr. Straw: What my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was talking about—for example, paralleling what has already taken place in the Lewisham youth offending team, where the offender is confronted with the consequences of their offending—is at the heart of systems of restorative justice, which the hon. Gentleman, I and the whole House applaud. So, I do not understand the point —[Interruption.] They are not different. The whole plan, which builds on the reforms that we have been making to the youth justice system over the past 11 years, is designed, even more, to ensure that youth crime decreases and that more of the perpetrators are dealt with.

On publicity, my view is that, particularly for the older young offenders, there is a case for a greater public focus. I have seen such an approach working in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick), for example. Publicity about youngsters aged 16 and 17 who have received antisocial behaviour orders has, as it should have, a salutary and deterrent effect.

T8. [218555] Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): In March, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), announced that she would be rejecting the recommendations of a two-year study by the Law Commission to reform the law to offer protection for cohabiting couples, as has happened in Scotland. Given that there are 2 million cohabiting couples in England and Wales, and that, commonly, they believe the
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misconception—the fallacy—that there is such a thing as common law marriage, what protections does she offer mostly vulnerable women and their children on the breakdown of cohabiting relationships?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): I have discussed this issue with my hon. Friend; we had a very useful discussion on it, when I explained to her that our decision was to wait to see how the Scottish system rolled out and what consequences there might be in England and Wales as a result of that. In the meantime, we are doing more work on ensuring that people are aware of their rights and obligations, whether or not they are cohabitees. We will continue to do that work, so that people understand the choices that they make.

T3. [218550] Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Given that everybody agrees that, tragically, knife crime is now at the top of the concerns of all families with teenagers and young adults the length and breadth of the country, will the Justice Secretary tell us what the courts are doing now to maximise the chance of convicting the guilty and to ensure that the sentences passed are effective in preventing reoffending and in deterring others from picking up knives and taking them out with them?

Mr. Straw: The maximisation of conviction rates in the courts is a matter for the judicial process. If I may say so, the Liberal Democrats have not been hugely helpful in recent years in ensuring that—while we guarantee that the innocent are acquitted—we shift the balance against those who are plainly guilty but try to use technical means to avoid conviction. On the issue of sentences, the President of the Court of Appeal—now the Lord Chief Justice elect, Sir Igor Judge—has spelled out that tough and appropriate sentences will be given for knife crimes, even if the knife is not used.

T5. [218552] Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I am afraid that there is nothing snappy about the management of those who are known to be a threat to the most vulnerable in society, especially Gary Chester-Nash, about whom the Ministry produced a report recently. He was known to be a violent offender and a serious threat, especially to the most vulnerable, but on his release from prison he was able to travel 300 miles from the London area to my constituency, despite having a unique national antisocial behaviour order. There he murdered Jean Bowditch. Her widower, Mike Bowditch, remains angry at the fact that, despite many inquiries into the case, no one has been found to be responsible for the handling of this man, who was known to be a serious offender. Has the Minister anything to say that I can report back to my constituent to reassure him that the system is capable of managing such serious offenders?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Maria Eagle): I begin by expressing our sympathy to the relatives of Mrs. Jean Bowditch for the loss that they suffered when she was murdered by Gary Chester-Nash. The hon. Gentleman raises important issues. The fact that we needed to ensure that we learned the lessons of this especially awful case meant that we had a
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full serious case review by the strategic management board of the London multi-agency public protection arrangements, and that we followed that up by asking the chief inspector of probation services to carry out a further full inspection to examine to what extent the recommendations made by the report had been implemented. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the chief inspector has just published his report, “On the Right Road”, and it suggests that more remains to be done. He has made some recommendations and we will try to ensure that the further recommendations made by the chief inspector are all implemented.

In respect of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent, it is impossible for any Member of Parliament to take away the hurt and pain caused by being the relative of a victim of a murder of this kind, but I am always happy to meet hon. Members about such issues and would be happy to do so in this case.

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