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House of Commons

Tuesday 28 October 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—

Community Legal Advice Centre and Network

1. Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): When he next expects to meet the Legal Services Commission to discuss the roll-out of the community legal advice centre and network programme. [230370]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): Lord Bach, the Minister with responsibility for legal aid, regularly meets the Legal Services Commission to discuss a range of issues relating to the legal aid reform programme, including the development of the community legal service.

Robert Neill: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Will she ensure that those discussions take account of the need to ensure that the roll-out of the community legal service does not prejudice the funding and operations of Citizens Advice? I recently met the excellent manager of our citizens advice bureau in Bromley, Angela Bragg. It provides a first-rate service, but there is a real fear that unless the creation of the community legal service is properly handled, it could cream off much of the funding and make some CABs no longer viable. That would be a serious loss to the communities they serve.

Bridget Prentice: I endorse what the hon. Gentleman says about the role of citizens advice bureaux, not only in Bromley but throughout the country. They do an excellent job, and it is important that they continue to do so. I can assure him that in the roll-out of community legal advice centres, which will offer integrated services on debt, housing, welfare and so on, the Legal Services Commission will invite tenders for its funds and citizens advice bureaux may well be part of that process. They have certainly been part of the process up to now, and I hope that they continue to be so.

Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend accept that there is still general concern that the Legal Services Commission does not understand the nature of the third sector and the added value that is provided by organisations such as citizens advice bureaux? They not only deal with the legal
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issues, but look more widely at the problems that led somebody to get into legal difficulties. They also address the need for counselling and financial advice. Frankly, the tendering of services within Government sometimes misses the point in relation to that added value.

Bridget Prentice: I agree to some extent with my right hon. Friend in that those who seek legal advice often have multiple and related problems. Citizens advice bureaux and other not-for-profit organisations are often best placed to put all those together and give more rounded advice. When the legal advice centres are rolled out, the not-for-profit organisations will be part of the process, so that the recommendations about the shape of the future of the service will be in their hands. They will therefore be an integral part of the future of legal advice.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Further to the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), is the Minister aware that Leicester law centre has already closed and that one county council has stated that all its CABs are now under threat? Does she agree that the community legal advice centres and the community legal advice networks are untried and untested? What happened to the pilot scheme that was promised, and will she now consider urgently the harm that could be done to our vulnerable constituents if CABs have to close? Is not this yet another example of this Government trusting a bureaucratic, public sector solution, rather than a voluntary sector group such as the CABs?

Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman has missed the point. Law centres are funded not so much by the LSC, but by other sources of funding. Therefore, it is not within the LSC’s gift to decide whether they remain open. Of course it is unfortunate if a law centre makes the decision to close. However, the majority of providers are adapting well to the new system, including the not-for-profit sector. The LSC is not the only funder of advice agencies, and any withdrawal of an advice agency may be rooted elsewhere. Citizens Advice has worked closely with us throughout the legal aid reform programme, and I hope that it will continue to do so.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware of the concern felt by small voluntary organisations in south Wales, in particular about the community legal advice network that is proposed to cover the Cardiff, Vale and Bridgend areas? Many of the small providers fear that they will not be able to compete, and they provide services for extremely vulnerable clients.

Bridget Prentice: I am not aware of the particular difficulties in south Wales that my hon. Friend mentions, but I will ensure that Lord Bach is made aware of them. If there are particular problems, he and the LSC will look at ensuring that the people of south Wales have access to proper advice agencies.


2. Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with HM Prison Service on increasing the amount of purposeful activity undertaken by inmates in prisons. [230371]

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9. Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with HM Prison Service on increasing the amount of purposeful activity in prisons. [230378]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): The Government and the National Offender Management Service are committed to increasing the amount and quality of purposeful activity in prisons including, for example, the expansion and further development of links with private sector employers to increase the range of constructive work and training available to prisoners; the delivery of a comprehensive range of interventions designed to address offending behaviour; and an improvement in the quality of prison education provision.

Angela Watkinson: The Minister will agree that a custodial sentence provides the opportunity for training and education to prepare people to lead productive lives, but that what often happens in practice is that people are moved from prison to prison, meaning that they have different tutors and their courses are left unfinished. What will he do to remedy that? Will he have discussions with his colleagues in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and in the Department for Work and Pensions to see what additional work opportunities can be given to prisoners when they leave, so that they are motivated to learn while they are in prison?

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Lady makes a valid point. It is important that we have employment opportunities and that we link them to what happens in the world outside for when prisoners leave. Last year alone, more than 40,000 prisoners went into training and employment at the end of their sentence. I take the point that occasionally movement between prisons can disrupt sentences. We have to focus on providing meaningful employment, raising skills and matching that with the business world outside. Indeed, later this year I shall host a further seminar with some key employers to try to make links with prisons in the community.

Mr. Evennett: In June, the Government introduced the core day, which means that in 159 of our state prisons prisoners are locked in their cells for the whole of Friday, with the cancellation of classes and workshops. Does the Minister think that that will help in the fight against recidivism?

Mr. Hanson: I know that the hon. Gentleman meant Friday afternoon, rather than the whole of Friday. Prisoners are not locked up for the whole of Friday. We are looking at a range of efficiency measures. The core day is at an early stage in its implementation. I need to look at that, and we have a group looking at the impact of the core day on a range of services. Overall, last year, some 25.3 hours per prisoner was, on average, spent on purposeful activity. I want to see that figure increase and, for the reasons I gave to the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), I am trying to ensure that that happens.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Will the system that my right hon. Friend is outlining be comprehensive enough to find something useful for Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross to do in the event that they finish up inside?

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Mr. Hanson: I am sure that we have some in-house entertainment that they can do. My hon. Friend makes a serious point. It is not for me to comment on the issues that were mentioned, but I feel that both Mr. Ross and Mr. Brand have to apologise for the broadcast. I do not think that it was appropriate or in keeping with broadcasting. I am not sure that it will result in prosecutions, but I feel that an apology is called for.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): I am sure that the Minister will agree that given the reoffending rates among young offenders it is particularly important that they find purposeful activities during their periods inside. Is he aware of the scheme that has been operating between Ashfield young offenders institution and Avon fire and rescue, whereby the youngsters do the equivalent of a firefighter’s training course? Does he think that that model could be adapted elsewhere?

Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. I am aware of the scheme. It is important that we give people pride in themselves, as well as some recognition of their achievement, and that we let them learn new skills. The fire service scheme, linked with the young offenders institution in this case, offers all those activities. It is key to us that we raise the level of skills and of employability and that we give people some pride and self-worth, which, sadly, they often have not had outside the estate.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given that the right hon. Gentleman is a notable progressive, and pursuant to the publication of the youth crime action plan, will he accept that it should be a priority to do something to help the 60 per cent.-plus of the 11,000 people in the young offenders estate who suffer from speech, language and communication problems on a scale and of a severity that prevents them from accessing conventional education and training courses?

Mr. Hanson: Absolutely. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his recognition of my progressive nature, which I am sure the House will welcome. I recognise that he has done a considerable amount of work on the question of dyslexia and other learning disabilities. There is, sadly, a high correlation between the people who go into offending behaviour and their level of literacy and numeracy. We need to address the problem early. The youth crime action plan, with which I have been dealing along with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, is trying to look at early intervention and at how to make better use of people’s time in custody to deal with those very issues.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): There is a rather Dickensian feel to the list of activities that prisoners undertake: scrubbing floors, cleaning toilets and stitching laundry are jobs that Magwitch would recognise, but does my right hon. Friend have great expectations that a wider variety of tasks will be available in the years ahead that will genuinely fit discharged prisoners better for the outside world that will receive them?

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Mr. Hanson: There is certainly some low-level employment in prisons, but I can give some different examples. I visited Wandsworth prison recently and saw the high investment that has been made in giving some prisoners computer skills so that they have the potential to work in the sector. Other prisons offer real and definite skills in housebuilding, decorating and painting, which require a high national vocational qualification. Indeed, funding for education in prisons has risen in the past six years alone from £57 million in 2001 to £170 million in 2008. That is real progress, and we are looking to match giving inmates skills for the outside world with what needs to be done in prison.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): I accept that purposeful activity for inmates is vital, but will the Minister assure the House that the justice system is there to punish those who have broken the law?

Mr. Hanson: Absolutely. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary repeated what all Ministers have always made very clear—that the justice system is about punishment and reform. There has to be an element of punishment, as that is what the public and victims quite rightly demand, but equally we need to make sure that those who come into contact with our system do not return to us after the end of their sentence. The key to that is employability, as well as raised skill levels and the maintenance of family links. We must also build support for accommodation outside prison and try to deal with some of the real and meaningful problems to do with drugs, alcohol and mental health. Our pathways programme tries to do all that in a positive way.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): The Minister said that the important thing about purposeful educational activity in prison is that it prepares people for the world outside, and I welcome that. For example, great progress has been made in helping prisoners to learn to read, but the problem of giving prisoners—those doing National Extension College courses, and others—access to the internet is a real barrier to preparing them for the world outside. Has there been any progress in making it easier for prisoners to use the internet safely?

Mr. Hanson: First, may I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend did in this field when she held ministerial office? She rightly recognises that we need to raise prisoners’ internet and computing skills in preparation for the outside world, and we are looking at how we can make that practicable in a secure way. However, she will accept that that there are real difficulties with internet usage and contact between prisoners and the outside world, so security concerns remain paramount in our approach to the issue.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): In July, the Government severely cut the amount of time that prisoners can spend working or learning to read and write, but even before that prisoners spent only three and a half hours a day, Monday to Friday, on purposeful activity. Does the Minister share my disappointment that, while the reoffending rate for ex-prisoners rockets and thus more victims of crime are created, the Secretary of State resorts to cheap soundbites about sentencing to disguise the Government’s incompetence in failing to provide real opportunities for offenders to turn away from crime through purposeful activity in prison?

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Mr. Hanson: First, let me tell the hon. and learned Gentleman that crime overall is down some 39 per cent. since 1997. Reoffending figures have also fallen over the past six years, as he will see if he looks at the announcement that I made to the House in September. He mentioned the figures on purposeful activity by prisoners, which I set out earlier to the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett). Currently, in 2007-08, each prisoner spends some 25.3 hours per week on purposeful activity. That is a steady figure, but I am working to increase it and I know that I will have his support in doing so—although unfortunately a future Conservative Government, if there were to be one, would be unlikely to provide the necessary resources.

Fixed-term Parliaments

3. Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): What recent representations he has received on the proposal for fixed-term Parliaments. [230372]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): The issue of fixed-term Parliaments has been debated in this House on a number of occasions. Most recently, the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) introduced a private Member’s Bill that would have provided for general elections every four years.

Jo Swinson: Many excellent arguments are commonly used in favour of fixed-term Parliaments, but does the Minister agree that another advantage of such a system is that it would make it much easier to regulate party political spending over the entire electoral cycle? Surely that is particularly desirable, as there is clearly a need for much tighter control of party funding and spending.

Mr. Wills: On the hon. Lady’s final point, she will be aware that we are bringing a Bill before the House that will address all those issues, and I look forward to her contribution to debates on it as we tackle what I agree is a very important issue. On the other issue that she raised, there are arguments on both sides. They have been exhaustively rehearsed, and no doubt we will continue debating them for the foreseeable future.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): When I introduced a Bill on the subject many years ago, I was told that I had to get royal permission, which surely reminds us that, at some point, we need to get serious hold of prerogative powers. Does not the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) have a good essential point, which is that if we really want to control or get hold of the vexed issue of party funding, we have to get some more reliable control over the election spending period? Fixed-term Parliaments would enable us to do that.

Mr. Wills: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his contribution. He will be aware, of course, that we are coming to terms with how we get a grip on the prerogative power; that is the basis of the “Governance of Britain” programme. We are introducing a Constitutional Renewal Bill, as he is well aware. We have built on the excellent work done by his Committee—the Public Administration Committee—to try to codify the royal prerogative. We will take that work further forward. Of course he is right that we have to get a grip on party spending at
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election time; that is precisely why we are introducing the Bill. Again, I look forward to his contribution to debate on the Bill. I point out to him, and to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who first asked the question, that there are arguments against fixed-term Parliaments. As they will both be well aware, there is an element of inflexibility in such a system that sometimes would not serve this country well.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): May I say to Ministers that the present system gives far too much influence and control to the Prime Minister of the day? Those of us who want much greater parliamentary democracy and curbs on the Executive would like fixed-term Parliaments.

Mr. Wills: I agree with part of what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said, and the Prime Minister has already said that he wants the dissolution of Parliament to be subject to a vote in this House for precisely the reasons that the right hon. and learned Gentleman gave. There is a misunderstanding that fixed-term Parliaments would somehow remove the Executive’s ability to hold an election at a time of their choosing. That is not necessarily the case. For example, the former West Germany had fixed-term Parliaments, but in 1972 and 1983 the Government of the day were able to engineer a general election by engineering a vote of no confidence in the Government, so what the right hon. and learned Gentleman is looking for would not necessarily transpire.

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