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House of Commons

Tuesday 3 February 2009

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Young Offenders (North-West)

1. Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): What assessment he has made of the availability of rehabilitation schemes to young offenders in the north-west. [253521]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): It is a core objective of the Government to improve rehabilitation schemes for young offenders with the aim of cutting crime and changing lives. We keep that under constant review.

Mr. Wallace: I thank the Minister for his reply. One of the major contributions to reducing reoffending, especially among young men such as the ones held in Lancaster Farms in my constituency, is the use of residential outdoor courses, often supported by the YMCA. What will the Department do to encourage more use of those to help those young men rebuild their lives after their offences?

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, and it is important that we provide a range of activities to give people some experience outside the criminal environment and to try to change their lives by acquiring positive skills. He will know that throughout the north-west we have undertaken work with the Prince’s Trust and the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme. In the last three years in the north-west alone, 332 awards have been made by the Duke of Edinburgh scheme. That partnership is important and will continue.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that, as well as providing support for young people with substance abuse problems and mental health issues, Blackpool youth offending team is working with Blackpool council to identify suitable accommodation for young offenders? A homeless young offender is much less likely to be rehabilitated than one with a home. Will my right hon. Friend therefore try to ensure that suitable accommodation is available?

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Mr. Hanson: Indeed, my hon. Friend makes an important point. When people return to the community from a young offenders institution or other form of such accommodation, they need help and support not only with education and training but with housing. I am meeting the Housing Minister tomorrow to discuss that very issue.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): One of the best things for young people in young offenders institutions is purposeful activity. It has been reported that at Lancaster Farms young offenders spend an average of only 9.7 hours a week on education or team activities, and 2.2 hours on sport or physical activity. Will the Minister look again at the level of activity of young people in those institutions and ensure that they undertake purposeful activities?

Mr. Hanson: I will certainly look at that. There is a wide range of learning and skills provision—including work experience, the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme, and Prince’s Trust and other high-intensity work—going on in those centres. In relation to Lancaster Farms, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace), we are establishing links with Lancaster probation service and Lancaster and Morecambe college to try to get people into employment when they leave the institution.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): I must give the Minister a dreadful statistic. After 12 years of this Government, seven out of 10 young men released from the young offender custodial estate reoffend within 12 months and most reoffend 30 times within 12 months of release. What is he doing to stop that awful situation?

Mr. Hanson: Those figures are coming down, but I accept in part what the hon. Gentleman says—there is still a high level of reoffending by young people leaving those institutions. As I have said, support is needed in learning and skills, literacy and numeracy, employment and housing, and in tackling the drug and alcohol problems that people have, and last summer we introduced the youth crime action plan to try to tackle some of those issues early on in people’s criminal careers. The hon. Gentleman mentions 12 years of this Government, but the Conservatives’ proposals to cut further money from this budget would be unlikely to lead to a positive improvement in activity at Lancaster Farms and Hindley in the north-west.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): May I ask the distinguished Minister, for whom I have a very high regard— [ Interruption. ] May I ask how widely schemes such as the Duke of Edinburgh awards—a fantastic scheme that does a great deal for the rehabilitation of young offenders—are available in north-west England, an area that includes my constituency?

Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, and who am I to ignore the great cheers that he received from his hon. Friends? If we are engaged in a mutual love-in, I may say that I have a great respect for him and his work as a member of the Speaker’s Panel and in this House. There were 332 awards made by the Duke of Edinburgh scheme in the last three years. Those young people have gone through the system, improved their lives and benefited from those awards. I
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want to see more of that, and that is why the partnerships with the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme and the Prince’s Trust are important in the north-west and throughout England and Wales.

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): May I remind the Minister of another of the Government’s figures, which show that three quarters of those in young offenders institutions are dependent on drugs? Why did only 100 young offenders from Lancaster Farms YOI start drug treatment last year? Does the Minister agree with the chief inspector of prisons’ view, published in her annual report last week, that it is remarkable that so little has been done to tackle the fourfold increase in alcohol-related problems in prisons?

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that this Government have increased by a massive amount the resources devoted to overcoming those problems. Obviously, there is a lot of drug-related crime, which means that individuals who enter the system need greater support. In the north-west alone, three drug and alcohol programmes and two offending behaviour programmes are in operation. In particular, there is the CARAT scheme, which provides counselling, assessment, referral, advice and throughcare. It deals with self-esteem, drug programmes, sexual health, the supply of drugs, healthy eating, steroid abuse, stress management and relapse prevention. All those schemes are funded by Government resources that, unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman’s party has pledged to cut from our Department.

Coroners’ Courts

2. Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): Under what circumstances coroners’ courts may operate in camera. [253522]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): Under proposals in the Coroners and Justice Bill, which is at present before the House, a Secretary of State wishing to proceed to a non-jury inquest with a High Court judge in the circumstances specified would have to be satisfied that no other measures would be adequate to prevent the matter from becoming public. Those other measures would include rule 17 of the Coroners Rules 1984, which allows for a judicial decision by the coroner to exclude the public from an inquest in the interests of national security. That and other safeguards proposed in the Bill are likely to mean that the number of non-jury inquests sought by a Secretary of State would be no more than one or two a year.

Norman Baker: It is the national security aspect that worries me. Does the Secretary of State recall the tragic events revealed by the inquest into the death of Lance Corporal Hull, who died under US friendly fire, and how the US wanted to ensure that the cockpit video of that event was restricted to the coroner only and withheld from the press and public? It was subsequently made public only on account of its being leaked to The Sun. Does the Secretary of State agree that inquests in closed session must be absolutely the exception rather than the rule? Would he also say that embarrassment to the Government of the day or to our allies is not a sufficient reason for closed inquests?

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Mr. Straw: I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s last point— embarrassment is in no sense a criterion. I also agree that the use of non-jury inquests or proceedings in camera should be kept to an absolute minimum, and that is our aim.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): The Justice Secretary knows well that the whole purpose of the coroners’ courts was to bring transparency to bear on the circumstances surrounding a death. Many of us still do not appreciate his argument that we cannot use public interest immunity certificates instead of having proceedings in camera. Proceedings in camera will undoubtedly lead to a great deal of bad will and people will be suspicious of what goes on.

Mr. Straw: Proceedings can already take place in camera. The issue is whether one would have a more comprehensive article 2 inquiry before a High Court judge without a jury. I accept that it is obviously far better, if at all possible, for all the proceedings of an inquest to be in public. The duty will be on the Secretary of State, if he or she wishes to obtain one of these certificates, to show that there are no other practical alternatives available. As I explained on Second Reading last Monday, the analogy with a public interest immunity certificate process falls down because if a PII certificate is refused by the trial judge, the prosecution can simply withdraw the prosecution. What triggers an inquest is not the discretion of a prosecution but the fact of a death, and it is that issue which the House must address.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Bill applies to Northern Ireland? Would he agree that it is very important that provisions to allow inquests to be held in camera remain in that part of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Straw: That particular part of the Bill is not currently intended to apply to Northern Ireland.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I accept, of course, that there are exceptional circumstances in which inquests would have to be held in private. However, I do not understand why the Government link those circumstances to those where there would be no jury. The Government have asked for suggestions, so have they considered the possibility of security vetting inquest juries in the same way that juries can be vetted in criminal trials for espionage and terrorism? That procedure has been in place since at least 1989.

Mr. Straw: We are certainly open to examining other alternatives, as I have made clear. I think that the House now accepts that there is a problem that cannot be dealt with simply by PII certificates. I am therefore open to considering the alternatives, although I think that there are some practical problems because we are dealing with extreme circumstances in which there is a very severe risk, not of damage or embarrassment to the Government but of an individual—a covert human intelligence source, say—being killed. That is why it has been judged that such matters should not go to the jury. In a criminal trial, even when some of it is held in camera with a jury that has effectively been vetted, the operation of PII certificates means that part of such evidence will not be disclosed to the jury.

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One way or another, we have to face up to the fact that, if we want full article 2 inquiries, part of the evidence must be safely excluded from the jury. The issue is not whether that should be so but how best to do it, and of course I accept that it should be done in a way that properly commands public confidence.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): When he leaves the Chamber, will the Justice Secretary double-check on the reply that he gave to the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), who is Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee? I think that the hon. Gentleman was correct to say that the Coroners and Justice Bill extends to Northern Ireland, and that is buttressed by the fact that last week we had very powerful representations by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission about the Bill, particularly in relation to legacy issues. With the greatest respect to the Justice Secretary, I think that he is wrong.

Mr. Straw: If I am wrong, I shall of course correct the record. I have just been passed a note saying that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has said that he will not use the provisions in the Bill, and that they will not apply to legacy cases.

Andrew Mackinlay: So I was right!

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Does the Secretary of State accept that, if the new law had been in place, the inquests into the killing of Juan Charles de Menezes or the RAF Nimrod disaster would have been held in secret? Does he agree that, if that had happened, it would have caused outrage among the relatives of the deceased and that there would have been widespread public condemnation? Does he accept that, by pursuing the clauses in the Bill for the sake of one or two inquests a year, he is putting at risk public confidence and trust in the entire coronial system? Why will he not therefore listen to the voices of reason on the Opposition Benches?

Mr. Straw: I do not believe that either the de Menezes case or the Nimrod case would have been subject to the process that is proposed in the Bill. Those inquests self-evidently took place satisfactorily, without the need for such a system. As I have said already, in deciding whether to seek a certificate under the Bill, a Secretary of State would have to show that no other measures would be adequate to prevent the material concerned from being made public, so I simply do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says.

However, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that at present there are two inquests that cannot proceed because the arrangements made in the de Menezes and Nimrod cases are not regarded as satisfactory. The choice before the House is whether to have inquests—albeit conducted under the proposals in the Bill, or variations of them—or not to have inquests at all. I repeat to the House that I do not regard the proposals as copyright. We are happy to consider other alternatives, but the House has to face the fact that there needs to be additional provision that is currently not in the law, because otherwise some bereaved relatives will go without an inquest at all.

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Custody Licence Scheme

4. Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): When he plans to end the end-of-custody licence scheme. [253524]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): I have made it clear to the House that I will withdraw the ECL scheme as soon as we have sufficient capacity in the prison system to do so. We have been undertaking the fastest ever capacity programme, and 2,700 more prison places became operational in 2008, on time and on budget. A further 2,300 prison places are planned for this year, 2009. Court cells have not been used since the end of February last year, and police cells have not been used since 23 September.

Mr. Jones: When the scheme was announced by the Lord Chancellor’s predecessor in June 2007, he described it as a temporary measure. Since then, some 47,500 prisoners have been released early, of whom more than 950 have offended while on licence; those offences include three murders and two rapes. In the circumstances, did not the Secretary of State agree that when his colleague Lord Bach said last month that

he was guilty of the greatest understatement imaginable? Is it not, in fact, a positively dangerous scheme, and when does he propose to end it?

Mr. Straw: Personally, I would take out the adverb: it is not a satisfactory scheme. However, it is better than the alternative, and far better, in terms of seeking to manage the prison population to capacity, than the devices to which the Conservative Administration whom the hon. Gentleman supported used to resort. At one stage, the Conservative Administration had 3,500 prisoners packed into police cells in wholly unsatisfactory circumstances. Over a couple of months, a previous Conservative Home Secretary released 3,500 prisoners, including some who, because of the severity of their sentences, would be quite beyond the current categories eligible for an end of custody licence.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): But would not the abolition of the custody licence scheme put added pressure on the prison population? The Secretary of State has made it clear that he has provided more places, and more are planned in prisons. What effect would a cut to his Department’s budget have on those plans?

Mr. Straw: It is quite clear that if the Conservatives were to follow through on their plans for formula cuts in criminal justice Departments, as proposed by the shadow Chancellor, prison provision would be subject to severe cuts.

Mr. Speaker: Order. We have had anti-Conservative party propaganda from two Ministers, and we will call it a day at that. Ministers will answer the questions that are put to them.

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