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House of Commons

Tuesday 5 May 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—

Party Funding

1. Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): What recent discussions he has had on Sir Hayden Phillips’s recommendations on party funding. [272263]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): Formal inter-party talks based on Sir Hayden’s recommendations ended on 30 October 2007 without agreement. However, Sir Hayden’s reports have made an important contribution to debates and discussions ever since, in the House and outside. The Political Parties and Elections Bill, as amended in this place, received broad support, and is now proceeding in the other place.

Danny Alexander: How can the British people have confidence in our political system when, despite many of Sir Hayden’s recommendations, the wealthy can still buy influence in our politics with massive donations, and parties can still spend without limit at local level to buy votes? Will the Secretary of State, even at this late stage, amend his Bill in the other place to take account of Sir Hayden’s recommendations and ensure that the big money is taken out of politics—or is this another issue on which the Government have thrown away their moral compass?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman had to keep consulting his notes in order to read that question out—and it did not have much force behind it. The answer is this: I believe that, on the issue of party funding above all else, it is extremely important for us not to proceed without a broad consensus between the parties. Otherwise we would end up with the position that obtains in Canada, where so-called “great reforms” in party funding—including state funding—have become partisan tools in the hands of the Government of the day. We have one of the cleanest systems of party funding and party operation in the world, as the recent Electoral Commission report made clear.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept that the proposals on party funding now being dealt with in another place are of necessity short-term arrangements? Does he intend to pursue, in particular, the issue of whole-term party funding limits in the immediate future?

Mr. Straw: I do not think that those proposals are short-term, but inevitably, they are not completely comprehensive. Labour Members are attracted to the idea of comprehensive funding limits that would continue throughout a Parliament, and I hope we can persuade the other parties in favour of that course as well.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Although the Secretary of State was right to say that this country is relatively clean in comparison with others, he must still acknowledge that there are excesses and abuses in the system. Will he urge all political parties to stop funding candidates massively before the calling of an election, which is what the Conservative party is continuing to do?

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Mr. Straw: All parties seek to operate within the limits set by the law. At some stages, the Labour party funded candidates well when it was in opposition. That is now a matter for the Conservative party. Although the hon. Gentleman is in a small minority in the House in terms of the party that he represents, let me say to him that we have enough problems in terms of the reputation of party politics, without turning the issue of party funding into another partisan political football.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that there is a huge conundrum when it comes to party political funding? The public want democracy, but it is expensive. They do not want to pay for it with their own taxes, and they do not want other people to pay for it with their hard-earned cash.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Lady has put the dilemma very acutely. She will know that one of Sir Hayden’s key recommendations was that in return for donation limits there should be very extensive state funding. I think it is now recognised, not least given the state of the British economy, that the British people would not take kindly to that proposition. In Canada, where there had been state funding, the Government of Mr. Stephen Harper suddenly decided to withdraw it as an economy measure, causing a fundamental crisis in Canadian politics. That, I suggest, is another reason not to introduce comprehensive state funding.

Yes, it is true to some extent that the public want democracy and do not want to pay for it. Meanwhile, I happen to believe that it is entirely honourable to ask people to contribute to the political parties of their choice, provided that those who donate make it clear that they are donating.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): The Secretary of State’s answers have been largely disappointing, apart from his answer to his hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead). I considered that answer encouraging, and urge him to go further. He referred to the political context—but it is a context in which public faith in politics is plummeting, and the McBride affair and discussion of our allowances just make matters worse. Does he not accept that the Political Parties and Elections Bill gives the Government an opportunity to do something now—something generous, something principled and something non-partisan? It is up to him to make proposals in that regard.

As for the Secretary of State’s comments about large donations and state funding, surely the Obama campaign has put paid to the myth that political campaigns can be funded only by large private donations or by the state. President Obama managed to do without both. [Interruption.]

Mr. Straw: As the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), says from a sedentary position, that was not strictly true. I do not think that we should necessarily look first to the United States for examples of total transparency in political funding, not least given the degree to which third-party organisations are used as back-door methods of campaigning, and particularly negative campaigning. Secondly, the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) should not assume that it
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is only the Liberal Democrats who are interested in principles; we all are. He knows very well, however, that we can, and should, proceed only by consensus. I put forward a number of propositions and then negotiated with the other parties in order to reach a consensus. Some of the propositions I put forward did not find favour—that is called democracy—but if we are going to try to make progress and achieve a stable regime for party funding, we must do so by agreement.

Prison Privatisation

2. Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): What representations he has received on proposals for further privatisation of prisons; and if he will make a statement. [272264]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): We receive regular representations from a number of sources on competition policy. My right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary made the Department’s policy on competition clear in the announcement he made to this House on 27 April.

Paul Rowen: In his statement on 27 April, the Secretary of State referred to Buckley Hall prison in my constituency of Rochdale. That prison has already had five changes of designation since it opened in 1996—from private to public, from male to female, and then back to male. Can the Minister please tell us what, if any, advantages such rapid change offers in terms of prison officers being able to deliver a proper service for the public?

Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to tell him that, as I am sure he knows, Buckley Hall prison is a very high-performing prison, and is currently a level 3 prison, so the changes to date have, in fact, improved performance. He will also know that the contract for that prison is coming to an end and that, in the light of the Justice Secretary’s statement of 27 April, we will be putting the contract out to competition again. Both the public and the private sector—and, indeed, the voluntary sector—can compete for that contract, and I have no doubt that we will ultimately choose whoever can provide the best service to continue the good work that has been done to date at Buckley Hall prison.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): Why are the Government so wedded to increasing the number of private prisons, given that we already have more private prisons—by which I mean a larger proportion of the prison estate run privately—than anywhere else in Europe, and there is no real evidence any more of cost savings from private prisons, but there are a lot of question marks as to how well they actually perform?

Mr. Hanson: My hon. Friend will know that at present about 10 per cent. of the estate is private prison-orientated and 90 per cent. is in the public sector. Let us look at what the Labour Government have done to date. In the last 12 years, we have commissioned and built RAF Coltishall in Norfolk, which will be opening shortly as a public sector prison, and we have also opened HMP Kennet in Maghull on Merseyside as a public sector prison. What we said in our 27 April announcement is that the next two 1,500-capacity prisons to be built will be private sector institutions, but that we are not averse
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to the public sector being considered after that, because there is a need for an appropriate mix. The public sector does a good job, and the private sector can do a good job too; what we are interested in is the cost and efficiency of the prison service, and I believe that both sectors have their role to play. My hon. Friend will know, however, that the public sector overwhelmingly remains the major provider of prison services in England and Wales, and will continue to be so.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): But does the Minister accept that reoffending rates are frighteningly high in both privatised prisons and public sector prisons? When he listens to further representations about prisons, will he concentrate his mind very much on what kind of prison provides the best resettlement programmes, enabling people leaving prison—who are often youngsters—to go into a home and a job and back into the community with a proper resettlement programme, as that is the best way to stop reoffending?

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman makes extremely valid points. He will know that what happens in prison and how we re-enter people into society when they leave prison are the two key determinants as to whether reoffending behaviour occurs. I am deeply committed to trying to develop regimes in private and public sector prisons that achieve maximum outputs for both. To do that, we must not just look at prisons in isolation, but also look at them as transitional places from where people return to the community. That is why the hon. Gentleman’s points about housing, employment and skills development are the key issues that we need to continue to work on. I believe we have been doing some good work to date, but there is always more to do, and I hope we can focus on that, regardless of who happens to run the prisons in the future.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Parc prison and young offender institution in Bridgend is a private sector prison. Despite the best efforts of staff, it fails to provide an in-reach child and adolescent mental health service, it fails to provide education for more than 70 of its young people and it fails to meet its task as an adult training prison. What steps are being taken to ensure that if there is any expansion of private sector prisons in Wales, prisoners will have access to the same quality of provision as if they were serving their sentences in England?

Mr. Hanson: My hon. Friend raises some important points, and I shall certainly examine those that she raises on the performance of Parc prison. She will know that there are differences between the provision in England and Wales on some of these issues, and that I have been in discussions, in particular with Edwina Hart, the Minister for Health and Social Services in Wales, to consider how we can examine the mental health services performance at Parc prison. Only last week we published Lord Bradley’s report on mental health, and we wish to take these issues forward with the Welsh Assembly Government to ensure that we reproduce and develop a very strong service in respect of all people who provide prison accommodation in England and in Wales.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): The small print in this year’s Budget Red Book announced that

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Despite the fact that several prisons, including HMP Garth in Lancashire, are now working to rule, and that industrial action may recur this summer over this and other proposals, can the Minister reassure the House that this policy has the wholehearted and unanimous support of his parliamentary party?

Mr. Hanson: Give over, please! The hon. and learned Gentleman aspires to hold this position on the Government Front Bench—so I suggest that he focus and concentrate on how we deliver the best possible services to prisoners in respect of reoffending and prison build. He will know that this Labour Government have committed the most money ever invested in the Prison Service to build new prison services in the future. I feel that he is not really living up to the standards that would be expected on the Front-Bench.

Drug Courts

3. Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): What plans he has to set up dedicated drug courts. [272265]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): The two dedicated drug court pilots that we have provided in Leeds and west London have been shown to be good models on which to work, and we are therefore extending those models to a further four sites, which we will continue to monitor closely. My right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice was very pleased to launch one of these new pilots recently in Cardiff magistrates court.

Julie Morgan: I thank my hon. Friend for that response. I was very pleased that the Secretary of State was able to come to Cardiff in April to open the dedicated drug court, which is now meeting every Wednesday—and I look forward to seeing the results. Does my hon. Friend agree that the success of such initiatives depends on a regular review of offenders by the same members of the judiciary over a period, so that any progress made by the offender in respect of their drug use can be praised, and when things go wrong there can be sanctions? Does she agree that it is important to have the same people following such cases regularly?

Bridget Prentice: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and the judges in those courts recognise exactly what she is saying. They make it clear that if offenders who come before them for the first time do not follow through the sanctions that they have been set, they will be brought back before the very same judge to be dealt with properly. They also make it clear that they will see such people personally, and that helps greatly in ensuring that offenders know that this is a serious situation, and that they must follow through the sanctions that the judge has set.

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): It is evident that most offenders with drug and alcohol problems have mental health problems too. Why, then, did the Government fail even to mention the need for mental health support in their last evaluation of drug courts, and why, despite Lord Bradley’s commendable report—sent to Ministers in February—expressing
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disappointment with this failure, was yet another criminal justice Green Paper published last week that does not address the vital mental health services needed for drug courts to work effectively?

Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman is mistaken in suggesting that the Government do not take mental health problems seriously. As the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), mentioned in response to an earlier question, the launch of Lord Bradley’s report last week was an important milestone in the policies that we are developing to deal with offenders. We are working closely with Lord Bradley and examining the results of his report to ensure that we take a holistic view of dealing with people who have both drug and mental health problems.


4. Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): How many offences have been committed since 1997 by those who had previously been released from prison or completed community sentences. [272266]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): A much more robust measure of reoffending was established in 2000. This means that we cannot draw direct comparisons with data from before that date. Between 2000 and 2006, reoffending rates fell by 23 per cent. for adults and 19 per cent. for youths. In 2000, 189 further offences were committed per 100 adult offenders; in 2006 the number had fallen to 146. There is therefore no question but that reoffending has been reduced substantially under this Government.

Mr. Ellwood: The Secretary of State puts his finger on the problem by saying that there is a new system for making the calculations. If a policy is not working, the Government change the way in which the figures are calculated and, hey presto, they meet their targets. That aside, compared with Europe, we have some of the worst reoffending rates in the western world. Does the Secretary of State agree that the reason for that is the overcrowding and lack of rehabilitation in our prisons?

Mr. Straw: I do not accept any of the hon. Gentleman’s assumptions. The change was made in 2000 to make the data more robust, just as we have made two sets of changes to the calculation of the recorded crime statistics, which have had the effect of nominally increasing recorded crime. I introduced one of those changes 11 years ago, as Home Secretary—a change that my predecessor, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), had sat on and refused to implement because he thought that it would send up the crime figures even further than they had already gone up under the Conservatives. Contrary to what the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) says, we have good and declining reoffending rates, and I do not know where he got his data about other European countries. Moreover, we have increased the amount being spent on drug treatment tenfold, and the amount spent on learning and skills threefold, since the Government whom he supported were in power.

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