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5 May 2009 : Column 8

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): Given what the Secretary of State has just said, what would he advise me to tell the people who work in the probation service in the north-east? How are they supposed to improve reoffending rates if, because of deficit cuts, they lose £1.6 million this year and £4.2 million in 2012, and do not employ the 24 trainee probation officers who have been trained over the last three years, at a cost of £2.5 million to the public purse? Surely that cannot be correct?

Mr. Straw: My colleagues and I are always happy to see my hon. Friend—and, if necessary, a delegation from Northumbria probation service—about their concerns. The probation service has had a 70 per cent. real-terms increase in funding in the last 12 years, compared with an increase of just over 50 per cent. in its case load, so it has had substantial additional resources. We are seeking to end the situation in which some of those resources have gone on unnecessary layers of middle management. Given the overall levels of funding, we are in no doubt that front-line delivery of probation services can be continued at its current level.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): There is one figure on which we can agree, and that is that more than 50,000 offenders have been released early by this Government, including people convicted of terrorist, violent and sexual offences. It is bad enough that the Government have recklessly failed to build enough prison places, but can the Secretary of State now confirm that the £30 million in planned cuts to local probation services must mean even less protection of the public from serious offenders after their release?

Mr. Straw: I do not accept that. The nominal reduction in spending is belied by the fact that for the year that finished at the end of March—just over five weeks ago—the probation service underspent by £23 million. Interestingly, and somewhat to our surprise, given the concerns expressed by the probation service, there is no reason why probation services should not be able to manage within their budgets. What would the hon. and learned Gentleman do? After all, his policy is for much larger cuts than anything that we are contemplating.

Mr. Grieve: I wonder whether the Justice Secretary has actually read his own guidance to probation trusts. In 2007, probation officers were required to provide a report every three months on those sentenced to life imprisonment and subject to close monitoring on release. Last month, probation officers were told to report every six months instead, because of the resources available. Can he confirm that that is indeed the guidance? Does he now accept that these cuts in front-line probation services must put the public at greater risk?

Mr. Straw: I am sorry, but I do not accept the basis of the hon. and learned Gentleman’s point at all. We have significantly increased real-terms resources to the probation service, so it is much better resourced than it ever was under his party’s administration. At any time, of course, adjustments may be made for different levels of offender. We want to see—and the public want to see—probation resources concentrated on the most serious offenders, especially when they are released from jail. That is precisely what we are doing.

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Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): One of the reasons for recidivism is that about half, or even more, of prisoners are functionally illiterate. I welcome the steps in the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, which we will be debating later this afternoon, to assist with education for young people in the secure estate. However, will my right hon. Friend tell me what more is being done to improve what has until recently been the pretty poor record of prisons in educating prisoners in basic skills and literacy?

Mr. Straw: I accept entirely what my hon. Friend says about the very low level of skills of the majority of prisoners. We are transforming the situation for the education and training of prisoners. The amount spent on offender learning just since 2001 has increased by three times, and has now risen to more than £175 million. There are 21,000 prisoners achieving skills for life qualifications and 70,000 achieving vocational qualifications. That is a dramatic change in the provision of education and training in our prisons.

Electoral Registers

5. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the integrity of electoral registers. [272267]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): The integrity of the register is crucial, and we keep this area under constant review.

Andrew Selous: Just before the last European elections, a national newspaper managed to register a fictitious person by the name of Gus Troobev—an anagram of “bogus voter”—in 40 different electoral registers. How confident is the Minister that that could not happen for the European elections next month?

Mr. Wills: We can never be complacent about any incident of fraud whatever. However, it is worth reminding the hon. Gentleman that just last week the Electoral Commission and the Association of Chief Police Officers produced a report on the 2008 elections, which concluded that they were

The report conducted by the Electoral Commission and ACPO, shows that there is a steady decline in the allegations of such malpractice—but we cannot be complacent even about a single incident, and we are not. That is why, in the Electoral Administration Act 2006, we brought in a raft of measures to tackle fraud. It is also one of the reasons why we are bringing in individual registration. We will never be complacent about a single incident, but we have to accept—I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept this—that in this country, such incidents are, fortunately, few and limited.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the integrity and quality of electoral registers will not improve in areas such as Bradford as long as very little canvassing is done at local authority level? That is especially true in an area such as Bradford, particularly in my constituency, which is one fifth of that area, where many people do not have English as their first language.

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Mr. Wills: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing the House’s attention to the importance for all electoral registration officers—in her constituency and throughout the country—of conducting their canvasses extremely diligently, and ensuring that every person in this country who is eligible to vote is registered to vote, and can therefore exercise that democratic duty. We are very concerned that when we bring in a system of individual registration—we are placing such measures before Parliament as we speak—there will not be a fall in the number of those who are registered to vote. That is why we are placing new duties on electoral registration officers and taking all sorts of measures to ensure that, in my hon. Friend’s constituency and everywhere in the country, everybody who is eligible to vote can do so.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): Leaving aside, for the moment, implementation of the decision of the European Court of Human Rights that prisoners should be registered and able to vote, what arrangements does the Department offer so that people who are to be released from prison before a known election day are on the electoral register and can vote?

Mr. Wills: Of course, we are concerned to ensure that everyone who is eligible to vote is able to do so. That will be a matter for electoral registration officers in constituencies that harbour such people, and for those people themselves.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Has the Minister given any further thought to whether the electoral register should include prisoners?

Mr. Wills: The answer to my hon. Friend’s question is yes, we have given further thought to the matter. She will be aware that we have just published a second consultation paper—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Obviously, Conservative Front Benchers have very strong views on this matter; we look forward to receiving their representations.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): Of course I share the concerns raised about fraud by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). However, the issue of under-registration is worrying, too. All too often, those who need their voices to be heard fail to register, thereby disfranchising themselves from the electoral and democratic process. How confident is my right hon. Friend the Minister that what we propose in the current legislation will ensure that those who need their voices to be heard will be registered?

Mr. Wills: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing the subject up again. It is absolutely crucial to the health of our democracy that everyone who is eligible to vote is registered, and can therefore vote. At the moment, our best estimate is that something like 3 million people in this country who are eligible to vote cannot do so, because they are not registered. That is a disgrace to our democracy, and we have to do everything possible to make sure that we do not let that situation continue. I think that the whole House agrees that a system of individual registration is desirable, both in principle and in practice. It has a lot of benefits associated with it, but there is a risk as well, to which my hon. Friend referred:
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when we move to such a system, there is a real risk—we saw this happen in Northern Ireland—that many of those who are eligible to vote will simply not be registered. That is why the legislation that we are putting before Parliament says that before we move definitively to a system of compulsory individual registration, the Electoral Commission must be satisfied that the register is comprehensive and accurate. That is why we put that provision in. I hope that that will provide some reassurance to my hon. Friend.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): As the Minister knows, we enthusiastically welcome the steps that he and his colleagues are taking to bring in individual voter registration, for which we have called for over five years. We Opposition Members are never complacent about electoral fraud; this House derives its legitimacy from the integrity of the ballot. Individual voter registration is only part of the solution. Does the Minister agree that the integrity of the ballot will only be really secure when a potential voter is required to produce evidence of their identity when they go into the polling station to get a ballot paper? The Minister knows that that works in Northern Ireland. When will he take steps to introduce the system in the rest of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Wills: As I have said to the hon. Lady before in Committee, there seems to have been a policy switch by Conservative Front Benchers in favour of the advantages of identity cards, and I am glad that she seems to be endorsing that— [Hon. Members: “No.”] I simply say that the hon. Lady needs to be careful about which policy prescription she comes forward with. On her first point, she has advocated individual registration for some considerable time, but throughout that period she was silent on the need for the register to be comprehensive as well as accurate. I have to say that until this Government brought forward proposals that combine measures to complete the accuracy of the register and measures to ensure its comprehensive nature, individual registration carried as many risks as benefits. I would just ask the hon. Lady to reflect on that the next time she makes such comments.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): My right hon. Friend the Minister is absolutely right to insist on that twin track, because while none of us would approve of fraud by people who actively seek to pervert the electoral process, the biggest fraud in this country at the moment relates to the 3 million people who are not registered, and whose voices are not heard. We know that the Conservative party is not keen on doing anything about that, because it believes—rightly, I think—that it would be electorally disadvantaged by such a process. However, democracy depends on everybody having the right to vote, and the opportunity to cast that vote.

Mr. Wills: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. I would just say to the Opposition that this is the time, right now, for them to lay to rest the suspicion that they do not care and that large numbers of our most vulnerable— [ Interruption. ] Well, I am giving them the opportunity to do so. They can demonstrate it very simply—nobody has to come to the Dispatch Box now—by supporting the measures that we have introduced on individual registration.

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Prisons (Mental Health Services)

6. Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health on the provision of mental health services in prisons. [272268]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr. Shahid Malik): Ministers and officials from both Departments meet on a regular basis, including on the provision of mental health services in prisons. Most recently, we worked together on Lord Bradley’s report, which was published with the Government response on 30 April 2009.

Sandra Gidley: The Minister will be aware that more than 70 per cent. of prisoners have some sort of mental health problem. He mentioned the Bradley report, so presumably he is aware that it says:

What are the Government doing to ensure that prisoners with a mental health problem receive real help, rather than being banged up as a first resort?

Mr. Malik: We have made considerable progress in this area, as the hon. Lady will know. Since 2006, responsibility for commissioning prison health services, for example, has moved from prisons to the NHS. The Bradley review has been mentioned two or three times, and 102 mental health teams have been established to provide assessment, treatment and support to offenders, and there is a total of 360 extra staff. In 1997, not a single mental health team was working in that way. We have new systems to monitor and support individuals who are at risk. The list goes on, but I suspect that you would stop me, Mr. Speaker, if I continued.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend mentioned the fact that responsibility for mental health services in prisons has switched to the NHS. He will see in the Bradley report a recommendation that the NHS commissioners should ensure that those services improve. What discussions are taking place with the Department of Health and the NHS commissioners to make sure that that is carried out and that mental health services in prisons are improved?

Mr. Malik: There is much scope for improvement, and as a result of the Bradley review, we are about to establish a health and criminal justice national programme board, which will bring together the relevant Departments covering health, social care and criminal justice for children and adults. A national delivery plan will be put together later this year, and a national advisory group ensures the wider involvement of interested organisations. We will produce a progress report within six months, detailing strategy on mental health and learning disabilities, as well as broader health and criminal justice system strategy.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Having read the Bradley report, I believe that it provides important input into the whole debate. However, I expected one further recommendation in that report: the Government should undertake a detailed study of all low and medium-risk offenders with severe mental
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health problems who could be safely housed elsewhere, thus dealing with them more humanely and relieving pressure on the prison estate.

Mr. Malik: Individuals with mental illnesses are regularly transferred from prisons. Every year, approximately 900 people who meet the criteria under the Mental Health Act 1983 are transferred. We are trying to speed up the availability of beds for those individuals. In 2007, some 40 individuals waited longer than 12 weeks for a bed. By March 2008, the number of such individuals had been reduced to 24. We have a target of 14 days, instead of 12 weeks, and I am confident that we will meet that target. I believe that we can make better use of community orders and suspended sentences. In 2006, of the 203,000 requirements for treatment orders, only 725 were for mental health problems, and that can certainly be improved.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Suicide and self-harm, psychotic and neurotic activity, drug and alcohol dependency, and serious personality disorders, are all at significantly higher levels among prisoners than in the general population. How confident is the Minister that the most seriously ill prisoners are in an appropriate setting for treatment and that they should not be admitted to the nearest acute mental hospital?

Mr. Malik: As I have already stated, 900 prisoners a year are transferred where they meet the Mental Health Act criteria. The Bradley review focuses on intervention, prevention and early assessment. We have a medium-term goal that every police station and court will have access to liaison and diversion services, which will ensure that people who ought not to be going to prison in the first place are prevented from doing so, so that they do not potentially have a life of criminality.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The Minister is just beginning to get to the point. Is there not a real problem in that many people with mental illnesses who commit crimes are sent to prison when they should not be sent there at all, because of the absence in hospitals of adequate facilities—particularly beds—to deal with those with mental illness? Will the Minister address the fact that too many people are being sent to prison because of the absence of adequate mental facilities in the community?

Mr. Malik: Of course we could do more. It is important to state that year on year we have consistently increased funding in this area. For example, in 2007-08 and 2008-09 we have an extra £4 million for the development of mental health services in the prison establishments, of which £1.6 million is for child and adolescent mental health services within the young people’s estate. Since 2006-07, £20 million a year has been allocated for mental health in-reach services. I have already said that we have 102 teams that give such support, and I have stated twice that some 900 people a year are transferred. Of course there is more that we could do. To an extent, Bradley points the way forward in this area.


7. David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): On how many occasions offenders under probation service supervision reoffended in 2008. [272269]

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The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): The latest figures show that the three-month reoffending rate of all offenders on probation caseloads in England and Wales during the period 1 October 2007 to 30 September 2008 was 9.88 per cent. out of approximately 172,500 offenders. Between 2000 and 2006, the reoffending of adult offenders commencing a court order under probation supervision fell by 23 per cent.

David T.C. Davies: On the basis of those figures we can safely extrapolate that tens of thousands of people who should be in prison are out on the streets committing offences, and presumably tens of thousands more are committing offences but are not caught and do not show up in those figures. Does this not show the scandal of all forms of early release? Will the Minister undertake to ensure that people are not let out of their sentences less than halfway through as a result of a few bleeding-hearted social workers, and that they serve their sentences in full, as given by judges?

Mr. Hanson: As ever, the hon. Gentleman’s supplementary does not relate at all to the question that he tabled, which was about probation supervision, but if he wishes to talk about prisoners being released, I can remind him that under the Government whom he supported, more prisoners were released on any single day than ever under any Government to date. He will know that I am concerned, as are all Labour Members, about reoffending rates. They remain too high, and we have to get them down. The work that we are doing on employment, housing and skill development is about reducing reoffending. I would much rather follow the line of attack of the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) and the points that he set out today.

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