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House of Commons

Tuesday 10 November 2009

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Transport for London (Supplemental Toll Provisions) Bill [ Lords]

Re sumption of adjourned debate on Question (3 November ),

Hon. Members: Object.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked-

Prison Site (North Wales)

1. Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): What progress has been made on identifying a site for a new prison in north Wales. [298564]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Maria Eagle): I have just announced a new site search and identified north Wales as one of the site search areas. Officials are working with the Wales Office, the North Wales criminal justice board, the Welsh Assembly Government and local authorities to identify potential sites for a new prison. A shortlist of potential sites will be published in the spring.

Mr. Jones: The owners of the site at Caernarfon that the Ministry rejected were willing to sell it, fully remediated and with a commercially acceptable warranty, for a sum of £10 million. Given that the Ministry studiously refused to enter into any negotiations for the site and did not, so far as I can see, ever conduct any soil tests, how is the Minister able to say with such certainty-she has done so on several occasions-that it did not represent value for taxpayers' money?

Maria Eagle: The Ministry of Justice withdrew its interest in the site to which the hon. Gentleman refers because the due diligence procedures it undertook highlighted reasons why the site did not lend itself to prison development and did not represent value for money. That is why the decision was made. We are searching for suitable further sites, including in north Wales.

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Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend the Minister please confirm the Secretary of State's response to me, as reported in the Hansard? He said:

in my constituency.-[ Official Report, 21 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 747.]

Maria Eagle rose-

Mr. Speaker: Order. I called the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) because I thought her question would relate to the proposal for a new prison in north Wales and the identification of a site there, but I am afraid that we cannot discuss locations beyond north Wales.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): One of the great opportunities in establishing a prison in north Wales is to ensure that there are services for prisoners through the medium of Welsh. Can the Minister confirm that, with the greatly expanded numbers in the new prison, there will still be opportunities for specialist services such as psychology for prisoners through the medium of Welsh?

Maria Eagle: One of the reasons why north Wales is an area in which we are searching for a site for a new prison is that at present many prisoners from Wales have to serve their sentences outside their home area, for example in Merseyside. Clearly, if we are able to find a suitable site and build a prison there, that will present us with an opportunity to provide the specialist services the hon. Gentleman's constituents and others who are Welsh speakers require.

Supreme Court (Running Costs)

2. Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): When he next expects to meet the chief executive of the new Supreme Court to discuss its running costs. [298565]

4. Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): When he next expects to meet the chief executive of the new Supreme Court to discuss its running costs. [298567]

12. James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): When he next expects to meet the chief executive of the new Supreme Court to discuss its running costs. [298575]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): My right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary will meet the president and chief executive of the Supreme Court on at least an annual basis to discuss both the resourcing and the work of the court. The next such meeting is due in spring 2010.

Mr. Vara: I am grateful to the Minister for those comments. Given that it is widely reported that the decision to set up a Supreme Court was taken by Tony Blair and Lord Falconer over a glass of whisky, and that the annual cost of running the Supreme Court is some £14 million whereas the cost of the previous arrangement was £3 million a year, does the Minister agree that it has proved to be a very expensive glass of whisky?

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Mr. Wills: No, I do not agree, and I counsel the hon. Gentleman-and I suspect his colleagues who will follow on shortly-that they must be very careful to ensure that they compare like with like. If I may, I will give the hon. Gentleman a few figures. The figures he quotes are roughly right, but they do not include all the costs incurred in the running of the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords, as they were not included when we looked at the costs of the Supreme Court. Let me just give an example. The costings he has quoted go back to 2002-03, I think. Inflation since then and the costs that cannot be separated out precisely from the running of Parliament, such as those for rent, security, IT, catering, library services, cleaning and non-cash items, amount to about £7 million. So when the hon. Gentleman looks at these figures and genuinely tries to arrive at a like-for-like comparison, he will find there is no significant difference. If I may, I will give him some comparative costs for elsewhere in the world. [Interruption.] Well, I will do so, because he is worried about cost efficiency. The costs of running the Supreme Courts in Canada and the United States are £23 million and £53 million respectively.

Angela Watkinson: The Master of the Rolls, Lord Justice Neuberger, has said in relation to the Supreme Court that

Why are the Government still mucking about with the House of Lords and introducing measures to allow Lord Mandelson to return to this place?

Mr. Wills: With all due respect, I think the hon. Lady is confusing the two functions of the House of Lords. Of course she is right to say that we muck around with the constitution at our peril, but we are not mucking around with the constitution, as she so inelegantly puts it. What we are doing is pursuing a fundamental principle of our constitutional arrangements, which go back centuries. That principle is the separation of powers and that is what lies behind the setting up of the Supreme Court. I would have hoped that she would welcome that, instead of criticising it.

Mr. Speaker: Order. May I just say to the Minister that he must not be led astray by the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) into a disquisition that he would not otherwise have authored?

James Duddridge: I am hesitating because I am not sure that I understood what you just said, Mr. Speaker.

When the Minister meets the chief executive to discuss the running costs, will he consider whether it is good for democracy that an individual has to spend £350 just to see the documents at the Supreme Court?

Mr. Wills: Of course I accept your strictures, Mr. Speaker, and I will try very hard not to be led astray by any hon. Member. In return, I ask the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) not to be led astray by inaccurate press reports. If he would like to take the trouble to ascertain the actual facts, he would be less worried than he appears to be. The actual facts are that there is no change in the current proceedings: there have always been charges for making these documents available in this way. The release of the court record is a formal procedural process; it is not a simple matter of just releasing the documents-it requires vetting and
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ensuring that no sensitive details are released. That has always been the case, there has always been a charge for it and that will continue to be the case.

I stress that this is not a case that relates to documents that might be accessed by a freedom of information request-it is nothing to do with that. The documents referred to in the newspaper report-the source of the hon. Gentleman's question-are not documents about the running of the Supreme Court. They are formal court records that relate to individual cases before the court.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): In the six years since its announcement, the projected cost of the Supreme Court has risen from £32 million to £56 million. Included in that are the costs of very lavish carpets designed by Sir Peter Blake, who also designed the Sgt. Pepper's album cover. Could the Minister say whether the then Prime Minister's project, which was gained with a little help from his friends, still represents excellent value?

Mr. Wills: Everyone can have a view about how effectively the money has been spent-we will all have our views on that. Everyone who has seen the building realises that it represents a masterpiece of renovation and is a precious asset to the architectural environment of these particular Houses of Parliament. Its costs, amortised over 30 years, are about £2 million to £3 million a year. My hon. Friend will realise that that is value for money in terms of rent for any other comparable building. What is fundamental to this is the purpose of setting up the Supreme Court, which is to do with the separation of powers. That is a precious constitutional principle and I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not welcome it more fully.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Does it not concern the Minister a little that a court that sat in a Committee Room upstairs, shared the Palace's facilities at minimal cost and employed six people now employs a staff of 40, including a chief executive on more than £100,000? Will he examine its running costs of £14 million? In particular, will he consider replacing the chief executive with a manager on half that salary? Surely that would be a better way to save money than removing legal aid from vulnerable constituents and closing magistrates courts.

Mr. Wills: I will respect your strictures not to venture down those paths along which the hon. Gentleman has just tempted me, Mr. Speaker. I say to him again-we had an exchange about this last week on the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill-that he needs to compare the figures like for like. He still is not doing so. I refer him to the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) a few moments ago, and I ask them both to compare like for like. We will constantly review this: as I said in my earlier answer, there will be regular meetings-on at least an annual basis-to review the running costs. Of course all public institutions must run in a cost-effective way, and the function of the chief executive is precisely to ensure that this precious new institution that we have established functions in an effective and efficient way. That is what the chief executive is for.

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Drug Misuse (Prisons)

3. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): What recent steps his Department has taken to prevent drug misuse in prisons. [298566]

10. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): What recent steps his Department has taken to prevent drug misuse in prisons. [298573]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): Most offenders have a drug problem when they come into prison. Ensuring that drugs are not available within prison is therefore a major priority for all staff and the system as a whole. All prisoners are subject to mandatory drug testing in prison, and the results indicate a 68 per cent. decrease in drug use in prison since 1996-97. We still have to take further action. Measures recommended in the Blakey review are now being implemented, including body orifice security scanners, tougher controls on mobile telephones in prison and a comprehensive strategy to deal with staff corruption.

Mr. Robathan: In my naivety, I had imagined that prisons were disciplined and ordered places where prison staff and prison officers were able to enforce their authority and prevent drugs from getting in. I am interested in what the Justice Secretary has to say, but what penalties is he instituting for those who smuggle drugs into prison-be they visitors, people outside prison throwing drugs over the walls or staff themselves?

Mr. Straw: There are substantial penalties. One measure that I introduced at the beginning of 1999, when I was Home Secretary, significantly tightened up the checking and vetting of visitors to prisons, who are one of the major sources of the drugs that are smuggled in, and the penalties for such visitors if they transgressed the rules, as well as imposing clear penalties on prisoners who receive drugs or who conspire with visitors in that respect. This is a challenge-there is no question about it-not least because prisoners seek to conceal both drugs and mobile telephones in an obscene way in their body orifices. Detecting the smuggling of drugs and mobile telephones into prison is difficult, and so we have tightened controls and introduced these body orifice scanners.

Richard Ottaway: Clearly, the Secretary of State will have to agree that whatever initiatives he has introduced are not working. Any reasonable person would ask how these drugs are getting in in the first place. Will he now instigate a review of how drugs are getting into prisons, and will he consider making searches of visitors and prison staff mandatory?

Mr. Straw: I established a review under Mr. David Blakey, the former chief inspector of constabulary and former chief constable of West Mercia, which was published at the beginning of last year. I commend that review to the hon. Gentleman. As long as there are some drugs in prison that should not be there, none of us should be satisfied about the environment in prison. This is not an issue that I, the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), the managers of the Prison Service or the staff take remotely lightly. It is very serious. The performance
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of prisons varies, including between similar categories of prison, and we are constantly searching for ways to improve performance, including searches of both staff and visitors-

Richard Ottaway: Mandatory?

Mr. Straw: Whether they are mandatory depends on the prison, the availability of staff and the categorisation of the prisons. I promise the hon. Gentleman that I do not rule out mandatory searching in all circumstances.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): Two years ago, illegal drugs were freely available in every prison in Britain. How many are drug-free now?

Mr. Straw: Generalisation like that belies the fact that it is very difficult to get drugs into prison and that staff do a huge amount of work to ensure that drugs are not there. It is not possible to answer the point that my hon. Friend puts to me, which is essentially a negative, but what I can say is that, as I have told the House, the results of mandatory drug tests show that there has been a 68 per cent. decrease in the use of drugs in prison, which is something for which we should thank the National Offender Management Service.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): First, the problem is that people who are bringing in the drugs are visitors and that we are not effective in punishing those who are carrying the drugs. In fact, if they refuse the search we let them go rather than dealing with the importation of drugs into prisons. Secondly-this point is very important for my right hon. Friend-the reduction in prison officer numbers and the increase in prisoner numbers make it even harder to try to control prisons, such as Garth and Wymott prisons in my constituency.

Mr. Straw: On the latter point, there has been absolutely no reduction in prison officer numbers. Staffing in prisons has increased commensurately with the increase in prison numbers, and spending has risen slightly above the increase in prison numbers.

As for the searching of visitors, the rules are very clear. I have made it absolutely clear to the prison service that I expect those rules, and tough sanctions on visitors, to be followed through.

Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): I know that the Government have done some work on this, but is there not a serious problem in that some offenders go into prison clean of drugs, and then come out addicted? What is the Government's estimate of the number of prisoners who have acquired or intensified their drug habit while in prison?

Mr. Straw: I cannot rule that out as a possibility, but the truth is that the overwhelming number of people who seek drugs and abuse them in prison are addicted to drugs outside prison. An alarming proportion of offenders-apart from, interestingly, sex offenders and the high-end offenders who are drug dealers rather than drug users-are people who abuse drugs. One of the many reasons why we make every effort to control the availability of drugs in prison and to increase the sanctions on their use is so that there can be drug-free environments. However, when I talk to prisoners, time and again they tell me that they have got clean in prison. They say that they have benefited from the medical treatment and the
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fact that drugs are not available there. They have got clean in prison but their worry, which should be a worry for us all, is about the transition between prison and the community. That is why we are putting a great deal of effort into that transitional process.

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