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House of Commons

Tuesday 5 January 2010

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business before questions

Death of a Member

Mr. Speaker: I regret to have to report to the House the death of David Leslie Taylor, Member for North-West Leicestershire. David was a highly assiduous, principled and independent-minded Member who respected the House and was respected by it. Truly, he was a House of Commons man, and I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will join me in mourning the loss of our colleague and in extending our sympathy to his widow Pam, his daughters Rachel, Sarah, Jessica and Catherine, his wider family and his many friends.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked-

Drug Misuse (Prisons)

1. Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): What recent steps his Department has taken to reduce the level of drug misuse in prisons. [308920]

15. Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): What steps his Department has taken to reduce the level of drug misuse in prisons. [308934]

16. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): What recent steps have been taken by his Department to reduce the availability of illegal drugs in the prison system. [308935]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Maria Eagle): I begin by echoing your views, Mr. Speaker, on behalf of the House, and to say how sorry we are not to see David Taylor in his place today. As well as a valued colleague, he was a magistrate and an assiduous attender of Justice questions. I am sure that he will be missed on both sides of the House.

Drug misuse in prisons, as measured by random mandatory drug testing, has fallen by 68 per cent. since 1996-97. A comprehensive framework is in place in prisons both to reduce the supply of drugs and to provide drug treatment. Good progress has been made in implementing the Blakey recommendations to improve measures to reduce the supply of drugs in prisons.

Philip Davies: Our proceedings certainly will not be the same without David Taylor, and he will be missed on both sides of the House.

Given that so many drugs are brought into prison by visitors to prisoners, why do the Government not do more to encourage or make mandatory closed visits behind screens in order to stop drugs being brought into prisons?

Maria Eagle: Visitors are one means by which drugs and other contraband can be brought into prisons. We have a number of ways of making sure that we detect such things-for example, active and passive drugs dogs, random searches and intelligence-based action. We believe that that is the best way of identifying these difficulties. Where there is cause for concern, visits are closed, and they can be restricted in various ways, but it would be difficult, in keeping with our attempts to
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ensure that prisoners can keep in touch with their families, to impose such restrictions on all prisoners in every circumstance.

Mr. Vara: May I join colleagues who have expressed their sentiments about David Taylor-a true parliamentarian in every sense of the word?

With 20,000 prisoners on long-term methadone prescriptions and only 1,000 on an abstinence programme, have the Government got the balance right in their drugs programme in prisons?

Maria Eagle: It is perfectly legitimate to ask whether the balance is correct between methadone maintenance and other forms of treatment designed to cure drug addiction and get people drug-free. It is not the case, however, that all methadone prescription is about maintenance. The only people who get methadone maintenance treatment in prison are those with short sentences that would not allow a proper length of time for detoxification and removing them from drugs. It is important that we have a balance between different types and lengths of drug treatment, and appropriate treatment for each individual. Individuals can have low and high levels of dependency on drugs and we need treatments that will deal with all.

Ann Winterton: In an official report published last October, was it not a positive disgrace that the drugs trade in Wandsworth prison amounted to £1 million a year? Is it not time that, in a secure environment, this trade was stamped on and, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) suggested, longer-term prisoners are enabled to give up their habit completely?

Maria Eagle: I agree that longer-term prisoners should be detoxified and encouraged to become drug-free for life. That is what our policy is aimed at achieving in prisons. We have increased fifteenfold the funding for treatment to get people off drugs in prison over the past 12 years, so there are substantial improvements. It is always difficult to be precise about the value of an illicit trade, but we are implementing policies to prevent illicit drugs from being taken into prison by whatever method. We use drugs dogs and various technologies, including body orifice scanners, which will detect illicit substances being taken into prison. It is a constant fight, but I believe that we are winning it and we have to continue to do so.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): I cannot think of any section of any business anywhere in my area or elsewhere that is as badly managed as the prisons. What is the Minister doing about poor management in prisons, so that the excellent prison officers can be given more support both in improving their morale and in developing the skills required to recognise and deal more effectively with drugs in prison?

Maria Eagle: I pay tribute this afternoon both to prison officers, who do a difficult and dangerous job, and generally do it well, and to prison managers, who do the same. They are all part of the same team, and I cannot accept my hon. Friend's analysis that one element of our staff is brilliant and the other is not. They are all our staff and they all do a brilliant job.

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Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): May I add a word of sorrow about the death of David Taylor? He has left us a legacy, through his independence, courage and hard work, that will act as a model for all future Back Benchers.

My question about prisons relates to the experience of two of my constituents, whom the Prison Service had down as models of behaviour and success. They went in as drug users and emerged clean. Tragically, one of them lived for a week afterwards and the other for just a day. Is not the greatest danger for prisoners the point when they leave prison and go back to their old haunts?

Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend is correct in the sense that there are obvious dangers. Drug abuse and drug dependency tend to have the capacity to produce chronic and repeated relapsing behaviour among those who become dependent on drugs. There is a danger that having been detoxified, there can then be a difficulty, which is why for short-term prisoners who are in prison for only a few weeks methadone maintenance is appropriate. Such treatment can reduce the risk of infection from blood-borne diseases and prevent accidental overdose on release, as well as reducing reoffending. We need to have a wide range of policies that deal with all those issues and proper through-care, from prisons into the community, to make sure that people who come out of prison continue to have appropriate treatment in the community.

Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): Further to the question raised by my old sparring partner, the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies)-on whose birthday we congratulate him today-may I tell my hon. Friend that in my experience of prisoners nothing is more calculated and structured to encourage one to take drugs than lying around and doing nothing all day? Will she realise that education in prison is often the best cure for the problems that lead to the taking of drugs in the first place?

Maria Eagle: When my hon. Friend said he had a sparring partner on the Opposition Benches I wondered who on earth it might be.

Stephen Pound: All of them.

Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend is probably right.

I agree with my hon. Friend that participation in education provision is a tremendously important part of reducing drug taking and reducing reoffending when prisoners come out. Almost 40 per cent. of prisoners now participate in offender learning and skills, and 38 per cent. enter employment on release. That indicates a great level of success-greater than ever before in our prison system.

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Have the Government learned anything from their evaluation last year of the integrated drug treatment system? Senior prison staff criticised the Government's obsession with maintaining opiate users. They were

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Is that not a picture of a Government who have lost control of drugs in prisons, and given up on prisons and prisoners becoming drug-free?

Maria Eagle: No, I do not accept that analysis from the hon. Gentleman. It is fair to say that the drug treatment provided in prisons is clinically led under best practice arranged by the National Treatment Agency. It is the same inside prison as it is outside. It is perfectly legitimate for Members and others to question the balance of available treatment. I do not think there is a perfectly correct answer, so it is a good debate to have, but I do not accept in any way that the Government have lost control of drug treatment in prisons.

Voting (Service Personnel)

3. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): What steps he is taking to ensure service personnel are able to vote at the next general election; and if he will make a statement. [308922]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): May I, too, express my sadness at the tragic loss of David Taylor? His integrity and independence will be much missed.

If there are any barriers hindering the participation of service voters in elections, we must remove them. To that end, we are introducing new registration awareness campaigns and targeted registration arrangements. We are exploring using supply flights to support postal voting by personnel in Afghanistan. We have set up a working group consisting of officials from the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Justice and the Electoral Commission, as well as representatives of the armed forces, to explore further improvements.

Michael Fabricant: Does the Minister agree that democracy needs to be exercised with responsibility? Will he therefore join me in condemning the crass and dreadful plans of Islam4UK to demonstrate against the Afghan war in Wootton Bassett, which would give so much grief and despair to the relatives of the fallen?

Mr. Wills: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Anyone who has attended those repatriation ceremonies, as I have done, will have been humbled by the dignity and respect shown by the people of that town to those who have given their lives in the service of this country. Anything that displays anything other than the utmost sensitivity in such circumstances will, I think, be treated with repugnance by every decent person in this country-including, I should say, all those Muslims who serve so gallantly in our armed services.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Like you, Mr. Speaker, I shall miss David Taylor, a fellow Back Bencher of the year.

With reference to service personnel voting, will my right hon. Friend tell me whether any special steps are being taken in relation to the Territorial Army? There are particular issues there, with people being deployed overseas as well these days.

Mr. Wills: I thank my hon. Friend for that. We are looking at all service personnel whose deployment might mean that they are not able to exercise the vote to which
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they are entitled. It is very important that service personnel are registered and that they can exercise their vote. There are logistical problems in some areas of deployment overseas. We are exploring them vigorously and we have set up the working group. We will take every single measure that we can to make sure that service personnel can vote.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): The Minister always says that he is concerned about this subject. He has set up a working group, but it is too late. The Government changed the rules nine years ago to make it more difficult for service personnel to vote, and at the last general election 40 per cent. of service personnel were unable to vote. Only 60 per cent. of the people fighting for our country were able to express their democratic opinion. It is too late now. The Minister has come forward with kind words, working parties, promises and letters, but the Government have done nothing to make it easier for service personnel to vote. I am sure that at the coming general election, which we all hope will be soon, the situation will not be any better than it was last time, because the Government have taken no action.

Mr. Wills: I would be very happy to answer any question that the hon. Lady might have, but I did not hear one. She is wrong in almost every statement that she made. It is not the case that the Government have done nothing. As she well knows, we have extended the service declaration period from one year to three years, and it is to be extended again to five years. We have taken action already to make sure that our service personnel in Afghanistan are able to have an expedited service of postal voting. The hon. Lady well knows that the proxy vote system is available to every member of the armed services anyway, and we have taken other measures as well. Unlike the Government whom she supported, who for 18 years did nothing whatever to address the issue, we have set up a working group, including representatives of the armed services, to make sure that our armed services are able to vote.

Court Cases

4. Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): What percentage of cases brought to court were not pursued for administrative reasons in the latest period for which figures are available. [308923]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): I, too, add my condolences to the family of David Taylor, who was indeed an excellent parliamentarian.

The court has no power to end cases for administrative reasons. From July to September last year, of the 45,500 magistrates court trials, 44 per cent. went ahead as scheduled, 38 per cent. were cracked-in other words, the defendant pleaded guilty on day one-and 18 per cent. did not go forward for a variety of reasons, the most common being that a witness or victim did not turn up.

Mr. Robertson: In expressing my sadness at the death of Mr. David Taylor, I draw the attention of the House to the excellent work that he did on flood prevention, which is a subject very dear to my heart.

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I thank the Minister for that response, but does she agree that the figures that she gives are alarming? The 18 per cent. of cases which are dropped for whatever reason must represent a huge cost to the court, clog up the courts system and prevent the most serious cases from being considered in a timely manner.

Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point: 18 per cent. is still too high. However, that figure of 18 per cent. is significantly down on the percentage seven or eight years ago. The figures then were 23.7 per cent. in the Crown court, down to 13 per cent. in the latest figures, and 31 per cent. in the magistrates courts, down to 18 per cent., as I have just mentioned. We are absolutely committed to reducing those figures further, and good case management is of course part of that process.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Surely the scandal is not just those criminals who escape justice through bureaucratic incompetence, but the cost to the legal aid budget. How much did aborted cases cost the legal aid budget last year? Has not the time come for the incumbent Director of Public Prosecutions to spend less time going around the country attacking Opposition policies and more time doing his day job organising proper prosecutions?

Bridget Prentice: I do not think that it is for me to comment on what the DPP says going around the country; that is a matter for him. If he has concerns about Opposition policies, perhaps it is right that he raises them so that people can then make a proper judgment. However, I say to the hon. Gentleman, again, that bureaucratic reasons do not stop cases going to trial. In the majority of cases, the reason is the unavailability of evidence, because either the victim or the witness does not turn up. That is regrettable, and if we can persuade people to turn up we will ensure that those who are brought to trial for serious criminal offences are dealt with and dealt with seriously.

Southview Probation Hostel

5. Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): How many residents of Southview probation hostel in York have been returned to prison for (a) breaking the hostel's rules and (b) committing further offences in the last 12 months. [308924]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Maria Eagle): In the 12 months up to November 2009, out of the 110 offenders supervised at Southview approved premises, 27 were recalled to prison because their behaviour gave cause for concern and four were convicted of further offences, including one who was convicted of a serious further offence.

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