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It is good to know that hostel residents are returned to prison when they break the rules. My constituents are most concerned about the most dangerous offenders-people such as Richard Graves, who was convicted in November last year for a very serious offence committed while he lived at the hostel. He is now back in prison with an indeterminate sentence. What can the Government do to ensure that the courts
make more use of indeterminate sentences so that serial offenders like Mr. Graves are kept in prison rather than in probation hostels?
Maria Eagle: The indeterminate sentence for public protection goes a long way to meeting some of the concerns that my hon. Friend has raised. That particular offender, Richard Graves, was in prison with a determinate sentence under the Criminal Justice Act 1991, and he was released on the last possible day that he could lawfully be held before being sent to approved premises where he was subject to serious licence conditions. He was being very closely supervised at MAPPA level 2, and even so he was able to offend further, as my hon. Friend has said. Mr. Graves will now not be able to leave prison until he can show that he has addressed his offending behaviour, and that is what will improve safety for the public. The fact is that, on his previous offence, he was able to leave prison before he had addressed his offending behaviour.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Does the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) not highlight a very real problem with the MAPPA situation-that no one agency takes overall responsibility, that prisoners are not necessarily going to hostels, and that they are being allowed to reoffend? They should not be eligible for early release in those circumstances.
Maria Eagle: That man was not released early; he was released on the last possible day that it would have been lawful to hold him. The question is not about early release. MAPPA stands for multi-agency public protection arrangements, and the whole idea is that all agencies co-operate properly to ensure that somebody always leads in every individual case. The most recent figures indicate that 0.48 per cent. of people supervised under MAPPA level 2 and level 3 reoffended-they committed a serious further offence. That is a low level of reoffending. Obviously, it is a distressing level for those who are subjected to the extra offences, but it is a low level of reoffending given the very high risk of serious harm which those individuals present.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): I have recently met those at the Land Registry several times about their transformation programme, which includes the proposed closure of five of their offices, including in Croydon. This programme is intended to put the Land Registry in the best possible position to deliver its services cost-effectively. The consultation is open until 29 January, and all representations will be considered.
Does the Minister appreciate that 57 per cent. of the employees at the very professional Land Registry office in Croydon are aged over 46, which offers the prospect of the loss of a tremendous amount
of experience at a time when the Government are expecting the economy to boom and therefore the need for the Land Registry greatly to increase?
Mr. Wills: I recognise those arguments. However, the hon. Gentleman may be aware that the transformation programme began in 2006. Of course, its impetus has been accelerated by the decline in the property market, which we all expect to pick up at some point-there is no question about that. What is fundamentally driving the transformation programme is a strategic change in the way that the Land Registry delivers its services in future. That is what lies behind it, not the current state of the property market.
The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): David Taylor's death, as has already been indicated, was a profound shock to every Member of this House, to the whole of his constituency and obviously to his family. It is particularly poignant for my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) and for myself, because we often joined David for dinner in the Members' Dining Room, where I, not least, was a recipient of his robust advice on what we had got right, which was usually a brief part of the conversation, and what we needed to do better, which was quite a lengthy part of the conversation. There has been much reference to his being a Back Bencher. He was a Member of this House following in its most honourable tradition of representing fearlessly his constituents. He will be very sorely missed.
The Government have repeatedly made it clear that no change in the electoral system for the House of Commons would be made without a decision of the British people in a referendum. We published a comprehensive review of voting systems in January 2008. In his speech at our party's conference in September last year, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that he believed that there should be a referendum early in the next Parliament on whether to move to the alternative vote system for elections to the Commons, and we are giving consideration to how this can best be put into effect.
Kelvin Hopkins: May I say that I, too, am terribly shocked by my friend David Taylor's death? He was not just a colleague here but also a true socialist, and, I may say, a fellow native of Leicestershire too. I miss him greatly.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that the existing electoral system not only maintains the strongest possible link between individual voters and their Member of Parliament, but makes for the maximum possibility of electors choosing their Government, and not leaving it to post-election dodgy deals between parties?
That is one of the many merits of the single-Member constituency majoritarian system, and it is one of the reasons that has always led me wholly to oppose proportional representation, which is essentially a deceit on an electorate because manifestos have no
value and the real manifesto is the subject of brokering after any election. That said, my hon. Friend will know that the alternative vote is also a majoritarian system. What we are talking about is a referendum in which there would be a great debate about which of two majoritarian systems would be most appropriate for this century.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): David Taylor was a personal friend, and although he and I differed dramatically in politics, I admired him for his independence and his courage. Is the Secretary of State aware that if we move away from the present system of election to this House, the likes of David Taylor will become fewer and fewer in this House, and that is a reason why we should stick with first past the post?
Mr. Straw: I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about the dangers of proportional systems. However, the Australian federal system uses a system of alternative voting, and there is no evidence that members of the Australian federal Parliament lack independence or readiness to speak their mind.
Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab): May I join everybody else in all parts of the House in expressing sorrow at the passing of David Taylor? He was a good friend and had many warm things to say over the years, and we will miss him.
Regardless of the electoral system, the votes will need to be counted. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way to count them in this country, as traditionally we always have, is on election night rather than on a subsequent day?
Mr. Straw: Yes. I have made very clear our preference for vote counting to take place on election night, and there has been correspondence between myself and the chairman of the Conservative party on that issue. By law it is a matter for returning officers to decide on, but we believe that there is no good reason in the vast majority of cases why counting cannot take place on election night as it has in the past. The reason-cum-excuse that has been offered is the need to verify postal votes. We all accept that need, but good returning officers are showing that they can do the necessary verification before the close of the count in respect of the vast majority of postal votes, not afterwards.
David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): May I add my own personal sadness at the death of David Taylor? He was always here, he always had something interesting to say, and he was unfailingly kind and courteous. He will be very greatly missed.
Will the Secretary of State not acknowledge that first past the post has led to a series of Governments with big majorities in this House, but with barely more than a third of the vote? It is entirely possible that we will get another one this year. How does it help to restore public confidence in politics at this time of all times to have, over and over again, a governing party with very little support in the country, with the vast majority of the electorate having rejected that party at the election?
It is a feature of majoritarian systems, and always has been, that it is rare for there to be an absolute majority of voters in support of the Government of the day. The difference is that majoritarian systems
ensure that the largest minority forms a Government. What the Liberals want is a system in which the smallest minority determines the Government. We know that from other countries, not least Germany, where the third party simply changed the Government of the day without there being an election to secure that change.
David Howarth: The Secretary of State is wrong even about whether the party with the largest number of votes always gets the largest number of seats under the present system. It does not. To call the system majoritarian when the leading party does not have a majority of the votes is rather a strange description. Is not the truth that both in 1997 and again in different words in 2001, the Labour party was happy to give the impression of being a reforming party, but as soon as it won the election under the existing system it reneged on its promises?
Mr. Straw: I remember exactly what we said in 1997, because the responsibility was mine. I never gave the impression of being someone who had suddenly had a Pauline conversion in favour of proportional representation, because I had not and have not. What we said was that we would establish a committee, quite properly, to examine new systems of voting. That committee duly reported under the chairmanship of the late Lord Jenkins, and the truth was that there was not a consensus for change, and had the matter gone to a referendum I think it would have been seen as a waste of public money. We now propose a choice for the British people that preserves the best of our system, and there is an opportunity for a great debate about whether we follow what the Australians have done, which in some respects has added to the robustness of their constituency-based system.
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): May I invoke the spirit of David Taylor and offer my right hon. Friend some robust advice? Does he accept that the alternative vote system does not necessarily produce any more proportional an outcome than the first-past-the-post system? The only way in which that can be remedied is through top-up seats, but does he accept that they would inevitably create two classes of Member in this House? Is it not too much of a risk to go ahead with such a system?
Mr. Straw: I was going to add a gloss to it. On my right hon. Friend's first point, no one has ever suggested that the alternative vote produces a proportionate result. However, by definition, it requires each individual Member to be elected by at least 50 per cent. of those voting, and many see that as one of its merits. It avoids the problems of so-called AV plus, which would lead to two tiers of Members of Parliament. I think that that would be anathema, and would never gain the support of the British people.
The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): Changes made in the Police and Justice Act 2006 have enabled the United Kingdom to ratify the Council of Europe's additional protocol and to negotiate bilateral agreements to provide for compulsory transfer of prisoners. Arrangements are now in place with 35 countries for transfers without consent. Negotiations with other countries are continuing. Since the change in the law was brought into effect, the starting point for all negotiations of prisoner transfer agreements has been on that basis.
Mr. Hollobone: May I suggest to the Secretary of State that progress has been pathetically slow, given that foreign national prisoners now make up some 13 per cent. of the prison population in England and Wales? Does it not give a hollow sound to the Prime Minister's pledge in July 2007, when he said:
"If you commit a crime you will be deported from our country. You play by the rules or you face the consequences"?
Mr. Straw: I do not accept either of the hon. Gentleman's points. First, the proportion of foreign national prisoners in United Kingdom jails-he cites 13 per cent.-is much lower than that in the vast majority of European countries. For example, in France the figure is 19 per cent., in Germany 26 per cent., and in Greece and Austria 43 per cent. We are far better than most European countries at managing our foreign national prisoner population.
There are two aspects to the hon. Gentleman's question. One is about prisoners who are serving their sentences: we wish them to be compulsorily transferred out to serve their sentence abroad. The second is about deportations of so-called time-expired foreign national prisoners, whom the conventions do not affect. We have significantly increased the number of time-expired prisoners who are deported.
Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for his reply, but even though few bilateral transfer agreements have materialised so far, are they not, in many cases, an example of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted? How many foreign national prisoners who could or should be deported should not have been in the UK in the first place, but were here illegally, as a result of the Government's dysfunctional border policy?
Mr. Straw: I am happy to seek to provide the hon. Gentleman with an answer and lay it before the House. However, let me emphasise that we have greatly reduced the number of asylum seekers who come to this country-it is now around a third of the number with which I was faced when I became Home Secretary 12 and a half years ago. We have significantly tightened border controls-often with not much help from the Opposition on the practical policies that are required. We are also increasing year by year the numbers deported.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): The Youth Citizenship Commission's report noted that opinions were divided on lowering the voting age to 16. The Government are now considering the report and how to make progress on it.
Mr. Bain: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he accept that, 41 years after the previous lowering of the voting age, there are powerful arguments for considering a further reduction to give the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds? Under the current system, some young people have to wait almost until their 23rd birthday to vote in a UK general election. Surely someone who is old enough to pay tax in this country, and old enough to join the armed forces, is old enough to exercise the democratic right to vote.
Mr. Wills: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Of course he is right to say that there are arguments in favour of lowering the voting age, which is precisely why we asked the Youth Citizenship Commission to look at the issue. However, it found that opinion is divided, even among 16 to 18-year-olds. We have to proceed carefully. The only way that we can make radical changes in the voting age, as with anything else to do with the electoral system, is-as far as we possibly can-on the basis of consensus.
Private use of the Ministry's e-mail and internet systems during working hours happens only with the permission of line management. Such usage must be reasonable, and there is strict monitoring by Ministry of Justice IT services. Any use must not interfere with the performance of official duties. Staff are not permitted to access social networking sites for personal reasons; they may access such sites only for professional reasons, if they can provide a strong business case that shows they need to use those media to perform their roles-such as when somebody was impersonating my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary on Facebook. It was important for MOJ staff to be able to monitor what he was allegedly saying.
Mr. Goodwill: It has been estimated that surfing the web in work time costs private business in the region of £624 million per year, and I suspect that that problem permeates most Government Departments and their agencies, too. May I commend to the Minister one possible solution to the problem, which has been adopted by Pindar, in Scarborough? That firm provides a separate work station, away from the rest of the work stations in the open-plan office, for private use-and that is the only place where private use can be made of the internet in work time.
Claire Ward: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting suggestion. Actually, the MOJ controls very strongly, and monitors, the access that staff have to browse or surf the web. Within the central area of the MOJ headquarters there are some computers that have much freer access, and those are available for staff to use in their private time, such as lunchtime and before or after work. However, I will certainly make sure that the MOJ IT services find out about the company to which he refers.
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