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Prison Population

11. Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): What recent representations he has received on reducing the prison population. [308930]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): My Ministry regularly receives many representations on prison matters. The Government have undertaken the fastest ever prison building programme, increasing capacity by over 25,000 places since 1997-around 3,500 are planned for delivery this year-during a period in which crime has fallen by a third.

Overwhelmingly, the increase in the prison population has been of adult male prisoners. Since the publication of the Corston review, the number of women in prison has decreased by more than 4 per cent. We are also endeavouring to increase the transfer of prisoners with serious mental health problems to the NHS secure estate.

Mrs. Moon: May I too add my comments on the very sad loss of David Taylor? I was a new member in 2005, and he was unstinting in his support, and in giving advice, support and a friendly smile as we moved around this place throughout the years.

Ninety per cent. of our prison population have a mental health problem, 70 per cent. have two or more mental problems, and 16 per cent. have up to four or five different mental health problems. A young lady in my constituency has been in and out of prison following offences occasioned by her mental health problems. What steps can we take to work with those mental health charities that are urging us to look at how we improve services-

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady, but we must make some progress.

Mr. Straw: About two years ago I established the Bradley review, which produced a series of important recommendations that we are now actively seeking to implement. My hon. Friend is right to say that a high proportion of offenders have mental health problems in one form or another. With the best will in the world, only those with the most serious mental health problems will be capable of transfer to the NHS secure estate, but we are now seeing, and have seen, much better collaboration between the prison medical services, which are now part of the NHS-that was a major reform that I introduced a dozen years ago-and the NHS outside, so that with luck, we can ensure that those with mental health problems do not fall into offending, and that if they do, they are better treated.

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Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): On behalf of the Opposition Front Bench, may I join the Secretary of State in his expressions of condolence on the death of David Taylor?

The Justice Secretary was asked about reducing the prison population, but is not the principal tool that he has used one that has seen 70,000 criminals released early from prison under his watch? In the last three years, 40 convicted criminals avoided jail each week despite being assessed as at a high risk of causing serious harm to others. Is it negligence, incompetence or a concerted Government policy that is putting the public at risk?

Mr. Straw: None of those. I regret the fact that we had to introduce the early release scheme, but overall we have been far better at managing the prison estate and the prison population than ever happened in 18 years of Conservative Government: 3,500 prisoners were released in one go-I was in the House when it happened-in July 1997, conveniently just after a general election. There were also more escapes from close prisons per week in the early 1990s than there were last year in the whole 12-month period.

I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will tell us more about his plan to halve the number of prison places-

Mr. Speaker: Order. May I say to the Secretary of State that the hon. and learned Gentleman is under no obligation to do that?

Mr. Grieve: The Secretary of State engages in classic displacement activity. The figures that I gave him are his figures, and they happened on his watch-6,000 offenders who were assessed as being at high or very high risk of causing serious harm avoided jail. He says that there is no deliberate policy, but it cannot be sheer incompetence. Some 10,000 prisoners have absconded from prison under this Government, he has pressured the judges not to give prison sentences because he failed to provide the capacity, and now he is offering foreign prisoners up to £5,000 to leave Britain. Will he confirm that that is his policy and his creation, and that his Department will not tell us the total cost of that because it has called in the auditors?

Mr. Straw: I have never pressured the judges one way or the other on their sentencing. Indeed, we now have a transparent system of sentencing guidelines. The fact that the prison population has increased so much-by 40 per cent. since 1997-is a testament both to the fact that this House has toughened up prison sentences, at our instigation and with the Opposition voting against, and to the judiciary, magistrates and judges alike, speaking for the British public. That is a sensible policy, as opposed to a policy of seeking to halve the prison population, as the hon. and learned Gentleman has promised to do.

Topical Questions

T1. [308945] Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): As the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham,
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East (Bridget Prentice) announced in a written ministerial statement today, we have just published a consultation paper to require mortgage lenders to obtain a court order or the consent of the borrower before repossessing and selling residential owner-occupied homes. That would remove the so-called Horsham loophole. The latest figures show that more than 30,000 people across England were helped between October 2008 and September 2009 under court duty schemes. On average last year, four out of five people had the immediate threat of repossession halted following help from Government-funded court desks.

Bob Spink: Mr. Speaker, David Taylor was a personal friend. His hard work, his independence and his respect for this Parliament will be greatly missed.

Will the Secretary of State boost public confidence in the prison service by making prison regimes tougher, with more education and fewer drugs, and early release contingent on the prisoner's behaviour and the likelihood of reoffending? That would boost public confidence.

Mr. Straw: What we want to see is prison made effective. It is tough, and those who recognise the reality of prison would not want to spend a day inside. We have dramatically increased the resources available for education and, as my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) has said, we have significantly increased the resources for drug treatment. Prisoners on longer-term sentences have to prove, by their good behaviour, that they are ready for parole. Those on indeterminate sentences cannot be-and are not-released unless the parole board judges that it is safe for that to happen.

T2. [308947] Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): A Wales Audit Office report has concluded that specialist services such as in-patient and forensic mental health services have been poorly managed and controlled in Wales. What steps can we take to ensure that mental health services provided in Welsh prisons for young people and children are vastly improved?

Mr. Straw: We can do a good deal. As I have mentioned already to my hon. Friend, we are implementing the Bradley report. Dealing with prisoners who have mental health problems is very challenging for all concerned, but we are in no doubt about the priority that we attach, and which has to be attached by all prison establishments, to doing it.

T3. [308948] Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): Wolstenholmes, a law firm first established in 1818 and based in my Cheadle constituency, was closed down last week by the Solicitors Regulation Authority. There is now an ongoing investigation into claims of dishonesty and account irregularities. Not surprisingly, many residents have contacted me, extremely concerned about documents and moneys held by the firm. Can the Secretary of State reassure my constituents that their documents and money will be safe, that they will be fully compensated as appropriate, and that there will be a full investigation into the circumstances?

Mr. Straw: I am happy to arrange to meet the hon. Gentleman. I understand the anxiety that will obviously be caused to former clients of Wolstenholmes in that situation. I am also happy to go through with him what we, and the Solicitors Regulation Authority, can do.

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Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): May I refer the Minister of State back to his earlier reply about the reduction of the voting age to 16? I suggest that he look at earlier attempts to extend the franchise-for example, to non-property-owning men, and to women-and consider whether it might not be better to rely on democratic principles, rather than simply on a referendum among those who already have the vote.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): Of course I am happy to take the historical reference, but I think that my hon. Friend will be aware that all the data show that, even among 16 to 18-year-olds, there is a profound division of opinion about whether the voting age should be lowered.

T4. [308949] Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): With the ever-growing tempo of operations, more and more veterans might find themselves in custody. Her Majesty's Prison Lancaster Castle has, under its own steam, started an initiative for supporting veterans in custody, through which it tries, across the north-west, to link veterans with agencies. The Minister with responsibility for veterans, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), has been very supportive, but at the end of the day the money required comes from the Ministry of Justice. Will the Secretary of State agree to consider its proposal and see whether the small amount of funding required for the pilot scheme could be within his gift?

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Maria Eagle): I am very happy to look into what the hon. Gentleman says about Lancaster. Like many of us throughout the House, he is concerned about veterans of our armed forces ending up in custody. We have just completed a joint data-matching exercise with the MOD to identify the number of veterans in custody. The results show that 3 per cent. of the prison population have served in the armed forces. That will inform our policy development and enable us to provide greater support. We are providing new training for prison staff covering best practice, advice and support for veterans, and information on accessing specialist health treatments. However, I am more than happy to look into the particular instance that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): As the assistant to the Minister for the East Midlands, I add to those of others my condolences to the family of David Taylor.

The Secretary of State will recall visiting Buxton magistrates court in September 2008, when he saw the terrible conditions under which magistrates, staff and others had to work. He will be pleased to know that the refurbished court reopened last week and that magistrates have expressed their satisfaction with it. However, we still need, at some point, a purpose-built court to serve the whole of High Peak. I would be grateful if he could tell me that this aspiration is still at least on the table.

Mr. Straw: I do indeed remember visiting my hon. Friend's constituency, not least the magistrates court, which was in a poor condition. I am glad that, as a result of the representations I received then from him and those in the Court Service, we were able to do something about it. The proposals for new court buildings,
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which include some in my own constituency, are on the table, but some have had to be deferred because of the tight financial situation, which affects my Department.

T5. [308950] Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): There is a widespread and growing perception that community punishments are a soft touch, which is reinforced by the number of miscreants who simply absent themselves, apparently with impunity. What are Ministers going to do to ensure that community "punishments" are exactly that?

Mr. Straw: Community punishments used to be a soft touch. When I became Home Secretary some years ago, it was almost voluntary as to whether offenders-or perhaps I should say miscreants-turned up for their punishment. One of the other reasons why there has been such a large increase in the prison population is that we have toughened up the breach arrangements, so that if offenders fail to turn up for their appointments with the probation service, or for unpaid work, they can be, and are, sent to jail. I am glad that that is happening. We have also toughened up the perception of community punishments, not least by requiring that offenders on unpaid work wear high-visibility jackets, and by asking the public what kind of work they wish those offenders to undertake.

Mr. Speaker: Order. May I gently say to the House that what should not be voluntary is the requirement for short questions and short answers, if we are to maximise the progress down the Order Paper?

Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): May I ask the Justice Secretary what advice he has offered the Prime Minister on the issue of pleural plaques?

Mr. Straw: A good deal. This is a difficult issue and involves potential expenditure by a number of Departments, but consideration by Ministers continues.

T6. [308951] Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree with Sir Hugh Orde that his recent remarks about lazy police officers were not constructive and do not reflect the hard work and dangers that many police officers face? Has he not added insult to injury, having already cut police pay?

Mr. Straw: What I was seeking to do-I will send the hon. Gentleman a signed copy of the transcript of my interview-was to say what I hope every Member of the House understands, which is that for a given level of resources, some parts of the same public service do very much better than others. That is true for the health service, the courts and the prisons, and it is also true for the police service. I know that from my long experience-and interestingly, much of what I said was endorsed by a number of police officers, who understood what I was saying. I am a 100 per cent. supporter of the police and what they have done to reduce crime. That cannot, however, prevent us from saying, "This service is doing well; that one's doing less well. Why is there a difference?"

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): May I just say how very much I appreciated David Taylor's presence in this House, including in the Dining Room? We will all miss him a great deal.

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Has the Justice Department examined the comparative costs and reoffending rates between keeping drug addicts in prison and providing residential accommodation with detoxification and rehabilitation facilities?

Maria Eagle: Over the past few years we have tried to ensure that drug treatment is available at the same level inside and outside prison, so that individuals can get the treatment suitable for their particular addiction problem, whether they are inside prison or out in the community. We have made great strides in ensuring that that is now possible.

T7. [308952] Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): In the light of the protests and the revelations by the National Association of Probation Officers, will Ministers now instruct their civil servants not to interfere in the drawing up of reports before sentence by probation officers-and in particular, not to ask people to exclude perfectly proper mitigating factors, such as the reason for the protest or the activity?

Maria Eagle: There have always been guidelines about how best to produce reports for the courts to ensure that the correct information is there. I am willing to consider any instance that the hon. Gentleman wants to draw to my attention, but it is certainly not the practice of the National Offender Management Service or of Ministers to interfere with precisely what should go into a particular report for the courts.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd): The Minister will be aware that under the Electoral Administration Act 2006, £17 million was allocated by his Department to the Department for Communities and Local Government to improve registration. That money was unhypothecated. Can he guarantee that the money that was sent for registration was spent on registration?

Mr. Wills: My hon. Friend will be aware that there are considerable variations in practice between electoral registration officers. Sadly, it appears that not all the money that should be spent on electoral registration is being spent on it. We have put measures in place to deal with that. My hon. Friend will be aware that we are determined to end the scandal of the 3.5 million people in this country who are eligible to vote but cannot do so because they are not registered-and we will.

T8. [308953] Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): In the past few days there has been yet another suicide at Lewes prison. There have been far too many such cases in the past 10 years, and this seems to suggest a failure of duty of care at the prison, and a failure to deliver justice for the inmates through the courts. Will the Justice Secretary examine the circumstances of this particular suicide, and try to find out whether there are sufficient prison officers to handle the size of the population at that prison-and will he let me know the outcome of the investigation?

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