9 Feb 2010 : Column 737

9 Feb 2010 : Column 737

House of Commons

Tuesday 9 February 2010

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked-

Youth Reoffending Rates

1. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): What recent steps his Department has taken to reduce reoffending rates for young offenders. [316129]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Maria Eagle): Since 2000, the frequency of juvenile reoffending has dropped by more than 20 per cent.-the trend is significantly downwards. The number of first-time offenders coming into the criminal justice system is also down. Our approach to reducing reoffending still further is detailed in the youth crime action plan, which is backed by £100 million of funding. The plan focuses on a triple-track approach of tough enforcement, non-negotiable support and prevention.

Andrew Selous: Given that many hundreds of young people who commit crime have previously been behind bars on three or more occasions, why are there no major incentives for young offender institutions to be rewarded for cutting reoffending rates?

Maria Eagle: I am interested in incentives throughout the system, but it is difficult to attribute a particular cut in reoffending to the actions of one particular institution, course or individual. So although incentives are a good and fine thing, designing what they are and how they work is slightly more difficult.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I thank the Minister for giving evidence this morning to the Select Committee on Home Affairs inquiry into crime prevention, when I mentioned to her a group that we had met called User Voice. It is a group of ex-offenders who wish to help to prevent young offenders from following the path into crime. Will she meet the group and thus recognise the importance of young ex-offenders who are trying to be a model to prevent others from getting involved in crime?

Maria Eagle: It was of course a great pleasure for me to give evidence to the Committee this morning-the time passed very swiftly. I am more than happy to meet
9 Feb 2010 : Column 738
the group to which my right hon. Friend refers. I meet groups of ex-offenders in my constituency who believe that mentoring can be an excellent way of trying to turn those who are on the path into custody away from crime.

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): In 2007, the Government talked about

However, the latest published figures show that among 15 to 17-year-old prisoners, 17 per cent. of those on remand and 13 per cent. of those sentenced are black. Given the year-on-year increase in the over-representation of young black people in custody, how does the Minister rate the performance of the designated ministerial champion tasked with reducing those numbers? I refer of course to the Justice Secretary.

Maria Eagle: I rate my right hon. Friend extremely highly; he is very good at everything he does as far as I am concerned. The particular issue that the hon. Gentleman raises is very difficult, and we must recognise that black and minority ethnic people are still over-represented in our criminal justice. The reasons for that over-representation are complex. Work is going on to try to tackle it but, as he rightly says, there is still a lot to do.

Education and Training

2. Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): What education and training opportunities are available to offenders (a) on remand and (b) serving short-term custodial sentences to help them find employment following release. [316130]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Maria Eagle): We have increased spending on education and training threefold in the past few years. In prisons we provide a curriculum with a broad focus on employability, ranging from preparatory employment skills, literacy and numeracy, to higher level qualifications and skills training. A new unit-based qualifications and credit system will be particularly valuable for those serving short sentences, as it will allow learning to take place in short modules, which can be continued out in the community.

Mr. Sheerman: My hon. Friend would be very welcome to come before my Select Committee, which is currently examining the not in education, employment or training-NEET-population. We are finding that a large number of young people who begin short custodial sentences or spend a long time on remand break their education and find it very difficult to get back, so can we have more of these short courses and can they be well funded?

Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend rightly says that there is an issue to address in respect of ensuring that people who have not engaged in education and training at the earliest possible opportunity in their lives get a chance to do so and are helped to stick at it in whatever setting. I have been collecting Select Committees lately. If that was an invitation, I might just come along to his Select Committee to tell him what I think about this and his fellow members of the Committee- [Laughter.] -I said "if" that was an invitation. I am happy to say that the
9 Feb 2010 : Column 739
number of 16 and 17-year-old NEETs in the system has been falling and now stands at 5.2 per cent., but there is clearly more to do in that respect.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): Education and training opportunities, especially for young offenders, are still very poor. At Reading young offenders institution, for example, there are only five hours a week of education and training, and at Rochester only three and a half hours. Why are those figures-they are Government figures-so bad?

Maria Eagle: In the YOI estate, we aim for 25 to 30 hours of education and purposeful activity. I realise that outcomes vary across the estate, and we strive to improve that because it is something that can make a difference to the lives of these young people.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Visiting prisons and young offenders institutions in my area, one notes how variable the facilities are. Younger people often need hands-on experience with equipment to gain technical expertise. Is that something that the Government are making efforts to improve?

Maria Eagle: Yes. We have a corporate alliance of 100 employers across various sectors, many of which actually provide work-based training in prisons and young offenders institutions, which give those who take the courses not only employment while in prison but qualifications and, sometimes, the promise of a job when they leave prison. That has to be the way forward. Some 38 per cent. of those released from custody are released into education and training, and 26 per cent. into employment.

Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): Is not the greatest impediment to training and getting a job the simple fact that all the efforts to help an offender upon release from prison are fragmented, and the first person they are likely to meet when they step through the prison gate with £40 in their pocket is the local drug dealer? What plans do the Government have to ensure that national offender management becomes genuinely local offender management, and that the ex-offender is met at the gate by someone responsible for their rehabilitation, so that over time reoffending is dramatically reduced?

Maria Eagle: While the Conservatives talk about a rehabilitation revolution, the Government have been providing it and we already have such schemes. Because of the creation of the National Offender Management Service and closer working together at a local level in education, health and local authority services such as housing, this is already happening. I am not saying that we cannot do more-we can, and we must-but the Conservatives should recognise the significant impact that has already been made on reducing reoffending.

Civil Litigation Costs

3. Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): What assessment he has made of the recommendations in Lord Jackson's review of civil litigation costs; and if he will make a statement. [316131]

9 Feb 2010 : Column 740

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): Lord Justice Jackson's review was published on 14 January. Anybody who has read its 550 pages-as I am sure the hon. Gentleman has done-will note that it is remarkable for its thoroughness and imagination. It makes recommendations for fundamental reforms to reduce costs in the civil justice system. We are now actively assessing the implications of Sir Rupert's proposals, including-crucially-their economic impact.

Paul Rowen: Does the Secretary of State accept that if the proposals are implemented, especially those on litigation costs for industrial personal injuries, it will be ordinary men and women with, say, asbestosis or byssinosis who will lose out? That will be in direct opposition to the commitment made on behalf of the Government by the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon) on 14 April 1999, when he said that the costs of litigation should lie, in the first place, with those who have actually caused the damage.

Mr. Straw: I am afraid that I do not share the hon. Gentleman's opinion about the impact of Lord Justice Jackson's proposals, which are designed to reduce the costs of civil litigation overall. Those costs have risen too high, and that is a bar to proper access to justice. Of course, he makes scores of interlinked recommendations, and they have to be examined with great care, but I hope the hon. Gentleman will do Lord Justice Jackson justice-no pun intended-given the thoroughness of his report, and recognise that his whole aim was to reduce costs and improve practical access to justice.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): I am a non-practising solicitor because I do not believe in moonlighting. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that when considering implementation of the Jackson review he will seek to avoid lessening access to justice, with fewer so-called no-win, no-fee agreements or a greater burden on the already stretched legal aid system?

Mr. Straw: I know that legal aid is understandably a matter of concern, but it must be said that the legal aid system in England and Wales, both for civil and criminal legal aid, is by far and away the most generous system in the western world. It compares by a factor of about three with systems in comparable common law jurisdictions, such as Australia and New Zealand. Part of the problem concerning the burden on the civil legal aid fund and the public purse from, for example, actions for medical negligence are the costs of litigation. Those are in nobody's interest, except those who directly benefit. Lord Justice Jackson has made specific proposals for conditional fee arrangements: he proposed that they should be abolished and replaced by an alternative of contingency fees, under which the litigant, applicant or plaintiff would pay his or her side's own costs out of any damages recovered, and that there be a 10 per cent. uplift in damages. That is a central recommendation of Lord Justice Jackson's review, which, as I have already made clear, we are examining with great care.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): We, too, welcome this remarkable magnum opus. The Secretary of State will be aware that Lord Justice Jackson was very critical of referral fees and some of the practices of claims management companies. What is the Secretary
9 Feb 2010 : Column 741
of State's view of that, and can he now give a cast-iron guarantee that when it comes to referral fees and claims management matters, there will be no special exemptions or cosy deals for the trade unions?

Mr. Straw: I am not intending that there should be any cosy deals with anybody in the implementation of the report. The hon. Gentleman will, I am sure, have read with care chapter 20 of the Jackson report.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): I have read every word of the report.

Mr. Straw: There will be an examination straight after this.

The recommendations for referral fees actually came not from the trade unions but directly from the Office of Fair Trading, which still supports referral fees. That said, I fully understand the objections raised by Lord Jackson about referral fees. We have to look at all the recommendations in the round and make judgments in the round, not least after the economic assessment that we are making at the moment.

Reoffending Rates

4. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What steps he plans to take to reduce the number of prisoners reoffending within two years of release; and if he will make a statement. [316132]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Maria Eagle): We have had substantial success in reducing youth and adult reoffending, which fell by 23.6 per cent. and 20.3 per cent. respectively between 2000 and 2007. The Government will continue to work towards driving down reoffending and to ensure that, alongside punishment, we also try to reform offenders.

John Robertson: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. She will be aware that there is something of a revolving door as two thirds of people are reoffending. We are now talking about 20,000 extra places being made available for people who have committed crimes. Should we not be looking at why these crimes happen and why people get involved in criminality in the first place, and trying to prevent them from ever getting involved in criminality?

Maria Eagle: Of course we should, and we do both. It is not unconnected, in my view, that crime has fallen by one third and that we incarcerate serious and dangerous offenders for longer. Those things are not unconnected. Violent crime is down by 41 per cent., although the Conservative party appears unwilling to accept it. There are fewer victims of crime than ever before and one now has the lowest chance of being a victim of crime since records began. These are substantial achievements that the Conservative party ought to recognise.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): It is disappointing to hear a Minister still claiming that the fall in crime has to do with the increase in the prison population, given that the same fall in crime has happened throughout Europe, apart from Belgium, without the same prison policy being in place. Does the Minister not recognise that the real underlying problem is that too many
9 Feb 2010 : Column 742
people are in prison in the first place for crimes that would be better dealt with by systems that work, such as restorative justice and getting them off drugs and drink?

Maria Eagle: We have increased fifteenfold the amount of money that we spend on drug interventions in prison and the amount we spend on providing prison education threefold. They are substantial achievements. Some 38 per cent. of those leaving prison enter education and training; 26 per cent. get a job and 80 per cent. enter settled housing. That is tackling the underlying causes of crime. Not only do we protect the public by incarcerating dangerous and severe offenders for longer, but we tackle the causes of crime.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): What progress have the Government made on ensuring that offenders have bank accounts when they leave prison? Without bank accounts they cannot access accommodation or employment, and they are one of the things that help to prevent reoffending.

Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend is right. We have some arrangements between bankers and the Department, and through those we are exploring the provision of basic bank accounts to offenders. Clearly there are difficulties, and some banks have concerns about allowing a certain type of offender to have a bank account. However, we believe that we can overcome some of those difficulties by continuing to discuss such matters, and we are seeing some progress in that regard.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): Neither reducing reoffending nor public protection is served by this Government's reckless early release scheme. Can the Minister tell the House whether she or the Secretary of State plans to announce the end of early release before 6 May?

Maria Eagle: I cannot say anything other than that we keep the matter closely under review. The policy was announced as a temporary measure to deal with overcrowding. We have said that we want to end it as soon as practically possible, and I, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and others keep that under review frequently.

Mr. Grieve: That was a gentle masterpiece of obfuscation, so let me try again. Can the Minister confirm that the official advice that she and the Secretary of State are receiving from their Department or the Prison Service warns against ending early release now, because the lack of cells means that it would have to be reintroduced in a matter of weeks or months? Can she reassure the House that there are no plans to leave the next Government the poison pill of a looming prison crisis?

Maria Eagle: I am not about to start bandying official advice across the Dispatch Box, and I do not think that any Minister, in any Administration, would seek to do that. I will therefore not rise to the bait that the hon. and learned Gentleman is dangling before me. Beyond saying that we keep the matter, which we take very seriously, under constant review, I have nothing to add.

Next Section Index Home Page