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9 Feb 2010 : Column 743

Re-registration (Service Personnel)

5. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): What assessment he has made of the merits of ending the re-registration requirement for service voters. [316133]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): Ending re-registration altogether would create inaccuracies in the register. However, the Government recognise the need to respond to the special circumstances of service voters. That is why we have laid before Parliament an order that extends the declaration period for service voters from three to five years, and why we are taking forward further measures to help service voters to register to vote and, indeed, to vote.

Mr. Robathan: Before the last general election I took this matter up because I discovered that there were shamefully low levels of service voter registration. I welcome what the Government have said. I last had a meeting with the Electoral Commission in, I think, October, when we discussed this. I am sure that, like me, the Minister wishes to make it as easy as possible for people fighting-and possibly dying-in places such as Afghanistan to be able to vote. May I therefore urge him to reconsider so that perhaps people could register as service voters when they join the forces, as I did, and then de-register when they leave? That would be very easy: it worked in those days, and I managed to vote Conservative throughout those days as well.

Mr. Wills: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his interest in the matter. He brings a lot of experience to it, and I am grateful to him. I agree with him entirely: it is crucial that those who are prepared to make such sacrifices for their country should be able to have that important say in the future of their country. There is no question about that. I will of course take into consideration what he has said. We have set up a working party, with Ministry of Defence officials, Ministry of Justice officials, and representatives of the families and the armed services, to see how we can achieve long-term solutions to what is a difficult problem.

I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman's suggestion. I promise him that we will take it forward and have a look at it. I know that he will agree with me and would not want to recreate the sort of inaccuracies that were in the register before 2000. However, I can reassure him that we are making efforts to ensure that our servicemen in Afghanistan in particular are enabled to register to vote in the forthcoming election, and then able to vote. The proxy vote system is available to everybody. We are trying to expedite postal voting for service personnel as well, and we will be announcing measures to that end shortly.

Prisoners Maintaining Innocence

6. John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): What recent estimate he has made of the number of people in prison who maintain their innocence. [316134]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Claire Ward): The information requested is not collected. A person who believes that they have been the victim of a miscarriage of justice can appeal against their conviction. If the appeal is unsuccessful, the Criminal Cases Review
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Commission can be asked to review the case. The commission has the power to refer a conviction to the Court of Appeal.

John Hemming: I thank the Minister for that answer. Does she think there would be any merit in the Government undertaking a study of miscarriages of justice, and of the correlation between unevidenced assertions and compensation in miscarriage of justice cases?

Claire Ward: There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that the number of wrongful convictions is rising. The Court of Appeal quashes about 200 convictions each year, and I see no reason at all to make any change to the current arrangements.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet) (Lab): One group of people who often have difficulty expressing and establishing their innocence are those on the autistic spectrum. In the state of Maryland in the United States, this is being tackled by the Maryland curriculum, which trains court officers and police officers to recognise autistic behaviour. Would my hon. Friend be prepared to review the Maryland curriculum to see whether there would be any merit in introducing such a scheme in the United Kingdom?

Claire Ward: My hon. Friend has given the House some interesting information, and I would be more than happy to ask officials to look into it in more detail. He might also be aware of the Bradley report, in which my noble Friend Lord Bradley identifies the difficulties experienced by people with mental health and other learning difficulties. The report examines how the criminal justice system should approach these issues and suggests alternative ways of dealing with them, where possible.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I am disappointed, although not surprised, that the Minister responded to the original question by saying that the Government do not collect this information at all. About a year ago, they said it would serve no useful purpose to collect it. Does she not recognise that there is a useful purpose? When prisoners maintain their innocence, it can often lead to their being held in prison for longer, perhaps because they are held not to have completed various courses. Do the Government not see that there would be a purpose in making a study of cases such as those?

Claire Ward: When someone is convicted, it is only right that the system accepts that the court's decision is right and, if they are sent to prison, the prison system should accept the decision on that basis. The person has an opportunity to appeal, and if the appeal is unsuccessful, they also have an opportunity to refer the case to the Criminal Cases Review Commission. The hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting that people who maintain their innocence might not get parole or be considered appropriately. It would not be lawful for the Parole Board to exclude someone from an opportunity for parole simply because they maintained their innocence. There are some courses that it would be inappropriate for such people to attend, such as sex offending treatment, simply because if they could not admit their offence, it would be difficult to discuss with them how they were going to progress from it.

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Self-harm (Female Prisoners)

7. Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): What recent estimate he has made of levels of self-harm in women's prisons. [316136]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Maria Eagle): About half of all incidents of self-harm across the entire prison estate are perpetrated by women, who comprise only 5 per cent. of the prison population. Levels of self-harm in women's prisons are broadly stable, although they are high. The number of self-inflicted deaths, however, has gone down to a three-year average of 60, which is a significant improvement on the past few years.

Mr. Illsley: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that response. On a recent visit to New Hall women's prison, I was shocked to see the levels of self-harm among very vulnerable females. Some of the women are serving jail sentences for offences such as the non-payment of their television licence fee. Is there more that the Government can do to reduce the serious level of self-harm in women's prisons?

Maria Eagle: We are taking steps to try to deal with serious self-harm in all our prisons. One of the best ways of preventing vulnerable women from self-harming is to try to provide alternatives to custody for petty offences. This enables the women to remain in the community while tackling their offending behaviour. In that respect, using the £15.5 million of extra resources that we have made available to divert women from custody is probably the best way of tackling this issue.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Given what the Minister has just said and given the overwhelming evidence recently provided in the Corston and other reports, it is clear that far too many women in prison should not be there. More should be done, as it has been estimated that up to half the female prison population should not be in prison-we really should grasp this nettle and act urgently.

Maria Eagle: I am doing my best to do that. The hon. Gentleman's analysis that some women in prisons should not be there may well be correct, but it is sentencers who send people to prison and we have to provide places for them. We have to find alternatives in the community for many of these vulnerable women that command the respect and support of sentencers. That is what some of the money in the diversion projects I mentioned is being used to do. It shows some progress that there has been a 4.2 per cent fall in the number of women in prison over the last year during which these projects have been working, while at the same time the male prison population has increased by 2 per cent.

Mr. Speaker: May I gently say that the comprehensiveness and courtesy of ministerial replies is greatly appreciated by hon. and right hon. Members, but I think that the abridged rather than the "War and Peace" version will suffice.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): I very much welcome what my hon. Friend said about providing diversionary tactics for women in prison. Welsh women,
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if sentenced to a period in prison, have to serve their time in England at some considerable distance from their families. What ways can be found to help to ensure that there are greater diversionary opportunities for sentencers in Wales so that women are able to serve their sentence closer to family support in Wales?

Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend is correct: about 50 or so Welsh women are serving their prison sentences in English jails, as there are no women's prisons in Wales. We do not intend to build one, but we are providing support both in south and north Wales for diversionary projects that might enable sentencers not to impose short prison sentences for those who really would do better with community sentences.

Burglary Sentences

8. Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): What progress has been made in his review of sentencing for people convicted of burglary offences. [316137]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Claire Ward): The maximum sentence for burglary of dwellings is 14 years; for non-domestic burglary, it is 10 years; and for aggravated burglary, it is life. Within the statutory framework, it is for the Sentencing Guidelines Council to issue guidelines to the judiciary. The SGC issued guidelines for non-domestic burglary in 2008; following R v. Saw in 2009, it is currently preparing guidelines for domestic burglary.

Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Twelve months ago, the Secretary of State and the then Minister of State said that they were looking at toughening up the sentencing policy for burglary offences. Will the Minister tell me what is happening with first-time offenders who commit burglary?

Claire Ward: Within the statutory framework, it is of course for the courts to determine what is appropriate, and the framework is quite extensive. As a result of that framework, we are seeing that the average custodial period for burglary has increased from 15.5 months in 1998 to 17.4 months in 2008. Overall, burglary has more than halved since 1997.

Returning Officers

9. Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): If he will take steps to strengthen accountability arrangements for returning officers. [316138]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): The Government are aware of concerns that have been raised in Parliament about the accountability of returning officers and registration officers, and we are exploring ways to address them. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that any changes should take place only if they support the principle of the independence of these officers.

Mr. Mackay: Notwithstanding that independence, does the Minister not agree that he should make it very clear to returning officers at the forthcoming general election that unless there is very good geographical case against, all counts should take place on the night?

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Mr. Wills: I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that on a personal level I have made that very clear, as indeed has my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary. I think that that is a settled view across the House. However, as the Minister responsible for elections, I have to proceed in a way that respects the integrity and independence of the system and of those officers. As I have said, we are exploring ways of addressing this issue; we will announce the outcome of that review very shortly.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): I welcome the Minister's comments, but does he appreciate that this is a cross-party issue? Indeed, we agree with Mr. Speaker when he says that we do not want slow-motion democracy, but instant democracy. In a modern democracy, we should be able to achieve that.

Mr. Wills: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. She and many other Members in all parts of the House have made the same points extremely cogently in recent weeks, and their concerns have been taken on board. As I have said, we will announce the result of our explorations very shortly.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I know that the Minister is well aware of the strength of feeling and cross-party opinion on the matter referred to by the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith). He will have seen the massive number of signatures attached to an early-day motion on the subject, he was present at a debate in Westminster Hall last week, and he will know that new clause 98, tabled to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, is due to be debated this evening.

The Minister has been offered a great opportunity to take action to preserve the constitutional convention under which the government of our country is determined without delay after a general election. Either he can accept new clause 98, or the Government can present further proposals to give powers to the Electoral Commission forthwith to ensure that election night is not lost and democracy is preserved.

Mr. Wills: I have already made clear my great personal sympathy with the view that has just been expressed so cogently by the hon. Lady. Her new clause plays a valuable part in the debate, and I will respond to it at the appropriate time rather than during Question Time. However, while I share her views on a personal level, I am sure that all Members would wish to preserve the other fundamental constitutional underpinning of our electoral system, namely the independence and integrity of the returning officer.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept that this question is not really about protecting the independence of the returning officer, but about protecting the right of the British people to know the results of our election at the earliest possible opportunity? I do not always agree with Opposition Front Benchers, but in this instance they are absolutely right. New clause 98, or another one, would come in very handy to concentrate returning officers' minds.

Mr. Wills: I have already made clear several times that I personally agree entirely with my hon. Friend's point. However, it is very important-I ask all Members
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to respect this-that we proceed in a way that does not give the impression that politicians are interfering with the independence and integrity of the electoral system. We know the view of Members in all parts of the House, and we must find a way of meeting it that does not compromise those fundamental constitutional principles.

Probation Service

10. Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): What plans he has to improve the performance of the probation service. [316139]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): The performance of the probation service has improved significantly in recent years from the variable and insufficiently supervised base that I found on becoming Home Secretary in 1997. Since then funding has increased by 70 per cent., staff numbers by 49 per cent., and case loads by 53 per cent. All but one of the 41 probation areas are meeting or exceeding their targets, but the whole service is committed to driving up standards further. I have no doubt that the introduction of probation trusts is providing its own dynamic for change and improvement.

Mr. Vara: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his answer, but is he aware that, owing to the Government's obsession with bureaucracy and centralisation, the probation service now uses a plumber from Birmingham to fix a loo seat in Norwich, and an electrician from Devon to change a light bulb in Birmingham?

Mr. Straw: I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the rather unsatisfactory shared-facilities arrangement that was entered into some years ago. I was not aware that it had led to the situation that he has described, but I am certainly aware of concern about it. I have received representations about the arrangement from many probation officers and probation trusts, and we are trying to disentangle the service from it.

National Victims Service

11. John Howell (Henley) (Con): How much his Department plans to spend on the national victims service in 2010-11. [316141]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Claire Ward): The national victims service has been allocated £8 million for the financial year 2010-11. Of that, £2 million will be allocated to the homicide scheme, and the remaining £6 million will provide the enhanced service for other victims of crime. The service will be delivered, in partnership with the Government, by the charity Victim Support. It builds on huge improvements for victims in the past 10 years to change the culture of the criminal justice system in responding to the practical and emotional needs of victims.

John Howell: I thank the Minister for her response, but Ministers have already said that the national victims service will be funded from efficiency savings in the Department. Will the Minister tell us precisely how those efficiency savings will be made?

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Claire Ward: We have already allocated the funding, and we have made the efficiency savings. The money has not been taken away from other victims' services provided by the Department. What we do with that money is important. Victim Support already provides a good service, and I am absolutely confident that the national victims service will provide an even better one.

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