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House of Commons

Tuesday 23 March 2010

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business Before questions

Kent County Council (Filming on Highways) Bill [ Lords]

Bill read a Second time and committed.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked-

Short Custodial Sentences

1. David T. C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of short custodial sentences in reducing reoffending. [323384]

10. Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of short custodial sentences in reducing reoffending. [323393]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): Overall, the reoffending rate for all adult offenders went down by 15.9 per cent. between 2000 and 2008, and by a greater margin in respect of juvenile offenders. However, there is a problem, which I readily acknowledge, in respect of short-sentence prisoners, among whom the reoffending rate increased in the same period by 3.9 per cent. Those persistent offenders tend to be the most intractable to deal with, having failed on community punishments and failed to deal with their alcohol and drug abuse. The courts, police and National Offender Management Service are putting great effort into directing more of these offenders from crime, including through intensive alternatives to custody, "through the gate" supervision and better management of offenders, which is being piloted in the integrated offender management projects. Those measures are all helping to shape an improved strategy for short-sentence prisoners. In addition, last week I announced a very important initiative with the organisation Social Finance in respect of Peterborough prison, where social investors are to be paid by results to get reoffending down.

David T. C. Davies: I thank the Minister for that comprehensive reply. Does he agree that the ineffectiveness of short custodial sentences, which we both agree about, is not remedied by saying, "Let's not send people to
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prison at all"? It would be remedied far better by looking at the reoffending rate for those with long sentences, which is much lower, and by ensuring that people are kept in prison long enough to address their problems with alcoholism, drugs and lack of education.

Mr. Straw: The Government are the last people to suggest that people should not be sent to prison when the courts require it. One of the main drivers of the 25,000 increase in the prison population since 1997 has been that the courts, quite correctly, have been sending more people to prison and for longer. As for getting the prison population down, the hon. Gentleman should direct his remarks to those on his own Front Bench. It was, after all, the shadow Justice Secretary who said that if he could get back to the prison numbers that existed in 1993-44,000 rather than 84,000-he would have succeeded, and that he would be very happy to have that engraved on his tombstone. I think that it would be rather more of a political tombstone were he to try that. The people in prison need to be there, and what we must do is make more effective use of short sentences.

Mr. Carswell: Many of those given short custodial sentences often have drug addiction issues. Would it not help to reduce reoffending if non-statutory organisations, charities and non-state players were given a greater role in helping to tackle drug addiction, both inside prison and when prisoners come out?

Mr. Straw: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. As has been brought out by the excellent Public Accounts Committee report that came out recently, most of those persistent offenders have drug and alcohol abuse problems. We have increased by 15 times the amount of money spent on drug abuse and better education about drugs in prison, and as the hon. Gentleman might know, we are making much more use of voluntary organisations. Obviously, they have to enter into proper contracts with the state.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): My right hon. Friend mentioned that the Government are pursuing intensive alternatives to custody. Will he tell the House what effect that approach is having in reducing reoffending?

Mr. Straw: The emerging evidence from the evaluations in the six areas where intensive alternatives to custody are being piloted suggests that they are significantly reducing reoffending. I have seen one of them in operation in Derby. There is no doubt that if they are properly planned and executed they can effectively force offenders to face up to the reasons why they are offending, and can establish strong discipline on them in the community. If that works, it is all to the good.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): The Justice Secretary failed to point out that the goal to which I aspire on prison numbers is matched by the goal of reducing crime.

Statistics published last week show that the reoffending rate among those subject to drug rehabilitation requirements is even higher than that among those who serve short prison sentences-although those two groups are often the same people. Does the Secretary of State accept that maintaining offenders on methadone is a counsel of
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failure, and will he give courts the power to impose abstinence-based drug rehabilitation orders to help offenders-with short sentences and long-to give up drugs once and for all?

Mr. Straw: The hon. and learned Gentleman highlights the fact that the group consisting of short-sentence prisoners is the most intractable to deal with. That is accepted in the round, and a great deal of work is going on to get them away from crime. Some of the "through the gates" work being done in London with the St. Giles Trust and the Metropolitan police has been excellent. Key challenges include ensuring that people are not offending-not when they are in prison, where, on the whole they cannot, but from the moment they leave prison-and dealing with their incredibly chaotic lives. He is really talking about the same thing. The prescription of methadone has to be a medical matter. Simply taking people off any kind of drug on which they are dependent when they are not ready for that will not resolve anything. However, we do have drug abstinence programmes in place.

Mr. Grieve: But is it not small wonder that prisoners coming off short sentences are more likely than not to reoffend, given that, despite the "through the gates" programmes, the delays in assessing prisoners mean that most do not even undertake rehabilitation work until halfway through their sentence-and there is then wasteful duplication of assessments-and also given that up to half of prisoners spend almost all day in their cells?

Mr. Straw: The hon. and learned Gentleman draws attention to the findings of a National Audit Office report to which I have already referred, which shows that there are some excellent practices and some less than excellent practices in prisons. We are committed to responding very quickly to such issues-a response that includes improving the time that it takes to assess prisoners, as he suggests.

Retail Crime

3. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): How many people have been prosecuted for offences related to retail crime in the last 12 months. [323386]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Claire Ward): The Ministry of Justice's court proceedings database does not hold information on offences beyond descriptions in the statutes under which prosecutions are brought. However, I can tell the hon. Lady that convictions for shoplifting rose by 9 per cent. and that some 45,600 penalty notices for disorder were issued for retail thefts under £200 in 2008. The Government take crime against businesses very seriously, and we are firmly committed to working to find effective solutions and responses to crimes against businesses.

Miss McIntosh: I thank the Minister for that reply, but it is a load of twaddle. That 9 per cent. increase, those 45,000 offences and the police computer system that does not recognise multiple offences are the legacy of the Labour Government. The Conservatives will do better.

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Claire Ward: It would be very interesting to see how the Conservatives would do better, given that they want to tie the hands of the police and crime enforcement officers in relation to many of the measures that we are using effectively, such as those involving DNA and CCTV. Perhaps the hon. Lady should talk to her Front-Bench team and her party leader about changing their policy if they really have a strong message on crime.

Miss McIntosh: That was a highly inappropriate answer, Mr. Speaker, and I should like to withdraw, and beg leave to introduce an Adjournment debate on this issue.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am grateful to the hon. Lady, but in any event I am intending to move on to the next question.


4. Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): What recent representations he has received on policies to reduce levels of reoffending. [323387]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Maria Eagle): The Government receive a wide range of representations on policies to reduce reoffending, ranging from regular meetings with front-line staff, sentencers and third sector organisations to the detailed consideration of more formal reports from parliamentary Committees or external bodies such as the National Audit Office.

Sandra Gidley: The NAO's report of two weeks ago revealed that reoffending by people released from short-term prison sentences is costing £10 billion a year. We seem to be supporting colleges of crime. Is it not time for some serious research into what works to reduce reoffending, perhaps through something analogous to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence-a NICE for the Ministry of Justice?

Maria Eagle: It is always difficult to get the balance right between researching into problems and spending money on actually dealing with them. We prefer to spend money on dealing with problems, and that is working. Reoffending has gone down: since 2000 the reoffending rate has reduced by 15.9 per cent., crime is down by 36 per cent. and violent crime is down by 41 per cent. There are 6 million fewer crimes a year than in 1995 and the chances of being a victim of crime are at their lowest since records began in 1981. That is a record of which we are proud.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I know that the Minister is aware that women who offend often have multiple problems such as alcoholism and substance abuse. Does she agree that by addressing those problems through mentoring schemes such as those in the Women's Turnaround project in Cardiff, which has recently benefited from another Government grant, we will reduce reoffending?

Maria Eagle: I accept my hon. Friend's point. I, too, commend the work of Women's Turnaround in Cardiff, which I have visited and for which, as she rightly says, the Ministry of Justice provides some funding. The project does excellent work in tackling the causes of offending among women who often end up serving short sentences, and whose life situations worsen because of those short sentences, rather than their being able to tackle the cause of their offending.

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David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I will not repeat what I normally say on these occasions about the crime rate falling throughout the whole of the western world since the mid-1990s, but I am encouraged by the tone of both the Secretary of State and the Minister on the issue of reoffending. May I ask them to commit, in the forthcoming election campaign, to sticking to evidence about what works, instead of the debate in the campaign descending to the usual arms race that harms victims of crime in the long run, and undermines the political system in this country?

Maria Eagle: The victims of crime in this country want crime dealt with effectively, which means not only protecting the public by locking up serious and dangerous offenders-who ought to be locked up-but enabling people who are in prison to tackle the causes of their offending behaviour. We do both, and it is a record on which we are proud to stand.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister will be aware that a lot of persistent reoffenders have low educational achievement, which in turn is often the result of speech and language difficulties from an early age. I draw my hon. Friend's attention to work done by the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists and other interested bodies on screening tools that could deal with that issue and provide more support in prisons to address the problem.

Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend is correct: low educational attainment is one of the factors that can cause crime and reoffending, which is why we have trebled the amount we spend on offender learning in our prisons to £175 million over the current three-year period. That has led to 36 per cent. of those leaving our prisons going into education, training or employment. The figure is not high enough, but it is an awful lot better than it was. My hon. Friend is correct to say that we need to be aware of issues such as learning disability that may prevent prisoners from accessing the support and help that exists. We are getting better at remedying that.

Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): As the Minister has just implied, good education courses in prison can indeed dramatically reduce reoffending, but can she explain why the Manchester College was awarded further contracts to run education services in prisons, only to announce soon afterwards that it needed to make more than 300 people redundant? Given that the college seems to have massively overreached itself, on what basis was it awarded the contracts, and what responsibility does the Minister take for this rather sad and hopeless state of affairs?

Maria Eagle: The procurement of services such as education in prisons is conducted in a proper manner, in accordance with EU regulations and the laws of this nation. There is no doubt about the fact that the college was properly awarded the contract. I cannot comment on the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman refers to-the college's internal arrangements, and how many people it does or does not employ. That is a matter for the college, but the contracts it has undertaken with us have been properly procured and carried out to a proper standard.

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Service Personnel (Voting)

5. James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): What steps the Government are taking to ensure that service personnel serving abroad will be able to vote in the forthcoming general election. [323388]

11. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): What steps the Government are taking to ensure that service personnel serving abroad will be able to vote in the forthcoming general election. [323394]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): For registration, we have extended the period for service declarations to five years, and the Electoral Commission is leading a drive to increase registration, including providing bespoke registration forms for service personnel in Afghanistan. Proxy votes are available to all registered service personnel serving overseas, and we are also offering a bespoke scheme to expedite postal voting in Afghanistan. For the longer term, we are consulting on measures to provide a comprehensive solution. I have written to Opposition parties asking them to sign up to that commitment on a cross-party basis.

James Duddridge: Sadly, that is too little, too late. Given that the working group was set up in January, why has it not yet reported, and can the Minister confirm that a working group set up in January will have no impact whatever on the next election?

Mr. Wills: I am sad that the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have a great deal of respect, has his facts wrong in almost every particular. The working group was not set up in January; it was set up last autumn. The hon. Gentleman should not take his information from what he reads in the papers; they are not always right. In this case they are wrong, and he was wrong to quote them. I am sorry that he thinks what we have done is too little, too late-and I am trying to recall all the letters he has written to me about this issue in the past, but I am afraid I cannot recall any. In fact, the Opposition were, sadly, silent on the subject until I started work on it. [ Interruption. ] I am afraid the record speaks for itself, and it is quite clear. I am happy to show it to any hon. Member who wants to approach me afterwards. [ Interruption. ] As Opposition Members well know, I have tried to approach the matter on a cross-party basis. It is important for all Members of the House to do everything they can to expedite postal voting for those who want to use it, and to ensure that every member of the armed services is registered to vote. That is the work that we are undertaking. The working party has reported, and if the hon. Gentleman knew what his Front-Bench team know, he would know that I wrote to them a few days ago asking them to support the work proposed by the working group.

Mr. Speaker: Order. Replies, though comprehensive, are rather long. We need to speed up a bit.

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