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23 Mar 2010 : Column 123

After 13 years of Labour, this tired Government are making things worse. Does the Minister agree that things cannot go on like this and that it is time for change?

Maria Eagle: It is complete nonsense to say that Muslim gangs, or any gangs, run prisons. Our prisons are run by the National Offender Management Service and by the staff. We have prison intelligence networks that can identify threats to order and control, and we have ways of ensuring that such threats are tackled effectively. We are doing that as well now as we ever have in the whole 13 years of this Government.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the most important thing is to monitor, and when necessary act against, groups that fall under the influence of Salafist ideology, particularly when they are associated with groups such as al-Qaeda?

Maria Eagle: I agree with my right hon. Friend, and I can tell him and the House that such activity does go on in our prisons. The statement quoted by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) is sheer nonsense.

Crown Dependencies

13. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the Governments of the Crown dependencies on their relationship with Government Departments; and if he will make a statement. [323396]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): The Ministry of Justice has frequent discussions at many levels with the Governments of the Crown dependencies. We discuss many aspects of our constitutional relationship, including on occasion the islands' relationships with other Government Departments.

Andrew Mackinlay: I thank the Minister for what he did to help resolve the dispute between the Isle of Man and our Department of Health. However, are not the lessons of that dispute that there need to be more bilateral meetings between Ministers of the Crown dependencies and Whitehall Ministers that avoid the Sir Humphreys, and that the Ministry of Justice needs to reassert its lead role throughout Whitehall as the conduit between Her Majesty's Government and the Crown dependency Governments?

Mr. Wills: One lesson of the recent dispute was the persuasive eloquence of my hon. Friend. He deserves a lot of praise for that, and he will be much missed in this House.

This Government take our relationship with the Crown dependencies extremely seriously. Certainly when I was the Minister responsible, I had frequent meetings with them, as does my colleague the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Lord Bach. I am sure that all Ministers in the Ministry of Justice will continue to do that. I know my hon. Friend's views on the Sir Humphreys and so on, but the officials who deal with such matters are excellent. They do a very good job, on which they should be congratulated.

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Prisoners (Republic of Ireland Nationals)

14. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): How many Republic of Ireland nationals are serving sentences in prisons in England and Wales. [323398]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Maria Eagle): At the end of June 2009, there were 524 prisoners from the Republic of Ireland serving sentences of imprisonment in England and Wales.

Mr. Hollobone: Given the cost to the British taxpayer of their incarceration, and that only Jamaican and Nigerian nationals have higher populations in our jails, why is Her Majesty's Government not returning to secure detention in the Republic Irish nationals who consent to go?

Maria Eagle: Such arrangements are voluntary. If people wish to go, their returns can be facilitated, and there is no reason why not. We no longer deport-except in exceptional circumstances-at the end of a sentence of imprisonment because of the operation of the common travel area, which means that people can simply return.

FOI Request

15. Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): Although it is not entirely necessary, for the avoidance of doubt, I draw hon. Members' attention to my entry in the Register of Members' Financial Interests. When does the Ministry of Justice plan to respond to the freedom of information request submitted to it by me in January 2010? [323399]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): I sent a reply to the hon. Gentleman last week. I apologise to him and the House that, because of the depth of consideration required, we were unable to respond within the 20-day statutory period.

Norman Baker: In early January, we learned the astonishing news that in 2003 Lord Hutton recommended that material relating to the death of Dr. David Kelly should be locked away for 70 years. That material would have been made public had the matter been dealt with in a coroner's court. On 27 January, Lord Hutton indicated that he was now content for the material to be released to medical experts, who are threatening legal action against the Government, and I tabled the FOI request to which the Minister replied. The doctors have heard nothing, and my request has been turned down. Where is that material? Will she now comply with Lord Hutton's request for it to be made publicly available?

Bridget Prentice: Our refusal of the hon. Gentleman's request is an entirely legitimate and normal use of the exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act. The correspondence to which he refers is a matter of public record and represents nothing new. We have already provided to the Hutton inquiry, by third parties, a clear expectation that its contents would remain confidential. I reiterate the commitment made to him by the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) to revisit the Government's position should he come forward with any new evidence.

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Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Is the Minister satisfied that no foreign Government were involved in the sponsorship of the question that she has just answered?

Bridget Prentice: I suspect that that is not a matter for me.

Prisoners Released in Error

18. Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): What steps he plans to take to reduce the number of prisoners released in error. [323402]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Maria Eagle): While the proportion of prisoners released in error is very small, being about one twentieth of 1 per cent., the Prison Service is making every effort to reduce the number further. All releases in error must be reported immediately and are subject to formal investigation so that lessons can be learned. It is a mandatory requirement that prisons check the correctness of the calculation of a prisoner's release date and entitlement to release on two separate occasions just prior to release. Prison governors have been reminded of the importance of these checks and the need to follow up any errors immediately.

Mr. Vara: The fact is that over the past two years the number of prisoners released early has increased by 45 per cent. Does the Minister agree that it is bad enough that the Government have an official early release programme, but worse still that so many criminals are being released early?

Maria Eagle: I do not really understand what the hon. Gentleman is talking about; his first question was about releases in error, but he is now talking about early release. All that I can say is that we look very carefully to make sure that people are not released in error, but that where they are, they are immediately brought back to custody, as almost all of them are. The figures were not even collected by his party when it was last in government, so at least we know what the situation is now.

Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection

20. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): What progress has been made on plans to review the operation of indeterminate sentences for public protection. [323404]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): Imprisonment for public protection sentences play an important part in protecting the public. We are currently considering the recommendations of the joint thematic review on indeterminate sentences, published by the prisons and probation inspectorates, for improving the operation of those sentences.

Andrew Stunell: The Secretary of State will know that there are 2,400 post-tariff prisoners cluttering up our prisons. They cannot apply to the Parole Board, because they cannot get on the offender behaviour courses that they have been required to undertake. Does he accept the view of the inspectorates that he has just mentioned, which is that that is completely unsustainable? In fact, does he not agree that it is literally a criminal waste of money?

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Mr. Straw: I profoundly disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Those offenders are not "cluttering up" prisons; they are there because they have been assessed as dangerous by the courts following legislation that we introduced in 2003. There is no entitlement for a prisoner who is on an IPP sentence to be released when his tariff expires. The prisoner has to show that it is safe to release him or her-they are mainly males. The responsibility for proving that it is safe to release the prisoner is on the prisoner. We make available a range of courses, but it is not about ticking boxes; it is about prisoners taking responsibility for themselves. There is no doubt about the effectiveness of the sentence. In my judgment, it is one of the measures that we have introduced that has considerably contributed to making this country much safer and to getting crime down.

Topical Questions

T1. [323409] Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): I would like to draw the House's attention to the publication that we issued yesterday, "Declarations of Interests: Guidance for Parliamentary election candidates", which was produced in response to a recommendation of the Committee on Standards in Public Life on MPs' expenses and allowances. It follows consultation with the other parties and amendments to take account of their concerns. I hope that it has the full support of the House.

Rosie Cooper: Will the Justice Secretary indicate what action he is taking to give communities more of a say in the criminal justice system? In particular, will he say what work is being done in West Lancashire?

Mr. Straw: Yes, I can. We now have community payback, which involves offenders in high-visibility jackets. It is popular with the public-they can now see community punishments taking place-and it is accepted by offenders as part of punishment. There are five such schemes taking place in my hon. Friend's area. There is the Far Cotton alley gates scheme, the Camp Hill lighting scheme, the Safer Lumbertubs initiative and many other projects, all of which are improving the quality of life for her constituents.

T2. [323410] Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): It has been reported that Ian Huntley, who murdered two little girls, can claim £20,000 in compensation from the Ministry of Justice for having been attacked by a fellow inmate. Does the Secretary of State think that that is fair and just?

Mr. Straw: There is no way in which I can prevent prisoners from making statements through their lawyers in the newspapers, but I can say, very emphatically, that any such claim would be vigorously and very thoroughly resisted. My sentiments are the same as those of the hon. Gentleman and, I think, the House as a whole. I also point out that we have taken active steps to restrict the availability of legal assistance to prisoners, because it was subject to abuse, and it is now being severely restricted.

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T3. [323411] Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): Will the Justice Secretary commission fresh medical evidence on pleural plaques, because it has come to light that the medical evidence on which he relied in coming to his judgment on pleural plaques came from a professor who openly admits that he has never come into contact with a pleural plaques victim?

Mr. Straw: We are always ready to look at further evidence, although it obviously has to come from those who are medically expert in this field. However, the evidence that we had to take into account was a report by the chief medical officer for England, along with a parallel report by the medical advisers to the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Does the Secretary of State agree that violence at Her Majesty's Prison Frankland has affected not only Huntley and other inmates, but prison officers? Can he tell us what steps are being taken to deal with violence and dangerous weapons in Frankland?

Mr. Straw: First, I want to pay tribute in the House, as I have done privately in letters, to the three prison officers who have been injured, one of whom, Mr. Wilde, has been severely injured. Fortunately, such attacks on, and injuries to, prison officers are not frequent, but when they do take place, they are terrible for individuals, their families and their colleagues at work. They are also a reminder of the inherent danger that prison officers face, particularly in category A high-risk prisons. A lockdown is taking place at the moment-it takes two or three days in high-risk, high-category prisons. It involves going all the way through the prison searching for any kind of weapons. Other measures are also in place to ensure that those two incidents, which we believe are unrelated-but that is the subject of an investigation-do not happen again.

T4. [323412] Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): Given that, in recent years, overall crime rates have been falling, while the number of people in prison has been increasing, what assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the possibility of reducing the prison population by half, and what impact does he think that would have on overall crime rates?

Mr. Straw: I know that it is a dream of the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) to get the prison population down to what it was in 1993-44,000 instead of 84,000.

Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): By reducing crime!

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman says that they want to do it by linking it to a fall in crime. However, I am clear, and so is my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, that one of the reasons why we have been the first Government since the war to get crime consistently down, rather than up, is that we have been locking up serious, dangerous and persistent offenders for longer; they are being taken out of the system. That is how hon. Members' communities, and mine, have been made safe.
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Letting out 40,000 prisoners would be a way of making the country even more dangerous than when the Conservatives were last in power.

T5. [323413] Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Returning to the Secretary of State's admirably robust response to my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), will he confirm that this would be compensation culture gone absolutely mad, and will he also confirm that there are no conceivable circumstances in which a prisoner could receive compensation for violence-

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think we have got the gist of it.

Mr. Straw: Were that to happen, of course it would be worthy of the description that the right hon. Gentleman has used. As I have said, however, all that has happened so far is that there has been a suggestion, apparently by the prisoner's lawyer, that he will seek compensation. I can tell the House as an absolute fact that that would be robustly and vigorously resisted by the Government, and we have absolutely no intention of making such compensation payments.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Cash-for-crash criminals and clipboard solicitors are causing our vehicle insurance premiums to rise astronomically. What action is my right hon. Friend's Department taking to try to prevent such cases from coming to court?

Mr. Straw: We are greatly tightening up on legal aid. Also, the major report by Lord Justice Jackson on fundamental reforms to the way in which legal costs are assessed should deal with some of the abuses to which my hon. Friend has referred.

T6. [323414] Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): Unlike in the United States, corporations and associations in this country are allowed to sue for libel rather than just for malicious falsehood. The Secretary of State's announcement this morning did not say that he was going to change that provision. Given the tendency of associations such as Nemesysco, Barclays, Tesco and the British Chiropractic Association to use our libel laws unjustly to restrict free speech, will he now consider such a change as part of libel law reform?

Mr. Straw: The announcement that I made this morning related to the publication of the report of the working group on defamation, which included representatives from both sides of the issue, as it were. I understand the case that the hon. Gentleman is making, although it is quite a complicated one. We are certainly happy to examine further his proposals, but I do not want to pre-empt the results of any such examination.

Mr. William Bain (Glasgow, North-East) (Lab): Next year will represent the centenary of the passing of the very first Parliament Act. Would not a good way to mark that occasion be to do what is provided for in the preamble to the Act-to legislate for a fully elected second Chamber of Parliament?

Mr. Straw: It would be a fine year in which to move towards a wholly or mainly elected second Chamber. This House agreed on such a move in free votes in March 2007, and it has also been the subject of broad all-party agreement in two sets of proceedings involving cross-party groups. I hope that it can be achieved.

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