15 Jun 2010 : Column 719

15 Jun 2010 : Column 719

House of Commons

Tuesday 15 June 2010

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business before Questions

City of Westminster Bill [ Lords]

Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.

To be considered on Thursday 24 June.

Bloody Sunday Inquiry


Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked-

Probation Service

1. Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): What his plans are for the budget for the probation service in (a) 2010-11 and (b) 2011-12. [2215]

7. Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): What plans he has for the funding of the probation service in 2010-11. [2222]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): For 2010-11, the budget for the probation trusts will be £850 million. Budgets for 2011-12 are not yet set, and will be done through the spending review process to take place later this year.

Hugh Bayley: Last Sunday, on Sky News, the Justice Secretary said:

and that there are

15 Jun 2010 : Column 720

Did he have the probation service in mind? Will the Minister give me a categorical assurance that there will be no cut in funding for the probation service, because it will be impossible to carry out that policy if there is?

Mr Blunt: It would be very nice if the country was in an economic position that allowed me to deliver such a categorical assurance to the hon. Gentleman but, as he knows perfectly well, I am afraid that I cannot do so. He also knows that part of the Ministry of Justice's contribution to the £6 billion target was a £20 million reduction in the probation service's budget. However, that budget had been added to by £26 million in mid-year by the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), who is now the shadow Justice Secretary.

Mary Creagh: Wakefield is home to two prisons: New Hall young offenders institution and women's prison, and, of course, Wakefield prison, which houses some of the country's most dangerous and prolific offenders. West Yorkshire probation service, and Wakefield in particular, do a tremendous job of keeping local people safe and monitoring those who are released from those prisons, who are some of the most difficult individuals in the country. Does the Minister agree that public protection is the No. 1 priority for the probation service and that any future funding arrangements must not put that at risk?

Mr Blunt: Of course public protection is an absolute priority. We inherited good MAPPA-multi-agency public protection arrangements-from the previous Administration to deal with the sort of offenders who are released from Wakefield. It is right that probation services and all other agencies that are involved in MAPPA are closely engaged in delivering public protection with regard to such offenders.

Mark Lancaster (Milton Keynes North) (Con): I have visited the probation service in Milton Keynes and pay tribute to its tremendous work. Under the previous Government, however, the number of staff at headquarters ballooned, while front-line staff numbers remained static or even reduced. Might this Government reverse that trend?

Mr Blunt: Yes.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): The previous Government refurbished the Ministry of Justice building at a cost of £130 million shortly before they announced redundancies, including to front-line managers, that saved £50 million. Can the Minister and his team say that this Government will have a better and more responsible set of priorities for spending in his Department?

Mr Blunt rose-

Mr Speaker: Order. On the probation service, Minister.

Mr Blunt: I can guarantee that the probation service will not be led by the Ministry of Justice on any further refurbishments. I think that we have had enough refurbishments inside the Department for the time being and that we have an office that is perfectly fit for purpose.

15 Jun 2010 : Column 721

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): I welcome the Minister to his post, which is an excellent job that I am sure he will enjoy. Will he confirm to the House that reoffending rates fell considerably under the Labour Government, not least because of the 70% increase in probation funding over those 13 years? Will he also clarify what I think he said-that the £870 million budget agreed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) in October 2009 is now £850 million? What discussions has he held-and will he hold-with probation services about the impact of that £20 million cut?

Mr Blunt: As the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, I have referred to the £20 million cut. The director of the National Offender Management Service and the regional offender managers will be doing their level best, in agreement with the probation trusts, to ensure that that reduction does not have an impact on services. However, we ought to remember that the budget settlement for the probation trusts that was agreed just more than a year ago was £844 million. That budget was being worked to during the transfer from probation boards to probation trusts, and that transfer was supposed to drive forward many efficiency savings to ensure that front-line services were delivered as efficiently as they should be.

Sentencing Policy

2. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): What timetable he has set for the completion of his Department's review of sentencing policy. [2216]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): We are conducting a comprehensive assessment of sentencing policy with a view to introducing more effective sentencing and rehabilitation policies. We will take the time to get it right, and will consult widely before bringing forward coherent plans for reform. We intend to bring forward proposals on sentencing and the rehabilitation of offenders after the House returns from recess in October.

Tony Baldry: Does my hon. Friend agree that the punishment, in being sent to prison, is the loss of freedom? Does he also agree that what is important is trying to reduce reoffending rates, and ensuring that when people are in prison, they undertake activities that mean that they are less likely to reoffend when they are released? Alternatively, we might have not so many people going to prison, but if they are to be punished in the community, that punishment should involve activities that help to reduce the chances of reoffending. It is reducing the reoffending rate that is so important.

Mr Blunt: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We have inherited a disaster, in terms of the reoffending rate among short-sentence prisoners. I do not think that anyone would want to defend the reoffending rate in that category, which is somewhere between 60% and 70%. Prisoners in that category do not receive probation supervision, and if we do not engage them with the great army of auxiliaries in the third sector who want to help us with offender management, we will not be able to address offender behaviour in the way that my hon. Friend suggests.

15 Jun 2010 : Column 722

Alun Michael (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Minister undertake to read the excellent report drawn up on a cross-party basis by members of the Select Committee on Justice not long before Dissolution, which proposes a number of ways in which the large amount of resources that go into the criminal justice system could be focused more effectively on reducing reoffending?

Mr Blunt: Yes. The report is excellent, and it will inform the proposals that we bring forward when the House returns in October.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): Does my hon. Friend accept that it adds insult to injury when a victim of crime, having seen the perpetrator sentenced, finds that the person is released halfway through their sentence? What steps will we take to reintroduce honesty in sentencing?

Mr Blunt: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, because plainly the proposals that were in the Conservative manifesto will inform the outcome of the sentencing review. I am quite sure that he will be satisfied with the outcome, and that we will have a great deal more honesty in sentencing at the end of the process than we have today.

Prison Capacity

3. Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): What plans he has for prison capacity and prison construction programmes. [2217]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): We must provide prison places for those whom the courts judge should receive a custodial sentence. As I said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), we intend to bring forward proposals on rehabilitation and sentencing after the House returns in October. Long-term decisions on prison capacity programmes will be taken in the light of the policy agreed at the end of the process.

Mr Jones: On 30 January 2007, when asked whether we needed more prisons, the Prime Minister said, on the Jon Gaunt "talkSPORT" show:

How does that fit with the Justice Secretary's announcement this week that he would like to see fewer people in prison? Is this an example of Opposition rhetoric catching up with the Prime Minister, or is it yet another example of a policy disagreement between the Prime Minister and the Justice Secretary?

Mr Blunt: Absolutely not. I notice that the date to which the hon. Gentleman referred was in 2007, and there certainly has been a significant increase in the prison population between then and today. As far as the prison building programme is concerned, I draw attention to the evidence that the then Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor gave to the Committee referred to by the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael). He said that the prison building programme, as it now stands, is an opportunity to upgrade and update our prison capacity to make it more fit for the purpose of addressing reoffending
15 Jun 2010 : Column 723
behaviour. If we are successful in bringing about a drop in prisoner numbers-I am quite sure that everyone in the House would like to see that-we may be able to release other parts of the estate.

Mrs Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): In the context of capacity and overcrowding, what are the Minister's views on short sentences, especially for women?

Mr Blunt: The evidence is that short custodial sentences are not working. They produce terrible reoffending rates. We do not have the capacity in the probation service to address people on licence, which is one reason why they do not have any supervision when they leave prison, and we are on the most dreadful merry-go-round. It is one of the glaring gaps in the way that we deal with offenders and reoffending behaviour, and the current Administration will do their level best to address the issue.

Libel Law

4. Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): What recent discussion he has had on reform of libel law. [2219]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): We are committed to reviewing the law on defamation to protect free speech, and are currently considering the issues involved. In that context, Lord McNally yesterday met Lord Lester of Herne Hill to discuss his private Member's Bill on the subject, which was recently introduced in another place.

Tom Blenkinsop: I am sure the Minister is aware of the case of Dr Simon Singh, who was famously sued by the British Chiropractic Association for his research. Although the case was unsuccessful, Mr Singh will recover only 70 per cent. of his £200,000 legal costs. Will the Government support Lord Lester's private Member's Bill to reform our libel system, which at present stifles scientific research?

Mr Djanogly: We are considering Lord Lester's private Member's Bill. The issues involved in it are complex and of great breadth, so we will look at it carefully and respond at a later date.

Rape Defendants (Anonymity)

5. Caroline Flint (Don Valley) (Lab): What evidence he took into account in deciding to bring forward proposals to extend anonymity to defendants in rape trials. [2220]

9. Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): What evidence he took into account in deciding to propose to grant anonymity to defendants charged with rape. [2224]

11. Bridget Phillipson (Houghton and Sunderland South) (Lab): What evidence was considered before the announcement of proposals to introduce anonymity for defendants in rape cases. [2226]

15 Jun 2010 : Column 724

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Kenneth Clarke): The proposal to grant anonymity to defendants in rape trials was included in the coalition agreement following negotiations between the two coalition partners. All the policy commitments made by the coalition Government were derived from the existing policy of one or both of the governing parties. The issue of anonymity for defendants in rape trials was adopted as party policy by the Liberal Democrat party while in opposition. It was also the subject of an extensive inquiry by the Home Affairs Committee, in its fifth report published on 24 June 2003.

Caroline Flint: I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his answer. His Minister has indicated that he believes the stigma associated with those accused of rape is so damaging that, uniquely, they need further protection through anonymity, but evidence shows that the public are far more hostile to paedophiles and murderers, so why, on the evidence, does he choose to extend anonymity to those accused of rape?

Mr Clarke: There are arguments on both sides of the question, and they have frequently come before the House over the years. The Government think it is right to have a reasonable debate on them. That is one of the arguments in favour of anonymity. The argument that I have always thought is the strongest for anonymity is in cases in which the victim has anonymity-when there are allegations by children against teachers and others, or allegations made by women or men in rape cases. Where the victim is allowed anonymity all the way through, there is a case, which the House has accepted on occasions in the past, for giving anonymity to the person who is accused. There are other arguments on both sides of the case. We are not likely to have early legislation on the matter. This was the principal subject of debate in 2003 when there was a Bill before the House, and it divided all three parties. It is not a matter for party political ideology. It is a question that the House as a whole should consider with care.

Meg Munn: In my experience of working with sex offenders, it is extremely unusual for someone to offend on only one occasion. Publicising the name of the person accused often allows other women to come forward. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman look seriously at this evidence, at research that has been done by the Home Office, and at research to which I have been directed, by the excellent criminology department at Sheffield university?

Next Section Index Home Page