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Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble and learned friend for giving me that reassurance. Is my noble and learned friend aware that many people in Scotland thought that the premature release of prisoners, which was widely reported in the press in August, was happening there, although the Secretary of State for Scotland is responsible for Scottish prisons and there is a separate Scottish Prison Service? As that is one of several examples, should not the main political parties be concentrating on enlightening the media and the public as regards the present amount of devolution in place rather than trying to invent new and expensive layers of politicians with systems which are unlikely to be workable?
As regards the concerns which were expressed in England, I was unaware that the matter had caused any apprehension in Scotland. However, I certainly undertake to draw the point raised by my noble friend to the attention of the chief executive. If any further problem should arise in England, it is to be hoped that it will not cause any apprehension in Scotland.
Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord for his thorough explanation. The impression that I have gained is exactly the one that he expressed. I am sure that we all agree that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, went slightly wide of the Question on the Order Paper with his supplementary question. However, many of the legal people in Scotland with whom I have discussed the matter have agreed that there is not the same opportunity for ambiguity in the Scottish law as appears to be the case down south. I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord for clearing up this little puzzle.
Lord Mackay of Drumadoon: My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Lord's support. The explanation may be that the law in Scotland on the matter is clearer than that south of the Border. That is why my right honourable friend the Home Secretary proposes to bring the law of England in line with that of Scotland.
Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble and learned friend for the further points that he makes. However, because I have been fortunate enough to spend almost all of the past three months at home in northern Scotland, I was very much aware of public concern that prisoners were being released both north and south of the Border without receiving the customary preparation and probation work beforehand. Is it true that, as reported, about one-third of the prisoners who were released early south of the Border reoffended within three months?
Lord Mackay of Drumadoon: My Lords, I have with me some information in that respect which was up to date until a few days ago. Noble Lords will appreciate that the statistics that need to be prepared take a few days to come to hand. However, my information is that the level of reoffending was not as high as the figure suggested by my noble friend. About 541 prisoners were released early. As of a few days ago, some 200 of that number would have been released in any event. Therefore, we are dealing with a period of only three
Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, the Executive Agency, Property Advisers to the Civil Estate (PACE), which co-ordinates departments' plans, informs me that it is not aware of any proposals for the partial conversion of Whitehall buildings into residential or hotel accommodation.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, would the Minister care to comment on a report in last Friday's Financial Times which stated that if the projects in the pipeline are successful the whole government office estate could be transferred to the private sector? Does the noble Baroness consider it wise that property which has been in government hands for 200 years and situated on land which the Crown has owned for 800 years should now be sold off? When one thinks about the Foreign Office, Downing Street, the Cabinet Office, Horseguards--and, indeed, Admiralty Arch, about which there has already been speculation--one wonders whether it is right for the Government to be selling off such fundamental Crown properties.
Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, that was a rather long question. I should advise the noble Lord not to believe everything he reads in press reports; I am sure he does not. The private finance initiative, which is what much of the question refers to, is really about securing value for money. Moreover, we believe that most departments have no in-house expertise when it comes to property ownership. Instead of owning a depreciating asset, being exposed to cost over-runs and then managing the asset itself, we are contracting out to buy a quantity of services accommodation at set standards from the private sector. Payment will be dependent upon the delivery of those services. Risks are shared, thus reducing government exposure and introducing the prospect of reward to contractors who manage services well. As a matter of fact, we believe that the PFI is a very good initiative and one which will provide very good value for money for the taxpayer.
Baroness Miller of Hendon: I am so sorry that noble Lords opposite did not understand what I said the first time round. I thought that I had made the position quite clear. However, I am prepared to repeat myself. It is for departments to dispose of any office space they no longer require. That is really what we are talking about. Any consequent redevelopment or change of use is subject to the normal planning procedures operated by the local authority, which in the case of Whitehall--to which the noble Lord referred--is Westminster City Council. I can assure the House that this Government have no intention whatever of selling off No. 10 or No. 11 Downing Street; nor indeed the Palace of Westminster. We will most certainly be here after March, April or May of next year, or whenever. If noble Lords opposite have different views and believe that they will do differently, they may decide to make this beautiful palace redundant, but we will not allow that to happen.
Lord Richard: My Lords, I am sorry to press the point. Can the Minister say whether there is any specific office accommodation in and around Whitehall which the Government at present feel they do not require and in respect of which they are about to go through the quite astonishingly contorted actions just mentioned?
Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I cannot add much to what I have already said. As I said in my original Answer, there are no such plans. Indeed, I shall repeat it. The Property Advisers to the Civil Estate inform me that they are not aware of any proposals for the partial conversion of Whitehall buildings into residential or hotel accommodation. That seems to me to be perfectly clear. I am surprised that the noble Lord opposite, with all his high intelligence, does not understand plain English.
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