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House of Lords

Monday, 19 March 2007.

The House met at half-past two: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Chelmsford.

Restorative Justice

Lord Woolf asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, the Government's strategy is to encourage the use of adult restorative justice, to ensure quality of delivery and to continue to develop the evidence base to show what works for adults. We have invested £5 million in pilots and their evaluation, produced best practice guidance for practitioners and introduced legislation to provide further opportunities for the delivery of restorative justice. Restorative justice is embedded in the youth justice system.

Lord Woolf: My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for that Answer. Does she agree that, notwithstanding the steps that the Government have taken and that she outlined, more has to be done if we are really to make restorative justice achieve the contribution that is needed to make prison a last resort and deter reoffending?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I certainly agree with the noble and learned Lord that we need to do everything we can to reduce reoffending. Restorative justice seems to have a very beneficial effect from the victim’s point of view. We are working hard to see whether it can also contribute to reducing the level of reoffending.

Lord Marsh: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, given the tragic deaths of five young people over the past six days, it might be an interesting idea and helpful to invite the relatives to participate in this? After all, they know rather more about it than any of us.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, it is important to know when to introduce the idea of restorative justice. Many victims indicate that they would find that helpful. However, we must wait to see whether it would be helpful in all circumstances. I regret to say to the noble Lord that it is not always the first port of call after a tragic death that looks like a murder.

Baroness Thomas of Winchester: My Lords, has the Home Office conducted any research into restorative justice? Is there any information about whether it is beneficial to victims of crime?

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Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, there has been some research, and consistent evidence shows that restorative justice increases victim satisfaction: at least 75 per cent of victims who choose to take part in the restorative justice process are very glad that they did so. The outstanding issue is whether it reduces the offender’s likelihood of reoffending. From the victim’s point of view, there is clear evidence that it is very beneficial.

Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, what steps is the Minister taking to encourage schemes being undertaken by voluntary organisations such as the Sycamore Trust in Wandsworth?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, the noble Viscount will know that we are very interested in encouraging voluntary sector involvement in these schemes and in entering into offender management generally. That is why the Offender Management Bill has been brought forward; it will enable voluntary sector organisations to play a better—and, we would say, a proper—part.

Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, the Home Office document, Restorative Justice: Helping to Meet Local Needs, included the suggestion that local criminal justice boards appoint champions or lead persons to take forward restorative justice work in local communities. How many local justice boards have responded and appointed such people in their areas?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I do not have the figures with me but I shall be very happy to write to the noble Lord. We try to ask local criminal justice boards to incorporate this approach generally in their work, encouraging participation not just by the champions but by everyone—for example, the corporate alliance, the faith-based alliance and the civic alliance—involving the voluntary sector and the local authorities in these issues too.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, what action has been taken by the National Criminal Justice Board since it published its plans for this matter on its website in 2005?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, we have invested more than £5 million in evaluating the pilot schemes, and we are waiting for that evaluation. We hope for an outcome to the research by the end of the year but we do not have a fixed timescale. It is very important for us to understand the value in changing the outcomes. We have some very good figures for juvenile justice, where the statistics show that the reconviction rate under referral orders, for example, is the lowest at 44.7 per cent. The Safer School Partnerships are also doing very powerful work. However, it is not clear whether this is transferable to the adult estate.

Lord Elton: My Lords, surely it is an encouraging indication of what is likely to happen in the adult estate. Can the noble Baroness assure us that research

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is being done urgently to establish whether adults respond in the same way, as I think most of us assume they would? That has a very close bearing on the next Question that she has to answer.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, we are undertaking that research, but it is important that we do not prejudge the outcome. I know that many of us would like it to be so, but whether it will prove to be so is yet to be seen.

Lord Trimble: My Lords, is it the Government’s intention to contemplate in England and Wales, as they appear to do in Northern Ireland, restorative justice schemes administered by double murderers?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, absolutely not. We have found that restorative justice conferences have been healing for those who have participated. I have had the benefit of witnessing some of these conferences, and they have been one of the most enthralling and uplifting things that I have been privileged to see.

Lord Harries of Pentregarth: My Lords, this is a development of such significance that I wonder whether the Minister would be prepared to give a Statement and initiate a debate in this House when the research is through, as I hope it will be within a year.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, of course that would be for the usual channels, but I should be very happy for restorative justice to be a subject for debate. I emphasise that, whatever its outcome may be in relation to reducing reoffending, it is incontrovertible that it has a hugely beneficial effect on victims—a healing effect which is much to be valued.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, given the Minister’s clear enthusiasm for restorative justice, does she think that enough people are trained in this method? If not, what can the Government do to ensure that more people are capable of administering this technique?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, training is ongoing, and I particularly invite the House’s attention to the work undertaken by the Safer School Partnerships. Many of the officers involved are using restorative methods in schools to deal with difficulties between young people.

Prisons: Overcrowding

2.43 pm

Baroness Stern asked Her Majesty’s Government:

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The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, on the last day of February 2007, the number of prisoners held three to a cell designed for two was 1,299. No prisoners have been held three to a cell designed for one—that is, a trebling—since March 1994.

Baroness Stern: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that slightly depressing reply. Is she aware that on the nights of 25 and 27 February, there was serious rioting at Deerbolt Young Offender Institution and that a prison officer suffered a fractured skull? On 26 February, three alleged suicides in prison were reported; on 12 March, two more alleged suicides were reported; and, last Wednesday, a prisoner was found dead in his cell, allegedly killed by another prisoner. Does the Minister accept that incidents such as these are related to the current levels of overcrowding and that our prisons will continue to be dangerous for both staff and prisoners until there is a change in policy?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness that it is most distressing and disturbing to hear of any self-inflicted deaths or disturbances. However, it is right that we should hold them in balance, because notwithstanding the fact that the prison population has increased, self-inflicted deaths have gone down. The figure is likely to be marginally lower in 2006-07 than it was in 1996-97. I appreciate that we are in difficult times, but I congratulate the staff on the good work they are doing to keep people safe.

Lord Hurd of Westwell: My Lords, can the Minister give the House any information about the effect of overcrowding on training and education programmes? Does she see a link between the overcrowding that the Prison Service is now enduring and the sharp rise in the reoffending rate for prisoners?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I do not think there can be a direct correlation. To take the education figures as an example, one might expect that if prison numbers go up, educational attainment will go down, but that is not the case. The number of prisoners engaged in learning had risen to 35 per cent by December 2006, from 32 per cent in August when the LSE took on responsibility for offender learning. It is expected that 36,000 offenders in custody will achieve skills for life outcomes in the 2006-07 academic year. Offender learning in custody is expected to achieve 108,000 other accredited qualifications during 2006-07. The number of basic skills awards achieved in prison has gone up markedly. Although one might have anticipated that things would get worse, in fact, they got better. I commend the ALI report that commends the Government for the good work they have done on education.

Lord Acton: My Lords, how many prisoners are being held more than 100 miles from their homes and families—which has consequent effects—as a result of these overcrowding pressures?

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Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I do not have figures about those held more than 100 miles away. My noble friend will know that every effort is made to ensure that prisoners are kept as close to their normal place of abode as possible and that the expectation is that they will be within 50 miles. I can certainly write to my noble friend about that figure.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, are there more writers in residence now that there are more prisoners to be taught?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I do not know whether we have more writers in residence. They have contributed hugely to the improvement in the attainment level of prisoners and the noble Baroness will know that we have tried to support and encourage them. We are very grateful for all the hard work that they do. I do not know whether the figure has gone up or down, but I shall write to the noble Baroness to make sure that she and the House are aware of it.

Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords, further to the Minister’s reply to the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, in her annual report, stated that in overcrowded local prisons only 30 per cent of prisoners said they had done anything in there that would make them less likely to reoffend. Is the Minister satisfied with that percentage? Given the enthusiasm she expressed earlier for restorative justice, how does she propose to reconcile the competing demands of restorative justice and prison overcrowding?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, the House will see from the way that we are approaching offender management that two things have to be addressed: first, the proper identification of the risk the offender poses; and, secondly, addressing the needs of the offender to reduce the likelihood of offending. We believe that the end-to-end offender management process we have put in place is the most effective way of reducing offender reconviction rates in the long term. It will enable us to get the proper balance: keeping victims safe but offenders rehabilitated.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that, as, it seems, three or four years must elapse between the decision to build prison places with Treasury consent and the first prisoner going into such an institution, the short-term solution must be to turn to some other factor? Will she indicate Home Office policy on the urgency of this matter?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, we are clear that those who are dangerous and violent should go to prison, but that there are good alternatives to imprisonment for those who are not—tough community penalties, which bite on the offending and help people to change.

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Lord Dholakia: My Lords, is it at all true that, as one weekend paper speculated, cargo containers are to be used as cells in some prisons? While on that point, has the Minister studied the report of the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, on the cost benefit that could be established if women’s prisons were abolished?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, there is no truth in the suggestion that cargo containers are going to be used. As the House will know, I commissioned the report of the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, because we want to look at what alternatives there may be for women who are not dangerous or serious offenders, but who could be dealt with more creatively in the community.

Armed Forces: Cyprus Accommodation

2.51 pm

Lord Morris of Aberavon asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Drayson): My Lords, since this Question was tabled there has been a house fire at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, which tragically resulted in the death of three people. A thorough investigation has commenced, and our thoughts are with the families and friends of the deceased at this very difficult time.

British military personnel serving with the United Nations force in Cyprus are accommodated at the Ledra Palace Hotel. The accommodation there is unsatisfactory, but responsibility for its maintenance lies with the Republic of Cyprus Government. We continue to make representations to them about its condition.

Lord Morris of Aberavon: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and endorse the sentiments he expressed at the beginning. He recently replied to the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, that a Defence Minister had visited last September and that every effort was being made through representations to improve living conditions. Did the Minister actually see, in the former five-star Ledra Palace Hotel, what that noble Lord saw recently: electrical points hanging out of the walls in uninhabitable rooms, accounts of sewage coming back from the toilets and a total absence of air conditioning in the bedrooms? What specific action did he insist on, and on what timescale? What has been done since last September?

When these matters were put to the president of Cyprus, he said that Cyprus paid its contributions to the United Nations. Thousands of British tourists visit Cyprus; are these shameful conditions the best that we can do for our troops?

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Lord Drayson: My Lords, I agree with my noble and learned friend that it is totally unsatisfactory. It really is not good enough. Since my right honourable friend the Minister for the Armed Forces visited those facilities very strong representations have been made to the Government of the Republic of Cyprus and to the United Nations. We expect to see improvements made quickly to the accommodation in which our troops are suffering.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, I can confirm from my own observations that everything that my noble and learned friend Lord Morris has said is absolutely correct. How long have representations been made without anything being done about them? Is there no adequate inspection or monitoring system, and for how long will we allow this to continue?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I understand that this situation has existed for several years. It is not good enough and, as I have said, representations have been significantly increased following the visit by my right honourable friend last September. We expect to see improvements made.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, what implications might the recent steps by both Turkish and Greek Cypriots to free up access to Ledra Street and the two halves of the city of Nicosia have for the British UN troops manning that part of the green line? Is it not time to look seriously at converting UNFICIP into an observer force only? That would, of course, have implications for the troops’ accommodation that is so clearly unsatisfactory.

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I am not aware of the specific changes that the noble Lord mentions. I will write to him in response to his question. In addition to the representations, we are looking at the actions that we could take ourselves. However, we feel that this is the responsibility of the Republic of Cyprus Government, and we expect them to rectify it. We are looking at other options such as building our own accommodation but, given the time that that would take, the answer is to address the conditions in the Ledra Palace Hotel.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, the British Government have a very large and underutilised sovereign base not far from Nicosia. I assume that there is a good deal of surplus accommodation there. Could that not be part of the solution to this problem?

Lord Drayson: No, my Lords. My understanding is that moving the personnel to another base would not provide a solution.

Lord Elton: My Lords, providing a solution ourselves in the form of bricks and mortar would, presumably, be exactly what the Government of Cyprus want. Is there no other recourse that we can take besides making representations, which clearly do not work?

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