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House of Lords

Monday, 18 February 2008.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Liverpool.


Baroness Gardner of Parkes asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, High Hedges Complaints: Prevention and Cure provides advice on administering complaints about high hedges under Part 8 of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003. It is not statutory guidance and, as such, the Government cannot require local authorities to follow it. To assist local authorities to act in accordance with the legislation, we encourage them to follow the good practice that the guidance contains.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, but why do the remedial notices required under the Act to progress resolution of these hedge problems seem to cause so much difficulty for both the complainants and the councils?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, we have no evidence that the Act is not working as it should. The evidence of a declining number of complaints and appeals suggests that, as we hoped, more people are finding ways in which to resolve their complaints informally. However, I know that Hedgeline has some concerns about some very complex cases and we think that there are aspects of the process that could be clarified. Therefore, I intend to write to local authorities to encourage their compliance with the guidance and to highlight the important steps in the process to clarify matters in relation to the Local Government Ombudsman, for example.

Lord Quirk: My Lords, how many remedial notices have been issued by councils and how many appeals have been made since the enactment of the legislation?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I cannot tell the noble Lord how many remedial notices there have been; we do not collect that information as it is too detailed. However, I can tell him that there were 619 appeals up to 23 January this year, of which 479 have been determined, 57 per cent have been dismissed, 19 per cent have been allowed in full and 24 per cent allowed in part. There is a balance of the appeals going to the hedge owner and to the aggrieved neighbour.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, is the Minister aware that Leylandii can easily grow 1 metre each year? I know that the guidance takes that into account on page 47, but how much emphasis is that enormous speed of growth given, over and above the guidance?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, when this part of the Act was conceived, the noble Baroness will know that we were thinking in particular of Leylandii because they pose a particular problem. As she says, they grow at phenomenal rates—at a metre a year—which is why a remedial notice can allow for regrowth. You can cut the hedge down beyond the required limit to allow for that excessive growth and allow, in the remedial notice, for coming back to cut it down again or to require the hedge owner to cut it again to keep the height down.

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Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, why is it that, having decided that a high hedge can be a nuisance under some circumstances, complainants have to pay between £400 and £500 to have their concerns looked at but that people who complain about other issues, such as noise, simply have the problem dealt with?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, the main thing is that it is not an offence to grow a high hedge. It is an offence to fail to comply with a remedial notice that requires you to cut it down. As a neighbour, you are asking the local authority for a service. There was a lot of debate during the consultation period about who should pay and it was thought that it was fairer for the complainant to do so. Fees vary—they can be £650 but usually are about £300. We have not found that the fee makes any difference to the number of complaints.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, is not the success of this measure the fact that many people nationally now know not to abuse the law and simply do not grow their hedges so high? It is not true that that has been the subject of many complaints to Members of Parliament in the other House?

Baroness Andrews: Yes, my Lords, that is absolutely right. One of the Act’s ambitions was precisely that: to encourage people to settle their disputes—perhaps not amicably but as best they could—over the hedge, literally; and that is what has happened. Very few people go to the fuss and bother of taking the issue to local authorities.

Baroness Perry of Southwark: My Lords, is there not in fact a major loophole in the Act, in that a council can issue a remedial notice but can, quite legally, ignore what takes place after that? Is there any way of reviewing this situation now rather than waiting until 2010?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, we intended that the legislation would achieve a balance between the rights of each party concerned. We also decided against statutory guidance because that simply would not have allowed flexibility. There is no requirement on the local authority to intervene when works have not been carried out but there is a range of things that it can do. Had we allowed for intervention at every stage, we would have ended up with a very disproportionate and heavy-handed piece of legislation. In fact, there are very few instances in which a remedial notice has not been enforced by a local authority.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, as local authorities are responsible for collecting illegally dumped rubbish on the side of the highway, does the remedial notice also contain a section that stipulates that the owner of the hedge must ensure that the hedge clippings that result from a requirement are disposed of legally?

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Baroness Andrews: My Lords, we have very detailed guidance but I do not think that it covers hedge clippings. I am not sure whether the remedial notice does so; I do not think that it does. I am afraid that I am stumped. I will have to write to the noble Countess.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is great dissatisfaction about the Local Government Ombudsman’s role in this? He seems to think that this is purely an optional matter for councils, that it is unimportant if they make wrong decisions so long as they follow correct procedures and that that does not come under his jurisdiction. Is it not important also to clarify that?

Baroness Andrews: Yes, my Lords, I think that it is. Rights of appeal follow from the decision but the ombudsman cannot interfere in that because there is due process. He can pick up on instances where the administrative process has been at fault. Sometimes there is confusion about where those things overlap. I propose to talk to local government offices to see whether we can get greater clarity, and I shall take that into account when I write to local authorities.

Prisons: Carter Review

2.43 pm

Baroness Stern asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, we have undertaken to consult in April on Titan prisons and their place in the wider strategy for the prison estate. Views will be sought from a wide range of interested parties.

Baroness Stern: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that not terribly informative reply. Is he aware that the Justice Select Committee in the other place has launched an inquiry into the effectiveness of criminal justice spending and that it intends to look at what the Carter report recommendations will really cost, what the implementation of the report will mean for the provision of probation services and how reliable the evidence is on which these policies are based? In light of that, could the Minister assure the House that no land will be purchased and no building contract signed for Titan prisons until the Justice Select Committee has published its report and the Government have had time to consider it?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Baroness thought my reply was unhelpful. All I was saying was that we would develop an estate strategy in the light of the Carter proposals. It will be subject to consultation and will be published in April. We shall be happy to consider any reports from the Select Committee.

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The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, what research has been done on the effect of the length of prison sentences on the crime rate?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am not aware of any specific research. However, more criminals are being caught, longer sentences are being imposed and we have seen a dramatic reduction in the crime rate in this country.

Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords, has the Minister read the annual report of the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, who says that the 2,500-strong Titan prison complexes loom on the horizon, flying in the face of our and other evidence that smaller prisons work better than large ones, which may be more efficient but bear the cost of being less effective? Do the Government plan to consider the evidence collected by Anne Owers?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I have read those remarks and we shall give them due and weighty consideration. However, I should point out to the noble Lord that the concept of the Titan prison, as recommended by my noble friend Lord Carter, was that within a Titan estate there might be five units of 500 places each, thus getting not only the advantage of large-scale investment in good design and infrastructure but the benefits of the smaller units. I should have thought that that is a very sensible way to go forward.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, what evidence does the Minister have that housing prisoners further away from home, away from their families, does not defeat the purpose of rehabilitation? Only a few days ago he confirmed that women prisoners are now being housed almost 60 miles away from their communities. On what basis are these prisons being proposed other than one visit by the noble Lord, Lord Carter, to somewhere in Paris?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the whole purpose of increasing capacity in our prisons is to deal with the very problem which the noble Baroness raises. We have already indicated that our preferred sitings for the three Titan prisons proposed by my noble friend Lord Carter are in those parts of the country where there are issues about the distances that prisoners’ families have to travel. The increase in capacity can answer many of those problems.

Baroness Murphy: My Lords, in what way will these proposals improve access to appropriate mental health care for the many mentally ill prisoners in our prisons?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the noble Baroness raises a very important question about prisoners with severe mental health problems. As she will know, my noble friend Lord Bradley is conducting a review into those very issues. I am sure that it will provide a great deal of help to the Ministry of Justice in taking forward our overall policy.

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The Lord Bishop of Liverpool: My Lords, does the noble Lord recognise that at the moment 45 per cent of prisoners lose contact with their families? Has he taken evidence from organisations representing prisoners’ families and, if not, will he undertake to consult them before this plan goes forward?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am very happy to take that suggestion on board in relation to the estate strategy. I am fully aware of the problems caused by crowding in our prisons and the problems for families who are trying to keep in contact. That is why one of the Carter proposals is to increase capacity—to reduce some of the pressure on the system and, we hope, to make it easier for families to visit their loved ones in prison.

Lord Elton: My Lords, the Minister points to what he calls a “dramatic reduction” in offending and also to a dramatic rise in the need for prison places. If the dramatic fall is to be increased so that it is really dramatic and the need for prison places reduced, there must be a considerable role for the Probation Service both inside prisons and in the prisoners’ home towns. Now that we have an offender management system that is supposed, in part of the prison estate, to see people through from start to finish, how is the Probation Service being organised to make that a coherent policy between the prison and the prisoner’s home town?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, we have announced changes to the organisation of the Ministry of Justice and the National Offender Management Service to provide greater focus on and integration between the roles of probation officers and prison officers, to ensure that there is indeed an integrated approach. That is the whole purpose of the offender management programme. We are very committed to that and to the importance of probation officers working closely with prison services and ensuring that there is an integrated approach so that accommodation provision and all the other resettlement services are available for prisoners when they leave prison.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, does the Minister recollect the sombre words of the noble Lord, Lord Carter, on page 27 of his report, where he states:

In the circumstances, will the Minister take the one path of salvation that seems practicable—to exhort sentencers at every level to send fewer people to prison?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I certainly agree that we wish to see a policy where prison is reserved only for prisoners who ought to be in prison and that the way forward is to have a much stronger focus on tough community sentencing for other prisoners. I believe that we have the right policy, but in the

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interim we will have to increase prison capacity as well. Although the noble Lord, Lord Carter, has pointed out some of the difficulties in infrastructure planning and getting planning permission, the fact is that we have provided an increase of over 3,000 places over the past two years. We will see another increase this year, in the interim period before we can get the major increase that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, proposed.

Government: Advisers

2.53 pm

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, before I ask my Question, I want to make it absolutely crystal clear beyond all peradventure that this Question does not in any way imply anything incorrect on the part of the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill. I have said that to him privately, and I would like to say it on the Floor of the House.

The Question was as follows:

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, advisers to the Government are appointed on the basis of their expertise and experience. Membership of Select Committees is a matter for your Lordships’ House.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, what I find difficult is that a member of a Select Committee can say that he cannot participate in certain sections of the work of that Select Committee because he is an adviser to the Government on that section. How can one make sure that the Select Committee is fully manned and that the people concerned have the amount of input that they deserve?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, without getting into the detail of the specifics of the individual concerned—the noble Earl has rightly made it plain that he sees no fault on the part of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, who sits on the committee with him—the way that this functions is very straightforward. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, has agreed with the Justice Secretary to avoid working on issues that would give rise to conflicts of interest or to perceived conflicts of interest. The membership of the Select Committee is a matter for your Lordships’ House, the Committee of Selection and the nominations that come from individual political parties. We see no reason why it would be anything other than completely possible to continue to work on a Select Committee, bearing in mind of course the work that one is doing as an adviser. It appears from what the noble Earl is saying that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, has behaved completely properly in all circumstances.

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Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, is it not unsurprising that some members of Select Committees whose principal purpose is to offer collective advice to government should be considered individually suitable for that role? Is it not safeguard enough to allow such individuals to form their judgment and the committee to form its judgment as to the appropriateness of their participation in particular work?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: Indeed, my Lords—I have no difficulty in taking the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan. It is obvious to me that Select Committees of your Lordships’ House and Joint Select Committees are perfectly capable of working effectively while taking on board the background, the interests and the work that individuals are doing. In this context, I would have thought that having someone with the human rights expertise of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, was of enormous benefit, not only to the Select Committee but to your Lordships’ House.

Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, does the Lord President understand that asking members of Select Committees to advise the Government risks compromising those Members’ duty to speak out against the Government when they feel that that is necessary?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I do not believe that that is true. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister made it clear on becoming Prime Minister that he was very keen to involve appropriately those who have real experience and expertise to enhance the opportunities for our nation. It is clear to me that those who serve as advisers to the Government, whether on my own Benches, the Benches opposite and the Cross Benches, provide huge expertise and experience that can only be to the benefit of the Government and the nation.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, does the Minister not agree that there is some long-standing wisdom in the distinction between gamekeepers and poachers and between hares and hounds? Surely even she would agree that a Select Committee should not be composed entirely of advisers to Her Majesty's Government. If she does, she must have some doubts about whether a Select Committee should contain even one adviser to Her Majesty's Government.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, even “she” understands the point of the noble Lord’s question. But “she” would say to the noble Lord that, first, it is incredibly important to bring in abilities, expertise and experience. I think the noble Lord agrees that that is appropriate. Secondly, one of the functions of Select Committees, particularly the Joint Committee on Human Rights—and I speak as a former human rights Minister—has been to give advice to the Government, which is not always welcome, but is none the less important. It is important to make sure that we have that mix of experience and expertise within a committee. It is almost a false distinction to try to say that that is appropriate in some circumstances and not in others. Even “she” gets the point.

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