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House of Lords

Monday, 7 July 2008.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Leicester.

Introduction: Lord Bates

Lord Bates—Michael Walton Bates, Esquire, having been created Baron Bates, of Langbaurgh in the County of North Yorkshire, for life, was introduced between the Lord Henley and the Lord Ryder of Wensum.

Prisons: Time out of Cell

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, time out of cell is an essential component of an effective regime. We will keep the matters addressed in the report under close review. The development of a new collation system and improved guidance will address some of the main concerns raised in the report.

Baroness Stern: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply. Does he accept that it is a serious situation when the Government’s own chief inspector says that the prisons are reporting that they get prisoners out of their cells, on average, 10 hours a day on a weekday, and it is not true? In fact, the chief inspector says that one-third of prisoners in local prisons are locked up for 22 hours a day in an overcrowded cell? Does the Minister agree with me that the chances of prisons being a rehabilitative experience in these circumstances are nil and that basically there are just too many people in prison who do not need to be there?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: No, my Lords, I do not agree with all the points raised by the noble Baroness. Clearly, the high level of population in our prison estate at the moment presents considerable challenges to the Prison Service in relation to its programmes and in the activities that we wish prisoners to engage in, including employment. I agree with the noble Baroness that we must do more to make sure that the figures are as accurate as possible. However, she should not ignore the great progress that has also been made in investment in offender management and in employment programmes. The picture is not as bleak as the noble Baroness has suggested.

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Baroness Massey of Darwen: My Lords, the chief inspector reports that one in five young people in young offender institutions is out of their cell for less than two hours a day. What are the Government planning to do to address this situation in order to improve the lot of these young offenders?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the priority in young offender institutions is the educational and work activities because of the impact that those can have in reducing reoffending in the future. That can sometimes have a knock-on impact on other activities. However, it is worth making the point that in terms of the investment in offender learning and skills, the average number of hours delivered per young person per week in YOIs has risen from seven hours in 2000 to 26.2 hours in 2006-07 in secure children’s homes, with similar additions in secure training centres.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, raises an important question about curtailment within the prison regime. Who monitors the impact of such a policy? What is its effect on the rehabilitation of offenders, which is the primary objective of the Prison Service, and what is its effect on prisoners who suffer from poor mental health?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, we are indebted to Her Majesty’s chief inspector for her independent reports, which are an important tool to enable us to judge performance in the Prison Service. It is the responsibility of the Prison Service itself to look at the figures and make sure that they are being developed correctly. The new approach to that, starting this April, lays emphasis on audit by the area managers. On the general question, despite the challenges that that presents, in the past few years we have seen considerable additional investment in the kind of programmes referred to by the noble Lord.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the general public’s concern is not so much for the welfare of prisoners, who are, after all, volunteers in the justice system, but for the welfare of victims who are often thrust into the justice system through no fault of their own?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I well understand the public’s concern to get the balance right, and we are getting that balance right within our prison establishment. Prison clearly needs to be used effectively for those offenders who need to be there, but while they are in prison it is important to ensure that activities, offender programmes and training are available in order to prevent reoffending in the future.

The Lord Bishop of Leicester: My Lords, given the dangers of time in cell for prisoners with poor mental health and those at risk of self harm, will the Government accept the recommendation of the chief inspector not only to increase time out of cell but to offer in-cell activities to provide mental stimulation and positive purpose?

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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is right to draw attention to the chief inspector's report in relation to in-cell activities. I understand that each prison governor carries out a risk assessment to determine the type of facilities that ought to be within the possession of a prisoner. Most prisoners are allowed educational material, books, magazines, newspapers and material related to in-cell hobbies. As for the mental health issue, the right reverend Prelate will know that my noble friend Lord Bradley is conducting a review of the impact on mental health of diversion, which is clearly critical to the point that he has just raised.

Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, two weeks ago, we debated the need for some outside scrutiny of the management of the prison system. Also some two weeks ago, the prisons and probation ombudsman resigned from a public inquiry into the treatment of a 17 year-old girl in prison because of undue interference from Prison Service headquarters. Is the Minister satisfied that Prison Service headquarters should so interfere with a public inquiry, which is, after all, a government remit?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I do not think that it would be appropriate for me to respond to the specific point on that specific inquiry. However, I would say that we have mechanisms in place, including the post holder to whom the noble Lord referred and Her Majesty's inspector, both of which are very effective external mechanisms. In addition, we expect the Prison Service to have an effective monitoring service as well. I would also mention the independent monitoring boards which exist for each establishment and embrace volunteers from the local community, who have a very positive impact in ensuring that an outside light is shone within those establishments.

Lord De Mauley: My Lords, does the Minister accept that drugs are a serious problem in our prisons and that the problems identified in this report will do nothing to help? What are the Government doing to tackle the drugs problem?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the noble Lord may well know that the Blakey review has just come out with important recommendations. Prison establishments have clearly done much in recent years, including mandatory testing and discovering and looking at all the areas where drugs can be introduced into prisons. We understand that this is an important priority alongside the rehabilitative programmes, and we shall redouble our efforts in this area.

Crime: Insurance Fraud

2.51 pm

Lord Sheikh: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest: I am chairman of an insurance organisation and a former director of the British Insurance Brokers Association.

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The Question was as follows:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord West of Spithead): My Lords, the recent cross-Whitehall fraud review led to the allocation of £29 million in new money over the next three years to establish the National Fraud Strategic Authority, a National Fraud Reporting Centre and a national lead force for fraud investigation. These developments will help provide support to the police and the insurance industry in their efforts to tackle insurance fraud.

Lord Sheikh: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. The NFSA does not have statutory authority. Would it be possible for it to have statutory powers?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I will have to get back to the noble Lord in writing on the specifics of that. As he well knows—his interest in this area is well known and he has done some very useful work here—the whole aim of the authority is to drive forward a strategy; to assess the scale of the problem, and we appreciate that it is a huge problem; to set priority areas; and to work with stakeholders. It is an important unit. I mentioned the other three main areas where work is going on, and we should be able to establish two of them shortly.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, does the Minister agree that cash-for-crash scams—staged accidents—are on the increase, and that they are dangerous to the public and to the insurance companies? Does he believe that the new arrangements he has just announced can deal with this issue, particularly when criminal activity seems to be part of it?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the noble Baroness raises a very important point. In these sorts of accidents people will, for example, fix their brake lights so that they do not actually show and then slam on their brakes in front of someone who runs into them, and then claim for fictitious passengers. The assessed cost of this over the past year is about £250 million. The measures we have put in place are tackling this. I also congratulate the insurance companies themselves; organisations such as the Insurance Fraud Bureau have had huge success. The fact that we have seen a slight reduction rather than an increase shows that the measures are working.

Lord Newby: My Lords, perhaps I may follow up on that question. When a question on cash-for-crash was asked in another place last month, the Minister there said that it was a matter of concern that had to be monitored closely. In view of the scale of the problem, does the noble Lord agree that it is not just a question of monitoring, but that we need action by the police and by a combination of the police and the insurance companies to make drivers aware that these kinds of scams are increasingly common?

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Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. With the setting up of the National Fraud Reporting Centre—a powerful intelligence tool—what has been done by the industry itself and the fact that this sort of crime is now on the SOCA UK threat assessment, there is greater understanding of it. We are getting that message across, and I hope that that will make people more aware. The impact of some of the prosecutions taking place has been a reduction in the levels of this crime.

Lord Goldsmith: My Lords, I welcome my noble friend’s explanation of progress since the fraud review, while declaring an interest as a Minister involved in it. I suggest to him that, in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, the strategic fraud authority will not need its own statutory powers because it is setting strategy, whereas implementing bodies such as the police and the prosecuting authorities have ample statutory power to implement it.

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. That is why the Fraud Act, which came into force last year, was widely welcomed by the industry. However, I fear that I will still have to answer the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, in writing as there may be other points to address.

Lord Mawhinney: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House why the Government believe that there is an increasing occurrence of insurance fraud?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, as I said a moment ago, we are now getting to grips with this. We have established that SOCA is looking at it in great detail. We have the reporting centre and the lead force—the City of London force—established, which is able to draw on all the expertise in this area, and the National Fraud Strategic Authority, as mentioned. We are seeing a reduction.

I am not saying that the Government do not take this seriously. Overall, fraud costs this nation about £13.9 billion a year across the whole gamut; it is absolutely appalling. I found it interesting when I lost some stuff and talked to the assessors. They said, “We might give you a bit more because you seem honest”, as if to say that an awful lot of the people do not seem honest. I was rather shocked by this. We take fraud seriously, and are doing a lot to confront it.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, to follow on from the noble Lord’s answer, does not the extra cost incurred by fraud fall on each and every one of us, in that we must pay higher insurance premiums? A lot of fraud is minor, about which people will sometimes boast. Is it not incumbent on each of us to say that we do not approve?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I could not agree more. There is a feeling among some people that this somehow does not affect us—“Lucky old them for getting away with it”. It is criminal and should be addressed as such. We all pay; it adds between 5 and 8 per cent to all of our insurance policies.

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Lord Tebbit: My Lords, to what extent is the problem made worse by the activities of no-win no-fee lawyers and the intense advertising encouraging people to make claims which, if not fraudulent, are, shall we say, a little iffy?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I have my own views about these. However, it is possibly not a good idea for me to express them on the Floor of the House; I am bound to get into trouble.

Government: Devolved Administrations

2.58 pm

Lord Roberts of Llandudno asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, the Government have long-standing liaison arrangements with the devolved Administrations. We aim to adhere as closely as possible to the spirit of the Memorandum of Understanding governing relations with them, which stresses close co-operation and communication. The Joint Ministerial Committee, which met last month in plenary form for the first time since 2002, offers further opportunities for exchanges of information and views with devolved Ministers.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for that Answer. We hear in this House of strategic plans for England. To what extent is the noble Baroness satisfied that the devolved Administrations are able to share in these plans and, if they so desire, adopt them in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland? Is there sufficient funding available if they decide to take that step?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, on funding, I refer the noble Lord to Treasury documents that I have here and which I am happy to make available to him and to any other noble Lord. They go into great detail on how funding is allocated—not just through the Barnett formula but way beyond that; the noble Lord might find that useful.

On the general discussions, Ministers of the UK Government talk to the devolved Administrations in a whole range of ways; from phone calls and regular meetings to plans set out between the Leader of the House of Commons and the Administrations when looking at the draft legislative programme. They range across everything the noble Lord can think of, but are working, as far as we can see, quite effectively.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, the noble Baroness has told us that the Joint Ministerial Committee has met once since 2002. Is it due to meet again? How often will it meet? Will the Government publish the agenda and the minutes of those meetings?

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