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House of Lords

Wednesday, 10 December 2008.

3 pm

Prayers—read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells.

Prisons: Overcrowding

Question

Asked By Baroness Howe of Idlicote

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): My Lords, the Government are currently pursuing a substantial expansion of prison capacity, which is designed to increase the number of prison places to 96,000 by 2014.

In addition, the Government have taken steps to promote confidence in community sentences where that is appropriate, including an additional investment of £40 million funding for probation services this year.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. I am sure that we will all be pleased about the community sentences. The prison population, as the noble Lord has told us, is going up, which is perhaps not surprising when more than 1,000 new imprisonable offences have been created since 1997. The number of places is going up, but we are told that the amount of money available is going down by £1 billion over the next three years. Will the Minister confirm that the only results of these realities are that prison conditions will get worse, the rehabilitation service will be spread more thinly and prison will become even more ineffective? Would it not be more sensible to make these savings by scrapping the plans for Titan prisons, which are universally unpopular? I am sure that the Minister will have noticed that only yesterday they were condemned all around the House.

Lord Bach: My Lords, it is vital that we plan to build the prison places that we expect we will need. We are committed to providing enough prison places for those who should be behind bars: the most dangerous, the seriously persistent offenders and the most violent. The Government make no apology for saying that prison is the right place for such people and, in doing so, we are committed to delivering value for money. We believe that what the noble Baroness described as Titan prisons—I prefer to call them prison clusters—offer the best value-for-money solution for providing additional capacity and to modernise the prison estate. It is not just about additional capacity. These prisons will enable us to seize an important opportunity to modernise the estate by decommissioning worn-out, ineffective prisons and using these gains in efficiency to support improvements in the delivery of what we all want to see: rehabilitation by delivering the interventions that help prisoners away from a life of crime.



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Lord Elton: My Lords, is it the case that the “Titanic” prisons, as I think they would be better called, were to have cost £350 million and they are now going to cost £450 million? Would it not be better to spend the money on modernising existing capacity and building small prisons local to the prisoners, so that they can be supported by their families as they should be?

Lord Bach: My Lords, first, the estimate for the construction costs of the new prison clusters remains £350 million at 2007-08 prices. The estimate of £450 million that the noble Lord mentioned, which was provided to the Justice Committee earlier this year, was not an increase in the construction costs; it merely was the original estimate inflated for the years in which we expect these prisons to open—namely, some years ahead, in 2012-14. It is not an increase in costs in the terms that he asked in his question. We think that a mixture of prison building is important. These prisons will, of course, be put in places where it is already difficult for family and friends to visit those in prison. Indeed, we think that building them where we plan to will help.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, I thank the Minister for what he has just said about the extra investment in the probation service. Can he confirm that it is the Government’s intention, as far as they can, to put far more emphasis on rehabilitation and preventing reoffending, because this is where too much of the money goes down the drain at the moment? I agree with him exactly about locking up people who have been convicted of violent offences, but should not the emphasis now be more on prevention and then rehabilitation by investment in services like the probation services and voluntary organisations which have contracts to support the work that they are trying to do in prisons and beyond?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that we, this Government, have increased by 67 per cent in real terms our spending on probation since we came to power. That is very important. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 introduced robust community sentences that include a wide range of requirements, including unpaid work, drug treatment and curfews. These are very important sentences indeed. Of course some people have to go to prison, but the vast majority, or a large number, of those who commit crime do not. We want to ensure that there are proper community sentences for those, and that is why this Government have spent so much money on probation.

Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords, would the Minister like to confirm what was implicit in his answer to my noble friend Lord Elton, that the Government are expecting 30 per cent inflation over the next four to five years?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I am always wary of taking on the noble Lord, particularly on a subject he knows so much about. The cost in 2012-14—forgive me if I am repeating myself—will be £450 million.



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Baroness Linklater of Butterstone: My Lords—

The Lord Bishop of Liverpool: My Lords—

Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change & Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, shall we hear the right reverend Prelate first?

The Lord Bishop of Liverpool: My Lords, does the Minister have any information or statistics about the mental health impact on IPP prisoners who have already served their sentence but are still in prison?

Lord Bach: My Lords, no, I do not have statistics about that. He will know, because there was a Question on IPP prisoners a few weeks ago, that we think that the reforms we made to the original IPP proposals in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act earlier this year will help IPP prisoners. The legislation that was passed and the processes that result from it will, we hope, alleviate what the right reverend Prelate is quite right to say is a serious situation.

Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords, given what the Minister has said, can I assume that he agrees that our prisons are full of people for whom they are completely unsuitable, such as petty criminals with learning difficulties and mental health problems? Given that our rates of imprisonment are much higher than those of our continental neighbours, would it not be a good idea to carry out research as a matter of urgency into alternatives to imprisonment which have been found to work in other countries?

Lord Bach: My Lords, research into alternatives to imprisonment has been going on for an extremely long time and will continue. Of course we accept that there are people in prison who should not be there. That is one reason why we look forward so much to the report of my noble friend Lord Bradley in January, which will deal with the issue of mental health and those in prison. We are working all the time to try to make sure that only those who need to be in prison are there, and to find alternatives for those who do not need to be there. The lesson for all outside is that people should not commit crime.

Baroness Linklater of Butterstone: My Lords—

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, we are now into the ninth minute.

Afghanistan: Helicopters

Question

3.09 pm

Asked By Lord James of Blackheath

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Taylor of Bolton): My Lords, we do not comment on future troop deployments, but our

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force levels are kept under regular review by chiefs and Ministers as part of routine defence business. Helicopter support to ISAF operations in Afghanistan is provided from a multinational pool of helicopters, to which the UK makes a significant contribution, and we always keep this under review.

Lord James of Blackheath: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Following the loss of nearly 200 surface transport vehicles at the weekend in the raids in and around the NATO bases of Peshawar, from which 75 per cent of the entire resources for the front line come, will any consideration now be given to utilising civilian helicopters, which would also take off some of the pressure from our own front-line resources?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, there is a significant problem following the incidents at the weekend and it will affect some NATO operations. Fortunately, most of our supplies go by different routes but there is pressure on the airbridge to deliver them. There is already a NATO contract with civilian operators to provide airlift for non-personnel to areas in Afghanistan. That has proved successful and extremely helpful and we continue to keep it under review. It is not suitable for troop movements but it is suitable for freight and it has been a significant help.

Lord Lee of Trafford: My Lords, is it not a massive indictment of the Government’s procurement policy that six years after first deploying in Afghanistan they are scratching round the world, borrowing and begging helicopters? Have they thought about trying eBay?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I am somewhat surprised at the tone of the question from the noble Lord, Lord Lee. I know, for example, that he is very keen on co-operation with our European partners, so he will be aware of the British-French initiative, which I am sure he supports, to get more helicopters into theatre. This is not simply a British problem; it is a problem for all our allies who are engaged in those situations. There has been a great deal of co-operation on this matter and I should have thought that the noble Lord would applaud the efforts within NATO and European countries generally to try to improve this difficult situation, in which we all need as much airlift as possible.

Lord King of Bridgwater: My Lords, it has been known for some time that there has been an increase in Taliban activity around Karachi and Peshawar and therefore the attacks that took place with very serious damage to a substantial amount of equipment came as no great surprise. What steps have been taken with the Pakistan Government to try to further improve security of supply, for which an airbridge will simply not be enough?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord King, is right: the airbridge will not be enough. It is very difficult to get our equipment and forces into Afghanistan when we are relying only on the airbridge. We have tried to work closely with those

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in Pakistan to achieve as much security as possible. Obviously, we put a great deal of emphasis on good relationships between those in government in Pakistan and President Karzai and others in Afghanistan, because it is only through better co-operation there that we will make significant progress in this matter.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords—

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change & Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, shall we hear from the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, first?

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, the noble Baroness referred to the policy of not commenting on leaks about defence matters. Did she hear the radio news this morning, when it was said that a Ministry of Defence source had informed the BBC of a date for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq? Can she say whether the anti-terrorist police have as yet gone into the BBC today?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, it would be somewhat difficult to have a leak of that kind, as no date has yet been set.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, over the past two months how many helicopters have been out of service for maintenance reasons and have therefore not been available for operational duties?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, maintenance of helicopters is very time-consuming; I have seen the figures on how many hours of maintenance are required for just one hour of flying. It would not be possible to deploy more helicopters forward because we have to take account of the fact that some helicopters are on operations, some are being transported to theatre, some are undergoing modification because of urgent operational requirements, some are being used in training and some are being brought back from theatre. There is a range of aspects to this. It is not simply a question of saying that all our helicopters can be in theatre, as that can never be the case.

Lord Luke: My Lords, will the noble Baroness enlighten us further on what she said in July about the six additional Merlin helicopters that were coming from Denmark and the modification of the eight Chinook aircraft by Boeing? What is the progress on that?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, the Chinook helicopters are now undergoing the kind of fitting that will make them operational. We are doing that in such a way as to make them ready for theatre in the shortest possible time. The Merlins from Denmark are being used in training.



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Identity Cards

Question

3.16 pm

Asked By Lord Naseby

Lord Brett: My Lords, the national identity scheme cost report is laid before Parliament and gives a breakdown of the estimated cost of introducing identity cards and security enhancements to passports for UK and Irish nationals over the next 10 years. The latest report, published on 6November 2008, gave a total cost as £4.785 billion which represents a cost reduction of about £1 billion compared with the original estimate of £5.8 billion made in 2005.

Lord Naseby: My Lords, given that Answer, why has a respected body such as the London School of Economics estimated the cost at double that amount, perhaps rising to even as much as £19 billion for the total project? During the debate on the Queen’s Speech on 3 December the Leader of the House said of the Government’s programme:

“It has one primary, overriding aim: to help people meet the economic challenges facing our country”.—[Official Report, 3/12/08; cols. 20-21.]

When every family in the country is cutting back, why are the Government pressing on with this unwanted and hugely expensive project?

Lord Brett: My Lords, the noble Lord has asked two questions. The first should be addressed not to me but to the London School of Economics, as the noble Lord quoted its costings. Public support for the introduction of ID cards remains at 60 per cent. The question of the Government looking for cost cutting at the present time is well understood. However, 70 per cent of the costs that I have just quoted are associated with the introduction of biometric passports. Therefore, there would not be a saving if ID cards were to be abandoned.

Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, we have all heard over a considerable period the cost of implementing the ID card system. Will my noble friend tell us not so much about the advantages to the country in fighting terrorism but the advantages to the individual who is issued with a card?

Lord Brett: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his question. First, an identity card will make it easier for people to prove that they are who they say they are. It will also allow travel within the European Union without the need for a passport. About a third of the people who have been told that it will be available in 2010 have seen that as a good reason for having one. It will also help in the fight against identity fraud from which many people are suffering, which costs the country about £1.2 billion a year. Of course, it will confirm eligibility for public services. Again, fraud is costing the country about £800,000 per annum.


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