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House of Lords

Monday, 27 April 2009.

2.30 pm

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.

House of Lords: Reform


2.36 pm

Asked By Lord Tyler

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change & Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, the Government have always said that they would consider the possibility of publishing draft clauses in the light of responses to the White Paper. We are still in a period of consideration.

Lord Tyler: My Lords, I think I am grateful for that Answer. Does the Minister recall that on seven occasions now he has said that pre-legislative scrutiny might be appropriate for draft clauses? Has he noticed that, in recent months, the Conservative leader has announced that he is now campaigning for the same vote, the same value, right across the country—in other words, for proportional representation? Would it not be wise to see whether consensus could be reached on this rather contentious issue through pre-legislative scrutiny, presumably in a Joint Committee of both Houses, so that the Government can build on the consensus arrived at within the White Paper discussions?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, it is not for me to comment on the difficulties which the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party may have with the system. Clearly, the White Paper discussed a number of electoral system options that could be adopted for a reformed second Chamber. We welcome comment on those matters.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, may I assure the Minister that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, is clearly deluding himself? The Conservative Party has no intention of campaigning for proportional representation.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am heartily reassured on that point.

Lord Grocott: My Lords, there is clearly consensus between the two main parties on objecting to proportional representation. Will my noble friend take that into account in any further considerations?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: Indeed, my Lords. There are clearly different views about what electoral system might be appropriate for the second Chamber. It is important that any electoral system that is brought forward is not seen in any way as challenging the perfectness of a first-past-the-post system for the House of Commons.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, whatever differences there may be about the ultimate shape of the House of Lords and how it is composed and elected, do the Government recognise that there is broad consensus that an interim measure, along the lines of my noble friend Lord Steel’s Bill, would make a difference and meet the public recognition that change is appropriate now? Will the Government give a lead?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, we have had a great many opportunities to discuss the Bill proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Steel. Of course, elements in it could be contained in a major reform proposal based on the White Paper’s proposal. The Government have said that they are already prepared to move swiftly on matters concerned with conduct and discipline.

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The fact is that the Government’s efforts take forward substantive reform. That is why we established the cross-party groups which led to the White Paper. Let us hope that in the manifestos for the next election there will be a consistency of approach among the political parties on substantive reform. Then legislation could soon follow.

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that at the end of March, during the Committee stage of the Bill proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, there was unanimity on the four main principles of the Bill and that that should also be taken into account by Her Majesty's Government?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, as I said, there are clearly elements within the Bill proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, which would need to be addressed within substantive reform. It is worth making the point that, to take the question of a statutory Appointments Commission as an example, the White Paper accepts that if the eventual outcome was an 80 per cent elected House, there would need to be a statutory Appointments Commission and legislation would follow that course. The proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, embraces a statutory Appointments Commission that would decide which party-political appointments could be made. I have to say that that is entirely unacceptable to the Government.

Lord Hamilton of Epsom: My Lords, as there is obviously consensus between Conservative and Labour Peers in this House that this is a matter best left alone, can we not achieve some mechanism by which all the Liberal Democrat Peers resign and re-elect themselves in some different form?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the more questions are asked, the less consensus I see in your Lordships' House. I think that the best possible approach is for the White Paper proposals to be taken forward and we look forward to legislation in the new Parliament.

Lord McNally: My Lords, does not the Minister feel a sense of shame that a Labour Government—a Labour Government—after 12 years and three thumping majorities have left this House a House of patronage quite unrepresentative of the people whom they are supposed to represent?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: No, my Lords, I do not. This Government are the first Government for many a year to take forward and enact substantive reform of your Lordships' House. It is widely accepted that those reforms have led to this House becoming a more effective Chamber. The whole point of the cross-party working group of which the noble Lord was a very influential member is to continue the process of reform. That is what we are committed to do.

Lord Boston of Faversham: My Lords, does the noble Lord accept that his original Answer was most acceptable to many of us in the House and that if it were the intention of Her Majesty's Government to continue in a period of consideration indefinitely, that would be very welcome?

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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I fear I must disappoint the noble Lord. We intend to report in the summer on the results of the consultation. That will be an important step forward. We can then discuss what further steps need to be taken.

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, is the noble Lord right when he uses the word consultation? He has referred to consideration throughout but now it is consultation. What is the difference?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the White Paper is being fully considered and of course there has been a consultation process. Indeed, we received about 150 comments on the White Paper, which was published last year, so we will publish a summary of the views expressed. Of course, we are ever eager to hear the views of your Lordships' House on these matters.



2.44 pm

Asked by Baroness Stern

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): My Lords, we introduced a new parole process for indeterminate sentence prisoners on 1 April, with targets for each of the agencies involved, to be monitored by senior representatives of each agency. We amended the Parole Board rules to increase its capacity to hold hearings and increased the board’s budget by 18 per cent in 2009-10. We are recruiting more judges to the board. This package of measures will, over time, significantly reduce the delays in the parole process.

Baroness Stern: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply but, according to a Written Answer he gave last month, hundreds of parole hearings are still being delayed. Why do the Government not provide the resources to the Parole Board and others now to deal with cases on time and to release those who are safe to release? That would reduce prison overcrowding and the need for so many new prison places, Titan or otherwise, especially as the Times last week gave a figure for the cost of borrowing alone for each new prison place of £150,000.

Lord Bach: My Lords, we agree. Delays in any prisoner receiving their parole decision are unacceptable. As my reply set out, various measures are being introduced to tackle delays. I repeat that we have increased the board’s budget for 2009-10, from £8.3 million to £9.8 million, but increasing the budget alone does not solve the problem. We need more judicial members to consider parole cases. We are in the process of recruiting more board members, including judges, and we have changed the Parole Board rules to allow greater flexibility in the composition of Parole Board oral hearings, thus enabling more cases to be heard on time.

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Lord Henley: My Lords, later this afternoon, we understand that the noble Lord will come to the House to make a U-turn on Titan prisons, so as to save the Government a bit more money and impose more strains on the Prison Service. How long will it be before he comes back to this House to make a further Statement on that alleged 18 per cent increase in money for the parole system—it is very necessary—to reduce the pressure on prisons?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Lord supports the 18 per cent increase in the budget for the Parole Board in 2009-10. I presume that if it should ever happen that his party is in power, it would not dream of cutting that. Perhaps he could give a response to that later. I will be coming to the House and the noble Lord will have to be patient.

Lord Woolf: My Lords, would it not be a more sensible solution to those that have been proposed by the Government for them now, especially in the present financial climate, to take the decision to abolish preferably all life sentences or at least those that are discretionary?

Lord Bach: My Lords, of course the Government listen with particular interest to what the noble and learned Lord says with his vast experience, but what he proposes is not on our agenda at the moment.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, the Minister has referred to the appointment of more judges to the Parole Board, but he will recall that in February 2008 the Court of Appeal criticised the independence of the Parole Board in its position within the Ministry of Justice. Will the Government consider the Parole Board to be made part of Her Majesty’s Courts Service and to function as a court, when the pressure on judges might not be so great?

Lord Bach: My Lords, we have considered carefully the judgment to which the noble Lord refers, which is why within the department these matters have now been transferred to a different division; namely, no longer the NOMS division but the Access to Justice division.

Lord Lloyd of Berwick: My Lords, should the Government not have foreseen the pressure on the Parole Board when they introduced indeterminate sentences in 2003?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I am quite prepared to say that the number of cases that arose out of having the tariff too low for indeterminate sentences perhaps should have been foreseen. I am glad we have been able to put that right in the Act passed by this House last year, and to be able to say that the fact that the tariff now cannot be any less than two years has already had an effect.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, in how many cases have the delays been so serious that they led to successful judicial reviews? What was the cost of these proceedings and any compensation awarded subsequently?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I am not able to say how many judicial reviews there have been against the Parole Board as a result of delays in the process

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because we would need to conduct a manual trawl of such reviews to provide the information. However, I will write to the noble Baroness with as much information as I can provide.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, while I welcome the measures announced by the Minister, can he give the House an indication of when it is likely that the backlog in the hearing of cases, which is of very considerable proportions, will be disposed of? The delays caused form a serious blot on the administration of justice in our country.

Lord Bach: My Lords, I can help the noble Lord. Provisional year-end hearings for 2008-09 indicate that there were 2,300 three-member oral hearings and 416 single-member oral hearings. It is estimated that 5,000 oral hearings will be heard in the 2009-10 financial year, including clearing the backlog of cases as well as new ones. Of course it would be a foolish Minister who got up and said that we would clear all the backlog—some of it involves just a few weeks’ delay—but I repeat that none of it is acceptable.

Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords, can the Minister confirm that one of the reasons for the delay in granting parole to those who might be assessed as safe to release is the failure of the Government to ensure that the prisons provide the rehabilitation courses required? The Minister did not say anything about this in his outline of the measures he is taking to reduce the delays. How has the situation regarding the provision of courses changed since the court decision of 2008 in the case of the Secretary of State for Justice v Walker and James, where the court referred to the systemic failure on the part of the Government to provide the necessary rehabilitation courses in prisons?

Lord Bach: My Lords, the noble Lord will know that the case has been heard by the House of Lords Appellate Committee and that we await its judgment. It is therefore best for me not to comment on it. So far as courses are concerned, when considering whether to direct the release of tariff-expired IPP prisoners, the Parole Board will consider a whole range of information on each prisoner, not just whether they have completed important formal accredited programmes. We allocated an extra £3 million in each of the last two financial years to streamline assessments and improve access to courses and, as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has made clear, the number of courses has been increased. More importantly, changes to the categorisation procedure mean that IPP offenders can move straight to category C prisons where many more courses are available.

Iraq: Defence Industry Contracts


2.53 pm

Asked By Lord Astor of Hever

The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Lord Mandelson): My Lords, support to the United Kingdom defence industry in bidding for contracts for the re-equipment of the Iraqi armed forces is provided by United Kingdom Trade and Investment staff and our defence attaché in Baghdad. Her Majesty’s Armed Forces in Iraq are responsible for providing support to the Iraqi security forces and are not involved in equipment procurement issues.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. As a main coalition partner, our Armed Forces have made huge sacrifices in Iraq, yet we have sat back and watched the Americans walk away with one of the biggest rearmament and rebuilding programmes ever seen, leaving us with virtually nothing. What representation does DSO have in Iraq, and with billions of dollars of future sales expected, will it now take a more dynamic official role in promoting British companies there?

Lord Mandelson: My Lords, I appreciate the sentiment expressed by the noble Lord, but he is slightly understating the presence and activity of UK representatives in this matter. None the less, it is the case that there is a clear Iraqi preference to make procurement for its Armed Forces through United States foreign military sales. Indeed, you could say that they are rather dependent on a foreign military sales system because it is easier for them. However, they are making moves towards direct contracts with other countries and we will be encouraging that.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, is not one of the problems the fact that DSO no longer exists and the very specialised work that it undertook is now being undertaken by UKTI? What assessment is being done to look at whether UKTI is as effective as DSO used to be, with the support that it had from the Armed Forces, in promoting British defence companies in the sort of way that the noble Lord’s Question implies?

Lord Mandelson: My Lords, I do not think that there is any evidence to suggest that since the transfer of responsibilities and location for DSO there has been any diminution in its work rate or effectiveness. I think that it is actually quite desirable to extend and deepen the expertise of UKTI as a whole in both the defence and the security fields. However, if there is a concern, it is one that I will watch out for with a personal interest.

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