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Prisons (Sickness Management)

10. Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): What steps he has taken to improve the management of sickness absence at the 10 prisons identified in the Public Accounts Committee's first report of Session 2004–05 as having the highest levels of sickness absence. [24799]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Fiona Mactaggart): A programme of management action has resulted in a reduction in sickness absence in the public sector Prison Service. That includes improved monitoring by senior managers, staff access to occupational health support, particularly for stress and back pain, and a willingness by management to take the difficult decisions either to retire medically or dismiss staff on the ground of medical inefficiency where they are unable to give regular and effective service. In nine out of the 10 prisons with the   highest levels of sickness absence as identified in the PAC's report, there has been an average reduction in sickness absence of 36 per cent. since 2002–03.

Mr. Leigh: In those statistics, the Minister did not mention that the Prison Service still has the highest sickness absence in the civil service, that sickness absence in the 10 worst offending prisons has fallen only from 22 days to 15 days a year, or that, astonishingly, prison officers in two prisons are taking one in every five weeks off sick. What real progress is she intending to make to get on top of that appalling problem and manage our prisons properly?

Fiona Mactaggart: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that sickness absence is a serious problem. When his Committee produced its helpful report identifying that there was a serious problem, the difference between the average amount of sickness absence in public sector and private sector prisons was about seven days. It is now below one day. We have reduced the number of days taken as absence in each of the 10 prisons identified in the report by more than seven days. Yes, there is still a problem, but we are working to overcome it in exactly
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the way that his report identified by setting clear milestones, by using clear management action and by bearing down on those prisons where the problem is greatest. We are making a difference; we still have more to do.

Ancestral Visas

11. Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): If he will make a statement on the future of ancestral visas. [24800]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Andy Burnham): Our consultation on a new points-based system for managed migration to cover routes to work, study and train in the United Kingdom closes today. As we develop the new system, we will consider how it relates to existing routes such as UK ancestry and we will assess the possible impact before making any changes.

Mr. Benyon: Earlier, when the Minister was talking about asylum entry to this country, he referred to an unacceptable state of limbo, which he is seeking to exclude from the process. Will he consider the unacceptable state of limbo of constituents of mine such as Reg Stephens—there are many thousands like him—who came to this country from Zimbabwe down an entirely accepted route of entry, but has been unable to   access travel documents to go back to Zimbabwe to bury a relative and really needs the system sorting out? Will the Minister assure me that he will address that as a matter of urgency because many people are suffering under the current alleged review?

Andy Burnham: I am aware of the case, which the hon. Gentleman has raised assiduously with the Department. We all want to ensure that there is no abuse of our   managed migration system. A review of the system carried out a couple of years ago revealed that there was some abuse of the managed migration route into the
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UK. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will respect the   fact that investigations had to be carried out to ensure that the procedures for ancestral visas are robust. That work has been carried out and we hope that we will soon be able to reconsider applications such as that of his constituent.

Humberside Police

12. Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the performance of Humberside Police. [24801]

The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Hazel Blears): The performance assessments published by the Home Office and Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary on 27 October show that in   2004–05 Humberside police made significant improvements in crime reduction and reduced overall crime by 12 per cent., one of the largest reductions by any force last year. Although the force continues to face challenges on a number of fronts, its performance continues to show overall improvement.

Ms Johnson: Under the previous chief constable, Humberside police force was the last police force in the UK to get police community support officers, who carry out a valuable role in dealing with crime and antisocial behaviour. Does my right hon. Friend agree that forces that have been able to innovate and embrace change have done much better than those that have lagged behind?

Hazel Blears: Yes, I entirely agree. I am delighted to say that Humberside has its first tranche of community support officers. My hon. Friend will know that we have plans to get 24,000 community support officers over the next three years, and I have no doubt that Humberside will bid for some of them. The excellent job that they are doing in the rest of the country will help to reassure her constituents.

Court Martial Judgment

3.31 pm

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con) (urgent question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the collapse of the court martial of seven paratroopers from the 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, accused of murdering an Iraqi civilian two years ago.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): I want to make it clear from the outset that the armed forces operate to the very highest standards. All personnel are aware of the necessity to operate within the law. It remains MOD policy to initiate a service police investigation into every instance where the action of British service personnel may have led directly to the death or injury of Iraqi civilians. The Government back our troops fully. I, together with the chiefs of staff, am very proud of the role that British armed forces play in the world. They do an exceptional job in very difficult circumstances and operate to the very highest standards.

The trial of the seven members and former members of the 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment concluded on 3 November in Colchester, after the Judge Advocate General directed the board to find all seven defendants not guilty. The trial related to an incident in Iraq which occurred at the roadside in Maysan province in southern Iraq on 11 May 2003, following which Mr. Nadhem Abdullah, an Iraqi citizen, died. The seven individuals were jointly charged with murder and violent disorder.

I am limited as to what I can say about the Judge Advocate General's decision, as this is a matter for my noble and learned Friend the Attorney-General. However, it may be helpful if I place the trial in its operational context.The end of the trial has raised the question of why the soldiers faced those serious charges. Soldiers understand that they are required to operate within the law and their rules of engagement and can be held to account for their actions. All soldiers in Iraq and elsewhere receive a briefing on that. They also receive training in the law of armed conflict as part of their annual training. Soldiers are not above the law.

Whenever an incident occurs or an allegation is made,   a Royal Military Police—RMP—investigation is launched by the commanding officer. The conduct and   scope of such investigations is determined independently of the chain of command. The RMP   special investigation branch—SIB—is a fully professional investigative agency, which conforms to UK Home Office standards, where appropriate, and follows civilian police investigative procedures. Investigations are carried out thoroughly, professionally and in accordance with the rules of evidence, UK best practice and the Association of Chief Police Officers standards, but operational circumstances or cultural differences may limit the forensic and investigative opportunities.

In this case, the Royal Military Police was operating in a hostile and volatile environment, which clearly impacted on some aspects of its investigation, both in terms of its scope and its timing. The decision to prosecute was taken by the Army prosecuting authority based upon the evidence gathered by the RMP. The APA acts as prosecutor in all courts martial and has a similar role to that of the Crown Prosecution Service in
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civilian courts. The APA is statutorily independent of the Army chain of command, which has no influence over its case management or decision-making process. The decision to prosecute is based upon its assessment of the evidence and of the realistic prospects of a conviction.

Everyone is presumed innocent unless and until they   are found guilty. The four servicemen and three ex-servicemen were provided with every assistance to enable them to put their case: a unit defending officer was provided for each of them and acted as their link with their defence team; they were each defended by a QC, funded by the Army criminal legal aid authority; and they were all afforded full welfare provision throughout the period up to and including the trial—and this continues.

The Judge Advocate General made it clear that he had no criticism of the Army prosecuting authority in   bringing the case to trial. This court martial demonstrates the Army's commitment to transparency and accountability. It was held in open court, where it was open to full public scrutiny, and to the same standards of justice and independence that are present in the civilian justice system. All the parties and authorities involved, military and civilian, acted properly and in good faith.

The British Army is not complacent. Following all operational commitments, a process of continuous and determined professional review is undertaken. The comments of the Judge Advocate General are being considered and a comprehensive review of the 3 Para trial is under way. In addition, the Army announced a review following the trial earlier this year of members of 1 Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. The review is being conducted on behalf of the Chief of the General Staff by a senior experienced officer and is looking at issues arising from concluded courts martial relating to deliberate acts of abuse. It will seek to learn lessons and look at wider issues emerging from trials and other reports, in order to safeguard and improve the Army's operational effectiveness. Any findings can be published only after all the courts martial have concluded, so publication is therefore likely to be some time in the future.

This case has shown our determination to ensure that justice is done irrespective of the difficulties. We are very sensitive to the ordeal that these soldiers have been through—they have acted with dignity throughout and I hope that they will now be given respect and privacy to enable them to continue with their lives. More than 80,000 servicemen and women have served in Iraq—only a very small number of them have been accused of ill treatment of Iraqi civilians, and a number of those have already been cleared of any wrongdoing, as in this case. Our troops in Iraq continue to perform outstandingly, but they are not above the law.

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