Previous Section Index Home Page

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I did not hear anywhere in the Secretary of State’s reply the answer to the question posed by my hon. Friend the
3 Feb 2009 : Column 687
Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones). Given that the scheme was supposed to be temporary, will it, or will it not, continue indefinitely?

Mr. Straw: No, it will not continue indefinitely. It is not a satisfactory scheme; no one has ever suggested that it was. It is, however, better than the alternatives that the Conservative Administration used, just for the record. It certainly will not be continued indefinitely, and I will seek to end it as soon as I judge that we have sufficient capacity. That is why we have been increasing the capacity of the Prison Service far faster than previous Administrations have done.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): As there have been three murders, two rapes and many more serious offences committed by criminals who were released early under the Government’s end of custody licence scheme, will the Secretary of State tell the House what assessment he has made of the likely number of such offences that will be committed by such offenders who will be released under the scheme in 2009?

Mr. Straw: First, may I congratulate the hon. and learned Gentleman on his first appearance in Justice questions? Secondly, the reoffending rate under the scheme has been pretty consistent. I am sure that he has the extrapolations written on his pad and will give them a wide audience in a moment. Thirdly, of course it is a matter of great regret and deep concern whenever there is reoffending from prison, but in quite a number of those cases, particularly in the serious cases, there is evidence to suggest that the offence would have been committed in any event. That was certainly the view of the trial judge in one of the worst cases, that of the Andrew Mournian murder.

Mr. Grieve: I thank the Secretary of State for his welcome, but he cannot escape the fact that the offences, including murder, were committed by people who were released early under his scheme. That says volumes about the Government’s assessment of the need to protect the public. Is it not his intention to institutionalise, not end, early release through proposals in the Coroners and Justice Bill that will require sentencing to be conditioned by the cost of the sentence? That will make sure that, in future, Government expediency is placed in front of criminal justice.

Mr. Straw: The hon. and learned Gentleman has a very short memory—I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, but my comments are relevant to the Conservatives’ suggestion that only we have faced this problem. Other Administrations have had to resort to such measures. Some 3,000 prisoners were released between July and August 1987. As for the hon. and learned Gentleman’s key question, if he wishes to table amendments to the Coroners and Justice Bill, we look forward to considering them. I have made it clear that there is no prospect whatsoever, nor is it Government policy, that at the point of sentencing, sentencers should have to take into account the resource costs of what they are proposing. That is not in the Bill, nor is it Government policy.

3 Feb 2009 : Column 688

Mental Health Tribunals

5. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What recent discussions he has had with the chief executive of the Tribunals Service on the operation of mental health tribunals. [253525]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): The chief executive of the Tribunals Service has regular meetings with Ministers to discuss the service and its performance, including that of mental health tribunals.

David Taylor: Mental health tribunals are important for dispensing justice, but a constituent queries with me their ability also to operate impartially. If patients agree that they are psychotic, they are so judged. If they disagree, they are said to have no insight into their condition and are found to be psychotic. What consideration have the Government given to reviewing the whole process to address concerns that patients subject to a tribunal do not have guaranteed access to specialist legal advice, and that the panel composition militates against objective assessment of the facts of each case?

Bridget Prentice: I am concerned about the example that my hon. Friend gives. If he wishes to come to see me to discuss it, I will be more than happy to do so. There are, however, two things that I would say to him. There is legal representation available for mental health proceedings at the first-tier tribunal, and there is also legal aid available at the upper tribunal. There are about 1,100 members of the tribunal, and they are split more or less evenly across the three disciplines that they are meant to represent.

Coroners’ Courts

6. Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of access to coroners’ court services in small towns and rural areas; and if he will make a statement. [253526]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): We intend to review current coroner boundaries in consultation with local authorities as part of implementing the Coroners and Justice Bill, which is before Parliament. The review will take full account of local needs.

Mr. Turner: I am sure the Minister agrees that public access to a coroner is important for justice. Does he agree that we must retain at least a part-time coroner on the Isle of Wight?

Mr. Wills: I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. I can assure him that as part of the review, there are no plans to do away with the presence of a coroner on the Isle of Wight.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): It is the number of rural coroners that is being cut from 112 currently sitting in 140 places to about 60. It is particularly they who are looking into military deaths, which may or may not be those that become secret proceedings in the future. The Secretary of State has gone to great lengths to say that only one or two a year would be heard in
3 Feb 2009 : Column 689
camera. Will the Minister give the House an example of one or two cases in recent years that were heard in public but which, under the new Act, would now be heard in secret?

Mr. Wills: May I assure the hon. Gentleman that, in relation to the review, we are fully committed to making sure that local access to the coroner service is retained. If we move to larger coroner jurisdictions, that does not mean the end of part-time coroners, and it does not mean that anyone in a rural area or anyone else will be denied access to the coroner services that they receive at present.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Already, the office of coroner for the county of Powys has been amalgamated with that of the coroner for Bridgend and the valleys. There is a feeling in Wales, and following on from the Coroners and Justice Bill, that there will be an over-centralisation of the service in Wales. Given the sensitivity that inquests often give rise to, will the Minister confirm that the issues raised by hon. Members, particularly that of rurality, will be looked into before the implementation of the Act?

Mr. Wills: I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. It is fundamental, as I said, that people should continue to have access to the coroner service locally. We understand that that has particular resonance in rural areas. No changes will be made without full consultation with everybody concerned, including hon. Members of the House.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): Helpfully, the Secretary of State has responded on the needs of families of deceased people when there is an inquest. Will his Department continue, with the Department for Work and Pensions, to make sure that the information on costs and allowances available to the families of those who have died becomes as easily available through a coroner’s office as it is through a registrar of deaths?

Mr. Wills: I am happy to give that assurance to the hon. Gentleman.

Stephen Ayre

7. Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): If he will refer the case of Stephen Ayre to the chief inspector of probation. [253527]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr. Shahid Malik): Andrew Bridges, the chief inspector of probation, has already examined the serious case review into the case; it was conducted by the West Yorkshire strategic management board for multi-agency public protection arrangements, or MAPPA. I had discussions with Mr. Bridges yesterday and he confirmed that the shortcomings in practice were properly evident in the review. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice has asked Mr. Bridges for an assessment, based on two inspections, of the quality of the supervision of offenders such as Mr. Ayre by the area MAPPA system. Mr. Bridges is completing that assessment.

3 Feb 2009 : Column 690

Philip Davies: As the Minister will know, Stephen Ayre was a convicted murderer who was let out of prison and who, three years ago, after repeated mistakes by the probation service, raped and abducted a 10-year-old boy in my constituency. The Secretary of State talks a lot about how he will put the victims at the centre of his Department. However, despite having met the father of the victim, he still refuses to release the internal report into the case—even to the family, let alone the public. As the Secretary of State knows, the parents cannot feel that they can get over what happened to their son until they have seen the full report. If the right hon. Gentleman will not release the full report to the family, the least that he could do is ask the chief inspector of probation to produce a report and put it in the public domain to help the family get over that appalling incident.

Mr. Malik: We all accept that it was an appalling episode. The purpose of any review is to identify faults. The chief inspector of probation is clear that the faults have been identified. Indeed, the overview report was presented to the young victim’s father.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Secretary of State has taken a personal interest; he met the victim’s father on 18 June 2008. A number of things flowed from that: expedited support and counselling for the victim; an overview report to be prepared by the West Yorkshire MAPPA and shared with the victim’s father; and the inspection by staff from the National Offender Management Service public protection unit of a sample of cases in west Yorkshire to ensure that they are being well managed. More generally, my right hon. Friend decided that from December 2008, in respect of all MAPPA serious case reviews, we will share an overview report with the victim and the victim’s family.

The hon. Gentleman is wrong to suggest that victims are not at the centre of this Administration. In 2008, there were 4 million fewer victims of crime compared with 1998, and we have significantly increased investment thresholds to support victims. That speaks volumes about our commitment to victims and to putting them at the centre of the criminal justice system.

Sentences (Multiple Rape)

8. David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): What recent guidance the Sentencing Advisory Panel has issued on sentences for those convicted of multiple rape; and if he will make a statement. [253528]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Maria Eagle): In April 2007, the independent Sentencing Guidelines Council published definitive guidelines on the Sexual Offences Act 2003. That included a guideline on the offence of rape, including when it is carried out by more than one offender and including multiple offences carried out by the same offender. The Sentencing Guidelines Council took the Sentencing Advisory Panel’s advice into consideration when it formulated the guidance.

David T.C. Davies: Two weeks ago, six men were sentenced for multiple rape. They gang-raped a 16-year-old girl with learning difficulties and for that they received between six and nine years—of course, they will serve only half that time. I notice that the Minister did not give me a straightforward answer. As far as I can ascertain from the SAP guidelines, the starting point for
3 Feb 2009 : Column 691
multiple rape is eight years in prison. Why, then, were those men given six, seven or eight years, and why were the aggravating factors, which are clearly shown in the SAP guidance, not taken into account? I am thinking of the age of the victim, the fact that she was raped on several occasions and the grievous attack with caustic soda that was carried out on her afterwards. Will the Minister support my recent letter to the Solicitor-General asking that the case be reviewed so that those men are given the sentence that they deserve?

Maria Eagle: As the hon. Gentleman suggests in a roundabout way, the Attorney-General has the power to refer back to the courts sentences that she believes to be overly lenient. She is considering this at present. I cannot say more to him about this case, although I accept what he said about its seriousness.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): But is not the problem for many victims of rape the fact that in the UK we still have an average conviction rate of 6 per cent. and that many victims of this heinous crime do not see their offender brought to justice? What action are my hon. Friend’s Department and other Departments taking to ensure that offenders in the crime of rape are brought to justice?

Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend is correct to suggest that the number of complaints to the police about rape that result in prosecution is quite small. However, that is often because those who have been victimised do not feel able to go through with the prosecution. The current statistics are that 37 per cent. of all cases prosecuted as rape result in a conviction for rape, that 59 per cent. of cases prosecuted as rape result in a conviction for rape or another offence, and that 97 per cent. of those so convicted have a custodial sentence imposed. This is the highest conviction rate for 10 years.

I accept, however, that we need to do more in supporting victims and those who complain of these terrible crimes through what can be the terrible ordeal of going through the criminal justice system. We have extended the support available to women—and men, of course, who can also be subjected to this terrible offence—by providing sexual assault referral centres across England and Wales, more access to support, and a better understanding among prosecutors and police about how to deal with the victims of these offences. That is showing an increase in conviction rates, as indicated in the statistics.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): The provisions of the Coroners and Justice Bill include replacing the Sentencing Advisory Panel with a sentencing council that will have mandatory powers. However, the circumstances and levels of criminality vary enormously from case to case, and judges use their discretion to ensure that the appropriate sentence is given in the light of their experience and knowledge. Do the Justice Secretary and the Minister agree that the independence of the judiciary is an important part of our constitution and that it should not be eroded by a quango?

Maria Eagle: I agree with that absolutely. That is in fact Government policy. The new sentencing council will not in any way fetter the individual decisions of sentencers, whether they be judges or magistrates, in the work that they do in our courts. It will have a judicial
3 Feb 2009 : Column 692
majority and will be chaired by a judge. I believe that that independence, vital to our system, will be guaranteed; it is certainly Government policy that it ought to be.

Departmental Funding Settlement

9. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): What services and policy initiatives will be affected by the funding settlement reached for his Department for 2009 to 2011. [253529]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): On 19 January, I published to Parliament the Ministry of Justice’s corporate plan. The plan is based on my Department’s four strategic objectives and sets out what we aim to achieve, how, and with what resources. Further details of the financial allocations are given in chapter 6 of the plan.

Tony Baldry: Last year, the Secretary of State’s permanent secretary, Suma Chakrabarti, told to the Justice Committee that by December the Department would have a much better idea of what cuts it needed to make to live within its means. One assumes that that will result in some cuts in front-line services. Perhaps the Secretary of State could help the House by giving some indication of where those cuts are going to fall. Could he give me an undertaking that one of the cuts will not be the closure of the probation service office in Banbury, because that would be a very retrograde step for offender management in the north of Oxfordshire?

Mr. Straw: The corporate plan makes it clear that we are indeed seeking some reductions and savings—that is on the record before Parliament—including a 5 per cent. real-terms reduction in our administration budget. However, we are seeking to do that principally by taking out back-office functions, by cutting down on what I think the House would regard as unnecessary spending, and by reducing the use of agency and contract staff. The whole purpose of this—the same is true, for example, overall in the National Offender Management Service—is to do our very best to ensure that front-line services are properly protected. There are always better ways of delivering front-line services. If the performance of the probation services are compared area to area and within areas, it is clear that there is not necessarily a connection between inputs in terms of resources and their outputs in terms of caseload and reductions in reoffending.

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): I listened carefully to what the Secretary of State had to say about potential cuts to the probation service. Can he reassure the House that the probation service will not suffer cuts that would limit its capacity to monitor and maintain community service orders? In West Mercia, initial indications show that as many as 42 probation officers could be at risk.

Mr. Straw: We do not believe that that is the case. There will be a requirement on probation services, and others, to reduce their administrative costs and to look at new ways of working. For example, they might produce briefer reports for courts and so on. We have actually put extra money into the front-line delivery of
3 Feb 2009 : Column 693
high-end community penalties. The whole purpose of that is to make the system more efficient and more effective.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): How much worse will resource problems be as a result of the alarming state of some of the Department’s IT projects? Will some have to be abandoned or cut in order to stay within limits?

Mr. Straw: The corporate plan takes account of the reality of our IT plans.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): It really is pushing it to say that the Secretary of State has IT plans if we bear in mind that the National Audit Office criticised his Department for trebling the cost—to £690 million—of the C-NOMIS IT project. It is also true that the Government have spent £50 million on accommodating prisoners in police stations and court cells, £131 million on doing up the Secretary of State’s offices, and £27 million on external consultants in the past year. Instead of wasting that money, those millions would have been better spent on not introducing the core day, which leads to the locking up of prisoners between lunchtime on Friday and breakfast time on Mondays, on dealing with prisoner overcrowding and with prisoner rehabilitation and on encouraging purposeful activity and education in prisons.

Mr. Straw: I do not mind taking lectures from some parts of the House about our budget, but it does not lie well in the mouth of the hon. and learned Gentleman or those in his party to criticise the savings that we have to make, because their only response is to say that they would cut even more. That is the straightforward reality; they would cut at least £100 million from the Ministry of Justice’s budget.

Next Section Index Home Page