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Baroness Blatch: My Lords, in my reply to the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, I was able to say that the percentage of the prison population involved in assaults is also decreasing. There is still a rise year on year, but nevertheless the rate of that rise is slowing, and we would like to see that continue.
The noble Lord makes an important point. If there is no correlation between assaults and crowded prisons--and as the noble Lord knows, a great deal is being done to reduce overcrowded conditions--that is a phenomenon which we must look at.
Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, would it not help if it were made clear that a prisoner who is charged successfully with having assaulted prison staff would not be released in any circumstances until the extreme end of his sentence?
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I can tell my noble friend that where there has been a serious assault that constitutes another offence. That offence can be dealt with in the courts. It will be in addition to the offence for which the prisoner is serving a prison sentence. In the case of a less serious offence a number of measures can be taken, including adding days to the sentence which has already been imposed.
Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that dispersal prisons are not overcrowded because they tend to hold high security prisoners? Is that the group of prisons in which assaults are rising most steeply?
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am not certain of that, but I know that the simple correlation between overcrowding and assaults is not made. Therefore, one would have to look at the reasons. I suspect that the point mentioned by the noble Lord is probably a contributory factor.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, moving from prison to prison is not usually a cause of assault. It may be the cause of people disappearing while moving from prison to prison; and that is a very different offence. This Question refers to those prisoners who gratuitously assault prison officers in the course of their duty. That is a very serious matter indeed.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the investigation of possible criminal offences is a matter for the police. It is for them to refer a case to the Crown Prosecution Service if and when they consider that there is sufficient evidence to justify criminal proceedings. I can tell your Lordships, however, that the police are looking into the details of the case.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am not sure that it is appropriate. However, we have a proud tradition in this House of any Member being allowed to put any Question. It is a matter for the usual channels to determine whether a Question is appropriate in the proper sense of the word.
Perhaps I may say this to my noble friend. It is important. We should display in this House sufficient confidence in the criminal justice system dealing with such cases. The issue is not a matter for this House. It is a matter for the police and prosecution service.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, if I heard the Minister correctly--there was a little noise in the House--I believe that he referred to three completed sales and 50 applications in process for an expenditure of £414,000. We are grateful to the Minister for his reply, pointing out that the scheme is a costly flop, as we argued that it would be. Given the content of yesterday's DSS Statement which will add to the threat of repossession for those on income support, should we not be promoting a mortgage to rent scheme rather than the folly of a rent to mortgage scheme, so that families at risk of repossession can keep their homes?
Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, the noble Baroness mocks. But what she really mocks is the aspiration of ordinary people to own their own home. The rent to mortgage scheme is a stepping stone to acquiring equity in their homes. Why should council tenants be denied the information of that scheme? We ran an information campaign, not a promotional campaign. It is the Government's duty to tell tenants of any new scheme which could provide them with an opportunity to become home owners.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, in view of that answer, will the Minister invite his noble friend Lord Strathclyde the Chief Whip to apologise to the House for having described it at the time the Bill was put forward as an attractive route to owner occupation when clearly it is not?
Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that it is an attractive route. The noble Lord mocks too. However, before the introduction of the rent to mortgage scheme, two pilot studies were run, one in Milton Keynes, the other in Basildon. Take-up was encouraging. There were 106 rent to mortgage sales. A number of factors have acted against the operation of the scheme; falling mortgage interest rates--everyone, I believe, will be pleased with that--and stable house prices, which have meant that many potential rent to mortgage applicants can now afford to buy on normal right to buy terms.
Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, in answer to my colleague on the Front Bench, the Minister widened the subject a little to the sale of other council houses and said what a welcome scheme that was. It was a welcome scheme at the commencement. However, is he not now aware that tens of thousands of people are trapped in former council housing which no one wishes to buy. They are now loaded with an unrealisable asset and wish local authorities to be forced to buy them back. Is that a success of which the Minister is proud?
Lord Stallard: My Lords, when I go about the country, and about London, I speak to many thousands of people, including council house tenants, who never wished to contemplate the scheme. It was a magnificent flop. The Minister referred to an expenditure of £414,000 for three tenants to participate in the scheme. The Government sought to introduce the scheme at a time when the housing market was depressed. No one wanted to buy and no one could sell. I believe that there should be an investigation into the expenditure on the publications. The Minister referred to pilot schemes at Basildon and elsewhere. It is quite obvious that those schemes were a flop too. We knew that they would be a flop; we said that the schemes would be a flop. Why do the Government not confess that we were right and that what was a flop will continue to be a flop?
Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, I do not agree with anything the noble Lord says. Any scheme which allows people to buy their own homes is worth promoting, or at least giving information about. Although the department estimated that 1.4 million tenants were eligible for the rent to mortgage scheme, individual tenants could not be identified because of the confidentiality of information about housing benefit. But if all council tenants had been sent details of the scheme, the estimated costs would have been about £1.4 million. Therefore the campaign is a very cheap way of informing council tenants.
Lord Barnett: My Lords, while seeking not to mock the Minister, will he tell us whether potential buyers were informed that their mortgage payments could well rise because of a reduction in mortgage tax relief?
The noble Lord is right. Anyone taking on a mortgage should understand carefully that rates can go up and down, just as rents very often go up. The noble Lord will understand that many people are contemplating the scheme. They need to go into it carefully and to seek advice. That is why some 50 applications are still being processed.
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