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Highlights from Justice questions

Humfrey_malinsWoking MP Humfrey Malins (pictured right) was one of several Conservatives to make an important point at Justice questions yesterday:

"I must give the Minister a dreadful statistic. After 12 years of this Government, seven out of 10 young men released from the young offender custodial estate reoffend within 12 months and most reoffend 30 times within 12 months of release. What is he doing to stop that awful situation?

Mr. Hanson: Those figures are coming down, but I accept in part what the hon. Gentleman says. There is still a high level of reoffending by young people leaving those institutions. As I have said, support is needed in learning and skills, literacy and numeracy, employment and housing, and in tackling the drug and alcohol problems that people have, and last summer we introduced the youth crime action plan to try to tackle some of those issues early on in people’s criminal careers. The hon. Gentleman mentions 12 years of this Government, but the Conservatives’ proposals to cut further money from this budget would be unlikely to lead to a positive improvement in the level of activity at Lancaster Farms and Hindley in the north-west."

Shadow Minister David Burrowes shed some light on why reoffending rates may be so high:

"May I remind the Minister of another of the Government’s figures, which show that three quarters of those in young offenders institutions are dependent on drugs? Last year, why is it that only 100 young offenders from Lancaster Farms YOI started drug treatment? Does the Minister agree with the chief inspector of prisons’ view, published in her annual report last week, that it is remarkable that so little has been done to tackle the fourfold increase in alcohol-related problems in prisons?

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that this Government have increased by a massive amount the resources devoted to overcoming those problems. Obviously, there is a lot of drug-related crime, which means that individuals who enter the system need greater levels of support. In the north-west alone three drug and alcohol programmes and two offending behaviour programmes are in operation. In particular, there is the CARAT scheme, which provides counselling, assessment, referral, advice and throughcare. It deals with self-esteem, drug programmes, sexual health, the supply of drugs, healthy eating, steroid abuse, stress management and relapse prevention. All those schemes are funded by Government resources that, unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman’s party has pledged to cut from our Department."

It seems likely that David Hanson (Minister of State at the Justice Department) is being disingenuous. Refusing to match future spending plans is not the same as cutting specific services. And as we saw later in the session, the department does not spend all its funding wisely.

The Speaker had to call Justice Secretary to account for being inappropriately partisan. Ministers seem to be doing that a lot these days:

"Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): But would not the abolition of the custody licence scheme put added pressure on the prison population? The Secretary of State has made it clear that he has provided more places, and more are planned in prisons. What effect would a cut to his Department’s budget have on those plans?

Mr. Straw: It is quite clear that if the Conservatives were to follow through on their plans for formula cuts in criminal justice Departments, as proposed by the shadow Chancellor, prison provision would be subject to severe cuts.

Mr. Speaker: Order. We have had anti-Conservative party propaganda from two Ministers, and we will call it a day at that. Ministers will answer the questions that are put to them."

Shadow Justice Secretary Dominic Grieve asked about the early release of prisoners:

"Seeing that 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 about protecting the public. Turning to the question of the future of the scheme, is it not the truth that his intention is 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 just like that 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 will look forward to considering those. 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."

Shadow Minister Edward Garnier showed why not matching Labour's spending plans might be a jolly good idea:

"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."


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