There have been 79 exchanges involving Andrew Selous and HM Treasury
|Mon 11th January 2021||Economic Update||3 interactions (50 words)|
|Wed 9th December 2020||Covid-19 Support Schemes: Ineligible People (Westminster Hall)||3 interactions (284 words)|
|Mon 27th April 2020||The Economy||3 interactions (86 words)|
|Mon 23rd March 2020||Coronavirus Bill||3 interactions (401 words)|
|Tue 7th January 2020||Oral Answers to Questions||7 interactions (77 words)|
|Mon 8th July 2019||NHS Pensions: Taxation||4 interactions (641 words)|
|Thu 31st January 2019||Equitable Life||3 interactions (80 words)|
|Wed 16th January 2019||Taxation of Low-income Families (Westminster Hall)||22 interactions (2,344 words)|
|Tue 11th December 2018||Oral Answers to Questions||7 interactions (62 words)|
|Tue 3rd July 2018||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (56 words)|
|Thu 28th June 2018||Improving Air Quality||17 interactions (2,069 words)|
|Mon 6th November 2017||Paradise Papers||3 interactions (45 words)|
|Tue 11th July 2017||Balancing the Public Finances (Westminster Hall)||9 interactions (356 words)|
|Thu 23rd March 2017||Equitable Life Policyholders: Compensation||3 interactions (44 words)|
|Tue 17th January 2017||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (38 words)|
|Tue 18th October 2016||Concentrix: Tax Credit Claimants (Westminster Hall)||3 interactions (81 words)|
|Mon 4th July 2016||Draft Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) Order 1975 (Amendment) (England and Wales) Order 2016 (General Committees)||4 interactions (1,882 words)|
|Mon 9th May 2016||Safety in Custody and Violence in Prisons (Urgent Question)||57 interactions (2,754 words)|
|Wed 20th January 2016||Safety in Youth Custody (Westminster Hall)||15 interactions (3,528 words)|
|Thu 7th January 2016||Draft Legal Services Act 2007 (Claims Management Complaints) (Fees) (Amendment) Regulations 2016 (General Committees)||3 interactions (640 words)|
|Fri 4th December 2015||Criminal Cases Review Commission (Information) Bill||3 interactions (1,504 words)|
|Fri 20th November 2015||Transpeople (Prisons) (Urgent Question)||30 interactions (1,732 words)|
|Tue 10th November 2015||Prison and Young Offender Institution (amendment) Rules 2015 (General Committees)||6 interactions (2,244 words)|
|Wed 28th October 2015||Transforming Rehabilitation Programme (Westminster Hall)||15 interactions (2,321 words)|
|Thu 15th October 2015||Prisons: Planning and Policies (Westminster Hall)||7 interactions (3,030 words)|
|Wed 14th October 2015||HMP Northumberland (Westminster Hall)||4 interactions (2,084 words)|
|Thu 17th September 2015||Dangerous Driving Penalties (Westminster Hall)||7 interactions (2,281 words)|
|Thu 16th July 2015||Sentencing (Cruelty to Pets) (Westminster Hall)||4 interactions (1,170 words)|
|Wed 1st July 2015||Colin Worton (Westminster Hall)||2 interactions (775 words)|
|Wed 17th June 2015||Safety in Prisons (Westminster Hall)||11 interactions (1,565 words)|
|Tue 16th June 2015||Isle of Sheppey (Prisons) (Westminster Hall)||4 interactions (1,948 words)|
|Wed 25th February 2015||Justice (Ministerial Corrections)||3 interactions (185 words)|
|Wed 21st January 2015||Justice (Ministerial Corrections)||2 interactions (298 words)|
|Tue 13th January 2015||Probation Service (Westminster Hall)||14 interactions (1,871 words)|
|Wed 10th December 2014||Prison Officers (Work-related Stress)||4 interactions (2,607 words)|
|Wed 3rd December 2014||Justice (Ministerial Corrections)||5 interactions (335 words)|
|Tue 24th June 2014||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (61 words)|
|Thu 12th June 2014||The Economy and Living Standards||9 interactions (1,086 words)|
|Wed 9th April 2014||Finance (No. 2) Bill||23 interactions (1,227 words)|
|Wed 26th March 2014||Charter for Budget Responsibility||3 interactions (1 words)|
|Thu 20th March 2014||Amendment of the Law||3 interactions (25 words)|
|Wed 19th March 2014||Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation||7 interactions (945 words)|
|Tue 11th March 2014||Oral Answers to Questions||6 interactions (56 words)|
|Tue 21st January 2014||Pub Companies||3 interactions (70 words)|
|Tue 10th December 2013||Oral Answers to Questions||11 interactions (101 words)|
|Wed 27th November 2013||Cost of Living||3 interactions (43 words)|
|Tue 5th November 2013||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (50 words)|
|Tue 10th September 2013||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (59 words)|
|Tue 2nd July 2013||Finance Bill||7 interactions (115 words)|
|Wed 26th June 2013||Spending Review||3 interactions (20 words)|
|Thu 13th June 2013||Royal Bank of Scotland||3 interactions (81 words)|
|Wed 15th May 2013||Economic Growth||11 interactions (104 words)|
|Thu 21st March 2013||Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation||3 interactions (88 words)|
|Tue 12th March 2013||Oral Answers to Questions||5 interactions (88 words)|
|Mon 25th February 2013||Economic Policy||3 interactions (55 words)|
|Tue 11th December 2012||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (61 words)|
|Wed 5th December 2012||Autumn Statement||3 interactions (50 words)|
|Wed 28th November 2012||Transferable Tax Allowances (Westminster Hall)||17 interactions (856 words)|
|Mon 12th November 2012||Fuel Duty||7 interactions (56 words)|
|Tue 6th November 2012||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (49 words)|
|Mon 29th October 2012||Public Service Pensions Bill||3 interactions (43 words)|
|Thu 28th June 2012||LIBOR (FSA Investigation)||3 interactions (44 words)|
|Thu 17th May 2012||Jobs and Growth||19 interactions (734 words)|
|Mon 16th April 2012||Finance (No. 4) Bill||3 interactions (1 words)|
|Wed 21st March 2012||Amendment of the Law||3 interactions (964 words)|
|Tue 20th December 2011||Energy and Climate Change||3 interactions (816 words)|
|Tue 15th November 2011||Fuel Prices||11 interactions (909 words)|
|Thu 27th October 2011||Eurozone Crisis||3 interactions (31 words)|
|Wed 12th October 2011||Jobs and Growth||3 interactions (60 words)|
|Mon 10th October 2011||Eurozone||3 interactions (51 words)|
|Tue 6th September 2011||Oral Answers to Questions||5 interactions (96 words)|
|Tue 19th July 2011||Summer Adjournment||3 interactions (386 words)|
|Tue 28th June 2011||Finance Bill||12 interactions (160 words)|
|Wed 22nd June 2011||The Economy||3 interactions (41 words)|
|Tue 21st June 2011||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (58 words)|
|Tue 8th February 2011||Oral Answers to Questions||5 interactions (53 words)|
|Tue 18th January 2011||Funding Formula (Westminster Hall)||42 interactions (3,335 words)|
|Tue 11th January 2011||Bank Bonuses||3 interactions (46 words)|
|Tue 7th December 2010||Crown Currency Exchange||3 interactions (43 words)|
I am happy for the hon. Lady to refer to the answer I gave earlier, but if she would prefer that, rather than give up-front funding guarantees and certainty to the devolved Administrations in a pandemic, we returned to piecemeal funding by announcement, she should please write to me and let me know. The Welsh Government have received over £5 billion in up-front funding guarantees, and as we make announcements it is right that we highlight the amount of additional Barnett funding that flows from those announcements, so that that can be netted off against the guarantee.
I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of speed. We try to keep the guidance the same, and that helps local authorities. Indeed, the guidance for the £500 million discretionary funding will be the same as for the £1.1 billion, and that will help local authorities. They should have the cash by the end of this week at the latest, and I too urge them to get it out as quickly as possible.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for securing this important debate. I am delighted to co-chair the gaps in support all-party parliamentary group. We are all here today bringing the case to this House.
Blue Collar Conservatism, of which I am a founder member, set up the campaign asking for supermarkets to return their covid business exemption, specifically with the purpose that that money would be redirected to those who have had no support during this period. We met with Tesco, Asda, the British Retail Consortium and others. They have done the right thing, stepped up to the plate and committed to returning that money. I pay tribute to those who have done so.
My message to the Minister is that that campaign specifically aimed to redirect that money to those who have not had any money. Having spoken to those firms, that was the basis on which they have handed the money forward. I hope the Minister will act in the same faith and spirit as those supermarkets that handed over that money and support for those people.
I want to mention two big supermarkets that have not yet committed to give that money forward: Iceland and the Co-op. I ask the shadow Minister to tell the shadow Chancellor, who is a Labour and Co-operative Member, to speak to her friends to ensure that the Co-op pays that money back, unless it thinks it is more in need than others. We think it should do the right thing, join in with the other supermarkets and hand that money back.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees.
Yesterday I chaired a meeting of the gaps in support all-party parliamentary group, during which we heard from Andy Burnham, Dan Jarvis and Steve Rotheram about how the metro Mayors are working to support businesses in their areas to plug the gaps left by Government.
Dan Jarvis, the Mayor of Sheffield, explained that an estimated 68,000 people are excluded from support in Yorkshire. At 13.1%, Yorkshire has the highest proportion of new starters in the UK, but because of a fluke of timing they have been thrown into poverty and homelessness, joining the 1 million freelancers now in debt, according to IPSE. Entrepreneurs, business people, creatives and strivers who have worked with their employers and been paid in any way the employer deems more convenient are now paying a heavy price for that flexibility.
I will share a couple of stories. Nicola is 46 and a single mum of two girls in West Yorkshire. She is on a zero-hours contract with a publicly funded charity, working in the supported living sector and paid the minimum wage. She asked to be furloughed but was told that she could not because her job was publicly funded, and was then told that there was enough work. Her application for unemployment benefits was refused as she was still under contract and had received a wage. Nicola was not just excluded from support; she was refused support and had to live on child benefit, going deep into arrears.
Sadly, as Steve Rotheram said yesterday, “whatever it takes” has turned into “whatever we will give you”. Andy Burnham said that it is up to politicians to stand up for people against the machine of Government and to mitigate risk. This is now an opportunity for the Government to listen to the solutions that they have heard this afternoon and put them in place to support the millions who are excluded and who face the hardest and harshest of winters.
The most important economic policy at the moment is to maintain the productive capacity of the UK economy during a period of shutdown. Our interventions are designed to preserve as many businesses, jobs and connections as possible. That is the best way to ensure that the recovery can be as strong as we would all like it to be. For the moment, that is where we will focus our attention.
Without knowing the particular details of those businesses, I can say that many businesses in the retail, leisure and hospitality trade will be eligible for cash grants of £25,000. Also, all businesses can use the furlough scheme, which is significant, and there will be business rates holidays for those businesses. Furthermore, the statutory sick pay rebate scheme I announced earlier will be up and running next month, which will allow businesses to apply for a rebate on their statutory sick pay bill for up to 14 days per employee. That could benefit businesses by up to £48,000 as well. I hope that all those packages put together provide some relief to my hon. Friend’s business and many others.
If everyone takes around three to four minutes, they will all get a chance to come in.
I rise to speak to new clause 7 together with the new schedule it introduces, which is new schedule 1. May I start by thanking the Clerks and other staff for their extraordinary work in processing so many amendments in such a short time?
The changes that we propose are designed to ensure that the Government’s response is truly for all of society, as the World Health Organisation has urged, and we will do that by seeking to ensure that nobody is excluded from getting the support they need simply by virtue of their immigration status. Our immigration and asylum laws and processes, touching as they do on millions of people right across our country, must be made to help, not hinder, the public health response to coronavirus. If we let down those people who are subject to immigration control, we are letting down the whole country, and if we fail to protect those people, we fail to protect the population as a whole.
The new schedule is in four parts. The first relates to Home Office rules that prevent many people from accessing public funds. Many of this group will already be hugely marginalised, including a very significant proportion of the street homeless and destitute. As matters stand, many more will become destitute because their earnings will stop or sofa-surfing will no longer be possible, and there will be no social security to fall back on. Meanwhile, across the country many shelters providing the only source of refuge are having to close down, either because dormitory conditions are no longer fit for purpose, or because the brilliant volunteers who staff such centres can no longer undertake the necessary work amid this very serious crisis. Suspending the no recourse to public funds rules would be a first but significant step towards allowing everyone to access the financial support and accommodation they need to protect themselves.
The second part of the schedule deals with those who are in immigration detention. At the end of last year, there were about 1,600 people in immigration detention, most of them in immigration detention centres, with a small number in prisons. We know from recently published expert advice that detention centres provide ideal conditions for the spread of the coronavirus, and that 60% of those in such facilities could rapidly be infected if the virus got hold there. In fact, one woman tested positive for covid-19 in Yarl’s Wood at the weekend. Of course, the detainee population will include a significant number with underlying health conditions.
We know now that there is no realistic prospect of immigration removals taking place imminently, and imminent removal is of course the legal threshold for justifying detention in the first place. The clear consequences of these two facts, when we bring them together, is that continued detention is not only morally wrong, but it undermines the public health response to the coronavirus outbreak and is almost certainly illegal. We welcome the fact that the Home Office has started by releasing about 300 of the current estimate of 1,200 people in immigration detention. We ask it to move faster and urgently in getting the other 900 out of there as well.
Thirdly, we turn to the issue of the asylum process. Those working on behalf of asylum seekers are concerned at the lack of communication with them about what changes are being made to these processes. There was a welcome announcement made ending the requirement to access or re-access the asylum procedure by attending at either Croydon or Liverpool, yet this very afternoon I am reliably informed that a new arrival in Glasgow was told by Home Office staff to get a bus to Croydon, essentially, to make an asylum claim. Without support from the Scottish Refugee Council, that individual would be street homeless tonight. That is clearly undermining, rather than helping, the public health approach.
We need the Home Office to look at all asylum processes and procedures, and reporting requirements, interviews and other appointments must all be suspended. We need to look at the state of the asylum accommodation, and at the rules about why asylum seekers who have medical skills are being prevented from working at this particular time. We need to look at asylum support and at support for providing accommodation to the destitute and the homeless.
Fourthly, the proposed new schedule would make provision for those whose visas are about to run out or whose visas have already run out but are prevented from travelling home. Many Members will have been contacted by constituents with concerns about people in that situation. There were reports today about an 80-year-old Ukrainian woman whose visit visa has just expired. Her solicitor phoned the Home Office and was told that she should consider driving home. Clearly, asking an 80-year-old woman to return to Ukraine by car is simply ludicrous. It is time, as our proposed new schedule suggests, for the Government to put in place an automatic extension of leave to remain, at least until September or later, depending on the advice the Government get from medical officers.
I pay tribute to all those who have pushed the Government to accept a more limited time period for the extraordinary powers provided for by this Bill, including my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), while at the same time ensuring that there can be an extension, with appropriate scrutiny and approval by this House. We support the principles behind new clause 2. The provisions that impinge most on civil liberties deserve the greatest of scrutiny. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) for tabling amendment 66, and we are grateful to the Government for listening to her concerns.
Break in Debate
The Government’s fiscal policy will allow for a step change in infrastructure investment, which is what we need to level up and unleash the potential of the whole country. That is why I am open to looking at ideas for new financing instruments, but I would need to be satisfied that they represent good value for money, that they can be sustained for the long term and that they are consistent with our wider fiscal objectives. I would be happy to discuss that with my hon. Friend.
As usual, my hon. Friend raises an important issue. Some excellent work has been done on the issue, including work to which my hon. Friend has contributed. In our manifesto, we set out our intention to have a new national skills fund, which will help to transform the lives of people who are trying to get on to the work ladder, to get new qualifications or to return to work. I know that my hon. Friend will welcome that.
The Government keep public sector pay and pensions policy under constant review in the context of the wider public finances. For the majority of savers, pension contributions are tax-free. The annual allowance is a fiscal measure which operates across all registered pension schemes in both the public and private sectors, alongside the lifetime allowance. The measure is kept under review by the Government to ensure that the benefit of tax relief on pension schemes remains affordable.
Some senior clinicians face pension tax charges owing to the increase in the value of their pension accrual. I understand that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care is currently engaged in discussions with senior representatives of the British Medical Association. The Government are taking this issue very seriously, and that is the right place for those discussions to be held. However, the House will recognise that the same tax rules must apply identically to everyone in the same situation, regardless of their employer. It is simply not possible for the tax rules applying to senior clinicians in the NHS to be different from those that apply everywhere else.
I understand that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care is to publish a consultation on proposals for a new 50:50 scheme providing pension flexibility for clinicians in the NHS. The scheme will give senior clinicians in England and Wales more choice in respect of their pension accrual, and will thus control tax charges. Since last autumn, all members of the NHS scheme on the taper have been able to elect for the pension scheme to pay any tax charges now, and so avoid any impacts on take-home pay, in return for an actuarially fair reduction in their pensions.
I recognise the concerns that have been raised, and I assure the House that the Government will continue to monitor the impact of pensions policies on public service delivery.
The answer to my hon. Friend’s first question is that the Health Secretary is currently in discussions with the British Medical Association and other health representatives about precisely what can be done, and of course the consultation will come out shortly. Some of the issues he mentioned in terms of legislation will clearly be a matter for the new Prime Minister and Administration, but the fact that my hon. Friend has raised this urgent question today will draw to people’s attention the urgency of this issue and one would expect it to be considered very early on by a new Administration. The point I was trying to make earlier is that there is a fundamental distinction between how we deal with the issues in the NHS, on which the Health Secretary is leading, and the broader issue of our pension system, which is there to encourage people to save. That has to be considered in a holistic manner so we cannot just design it around one workforce. It has to be designed to work for everybody in both the public and private sectors. That takes time of course, and we are working through some of the conclusions of the reforms that took place a few years ago.
And many companies in this country encouraged their employees to invest with Equitable Life thinking that this was a safe haven. In fact I can speak from personal memory, in that I was an employee of BT at the time and we were encouraged to invest in Equitable Life. Thank goodness we had a choice—I made the right choice, but I could be in the position of the victims.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that. Behind the scenes in Parliament there is so much good work going on, much of which is cross-party, with different colleagues bringing different perspectives. During these difficult times in Parliament, it would be positive for people to reflect on the important work that goes on behind the scenes, influencing decision makers, much of which is on a cross-party basis.
I agree that this sense or understanding of the system being judgmental is a problem. Would it not be far better if the system, rather than judging one way or another way, had a far more neutral position, because that would enable individuals and families to make their own decisions?
Are we therefore saying that some recognition by the Government of family in the tax system would go a long way towards changing the culture in our society, whereby we ought to value much more greatly that kind of work within the home, which is unpaid but provides so much benefit to society, economically as well as socially?
Break in Debate
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir David. I must say that as a feminist, I feel as though I have fallen down some kind of vortex to the 1948 film “Every Girl Should Be Married” in this debate. I fundamentally disagree with many of the arguments that hon. Members have put forward so well; I respect their right to do so, but they have ignored the elephant in the room, which is that lots of the stresses and strains on our society are caused by austerity, not by whether people are married or not. That is a personal choice.
Tax is often thought of as a boring, dreaded thing—a duty to be avoided, something best left to stuffy men in suits. However, like all economic tools, tax is a mechanism that opens up opportunities to shape the kind of society we want to live in. It incentivises good behaviour and punishes what some would consider to be bad behaviour. The UK Government’s tax system remains quite a blunt tool with which to tackle income inequality. It is riddled with loopholes that benefit the wealthy, and according to figures from the Institute for Public Policy Research, the UK is the fifth most unequal country in Europe when it comes to income.
The tax system is very gendered. In its analysis of last year’s Budget, the Women’s Budget Group said that raising the income tax threshold is not a policy that helps women. It argues that 70% of those taken out of the higher rate of tax, and 73% of higher rate taxpayers who will benefit from raising the higher rate threshold, are men. We cannot claim that this will benefit women in any particular way, especially those in low-income jobs. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, minimum household budgets have risen by about a third since 2008 for most types of household. Inflation is sky high, wages are being squeezed and a no-deal Brexit would see an additional 6.4% of lower incomes being spent on food. That is a penalty that most families cannot afford.
I mention families, because they are central to what many Members have talked about. The hon. Members for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and others have mentioned universal credit and the impact of the 16-hour rule. Figures from the Church of England show that a single mum with three kids, who is working 16 hours, would have to work 45 hours to make up for the cuts that the Conservative Government have made to the benefits system. What impact would a single mum working 45 hours have on family life? When is she actually going to see her kids? Who is going to tuck them into bed at night? That is not going to happen.
I have been working on a campaign for the removal of the two-child limit in the universal credit system, for which I would welcome hon. Members’ support, if they wish to give it. There was some movement from the Secretary of State last week, but it will still be in place for children born after 6 April 2017. The disincentive within the system is rife. Someone with two children who wants to get remarried, into another family, will lose out, because that will cause a change to benefits. If that person, once they have remarried, wants to have a child in that new family, they will not get the child element of universal credit, which is nearly £3,000. If any Government Member wants to speak to their colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions and get them to get rid of this policy, that would be welcome, because it is a disincentive. If a family has four children, there is actually an incentive under this policy to separate and become two families with two children each, rather than one family with four children, thereby saving a huge amount of money. That needs to be removed from the universal credit system. If hon. Members are serious about it, they need to ask their colleagues in the DWP to do that.
Nobody mentioned the impact of the immigration system on families. I get many people coming to my surgeries who, because of the minimum income threshold in the immigration system, cannot bring a spouse to live here. I met a chap who is working two jobs at the moment, but cannot meet the threshold to bring his wife and his child over from another country. That is separating families. The number of Skype families out there, who are not being well served by this Government, who claim to support families, is an absolute scandal and we should do something about it. The stress of living in poverty probably contributes more to the break-up of families than anything else.
The report by Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, which Conservative Members never want to mention, says:
“Families with two parents working full time at the national minimum wage”—
that is the Chancellor’s pretendy living wage, because it is not a living wage that anyone can live on—
“are still 11% short”—
“of the income needed to raise a child.”
I would accept the hon. Gentleman’s arguments far more if he would argue for an end to austerity, for an increase to low wages and for the minimum wage to be equalised. At the moment the thresholds for 16 and 17-year-olds and for 18 to 21-year-olds are very different. The gap between the lowest paid—those on the UK’s pretendy living wage—and the people at the top of the age threshold is increasing. It has got wider over the last three Budgets because increases at the top of the scale have not been met with increases at the bottom of the scale. It should be a fair wage for everybody. A 21-year-old parent does not get enough income in to support a family, and that will bring additional pressures to bear on what they can bring in and provide. People who have spoken today have entirely missed the point.
Treating families as a unit within the tax system, as often happens with universal credit, has been widely criticised by women’s organisations because it removes women’s agency. It also removes women’s ability to provide for their families. Under the universal credit system, a woman is disincentivised from leaving a relationship, because all the money goes to the man—the main earner in the household. I appreciate that the Secretary of State has said that she is looking at this issue, but it creates a risk. That also exists within the rape clause of the two-child policy, where the only way a woman can claim this vile clause is to leave the relationship. Women’s organisations across the board say that the most dangerous time for a woman is when she leaves a relationship; that is when she is most likely to be murdered. There is serious stuff about women’s place in this policy.
I was glad to hear that the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire is not calling for the abolition of independent taxation. I am relieved about that. Individuals should be able to exist within the system by themselves, for a very serious reason, which leads on from my point about universal credit. Incentivising marriage is disincentivising separation. There may be very reasonable grounds for separation, particularly in cases of domestic abuse. The marriage allowance, which benefits the higher earner in a family—almost always the man, as I have laid out—exacerbates inequality. To take this to its logical conclusion, if a man assaults his partner, so she cannot go to work, or he prevents her from working through coercive control and financial control, which we know a lot more about and which the Government have said they want to tackle in the Domestic Abuse Bill, he effectively gets a tax break for doing so. That is why this should have no place in the taxation system. It is important that women have agency and are able to get money in. When money is taken away from women, that agency is removed, as well as their ability to look after themselves.
I had many more things I wanted to say about this policy. I had a whole speech written out about other things. We need to recognise that indirect taxation is also a huge issue. VAT disproportionately affects low-income families. According to the latest figures, those at the bottom end of the income distribution now pay nearly one third of their income in indirect taxes. The poorest fifth pay 31% in taxes such as VAT, alcohol and fuel duties, which is much higher than the 13% paid by the richest households. As I have been sitting here, I understand that the European Parliament has finally agreed to abolish the tampon tax. That is something that the UK Government have now delayed for almost four years. I hope that, now that the Minister has the green light that apparently the UK Government were waiting for, that tax on women will go as soon as possible.
While we can talk about taxes and marriage, the real elephant in the room is austerity and the cuts that have been made to women’s budgets. Women need to have agency; that is the most important thing for families across the UK.
Break in Debate
No, because I have not got much time and I have given way several times. I have other points to make.
The manifesto is linked to the issue of taxation of families, but it is not just the fiscal issue that we have to identify—that is the problem; it is the wider determinants that go way beyond issues of taxation. The hon. Member for Stafford referred to the Christian background. I think it is in Matthew that Christ says,
“render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”.
Effectively, he was saying, “Pay your taxes.” He is a fantastic role model for people who avoid paying their taxes. The bottom line is that a society can be cohesive only if everybody plays their part in it, whether through paying their taxes, charitable interventions or political inventions of the sort we make every day. That is what we have to do.
In the report, the hon. Member for Congleton talks about fathers being registered on birth certificates. That is fine, but an Office for National Statistics report on registration identified the fact that the vast majority of fathers are registered on birth certificates and that of those who are not, something like two thirds or a third are identified as being very much involved with the family. The idea that the registration of a father on a birth certificate will somehow solve some sort of problem is—I will not say laughable—only one element of the totality.
We would reintroduce the targets that we set in relation to child poverty, which the hon. Gentleman’s Government got rid of. That is what is frustrating—Conservative Members are coming to us with all these ideas that the Labour party had for many years and which the Conservative party got rid of when it came to power. The Government got rid of all the things that hon. Members have been talking about and introduced austerity. They said, “Austerity is here. We’re all going to play our part. We’re all in the boat together,” but in reality, we are not.
Although I recognise many of the worthy points made by hon. Members, that worthiness has got to be put in place, not by mechanisms, but by everybody playing their part in society and paying their taxes, and by corporations not getting tax breaks or being able to avoid this, that and the other. The point that the hon. Member for Stafford makes about tax reliefs is fair; I will potentially look at them.
There is a complicated pattern, and on that basis, although I understand some of the points that the hon. Members for Congleton and for Stafford have made, I would say that actions speak louder than words. We need more action and fewer words.
What is important is that we are achieving better results for 16 to 18-year-olds. We are seeing more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university and improvements in the quality of apprenticeships that are being taken up by young people. We are also putting extra money into the new T-levels, which are due to improve technical education.
It was indeed very good that we were able to give teachers, particularly those on the lowest wages, a 3.5% pay rise this year—the highest pay rise seen for a decade. FE colleges are set up differently. They are independent institutions that have the wherewithal to change the pay for lecturers who work within them.
Break in Debate
We are doing city deals right across Scotland and they are having huge benefits for the local economy. We have also announced in the Budget a freeze in whisky duty. The question now is how the Scottish Government will respond to that in their budget tomorrow. Will they cut income tax, and will they also cut business rates?
Obviously, the element of funding that can be provided by net savings from contributions to the European Union will depend intrinsically on the deal that we negotiate with the European Union. We will be working to get the very best possible deal that we can for Britain to ensure that that contribution makes up the largest possible proportion of the additional NHS funding.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The way in which we will get higher wages is by improving productivity and skills, which is why we are investing in a record level of apprenticeships and the national training partnership.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Joint Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Environmental Audit, Health and Social Care and Transport Committees, Improving Air Quality, HC 433, and calls on the Government to adopt its recommendations as part of its Clean Air Strategy.
I very much back speakers on the previous motion in their points about contempt of Parliament when people refuse to give evidence to Select Committees.
I am grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, to the Liaison Committee and to the Backbench Business Committee for granting time in this House to debate our report on improving air quality. I thank my fellow Chairs and members of the Health, Transport and Environmental Audit Committees for all their work and help; I also thank the many staff across all the Committees for helping put together the four-Committee report, which is a challenging task.
Last October, we launched a joint inquiry to consider the Government’s most recent plans for reducing levels of nitrogen dioxide. The cross-cutting inquiry examined whether the Government’s plans to cut air quality pollution were adequate. We have concluded that they are not. The UK has failed to meet our legal air quality limits since 2010, and successive Governments have failed to get a grip and improve our air quality. Air pollution is a silent killer. It is the largest environmental risk to public health, costing the UK an estimated £20 billion every year in health impacts. Air pollution affects everyone, from those driving their cars to those who walk or cycle to work—especially in the many hotspots in our inner cities.
I am not saying that the Government have failed to take any action. It is good to see that they have taken on board key recommendations in our joint report, including: consolidating the patchwork of air quality legislation; developing a personal air pollution alert system for the public; making better use of air quality data from local authorities; and making sure that those data are compatible with each other. I also very much welcome the commitments in the latest clean air strategy consultation to cut levels of particulate pollution.
Although those initial steps are welcome, they are not nearly enough. Real change requires bold, meaningful actions, which are absent from the Government’s current approach. In our report, we called for a properly resourced national support scheme to help councils struggling with air pollution. Such a scheme would require far greater cross-departmental working and joint planning—something that, as we highlighted, is severely lacking right now. In addition, we recommended a “polluter pays” clean air fund.
This is not a war on motorists. We envisioned that the fund would be paid for by the automobile industry. I do not want to punish those who bought diesel vehicles that had been recommended by previous Governments; they bought in good faith and will need time and support to rectify the mistakes and recommendations of those previous Governments. I urge the Government to re-examine their decision not to have a targeted diesel scrappage scheme.
Furthermore, we need significant efforts to speed up the roll-out of electric charging infrastructure, which must include more rapid charging points to accelerate the transition to low-emission vehicles across all our towns and cities. It is essential that people should be able not only to charge up their cars, but to do so quickly, otherwise we will not get enough people into electric cars. All that requires a new clean air Act to update and streamline existing legislation. The new legislation could also include measures to ensure that the Government are held to account on environmental issues once we have left the EU. A new clean air Act is absolutely essential, and I ask the Minister today to confirm the timescale for the introduction of such an Act.
I find it disappointing that the Government are not making the automobile industry pay for the damage it has caused. We have already been let down in this regard: when we did not get anywhere near enough compensation out of Volkswagen for the emissions scandal. I am amazed that the German Government were able to get €1 billion, while all we seem to have got are the zeros. The automobile industry has a yearly turnover of some £80 billion.
In recent tests, the majority of the latest 2017 diesel cars are almost four times above the EU’s baseline emissions limit.
My hon. Friend makes a really good point. I am amazed: do British lawyers lack teeth? Do Government lawyers lack any sort of drive and ambition? It is not just Volkswagen; others out there could also contribute. If we got funds from them, those could help towards producing cleaner vehicles or helping with air quality in our inner cities and hotspots across the country. It seems so ridiculous to lose that form of money and funding.
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I thank my hon. Friend. She rightly says that a lot of work has been done in London, yet it still faces a huge challenge on air quality. That is one reason why our Select Committee report on the airports NPS calls for extra safeguards on air quality. Obviously, Parliament did vote for the NPS and the Secretary of State has now designated it, but it is essential he keeps his promises on air quality.
It is also vital that the public sector leads, demonstrating what is possible. The Government could set dates by which their car fleet will all be ULEVs. Local authorities, the NHS and other large public bodies could do the same with their fleets. It is not just on road transport where the Government are less ambitious than they might be. The decision to row back from electrification of our railways in favour of bi-mode trains has worrying implications for air quality, carbon emissions and noise. Of course, our Committee has also published a report on rail investment today. Those look more like decisions taken in isolation than decisions taken under the umbrella of an overarching strategy.
There is a danger that the Government rely too heavily on new technologies to solve our air quality challenges, placing too much emphasis on cleaning up road vehicles and not enough on reducing the number of vehicles on our roads. Improving public transport and encouraging active travel should lie at the heart of any clean air strategy. Our four committees concluded that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Transport must work closely with local authorities to ensure that councils introducing clean air zones receive the support they need to implement complementary measures that encourage car drivers to switch to public transport and active travel, as well as increasing the take-up of electric vehicles. Yet modal shift and active travel—walking and cycling—hardly get a mention in the Government’s draft strategy.
Investment in low emission buses is great but the value of such investments is magnified if local authorities also take steps to encourage motorists to opt for buses rather than making journeys by car. The latest passenger statistics show that bus patronage is falling and rail passenger numbers are also down. It is too early to say whether that is a blip or the start of a trend, but the Government should be concerned. Is the policy response in line with the strategy the Government tell us they want to have? Well, not really—the cost of rail and bus travel are rising faster than the cost of motoring. The Government’s own assumptions appear to show that, as things stand, they accept that their policies will not deliver a financial incentive to encourage or support modal shift. Without some action, whether on fuel duty or charging zones, efforts to tackle congestion or improve air quality are less likely to succeed. It would be helpful if the Government were to articulate more clearly than they have what they want to achieve on modal shift and how they will deliver that, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments today.
The Government also need to create a framework in which local authorities have the resources and powers they need to act. The new expectations on councils on air quality come at a time when they are already facing huge funding pressures. The Government must provide all local authorities breaching nitrogen dioxide limit levels with access to the financial resources they need to tackle them. Responsibility for providing those resources should not lie only with the public sector: following the principle that the polluter should pay, the private sector should be asked to contribute to a clean air fund. As hon. Members have said, Volkswagen and other car manufacturers that cheated emissions tests should be held to account. Our Select Committee has repeatedly raised this issue with Ministers and the lack of action is deeply disappointing.
Policies and action at local level also need supporting national polices and a public debate that makes it less difficult to implement things that may not be universally popular. Our ambitions for cleaner air, with the associated public health and environmental benefits, cannot succeed without action by local authorities, businesses and communities. The sustained improvements we have seen in air quality in the past can be continued only if Government action—legislative, policy, taxation, and spending—is co-ordinated and working in tandem with other players. By failing to act in a joined-up way, the Government are not just undermining their air quality strategy; they are missing opportunities for synergies that would help deliver on other policy goals. For example, many of the policies needed to tackle urban congestion could also help to improve air quality, and tackling both could have a positive effect on the local and national economy. A significant increase in active travel could make a difference to policies on tackling obesity, improving mental health and building better communities. Action on air quality could help to reduce carbon emissions. The realisation of the wider benefits cannot be left to happen by chance.
Action on poor air quality is long overdue. There are things we can do—this is not a problem without a solution—but if the Government do not show leadership, nothing will change. We have passed the point where more of the same will do the job; the courts have made that clear. Bold, ambitious and innovative polices are needed to create the right framework for action—a framework within which national policies support and encourage the right kinds of action at a local level. The Government have launched a consultation on their clean air strategy, but its lack of focus on transport emissions looks complacent, falling well short of what we recommended in our joint report. I hope that Ministers will heed our calls today and redouble their efforts.
I thank my political neighbour for giving way. I suffered from breathing fumes in traffic jams when driving my car on holiday. I did not know that my chest problems were to do with breathing fumes. The simple technique of making sure that when we use our air conditioning, we press the button that recirculates the air inside the car rather than drawing in polluted air from outside, is very important. It would be helpful if that information was given to people.
I passionately agree with the excellent points that the hon. Gentleman is making, but does he agree that we need fundamentally to rethink how we think of traffic? When people say that they are stuck in traffic, they are traffic—they are part of the congestion. When I cycle to work in the mornings, I am not stuck in traffic because I am part of a cycling stream that is going around the people who are stuck in their vehicles. If we want cities where people can move and breathe, we need fundamentally to rethink what traffic looks like.
My home is on the west coast of Scotland, where I am lucky to have incredibly clean air, but when I am down here I normally walk or cycle to Parliament. If anyone else present suffers from asthma, they will know what a bad winter I have had, almost continuously since last November. It is no good telling people to get on their bikes or to walk when that then exposes them. We need to deal with the traffic to allow safe cycling.
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One of the first big steps forward on air quality came after the great smog of 1952, when 4,000 people died within five days and 8,000 died in the following weeks. From that came the Clean Air Act 1956, which reduced pollution, particularly from coal, coming from industrial and domestic sources. However, in the 50 years since, traffic pollution has soared. Some 70% of UK towns and cities are defined as unsafe, with 37 out of 43 clean air zones failing on nitrous dioxides. There is a road in Lambeth that, every single year since 2010, has reached the number of breaches it is allowed in a year by the end of January.
The issue is not only about nitrous dioxides. Particulates have been mentioned—the 10 micrometres, and, more particularly, the 2.5 micrometres. These tiny particles get much further into the lungs and cause more damage. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, that damage particularly affects children and older people. Some 4.5 million children—a third of them—are exposed to unsafe levels. If they live near a busy road, they have twice the rate of respiratory problems. We are talking not only about asthma, the obvious one, but about reduced lung development and—if mothers were exposed during pregnancy—reduced brain development. Such things will lay down the quality of a child’s life before they are even born. Among older people, particulates increase the deterioration in lung function, as well as causing ischemic heart disease, increased rates of dementia and stroke.
Pressure in this country has developed only because of the threat of legal action from the EU last year; the can has been kicked down the road for years. The UK and eight other countries are facing legal action from the EU unless they get serious and radical. We would consider countries such as Germany and France, particularly Germany, to have good public transport. There is a particular need to invest in trains and trams—and in rural areas, in buses. Since transport was deregulated in the 1980s, Strathclyde in the west of Scotland has gone from having an integrated network of trains, tubes and buses to simply a free-for-all of ancient diesel buses all crowding the same roads. We have gone backwards in the past 40 years, and we need to go forwards. In rural areas, it is buses that are important. When it is just left to private companies, small villages quickly lose their bus services, which is not acceptable. We should be radical, and we should look at cities such as Copenhagen, which ripped up a ring road and turned it into a safe cycle route. We need things like that.
We heard from the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) that the cost of lung disease caused by poor air quality is £20 billion, yet we invest less than 5% of that amount in active travel infrastructure. As I said in an intervention, it comes down to health in all policies.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. My understanding is that 50% of journeys in Copenhagen are now made by bicycle. But this does require investment in infrastructure.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) mentioned a new tunnel at Silvertown. The Clyde tunnel was finished in 1963 and it consists of two circular tunnels, with the road deck about a third of the way up and room for cyclists, pedestrians and ventilation underneath. That was back in the ’60s. We need to make sure we are not investing in hugely expensive tunnels that go against active transport.
It is about health in all policies. Decisions are made in silos, even in this place. We make decisions on different days that counteract each other, which is frustrating. If we had physical health and mental wellbeing as an overarching principle like human rights, people sitting in our town halls and here would focus not on cars, on how they drive and how they park—that is the focus in our towns and cities at the moment—but on people. We would design safe, segregated cycle routes, and we would have much wider pavements on which children could ride their scooters, and on which people with prams or wheelchairs would not be crowded out—people would not need to step into the roadway to pass them. When we have such glorious and, in Scotland, very unusual sunny weather, it would also create an environment in which cafés could be outside. People would walk around their town centres and meet their neighbours, which would contribute to a sense of belonging and community. I would love to see health and wellbeing as the driving force in every decision made by town halls, national Government and Westminster on how we design our towns and cities.
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, we are committed to country-by-country reporting, which we will push forward with multilaterally. As for our future trade treaties, they are for the future and for the Department for International Trade.
I cannot comment on a specific tax structure put to me in these questions, other than to say that if it falls foul of our very rigorous disguised remuneration arrangements—some of them are being put in place by the latest Finance Bill—the people involved should clearly expect to receive a hand on the shoulder from HMRC.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) on securing this really important debate.
Everyone who argues for a splurge on public spending needs to explain where that money will come from. It comes either from increasing taxes or from more borrowing. If we increase taxes, that dampens the economy and takes away people’s hard-won earnings. If we borrow, it drives up interest rates. At the moment, we are very fortunate, in that we have hard-won respectability in the financial markets, which has kept interest rates incredibly low. At a time when the Bank of England is warning banks to increase their capital and about the level of household debt, the risks of increased interest rates to households and mortgage holders are great indeed. We must be mindful of any idea of increasing public spending, given the constraints.
When it comes to tax, we need to look at reforming the system and particularly at how taxation of multinationals works. Amazon pays very little tax in this country and hardly any business rates, yet it is killing our high streets. That is not fair. We need to rebalance the tax system to make a level competitive playing field, not just on our high streets but across the piece in business, so that we have more fairness and all businesses can succeed and compete equally.
Finally, we have a productivity challenge. We must get more investment into the real economy, which is why there should be a much greater focus on both sides of the House. We owe it to all our citizens to do all we can to get the nation a pay rise.
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It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship today, Ms Ryan. I welcome the Financial Secretary to the Treasury to his position. I have no doubt we will have many of these debates in future. I thank the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) for tabling this debate on this important issue and on the need for Governments to balance the books. I also thank hon. Members for inviting me to the 1922 Committee. It is a pleasure. That was a joke—give it a bit of thought and try to keep up.
It is worth looking at the Conservative Government, in which the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean was a Minister for six years when all those decisions were made. Since coming to office, the Conservative Government have consistently failed to balance the books and to abolish the deficit, despite continually pledging to do so.
May I get further into my speech? I will then be happy to give way.
First, it was promised that the deficit would be abolished by 2015. Then it was pushed back to 2020. We have now been told by the Chancellor that it is likely that it will not be abolished until 2025. The phrase used in the Conservative manifesto—hon. Members will appreciate that I read it avidly—was
“by the middle of the next decade”.
A full 10 years after the former Chancellor originally pledged to do it, and a full 15 years since the Conservatives started making the promise, the books still will not be balanced.
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I am not going to get into hypotheticals or “what ifs” in this debate. We are looking to the future. That was promised. [Interruption.] I am sorry; I did not hear what was said. That was promised, but the Conservatives failed to deliver. I do not think that there is a case in modern political history of a British Government so regularly failing to meet their own economic targets.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), with whom I have worked for the past few years as—I should declare this—the co-chair of the all-party group on justice for Equitable Life policyholders.
I am very sad that after so many years of debating this issue in this House, we are back once again talking about the continuing losses suffered by hundreds of thousands of Equitable Life policyholders. As we have heard, they invested in the world’s oldest life assurance company in the belief that they would be able to have a comfortable old age, but instead, after a lifetime of saving, they find themselves sometimes destitute, and often much poorer through no fault of their own.
Indeed, I do agree, and I will go on to say something about that, but there is also a third dimension, which is that we have a moral duty to ensure that the Equitable Life policyholders are compensated.
How have we arrived at this situation at this point in time, 17 years after Equitable closed its doors to new investors, and seven years after the previous Government promised to ensure that the losses incurred by Equitable policyholders would be compensated? My first involvement in the Equitable saga was to speak in an Adjournment debate that I secured in Westminster Hall on 24 June 2009. In that debate, I spoke about the serious issues facing all our constituents since the crash of Equitable Life, following its inability to meet its obligations and the promises it had made to investors over the decades. Equitable Life started selling pensions as early as 1913, but it was not until 1957 that the society started selling its now infamous guaranteed annuity rate pensions, which promised a clear and unambiguous return on the capital invested. That carried on until 1988, when the society realised that its rates were so good and so far ahead of the rest of the market that they were, in reality, totally unsustainable. In December 2000, Equitable Life was forced to close to new business.
We are likely to build more affordable homes in this Parliament than have been built since the 1970s.
I recognise my hon. Friend’s concern. This matter was on my agenda when I was Transport Secretary in 2010. The roll-out of ultra-low emission vehicles has been disappointing—it has not been as fast as I would have hoped—and that will be one of the issues we consider as we try to respond to concerns about air quality, which have been reinforced by recent court decisions requiring the Government to review their approach on that.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One consequence for a number of children is that they have lost their entitlement to free school meals, so they have suffered doubly as a result of what has happened to them.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I will try to make some progress, so that he can see what I want to say about that kind of issue. Decisions were certainly made on the basis of inadequate evidence, in a way that I believe was actually illegal under the Tax Credits Act 2002, and should not have been permitted.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Wilson. I thank the Minister for outlining the order, which will make amendments to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 in relation to current regulated activities under the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, in that certain members of staff and commissioners of the IPCC, and candidates seeking appointment to judicial office, will have to have an enhanced criminal records check. The Minister outlined a further category in relation to the Police Act 1997.
I understand that there has been no public consultation on the Judicial Appointments Commission amendment but key stakeholders were consulted. I, too, have consulted key stakeholders. Will the Minister explain why there was no public consultation on that amendment and identify the key stakeholders that were consulted about the amendment?
The order extends the number of roles for which employers will be entitled to know about spent convictions. Will the Minister please outline what support and/or guidance the Government will give to employers to ensure that that change does not result in a blanket refusal to employ people with spent convictions who are legitimately seeking to lead law-abiding lives? There are many ways in which risk can be managed; the challenge is knowing about it and dealing with it rather than avoiding it altogether. I am concerned that employers may feel that the best approach is to eliminate risk completely by not employing people who have criminal records.
Although it is extremely important that we do all we can to facilitate the employment of ex-offenders, we know that public safety must always be paramount. Subject to the Minister’s clarification on those issues, the Opposition welcome the amendments, as they ensure that further checks will be carried out into the backgrounds of those who are working with vulnerable people and on extremely sensitive issues to assess their suitability for such roles.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I support entirely the aims of the order and my Front-Bench colleague’s position, not least on the provisions about the protection of children, which I think we would all agree is crucial. However, I have become aware of an unusual case in my constituency that I want to share with the Minister, because it shows that some inconsistencies exist within the current system of sensitive occupations for which convictions may or may not have to be disclosed. If I might put that case to the Minister, perhaps he will come back to me in writing or express his views on it, because I think it is worth looking at.
The case concerns a constituent who has served extensively in the British armed forces, including as a Royal Military Police officer, and has also been on detachment to police forces in other countries around the world. He served with distinction and in fact has been commended for his work both with the RMP and when attached to an overseas police force, but unfortunately, he received a relatively minor conviction as a teenager, I believe involving the theft of a motor vehicle. From what I gather about the case, he is completely reformed and had served with distinction in the forces and in those roles. He wanted to serve in the police force in this country, not least given his experience, but he has been told at various points that that would not be possible because that would involve the disclosure of that relatively minor offence from his teenage years and because of the risk that that may pose.
There does seem to be an inconsistency, however, because although he was allowed to serve as an RMP officer and with a police force in another country, he appears to be barred from joining the police force in this country. Indeed, when I have spoken to police officers who know him, they argue he is exactly the sort of person they would want to recruit, not least given his extensive experience and commitment to the role, but they cannot do that because of those inconsistencies. Interestingly, he applied and got accepted for and now works as a prison officer, which one would argue is an important and sensitive role for which such matters should be disclosed.
I accept that such cases are extremely rare and often extremely unusual, but I would appreciate it if the Minister would look into that and the wider consistency of application. I think my constituent feels that there is at least an inconsistency if not an injustice which means he cannot apply to be a police officer. I say that while fully agreeing with the Minister that this is an important order and I entirely support the principles behind it.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice if he will make a statement on safety in custody and violence in prisons.
I thank the Minister for that response, but I fear that it was exactly what we have heard time and time again at the Dispatch Box. I hope that he will concede that the situation in our prisons on the youth estate is very serious, and that the recent incidents are part of a pattern of unacceptable conditions and unacceptable violent behaviour. It cannot be right that prisoners, staff and, ultimately, the public are at risk from the Government’s failure to get a grip on the crisis in our prisons. That makes it all the more surprising that the Secretary of State is not here today. We are all, whatever our view, engaged in the referendum campaign; that is no reason for him to neglect his responsibility as Secretary of State.
Yesterday, as the Minister said, two prison officers were hospitalised after being assaulted while they were on duty at Wormwood Scrubs prison in my constituency. Our thoughts are with them and their families. That is a reminder of the difficult and dangerous job that officers do every day, often hidden from the public gaze and without the acknowledgement that they deserve. The attack was entirely predictable—so much so that two days earlier, as the Minister acknowledged, 70 members of staff at Wormwood Scrubs had walked out because they did not feel safe. Although Tornado officers were sent into the prison on Saturday, they were withdrawn on Sunday, which was when the attacks happened. What specific steps are being taken to ensure safety in HMP Wormwood Scrubs? I am told that drugs, phones and even knives are being thrown over the walls because of insufficient patrolling of the grounds and cell searches caused by insufficient staffing numbers. Will additional officers be provided to undertake these basic tasks until order is restored and a review of staffing at this and similar prisons is undertaken?
What happened at Wormwood Scrubs is not an isolated incident; it is typical of the dangers and problems across the prison and youth estate. In the past few days, reports on Lewes and Leeds prisons have told a similar story. Last week, it was revealed that the Department is about to take over the management of Medway secure training centre following the “Panorama” exposé of the appalling conduct of G4S and some of its staff in running that institution, including allegations of serious violence against children.
Fourteen prison staff are assaulted every day. There were 4,963 assaults on staff by prisoners in 2015, compared with 3,640 in 2014, which is a 36% increase in attacks. Prisons are now violent and dangerous places. Serious self-harm and suicides are at record levels. We have heard for a year that the Government wish to transform our prisons, but words are no longer enough. Now is the time for action before more prisons become ungovernable and there are more serious injuries or—God forbid—the death of an officer on duty.
The Minister knows that we are gradually understanding more and more about the violence that affects our prisons. Violence can sometimes be due to the inappropriate handling of prisoners with mental health problems or, indeed, those on the autism spectrum, and just small changes can make a difference to the behaviour of such individuals. Does the Minister welcome the National Autistic Society’s initiative for some of our prisons to have autism awareness accreditation, particularly Feltham young offenders institution, where it is making a difference, and will he assure me that he will look at fully rolling out this programme across the prison and custody system?
Inspectors have warned of “Dickensian squalor” inside Wormwood Scrubs, following a scathing report that revealed that the jail is rat-infested and overcrowded, with inmates spending up to 22 hours a day locked in very squalid cells. Overcrowding and poor conditions exacerbate the risk of violence not only to staff but to other prisoners. It is clear from a recent statement from the Prison Governors Association that understaffing is still an issue. Will the Minister assure us that the ideological drive to cut public services and to shift to private sector provision will not further jeopardise staff and prison safety?
Will the Minister also look to the example of the Scottish Government? Their approach of recommending a presumption against shorter sentences of three months or under has led to the numbers of such sentences plummeting, and the reconviction rate is at a 16-year low. Will he take steps to follow their lead in creating a presumption against short sentences and investing instead in robust community sentences in order to address the underlying causes of crime more effectively?
I thank my hon. Friend for the interest he has in prison security, and, indeed, for the action he has taken on it; the Justice Committee shares his interest. Today I met the prisons and probation ombudsman, who told me that on current estimates 61% of inmates take psychoactive substances. What consideration has my hon. Friend given to enlarging smoke-free zones in prisons, and to what extent does he feel that that might help with the problems?
The independent monitoring board for Leicester prison published a damning report about conditions there this morning. The report pointed to all the matters that the Minister has raised—rising levels of violence, use of drugs and mental health issues. This issue is about increasing staffing. Although the Government have increased the number of prison officers, there are clearly not enough. What further steps can be taken to help the officers at Leicester prison?
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The Minister mentioned the importance of dealing with mental health in prisons. On Friday I met a justice of the peace in my constituency who talked about the good work done by the liaison and diversion services. He encouraged me to encourage the Minister and the Secretary of State to extend those services and ensure that more community orders have as a condition that people get the help they need.
I have no doubt that the Minister wants to sort this problem out, and his account of a passion for reform, decency and hope was compelling, except for the fact that it has not worked. Since 2012, the number of assaults in prisons has doubled, as have the number of assaults on staff. Although he talked about recruiting more staff recently, total numbers of staff have fallen. Those staff are frightened—brave prison officers are scared to go to work. What can the Minister say to stop them feeling frightened?
Does the Minister agree that the prevalent use of lethal highs, in particular “spice”, in HMP Northumberland in my constituency, is one clear cause of the increase in violence and unpredictable behaviour among our prison population? What are we doing to try to reduce dramatically the numbers of those goods?
I thank the Minister for an amicable meeting last week about HMP Northumberland. The common denominator throughout the whole prison estate across the country is simply a lack of manpower. That is causing the violence—whether it be prisoner on prisoner or prisoner on staff—mental health issues and the problems with alcohol, “spice” or whatever. The Minister has said that this issue is challenging. What extra measures can he take to ensure that plenty of staff are employed in prisons to maintain a safe environment for everybody on the prison estate?
I have asked the Minister to come and visit young offenders at Portland, and I hope he will do so shortly. There was an unpleasant riot the other day, and prison officers were put in danger. I pay credit to all prison officers who work like a forgotten army behind the scenes. Portland is a fairly old structure, and the number of floors—there are four or five—is a particular concern because there are not enough officers to man them all at the same time. That puts those officers at risk, and allows prisoner free rein where they perhaps should not have it. Will my hon. Friend look at that issue and increase the number of prison officers at the young offenders institution as fast as we can?
In the first five years of this Government, the number of prison officers fell by 41%. In the sixth year of this Government, assaults on prison officers rose by the same percentage—41%. The Minister mentions that prison officer numbers are increasing, but he uses a figure based on the past couple of years. Will he tell me how many prison officers there were in 2010 and how many there are today?
The right hon. Gentleman was chuntering repeatedly from a sedentary position that he knew the answer to his own question, which is probably very wise and knowledge of which will enable us all to sleep much more soundly in our beds tonight.
I commend my hon. Friend for his work as prisons Minister. He takes his role extremely seriously. I think my constituents will be very surprised to hear quite how much stuff is being thrown over prison walls: mobile phones, drugs, lethal highs and knives. Surely in 2016 we have the ability to stop this happening, or at least to minimise it? What plans does the Minister have to tackle this issue?
The Minister is absolutely right: prison officers do an exceptionally difficult job. They need and deserve our fullest possible support. That has to be more than a platitude. For that to be the case, staffing levels have to be addressed. The other issue that has to be addressed is prison overcrowding. The prison population is now in excess of 90,000 inmates. In the past 15 years, the length of sentences has gone up by 33%. Can the Minister assure me that, as he tackles this issue, he will look at it in the round; that he will look not just at prisons in isolation but at how they interact with police, prosecution and court authorities?
I thank the Minister for his comments today and for his support with regard to our concerns about HMP Rochester and the Medway Secure Training Centre. I also thank him for his very speedy meeting with me and the governor of HMP Rochester earlier this year. The Minister will know that Medway Secure Training Centre was at the centre of abuse allegations. Will he confirm when the Medway improvement board report will be published? My constituents want reassurance that action and improvements have taken place, so that young people are safe in Medway.
A constituent came to see me this weekend to express her fears for her son. He is in prison and every day she expects to get a phone call saying he has been murdered. What reassurance can the Minister give my constituent that prisoners, while serving their time, do not live in fear of their lives?
Wormwood Scrubs has been described by the Prison Officers Association as
“flooded with drugs, mobiles phones and weapons”
and by the chief inspector as having cells so bad you would not keep a dog in them. Does the Minister still think that this prison is fit for purpose?
In the last four years, there has been a rise in levels of violence against prison officers owing to understaffing and the fact that there are not enough rehabilitation programmes. Is it not time to re-evaluate how we decide who to send to prison and, when we do send them to prison, to make available proper rehabilitation provision?
Parc prison in Bridgend has an excellent reputation for its rehabilitation work, including its drug rehabilitation work, but it needs the support of the local police force, South Wales police, if it is to tackle the smuggling in of drugs and the throwing of drugs over the wall. It gets that help. What is the Minister doing to make sure that police forces across the UK work with their prison forces and officers? The number of attacks on prison officers and by prisoners on prisoners is increasing, and unless prisons work with police forces to arrest those guilty of smuggling drugs into prisons, we will be wasting our time.
It is no mystery why assaults on prison officers, assaults between prisoners and suicides have increased in prisons. Only last week, a report came out showing that every factor had gone up. It is no surprise when staff are cut by a third. I was very pleased to listen to the Secretary of State and I applauded him, but I am disappointed that he is not here today. The vision for the future is good, and I support it, but we cannot wait for jam tomorrow. We need more action now. We are still 7,000 down on staff numbers. We need an increase in the number of officers now. It is not safe for them to go into work now, and it is not safe for the prisoners themselves. We need more action today. I ask you what you intend to do now as a matter of urgency?
I intend to do precisely nothing, other than to ask the Minister to tell the House what he and the Government will do.
I have heard these sort of remarks from the Minister so many times—too often to have any confidence that he is going to do anything at all about this problem. It is a problem of this Government’s making, when they let far too many officers go in the first half of the last Parliament. Now the Minister’s problem is not just about numbers; it is about the experience of staff. We now have experienced inmates and inexperienced staff—and this is what happens as a result. What is the Minister going to do not just to get the number of officers in, but to ensure that they are properly trained, supported, mentored, developed and assisted in their early years of learning jail-craft? If he carries on as he is now, these problems will never be resolved on his watch.
This is an interesting debate, particularly when we discuss how people on all sides are affected, whether they be people working in prisons, prisoners themselves or their families who are worried about the conditions within the prisons. In common with my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), I have had constituents coming to see me to make representations about Strangeways prison in Manchester. They fear that the culture is not in place to ensure that mental health is something to be dealt with positively by the prison rather than simply being controlled because of the Minister’s targets.
The Minister is well aware of the Justice Select Committee’s inquiry into prison safety, which addresses the issue of violence. Members might have noticed that on Friday, the news slipped out that the Medway Secure Training Centre, which was mis-run by G4S, has now come into Ministry of Justice hands. The next day, a report came out on Rainsbrook, showing endemic use of force and restraint. Surely the logical conclusion is that the MOJ should now take over Rainsbrook private youth prison.
Order. I have a strong sense that Members will be approaching the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee to seek a debate on these matters. I say that because quite a lot of what we have heard has been nearer to debate contributions than to questions. I hope I can make that point gently.
The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) mentioned “spice”. Officers at Holme House prison, which is in my constituency, have ended up on sick leave because of the effects of smoke from this substance. Others have been injured while trying to deal with violent prisoners, some of whom are taken to hospital after using the substance, thus putting officers and health staff at risk. When will the Government put the right systems in place to stop such substances getting through security and into prisons?
Prison officers at HMP Lancaster Farms, in my constituency, will have observed the events at Wormwood Scrubs over the weekend with trepidation, because the situation there is reflected across the country. The situation at Lancaster Farms was so bad that prison officers went to the local paper to expose the issue of drugs in prisons and the need for more officers. Will the Minister commit to putting more money into prison staffing so that staff can go to work and feel safe?
I share the concern expressed by many other Members about prisoners with mental health issues, the risks that they pose not only to themselves but to others and the effect of staff cuts on that situation.
I have corresponded with the Minister about a constituent of mine who has endured a lengthy bureaucratic process relating to his potential transfer to a secure mental health unit that would be more adequate to his needs. I am sorry to say that his family received a call this month telling them that he had killed himself, only to be told half an hour later that he had not. That is an extraordinary situation. I should like the Minister to investigate it fully, and also to look very closely at the case that is being made for my constituent to be transferred from HMP Birmingham, where he is currently being held.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention.
The Government must understand that a fundamentally different approach to youth justice and custody is needed. Young people and children need to be supported and helped. The idea that young offenders should be punished, locked away and forgotten about or, worse, mistreated, is morally reprehensible and entirely counter-productive. However, just months ago, the Chancellor announced cuts of £9 million to the Youth Justice Board, despite warnings from the Local Government Association, the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services that that would lead to an increase in the number of young people in custody. Coincidentally, the £9 million that is being taken away almost exactly matches the amount that the Government have wasted on a failed procurement process to outsource fine collection—a clear case of misplaced priorities and ideology taking precedence over sound, evidence-based policy making.
The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 states that the principle aim of the youth justice system is the prevention of reoffending. However, currently two thirds of offenders under the age of 18 reoffend within a year of release. Behind every one of those figures is a victim, or victims, of crime. How can young people be rehabilitated when there are so many failings within the youth justice system —when it is not even a safe environment for them?
The media reports of what happened at Medway clearly demonstrate a deeper crisis in our youth custody system. Government cuts and a refusal to address the issues properly are creating a perfect storm of overcrowding, understaffing and poor resources. First and foremost, we urge immediate action to put all G4S-run prisons, secure training centres and detention centres into special measures so that the safety and competence of each facility can be urgently assessed.
The Government have the power, under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, to intervene in contracted-out STCs. Therefore, as we outlined in our recent letter to the Secretary of State, we urge the Minister to put in management teams alongside existing staff at those facilities—teams with experience of working with vulnerable children. The reforms to youth justice made by a Labour Government, requiring agencies to collaborate in preventing youth offending, reduced both youth crime and the numbers of young people in prison. We would further extend that model by piloting a new approach for 18 to 20-year-old offenders. That would incentivise local authorities, the police and the probation services to work together, to identify those at risk of engaging in criminal activity and to divert them on to a more constructive path.
I want to pose the following questions to the Minister: how many children are currently in Medway STC; and have any been sent there since 30 December? What action did the Ministry of Justice take between 30 December and 8 January? Since 2010, how many times have contract breaches occurred at secure training centres run by G4S under contract with his Department? What was the budget of the Youth Justice Board in 2009-10 and 2014-15; and what is the estimated budget for that body in 2015-16? Has the Minister considered writing to the local safeguarding children board to see whether it will order a serious case review of the allegations regarding abuse at Medway secure training centre? I also remind him of the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) in her intervention.
The Minister said there was more monitoring of secure children’s centres in youth custody services. If that is the case, why and how did what we saw at Medway on the “Panorama” programme happen?
When he gets back to the office, will the Minister look at the transfer of people and how often the transfer of the information about their mental health does not actually follow them on time?
There will be children in Medway and other secure training centres who are repeat offenders, but it seems to me that the real culprit here is G4S, which is a persistent offender in failing to deliver Government contracts to the required standards. I am concerned about whether G4S should be awarded any further contracts, or should even be bidding, until all the outstanding issues with the company—the Serious Fraud Office inquiry and the investigation into Medway—are resolved. Will the Minister please address that specific point?
I welcome many of the positive proposals that the Minister is making, but will he give us a commitment that, if it is clearly demonstrated that certain organisations that run STCs are in breach of their duty of care to young children, they will be formally excluded from future bidding processes?
Although the problems at Rainsbrook have been identified and welcome steps have been taken, the Government allowed G4S to renew its contract at Medway. Will the Minister explain why it was allowed to renew that contract when it has a history of problems running a secure training unit at Rainsbrook?
Will the Minister please consider introducing a duty of candour for custodial institutions, as has been introduced in the health service?
I thank all Members who spoke in this debate. Their contributions reflect the seriousness and importance of the issue of ensuring the safety of children in custodial institutions. We all acknowledge the need for high professional standards when looking after our children and young people in custodial institutions. I ask the Minister to take very seriously the concerns that were raised about the continuation of G4S’s contract.
When looking at the issue of child safety in our custodial institutions, the concerns about children with complex needs or mental health problems must be looked at in detail and treated appropriately, particularly those pertaining to the issue of restraint in our custodial institutions. It is important that the Minister addresses our concerns about the cuts to the budgets of the Youth Justice Board and local authorities. Thank you, Mr Wilson, for treating me kindly today. I thank all Members present.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered safety in youth custody.
It is always an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Gillan. The Opposition do not take issue with the regulations; on the contrary, we welcome them. The only criticism we might have had is that they seemed to take a long time to be implemented in the first place. If memory serves, they were first discussed in February 2012 and were implemented in August last year.
I have only one question for the Minister: given the shortfall of £500,000 in the first year, what steps will he take to ensure that we do not see a continuous shortfall and a ratcheting effect, requiring us to come back to Committee, perhaps annually, to increase fees? With that said, we have nothing further to add.
My hon. Friend is right. The knowledge that the CCRC will obtain a court order if a request for voluntary disclosure is refused will certainly provide encouragement where needed. All the private bodies I have listed may have that one piece of information that will establish that someone serving a prison sentence has been wrongly convicted. The chairman of the CCRC himself has said that
“you can be confident that there are miscarriages of justice that have gone unremedied because of the lack of that power”
to obtain disclosure from private bodies. My hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove has promoted this Bill to end that unacceptable situation and I thank him for doing so. The Bill deserves the unanimous support of this House.
I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House, my hon. Friend the Minister and the Opposition Front Benchers for their support this afternoon. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice if he will make a statement on trans prisoners.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question, on this, trans memorial day, which, as I am sure you know, given your interest in the matter, is when we remember all those who have lost their lives because of prejudice and persecution of the trans community, on which issue the shadow Women and Equality team is working closely with the shadow Justice team. I am grateful for their support. It is unfortunate that the Secretary of State could not be here, but I would like to thank the Minister for the tone of his response. On behalf of the Labour party, I want to put on the record our sincere condolences to the family, boyfriend and friends of Vicky Thompson, who died on 13 November in HMP Leeds.
On 3 November, I raised on the Floor of the House the issue of Tara Hudson, a young trans woman placed in a men’s prison. It is a tragedy that, within three weeks of that date, we are once again discussing the issue of trans prisoners.
Statistics released last month by the Ministry of Justice show that 186 people took their own lives in prisons in England and Wales in the 12 months to the end of September 2015. That equates to one prisoner taking their own life every four days. Will the Minister confirm that tackling the issue of suicides in prisons is a serious priority for his Department? With the number of prisoners who have died in prison having risen to the highest level for a decade, it must be right for the Government to take action and assess what steps should be taken to address the problem.
The safety in custody statistical bulletin also revealed that the number of self-injury incidents reported in prisons in England and Wales rose by 21% in the 12 months to the end of June 2015. At a time when the prison population is increasing with overcrowding in cells on the rise, and the number of individuals coming forward for gender reassignment surgery is also increasing, placement of transgender prisoners on the prison estate is likely only to increase. The Minister has already touched on the issue, but will he confirm whether the National Offender Management Service will begin to record the number of transpeople who are in custody in prisons, and will he commit himself to making those figures public?
Earlier this week, the Justice Secretary confirmed in a letter to the Justice Select Committee that he had nominated a preferred candidate for the role of Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons. Will the Minister confirm that whoever is ultimately appointed will make tackling the rise in prison suicides a top priority? Will he agree to meet the Opposition Front-Bench team and leading trans awareness organisations to discuss the issue?
Prison understaffing is a serious problem. Will the Minister confirm that the spending review will not lead to more cuts from the MOJ staffing budget and that adequate transgender and equality training will be offered to all MOJ staff who need it? I welcome the fact that the Minister has confirmed that his Department is reviewing these matters, but will he go further and publish the terms of the review so that the House and the public can be reassured that the issue is being assessed with the seriousness that it deserves?
Finally, does the Minister believe that the policy guidelines on placing transgender prisoners in the estate are adequate? If so, does he think that the guidelines are being applied consistently and appropriately?
Order. I am keen to accommodate the interests of colleagues, but we do not want the exchanges to be unnaturally prolonged, as we need to return to other important business. Short questions and short answers would help.
LGBT prisoners are among the most vulnerable in the prison population. One of the biggest challenges of the review is how to overcome ignorance. Will my hon. Friend reassure me that he will implement in full any recommendations of the review that seek to tackle and raise awareness and understanding of transgender issues?
I also express my condolences to Vicky Thompson’s family. Without making any judgment about the circumstances of her death, I simply restate the concern about her being put in a men’s prison in the first place. Although I welcome the Minister’s tone, I want to press him a bit further on the statistics and say that it is important that he commits himself to publishing information about the number of transpeople in prisons. Also, given the experience in the United States of sexual assault on trans prisoners and how they are treated, will he look not only at the numbers, but research the experiences of transpeople in prison and make that information publicly available?
Does my hon. Friend believe that we can do more to show how much we value the work of prison officers? This distressing case illustrates the challenges that they face every day, and I am not sure that people outside understand how difficult their job is.
I thank the Minister for his fulsome answer; I have no doubt about his good faith in relation to the review and the work being done. However, is not the root cause and problem that there are not enough prison officers to support all prisoners, and particularly those who are vulnerable to attack or suicide?
My constituents know that the Minister is taking this issue extremely seriously, as he does all matters to do with Her Majesty’s prisons. What is the difficulty, however, about publishing the number of transgender people in prisons, and what are the merits and demerits of establishing a specialist unit to deal with these extremely vulnerable people?
Along with, I think, everyone else in the House, I am grateful to the Minister for his sober, sympathetic and serious response. Does he agree that the finest memorial to Vicky Thompson—the finest tribute to her memory—would be for us to ensure that no one else has to die such a lonely death? Does he also agree that, while the number of prison officers may be an absolute figure, we need not just prison officers but specialist helpers? We need mental health advisers and medical support. We cannot simply go to prison officers and say, “We want you to do more”; we must give them more, to prevent such an horrendous tragedy from occurring again.
Vicky Thompson’s death is a tragedy. Leeds is my local prison, and a number of my constituents work there. I strongly endorse what was said by both my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and the Minister about the work of prison officers. Can the Minister tell us what counselling they will receive as a result of having to deal with terrible incidents such as this, which are also tragedies for them?
I should inform the House, for the record, that Vicky Thompson was a constituent of my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour the Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins), and I have spoken to him about the case. I know that he would like it to be made clear that if Vicky Thompson’s family need any assistance at this time, they should contact him, and he would be very happy to offer it.
My thoughts are with the family and friends of Vicky Thompson. We debated the issue of the serious shortage of prison officers and mental health specialists in prisons back in the summer. Will the Minister work specifically with the trans community on the needs and risks assessments for specialists in prisons?
Does my hon. Friend agree that the reasons why anyone decides to end his or her own life are often very complex, and that that applies just as much to prisoners—and just as much to transgender prisoners—as to those outside prisons? Should we not all be wary of reaching conclusions without being in possession of all the facts?
I find it shameful, and a bad reflection on the House, that in transgender awareness week, and on Transgender Day of Remembrance, we are here not to celebrate people’s right to self-determination, but to mourn the death of Vicky Thompson. I was reassured when the Minister said that the Government were conducting a review of gender detention policy to ensure that decision making would be uniform in future. May I suggest that he work closely with the Women and Equalities Committee, which is taking evidence on issues affecting transpeople in the criminal justice system?
Our prison officers do a very difficult job. What support and training are offered to help them to deal appropriately with transgender prisoners?
Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, has warned that
“both men and women transgender people in prison need expert and sensitive support in order to ensure that they can access the full regime and remain safe. Their identity should be accorded proper respect.”
What is the Minister’s Department doing to provide even greater support for transgender people in prison, and to fulfil those needs?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Today you allowed me to put an urgent question to the Secretary of State for Health for the second time in two months, and for the second time in two months he did not bother to turn up. Can you advise me whether a Secretary of State is normally expected to attend the Chamber when an urgent question is put by his or her counterpart? Can you also advise me on how we can get the Secretary of State out of his bunker in Richmond House so that he can answer legitimate questions put by Members?
I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Prison and Young Offender Institution (Amendment) Rules 2015 (S.I. 2015, No. 1638).
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. The statutory instrument was brought to our attention by Members in the other place who felt that the House should be made aware of the changes. I share their concerns, and will briefly explain the changes. They are the Government’s reaction to a court judgment, and I think that they have done their best and have tried hard to react in a way that is proportionate and contains safeguards. The amendment we are considering increases the period before which a review of the decision to segregate a prisoner, independent of the prison, is required, from 72 hours to 42 days. After the first external authorisation, the amended rules require the Secretary of State’s authorisation to be sought only every 42 days, which seems a rather long time.
Although I concede that the Government have done their best, the Opposition have some concerns that are not addressed. We are seriously concerned that the amendment goes beyond what was clearly intended in the enabling legislation. There are well-known risks of solitary confinement to which we want to draw the Government’s attention and there has been a lack of external consultation on the measures. I appreciate that that is because the amendment is in response to a court judgment and that there has not been time, but we need assurances that such external consultation will take place. The Government need to be more mindful of the big difference between internal and external authorisation of solitary confinement.
Given their experience, I am sure that members of the Committee will be familiar with some of our concerns about solitary confinement. The judgment to which the Government responded considered evidence from both international and domestic experts about the risks to the physical health, mental health and life of a prisoner who is subjected to prolonged periods of solitary confinement. The evidence included the disproportionate number of self-inflicted deaths in segregation—there were 28 such deaths between 2007 and 2014. It also included the harmful psychological effects of isolation which, experts estimate, can become irreversible after about 15 days. The symptoms of solitary confinement range from insomnia and confusion to hallucinations and psychosis, and the negative health effects can occur after only a few days, increasing with each additional day in confinement.
It is impossible to see how an extended period of 42 days, which surpasses even the 28-day review period in Scotland, can be justified, in light of the purpose of the mechanism and the risks associated with segregation. There is a risk that the 42-day period will be too long for the most vulnerable prisoners. I have some case studies from the prisons and probation ombudsman on deaths in segregation units, which suggest that many of those who die would not get to 42 days.
It is important to remember that the rules will apply to young offenders as well as to adults. One case study, from the Howard League, shows how in Feltham, in October 2014, a 17-year-old boy disclosed that he had been segregated for good order and discipline for eight days. He reported being confined to his cell for 23.5 hours a day. I appreciate that the rules proposed by the Government require visits from health and other professionals, but although healthcare visitors had seen this person every day, that involved just opening the door to his cell and not going in to spend time with him. He said he felt depressed but had not reported that to healthcare visitors. He also said he thought he was segregated because he had had too much canteen, but had no knowledge of any formal investigation or adjudication charges.
There is a danger that although the Government’s proposals look good on paper, because they are not consolidated into a single set of rules—they amend things all over the place—they will not be implemented as I am sure the Minister hopes they will be. He will know that there is a real difference between issuing a Prison Service order and what happens in practice. We need assurances that the implementation will be closely monitored.
In another case study at Werrington prison in January, a 15-year-old boy with learning difficulties was placed in a segregation unit for over a month and simultaneously placed on closed visits. He was confined to his cell for 22 to 24 hours a day. The deterioration in his behaviour was one of the reasons that led to his segregation, which is often, if not always, the case. That was a direct consequence of the prison’s failure to provide him with his prescribed medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and the failure to provide the correct quantities of his medication at the correct intervals. This young person ended up in segregation and his already fragile mental health became more damaged.
I turn to examples from reports by the independent monitoring board and Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons. HMIP’s annual report 2013-14 concluded:
“Too many prisoners in crisis were held in segregation in poor conditions and without the exceptional circumstances required to justify this.”
The IMB’s report into Whitemoor prison criticised the way in which the segregation unit is run, describing it as
“the warehousing of the mentally vulnerable.”
The IMB report into Highpoint prison for 2013-2014 said:
“The Board still has grave concerns regarding prisoners with quite severe mental health problems being located on the”
“sometimes for long periods of time whist they are assessed for transfer to a more appropriate placement. This often involves having to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act, and this involves securing funding and specialist treatment from the appropriate Healthcare Authority”—
that obviously takes time, but the
“Board continues to stress that these situations are intolerable, both for the staff who have to deal with these very disturbed individuals and the prisoners themselves.”
Staff working in segregation units do outstanding work in the most difficult circumstances. Seg is the first place I ask to see when I visit a prison because it is a good indicator of the overall health of a prison to look at the board to see how many people are in seg and how long they have been there, and to talk to staff about the circumstances.
The IMB report into Lancaster Farms prison for young adults reported frustration at its view that at times the segregation
“unit holds a number of problematic or vulnerable prisoners, needing careful management, who are difficult to relocate on normal residential units. The time taken to transfer some of these prisoners to other prisons providing the required interventions is unacceptably long.”
There is a direct relationship between overcrowding in an establishment and understaffing and use of seg. It is about not just wanting to use the bed space in the seg, but the regime not being able to deal with unruly prisoners in a more desirable way, and having to remove them and keep them somewhere else.
In a case study from the prisons and probation ombudsman, Mr A was moved to the segregation unit after he was found in an off-limits part of the prison, arousing staff suspicions that he was smuggling in illegal items. The staff who found him reported that he seemed frightened and was shaking. When moved to the seg, he quickly began to protest about his situation. He became disruptive and, shortly afterwards, started self-harming using a plastic knife. Staff began the assessment, care in custody and teamwork—or ACCT—procedure, but did not consider it necessary to move him to another location. As a result of further threats to smash up his cell and to self-harm, prison staff removed all non-fixed furniture from his cell, leaving him with only a mattress. All his clothing and standard bedding were removed and he was given a tear-proof tunic and blanket. After the removal of furniture from his cell, prison staff failed to follow the proper protective arrangements including failing to observe Mr A with the required regularity. Later that evening, he was found hanging in his cell, having made a ligature from his tear-resistant blanket. That case demonstrates that even with the best internal safeguards in place, these things are not always carried out in the way the Minister would like. I have my doubts about whether, without the external scrutiny, we will see the kind of implementation we all want to see.
I have one last case study. Upon arrival in prison, Mr D requested vulnerable prisoner status because of his size—he was 5 feet tall and weighed 6 stone—and because other prisoners knew about his background. He was housed in the segregation unit while his suitability for the vulnerable prisoner unit was assessed, which was not ideal. A week later, he was moved to the vulnerable prisoner unit but, following an incident in which he threatened to jump from a landing, he was moved back to the seg. While he was in the seg, staff opened ACCT procedures twice. On both occasions, staff filled in a form with details of the exceptional circumstances that justified keeping him in segregation while subject to ACCT procedures. Both times, the reason given was that no other location was suitable. No details were given about which other locations—for example, the healthcare unit—had been considered and why they were unsuitable. Two days later, he was moved to the seg unit for the second time and found hanged in his cell.
It would help if we had a little more information about how some form of external monitoring of these measures could be done quickly, even before the Government consult externally, which I assume the Minister intends to do. Paragraph 7.6(e) of the explanatory memorandum says that prisons must do all they can to “facilitate involvement” of the independent monitoring boards in the segregation review boards. I want to know exactly how that will happen, because it is a very easy thing to say. We are aware that IMBs vary in their—how shall I put this?—challenge and scrutiny of regimes with which they have perhaps been associated for a great number of years. We need to ensure that the external challenge is a real challenge.
The explanatory memorandum also says that offenders concerned in the seg will be able to “make representations” to the review board. Will they get any support to do that? If a prisoner has been in solitary for some time, their capacity to represent themselves and make their case would be enhanced by some form of assistance. What does the Minister think that might look like?
As I have said, we need to look at consolidating the rules, because it will not be straightforward for governors or staff to implement the changes if they are not presented in a user-friendly way. I am not aware of any intention to provide additional training on the measures. If that were possible, it would be incredibly helpful, in order to ensure that the changes are implemented in the way we would like them to be.
The big issue, however, is the lack of external consultation and challenge. It is all very well presenting what seems a quite reasonable response to a court judgment, saying, “We will do this properly. We will involve professionals. We will involve healthcare. We will be mindful of the impact on mental health,” but if the Minister is prepared to see people held for 42 days without external challenge, it is only right that Members are made aware and given the opportunity to challenge him and, hopefully, elicit some reassurance and commitments to which we can hold him in future.
Will the Minister explain what a healthcare professional’s assessment should entail?
I do not recognise the picture that the Minister paints of life in a segregation unit, but that is not the point. Why does he think that, prior to the judgment, it was seen as desirable, even though it was not implemented in reality—which, I guess, underlines the point I am making—that external authorisation should be sought after 72 hours?
That is absolutely right. There was an opportunity to trial the programme. Labour was in favour of pilots, in which so many lessons could have been learnt and problems avoided. Everyone said that there would be a problem with IT—it does not take a rocket scientist to spot that. That was so predictable and so avoidable. With time and training, we could have avoided the problems we are now experiencing.
We cannot just say, “We’ll sort it out as time goes on, but it’ll take a couple of years to put it right.” Problems are being caused now, and problems in probation are a risk to public safety. The Minister needs to get his head around those issues urgently. If necessary, he needs to put in resources to deal with them—because, my God, he will be putting in resources if things go wrong! Let us not wait for that to happen.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) powerfully outlined the folly of splitting the service. The inspectorate agrees with her, and says that the speed of transition has left staff feeling that they have not been informed about new working processes. Many still do not understand the rationale behind those processes. To their credit, the workforce are hugely motivated and experienced, and have the very best values. They will work incredibly hard to make the changes work, but we haven’t half made their jobs that much harder by going about it in this way. There is only so much that even that workforce can take. I urge the Minister to address the problem of staff morale quickly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) was right that time is being wasted because new tasks are not being integrated with old systems. Staff in court do not have access to the information they need. Things are having to be done on paper and uploaded later, creating extra tasks and unnecessary administration. Information is having to be inputted repeatedly in different places. All that nonsense could have been avoided. Heaven knows, the IT was bad enough before we started this process and needed to be addressed, but imposing a new structure on a system that was already feeling the strain was simply reckless and unnecessary. The Minister could have got the same outcomes in a safer, better way.
There are significant staffing gaps, but efforts to fix them have been too slow. It is shocking that the service can be restructured at breakneck speed, but the hoped for gains, such as involving the voluntary sector and providing proper, meaningful supervision for short-sentence prisoners, appear to be happening incredibly slowly—so slowly that we cannot see them.
Many new processes simply take longer and are more complicated than the previous arrangements. Every serious case review I have ever read has looked at communication problems as a factor leading to that serious case arising. In probation, communication is not a luxury or something it would be nice to get right; it is at the very heart of it all, and probation officers, workers in the CRCs and anyone else working with an offender must be excellent at communication. They therefore need to be given the right systems and support, but that is not happening. That is dangerous, and the Minister needs to get on to it straightaway.
This debate is not simply a rehashing of previous debates between me and the Minister about how ridiculous this whole project was—it is not our greatest hits. Rather, it is about problems with implementation. The decision on the transforming rehabilitation programme has been taken, so now we must make sure that, however chaotic the system is, we can support the workforce to make the programme work and make it safer for our constituents.
I have asked the Minister many times—as I asked his predecessor, the current Attorney General, when the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014 was in Committee—about co-location. I have had many assurances that NPS and CRC staff will be co-located. I thought that would be a good way of dealing with some of the problems with communication, as in the past those supervising an offender would have shared an office or have had a good relationship because they would have been used to dealing with one another. Will the Minister say how often co-location is not happening? I suspect that it is more the norm that staff are sited in differed locations. How quickly does he intend to address that? It is perhaps the key to making the system safer.
There are many current problems. Inspectors often find that they are identifying the same challenges now as in earlier inspections, and that the work to put those right, as was identified in the Minister’s letter to the Chair of the Justice Committee, is not having the desired impact. The Government need to do more than they have already said they will to put those problems right. The pre-allocation stage is not streamlined and so is too time consuming. What will the Minister do to streamline that stage, which is a crucial part of the process? There are now, effectively, two risk screening tools, the case allocation system and the offender assessment system. Many staff in both the NPS and the CRCs are expressing serious doubts about the value of completing the risk of serious recidivism tool at the pre-allocation stage.
That issue has been raised repeatedly with Ministers, including when the 2014 Act was in Committee. Unfortunately, at that stage Members were given no information about the new risk assessment tool and were forced to take it on trust that it would be workable and that we would not need huge investment in training on it. I am not convinced that we were given the most candid or well-informed responses in Committee. The Minister needs to add looking urgently at that risk assessment tool to his to-do list.
My hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) quoted Ian Lawrence, the head of the National Association of Probation Officers—we never know, he might just be listening—on staff morale, which my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton also talked about. Morale is at an all-time low. The system is under huge pressure, with 98% of staff saying that they have no confidence in the Government with regard to administering the programme effectively. That cannot make the Minister feel too good about himself. I am not here to add to his woes, but he needs to consider the burden he is placing on staff in the sector. They have a breaking point, and I do not want to see any more good, experienced staff leaving the service because they have no confidence in the Government’s intentions on responsible supervision of offenders in the community. Will the Minister address those points?
Despite the gloss that the Chair of the Justice Committee placed on the mood in the voluntary sector, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations seems to see things slightly differently. The largest membership body for the voluntary sector, it has conducted a survey of how its members feel. We need to take the evidence of that survey very seriously. It found that the pace of change has been slow. Organisations have not been involved, leaving them unsure about whether they will be involved in service delivery at all, and so unable to plan strategically or make decisions on staff. Few voluntary sector organisations have said they have been able to secure contracts to deliver services, which is especially the case for smaller ones. All is not as it seems, and it is certainly not as was promised.
The Government promised to put the third sector at the heart of probation, but the promise was obviously false, as that has not happened. Will the Minister therefore let us know what he is doing to put that right and ensure that the voluntary sector plays a significant role? We want to get the benefit of all the talent in, and experience of, working with offenders that we have up and down the country, but many people who could offer a great deal are, frankly, being shut out. They were not shut out before, because trusts went to great efforts to work with smaller local providers.
I must ask the Minister to respond to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) about Askham Grange prison. I have visited it myself. The best governor I have ever met is running the prison, along with another prison, and is getting tremendous outcomes. We should support that establishment, expand its work and share the good practice there more widely. To close it would be an absolute travesty.
On freedom of information, there is one question the Government have not answered. During the legislation’s Committee stage, the Opposition argued for the Government to bring contracted providers within the ambit of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. We know how the Lord Chancellor feels about FOI, having shifted responsibility for it to the Cabinet Office, but I would be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts. In moving an amendment in Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) said we needed extra scrutiny via FOI, but sadly the Government voted that amendment down. Has the Minister considered whether the issue needs to be looked at again and whether these organisations are making themselves as open and transparent as possible? I would suggest they are not.
To conclude, I want to pray in aid the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who, to his credit, has showed huge interest in all things related to justice. He was a member of the Justice Committee, and he had some quite insightful things to say about the Government’s programme. He said:
“The losers are the ex-offenders, the community…all of us…who must pay the costs in reoffending, more prisons and more sentencing. Surely, there is a better way to go about this—one that would show some respect for those who have given their lives to the probation service and who in a decent and professional way try to improve people’s lives, rather than working solely for private sector companies whose main interest is making money out of the system.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 13 January 2015; Vol. 590, c. 236WH.]
That was his way of putting it, and I would add that the system we have is simply chaotic. We knew things would take time, but it is dangerous to let too much time to go by without intervening. The plans were poorly conceived, and they have been irresponsibly executed. I therefore encourage the Minister to respond to my questions and to the seven or eight suggestions and requests made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon.
In terms of being held to account, the Minister has undertaken to give us updated performance data, which I am sure the Select Committee will welcome. One issue the Committee raised was that, given the commitment to largely local delivery, the new arrangements should not disrupt local partnership arrangements that are working well, particularly where CRCs are covering quite wide areas. Will the Minister make sure that we also have up-to-date data on that, and that the issue continues to be monitored closely, because we clearly do not want things that work well on a multi-agency level to be disrupted?
I want to put that right: the proposal that the Opposition made at the time was backed by the chief officers of probation trusts, who were willing within existing budgets to take on that responsibility, and in some cases were already doing so. What has been happening was not necessary.
The Minister said that we have been attacking the probation service. I want to make it crystal clear that we are not attacking the probation service. We are attacking him.
I thank the Minister and all hon. Members who have attended the debate, which has been excellent. The fundamental point that the Opposition would make is that there is nothing wrong with experimentation and innovation, but that there is a fundamental structural problem now: the splitting and fragmentation and the proliferation of providers have created lack of clarity and are increasing bureaucracy and inefficiency. The Conservatives are always keen to cut red tape and bureaucracy, but the reforms are having the opposite effect. The Government are applying a false economy and are playing with fire, with the risk to public safety. We urge them, constructively, to create a cross-party taskforce and work in partnership to build a streamlined—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Before I call the Minister, I remind Members that we will hear from the Chair of the Committee for a few minutes after the Minister has finished his speech.
The examples that the Minister cites are entirely appropriate and excellent, but they are just examples. The situation is patchy. What plans does he have to make that kind of experience the norm? My observation is that it is incredibly difficult to create such models of good practice throughout the country. It is something that Ministers have struggled with ever since I can remember.
May I raise one point on young offenders in particular? The Minister is right to highlight the changes that have been made and the reduction. The report from Lord Harris of Haringey highlighted the particular need for work to be done with those vulnerable people at risk of harm in custody. When will the Government make their response to the report?
The hon. Gentleman anticipates the next part of my speech.
Sodexo has recently invested in ion scanners, which have a good track record for identifying cocaine and some amphetamines, but they are considered less accurate at picking up heroin and legal highs. I am concerned that the continuing supplies of legal highs, most especially Spice, which are making it through to prisoners, despite regular hauls of drugs—through stuffed toys, inside mobile phones and the like—means that usage is prevalent throughout the prison, putting other prisoners and officer safety at risk.
The reality is that there is a violent culture between prisoners that is heavily exacerbated by the drugs trade. A prisoner who “buys” Spice from a fellow inmate will have strict instructions from his dealer to get his girlfriend or his mum to make payment outside the prison walls to a colleague of the drug pushers. Failure to make payments ensures that a drug-addicted prisoner’s life will be made a misery and his family will be put under pressure or assaulted.
The latest HM Chief Inspector of Prisons report indicates that in prisoner surveys, more prisoners than the comparator said it was easy to get illicit drugs and alcohol in the prison. The average positive random mandatory drug testing rate for the six months to July 2014 was 11.7%, higher than the national average of 8.9%. Illicit drugs such as Spice and illicitly brewed alcohol have been identified as problems. The inspector also praised the prison staff for the drug strategy, which firmly integrates drug reduction as a key target.
I understand that suspicion drug testing has been restarted following a break due to a lack of staff last year, but I am not certain that all requested tests are completed in a timely fashion. The inspector of prisons has recommended that mandatory drug testing should be appropriately staffed to ensure tests are completed within prescribed time scales, and I would be grateful for assurances from the Minister that he is now certain that this key recommendation is being fully implemented.
I ask the Minister to investigate whether the levels of drugs seized compared with the levels of continuing drug abuse are at an acceptable ratio. Will he consider bringing back drugs dogs to increase the chances of catching those poisons before they can get to prisoners? I am keen to hear from the Minister how the Department assesses whether any prison is managing its drugs problems in individual prisons across the country’s full estate of 136 prisons, and whether there is any best practice guidance or mandatory levels that the Minister expects his prison governors to achieve in reducing the quantity of toxic substances reaching our prisoners.
On my most recent visit to HMP Northumberland, prison officers showed me the new portable body cameras that they are trialling—it is one of 30 prisons to do so. There was a really positive vibe from the officers about their effectiveness in reducing antisocial behaviour among the inmates; the threat of being recorded seemed to remind them that poor or threatening behaviour is just not acceptable. Body cameras have been used by the police for some time now, and a recently published study found that equipping them with body cameras reduced their use of force by around 50%, while complaints against them by the public dropped by almost 90%.
Those startling figures were revealed by a research study conducted by the University of Cambridge, based on a 12-month trial conducted among police officers in Rialto, California. The dramatic results have led to calls from police chiefs throughout the country who are keen to equip their officers with cameras, especially in the light of increased tensions between police and local communities. The year-long study, which began in 2012, had its findings published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology in November and answered the hotly debated topic of whether cameras can reduce both police force and the number of complaints filed.
I urge the Minister to look closely at the data from the prisons that are currently testing body cameras, and I encourage continued and extended use of the technology if the results are anything like as good as those for the police. I was pleased to hear from prison officers that Sodexo has purchased the cameras that are currently in use at HMP Northumberland. It absolutely wants to be able to continue to use them for the foreseeable future. What is the Minister’s assessment of the trial of body cameras to date? When does he intend to determine whether their use should be made permanent?
Although it is an excellent decision for the health of prisoners and officers alike, the impending ban on smoking in prisons is going to bring some serious problems to HMP Northumberland, and no doubt to every other prison. Most legal highs are taken by being smoked, so prisoners will stop getting not only their nicotine fix but other drug fixes. I am deeply concerned about the short-term risks to officers’ safety as inmates suffer from no doubt very real withdrawal symptoms, about the new culture of smuggled smoking paraphernalia, and about the health and potential fire risks. The cigarette, the box of matches, the lighter, the bag of loose tobacco and Rizlas will no doubt threaten to become new prison currency for prison officers to manage.
The Prison Governors Association has cautiously welcomed the move to ban smoking from 2016, but has called for the ban to be implemented in a safe and staged way, because 80% of prisoners smoke. Even as the ban on smoking in cells is due to come into force before the end of this year, it is of grave concern to all those who will have to manage these changes, knowing the behavioural impact it will certainly have. I have watched family members give up smoking, and even with all the support around them it has never been easy—sometimes it was deeply unpleasant for the rest of us—so how much harder will it be for those incarcerated, for whom a tab is a comfort and boredom-filler through the long days inside? I would appreciate assurances from the Minister, along with details of the tangible policy plans that are being set in place to manage the transition to a smoke-free prison estate.
Last, but definitely not least, are my concerns for the safety, both real and perceived, of visitors to the prison, be they chaplains, readers, educationalists, or support workers for those preparing to seek work when they leave HMP Northumberland. Over the past 18 months, I have received repeated calls and emails from individuals concerned about the level of officer cover during their visits.
For example, where two officers used to be present during chapel services, there is now only one. Historically, if a prisoner started to misbehave, he would have been removed, leaving other participants to continue their faith practice peacefully. With only one officer on duty that is no longer possible, so the calm and contemplative time supposedly provided by such services is broken and continues to be disrupted. As a result, fewer prisoners now come to chapel services and have less contact time with faith leaders, who have a vital role to play in supporting their spiritual and personal wellbeing.
My concern for the safety of volunteers is a challenging issue to solve, since the director of HMP Northumberland informs me that the current number of prison staff meets—indeed, slightly exceeds—the standard NOMS ratios for prisoners in the estate. Because of the geographical size and layout of the prison—a large RAF base in a former incarnation—the need for officers to manage the movements of prisoners and to monitor them means that there just are not the numbers to provide the level of cover to get prisoners to voluntary activities like faith services or to provide support at a practical level in chaplaincy activities and other provisions.
The huge reduction in staff numbers last year has also led to a decision to provide Manchester college’s education and training programme over four days rather than five. Although prisoners are still able to access the same number of hours per week, it is done over four days, leaving Friday, Saturday and Sunday without constructive activity to focus on. I can only imagine that three long days at a stretch with little to do is less than conducive to best behaviour, and the Sunday outing to chapel might easily seem like an opportunity to release frustration—an opportunity that was previously less abused. Given that HMP Northumberland is now supposed to have a working prison ethos, does the Minister believe that it is doing enough? Can it possibly meet the aim of five days’ full working and training opportunities with staff numbers that are so physically stretched by the nature of the geography and layout of the prison?
HMP Northumberland has some unique challenges to address. Although I am impressed by the steps now being taken, after four turbulent years, to move forward and find new training and work opportunities for the prisoners, will the Minister come and see for himself how difficult that will be to achieve in practice without continued investment in manpower and training for better safety and a sense of security for all those who work and volunteer there? I am grateful to have had the opportunity to raise this issue, which is of concern to many of my constituents. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response, with the hope that some of my concerns might be unfounded or resolvable.
I have met the Minister on numerous occasions and those meetings have always been positive. Is he aware that, because of the lack of staff, there is integration of the seriously vulnerable prisoners among the ordinary prisoners? That is causing great concern for safety—mainly for the sex offenders. One thing that has been reported to me on numerous occasions that is absolutely unacceptable is that the food given to some of these vulnerable prisoners has often contained human faeces.
Were the Minister kind enough to finish his remarks no later than 4.26 pm, that would allow Mr Sharma three minutes to sum up and one minute for me to put the motion to the Chamber.
The Minister says that he hopes the review will move to its public phase soon. Can he be more specific about the definition of “soon”? When I was the Minister for a time, a civil servant drafted an answer for me that said, “The answer to the parliamentary question will be published in the autumn.” I asked, “When is the autumn?” They said, “23 December, Minister.” I said, “Well, that’s usually Christmas.” They said, “It’s the end of the autumn Session, Minister.”
The word “soon” is even less specific than “autumn” and certainly “this year.” It would be nice to know whether that means the calendar year or the parliamentary year.
We have had an excellent debate involving some excellent contributions from across the House. I agree with all colleagues who have made the point that there is cross-party consensus on this issue. Those watching this debate and those here today are seeing Parliament at its very best: we are debating issues that matter to all our constituents, and we want to find a common solution.
We have heard examples of too-lenient sentences being handed out, and we have heard of judges who think that the sentencing regime is not strong enough. I refer to the point made by the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick): the social mood has changed absolutely, and we need to go with that. What we are hearing from across the country, through colleagues and in the petition, is that the country wants stronger sentencing for such offences. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood made the very good point that there is a grave sense of injustice in the judicial process right now. That absolutely must change.
I am delighted to hear from the Minister that there will be a review outcome soon; I hope that that means before the end of this calendar year. I am delighted that it will be widely publicised, and I am pleased that it will require legislation, because that will give all of us the chance to debate these matters again in detail. He is absolutely right that judges decide sentences, but he has also made the important point that the framework for that is set by Parliament. That is what we are here to do, listening to the wishes of our constituents across the country.
I am pleased that the Minister has listened, and I know that he has kindly agreed to meet with the families after this debate, but ultimately it is about ensuring that the punishment fits the crime. That is what we all want, and I hope that when the legislation is reviewed, that is what we will all get.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered penalties for dangerous driving.
As always, the hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I hope the Minister will address all those issues in full, including the use of current sentencing powers—not only custodial and financial penalties but preventing offenders from keeping animals and monitoring repeat offenders.
Returning to my point, will the Minister commit to reviewing the existing regulations on the sale and breeding of cats and dogs? This has been an interesting week for animal welfare campaigners, who know that they can always rely on the Labour party. Perhaps they can now also rely on the Scottish National party, but no other mainstream political party can equal our track record on delivering for animals, be they domestic pets or wild animals. Whether it is legislating on hunting with dogs, fighting to protect wild animals that are being exploited in circuses or introducing the Animal Welfare Act, we have a strong legacy.
When the Animal Welfare Act was published, my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), the then Minister with responsibility for animal welfare, said:
“Once this legislation is enacted, our law will be worthy of our reputation as a nation of animal lovers.”
Almost 10 years later, we need to ensure that the Act is working properly in relation to sentencing guidelines, and I offer the Minister our full support in ensuring that that is still the case.
I end by quoting Gandhi:
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
I am glad Bridget is recovering from her traumatic experience and I am glad there are some good stories, but in preparation for this debate I read some harrowing stories of animal cruelty. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s proposals for how we can discourage and punish such cruelty where it continues.
After this debate, will the Minister reflect whether the guidelines for magistrates are robust enough to encourage them to give out the correct sentence? We have heard of a number of crimes of premeditated poisoning for which no one has been given a custodial sentence on being convicted. Might he reflect on those guidelines and write to me with those reflections?
I thank my right hon. Friend for making that point. He really gets to the crux of the matter: how we find the mechanics to solve this issue? How do we ultimately address it?
I hope that the Whips Office carries back to the Northern Ireland Office a very strong message. Heads have to be put together between the Northern Ireland Office and the Justice Ministry to find a way of resolving this legacy case once and for all. Resources are found for all sorts of things in Northern Ireland, and indeed, for all sorts of things across the United Kingdom. It would be very easy to solve this matter, and I hope that that message is carried back. My right hon. Friend has probably predicted the entirety of the speech of the Minister today. I understand why Ministers could be tied to such a degree, but there has to be some recognition that the devolved Administration have flexibility. They have the ability to find a mechanism—a special measure— through which they could address this case. I hope that they do. I hope that they are given the encouragement, and, if you like, the cover to allow them to act in this way, sure that what they are doing is right and what they are doing is proper.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone.
I approach the debate with a heavy heart. The Minister is the fourth prisons Minister whom I have had the pleasure of shadowing since my appointment. Issues such as the one we are discussing have been part of our debates throughout that time. It has never been easy and I have never been able to arrive in such a debate and say, “I am glad that things are improving.” I have never felt so concerned about the situation in the prison system. I would like debates to be more focused on rehabilitation, dignity for victims and work in our prisons, because those are the things that we should be discussing. Instead, we are continually forced by the reality on the ground to concern ourselves with understaffing, overcrowding and, increasingly, violence. The Minister cares deeply about that—he often looks at me, plaintively, as if saying, “I care about this too.” I know that he cares, and I am pleased that he does. Surely the number of Members—including, pleasingly, new Members—who have felt the need to come to this Chamber for the debate shows the level of deep concern in the House. I hope he will be generous in allowing interventions.
I congratulate my new colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), on her election and on securing the debate. It was a pleasure to listen to her thoughtful opening speech. I look forward to working with her on such issues in the months ahead. Her constituents will be proud of her speech today, as will her predecessor.
The speeches we have heard from hon. Members capture the concern that is felt about the state of our prison system. Violent, overcrowded and understaffed prisons do nothing to challenge offender behaviour or to protect victims of crime. We have heard examples of exactly what was achieved by the prisons policy of the previous Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), who is no longer in the Chamber, spoke about release on temporary licence and overcrowding. She is completely right. She has great experience of serving as a magistrate in Manchester, and has frequently seen the problems upon release and the difficulties in securing the important staged release. Sadly, that has been mismanaged too often and is now unavailable to too many inmates.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) spoke about death in custody, which he cares deeply about. Sadly, he is getting more and more experience of dealing with the relatives who have suffered such a tragedy.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) spoke about governorship. Clearly, there is a problem with resources in the prison system, but the problems faced by the Minister will not be dealt with simply by increased resources, even if were he able to secure them. Governorship is very important. There is too high and too frequent a turnover of senior staff in our prisons. The average tenure is far too short, especially when compared with, say, the length of tenure of a leader in an education establishment. On average, the tenure of leaders in educational establishments is nine years, whereas the tenure in prisons is about three years. That has to change, and it would not require additional money. The Minister could instigate that kind of change very quickly.
We would like boards to be established to provide an opportunity for stakeholders across the community to get their expertise in the running of prison establishments. We have seen that boards can be very effective for colleges, schools and hospitals. It would change completely the way in which an establishment is managed. Prisons should be managed with continuity and expertise and should be inspected rigorously. The Government could make that change quickly and at no cost, and it would be an effective way of changing the culture within our jails. We know that prison culture is important in preventing violent incidents.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) made a good observation about stress at work and the dangerous and monotonous work that prison officers often undertake. We would not tolerate nurses, health professionals or teachers being subjected to violent incidents, but often, precisely because it is a prison officer affected and the incident takes place in a closed environment, the press do not get so agitated, the issue is rarely debated properly in the prison and the Government do not feel moved to do much about it. We need a change in attitude from the Ministry of Justice. It is not tolerable that people should be asked to go to work in such circumstances, and it has gone on too long. The Minister is nodding, but this is not new—we have not suddenly noticed it happening. It is a trend that has been getting worse and worse for a long time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) always speaks with great passion. He quite rightly identified the problem with probation. The chaos and the looming crisis are not restricted to the closed prison estate. We are not resolving issues inside prisons, and so those issues are being left to the probation service, which is under increasing strain and has endured a completely needless and distracting reorganisation in the past two years. It is less and less able to deal with the more difficult problems with which it is confronted.
Rehabilitation is not a light bulb moment—it is not a case of holding one course and then someone is somehow mended. That is not what happens. It is day after day of challenges and problems, of slipping back, then making progress, then slipping back again. When we say, “There will be more courses, we will have work in our prisons and that will somehow solve deeply rooted psychological problems,” it shows that we do not properly appreciate that. We need to get real.
The way to help put people back together is having good behaviour modelled day after day by prison officers, yet more and more they are being shut out of the rehabilitation process. Prison officers are there on the wings when someone’s visit does not take place, or when someone has clearly been taking drugs, or is doing things they should not, or losing their temper. Yes, we need professionals—psychologists, social workers, educational experts—in there as well, but prison officers are there all the time, and should be showing people how to keep their temper, how to treat people with respect or how to deal with difficult conflicts without resorting to violence. However, they are not able to that, because there just are not enough of them, and the ones we have are too often less experienced about prison life than the prisoners they are supposed to be holding. We have learned that from governors and from Nick Hardwick, the excellent inspector of prisons. I urge the Minister to look at that with a great deal more urgency than he or his predecessors have shown to date.
Last week, a report from the prison and probation ombudsman showed a rise in deaths of inmates in segregation units. That was deeply shocking for people who work in the system. I encourage the Minister to think carefully about the impact that working on a wing on which someone has committed suicide will have on that unit’s staff, and to look at the support those staff receive from their employer.
I welcome the Government’s important plans to ban legal highs and prohibit their production. They are a significant and growing problem in our prisons, leading to bullying, intimidation and violence. The inspectorate has found that they are increasingly a great risk in our prisons—it estimates they have posed that risk in around a third of prisons in the past year. Legal highs do not show up in mandatory drug testing and are not being caught in the way they should because of staff shortages. Will the Minister tell us what, beyond all the usual stuff that we have all heard before, the Government are going to do about legal highs inside the prison estate? This is an issue of prison culture. There must be a zero tolerance approach, and we have to mean that—I have been in too many debates in which a Minister has reassured me on just about everything and then nothing seems to change.
On staffing, will the Minister tell us how many prisons are currently reliant on detached duty? Officers on detached duty go into prisons where they are not familiar with the establishment, with the other staff or with the inmates. It is a big, expensive problem that he needs to turn his mind to very quickly.
Most importantly, will the Minister tell us what he is going to do to tackle the rising level of violent assaults on prison officers? It is unacceptable to send public servants into a dangerous workplace, day in, day out, in fear of their safety. No wonder so many are either leaving the service, taking sick leave or becoming ill at work because of stress.
Once again, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for York Central for securing this debate, which has given us the chance to put serious concerns to the Minister. I am pleased to see so many Members here. We have given the Minister enough time, so he needs to respond to the questions we have raised. I also hope he will take some interventions.