Justice Questions

Nick takes questions as Minister of State for Criminal Justice

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): What steps the Prison Service takes to communicate to police forces its assessment of the mental state of and threats posed to the public by prisoners immediately prior to release.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Nick Herbert): Police forces are notified of all prisoner releases. Procedures are in place in each prison under the national security policies to ensure that security information about offenders is analysed and shared with the police and other agencies if it is considered that it will help the police to protect the public from serious harm.

Chi Onwurah: I referred to the mental health care and status of prisoners. The recent tragic events in Newcastle, on Tyneside and in Rothbury have highlighted how important the provision of good mental health care in prisons is. Will responsibility for that provision be given to local GPs in the reorganisation of the national health service, or will it be under the control of the prison?

Nick Herbert: First, I agree with the hon. Lady that it is important that we ensure adequate mental health care for prisoners, a very large number of whom suffer from mental health conditions. She will appreciate that I cannot comment specifically on the case to which she referred, which is the subject of an Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation and a police investigation. We are now considering carefully how the Government's health reforms should fit in with how we want to provide health services in prisons.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I thank the Minister for being careful not to speculate about matters that are the subject of inquiries and possible criminal proceedings. Is he aware that the people of Rothbury were extremely supportive of the police in the difficult task that they carried out, and that the police were very appreciative of that support at a time when the whole community felt seriously threatened?

Nick Herbert: I am sure that my right hon. Friend's comments will have been noted. As he knows, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), visited Rothbury yesterday and met local police and residents to discuss those issues. However, my right hon. Friend will understand that the Government cannot comment further, given that two people have been charged with conspiracy to murder and that there is an IPCC investigation.

Maria Eagle (Garston and Halewood) (Lab): Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise the importance of multi-agency risk assessment conferences in communicating between prisons, the police and others on any ongoing threats posed by specific perpetrators of domestic violence, and therefore in stopping that ongoing violent criminality in particular cases? Given that domestic violence accounts for 14% of all violent incidents, that almost 80% of victims are women, and that increasing focus on taking that crime seriously led to a 64% fall in its prevalence between 1995 and 2008, will he guarantee that MARACs will continue and even that they will be placed on to a statutory footing?

Nick Herbert: I am afraid that I cannot offer guarantees to the hon. Lady, but we can say in relation to that specific case that it is very important that all the lessons are learned about appropriate information sharing. The Government understand the significance of the domestic violence issues that she raises.


Alun Michael (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): What steps he is taking to ensure the effectiveness of complaints systems for victims of crime and others within the criminal justice system.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Nick Herbert): Policies are in place in individual criminal justice agencies to respond to complaints from victims and others. Improving the ability of victims to hold services to account and gain redress when things go wrong will be considered as part of a full review of victim and witness policy and services.

Alun Michael: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. If somebody has a complaint that their situation is being dealt with badly by the system, it is often difficult to know whether that is the fault of the police-in which case there is the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which is an effective system-or the Crown Prosecution Service, which does not have an adequate complaints system, and that means that people fall through the gaps. Will the Government take that into account as part of the review?

Nick Herbert: We will. I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's long-standing interest in such issues and some of the proposals that he has made in relation to them. We aim to improve the accountability of service providers and redress for complainants through the criminal justice system. It is important that we should address the fact that there can be confusion on the part of victims about whom they should complain to.

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Last week an Enfield magistrate complained to me about the waste of court time. That magistrate spends one day a week dealing with prosecutions for dropping cigarette butts. If such cases are to be prosecuted, surely it would be in the best interests of the taxpayer and justice for them to be heard in a town hall, rather than in a courthouse?

Nick Herbert: It is important for us to look at the opportunities for the administration of justice that lie outside buildings. There has been the development of what became known as the "summary justice agenda", which is actually administrative justice, with things such as penalty notices for disorder. However, I would be happy to talk to my hon. Friend about whether the case that he has raised has been dealt with in an appropriate manner.

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): The Minister of State will recall that at Justice questions on 15 June, he said in answer to me:

"We are aware of the important work that the National Victims' Service is planning to do."-[ Official Report, 15 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 733.]

Given that, I am surprised that there is no reference whatever to the National Victims' Service in the just-published draft structural plan for his Ministry. I wonder whether he could explain the omission of any reference to that service.

Nick Herbert: I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman should read anything into that omission. I said then-and I say now-that we are reviewing in full the arrangements to ensure that victims are treated properly by the criminal justice system. Perhaps he will have already seen the strong speech that is to be made by the victims commissioner on such issues this evening. We take those issues immensely seriously, as we do ensuring that justice is done for victims.


Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with (a) the UK Border Agency and (b) foreign Governments on the compulsory transfer of foreign national prisoners to detention in their country of origin.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Nick Herbert): Ministry of Justice officials have been in regular contact with their colleagues at UKBA to identify suitable prisoners for transfer under the additional protocol to the Council of Europe convention on the transfer of sentenced persons. A number of cases are currently being pursued. Discussions between officials of member states of the European Union on the implementation of the EU prisoner transfer agreement took place in April.

Mr Hollobone: We currently have the pleasure and privilege of paying for the board and lodging of 752 Nigerians in British jails at a time when we are giving that country £132 million a year in development aid. Her Majesty's Government have been negotiating with the Nigerian Government on the compulsory transfer of those prisoners since 2007. Could we urge them to get a move on?

Nick Herbert: I understand my hon. Friend's concern about this and note the ten-minute Bill he recently introduced. The Government believe that wherever possible foreign national prisoners should serve their sentences in their own country. Negotiations on a compulsory prisoner transfer agreement with Nigeria will be concluded as soon as changes to Nigerian domestic legislation have been made.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): In evidence to the Home Affairs Committee this morning, Lin Homer, the head of UKBA, told us that 14% of the prison population were foreign nationals and that 700 officials were working in her department on this issue. As it is a priority for the Government, is the Minister confident that he has sufficient staff dealing with what is a very important issue?

Nick Herbert: The Government are determined to improve performance in the removal of foreign nationals and in prison transfer agreements. The right hon. Gentleman will know that only 41 prisoners were transferred this year, but compulsory transfer has only been available since November 2009, so we expect performance to improve.


Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): And I should say that the people of the Rhondda remember Churchill's period in relation to the Tonypandy riots. However, the Lord Chancellor has responsibility for marriage law, and he will know that the law forbids civil weddings from including religious readings or music, even though many people who are not able to get married in church or who do not want to do so would like to have such readings. The Government say that they will allow that for civil partnerships, but not for civil weddings. Can we not have a little more equality for heterosexuals?

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Nick Herbert): I am answering this question because I am the only one in the village. [Laughter.] I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for the fact that his question was transferred. The Equality Act 2010 removed the express prohibition on civil partnership registrations taking place on religious premises. In response to that amendment of the law, the Government are committed to talking to those with a key interest in how to take this forward. That will include consideration of whether civil partnerships should be allowed to include religious readings, music and symbols, and the implications for marriage will have to be considered as part of that.

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20 July 2010

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