There were questions to Justice ministers yesterday. These are the highlights.
Bromsgrove MP Julie Kirkbride raised the thorny issue of the state funding of political parties:
"Does the Secretary of State agree that there is a huge conundrum when it comes to party political funding? The public want democracy, but it is expensive. They do not want to pay for it with their own taxes, and they do not want other people to pay for it with their hard-earned cash.
Mr. Straw: The hon. Lady has put the dilemma very acutely. She will know that one of Sir Hayden’s key recommendations was that in return for donation limits there should be very extensive state funding. I think it is now recognised, not least given the state of the British economy, that the British people would not take kindly to that proposition. In Canada, where there had been state funding, the Government of Mr. Stephen Harper suddenly decided to withdraw it as an economy measure, causing a fundamental crisis in Canadian politics. That, I suggest, is another reason not to introduce comprehensive state funding.
Yes, it is true to some extent that the public want democracy and do not want to pay for it. Meanwhile, I happen to believe that it is entirely honourable to ask people to contribute to the political parties of their choice, provided that those who donate make it clear that they are donating."
Large donations should be declared. No-one should be compelled to donate to a political party, either through their membership of an organisation or through their taxes. It should be up to parties to make themselves sufficiently appealing to voters that they want to support them, and many of us would deeply resent being made to fund a political movement we find repugnant (and I'm not even thinking of the ghastly extremist parties!).
Shadow Justice Minister David Burrowes made a very sensible point about the mental frailty of many drug and alcohol abusers:
"It is evident that most offenders with drug and alcohol problems have mental health problems too. Why, then, did the Government fail even to mention the need for mental health support in their last evaluation of drug courts, and why, despite Lord Bradley’s commendable report—sent to Ministers in February—expressing
disappointment with this failure, was yet another criminal justice Green Paper published last week that does not address the vital mental health services needed for drug courts to work effectively?
Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman is mistaken in suggesting that the Government do not take mental health problems seriously. As the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), mentioned in response to an earlier question, the launch of Lord Bradley’s report last week was an important milestone in the policies that we are developing to deal with offenders. We are working closely with Lord Bradley and examining the results of his report to ensure that we take a holistic view of dealing with people who have both drug and mental health problems."
Shadow Justice Secretary Dominic Grieve wants the Government to do more to protect the public:
"There is one figure on which we can agree, and that is that more than 50,000 offenders have been released early by this Government, including people convicted of terrorist, violent and sexual offences. It is bad enough that the Government have recklessly failed to build enough prison places, but can the Secretary of State now confirm that the £30 million in planned cuts to local probation services must mean even less protection of the public from serious offenders after their release?
Mr. Straw: I do not accept that. The nominal reduction in spending is belied by the fact that for the year that finished at the end of March—just over five weeks ago—the probation service underspent by £23 million. Interestingly, and somewhat to our surprise, given the concerns expressed by the probation service, there is no reason why probation services should not be able to manage within their budgets. What would the hon. and learned Gentleman do? After all, his policy is for much larger cuts than anything that we are contemplating.
Mr. Grieve: I wonder whether the Justice Secretary has actually read his own guidance to probation trusts. In 2007, probation officers were required to provide a report every three months on those sentenced to life imprisonment and subject to close monitoring on release. Last month, probation officers were told to report every six months instead, because of the resources available. Can he confirm that that is indeed the guidance? Does he now accept that these cuts in front-line probation services must put the public at greater risk?
Mr. Straw: I am sorry, but I do not accept the basis of the hon. and learned Gentleman’s point at all. We have significantly increased real-terms resources to the probation service, so it is much better resourced than it ever was under his party’s administration. At any time, of course, adjustments may be made for different levels of offender. We want to see—and the public want to see—probation resources concentrated on the most serious offenders, especially when they are released from jail. That is precisely what we are doing."
It is good to see front benchers who represent other briefs at oral questions. Andrew Selous is part of the Work and Pensions team and he asked a question about electoral fraud:
"Just before the last European elections, a national newspaper managed to register a fictitious person by the name of Gus Troobev—an anagram of “bogus voter”—in 40 different electoral registers. How confident is the Minister that that could not happen for the European elections next month?
Mr. Wills: We can never be complacent about any incident of fraud whatever. However, it is worth reminding the hon. Gentleman that just last week the Electoral Commission and the Association of Chief Police Officers produced a report on the 2008 elections, which concluded that they were
“free from major incidents of electoral fraud”.
The report conducted by the Electoral Commission and ACPO, shows that there is a steady decline in the allegations of such malpractice—but we cannot be complacent even about a single incident, and we are not. That is why, in the Electoral Administration Act 2006, we brought in a raft of measures to tackle fraud. It is also one of the reasons why we are bringing in individual registration. We will never be complacent about a single incident, but we have to accept—I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept this—that in this country, such incidents are, fortunately, few and limited."
Banbury MP Tony Baldry also asked a thoughtful question about the treatment of people with mental health problems:
"Does the Secretary of State agree that a police cell is rarely appropriate as a place of safety for the purposes of sections 135 and 136 of the Mental Health Act? Following Lord Bradley’s report, will the Secretary of State ensure that primary care trusts, mental health trusts and police forces start work now to ensure that, without delay, mental health trusts can provide appropriate places of safety locally for those who need them, and that access to mental health services on the NHS is unconditional, just like access to any other treatment under the NHS?
Mr. Straw: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. There have been important improvements in the provision of prison health services, which are primarily mental health services, not least through the ending of the separate prison medical service; however dedicated its staff, it was, frankly, a second-class service. Furthermore, a few years ago this Government implemented the arrangement through which all health services in a prison are provided by the relevant primary care trust.