Justice Questions

4th June 2019

David Gauke answers MPs’ questions to the Ministry of Justice.

Privately Run Prisons

6. What his policy is on privately run prisons. [911111]

The Government remain committed to a role for the private sector in operating custodial services. The sector has an important role to play and currently runs some high-performing prisons as part of a decent and secure prison estate.

Publicly run HMP Bedford has been deprived of adequate funding, while public investment has been given to the notorious blacklisting construction firm Kier to build a new supersized prison nearby in Wellingborough, which will be handed straight to the private sector to run. Will the Minister explain why the public sector was banned from bidding for the new prison?

We believe in a balanced estate—the last prison built was HMP Berwyn, which is in the public sector—to maintain a mix of providers. We wanted to ensure that the next two were in the private sector.

I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the new Ministers on their appointment.

I am sure everyone across the House was deeply concerned by new research showing that, when comparing like with like, private male local prisons have 42% more assaults than their public equivalents. That is especially worrying given that the Government are planning to build a new generation of prisons run for profit. I am sure the Secretary of State would not wish to be deemed an ideologue who would back private prisons even if they were more dangerous. Before proceeding with those new private prisons, will he back an independent review of safety and overcrowding in private prisons to ensure that corners are not being cut to maximise profits?

The reality is that there are many very successful private prisons where the level of violence is lower than average. Let me give the hon. Gentleman an example. HMP Altcourse in Liverpool has low levels of violence compared with a typical category B local prison, including the public sector category B local prison in the same city where we have faced significant difficulties with violence. It is hard to compare one set of prisons against another on a like-for-like basis. I do not accept the analysis the hon. Gentleman sets out, and I do believe we need to have a mixed sector.



Probation Supervision: Short Sentences

8. If he will make it his policy to end the requirement for 12 months of probation supervision for people with sentences of less than 12 months. [911113]

It is absolutely vital that prisoners get the support they need after release to turn their lives around. It would be premature to reverse reforms that, for the first time, saw those released on short sentences supervised after release, with a period dedicated solely to rehabilitation. We have already looked at ways of making that process more proportionate, but as my hon. Friend will know, I want to look at the broader question of short sentences and measures that actually serve to reduce reoffending.

If I may trespass for one moment on your good will, Mr Speaker, given the previous question, perhaps you would like to join me in congratulating the Nacro winners, who are in the Public Gallery at the moment and who are about to join me for tea in the Pugin Room—where are they? They are putting their hands up so they can be congratulated by all of us in the House today, who appreciate what probation staff and those who work with prisoners do for us.

Does the Secretary of State agree that we should put real resource into alternatives to custody, so that we can end the cycle of reoffending and stop all our constituents suffering from further crime?

I join in the congratulations to the prize winners in the Gallery and welcome them to the House of Commons.

I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of alternatives to custody, and I am keen to ensure that we make greater use of curfews, exclusion zones and new ways in which we can restrict offenders in the community in a way that can be more effective in reducing future reoffending.



Probation Service: Complaints System

17. Failings in the probation system were found by the probation service to have contributed to the death of my constituent, Nicholas Churton, who was murdered, but unfortunately, the content of the report has not been made available either to me or to his family. Will the Department—either the Secretary of State or the new Minister responsible for probation and prisons, the hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Robert Buckland)—meet me to discuss how we can have an open system that looks to improve when errors have occurred? [911122]

I know that the new Minister—let me take this opportunity to welcome him to his post—would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman.

19. Can the Secretary of State reassure Members that underperforming companies involved in probation —for example, G4S and Sodexo—will not be allowed in future to apply for any of the new contracts that the Government are going to issue shortly? [911124]

We will look at the merits of all the bidders for those new contracts, but I am not going to draw up any red lines today. The bids will need to be looked at in their totality.


Management of Offenders: Local Authorities and PCCs

9. What steps his Department is taking to work with (a) local authorities and (b) Police and Crime Commissioners in the management of offenders. [911114]

10. What steps his Department is taking to work with (a) local authorities and (b) Police and Crime Commissioners in the management of offenders. [911115]

We want to strengthen partnership working between probation and local partners, including local authorities and police and crime commissioners, and the future probation model announced on 16 May will better enable this with a new regional structure led by regional directors responsible for the delivery and commissioning of probation services. They will work with local partners to identify shared priorities and co-commission services that will better support the management of offenders in the community.

Will the Secretary of State commit to exploring co-commissioning so that probation can leverage in wider funding and serve common needs?

The short answer is yes. Our plan is to create a dynamic framework for the commissioning of resettlement and rehabilitative intervention opportunities. To complement this, we will ring-fence £20 million a year in an innovation fund to attract match funding from other Departments and commissioning bodies for innovative cross-cutting approaches.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the transforming rehabilitation reforms had the very sensible goal of reducing reoffending by extending supervision to a group of offenders who previously did not have it?

Yes, I do think that is a very sensible goal, and sometimes that point has been missed in the debate about the transforming rehabilitation programme. My view is that we need to build on those reforms, and that is why on 16 May I outlined the changes we were making. My hon. Friend is right that we need to be ambitious and provide coverage for as many ex-offenders as possible.

I am not sure whether the Secretary of State has had a chance yet to see the report published this morning by Crest Advisory on the management of women offenders. It suggests that police and crime commissioners should develop gender-informed alternatives to cautions and thereby keep women out of the criminal justice system. Will he consider that recommendation and the others in the report, and would he or one of his ministerial colleagues be willing to meet me and representatives of Crest to discuss it?

I confess I have not had an opportunity yet to read the report published this morning, but from what the hon. Lady says it appears to go in a similar direction to the female offenders strategy I set out last year. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), would be delighted to meet her to discuss the matter further.

I also congratulate the new Ministers on their appointment.

Short sentences target the most vulnerable offenders, especially women, with 75% of all women offenders sentenced to less than a year going on to reoffend. Has the Secretary of State made an assessment of the impact of short prison sentences on offenders and communities?

Indeed I am concerned about the impact of short sentences, not just on those who receive them but on society as a whole, because if they are ineffective in reducing reoffending, we are not doing society a favour and we are not reducing crime in the way we want to. As I said a moment ago, we set out our approach in the female offenders strategy—there is a case for looking at alternatives to custody for less serious offences. As a whole, I am ambitious to reduce the use of short sentences, which I do not see as being effective in reducing crime.


Short Sentences

11. What his Department’s policy is on short sentences. [911116]

There is a strong case for abolishing sentences of six months or less—with some exceptions—and we are working towards having firm proposals by the summer. There is persuasive evidence that short custodial sentences do not work in terms of rehabilitation and helping some offenders to turn their backs on crime, and that community sentences can be more effective in reducing reoffending and therefore keeping the public safe. That said, we must ensure that the public and the judiciary can have confidence in effective community orders that address offenders’ behaviour, meet their mental health and alcohol or drug misuse needs and provide reparation for the benefit of the wider community.

Before his promotion—potentially to Prime Minister—the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) said:

“We have a lot to learn from Scotland, specifically on community sentences, and indeed we will be looking at what more we can do to emphasise that a custodial sentence in the short term should be a final resort.”—[Official Report, 24 April 2018; Vol. 639, c. 714-15.]

Given the Secretary of State’s answer just now, will he ensure that there is a continuity of approach within the new ministerial team in the MOJ?

I am sure that there will be; I would certainly expect that to be the case. One thing that we should learn from Scotland is that we need to ensure that community sentences are not ignored, and that drug treatment orders are completed. I know that that has been an issue in relation to some of the reforms in Scotland, and we need to learn from it, because if we are going to make these reforms we must ensure that community sentences are working properly.

The latest generation of GPS tags can monitor the specific movements of offenders rather than simply enforcing home curfews. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that gives courts a powerful tool to punish offenders in the community while keeping victims safe, as an alternative to short sentences?

I very much agree with that. I can tell the House that I wore a GPS tag for a couple of days, and was subsequently able to be informed of all my movements for the period concerned: precisely where I had been, and when. Thankfully I had not been up to no good, but it was a demonstration of how accurate and effective those tags can be. I believe that they have considerable potential for reassuring the public about community sentences, and about our ability to track those who might pose a risk to the community.

The Secretary of State’s moral probity was never in doubt for a moment.

The Secretary of State will know about the terrible legacy of the imprisonment for public protection sentence, and its negative impact on both reoffending and re-incarceration. Will he meet me, and my constituent whose son received an IPP sentence, to discuss ideas for reform of the licence that applies?

The challenge of IPP cases is that the Parole Board must satisfy itself that those who have been sentenced to IPPs no longer pose a risk to society. That can be very difficult, and in many cases there are risks to society, so we must be cautious and ensure that we protect the public. I know that the Minister responsible for prisons and probation, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Robert Buckland), would be happy to meet the hon. Lady.

It is now well recognised that a system that pushes offenders through a revolving door of short prison sentences simply does not work. Notwithstanding the riders expressed by the Secretary of State a moment ago, the fact is that the Justice Committee, as well as his Government, has recognised that the system in Scotland is working. The Committee’s recent report recommended that the UK Government follow Scotland’s approach of a presumption against short sentences. Will the Secretary of State commit himself to introducing such a presumption in England and Wales?

I hope to be able to say more about the details of what we want to do in the not too distant future, but in respect of the approach that is being taken in Scotland, it is worth bearing in mind that it is already the case in England that a custodial sentence should be pursued only as a last resort, so there is already something approaching a presumption in the English system. I am interested in seeing whether we could go further than that, but I welcome the hon. and learned Lady’s approach —our shared approach, I think—of scepticism about the effectiveness of short sentences.

As someone who worked in the criminal justice system in Scotland for 20 years before coming to the House, I can assure the Secretary of State that the idea that a custodial sentence should be a last resort existed in Scotland before the presumption against short sentences, so that is an additional presumption.

One of the bodies that gave evidence to the Justice Committee pointed out that diverting those who have been identified as low-risk offenders

“from short custodial sentences to suspended custodial sentences could reduce the prison population”

in England and Wales by about 3,000 places. Does the Secretary of State agree that the presumption against short sentences in Scotland can help to reduce the prison population, and could do so if introduced south of the border?

As I have said, I hope to say more about the approach we want to take, but there is a case that an approach on short sentences along the lines that I have discussed may reduce the prison population, but the principal purpose is not reducing the prison population. It will not be massively dramatic, but I believe it will help to reduce reoffending. That is the big prize, rather than what are likely to be relatively marginal changes to the prison population.




Topical Questions

T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [911129]

On 28 May, we announced changes to the release on temporary licence—ROTL—rules, which will allow prisoners to be considered for temporary release earlier. This will provide more opportunities for them to work and train with employers while serving their sentence and increase their chances of securing an immediate job on release. Research shows that time spent on ROTL working in the community or rebuilding family and community ties before release significantly reduces a prisoner’s likelihood of reoffending. ROTL is permitted only after a rigorous risk assessment, and the compliance rate is over 99%. Any non-compliance is dealt with robustly.

I have a lot of time for the Justice Ministers, but will the Secretary of State explain why there are no women in his ministerial team?

It is not for the Secretary of State to appoint his ministerial team, but I am delighted to welcome some strong new team members. They replace two outstanding Ministers who have gone on to higher and, I hope, greater things.


I recently met Donna Mooney, the sister of Tommy Nicol, who sadly took his own life in prison while serving an imprisonment for public protection sentence. I am sure that the Secretary of State will also want to meet her soon. It is a cause of regret that IPPs were ever introduced; their Labour author now acknowledges that. They were not reserved for the most serious of offences, too often effectively becoming a life sentence for those who had committed minor crimes. Does the Secretary of State agree that much more needs to be done to provide opportunities for people who are now way over their short IPP tariffs to prove that they no longer pose a risk to the public?

It was right that the coalition Government abolished IPPs, which were brought in by the previous Labour Government, and there is consensus that that was the right thing to do. The difficulty is that the Parole Board now assesses in each case whether someone with an IPP sentence would be a risk to society, and the board must obviously ensure that public protection is put first. It is also right that we seek to do everything we can to rehabilitate IPP prisoners so that they can be released into the community.


T3. Last month the Scottish Government raised the age of criminal responsibility to 12 years, which should ensure that young children are not left with criminal records that follow them into adulthood. In England, however, the age of criminal responsibility is 10 years. Will the Government consider following the Scottish Government’s approach?[911131]

We have no plans at present, but I am conscious that England’s age of criminal responsibility is lower than in most western countries. I am sure this matter will be kept under review.


Patrick Mackay, formerly of my constituency, is one of Britain’s least known but most dangerous serial killers. In 1975, he admitted to three counts of manslaughter, but he is strongly suspected of carrying out a further 10 killings, including that of a four-year-old boy. Mackay is now eligible for parole and may well have already been moved to an open prison. Does the Secretary of State share my deep concern about the potential release of this man, still only in his 60s, and will he enable me to make the fullest possible representations to the Parole Board?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend who has taken up this issue tirelessly. As he knows, the Parole Board will release a life sentence prisoner only when, in its view, it is no longer necessary on the grounds of public protection for a prisoner to remain in custody. In making its determination, the board will consider reports from those who manage the prisoner and have assessed the risk of harm he presents. The board will also consider all relevant evidence of the prisoner’s risk of harm, and if my hon. Friend has such evidence I am sure it will be listened to closely. We will ensure that it is fully considered for inclusion in the dossier of reports given to the Parole Board.




I’m not currently a Member of Parliament as Parliament has been dissolved until after the General Election on 12th December 2019. This website is for reference of my work when I was a Member of Parliament.

For updates on my General Election 2019 campaign visit www.votedavidgauke.com

View South West Hertfordshire in a larger map