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Criminal Justice System

Volume 475: debated on Tuesday 29 April 2008

7. What assessment he has made of the effect of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 on public confidence in the criminal justice system. (202050)

Between March 2003 and December 2007, public confidence that the criminal justice system is effective in bringing offenders to justice rose by 5 percentage points. Other measures of confidence have also increased: respect for the rights of the accused is up by 3 percentage points; witnesses being treated well, up 4 percentage points; victims’ needs are met, up 6 percentage points; and effectiveness in tackling youth crime, up 3 percentage points.

I thank the Minister for that answer. He knows, because I gave this information to the Secretary of State’s office, that my late constituent, Mr. Kevin Davies—a young man with learning disabilities and epilepsy—was imprisoned and tortured by criminals in a chain of events that ended in his death. As a result of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, passed by this Government, his three captors will be released from prison in just three years’ time, after having served just half their sentence. Kevin’s family feel very badly let down by the justice system. What can the Minister say today to help to start restoring their confidence in that system?

I start by expressing my sympathy for the tragic loss suffered by the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. I am sure that I speak for the entire House in extending my condolences. We recognise that the criminal justice system cannot put right all the hurt caused to the victims of such tragic crimes and their loved ones. Of course, we must be sensitive, and we are. That is why we keep sentencing and offences under review, so that we can ensure the best possible outcomes and strive to seek to secure justice for all.

The changes that the hon. Gentleman referred to—I can understand the hurt and anger felt by his constituents—took place in 2003 and did not introduce the system of licensed release. For many years, long before that Act and long before this Government came to power, prisoners were eligible for release on licence from halfway through their sentences. I point out that, under a Conservative Government, prisoners were eligible from a third of the way through their sentence. We have tightened up procedures for supervision on licence. We continue to keep them under review. If offenders—

Order. It is important that perhaps the Minister writes to the hon. Gentleman. We do not have the time.

Is not an even greater threat to public confidence the way that the system is administered? In the report on the appalling death of Richard Whelan, inspectors identified

“a lackadaisical or nonchalant approach within the criminal justice system”

to things such as enforcing bail conditions, communication between parts of the system and bailing to non-existent addresses. What is going to be done about that?

We recognise that the criminal justice system has failed in certain areas. We are setting up a working party to look at that, and I understand that the Solicitor-General will take charge of it. I am sure that we will report to the House in due course on the lessons to be learned.

In evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs, Helen Newlove and Paul Carne—both of whose very close relatives have been killed; they are therefore the relatives of the victims of crime—mentioned in particular their concern about the rights of victims and their relatives in respect of the granting of bail and even their position in courts, as there are no designated places for victims to sit in courts. Can something be done to address those concerns?

We recognise that, in the light of those cases, we need to look at the system again. Both the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor have expressed their determination to do that. The Lord Chancellor is carrying out a report at the moment, and I am sure that he will bring that report to the attention of the House shortly.

The need for public confidence cannot be greater than when sentencing terrorists. Is it not therefore totally unacceptable that convicted terrorists who are serving determinate sentences under the 2003 Act are still eligible for automatic release at the halfway point of their sentences? How many more dangerous terrorists, such as Yassin Nassari, may not now be released up to 18 days early but will still be released automatically when only half their term of sentence has been served?

I point out that a gamut of offences are covered by the term terrorism; I am sure that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that. The most serious terrorists are generally sentenced to indeterminate sentences, so his concerns do not apply.

Party Funding

8. What recent discussions he has had with trade unions on party funding and rules governing donations to political parties. (202051)

In my capacity within the Labour party—I lead on party funding—I have had, and continue to have, periodic meetings with the trade unions and, of course, all others, including the hon. Gentleman’s party, whenever it wishes to meet me.

During the Secretary of State’s friendly chats with the trade unions, did he point out that it would be inconsistent to cap donations to political parties from individuals and businesses while allowing the trade unions to pour money into Labour party coffers through the device of the political levy?

I have been well aware of the complexities of the situation. Not least of the matters that made it much more complex is the way in which the Conservative party has dramatically shifted its position on the issue. Originally—just a year ago—it fully welcomed Hayden Phillips’s proposals as the basis for agreement, but as was said by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who used to speak on the subject for the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives then “walked away” from those talks without any justification whatever. [Interruption.] It is a little bit of education for the Conservative party, which has a very short memory.

My position in respect of trade union funding is that which the Conservative party set out in its evidence to the Neill committee some years ago. It said:

“The question of trade union funding of parties is not a matter of direct concern to the Conservative Party. We recognise the historic ties that bind the trade union movement with the Labour Party.”

What I would like to know is what exactly has changed since then.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the concerns of the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) are perhaps a bit misplaced? The system for trade union money is, of course, very well regulated and very open. By contrast, a recent Rowntree report said in respect of the 20 most marginal Tory and Labour constituencies in the 2005 election that £53,000 was put into Labour coffers by six trade unions, while a quarter of a million pounds was given by the shadowy, shady organisations of Lord Ashcroft and Lord Steinberg, and by the Midlands Industrial Council. Who is fooling whom on this one?

My hon. Friend is correct, and I hope that the Conservative party is taking serious notice of the Rowntree report, which includes the following rather stark conclusion:

“Although the approach taken by the Conservatives in 2005 was fully within the law, it may be argued that it represents a challenge to the principles on which spending limits are based”.

We want what was proposed by Hayden Phillips—an all-party agreement so that we deal with the issue across the piece. It remains a matter of great regret to me that at the eleventh hour the Conservative party walked away from the talks, and from the basis of a draft agreement that had been brokered with it in the months leading up to those talks.