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Topical Questions

Volume 475: debated on Tuesday 29 April 2008

My principal responsibilities are to help to protect victims and the public, to secure a reduction in offending and reoffending, and to promote a rigorous democracy. I am delighted about the contribution that the agencies for which my Department is responsible have made towards a further significant reduction in crime, which was announced last Thursday. We are the first Government since the war to have secured a significant reduction in crime, rather than the continual increases in crime that took place under previous Administrations.

With increasing public concern and frustration about the leniency of many custodial sentences handed down to those convicted of murder, does the Secretary of State believe the time is right to review the minimum tariff for conviction of murder, which currently stands at only 15 years and which, as we all know, is decreased by so-called good behaviour? Is it not time that life meant life?

I am always happy to receive representations about sentences, including those for the most terrible crimes. However, I point out to the hon. Gentleman that where a tariff is set, as there is for life sentences, there is no remission for good behaviour. The prisoner must serve the full period of that tariff—15 years in the case that the hon. Gentleman quotes, and in many cases very much longer—before he or she is eligible for any application for parole.

T2. Freedom of information is central to increasing public confidence in the civil service, whose core values the Secretary of State described as impartiality, integrity, honesty and objectivity. Sadly, in recent FOI correspondence, Ministry of Justice officials confess that the Department for Constitutional Affairs failed during most of its brief life to keep or publish a central register of private hospitality received by senior civil servants. What is the Secretary of State doing to remedy that lamentable lapse? (202034)

As my hon. Friend knows, I took over a new Ministry last June and it has been all very good since then. I should also say to my hon. Friend that I want the maximum of information to be brought out, including about private entertainment by officials. Earlier, I had an endorsement from the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) for the fact that, in general, my Ministers and I always seek to provide the maximum of information, whether in parliamentary answers or responses to freedom of information requests.

Next week marks the first anniversary of the Ministry of Justice. Yesterday, one independent report condemned a culture of complacency in the criminal justice system; another warned that our electoral system is at “breaking point”. Apart from releasing 25,000 prisoners early, what does the Secretary of State think his Ministry has achieved in the past year?

My Ministry has achieved a considerable amount in the past year, including a dramatic reduction in crime, as I mentioned just a few minutes ago—if Conservative Members paid attention, such nugatory questions would not have to be put by their Front Benchers. There has been a one-third reduction in crime, including a one-third reduction in violent crime—[Interruption.] I am asked what contribution we have made, and I have mentioned exactly that contribution, because we are responsible for about half the criminal justice system.

I am delighted to say that at long last the Leader of the Opposition has accepted, under questioning, that that reduction in crime, which he had been denying, has happened. He was asked in a BBC interview whether overall crime figures were falling and finally he said, “Yes—absolutely, absolutely.” On that occasion, if on no others, he was dead right.

Back in 2004, the Government said that they were sympathetic to individual voter registration. Yesterday, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), said that she was still considering the issue. The Government have waited four years, but we still have local elections this week under an electoral system that, as the Rowntree report said yesterday, is “vulnerable to fraud”. Will there be individual voter registration in time for the next general election—yes or no?

The hon. Gentleman knows that establishing individual registration and ensuring that it works effectively will go beyond 2010. That is the truth of it, and it would be the truth for any political party. In any case, as he knows, if the next election is fought in 2010, it will be based on registers that will be completed this October through to December.

As far as postal votes are concerned, I remind the hon. Gentleman that the decision to extend postal voting was made on an all-party basis in about 2000-01. I accept, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), who is in direct charge of the issue, that we have to tighten the system further. It has already been tightened, but it needs to be tightened further. However, that is not directly germane to the issue of individual registration. We need to deal with postal voting—in my view, as soon as we can—to introduce individual registration as well.

T5. Having campaigned strongly on the issue, I very much welcome the Government’s initiatives for separate special areas for witnesses and victims at magistrates courts, including my own in Blackpool. What feedback has the Secretary of State had on the impact of those initiatives, and what plans does the Ministry have to expand them? (202039)

In the past 10 years, there has been a quiet revolution in how victims and witnesses—particularly those for the prosecution—are treated within the criminal justice system. We are anxious to build on that experience and extend it. Becoming a witness in court, particularly if the person has also been a victim of the crime, is a frightening and sometimes terrifying experience. The more assistance that the victims and other witnesses for the prosecution are given all the way through the system, the better—to ensure that those guilty of the crimes are convicted.

T3. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), has recently replied to a large number of questions that I have tabled on postal voting, and I am grateful to her for those full and detailed replies. However, does she not agree that it is no longer sensible for postal votes to be sent out only 11 days before polling day? Many of them do not get to the people abroad who wish to vote in time to be returned and counted in the election. Will the Under-Secretary consider lengthening the time allowed for the process and ensure that the postal votes are sent out more than 11 days in advance, so that postal voting abroad is meaningful? (202035)

I have indeed replied to the hon. Gentleman on this matter very recently but, although I have some sympathy for his concerns, I repeat that two important points need to be made. First, we have already extended the time from six to 11 days, because the administrators also felt that more time was needed. Secondly, after candidates have been nominated, the administrators need time to make sure that the nominations are valid and to order and produce the ballot papers. There is a balance that we have to get right. People living abroad who retain the right to vote in this country can opt to use a proxy vote if the postal vote is not suitable.

The Select Committee on which I have the honour to serve under the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) is currently looking at the costs and benefits of alternative forms of punishment. In view of the deterrent effect that the confiscation of criminal assets in connection with drug dealing has had, does the Secretary of State feel that it is time to consider charging the costs, or part of the costs, of imprisonment or other punishment to the criminal rather than to the taxpayer?

The Prison Act 1952 provides that the costs of running prisons have to be met from the public purse. If my hon. Friend were to think about the consequences of trying to charge prisoners for prison, he would see that they could be very difficult. Indeed, Charles Dickens made it clear that, even in the early 19th century, felons in criminal prisons did not have to pay the costs of their prison accommodation—although, as it happens, debtors did. We want to ensure that criminals pay for the crimes that they commit through compensation measures, and we also want compensation orders to be better enforced.

May I return to the report on Anthony Joseph, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) raised earlier? Does the Secretary of State agree with the report’s conclusion that there was nothing to suggest that Joseph was suffering from a severe mental illness? After all, serious concerns had been raised about Joseph’s mental state since he was 15, and he had reported self-harm to the prison authorities—itself a warning sign. Moreover, the fact that prisoners are 10 times more likely to suffer from severe mental illnesses than members of the general public means that simply being in the system is another warning sign. Does not the case show that there is an urgent need to ensure that resources are directed not to massive prison building programmes, but to mental health screening and treatment?

There was a failure in this case, and it is a matter of huge sorrow to everyone involved. There has been a thorough inspection of what happened, with the aim of ensuring, as far as is humanly possible, that such things do not happen again. The hon. Gentleman asks about mental health provision, but we do need to provide more prison places. One result of our getting on top of crime and criminality is that more people are prosecuted for serious offences and are being sentenced to jail for longer. That is fundamental if, having got crime down by a third in the past 10 years, we are to get it down even further. That said, however, we have greatly improved mental health provision in prison, and Lord Bradley is looking at how we can improve it further. We are also looking at more effective ways to improve mental health facilities outside prison.

T7. Recently, The Times reported that the president of the family division had raised concerns with the Lord Chancellor about the reduction in the number of non-molestation orders taken out by women victims of domestic violence. At the same time, the number of reported domestic violence incidents has increased, and there has been a 23 per cent. increase in prosecutions and a significant rise in the number of convictions. Are women safer or less safe following the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004? (202041)

My hon. Friend referred to the concerns of the president of the family division. I have met some of the judges in the family division to discuss these issues. We are trying to gather together some evidence from their experience and elsewhere to see whether this concern has to be urgently addressed. Since the introduction of the special domestic violence courts, we have a far higher success rate in convictions, with over 70 per cent. of convictions as a result of those courts.

The introduction of independent advisers has been hugely helpful in encouraging women to come forward to get protection and to take the case through the justice system. We are concerned about these issues and we are in discussions with the judiciary about them. However, following the Act and the work that this Government have done in trying to protect vulnerable women from domestic violence, we should be grateful that this happening. We should not only monitor the concerns that are being outlined but ensure that more women come forward in order to stop this heinous crime.

T4. Is the Secretary of State aware that over the past five years 1,723 documents have gone missing on their way from Government Departments to the national archives, and that those highly political files include some on the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, the Iranian embassy siege, and Cabinet Office documents relating to how the European Union perceives the United Kingdom? Will he place a list of those missing documents in the Library, press all Departments to find those missing documents, and report back to the House in due course? (202036)

I am now aware of the extent of these missing documents. I will certainly look into it. The hon. Gentleman will understand the quite intense difficulty sometimes of proving that something is missing until someone is looking for it, but I will do my best and inform the House.

T8. Given the potential for terribly tragic consequences when the different parts of the criminal justice system fail to work together effectively, do Ministers agree that good, effective information and communication technologies are not merely desirable but essential; and do they accept that public procurement of such systems in the criminal justice system has not yet been good enough and needs to be better? (202042)

The answer to both my hon. Friend’s questions is yes. Ensuring that there is adequate sharing of information between the different criminal justice agencies and that each agency thinks across the piece is fundamental to ensuring that the kind of tragedy that has occurred in this case does not occur again.

T6. When will the Government come forward with their plans for a modern, fair, sympathetic and open coroners system for inquests, about which there has been so much concern; and have they accepted that secret inquests, or inquests without juries, are not a good idea? (202040)

As the hon. Gentleman will know, detailed proposals were published with a draft Bill in respect of a major reform of the coroners system, and we hope to bring that forward in the next Session.