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Justice

Volume 481: debated on Tuesday 28 October 2008

The Secretary of State was asked—

Community Legal Advice Centre and Network

1. When he next expects to meet the Legal Services Commission to discuss the roll-out of the community legal advice centre and network programme. (230370)

Lord Bach, the Minister with responsibility for legal aid, regularly meets the Legal Services Commission to discuss a range of issues relating to the legal aid reform programme, including the development of the community legal service.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Will she ensure that those discussions take account of the need to ensure that the roll-out of the community legal service does not prejudice the funding and operations of Citizens Advice? I recently met the excellent manager of our citizens advice bureau in Bromley, Angela Bragg. It provides a first-rate service, but there is a real fear that unless the creation of the community legal service is properly handled, it could cream off much of the funding and make some CABs no longer viable. That would be a serious loss to the communities they serve.

I endorse what the hon. Gentleman says about the role of citizens advice bureaux, not only in Bromley but throughout the country. They do an excellent job, and it is important that they continue to do so. I can assure him that in the roll-out of community legal advice centres, which will offer integrated services on debt, housing, welfare and so on, the Legal Services Commission will invite tenders for its funds and citizens advice bureaux may well be part of that process. They have certainly been part of the process up to now, and I hope that they continue to be so.

Does my hon. Friend accept that there is still general concern that the Legal Services Commission does not understand the nature of the third sector and the added value that is provided by organisations such as citizens advice bureaux? They not only deal with the legal issues, but look more widely at the problems that led somebody to get into legal difficulties. They also address the need for counselling and financial advice. Frankly, the tendering of services within Government sometimes misses the point in relation to that added value.

I agree to some extent with my right hon. Friend in that those who seek legal advice often have multiple and related problems. Citizens advice bureaux and other not-for-profit organisations are often best placed to put all those together and give more rounded advice. When the legal advice centres are rolled out, the not-for-profit organisations will be part of the process, so that the recommendations about the shape of the future of the service will be in their hands. They will therefore be an integral part of the future of legal advice.

Further to the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), is the Minister aware that Leicester law centre has already closed and that one county council has stated that all its CABs are now under threat? Does she agree that the community legal advice centres and the community legal advice networks are untried and untested? What happened to the pilot scheme that was promised, and will she now consider urgently the harm that could be done to our vulnerable constituents if CABs have to close? Is not this yet another example of this Government trusting a bureaucratic, public sector solution, rather than a voluntary sector group such as the CABs?

The hon. Gentleman has missed the point. Law centres are funded not so much by the LSC, but by other sources of funding. Therefore, it is not within the LSC’s gift to decide whether they remain open. Of course it is unfortunate if a law centre makes the decision to close. However, the majority of providers are adapting well to the new system, including the not-for-profit sector. The LSC is not the only funder of advice agencies, and any withdrawal of an advice agency may be rooted elsewhere. Citizens Advice has worked closely with us throughout the legal aid reform programme, and I hope that it will continue to do so.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the concern felt by small voluntary organisations in south Wales, in particular about the community legal advice network that is proposed to cover the Cardiff, Vale and Bridgend areas? Many of the small providers fear that they will not be able to compete, and they provide services for extremely vulnerable clients.

I am not aware of the particular difficulties in south Wales that my hon. Friend mentions, but I will ensure that Lord Bach is made aware of them. If there are particular problems, he and the LSC will look at ensuring that the people of south Wales have access to proper advice agencies.

Prisoners

2. What recent discussions he has had with HM Prison Service on increasing the amount of purposeful activity undertaken by inmates in prisons. (230371)

9. What recent discussions he has had with HM Prison Service on increasing the amount of purposeful activity in prisons. (230378)

The Government and the National Offender Management Service are committed to increasing the amount and quality of purposeful activity in prisons including, for example, the expansion and further development of links with private sector employers to increase the range of constructive work and training available to prisoners; the delivery of a comprehensive range of interventions designed to address offending behaviour; and an improvement in the quality of prison education provision.

The Minister will agree that a custodial sentence provides the opportunity for training and education to prepare people to lead productive lives, but that what often happens in practice is that people are moved from prison to prison, meaning that they have different tutors and their courses are left unfinished. What will he do to remedy that? Will he have discussions with his colleagues in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and in the Department for Work and Pensions to see what additional work opportunities can be given to prisoners when they leave, so that they are motivated to learn while they are in prison?

The hon. Lady makes a valid point. It is important that we have employment opportunities and that we link them to what happens in the world outside for when prisoners leave. Last year alone, more than 40,000 prisoners went into training and employment at the end of their sentence. I take the point that occasionally movement between prisons can disrupt sentences. We have to focus on providing meaningful employment, raising skills and matching that with the business world outside. Indeed, later this year I shall host a further seminar with some key employers to try to make links with prisons in the community.

In June, the Government introduced the core day, which means that in 159 of our state prisons prisoners are locked in their cells for the whole of Friday, with the cancellation of classes and workshops. Does the Minister think that that will help in the fight against recidivism?

I know that the hon. Gentleman meant Friday afternoon, rather than the whole of Friday. Prisoners are not locked up for the whole of Friday. We are looking at a range of efficiency measures. The core day is at an early stage in its implementation. I need to look at that, and we have a group looking at the impact of the core day on a range of services. Overall, last year, some 25.3 hours per prisoner was, on average, spent on purposeful activity. I want to see that figure increase and, for the reasons I gave to the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), I am trying to ensure that that happens.

Will the system that my right hon. Friend is outlining be comprehensive enough to find something useful for Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross to do in the event that they finish up inside?

I am sure that we have some in-house entertainment that they can do. My hon. Friend makes a serious point. It is not for me to comment on the issues that were mentioned, but I feel that both Mr. Ross and Mr. Brand have to apologise for the broadcast. I do not think that it was appropriate or in keeping with broadcasting. I am not sure that it will result in prosecutions, but I feel that an apology is called for.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that given the reoffending rates among young offenders it is particularly important that they find purposeful activities during their periods inside. Is he aware of the scheme that has been operating between Ashfield young offenders institution and Avon fire and rescue, whereby the youngsters do the equivalent of a firefighter’s training course? Does he think that that model could be adapted elsewhere?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. I am aware of the scheme. It is important that we give people pride in themselves, as well as some recognition of their achievement, and that we let them learn new skills. The fire service scheme, linked with the young offenders institution in this case, offers all those activities. It is key to us that we raise the level of skills and of employability and that we give people some pride and self-worth, which, sadly, they often have not had outside the estate.

Given that the right hon. Gentleman is a notable progressive, and pursuant to the publication of the youth crime action plan, will he accept that it should be a priority to do something to help the 60 per cent.-plus of the 11,000 people in the young offenders estate who suffer from speech, language and communication problems on a scale and of a severity that prevents them from accessing conventional education and training courses?

Absolutely. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his recognition of my progressive nature, which I am sure the House will welcome. I recognise that he has done a considerable amount of work on the question of dyslexia and other learning disabilities. There is, sadly, a high correlation between the people who go into offending behaviour and their level of literacy and numeracy. We need to address the problem early. The youth crime action plan, with which I have been dealing along with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, is trying to look at early intervention and at how to make better use of people’s time in custody to deal with those very issues.

There is a rather Dickensian feel to the list of activities that prisoners undertake: scrubbing floors, cleaning toilets and stitching laundry are jobs that Magwitch would recognise, but does my right hon. Friend have great expectations that a wider variety of tasks will be available in the years ahead that will genuinely fit discharged prisoners better for the outside world that will receive them?

There is certainly some low-level employment in prisons, but I can give some different examples. I visited Wandsworth prison recently and saw the high investment that has been made in giving some prisoners computer skills so that they have the potential to work in the sector. Other prisons offer real and definite skills in housebuilding, decorating and painting, which require a high national vocational qualification. Indeed, funding for education in prisons has risen in the past six years alone from £57 million in 2001 to £170 million in 2008. That is real progress, and we are looking to match giving inmates skills for the outside world with what needs to be done in prison.

I accept that purposeful activity for inmates is vital, but will the Minister assure the House that the justice system is there to punish those who have broken the law?

Absolutely. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary repeated what all Ministers have always made very clear—that the justice system is about punishment and reform. There has to be an element of punishment, as that is what the public and victims quite rightly demand, but equally we need to make sure that those who come into contact with our system do not return to us after the end of their sentence. The key to that is employability, as well as raised skill levels and the maintenance of family links. We must also build support for accommodation outside prison and try to deal with some of the real and meaningful problems to do with drugs, alcohol and mental health. Our pathways programme tries to do all that in a positive way.

The Minister said that the important thing about purposeful educational activity in prison is that it prepares people for the world outside, and I welcome that. For example, great progress has been made in helping prisoners to learn to read, but the problem of giving prisoners—those doing National Extension College courses, and others—access to the internet is a real barrier to preparing them for the world outside. Has there been any progress in making it easier for prisoners to use the internet safely?

First, may I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend did in this field when she held ministerial office? She rightly recognises that we need to raise prisoners’ internet and computing skills in preparation for the outside world, and we are looking at how we can make that practicable in a secure way. However, she will accept that that there are real difficulties with internet usage and contact between prisoners and the outside world, so security concerns remain paramount in our approach to the issue.

In July, the Government severely cut the amount of time that prisoners can spend working or learning to read and write, but even before that prisoners spent only three and a half hours a day, Monday to Friday, on purposeful activity. Does the Minister share my disappointment that, while the reoffending rate for ex-prisoners rockets and thus more victims of crime are created, the Secretary of State resorts to cheap soundbites about sentencing to disguise the Government’s incompetence in failing to provide real opportunities for offenders to turn away from crime through purposeful activity in prison?

First, let me tell the hon. and learned Gentleman that crime overall is down some 39 per cent. since 1997. Reoffending figures have also fallen over the past six years, as he will see if he looks at the announcement that I made to the House in September. He mentioned the figures on purposeful activity by prisoners, which I set out earlier to the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett). Currently, in 2007-08, each prisoner spends some 25.3 hours per week on purposeful activity. That is a steady figure, but I am working to increase it and I know that I will have his support in doing so—although unfortunately a future Conservative Government, if there were to be one, would be unlikely to provide the necessary resources.

Fixed-term Parliaments

The issue of fixed-term Parliaments has been debated in this House on a number of occasions. Most recently, the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) introduced a private Member’s Bill that would have provided for general elections every four years.

Many excellent arguments are commonly used in favour of fixed-term Parliaments, but does the Minister agree that another advantage of such a system is that it would make it much easier to regulate party political spending over the entire electoral cycle? Surely that is particularly desirable, as there is clearly a need for much tighter control of party funding and spending.

On the hon. Lady’s final point, she will be aware that we are bringing a Bill before the House that will address all those issues, and I look forward to her contribution to debates on it as we tackle what I agree is a very important issue. On the other issue that she raised, there are arguments on both sides. They have been exhaustively rehearsed, and no doubt we will continue debating them for the foreseeable future.

When I introduced a Bill on the subject many years ago, I was told that I had to get royal permission, which surely reminds us that, at some point, we need to get serious hold of prerogative powers. Does not the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) have a good essential point, which is that if we really want to control or get hold of the vexed issue of party funding, we have to get some more reliable control over the election spending period? Fixed-term Parliaments would enable us to do that.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his contribution. He will be aware, of course, that we are coming to terms with how we get a grip on the prerogative power; that is the basis of the “Governance of Britain” programme. We are introducing a Constitutional Renewal Bill, as he is well aware. We have built on the excellent work done by his Committee—the Public Administration Committee—to try to codify the royal prerogative. We will take that work further forward. Of course he is right that we have to get a grip on party spending at election time; that is precisely why we are introducing the Bill. Again, I look forward to his contribution to debate on the Bill. I point out to him, and to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who first asked the question, that there are arguments against fixed-term Parliaments. As they will both be well aware, there is an element of inflexibility in such a system that sometimes would not serve this country well.

May I say to Ministers that the present system gives far too much influence and control to the Prime Minister of the day? Those of us who want much greater parliamentary democracy and curbs on the Executive would like fixed-term Parliaments.

I agree with part of what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said, and the Prime Minister has already said that he wants the dissolution of Parliament to be subject to a vote in this House for precisely the reasons that the right hon. and learned Gentleman gave. There is a misunderstanding that fixed-term Parliaments would somehow remove the Executive’s ability to hold an election at a time of their choosing. That is not necessarily the case. For example, the former West Germany had fixed-term Parliaments, but in 1972 and 1983 the Government of the day were able to engineer a general election by engineering a vote of no confidence in the Government, so what the right hon. and learned Gentleman is looking for would not necessarily transpire.

Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority

Performance is monitored and managed on a monthly basis by my Department and by me. Assessment to date shows that the size of the CICA’s live case load has reduced and is the smallest that it has been in 20 years. Its unit cost per case has reduced, the time for registering an application has reduced, and the time that it takes to reach a first decision has reduced.

I thank the Minister for those comments. Does she believe that the new criminal injuries compensation scheme properly addresses the discrepancies between the compensation awarded by the CICA and awards made by the civil courts?

The CICA scheme and its predecessor were never meant to ape the civil courts in every respect. The scheme is meant to enable victims of crime who cannot use the civil court to get some consideration from society of the fact that they have been victimised. It is not meant to be a parallel scheme that pays out the same as a civil court would.

The CICA does a good, important job. Will the Minister look into a problem that delays cases, meaning that it is often years between an application being made and a decision being reached? It often results from poor or slow co-ordination between the authority, the police and other agencies. I can send her details of cases that have gone on years too long and have not been resolved.

Yes. I am happy to look at any cases that the hon. Gentleman wishes to send to me, which have come to his attention as a local Member of Parliament. Many Members will have come across such cases, and some of the issues that he identifies were raised by the National Audit Office in its report on the performance of the CICA. Its recommendations were accepted and we are implementing them to improve the aspects that the hon. Gentleman identified. Hon. Members will see that the performance of the CICA is improving as we go forward because we are focusing on those very issues. That said, there will be always be problems getting the right medical evidence and the right prognosis, and making sure that offers are properly made and accepted and that future loss of earnings is properly calculated. These things can never be done instantly, but I hope the hon. Gentleman and other Members will see the performance of the CICA steadily improve.

Does the Minister understand my concerns that the welcome increase in compensation for military injury in the battlefield has not been reflected in the civilian damages paid to people who are affected by terrorism? I have a constituent who was injured in the July 2005 bombings—she suffered more than 22 serious injuries. I do not accept that the tariff in the new scheme will properly reflect that, particularly when the assessment of that constituent was performed about three months after the injuries were incurred. The problems that she faces are increasing and will probably get worse during the years she lives. She is in her 20s.

Indeed, I accept the point that the hon. Gentleman makes—that a tariff-based scheme such as the CICA scheme will never be able to reflect as fully as a full civil litigation case could the true extent of injuries into the future. The CICA scheme is not intended to do that; it is meant to provide a measure of compensation for those who were the victims of, in this case, terrorism. The hon. Gentleman’s constituent will, I hope, have benefited from the ex gratia payments from the charitable arrangements that were made. I hope that those will help her. It is important to realise that a tariff-based scheme that is meant to provide a measure of compensation to the victims of crime can never be expected fully to compensate, in the way that civil litigation could, for the full injuries that some people unfortunately incur.

I recognised in the Minister’s opening response the word “reduced” on a number of occasions, but I did not hear any meaningful figures. Will she therefore update the House on the number of cases in the authority’s backlog? In recognition of the fact that in 2007-08 the proportion of cases decided was only 64 per cent., will she tell us whether she thinks that is good enough? Will she improve on that this year?

I could bore the House for some time with a list of figures. I will tell the hon. Gentleman, subject to your indulgence, Mr. Speaker, that the case load has reduced over the past year from 83,986 cases to 73,813 cases; that the time taken to reach a decision over that period has reduced from 14 months to 12 months, with a target of 10 months looming on the horizon; that the time to register cases has reduced from a baseline last year of 15 days to 8.3 days, with a target of three days; that the unit cost of each case has reduced from £400 last year to £359; that the target for resolving cases for next year—

Why did the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice) tell the “Today” programme on 13 August:

“A victim of rape should not have any compensation reduced because of their drinking”

alcohol, yet a month before, the Minister introduced in Parliament a new compensation scheme that becomes effective next week, which the CICA confirmed does not exempt drunk rape victims from having their awards reduced? When will Ministers realise that what drives victims nuts, to use the Justice Secretary’s phrase, is 11 years of posturing about victims of crime but not delivering real justice?

As I recall, when the slight changes to the scheme that come into force next week were debated in Committee, no party, including the hon. Gentleman’s, objected to them or voted against them. May I make it clear that what the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice) said in respect of that case is the current policy and always has been the policy. Those people who wrongly had their compensation reduced because they were supposed to have been drinking alcohol have had ex gratia payments, to the extent that we have discovered who they are, and any others who feel that they have had their compensation reduced on that basis will, if they come forward, get an ex gratia payment to make good that reduction.

Legal Services Act

5. What progress he has made in implementing the Legal Services Act 2007, with particular reference to its provision for alternative business structures. (230374)

I am pleased to say that implementation of the Legal Services Act 2007 is progressing according to the planned timetable. Implementation of alternative business structures will be possible after the Legal Services Board is fully operational, and that is expected in 2010. However, I intend to commence provisions that will enable legal disciplinary practices as soon as the regulators have made the necessary changes to their rules.

Does the Minister agree that the changes that we are making are as significant for the provision of legal services in the future as the deregulation of the City was in the 1980s for the provision of financial services today? Can she assure the House that, this time, the regulation of those who are let loose to deliver financial services will be effective and meaningful and that, if she devises the scheme, she will consult the House so that her provision for that regulation can be scrutinised?

I agree with my hon. Friend on all points. The 2007 Act is intended to put the consumer at the heart of the legal system. It will also encourage more effective competition, innovation and transparency and safeguard the independence of the legal profession. However, as he rightly says, the regulation must be proportionate and I assure him that the House will be party to ensuring that it is done properly.

Does the Minister agree that along with the undoubted advantages of alternative business structures comes the risk that the public will perceive that they are not receiving advice as independent as the advice that they previously received from a separate set of professionals? Will she make sure that when the structures are implemented, particular attention is paid to the independence of each of those professionals under one roof, to make sure that the public not only get independent advice, but perceive that they do?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that that will be the case. During debates on the Legal Services Bill in this House and the other place, we made it clear that the independence of legal advice was paramount. We have set up the structures so that the legal heads and financial heads are all independently agreed and there is no outside influence on the advice given to the consumer. For me, the most important part of the 2007 Act is that the consumer is, for the first time, to be put at the heart of the system.

Electoral Administration Act

6. When he plans to bring into force section 59 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006; and if he will make a statement. (230375)

As my hon. Friend will be aware, section 59 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006 cannot be brought into force until the Electoral Commission informs my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice that it is satisfied that it will receive the information that it needs from the House authorities. Discussions between the House authorities and the Electoral Commission have been ongoing for some time and are continuing, although I expect them to conclude soon.

Is the Minister aware that a system of dual reporting to the Registrar of Members’ Interests and the Electoral Commission causes concern and confusion across the House? Is it not important to have a one-stop shop? If we do not implement section 59, the Political Parties and Elections Bill, currently before the House, provides other opportunities. Will the Minister take the opportunity and act?

I take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who is in his seat, and all their colleagues on the Standards and Privileges Committee for all the hard work that they have done to bring this matter to a resolution. Of course we understand how important the issue is to all Members of the House. We are not far off resolving the issue, and I hope that the solution that emerges will meet the House’s approval.

As we all agree, the dual declaration is wrong. It causes confusion, and innocent mistakes are often unreasonably punished. Is it not about time that the Secretary of State pushed the Electoral Commission, which we know has been dragging its feet? This situation has gone on for months and is totally unacceptable. The Electoral Commission needs to move—and move fast.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. The time has come to act. This has been going on for too long, and we are determined, as far as we can, to bring it to a conclusion. We think that we are very close to that, and we hope that the solution will emerge soon.

Electoral Systems

7. What progress has been made in his Department's review of electoral systems; and if he will make a statement. (230376)

The Government’s review of voting systems was published in January this year. It considers the experience of the voting systems introduced in the United Kingdom since 1997, and much comparative data from around the world. The review forms an important part of the continuing debate on electoral reform—on which, of course, I have a very open mind.

I think that we all knew about that latter point. It is nice to hear that the Justice Secretary can get a word in edgeways, given the plethora of Ministers that he has assembled around him. He will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the great electoral reformers of recent years, with the number of systems that he has introduced at different levels in different places. When he published the Government’s review of electoral systems, to which he referred, he said that it was to “inform the current debate”. If so, why is there is no specific mention of electoral reform in the White Paper, in the Government’s draft constitutional reform Bill, or in the next steps of governance process? Is not that a bit of an oversight in terms of informing the debate? Why not extend the joyous Scottish experience of the single transferable vote for local government south of the border?

The right hon. Gentleman and I probably have slightly different views. [Interruption.] I may have an entirely open mind, but I have reached a settled conclusion on the system of electing coalitions of the kind that they have in Austria, which led to deadlock and a failure of the electors to express their opinions, in Israel, which leads to continual and repeated elections, in New Zealand, where the introduction of proportional representation led to a decline in turnout, and in Norway, where proportional representation is blamed for causing political disengagement by preventing voters from being able to turf out Governments. So far, therefore, I have not been convinced. As for Scotland, it is of course true that the party of which I am honoured to be a member has introduced in manifestos, and therefore in legislation, some forms of proportionality in elections—not to this place but to other assemblies. I note that one commentator, Mr. Simon Jenkins, pointed out in The Guardian last year:

“The Lib Dems are proving that they cannot work a system to which they have hitched their wagon for half a century.”

He concluded:

“It is surely time for the Lib Dems to fold their tent and go.”

Whatever the merits of proportional representation, will my right hon. Friend, in his review of electoral systems, take another look at the system that was employed in the European elections, and probably conclude that a closed list system is just about the worst of all possibilities?

My hon. Friend will remember that the closed list system was a manifesto commitment in 1997, and it was my duty, simply as a servant of the party, to put it before this House without expressing any personal opinion about its merits or otherwise. She may have noticed, however, that in the proposals in the very good all-party White Paper on the reform of the House of Lords—I have to say, for the avoidance of doubt, that this was not a proposal with which the Opposition were associated—we ruled out, whatever other system was proposed, a closed list system. My hon. Friend, and indeed the House, may wish to give a wider audience to that conclusion.

Does the Justice Secretary agree that any form of proportional representation will lead to no Government or to bad Government—and furthermore, that any list system will ensure that this place is stuffed full of supine party individuals, here only to do what their party tells them, that that will do this House no good, and that people will have less and less interest in politics and in how this House operates?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman in every particular. Alongside his serious points, let me make a serious point.

And neither is the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), and neither are most of my hon. Friends—[Laughter.] And just so that we are clear, some say that I am not, either.

I understand the sedulous attractions of proportional representation, although I profoundly disagree with them. The point that those who support PR have never been able to explain is that there can be no proportional transfer of votes into power. A criticism made of first past the post is that it often gives power to a minority, but it usually gives power to the largest minority, whereas the overwhelming difficulty with proportional representation is that it gives power to the smallest minority.

I was bowing to age, there, Mr. Speaker. May I assure my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice that many of us in our party in Scotland do not support STV? It is causing major problems with constituents. They do not know who their councillor is. Other constituents are playing councillors off against other councillors, and there is a detrimental effect on councillors’ health. Instead of going to one community council meeting, they have to go to three or four, multiplied over a month.

I take full note of what my hon. Friend has said, and I will record that as a balanced contribution to the consideration of what we shall do in future.

Does the Minister agree that the most popular Government in the UK at the moment are the Scottish Government? They happen to be a minority Government and they have the advantage that they cannot force through any measures on their own, but need other parties to join with them. That tends to give a majority view to issues that are carried forward—and STV at council level means that people have the choice to bypass sleepy traditional councillors.

I also note that the alleged attractions of the Scottish Executive are rather diminishing as reality presses in on them, and the claim that Scotland would form an arc of prosperity—along with those other paradigms of prosperity, Ireland and Iceland—now looks slightly tatty.

Employment Tribunals

8. What assessment he has made of the capacity of employment tribunals to discharge their functions in a timely fashion. (230377)

The performance of employment tribunals is discussed monthly by the tribunal service executive team and quarterly by a special steering board. Officials also regularly meet statisticians from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to produce robust forecasts, and to inform resource and sitting day requirements. The tribunals aim to bring 75 per cent. of individual claims to full hearing within 26 weeks of the claims being accepted, and to issue 85 per cent. of judgments within four weeks of the date that cases are concluded. In 2007-08 the former target was missed by 1 per cent. and the latter exceeded by 2 per cent.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the massive increase in the number of cases before tribunals concerning equal pay? Although they quite rightly need to be resolved, they take a long time because of the complexity, and the increase in numbers has been phenomenal. It is possible that half the cases before tribunals this year will involve equal pay. Can she assure the House that we will not get into a position whereby people whose cases do not involve equal pay will find themselves crowded out from the justice that they expect from the tribunal system?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Equal pay claims have existed for more than four years, and so far we have been able to cope with the case load. Sometimes, however, they can be complicated and take quite a long time to settle. We are aware of the concerns that my hon. Friend raises about the growth in equal pay claims, and the impact that they can have on tribunals’ ability to manage their case loads and to hear other important and pressing cases. As a result, we have set up two specialist units, in Newcastle and Scotland, to deal with such claims. I assure my hon. Friend that I will monitor the situation closely to ensure that other cases that equally deserve a hearing will be heard.

End of Custody Licence Scheme

10. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the operation of the end of custody licence scheme. (230379)

The end of custody licence scheme was necessary when it was introduced, but, as I made clear to the House, I intend to phase it out as soon as there is sufficient prison capacity to do so. So far this year, about 2,500 additional places have been provided ahead of target.

Since the scheme was introduced, some 34,000 prisoners have been released early: 6,500 were violent and 650 have reoffended. When does the Secretary of State believe that he can end the scheme? It will not even be reviewed until the end of next year, by which time it is estimated that some 70,000 prisoners—many of them violent—will have been released on to our streets.

It is important to recall that we are considering release in the last 18 days—two and a half weeks—of a sentence. It is important to put that in perspective. There are a great many exclusions from the scheme, including serious violent and sexual offenders. It is not the case that we will review the scheme only at the end of next year. I keep it constantly under review and I understand the House’s concern, which I share—18 days is still 18 days. I do not dispute the public concern about the scheme, which we keep constantly under review. As soon as I judge that there is sufficient capacity in the system, I will phase it out.

In a written answer published late last night, the Government reveal that three alleged murders were committed by prisoners while released early under the end of custody licence scheme. How can the Secretary of State have the front to talk about punishing offenders and being on the side of victims when his policy—under which more than 36,000 prisoners, including 7,000 violent criminals, have been released early—so clearly puts the public at risk?

Of course, I understand the concern. I gave the figures to the hon. Gentleman, and I was concerned to ensure that he got them and that they were comprehensive. There are three cases, out of the thousands of prisoners who have been released early, in which allegations of murder have been made. In one case the proceedings are continuing, and I cannot comment on it. In the second case, the alleged perpetrator subsequently killed himself. When the third case came before the court last December, Mrs. Justice Swift stated in her sentencing remarks:

“The fact that you were released early cannot, in my view, be said to have been causative of what happened thereafter”—

that is, the murder. She continued:

“It is highly likely that the events that took place would have occurred whenever you were released.”

I find that answer astonishingly complacent. It appears that three additional murders may have been committed by offenders who were released 18 days early. We already know that one prisoner who was released early was convicted of a murder when he should have been safely behind bars. Last night the Ministry of Justice claimed that the scheme was working well. What is working well about a scheme that releases early offenders who go on to commit such serious crimes? The Ministry said that it would scrap early release when it was safe to do so. Is it not obvious to everyone, except the Government, that the policy is unsafe now, and should be scrapped immediately?

I have given the answer about the three murder allegations. I simply repeat to the hon. Gentleman that the remarks about whether that particular terrible event would have taken place in any event were made not by me but by the honourable Mrs. Justice Swift, and she was very clear about it—sufficiently clear to put it on record in the sentencing remarks. In a circumstance in which I regret the scheme, I emphasise that the reoffending rate is 1 per cent., which is low, and that breaches are tackled quickly.

Since the hon. Gentleman takes the matter to a party political level, let me say that he got surprisingly little coverage for a speech that he made to the Prison Governors Association on 8 October. It requires a wider audience, because he claimed:

“we are the only major political party that is now talking about reducing the prison population”.

If that is the Opposition’s policy, they will have serious difficulties in cutting out end of custody licence release.

Topical Questions

I would like to report to the House that we have made considerable progress in protecting the public by reducing reoffending in both adults and juveniles. The latest figures show that between 2000 and 2006 adult reoffending was down by 23 per cent., while juvenile reoffending was down by 19 per cent., although we of course accept that we have a great deal more work to do.

Members will remember that the introduction of a British day was a key recommendation of Lord Goldsmith’s much heralded citizenship review, principally in order to encourage members of the public to celebrate our national identity and to promote greater integration and tolerance. However, there seems to be some confusion, which I hope the Minister can clarify. Last week the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) said in reply to a written question from the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell):

“there are no plans to introduce a national day”.—[Official Report, 21 October 2008; Vol. 481, c. 243W.]

Last night, according to the BBC—

Order. Supplementaries should be brief, particularly in topical questions, as I have said before. So perhaps we could have a brief reply.

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that there is no confusion at all. We are considering all the Goldsmith review’s recommendations and will bring our conclusions to the House in due course.

T5. My right hon. Friend will be aware that the money that has been allocated to groups in Scotland through the Barnett formula, and in particular the money for the groups that need it most, has fallen into a black hole under the current Administration there. Is it not time we revisited the constitutional settlement, to ensure that the money that goes to Scotland through the Barnett formula gets to the vulnerable people who need it, and for whom it was intended in the first place? (230400)

I understand my hon. Friend’s deep concern for his constituents in need whose needs are not being met by the policies of the Scottish Executive. However, part of the settlement was for there to be a block grant, so that there is full accountability by those who are making the decisions on spending.

T2. With repossessions going through the roof, surely we need strong protection enshrined in law on both sides of the border to ensure that repossession is only ever used as a last resort. Will the Minister confirm whether the recently announced changes to the repossession procedures are statutory, and say how they can be enforced? (230397)

What I can say to the hon. Lady is this. The protocol will take effect from 19 November and will set out clear guidance from the judiciary on the steps that lenders are expected to take before bringing a claim in the courts, with a view to ensuring that repossession is a last resort. If a case reaches court, the lenders will be required to be able to tell the court precisely what they have done to comply with the protocol, which will apply to arrears on first and second-charge residential mortgages. The protocol does not alter the parties’ existing rights and obligations. The judiciary have brought the protocol forward and we welcome that move, so that we can safeguard those who are particularly vulnerable during this economic crisis.

T3. On Christmas eve 2006, my constituent, Mr. David George, a serving police officer in the West Mercia police force, was brutally attacked and kicked unconscious, and needed hospital treatment. The offender was subsequently caught, prosecuted and sentenced to 14 months in prison. Does the Justice Secretary share my outrage and the outrage of my constituents Mr. and Mrs. George, who were informed only last week that the culprit had been released, having served only 12 weeks behind bars? Is this the Justice Secretary’s new definition of punishment? (230398)

My heart, and that of the whole House, goes out to the police officer who was injured, and to his family, colleagues and friends. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I cannot possibly make comments on individual sentencing decisions; no one in my position can. However, I can say without contradiction that everyone knows that the prison population has risen by a third in recent years, and that the sentences typically handed down by the courts are longer, particularly for those convicted of offences of violence.

What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that when an employment tribunal makes an award, the employer pays up?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. There have been cases in which a tribunal has found in favour of a claimant, yet the employer has not been as willing as he or she ought to have been to pay them. Next year, under the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007, we will ensure that cases can be registered in the county court, so claimants will be able to get a speedier resolution to the issue. This is something that we are concerned about. When a claim goes to an employment tribunal and the tribunal upholds the claimant’s position, it is quite unacceptable that the employer should then either delay or deny the claimant their rightful compensation.

T4. Prison officers in my constituency report to me that incidents of assault on prison staff by prisoners at HMP Dartmoor have recently risen sharply, perhaps reflecting a wider concern in society about the rise of violent crime. What steps have the Government taken to analyse this increase in assaults on prison staff, and what will the Minister do to ensure that these hard-working public servants are carefully protected? (230399)

This is an important issue. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are committed to ensuring that violence in prisons is not tolerated in any form. Since 2004, every public sector prison has had in place a local violence strategy, and we have just jointly committed, with the Prison Officers Association, to a policy of zero tolerance of assaults on staff. I have a number of statistics that I will happily give to the hon. Gentleman following this Question Time, which show that overall, although assaults are still present, they are on a trajectory that is falling compared with the prison population. This is an important issue, and we want to work with the prison officers on it.

In his speech at the RSA yesterday, the Lord Chancellor prefaced some rather sensible remarks—about reducing reoffending rates and crime by putting what works first—with some frankly weird remarks about punishment for the sake of punishment. It was that part of his speech that he pre-released to the media. Does he not see that when he chases the headlines in that way, he undermines the case for putting what works first? It is not the offenders who suffer as a consequence of that, but the victims of the crimes that would have been prevented if we had been in a position to do more of what works.

The hon. Gentleman is entitled to his own view of my speech, but it is not the case that I was talking about punishment for the sake of punishment. I was drawing to the attention of my audience, and to that of those involved in criminal justice in the widest sense, that it is this Parliament, in one statute after another—not least in the principal sentencing statute, the Criminal Justice Act 2003—that sets out the punishment of the offender as the first principle of sentencing. We need to understand—perhaps the Liberal Democrats do not understand it—that that is what the public and the victims expect, although not in an unpleasant, nasty or inhumane way, as I made very clear. We need to ensure that the courts and everyone else associated with the criminal justice system use language that connects with where the public and the victims are. I went on to talk about the importance of reform alongside that.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many trade unionists are demonstrating and lobbying here today on the issue of recognising pleural plaques as an industrial disease? When will he take the decision on this matter, and why is it taking such a while?

I am indeed aware of today’s lobby and demonstrations. I fully understand the concern of all who are here and the people they represent about the implications of the Law Lords’ decision last October. The consultation that I initiated earlier this year closed three weeks ago. We have received more than 300 responses to it and we are currently assessing them. I hope to announce our response next month.

T6. May I press the Secretary of State to review the end of custody licence scheme as a matter of urgency? Since its introduction, nearly 800 crimes have been committed by offenders who should have been in prison. When it was introduced it was described as temporary, yet official prison population projections suggest that it will continue indefinitely. Will the right hon. Gentleman review the scheme, for the sake of the safety of the law-abiding majority? (230401)

I repeat what I said to the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues earlier. It is a temporary measure. The release is for two and a half weeks, not four months, in advance of when the sentence is due to end in any event. As for prison population projections, the hon. Gentleman will know that these are, and always have been, imprecise. There are high, medium and low trajectories. What I am trying to do, working hard with my colleagues in the Department and the Prison Service, is to ensure that we have sufficient headroom to be able to end the scheme. Unfortunately, I cannot say at the moment exactly when that will be—I wish I could—but as soon as I judge it safe to do so, the scheme will be ended.

What steps is the Secretary of State taking to discharge his duty to represent the Isle of Man Government in their dispute with the Icelandic Government over the failed Kaupthing bank? Will he initiate wider discussions on whether loan assistance to the Isle of Man Government would enable depositors in that bank, including UK depositors, to get some of their money?

I have received no direct representations personally on behalf of the Isle of Man Government. I am aware, however, that there have been discussions between the Isle of Man Government and the Treasury.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that no decision has yet been made on the site of a titan prison in the north-west? Will he take note that the Omega site in Warrington is one of regional economic significance and intended to create a business park, building up to 24,000 high-technology jobs, and is completely unsuitable to be a titan prison site?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. She will know—we met and discussed the matter last week—that as of now, no decision has been taken on any titan site, whether it be in the north-west or any other part of England and Wales. We are committed to look for a site in the north-west, together with one in the south-east and one in the west midlands, but we will take the decision only after consideration of the results of the consultation on the titan programme that I recently announced.

T7. I noted the Secretary of State’s comments on the early release scheme, but why are the Government continuing with the early release of violent offenders, including those who have committed domestic violence, without a substantial risk assessment or accommodation check before they are released? (230402)

I say again that there is a whole series of exclusions from the end of custody licence scheme, and they include serious violent and sexual offenders. I wish that no alleged reoffending had occurred by anyone released under the scheme, but the fact that the number is so low—1 per cent. of the total—indicates that those who made the assessments and constructed the scheme did as well overall as it was possible to do in the circumstances in which it was necessary to introduce it.

Will the Minister outline the Government’s plans to change the policy of overcharging prisoners for phone calls to their families? All the evidence shows that if the calls were charged at the same rate as normal telephone calls, reoffending would fall considerably as a result of greater contact with offenders’ families.

My hon. Friend is right: contact with families is crucial. We are currently engaged in consultations and discussions with providers about the cost of telephone calls. As my hon. Friend will know, contracts are already in place, but I am looking into what steps can be taken at their conclusion to reduce the cost of calls further.

T8. What plans has the Secretary of State for Justice to revisit the sentencing guidelines dating from 2003, particularly those relating to aggravated offences of burglary and shoplifting, to ensure that the most stringent sentences can be given? He will be aware of the poignant case, reported today, in which a burglar used aggression and violence towards a pregnant lady and her young daughter. Although the judge wished to hand down a custodial sentence, the guidelines prevented him from doing so. (230404)

All the guidelines are kept under review, but the House will understand that I cannot comment on that particular case in any detail, for two reasons: first, it would be inappropriate in any event, and secondly, all the information that I have is from the newspaper report, which, although it may be entirely accurate, is bound to be selective. What I have done, however—I invite the House to do the same—is examine both the lead decision by the Court of Appeal in McInerney and Keating and the guidelines. The guidelines clearly allow the existence of a vulnerable victim, along with other circumstances that appear to parallel those mentioned in the report, to constitute an aggravating factor, and allow the issuing of a custodial sentence in such circumstances.

It is important for everyone to understand that these are guidelines. Courts can and do depart from them. When they do, there may be an appeal, but it is then for the Court of Appeal to make its own judgments. Nothing whatever in the guidelines could force a sentencer to make a decision against his or her own will and judgment if, having taken account of all the circumstances, he or she believed that there should be a departure from the guidelines. If there is any argument about that, it can safely be left to later decisions by the Court of Appeal criminal division—and I repeat that the guidelines themselves provide for aggravating factors, and explicitly define the existence of a vulnerable victim as an aggravating factor.