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Topical Questions

Volume 489: debated on Tuesday 17 March 2009

The House will wish to be aware that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), has today announced strengthened regulation of the bailiff industry, including an online register and better criminal record checks. At the same time, we will not extend bailiffs’ powers of entry or the use of force, or commence charging order reforms.

On the issue of my hon. Friend and her career, may I make it clear that the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) was correct and I was wrong. I apologise to the House. By way of mitigation on behalf of my hon. Friend, I should say that Ministry of Justice officials and Ministers were not aware of the decision of the coroner of 6 January until 19 February, which was after Second Reading. I ask for that to be taken into consideration.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the honesty and probity of our legal services are very important for the future of the financial, legal and other services that we will continue to sell abroad? Does he share my concern and that of the Public Administration Committee that many of the big law firms are deeply involved in lobbying? If lobbying and the law become intertwined, we are in danger of experiencing the same problems as we had in accountancy, for example with Enron, when the two responsibilities of management consultants and accountants were merged and disaster ensued. There are some real problems with people who come here as lawyers but who are actually lobbyists, and something should be done.

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, but this is the first time that this particular issue has been raised with me. Of course I will follow up the specific case that he has in mind, but I should also say that this and the other place agreed to establish the Legal Services Board, which now has a tough chairman in Mr. David Edmonds, to ensure the more effective regulation of the legal profession, including cases in which alternative business models are adopted.

T3. I thank the Minister for allowing a free vote on the issue of the keeping of candidates’ addresses confidential, if they so wish, at election time. I also thank him for the excellent assistance that I received from his officials in making it possible to draft such a satisfactory clause, which has now gone to the other place. Given that this House has expressed its view—in a free vote by every party, apart from the Liberal Democrats—does he agree that it would be bizarre if the unelected House were to try to interfere with the clause? Can he give any indication of the attitude the Government will take in the other place on the fulfilment of the wishes of this House? If the matter comes back here, will he guarantee that we will have enough time for a full debate on the subject? (263774)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his graciousness, particularly towards the officials. They are not often mentioned in this House, and when they are it is not always complimentary, but they do a fantastic job and so I am extremely grateful to him for those gracious words.

On the matter of substance, we took the view very seriously that the subject was a matter for this House, and hence there was a free vote. We took a great deal of trouble to ensure that the measure came to this House first, because we thought that it was proper for those who were elected to make a decision on their behaviour during elections and on what information they should make available. I am quite sure that those in the other place will take due account of that and behave appropriately. Of course, we will have to see what they do. When we have seen what they have done, we will make a decision about what will happen when the measure comes back here.

T2. Concern about the number of adults with learning difficulties who remain in prison continues to be very strong. Will my right hon. Friend look carefully at the proceedings of the Westminster Hall debate on adults with learning difficulties that took place a couple of weeks back? In particular, will he look at the comments made by our hon. Friends the Members for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) about the number of adults in the system who do not get the right sort of advice or assistance, particularly when they are trying to go forward for parole? The issue is important and it is one on which it would be useful to hear of some proactivity from the Department. (263773)

I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. I shall certainly look at the debate that took place several weeks ago in Westminster Hall. As it happens, we have also been well engaged with the Prison Reform Trust on this issue. I attended the launch of the “No One Knows” programme last November with the director general of the National Offender Management Service to look at a range of issues to do with how we can support people with learning difficulties. As my hon. Friend will know, a number of individuals have found themselves in prison whose learning difficulties are contributing to their having a much more difficult time there than would otherwise be the case. It is important that we look at the recommendations. As we said at the conference in November, we welcome the recommendations and will look at how we can address them in a serious and practical way.

T4. The Minister will be aware of concerns caused among local communities by ClearSprings’s plans to house offenders on early release in residential areas. Given that ClearSprings has already had to back off from Basildon council once over a row about inadequate consultation, will the Department revise its contract with ClearSprings to ensure that local councils and residents are properly consulted as soon as ClearSprings starts looking in an area? (263775)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his views. He will know that, of the ClearSprings properties across the country, only about 6 per cent. have caused difficulties once operational. We will shortly re-tender for the contract. I am also in discussions with the Local Government Association to decide on a protocol on the question of consultation, which the LGA has almost agreed on a cross-party basis. It is important that probation, police and local councils are consulted on these matters, but the hon. Gentleman should remember that properties are very often the private homes of individuals who are sometimes yet to be convicted, on bail following offences, or returning from prison to the community for the first time. Those homes are private property, so there is an element of discretion around the issues.

T5. Tomorrow, the Political Parties and Elections Bill goes into the House of Lords, where Lord Campbell-Savours will table my amendments, which were backed in this house by 216 MPs but were not reached for procedural reasons. May I ask my friend the Minister why the Government will not table their own amendments to make it unlawful for tax exiles to bankroll UK political parties? (263776)

I have had some private discussions with my hon. Friend, to which he has given a wider audience. As I have explained to him, I think that his intention is shared across the House. However, his proposals would not have the consequences that he seeks. Moreover, there is quite an issue of principle here: it would be eccentric, to say the least, if the eligibility rules governing voting and receiving money from permissible donors, as well as standing for and taking up a seat in a Parliament, were less stringent than those governing giving money to a political party. I think that there needs to be consistency on this, and that is why we need a thorough examination of all these issues of residence and citizenship as qualifications for taking part in our democratic process.

T9. Earlier today, I had a meeting with representatives of the Federation of Small Businesses. They are very worried about the under-reporting of crime and say that, if the crimes that are not reported by business were taken into account, business crime would account for a third of all crime. They told me that one reason for businesses not reporting crime is that they are not convinced that any action will be taken, and that they believe that sentences are very lenient even when it is. What reassurances can Ministers give that the Government are really serious about tackling business crime? (263780)

Although I am in contact with the national Federation of Small Businesses and have great contact with small businesses locally, that representation has not been made to me before. We have increased the number of police officers over the past dozen years, and there has been an even greater increase in the numbers of support staff for the police. We have improved their systems and, as the Liberals are constantly complaining, we have increased the prison population and prison capacity by a third. As a result, the courts can hand out much tougher sentences for people convicted of crimes, including business crime. Once again, the Liberals need to work out what they want. They need to ensure that hon. Members on their Front Bench stop asking us to cut the prison population when those on their Back Benches are calling for an increase in the prison population—which is what we have provided.

T6. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he is giving full and urgent consideration to new information in favour of Michael Shields? Does he recognise the strength of support for Michael, in Liverpool and across the country? (263777)

I do indeed recognise the strength of that support. If I may, I should like to commend the way that my hon. Friend has represented the interests of her constituent and his family. I can answer the first part of her question by saying that, yes, we are giving this matter more consideration—quite appropriately—than I have ever given to any other case of this kind in my roles as Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and now Justice Secretary. As she will be aware, I have asked the Merseyside police urgently to conduct further investigations and interviews of further witnesses so that we can come to a view in the light of the criteria set down by the Court of Appeal.

Norfolk is one of eight areas that have piloted the youth restorative disposal scheme. Will the Minister assure the House that the departmental cuts of £900 million over the next two years will not affect those programmes?

I am happy to look in detail at what the hon. Gentleman says, as will the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson). However, the hon. Gentleman may be aware that I visited Norfolk 10 days ago to open the new headquarters of the Norfolk probation service. I was able greatly to commend the work of Norfolk’s police, probation service, courts and local authorities in working together to get crime down. They have made streets and communities much safer, and we are determined to ensure that that work continues.

T7. We have been waiting for more than 150 years to put the civil service on a proper constitutional footing. The Prime Minister announced that that was to be the unfinished constitutional business that the Government would complete, so will my right hon. Friend confirm that it will be this Government in this Session who will complete it? (263778)

I am very glad to hear that the hon. Lady endorses what my hon. Friend has said. Subject to any unanticipated glitches, it remains my intention that the necessary Bill will be brought forward, and it is currently in the final stages of drafting. The idea is that it will be a carry-over Bill that will be brought forward in the spring and then, if necessary, carried over into the next Session.

What progress has been made in ensuring that regional electoral returning officers can make sure that constituency returning officers obey and implement the law to prevent electoral fraud, because they have sometimes been found wanting?

Of course, we are always looking at how to improve the ways that electoral fraud is tackled, and electoral registration officers have a valuable role to play. We are looking at recommendations by the Electoral Commission in this area; and of course, we will introduce any proposals as soon as they are ready.

T8. My right hon. Friend will be aware that the consultation period on the House of Lords decision on pleural plaques has long passed, and is it not time that we had a result? Will he not consider ensuring that pleural plaques sufferers are looked after, that that decision by the House of Lords is overthrown and that those people will at last receive justice? (263779)

My hon. Friend is correct to say that the consultation period has now finished, and we are now actively considering—indeed, I attended a meeting this morning—the next steps in that respect. Of course, I understand the concerns that he expresses on behalf of his constituents.

Following the conviction last week of my constituent, John Worboys, for a series of very serious offences against women who put themselves under his responsibility, trusting that he would behave, will the Home Secretary assure us that he will have conversations with the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Home Office, so that where people have been arrested on suspicion of very serious offences, none the less and without infringing their liberties that information is not lost when similar offences are clearly being repeated in the same area or elsewhere?

I noticed the hon. Gentleman’s slip of the tongue; I am no longer Home Secretary. I will certainly ensure that what he says is passed on to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and taken into account. Of course, there is a wider issue of similar fact evidence, and one of the issues that we pursued—I do not remember getting a huge amount of help from the Liberal Democrats—was to ensure that it was easier to introduce such evidence in criminal prosecutions. I think that we were told at the time by the Liberal Democrats that that would be the end of civilisation and human rights. Yet again, they need to sort themselves out; they say one thing locally and another thing nationally.

Bill Presented

Protection of Shareholders Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. William Cash, supported by Mr. Frank Field, presented a Bill to make provision for each public company to establish a shareholders’ committee; to make provision about the membership, functions and operation of the committee; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 June, and to be printed (Bill 76).