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Topical Questions

Volume 494: debated on Tuesday 16 June 2009

As this is the last Justice questions under your speakership, Mr. Speaker, I should like to express my personal appreciation and that of my colleagues for your years of service and for the many personal kindnesses that you have shown me over the years.

The House will be aware that there has been considerable concern about the starting point for the minimum term for murder involving the use of a firearm, which is 30 years, compared with that for murder involving the use of a knife, which is 15 years. In the light of those concerns, I intend to review the provisions in schedule 21 to the Criminal Justice Act 2003, with a view to deciding whether to amend it, as I can do by order. I will of course consult the senior judiciary and the Sentencing Guidelines Council, and I would be very happy to receive wider representations, including from hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Given that an inquiry into Iraq, however inadequate, has finally been announced, will the Secretary of State tell us whether there will be measures in the Constitutional Renewal Bill to require parliamentary consent for war? If so, will he explain why that could not also be achieved by resolution?

In the consultation document that was published on 3 July 2007, and in documents published alongside the publication of the draft Constitutional Reform Bill, we proposed two alternatives: one involving statute, the other using a resolution. In the event, we now judge that the consensus in both Houses is to proceed by resolution, and a draft of such a resolution has already been published. I hope that it will be approved by both Houses.

T4. There have been press reports recently about judges directing juries in relation to rape cases. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House more about that? (279690)

My hon. Friend will appreciate that, although I have some responsibilities in respect of the judiciary, it is the Lord Chief Justice, the noble Lord Judge, who is head of the judiciary and has direct responsibility for it. As my hon. Friend will have seen from the press reports, however, there are clear indications that the senior judiciary wishes to ensure that better guidance is made available to trial judges on how to direct juries dealing with rape cases.

T2. Triaging young offenders earlier in their progress through the criminal justice system is aimed at preventing them from slipping further into a life of crime. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that triage will not be another ruse artificially to manage the prison population down and put the public at risk? (279688)

Yes, I will confirm that. I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. There is a general sentiment across the House that we should encourage the courts to use non-custodial disposals, particularly for younger offenders. That is why, as the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Claire Ward) has explained, the number of young offenders in custody has gone down by 8 per cent. over the past couple of years. We are seeking all the time to get the most effective disposals from the courts while ensuring the imperative of protecting the public.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the minimum 19-year sentences passed on the three heartless thugs who murdered Ben Kinsella are not sufficient, and that his family are rightly concerned about that? Can that case be reconsidered by the Appeal Court? Longer minimum sentences of 25 or 30 years would be far more appropriate.

Any reference to the Court of Appeal in respect of those sentences is a matter for my right hon. and noble Friend the Attorney-General, exercising her quasi-judicial discretion on a reference to the Court of Appeal in respect of what she might judge to be an unduly lenient sentence. I will of course ensure that my hon. Friend’s views are passed on to her. That case has raised the wider issue of the starting points for minimum terms provided by section 269 and schedule 21 to the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and, as I have already said, there is a power in section 269 to amend schedule 21 by order. As I have just announced to the House, I intend to review the provisions of that schedule in the light of general concerns, to see whether they still command public approbation or whether they ought to be amended, as I suspect they will need to be.

What will be the Secretary of State’s response to the Government’s resounding defeat yesterday in the House of Lords over political donations by tax exiles? Is he not now regretting that he did not go ahead with the balanced package of proposals put forward by the Constitutional Affairs Committee and developed by Hayden Phillips?

As with any decision by the other place, we will of course consider it and consult other parties. I sometimes invite this House to take an opposite view and at other times recommend the same view. Some significant practical issues are raised by the right hon. Gentleman’s question, and they require consideration. As for Hayden Phillips’s proposal, unless my memory has totally failed me, there was never any intention for the scheme approved in the other place yesterday to become law.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Scottish Assembly recently introduced legislation to make pleural plaques a compensatable condition. Now that the consultation process is completed, when will he make his statement and will he follow the Scottish route?

I understand my hon. Friend’s frustration about the time it has taken to come to a view on this subject, but he will also appreciate that we have to deal with a decision—a unanimous decision—taken by the Law Lords in October 2007 and with subsequent medical evidence. We hope to reach a decision and to announce it as quickly as possible, although I obviously cannot anticipate what it will be.

T3. A number of my constituents have expressed concern about the apparent lack of openness in the Government’s plans for three mini-Titan prisons, particularly when they have only recently discovered that Basford near Crewe is one of the locations under consideration. Will the Secretary of State confirm how local residents will be involved in the decision-making process, and when we are going to have a decision? (279689)

When I made my statement at the end of April, I announced two sites, neither of which was the Basford marshalling yard, just south of Crewe. I am looking carefully at better ways of involving local communities at an earlier stage when it comes to the siting of prisons. It is a difficult issue of balance because many communities, although not all, are inherently opposed to having a new prison—until they have got it, when they often want to hang on to it. I accept the burden of the hon. Gentleman’s point, which is that there are better ways of involving communities at an earlier stage.

The Calman commission yesterday published its far-reaching proposals for devolution. Given that they have all-party support—from Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives—will my right hon. Friend introduce proposals to implement the commission’s recommendations as soon as possible?

I will certainly pass on my hon. Friend’s helpful suggestion to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

T5. Why are there so few drug courts, bearing in mind that they were established a few years ago? If they indeed break the cycle of reoffending and drive down drug-related crime, why have they not been established nationally, particularly given that the UK has the worst record in Europe for drug offences? (279691)

I welcome the hon. Lady’s support for dedicated drugs courts. We started off with two pilots; we have now extended them to another four, and we are receiving very positive indications from them. We want to evaluate all the models on the six different sites before taking any decision on further implementation. Like her, I believe that what we have seen so far of dedicated drugs courts augurs well for the future in our battle against drug addiction.

T8. Apparently, as the Secretary of State will know, there is cross-party support for the introduction of a power of recall in relation to Members of the House of Commons. With that in mind, will he tell us when he will be in a position to present proposals, and can he explain why Labour peers were whipped to vote against the idea last night? (279695)

The issue of recall is being discussed by the cross-party group which is considering the idea of a parliamentary standards authority and related matters. I have been chairing the group, and it is holding its second meeting this week. As for the wider issue of recall, the hon. Gentleman may be aware that we included in the second Green Paper on Lords reform proposals—which had been broadly agreed with all the parties—for recall for the second and subsequent terms that it is envisaged that the new Members of the second Chamber would serve.

T6. The 12,000 or so foreign prisoners in United Kingdom jails were recently costing the taxpayer around £400 million a year. Will the Secretary of State change the law so that many more of them can serve their sentences in their home countries? (279693)

The law itself does not really need to be changed. There are clear prisoner transfer agreements. However, the agreement of the receiving state as well as that of the sentencing state is required.

The proportion of our prisoners who are foreign nationals is low compared with those elsewhere in Europe. It is about 14 per cent., which compares extremely well with 60 per cent. in Austria and well over 30 per cent. in most other major European countries.

T7. The Justice Secretary’s own budget proposes a £6.4 million cut in the Thames Valley probation service over the next three years, with a potential 140 job losses. Does he anticipate that reoffending rates will rise or fall in Milton Keynes over the next three years? (279694)

First, those figures are inaccurate. Secondly, I do not anticipate but am completely certain that if there were a Conservative Government, there would be a 10 per cent. cut in probation services over the next two years. There would also be a 10 per cent. cut in the prison programme, with £200 million slashed from it, and hundreds of millions of pounds would be slashed from the police service. That is because the Conservative party has not exempted either Home Office or Ministry of Justice services from its cuts, which would undoubtedly lead to an increase in both crime and reoffending.

T9. The National Council for Democratic Renewal sounds like something out of North Korea, and I can promise the Justice Secretary that it will be parodied in Private Eye this week. I have a surprisingly high regard for the Justice Secretary, notwithstanding his rant against the Conservatives. Can he really put his hand on his heart and say that he believes it is appropriate for an unpopular Government in the dying stages of a discredited Parliament to present serious proposals for constitutional change? Does he not think that it would be better for a new Parliament to take such action as early as possible? (279696)

I shall ignore the hon. Gentleman’s slightly loaded adjectives. I think it entirely appropriate for a fine, upstanding Government, full of vigour, to present these proposals. Let me make a further, even more serious point. It was the House of Commons—including Members in all parts of the House—which allowed this mess on expenses to develop, and it is our responsibility, not that of the next Parliament, to sort it out before the election rather than afterwards.