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Topical Questions

Volume 496: debated on Tuesday 21 July 2009

Yesterday I published the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, which includes major reforms in respect of the civil service and the ratification of treaties, ends the curious election of hereditary peers to the House of Lords, and provides for peers to resign, to be suspended or to be expelled. Further proposals for the long-term reform of the Lords will be brought forward in the autumn. With yesterday’s announcement, nearly all the proposals put to the House on 3 July 2007 have either been implemented or are well in hand in being implemented.

As we will not meet for about three months, will the Justice Secretary tell us how the promise—that an equivalent to the oath will be administered at the Iraq inquiry—from the Prime Minister and Sir John Chilcot can be delivered? We need to know now, not three months down the road and a long way into the Chilcot inquiry.

I assume that the equivalent to an oath is that those who are witnesses—I expect to be one myself—will be invited to indicate that they are about to tell the truth. That is how it will work. If there is any difference, I will write to my hon. Friend.

T2. Given the increase in tribunals practising sharia law in this country, can the Secretary of State or one of his excellent Ministers explain how that dovetails with the law of the land? How is it compatible with our commitment to human rights and, for example, the equality of women under the laws of this country? (288127)

Any domestic tribunal, as the so-called sharia courts are, has to comply with the law of the land, and the statutory basis with which they have to comply is an Act passed under the last Conservative Administration —the Arbitration Act 1996. This Government have no less an interest than any other party in seeing the strictest observance of British law by everybody who is resident in or subject to this jurisdiction, regardless of their confessional faith.

T7. Despite the efforts of various bird-brained councillors who have not yet got the gist of the Department’s excellent new guidelines on the staking of graveyards, does the Minister welcome the fact that the Co-operative funeral service has now agreed to fix any gravestone wrongly staked over the past 10 years and consider any in its jurisdiction that have been staked at all? (288132)

As always, my hon. Friend is assiduous in pursuing this issue, and rightly so. I am absolutely delighted that the Co-op—of which I give notice I am a customer—is taking on board what he raises. I have written directly to the chief executives and leaders of local authorities, and I hope that they will take the issue seriously. I will make sure that they follow the guidance properly and do not allow views about health and safety that are unhelpfully politically correct to overcome what should be a sensible, straightforward and sensitive way of dealing with the matter.

I welcome the two written statements about legal aid that were made yesterday. One insisted that best-value tendering will not go ahead until pilots have been examined, and the other was on family law. On the very controversial issue of family legal aid, however, what will the reworking of assumptions and the further analysis amount to? What will the key considerations be?

From work done in the Legal Services Commission, it became apparent last Friday that there were problems in the analysis—although not in the basic data—that required reworking. That was why the announcement was deferred, but I say to the right hon. Gentleman and the House that there has been an extraordinary increase in expenditure on family legal aid. It is now up to £582 million—an increase of 25 per cent.—even though the case load has declined by 11 per cent. This is not a service that has been underfunded, but it is an area of legal process that has become over-elaborate. All those participating in the system have a responsibility to make it less elaborate, in the interests of the public and the children concerned.

In 2006, the Information Commissioner’s Operation Motorman referred to hundreds of journalists who had got information on people from private detectives by illegal means. Those journalists, and the newspapers that they work for, have not been named. Has the Justice Department been involved in that cover-up? Can they be named, so that the people who were the victims of those illegal activities can have some remedy against those newspapers and journalists?

To the very best of my knowledge, my Department has not been involved in any way in the matter. My hon. Friend asks about naming the individuals involved, and he may wish to consider making a freedom of information request to the Information Commissioner.

T3. May I ask the Secretary of State to return to the issue of trainee probation officers and to clear up a point of confusion? I think that he accused my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) of exaggerating the figures, but is it not true that around 1,000 trainee probation officers qualify each year for about 250 jobs? Does not that mean that hundreds of people trained up by the Government do not get jobs? (288128)

I think that the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion of the figures is slightly wide of the mark. I have accepted already that some trainee probation officers will qualify, for whom positions are unlikely to be available this year. That is due to a combination of the tighter financial climate and the recession, which means that fewer existing probation officers are moving on to other jobs. I am on the case and I am discussing the matter in detail, with the probation trade unions above all. We are anxious to use the full resources of the National Offender Management Service to ensure that qualified trainees are provided with employment wherever possible.

The Justice Secretary and I have been in correspondence about the possibility that a prison will be built in Scarisbrick in my constituency. I have received assurances from him that there will not be a Titan prison or any other sort of prison there, but it would appear that my Tory councillors will not accept that until they hear categorically that there will not be a prison in Scarisbrick. Will my right hon. Friend give me that assurance?

T4. Twelve days ago, the Government accepted amendments in the House of Lords to abolish seditious and criminal libel. Those amendments had been sought for a long time by bodies such as PEN, Index on Censorship and Article 19; I am a trustee of the last of those organisations. May I ask the Secretary of State to ask his officials to liaise with them all to ensure that maximum publicity is given to the fact that we are going to change our law, and to set an example to those countries that maintain and use such laws? (288129)

The Government have accepted in principle the amendments tabled to the Coroners and Justice Bill. Among other things, the amendments will extend abolitions to the offences to Northern Ireland, and pick up some of the mixed consequential amendments and repeals to various linked statutory provisions. We will also look at debating and discussing some of those issues with other partners and outside stakeholders.

I return to the question of compensation for pleural plaques victims. If someone worked for a UK Government Department, such as the Ministry of Defence, in Scotland or Northern Ireland, they would get compensation, but if they worked in England or Wales, they would get nothing. What is the practicality and fairness of that?

Even before devolution, there were differences in the civil law as well as the criminal law north and south of the border. That has just been a fact of life. The courts are therefore well used to dealing with some differences, which have differences of outcomes for individuals.

T5. HMP Wellingborough is having a methadone dispenser put in. Following what my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) said in an earlier question, could the Justice Secretary explain why a dispenser is better value and better for the prisoner than going to see the medical officer? I wonder whether the Secretary of State, Lord High Chancellor and Deputy Prime Minister could answer that. (288130)

This is a most extraordinary confection of a story developed by some Opposition Members. I shall explain: prisoners can get methadone, whether it is dispensed through a machine or manually, only when they have been to the medical officer. What happens—I have seen this in operation—is that the dispensing machines are put in by the health service to control the issue of methadone, so that only those prisoners who have been prescribed it medically, by a medical officer, can receive it. There is an iris scan, and if the machine recognises the prisoner, his or her dose is dispensed. They have to drink it in sight of a prison officer and a medical orderly, so there is no chance—no chance—of deception of the kind that, I am afraid, takes place all too frequently otherwise in prison, especially with drugs.

What discussions has the Department had with the Crown Prosecution Service over the proposed restructuring of the Forensic Science Service? Given that we are looking at hundreds of jobs under threat and the closure of excellent laboratories such as the one in Chepstow, where many of my constituents work, does my right hon. Friend agree that we should look at the full repercussions for the CPS before any decisions are made by the Home Office?

I am very happy to pass on to my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Attorney-General the concerns that have been expressed by my hon. Friend about the position of the FSS. Those concerns, if I may say, have also been expressed to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle). My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Jessica Morden) will understand that decisions on that are matters for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

T8. What action is being taken by the Ministry of Justice to address the particular needs of former armed service personnel who have been shown to be suffering from combat stress and who are caught up in the criminal justice system? (288134)

We are taking special measures to help former service personnel who are caught up in the criminal justice system because we recognise—indeed, this has emerged this morning—that the results of combat stress can often emerge many years later, and in unpredictable forms, including in offending behaviour that simply was not there before and during an individual’s service in the armed forces. I am very happy to write in more detail to the hon. Lady to set out what we are doing.

I was alarmed about the case of a constituent of mine who was the victim of an assault and robbery at a cash machine. The criminal who committed the crime was given a suspended sentence. Will my right hon. Friend look at the case if I send details to him?

T9. The people outside the House must be involved in rebuilding our broken political system. Will the Secretary of State support a citizens convention to help to map out the path for constitutional renewal, instead of leaving it solely in the hands of politicians? (288135)

The hon. Lady makes a very valuable point and I agree with a large part of what she said. It is important that we involve the British people in policy making between elections as well as at them. That is why we are bringing forward proposals for deliberative events that involve the British people in precisely the way she suggests. I do not agree with her precisely that we need to wrap it all up in one grand citizens convention, but on the spirit of what she is saying—the need to involve people in deliberative events to help formulate public policy—I agree.

Returning to electoral reform and the general election, given that our brave armed forces are fighting and dying in Afghanistan, partly in the name of democracy, will the Minister give our armed forces a commitment that they will be able to participate in the UK general election?

I am very happy to give that commitment. We are well aware that levels of registration among our armed services are not all they should be. We are making concerted efforts with the Ministry of Defence to improve that, and I have given an open invitation, which I extend to the hon. Gentleman, to Members who have large garrisons in their constituencies: if there are particular measures that they think would improve levels of registration, I ask them please to tell us, because we are very happy to engage with that process.

Does my right hon. Friend hold a view about the proposed closure of the Forensic Science Service at Chorley and the effect that it will have on the justice system that he represents, given the fact that cases may not go ahead?

Of course I am concerned, as the Member for the adjacent constituency of Blackburn, about the potential effects. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Jessica Morden), I have already made clear my hon. Friends’ concerns about the proposed closures in Newport and Chorley. Both facilities serve a wide area of population and it is crucial that in any organisation of the Forensic Science Service there is no dereliction or diminution in the service provided to the Crown Prosecution Service and through that, to the victims of crime.