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Topical Questions

Volume 505: debated on Tuesday 9 February 2010

I would like to draw the House’s attention to two major reviews that have been announced recently. First, a working party has been established to examine issues relating to the substantive law of libel in response to concerns that our libel laws might be having a chilling effect on freedom of expression. Secondly, there will be a review of the family justice system in England and Wales to ensure that we can improve outcomes for children, support parents as fully as possible and ensure that court time is focused on protecting the vulnerable. These important issues need proper and due consideration and that could lead to a fundamental shift in the way in which family justice is done from the current adversarial system to a more inquisitorial system.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that community payback schemes are not only effective in dealing with offenders but popular with local communities, who believe that they provide valuable payback to the community. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether he intends to expand those schemes ?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that community payback schemes are increasingly popular. They have become additionally popular since 1 December 2008, when we introduced the high-visibility jackets so that the public could see who the offenders were. The system is working very well and, as I have seen in many parts of the country, the public are now voting on which schemes they want the offenders to undertake. We want to see the schemes expanded. The question of how many offenders end up on them is a matter for the courts, but they are expanding and we back that.

T2. Will the Justice Secretary kindly explain why we will be wasting time today debating the alternative voting system rather than all the proposals of the Wright Committee report? We ought to debate them all instead of simply selected items in due course, as the Government propose. We need to discuss the whole report; why are we not debating it? (316155)

The Opposition are Johnny-come-latelies to the issue of parliamentary reform—[Hon. Members: “Rubbish!”] It is true. It was my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister who ensured that the suggestion from our hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) to establish a Committee was implemented. We have wholeheartedly welcomed the report. There will be a full day’s debate on the whole report and there will then be votes on it. If the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) has concerns about the items on the Order Paper, my strong advice to him is to talk to his Chief Whip before he next stands up and makes pronouncements about it.

Order. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he has just said. I suppose that his answer is living proof that once a Leader of the House, always a Leader of the House. It was very generous of him to answer what was effectively a business question, but I do not think that we need further supplementaries on that particular matter, which is not relevant to the Ministry of Justice.

T3. When will my right hon. Friend do something about the bloodsuckers who benefit when small businesses or individuals go bankrupt? One of my constituents was bankrupted for a sum of £9,000, but by the time PricewaterhouseCoopers had finished administering the case, she owed £80,000. When I inquired about that case, PWC charged her £800 for answering my letter. (316156)

I fully sympathise with my hon. Friend and his constituent. If he wants to give me the details of that case, I will happily take it up not only within the Ministry of Justice but with colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, because I understand that small firms in particular that have become bankrupt or insolvent need immediate help. We have been doing a great deal of work in that area during the current economic crisis, and I am more than happy to share some of that with him.

T5. The court fees paid by Leeds city council to cover care and adoption proceedings used to be capped at £150, but on the new scale it pays anything between £2,225 and £4,825. That acts as a tax on keeping children safe. There is the Francis Plowden review to consider, but this matter seems to be taking too long. Will the Justice Secretary say when the issue will be addressed and when the review will be made public? (316158)

Let me point out to the hon. Gentleman that there was a transfer of funding of £40 million from my Department to the revenue support grant to provide fully adequate compensation to local authorities for the increase in fees. [Interruption.] That was not ring-fenced, because local authorities object powerfully to ring-fencing, but they have had the money and we have lost the money. We are now studying Francis Plowden’s recommendations with care.

T4. May I ask my right hon. Friend whether an update of measures on witness protection—more importantly, witness protection in the courts—is under way? (316157)

We have made huge improvements on witness protection in recent years. The Crown Prosecution Service, the police and the courts now have witness protection measures in place, and some £22 million a year is spent by the police. We changed the law in 2008 to provide for a statutory scheme of witness protection, and that has been further extended by measures in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 regarding victims of serious gang and knife crime, which will shortly come into force.

T6. There are 10,000 foreign national prisoners in British jails at the expense of British taxpayers. That is a massive 13 per cent. of the prison population. Will the Lord High Chancellor of all England confirm that, as of this moment, not a single foreign national prisoner has compulsorily been returned to his or her country of origin? (316159)

The proportion of foreign nationals in prisons in England and Wales is far lower than the European average. In most European countries, it is about 20 per cent. or much higher, particularly in southern European countries, so we are at the bottom of the league table, and I am glad that we are. On compulsory repatriation, the hon. Gentleman will know that it has been a long-standing practice of Governments, including those whom he has supported, for prisoner transfer arrangements to be subject to the consent of the prisoner. We are changing that practice, and the arrangements apply right across Europe.

Can the Justice Secretary, even in his wildest dreams, think of any scheme dafter than the one under which pleural plaques victims in Scotland are compensated by the British taxpayer while English pleural plaques sufferers get nothing?

I obviously understand the concern that my hon. Friend raises, but he will be well aware that Scotland is a separate jurisdiction in respect of civil law. It is therefore inevitable that differences will arise—that is a natural and inevitable consequence of devolution. I understand his frustration about the issue of pleural plaques in this country, which is widely shared, but we continue to look actively for a solution.

T7. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), is the Minister with responsibility for the family courts. She will recall the meeting that she had with the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) and myself, at which we discussed the conflicts of interest that can arise when solicitors are introduced to clients by local authorities and then paid by both sides. What have her conversations with local authorities about this matter brought up? (316161)

I have not had any conversations with local authorities on this matter, but I shall be raising it with the Law Society and with other bodies that have a professional interest in it.

Ministers will be aware that there are currently 66 electoral registration officers who are not fulfilling their role of registering electors. What can be done to improve the situation?

May I commend my hon. Friend on his diligence in pursuing this matter? It is a scandal that 3 million or more people in this country who are eligible to vote are not able to do so because they are not registered. He has been diligent in trying to improve the situation. As he knows, the Government have taken a range of measures to try to drive up registration rates. The Electoral Commission is now monitoring the performance of all electoral registration officers closely. It is determined to make sure that they all do their job and that the scandal of having 3 million people not on the register when they should be is ended.

T9. Will the Secretary of State tell us when a decision will be made on compensation for pleural plaque victims? He has been saying for 18 months that an announcement is imminent. Will it be made before the general election? (316163)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to chide me for saying that, and I wish that I could be more precise. However, I—

No, as that would be leaving it for a very long time indeed. Counting chickens is not a wise idea but, to come back to the question, my hope remains that we can make the announcement as soon as possible.

Will the threat of prison for visiting Israeli politicians make it easier or harder for the UK Government to secure peace in the middle east?

I think that my hon. Friend is referring to the issue of arrest warrants and universal jurisdiction. Action on that is currently being considered by Government.

In response to a question from the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), said that overseas voters were subject to the same registration requirements as domestic voters. If he is not aware that overseas voters have to re-register annually—whereas here, of course, only households have to register—perhaps it is no surprise that he has taken such small steps to increase overseas participation. What is he going to do about it?

The hon. Gentleman is well aware that we are introducing individual registration in this country. That is welcomed by his Front-Bench team, and I hope that he will welcome it too. We are doing a great deal to try to increase registration rates among overseas voters, and we have changed the requirements in all sorts of ways. He well knows that we are looking at how we can make attestation an easier process for overseas voters. We are not negligent about these matters. We are trying to do our best but, as I pointed out to my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), it is sometimes difficult when people choose to live overseas. They do not register their presence with our missions overseas, and so they can sometimes be very difficult to trace. That is the fundamental problem, as the hon. Gentleman ought to know.

When are the Government going to take steps to lessen markedly the use of these wretched super-injunctions, which hide from the public legal process even the fact that they have been obtained, let alone their content?

That is principally a matter for the courts. The recent judgment by Mr. Justice Tugendhat was important. It made clear the limitations on the so-called super-injunctions, as have other members of the senior judiciary. If my hon. Friend has in mind the case involving The Guardian, I can tell him that part of the problem was that the interpretation of the court order did not necessarily accord with the order’s actual wording.

The Justice Secretary is aware of my concern about sentencing guidelines that allow shop theft offenders to be let off with a private notice penalty. Those offenders should be referred to court so that their substance abuse might be addressed. What progress has been made on that?

I am so well aware, and so is my Department, that there is an official who works virtually full time on the concerns of the hon. Lady, whom I commend for her assiduity. We have changed the guidelines significantly so that fixed penalty notices for shop theft are made available only for a first offence when there is no evidence of drug or other substance misuse. There are other restrictions, too, and we look to the police strictly to enforce those guidelines.

What advice would the Secretary of State give to my constituent Joanne Foster, whose partner was killed by a man who has committed a string of violent offences during his career—and who has been sentenced to what will turn out to be two years’ imprisonment? Is that adequate? Is that justice?

First, may I express my profound sympathies and condolences to the family in respect of their loss? The hon. Gentleman will excuse me, but I cannot possibly comment on the detail of an offence without knowing a great deal more about it. If he cares to let me know about it, however, I shall write to him explaining the view of the court, which is independent, so that he can pass it on to the family.

I do not want to cause friction in the Winterton household. I have called Sir Nicholas; I now call Ann Winterton.

Jolly good! As we seek to reduce reoffending, why are young offenders not positively encouraged to take part in Duke of Edinburgh award schemes—not least because those schemes in turn encourage self-confidence and self-discipline and are very much favoured by employers, thereby leading, hopefully, to a job?

It is a great scheme, and there is no doubt that many schemes are available. I expect that some youngsters in youth offending institutions and in custody are so encouraged, and I hope that more will be in due course.

Over the Christmas recess, the chief constable of West Yorkshire police, Sir Norman Bettison, highlighted his concerns that burglars were being let out of prison early because there were not enough prison places, thereby causing an unnecessarily high burglary rate in West Yorkshire. What is the Secretary of State doing to address that outrageous state of affairs, which the chief constable of West Yorkshire police has highlighted?

The end-of-custody licence scheme is unsatisfactory, as I and the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) have already said, and we wish to bring it to an end as quickly as possible. That said, there has been a dramatic reduction in burglary rates over the past dozen years throughout the country and a dramatic improvement in the number of prison places. That contrasts very sharply with the policy of the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), the shadow Justice Secretary, who is committed to reducing the prison population to its 1993 level, which would mean not an increase in prison places, but a cut to 43,000.

Further to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) put, the independent monitoring board report on HM prison Wayland in my constituency found that the UK Border Agency routinely detains foreign nationals beyond their release date. The report says:

“This practice…is…poor use of a training prison to warehouse foreign nationals indefinitely.”

Why have the Government not done anything about it? What are they going to do to engage the UK Border Agency to deal with that serious issue?

We are doing a great deal to ensure that time-served foreign national prisoners are deported. When we can, we transfer them during their sentence, but in many cases we have to deport them at the end of their sentence, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I are working very closely together. The result is a very significant increase in the number of deportations—particularly, if I may say, given the shambles of a situation over which the previous Conservative Government presided until 1997.

Does the Secretary of State and Lord High Chancellor believe that there should be a change in the law with regard to the wearing of the burqa in public places?

My hon. Friend the Minister is offering the hon. Gentleman some advice that I shall not pass on; it is equivalent to saying that he looks good on the radio.

All of us may have views about the wearing of the burqa, but I do not believe that the matter should be the subject of the criminal law—that would be expecting the police to remove these items of apparel from women who chose, for religious or cultural reasons, to wear them. That should have no part in the system of law in the United Kingdom.