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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 511: debated on Tuesday 15 June 2010


The Secretary of State was asked—

Probation Service

For 2010-11, the budget for the probation trusts will be £850 million. Budgets for 2011-12 are not yet set, and will be done through the spending review process to take place later this year.

Last Sunday, on Sky News, the Justice Secretary said:

“let’s have fewer people in prison”,

and that there are

“some things we can do to stop people re-offending when they come out”.

Did he have the probation service in mind? Will the Minister give me a categorical assurance that there will be no cut in funding for the probation service, because it will be impossible to carry out that policy if there is?

It would be very nice if the country was in an economic position that allowed me to deliver such a categorical assurance to the hon. Gentleman but, as he knows perfectly well, I am afraid that I cannot do so. He also knows that part of the Ministry of Justice’s contribution to the £6 billion target was a £20 million reduction in the probation service’s budget. However, that budget had been added to by £26 million in mid-year by the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), who is now the shadow Justice Secretary.

Wakefield is home to two prisons: New Hall young offenders institution and women’s prison, and, of course, Wakefield prison, which houses some of the country’s most dangerous and prolific offenders. West Yorkshire probation service, and Wakefield in particular, do a tremendous job of keeping local people safe and monitoring those who are released from those prisons, who are some of the most difficult individuals in the country. Does the Minister agree that public protection is the No. 1 priority for the probation service and that any future funding arrangements must not put that at risk?

Of course public protection is an absolute priority. We inherited good MAPPA—multi-agency public protection arrangements—from the previous Administration to deal with the sort of offenders who are released from Wakefield. It is right that probation services and all other agencies that are involved in MAPPA are closely engaged in delivering public protection with regard to such offenders.

I have visited the probation service in Milton Keynes and pay tribute to its tremendous work. Under the previous Government, however, the number of staff at headquarters ballooned, while front-line staff numbers remained static or even reduced. Might this Government reverse that trend?

The previous Government refurbished the Ministry of Justice building at a cost of £130 million shortly before they announced redundancies, including to front-line managers, that saved £50 million. Can the Minister and his team say that this Government will have a better and more responsible set of priorities for spending in his Department?

I can guarantee that the probation service will not be led by the Ministry of Justice on any further refurbishments. I think that we have had enough refurbishments inside the Department for the time being and that we have an office that is perfectly fit for purpose.

I welcome the Minister to his post, which is an excellent job that I am sure he will enjoy. Will he confirm to the House that reoffending rates fell considerably under the Labour Government, not least because of the 70% increase in probation funding over those 13 years? Will he also clarify what I think he said—that the £870 million budget agreed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) in October 2009 is now £850 million? What discussions has he held—and will he hold—with probation services about the impact of that £20 million cut?

As the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, I have referred to the £20 million cut. The director of the National Offender Management Service and the regional offender managers will be doing their level best, in agreement with the probation trusts, to ensure that that reduction does not have an impact on services. However, we ought to remember that the budget settlement for the probation trusts that was agreed just more than a year ago was £844 million. That budget was being worked to during the transfer from probation boards to probation trusts, and that transfer was supposed to drive forward many efficiency savings to ensure that front-line services were delivered as efficiently as they should be.

Sentencing Policy

2. What timetable he has set for the completion of his Department’s review of sentencing policy. (2216)

We are conducting a comprehensive assessment of sentencing policy with a view to introducing more effective sentencing and rehabilitation policies. We will take the time to get it right, and will consult widely before bringing forward coherent plans for reform. We intend to bring forward proposals on sentencing and the rehabilitation of offenders after the House returns from recess in October.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the punishment, in being sent to prison, is the loss of freedom? Does he also agree that what is important is trying to reduce reoffending rates, and ensuring that when people are in prison, they undertake activities that mean that they are less likely to reoffend when they are released? Alternatively, we might have not so many people going to prison, but if they are to be punished in the community, that punishment should involve activities that help to reduce the chances of reoffending. It is reducing the reoffending rate that is so important.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We have inherited a disaster, in terms of the reoffending rate among short-sentence prisoners. I do not think that anyone would want to defend the reoffending rate in that category, which is somewhere between 60% and 70%. Prisoners in that category do not receive probation supervision, and if we do not engage them with the great army of auxiliaries in the third sector who want to help us with offender management, we will not be able to address offender behaviour in the way that my hon. Friend suggests.

Will the Minister undertake to read the excellent report drawn up on a cross-party basis by members of the Select Committee on Justice not long before Dissolution, which proposes a number of ways in which the large amount of resources that go into the criminal justice system could be focused more effectively on reducing reoffending?

Yes. The report is excellent, and it will inform the proposals that we bring forward when the House returns in October.

Does my hon. Friend accept that it adds insult to injury when a victim of crime, having seen the perpetrator sentenced, finds that the person is released halfway through their sentence? What steps will we take to reintroduce honesty in sentencing?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, because plainly the proposals that were in the Conservative manifesto will inform the outcome of the sentencing review. I am quite sure that he will be satisfied with the outcome, and that we will have a great deal more honesty in sentencing at the end of the process than we have today.

Prison Capacity

We must provide prison places for those whom the courts judge should receive a custodial sentence. As I said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), we intend to bring forward proposals on rehabilitation and sentencing after the House returns in October. Long-term decisions on prison capacity programmes will be taken in the light of the policy agreed at the end of the process.

On 30 January 2007, when asked whether we needed more prisons, the Prime Minister said, on the Jon Gaunt “talkSPORT” show:

“Yes…no doubt more prisons have got to be built.”

How does that fit with the Justice Secretary’s announcement this week that he would like to see fewer people in prison? Is this an example of Opposition rhetoric catching up with the Prime Minister, or is it yet another example of a policy disagreement between the Prime Minister and the Justice Secretary?

Absolutely not. I notice that the date to which the hon. Gentleman referred was in 2007, and there certainly has been a significant increase in the prison population between then and today. As far as the prison building programme is concerned, I draw attention to the evidence that the then Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor gave to the Committee referred to by the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael). He said that the prison building programme, as it now stands, is an opportunity to upgrade and update our prison capacity to make it more fit for the purpose of addressing reoffending behaviour. If we are successful in bringing about a drop in prisoner numbers—I am quite sure that everyone in the House would like to see that—we may be able to release other parts of the estate.

In the context of capacity and overcrowding, what are the Minister’s views on short sentences, especially for women?

The evidence is that short custodial sentences are not working. They produce terrible reoffending rates. We do not have the capacity in the probation service to address people on licence, which is one reason why they do not have any supervision when they leave prison, and we are on the most dreadful merry-go-round. It is one of the glaring gaps in the way that we deal with offenders and reoffending behaviour, and the current Administration will do their level best to address the issue.

Libel Law

We are committed to reviewing the law on defamation to protect free speech, and are currently considering the issues involved. In that context, Lord McNally yesterday met Lord Lester of Herne Hill to discuss his private Member’s Bill on the subject, which was recently introduced in another place.

I am sure the Minister is aware of the case of Dr Simon Singh, who was famously sued by the British Chiropractic Association for his research. Although the case was unsuccessful, Mr Singh will recover only 70 per cent. of his £200,000 legal costs. Will the Government support Lord Lester’s private Member’s Bill to reform our libel system, which at present stifles scientific research?

We are considering Lord Lester’s private Member’s Bill. The issues involved in it are complex and of great breadth, so we will look at it carefully and respond at a later date.

Rape Defendants (Anonymity)

5. What evidence he took into account in deciding to bring forward proposals to extend anonymity to defendants in rape trials. (2220)

9. What evidence he took into account in deciding to propose to grant anonymity to defendants charged with rape. (2224)

11. What evidence was considered before the announcement of proposals to introduce anonymity for defendants in rape cases. (2226)

The proposal to grant anonymity to defendants in rape trials was included in the coalition agreement following negotiations between the two coalition partners. All the policy commitments made by the coalition Government were derived from the existing policy of one or both of the governing parties. The issue of anonymity for defendants in rape trials was adopted as party policy by the Liberal Democrat party while in opposition. It was also the subject of an extensive inquiry by the Home Affairs Committee, in its fifth report published on 24 June 2003.

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his answer. His Minister has indicated that he believes the stigma associated with those accused of rape is so damaging that, uniquely, they need further protection through anonymity, but evidence shows that the public are far more hostile to paedophiles and murderers, so why, on the evidence, does he choose to extend anonymity to those accused of rape?

There are arguments on both sides of the question, and they have frequently come before the House over the years. The Government think it is right to have a reasonable debate on them. That is one of the arguments in favour of anonymity. The argument that I have always thought is the strongest for anonymity is in cases in which the victim has anonymity—when there are allegations by children against teachers and others, or allegations made by women or men in rape cases. Where the victim is allowed anonymity all the way through, there is a case, which the House has accepted on occasions in the past, for giving anonymity to the person who is accused. There are other arguments on both sides of the case. We are not likely to have early legislation on the matter. This was the principal subject of debate in 2003 when there was a Bill before the House, and it divided all three parties. It is not a matter for party political ideology. It is a question that the House as a whole should consider with care.

In my experience of working with sex offenders, it is extremely unusual for someone to offend on only one occasion. Publicising the name of the person accused often allows other women to come forward. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman look seriously at this evidence, at research that has been done by the Home Office, and at research to which I have been directed, by the excellent criminology department at Sheffield university?

As the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt) reasonably said in the Adjournment debate, we are looking at evidence and seeing how many cases are multiple offenders, and in what particular cases that might have led to further complaints and detection, but I point out that 53%—I think that is the figure—of those accused in serious rape cases are known to the person making the accusation. They are usually ex-partners or ex-husbands. In those cases, where the person sometimes gets anonymity if they are the husband, not granting it might betray the identity of the complainant, and sometimes the person accused does not get anonymity, if they are the partner. There is a perfectly serious case to be made on both sides of the argument, and the coalition agreement has contemplated going back to anonymity. I had to look up which way I voted the last time the question was before the House. Other hon. Members would probably have to do the same. I voted in favour of anonymity then, but we are now listening to the arguments.

I have worked with victims of sexual violence and know how difficult it is for women to come forward and report offences. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right that the issue is not about party politics; it is about protecting very vulnerable victims of crime. If the Government intend to press ahead with those proposals, will he outline how they intend to encourage women to report rape offences and what measures will be brought forward to drive up the conviction rate in rape cases, which remains significantly lower than it should be?

The Government are committed to providing up to 15 more rape crisis centres. I agree entirely with the hon. Lady that, obviously, nobody is questioning the long-standing decision that anonymity be given to all victims making allegations of rape. It is obviously important that everything possible be done to encourage more women who have suffered from that crime to come forward and seek the prosecution of the perpetrator.

I listened with great care to what the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Secretary of State said about the mystery of where the policy came from, but can he enlighten the House as to why, over that weekend of negotiations between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party about the coalition agreement, the matter suddenly became a major priority when it had not been in either manifesto before? Will he also please tell us how many women were involved in those negotiations?

I was not involved in the negotiations, but the policy actually emerged from them. I remind the hon. Lady that the Liberal Democrat assembly voted in favour of the policy in 2006, but it did so against a background of considerable debate. People from all parts of this House decided to vote for anonymity in 2003, and we recently had a report from Baroness Stern, who I do not think supports anonymity but recommended that the matter be debated more extensively.

The one thing that I can say to the hon. Lady is that the idea that the proposal was a male decision to the exclusion of female sensitivity on the subject is, frankly, slightly wide of the mark. Nobody in the House denies that rape is a serious offence; nobody in the House wants to reduce the protection that is given to women who are threatened with it or experience it.

6. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on the likelihood of rape victims coming forward of his policy to extend anonymity to defendants in rape trials. (2221)

15. What assessment he has made of the likely effect of his proposal to introduce anonymity for defendants in rape cases on the number of prosecution brought in such cases. (2230)

The Government totally support the anonymity of rape victims and regard rape as a very serious crime that should be prosecuted in all cases where sufficient evidence exists. There seems to be no reason, however, why a victim should be deterred from complaining because the name of the accused will not be immediately publicised. The Government are, however, prepared to consider all arguments on that or any other aspect of the issue.

The point is that the Justice Secretary has come before the House and talked about the proposal as if he were suggesting perhaps a Green Paper or a national debate, but it is in his programme of government, and I notice that his Front-Bench team is a Liberal-free zone. Does he feel, and will he now admit to the House, that basically he has been sold a pup?

No. I think that it is a serious issue, and, although I may not have initiated its appearance in the coalition agreement, the hon. Gentleman may gather that I am not averse to the House looking at it again. There are people who want us to do so, and we will have an opportunity, no doubt in due course, to put it to Members. I am not responsible for the whipping in the House, but I suspect that all three parties would rather prefer a fairly free vote on the issue, because I do not think that there is any consensus in any part of the House, unless I am suddenly told it is—[Interruption.] The Labour party is looking for new policies, I know, but I do not think that it has decided to make this issue the central plank of its much overdue reform.

We have said that we are attracted by the argument, and that we will debate it and consider all the arguments produced by Members from all parts of the House. The Prime Minister actually referred Members to the Home Affairs Committee on which he sat, which on an all-party basis recommended anonymity, at least until the time of charge, only a few years ago.

I am pleased to hear that there may be a free vote on this issue and that the Secretary of State has so little personal enthusiasm for the policy. Does he agree that the main problem in rape cases is the low conviction rate and the fact that rape victims are not believed? Rather than trying to create ways to provide those accused of rape with more protection, we should be looking at ways to make sure that women feel able to come forward and that we increase the conviction rate.

I hasten to repeat that I have no responsibility or control over the whipping arrangements of any of the political parties in the House. When I was operating as a Back Bencher, I took this sort of vote very seriously. I considered it seriously in 2003 and came down in favour of voting for anonymity. It is no good trying to sweep the issue from the field, and we are not going to do that.

The conviction rate among those charged with rape is 38%, which is lower than that for some other offences, but rape is different in many ways from more straightforward crimes such as theft. In rape cases, we are essentially relying on the frame of mind of one of the parties; something that is perfectly lawful and affectionate if the woman is consenting is a very serious criminal offence if she is not.

Juries are the best people to decide whether they believe one version or the other in what, in my very distant experience of such trials, can sometimes be difficult cases that are best left to juries. That is why I am urging that this is a serious issue, and the coalition agreement was right to raise it. We have expressed our current intention, but Members from all parties will want to listen to all the arguments on both sides and not just be driven away from considering them.

When the black cab driver John Worboys was charged with a string of sex attacks, more than 80 women felt that they could come forward and present themselves as victims. Anonymity for rape defendants would have prevented that from happening. Surely the Justice Secretary agrees that it is important that victims should feel able to come forward, not only to seek justice for themselves, but to strengthen the case for prosecution.

That could be a good argument, and we will look at it; evidence of that is, I think, one of the things that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said we would consider. We are trying to have a look at the Worboys case, which is always cited, to see how far the response to that was caused by publicity about the name of the accused person and how far it was a result of the police investigation into the nature of the rape. We can come back to that in later debate. It is not a conclusive argument. A very large number of rape cases do not involve multiple offenders; essentially, they often involve people who are well known to each other and have a history of a consensual sexual relationship.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is important that the appropriate counselling is available for victims coming forward? That counselling has recently been withdrawn in my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan). It is now provided by volunteers. Will my right hon. and learned Friend look at ensuring that appropriate funding is put in place for that service?

I certainly will. I have already referred to our commitment to try to provide new rape crisis centres, preferably using the proceeds of crime when they are recovered from criminal offenders. I strongly agree with my hon. Friend that we are long past the stage at which a woman complaining of rape is treated as if she were complaining about a handbag robbery. There is no doubt that all these cases have to be treated with considerable sensitivity because it is very difficult for a woman to bring herself to complain and not enough do so, even in the present climate of opinion.


8. What steps the Government plan to take to reduce reoffending by prisoners after release; and if he will make a statement. (2223)

May I congratulate my hon. Friend on his election as deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats?

The Government believe that more can be done to cut reoffending by overhauling the system of rehabilitation. We are exploring how sentencing and treatment for drug use can help offenders to come off drugs once and for all. We are also exploring how we can do more with independent providers, including the voluntary sector, to reduce reoffending.

I welcome the Minister and all his colleagues to the Front Bench to consider such an important subject. May I encourage them, as they work out the plans to deal with reoffending—as has been said, it is a serious issue, which the previous Government did not address adequately—to take the advice of people such as the previous governor of Brixton prison, who were clear that, if secure housing and continuing support to deal with addictions are provided when people are released, the chance of immediate reoffending, which often starts in days, is hugely reduced?

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. We must improve the multi-agency approach to tackling reoffending. That means bringing together the police, probation, prisons and local authorities, and ensuring that they work together more effectively. The key is to get offenders off drugs and into work, and, in particular, as he says, into housing. If we can do that, we have a chance of reducing the unacceptably high reoffending rates that we currently experience.

But how will the cuts that have just been announced to the future jobs fund, which provides employment for ex-offenders in my constituency—a third of a million pounds comes from Connexions and an equal sum from Positive Activities for Young People—contribute to reducing reoffending in Slough?

Clearly, the Opposition still have not grasped the scale of the fiscal deficit that the country faces or their responsibility for creating it. Reoffending costs the criminal justice system and wider society billions of pounds a year. If we can succeed in reducing reoffending and capture some of that money to invest in rehabilitation services through a payment-by-results model, which we proposed in our rehabilitation revolution, we have a chance of producing the rehabilitation services that the previous Government lamentably failed to provide.

Prison Building (Costs)

12. What assessment he has made of the balance of expenditure between (a) prison building and (b) community sentences and restorative justice schemes. (2227)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his unopposed re-election as Chair of the Justice Committee.

As I said in reply to earlier questions, our proposals for implementing the coalition agreement commitments on sentencing and rehabilitation will be presented after the House returns in October. Our future plans for, and the balance of expenditure between, custodial and community provision will need to be considered in the light of that, and restorative justice will feature strongly in that work, as will the work of the Justice Committee in its first report of 2009-10 on the case for justice reinvestment.

I thank the Under-Secretary for his kind words and congratulate him on taking office. Did he notice when he arrived at the Department that he was committed to a prison building programme, inherited from the previous Government, that cost more than £4 billion? It produced the highest incarceration rate in western Europe and pre-empted resources, which, if they were used to prevent crime, would save victims from suffering from crime in the first place.

My right hon. Friend will be glad to know that it did not entirely escape my attention. However, I draw his attention to the evidence that the then Justice Secretary gave to the Justice Committee in 2008. He pointed out that there was an opportunity to deliver the new prison places more cheaply on a revenue basis than the existing prison estate, and for them to be more fit for purpose in enabling the prison estate to address reoffending behaviour. The prison building programme per se is not, therefore, the problem but the number of offenders whom we have to sustain in custody. We need to examine the policies that drive those numbers.

May I add my welcome to the Under-Secretary? I also offer my congratulations to the Justice Secretary and to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) on their 40th anniversary this week as Members of the House.

I think my hon. Friend means that it was shortly before the Chancellor was born.

Does the Under-Secretary acknowledge that there has been a sustained fall in crime from 1995 to date, and that the increase in prison places and the fact that more serious and violent offenders are now incarcerated has contributed to that fall?

Evidence on the effects of incarceration is mixed at best. We must take the political temperature out of the debate. Outbidding each other on how robust we will be in dealing with offenders probably does potential future victims no good. We must have policies that address future offending behaviour and consider the life cycle of potential and actual offenders so that we can support them effectively.

The whole House would agree that the fundamental test of an anti-crime policy is whether crime has fallen. With that in mind, will the Minister now acknowledge that crime fell consistently from 1995 and throughout the 1997 to 2010 Administration?

No, because the change in trend on crime was achieved by Michael Howard, the then Home Secretary, who delivered a robust policy that effected changes. He was the author of the change in policy, but there is a limit to continuing that process, as there must be to the rate of growth of incarceration. In the end, we cannot lock up everybody who might be a threat to someone, because in that way, the entire population would end up in prison. There is a logical end to that process, and we will do our level best to deliver more effective policies to ensure that there are fewer victims in future.

Prison Places

13. How many and what proportion of prison inmates are accommodated on a doubled-up basis; and if he will make a statement. (2228)

In 2009-10, the average number of prisoners sharing a cell designed for one was approximately 19,000, and there are more than 1,000 cases in which three prisoners are sharing a cell designed for two. That overcrowding is concentrated in male local prisons, where 47.6% of prisoners are held in overcrowded conditions.

Will the Minister comment on the fact that the previous Government’s mismanagement of the indeterminate public protection sentencing regime in many ways contributed to that overcrowding? That was brought to my attention by a prisoner in HMP Erlestoke in my constituency, who copied me in on a very good letter to Inside Time this month. Will the Minister tell the House what he will do to help to reform the IPP regime?

I notice that the previous Government had to reform the IPP arrangements in 2008, having introduced them in the Criminal Justice Act 2003. We inherit a very serious problem with IPP prisoners. We have 6,000 IPP prisoners, well over 2,500 of whom have exceeded their tariff point. Many cannot get on courses because our prisons are wholly overcrowded and unable to address offending behaviour. That is not a defensible position.

In opposition, Conservative Members thought it was a good idea—in fact, they thought there was an extremely strong case—to build a new prison in north Wales. Is that still their view?

Does the Minister agree that there would be a lot less overcrowding in prisons were we to adopt the very sensible policy of sending back to secure detention in their countries of origin the 13% of our prison population who are foreign nationals?

I can assure my hon. Friend that we will do our absolute level best to improve the position.

Pleural Plaques

Let me first recognise the hon. Gentleman’s relentless campaigning on compensation for pleural plaques sufferers. I recently answered two written parliamentary questions relating to pleural plaques, and Ministers have received a number of letters from hon. Members and their constituents.

I thank the Government for standing by the previous Government’s commitment to compensate past pleural plaques victims, but will the Minister go one step further, as Labour did when in office, and give a commitment that if any new medical evidence comes forward on the condition, the issue will be reopened?

The issue was considered extensively in the last Parliament. A public consultation was carried out, and authoritative medical reports were prepared by the chief medical officer and the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council. The Government consider that in the light of that evidence, it would not be appropriate to overturn the House of Lords 2007 judgment that the condition is not compensatable under the civil law of tort. However, of course, if the situation were to change, we would look at it again. If new medical evidence emerges that suggests that the existence of pleural plaques is an actionable cause and that the condition counts as compensatable damage, it will be open to claimants to pursue an action under the law of tort.

Rape Convictions

17. What the conviction rate was for cases of rape reported in Liverpool, Wavertree constituency in the last 12 months for which figures are available. (2232)

Conviction rates are based on the proportion of defendants proceeded against who were found guilty. I can tell the hon. Lady that 44 defendants were proceeded against in the Merseyside police force area in 2008 and 13 were found guilty, giving a conviction rate of 30%. Court proceedings data are not available at parliamentary constituency level.

As the Secretary of State has just highlighted, the conviction rate for rape in my constituency is already dangerously low. Can he give us a definitive answer as to why rape defendants should be afforded greater protection than defendants accused of other serious crimes?

There are some relevant arguments on both sides, and other arguments that—with respect—are less relevant. I do not think that the conviction rate for rape is affected by whether the defendant had anonymity up to the trial. Nor is a woman’s decision to complain affected by whether the man’s name will be published in the newspaper immediately. It is important to ensure that all cases of rape are reported by victims who are then treated properly and that cases in which the evidence is sufficient are prosecuted and convicted. I trust that that will be pursued in Merseyside. As I say, some 30% of those charged are convicted, and I shall not dilate further than I did earlier on the particular nature of rape allegations, which are rather different from the allegations of normal violent crime or theft—[Interruption.] No, the nature of the issue before the jury is very different in such cases. The best analogy is with other sexual offence complaints made against teachers and others, in which anonymity is given to the victim but not to the person accused, and some Members have argued for that to be reconsidered.

Prison Capacity

I thank the Minister for his response earlier and agree with the comments that he made. Does he agree that the successful reduction of reoffending levels requires a long-term focus rather than a series of short-term piecemeal proposals? The Labour Government had short-termism and failed.

I agree with my hon. Friend. I am afraid that we have seen too much focus on the pursuing of political positions and influence by the media. What we have to do now is take advantage of the change in Administration, and the fact that we have a coalition Government, to try to take the political heat out of the issue, and achieve consensus on a long-term strategy to address reoffending.

The Justice Secretary is reported as saying that millions of pounds could be saved by jailing fewer offenders and slashing sentences. Does the Minister accept that our first duty is the protection of the public and that we must provide prison capacity accordingly?

Yes, but I do not entirely recognise the hon. Gentleman’s presentation of my right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary’s comments over the weekend. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the first objective is public protection, and if we are to protect the public of tomorrow, so that there are fewer victims, we have to ensure that we have a justice service that will deliver a reduction in reoffending rates and can divert people from offending in the first place.

Victims of Crime

19. What steps he is taking to ensure that the interests of victims of crime are effectively represented in the criminal justice system; and if he will make a statement. (2234)

The coalition Government’s aim is to establish a criminal justice system that rebuilds public confidence in the system and ensures that our streets are safe. The rights and welfare of the victim are vital to this. The Government are dedicated to ensuring support for victims and witnesses. We want to involve voluntary sector victims groups more and harness their ideas and innovation to help us to improve support.

A constituent of mine, Jean Taylor, set up the charity, Families Fighting for Justice, after the murder of her son and daughter. Can the Minister assure her, and many others in similar situations, that these charities, which are filling the gaps in the justice system to provide support for victims of crime, will have sufficient transparency and lines of communication open to his Department in order to carry out their work?

I am happy to assure my hon. Friend of that. Charities and voluntary groups set up to promote the interests of victims are immensely important, and I would be delighted to meet the group concerned. Consistent with the proposals for a big society that we have been setting out for some time, we want to find ways to ensure that such groups have a voice, and give victims a voice, in the criminal justice system.

We are reviewing all these arrangements to promote the interests of victims. I welcome the appointment of the Victims Commissioner and the work she will embark upon. We are aware of the important work that the National Victims Service is planning to do.

Topical Questions

The Ministry of Justice is responsible for the entire justice system, including the courts, prisons and probation services. Over the past four weeks, since taking office, I have sought to look at the major issues facing the Department and have worked closely with my ministerial colleagues to identify policy objectives and where savings can be made, given the current economic circumstances. We are conducting a full assessment of sentencing and rehabilitation policy to ensure it is effective in deterring crime, protecting the public, punishing offenders and cutting reoffending, while ensuring good value for the taxpayer. We intend to concentrate on the needs of justice while ensuring that legal aid works efficiently and that taxpayers’ money is well spent. In addition, I would like to inform the House that the Prime Minister has asked me to be the Government’s anti-corruption champion.

I thank the Secretary of State for Justice for his answer, although he did not mention his Department’s responsibility for the British Crown dependencies of the Isle of Man, Jersey, Guernsey, Sark and Alderney. He will know that the previous Government were rather negative towards the loyal subjects in the Crown dependencies. Will he confirm that the new Conservative-led Government will be positive towards them and value their contribution to the British economy?

I recognise the important and very enjoyable responsibility I had for the Crown dependencies when I was Home Secretary, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government give a high priority to ensuring that the relationship with the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man is completely satisfactory. I am surprised that responsibility has found its way to the Justice Department—perhaps it was not considered carefully enough by the previous Government. I only raise the possibility that we will have a look at the allocation of responsibilities between Departments to find which allocation best suits both Her Majesty’s Government and the Governments of the Crown dependencies.

T2. Ministers have referred to the recommendation in the Stern report on false allegations of rape. What are their plans to address the other 22 recommendations in the report? (2241)

The recommendations were only made recently, but I agree that there is no point looking at one aspect of the subject without looking at the others. I think the whole House agrees that we should do everything possible to protect the victims of rape, to enable proper allegations to be brought and to enable justice to be done, so that those responsible for this serious crime are brought to justice. I only mentioned one aspect of Baroness Stern’s report, but the whole report is indeed important.

T5. A High Court judge, sitting on the board of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, recently told all MPs that they should be treated in exactly the same way as every other public servant. Will the Minister therefore consider publishing the travel and accommodation expenses and allowances of High Court judges so that we can find out whether we are indeed matched pound for pound with their lordships? (2244)

The Lord Chief Justice decided that, from the start of the new legal year in October 2009, the expenses claims of High Court judges and above should be recorded in such a way that they can be attributed to individual judges and published at regular intervals. The first set, covering October to the end of December 2009, was published in March, and the next set, covering January to Easter, is due to be published in July. Figures for the summer term will be published in the autumn.

T3. May I congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment? As a fellow Nottinghamshire MP, may I ask him to have a look at a problem that eluded his three predecessors, which is the creation of a community court in the city of Nottingham? People in Nottingham want the community court and people in the communities want it. However, it seems that the legal establishment in Nottingham does not want a community court. Will he use his good offices to make that wish come true in an area that is, as he knows, fighting crime very well? (2242)

I am aware of the operation of the community court up in Liverpool, which I have visited, and the community court in Red Hook in New York, which pioneered this system of community justice. They are indeed interesting, and we should look at their success carefully. I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman any commitment on Nottingham, but we are interested in and aware of the importance of community courts.

T6. May I congratulate the Justice Secretary on his new position? Can he explain what the coalition Government’s position is on self-defence in the event of burglaries in one’s own home and the level to which we can defend our properties? I understand that we have undertaken a review of the position, and people would like clarification, following a number of Back-Bench Bills from Government Members. (2245)

I can tell my hon. Friend that we are reviewing the law and its interpretation carefully, and we will explore all the options before bringing forward proposals. We must ensure that the responsible citizen acting in self-defence or for the prevention of crime has the appropriate level of legal protection.

The previous Government were considering the question carefully, and we are still carefully considering our policy on the issue.

T7. What plans does the Justice Secretary have to reform drug rehabilitation in our prisons, so that we see fewer offenders languishing on methadone prescriptions than under the previous Government, and more going clean on abstinence-based programmes? (2246)

Clinical guidance for the treatment of heroin addicts in prison has been updated to reinforce the expectation that prisoners jailed for more than six months should not be maintained on methadone unless there are exceptional circumstances. We recognise that continuity of management of drug users is a key challenge. The work of Lord Patel’s prison drug treatment strategy review and last year’s review of the drug interventions programme will help us to strengthen arrangements between prisons and the community. However, I absolutely acknowledge my hon. Friend’s great concern about the issue.

T9. In a recent case, a Salford man had committed a rape and was bailed, but then committed a further rape, and the police believe that there are further victims of this man. Can the Secretary of State explain why the Government have committed in their coalition agreement to extending anonymity to such defendants before all the evidence is heard? Can he also say who will now be consulted for that evidence?[Official Report, 24 June 2010, Vol. 512, c. 1-2MC.] (2248)

With great respect, I find it very surprising that so many questions are being raised about a proposition that has been before the House, on and off, for the past 20 years and is not easily resolved. We will, of course, look at all arguments, including the experience of the case to which the hon. Lady has referred, but that is only one of the considerations to be taken into account. There will undoubtedly sometimes be cases where the publication of the name of the accused person gives rise to other people coming forward with well-founded complaints against that person. We will have to see whether there is any evidence that such cases are a significant proportion of the total cases of rape. We shall also have to consider the arguments on the other side, where a woman can make an anonymous complaint, the man can eventually be convicted, after going through a long and probably rather destructive ordeal, and the woman retains her anonymity as she walks away, with her ex-boyfriend or ex-husband left to live with the consequences.

T8. Given that it is a surprise to some of us that so many drugs enter our prisons every day through a variety of methods, what steps will this exciting new Government take to try to crack down on this abuse of Her Majesty’s prisons? (2247)

Plainly, this issue is not new, and there have already been reviews of how drugs get into prisons. We are going to examine this matter and, as I have said, it will be a priority of mine. I am minded to try to ensure that prisoners have the opportunity to get on to abstinence-based programmes successfully and safely, within the prison estate, and to ensure that they do not get knocked off course by the availability of illegal drugs in our prisons—

Order. I am sorry to interrupt. It is understandable that Ministers should look backwards at those questioning them, but they must face the House.

Seventeen-year-old Ashleigh Hall, who lived in my constituency, was murdered last year by Peter Chapman, who is now serving a life sentence. While in prison, Mr Chapman has been writing to Ashleigh Hall’s parents and family. Does the Minister think that that is acceptable?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for bringing that to my attention. Perhaps she could write to me with the details of the case. Obviously, on the face of it, it sounds unacceptable, and I would be pleased to look into the matter.

T10. What is the legal aid funding allocation per head in England and Wales, and how does it compare with legal aid funding in other countries? (2249)

England and Wales have by far the most generous legal aid provision in the whole world. For example, Spain spends £2.55 a head, France spends £3.31, and Germany spends £4.69. Countries with a similar system, such as New Zealand, spend on average £8 a head, compared with £38 a head in England and Wales.

On the issue of pleural plaques, when does the Minister expect to make the first payments under the new compensation scheme?

The mechanics of the scheme are being consulted on, and we hope to start making payments towards the end of this month.

In his capacity as the new anti-corruption tsar, will the Justice Secretary have a word with Andy Coulson? Andy Coulson and Rebekah Wade both admitted that they had paid police officers for information when running newspapers. They paid police officers; that is suborning a police officer. Will the Justice Secretary institute a review of the process whereby newspapers sometimes pay for information from police officers, and put a stop to it?

Personally, I think that this Government are going to give a very high priority to restoring and, I trust, maintaining this company’s reputation—[Laughter.]—this country’s reputation as one of the leading advocates of the elimination of corruption in trade and in Government contracts. We shall also ensure that the Bribery Act 2010, which we supported, is properly enforced, and that we are in the forefront of the people paying regard to this matter. With respect, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman’s question bears very closely on that. I would also say to him that making allegations against people who are not Members, under cover of parliamentary privilege, should be done with great caution. He should not accuse people of corruption in the course of putting a question to me on this subject.

Will the Justice Secretary acknowledge that, when our constituents are the victims of crime, they often need support and assistance to navigate the criminal justice service? Will he take this opportunity to, at the very least, ring-fence his Department’s expenditure on services for the victims of crime?

The Government will give priority to victims to exactly the extent that the House would expect. It should be in the forefront of all our minds when trying to protect the country against crime that the interests of victims should be paramount. My reflection on this hour of questioning is that it is no good for the Labour party to respond to every suggestion that there might be budget constraints as though that represents a threat to an essential service. The fact is that there is no money, and that is the fault of those in the Labour party. They will not be taken seriously again until they face up to the reality of the situation to which they have largely contributed, and start producing some realistic alternative policies to challenge those being put forward by the Government.

Will the Secretary of State clarify whether his Department is to review the current system of classification of controlled drugs—which has been called seriously into question in recent months—and particularly the role of the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs?

We have been looking at practically every aspect of policy in our first weeks in office, but we are not rushing to readdress the categorisation of drugs and we are going to ensure that scientific advice on this subject is treated properly, objectively and in the public interest. Any views that my hon. Friend wishes to put forward on the workings of the present system will be carefully considered by myself and my team of Ministers.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the recent spectacle of Roy Whiting exploiting British taxpayers to demand a reduction in his sentence is an abuse of justice and an insult to the memory of Sarah Payne?

The important principle to establish here is judicial independence. I think we should therefore respect the decisions that judges come to on these matters.