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Topical Questions

Volume 511: debated on Tuesday 15 June 2010

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.