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Topical Questions

Volume 514: debated on Tuesday 20 July 2010

My departmental responsibilities remain unchanged, but may I take this opportunity to point out to the House and to the hon. Gentleman that I have today made a written statement setting out plans for the implementation of the Bribery Act 2010? This important piece of legislation from Parliament reflects cross-party support for anti-bribery measures and its effective implementation is a priority for me in my role as the coalition’s international anti-corruption champion—[Interruption.] I used to shadow Lord Mandelson—he had more titles than I have. The new framework of offences will replace the old and fragmented mix of statutory and common law offences and they should facilitate a more effective criminal justice response to bribery. An important part of the implementation is a public consultation on the guidance to be produced under section 9 of the Act. We want the formulation of this guidance to be informed by the expertise of the business community, specialist anti-bribery organisations and others with informed opinions. I expect this process to allow us to publish guidance early in the new year, in time for the commencement of the Act in spring 2011.

May I welcome the Secretary of State’s recent remarks about tackling the causes of crime as well as crime itself? Will he bear in mind the words of John Carnochan, the hard-bitten head of homicide in Glasgow who, having dealt with offenders who had committed serious and violent crimes who were the sons and grandsons of offenders, said that given the choice between 100 extra police officers and 100 health visitors, he would choose the health visitors given his intergenerational experience? Will the Secretary of State will the means as well as the ends in tackling the causes of crime?

I am afraid that the Government have inherited a situation, for which I blame the previous Government, in which we must tackle these solutions against a background of not simply being able to wheel in more resources. The first step is to make cuts in wasteful expenditure now. I accept quite a large part of the hon. Gentleman’s analysis and we should also consider how we look across all Government Departments and all sectors—we must take into account health, housing, employment, education and training at the same time as we consider policing, justice and imprisonment—because the whole picture contributes to the broken society and tackling it will help to contribute to a less criminal society.

T2. In the light of the Legal Services Commission’s recent misallocation of duty solicitor scheme membership and duty rotas for criminal legal aid work, will my right hon. and learned Friend undertake an urgent review of the LSC’s continuing inefficiencies? (9436)

My hon. Friend has just made serious accusations of mismanagement, and I shall certainly consider the issues that he has raised and get back to him shortly.

T4. The Secretary of State should be aware that the Justice Minister north of the border has said that any questions regarding al-Megrahi resided with the United Kingdom Government. If that is true, will the Secretary of State make a statement? If it is not true, can he put the record straight? (9438)

My understanding is that this was a decision solely for the Scottish Government and that it was taken on humanitarian grounds. Plainly, it predates my period of office, and that just about sums up my full knowledge of the situation, so I am not in a position to make a statement.

T3. Following today’s newspaper reports, will the Secretary of State ensure that we will never again release a mass murderer who was convicted by British courts, letting them out of prison on dubious health grounds and where there are murky commercial interests and sending them away to be lauded by a dictatorship? (9437)

My hon. Friend takes a particular view of the facts. From the Dispatch Box, I must take the view that the decision was taken by the Scottish Government on the declared basis of humanitarian grounds. No Minister of the Crown—certainly not me—is in a position to add to that.

Given the proposed review of legal aid, does the Justice Secretary agree that the problems faced by the Refugee and Migrant Justice organisation because of the late payment of fees and the lack of clarity about the number of current cases affected—the Home Office has told me that it is 5,000 and the Legal Services Commission has admitted that it simply does not know—mean that it is vital for the Government to intervene until these problems are resolved to prevent that organisation from going into administration and to avoid the possibility of further chaos, with expense, within our asylum system?

I am pleased that the hon. Lady has brought up this important issue. The RMJ was maintaining that it had 10,000 clients, but the administrators who went into that organisation to put it into administration assessed the number of clients at more like between 4,000 and 5,000. What is important is the clients. We need to move on from the administration of that organisation to concentrating on its clients, and I assure her that the Department and I are doing exactly that.

T5. Having read the published figures that one in seven of our prisoners are non-UK nationals—according to recent statistics, 585 of them are from Vietnam—does the Minister agree that we could save some of the money spent on UK prisons by transferring those prisoners, perhaps also paying or giving aid to their Governments, perhaps up to 25%, to house them in their jails? That would save money for the UK taxpayer and would put foreign prisoners where they belong. (9439)

There are already a number of schemes to encourage foreign national prisoners to go home and serve their sentences there. As I said in the last Justice questions, we will have to work very hard in this respect. I have noted the comment of the Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee about the fact that some 700 people in the UKBA are working on it, which gives some idea of the priority that it has. I assure my hon. Friend and all hon. and right hon. Members that that level of priority will continue. We need to save the money that we should not be spending on imprisoning foreigners in our jails.

Following the revelations at the weekend that some quite shocking restraint methods are authorised in the “Physical Control in Care” manual for use by staff in secure training centres for children, will the Secretary of State introduce an explicit ban on corporal punishment in secure training centres and other youth offender institutions? Will he establish a public inquiry, chaired by a member of the judiciary, to establish the compatibility of practices in secure training centres with article 3 of the European convention on human rights?

Of course, we keep under review the very careful guidance about the use of restraint techniques in those circumstances, and it is a matter of regret that such guidance has to be issued. However, the hon. Lady should bear it in mind that we are talking about children and young people, some of whom are much bigger than I am and who probably have a problem with drug abuse and a history of violent crime. The completely unarmed staff have to be given some instructions in how to control those young people when they are getting out of control and it is not always easy or possible to use totally restrained methods.

T7. All members of the European Union have signed the Council of Europe convention on the transfer of sentenced persons, yet we still have 3,100 EU nationals in our jails. The Secretary of State and I share an enthusiasm for the European Union, so will he co-operate with the EU and repatriate those prisoners? (9441)

Unfortunately for my hon. Friend, I am afraid that that agreement does not come into force until December 2011. I note that the Irish apparently have an opt-out on it and that it will take five years for the Poles to make it fully applicable, but with those exceptions aside, I assure him that we will implement that agreement absolutely as soon as it comes into force.

Does the Secretary of State agree with the retiring chief inspector of prisons Dame Anne Owers that a reason for the reduction in young people coming into the criminal justice system is the effect of Sure Start? If he does agree with her, will he speak to colleagues across the Government about investing in Sure Start, rather than in youth jails, because it is cheaper and works better?

We are, of course, having to address Sure Start, as with every other programme, in the light of the resources—or rather lack of them—that we have inherited as a result of the economic situation, but the Government are concentrating Sure Start on its original priority purpose, which was particularly to target areas of deprivation and social difficulty. That part of Sure Start’s work does indeed have some relevance to what we have been talking about in our exchanges on youth justice and how to keep people out of criminality in their youth.

T8. Will the Minister pay tribute to Winston Churchill, who, exactly 100 years ago today, as Home Secretary, commented:“The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country.”? (9442)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Of course, it is a delight to offer a tribute to the greatest parliamentarian of the 20th century. Right hon. and hon. Members should note that today is precisely the 100th anniversary of one of the great speeches on prison reform, given by Winston Churchill while he was in his Liberal phase. I am delighted that I will mark that anniversary by speaking to the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. I am sure, Mr Speaker, that you will allow me to use the final phrase of that speech 100 years ago, when Churchill said:

“an unfaltering faith that there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man—these are the symbols which in the treatment of crime and criminals mark and measure the stored-up strength of a nation, and are the sign and proof of the living virtue in it.”—[Official Report, 20 July 1910; Vol. 19, c. 1354.]

Those are measures that we will live up to.

And I should say that the people of the Rhondda remember Churchill’s period in relation to the Tonypandy riots. However, the Lord Chancellor has responsibility for marriage law, and he will know that the law forbids civil weddings from including religious readings or music, even though many people who are not able to get married in church or who do not want to do so would like to have such readings. The Government say that they will allow that for civil partnerships, but not for civil weddings. Can we not have a little more equality for heterosexuals?

I am answering this question because I am the only one in the village. [Laughter.] I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for the fact that his question was transferred. The Equality Act 2010 removed the express prohibition on civil partnership registrations taking place on religious premises. In response to that amendment of the law, the Government are committed to talking to those with a key interest in how to take this forward. That will include consideration of whether civil partnerships should be allowed to include religious readings, music and symbols, and the implications for marriage will have to be considered as part of that.

T10. Can the Minister tell the House whether his Department has undertaken any study of the comparative costs of trials in magistrates courts and Crown courts? (9444)

The average daily costs in Crown courts are more than double those of magistrates courts at about £1,700, compared with £800 a day, and Crown court cases take much longer of course. That is why it is imperative that we rebalance cases between magistrates courts, operating at some 64% of capacity, and Crown courts, operating at full capacity, to ensure that we get value for money.

Will the Secretary of State’s Department honour in full, and on the same basis as the previous Government, the release of files relating to the Hillsborough disaster?

The National Archives and my Department will continue to co-operate with the ongoing work to get the files released, which we hope to be able to facilitate. Our Department will play its part, together with the National Archives, for which we are responsible.

On the subject of magistrates courts, will Ministers consider seriously any proposal from magistrates that would have them hearing cases in venues other than courts so that they can continue to deliver local justice locally?

On Sunday evening, Radio 4’s “File on 4” programme made serious allegations about Isle of Man shipping companies’ involvement in sanction-busting shipments of arms to Sudan. Given that the Secretary of State has responsibility for the relationship between the Isle of Man and the UK Government, will he hold urgent discussions with the Isle of Man Chief Minister to ascertain what, if any, truth there is to those allegations?

I will certainly follow up that matter as I did not hear the “File on 4” programme. Obviously, the Isle of Man has a good, functioning system of justice and we can confidently expect it to enforce criminal law and international sanctions to the standards that we would expect. However, I will ensure that we contact the Isle of Man to ensure that everything that can properly be done is being done to ensure that no breach of international sanctions that could be prevented is being allowed to go ahead.

In the light of the Government’s review of non-departmental public bodies, what plans does the Justice Secretary have for the future of the Office of the Public Guardian?

We are reviewing it, although we have no immediate intentions that we are withholding. We are looking across the whole field of the Department, and we will reduce the number of so-called arm’s length bodies, quangos and agencies. The Office of the Public Guardian carries out quite an important function, however, so I do not think that we will make any changes there unless we are quite confident that its key responsibilities can be properly discharged.

The annual report on Parc prison by the independent monitoring board singled out the work of the Prince’s Trust and the excellent staff in the young persons unit for particular praise, which I am sure that Front Benchers will join me in echoing. Every time that we ask for continued investment in such units—the report said that the unit needed more investment—we hear that there is no money, so if the Secretary of State is going to use that excuse, how will the big society ensure that we have less reoffending when these young people come out of jail?

We will produce positive policies on criminal justice, prison reform and the rehabilitation of offenders, but we have to do that on the basis of a realistic appraisal of the current state of the economy. We have inherited the worst financial and fiscal crisis of modern times. We have succeeded a Government who simply borrowed ever more money and who threw money at every problem, often with a considerable lack of success for public protection. I endorse what the hon. Gentleman says about the work of the Prince’s Trust and others throughout our Prison Service, but he will have to find a positive contribution to policy making, rather than saying just, “Let’s borrow and spend more public money,” because that is ruled out for the immediate future.