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Volume 516: debated on Tuesday 19 October 2010

The Secretary of State was asked—

Prisons (Drug Addiction Services)

1. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on drug addiction services in prisons. (17811)

I have had discussions with Ministers in a number of Departments, including the Department of Health, the Home Office and the Cabinet Office. Those discussions have covered a range of drugs-related topics, including reforming drug addiction services in prisons.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. He will be aware that many prisoners struggle with choosing abstinence over methadone when they want to kick their drug habits, so what action will the Government take to encourage prisoners to take an abstinence-based regimen instead of methadone?

Our policy is that we should move towards abstinence from maintenance, but it is not the practice that we have inherited. The main programme, the integrated drug treatment system, is relatively new and based around National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse models of care, but the effect in practice is much more about maintaining addicts safely than leading them to abstinence. However, there are very good abstinence-based programmes in prison, such as RAPt, and our goal is to challenge offenders to take responsibility for the harm that they have caused and to accept help to come off drugs. We will therefore reshape existing drug services in prisons to establish drug recovery wings that are based on abstinence, free from drugs, motivate change, support rehabilitation and, on release, link offenders into community services that can continue the progress made in prison.

It sounds as if the Minister is going to be pretty rigid in pursuing a policy that, in some cases, will work and be wholly appropriate. In other cases, however, people will fail, and when they do so they will be a problem not just to themselves but to our communities. They will feed organised crime and return to their habits. Surely he accepts and recognises that.

Of course I accept and recognise that. That is the reality of the current position. All too many short-sentence offenders are going into prison, and occasionally they do not have a drug habit but acquire one while they are there. We are failing to rehabilitate drug addicts effectively and, indeed, to address properly alcoholics, in the community and in prison, who are under the sentence of the courts. That is why we will move to a much more output-based system, measuring people by what they achieve rather than simply measuring inputs. Of course, that is a very difficult area, and many people need more than one go—indeed, several goes—at effecting successful rehabilitation from drugs, and of course this Administration acknowledge that.

Young Offenders

2. What proportion of young offenders reoffended within one year of being released from custody in the latest period for which figures are available; and if he will make a statement. (17812)

16. What proportion of young offenders reoffended within (a) one and (b) two years of being released from custody in the latest period for which figures are available. (17827)

The latest reoffending rate for young people, those aged between 10 and 17, released from custody in England and Wales in the first quarter of 2008 is 74.3%. Reoffending rates for young people are based on whether an offender has been convicted at court or has received an out-of-court disposal for an offence in the year following release from custody.

Does the Minister agree that young offenders, when released from prison, need a more demanding and challenging set of programmes? In my constituency, the Kent Film Foundation runs a programme teaching film skills, and it has an 85% success rate in getting young offenders into work or further education, at a cost of £5,000 per course.

There are many isolated examples of really good practice all over the country, and our challenge is to systemise it so that people can learn from what works, experience the flexibility and the opportunity to implement it and deliver the output, which then effectively turns those young people away from crime.

Given the abject failure of the Youth Justice Board to reduce reoffending among our young people, what plans does the Minister have to replace it, and in particular what role does he envisage for the private and voluntary sectors in that area?

The functions of the Youth Justice Board will be taken into the Ministry of Justice, but I am not sure that I would be quite as condemnatory as my hon. Friend is about the board’s record. It has achieved success in getting youth offending teams effectively embedded within a local delivery framework, and it is now up to the Ministry of Justice and myself, as the Minister for Youth Justice, to take that work forward and take responsibility for it.

Precisely how much money will the Minister save by the abolition of the Youth Justice Board? Will he ensure that that money is reinvested in front-line services to support youth offending teams? How precisely does he expect to organise youth offending teams without the oversight of the Youth Justice Board?

There will be some savings to be taken, but they will not be taken at the outset because the delivery functions of the Youth Justice Board, principally in purchasing custody for young people sent into custody by the courts, will obviously remain. I would have thought that the right hon. Gentleman remembered the system that he had, whereby one-on-one policy advice came from the Youth Justice Board and from his own policy officials in the Department. That sort of duplication will be taken away by bringing the functions of the Youth Justice Board within the Ministry of Justice.

I am glad that the Minister has not taken the opportunity to rubbish the Youth Justice Board, because the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), heaped praise on it in abolishing it last week. Having praised and buried the Youth Justice Board, what does the Minister suggest takes its place? He knows that 25% falls in youth reoffending rates occurred over its first eight years. What is his strategy for continuing the excellent record of the previous Labour Government in reducing youth reoffending?

I am not entirely sure that I would be that sanctimonious about presenting the record of the last Labour Government, when we had not only the awful reoffending rates out of custody but, in relation to community penalties, 67.6% of young people reoffending within one year. That is not a record to be wildly proud of. We need to continue to embed youth offending teams in their local authority areas and ensure that there is a proper, effective delivery of local services to young people, including from the education departments of local authorities, for example, to ensure that we properly co-ordinate the effective delivery of services to young offenders within the gift of the state to ensure that they do not reoffend.

Judicial Co-operation (UK and Greece)

3. If he will take steps to improve co-operation between judicial systems in the UK and in Greece. (17813)

Both the UK and Greece are party to a number of European instruments that facilitate co-operation between judicial systems within Europe. In addition, I know that my hon. Friend is taking a particular interest in the separate bilateral issue of improving the provision of locally obtained information regarding deaths of our citizens in Greece to coroners here.

I thank the Minister for his answer. My constituent, Luke Walker, has been imprisoned on the island of Crete for over 150 days, and his defence team have been constantly frustrated by the denial of information that should rightfully be theirs. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on the progress of the working group set up between UK and Greek officials and designed to improve co-operation between the UK coroner service and the Greek authorities?

I understand that Luke Walker has been charged but that a trial date has not been set. It is of course a matter of great regret that delays are occurring in the exchange of information between the Greek authorities and coroners in England and Wales. That can only increase the distress felt by everyone involved in such cases, of which there are a number. We are working with the Foreign Office and the Greek authorities to try to improve the situation so that inquests can be concluded without further delay. The working group to which my hon. Friend refers will be able to have its first meeting to discuss these issues shortly; we are pressing for a date to be set.

Vulnerable Women (Alternatives to Custody)

4. What steps he plans to take to provide alternatives to custody for vulnerable women in the criminal justice system. (17814)

We are already providing effective alternatives to remands for the courts with new enhanced bail provision for women and robust community sentences supported by voluntary sector-run women’s community projects.

I thank the Minister for that answer. However, will he pledge that funding for voluntary and community sector projects designed to help vulnerable women out of a life of crime and away from prison is not undermined by cuts to Ministry of Justice budgets?

I appreciate the value of such community projects. The hon. Lady will understand that I cannot make pledges on funding, not least ahead of tomorrow’s spending review announcements. However, we are keen to ensure that such projects continue if they can and, in particular, that there is a role for the voluntary sector in helping to deliver them.

In 2007, the Corston report stated that custodial sentences for women should be reserved for serious and violent individuals who pose a threat to the public, yet 68% of women in prison are there for non-violent offences, compared with 47% of men. What more can the Government do to ensure that fewer women who are guilty of non-violent offences go to prison?

My hon. Friend may know that when the then Government broadly accepted the Corston report’s recommendations, we in opposition broadly accepted them too. The female prison population rose sharply from when the previous Government took power. It had risen by 86% by 2002, although it has been broadly static since then. It is important to provide alternatives such as community projects, particularly to help vulnerable women who do not need to be in custody, although custody must of course remain for the most serious offenders.

While obviously the Minister cannot anticipate tomorrow’s comprehensive spending review decisions, in order to fulfil the strategy set out by Baroness Corston of reducing the number of women offenders in prison, there must be good community provision. Can he now commit to maintaining the existing provision?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her new role. We want to embed women’s community projects into mainstream service provision and provide support for women at each stage of the criminal justice process, so we are devolving both budgets and contracts to directors of offender management. They are working with the probation service, which will have the lead role in sustaining successful projects. We want those projects to succeed.

Restorative Justice Pilot Schemes

I am providing good value for the taxpayer this afternoon. [Interruption.] Buy one answer, get one free.

Pre-sentence restorative justice for adults was trialled as part of a Home Office crime reduction programme that ran between 2001 and 2004. A youth restorative disposal has also been piloted, allowing police officers to resolve minor first-time offences by young people using restorative techniques. We are currently ensuring that the pilot is independently evaluated.

The community payback scheme in Downham Market was initiated by volunteers and has proved very effective in both showing justice being done locally and delivering key community projects such as improvements to paths and car parks. What plans does the Minister have to give local communities the power to make it easier to deliver similar schemes?

I am aware of the Downham Market scheme. If sentencers and the public are to have confidence in community payback, we need to make it tougher. We need to ensure that the work done is meaningful and challenging, and that there is rigorous enforcement of community payback orders. We are also keen on ensuring that as much as possible is done, like in Downham Market, to encourage members of the community to nominate projects and therefore take an interest in them.

In view of the Minister’s comments earlier about embedding best practice in the mainstream, what will he do to ensure that judges and magistrates have a full understanding of the outcome of restorative justice projects and make full use of them?

The right hon. Gentleman probably knows that we will announce a set of proposals on sentencing later this year, and restorative justice will form an important component of that. It is a coalition agreement to seek to promote restorative justice programmes, and the evaluation of them that has been carried out is encouraging, showing high levels of victim satisfaction and reduced rates of reoffending.

My right hon. Friend referred to the community payback scheme. I recently spent a day with the community payback team in my constituency, helping to cut back branches in a local area of woodland. I saw the benefits of such work to both offenders and the community. Does he agree that such schemes play an important part in the justice system?

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. I assume that he was taking part in the scheme as an observer, not as somebody who was required to pay back to the community. It was not a Whips-run scheme.

It is important that community sentences are effective, and that there is confidence on the part of members of the public and sentencers that the schemes are rigorous. At their best they can be, but there is a great deal more work to be done to ensure that they are supervised and enforced properly.

Last year alone, offenders carried out more than 11 million hours of unpaid work through the community payback scheme, which is a model of restorative justice. Across the country, offenders have cleaned graffiti, repaired community centres and worked on environmental projects, including helping to repair flood damage in Cumbria. The scheme was established by the previous Labour Government in the face of Conservative opposition—indeed, at the time, the current Attorney-General dismissed it as a gimmick. Will the Minister confirm that that excellent Labour programme is in fact now being expanded by his Government because it provides an important role in punishing and rehabilitating offenders?

May I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his new position as Opposition spokesperson? He does not seem to recognise that there are public confidence issues with community payback as it is currently run. He did not refer, for instance, to the ITV documentary that was broadcast recently that showed offenders abusing community payback and problems with supervision. It is the Government’s intention to considerably improve and toughen up community payback so that there is confidence in it.

Prisoners (Drug Addiction)

6. What estimate he has made of the number of prisoners in England and Wales addicted to class A drugs. (17816)

We estimate that on average, 55% of all people entering prison have a serious drug problem, but we are unable to give a robust and precise estimate of the number of prisoners who are addicted to class A drugs. A recent study reviewed 1,457 newly sentenced prisoners from 49 prisons. It showed that 62% of prisoners reported some drug use, and 41% of the sample reported heroin, cocaine powder or crack cocaine use during the four-week period prior to the study.

The Secretary of State will know that more than 60,000 prisoners received methadone or another drug intervention in our prisons last year alone. Almost 24,000 of them received a regular methadone prescription. Does he agree that that state-induced dependency must end?

I was compelled by my hon. Friend’s first question and I had not thought that there was more to come. As he said, we must move away from the overuse of drugs and methadone maintenance, and aim at detoxification and returning people to a condition in which they might stay out of prison. Methadone maintenance is sometimes necessary when dealing with people who are seriously addicted when they enter prison. If people are serving a very short-term sentence, there is not much more we can do than maintain them on methadone.

However, the Ministry of Justice is looking, with my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary, to see what can be done in the context of his health reforms to deal more constructively with the huge problem of drugs offenders and crime. As I said, more than half the people whom we admit to prison are believed to have a serious drug problem when they arrive, and some who enter drug-free become addicted while there.

Some of us believe that decisions on drug treatment, including in prison, should be taken by doctors, not by politicians. Which Government agency will take the lead on drug treatment in prison under this Government?

I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a close interest in drug treatment in his constituency, where he has an excellent record on the subject. Responsibility for such treatment in prisons has been transferred to the NHS. I agree with his proposition that clinical judgments must lie at the heart of any drug treatment programme, but it is necessary for Departments to collaborate. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and I hope to produce a combined framework on treatment in prison and treatment for convicted drug users in alternative residential accommodation. That might include the transfer of prisoners in suitable cases to community-based mental health care. All those things must be tried, because the current situation is quite appalling. However, in the end, treatment of an individual must be a clinical decision. It is certainly not a decision for politicians.

Prisoners (Relationship Skills Programmes)

Currently, commissioning services for offenders is devolved to directors of offender management in the regions and Wales. They are responsible for deciding what services they wish to commission to meet the needs of prisoners in their area. We are examining how reforms to the justice system could enable delivery of more programmes from a broader range of local providers of greater relevance to the many rehabilitation needs of offenders.

Given that there is a mass of academic evidence from the UK, the US and the Netherlands that strong family relationships reduce reoffending and, therefore, cost to the Minister’s Department, can I ask him to stress that in the Green Paper and when he and his colleagues speak to prison governors?

I tend to agree with my hon. Friend. We have to get to a position in which those people who are charged with the rehabilitation of offenders have a much freer hand to deliver the interventions that will be effective for the offender who is in their care. If we over-prescribe exactly what has to be done from the centre, we will have a much less effective system. That process will be central to the rehabilitation revolution of delegating responsibility and authority for these decisions to a local level.

While I would not go as far as the Minister’s party in terms of rehabilitation for prisoners, is it not better to have resources going into rehabilitation so that we save money in the long run? When I spoke to those who work at Nottingham prison in my constituency, they were very concerned that the cuts that will be implemented tomorrow could mean that prisoners will be locked up for much longer periods with no rehabilitation services.

I detected a degree of contradiction in how the hon. Gentleman presented his question. He does not want to go as far as we would on the rehabilitation of offenders, but then asks us to go the distance. That is exactly what we will do. It would be wholly short-sighted to cut our capacity to deliver rehabilitation of offenders, and that is why we will enable a system that gets the whole country—including the voluntary, not-for-profit and the private sectors, as well as the existing state services—to work together to deliver effective rehabilitation of offenders and effect a step change in the delivery of what is a critical public service.

Prison Service Staff (Mental Health Awareness)

8. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the provision of training for prison service staff on the management of offenders with mental health conditions. (17818)

12. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the provision of training for prison service staff on the management of offenders with mental health conditions. (17823)

18. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the provision of training for prison service staff on the management of offenders with mental health conditions. (17829)

Ministry of Justice and Department of Health Ministers and senior officials discuss offender health issues regularly. Over 17,000 prison officers received mental health awareness training between 2006 and 2009. A new mental health training framework was launched in 2009-10, which regional offender health teams now co-ordinate.

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer and I am delighted to hear that his Department is working with the Department of Health. Will he do all that he can to work effectively with that Department to ensure the proper commissioning of mental health services, which will not only improve intervention in the police station, but ensure a wider range of effective sentences in our courts?

That is precisely what we want to do, and my hon. Friend’s approach is very much in the right direction. Much reform will take place in the Department of Health, including obviously the commissioning of services for mental health. It is important that account is taken of the need to commission proper services of all kinds for prisoners, and that is being taken on board by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and his team. We will work closely with them. The present prison population includes people whose criminality goes alongside a definite need for support—in this case for mental health problems—which, if tackled successfully, might reduce their liability to reoffend.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the treatment of prisoners with mental health problems does not just end when they leave prison but continues far beyond? Will he please outline what steps the Government plan to take to support prisoners with mental health problems after they leave prison?

I agree entirely. It is all part of what we hope to do on rehabilitation. In addition to tackling prisoners’ problems inside prison, we have to look ahead and almost certainly join up with the community mental health services providing support for prisoners when they are released. That will be an important part of ensuring that the reforms we are carrying out to the prison service and the criminal justice system are properly tied up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health’s important reforms to the future shape of the NHS.

Order. May I gently encourage the Secretary of State to look at the House when he addresses us?

How do the Government intend to implement the proposal in the coalition agreement to explore alternative forms of secure treatment-based accommodation for mentally ill and drugs offenders?

I recall that proposal in the coalition agreement. I think I mistakenly drew upon it a few moments ago when talking about drug treatments—I do not think we will be moving to that quite so rapidly. However, that is an important part of the coalition agreement, and I can only say at this stage that we certainly have not forgotten about it and are working on it. Undoubtedly, if we can set up a proper and, where necessary, secure treatment facility, it would perhaps be a better place to treat mental illness than an overcrowded prison.

What discussions have been held between the Secretary of State’s Department and the devolved Administrations on this important issue? Are there any glaring variations between the training available across the different regions of the United Kingdom?

These matters are devolved. I have no doubt that we will look at good practice on both sides of the Irish sea from time to time to ensure that we benefit from what we each do. I am in regular contact with my opposite number in the devolved Northern Ireland Government, and I will try to take the opportunity to discuss these matters with him to see how we are both getting on.

I am encouraged by the responses from the Secretary of State, particularly given that this is a big issue in my constituency, which is home to Her Majesty’s Prison Brixton. We want to expand provision for mental health services in that prison so we are keen to know whether he agrees that it would be a mistake this week to reduce funding for mental health services in our prisons?

Not surprisingly, everyone is trying to anticipate tomorrow’s announcements. We will have to make fairly marked reductions to the budget of the Ministry of Justice and the various services for which we are responsible. Against that background, we will need to take an approach to how we tackle these problems that is more radical and reforming than the previous one, which involved simply paying for more and more places for more and more people, leading to overcrowded prisons. Our approach will underline the need to take a particular look at drugs, mental health, illiteracy, innumeracy, foreign national prisoners and all the other things to ensure that we find better ways of dealing with rehabilitation problems whenever possible.

Short Custodial Sentences

9. What recent discussions he has had with the Sentencing Guidelines Council on its guidance on short custodial sentences. (17819)

The Sentencing Guidelines Council has not issued any specific guidance on short custodial sentences. We have had no discussions with the council on this topic, which we are considering as part of our assessment of sentencing policy.

The Secretary of State may be aware of a recent case in my constituency in which a young man suffering from autism and Asperger’s syndrome was subjected to a series of horrific attacks by three other young men. The judge said that the attacks could almost amount to torture, yet the three perpetrators were given community orders. During the general election, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron), now the Prime Minister, told the country that we are not convicting enough. He then explicitly said that

“when we do convict them, they’re not getting long enough sentences.”

Just two weeks ago, in his speech to the Conservative party conference, the Prime Minister said that

“offenders who should go to prison will go to prison”.

I agree with the Prime Minister—does the Secretary of State?

One of the failings of the last Government was to take a popular subject from the popular press and make rather shallow partisan points out of it. Sentencing in individual cases is not a matter for Ministers, and should not be a matter for sensational comment to the newspapers by Ministers with the frequency that it was. We have to ensure that justice is done, particularly to the victims of crime, and that justice is carried out in such a way as to reduce the risk of reoffending. We have made our approach to crime perfectly clear: we must punish the guilty. Prison is the right place for serious criminals—they will not commit more crimes while inside—but we also strive to avoid reoffending. The case that the right hon. Lady mentions was obviously a serious case for the victim, but newspaper cuttings from Salford are not the source of future criminal justice reform.

Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to acknowledge that very few people are sentenced to prison for a first offence? The vast majority of people who serve short-term prison sentences do so only because they have been given community sentence after community sentence, all of which have failed. The last thing to do with those people is to give them another community sentence, only for it to fail once again.

It is very pleasant to say that I largely agree with my hon. Friend. He has probably been upset by reports that I am minded to abolish short prison sentences. Actually, I have always expressed precisely the opposite opinion. It has never been my view that we should abolish all short prison sentences. Indeed, I have rather shared his opinion that with the kind of irritating recidivist offender who is causing a lot of damage, if they offend over and over again there is quite often no alternative to a short prison sentence. There are too many such offenders, and although there are cases in which we can avoid the use of short prison sentences, if we do that we must have a very effective alternative.

May I begin by saying how much I genuinely relish the prospect of debating—and, dare I say, arguing—with the Lord Chancellor and his team on the matters in their portfolio? I am also looking forward to working with the coalition Government where there are areas of agreement between us, notably on the use of restorative justice projects such as community payback—a subject that has already been raised by the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) and other colleagues. However, the right hon. and learned Gentleman will know that most people who receive short prison sentences are persistent offenders who have refused to change their behaviour, even after undergoing community sentences, as has been said. He has said that he is not against abolishing the power of magistrates to award short sentences. Will he commit today not to reduce, in the sentencing review now taking place, the power of magistrates to give custodial sentences where appropriate?

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his place, and I look forward to debating with him. He has certainly got to Cabinet level a damn sight more quickly than I ever did, so I am sure that he will prove a formidable challenge to the Government. As I have already said, we will not take away powers from magistrates courts, which sometimes find it absolutely inevitable that they have to give somebody a short prison sentence, because everything else has failed and that person is continuing to cause damage to other people. However, we hope to provide magistrates with the full range of alternatives. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice said a few moments ago, more credible community sentences—sentences with a properly punitive element that might have a better chance of rehabilitating the offender—should be tried in more cases, and we will try to provide them for magistrates.

I am grateful to the Lord Chancellor for that answer. He has made it absolutely clear that magistrates will not have the power to give short sentences taken away from them. For clarity, will he also confirm that the cuts that will be announced tomorrow will not lead to a reduction in any prison places or to any prisons being closed?

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is not going to follow his predecessors in making a great policy point about a target for the number of people in prison, because there is no evidence that that does any good to anybody. We do have to—[Interruption.] The present numbers are enormous compared with the numbers when we were last in office. There are 20,000 more people in prison than there were when we last had a Conservative Home Secretary in charge. We are looking at what works, and what protects the public. Prison must be used for those for whom it is essential, but it is simply not the case that prison is the only way of dealing with all offenders. Once we have punished people and given others a break from their activities, the key thing is to do more than the present system does to reduce the risk of their reoffending and committing more crimes against more victims, to which the present system almost condemns us. More than half of prisoners—

Order. I am grateful to the Secretary of State, but we now need shorter questions and shorter answers.

Victim Support

The Government recognise the importance of providing support, information and advocacy for families bereaved by homicide. We are currently considering options for future funding of services for victims.

I am grateful for the Minister’s response, but I am still concerned, because the draft structural plan for the Ministry of Justice makes no reference to continued funding for the national victims service. Can the Minister guarantee that the £8 million committed by the previous Government will be protected by the present Government, ensuring that families of murder victims get the support that they need?

The Government of course recognise that families who are bereaved through homicide require the most intensive support of all, and we are working with Victim Support on the continuing development of the homicide service, which is relatively new. It has supported 600 bereaved people, although it has only been going since March 2010. However, I cannot make commitments about funding ahead of tomorrow, or ahead of the proposals that we will set out later this year.

Offender Rehabilitation

11. What progress his Department has made on implementation of its payment by results policy for the rehabilitation of offenders; and if he will make a statement. (17822)

The Government are committed to introducing payment by results as part of a new approach to offender rehabilitation. We will provide further details in the rehabilitation and sentencing Green Paper.

With 60% of offenders on short-term sentences reoffending within a year, it is absolutely critical to have a major step change in our attitudes to rehabilitation. To that end, will my right hon. and learned Friend tell us whether he plans to introduce any more pilot schemes, and if so, when and where will they occur?

I entirely share my hon. Friend’s view, and we are hoping to get more pilots under way in the new year, as soon as we have got our Green Paper out and drawn up the framework contracts that we shall have to enter into with providers. The country is full of people with extremely good ideas on how to improve rehabilitation and reduce reoffending, and we must ensure that we have a proper means of engaging with people in the voluntary and independent sectors and in private sector companies—in any combination of those that people wish—to try to produce the result that my hon. Friend and I, and all our constituents, would like to see.

Vulnerable People (Legal Representation)

13. What steps his Department is taking to increase access to legal representation for the most vulnerable. (17824)

On 23 June 2010 the Justice Secretary announced in a written ministerial statement that the Government were undertaking a policy assessment of legal aid in England and Wales. The Government intend to seek views on proposals later this autumn. In addition, on 26 July I announced the Government’s intention to consult on implementing Lord Justice Jackson’s proposals on funding arrangements from his report later this autumn. Those proposals, if implemented, would help to maintain access to justice at proportionate costs for claimants and defendants.

The only organisation in Bradford with qualified solicitors offering welfare advice ceases its service part-way through the year as it uses up its allocation of matter starts, while other solicitors still have unused but non-transferable allocations. Will the Justice Secretary please ensure that, as part of the review, the inefficiency of matter starts is given due consideration?

The hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) has talked about the importance of legal aid. Like many other hon. Members, I believe that legal aid is critical for those who want to address an injustice. Can he assure us that it will continue, and there will still be an opportunity to access it, even after the comprehensive spending review?

Absolutely. The Government support legal aid very much. As far as we are concerned, however, it is a question of directing that legal aid to those who need it most, and that will form the core component of the review whose findings will come out later this autumn.

Foreign National Prisoners

14. If he will establish how many foreign national prisoners held in UK prisons wish to serve out custodial sentences in their country of origin rather than in the UK. (17825)

Since 1 January this year, 97 applications for transfer have been received from prisoners wishing to serve their custodial sentence in their country of origin. The Prison Service has in place procedures—principally on induction—to ensure that prisoners are aware of the possibility of transfer and of how to submit an application. In addition, prisoners are advised, during interviews with immigration staff, of the possibility of being repatriated. Relevant prisoners are advised in writing of any new prisoner transfer agreement that comes into effect.

May I urge my hon. Friend to place in the Library the details of the countries to which those 97 prisoners wished to return? I also urge him and his ministerial colleagues to do far more to encourage foreign national prisoners to go back to where they came from, because taxpayers in this country are fed up with paying for their board and lodging.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for continuing to keep a spur to the Ministry of Justice’s side to ensure that we do not slack in our responsibility to get these foreign national prisoners home if at all possible. I am pleased to be able to tell him that when I spoke recently to the annual conference of the Independent Monitoring Boards, I asked them to help us with this, to ensure that we have our procedures in place, and to identify any cases of delay involving prisoners wishing to return under a prisoner transfer agreement. I am determined to ensure that all those who are willing to go home should be encouraged to do so at the earliest opportunity.

Sentencing (Parental Responsibility)

15. What recent representations he has received on his review of parental responsibility in sentencing. (17826)

As part of our informal consultations for the Green Paper, we have received clear support for greater engagement of parents and families in the youth justice system. There is strong international evidence and promising emerging evidence from the UK of the effectiveness of supportive parenting interventions in reducing offending by young people.

I welcome the Minister’s statement that international evidence shows the effectiveness of parenting in reducing offending. Will my hon. Friend do everything he can to increase the role of parenting in sentencing in the youth justice system?

What we want to do is to move towards a restorative approach to the youth justice system, and particularly to examine whether we can transfer the lessons from the experience of the youth system in Northern Ireland. Youth justice conferencing was very successful there, which involves, of course, the parents of offenders as well as the offenders themselves having to face up to the consequences of their actions. I hope that that gives a pretty unqualified yes to my hon. Friend.

Topical Questions

I would like to point out that we recently launched the new legal ombudsman scheme on 6 October 2010. The legal ombudsman, established under the Legal Services Act 2007, will act as a one-stop shop for all complaints against legal service providers. The new scheme replaces the previous complaints-handling regime, whereby service complaints about lawyers were dealt with by their regulatory body. The legal ombudsman will preside over the new complaints system, which will be efficient, easily understandable for consumers, and clearly independent from the legal profession.

I recently received a letter from a constituent who in 2000 received a three-year custodial sentence for a non-violent crime. Despite successful rehabilitation and gainful employment, he now discovers that his conviction can never be legally spent—with a dreadful impact on the future lives of both himself and his family. Given the Lord Chancellor’s enthusiasm for rehabilitation, and also the inflation in sentencing over the past 10 years, will he commit to look again at the threshold at which convictions can be legally spent?

My hon. Friend has pointed out some of the problems with the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 as it operates in today’s climate. I can confirm that this will be covered by our review of sentencing and rehabilitation.

Will the Lord Chancellor confirm that in the forthcoming review of the Human Rights Act, its abolition has been ruled out?

The coalition agreement sets out that we will appoint a commission, which will probably happen next year. We will certainly not resile in any way from our obligations under the European convention on human rights, which the Government accept. We will also examine the prospects of improving understanding of how human rights legislation works in this country.

T3. Are my right hon. and hon. Friends aware of the devastating consequences, particularly for victims of domestic violence, of the decision taken by the Legal Services Commission to halve the number of legal aid providers? In the whole of my constituency of South Northamptonshire we have only one small firm specialising in domestic violence legal aid cases, yet it has just been told that its licence will be revoked. Can Ministers do anything to help my constituents? (17838)

It was a competitive contract, and the contracts have now been awarded. It is appropriate to note that the new legal aid contracts for family law were due to commence on 14 October, but that on 30 September the Legal Services Commission lost a judicial review brought about by the Law Society against its recent tender process. The tender was ruled unlawful and the awards quashed, meaning that the Legal Services Commission is unable to proceed with the new family contracts until a fresh process can be undertaken.

T2. What action will be taken to ensure that the arrest and prosecution of foreign nationals can be undertaken only by the Crown Prosecution Service and the Metropolitan police? (17837)

I will make careful inquiries into what steps are being taken. Obviously foreign nationals should be treated on the same basis as any other residents of this country when it comes to being dealt with via the criminal law. However, if the procedures give rise to some concern, perhaps the hon. Lady would draw the specific problem that troubles her to my attention and that of my team, and we will look into it.

T5. Given the potential closure of Northwich court in my constituency, as a result of which people will have to travel a considerable distance to reach the nearest court in Chester, what plans have the Government to encourage the use of technology to minimise the necessity for members of the public physically to attend the court for routine purposes? (17840)

I thank my hon. Friend for giving me an opportunity to discuss the merits of technology in relation to the courts. As for the court in his constituency, access is important. The Government took the view that an average travelling time of an hour or less would be acceptable.

Does the Secretary of State think that there should be a public acceptability test relating to the time that prisoners spend in purposeful activity?

I think that it would be very publicly acceptable if there were a more work-based regime in more of our prisons. I am not sure what specific tests would need to be devised, but we would need to ensure that, whenever possible, the hours spent in productive employment by prisoners reintroduced to the work habit were similar to those to which they would have to adapt if they obtained a job when they left prison, and that they would be able to produce goods, for instance, generating earnings that would help them to make a contribution to compensation for victims. However, I am not sure that each of those programmes would need to be subjected to a public acceptability test.

T6. Many millions of pounds are spent on court cases involving divorcing couples. Yesterday David Norgrove was quoted as saying that the Department was looking to a Swedish model to help to resolve divorce cases— Name her! What changes does the Secretary of State propose to make, and how much would—[Interruption.] Order. I want to hear the rest of the question. It is becoming more fascinating by the word. What does the Secretary of State intend to learn from the Swedish model, and how much money would be saved? (17841)

We have some good English models too. Family mediation can be quicker, cheaper and less stressful, and provide better outcomes, than contested court proceedings. We know that informing people about mediation helps them to understand how it can enable them to avoid long-drawn-out cases. I am pleased to report that the issue forms part of the Norgrove review, which we will follow with great interest.

How many of those who were seriously injured in the 7/7 bombings are still waiting for compensation? Presumably the Department has some responsibility in that regard. As for the claims that have been finalised, is the Secretary of State aware that there is a good deal of dissatisfaction among those who have received inadequate sums, in view of the serious injuries inflicted by the mass murderers?

Because of the system that we have inherited, the criminal injuries compensation scheme will have to be re-examined. It simply has not received adequate funds in each year’s budget to keep up with the level of claims. We will have to establish how we can produce a system that works more efficiently, is affordable, and does not depend entirely on huge delays before payments are made because no one has been allocated any money to settle all the outstanding claims.

There is quite a lot behind the hon. Gentleman’s question, but of course everything possible is being done to provide the compensation due to people as quickly as possible. Obviously I cannot comment on the assessment of damages in individual cases, but I note the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about the disappointment that some have felt.

T7. As part of his efforts to save money by reducing the workload of the magistrates courts, will my right hon. and learned Friend make it his policy to decriminalise the non-payment of the BBC television licence fee, so that the BBC, like every other organisation, must recover its civil debts civilly rather than through the magistrates courts? (17842)

I am not sure that that is my responsibility at present; I will consult my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport. I can only say that the last time I can remember a Government attempting to do that, the idea was not met with a great deal of favour by the BBC—but I shall find out exactly where we are now.

Like many others, I would like to see less use of short-term prison sentences, but will the Justice Secretary expand on his curious remark a little earlier that there is little evidence that prison does any good to anyone?

If I said that, it was one of those slips of the tongue that I very rarely make. Prison is the best and only punishment for serious criminal offenders; it is the one that we all want to use. It has a strong punitive element if the just and correct sentence is given, and the public are, of course, spared from the crimes of the individual for so long as he is in prison—but we should also strive to do much better than we have ever done before in reducing the likelihood of the person reoffending and committing new crimes as soon as he is released. I am, however, delighted to hear that the right hon. Gentleman agrees with me that short-term sentences are used too much. He should have a word with his party’s newly appointed Front-Bench spokesman, before that Front-Bench spokesman slips into the folly of the last 10 years.

Since no funding was in place from the previous Government for the post of chief coroner, the decision not to go ahead with it was hardly surprising, but does that not leave a gap both in raising standards and in having an appeal procedure less costly than judicial review?

I thank my right hon. Friend for giving me an opportunity to explain the fact that we aim to improve the coroner system in line with most of the policy in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. However, the purpose of abolishing the chief coroner post is, first, to save the £10 million start-up costs and then the £6.5 million running costs, but also so that some of the chief coroner’s leadership and operational functions can be transferred to an alternative body.

The Secretary of State will be aware that prisoners held within the prison estate are still allowed to smoke tobacco. Does the Secretary of State agree that that presents a huge health risk to Prison Service employees, and are the Government considering the matter?

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, the prisoner’s cell is regarded as his home for the purposes of the smoking legislation, and that is what gives them their rights in that regard.

T8. My right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary will be aware of the considerable disquiet felt about the Judicial Appointments Commission both by those within the ranks of the judiciary and by those seeking preferment to it. According to the Library, the cost of the JAC to his Department is in the order of £10 million annually. That is for the discharge of functions formerly performed by the Lord Chancellor’s Department for an amount that I have little doubt was one twentieth of that. We saw the axe taken to a number of quangos this week; when can the House expect the JAC to join them? (17843)

I do not think we are going to abolish the JAC, and it did not appear on the list for the axe this week. My hon. Friend makes a well-founded point, however. While retaining the commission, we will take a close look at improving the way it operates, particularly in respect of the amount that it is now costing, the time it is taking to make appointments, and the burdensome processes that are sometimes introduced.

Perhaps it was also a slip of the tongue when the Secretary of State completely failed to answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman). Before the election, Members now sitting on the Government Benches, from the current Prime Minister down, all promised on umpteen occasions to sort out the issue of universal jurisdiction. Why have they so far completely failed to do anything about it at all? Why are they shilly-shallying about? When are they going to get it dealt with?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman; for some reason, I completely failed to get the full point of what was being said. I thought it was being suggested that there should be a different method for dealing with foreign arrests than for domestic arrests. I entirely agree with the point that has been made. We have already said we are going to readdress the law. The Leader of the House is sitting alongside me, and he tells me that legislation will be introduced in the House very soon.

T9. When can those opposed to the closure of Skipton court expect to hear a decision about it, and can the Minister reassure me that its unique rural case will be listened to carefully? (17844)

My hon. Friend has made strong representations in support of the court, and they were well received. The decision will be taken shortly before the Christmas recess.

The Government, led by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, are giving careful consideration to that point.

T10. The Ministry has a laudable and exemplary commitment to evidence-led policy. Given that, can the Minister assure me that when he reviews the magistrates courts, he will look critically at the information on the condition and use of Southport’s courts in the Ministry’s consultation document—which is, frankly, duff, inaccurate and misleading? (17845)

I do not know how the consultation report was misleading, but if the hon. Gentleman contacts me later I shall be happy to look at it.

I am sure that the Ministry of Justice is aware of early-day motion 794 in my name, on the Court of Appeal ruling on mesothelioma liability. I received a letter this morning from the Association of British Insurers. I will deal with their very polite request that I withdraw my early-day motion after this, but first I want to focus briefly on its assertion that

“the industry and the ABI agrees…that the appropriate trigger point for employers’ liability policies is the point of exposure”

to asbestos,

“not the point at which the disease develops”—

the disease being mesothelioma. Does the Minister agree?

This is not a matter on which we propose to legislate in the near future, but if the hon. Lady wishes to discuss the issue further with me, I shall be happy to meet her.