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Topical Questions

Volume 516: debated on Tuesday 19 October 2010

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.