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Volume 519: debated on Tuesday 23 November 2010

The Secretary of State was asked—

Imprisonment for Public Protection

1. How many prisoners who have completed their tariff remain in prison for the purpose of public protection. (25560)

On 17 November 2010, 14,680 prisoners were serving an indeterminate sentence of imprisonment for public protection, or a life sentence in prisons or secure hospitals. Of those, 6,320 are held beyond their tariff expiry date, excluding offenders who have been recalled to custody following release.

Those prisoners have been held in prison for good reasons and on good judgment. Does the Secretary of State intend, as is rumoured throughout prisons, to reduce the number of such offenders in prison? If so, how many sex offenders and violent criminals will be released back into our communities?

That rumour is probably on the hon. Gentleman’s website where I have seen that he is telling his constituents that I will release robbers, burglars, drug dealers and so on. Perhaps he will wait for the sentencing review, and stop living in a fantasy world. The indeterminate prison sentence has never worked as intended. The intention was that it would apply to a few hundred dangerous people who were not serving life sentences. The number is piling up, and more than 6,000 have gone beyond their tariff, but they will not simply be released. We will re-address the subject, and we will not release all the people he keeps telling his constituents we will release.

Will the Secretary of State look at the Prison Reform Trust’s report and specifically conduct a review of the social and financial costs and benefits of IPP sentences, and examine the available policy options set out by the trust?

We are taking a balanced look at the whole subject. The Prison Reform Trust takes quite the opposite view to that of the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). It believes that those sentences should be scrapped entirely. It is critical of the way they work, and it is clear that they are not working as intended, but the Government are hoping to take a balanced view. We must obviously protect the public against dangerous people and the risk of serious offences being committed on release. On the other hand, about 10% of the entire prison population will be serving IPP sentences by 2015 at the present rate of progress, and we cannot keep piling up an ever-mounting number of people who are likely never to be released.

Does the Secretary of State accept that it is inherent in both life sentences and the concept of IPP sentences, which are widely supported throughout the Chamber, that many prisoners will be tariff-expired because the idea is that they are not released until it is judged that it is safe to do so? Does he also accept that although it is true that the precise construction of the clauses was inappropriate and led to some very short tariffs, since the changes that I introduced in 2008, the number of new IPP sentenced prisoners has dropped by 50% from about 1,500 to under 1,000 a year? Would it not be far better for public safety to let that work through instead of prematurely releasing such prisoners?

No, it has always been the case that some people are held indeterminately, and certainly those on life sentences. The purpose of IPP sentences was to have a sentence below a life sentence for dangerous people for whom life was not quite justified. The right hon. Gentleman will accept that such sentences never worked as intended, which is why, when he was Secretary of State, he introduced an Act of Parliament to try to correct some of the mistakes that had been made. We are now considering how the sentence works in practice, and we will introduce considered proposals in due course.

Administration of Justice

2. What proposals he is considering to increase the level of efficiency in the administration of justice. (25561)

Following the spending review, the Ministry of Justice must make a total budgetary saving, including resource and capital spending, of 25% in real terms between 2010-11 and 2014-15.

I remind the House of my former profession of barrister. Eleven years ago, the Labour Government introduced the Woolf reforms, which changed all manner of process in the civil courts. What detailed proposals does the Minister have for the same telephone case management in criminal work, particularly post-not guilty pleas, and after-guilty pleas and sending matters for pre-sentence report?

We are certainly interested in improving the efficiency of justice by looking at case management, and some encouraging pilots have been run in London, in which costs have been saved through integrated case management arrangements between the Crown Prosecution Service and the police. We are also very interested in employing the greater use of technology, such as virtual courts, and I would be very happy to talk to my hon. Friend about other ideas as well.

In the name of so-called efficiency of justice, the Secretary of State has scrapped the post of chief coroner, a move widely condemned by organisations such as Inquest and the Royal British Legion. They point out that tens of thousands of people every year are forced to grapple with the archaic, unaccountable coroners system, which needs the reforms promised by the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. The Minister said that scrapping the chief coroner was necessary to save money, but what assessment has he made of the increased costs that will be incurred through the greater use of judicial review, which is bound to result from this short-sighted decision? May I invite the Secretary of State or his Minister to put on record now exactly what the real cost will be of that false efficiency? Or will he take this opportunity to reverse that misguided proposal?

We do not think that this was a sustainable proposal, with set-up costs of £10 million and running costs of £6 million a year. The important thing now is to reform the coroners system appropriately to ensure the efficient administration of justice in this area.

What steps are Ministers taking to ensure that savings do not simply become higher costs for other Departments or other parts of their own Department, whether in the context of magistrates court closures, which adds to police costs, or changes in the legal aid system that generate demand for expenditure elsewhere? Is there a mechanism for assessing how costs will fall elsewhere?

I agree with my right hon. Friend about the importance of ensuring that what he describes does not happen, but he will know that there is significant under-utilisation of magistrates courts. That is why we have had to take this action in consulting about closure, not least in relation to the Tynedale magistrates court, which is adjacent to his constituency in Northumberland and which is operating at a utilisation rate of only about two thirds.

National Offender Management Service

3. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the support given by the National Offender Management Service to children in young offender institutions who have been in care. (25562)

The National Offender Management Service has a responsibility to safeguard the welfare of all young people in custody, and all young offender institutions are regularly inspected by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons. Revised guidance on the responsibilities of local authorities to support young people leaving care is due to be published shortly by the Department for Education. It will include a chapter dedicated to the responsibilities for supporting care leavers involved in the criminal justice system.

I thank the Minister for that reply. I recently met representatives of the Liverpool Children in Care Council and heard young people expressing concern about the level of support given to young offenders who are looked-after children. Typically, they do not have the same support networks that other young offenders have. Will the Minister now commit to revisiting this issue to ensure that vulnerable young offenders are given the help and support that they need to get their lives back on track?

I certainly agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of providing such support. Last week, I visited Feltham young offenders institution with the Mayor of London and saw how innovative arrangements to provide greater support and counselling for young people had a considerably reduced the recidivism rate on a particular wing in that institution. That shows that, with better rehabilitation, we can get better results. I would be very happy to talk to the hon. Lady about any specific ideas she might have for improving the system.

Is it any wonder that children in care do not have the necessary continuity of support once they are in custody, given that the full financial responsibility of local authorities is lost at that point? Will the Government ensure that when such children in care are in custody, they are not out of sight, out of mind and off the financial books of the local authorities?

It is important to ensure that the incentives are right, that we deter the inappropriate use of custody for young people and that local authorities are fully focused on what they need to do to reduce recidivism before the use of custody becomes important.

The Minister will be aware that, according to a written ministerial statement today, the Omand review of the case of Jon Venables was released this morning. It is 114 pages long. Is he also aware that my constituent, Ralph Bulger, the father of James Bulger, and his brother Jimmy Bulger knew nothing about the release of this report today until the media contacted them, asking for a statement on what they thought would be in this 114-page document? Can he ensure that this kind of thing does not happen again?

My understanding is that appropriate arrangements should have been made, and that Mr Bulger was aware of the report but not its release. I shall of course look into the matter, and I am happy to talk to the right hon. Gentleman about what went wrong, if something went wrong in this case.

Sentencing Policy

5. What recent progress he has made on reviewing his Department’s policy on unduly lenient sentences. (25564)

The powers of the Attorney-General and Solicitor-General to refer certain Crown court sentences to the Court of Appeal on the grounds of undue leniency are working well.

I am particularly concerned with the sentencing of people convicted of paedophilia and believe that the policy review should be based on evidence. What assurance can the Minister provide that data that the Ministry of Justice collects will separate crimes of paedophilia from all sexual offences as currently recorded? Without that data it will be difficult to review the appropriateness or otherwise of current sentencing policy.

I can well understand my hon. Friend’s concern. All offences of sufficient seriousness to be tried only in the Crown court can be referred through the unduly lenient sentences process to the Attorney-General or the Solicitor-General; and 17 of the 31 offences that are triable either way and listed in statutory instrument 2006/1116 refer to offences against children, which reflects how seriously the House takes the matter.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. You will be aware that on three occasions over the past two weeks the Secretary of State for Justice and the Deputy Prime Minister’s deputy—the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper)—have come to the Chamber and essentially repeated from the Dispatch Box announcements already made in the media.

I want to ask the Minister about reports in this Sunday’s papers on the Department’s sentencing plans. The current Prime Minister in March, the Conservative party manifesto in April and the Secretary of State in June all said words to the effect: “We will introduce a system where the courts will specify minimum and maximum sentences for certain offenders. These prisoners will only be able to leave jail after their minimum sentence is served by having earned their release, not simply by right.” Will the sentencing review ditch that policy or keep it?

I am afraid the shadow Secretary of State will have to wait until we produce the policy. It is entirely appropriate that it be presented to the House first.

It is outrageous that we have to buy The Times and read The Daily Telegraph to see what the Government are planning. That is not new politics, that is not the way to do things, and the Secretary of State, who has been an MP for 40 years and served in three Cabinets, should know better.

The Minister ducked the previous question, but he and, indeed, the Secretary of State know that knife-crime cases cause real and lasting misery to the victims, to bereaved families and to communities. Before the general election and in their manifesto, the Conservatives were quite clear, because they said that

“anyone convicted of a knife crime can expect to face a prison sentence.”

We know what the press say their Government will do, but what will the Minister do in the sentencing review to be published next week?

This may be slightly tedious, but I must say again that the shadow Secretary of State will have to wait until the proposals are presented in a comprehensive fashion to the House. Of course, knife crime is an extremely serious offence, as we have acknowledged, but, as far as the precise proposals are concerned, the right hon. Gentleman, like everyone else, will have to wait until they are presented in a coherent fashion to the House first, as is appropriate.

Prisoners (Voting Rights)

6. What discussions he has had with the Deputy Prime Minister on the effects on prisons and prison staff of making arrangements for the implementation of voting rights for prisoners. (25565)

9. What discussions he has had with the Deputy Prime Minister on the effects on prisons and prison staff of making arrangements for the implementation of voting rights for prisoners. (25568)

10. What discussions he has had with the Deputy Prime Minister on the effects on prisons and prison staff of making arrangements for the implementation of voting rights for prisoners. (25569)

Ministers are considering how to implement the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, and when decisions have been taken, they will be announced to the House in the usual way.

I am sure the Secretary of State is aware that prison staff already have to deal with requests for further information about how voting rights will be implemented—not only from prisoners, but from local communities who have grave concerns about the matter. Will he meet a group of MPs for whom that is a particular concern, so that the needs of our constituents might be considered?

I will consider that request when we have announced our conclusions, which we will, to the House. The previous Government were incapable of taking a decision on the Hirst recommendation, which was made five years ago, and we are about to produce our proposals. I would point out that remand prisoners already vote, and always have voted; they vote by post, and it has never caused any difficulty. In the end, there is no suggestion that prisoners are going to be registered in the prison at which they are Her Majesty’s guests. Those that bother to get registered will be registered in constituencies scattered across the country. Of course I will consider the logistics if, after we have produced our proposals, it is apparent that any particular logistical problem will be posed.

When the Secretary of State meets the Deputy Prime Minister, will he pass on the grave disquiet of the people of Glasgow that the 93 convicted sex offenders, 10 convicted murderers and 15 convicted attempted murderers in Barlinnie jail in my constituency have not been exempted from the Government’s review on the right to vote? The Secretary of State knows that neither the European Court of Human Rights nor case law from Strasbourg requires that such individuals should have the right to vote, so why do the Government not just do the right thing and rule it out?

There is no suggestion—and there never has been—that every prisoner is going to get the vote. It is not the Government’s consultation that is responsible, but a judgment given five years ago by the European Court of Human Rights—a Council of Europe institution —and we are now deciding how to implement it. I cannot anticipate the Government’s decision, which will be taken collectively by Ministers, but the idea that lots of murderers and rapists in Barlinnie prison are all going to be given the vote is, I suspect, rather fanciful.

The Secretary of State must understand the grave concern about this measure from the public and, I hope, from both sides of the House. If the Secretary of State is clear that there is no suggestion that murderers and rapists will be given the vote, why will he not simply rule out at least those two categories right now?

The principal consideration is to take a decision and present it to the House. I am trying to shoot down some of the fanciful ideas that have been expressed. I understand the real concern about this: most of the House would have preferred not to change at all the existing ban on prisoners voting, but doing nothing—the previous Government’s position—and allowing solicitors to go running around prisons signing up prisoners to get compensation for having their civil liberties denied is piling up quite a bill. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that Ministers will very soon resolve any uncertainty.

But is there not a contradiction at the heart of the Government’s policy? Currently, all Members of Parliament represent all prisoners living in prisons within their constituency, yet the Secretary of State has said that they will be represented by Members of the constituencies where they were last registered. That contradiction needs to be resolved if representation of prisoners by prisoners is to be taken seriously.

I think there is some confusion in the House about the convention that applies, which both I and my hon. Friend should resolve—although it is not my responsibility to resolve it. I take the view that I represent my constituents when they are in prison wherever it is that they are imprisoned, but I know that other MPs take the view that they represent every resident of a prison in their constituency. Perhaps we should resolve the parliamentary conventions on this matter at the same time as we have a look at which prisoners might have voting rights.

In considering the Government’s policy on this thorny issue, will the Secretary of State, if he has to abide by the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights, restrict the right to vote to those prisoners at the lowest level of seriousness—for example, those dealt with by the magistrates courts for summary offences only?

This applies only to prisoners—obviously, people who have not been in prison do not lose their vote at all. We have to comply with the judgment of the Court. The problem is that this extremely annoying issue will become even more annoying to the public and everyone else if we simply do nothing and wait until some huge financial judgment is made against the taxpayer, which will turn the present public anger into fury. That is why we are going to bring forward considered proposals. At the moment, someone not sent to prison does not lose their vote—irrespective of what other punishment they receive in their summary trial.

The Hirst judgment says that article 3 of protocol 1 of the European convention on human rights obliges this House to give some prisoners the vote; as we have heard, it also gives rise to financial compensation to some prisoners who have been denied that right. Although I sympathise with my right hon. and learned Friend, does he accept that there is an intellectual case for, in time, bringing powers back to Westminster in this area by repealing the Human Rights Act 1998 and withdrawing from the European convention of human rights?

There has been another British case today, which has clarified the situation slightly and has underlined the fact that the Government have discretion on how to comply with their obligations. In due course, obviously, we shall establish a commission on how best to give effect to our human rights obligations in this country, but that will not happen until at least next year.

The coalition Government do not intend to withdraw from the European convention on human rights, which was imposed by the victorious British on the rest of Europe after the war in order to establish British values across the countries that were recovering from fascism and was drafted largely by Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, who put what he thought were the best principles of British justice into it.

Prison Places

Our current plan is to build the prisons to which we are contractually committed. On the basis of current policies, we expect prisoner numbers to rise from about 85,393 last Friday to about 88,000 in 2015, and we expect the implementation of the proposals that will be outlined in the forthcoming Green Paper to reduce that number to about 3,000 fewer than today’s figure. We will always provide enough prison places for those who the courts judge should receive a custodial sentence.

Notwithstanding the Government’s efforts to stabilise the prison population, will the Minister assure us that those who commit crimes and deserve to go to prison will continue to do so?

The Minister will know that it is a basic human right for people to be incarcerated as near as possible to where they reside. When will the Government comply with that basic requirement by providing a prison facility for north Wales, especially as we understand that Shrewsbury prison is to be closed? Such a prison would serve the whole of mid-Wales as well as north Wales, and, as the Minister knows, its establishment is long overdue.

I am not sure that I recognise that as a basic human right, but it is certainly operationally sensible. Providing support for prisoners when they are incarcerated away from their families is an important part of assisting their rehabilitation into society. However, speculation about which prisons might or might not close in future is not appropriate at this stage. We will conduct a review of prison capacity in the light of the Green Paper and the responses to it, and only at that stage—

Surely the reoffending rate is a critical factor affecting the number of prison places that are required. Restorative justice programmes such as that of the Sycamore Tree foundation, which operates at Haverigg prison in Cumbria, are both inexpensive and highly effective in reducing reoffending. What steps is the Minister taking to increase the number of restorative justice programmes in Britain’s prisons?

I suggest to my hon. Friend that he can look forward to the Green Paper with great interest.

According to the latest figures, more than half the prisons in England and Wales are officially overcrowded. If the Minister is ultimately successful in reducing the number of prisoners, what will his priority be—to close prisons or to reduce overcrowding?

It is a bit rich for the right hon. Gentleman to ask that question. As a former Prisons Minister, he bears part of the responsibility for the level of overcrowding that we have inherited.

Sadly, the answer is that we are not in a position to create enough prison places to be able to address the problem of overcrowding. That will probably have to wait for more economically propitious times. It will take us a while to get the economy into the shape that will enable us to deal with the prison overcrowding that we have inherited.

Legal Aid (Immigration Appeals)

In 2009-10, overall legal aid expenditure on advice and representation in immigration and asylum appeals was £85 million. I should, however, point out that it is not possible to identify expenditure for initial advice separately from expenditure before the immigration and asylum tribunal in cases in which both advice and representation are provided.

I thank the Minister for his response. Can he confirm that, under the coalition Government proposals, immigration cases will be taken out of the scope of legal aid?

Yes, I can confirm to my hon. Friend that we are consulting on removing all immigration matters from the scope of legal aid, other than for those in immigration detention. That means removing matters such as varying leave to remain—for example, if a foreign student wants to change their visa to get permission to work instead, or, indeed, to stay here for longer. Such cases will no longer be at the taxpayer’s expense.

One of the ways in which we can cut down on waste in the legal aid budget is to address no-shows by Home Office officials at immigration hearings. Can the Minister tell me the number of cases in which Home Office representatives do not turn up to these hearings and the cost of that to the legal aid bill, or will he write to me with that information?

I will write to the right hon. Gentleman with that information, but I can tell him that it is an issue. Defendants’ representatives not turning up for hearings is also an issue.

Responding to Lord Carter’s 2006 review of legal aid, the Minister said it put very vulnerable individuals at risk, that people were not being represented and that the structure was “being destroyed”, and he concluded:

“I would say it’s a meltdown.”

Carter reduced the budget by about 5%, whereas the current Government’s Green Paper cuts civil legal aid income by 42%. How would the Minister describe that?

The important point to make is that the last Government did, indeed, look at legal aid: they had more than 30 consultations over a five-year period, including Carter. The result of that was that providers and those in receipt of legal aid were lost within the system and did not know where cuts were coming from, and what we are doing now is putting forward a comprehensive review of legal aid, whereby providers and all stakeholders will be able to see their position within the system—and as a result the consultation will be accurate.

Well, we can all make what we will of that, but the fact remains that more than half a million people who may have unfairly lost their job, their income, their right to decent housing or access to their children—or, indeed, who may have been deported from the country, as the Minister has just said—will now go without advice or representation, whereas criminal legal aid and some of the high-cost advocates earning more than £900,000 a year are largely untouched. The Secretary of State said in his statement on these measures that it was important to strike a balance. Does the Minister not think that the balance has been got wrong in this case?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the consultation document, which has clearly got a section on very high-cost cases, and on which we have significant proposals. More particularly, the Labour manifesto said it wanted to cut legal aid, so if he is going to talk about our cuts, perhaps he might like to say where he would be making cuts in legal aid.

Miscarriages of Justice

11. What recent discussions he has had on the provision of services to people who have experienced trauma as a result of a miscarriage of justice. (25570)

We want to help people who have suffered trauma as a result of a miscarriage of justice to access support that ought already to be available, for instance through the national health service. We will work with the Department of Health, other Departments and the voluntary sector to that end.

I thank the Minister for that answer. I recently met the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation, as constituents of mine have been affected by having been wrongly imprisoned for lengthy periods. I understand that under the previous Government, the Justice Ministry was looking at how better to provide support services to such people. Is that work still going on, and will the Minister be willing to meet me and other Members with constituents who have been similarly affected, because we are not dealing with this issue well enough at present?

I am afraid that we have concluded that, due to the extremely challenging financial climate, it no longer makes sense to go ahead with the work started by the last Government on identifying the unmet medical needs of those who have suffered a miscarriage of justice because there are not going to be additional funds to meet those needs.

Despite that answer, will the Minister still agree to meet those interested MPs, because in a previous answer he said the Government would ensure that services were available through the NHS, whereas the fact is that they are not? These particular needs can best be met—and most effectively and most cost-efficiently—by having a more discrete system, and it would pay the Minister and the Department to meet these MPs and MOJO.

I am, of course, very happy to meet parliamentary colleagues to discuss this issue. Meetings are due between Ministry of Justice officials and those in the Department of Health to see how matters can be improved. I am sure that those discussions will be improved by the knowledge that I will gain from colleagues, so I am happy to have the meetings.

Legal Aid

12. What steps he plans to take to fulfil the aspiration in the coalition agreement to increase the efficiency of the legal aid system. (25571)

The consultation document “Proposals for the Reform of Legal Aid in England and Wales”, published on 15 November, sets out proposals to make the legal aid scheme more efficient. We looked from first principles at its scope, the eligibility rules, and the fees paid to lawyers and other providers of legal aid. We looked at alternative sources of funding, and we are also consulting on reducing administrative bureaucracy and making the system simpler to operate.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer, but will he take this opportunity to make it clear that the issues raised by Des Hudson of the Law Society are unfounded, that access to justice will still be available for people who really need it and that worthy organisations such as Citizens Advice are valued by this Government?

Yes, we are certainly very keen to work with voluntary organisations such as Citizens Advice to ensure more efficient and focused provision of legal aid, and included in that will be our proposals for a civil law telephone gateway service. By refocusing legal aid we aim to ensure that taxpayers’ money will be prioritised to help the vulnerable receive the legal support that they need.

The Secretary of State will know that proposals to close both the county court and magistrates court in my town of Whitehaven have been met with widespread anxiety and have been condemned by the local bench and local solicitors. Will he agree to meet us, so that he can learn at first hand just how ruinous the proposals would be if enacted?

The courts consultation closed in mid-September. We have been examining the significant number of responses and will be reporting back to the House on them before the new year. I am sure that the representations that the hon. Gentleman has made on his local courts will be examined and, following our decision, I would be happy to meet him.

Offenders (Alcohol Dependency)

In a survey carried out in 2005-06, 23% of prisoners sentenced from one month to four years reported having drunk alcohol four weeks prior to custody and said that they would find it quite difficult or impossible to stop drinking. We also estimate that 37% of offenders subject to community orders have an alcohol-related problem linked to their offending and their risk of reconviction.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Given that alcohol misuse is estimated to cost £7.3 billion in crime and antisocial behaviour, and that it was a factor in 18,000 incidents of violent crime in Wales in 2008, can he assure the House that help for prisoners with alcohol problems will be given the same priority as help for offenders with drug problems?

It is important that alcohol problems are tackled, both among offenders given community orders and those in custody. We know that treatment for alcohol problems is cost-effective; the United Kingdom alcohol treatment trial found that for every pound spent on treating problem drinkers £5 is saved on costs to health, social and criminal justice services. That is why, in the long term, providing such services on a payment-by-results basis is the answer.

Given the undeniable link between alcohol misuse and crime, does the Minister believe that someone’s being excessively drunk is seen as sufficiently aggravating by the courts when they pass sentence?

We have not received any representations to the contrary. These matters can be considered by the Sentencing Guidelines Council, and we believe that sufficient powers are available to the courts. The important thing is that when offenders are sentenced, they should receive adequate treatment—that applies both to community and jail sentences—so that addiction can be dealt with.

Sentencing Policy

On a recent visit to the Hertfordshire probation trust in Watford, I was impressed by the efforts it has made and the success it has achieved in reducing reoffending rates. The staff told me, in particular, of their view that short-term prison sentences were detrimental to those efforts. Will the Secretary of State come to Watford to meet them, so that he can share those experiences?

I am grateful for that invitation; I have already received a letter. I shall do my best, although I am not quite sure when I will get to visit the probation trust. The Government are placing particular emphasis on rehabilitation and on reducing our quite appalling reoffending rates, as we have ever since my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice led for us on this matter in opposition. I accept that a great deal of good work is being done on the ground now and obviously we will have to build on it. I quite agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) about the ineffectiveness of some short sentences, because nothing whatever is done when people go out of the gate once they have finished their sentence, but I am quite clear that we cannot get rid of all short-term sentences. I have always believed that for a certain number of cases no alternative is reasonably practical for magistrates.

The crimes of child abduction, gross indecency with children, sexual activity with a child under 13, sexual assault of a female and sexual assault of a male have all attracted custodial sentences of six months or under in the past year. Will the Lord Chancellor give a commitment that under the sentencing review none of those crimes will be subject to community-based sentences, as he has proposed potentially in comments that he has made to date?

I have no idea why the heart of our sentencing reform is described by sections of the press and some Members of Parliament as just getting rid of all short-term sentences and replacing them with community sentences. I have no doubt that there is an important role for community sentences, and we must make them more credible, more punitive and more effective—some of them already are. The important thing is that every case should receive the right sentence based on the facts and the offender in order to protect the public. That will be the underlying aim of the entire sentencing review.

Legal Aid (Clinical Negligence Cases)

15. What assessment he has made of the effects on the NHS of removing clinical negligence from the scope of legal aid. (25574)

Clinical negligence cases against the NHS are funded approximately 50:50 between legal aid and no win, no fee agreements with lawyers. We will be interested to understand through our consultation the specific impact on the NHS of the removal of clinical negligence cases from the scope of legal aid, which should save some £17 million to legal aid. However, we also estimate that our proposals to reform no win, no fee conditional fee agreements will save around £50 million each year to the NHS in reduced legal costs.

Could reducing legal aid for clinical negligence lead to an upsurge in no win, no fee deals and an increase in the compensation culture?

My hon. Friend is right to point out that changes in one area can have knock-on implications in another area. It is important to point out that that is precisely why we put out the legal aid consultation document on the same day as Sir Rupert Jackson’s proposals on no win, no fee agreements. The two can be weighed up together and the consultation will therefore take a holistic approach.

On legal aid, the Minister has spoken today about working with voluntary sector organisations. Community Links’ welfare advice service in my area has seen 9,000 people so far this year. It is very cost-effective and has been paid for until now by legal aid. Under the Minister’s proposals, it will not be in the future. How will that work be supported by the Government in the period ahead?

People have the option of getting conditional fee agreements, also known as no win, no fee agreements. They can go to a lawyer and that lawyer will take a view on the chances of success. The question that must be asked—we will be very interested to hear the responses to it during the consultation—is whether, if the private sector is not prepared to take on the risk, the public sector should be prepared to do so and what proportion of that risk it will be prepared to take on.

Following my question to my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice during his legal aid statement, is there not a danger that, given the complexity of clinical negligence cases, the most vulnerable will not have access to no win, no fee simply because such companies will not offer their services to them?

There will still be power to grant legal aid in exceptional cases where a CFA will not be available, although that power will be restricted. The fact remains that CFAs will still be available for people with no ability to fund their cases so that they can take proceedings.

Legal Aid (Family Law)

16. What estimate he has made of the reduction in the number of family law cases that will be eligible for legal aid during the period of the comprehensive spending review. (25575)

We estimate that removing from the scope of legal aid most private family law cases, except for those involving domestic violence, forced marriage and international child abduction, would reduce the number of people receiving advice under the legal aid scheme by about 211,000 annually and of those represented in court by just under 54,000 annually. Together, those figures represent an estimated annual saving of £178 million. However, we have also decided to retain legal aid for mediation to help separating couples sort out their issues without the courts where possible.

The Minister’s last point is very important. In many such private cases, child-protection issues arise. Can he give the House an absolute guarantee that private cases in which child protection becomes an issue will still receive legal aid? If not, these cost savings will be at the expense of our children’s future.

Absolutely; where a public family law matter arises, that case will remain within scope. If a child is subject to being taken away from their parents, legal aid will be available.

Topical Questions

Following the conviction of Jon Venables on 23 July for possessing and distributing indecent images of children, I commissioned Sir David Omand to undertake an independent review into the management of Jon Venables from his release from local authority detention in June 2001 until his recall to custody on 24 February 2010. Today, I have placed a copy of Sir David’s report in the Library. Sir David has concluded that Jon Venables was effectively and properly supervised at an appropriate level and frequency of contact, having regard to the particular circumstances of his case. Sir David also concludes that no reasonable supervisory regime would have been expected to detect his use of the computer to download indecent images. The report contains a number of recommendations on the future management of this and similar cases that will be taken forward by the National Offender Management Service.

Nineteen-year-old Scots Guardsman Andrew Gibson was killed in a Darlington nightclub. Yesterday, the Attorney-General said that he was unable to refer what many view as an excessively lenient sentence of just two and a half years to the Court of Appeal. Will the Secretary of State undertake to investigate the awarding of lenient sentences in which alcohol is an aggravating factor?

The Attorney-General has a power to exercise in these cases and he has to exercise it in his quasi-judicial role by making a proper judgment and not just reacting politically. I understand the hon. Lady’s concern about that case, but sentences are normally imposed by the court that has had the opportunity to hear all the evidence, facts and information about the accused person. The Attorney-General takes seriously his responsibility to step in where a mistake seems to have been made and ask a higher court to consider imposing a more serious sentence. I cannot claim to exercise any control over him in that regard; it is his difficult judgment to take in each case.

T2. The Lord Chancellor will be only too aware that one of his key responsibilities is looking after the Crown dependencies of Jersey, Guernsey, the Isle of Man, Alderney and Sark. Will he explain to the House why the Crown dependencies were yet again refused the right to lay a wreath on Remembrance Sunday this year? Will he address this issue to ensure that next year they can do so like other countries in the Commonwealth? (25586)

My right hon. Friend Lord McNally has the responsibility and the honour to lead on matters concerning Crown dependencies, which I assure my hon. Friend he takes very seriously. I keep discovering that he has made visits to the Crown dependencies to discuss these matters. I was quite unaware of this problem and I shall make inquiries of Lord McNally and those responsible for the ceremony about the background to this issue of laying a wreath on behalf of the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

The Secretary of State announced in the House last week—a day after ITN—that significant sums of money were to be paid to British residents and citizens who were detained at Guantanamo Bay, and he explained the factors behind the decision. Does he agree that there is an urgent need to resolve the claims of British victims of terrorist attacks overseas and will he commit today to such compensation being paid as a matter of urgency?

The right hon. Gentleman rightly expresses irritation about leaks to newspapers and the television, and I assure him that I share all that irritation. [Interruption.] If I were indulging in the kind of masterful spin-doctoring of the previous Administration, I would have trailed them better than occurred either in the newspapers or ITN. I made the statement when I did because I was told that ITN had carried the news the night before. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that, if he helps me to find out where the information is coming from, I will take appropriate steps.

On compensation for victims of terrorism and crimes, we are having to review the criminal injuries compensation scheme. We are having to look at the prospects for the compensation for terrorism scheme. The fact is that we were left with a system of criminal injuries compensation that was not working. We have enormous liabilities piling up for which the previous Government had not made adequate funds available, so we have hundreds of millions of pounds-worth of arrears of claims.

It is not a different issue. They are related issues and we will give our conclusions in due course.

Order. There is a lot of interest and little time. From now on, we need short questions and short answers.

T3. What assurance can Ministers give my constituents in west Cornwall that the legal aid reforms published last week will not adversely affect the coverage of, or reduce access to, legal aid, particularly in civil and family proceedings? (25587)

The hard facts are that the amount of legal aid being paid out in civil cases will be reduced. As part of the Government’s savings of £2 billion, £350 million is subject to be taken out of legal aid by 2014-15. That means that we will focus legal aid on the most vulnerable who need legal representation.

T4. A number of professionals have contacted me about their worries that, once the Youth Justice Board disappears, there will be a lack of co-ordination and an increase in reoffending by young people. Can the Secretary of State give any reassurance to those professionals that when their work disappears inside the Ministry of Justice, that co-ordination work will still be taken seriously? (25588)

Yes, I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. As the Minister with responsibility for youth justice, I will make sure that the functions carried out by the Youth Justice Board will be properly executed within the Ministry of Justice. The Youth Justice Board has done good work, but now it is time for Ministers to take direct responsibility for the work.

T5. Families in Witham town are concerned about the presence of paedophiles and sex offenders, and the risk that they pose to children in our local community. What steps is the Secretary of State taking, in conjunction with other Government agencies, to ensure that my constituents are protected from those dangerous individuals? (25589)

My hon. Friend might know about the child sex offender disclosure scheme, which is being extended to 24 police forces, having been successfully piloted in 11 police force areas. It allows members of the public to ask the police to check whether people have contact with their children at risk. They have already successfully protected children and provided considerable reassurance to parents.

T6. It is clearly inappropriate for convicted criminals to celebrate Christmas with raucous parties in prison. Is the Secretary of State certain that present Ministry of Justice guidance will prohibit such activity this Christmastime? (25590)

I hate to tell the hon. Lady that there are no good parties going on in prisons to which I can invite her over Christmas. The whole story about parties was faintly ridiculous. The announcement by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt) did not mention parties and had very little to do with parties. Time was—I can remember from my youth—when a popular song began with

“The warden threw a party in the county jail,”

but we do not approve of that kind of thing nowadays.

Every suicide is a tragedy, but particularly in prisons it is more harrowing for the family, other prisoners and the prison staff. With that in mind, can one of the Ministers give an update on the programme of installing safer cells?

About 6,200 safer cells have been provided since 2005. I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s consistent interest in that. Our objective is to make sure that safer cells are available in all circumstances for offenders deemed to be vulnerable and to require such accommodation.

T7. It was as recently as 30 June, when the Government had had nearly two months to examine and find how unexpectedly bad the public finances were, that the Secretary of State said that he would explore “proposals to restore public trust through minimum/maximum sentencing”.Can he tell us what has changed since then? (25591)

Not much has changed. We are exploring proposals of all kinds. We are about to produce a Green Paper in December, and as is always the case—there is nothing new in this—people try to guess what might be in it. Some people make informed guesses, some make uninformed guesses and some get it right. The hon. Gentleman will have to wait until December to see our final judgments about how best to reform a sentencing system which is over-complicated, difficult for the judges to understand and ripe for reform, and which is completely failing to protect the public by getting reoffending rates down to a sensible level.

Recently, a group of Travellers was served with an eviction order from the site next to St Peter’s, a new school in my constituency of Filton and Bradley Stoke, only for another group of Travellers to move in as soon as the site was vacated. Will the Minister look at the law in question to see whether it can be changed so that it is site-specific, rather than applying to individuals in certain cases?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the question. We are already looking at the law on squatting; this, in a sense, is an associated issue. I shall be happy to examine it as well.

T9. As part of the review that the Secretary of State is carrying out into implementing giving prisoners the right to vote, will he consider the issue as, in some ways, a positive opportunity to prepare them for reintegration into society? How is he approaching that? (25593)

Of course we would welcome prisoners preparing in any way for rehabilitation as honest citizens in society. I wait to see how many prisoners will actually take advantage of the opportunity when we decide the extent to which we have to go to comply with the Court judgment. It is conceivable that in some cases the vote would widen the mind of prisoners and prepare them for taking on the obligations of citizenship. I actually do not think, however, that we should take that too far.

The Government intend to amend the law on the prosecution of universal jurisdiction offences. Does the Lord Chancellor agree that it would be unseemly for decisions relating to those prosecutions to rest with the Law Officer who is also a politician, as would be the case for the Attorney-General?

The consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions is what we are contemplating. The Government have committed themselves to that. This is a question of arrest; we are looking at citizen’s arrest. We want to keep the right of citizen’s arrest but we do not want it to be a publicity stunt based on inadequate evidence, so we are contemplating making it subject to the DPP’s consent. We are simply trying to find the legislative time to do it. The Government have committed to doing this as rapidly as possible.

Can the Justice Secretary tell us how many times he or his Ministers have spoken to the Scottish Justice Minister about prisoners voting rights?

I have written to Kenny MacAskill and I see him from time to time. I have not yet got a response, but I expect to be in close contact with the Scottish Government when we make any change, because I suspect that it will apply to the entire United Kingdom.

Last Friday, a 16-year-old boy in my constituency was horrifically beaten and stabbed outside his school in full view of his classmates. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we need to reserve the harshest penalties for those who viciously wield knives and to make sure that there is a strong deterrent against doing so? That young man lost his life as a result of that horrible crime.

I am, of course, shocked to hear of the outrageous nature of the crime in my hon. Friend’s constituency. We have to make sure that all our sentencing proposals give the courts all the powers they need. It is a question of how to set out the severity of the appropriate sentences, at the same time leaving the court in the end to decide on the exact sentence, based on the circumstances of the case and the offender. Although the recent habit—particularly under the last Government, who produced 21 different criminal justice Bills—was to keep producing very elaborate rules, in my experience judges do not need to be told that an offence of the kind described by my hon. Friend deserves the full force of the law and the severe punishment that the public would undoubtedly expect for such a case.

Is not the vote for prisoners a dyed-in-the-wool Lib Dem policy? Is that not the real reason why the Secretary of State will not stand up for us and tell the European Court that the ruling is simply unacceptable to the British people and the vast majority of our MPs?

It is not a dyed-in-the-wool Conservative policy, it is true, but it should be the policy of every responsible Member of the House to accept that we have to comply with a judgment of the European Court, because nobody is advocating withdrawing from the convention. The hon. Gentleman’s party accepted that. His party never repudiated the judgment; it always accepted that it was going to have to give votes to prisoners. It wasted five years and two consultation exercises, however, because it was incapable of taking a decision in advance of an election—or at all, as it happened.

On a less controversial subject, what scope is there for mediation in family law cases, and will such cases continue to qualify for legal aid?

We have taken the view that mediation should be retained within the scope of legal aid, and we think that it should be thoroughly encouraged. Too often, people take the course of court when they should look towards sorting out issues between themselves, and mediation will play a big part in enabling them to do that.

On prisoner voting, will the Secretary of State have the grace to accept that before the election, given the implacable opposition from the whole of the Conservative party from top to bottom, with the then shadow Justice Secretary describing the proposal as “ludicrous”, and deep and profound concern on our Back Benches, it was not that one did not want to do something, but that there was no way in the world that such a measure would have passed through this House?

I am relieved to hear that the right hon. Gentleman, my predecessor, was so implacably determined to press on with this issue throughout his five years. He should perhaps have a word with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), who could explain how committed he was. I am impressed that it was solely the opposition of Conservative Front Benchers that caused this five-year delay. I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman was having difficulty with Downing street and the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) and others in coming to any decision about anything, or doing anything about it, before the general election. [Interruption.]

Order. There is so much noise in the Chamber that the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) could not hear me call him.

Can my right hon. and learned Friend take the time to remind the House which party was in power when the Human Rights Act 1998 was incorporated into British law, and, more pertinently, who was the Secretary of State responsible for it?

It was certainly the Blair Government who introduced the Human Rights Act. I regret to say that I cannot remember who the Secretary of State was, but it was probably the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw). Actually, he probably has more things to answer for than that, but that was certainly one of the things that he put on the statute book.

Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss setting up an employers liability insurance bureau to ensure that victims of asbestos-related diseases who cannot trace either employer or insurer are compensated? I am sure that if he will meet up with me, I can fill him in and persuade him why it is so important.

The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), will probably be in touch with the hon. Lady to deal with that suggestion. There are obviously very difficult issues involved in these asbestos claims—they troubled the previous Government, and there have been decisions for the courts. We will therefore consider her suggestion with interest; it has been made before, but we will consider it again and come back to her.

The Government are rightly focused on getting more people who are out of work into work, but a particular group of concern is ex-offenders. Will the Government, as part of the big society, continue to support charitable organisations such as the Apex Trust, which does a wonderful job in getting those offenders back into work?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. One of the mechanisms we will use is payment-by-results schemes to turn offenders into taxpayers. That means that there will be rewards both for stopping offenders reoffending and for getting offenders into employment.