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Topical Questions

Volume 519: debated on Tuesday 23 November 2010

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.