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Topical Questions

Volume 523: debated on Tuesday 15 February 2011

May I begin by making a topical statement, Mr Speaker?

Hon. Members will know that I am determined to deliver much overdue reform to the way in which the criminal justice system operates. Every year, 1.8 million criminal hearings and trials take place. The police, judiciary and others far too often find that the bureaucratic, inefficient system works against their best efforts, rather than for them. It is immensely frustrating that, for example, the key people in the system—the police, prosecutors and probation staff—are often unable to e-mail each other the crucial information they need to bring a prosecution; it all has to be done in hard copy. The average straightforward case heard in the magistrates courts takes 19 weeks from the offence being committed to the case concluding, and only four out of every 10 trials in the magistrates courts go ahead on the planned day. We cannot afford to maintain this sort of system that wastes the time of the police, victims and witnesses.

I am therefore working on radical plans to modernise and reform the criminal justice system and reduce these bureaucratic failings with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, the judiciary, the criminal justice agencies and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, who will take the lead role in co-ordinating our efforts. I look forward to receiving any representations on the subject and will report back to the House in the summer.

Order. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State did not also lay out the plans in the course of his answer.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his very full answer. Many young offenders are drawn into a cycle of crime that sees them spend many years of their life in detention. What steps does he think will help young people to get a second chance?

The first thing is to have increased early intervention to avoid their needing a second chance in the first place. Then we need to ensure that young offenders are offered more of an opportunity to pay back their victims and communities, and to incentivise local partners to reduce youth offending and reoffending by using new payment-by-results models.

In this Saturday’s excellent Mary Riddell interview in The Daily Telegraph, the Lord Chancellor said:

“I slightly expect that some crimes will go up”.

I remind the House that in times of both growth and recession between 1997 and 2010 the level of crime consistently went down. I know that he is neither sloppy nor complacent, so can he tell the House what crimes he thinks will go up, why he thinks they will go up and what he is going to do about it?

During the period of the Labour Government, to which the right hon. Gentleman refers, acquisitive crimes against property fell particularly sharply. That was because of the growth of the economy and the boom, among other matters; these things are not too simple. The biggest fall in crime achieved when Labour was in office was on vehicle crimes, because the vehicle manufacturers greatly improved the security of the vehicles and made this more difficult. In this contentious and not simple area of what causes crime and what does not, I have always been inclined to believe that in times of recession the level of crime against property is likely to rise and in times of growth it tends to fall. That is why I have to be prepared to accommodate however many people are sent to us by the courts. What we are doing about it is making what I hope is a more effective system of preventing crime and of diverting people out of crime but punishing severely those who commit it.

T2. According to Ministry of Justice figures, only 44% of people convicted of burglary offences actually get immediate custodial sentences. Does the Secretary of State think that that figure is about right or does he intend to take legislative steps to increase it? (40479)

As the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), said in reply to a question a moment ago, sentencing is a matter for the Sentencing Guidelines Council and for the judges, who hear all the facts of the case; they can hear a victim’s statement and they can hear mitigation for the accused. We keep an eye on percentages, of course, but the sentence in each case has to be the appropriate sentence for the facts of and the offender in the case. Although burglary is a serious offence that normally attracts imprisonment, it covers a wide range of circumstances, from someone breaking in with a hood over his head in the middle of the night to someone walking through an open door grabbing a knick-knack and running out through the door again. So we have to leave it to the judges.

T6. Has the Secretary of State considered carefully the representations that he will have received concerning clause 151 of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill on universal jurisdiction? He will be aware that restricting access to the British courts in respect of crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world will send a very bad message to the rest of the world and will make this country a more pleasant place for war criminals and those who have committed crimes against humanity to try to come to. (40483)

I must make it absolutely clear that the Government are not reducing, in any way, the importance we attach to the proper enforcement of the law against those guilty of war crimes or crimes against humanity. We are making a slight change to the circumstances in which a citizen can obtain an arrest. The prior approval of the Director of Public Prosecutions will be needed, in order to make sure that there is a reasonable prospect of prosecution in the case; that is not where we are at the moment. I assure the hon. Gentleman that nobody on either side of the House wishes to see this country downgrade the importance we attach to enforcing crimes against humanity and war crimes.

T3. It is reported that about 70% of prison inmates are believed to have two or more mental health conditions and that about one in 10 prison inmates have a serious mental health problem. What steps are the Government taking better to identify and help prisoners with mental illness? (40480)

As we made clear in the Green Paper, we will, with the Department of Health, have invested £50 million by 2014 in establishing a liaison and diversion service, both in the police stations and in courts, to ensure that people who should more appropriately be treated in the health service do not go to prison. Of course prisons and secure mental hospitals will remain the appropriate place for offenders who have committed serious offences and pose a risk to the public. Prison health services will continue to provide care and treatment for the majority of prisoners with mental illness, with the additional support of specialist mental health inreach teams.

T7. On the planned national diversion service, will the Minister tell the House who will provide the mental health assessments in police stations and courts that will be necessary for that service to work? Have the necessary provisions to provide that service been included in the budget? (40484)

Those assessments are a matter of health rather than justice, so the Department of Health is leading on establishing the liaison for diversion services.

T4. How does the Lord High Chancellor envisage promoting the big society in his Department, particularly in terms of shop theft and having some kind of community payback in relation to those who have stolen from society in that way? (40481)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend who has done particularly good work in this area in getting policy changes under the previous Administration. We want to make restorative justice and compensation orders the first point of departure for such offences so that offenders are able to make good to their victims.

T8. Will the Minister reconsider his original thinking on the definition of domestic violence and the evidential requirement when deciding whether to make legal aid available in family law cases? (40485)

I have to tell the hon. Lady that we have just consulted on this—the consultation ended yesterday—and that we will consider carefully what people have said. We put a definition of domestic violence in the Green Paper and we will look carefully at how people have commented on that.

T5. In an effort to save legal aid, and following the vote in the House last Thursday, why not now exclude expressly from any legal aid application prisoners who seek to claim compensation from the Government for not having the right to vote? (40482)

As I understand it, the likely level of compensation would mean that prisoners making such claims would not be eligible for legal aid in any event. However, that will not prevent the situation with no win, no fee arrangements, as a substantial case list is being created by solicitors touting for custom.

The whole House will be aware of the worst scenes of poverty in America. Will the Minister with responsibility for legal aid think again? Currently, both local authorities and his Department are cutting the money available for advice. Where will the people of Haringey, the constituency in which the baby P and Victoria Climbié cases occurred, get that advice?

Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman that citizens advice bureaux and not-for-profit organisations have been able to do legal aid work for only 11 years. Before that, they just gave general advice. He must appreciate that when the previous Government allowed those organisations to do legal aid work, they did not look at the matter holistically. They did not look at the various funding streams coming together or at the waste in the system. Now that the money has gone, we are having to look at those things.

T9. I was delighted to hear over the weekend that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has managed to find an additional £27 million to pay for CAB debt advisers. Could any additional funding be found by the Ministry of Justice for groups such as the Brighton housing trust in my constituency, which plays an important role in providing housing advice of the kind that, if it is not dealt with at an early stage, ends up costing— (40486)

Yes, we are looking at various early interventions in relation to housing, welfare benefits, special educational needs and, importantly, private family law.

The Minister recognises that there is a need for advice on debt, benefits, housing and many other things. The problem faced by the constituents of Members on both sides of the House is that although the cuts to legal aid are happening now, his proposed solution seems a long way off. What is going to fill the gap?

We accept that there are issues in terms of funding because a lot of advice is given as general advice and is mainly funded by local councils. We are in discussions across government about how we can approach the matter holistically to make sure that such provision stays in place.

Does the Secretary of State agree that increasing the number of people in our prisons should not be an end of Government policy in itself, but rather that the prison population should reflect the number of indictable crimes committed?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, although determining how many prisoners we should have can become a completely false argument, as that is determined in any event by the courts reacting to the level of crime and proposing appropriate sentences. We are determined to use prisons so that not only do they punish the offender, but, where possible, we can increase the number of offenders who are persuaded to give up crime when released and cease to offend thereafter, which will reduce the number of victims. I think that the approach taken by the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), is the common-sense approach and in the public interest.

The Lord Chancellor should not allow himself to be pushed around by The Sun newspaper. Does he agree that the cause of public justice would be best served if News International spent less time traducing the characters of Ministers and more time revealing to the Metropolitan police the contents of the e-mails held in the data warehouse in central London?

I shall try to avoid following my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills in answering that question. Kelvin MacKenzie could confirm to the hon. Gentleman that I have not been pushed about by The Sun for as long as either he or I can remember.

I was amused to read the article by the leader of the Labour party in The Sun this morning, remembering his resounding promise not to try to out-right the Conservative party on the subject. I was reminded of an article by Tony Blair published just before the 1997 election and entitled “Why I Love the Pound”. When I read the Leader of the Opposition’s article this morning, I was relieved to see that he listed many things on which he agrees with me and did not indicate a specific area where he committed himself to doing anything different from what the present Government are doing.

Crawley court house in my constituency deals with a large number of cases, including those emanating from Gatwick airport. Will the Minister agree to meet local magistrates, my local authority and me to see whether the court house could be part of a major town centre redevelopment that is shortly to get under way?

Will the Secretary of State think again about the compounding impact of the legal aid cut and Lord Justice Jackson’s proposals on victims of criminal negligence? It would be wrong for injured parties to have to fend for themselves, and if they pay for the compensation and the costs of cases, the wrongdoer will be getting away, which would be unfair.

The hon. Gentleman makes it clear that Lord Justice Jackson’s proposals and our legal aid proposals are being run in conjunction. We were very concerned that they should so that practitioners would be able to compare the two—that is especially relevant in cases of clinical negligence—so we will be doing exactly that.