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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 526: debated on Tuesday 29 March 2011


The Secretary of State was asked—

Land Registry

The findings of the feasibility study of the options for greater private sector involvement in the delivery of Land Registry services have now been reported to Ministers. Given the registry’s importance in the housing market, we must give thorough consideration to those findings before making any decisions or announcements about its future direction.

The Land Registry provides a state guarantee of title for land ownership covering registered property worth more than £2.5 trillion across England and Wales. Can the Secretary of State confirm that previous reviews conducted by both Conservative and Labour Governments have found the registry’s public sector status to be crucial to the impartiality and integrity of its work? Will he agree to meet me to discuss the future of this vital service, which is a cornerstone of the housing market and the wider economy?

I agree that the registry’s state guarantee of title to land and property is essential, and that it must be retained in any arrangements that we make. Previous investigations of the registry have featured all the options that we are considering now, including the possibility of involving private sector partners—indeed, I have the original operational efficiency programme for 2008, which refers to private sector opportunities. We will, however, proceed with great care.

I know that the hon. Lady has a constituency interest because there is an important branch of the registry in Leicester. I, or one of my colleagues, will meet her in due course, once she has given us a little time to consider the findings of the feasibility study.

I recently met local representatives of the Public and Commercial Services Union from the Nottingham branch of the Land Registry. Unsurprisingly, they expressed concern about not only their own futures but the future of the service. What discussions is the Secretary of State having with staff trade unions to ensure that their valuable expertise and experience are taken into account in shaping the future of the service?

We will certainly take account of all staff comments, and we hope to include the staff in our consultations. If there were any question of any change in the registry’s status, we would embark on a full and careful consultation before taking action. We are pursuing the same objectives as the last Government: guaranteeing title, improving efficiency, lowering costs, and taking advantage of the opportunities provided by the Land Registry system to offer further service to the public.

Educational Opportunities (Prisons)

Together with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Ministry of Justice has undertaken a review of offender learning. Our proposed new approach has received strong support from the heads of learning and skills in prisons, and I hope that when we publish the results of the review, which we will do shortly, my hon. Friend will share their enthusiasm.

Does my hon. Friend agree that punishment is the deprivation of liberty, and that we should all try to ensure that when people leave prison, the time that they have spent there makes them less inclined to reoffend? Education is an important part of that. The position is very straightforward. When my hon. Friend’s proposals are made public, I hope that they will present opportunities for a substantial increase in educational opportunity in prisons.

I share my hon. Friend’s view. It is important for the pathway that leads the offender through the custody system—and, indeed, the supervision system in the community—to assist his progress towards rehabilitation, and that must be done through the delivery of learning and skills and education. Prisoners should be given effective work that enables them to make proper recompense to their victims, and learning and skills associated with that work will be an important rehabilitative tool.

While in government Labour increased the offending learner budget by 300%, and I am pleased to hear that the Minister is building on that. Does he agree with his hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who on 9 March was quoted in the Daily Mail as saying that offender education was

“yet another example of gold-plated rights for convicted criminals”,

and that prison education

“sends out the signal that crime pays”?

The reason for the review of offender learning is that, as usual, the last Administration spent a vast amount of money and secured precious little extra output for it. The hon. Lady has made the case very clearly. I am satisfied that we will largely protect the budget for offender learning and that people will leave prison with skills and training, better equipped to be contributing members of society following their release.

The Minister will know that Reading young offenders institution received a dreadful report on its education service from the independent monitoring board, particularly the part of the service that is run by The Manchester College. What action is the Department taking to deal with the shortcomings of the college, and to give more power to prisons to opt for excellent local education provision?

My hon. Friend has been assiduous in holding the offender learning contract to account in Reading prison, and the Skills Funding Agency has completed an investigation into the allegations made against The Manchester College in respect of its education contract there. The report of that investigation is being finalised, and I am not able to comment on it until it has been completed, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right that we must get the heads of learning and skills in the prisons much more clearly in charge of the direction of the skills training in their institutions.

Universal Jurisdiction

Requiring the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions before an arrest warrant can be issued does not affect in any way the principle of universal jurisdiction or the Government’s commitment to that principle in the future. The reason for making this change is that at present a warrant can be issued where there is no realistic prospect of a viable prosecution.

As the Lord Chancellor will know, universal jurisdiction is an ancient civil right: it is the right of an individual citizen to take court action against somebody suspected of committing a war crime. In the last 10 years, only 10 such applications for arrest warrants have been made, and only two of them were successful. As the Lord Chancellor will be aware, these arrest warrants are issued by the chief district judge for the London petty sessional area. In light of the fact that only two of these applications have been successful, why are the Government considering abolishing this ancient principle?

It is not being abolished. First, universal jurisdiction is not as old as suggested, but we welcome the application for, and enforcement of, universal jurisdiction here just as much as the previous Government did. The trouble at present is that the test for issuing an arrest warrant is so low that it is possible for a warrant to be issued when there is not the faintest chance of any serious prosecution going ahead. While I understand the feelings behind some of the applications, there is no doubt that publicity is being sought rather more than a prosecution, and the likely targets are people such as Israeli or Sri Lankan politicians coming here whom dissident groups want to be arrested. The DPP can act promptly, and we will enforce the law when there is a genuine case for a prosecution. Indeed, one Afghan warlord has been successfully prosecuted in this country and is currently in prison.

In the DPP’s evidence to the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Public Bill Committee, he said about assessing such applications:

“We have people who can work around the clock and we have enough trained people so that someone is always available.”––[Official Report, Police Reform and Social Responsibility Public Bill Committee, 20 January 2011; c. 126, Q241.]

Can the Lord Chancellor confirm that it will be possible for cases to be submitted in advance of a suspect travelling to the UK so that decisions can be made in time to act?

I will check with the DPP, but I am almost certain he will confirm that that is the case, because I have had assurances from his officials that they are ready to act very quickly. In a proper case, they should act quickly and a warrant should be issued, but at present the fact that warrants can be comparatively easily sought and occasionally obtained is deterring people from coming to this country who are politically controversial but probably not guilty of any war crime or crime against humanity. Indeed, over the years attempts have been made to arrest people such as Henry Kissinger.

The Foreign Secretary gave a very direct answer to my question last week on the same subject. He explained that the Government are changing the law in order to be able to talk to the Israeli politician Tzipi Livni. Does the Justice Secretary really think the request of one foreign Government is a good enough reason for changing the entire law in the UK?

The case of Tzipi Livni is a very good example of why the law needed to be changed. She was the leader of the opposition when an attempt was made to get an arrest warrant. It was believed she was in this country, but in fact she was not. However, she was a leading Israeli politician coming here for political purposes, and it is in the interests of our country that we have negotiations and discussions with a wide range of political representatives from many countries. If guilty of war crimes, they will be prosecuted, but we put people off coming here if they are liable to have publicity-conscious arrest warrants served on them.

Community Sentences

4. What plans he has for the use of innovative community sentences as an alternative to custody; and if he will make a statement. (49324)

We are examining ways of making community sentences more clearly associated with the principles of sentencing, not least so that those elements relating to protecting the public, such as residence, reporting, and curfew and tagging requirements, and those relating to punishment—fines and unpaid work—carry greater public confidence.

I am grateful for the Minister’s reply. Is he aware of the “Community or custody” inquiry commissioned by Make Justice Work, which has found that schemes offering tough and effective alternatives to short prison stays are facing funding cuts? Does he agree that that would be a step in the wrong direction?

We are trying to ensure that funding decisions are delegated more effectively locally, so that where decisions have been taken for alternatives to custody pilots to be mainstreamed or for alternative funding to be found for them, and they are found to be of value at a local level, they should be able to be protected at a local level.

Does the Minister agree that any alternative to custody must contain the essential element of punishment for the crime, as well as rehabilitation, in order to prevent a recurrence?

I wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is very important that community sentences reflect the principles of sentencing—I made that point in the original answer. If they do not carry credibility in respect of punishment and protecting the public, people will rightly expect us to make a greater use of custody. As we know, short custodial sentences are not always in everyone’s best interests.

Given that the probation service says that there are already 6,600 high-risk or very high-risk people serving community sentences, and that the reoffending rate on the intensive supervision and surveillance programme in recent years has ranged from 74% to 92%, may I urge the Minister to ignore the siren voices of those on the Liberal Democrat Benches, and perhaps even in his own Department, who are calling for more community sentences and fewer people to be sent to prison? What Conservative Members want is more robust sentencing and more people sent to prison.

I know that my hon. Friend agrees that what we want is what works, and we want to ensure that there are fewer victims of crime in future. When our policies deliver rehabilitation far more effectively than those of the previous Administration, we will have protected the future victims of crime, and I know that he will—

Order. I am extremely grateful to the Minister, but we must move on. I am afraid that these answers are rather long and they need to get a bit shorter.

Prison Service (Resources)

5. What level of resources his Department plans to provide to the Prison Service in 2011-12; and if he will make a statement. (49325)

The resource budget for the National Offender Management Service for 2011-12 is £3.679 billion, £2.181 billion of which relates directly to expenditure incurred in prisons.

If, as the Secretary of State predicted in The Daily Telegraph on 11 February, crime increases under his Government, will he reverse his prison closure policy and undo the scaling back of the prison building programme? If not, what will he do with the criminals?

I am not entirely sure that my right hon. and learned Friend’s comments bear that interpretation, but what we have to do in the Ministry of Justice is ensure that we successfully imprison those people sentenced to prison by the courts and not get ourselves into the state of affairs that occurred under the previous Administration, whereby people had to be let out early because they had run out of space.

The shadow Justice Secretary has argued:

“Playing tough in order not to look soft made it harder to focus on what is effective.”

Given that, does the Minister agree that despite record spending and the record prison population, Labour failed to improve public safety?

Order. I am sorry, but on several occasions I have had to say to the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) that questions must be about the policy of this Government, not a previous Government. I think we will leave it there. I call Lorraine Fullbrook.

I beg the right hon. Gentleman’s pardon. In dealing with that matter, I failed to allow him to make his contribution from the Opposition Front Bench, as he is, of course, entitled to do.

I have a question for this Government. Given that the prison population is rising—it was 82,991 on 7 January and last week it stood at 85,454—and that, at the same time, this Government are closing prisons and slashing the prison building programme, what is the Minister going to do if the number of people who should be in prison exceeds the number of places?

Unlike the previous Administration, we will not get ourselves into that position. As the shadow Secretary of State will know—he will be well on top of his brief—there is a seasonal rise in prison numbers following Christmas. I am happy to say, however, that our policies are already having an effect. The prediction we inherited that we would end up with 96,000 prisoners by 2014-15 is unlikely to come true.

Those of us who stayed awake for the entire Budget know that the Chancellor has no plan B and I am afraid that the complacency of that answer shows that the Ministry of Justice has no plan B. If crime goes up, as the Secretary of State predicts it may well do, and if the prison population continues to rise, the Government will have no choice but to release offenders who should be in prison without due process or to use police cells. Which will it be?

As of now, we have an overhead in managing the prison estate of about 3,000 places. We will manage the estate to ensure that we sustain an overhead and do not get ourselves into a position whereby we run out of space, as the last Administration did. It is basic administration. We will keep a very careful eye on the prison numbers and ensure that we have sufficient capacity.

Foreign National Prisoners (Deportation)

6. What proportion of the cost of accommodating foreign national prisoners awaiting deportation after serving their sentences is provided by his Department. (49326)

Currently, about 40% of the cost of accommodating foreign national prisoners who have completed their sentence and are awaiting deportation is borne by the Ministry of Justice.

The Prime Minister has, on a number of occasions, expressed his desire to see such prisoners deported after serving their sentence. Why are they not then transferred to secure immigration centres in readiness for their immediate deportation after their sentence is completed?

I agree with my hon. Friend that that is what we should be aiming to do. Wherever possible, detainees should be transferred to immigration removal centres. We are opening a new centre and the majority of detainees are already in those centres. We want to ensure that that number increases.

Probation Service

We will fundamentally reshape probation services to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy, empower front-line professionals and make them more accountable. Probation staff should be able to spend more of their time working directly with offenders; we are lifting the burden of bureaucracy that has hindered them from doing that.

I agree with the Minister that our probation service does a magnificent job in very tough circumstances and, under his self-styled rehabilitation revolution, should have an even greater role in successfully returning offenders to society. Will he therefore explain to the House how he can possibly square the increased work load and responsibility with cutting 3,000 experienced and front-line probation staff as a result of his Government’s spending cuts?

That is not a result of our Government’s spending cuts. The efficiency savings for the probation trusts for next year are largely the plans that those trusts had for the transfer from board to trust status, which was inherited from the previous Administration. The National Offender Management Service is taking 37% out of its headquarters’ overhead precisely in order to protect the front-line professionals in the probation service in delivering effective offender management.

Are probation trusts going to be providers of services, commissioners of services or both? If both, is there a conflict of interest?

I know that I am going to give evidence to the right hon. Gentleman’s Committee and we will look forward to examining those issues. I suspect that the answer in the end is very likely to be both.

Will the Minister tell me how much work is going on in our probation services with violent offenders, particularly those who have been violent in domestic circumstances? Tackling the issue is enormously important in preventing future offending.

I agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of addressing the issue of domestic violence. Every probation trust I have visited has had programmes to address it. It is a particular priority and we will want carefully to examine the delivery of interventions and programmes to ensure that they are sustained. I accept that that is an area of priority.

What help can the Minister give to probation trusts to enable them to compete on a level playing field with the large private sector contractors that might be doing a lot of the work they are currently doing?

I think that my hon. Friend is referring to the competition for community pay-back. The first competition will be for the London area, where the boundaries overlap precisely with those of the London probation trust. That will give those probation trusts that need to get together to make a collective public sector bid involving a number of trusts the time and opportunity to put an effective bid together.

Is the Minister aware of the evidence that was given to the Select Committee on Justice about the whole issue of competition and/or commissioning providers and so on? Those points have been very well made by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith). Is the Minister aware that if there is a conflict of interest then, prima facie, the whole system will be unlawful? Does he realise how important it is to separate those functions, because the probation trusts do not have a clue where they are going?

This is an area of change for probation trusts, and the competition for community pay-back, which we inherited from the previous Administration, is an exemplar of that. I look forward to the opportunity to review all the evidence that has been given to the Justice Committee and I shall come to a view on the basis of the evidence that has been received. I will give my own evidence and take questions in due course in the Committee, presumably at greater length than is allowed here.

Legal Aid Reform

The consultation for the reform of legal aid closed on 14 February and we have received some 5,000 responses from members of the public, lawyers and their representative bodies, advice providers, charities and many others. We are continuing to review all the representations received and we hope to publish our finalised proposals, which will include plans for implementation, after the Easter recess.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Citizens Advice has calculated that every pound cut in welfare legal aid will cost the state a further £9 in additional costs. In light of that information, will he amend his plans?

We do not accept the figures provided by Citizens Advice, but we do recognise that early advice can certainly be helpful in a range of contexts. Often, people need general advice on welfare benefits or debt rather than legal advice.

The Government are announcing a huge programme of welfare reform, which means that, at least for a time, there will inevitably be confusion and uncertainty about entitlement. Will the Minister explain how it can be right to consider removing funding for legal aid for welfare benefits and social law matters right now? What guarantees will he give about continued funding for such advice?

There is never a right time to do these things, but we feel that legal aid needs to play its part in reducing the deficit and that is what we propose to do. In terms of benefits, there could be an issue with more benefit claims coming through from the Department for Work and Pensions and we are working closely with that Department to ensure that we maintain a smooth service.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the proposed reforms will have a disproportionate impact on women—I declare an interest as a legal aid family lawyer—especially in the categories of employment, family and housing?

Not necessarily. It is true that individuals featuring protected characteristics are over-represented in the civil legal aid client base and as such any reform to civil legal aid is likely to have a greater impact on those groups when compared with the population as a whole, but that is a function of demographics. When affected clients are compared with unaffected clients, proportions are very similar.

Will my hon. Friend take on board all the careful representations he has received about the potential problem of using domestic violence as the criterion for granting legal aid in family law cases?

The Government’s position is that domestic violence should be the gateway to receiving legal aid in relation to family law. However, my hon. Friend has asked specifically about the definition and I am pleased to tell him that many representations have come in on this issue and that we are going to consider them very carefully when we make our final report.

What the Minister told the Justice Committee is at odds with what he has said to the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) today. He said that he wanted legal aid to be directed towards the most vulnerable, but every authoritative voice the Committee heard, and even his Department’s impact assessment, said that the opposite will be the case and that the most vulnerable will be disproportionately hit by his cuts. We will see tomorrow, when the Committee publishes its report, whom it found more credible, but may I offer him the opportunity today finally to accept the overwhelming evidence that his cuts to social welfare legal aid will hit the most vulnerable the hardest?

It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman mentions social welfare and misses criminal legal aid, because when it comes to eligibility and defining who is vulnerable, it was the previous Government who decided that criminal legal aid would be means-tested. We are not addressing that, but in relation to civil legal aid, yes, we do believe that the eligibility tests need to be looked at, and that is what we are doing.

Defamation Bill

Prior to the publication of the draft Defamation Bill, my Department carried out informal consultations with a wide range of interested parties. Since the draft Bill was published on 15 March my right hon. Friend Lord McNally has held meetings with a number of these parties to discuss their initial reactions to the draft Bill, and further meetings will take place during the consultation period.

In explaining the difficulties of defamation litigation to my constituents in Erewash, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree with the President of the Supreme Court, Lord Phillips, who stated that when defamation cases can be so complex,

“jury trial simply invites expensive interlocutory battles”?

I agree with my hon. Friend and her quotation. Jury trial is rarely used in defamation cases, but it greatly adds to the length and the cost when used, so there is a wide consensus that it is not usually appropriate. It also cuts out the ability of the judge to settle a lot of preliminary points before going on to the full hearing, in a way that cuts down costs and speeds up justice for all parties. So far, there has been a favourable reaction to our proposals that in defamation cases there should be a presumption against jury trial. That has nothing whatever to do with the coalition Government’s commitment to the use of jury trial in criminal cases.

But does the Lord Chancellor accept that one organisation that he will not be able to meet is the organisation of the little man and the little woman, because it does not exist? They are the ones who most often face defamation and malicious or inaccurate comments and reports, as do even right hon. and hon. Members occasionally, difficult as that may be to believe. Do we not need a small claims court for libel cases which could quickly and expeditiously, at a low cost in damages and expenses, deliver remedial justice, apology and correction?

I think we need low-cost, quicker, simpler and more efficient procedures in most of the civil justice system. The statement that I hope to be allowed to make at half-past 3 will take that further in various ways. Defamation has never been eligible for legal aid, but anything that simplifies the process and gets more matters treated as preliminary questions will make it more accessible to the ordinary citizen when his reputation is unfairly tarnished.

Prisoners (Repatriation)

In 2010 about 5,000 foreign national prisoners were removed or deported. However, the number transferred through prisoner transfer arrangements is too low. We expect to transfer about 50 prisoners this year. The Government believe that foreign national prisoners should serve their sentence in their own country, and we are seeking to secure further compulsory prisoner transfer agreements wherever possible.

I thank the Minister for his detailed answer. Can he explain why that small number differs so markedly from the autumn predictions of the Prime Minister that thousands would be repatriated? What is holding things up, or was that just a wild estimate or a rash promise?

As I said, more than 5,000 prisoners have been removed. Of course, the situation will change in December when the EU prisoner transfer agreement comes into force. As a consequence of that, we will be able to remove many more prisoners to serve their sentence in other countries.

I thank the Minister for his robust answer. Of the nearly 200 countries in the UN whose citizens could potentially be here in prison, do the Government have any targets for the number of additional agreements we expect to implement outside the EU, or in particular to implement with those countries whose citizens constitute the largest number of prisoners in this country when they should be somewhere else?

We have to negotiate this with individual countries. We cannot simply remove prisoners to countries to serve a sentence there unless those countries accept it, but we can compulsorily remove prisoners if the countries agree. We already have agreements with Uganda, Rwanda and other countries, and an agreement is being negotiated with Nigeria. We would like to negotiate as many more arrangements as we can, but some countries simply disagree.

Bribery Act 2010

11. What discussions he has had with representatives of the Serious Fraud Office on his proposed guidance in respect of the Bribery Act 2010. (49331)

The Serious Fraud Office has been fully involved in the preparation of the guidance under section 9 of the Act about commercial organisations preventing bribery, as indeed has the Crown Prosecution Service.

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply. He will be aware that the continued delay in the publication of the guidance is causing considerable confusion and concern within the business community. Can he give me assurances that the guidance will be consistent with that for other OECD countries and that it will be published and issued quickly?

I am as committed to the Act as anyone else. The UK should remain at the forefront of the fight against corruption and bribery internationally. The delay, as the hon. Gentleman calls it, has been the result of consultation to ensure that legitimate business is not faced with additional costs and burdens that are not necessary for the implementation of the Act. We will announce the results of our consultation and information on when we will implement the Act very shortly.

The United States has expressed concern about guidance watering down the Bribery Act. The OECD is concerned that Britain will be weak on corruption. Business is rightly worried about London’s reputation, as shown by the letter from investment fund managers in today’s Financial Times. Even the Ministry of Justice must be concerned, as it still has on its website an announcement that my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) is the anti-corruption champion. With the head of the Serious Fraud Office warning about weak guidance, will the Secretary of State now wake up to the seriousness of the issue and, with the eyes of the world on him, draw up robust guidance that protects Britain’s reputation and British business?

I have been in touch with the United States Attorney-General and with Angel Gurría, the secretary-general of the OECD, and reassured them that Britain’s commitment to the anti-corruption drive internationally is not remotely in doubt. I am happy to join the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), as his successor as a champion against corruption. We are introducing the Act in a way that will enable us to modernise the law and catch corruption without putting burdens and costs on legitimate businesses, which are easily frightened by some sections of the compliance industry into believing that millions of pounds need to be spent on complying with it and that perfectly ordinary hospitality has to be banned. It has other fears that we hope to be able to dispel.


The Government take this issue very seriously and are therefore exploring options for strengthening the existing legal framework and its enforcement. We hope to be in a position to announce our plans soon. In the meantime, we have published guidance for home owners about the steps they can take to regain possession of their properties.

I thank the Minister for his reply. In my constituency of Hove and Portslade we are often plagued by serial squatters, who cost the city and taxpayers many tens of thousands of pounds. Will the Minister confirm that the proposals he is considering will be a sufficient deterrent to these well-organised squatters?

Penalties are one of the many issues we are looking at. I am pleased to say that my hon. Friend and I will have the opportunity to address them more fully tomorrow in Westminster Hall.

Early Release Scheme

13. How many prisoners convicted of violent offences and released under the early release scheme between 2007 and 2010 have since been returned to prison. (49333)

Over 80,000 prisoners were released under the end of custody licence scheme. Over 16,000 of these were violent offenders, of whom 494 were recalled to custody during the ECL period. It is not possible to calculate how many were recalled or imprisoned for a new offence after the ECL period.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he inform me of his plans to avoid a repetition of the shambolic and incoherent justice policy that saw a mass early release of many prisoners, many of whom went on to commit new offences and were returned to jail?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that we will do everything possible to avoid a return to the scheme that was cynically stopped by the previous Government just before the last election, but not before they had released over 80,000 prisoners. There were 1,600 alleged offences committed by the prisoners who were released early, including six serious further offences and one murder. The Opposition should certainly not be lecturing us on that area.

Drug Rehabilitation (Prisons)

We are working with the Department of Health to reshape drug treatment in prisons to sustain a better path to abstinence, not least by addressing a transition from prison to the community. Our proposals to improve the rehabilitation of drug-misusing offenders were published in the Green Paper, “Breaking the Cycle: effective punishment, rehabilitation and sentencing of offenders”, in December 2010, and they include piloting drug recovery wings, supporting the Department of Health in developing payment-by-results drug recovery pilots and reducing the availability of drugs in prison.

I visited Winson Green prison last month and was shocked at the number of drug-addicted prisoners being prescribed methadone. In our system, almost 24,000 prisoners are now maintained on methadone. Does my hon. Friend agree that that undermines opportunities for effective drug rehabilitation in prison?

I share my hon. Friend’s concern about that issue. Methadone has been used increasingly to tackle heroin dependency, and the number of clinical interventions has gone from 21% in 2007-08 to 39% in 2009-10. Although we do not dispute that methadone has a role to play, we agree that drug treatment in prison ought to have a greater focus on recovery and should provide a clearer route to abstinence either in prison or when offenders return to community, and preferably on a pathway that includes both.

I very much welcome the announcement this week about funding for the national liaison and diversion service, which will try to divert people with mental health issues from the prison system. Does the Minister think that, in time, that model could be used to divert people with drug addiction from prison, too?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her endorsement of our policy on addressing mentally ill offenders and delivering on that very substantial element of the Bradley report. There will not be quite the same method of having a liaison diversion service at courts and in police custody suites, but we will be looking at the drug recovery pilots as the model for the future, with local assessment and referral centres that identify the appropriate place for people to get drug treatment in the community.

Custodial Sentencing

16. If he will assess the extent of regional variation in the rate of custodial sentencing of offenders under the age of 17; and if he will make a statement. (49336)

There is regional variation in the proportion of 10 to 17-year-olds who receive a custodial sentence of between 4% and 8% of those sentenced. There are national guidelines to promote consistency in sentencing, but levels will vary for reasons such as offence seriousness, local practices and criminal justice agency relationships.

There is such a thing as good sentencing policy. What are the Government doing to spread best practice in this critical area?

What we want to do is to begin to transfer responsibility to local authority areas, so that they begin to appreciate the cost of custody. At the moment, youth custody is extremely expensive, but it comes as a free good to local authorities. We want to incentivise them to deliver earlier intervention to divert people away from custody and, indeed, from youth crime in the first place.

Imprisonment for Public Protection

17. How many prisoners serving indeterminate sentences of imprisonment for public protection have been released to date. (49337)

As at 17 November 2010, 187 prisoners had been released into the community from indeterminate sentences of imprisonment for public protection or detention for public protection, including offenders who have subsequently been recalled to custody.

I am grateful for the answer, but it highlights the logjam that IPP prisoners are causing in our prison system, so how does the Minister intend to address that problem?

When those sentences were introduced in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and implemented in 2005, the then Government estimated that there would be 900 such prisoners; there are now more than 6,000, and more than 3,000 of them are beyond tariff. [Interruption.] I can understand why the shadow Justice Secretary is ashamed of the record in that area. That is why there has been an increase in the size of the Parole Board; and that is why we are consulting on proposals to raise the tariff to a 10-year determinate sentence before an IPP can be enforced, and to examine the Parole Board test. Those are the proposals in the Green Paper on which we are consulting.

Compensation (Convicted Criminals)

18. How much was paid to convicted criminals by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority in (a) 2008-09 and (b) 2009-10. (49338)

The Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority paid £6.9 million in 2008-09 and £12 million in 2009-10 to people with unspent convictions. These figures reflect only cases where the CICA reduced the award due to unspent convictions, which the current compensation scheme says it must do. However, there are still cases being considered under previous schemes that did not make such reductions compulsory, so the real figures are likely to be higher.

Does the Minister agree that it is slightly perverse and repugnant to be paying out compensation to criminals who have often caused severe injury and offence to their victims?

Criminal Law Barristers (Fees)

19. What progress has been made on proposed changes to the payment of fees to criminal law barristers through the Legal Services Commission. (49339)

The processing, validation and payment of claims under the advocates graduated fees scheme is being transferred from Her Majesty’s Courts Service to the Legal Services Commission. The transfer is taking place on a phased basis between 7 February and 18 April of this year.

I know that it is not proper to talk about lawyers and fees in the same sentence, but this is an overly bureaucratic system that does not pay out, as may be familiar to many Members of this House. There are criminal barristers who have not received fees for many, many months after they have completed their work. Does the Minister agree that that is plain unfair?

If my hon. Friend would like to contact me with specifics, I would happily take them up. However, the responsibility for processing claims began to be passed to the LSC only on 7 February, so delays of six months are impossible. Properly completed claims are currently being processed within two weeks.

Topical Questions

In recent years, the threat of costly libel actions has begun to stifle scientific and academic debate and impede investigative journalism. I have therefore published proposals for long-overdue reform of our defamation laws. The draft Defamation Bill will fulfil the coalition’s commitment to protect free speech and restore important civil liberties after a decade of neglect under the last Government. It will mean that anyone who makes a statement of fact or expresses an honest opinion can do so with confidence, but it will also restore a sense of proportion to the law, ensuring that people can defend themselves against untrue allegations and that a fair balance is struck between freedom of expression and the protection of reputation. I welcome hon. Members’ views on the draft Bill and on the wider issues raised in the consultation.

Yesterday in the other place, Members voted through an amendment to the Public Bodies Bill to remove the Youth Justice Board from the list of organisations to be scrapped. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he will accept that defeat? Will he also confirm that he endorses the excellent work of the Youth Justice Board and will no longer seek to abolish it?

Another place is taking a very long time to discuss this, quango by quango, and it is rescuing several of these bodies. There is an enthusiasm for outside public bodies in the upper House that I am not sure is totally shared here. We will of course carefully reflect on the debate and vote in another place on the future of the Youth Justice Board. Since it was created—it did a very good job at first—time has moved on; peers kept referring to circumstances that they remember before it was created. We now have youth offender teams who do not need the level of supervision that they are getting from the Youth Justice Board. However, I will see whether any of my former friends and colleagues, and current hon. and noble Members of the upper House, have persuaded me to reconsider the policy.

T3. The Minister may be aware that the Gaddafi house is a high-profile squatting incident in my constituency. Just this week, we have had two further squats. Will he meet me and my hon. Friends the Members for Hove (Mike Weatherley) and for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) to discuss this pressing issue? (49348)

I will be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss squatting. I would hate to think that anyone would use the example of the Gaddafi house as any excuse for this pernicious offence.

The Justice Secretary is not afraid to speak his mind, and he has many fans on the Labour Benches as a result. Does he agree that there has been a great deal of confusion on the Government’s policy on the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Bill of Rights? Can he explain in plain, simple English whether his Government are in favour of abolishing, or in favour of keeping, the Human Rights Act, which brought into domestic law the European convention on human rights?

I would welcome vigorous attacks from the Opposition on any of my policies. The lack of such attacks might undermine my credibility with certain sections of the House and the outside world.

We have carried out the coalition commitment to set up a commission to investigate the case for a British Bill of Rights. Of course the Government accept the commitments and obligations under the European convention on human rights. The commission will look at the whole range of issues in this subject. Personally, I would like the debate to concentrate on what is more immediately attainable, which is sensible reform of the Court in Strasbourg. That is much overdue. I think that we could command a wide range of support from other member states of the Council of Europe on such reform. Perhaps we might decide on subsidiarity, and on the role of the Court vis-à-vis the Parliaments and courts of member states.

T4. Will my hon. Friend inform me of whether the principles of joint enterprise will remain after the sentencing review, as they were instrumental in bringing successful prosecutions against a number of people who were involved in the murder of the son of a constituent of mine? (49349)

My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that there are no plans to consider the joint enterprise principles in the sentencing review. The existing law ensures that if a person commits an offence as part of an agreed plan or joint enterprise, all parties to the enterprise may be guilty of the planned offence. That factor indicates higher culpability and justifies a tougher sentence than would otherwise be imposed.

T2. In an earlier answer, the Minister acknowledged the role played by offender learning services in prisons in preventing reoffending. Given that about 60% of young offenders have communication difficulties so severe that they cannot benefit from such services, will he give an assurance that he will talk to the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists to ensure that the service is in no way damaged as a result of public spending cuts? (49347)

I think that the hon. Gentleman might be confusing what happens in the adult estate and in the youth estate. However, his substantive point stands and I accept it. I am happy to talk to the Royal College, because I accept that communication is an extremely important tool in addressing offending behaviour. In many cases, a lack of communication skills leads to offending in the first place and, if it is not addressed, leads to reoffending.

T5. When I was a member of the independent monitoring board of a young offenders institution, I was often concerned about the underuse of the sports facilities on site. The reason that was sometimes given was that there were stringent rules on who could supervise them. Will the Minister consider those restrictions so that there is more sport and less television watching? (49350)

Earlier, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt) referred to the Government’s policy on drug rehabilitation. Like many Members, I am concerned about the availability of drugs in prisons. What new steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that drugs are not available, and that the road that starts people on drugs is curtailed?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern entirely. There are people who enter prison drug free and leave with a drug problem. Drugs are more expensive in prison, but sometimes they are more widely available than in the outside world. We are therefore taking steps urgently to introduce the first drug-free wings. Alongside our rehabilitation programmes, we hope to get people off drugs and thereby perhaps get them away from crime, rather than introducing people to drugs when they go to prison.

T8. Given the great work that West Mercia probation trust does in Redditch with the payback scheme, which I know the Minister has also visited, will he reconsider the new form of payback contracts, which cover large parts of the country but not necessarily our local communities? (49353)

Although I have seen that good work and applaud it, I will have to disappoint my hon. Friend. There is no prospect of our revisiting the contract arrangements that have been briefed out and presented to probation trusts and the private sector. That competition will progress.

T7. How will the Secretary of State ensure that the tightening-up of no win, no fee arrangements will deliver lower insurance premiums, not higher insurance company profits? (49352)

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I hope to make a statement on that subject in a few minutes. We intend to lower costs for everybody, which should be reflected in, among other things, lower costs for such things as car insurance.

Given the misery that is caused by the drug trade, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that all those who choose to play a part in drug distribution networks should face a custodial sentence, not least because those who play even what is termed a subordinate role are often indispensible to the making of large profits by drug barons higher up the chain?

I agree with my hon. Friend that any connection with the drugs trade should be dealt with by the courts with considerable severity. I invite him to have a look at the Sentencing Council guidelines put out today, which I think he will find are more balanced than some of the reports have suggested. They will actually increase the sentence for the more serious dealers and retain the right to imprison anybody involved.

Some of the comments that have been made have arisen because sometimes very low-level runners, often women, who are themselves drug abusers, are used as carriers by serious drug dealers. The judges and the Sentencing Council have addressed that point. They are consulting and we will consider our reaction, but the guidelines are produced by an independent body, and underlying them continues to be the principle of dealing severely with those responsible for the trade in illicit drugs, about which my hon. Friend and I agree.

In addition to the pleasure of hearing the Secretary of State’s voice, it would be a joy to have the pleasure of seeing his face as well.

Will the Secretary of State explain to the House why the Government have yet to put into practice the provisions of the Crime and Security Act 2010, leaving victims of overseas terrorism such as Will Pike without the compensation that they expected to receive?

There is a review of the criminal injuries compensation scheme going on, and we intend to address the issue alongside that review and publish our proposals at the same time.

If it is the case that squatting has been made illegal in Scotland, will the Justice team look favourably on the Scottish proposals and make it illegal in this country as well?

We are certainly looking at the Scottish example, and I hope that when we bring our proposals forward, my hon. Friend will warmly welcome them.

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice mentioned the repatriation of Nigerian prisoners and the contract that is being signed. Will he tell the House, following three years of discussion by the previous Government, how many prisoners from Nigeria have been repatriated this year and how many more he expects to repatriate next year?

Morale among the prison officers in the two prisons in South Dorset is at an all-time low. Will the Minister reassure me that their rights will be upheld as well as the prisoners’ rights?

The Forensic Science Service provides impartial evidence to the courts. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with it to secure its future and ensure that its primary duty remains to the court, not to shareholders?

As the hon. Lady will know, there have been considerable difficulties in relation to the Forensic Science Service, and we have been in extensive discussions with it about how we can ensure the future provision of forensic services.

The Prison Minister is being very quick in his answers. Could he be very quick in answer to this question? Will he confirm that Wellingborough prison is not to close?

There is a continual review of the whole prison estate to address precisely the issues that the shadow Secretary of State mentioned. It would therefore be wrong to confirm that about any prison in the system, because there is a process of review to ensure that we have sufficient prison places to jail those sent to us by the courts for the term of their sentence. The last Administration did not achieve that.

The Government are proposing to remove legal aid for all asylum support law cases, while retaining it for other asylum matters. Why is the Minister drawing that distinction, when the vulnerabilities involved are surely the same?

The fundamental principle that we are following is that when security or liberty is at risk, legal aid should be provided. That is why we propose to maintain legal aid for asylum cases, but not for asylum support.

A report last year from the Prison Reform Trust found that children with developmental disorders were being processed through the criminal justice system without their having much understanding of what was happening to them. As a consequence, they were more likely to have a custodial sentence imposed upon them than those who were more articulate and more able to defend themselves. Does the Secretary of State believe that that situation exists, and if so, how does he propose to remedy it?

I certainly agree that that is a very serious problem, and we intend to address it. I had a meeting yesterday evening with the Prison Reform Trust, the Women’s Institute and my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary. Our two Departments, together with the Courts Service, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, hope to set up diversion route services for those who in fact require treatment for mental illness. Often, those people should be diverted out of the prison system and the criminal justice system altogether, both for their good and the good of society.

Prison is often not a suitable place in which to treat mental illness. I am told that no fewer than 3,000 prisoners appear to be in prison largely because that is the most convenient place to hold them while attempts are made to get them care and treatment for their condition.

When the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr Howarth) and I were in Dartmoor prison together, we noticed that the second most popular prisoner workshop produced excellent plaster garden gnomes. In view of the great and burgeoning success of the film “Gnomeo and Juliet”, will the Minister have a word with the governor of Dartmoor to see what advantage can be taken of that serendipitous circumstance?

I am delighted to answer that question and to refer to my niece’s part in “Gnomeo and Juliet”. I was in Dartmoor last week. I did not see the garden gnome factory, but I did see the some of the gardens, which make up for an otherwise bleak place. Prison industries are a very important part of the future development of our prisons strategy to ensure that, in future, prisoners have wider employment and work than they have now.

The Government have decided to close a number of magistrates courts in this country, as a result of which, many valiant volunteer magistrates will travel far longer distances and incur additional costs. What action will my hon. Friend take to ensure that people are properly compensated for their time and travel costs?

Our proposals will adequately compensate magistrates by aligning magistrates’ subsistence and travelling allowances with those of the salaried judiciary and, indeed, Members of Parliament. The proposed travel allowances will align with rates commonly used across voluntary, private and public sectors. It is estimated that these changes will save Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service £3.2 million a year.