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Topical Questions

Volume 526: debated on Tuesday 29 March 2011

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.