House of Commons
Tuesday 29 March 2011
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
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.
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.
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.
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—
Prison Service (Resources)
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 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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
Early Release Scheme
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.
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.
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
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.
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)
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.
Criminal Law Barristers (Fees)
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.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. (49346)
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.
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.
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?
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?
The Nigerian Government and Parliament have to agree to it, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, and we are awaiting that.
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 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.
Reforming Civil Justice
With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement. I have today laid before Parliament two documents—the Government’s response to our recent consultation on Lord Justice Jackson’s recommendations for reforming no win, no fee arrangements, and a fresh consultation document on proposals further to overhaul the civil justice system. Copies of both documents will be available in the Vote Office and on the Ministry of Justice website. I hope to bring forward legislation on the Jackson reforms as soon as parliamentary time allows.
To many people in this country, the prospect of legal action is an expensive, daunting nightmare. One of the worst features of our compensation culture is that our justice system has increasingly become closed to vast rafts of the ordinary public by legal costs out of all proportion to the dispute or the claim. The proposals that I am announcing today will, I hope, begin to restore proportion and confidence in our system of justice, for both claimants and defendants.
First, following careful consideration of the consultation responses, I have decided to reform no win, no fee arrangements to stop the perverse situation in which fear of excess costs sometimes forces defendants to settle, even when they know they are in the right.
I can therefore announce that the Government will seek legislation to return the no win, no fee system to the first principles on which it was set up. We plan to end the recoverability of success fees and insurance premiums that drive legal costs; to award claimants a 10% uplift in general damages where they have suffered loss; and to ensure that they take an interest in controlling the bills being run up on their behalf by expecting them to pay their own lawyers’ success fee. We will also bring forward our plans to encourage parties to make and accept reasonable offers, to protect the majority of personal injury claimants from paying a winning defendant’s costs, and to allow claimants to recover the cost of expert reports in clinical negligence cases.
I am also publishing a consultation paper that I believe paves the way for the more efficient and effective delivery of civil justice after 15 years of stagnation. The current system is slow, stressful and expensive, and change is long overdue. My aim is to help people to avoid court wherever possible, while reducing costs where that is unavoidable. We are proposing that small-value cases should automatically be referred to mediation so that many people are able to avoid the experience of court entirely; and that the maximum value for small claims be raised from £5,000 to £15,000 to enable more cases to be heard through the simple small claims process rather than a more costly, complicated trial.
We are also proposing: to increase the value below which claims cannot be brought in the High Court to £100,000 so that the county court jurisdiction is extended and the High Court is reserved for only genuinely complex or high-value cases; new measures that will improve the ability of courts to tackle those who evade payment of their debts even though they have the means to do so, while ensuring that those who cannot pay continue to be protected, for example by setting a minimum level of consumer debt at which property could be put at risk for non-payment; and the extension of a successful online system to cut waiting times and legal expenses in personal injury cases, as recommended by my noble Friend Lord Young of Graffham.
We have a duty to deliver a civil justice system that is more equitable, accessible and just. Resorting to the law need not be the long, drawn-out and expensive nightmare that so many people experience today, but could become a sensible and affordable way of resolving disputes in a proportionate manner. I believe these reforms, on which we are now consulting, will help to restore those fundamental values of proportion and fairness in our civil justice system, and I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for his usual courtesies and advance sight of his statement, which, on face value, is difficult to disagree with. We accept that the issue of costs in civil proceedings is worth investigating, and did so in government. I note that my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) is in his place. Those suffering injury through the negligence of public and private bodies who cannot afford to fund actions privately must have recourse to the civil justice system. There is a fear, however, that these plans go so far in trying to keep down costs that some claimants with meritorious cases will find it difficult, if not impossible, to find a lawyer to take on their case.
I am afraid that the devil will be in the detail of today’s announcement. I have a number of questions for the Justice Secretary that I hope will tease out some of the detail. He referred to the Lord Justice Jackson report to justify his announcement. However, has he taken into account Lord Justice Jackson’s view that his proposals are a package and should not be subject to cherry-picking, and will he take into account Lord Justice Jackson’s desire to retain civil legal aid for criminal negligence and housing cases currently under threat from the Government?
The Justice Secretary proposes that claimants’ solicitors will be able to recover up to 25% of their costs from the damages that a claimant recovers. He will be aware that the increase in compensation from defendants to claimants will be only 10%, not 25%, and will apply only to general damages, not to total damages. Why should someone who has suffered the trauma of an injury at work be told that the money they have justly received as compensation will go to their lawyer?
Has the Justice Secretary had a chance to assess the road traffic accident portal scheme, which was introduced by the last Government to reduce costs? The scheme uses fixed fees and efficient processing to limit costs, and came into force in March last year. Does he accept that it has reduced costs by half in 75% of personal injury cases? Does he agree that expanding the scheme to personal injury claims would save costs?
The Government have said that one aim of the reform is to reduce the costs that defendants have to pay. Many defendants are insurance companies. In light of that, can the Justice Secretary say what reductions he expects in insurance premiums? Can he confirm whether an impact assessment has been conducted on how the changes affect access to justice, cost to defendants and reductions to insurance premiums? Is he concerned that, although there will be limitations on a claimant’s ability to bring a case and the costs incurred by their solicitors, there will be no such controls on a defendant in defending a case, raising concerns about the inequality between the two sides?
Finally, a fundamental principle of our justice system is proper access to justice. I agree with the previous Government, who agreed with senior judges such as the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, as well as Lord Justice Jackson and others, that the costs of civil litigation were sometimes excessive. We would all like the costs of litigation to be reduced and alternatives to it found wherever possible, but the effect of the proposals could be to restrict access to justice, particularly for those who do not have their own means of funding. It will be on this key issue that we will hold the Government’s actions to account.
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s agreement with me on the importance of tackling cost. He has focused principally on the conclusions that I have announced today of the Government’s consideration of the consultation on Rupert Jackson’s proposals, which I accept were initiated by my predecessor, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), under the previous Government. We are trying to get the cost of litigation down.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about access to claims. We are going back to no win, no fee arrangements of the kind that existed when they were first set up by my noble Friend Lord Mackay in the mid-1990s. It was the changes made at the turn of the century that led to the cost escalating to such an extraordinary extent. Among other things, in many cases the legal fees paid by a losing defendant now far exceed the damages paid to the claimant. Indeed, it can be an extremely profitable area of practice if people have some successes. We will keep no win, no fee on the basis of the kind of arrangements we used to have—the kind that are familiar in most jurisdictions. The arrangements that we are proposing to sweep away are unparalleled in any other country and are making litigation too expensive for those faced with it.
The right hon. Gentleman then asked about the cost that can be borne by the plaintiff out of his damages. As he quite rightly said, the 10% enhancement to the level of damages that can be awarded is designed to help plaintiffs and claimants, but it will be confined to general damages, otherwise the figure could be astronomical in some cases. However, the costs that can be recovered—the success fee or bonus paid to a solicitor who has won a case—will be limited to 25%, so they will be kept in proportion.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the road traffic accident portal scheme, which has certainly speeded up and helped many personal injury cases. We are indeed proposing to extend the scheme to other personal injury cases, as he suggested.
The right hon. Gentleman asked me what would happen to insurance premiums. The answer, of course, is in the hands of the insurance industry and the competitive market in which it works. We all think, “Oh well, it doesn’t matter: it’s only the insurance company that is paying colossal legal fees”—on top of damages—“in no win, no fee cases,” but that could be one explanation for why car insurance costs have leapt to such an extraordinary extent in this country. I hope to see insurance premiums come down.
Impact assessments were produced at an earlier stage, after Sir Rupert had received wide representations from all sides. We have taken quite a long time getting to this point, and we are pretty clear on what the impact will be. On balance, I think it will be highly desirable. [Interruption.] I cannot read my notes on the last question that the right hon. Gentleman asked.
Yes, the right hon. Gentleman raised an important point about clinical negligence cases, which can be very expensive to start. We are therefore making an exception in regard to the non-recoverability of insurance premiums. We will allow the recoverability of such premiums when they are used to cover the cost of expert evidence in clinical negligence cases. We are, however, working with the NHS Litigation Authority with a view to getting the NHS and other defendants to co-operate with claimants to produce joint medical reports. That should narrow the dispute and cut the costs for all parties, making justice more easily attained.
Given the Lord Chancellor’s characteristic willingness to take what in “Yes, Minister” would have been called “courageous decisions” about success fees, insurance fees, after-the-event insurance and the scope of the small claims courts, will he tell us what he thinks about referral fees and claims farming, which are probably major contributors to the compensation and litigation culture?
The Legal Services Board is looking into that whole area. My right hon. Friend Lord Young of Graffham has referred to this as well, and it is an important area that we should look at. We are all in favour of no win, no fee; it has been introduced and no one is ever going to get rid of it, but a rather extraordinary form of practice has now developed at the margins. Claims advisers advertise for people who have had an accident to bring a claim; we see their advertisements on the backs of buses. They pay people to give them their claim if it looks good, and they then sell the claim to a solicitor. Solicitors may then trade the claims between themselves, before bringing a no win, no fee action. If they are successful, they get very high costs and a kind of bonus, called a success fee, on top. That is what makes these actions so expensive. I understand why, in response to consultation, some people defended that system vigorously, but I believe that the whole thing needs examining from beginning to end. As Sir Rupert Jackson’s report made clear, this explains why the whole process has become so frighteningly expensive for so many litigants.
May I add to the broad welcome from my Front Bench for the decisions that the Secretary of State has announced today? I also add my thanks, as I am sure he does, for the extraordinary work of Sir Rupert Jackson, which underpins them. I should like to pick up on the point raised by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith). Is the Secretary of State aware that, in my constituency and in many others across the north-west, car insurance premiums for decent, honest drivers with impeccable records have rocketed, despite the fact that the number of accidents and thefts from vehicles has gone down? That is because of the work of those parasitic claims management companies and because the insurance companies, who are complaining about the costs, are themselves guilty of selling on personal data, including the facts relating to a claim, to those companies, often without the agreement of the insured person. Does the Secretary of State agree that we need to close down those claims companies altogether? They are parasites milking the system. I apologise for coming late to this decision; I should have taken it when I was in his seat. Does he also agree that we should use data protection legislation to ban insurance companies from selling on personal data?
When I took over the right hon. Gentleman’s desk and chair about 11 months ago, one of the first things I picked up was the Jackson report, which he had commissioned. As he says, it was on his desk, but he had not had time to implement it. I was immediately attracted by its approach to cutting costs, so I am glad that he and I continue to agree on that. I am astonished to hear his description of insurance companies selling claims, although I have come across it. They do not all do it, but this just adds gloss to the strange way in which this has all developed. I am also struck by the huge cost of these practices for institutions such as the national health service, which, in a bad year, can spend about £400 million—little short of half a billion—on legal fees. In many areas of practice, the legal fees are the biggest bill for the defendant. They often exceed the amount of compensation paid to the claimant. The right hon. Gentleman was obviously anxious to reform the system, and I am anxious to do so as well. I am glad to have taken up the baton.
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee received considerable evidence that the massive increase in the cost of libel actions that can result from the use of conditional fee arrangements is having a seriously chilling effect on investigative journalism? Does he accept that the measures he has announced this afternoon are in some ways even more important for sustaining investigative journalism and scientific debate than the measures contained in his draft Defamation Bill?
I think that is right. This will have a big impact on defamation cases where people threaten the publisher of something they do not like with enormous costs if they want to defend the action. This is having, to use the jargon phrase, “a chilling effect” not only on scientific and academic work, but on proper investigative journalism. When we put the draft Defamation Bill together with what we are proposing to do in the light of Rupert Jackson’s proposals, the way in which we are setting up no win, no fee generally and the announcements I have made about the jurisdiction of the courts, I think we will make a significant impact on lowering the costs of all this litigation to the advantage of plaintiffs who have a legitimate grievance and of defendants. We are going to stop the whole thing being a high roller’s gamble, which is what it is at the moment, as to whether the other side dare face the risks of the huge costs being piled up the moment a claim is brought.
Whilst welcoming anything that will reduce the unnecessary costs to lawyers and others, will the Justice Secretary give a reasonable guarantee to constituents like my own, who are generally among the poorest people in Britain, that they will still be able to find legal assistance? The obvious problem with the 25% rule is that it might drive people below the threshold at which lawyers would be prepared to take the cases on. Will anything in the proposals deter people from obtaining proper expert evidence when that is necessary for them to fight their claim?
I think that people will think twice, as it were. At the moment, they are lured into making a claim by an advertisement on the back of a bus or in some local office. There are many people with perfectly legitimate personal injuries claims and the method I would wish them to pursue is to go to a solicitor who will consider the reasonable prospects of success and take it on on a no win, no fee basis—on the sort of terms that were always envisaged when we introduced the system into this country in the 1990s. People will have to think more carefully; there will be fewer purely speculative actions; and there will be fewer actions brought in the hope that the size of the legal costs is so great that the other side might be bullied into making an offer of settlement, regardless of their chance of success. I hope, however, that legitimate claims will prosper under a no win, no fee system, which is much closer to the lower-cost systems that other jurisdictions operate.
Thanks to the blame culture that developed under the last Government, one school in my constituency deemed it necessary to concrete over a very shallow paddling pool, in case a child had an accident and the school were sued. Another school considered cutting down all its trees in case children were to fall out of them, injuring themselves so that the school might be sued. I hope today’s statement will be the start of a fresh approach to this compensation culture.
I feel strongly, as does my hon. Friend, that we have an unacceptable compensation culture in this country. Like him, I notice it in my daily life. I think that doctors, teachers, policemen and most professional people are constantly concerned about the possible risk of litigation when they do perfectly ordinary things in the course of their daily lives. I dare say that the kind of submissions coming to Ministers are, in comparison with when I first received them, now so full of concerns about judicial review, the Human Rights Act and other legal constraints on what can be done that we are getting further and further away from common sense whereby people can exercise their judgment and, of course, be accountable to the law when they are at risk of breaking it—but only when they are at risk of breaking sensible law and might face litigation at reasonable cost.
I think that what the Lord Chancellor has said today has cross-party support. May I take him back to his comments about mediation? Is he suggesting that there should be mandatory mediation for very small claims? If he is, we have a problem with the number of qualified mediators. Will he look at this issue because it is all very well referring these cases, but we need the mediators to be able to deal with them?
We will make mediation an automatic part of the process if the result of the consultation supports such a move. Of course there will be cases that mediation will not resolve, and in those cases people will undoubtedly have the right to go to court. In the small claims courts we are already seeing a rapid extension of very successful mediation, often by means of telephone conference, which is resolving the smaller disputes.
As for the county court, following our extension of its jurisdiction, we will expect people to go along and be introduced to the prospect of mediation. We are consulting on the kind of people who will be required to conduct mediation sensibly, because, as the right hon. Gentleman says, a certain amount of skill and experience will be required for the process to produce the right results.
Has the Secretary of State had time to consider the possible implications for the overall number of county courts of the proposal to rationalise the county court by, for instance, allowing back-office functions to be combined?
We have just completed a consultation on our estate, and we have announced the closure of a number of courts. We aim to reduce back-office costs and the unnecessary expense that flows from different jurisdictions. Obviously we keep the proper usage of our estate under continuous review, but I do not expect the proposal to have any significant effect on the future of the courts that survived the consultation that we carried out a few months ago.
I accept the need for rationalisation of the jurisdictions of the county courts and High Courts. I also accept that, ultimately, mediation will be a good thing. However, evidence from the Access To Justice Action Group provides numerous instances in which poor people will be excluded altogether following the change in the no win, no fee arrangements, and I am desperately worried about that. The evidence contains no special pleading. It is excellent evidence, and I ask the Ministry to re-examine it in due course. If something is not done, this will prove to be a benefit match for the insurance companies only.
We considered very carefully the large number of responses to the consultation document, many of which opposed changes based on Sir Rupert’s proposals. Most of them came from plaintiff solicitors, but I do not dismiss them on that ground, because I share with those solicitors an interest in proper access to justice. We considered whether modified no win, no fee arrangements could be justified in that context.
There are two questions to be asked: have we affected people’s access to justice, and have we affected the profitability of practices that engage in no win, no fee with a reasonable level of success? Most of the responses that we received dealt with much more complicated questions, but I believe that we have retained proper access to justice while lowering the costs—and therefore, unfortunately in some cases, the profit margins—to more reasonable levels.
Some of us spend a large part of our professional lives trying to persuade litigants to accept reasonable offers. It is often difficult to explain to them what is a realistic quantum of damages in personal injury cases. Surely, with all the technology of the 21st century, it must be possible to devise a public website that could be updated with whatever decisions the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court, the High Court and other courts have made in personal injury cases. That would provide a much more accessible and transparent explanation of the quantum in such cases at any given time, enabling litigants to assess the probability of a successful claim and the level of damages that they were likely to receive.
If my hon. Friend looks at our proposals, he will see that we intend to provide greater incentives for the settlement of cases. We also intend to impose cost penalties—beyond those that already exist—on those who either refuse good offers or do not meet the reasonable first demands of their opponents, but settlement is always preferable when it is possible.
I think I shall have to discuss with the judiciary the question of whether wider circulation could be given to recent awards of damages. However, I agree that in this day and age it ought to be possible to move on a little from the old days when gossip among members of the Bar about what they considered to be the current tariff for a particular injury was the best way of spreading knowledge about the direction in which the figures were moving. I will discuss my hon. Friend’s proposal with the Lord Chief Justice and others.
The Secretary of State will know the situation facing families with household savings of less than £15,000, and that families with savings of over £16,000 are ineligible for benefits. Does he not think that raising the bar for access to justice through the small courts from £5,000 to £15,000 may be seen as rough justice for the many poorer families who might want a proper hearing for their case? It will have a massive impact on their household budget, and a much greater one than a larger amount for a richer family.
This has sometimes been looked at, hence it has been possible to raise these levels by quite large amounts as they have not kept in line with inflation for the last 15 years. What we are doing in respect of the small claims courts should be of assistance to people of low means, because the small claims courts have been quite successful as a reasonably informal, very low-cost way of resolving simple disputes or collecting straightforward debts which people cannot recover from those who owe them. It is right to extend that jurisdiction so that people are not faced with the daunting prospect of appearing before a judge in a formal court setting, and possibly having a lawyer on the other side and so forth, which comes at the next stage up, at county court.
We are only consulting, so we are open to arguments about whether or not £15,000 is the right figure; we might put it up further, or we might be persuaded to take it down. I personally think that extending the small claims court jurisdiction is a very desirable thing to do, but it will not be extended to personal injury cases, because the small claims court is intended for quick and easy disposal of fairly straightforward cases. Too many personal injury cases would clog up the system which is meant to be quick and relatively informal and for straightforward disputes.
Well, I hope I can answer yes to all those questions. We are talking about civil jurisdiction here; there is no criminal jurisdiction. I think civil justice should be quick, efficient and accessible to most members of society. As the hon. Gentleman will know, most ordinary people regard any question of being muddled up with litigation, or having to go to court, with mortal dread. Middle England—or middle Ireland—feels itself completely excluded from a civil justice system that exists for the very poor, the very rich or the big corporations. We are, I hope, moving in the direction of enabling the ordinary citizen to make some use of the civil justice system again, and without quite as much fear as most people have of it at the moment.
Although I think there will be a general welcome for the 10% uplift in general damages, which should help to cover the payment out of success fees by claimants, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that in a small number of cases where special damages form the lion’s share of an award, there is still a live issue as to the potential erosion of the value of the damages awarded by the payment out of success fees to lawyers?
The cap of the success fee—which is a kind of bonus to a winning lawyer who has taken a no win, no fee case—will not be applied to special damages. As my hon. Friend rightly says, special damages can be enormous, such as in cases where the plaintiff has been disabled for life, and if the so-called success fee—the bonus—is taken as a percentage of that, it could be colossal, even though the size of the award might not reflect the complexity and difficulty of the case, but just the fact that the plaintiff was very severely injured. We are increasing damages by 10% of general damages, and we are capping the success fee that the plaintiff will have to meet at 25% of the general damages. Special damages will not be affected.
The tentacles of the compensation culture have wrapped themselves around British life for far too long, and I congratulate the Secretary of State on his proposals. Local authorities and public bodies face paying out more and more, so does he see his proposals as the first step towards a semblance of normality in this area?
I hope so. Let me make it clear that I am in favour of people who have suffered injury because of the fault or negligence of somebody else receiving proper compensation. In all those cases, people should have access to the courts and the right to have their case argued in the normal way, but what has happened is that this has become a widely publicised, rather commercial activity, which is having a considerable effect on the way in which many people lead their ordinary day-to-day lives. Let us go back to a sensible system of civil justice which does proper justice to both the claimants and the defendants, and get away from this rather extraordinary way we live at the moment, whereby huge sums can be made, mainly in legal costs rather than in damages, by bringing speculative claims against defendants who cannot afford to defend them.
As those of us still practising can tell my right hon. and learned Friend, the costs associated with civil litigation are of just as much concern in higher value claims as they are in lower value claims, particularly to British businesses which need their rights adjudicated upon. In many jurisdictions, including some in the United States, mediation is compulsory in all civil cases. Will he consider ensuring that that is the position in England and Wales as well?
I will certainly consider that, and I am interested to hear about my hon. and learned Friend’s knowledge of the American experience. We are certainly seeking to extend mediation considerably, and we are consulting to see how far we can go in getting people to contemplate mediation before deciding which cases cannot be resolved that way and so have to go to ordinary litigation. I am glad that he welcomes that; we certainly wish to see a considerable extension of mediation and we will go as far as is sensible.
I declare my interest as a family lawyer.
Constituents involved in these proceedings are often frustrated about the length of the court process. They can be involved for a long time only for the case to be settled at the door of the court. Will my right hon. and learned Friend set out the steps being taken to case-manage matters at the earliest opportunity?
The new portal process should significantly speed up a very high proportion of cases. We will certainly continue to address the real point that my hon. Friend makes as we go on to consult. Quite apart from the dread of the cost, the main experience members of the public have of the courts, be they criminal or civil, is the astonishing amount of time they are likely to waste in abortive visits during a slow-moving process. They will often have to attend the court building needlessly on occasions when the court is adjourned before they can get to be a party, a witness, a juror and so on. I therefore appreciate the spirit of my hon. Friend’s question and we are certainly seeking to address it in this consultation process.
Children (Access to Parents)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require courts, local authorities and other bodies, when determining or enforcing issues of residence and contact, to operate under the presumption that the rights of a child include the right to grow up knowing and having access to and contact with both of the parents involved in the residence or contact case concerned, unless exceptional circumstances are demonstrated that such contact is not in the best interests of the child; to create an offence if a relevant body or person does not operate under or respect such a presumption; and for connected purposes.
There are 3 million children who live apart from a parent in the UK, about 1 million of whom have no contact with the non-resident parent three years after separation. We know from the statistics that the number of court applications is rising. In 2005, it was 110,330 and in 2009—the most recent year for which the figures are available, I understand—it was 137,480.
We also know that the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service case load has been rising sharply. In 2007-08, there were 39,432 cases, and in 2009-10 there were 44,722. That was the subject of a recent Public Accounts Committee report and a National Audit Office investigation, which found that CAFCASS is not timely and that eight out of 10 Ofsted cases are failed. That is not good enough and as a result we have a massive delay in the court system. Even after a contact order is granted, as we all know from our surgeries it is all too often ignored, not enforced and not dealt with. The situation is simply unacceptable.
I am promoting the Bill today because I believe that there is a better way. First, we should reform things so that we have mediation rather than endless court cases. On average, mediation costs £752 a case whereas court proceedings cost £1,682 a case, and mediation takes 110 days whereas court cases take 435 days—more than a year. Some 95% of mediations are complete within nine months whereas only 70% of court cases are complete within 18 months.
Secondly, we need to reform and enforce contact properly. We need to place a duty on all involved. Too often, people say it is about mums’ rights or dads’ rights, but actually it is about the rights of a child to know and have a relationship with both their parents. That is the nub of what the Bill is about. It is not right that parents should sink their children’s right to know them in a sea of acrimony when they split up.
There are those who would say, “That doesn’t happen. The Bill is not necessary; it is a waste of parliamentary time. It’s not an issue. Why is Mr Elphicke bothering to do this?” Let me give some case studies. Mrs A, of Wootton in my constituency, wrote to me about her son’s experience with his children. She said:
“Each time a visit is due their mother creates a great deal of hassle—never being able to give a precise date etc. and has twice prevented the visit completely.”
The son went off to court to get a contact order. The letter went on:
“He has been in front of several different judges and every one has refused to do anything at all—just shrugging their shoulders, treating my son like a criminal, not even looking at the paper work and evidence. They just say there is nothing they can do.”
Mr G of Dover writes to me:
“I understand as they are my children I should help towards their upbringing, but surely this should not just involve paying my ex money and only speaking to them on a Sunday morning for 30 mins.”
Some people might think that this is all about dads. No, it is not. Let me give an example. Kenn Griffiths of mychildcontact.com sent me details of a case involving a mother who was divorced several years ago. The father has residence and the mother tells a moving story about how the father has been poisoning her children against her, telling them that she is ill and will never get better and that if they live with her they will make her even more ill. He has been saying the same to the CAFCASS representative. The only information the CAFCASS representative had in front of her was the father’s allegations, and she recommended that the mother see the children every other weekend in a contact centre, not for half the time as she does at the moment. Surely that cannot be the right way forward.
Let me give another case from just last week, of Tommy, a soldier from Coventry. He has a six-year-old daughter who lives with her mother. Court proceedings started last year. There was contact until January of this year, when the mother ended it. There was a court hearing and it all kicked off because CAFCASS could not get its ducks in a row until October of this year, but there is an issue here. Tommy is a soldier and he is about to be deployed to Afghanistan at the end of this month—this week, he will go to Afghanistan.
In January, Tommy applied for a specific order so that he could see his six-year-old daughter and take his leave of her before he went to serve his country—and, possibly, did not come back. He applied to the court. Was the judge at the hearing sympathetic? Did he allow Tommy to take leave of his six-year-old daughter before he went off to war? The judge said that it was unreasonable of him to ask to see his daughter and he should wait until October 2011 before the court would resume proceedings. This is a man who is off to serve his country. I wholeheartedly condemn that judge at Leicester county court for living in an ivory tower and having no idea about the real world and the parents’ feelings about seeing their children.
Let me detail the case of an alienated mother in which the father has the residence order for their two boys. They had 46 hearings between 2000 and 2006 before contact was finally achieved, by which time the damage had been done and the children were so alienated that they had no relationship with their mother. How can that be right? This is the existing law that we have to contend with.
Then there are the blackmail cases. Danny saw his six-year-old daughter every other weekend and on Wednesday evenings. He pays his ex-partner’s mortgage and he pays maintenance through the Child Support Agency, but one Friday before he was due to make a visit, mum said, “I need a new bed; if you don’t buy one, you won’t see your daughter tomorrow.” That was two years ago and he has not seen his daughter since because the judiciary will not enforce the contact orders. The system is stacked against him.
The reason I am putting this Bill before the House is to ensure that there is a clear and enforceable right of the child—a clear presumption in law—that will send a clear message to all those involved, including CAFCASS and all the weak-kneed judges who will not make or enforce any orders. To the parents who have residence orders and should know better, I want us to send the message that this is not about their rights: it is about their children’s rights to grow up knowing both their mother and their father.
I rise to oppose the Bill and declare that I practised in family law as both a solicitor and a barrister for about 35 years. I therefore draw on a number of years’ experience in the courts. I believe that the motion has been made with the best possible intentions, but if the Bill was passed, it would fall foul of the law of unintended consequences.
In all cases in which decisions are made regarding contact arrangements for children, paramount consideration must always be given to the welfare of the child, as required under the Children Act 1989 and article 3 of the UN convention on the rights of the child. Thus far, the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) and I agree. Sustaining meaningful relationships with non-resident parents and other carers such as grandparents, whether male or female, is important for meeting a child’s emotional needs. Thus far we still agree. It is often in the best interests of the child to ensure that contact with both parents and other carers is maintained. Again, we agree.
However, many organisations, including the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, do not support any measures that seek to alter the paramountcy principle defined in the 1989 Act, which ensures that the welfare of children overrides all other considerations. That is a view with which I entirely concur. There is evidence to suggest that the paramountcy principle might be undermined by informal arrangements. Research published by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of court administration shows that courts already operate with an informal presumption of contact despite there being no legislation to require that. HMICA found that this informal arrangement has had the effect of undermining the safety of children who were at risk by focusing courts’ attention on contact rather than on the welfare of the child. More research is needed to assess the extent and impact of the informal use of presumption of contact in family courts.
Fewer than one in 10 cases in which parents divorce or separate comes before a family court for decisions to be made or disputes to be settled regarding contact arrangements involving children, but it is important to appreciate just how regularly the risks to a child’s welfare need to be actively considered by judges when ruling on parental access in family courts. Research for the Ministry of Justice in 2008 on applications for child contact across 11 courts found that the majority of cases included serious welfare concerns about the impact on the child of domestic violence, parental mental health issues, parental drug or alcohol misuse, a parent’s learning disability or the likelihood of a parent abducting the child. Only 37% of applications did not contain any serious welfare concerns which might affect the child. The most frequent welfare concern was domestic violence, which affected 154 of the 308 case files reviewed. Domestic violence is widely recognised as a major child protection issue, with 750,000 children witnessing domestic violence annually.
Victims of domestic violence face greatest risk post-separation, and research shows that children ordered by courts to have contact with a violent parent are likely to be abused themselves and, in the most extreme cases, killed. In 2005 HMICA published a report on the handling of safety in family proceedings. The research found that courts already operate with an informal presumption of contact, even when there is nothing in legislation to require this. The report said:
“The presumption of contact was evident in all the practice sessions observed during this inspection and there was consistent evidence that inappropriate assumptions about contact were made, rather than assessments about whether there was any risk associated with domestic abuse cases.”
More research needs to be carried out by the Ministry of Justice. The forthcoming interim report from the Family Justice Review, likely to be published by the end of this month, may address the matter and its findings should not be pre-empted.
The issue of parental contact was debated in detail in the 2005-06 parliamentary Session during the passage of the Children and Adoption Bill. The resulting Children and Adoption Act 2006 amended the Children Act 1989 to allow greater flexibility for courts facilitating contact and gave courts powers to require parents to undertake a contact activity, such as attending a parenting programme or information session. Following that Bill’s passage, the then Government committed to carrying out further research on parental access issues. Any further consideration to alter the current arrangements should result from evidence-based research and further study of the effects of contact on the welfare of the child.
I will offer one case study, that of Vivian Gamor. In 2007 a judge criticised decisions which allowed a mentally ill woman access to her children, whom she subsequently killed. Vivian Gamor, 29, beat Antoine, 10 years old, and suffocated Kenniece, three years old, in east London, in January 2007. The judge, Peter Rook QC, said that in retrospect Gamor should not have been given free access to the youngsters. The serious case review highlighted many problems. It showed that despite reports of some successful contact visits by Ms Gamor and her plan to have the children live with her, further efforts should have been made to contact the children’s father, with whom they had been living, to assess the situation before deciding whether to support Ms Gamor’s request for further contact. Judge Rook said that
“this terrible tragedy could have been avoided if Gamor had not been allowed unsupervised access and the children’s father’s grave concerns had been given weight.”
Ms Gamor was sectioned for serious mental illness in early 2006 and the children moved in with their father. However, she was later released from care after doctors concluded that she posed no risk to herself or others. Following her release, she was gradually granted supervised access to the children in November 2006, and then, on three occasions, unsupervised access to her children. It was on the third occasion of unsupervised access that Ms Gamor killed her children during the night at her flat, just two weeks after overnight contact had begun.
In conclusion, we should be very wary of diluting the paramountcy principle because it is clear that in any family breakdown, the most vulnerable players are the children. We must continue to have their welfare in mind first and foremost, and nothing that I have heard today or witnessed in the family courts persuades me that a change in the law is required.
Question put (Standing Order No. 23) and agreed to.
That Charlie Elphicke, Penny Mordaunt, Priti Patel, Charlotte Leslie, Kwasi Kwarteng, Margot James, Caroline Dinenage, Chris Heaton-Harris, Tracey Crouch, Nadhim Zahawi, Karen Lumley and Jane Ellison present the Bill.
Charlie Elphicke accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 13 May and to be printed (Bill 174).
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. There are certain politicians who arouse very strong feelings both in favour and against their political initiatives. One such politician is Lord Tebbit. I wonder whether there is any way within the rules of order that we may place on the record our appreciation of his long political career on this his 80th birthday, noting that he has gone from bovver boy to blogger in successive generations.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Although you are impeccably impartial, I know that deep in your heart there still lurks a little Tory. You will know the love and esteem in which Lord Tebbit is held on these Benches. May we not have some suitable memorial erected to him—perhaps a bicycle draped in the Union flag and carved in solid British oak?
The House should hold to the phrase “impeccably impartial”. I say to the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) that the short answer to his question whether that could be done within the rules of order is no. However, he and the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) have found a disorderly but very far from disagreeable way to pay tribute to their illustrious colleague. I think that I can safely say that the remarks of both hon. Gentlemen will be appreciated by the noble Lord’s admirers and detractors in this House, the other place and around the country on the occasion of his 80th birthday.
Ways and Means
Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation
Amendment of the Law
Debate resumed (Order, 28 March).
Question again proposed,
(1) That it is expedient to amend the law with respect to the National Debt and the public revenue and to make further provision in connection with finance.
(2) This Resolution does not extend to the making of any amendment with respect to value added tax so as to provide—
(a) for zero-rating or exempting a supply, acquisition or importation,
(b) for refunding an amount of tax,
(c) for any relief, other than a relief that—
(i) so far as it is applicable to goods, applies to goods of every description, and
(ii) so far as it is applicable to services, applies to services of every description.
I must notify the House that motion 12, which relates to tobacco products duty rates, has not been printed correctly on the Order Paper. The correct version has appeared on the Order Paper on previous days and is available today on a separate sheet. A large number of Members wish to speak in the debate and a time limit of six minutes on Back-Bench speeches has been set. I remind Members not to approach the Chair to inquire where they are on the list. The Chair will do his or her best to accommodate Members in the course of the afternoon, but it will not be assisted by people making inquiries.
In concluding the Budget debate, and recognising what you have just said, Mr Speaker, I will take interventions. However, I will try to make some progress, as many Members wish to get in and many of the points have probably already been made.
I think that it has been an excellent Budget, given the circumstances we find ourselves in. The Chancellor is to be congratulated on focusing on his priorities, which he stated clearly, for rebuilding the shattered economy that we inherited. Let me remind the House that when Labour came to power in 1997 they received a golden economic inheritance, the like of which few Governments since the war have received, which gave them money to spend. Despite that, the painful scar of youth unemployment hardly changed, some 4.5 million were stuck on out-of-work benefits, 1.4 million had never worked at all and we had the largest structural deficit of any G7 economy. Intriguingly, the worst thing is that that point was reached even before the recession had started.
After that, things just got a whole lot worse: 5 million on out-of-work benefits; working-age poverty up; youth unemployment at a record high; more children in workless households than the rest of the European Union; and the largest budget deficit in the UK’s post-war history, of more than £150 billion. That deficit is for one year, piling on top of the outstanding debt mountain, and £120 million is spent on interest payments alone—every single day. There was even talk of an International Monetary Fund bail-out, bringing alive memories of the dark years of the late 1970s—and, of course, the House knows who was in power then.
Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that two thirds of the deficit—£84 billion—was due to the financial crisis, and that the Budget’s overall fiscal tightening is £98 billion? Does he not agree that he is going too far, too fast, savaging whole communities, choking growth with cuts and stoking up inflation with VAT? Is that not completely wrong? That is why so many people marched against it.
That gives me an opportunity to put the shadow Chancellor right. He said in one of the Budget debates last week that the structural deficit was low as we entered the recession. We had the highest structural deficit in the whole developed world, and intriguingly he is in denial about that, so whether he talks about debt or deficits, in reality as we entered the recession, the economy had been badly run, leaving us with a record structural deficit.
Importantly, what has been Labour’s response as a result of that? Acceptance that it had lost control; perhaps even a little humility? Not a bit of it. Instead, we have seen a desperate scramble to find almost anybody else to blame for the problems, and it appears, even today, no attempt to make any amends publicly. In the Labour playbook, the previous Government were just innocent bystanders in somebody else’s evil game. Poor old Britain. Apparently, we were just minding our own business when along came some nasty industrialists and bankers who ganged up on us in some international capitalist conspiracy. It is like some ghastly, poor script. It really does read like some really poor script from an Austin Powers movie, and I am pretty sure that any minute now the shadow Chancellor is going to try to blame Dr Evil and bring him into the script as well.