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Topical Questions

Volume 528: debated on Tuesday 17 May 2011

I shall begin with a topical statement. On 26 April, I attended a Council of Europe ministerial conference in Turkey on the future of the European Court of Human Rights. I was clear that the Court must focus on truly important cases and have proper regard to the judgment of national Parliaments and courts. I met a number of Ministers from other member states and senior figures from the Council of Europe and the Court who were receptive to this view.

In a recent and novel ruling, a man convicted of robbery defeated a deportation order on human rights grounds because he had a girlfriend—a relationship that the court described as that of a courting couple and no more. Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider amending the Human Rights Act 1998 and the human rights clause in the UK Borders Act 2007 to prevent this kind of judicial legislation under article 8 of the European convention?

I have not seen that case, but I agree that it sounds like a rather sweeping interpretation of the right to family life, which is what the European convention confirms. If my hon. Friend will let me have the details, I will inquire into the case to see how it reached such a startling conclusion. It is possible that the report that he read, in whichever newspaper he read it, did not bear a very close resemblance to what actually occurred.

The Lord Chancellor has announced plans—this was raised by the previous Lord Chancellor—to reduce by half the sentence for an offender if he or she pleads guilty. In a remarkably flippant response, his junior Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), asked us to pause and reflect on the thoughts and views of a victim of rape. It is not only Labour MPs who think this is nonsense, nor only judges or victims groups: the Lord Chancellor’s own Commissioner for Victims and Witnesses says that it is bonkers. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman reconsider?

We are going to give the outcome of our consultation shortly, but I think that that proposal is likely to survive. The fact is that we have always had a reduced tariff for early guilty pleas in this country. It always startles the public when they discover that this has underlined our sentencing policy for many years. It is true that we are thinking of putting up the reduction to a half. It makes an enormous difference to costs, police time and the involvement of unnecessary preparations for trial if everybody leaves guilty pleas to the last possible moment. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary rightly said, victims and witnesses are put through an ordeal if they are preparing for a trial where they expect to be accused of lying because the man has not been induced to plead at an early enough stage. Those are the considerations that lay behind this proposal.

T2. Last month, I visited Kirklees restorative justice team, who, in Kirklees alone, need to keep only two offenders out of prison for a year to cover the whole of their budget. However, does the Minister agree that probably one of the most impressive elements of restorative justice is the immeasurable improvement in victims’ perceptions? (55692)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The evidence from Northern Ireland, where a statutory form of restorative justice has been working positively in the youth sector, shows 85% levels of victim satisfaction. The data are getting better regarding the effect of restorative justice on the rehabilitation of offenders, and appear to show at least a 14% improvement if we use it. That is a pretty convincing case for the proper use of restorative justice, quite apart from the financial benefits that my hon. Friend mentioned.

T3. The Secretary of State will be well aware of the tragic loss of five young lives on the secure prison estate in recent months. Will he outline what work he and his officials are undertaking to look into those tragic deaths, and what measures he intends to put in place to prevent future occurrences? (55693)

We have had an unfortunate instance, but we will obviously investigate each of those tragic cases. Unfortunately, there are always extremely vulnerable people in young offender institutions, and steps have to be taken to protect them against self-harm. I have no reason to believe that anything has changed significantly that connects these deaths. I assure the hon. Gentleman that each and every one of them will be carefully considered to see whether anything went wrong or whether something can be improved.

T4. Does the Secretary of State share my concern and that of my constituents that prisoners are not spending their time inside constructively? Will any future Bill address that issue by ensuring that prisoners spend more time at work than in their cells? (55694)

As I explained earlier, I feel that concern strongly. The matter does not so much require legislation as sensible organisation, change in the structure of Prison Industries, and more leeway for governors to arrange work when there is a sensible opportunity to do so. A significant change in the culture of parts of the Prison Service would add to the good work that goes on at the moment, which is quite rare and is scattered across the prison estate. I agree with my hon. Friend that that is an important aim.

T6. Earlier this month, the foetal anti-convulsant litigation against Sanofi Aventis was discontinued after six years’ preparation. The claimants and their families have been denied their day in court because legal aid funding was withdrawn at the last moment. Will the Minister say what funding arrangements will be available for multi-party actions in future so that such families are not denied access to justice? (55696)

The funding of clinical negligence cases in this country is about 50:50 between legal aid and conditional fee arrangements—in other words, private funding. We believe that when people have the opportunity of private funding, they should take that option. In looking at our proposals for reviewing privately funded litigation, we are taking clinical negligence cases on board and are moulding our proposals to help those who want to take such cases.

The feeling has been expressed by several sources in the two prisons in my constituency that former members of the armed services are not looked on favourably in Prison Service recruitment. Will the Minister reassure me that that is not the case?

It will come as no surprise to my hon. Friend, given our mutual background, that I would regard such discrimination against former members of the armed services as wholly unacceptable. If prison officers can produce evidence for that, I would be extremely interested to receive it.

T8. The Crime and Security Act 2010 received Royal Assent more than a year ago. How much longer will victims of overseas terrorism have to wait to receive their compensation? Those victims include Will Pike, who will spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, following injuries sustained in the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008. (55698)

I saw Will Pike and his father last week along with another representative of victims of terrorism overseas. We are bringing forward proposals on that, and will do so when we bring forward comprehensive proposals on victims, witnesses and criminal injuries compensation.

T7. Does the Minister agree that justice is best dispensed through a network of local courts, such as that at Lowestoft in my constituency? Will he provide an assurance that, following the recent round of closures, there are no plans for further rationalisation and that every effort will be made to sustain the existing network of magistrates courts? (55697)

I believe that justice is best dispensed through a network of courts that is efficient and well-utilised, and that provides the facilities that are expected of a modern courts system, particularly for victims and witnesses. I confirm that there are no current plans for further rationalisation.

We are considering our policy in the light of the debate and the result in the House of Lords. I have been discussing the matter with various interest groups, various Members of another place, and one or two Members of this House. Some of the lobbyists attribute to the chief coroner powers to tackle all kinds of failings in the system that the legislation never gave him or her. We could deliver some of the substantial changes that need to be made to the coroner system rather more quickly by distributing the functions elsewhere, rather than by creating unnecessarily a whole new office. I am considering the arguments. We ought to concentrate on what outcomes we are trying to produce, rather than argue about structures and new institutions.

Has the Secretary of State read the research commissioned by Lord Ashcroft and conducted by Populus called “Crime, Punishment & The People—Public opinion and the criminal justice debate”? If he has read the report, which I commend to him, will he confirm that its findings, which will make sobering reading for him, will be part of the proposals on sentencing?

I shall look at the report to see whether it is the source of my hon. Friend’s views on the subject of crime and punishment, which he frequently gives, and then I will try to find some counter-reading to recommend to him. I will try to study it if I get the chance.

The purpose of sentencing in this country is to punish offenders effectively and proportionately for what they have done. The purpose that I intend to add to that more clearly is to try to reduce the number who simply offend again and come back into the system. If we cut reoffending, it will mean fewer crimes and fewer victims, and we will make a positive contribution instead of recycling the same old people through the same old not very well functioning system.

Will the Secretary of State take a look at the case of Shrien Dewani, a British citizen who faces extradition to South Africa? He has shown me convincing evidence that he will not face a fair trial there. Can we reconsider extraditing that citizen?

That is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who I am sure will be interested in considering the case.

T10. The Home Secretary recently announced her intention for police to do 80% of charging. I can see how that is to the benefit of the police, but has the Justice Secretary had any discussions about how we can ensure that it is not to the disbenefit of justice? (55700)

That too is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and the question should be addressed to the Home Office first.

Legal aid to take family cases to court will in future be available only when domestic violence is an issue. Otherwise, couples will be expected to go to mediation. However, mediation may not be appropriate where there is a high degree of conflict, even when domestic violence is absent. What consideration is the Minister giving to how such cases will work after legal aid is removed?

We are studying that issue very carefully through the consultation. We believe that mediation, as a cheaper, quicker and less stressful alternative, is normally the best way to go, but there will be circumstances in which it is not appropriate, domestic violence being one of them. We are considering the definition of domestic violence carefully.

Prisoners who reoffend cost the UK economy £10 billion a year. Is not the real solution for the Secretary of State to continue his excellent record as a public service reformer by incentivising private companies to rehabilitate prisoners and letting them earn a profit when they cut reoffending rates?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has worked with me on public service reform in the past. I am glad he shares our objective because, as he says, it saves the economy substantial amounts and reduces the number of victims and further crimes if a higher proportion of those who finish their sentence do not go on to reoffend and get convicted again. The approach that we are adopting to improving the reoffending reduction programmes, which is to pay by results and make it quite clear that charitable and ethical investors can get a return on their capital if they succeed in delivering that objective, is a valuable and innovative way of trying to achieve real results rather than strive needlessly.

Mr Dean, a constituent of mine, is still waiting after three years for full payment of a compensation award from a persistent offender. What action are the Government taking, and what action will they take, against persistent non-payment of compensation awards by persistent offenders?

I am afraid that we inherited a criminal injuries compensation scheme that was £765 million in debt. That is why we have inadequate funds to pay compensation, and why the payment of compensation in many cases has, regrettably, been delayed. We are trying to repair a system that was bust when we inherited it.

Recently in my constituency, a convicted sex offender who was automatically released at the halfway point of his sentence reoffended in the most appalling way. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet me to discuss both automatic release for predatory child sex offenders, and whether it is appropriate to house such individuals close to young families, schools, a playground and a park?

I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the individual circumstances of that case. On the face of it, that situation should not have been enabled to happen. There should have been a sensible degree of risk assessment and a proper placement of the individual concerned. I am therefore only too happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the details of that case.