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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 530: debated on Tuesday 28 June 2011


The Secretary of State was asked—

Immigration Tribunals

1. What steps he is taking to reduce the sums spent from the public purse on repeated appeals in immigration tribunals. (62243)

11. What steps he is taking to reduce the sums spent from the public purse on repeated appeals in immigration tribunals. (62255)

As announced in our response to the consultation “Reform of Legal Aid in England and Wales”, published on 21 June, we are removing most immigration cases, including appeals, from the scope of legal aid. We are also removing legal aid for certain repeat judicial reviews in immigration and asylum cases, subject to certain exceptions. We expect those measures to save more than £20 million a year. The Government have also consulted on introducing fees for appeals to the immigration and asylum chamber of the tribunal.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Many of my constituents are becoming increasingly exasperated at the fact that some solicitors seem to exploit changes in circumstances and decisions, such as those on article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998, simply to string out cases for as long as possible. What is he doing to ensure that legal aid is spent appropriately? What conversations has he had with the Immigration Minister on the reform of the immigration decision process?

I can confirm that we are removing legal aid from most immigration cases. That will mean that the taxpayer is no longer funding those cases, which we think are relatively low priority. My hon. Friend has also spoken about cross-departmental co-operation, and we have had a number of discussions with the Home Office about our legal aid proposals, which go in the same direction as its proposals—for example, on making changes to the rules on how relatives of migrants are allowed to come into the UK. That close working will continue.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the coalition Government inherited an immigration appeals process that is slow, unwieldy and routinely abused by applicants and their legal advisers? Does he further agree that the system needs a root-and-branch overhaul to make it fit for function?

A number of the consultations did address this issue, including those with the judges, so we are acting to contain an avenue for abuse which my hon. Friend identifies. The Government intend to remove legal aid for immigration and asylum judicial reviews, where there has been an appeal or judicial review to a tribunal or court on the same issue or a substantially similar issue within a period of one year, as well as for judicial reviews challenging removal directions, subject to certain exceptions.

As we are talking about immigration appeals and judicial reviews, what message does it send out to the law-abiding member of the public when someone such as Phillip Machemedze, that appalling Zimbabwean who was responsible for torturing, killing and doing dreadful things in Zimbabwe, is told by a judge that he cannot be sent back because he might be tortured or his human rights might be affected? Surely immigration and asylum is about people who have behaved well and are running away from tyranny, and not about people who are part of that tyranny.

Where human rights are concerned and where someone risks being terrorised in their country of origin—I am not saying that it is right or wrong that they should go back—it is right that they receive legal aid to defend their interests.

Foreign National Prisoners

2. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on steps to remove foreign national prisoners. (62244)

Home Office and Ministry of Justice Ministers have frequently discussed the issue of foreign national prisoners, and our officials are in regular contact. The removal of foreign national prisoners and offenders awaiting deportation is a mutual priority.

The Department says that it wants to reduce the prison population. I am dealing with a case where a long prison sentence was rightly given, the tariff has been reached and the UK Border Agency is trying to deport the man, but the Minister is letting the Parole Board block this. What benefit is there to the British taxpayer or the safety of the British public in keeping him here? Can we have some joined-up government on this?

I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that this is the kind of thing we want to address, and I understand that it is being addressed in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. We wish to improve our performance on the removal of prisoners. I should point that out that more than 5,000 foreign national prisoners were removed last year. We intend to continue to take every possible step both to reduce the foreign national prisoner population and to remove prisoners from this country.

One of the problems with removing convicted foreign prisoners is an interpretation put by the courts on their rights, such as their right to a family life—they are absolute, rather than conditional. What steps are the Government taking to recognise in law that people have rights which can be qualified by their own bad behaviour?

I am aware of my hon. Friend’s concern and that of the House about this issue and about whether it is appropriate in such circumstances that the removal of offenders is being blocked. I hope that the commission we have announced on the Human Rights Act 1998 will pay the closest possible attention to the operation of the human rights legislation in such cases, because it is in the public interest that we remove foreign national prisoners who have forfeited their right to remain in this country.

Can the Minister say how many British nationals are held in foreign prisons, whether he expects them to be repatriated and, if so, what provision has been made in the prison estate to accommodate them?

I understand from my hon. Friend the prisons Minister that the number is about 2,000. The EU prisoner transfer agreement will come into force in December and will alleviate the position as regards the number of foreign national prisoners in our jails. The principle should be that if someone has committed a serious crime in this country, they cannot expect to remain at the end of their sentence. We seek the removal of prisoners in such circumstances.

It is laudable that the total number of foreign nationals in prison has gone down since Labour left office from 11,000 to 10,000, but does the Minister agree that that is 10,000 too many? Is it not time we sent the whole lot of them home?

I agree with my hon. Friend that we want to make greater progress and that is why we have set out provisions in the sentencing Bill on, for example, conditional cautions, which will be available as an alternative disposal to remove foreign national prisoners in some circumstances if they agree not to return for a period of time. The question of whether foreign national prisoners could serve their sentences abroad relies on the consent of other countries. We are attempting to negotiate more agreements, but even if we no longer need the consent of the offender, we cannot remove them without the consent of the country that receives them.


3. If he will take steps to ensure that judges and magistrates are informed of incidents of reoffending of each offender they have sentenced. (62245)

We have begun work to improve access to local criminal justice statistics. For example, criminal justice and sentencing statistics are now broken down to court level and are available online. In terms of individuals, pre-sentence reports provide the court with details of a defendant’s offending history and compliance with any previous sentences.

That is not quite what I am after. Although it is important to have judicial independence, surely it is not beyond the wit of the Department that each judge and each magistrate should be given an annual report card on the effectiveness of their sentencing decisions. If they have given out a string of sentences and the convicts have reoffended regularly, that judge or magistrate will know that something is wrong with their approach.

As I said, we have begun work, and that is certainly an interesting suggestion. A massive amount of data would be involved in providing every judge and magistrate with full information about everybody they had ever sentenced, but I agree that we should consider the feasibility of doing so. I gather that someone in Seattle advocates that and has given interesting evidence to the Select Committee on Justice.

There is considerable evidence that judges do not know enough about what happens once they sentence prisoners and those sentences have been disposed of. Will the Justice Secretary do what he can to increase the experience obtained by judges of those disposals and will he ask the Sentencing Council to advise, with a particular focus on what works in preventing offending and reoffending?

The Sentencing Council is already under a duty to provide information about the effectiveness of sentencing practice and I am sure that it supplements that advice and information in every possible way. As I have said to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), we will certainly consider the feasibility of doing such a thing, as it would be valuable, but we are talking about a vast number of cases and not every judge will find it possible to find out exactly what happened in later years to everybody who appeared before him.

Violent Offences

4. What steps he plans to take to protect the public from persons convicted of violent offences. (62246)

We have made it clear that we are committed to retaining the statutory multi-agency public protection arrangements, known as MAPPA. Within MAPPA, the police, prison and probation services are required to work together to manage known violent and other dangerous offenders and so protect the public, including previous victims.

I hope that the Minister agrees that the primary purpose of custodial sentencing must be public protection. Does he accept that the greater use of mandatory sentencing runs the risk of judges not being able to use their discretion to ensure that the public are protected in the long run?

The only element of mandatory sentencing we are contemplating relates to knife crime, so that it is absolutely clear that this House sends a very clear message on that. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will think it appropriate that people spend six months in prison when they threaten people with a knife.

Chief Coroner

5. What representations he has received on his proposals to transfer functions from the chief coroner. (62247)

12. Which organisations his Department consulted on its decision not to establish the office of chief coroner. (62256)

I have discussed our proposals with a number of interested parties, including peers, MPs and civil society groups such as Inquest and the Royal British Legion. We have, where possible, sought to take into account those discussions in developing the proposals announced on 14 June to transfer a number of the functions of the chief coroner while retaining the office on the statute book. We believe that represents the fastest and most efficient way of delivering reform of the coronial system, although we accept that some stakeholders would prefer us to proceed with full implementation of the office of the chief coroner.

I am still concerned about how, without the office of the chief coroner, we are going to ensure that there is greater consistency in the recording of verdicts, because having that consistency would mean that information was available that provided research capability and informed service development, so that we could prevent future deaths.

I have had a number of discussions with the hon. Lady on a number of matters appertaining to coroners and chief coroners and I know that she takes a great interest in this area. The new arrangements we announced on 14 June, coupled with the draft charter for the coroner service, which we published for consultation on 19 May, will deliver proper oversight of the non-judicial aspects of the coroner system and will help to drive up standards of service across England and Wales. The national charter, with its uniform expectations of what those coming into contact with the system should expect, will be key in helping to ensure a greater level of consistency. At the same time, a new ministerial board will be able to consider national statistics gathered from across the coroner service and to consider what action could be taken to address any shortcomings.

I wonder whether the Minister has spoken to Cardiac Risk in the Young, which believes that replacing the chief coroner’s office with a ministerial board will not deliver the improvements necessary for the 21st century.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the absolute priority as far as we were concerned was to put the reforms in the legislation into practice but in a way that was not going to incur the cost that I am afraid we cannot afford at the current time. That is what I believe our proposals will do.

Following the Secretary of State’s most recent announcement in June, Chris Simpkins, director general of the Royal British Legion, has said:

“Ensuring there’s a functioning Chief Coroner is the least we can do to honour the ultimate sacrifice made by our Armed Forces and to ease the pain those left behind will always feel.”

Helen Shaw, co-director of Inquest, has said that instead of having a chief coroner,

“the government proposes to dismantle the office of the Chief Coroner and add yet another layer to the current, fragmented structure where lines of accountability are opaque and clear leadership is absent.”

How many organisations that, unlike the ministerial team, actually know what they are talking about will the Secretary of State ignore? As he is in the mood to do U-turns, will he do the right thing and leave the chief coroner out of the Public Bodies Bill?

If the hon. Gentleman looks at the RBL manifesto he will see that we are meeting most of its requests for reform without having a chief coroner. If we were simply leaving the office on the statute book and not implementing any changes, I would agree with that claim. However, regulations about training for coroners, including for service personnel cases, will be possible for the first time under our proposals. We will be implementing powers to transfer cases more easily within England and Wales—and for the first time to Scotland—when required for cases involving the deaths of service personnel abroad. Those are real and significant improvements to the system that will directly improve the experience of service personnel families who come into contact with the coroner system.

One of the difficulties with these long answers is that Ministers are reading out great screeds that have been written for them. On the whole, it is better to keep that for the long winter evenings.

Rehabilitation Revolution Green Paper

6. What progress has been made on the proposals in his Department’s rehabilitation revolution Green Paper. (62248)

The Government published our response to the Green Paper last week and I made a statement to the House about it. We have also introduced the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill to give effect to proposals that require primary legislation. We will debate the Second Reading of that Bill tomorrow.

We need to encourage charities and social enterprises to invest in helping offenders and ex-offenders with their rehabilitation. In addition to payment by results, could my right hon. and learned Friend consider introducing Lord Chancellor’s awards for those charities, non-governmental organisations and social enterprises that are among the best at helping to support rehabilitation and prevent reoffending?

We all wish to give support to the many people who, through voluntary or charitable activity, try to help society as a whole by tackling the reoffending and rehabilitation problems of ex-offenders, so I shall certainly consider my hon. Friend’s interesting suggestion. I would love to give Lord Chancellor’s awards to a large number of worthy people, but unfortunately, the financial crisis that the Government have inherited does not enable me to give an instant response to his idea.

Surely the Secretary of State has gone backwards. He has done a U-turn on early guilty pleas; he is reviewing his review on indeterminate imprisonment for public protection; and he has made massive cuts to probation services. I have had letters from probation services, and in Gloucestershire the cut is 7.9%, in West Yorkshire, it is 9.8%, and in Kent, it is a staggering 13.6% this year. How can we have a rehabilitation revolution if there are no community resources?

As the hon. Lady knows, we are debating the Bill tomorrow, which is enormous—I apologise for that—and has huge implications, but we are having to reform fundamentally a criminal justice system that does not help society as it should, because it does not cut reoffending. We are having to reform on a very wide scale a legal aid and civil justice system that encourages unnecessary litigation and is not particularly user-friendly. We have taken over a mess, and we are going in for massive reform of it. We may have changed quite a lot of proposals in light of consultation, but the underlying need for a balanced package of radical reform is certainly there, and we will tackle it.

According to the Ministry of Justice, the number of people released from prison after serving an indeterminate sentence was 206 at the end of last year. The number who have reoffended since they were released is just 11—a reoffending rate of 5%. The Lord Chancellor says that what is most important to him in the criminal justice system is reoffending rates, so why on earth does he want to scrap the single part of the criminal justice system that is best at reducing reoffending?

About 200 people have been released, but 6,000 are in prison serving indeterminate sentences, and we are adding about 80 a month. They are released only when they can demonstrate to the Parole Board that they are a minimal risk to society—that is the present test—but in a prison cell they find it almost impossible to satisfy that test, so they are in a Catch-22 situation. We need long, determinate sentences for serious criminals; that is the way that the criminal justice system works. The experiment introduced by the previous Government has most undoubtedly failed; we will have one in 10 of the prison population serving indefinite sentences if we do not find a better alternative soon.

May I welcome the thrust of the Green Paper, and ask the Lord Chancellor or his officials to meet User Voice, a group that consists of ex-offenders who are very keen to work with the Ministry of Justice, and to work with current offenders to stop them taking a path of crime?

I am sure that I can arrange for one of the team to have a meeting with that interesting organisation. A large number of ex-offenders—not too many, but some—do very valuable work in stopping other people making the mistakes that they made. The social impact bond financing the payment-by-results contract that we have with Peterborough prison is largely delivered by an organisation called St Giles Trust, which has an excellent record of using ex-offenders as mentors. Anything that we can do to encourage that, where there are suitable ex-offenders who really are able to give valuable advice, would certainly be welcomed.

A national inquiry, “Community or Custody?”, commissioned by Make Justice Work, has highlighted the success that effective alternatives to custody can have in tackling reoffending and diverting petty criminals from a life of crime. Does the Secretary of State expect his proposals to lead to a reduction in the number of offenders serving short-term prison sentences for non-violent offences and a rise in the number of those involved in tough community sentence programmes?

We need the right sentence for the individual circumstances of each offender. I have never suggested that we get rid of all short-term sentences of imprisonment because sometimes magistrates and others have absolutely no alternative, but we are interested in strengthening community punishments and giving more confidence to magistrates and the public that those can have a genuine effect. We are proposing to strengthen the community payback scheme, which is unpaid work. Improving the extent to which tagging and curfews are available is one part of trying to make sure that, where they are likely to work, non-custodial community sentences are employed with some confidence by the courts concerned.

Civil Litigation Reform

7. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on group action litigation against multinational corporations of his proposals for reform to civil litigation. (62250)

The Government introduced the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill on 21 June. The Bill contains provisions to take forward a fundamental reform of no win, no fee conditional fee agreements, as recommended by Lord Justice Jackson. I believe that strong claims, including those against multinational corporations, could still be brought under conditional fee agreements, or CFAs. The Government are also proposing the use of damages-based agreements, or DBAs, in all civil litigation, which might be particularly suited to funding group action litigation.

An array of human rights experts, including several non-governmental organisations, human rights lawyers and the UN special representative on business and human rights, have all criticised the Government’s reforms of civil litigation. On what basis can the Minister assure the House that his proposals to reform civil litigation will not impact negatively on access to justice for victims of human rights abuse?

I have been in correspondence with many of the people whom the hon. Lady mentions, and I repeat that the Government believe that it will still be possible to bring claims against multinational companies once our reforms are implemented.

Compensation Claims

The Government introduced the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill on 21 June. The Bill contains provisions to take forward a fundamental reform of no win, no fee conditional fee agreements, as recommended by Lord Justice Jackson. These changes will encourage claimants to take an interest in the costs being incurred on their behalf, and will deter frivolous or unmeritorious claims from progressing to court.

Does the Minister believe that implementing Lord Justice Jackson’s proposals will clamp down on bloated compensation payments, given that in the past some solicitors have profited from cherry-picking claims and are claiming high success fees from defendants, particularly public authorities?

My hon. Friend is right to raise the position of public-funded authorities such as the NHS Litigation Authority and local councils, which currently have to pay substantial additional legal costs to conditional fee agreement claimants. We believe that our proposals will ameliorate that position.

But will the Minister acknowledge that what is in the Bill that comes before the House tomorrow implements only part of Lord Justice Jackson’s recommendations; that, critically, the Minister has failed in that legislation to tackle at all the scandal of referral fees paid all the way along the chain, from the informant who passes on individuals’ details up the line to insurance companies, where it is then also paid by the insurance companies; and that this scandal will continue, notwithstanding any changes to be introduced in the structure of ownership of solicitors firms, until he and his colleagues implement in full Lord Justice Jackson’s recommendations, which are to abandon and outlaw referral fees altogether?

It was Labour who brought in the ability to recover success fees and ATE—after the event—insurance premiums in 1999. This became the key mechanism of the rotten compensation culture, of which referral fees are a symptom. Claimant costs represented 56% of damages in 1999, but by 2010 they represented 142% of damages—and yes, we are looking at referral fees in the context of the reforms as a whole.

Why does the Minister not merely look at referral fees, but give us a clear commitment that that outrage will be removed under the Bill?

The Legal Services Board reported on that only a matter of weeks ago. We are looking at its recommendations, which go much further than a ban and, in particular, deal with transparency, which was what the Select Committee on Transport focused on. We will look carefully at all these issues.

Legal Aid (Domestic Violence)

9. What consideration he has given to those responses to his Department’s consultation on legal aid that raised concerns about his Department’s definition of domestic violence. (62252)

We published the Government’s response to the consultation on 21 June. Legal aid will remain available for applications for protective injunctions, as at present. However, for disputes about children or finance following the breakdown of a relationship, legal aid will be available for victims of domestic violence where there is objective evidence of the need for protection.

Will the Minister give an assurance that, in cases where domestic violence has been a factor in family breakdown, all other associated costs incurred in bringing about a resolution will be covered by legal aid?

For family matters, including disputes about finance or children arising from the breakdown of a relationship, legal aid will be available for victims of domestic violence where there is evidence of a need for protection. Of course, we will also provide civil legal aid for victims of domestic violence to apply for protective injunctions, such as non-molestation orders.

It is reassuring that victims of domestic violence will remain eligible for legal aid under the changes, but the evidence is not always clear, because many victims will not report domestic violence to the police. What sort of evidence is the Minister expecting to see in order for people to qualify for legal aid?

We listened to the concerns expressed in the consultation that our criteria for evidence of domestic violence were too narrow and we have expanded them. The key issue is that the triggers must be objective.

In the light of the ongoing debate on this matter, does the Minister share the concerns expressed by the Westminster Public Accounts Committee about the dilution of the quality of Crown representation in all these cases, or does he take the view of the Northern Ireland Audit Office, which states that there is a lack of transparency in how the fees are calculated for taking on such cases?

We are certainly concerned about the transparency of fees and how they are calculated. We are looking at this very carefully as part of our overall reform of legal aid, particularly for the Legal Services Commission.

Women are often at risk of domestic violence when relationships break down, even when there is no previous history of it. According to the Association of Chief Police Officers, attempts to end a relationship are strongly linked to partner homicide and a higher risk of physical violence and sexual assault. Now no legal aid is proposed for divorce or child custody cases, and the definition of domestic violence is still very narrow and requires a history of complaints. How will the Minister ensure the safety of women now that they have to negotiate face to face with potentially violent partners?

I think the hon. Gentleman misunderstands the present system. At the moment, perpetrators rarely receive legal aid; it is the victims of domestic violence who receive it. That means that in the current system the victims face the perpetrators of the crime. The reality is that on a day-to-day basis the judiciary are having to deal with this and have set procedures that they go through to make the process as good as possible for the victims.

Compensation Agreements

10. What the reason is for the time taken to implement agreements on the compensation of victims of terrorism overseas. (62253)

We are examining this issue in tandem with the domestic criminal injuries scheme and will publish our proposals on victims in the coming weeks.

I thank the Minister for his response. Has he made an assessment of how other countries, such as France and Australia, have been able to implement promptly the agreements on compensation for such victims outwith their natural boundaries?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the House decided when we passed the Crime and Security Act 2010 that it was likely that the forward-looking scheme would relate to the criminal injuries compensation scheme. We are coming forward with proposals on the criminal injuries compensation scheme and are taking these things in tandem.

Will the Minister give the House an assurance that any such ex gratia payments will regard Foreign Office advice as having been followed at the time of the terrorism incident?

My hon. Friend is correct to say that that was a factor alluded to during the passage of the 2010 Act. For the precise details of the scheme she is talking about, which would apply retrospectively, I am afraid that she will have to wait until we come forward with our proposals in due course.

Can the Minister confirm that, whatever scheme he brings forward, it will operate from January 2010, as proposed by the Act that I took through the House on behalf of the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office 18 months ago?

What is in the Act is that date, as I understand it, and the forward-looking scheme will operate from there. If it is not on the face of the Act, it was the clear statement of the Government at the time, and the policy of the then Opposition was to support it, so I can confirm that it would be our intention for any forward-looking scheme to deal with victims from that time.

Remand in Custody

14. Which organisations his Department has consulted on future procedures for remanding defendants in custody. (62258)

More than 1,200 individuals and organisations contributed to the consultation on the Green Paper, “Breaking the Cycle: Effective Punishment, Rehabilitation and Sentencing of Offenders”. Numerous criminal justice organisations commented on the remand proposals in the Green Paper, both in relation to restricting the availability of remand in custody and to new arrangements for defendants under 18. The latter were also discussed in a series of consultation events that the Youth Justice Board undertook following publication.

What does the Minister say to the senior judges who rightly point out that it is wrong to link decisions on remand with the eventual sentence received?

What the hon. Gentleman has to understand is that in magistrates courts 10,098 people were remanded into custody, a very substantial number of whom did not receive a custodial sentence, so we have to deal with that reality.

We believe that victims and witnesses should be at the heart of our justice system, and that they are crucial to its effective functioning. Victims groups have expressed alarm about the proposals in clause 73 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, and there is a concern that judges will be forced to prejudge cases prematurely, which could lead to the remanding on bail of people—offenders—who might interfere with witnesses, and could reoffend or fail to attend court. The Commissioner for Victims and Witnesses is against the plans as well. Does the Minister understand that the proposal could deter witnesses and victims from coming forward?

No. What the shadow Secretary of State needs to understand is that if there is any doubt about the issue, it will be up to the judge or the magistrate to make the appropriate decision on remand. The only factor that will be considered is whether imprisonment is at all likely in a particular case. If those other factors are in play, they will come into effect. We have listened during the consultation, and even if those other factors are not present, it will still be possible to remand in custody people in domestic violence cases.

It is not just the shadow Justice Secretary who does not understand the proposals: the Council of Her Majesty’s Circuit Judges is “wholly opposed” to them, and the Sentencing Guidelines Council, the Magistrates’ Association, the senior presiding judge of England and Wales and the vice-president of the Queen’s bench division have all responded to the consultation and are against them. The Minister has given no evidence to the House to justify the change other than the cost savings, involving 1,400 prison places and £40 million, so will he take this opportunity to explain why he is limiting judges’ and magistrates’ discretion?

Because we need to restrict the availability of custodial sentences on remand when there is no real prospect of the defendant being sentenced to imprisonment if convicted—[Interruption.] Thousands of people who are remanded in custody and then convicted do not receive a custodial sentence—and in the case of those whom magistrates remand, the numbers are very significant indeed.

Parliamentary Privilege

15. What recent representations he has received on the breach of court orders by those entitled to assert parliamentary privilege. (62259)

We have received correspondence from a number of hon. Members on behalf of their constituents, raising issues relating to privacy and the use of anonymity injunctions and super-injunctions. In some instances this has included reference to statements made in Parliament concerning the identity of individuals who have obtained injunctions.

I am grateful to the Lord Chancellor for that answer. He will share my concerns, and those expressed by the Lord Chief Justice, at the recent breaches of court orders by Members of this House, and indeed Members of the other place. The rule of law and the separation of powers require that we observe the self-denying ordinances to which we are subject, so may I ask whether my right hon. and learned Friend intends to have any discussions with the Speakers of both Houses on the subject, and if so, what the nature of those discussions will be?

This is obviously a point of concern. I agree that essentially it should be a matter for both Houses of Parliament, and Members of both Houses, to address themselves. As a parliamentarian as well as a member of the Government, I defend absolutely the rules of parliamentary privilege, but we have to consider whether it is a proper use of parliamentary privilege to defy court orders. I hope that the matter will be urgently addressed, as we all have to come to some conclusions on it.

Sentencing Proposals

16. What recent representations he has received on his proposal to reduce sentences for certain offences for offenders who enter an early guilty plea. (62260)

The proposal to increase to 50% the maximum sentence discount for a guilty plea at the first opportunity produced numerous responses when it was canvassed in the Green Paper “Breaking the Cycle”. The majority of those who commented were not in favour, including the judiciary, whose opposition was especially influential in persuading me that we should not proceed.

Can the Secretary of State assure the House that when a defendant pleads guilty at the last minute because he has been presented with overwhelming evidence against him, judges will still have discretion not to give him the maximum statutory sentencing discount of 33%?

I am glad to say that the guidelines have always said that, and it was never my intention to propose any change. The guidance on sentence reductions for guilty pleas recommends that a last-minute plea should attract no more than a 10% discount. It also says that where the prosecution case is overwhelming, even an early plea should receive less than the maximum, and recommends 20%. That is obviously a sensible rule. There is some discount because we are still saving the victim and witnesses the ordeal of going into the witness box, but the current one third, let alone 50%, is obviously far too generous for someone caught red-handed.

If the Justice Secretary’s aim is to spare the victim, why does he not turn things round and insist on an additional sentence for offenders who waste court time in the face of overwhelming evidence and subject victims to further hurt by their behaviour in court?

It is simply a result of the culture of the last 50 years, at least, that this has always been described as a “discount” for a guilty plea. Most of the general public do not appreciate that a discount applies. If members of the public are asked whether a discount on the sentence should be given for someone who pleads guilty early, they say no. But if they are asked, “Should someone who puts the victim through the ordeal of the witness box get a longer sentence than someone who pleads guilty?” they answer yes. Because we could not find a resolution to the risk of some of the more serious offences attracting too short a period in custody, and judicial discretion could not be devised to cover that, we have now decided to stick with the long-standing process whereby a one-third discount is available for an early guilty plea.


The Government set out their radical plans to reduce reoffending in response to the “Breaking the Cycle” consultation. We will pay by results to incentivise rehabilitation programmes that successfully prevent offenders from returning to a life of crime.

I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. As a serving JP, one of the things I find particularly frustrating when considering sentencing is the several pages of antecedents involving multiple short sentences and failed attempts at drug rehabilitation. What work is being done to improve the effectiveness of drug rehabilitation, which is so crucial in stopping reoffending?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments. The good news is that in April this year the Department of Health assumed responsibility for funding all drug treatments in prison and in the community. That joint commissioning of services by the health and criminal justice agencies will facilitate a more co-ordinated approach. We must move to programmes that ensure that we are dealing with the problem properly and getting people off drugs, not simply maintaining them, as has too often been the case in the past.

Compensation (Overseas Terrorism)

18. Which organisations his Department has consulted on reforms to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority and the scheme for compensating victims of overseas terrorism. (62263)

In the coming weeks we intend to launch a public consultation on victims services, which will include the criminal injuries consultation scheme. We will not make up our minds about any changes until we have carefully considered responses from the public and other interested parties. We will make an announcement about compensation for victims of terrorism overseas at the same time as we launch our consultation.

The Justice Secretary’s party signed up to the provisions of the Crime and Security Act 2010 that granted compensation to victims of overseas terrorism. He will know that victims fought hard for those provisions, including the backdating of compensation for those severely injured in atrocities such as the Bali and Mumbai attacks. I do not understand why he has snubbed those victims, who were led to believe that the compensation scheme would come on stream last September. How much longer will victims of overseas terrorism be expected to wait while he and his Ministers dither over this important and just scheme?

I am afraid that there was a certain amount of confusion under the previous Administration, when for some reason the Department for Culture, Media and Sport had responsibility for overseas terrorism issues. These issues have now been brought together, and we will bring forward our proposals on victims of overseas terrorism in tandem with our proposals on criminal injuries compensation.

Topical Questions

On Thursday the Government signalled their intention to lead by example by launching a new dispute resolution commitment. From now on, Government Departments and agencies are committed to using better, quicker and more efficient ways of resolving legal disputes, and to seeking alternatives to court action wherever possible. The commitment will save time, money and stress for those involved, and will reduce the number of cases unnecessarily clogging up the courts. This is an important part of our commitment to make the justice system radically more user-friendly and to cut down on the amount of expensive, painful and confrontational litigation in our society.

I thank the Justice Secretary for that reply. Getting offenders clean of drugs is one of the best ways to get them to go straight on release. What progress has the Justice Secretary made in reducing the previous Government’s excessive reliance on methadone prescriptions, and increasing abstinence-based drug rehabilitation in our prisons?

As my hon. Friend heard from the previous answer of the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice on the centrality of rehabilitation, clinical interventions are the responsibility of the Department of Health. It is important that we work with clinical services to ensure that there is a proper path towards detoxification and abstinence, not only in prison but during the transfer between prison and the community. We are working hard with our colleagues in the Department of Health to deliver that.

Last week the Prime Minister announced the Justice Secretary’s new law on self-defence. However, there is no mention of it in the Green Paper, the Government response or the 119-page Bill. Is the Justice Secretary aware that the Director of Public Prosecutions is on record as saying that the current guidelines, which permit people to use reasonable force to protect their property, work well? Will he spell out how his proposal differs from the current law?

We intend to clarify the law on self-defence by amending the Bill at the earliest possible stage. We are finalising the drafting of that. Essentially, we are clarifying the law. It will still be based on a person’s undoubted right to use reasonable force when they choose to defend themselves or their home against any threat from an offender.

T2. Although I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s policy to create drug-free wings in our prisons, does he agree with me, and my constituents, that the whole of our prison estate should be completely free of illegal drugs? Will he explain to my constituents how that can be achieved? (62270)

I would love to announce just such a policy. My hon. Friend probably shares my comparative amazement that drugs are so readily available in our prisons. The fact is that that is so endemic in the system that we have to start from where we are. We have a definite programme to introduce drug-free wings. As soon as we establish those successfully, a prime objective of the Government is to eliminate the presence of drugs and to establish proper rehabilitation of offenders that does not depend simply on maintenance and methadone.

T5. To return to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), the Prime Minister said that there would be provisions on self-defence included in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, but the Bill as it stands is silent on the issue. Michael Wolkind QC, who represented Tony Martin, says that allowing householders to use any force that is not grossly disproportionate would amount to “state-sponsored revenge”. Can the Justice Secretary clarify how his legislation will differ from what is currently in place? (62273)

The Prime Minister was not advocating state-sponsored revenge, nor is anybody else. What we are doing is clarifying in statute the basis upon which people can use reasonable force to defend themselves in their property. [Interruption.] I am not quite sure what aspect of that Labour Members seek to oppose, but I think they will be reassured when they see the amendments that we propose to introduce.

T4. What steps is my right hon. and learned Friend going to take to ensure that the Government send out the strongest possible message on knife crime? (62272)

We are going to create a new offence of aggravated possession of a knife, which means carrying a knife and threatening with it, to make the clearest possible statement that we are not prepared to tolerate knife crime in this country.

T7. The Youth Justice Board has support right across the political spectrum. Indeed, the House of Lords voted to retain it. I cannot understand why a Government who pride themselves on listening to the people cannot do a U-turn that, on this occasion, would be popular. (62275)

There is a clear case for bringing the responsibilities of the Youth Justice Board within the Ministry of Justice, and for making Ministers directly accountable for youth justice. We are going to reintroduce that case to the House, and I am sure that it will command the House’s support.

T6. Last week I visited HMP Hewell in Worcestershire, where I met the restorative justice manager Clifford Grimason. He showed me the excellent work that has been done there with prisoners. Will the Secretary of State join me in commending HMP Hewell, and Cliff and his team, who have been working together with Conservative-controlled Redditch borough council on innovative schemes to help get prisoners ready to go out into the world of work? (62274)

I am sure that my hon. Friend’s description of that work is correct, and I readily commend the work that is being done there and in other places. The main feature of the reforms that I am introducing is the concentration on cutting reoffending, which means rehabilitating offenders. I try to avoid giving the impression that nobody is doing that already, but instead of looking to particular spectacular examples, I want to see that running through the whole system. To reduce crime we have to reduce the number of criminals who are going to offend again as soon as they are out of prison, which is an objective of reform that has been missed for many years.

T9. In the light of the Ministry of Justice’s own impact assessment, which says that increased criminality, less social cohesion and increased costs are all likely to result from the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, have the costs to other Government Departments been considered and costed? If so, what are they? (62277)

T8. I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State’s commitment to reducing reoffending rates. Does he agree that increasing the scope of judicial discretion, as outlined in the Bill, will go a long way to help to achieve that? (62276)

I do, and I can reinforce my hon. Friend’s point with a remarkable statistic showing how the last Government were falling down in that respect. Some 29% of all sentences for indictable offences in 2010 were given to offenders with 15 or more previous convictions or cautions—up from 17% in 2000. We need a more intelligent and sensible system of sentencing, and I agree that a proper degree of judicial discretion is an important part of the system.

The Minister will be aware that in October last year, Citizens Advice in Manchester signed a three-year contract with the Legal Services Commission for the provision of community legal services, which involves four new advice centres, one of which is in my constituency. On the strength of that, Citizens Advice entered into a series of leasing and employment obligations. Will he cut through the increasing uncertainty and confirm this afternoon that that contract will be honoured in full?

That is, of course, a matter for the Legal Services Commission, with which the contract was agreed—but about 50% of CABs have legal aid contracts, which last for different periods. The proposals will work through over the period of the contracts.

Given the costs of delay when court papers do not turn up on time, what are the Government doing to expand the use of e-mail to deliver court judgments and papers?

I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that the Government think that it is time the criminal justice system caught up with the rest of the world. Our plan is that information documents will be sent by secure e-mail between all agencies in the system by April next year, so that we can eliminate that wasteful paperwork and drive efficiency in the system.

Can the Minister update the House as to what discussions he has had with the Minister of Justice in the devolved Administration concerning proposed changes to the legal aid system?

I can confirm that I have had discussions, correspondence and a meeting with the devolved Administration to discuss the implications for legal aid and to ensure that we are all moving in the same direction.

Following the Milly Dowler trial, does the Secretary of State agree that measures need to be taken to protect the families of the victims of crime from intensive questioning in court? If a footballer can be afforded privacy from the public arena, cannot the father of a murdered child?

It is obvious that members of the public generally were appalled by the experience through which that family were put as a result of that criminal trial going ahead and the nature of the defence. Such cases are exceedingly difficult, because any defendant has the right to put forward a defence, however distasteful or distressing that may be to the victims. That sometimes happens. The straightforward process of calling the victim a liar can be extremely offensive to someone who has suffered grievously at the hands of the accused.

The judge has a discretion to cut out all irrelevant and unnecessary lines of questioning. I have no reason to doubt that the judge considered his discretion in that case. The Crown Prosecution Service actually applied for an order to ban the reporting of the relevant pieces of the cross-examination. I respect the decision of the judge, who decided that the principle of open justice should prevail. It was therefore all reported. The newspapers made their own judgments on the extent to which they reported those incidents.

In that case, which was exceedingly distressing, there was never a question of an early guilty plea, but it is useful to remind ourselves of just what an ordeal it can be when victims and witnesses have to go to a court to face someone who is denying the crime.

Order. It is not an ordeal to listen to the Secretary of State—indeed, one might almost call it a leisure pursuit—but unfortunately, we have not the time on this occasion to do so uninterrupted.

Does the Government’s U-turn on shorter sentences, which could have led to a reduction in the prison population, mean that in future under the coalition, any Minister caught in possession of an intelligent idea is likely to be doomed to a brief unhappy ministerial career?

I made a few slightly light-hearted remarks about U-turns last time—but the Government have a process of consultation, and this is another Catch-22 situation. If we modify our proposals we are accused of making a U-turn, and if we proceed with our proposals we are accused of being deaf.

We explored every possibility of encouraging more early guilty pleas. We still intend to make such proposals, and some of the legal aid reforms are designed to encourage early guilty pleas. Anything that can be done to get early guilty pleas saves a lot of people distress, and also saves a lot of wasted time and cost for the police, the CPS, the courts and the prisons.

What message is sent to potential offenders and police officers—one of whom is my own brother—by the guidance of Sir Paul Stephenson, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, that even the most offensive language used against a police officer will not now result in an offence under public order provisions.

I share my hon. Friend’s concern. We should all agree that it is wholly unacceptable for people to swear at police officers. Whatever the merits of that guidance or the legal position, we should stand by our police officers in the job that they do. They should not have to expect that kind of treatment.

Last December the Justice Secretary promised me that he would consider reviewing the maximum sentence for dangerous driving, which currently stands at two years regardless of the severity of the injury caused, short of death. It might well be against his liberal instincts to increase tariffs, but what progress has he made?

The hon. Gentleman may know that his hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) secured an Adjournment debate on that subject. We are considering it, and will look at ways of doing it without having to legislate, if possible. We are considering what sanctions are available to us, and I am in discussion with the Solicitor-General and the Attorney-General to see how we can deliver the objective that we both share.

Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) about people not being convicted of abusive language and behaviour towards the police, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is even more ridiculous that some of the people concerned are then compensated for wrongful arrest? Will he please review this as a matter of urgency?

Again, I share my hon. Friend’s dismay. It is precisely to avoid such a situation that the Metropolitan police issued the guidance on the existing position. I repeat that it is not acceptable for police officers to be sworn at, and nor are we happy about the suggestion that it is. We wish to consider this issue because we need a system that ensures that we stand by our police officers when they are executing their duties.

I want to ask about the drug-free wings that the Justice Secretary is introducing in prisons. Will prisoners be able to choose whether they enter a drug-free wing or a wing where drugs are rife?

It might cost more to send a prisoner to prison than it does to put him in a room in the Ritz hotel, but there are limits to how much choice we give prisoners over the suitability of their accommodation. There will be a process of careful assessment. We wish to spread the provision of drug-free wings and eliminate drug dealing in prisons as rapidly as is practicable.

Will the Secretary of State consider, within a year of the legal aid proposals being implemented, assessing the ability of those on low incomes to access the courts, the availability of appropriately qualified lawyers prepared to undertake publicly funded work, and the sustainability of legal services provided by bodies such as Citizens Advice?

We have just commissioned research on those topics, and there will also be a post-impact assessment within three years.

Further to Question 7, will the changes to civil litigation make it easier or more difficult to take action against multinational companies? The consensus among non-governmental organisations is that it will be more difficult.

People will still be able to be assessed by solicitors to decide whether they are prepared to represent them in multinational actions.