Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 530: debated on Tuesday 28 June 2011

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.