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Topical Questions

Volume 532: debated on Tuesday 13 September 2011

I begin by making a topical statement, Mr Speaker, controlling my breathing carefully as I do. Last week, as well as announcing plans to allow cameras into courts, I outlined plans to open up the justice system by publishing unprecedented local data. We will publish data on court performance, sentencing and reoffending, and provide information on what happens next following a crime, alongside street-level crime data. That will allow people to see how the criminal justice system operates in their area. We will also encourage consistent publication of the names of offenders unlawfully at large; that will help in apprehending them and returning them to custody. Those measures will place the crime and justice sector at the forefront of the Government’s policy on transparency.

We have seen real success across Sunderland in reducing reoffending year on year. Of course, more needs to be done to tackle that, but it has been put at risk by cuts to the local probation trust. Does the Lord Chancellor think that reoffending rates will be higher or lower by the end of this Parliament?

Criminal statistics are more reliable than they used to be, but I still do not have total confidence in them, and I would certainly never make forecasts with them because crime trends are very difficult to predict. However, I am glad that success has been achieved in Sunderland on reoffending, which we propose to make the prime focus of our policy: punish offenders effectively and, at the same time, try to stop them offending again.

T2. In Worcestershire, we have had persistent problems with Travellers who refuse to respect the law. My fellow MPs in the county have recently written to the Justice Secretary with some suggestions about that, and I know that he is considering them. Does he agree that we should help Travellers to preserve their way of life—their travelling way of life—by moving them on? (71332)

This is a difficult subject, and it certainly needs to be looked at all the time. I agree: my experience in my part of the world is that many Travellers do not travel as frequently as they are supposed to, and they are fond of occupying vacant land and building houses on it, while still describing themselves as Travellers. The subject is more complex than that, and if we can make any improvements to the law that protect the legitimate interests of society as a whole, we will certainly do so.

Last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), defended the Government’s narrow definition of domestic violence in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill with these words:

“We are concerned that to include admission to a refuge in the criteria would be to rely on self-reporting…We are not persuaded that medical professionals would be best placed to assess whether domestic violence has occurred. Although they may witness injuries…nor would the fact of a police investigation without more evidence provide sufficient evidence”.––[Official Report, Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Public Bill Committee, 6 September 2011; c. 359-60.]

Women in this country will be appalled by those remarks. Would the Under-Secretary like to take them back, and also change his definition in the Bill?

It is not a question of taking them back; it is a question of making them in a very transparent way in our consultation. Having looked at the consultation, we came back and reassessed the definition of domestic violence, broadened what is included, and we are prepared to debate it in Committee. That is the process that is under way, and the Government stand by that.

T4. I fully support the plans to introduce television cameras in courts to improve transparency. What plans are there to improve transparency in the Prison Service so that we can see exactly what work and activity have been undertaken in each prison so that justice can be seen to be done? (71334)

We intend to apply exactly the same policy in all sensible ways to the prison system generally as far as is practicable. We publish more figures all the time about reoffending rates and we will certainly be open about our success in extending the policy of providing more worthwhile working opportunities for prisoners, because getting them back into the habit of work is one way of getting them to live as responsible citizens in a normal society.

T3. Using a restricted definition of domestic violence, as discussed a moment ago, will penalise victims of domestic violence, many of whom suffer for long periods before they begin to report incidents to the police. Will the Minister, given that he appears to be in some difficulty over this, consider meeting organisations working on domestic violence to work out how to make that definition work? (71333)

I have met organisations and we have consulted on the issue. I am always prepared to meet organisations. I have to tell the hon. Lady that the key issue is having tests that are objective, and that is what we are trying to achieve.

T6. Does the Minister agree that it is a scandal that so many drugs are swilling around prisons? It is crucial that we ensure that those who arrive in prison clean do not leave as addicts. (71336)

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Some 55% of those entering prison have been reported to have a serious drug problem, and 64% in a recent survey had used drugs in the previous month, which gives a sense of the scale of the problem. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we must use all means possible, in a multi-faceted way, to address the problem, and provide safe places in prison, at the very least, for those attempting to recover from drug addiction, which is why we are beginning to develop drug recovery wings.

T5. There are 66 people in Bolton and more than 10,000 across the UK who are still driving with more than 12 points on their driving licence. Many are repeat offenders of the offences of speeding and driving without insurance and have more than 20 points. Is there a problem with the legislation or are judges being too lenient? Will the Secretary of State investigate? (71335)

I think the answer is that we will investigate. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the figures. They sound astonishing, so I look forward to her providing me with sufficient details for myself and my ministerial team to find out what lies behind them.

T9. The building that formerly housed Wisbech magistrates court is owned by the Ministry of Justice and is in a prime site next to the historic port in Wisbech and a couple of yards from a conference centre. Will my hon. Friend the Minister meet me to discuss how we best use the site for regeneration so that it does not get locked in the stalemate that there has been with the police service locally? (71339)

I will meet my hon. Friend. The court closed in April this year and Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is progressing the disposal of the courthouse. As part of that process it is due to meet officials from both Cambridgeshire district council and Fenland district council later this month.

T7. In the aftermath of the riots that so rocked the country last month, what lessons does the Justice Secretary think can be learned about the need to respond swiftly to public outrage at the actions of a lawless minority, balanced with the need to deliver justice? (71337)

We obviously have to study the events closely, looking for any lessons we can learn from recent experience. More and more facts will come to light, upon which we can base firm conclusions. The question that the hon. Lady raises about the rapidity of the response in the early days to the first threats to public order and to citizens is not primarily for my Department, but I know that the Home Office is taking it extremely seriously. It is easy with hindsight to criticise operational decisions. What is important is looking to see how we can improve the response in the future.

Is it not bizarre that many Travellers originate in Ireland? The Irish Government changed their law, so now the Travellers have moved to England. In his review, will the Justice Secretary learn from how the Human Rights Act in Ireland does not prevent Travellers from being moved on?

I agree that there is a problem. Let us be clear. Travellers, like anybody else, are entitled to the protection of the law and are also subject to the law. We have to deal with Travellers on the basis of how they behave, not start going against them as a class. But we have to look at how the operation of the law at present is enabling people to lead a somewhat odd way of life which is totally at variance with that which is led by the rest of the population, and to seek to disregard laws to which everybody else is subject. I am not sure that the Human Rights Act and human rights legislation generally is terribly relevant, but if it gets drawn in, we will look and see what it can do to help with the case.

T8. The Government cancelled the building of the Maghull prison after work had already started. Will the Lord Chancellor take this opportunity to tell my constituents what plans he has for the site, to allay their concerns about the Maghull prison site and nearby greenfield projects, which developers are eyeing up? (71338)

I am grateful for that detailed question from the hon. Gentleman. I will write to him with a full answer.

Does the Minister agree that prison is not the right place for women who pose no risk to the public, and that robust community sentences would be a much better option?

It depends on what they have done for which they have to be punished. I do not think that prison is the right place for people who pose no risk to the public, but if they have done something heinous, they have to be punished in a way that the public regard as proportionate to the crime. We are paying considerable attention to the problem of women in prisons. There are too many. The combination of problems is sometimes quite specific, and in many cases there are multiple problems. Anything that can sensibly be done to improve the way we handle women prisoners, with proper regard to punishment and the protection of the public, we will do.

T10. Further to the question raised by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), without legal aid or Government financial backing for the fee arrangements, how can we ensure that overseas victims of alleged human rights abuses by UK multinational companies get justice? (71340)

They have the jurisdiction. Britain entertains these personal injuries cases, these actions in tort, against multinational companies that have an adequate presence here in a perfectly open way, but it is still necessary for the costs of a case to be proportionate to the claim. We do not want people coming here and bringing their cases in British courts because the costs available to the lawyers greatly exceed those which could be attained by bringing similar cases in other jurisdictions.

Does the Secretary of State agree that we need to do more to curb the compensation culture in this country and that one way of doing so would be to ensure that plaintiffs incur some form of financial risk in bringing their case so that they focus their minds on the merits of their case?

I am glad to say that I agree with my hon. Friend’s every word. There is a compensation culture. We are taking practical steps to get it back to common sense.

The Secretary of State has stated his commitment to rehabilitation as a priority. Probation officers are key to this. They often need highly developed skills, particularly when working with violent offenders and sex offenders. Is he committed not only to maintaining levels of funding for probation officers, but increasing it in order to continue the downward trend in crime that continued under a Labour Government?

As the hon. Lady very well knows, we are having to manage a 23% reduction in our budget over the next four years in order to make the Ministry of Justice’s contribution to rescuing the nation’s finances. Sadly, probation services, like other elements, are not exempt from this. However, for the reasons she has given, they have been relatively protected under the spending review. We will of course continue to look for all available efficiency savings wherever we can, but the output of probation is very important.

An appeal to the special educational needs and disability tribunal listed today will not be heard until late February 2012. Does the Minister agree that that is wholly unacceptable and that a much quicker process is needed in order to resolve some of the cases relating to special needs?

Can the Secretary of State inform the House what efforts he is making to ensure that sentencing policy and practice is consistent across all parts of the United Kingdom for rioters, and that rioters in Rasharkin and Belfast who try to kill police officers and damage property will face the same swift, certain and good judgment faced by rioters in England?

I realise that our fellow citizens in Ulster have unfortunately had just as much experience of rioting as some of our British cities have. Among the many things that we must look at when we get the full facts about the very good response of our courts and criminal justice system to the recent English riots is how it compares with the experience in Northern Ireland. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there should be some general consistency of approach, with swift and firm justice, particularly when rioting is taking place, because it stops people imitating it and lessens the likelihood that the disorder will spread.

On the subject of payment by results, what guarantee can Ministers give that small providers will win some contracts and that small and large providers will have to make information about their performance publicly available?

Of course, anyone who is going to deliver payment by results would be crazy not to engage the voluntary and charitable sector as part of their delivery mechanism. Some of those charities will not have the resources to be able to underwrite payment-by-results schemes, but the prime provider would be mad not to engage those services.

The Government are currently consulting on the criminalisation of squatting. Has the Secretary of State seen the report “The Hidden Truth about Homelessness”, produced by the housing charity Crisis, which reveals that 39% of vulnerable homeless people have at some stage resorted to squatting to find a roof over their heads, and has he made an assessment of how the proposals he is putting forward will affect homeless people?

The consultation will end on 5 October, and I will of course be looking at all the reports and responses to it, including the one from Crisis.

The Secretary of State was good enough to accept on Second Reading of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill that people who served indeterminate sentences for public protection had a very low reoffending rate, despite the fact that 29% of them have more than 15 convictions. Given that people with indeterminate sentences are in prison for manslaughter, other homicide, rape, robbery, arson and other violent crimes, why does he want to let them out?

I made some cautious remarks a little earlier about criminal justice statistics. There is a very small number of people on indeterminate sentences who have ever been released, and I am very glad that there has been a low level of reoffending.

We are committed to ending that system. We have 3,500 people who have finished their normal sentence—that is, the tariff—and are unable to satisfy the Parole Board that they can be released, but we are looking at all those cases to find the best possible way of ensuring that the bulk of them do not reoffend. Some of them always will, however, and we cannot avoid that.

On the question of compensation for overseas terrorism, will the Secretary of State confirm that any scheme eventually brought in will apply from 18 January 2010, as originally proposed by the previous Labour Government?

I do not want to trail parts of the announcement that we will make when we are able to start the consultation, but I do remember very clearly that that was the commitment upon which everybody has been firmly proceeding.

Order. I do apologise to colleagues whom I have not been able to accommodate. I could listen to the Secretary of State all day—and indeed all night for that matter. An additional session should be put on precisely perhaps for that purpose, but today I am afraid that we must move on.