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Topical Questions

Volume 535: debated on Tuesday 8 November 2011

Yesterday, the UK took over the chairmanship of the Council of Europe. Our key priority is reform of the European Court of Human Rights, for which there is widespread support. We are pressing for consensus among all 47 member states on a package of reforms that will make the Court more effective. The Court is struggling under a growing backlog of almost 160,000 cases, which is undermining its authority. The aim will be for the Court to concentrate on the most serious issues of alleged failure to comply with the convention by a member state. The primary duty of compliance with the convention in individual cases should rest with democratic Parliaments and national courts.

Teesside suffers from arguably the worst coroner service in the country, with families now waiting an average of 43 weeks for a verdict. How is the coroner service held accountable, and what can the Minister do to ensure that my constituents get the service they deserve?

Ultimately, coroners are independent judicial appointments, and as such, complaints must be made through the judicial appointments service. Having said that, I have been in contact with people in Teesside and I shall continue to take an interest in this matter.

One cannot help but notice the good mood that the Justice Secretary is in today, which I am sure has nothing to do with the spot of bother the Home Secretary is in. May I ask him a question on a similar issue—foreign prisoners? He will be aware that in 2007, the Labour Government negotiated with the EU a prisoner transfer agreement, which comes into force next month, which will mean that no prisoner consent is required, and that the other country must comply with a request for a transfer. The Prime Minister promised the repatriation of thousands of foreign prisoners by personally taking charge of negotiations with individual countries. We all know that he likes to keep his promises, so can the Justice Secretary tell us how many new prisoner transfer agreements have been successfully negotiated with individual countries in the past 18 months, and how many foreign prisoners does he expect to be repatriated this year?

First, I want to put the right hon. Gentleman’s mind at rest: I agree with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in her handling of the current problems, so it is just my usual bonhomie; there is no particular cause for it today. It is true that this important transfer of prisoners agreement is about to come into force, and it will make a difference to our problem with foreign prisoners, although, of course, there are derogations to some important countries, such as Poland and Ireland, where it will not come into effect for a few years. The right hon. Gentleman hits on a serious problem, though: we need to find a way of reducing the foreign prisoner population. At the moment, we have only one international bilateral agreement near to conclusion, but we are continuing to work on it, because foreign prisoners take up more than 10% of places in our prison system.

T3. At Swaleside prison in my constituency, the Kainos Community programme has an 87% success rate in reducing reoffending by inmates taking part in the scheme. Will my hon. Friend acknowledge this success, and extend the scheme across the prison estate? (78978)

I have seen the Kainos scheme in other prisons, and I am looking forward to visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency to see it work at first hand. Of course, we will want to learn the lessons and apply them, so that we can begin to achieve those kinds of reoffending rates—if they are as described—on a sustainable basis.

May I encourage Ministers to face the House, so that we get the full force of their eloquence head-on?

T5. According to a written question that I asked the Minister earlier this year, in 2009 the disciplinary punishment of additional days for bad behaviour in prisons was imposed on 11,550 occasions. What steps are being taken to improve discipline and behaviour in prisons? (78980)

There is a zero-tolerance policy for any violence in prison towards staff, visitors or other prisoners. In addition, one should not underestimate the importance of our proposals on work in prisons. If we can put in place a much more useful prison regime under which far more prisoners are engaged in useful work, it will aid the delivery of discipline in our prisons.

T4. Could I ask whether the Secretary of State will identify the amount of savings he will make in his planned reductions for legal aid in social welfare law and identify the amount of knock-on cuts to the Scottish budget through the Barnett formula? Could he confirm that, if there are cuts, the Scottish Parliament does not have to follow the savage cuts in welfare law legal aid? (78979)

We debated all this last week. We are still spending £50 million on legal aid for welfare law, even as we have revised and cut it back, and cut out areas where, frankly, legal assistance is not necessary, appropriate or justified. Our proposals affect England and Wales only, and the provision of legal aid in Scotland is not a matter for me.

T9. Do the Government agree that magistrates are a vital and integral part of the justice system, and that they must be supported and encouraged to play a part in neighbourhood justice? (78984)

Yes, we do. As we develop our proposals, including for the neighbourhood resolution panels that I described earlier, we want to consider what role magistrates may play in that. They are, as my right hon. and learned Friend said, an important lay resource, and we should think of new ways to make use of them.

T6. How does the Secretary of State plan to fill the nearly £280 million gap in social welfare law in respect of the provision of crucial advice and support on housing, debt and employment issues to some of the poorest people in our country, given that there is little to no evidence that the voluntary and charitable sectors will be able to back-fill that gap? The £20 million referred to does not seem to go far enough. (78981)

First, it is important to appreciate that we are keeping £50 million of legal aid in social welfare law for the most urgent and vulnerable people who need it. We need to appreciate that, at the moment, legal aid is often used as a sticking plaster for matters that should properly be dealt with under general advice from citizens advice bureaux.

T10. After the riots in the summer, courts such as Cannock magistrates court in my constituency sat late and ensured that the surge in work was dealt with smoothly and efficiently. These late-night sittings have been widely regarded as a huge success, not least by those magistrates who have full-time jobs that require them to work during office hours. What plans does the Secretary of State’s Department have to roll out these evening court sittings on a permanent basis? (78985)

The work done after the riots is a tribute to the public spiritedness of all who sat on the bench—all the court staff, probation staff, police and duty defence solicitors. There was a widespread feeling that people should do their bit to restore order, and I am glad to say that the courts rose to the challenge. Normally, on an ordinary day, we do not have a shortage of court space, so there is no general need to have night or evening sittings. We can certainly improve the efficiency with which the more straightforward cases are dealt with. They can be brought on at an ordinary hour more quickly than they sometimes are now. We are working on that. It was a tribute to the court service and everybody who works in it that they all worked as well as they did.

T7. I wrote to the Justice Secretary six weeks ago on behalf of my constituent Gary Thrall, but have not yet had an answer. May I ask him again to look at this case and at the fact that 16 months on from a vicious knife attack, Gary has yet to receive a final settlement from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority or to be advised of the likely time scale for the settlement, which is preventing the family from moving on? (78982)

I will, of course, investigate the case that the hon. Lady brings to my attention. I will get in touch with her directly.

According to figures from the Department, 10% of all crimes are committed by people on bail and 20% of burglaries are committed by people on bail. When the provisions in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill come into effect, which will make it harder for courts to remand people in custody, what estimate has the Department made of the number of crimes that will be committed by people on bail then?

The changes we are making are to get rid of the anomaly whereby bail can be refused to someone who is charged with an offence in circumstances where it is quite obvious that they are not going to be sent to prison, even if they are found guilty. It is a reform that should have been made a long time ago. Serious offences are sometimes committed by people on bail, and we have committed ourselves to introducing a right of appeal when someone is given bail in the Crown court. There have been bad cases where serious offences have been committed. We hope to introduce an amendment in the other place that would allow the Crown Prosecution Service to challenge the granting of bail in the Crown court when a potentially dangerous prisoner is involved.

T8. Constituents of mine with serious health conditions who have been turned down for employment and support allowance are still having to wait up to nine months for a tribunal appeal hearing. With more than 40% of them being successful on appeal, what is the Minister going to do to end this unacceptable wait? (78983)

This is relevant to a number of Departments. We are working with them to ensure that the procedures are such that better determinations are made at the outset so that we get fewer appeals. This is taking up a significant amount of my time. The hon. Lady makes an important point.

When a magistrates court is forced to close, does my hon. Friend agree that every effort and flexibility needs to be shown to accommodate those magistrates in alternative courts?

Yes, and they are. So far as I know, no magistrates have been forced to resign because of any court closure. They are normally encouraged to join the successor court, although some take the opportunity to resign at that point for their own reasons.

The Secretary of State will no doubt share my respect for those who carry out pro bono work, which makes a big impact in my communities and throughout the UK. What does he make of the assertion that cutbacks are going to have to be made in pro bono services because of the cuts to overall provision?

One of my constituents who was witness to a burglary and theft in the local area has made me aware that the youth defendant who pleaded guilty on two counts was required as part of his rehabilitation order to spend three weeks at summer arts college. Does the Minister believe that it is time to review some elements of the community sentencing framework?

We are going to look at the community sentencing framework, as I announced to the House last week. We are absolutely clear that the whole framework has to carry public confidence that there will be effective punishment in the community, while at the same time delivering effective rehabilitation. A sentence that protects the public and delivers restoration to the victim is a key part of our consideration.

We have an excellent community legal advice centre in Hull. What are the Minister’s views on the future funding of CLACs and community legal advice networks?

These will have to be looked at in the context of all not-for-profit organisations—citizens advice bureaux and so forth. If the hon. Lady wishes to discuss her particular concerns relating to her particular CLAC, I would be happy to discuss them with her.

Following the publication of the Norgrove report, will my hon. Friend reassure anxious fathers in my constituency, including Mr Colin Riches, and will he make every effort to ensure that parents have equal access to children?

We have every intention of ensuring that both parents have a meaningful relationship with their children, and we will look carefully at the Norgrove report in order to develop a Government approach to the matter.

The convictions of three world-class cricketers last week shows that even cricket is not immune from corruption. In his role as the Government’s anti-corruption chief, will the Secretary of State look into the problem of corruption in international sporting bodies such as FIFA, and see what Britain can do to drive corruption out of international sport? There has also been controversy involving the Olympics and Formula 1.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern, but the issue of corruption in sport is primarily the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport. I know that he is working with his European Union opposite numbers on specific measures to tackle it, and I am following his progress very closely. The recent convictions show that there are problems that need to be tackled in the interests of everyone who believes in the value of sport—but honest sport—to a community.

The Government are committed to ensuring that women are not sent to prison in disproportionately high numbers. May we have an update on the Corston report?

The Government support the objectives of the Corston report, as did our predecessor, and as we did in opposition. There are only one or two elements of it that we are unable to deliver, such as the recommendation for more smaller custodial units. As was made clear in the exchanges that followed the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), one of our main priorities is to make progress on the Corston agenda and to learn some of its lessons in how to deal with not just women prisoners, but all prisoners.

The Money Advice Service has sacked 100 front-line staff in order to spend more money on publicity. Does the Secretary of State now regret removing nearly all debt advice from the scope of legal aid, and what cross-departmental discussions is he having about the future of such advice?

I am very sorry to hear what the hon. Lady has said, but I am not sure whether the issue is the responsibility of my Department; it may be the responsibility of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. However, I will certainly check, because it is extremely important for advice to be available at what is a difficult time for many people. Advice on debt is, unfortunately, one of the things that many people require—not only foreign Governments, but a fair number of our own citizens.

A few months ago, the Minister said that the backlog of appeals on social security matters would be resolved through the employment of more people. That was before the summer, but the waiting times seem to be as long as ever. Why is that?

There is still a significant number of appeals, but the number is now being stabilised and the delays are being reduced.

Given that probation trusts are experiencing major cuts in their budgets, can the Minister explain how he expects them to do more for less?

Probation trusts have been relatively well protected given the current environment. The additional cuts are at least 13% less than the overall cut in the Ministry of Justice budget, which shows that we are making the protection of the front line a priority in order to ensure that services are delivered effectively. However, like everyone else, probation trusts will have to make their contribution to rescuing our nation’s economy from the wretched mess in which it was left by the last Administration.

Order. I apologise to colleagues. I should be happy to allow these exchanges to continue all day if there were time, but there is not.