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Topical Questions

Volume 539: debated on Tuesday 31 January 2012

May I update the House on the progress the Government have made toward implementing their proposals for payment by results, which I was defending a few moments ago? We have recently identified two probation trusts, one in Wales and the Staffordshire and West Midlands probation trust, to develop the community payment by results approach to probation services. We already have two well-established pilots in privately managed prisons and we hope to develop more; further pilots are being developed in public sector prisons. We are seeking proposals from the market for additional innovative contracts. We have selected a national framework of providers to support this work, which will assist us in meeting our commitment to roll out the principles of payment by results throughout the criminal justice system.

I hope the Secretary of State agrees with me that it is disgraceful that criminals who have created victims of crime are compensated under the criminal injuries compensation scheme. How much have criminals received over the past 10 years?

It is £75 million in the past 10 years, I think, and about 20,000 offenders have been compensated—I am remembering the brief for my statement yesterday. It is plainly insupportable that one week someone can commit a crime at his victims’ expense, and within a very short time claim that the taxpayer should compensate him because someone has committed a crime against him. We are bringing that to an end.

Last week, there were two tragic deaths of young people in custody: Jake Hardy, a 17-year-old held at Hindley, and 15-year-old Alex Kelly, a prisoner at Cookham Wood. Although, rightly, there will be investigations and inquests, urgent questions need to be answered. Had mental health assessments been undertaken? Were the boys receiving treatment? Had there been any fighting involving these children? Were any forms of restraint used? Will the Secretary of State make urgent inquiries into the circumstances of the deaths to address concerns that this may be a new systemic problem, and inform the House?

Yes. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that four separate types of inquiry are to be conducted. Later today I will meet the chairman and chief executive of the Youth Justice Board and discuss those cases.

T2. Following the horrific murder of my constituent Kynan Eldridge, I wonder whether the Minister can assure the House and Kynan’s family that the perpetrators of such crimes, if they are foreign nationals, will be deported after their sentence ends? What work is he doing to ensure that that happens? (92497)

My hon. Friend will have heard the exchanges earlier about foreign-national offenders. We are doing everything that we can to improve the legal situation, so that we have more powers to deport people and can improve the administrative process through proper co-operation between the UK Border Agency and the National Offender Management Service.

T4. Last month, Welsh Women’s Aid surveyed 324 victims of domestic violence who were receiving specialist support, and it found that 46% of them would not be eligible for legal aid if the Government’s proposals were carried out. Why will the Government not listen to the evidence, which plainly points to the fact that many victims of domestic violence will be denied access to justice? (92499)

We have had the Welsh report and are looking at it, but we dispute the figures in it. As I have said on many occasions, when it comes to legal aid, we are concentrating our efforts on helping to deal with domestic violence, and that will be the case following our reforms.

T3. Do Ministers share my concerns about the unacceptable burdens placed on small businesses by ambulance-chasing lawyers, who pursue those businesses for spurious claims when they have no right to do so? (92498)

The Government are taking firm, significant steps to address the burgeoning claims market, which, as my hon. Friend says, particularly encourages low-value claims against businesses and others—claims for which we all end up paying. That is why we are reforming no win, no fee conditional fee agreements and banning referral fees, and why we are countering illegal text advertising and consulting on banning inducement advertising.

T6. I thank the Secretary of State for saying, following my earlier question, that he would look at the case that I mentioned, but will he examine, or get his Department to examine, whether there is consistency among parole boards and prison governors when it comes to licence conditions relating to exclusion zones? There is nothing worse than a family bumping into the murderer of a loved one in the street, or in the locality. Will he look at the consistency of parole boards’ and governors’ decisions? (92501)

I will certainly look at that, because I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there should be consistency. That is why we have exclusion zones—precisely to make sure that the victims of a criminal do not find that they accidentally bump into him again, or even worse, are pestered by him when he is released from prison. We all take cases of the kind that he raises very seriously, and we will look into this one.

T5. Devon Rape Crisis was launched last November and has already helped many victims of sexual violence across Devon, but it and Rape Crisis England and Wales are calling for changes to make it easier to identify the number of victims of crimes that are sexually motivated. Will the Secretary of State meet Rape Crisis and me to discuss how we can make such crimes more easily identifiable, and to hear about the excellent work of Rape Crisis? (92500)

My hon. Friend has raised an important issue, and I would be very pleased to meet her and colleagues from Rape Crisis to look at the linkages, and at the proper examination and analysis of data in this area. It is important that we continue to improve our knowledge.

T7. Will the Secretary of State explain how he thinks that axing 1,000 posts at the Crown Prosecution Service will help him to bring more criminals to justice? (92502)

I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General has ensured that, in making changes to the budget and staffing of the Crown Prosecution Service, he is not reducing the quality of service that it provides. These things are not best measured by whether a body has ever-expanding payrolls or budgets; that tended to be the approach of the former Government, in which the hon. Gentleman served. We are trying to produce better value for money, in order to cope with the appalling financial crisis that we inherited from our predecessors.

T8. The trade unions directly benefit from current no win, no fee arrangements, earning huge amounts via their legal arms through inflated success fees. What assessment has the Minister made of the amount of success fees paid to trade unions, particularly in personal injury cases? (92503)

Unfortunately, the trade unions did not provide their lawyers’ success fee details, or their referral fee income details, to the consultation. However, given that they have received more than £550,000 in donations from personal injury lawyers, it seems that the unions’ lawyers are not entirely disinterested in the outcome of our attempt to rein in the compensation culture.

How is it that an individual on remand for murder can hang himself while in custody? Will the Secretary of State hold an urgent inquiry?

Of course, in all these cases there are immediate operational inquiries, and then there are proper coroners’ inquiries. In all such cases, there will then be an inquiry by the prisons and probation ombudsman. These matters are taken extremely seriously. The number of self-inflicted deaths in custody has been falling, but there have been a number of tragic cases recently. Of course, we will look at all this extremely seriously.

T9. This splendid Conservative-led coalition Government have done much in the fight against human trafficking. The poor women who are victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation and who are then rescued go into the national referral mechanism, but what happens to them after 45 days? Are they thrown out if they do not qualify? (92504)

No, I am happy to reassure my hon. Friend that that is certainly not the case. There is an ongoing process of assessment and support during the 45-day period, after which victims continue to receive support as necessary in Salvation Army outreach centres or from mainstream services. We are determined to improve the service provided to victims of these appalling crimes and have protected funding in order to do so.

T10. Residents and organisations in my constituency will welcome the Government’s decision to update the law relating to scrap metal. When will the necessary amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill be brought forward? (92505)

I share my hon. Friend’s concern to see the Government move on this matter as quickly as possible. I assure him that we are working carefully with colleagues on the drafting and hope to be able to table amendments to the Bill, which is currently before the House of Lords, as soon as possible.

Many innocent victims of crime feel isolated and dissatisfied at the end of the justice process. Will the Secretary of State assure me that protection of, and justice for, the victim will be fundamental to the reformed criminal justice system?

I hope that I can assure the hon. Gentleman and that he will have the opportunity to study the consultation document I published yesterday. I concede that there has been a steady process of improvement over the years, compared with the situation not too long ago, when victims were regarded simply as people who had to come to court if they were needed, but we still have not gone far enough. We must ensure that the experience of being in court does not add to a victim’s suffering, that all proper support is given to those who have been badly and lastingly affected by what has happened to them and that there is a proper system of compensation. The object of the criminal justice service must be to give proper service to the victims of crime.

It has come to light that barrister David Friesner recently defended a fraudster, despite having just been convicted for stealing £81,000. We had an absurd situation in which a criminal was representing a criminal, which brings the legal system into disrepute. Will the Minister look into the actions of the Bar Standards Board and consider mandatory suspension for those guilty of serious crimes?

Order. My firm impression is that this matter is currently sub judice and, if I am correct in that surmise, I know that the Minister will exercise his customary lawyerly caution, and it might well be that silence is the best policy.

I shall indeed be cautious, Mr Speaker, but I can say that I certainly agree with and understand my hon. Friend’s concerns. This is a regulatory matter, rather than a legislative loophole, but we are in contact with the BSB about it.

Will the Minister recognise the effectiveness of multi-agency working, which is usually led by the probation service? I recently visited the Huddersfield probation office and was surprised by how effective such working is in cutting the levels of crime and reoffending.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to draw the House’s attention to the benefits of more effective integrated offender management, which is another way of expressing the multi-agency working to which he draws attention. This good practice is widening across the whole system and, I am delighted to say, becoming the norm.

One in four girls, some as young as 13, are hit by their boyfriend. What action will the Minister take to tackle violence among children?

Tackling domestic violence is an absolute priority of this Government, and we are co-ordinating action with the Home Office. Indeed, my hon. Friend appeared in a debate that was held in Westminster Hall only a few days ago, and she will have seen the full picture at that time.

In the Ministry of Justice’s own impact assessment of the cuts to civil legal aid, there are 15 statements that the Ministry does not have evidence for the savings and 30 admissions that the savings are based on speculation. Should not the Secretary of State listen to Citizens Advice and King’s college London, which can demonstrate that the cuts will cost the taxpayer more than they will save?

We have seen the King’s college figures, and we do not agree with them. The fact of the matter is that we have published full impact assessments, and we stand by them.

More than half of male prisoners and almost three quarters of female prisoners have no qualifications at all. What efforts are being made, through the training of prison officers, to raise awareness of the importance and availability of prison education in our prisons?

We have recently re-let the offender learning and skills contracts, which are funded through the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. That is about £157 million worth of education which is being put into skilling-up offenders, not least so that they can then take part in our work in prisons strategy and we can get much more effective and economic use of prisoner time in prison—with enormous benefits for them on release.

Is the Secretary of State aware that yesterday the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission registered profound concerns about the “Justice and Security” Green Paper’s proposals on closed material proceedings? Will he accept that moving to provide for secret trials and secret inquests has acute implications in the context of Northern Ireland, not least its impact on transitional justice and on the efforts to deal with the legacy of the past?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are consulting on those proposals in relation to that difficult subject. All I can say is that I certainly appreciate its special significance for Northern Ireland and the situation in Northern Ireland, and we will pay the most careful regard to the submissions that we receive from all those interested in Northern Ireland before we come to our conclusions.

Throughout the 18 months to the end of September 2011, consistently more than half of appeal cases relating to employment and support allowance took longer than six months to be decided by the Courts and Tribunals Service, meaning that more than twice as many people as the service’s own target are waiting that long. What action is the Minister taking to ensure that they receive their decisions in good time?

The service is under pressure because of an increase in appeals, but I am very pleased to say that in five of the past six months more appeals have gone out the door than have come in.

Last week I met the family of Jake Hardy, a 17-year-old with learning difficulties who died last week after hanging himself in Hindley young offenders institute. The family tell me that Hindley was aware that Jake had been a victim of systematic bullying, was of low mental capacity and had self-harmed earlier in the week, yet it declined to place him on suicide watch. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that the full facts of the case emerge, and what will he do to prevent another family from feeling the grief felt by the Hardys?

Order. Again, I rather suspect—I am not a lawyer, and I say that as a matter of some very considerable pride, but as far as I am aware—the question is likely to be sub judice. I do not criticise the hon. Gentleman, but I exhort the Minister to be characteristically cautious in his response.

I am grateful, Mr Speaker. The case has been referred to several times in the course of today’s questions, and I do not have anything more to add to the answer that I have given. The hon. Gentleman knows that I am seeing the chairman and the chief executive of the Youth Justice Board later on today, and the case will of course be on the agenda for our discussions.