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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 542: debated on Tuesday 13 March 2012


The Secretary of State was asked—

Work in Prisons

We have ambitions to deliver a step change in the amount of work done in prisons. By making use of the lessons learned from the prisons that are already delivering full working weeks, we will work with the public and private sectors—including commercial customers and partners—and through the prison competition system to make our ambitions real.

The Secretary of State will know of the great work being done in Her Majesty’s prison Highpoint, in my constituency, which is one of our biggest category C prisons. Enabling third sector, private and other providers to work with prisoners before they are released has improved their chances of finding accommodation and work on release. What further action is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that that is replicated throughout the country?

As I have said, we are building on the great work that is already being done, not least in my hon. Friend’s constituency. The purpose of prisons, it seems to me, is first to punish for crime, and secondly to reform as many criminals as possible. The second aim has been neglected in recent years, but the kind of work that my hon. Friend describes ought to be replicated as much as possible throughout the system, and that is the end towards which we are working.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments. He knows about the existing business in Her Majesty’s prison Gloucester, where prisoners repair bicycles which a charity then sends to Africa. It is a not-for-profit business. How does my right hon. and learned Friend think we could ensure that if the business were profitable it would not undercut businesses outside the prison, bearing in mind that paying the minimum wage might set a precedent in regard to other rights for prisoners?

One of the things about which we try to be scrupulous is ensuring that work in prisons does not undercut the work done by businesses employing honest employees outside. We would not be able to persuade organisations such as the CBI and our private sector partners to work with us if they thought that we were undercutting British competitors. We will not pay the minimum wage, because the taxpayer would find that he or she was footing the bill for it all. However, the costs of running a business in prison are considerable because of the security that is imposed. We intend to ensure, by means of a code of practice, that fair and proper competition is maintained and that we do not undercut ordinary honest businesses.

Given that, at present, 47% of offenders are receiving out-of-work benefits two years after their release from prison, I fully support what the Secretary of State is doing. What plans has he to ensure that there is a smooth transition from work preparation in prison to actual work outside prison?

Along with the Department for Work and Pensions, we have just embarked on a system whereby people who are released from prison go straight on to the Work programme. Their receipt of benefits is tied to a programme aimed at getting them back to work if that is at all possible, as it would be for anyone else. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend: all the evidence shows that having a job is one of the main factors that determine whether someone stops returning to crime, and it also stops the taxpayer having to pay benefits to such a high proportion of ex-prisoners.

If my constituents are to have faith in work in prisons, it is vital that inmates not only learn to work, but learn to become used to the routine of work. How much time per week does my right hon. and learned Friend expect to be assigned to prisoners for work?

Just the routine of working is very important. I believe that 13% of prisoners have never had a paid job in their lives, and about half have not been in a paid job in the last month before they arrive in prison. We aim to have a 40-hour week whenever possible, consistent with the other demands of the prison regime. Apart from skills and training, just getting people used to the daily routine of a working day is good preparation for an honest life in the outside world.

Many people hope that inmates will take advantage of work in prison so that they can pay something back to society and victims. What levels of compulsion will the work schemes involve, and what will happen if some prisoners choose to refuse to work?

Although some very good work is being done in prisons at the moment, and although there always have been one or two prisons in which a fair amount is happening, we will not be able to provide work for all prisoners for quite a long time. Our aim is to get a much higher proportion into work, and for that reason employees in prison will be volunteers. That is welcomed by private sector partners who like to have a say in their work force, and who want a properly motivated work force consisting of people who are trying to get themselves into a better state to go straight when they leave.

The Lord Chancellor will know that 51% of those who enter the prison system have a drug dependency. What programmes to assist them will he have in place to enable them to undertake this work?

Actually, an even higher proportion than that have abused drugs in the month or two before they arrive in prison. We are currently opening the first drug rehabilitation wings in prisons, and we hope to have drug-free wings, too. We are upping the effort to deal with the drugs problem, which is a very large cause of the criminality of many of the people in our prisons. Obviously, it should be given a much higher priority than it has sometimes had in the past.

How many companies on the outside does the Secretary of State expect to be linked to prisons in the next 12 months, so that those companies, such as Timpson and some utilities companies, that already have workshops and bases in prisons can help people through the door and into jobs on the outside?

There is growing interest, and I join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to those companies, such as Timpson and one or two utilities companies, which have been pioneering this initiative for quite a long time. Shortly before Christmas, a letter was sent to the newspapers that was signed by companies including National Grid, Cisco and Marks & Spencer, and the CBI helped organise a day for us with outside companies. We have not put a target on the number of companies we want to be involved, but many companies want to demonstrate their corporate social responsibility by taking part in this programme, and some will find that it is a very useful way of recruiting and training staff for their businesses.

The Secretary of State will know that many inmates have mental health problems, including schizophrenia, which can make work in prison and, importantly, the transition out difficult, especially if they do not have anyone to monitor whether they are taking their medicine at the appropriate time. What steps is the Department taking, alongside the Department of Health, to ensure that appropriate medicines, including longer-lasting medicines such as injections that last a month, are part of the process, thereby helping people to have a smooth transition phase?

The hon. Lady has listed almost all the measures to which we are giving the highest priority in trying to make prisons reforming institutions. We have addressed work and drugs. Alcohol has not yet arisen, but mental illness is also a very serious issue. We are well advanced, in co-operation with the Department of Health, in making plans for diversion services for those who ought to be diverted out of the criminal justice system and given secure treatment for mental illness elsewhere. Through the Department of Health, we are also greatly improving the treatment facilities for those who have to stay in prison. Mental health must be tackled, especially if it is the real root of the criminality of someone in prison—and, indeed, some such prisoners should not be in prison at all.

Does the Secretary of State have any plans to adopt the Policy Exchange report recommendation that prisoners should be paid, but in turn should use their wages to pay for perks such as televisions, Freeview boxes and gym equipment, just as the rest of us in the outside world have to do?

Prisoners pay for some of those things already, although the innovation we are putting in place is to make provision from the earnings of prisoners for payment to victim services and to dependants outside. I agree that we are not just giving prisoners pocket money. We are giving them money from which they should, perfectly properly, make payment for those things for which they ought to be paying, including some reparation to their victims.

We have only to look at the Order Paper to see how keen the Secretary of State is to talk about work in prison. It is a shame that the Government are not more interested in the benefits of paid work for those who have not committed a crime.

There are merely two paragraphs on women offenders in his “Making prisons work” report, and there is no detail whatever on how his initiative will make a difference to them. Is it not true that this Government are showing no leadership on women in the justice system, and that there is a very real danger that all progress will be lost?

It is my Parliamentary Private Secretary’s enthusiasm for the policy of work in prisons that is exemplified, in part, by the Order Paper, together with the enthusiasm of all my hon. Friends who have asked questions on this extremely valuable policy, which is an innovation compared with the neglect of this subject by the previous Government.

We are giving a high priority to the needs of women in prison, and we will continue to address the matter. The previous Government were doing quite good work on women in prison, and we have not reversed anything; indeed, we are building on the Corston report. On work in prisons, we certainly intend that female prisoners should have the same opportunities of work and training as men, and we are thinking of what special arrangements we should make to ensure that such facilities are available and suitable for female prisoners.

Victims of Crime

15. What recent progress he has made on his proposed changes to support for victims of crime; and if he will make a statement. (99271)

On 30 January, in a statement to the House, the Justice Secretary launched a three-month consultation, “Getting it right for victims and witnesses”, on our far-reaching proposals to improve the support provided to victims and witnesses of crime.

In addition, as was enthusiastically pre-announced by my hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities when responding to the debate on international women’s day, I can now formally announce the next five new rape support centres to be developed by the Ministry of Justice and the voluntary sector. Over the next 12 months, the MOJ will provide nearly £600,000 in funding to develop new centres in mid-Wales, Northumbria, Leeds, Southend and Suffolk.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply and I welcome the focus that the Government are putting on victims. Will he join me in paying tribute to the excellent charities that help victims of crime and their families, including Victim Support, the National Victims Association and Support After Murder and Manslaughter Abroad? Importantly, will he ensure that their representations on the victims strategy will be fully considered by his Department?

Government cuts have hit women and children harder than any other group. Fiona Weir, the chief executive of Gingerbread, has warned the Government that, as a result of their changes to legal aid:

“The majority of domestic violence victims will not be able to provide the evidence required to access legal aid.”

Will the Minister ensure that cuts to legal aid are not another cut that hurts vulnerable children and women more than other groups?

Far be it for me to suggest that the hon. Gentleman might be leading the House in the wrong direction, but all victims of domestic violence will remain entitled to legal aid in respect of the domestic violence.

Does the Minister accept that moving from a national system of provision for victims to one of local commissioning, as he is suggesting, will have a particular effect on vulnerable victims of crime, who often have to move home? What does he intend to do to protect them in the new system he is introducing?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question, because she raises an issue of considerable importance to Victim Support, the principal organisation providing victims services at the moment. Of course it is the Government’s view that these services would be better commissioned locally by the new police and crime commissioners. We are consulting on our proposals, and I will take her views into account as we consider the responses to that consultation.

May we have a positive drive from the Ministry of Justice to ensure that, for as many victims as possible, both victim impact statements are completed and compensation orders are lodged with the court, so that victims can get the redress due to them?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. He will know that we have strengthened the duty on those sentencing to consider a compensation order as the first point of departure when they come to sentence people. I have now forgotten the first point—

We want victims’ personal statements to be living documents that will play a full role, particularly in advising the courts on the sentence following the consequences of the crime.

Once police commissioners are in place, we could have 41 different standards of victim support across the country. The service that someone living, working and travelling across the midlands receives could depend on one of four or more areas, depending on where the crime is committed. Given the real concerns being raised by victims groups about the potential mess that could arise as a result of the Justice Secretary’s policies, will there be an individual—[Interruption.] Perhaps the Minister would care to listen to the question before deciding to heckle from the Front Bench. Given the real concerns being raised by victims groups about the potential mess, which he should be aware of, will an individual or an organisation be charged with enforcing a minimum standard that victims of crime can expect, regardless of geography—a newly appointed victims commissioner perhaps?

The hon. Gentleman has pointed out the problems that can come with enfranchising people at a local level, but the Government believe in localism and it is our view that police and crime commissioners will have the best appreciation of the victim services that are required in their local area. We look forward to the hon. Gentleman’s contribution to the consultation to see precisely what his view is. We have noticed that he is against a localist approach, but this Government are not.

Broadcasting Court Proceedings

We are planning to legislate as soon as parliamentary time allows to permit broadcasting of selected court proceedings as part of our commitment to increasing transparency in public services. Initially, we will allow broadcasting of judgments in the Court of Appeal, and we expect to extend this to sentencing remarks in the Crown court in due course.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Will he confirm that information will be the watchword, not sensationalism, and that any conditions imposed will have that very much in mind?

Yes, I can assure my hon. Friend that we will not allow our courts to become places of public theatre. Victims, witnesses, defendants and jurors will not be filmed.

The Minister just said something very important when he said that witnesses will not be filmed. Will he repeat that guarantee, because a court appearance is a very traumatic process for a witness or victim? We need a red line that cannot be crossed not only by current Ministers but by Ministers in the future, so that witnesses are protected.

As I said, that is our position. We will be consulting—and are—with a wide range of stakeholders, including broadcasters, victims groups and others, to ensure that appropriate operational arrangements and safeguards are in place.

Illegal Encampments (Public Parks)

5. How many prosecutions have been brought in respect of illegal encampments involving vehicles on public parks in the last 12 months. (99259)

In 2010, there were 38 prosecutions for offences under sections 61, 62B and 77 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Figures for 2011 are not yet available and the data do not show what proportion of these prosecutions related to unauthorised encampments in public parks or whether vehicles were involved in each case.

Will the Minister consider a review of the powers of local authorities to prosecute trespassers effectively and/or to charge occupants fees so that there is an effective deterrent against uninvited encampments and so that some of the costs associated with unwelcome activity can be recouped?

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s concern, which is widely shared, about illegal encampments, whether they are on private land, thereby attempting to subvert the public planning process, or ruining people’s enjoyment of public parks. A range of powers are available to the police and agencies, and we are strengthening them through the latest legislation, the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, to allow local authorities to attach the power of seizure to their byelaws. We want to ensure that the new powers are used effectively.

Legal Aid (Benefit Cases)

7. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the effect of his proposed changes to legal aid on the number of cases concerning benefits requiring early stage legal advice. (99262)

No such discussions have been held, as the withdrawal of legal aid would have no impact on the number of cases concerning benefits requiring early stage legal advice. The need for advice will be determined by decision making at the Department for Work and Pensions, not the availability or otherwise of legal aid. Of course, I recognise that many people find that the type of general advice concerned is useful in resolving their problems, which is why the Government have announced additional funding for the not-for-profit sector.

Two people a day will become homeless over the next few months according to Shelter. Does it not now make sense to invest more in homeless advice, not less?

As I said, there is a difference between legal advice and general advice. We are investing in general advice.

Charnwood citizens advice bureau works very closely with my office in Loughborough on benefits matters. Will the Minister, when he has such discussions, tell the Department for Work and Pensions that it needs to simplify the benefits system as that would be of great assistance in helping to keep some cases away from the legal system and administrative tribunals in the first place?

I agree with my hon. Friend and can confirm that we are working very closely with the Department for Work and Pensions as part of its wider welfare reform programme to improve the quality and effectiveness of initial decision taking.

Lord Newton of Braintree, who was the Secretary of State for Social Security in a Conservative Government in the 1980s and early 1990s—in the days when the Conservative party won elections in its own right—said last week that 81% of all cases heard in the first-tier tribunals relating to benefits are to do with disability benefits. In 2009-10 an appellant at the first-tier tribunal who received advice before going to the tribunal was 78% more likely to win their appeal than an unadvised appellant. The advice that citizens advice bureaux, law centres and advice agencies give to their clients is very important. These are not fat-cat lawyers or litigious clients. Will the Government now accept the votes passed in the House of Lords over the past week, which will not only save taxpayers’ money in the medium to long term but will also avoid unnecessary misery and suffering for some of the most vulnerable in our society?

I have to say that the Government are disappointed by the position taken in the Lords and we will return to the issue when the Bill comes back to the Commons. We remain of the view that these cases are primarily about financial entitlement and as such do not raise the fundamental issues involved in cases concerning liberty or safety. I can say to the right hon. Gentleman that the user-friendly nature of the tribunal means that appellants can generally present their case without legal assistance.

If that is the case, why is the success rate 78% higher for those who do receive advice before they go to appeal? We have said from the outset that we agree that savings need to be made to the legal aid budget. If we were in government, we would be making cuts as well, but our values and connections with ordinary people mean that our priorities would be very different. Figures from the Ministry of Justice say that by the end of this Parliament, criminal legal aid provided largely by well-paid QCs, barristers and solicitors will be cut by 6%, whereas family legal aid will be cut by 29%, but social welfare legal aid, which is delivered by CABs, law centres and small voluntary organisations, at which some of the lowest-paid advisers and lawyers work, will be cut by 53%.

Will the Minister explain why the cuts are being made to the most vulnerable instead of to areas where cuts can be made more fairly?

We simply are not doing what the right hon. Gentleman suggests. Social welfare law will still receive £50 million in legal aid and we are redirecting the money we spend on legal aid towards helping the most vulnerable. When it comes to advice on benefits, people do not currently receive legal aid for representation. Before people go to appeal they will still be able to receive advice for many such cases from a general advice practitioner such as their local CAB.

Legal Aid (Litigants in Person)

8. What discussions he has had with the Lord Chief Justice on the potential effect of his planned changes to legal aid on the number of litigants in person. (99263)

10. What discussions he has had with the Lord Chief Justice on the potential effect of his planned changes to legal aid on the number of litigants in person. (99266)

Substantial numbers of cases already involve litigants in person, so the courts already deal with this situation. The Government recognise that the changes to legal aid are likely to increase the number of litigants in person. The evidence appears to show that some cases featuring litigants in person are resolved more quickly, whereas some cases take longer.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, but does he agree with the Lord Chief Justice that the Government’s Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill will have a negative effect on the justice system—yes or no?

Well, we have just discovered that the Labour party’s policy is to make substantial cuts in criminal legal aid. If the Government had made that proposal, that would no doubt have led to amazing attacks on our disregard for the principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty and to comments about the high risk of injustice in criminal trials. On the savings we are making in the cases to which the hon. Gentleman refers, the fact is that courts already deal with litigants in person. Any judge or tribunal knows that they have to pay particular attention to make sure that people are not disadvantaged by not having legal representation, but as the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), has just explained, we have tried to identify cases in which the informality of the tribunals means that applicants should not be at any particular disadvantage if they do not have a lawyer there in any event.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the additional cost that will be incurred by the legal system overall as a result of the increased numbers of litigants in person?

We are not persuaded that that will give rise to any increase in costs. Everybody accepts that cuts need to be made to legal aid. It is just that the Labour party is against every single cut that we suggest in particular. This cut is perfectly straightforward and will not give rise to the difficulties that the hon. Lady points out—[Interruption.] I can only say to the Opposition spokesman that he is obviously so discommoded by realising that he nearly gave out a policy on the subject a moment ago that he is getting rather carried away. We have carefully selected cuts in legal aid concerning less serious cases where cuts can be made without any risk to justice whatever.

The president of the family division gave evidence to the Justice Committee and said that he did not think that when a parent was disappointed not to have got legal aid for a contact or residence case, the parent should just say, “Well, never mind. Let’s forget about the child. I’m not going forward.” That person will go to court alone, taking twice as much time as a person represented. That will waste the judge’s and everybody else’s time, it will be hurtful for all concerned and it will damage the children as well.

In family justice we are placing much more emphasis on mediation, which should be much more comfortable for all the clients and will lead to a much easier and less traumatic resolution of many disputes. We are putting more money into mediation and more money into training for mediation. We should remember that the purpose of this public service is to resolve disputes with the minimum of cost and time and to take all the emotion out, so far as is possible, of these difficult family cases. Access to justice is access to the most civilised way of resolving disputes. Access to justice does not depend only on how many lawyers the taxpayer pays for to go into adversarial litigation on every such issue.

Domestic Violence

11. What recent representations he has received on the treatment of victims of domestic violence in the criminal justice system. (99267)

Improving the treatment of victims of domestic violence is a high priority for the Government, and I encourage organisations providing support to victims of domestic violence to give us their views in response to our consultation document, “Getting it right for victims and witnesses.”

Does the Minister agree that victims of domestic violence need safe refuge, an effective non-privatised police response and access to free legal aid advice? Are not his Government failing on all three?

No, they are not. Victims of domestic violence will continue to receive civil legal aid in order to apply for protective injunctions, and we will continue to waive the financial eligibility limits in those cases.

Public Order Convictions (Havering)

12. How many people in the London borough of Havering have been convicted of offences in connection with the public disorder in August 2011. (99268)

Data available on 1 February show that six people from Havering were convicted for their part in the public disorder of 6 to 9 August last year.

As the Minister knows, many of our courts worked extra long hours last August to ensure that many of those who engaged in the riots were dealt with very quickly. What lessons have the Government learned from that to ensure that our courts are more efficient in future?

We certainly were impressed by the speed with which the criminal justice system responded to the disorder, and we are grateful for the efforts of those working in it. Cases were dealt with in a matter of hours and days, rather than the routine, which can be weeks and months. We seek to learn the lessons from that and we will shortly come forward with proposals for how we can ensure that we have a justice system that is swifter and more sure.

Legal Aid (Victims of Domestic Violence)

14. What recent assessment he has made of the potential effect of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill on victims of domestic violence. (99270)

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill is designed to protect victims of domestic violence. It protects funding for advice and representation in private family matters for victims of domestic violence, as well as public funding in respect of protection orders for victims of domestic violence. We will also continue to waive financial eligibility limits in these cases.

I thank the Minister for that response, but he will be aware that when the matter was debated in another place, serious concerns were raised that genuine victims of domestic violence would not receive the legal aid support and ability to take action that they need, because of the legislation that the Government are bringing through. Organisations such as Refuge have expressed similar concerns. Will the Minister assure us that all victims of domestic violence will receive the help and support they need?

Again, the Government were disappointed by the position taken by the Lords and will return to the matter when the Bill comes back to the Commons. We are very concerned about the victims of domestic violence. Indeed, it was because we are removing legal aid for private family law that we realised there will be certain categories, such as domestic violence, that will not be suitable for mediation, which is why we are concentrating on that area.

It is widely recognised that specialist domestic violence courts have been very successful, but 23 of them are due to close. Will the Minister assure me that the expertise and multi-agency working that have been a feature of their success will continue in this changed landscape?

It is important to point out that those specialist domestic violence courts are closing not because of what they do, but because the courts in which they are based are closing. I am pleased to say that those specialist courts will be moving to other courts, so no specialist domestic violence courts will be lost.

Libel Laws

17. What recent progress he has made on his plans to reform libel laws; and if he will make a statement. (99273)

The Government’s response to the report of the Joint Committee on the draft Defamation Bill was published on 29 February. It set out the Government’s position on all the key issues. A substantive defamation Bill will be introduced as soon as parliamentary time allows.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer and hope that there will be time for the Bill in the Queen’s Speech. The Joint Committee recommended that qualified privilege should be extended to

“peer-reviewed articles in scientific or academic journals.”

Does he agree that it is in the public interest that scientists and other academics should be able to publish bona fide research results without fear and that, unless their publication is maliciously false, they should be protected from defamation actions?

One of the main reasons for publishing the draft Bill and looking at the law in that area was the fear that genuine academic and scientific debate was being stifled by the use of the defamation laws. We propose that peer-reviewed research should be protected and are now considering the draft of the final Bill in the light of the Joint Committee’s report. I will not anticipate the Queen’s Speech, but if we can include a defamation Bill, one of its principal objectives will be to deal with the very serious problem that the hon. Gentleman has identified.

European Court of Human Rights

When the Prime Minister addressed the Council of Europe in January, he set out our priorities for reform and how we intend to achieve them. We want reform to allow the Court better to fulfil the purpose for which it was intended: upholding human rights under the European convention on human rights and tackling serious violations of human rights across Europe.

I declare an interest, as I used to work for the Council of Europe and trained there. The coalition Government are absolutely right to prioritise reform of the Court’s procedures, because the backlog of cases and the skills of the Court need to be dealt with, but does the Secretary of State agree that we must continue to say that it is vital for this country, and all European countries, that we have a strong Court which can ensure that the rights of all European citizens are upheld, and upheld outside their own countries as well as within?

The convention applies, and the jurisdiction of the Court extends, to 47 member states, where we want to entrench the principles of liberal democracy, and it is in all our interests that we do so. The aim of our proposed reforms is to strengthen the Court and enable it to concentrate on the most serious cases requiring adjudication at international level. At the moment the Court is not functioning well because it has 150,000 cases in arrears, it take years to get a hearing and it has to deal with cases that are trivial, repetitive or have been properly dealt with at national level.

I seem to remember promising the electorate that we would bring in a Bill of Rights that would enable us to disregard some of the more barmy decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. Would the Secretary of State like to update us on our progress towards fulfilling that important commitment?

Different Conservative candidates put forward the campaign in different terms at the last election, and not for the first time, as you will know from your experience, Mr Speaker, and as I do from mine. As usual, I am sticking firmly to the policy of the Government of whom I am a serving member. The reasons we are reforming the Court were set out clearly in the terms of reference of the commission looking at the matter and in the Prime Minister’s speech to the Council of Europe, which I think coincide with my own views.

Prison Provision (Charities)

Charities can apply to qualify as tenders in prisons competitions, but it is unlikely that they will have the financial strength to take the legal and commercial risks of running a prison. None is on our current list of framework providers.

We are actively encouraging the participation of subcontractors, small and medium-size enterprises and voluntary and community sector organisations within the supply chain of custodial services. Fifteen such organisations attended the launch of the current round of prisons competitions.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Clearly, there are very good examples of charities working within prisons, and I urge him to work with some of them to see whether it is possible for them to take over a community-run prison that provides a local setting and a local response to offenders’ needs.

I am obviously delighted to recognise the valuable work of charities and of the voluntary sector in supporting the rehabilitation of offenders. It is the area of our society in which, if we can engage the voluntary sector in such work, we will find that there is significant extra capacity for people who want to do the right thing to help some of the most damaged and damaging people in society to go straight. We have to ensure that those links work and that people can do the work. As I have said, there will be concerns about whether a charity has the financial resources to underwrite the running of a prison, given the commercial and other risks concerned, but I welcome the general tenor of my hon. Friend’s remarks.

Community Service Sentences

It is for the court to determine whether an offence is serious enough to warrant the imposition of a community sentence. When a community sentence is imposed, we want to ensure that it is effective in stopping offending behaviour escalating to the point at which prison becomes the only option.

Hull Crown court recently found Lee Bates guilty of illegal moneylending, or loan sharking as most people call it. At least 17 victims and their families suffered from his exploitation, and he got 180 hours’ community service for pleading guilty, but surely such criminals should go to prison, should they not?

I cannot comment on that particular case, but in general we certainly believe that serious offenders—those offenders who have committed repeat offences—should be sent to prison, and that option remains for the courts. We believe also, however, that community sentences, when they are imposed, should be more rigorous and have a more punitive element, so that we can stop the escalation of offending which results in a custodial sentence. It is that escalation that we seek to avoid.

Metal Theft

21. What assessment he has made of the deterrent effect of sentencing on the incidence of metal theft. (99277)

We have not concluded a specific study on the deterrent effect of sentencing on the incidence of metal theft, but on Report in the other place we will table amendments to the Legal Aid, Punishment and Sentencing of Offenders Bill which would see unlimited fines for the more serious metal-dealing offences and raise the maximum penalty for more minor offences from level 1 to level 3. We also propose to prohibit cash payments for scrap metal.

I hope that the Minister is aware of the intensive campaign being run by Nottinghamshire trading standards and Nottinghamshire police to clamp down on metal theft, but can he reassure the House that he will take steps to ensure that the sentencing of those who deal in stolen metal is severe enough to put them off and reduce the market?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the advice on Nottinghamshire. I confess that I was not aware of that work, although I am aware of very good practice in the north-east, for example, and elsewhere in the country. But, of course, we do not propose those changes to the sentencing regime for that offence except to send a very clear message that it is an offence that can do very serious damage indeed.

Legal Aid (Litigants in Person)

22. What discussions he has had with the Lord Chief Justice on the potential effect of his planned changes to legal aid on the number of litigants in person. (99278)

I thought that I had already answered this question, which was grouped with Question 10. I said that a substantial number of cases already—

Order. May I just very gently say to the Secretary of State that he might have intended to group it but that, I am afraid, he neglected to do so? I know that the House will, however, enjoy hearing once again his mellifluous tones.

The courts already deal with litigants in person, and they are very used to dealing with that situation. We accept that the legal aid changes currently before the House of Lords will increase the number of litigants in person, but the evidence on the issue is very mixed, indicating that some cases are dealt with more quickly and others take longer. In fact, many such cases do not require legal representation at all.

The Justice Secretary is clear that the number of litigants representing themselves will increase. In drawing up his cuts in legal aid, did his Department make any assessment of increased costs, given that the Lord Chief Justice is concerned that courts could be swamped and that the cost to the taxpayer could be higher as a result of those cuts?

We see no evidence at all that this would give rise to increased costs. It is extremely difficult to anticipate precisely the effect of there being more litigants in person because the evidence is so mixed. We are concentrating, particularly in the family division, on dealing with more cases by way of mediation. Adversarial litigation is not always the best way of resolving problems; there are many better alternative ways of resolving disputes in suitable cases. We are putting more money into mediation and less into taxpayers paying for lawyers.

While I would like to argue that my right hon. and learned Friend owes a duty of care to our joint profession, does not experience tell us that people are not necessarily happiest when in the hands of lawyers?

I am sure that they are very happy when being advised by my hon. Friend or by me, but I have encountered examples of dissatisfaction in other cases. Most people dread a dispute in which they are involved having to go to court through the full legal process. Most disputes are settled by negotiation, but if the parties cannot do that, mediation is a very good way of resolving them, particularly in emotional family disputes. The whole justice system should be seen as a public service. We are seeking to resolve disputes in the quickest possible way at the least possible cost to the parties involved. It is too often thought that access to justice means that the taxpayer has to keep paying for more and more lawyers to take part in longer and longer litigation. That is not always the best way of resolving many things.

Broadcasting Court Proceedings

23. When he plans to bring forward legislative proposals to allow television recording and broadcasting of court proceedings. (99279)

As soon as parliamentary time allows, the Government plan to legislate to remove the ban on cameras in courts. We are working closely with the Lord Chief Justice, the judiciary and the broadcasters on achieving this.

I very much support the broadcasting of court proceedings because of the transparency that it will bring, but will my hon. Friend confirm whether a fee will be charged to broadcasters for the use of the material so that the cost does not fall on to the taxpayer?

I can assure my hon. Friend that the negotiations that are being conducted with broadcasters are taking place on the basis that they will be paying for the service.

Topical Questions

Today is the fifth anniversary of the Corston report, which called for radical change in the way that women are treated throughout the criminal justice system. I am sure that the hon. Member for Darlington (Mrs Chapman) will be pleased to hear me say that there have been real improvements in the five years since the report, including significant investment in women’s community centres to address the underlying causes of women’s offending, such as drug and alcohol addiction, mental health issues, and often long histories of abuse. We are fully committed to addressing women’s offending, for their own good and that of the public. The National Offender Management Service has committed to an additional £3.5 million each year to continue to fund 30 women’s community services. Women offenders will also be included in two payment-by-results pilot areas to link productive work to reducing reoffending.

In these tough economic times, more people are borrowing money, getting into debt and, sadly, having to deal with the bailiffs, who are, on occasion, aggressive and intrusive. What is being done to ensure that creditors and debtors are aware of their rights and responsibilities?

The Government are clear that aggressive bailiff activity is unacceptable, and we are committed to bringing forward effective proposals that protect the public and ensure that such action is proportionate. We have made a start by publishing our updated national standards for enforcement agents, and we have followed that up with a consultation paper issued on 17 February on a new, legally binding regulatory regime for bailiffs.

Before the contract with Applied Language Solutions for court interpreting started this year, the Minister was warned that it would fail by almost every qualified interpreter, by Labour Members, by Back Benchers of all parties in a debate here last November, by the Lord Chancellor’s own constituents at his surgery—so they tell me—and even by ALS itself. The contract has failed, so why did he decide to risk £300 million of public funds with an untried, small-time company?

Even in the spendthrift days of the previous Administration, it was noticed that there was something wrong with the cost of interpreters in the justice system. The previous Administration began the process that led to the contract being awarded to ALS. It is not a small company, because it is now backed by Capita. There was a pilot over six to eight weeks in the north-west, which gave no indication of the problems. Within two weeks of the national roll-out, when the problems became clear, the Ministry of Justice procurement people were across the problems at ALS and measures were put in place to put right the problems. Some of the problems, strangely enough, came from the interpreters who, on finding that under the new payment regime they could no longer earn six-figure salaries, as they could under the previous Administration, did not co-operate. They are now doing so.

In his staggering complacency, the Minister fails to grapple with the fact that every day, when ALS interpreters fail to show up, defendants are being remanded in custody or released with no consideration of the evidence, trials are collapsing or being postponed, and the potential for miscarriages of justice is huge, as is the loss of public money, which dwarfs the alleged savings. Will he suspend the contract and order an immediate investigation into how this disaster happened on his watch?

I would be slightly more inclined to take lessons from the hon. Gentleman if he was even vaguely on the money. Within two weeks of the contract going nationwide, the Ministry of Justice was right across the problems and put in place an action plan to address them. The idea that we are not interested in the matter, when we are making £18 million of savings in the provision of interpreters under a process that was commenced under the previous Administration and after interpreters had been grossly overpaid and had taken advantage of the system that was in place under that Administration, is beyond belief.

T5. The Secretary of State will be aware that the Prime Minister said on 25 January of the European Court of Human Rights that,“we are hoping to get consensus on strengthening subsidiarity—the principle that where possible, final decisions should be made nationally.”Does the Secretary of State agree with me that subsidiarity should start and end with votes for prisoners in this country? (99284)

The statement that my hon. Friend just read out is the basis on which we are negotiating with the other members of the Council of Europe on reform of the Court in Strasbourg, which everybody agrees needs reform urgently. The principle of subsidiarity is very important. We are not negotiating on existing judgments on any subject. Obviously, we are trying to comply with the obligations of the European convention on human rights in a more effective manner, which I think the courts in this country usually do in their judgments.

Prisoner voting is an entirely separate matter, which the House has already considered. The latest stage is that the Attorney-General has been making representations on behalf of the British Government in an Italian case on which we are awaiting a judgment. The issue is therefore still under legal review.

T2. Will the Justice Secretary say when decisions on the Green Paper on justice and security are likely to be taken? Will he confirm that the devolved Administrations will be fully consulted on those decisions, particularly in respect of aspects that will affect devolved functions? (99281)

We will come forward with a Bill as soon as parliamentary time arises. We will, of course, respond to the consultation before that. We are liaising and consulting closely with the devolved Administrations, because there will be implications for them. We will make progress in the fairly near future.

T7. There are considerable concerns about the proposals for elements of court hearings to be heard in private. Will the Secretary of State reassure the House that one of the reasons for that solution is that it will safeguard national security by protecting information that comes from our foreign allies? (99286)

Yes, I can. The aim is to combine that purpose with getting a proper judicial decision on disputed cases, in which allegations or claims are made or in which matters have to be inquired into, that is better than the conclusions that we get currently. There is no system in the world in which spies give evidence in open court, naming their sources, describing their techniques and giving the full facts that the intelligence service has at its command to the public at large. At the moment, all that happens when such evidence is relevant is that it is not given and no satisfactory conclusion is ever reached. We have addressed that in the Green Paper that we have published.

T3. The Lord Chancellor will know that the ALS interpreters’ contractor has been an unmitigated disaster, and I can provide specific examples of cases in my constituency. If it is about saving money, will he tell us how many hearings have had to be adjourned or postponed due to the fiasco? (99282)

There will be a full presentation of all the statistics and evidence relevant to the matter. I assure the hon. Gentleman that matters are in hand and that ALS’s performance is improving significantly. Particular problems remain with two nationality groups of interpreters, who are causing difficulties, but plans are in hand for them, too. [Interruption.] I do not wish to name them at the moment. The matter was in hand within two weeks of the system’s going live. There are weekly reports to me and daily management oversight from the Ministry of Justice. The matter is improving.

T8. Until now, prisoners who were on the run often managed to stay on the run because the authorities were unable to name them. That is an obvious barrier to their recapture, so will the Minister outline his plans for improving that state of affairs? (99287)

We were concerned that there was a belief that it was not possible to name offenders on the run for reasons of, for instance, data protection or human rights. When offenders are unlawfully at large, it must make sense for there to be a presumption that they can be named by the authorities. The Government will take steps to ensure that that is made clear and that there will be such naming unless there are specific operational reasons why that would not make sense.

T4. The Office for Judicial Complaints has been investigating the poor performance of the Teesside coroner since August but, seven months on, we still have no indication of when the investigation will conclude. Has the Minister set a finish date for the investigation? When will matters improve? Has he merely kicked the subject into the long grass? (99283)

I can assure you, Mr Speaker, that we have not kicked the matter into the long grass. It is a judicial investigation and it must take its course.

T10. Last year, the Government found it necessary to close several smaller courts because of low utilisation rates, particularly in rural areas such as Norfolk. Will the Minister update the House on the effect of those closures on court efficiency in the remaining courts? (99289)

The efficiency of the courts is being improved because of the closures. We have now closed 130 of the 142 that were on the closure list. In all cases, the closures have gone very well and magistrates have all transferred to local, surrounding courts.

T6. It is clear that the ALS contract is a disaster, but I would like to question the Secretary of State and Ministers about the impact on the deaf community. The resulting poor employment conditions have forced British sign language interpreters into other work, contributing to a trend of recruiting BSL interpreters who may not be fully qualified, which may lead to a miscarriage of justice. What safeguards are in place to ensure that deaf people—a protected group with protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010—and their officially recognised language, BSL, are afforded proper regard, enabling them to have fair and proper access to justice? (99285)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and I undertake to look into any actions that are happening with regard to deaf people. However, there are not necessarily comparisons and precise parallels to be drawn between ordinary language interpreters and translators for the deaf. I will consider her points and come back to her.

With a senior CIA official stating that there has been no drop in the intelligence exchange between the US and the UK, with the current inquest system providing greater certainty than the proposed alternative that families will find out why their loved ones died, and with closed material proceedings introducing, according to Lord Kerr, untested evidence into court, will the Secretary of State explain why we need the Green Paper on justice and security?

When we share intelligence with other friendly countries, we do so on the basis that we will not disclose that intelligence to the outside world. The moment doubt is aroused about whether or not intelligence remains secure once it is given to the British intelligence community, there is a damaging effect on the willingness of other intelligence communities to share information with us. I have no control over the American intelligence service or any other, and we have to respond to reality in this extremely difficult world. As I have already said, in the case of inquests or civil courts and sensitive material that cannot be given in public, the alternative is that the evidence is not given at all, and everybody remains dissatisfied by the outcome.

Order. It is always a pleasure to hear the Secretary of State, but on account of the level of demand, I am afraid that he has to be subject to rationing.

T9. I am sure I will not be the only Member of the House to have been dismayed by the Secretary of State’s last answer. Yet again the Government seem to think they know better than the Royal British Legion and service personnel on this matter. Service families want justice done in the open for loved ones killed in action. Why will he not listen to their rejection of the secret inquests he has proposed in the justice and security Green Paper, or will he answer again that the Government know best? (99288)

I am sorry that the British Legion seems to be getting carried away with another campaign, this time based on “secret justice” conspiracy theories that are being put around. I am not normally attacked by people for, or accused of having, an ill-regard for the principles of justice or for my reactionary views on closing things off from the public. The fact is that military families, like everybody else, understand that military intelligence officers, for example, cannot always give full evidence in open hearing about all their activities. However, the particular difficulties of inquests and other hearings are addressed in the Green Paper on which we are now consulting. We must strike the right balance in the very rare cases in which intelligence that puts national security and individual safety at risk is involved. One part of that balance is the undoubted needs of open justice, which should be done wherever it is remotely possible.

This splendid Secretary of State has always been open to novel ideas to solve important problems. Has he looked at my Bill that would allow us to withdraw temporarily from the European Court of Human Rights to deport terrorists? Does he think it might have some merit?

I am glad to know that my hon. Friend is, as ever, on the side of moderation—he suggests not necessarily leaving or remaining, but temporarily withdrawing, which is obviously in his opinion the middle path. I am awaiting the advice of the independent commission that we have appointed, which I have not interfered with at all, and which is seeking to get to some conclusions. I am also awaiting the results of negotiations with 47 other countries that are signatories to the European convention on human rights.

Does the Justice Secretary agree that, no matter how much sympathy we have for the personal suffering of our fellow men and women, only Parliament can change the law of murder and permit someone to take their own life by their own hand or to be assisted in doing so by doctors or others?

That is rather relevant to a case that is currently being heard and I do not think I can possibly comment on it. I await with interest the judgment, as the case has been allowed to be taken to the High Court of Justice.