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Topical Questions

Volume 542: debated on Tuesday 13 March 2012

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.