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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 545: debated on Tuesday 15 May 2012


The Secretary of State was asked—

Imprisonment (Crime Rate)

1. Whether he has made an assessment of any correlation between the size of the prison population and the crime rate; and if he will make a statement. (106574)

May I first offer to the House the apologies of the Secretary of State for Justice and the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice? My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor is on a visit to Russia, where he will be speaking at the international legal forum to promote United Kingdom legal services overseas. The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice is attending the Police Federation conference. Those engagements were made before the changed dates for departmental oral questions became clear following Prorogation.

Turning to Question 1, the evidence report that we published alongside the “Breaking the Cycle” Green Paper shows that there is no clear consensus among experts about the link between the size of the prison population and crime levels. A further Government assessment of the evidence for a correlation illustrates that the causes of crime are complex and that there is no simple link between prison population size and crime levels. We will publish that assessment in due course.

I thank the Minister for that answer and congratulate him on pursuing a traditional Conservative agenda. In 2010-11, the crime rate dropped by 3%. At the same time, the prison population rose from 84,700 to 86,000. If the Minister is looking for a justification for following that strategy, I commend to him the House of Commons Library. I asked it to track the prison population and the crime rate since the war. Its conclusion was that the charts suggest that in England and Wales increases in prison population have tended to occur at a similar time to falls in levels of recorded crime.

My hon. Friend has made himself an authority in this area. He will know, therefore, that international experience is different from what he has described. The relationship between the level of crime and the level of incarceration differs across the world. The experience of countries such as Germany, Spain, Finland, Netherlands and Canada, and the state of New York, tends to contradict his analysis, while the experience of Florida and Denmark tends to support it. There is no clear evidence of such a simple relationship as he suggests.

How many prisoners who come under the category of “prisoners protesting innocence” have gone way over their tariff, with the Parole Board refusing to release them because they refuse to admit that they were guilty, even though some of them may have served 25 years?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. I do not know the precise answer and suspect that it would be difficult to get the precise data to analyse the problem. There is such a problem, not least with sex offenders, who are often reluctant to engage with the system and often protest their innocence when they are not innocent. It is a problem to get such people to engage with offender behaviour programmes. The hon. Lady is right that there is a class of prisoner who does not engage in that way, rightly or wrongly, and who presents the system with particular problems. I will follow up that matter.

Presuming that, even under the prescription of my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), most prisoners will eventually be released, is there not a danger that putting massive expenditure into an ever-increasing prison population would mean cutting expenditure to ensure that when people are released, they do not commit more crimes?

My right hon. Friend is, of course, correct. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is fond of the American experience, where 2 million people are in prison. The logical result of that is the experience in California, where the prison system has become so overcrowded and inhumane that the Supreme Court of the United States has ordered the Californians to release 30,000 prisoners within two years to sort out the prison system. We certainly do not want to find ourselves in that situation.

I welcome the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara) to the Front Bench to answer Justice questions. It is surely only a matter of time before the Prime Minister makes the move permanent. As has been said, half the ministerial team are not here today. For our part, we are flattered that both the Justice Secretary and the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice are running scared. Let us wait and see whether it makes a difference to the Front Benchers’ performance.

I will begin with an easy one. Do this Conservative-led Government still have a target of reducing the prison population by 3,000 from what it was in May 2010?

First, I am gratified by the confidence that the Justice Secretary and the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice have in the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), and in my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), our departmental Whip, who is also responding as a Minister.

We have never had a target. We have an estimate of what is happening and an estimate of the consequences of our policies.

Sir David Latham, the former chairman of the Parole Board and Court of Appeal judge, who retired last month, has warned that due to decisions made by this Government, the only way to prevent a backlog of those who have completed their sentence is to change how the Parole Board reaches decisions, which means it

“may not actually be as effective in protecting the public”.

Does the Minister accept that by abolishing indeterminate sentences for public protection the Government are removing from the Parole Board the responsibility to deal properly with the most violent and serious offenders and taking a risk with public safety?

Absolutely not. The right hon. Gentleman’s attempt to juxtapose Sir David Latham’s points with the conduct of the current Government is pretty rich, given that the problem that we inherited came from the shambles of the administration of IPPs. The Labour Government estimated that there would be 900 such sentences, but we now have about 6,500 people in the prison system on IPPs, more than half of them beyond tariff. That presents the Parole Board with a huge problem, which his party’s Administration did not address in delivering its resources until far too late. The current Administration are now gripping all of that.

No Win, No Fee Arrangements

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 received Royal Assent on 1 May. Part 2 of the Act contains provisions that will fundamentally reform no win, no fee agreements to make them fairer between claimants and defendants. The changes will come into effect in April 2013, and we will set out more details about their implementation in due course.

The Government agreed to review no win, no fee arrangements for victims of mesothelioma and their families, possibly just to get the Bill through the House of Lords. Mesothelioma is a terrible disease, and everybody who suffers from it dies a terrible death. What will the Minister do to ensure that victims and their families are properly protected, in light of the review?

It is true to say that the issue was heavily debated during the passage of the Bill. I am pleased to note that all parties in the House reached an agreed way forward. The Government are therefore committed to action on mesothelioma, and various proposals about the claims process are being considered. I am sure the House will understand that it would be inappropriate to draw up the terms of reference now for a review that will not take place for some time, but we will share details of the review process in due course.

One of the worst mistakes that our last Government made was bringing in no win, no fee. It has Americanised our legal aid system and brought in a risk-averse culture and a load of ambulance chasers, so I welcome what the Government are doing. Will the Minister confirm that he will not let it rest there, that no win, no fee is now under a real review and that we will not tolerate the behaviour that we have seen in recent years?

We are retaining no win, no fee for conditional fee agreements, but we are getting rid of the reforms that the Labour Government put in place whereby success fees and after-the-event insurance were recoverable. We will effectively return to the position of the last Conservative Government, which I hope and expect will put balance back into the claims equation.

To get his Bill through, the Minister promised a 10% uplift in general damages and protection from costs for losing personal injury claimants. Those are poor substitutes for the current rules that his friends in the insurance industry wanted rid of, but where are those concessions? Are they more broken promises?

No. All those procedures are being put in place, not least because of our concern to retain access to justice. As the hon. Gentleman said, we are introducing several measures that will help personal injury claimants pay their solicitors’ success fees and, if necessary, insurance premiums. For example, there will be a 10% increase in general damages, and we are introducing a system of qualified one-way costs shifting, which will be in place before the Act commences next April.

Victim Support

3. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on ensuring quality services for victims after the election of police and crime commissioners. (106576)

12. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on ensuring quality services for victims after the election of police and crime commissioners. (106585)

Our consultation, “Getting it right for victims and witnesses” closed on 22 April. We are considering the responses to it, which included views on quality, and aim to publish the Government’s response soon. The Home Secretary and her Department are engaged with all stages of the process.

Mervyn Bishop of Victim Support in Hull recently told me of his concerns about the White Paper proposals, to which the Under-Secretary just referred, to devolve victim support services to police and crime commissioners, with an additional cost of £21 million. With some victims of crime who are now defined as “not in the greatest need” being no longer eligible for support after a crime, what will the Under-Secretary do to ensure that PCCs will target effectively those who are in the greatest need?

That is why we are in the process of considering all the responses to the consultation. Victim Support has a particular set of organisational interests, because it is a national organisation and most victim services are commissioned nationally. However, I do not recognise the figure of £20 million. We should remember that we are raising another £50 million to add to the £66 million already paid for victim services. That money will come from offenders, which is where it ought to come from. The environment for delivering victim services will be considerably improved, whatever cast one puts on it.

Does that mean that the Ministry of Justice will ring-fence funding for police and crime commissioners to provide support for victims and witnesses?

The hon. Gentleman, like everyone else, will have to wait for our response to the consultation. [Interruption.] As the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) knows perfectly well, we have gone through an entirely proper process and we will publish it for the House when we are ready and have fully considered all the responses to the consultation, which include answers to questions such as the hon. Gentleman’s.

Which crimes does the Under-Secretary consider to be so serious that they will require a minimum guaranteed level of support to victims from the police and crime commissioners?

We are looking at local commissioning of victim support services by police and crime commissioners. Then we must make a decision about which victim support services are commissioned locally and which remain to be commissioned nationally. The homicide service and rape support centres are currently commissioned nationally. After the consultation, we will consider the matter and reach our decision about whether those services should be retained nationally.

Does the Under-Secretary agree that one of the greatest needs for victims beyond seeking justice is timely information—what Louise Casey has called “relentless information”? Will my hon. Friend assure me that all steps are being taken with the Home Office to ensure that victims are treated not as an afterthought, but as a priority when information is released?

I can definitely say yes to my hon. Friend. There has been a steady improvement in services to victims and witnesses in the past two decades. The resources that we are making available from offenders and the move to restorative justice are part of a much wider process of engaging victims much more centrally in the criminal justice system. I am therefore very happy to give my hon. Friend a positive response.

The Government’s plans to break up the national infrastructure that supports victims and witnesses has been described as “unworkable, damaging and dangerous.” We are just a few months away from elections, yet the Government’s approach to victims’ services is a shambles. Given how unpopular transferring victims’ services to PCCs is proving to be, when will the Justice Secretary—wherever he is—set out exactly what services will be maintained nationally, what will go out to local commissioning, and what safeguards will be in place to avoid the damaging and dangerous break-up of crucial support for victims? We need to know now, not in months to come.

We need to know, and the House will know, when we have come to a considered view, answered all these questions and gone through the normal processes and assessments of government. That is entirely normal. The hon. Gentleman will get the answers to all his questions when we publish our confirmed proposals.

European Court of Human Rights

4. What assessment he has made of progress in reforming the operation of the European Court of Human Rights; and if he will make a statement. (106577)

8. What assessment he has made of progress in reforming the operation of the European Court of Human Rights; and if he will make a statement. (106581)

19. What assessment he has made of progress in reforming the operation of the European Court of Human Rights; and if he will make a statement. (106596)

Good progress has been made in clearing the backlog of inadmissible cases, but more work is needed to address the growing backlog of admissible cases, hence the recent Brighton declaration under the UK’s chairmanship of the Council of Europe, which represents a substantial and important step towards realising the Government’s ambitions.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the European Court should be a court of last resort and end the practice of revisiting domestic courts’ decisions when it does not need to do so?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. We expect the effect of the reforms agreed under the Brighton declaration to be that more cases are resolved at the national level, which should mean that fewer cases are considered by the Court.

In welcoming these reforms, my constituents fear that they might not be acted upon. What can my hon. Friend do to ensure that the Strasbourg Court recognises the will of this national Parliament?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Under the Brighton declaration, we have agreed a framework for longer term reform, with built-in review points up until 2019, to give impetus to the measures proposed under the Brighton declaration and to consider whether further measures are needed. We will, of course, continue to monitor progress.

One of the problems with the European Court is its huge backlog of cases. What does my hon. Friend think the Government can do to reform the Court so that frivolous cases are not brought and the only cases brought are those of the nature of serious human rights breaches?

This is a major issue. The measures agreed under the Brighton declaration will make a big difference once implemented. More cases should be resolved at the national level, which should mean that fewer cases are considered by the Court. Where cases go to Strasbourg, the Court should be able to focus more on the important cases and do so more quickly.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his elevation to the Dispatch Box. I hope very much that his temporary promotion will be made permanent in the imminent reshuffle. The hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) mentioned the backlog, which is now 152,000 cases. Does the hon. Gentleman not think it important to have a fast-track system through the European Court for national security cases?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. With the Brighton declaration, we have ensured that fewer cases go to Strasbourg and that those cases that can be handled at the national level are held and dealt with at the national level. That means that fewer cases will go to Strasbourg and that the important ones—we hope that only the important ones will go there—will be dealt with a lot quicker.

If the hon. Gentleman eventually finds time to bring forward a British Bill of Rights, what elements of the Human Rights Act does he think will be in it?

We certainly are considering a British Bill of Rights. We would take into account the various issues concerning Britain and ensure that freedoms and liberties were enhanced, so we would hope that a Bill of Rights would build on the terms of the convention. On the specific measures, we are signed up to the convention, so the whole of it would apply.

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm, after giving that last reply, that there are no long-term plans to leave the European Court of Human Rights or to amend or leave the convention?

I can happily tell the hon. Gentleman that we have no plans to leave the convention. We are signed up to it, along with the other 46 nations, but where we see the need for change, we will ensure that those changes take place, in the same way that changes took place in Brighton last month.

Rehabilitation of Offenders

5. What recent representations he has received on the operation of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. (106578)

We receive regular correspondence on the operation of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. Following consultation and consideration of the representations received, the Government have introduced a package of reforms to the Act, through the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which recently received Royal Assent.

Although I welcome the changes made in the 2012 Act, will the hon. Gentleman consider some loopholes that might be closed? A few months ago I brought up the case in the Chamber of a constituent, an ex-miner who had been fined 28 years ago for stealing a bag of coal in the middle of the miners’ strike. He subsequently tried for a job in a care home as a groundsman. He was offered the job, but it was then withdrawn. That seems ridiculous, because the job had nothing directly to do with the people in the care home, and he had not been accused of—

I am very pleased to finish with one, Mr Speaker. The CRB check should not apply in the case of my constituent, so will the hon. Gentleman look at the loopholes?

I am aware of the right hon. Lady’s interest in this matter. The vast majority of occupations for which people may make applications do not require a CRB search. Only a small number require a search, and even in those cases there are three categories of CRB searches. Searches are required for the occupations that are listed in the exceptions order to the 1974 Act, which involve sensitive issues or where people are dealing with children, vulnerable adults and so on. We have that list of people to ensure risk management in employment and the protection and detection of crime.

I thank the hon. Gentleman; I, too, welcome him to the Dispatch Box. It is a pleasure to hear him. We need now—not on account of the hon. Gentleman’s answers, but more generally—to make somewhat brisker progress.

Probation Services

On 27 March the Government published a consultation entitled “Punishment and Reform: Effective Probation Services”, which is looking at a wide range of options for service improvements. Alongside it is a consultation on the overhaul of community sentences, aimed at delivering effective and credible punishments. We will publish our response to both consultations in the autumn.

According to recent press reports, the London Probation Trust is due to run a research project later this year that would require offenders in Bexley and Bromley to report to electronic kiosks, as opposed to trained probation staff. What reassurance can the Minister give me that the trial will not endanger the public, and how can he be sure that the machines will be as capable as human beings are of detecting the early warning signs that offenders may be posing an increased risk to the public?

The hon. Lady raises the proper concerns associated with the scheme: that is why it is a trial and a pilot. We will assess it, and the London Probation Trust will help other probation trusts come to a conclusion on the merits of such supervision.

Northumbria Probation Trust has received the best inspection result of any trust from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation. How will the Secretary of State ensure that probation trusts continue to be effective in protecting the public and reducing reoffending following the probation review, which proposes that offender management be fragmented across a wider range of providers?

Improvement of offender management for all our offenders is absolutely at the heart of the probation review. With the proposed reorganisation of probation we will be getting much greater offender management, with a focus by the probation service on reducing reoffending among those receiving community sentences. The outcome of our proposals will therefore be a very much improved offender management picture right across the country.

The Prison Service spends time and taxpayers’ money detoxing those who enter our prisons with alcohol and drug problems. However, I was shocked to find that taxpayers’ money is then spent on retoxing prisoners for their eventual release at the end of their sentences. Does the Minister agree that funding a drug habit—which is often the cause of an offender’s entering prison in the first place—makes the probation service’s job so much more difficult and is not a good use of taxpayers’ money?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. She will be as pleased as I am to hear that there has been a change in the clinical policy within prisons in regard to how detoxification is undertaken, resulting in a much stronger emphasis on abstinence than on maintenance. We now need to get right the transition of drug-addicted offenders from custody to the community.

Private Sector Prisons

Our plans for competing custodial services are set out in the “Competition Strategy for Offender Services”, published in July 2011. That involves the competing of eight prisons, seven of which are currently in the public sector. We are considering bids from seven providers, including the public sector Prison Service, which has partnered with Mitie and with the Shaw Trust and Working Links in the third sector. That means that even if the public sector-led bid wins all the contracts, the use of private company management will have been extended as a result of this round of competition. We will announce the services selected for phase 3 of the prisons competition in November this year.

I congratulate Ministers on introducing private sector disciplines into the Prison Service faster than any of their predecessors. Payment by results will mean that contractors will be rewarded if they cut reoffending rates when prisoners leave jail, and penalised if they do not do so. When does the Minister expect the first benefits of that policy to be seen?

My hon. Friend has finely summed up the positive benefits of our policy. The first benefits are already being seen in the payment-by-results programmes in the Peterborough and Doncaster prisons. We should remember that the Doncaster prison proposal came forward from Serco, which is rebidding to manage a prison that it already runs. It is proposing to put part of its contract price at risk against its performance in driving down the reoffending rate.

Is there a maximum number or percentage of prisons that the Government are willing to have run by the private sector?

We have said that we do not intend to compete in the high-security estate. There is a limit on how fast the private sector could absorb new prisons and on the capacity of the Ministry of Justice to compete prisons. There is no stated policy, but there are practical restrictions on the speed with which we can increase private sector provision.

Small Claims Courts

The Government announced in their response to the “Solving Disputes” consultation paper on 9 February that the general limit for cases in the small claims track will be increased from £5,000 to £10,000 next year. In addition, we are proposing that all small claims are assessed for mediation, to support our policy that cases that can be kept out of court should be kept out of court.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he believe that more could be done to ensure that, when those courts decide on a claim, they can enforce the decision and collect the money involved?

Yes; courts offer several types of enforcement method which, collectively, are intended to make it as difficult as possible for debtors to avoid their responsibilities. We are currently reviewing how those enforcement methods might be improved and modernised, in particular through updating information orders and requests, which can be an important step in calculating the assets of the debtor.

Rape (Victim Anonymity)

It is an offence to breach the anonymity of a complainant in a case of rape or any sexual offence. Allegations that a complainant has been named will be investigated.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that response, and I hope that he shares my concern at the online outing of the victim in the Ched Evans rape case who had her name emblazoned all over the social media. I am pleased that a number of arrests have been made, but does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that rape victims will be even less likely to come forward if they think that they might be outed in this way?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. I want to make it absolutely clear that the anonymity of rape victims is there for life. When it is breached, the full force of the law must be brought to bear. My understanding of the case that she mentions is that, as at 10 May, 13 people had been arrested. It is right that the law should be enforced, but it is also noteworthy that we clearly need to monitor the internet and ensure that we supervise it a lot better than we perhaps have in times past.

I wonder whether my hon. Friend could help, as there is growing concern about the use of Twitter in the ways described, but for other criminal offences. What actions are the Government taking to make sure that people are not allowed to hide behind their own anonymity when they tweet or use the internet in this way, which is to commit a criminal offence?

It is most interesting to hear the hon. Lady’s thoughts, but they are relevant in this context only in relation to victims in rape cases, not more widely. That is what the question is about. We are immensely grateful for the hon. Lady’s musings, but I am not sure that they entirely pertinent to the matter under discussion.

Briefly, I am aware that where breaches have occurred through the use of Twitter, the Communications Act 2003 has been used as a basis for taking action. My hon. Friend thus raises a good point, and I am happy to say that law enforcement is taking its course.


The Defamation Bill has been introduced into this House as part of the Government's programme for this Session. The text of the Bill and accompanying explanatory notes were published on 11 May.

I thank the Minister for that answer. After campaigning for many years for libel reform, it was excellent to see the Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech and published—and in better form than it was in the draft, which says something about pre-legislative scrutiny. I particularly welcome the protection for academic and scientific articles and for operators of websites. The Bill talks about regulations applying to website operators to deal with anonymity and other issues. There are many nuances to that, so will the Government publish a draft of that order together with the Bill?

My hon. Friend sat on the Joint Committee and I know that he has long taken an interest in matters pertaining to scientific freedoms. I fully agree that we must ensure that the threat of libel proceedings is not used to frustrate scientific and academic debate and that the law must be reformed to provide an appropriate libel regime for publications on the internet. The Defamation Bill aims to address both those areas fairly and effectively. I look forward to further debate as it proceeds.

What discussions has the Minister had with his Scottish counterparts about the Government’s proposed reforms, and what assessment has he made of their impact on Scotland?

I am not the lead Minister on the Bill, as it has been led from the House of Lords. I am sure, however, that I will have discussions with my Scottish counterparts before long.

In order to save the Northern Ireland courts and the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland from becoming, in the words of Geoffrey Robertson, QC, who works for the United Nations, “an international laughing stock” in defamation cases, have the Government decided to abolish the arcane defamation crime of “scandalising” judges, thus protecting the rights of Members freely to express their views in this House without hindrance from the courts?

That is not part of the Bill as it stands. No doubt, from what the hon. Gentleman says, this is a matter that will be discussed.

Prisons (Literacy)

The basic skills of English and mathematics underpin almost all other learning. Assessing prisoners’ learning needs, and then meeting them, is at the heart of the reforms set out in “Making Prisons Work: Skills for Rehabilitation”, the new offender learning strategy published jointly last year with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Given that a large number of prisoners do not accept the formal education system within the prison, what measures can the Minister use to encourage the Shannon trust’s “toe-by-toe” mentoring scheme?

I recently met David Ahern, the chief executive of the Shannon Trust, and I assured him that we will continue to support his excellent scheme. I would be surprised if the new arrangements we have put in place for getting the commissioning of offender learning much closer to prisons and the institutions themselves did not see a much greater take-up of schemes such as toe-by-toe.

In view of the very poor performance in Ofsted inspections of provision by A4e, which provides much of the education in prisons, what conversations has the Minister had with colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills about how, when the contract is re-let, the quality of provision and the achievements of the prisoners will be at the fore of decision making about who should provide it?

I understand that a written ministerial statement has been made today by the Department for Work and Pensions in respect of A4e, which will be of interest to the hon. Lady and the House. In addition, a review of offender learning has been undertaken by the Skills Funding Agency. It was organised by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and I am happy to say that its findings have been positive as far as A4e is concerned—I know that will be of interest to the House. As for the future provision of offender learning, we are going through a re-tendering process, whereby prison governors involved in clusters of prisons that represent the offender’s journey through the system are able to ensure that they are satisfied with what is being commissioned into their prisons. That will mean a much more satisfactory state of affairs than we have had before.

Prisons (Training)

Following the joint Ministry of Justice and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills review of offender learning, we are enabling prison governors to determine jointly with the Skills Funding Agency the procurement of training in their prisons. The relative priority for that, set against a falling overall budget for the MOJ and BIS, is shown by the fact that funding is being maintained at £154 million per academic year for the programme.

I recently visited Standford Hill prison in my constituency, where I saw inmates being trained to make optical lenses by Tanjit Singh Dosanjh, who undertakes the training on a voluntary basis. Unfortunately, Mr Dosanjh will not be able to offer that service free of charge indefinitely, so will my hon. Friend consider formalising Mr Dosanjh’s scheme to enable it to continue?

We are always keen to support work and training initiatives in prison and with offenders. A significant number of policy initiatives are now coming forward that might be able to incorporate the kind of service and training that Mr Dosanjh is offering, and I will ask my officials to contact him to see what might be possible.

Magistrates Hearings

15. Whether he plans to bring forward proposals to enable magistrates to sit in community centres and police stations. (106591)

We are currently developing a programme of reforms that will deliver swift, sure and visible justice—we intend to publish details shortly. As part of that, we are considering new and innovative ways to involve magistrates in delivering justice, and we will work with magistrates to develop these plans.

What credence does the Minister give to press reports that police stations could be used as magistrates courts? In relation to these innovations, how many more magistrates will he need, and what will the cost be?

I had not heard that, but it sounds as though the hon. Gentleman could be confusing it with virtual courts, where the courtroom is extended into the police station. The defendant would be in the police station, with the defence counsel either in the police station or in the magistrates court, but the magistrates would still be in the magistrates court.

An efficient and flexible justice system was demonstrated last summer in the response to the riots by all in the Courts Service and the Crown Prosecution Service, and it is to be commended. Does my hon. Friend therefore agree that it is right that an open mind is kept as to how justice can best be administered in local communities?

It is very important to maintain justice at the core of summary justice and in the localities. I should say that neighbourhood justice panels are not about recreating magistrates courts, because, as panels, they reach restorative outcomes by consensus; magistrates would not be exercising any judicial powers in this capacity.

Bill of Rights

In accordance with its published terms of reference, the commission should aim to report no later than by the end of 2012.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Will he update us on the work being undertaken by the commission?

Last year, the Government received advice from the commission on reform of the European Court of Human Rights, which was taken into account in negotiations to agree the Brighton declaration. The commission’s website contains minutes of its meetings and details of seminars, as well as information regarding the public consultation held last year. The topics considered so far include: reform of the Strasbourg Court; possible options for a UK Bill of Rights; parliamentary sovereignty; and issues relating to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Government look forward to receiving the commission’s final report by the end of this year.

Is there any chance that the commission’s recommendations might include a recognition of the common-sense view that when people trample on the human rights of others, they should abrogate some of their own human rights?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that comment. This is an independent commission and it is not for me to say what it will eventually conclude, so I am afraid that we will simply have to wait for the final outcome.

Pleural Plaques

17. What recent representations he has received on arrangements for compensation claims by people with pleural plaques. (106593)

Now that the devolved assemblies of Scotland and Northern Ireland have seen sense and are going to compensate pleural plaques victims, will the Minister follow suit? If not, why not?

The Government understand that it could be seen as unfair for compensation to be available in one part of the UK but not in another, but the civil legal systems in Scotland and Northern Ireland and that in England and Wales are separate and there will inevitably be differences in the law.

My constituent, Janet Jeffrey, lost her father in 2003 to pneumoconiosis after working at Shaw’s foundry in Middlesbrough. Can the Minister assure me that any compensation arrangements will include all those whose families are affected and will not be restricted only to miners?

I can say that in light of the medical evidence, the Government do not consider it appropriate to overturn the House of Lords’ judgment that the condition of pleural plaques is not compensable under the civil law. However, I would point out to my hon. Friend that the law does not prevent a person with pleural plaques who goes on to develop any recognised asbestos-related disease in the future from bringing a claim in relation to that disease.

Topical Questions

The justice system plays a vital role in helping business to flourish. Economic growth can only be achieved if the framework exists within which businesses are free to trade and prosper and the justice system can help them to achieve that. Earlier this week, I published a paper, entitled “Justice for Business” and subtitled “Supporting Business and Encouraging Growth”, which sets out how our ambitious transforming justice programme is making the justice system more effective, less costly and better for business. By delivering lower legal costs, regulation that encourages investment and court processes that are faster, simpler and cheaper, we are overhauling the justice system so that business can get on with the job and contribute to growth rather than getting bogged down in protracted and expensive litigation.

At Reading prison this morning, I played football with fellow MPs from across the House against members of National Grid’s young offender scheme, which reports reoffending rates of just 6% compared with a national average of more than 70%. Given the widely recognised success of the programme, what is the Minister doing to encourage more companies to get involved and help slash reoffending rates?

The National Grid scheme is a good example of good practice and Mary Harris, who is the lead force behind it, has very properly been honoured for her contribution. National Grid has been running the scheme for some time and getting a large number of other businesses engaged. The scheme is extremely important for the resettlement of offenders. Equally, it needs to sit alongside our proposals for work in prisons, all of which will assist in the rehabilitation of offenders with, we hope, the scale of success that the National Grid scheme has seen.

The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is no longer in his place and that is a shame, as he and I have rather a lot in common. For example, we both used to work for Asda, where we were told that the quality of a department can be judged on how it performs when the boss is away. Today, we have had at least five elegantly given “Don’t knows” from Ministers. Let us see whether Minister can answer this: does he know, and can he explain, why a written answer from his Department shows that almost 20% fewer inmates completed drug treatment courses in prisons last year than did so two years ago?

Of course, drug treatment programmes are the responsibility of the Department of Health. As one would expect from a mature Department, I will—[Interruption.] No, I do not know the precise answer to the question, so I will write to the hon. Lady with a precise answer.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. We have invested £10.5 million in moving from 65 to 80 rape support centres across the country, examining the areas where there are gaps in provision to make sure we get the best possible national coverage so there is access to advice and support for victims of rape across the country.

T2. Further to the question from my colleague on the Front Bench, my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mrs Chapman), will the Minister comment on the relationship between health care and resettlement given that from April next year offenders in prison will receive health care that is commissioned centrally, whereas when they are released from prison back into the community those health services will be commissioned by the local clinical commissioning group? (106600)

The right hon. Gentleman is on to the very important issue of the continuity of care that is required, particularly for drug and alcohol addicted offenders, from custody into the community. I am delighted to say that the Department of Health’s drug treatment pilots look likely to be a vehicle by which we will be able to identify to areas when prisoners are being discharged to their area, so that they will know when a drug-addicted offender is being discharged to them. We will see how those pilots go, but I think we will have a much more effective system of ensuring that we deal with the gap in provision between when people are in custody and when they are in the community.

I have just got a new BlackBerry and I was so impressed with it.

What is the Minister’s overall assessment of the recent Brighton declaration in terms of the European Court of Human Rights?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. It is fair to say that the Brighton declaration was an excellent achievement for Britain. In his speech to Strasbourg on 25 January the Prime Minister outlined three achievements that he hoped for, the first of which was that there should be subsidiarity, with more decision making at the national level in the courts. That has been achieved. The second was that there should be more efficiency in the whole court structure, and that has been achieved. Thirdly, he hoped we would have a greater and better quality of judges in the Court, and that too has been achieved. We are going to have fewer cases going to Strasbourg and those that go will be dealt with efficiently. We dealt with 46 other countries, representing a total population of 800 million citizens, and I think it is a wonderful achievement on the part of Britain’s chairmanship to have got agreement between so many countries.

T5. Legal aid is a safety net that protects the most vulnerable people in our society, but now that the Government have refused to listen to the concerns of Mumsnet and other organisations that protect vulnerable women, does the Minister accept that there are potentially thousands of women who will be too scared to leave their violent partners as a result of the reforms? (106605)

It is very important to emphasise that the position for someone suffering from domestic violence remains absolutely unchanged—they will be able to get on-the-spot injunctive relief and that will be non-means-tested.

T6. I warmly welcome the development of neighbourhood justice panels, and pilots are being developed in areas such as my constituency in Swindon. They should be dealing with low-level crimes in our community, but what interplay will there be between those panels and the role of the magistracy in our communities? (106606)

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question, which goes to the heart of our proposals in relation to the panels themselves, the development of restorative justice and the more effective delivery of community justice. Magistrates are the communities’ representatives in the delivery of justice and I would very much welcome their engagement in neighbourhood justice panels and their taking part in the training of restorative justice practitioners, for which we are putting in nearly £2 million. Those are proper roles for a modern magistracy representing the community in the delivery of justice.

T8. Given that there is no replacement in sight for the victims commissioner, does not that send out entirely the wrong message to victims about the importance that the Government place on their needs? (106608)

I fear that the hon. Lady will share the frustration of the Opposition Front-Bench team. We will make clear the position on the victims commissioner along with all the other victims and witness issues when we properly respond to the consultation that we have just engaged with on our policies.

T7. Will the Minister say when the review of the justice needs of Gloucestershire will be finished? Given that both the Crown and the magistrates courts in Gloucester are top of the list for replacement in the south-west of England, will he confirm that his Department will look closely at the proposal, which he knows I strongly advocate, for a new justice centre that brings together courts, tribunal and police station in the heart of Gloucester’s Barbican site? (106607)

I have of course met my hon. Friend to discuss the matter, and discussions about the court and tribunal estate in the Gloucester area are ongoing. Our aim is to achieve an estate of appropriate capacity to meet the business need, and which is also efficient and less costly to run. We continually review our estate to ensure that it is well utilised and offers the best possible quality of service and facilities that we are able to provide for our users.

Is the Ministry of Justice aware that the Crown Prosecution Service has proposed withdrawing its staff from a purpose-built joint office that they share with the police at Athena house in York, where prosecutors and police officers work side by side, sharing files, to reduce court delays and court costs in York and Selby? Will a Justice Minister meet the Law Officers urgently to put a stop to this plan, on the basis that it would significantly increase costs for his Department?

That is a matter properly addressed by the Attorney-General rather than the Ministry of Justice, but to the extent that there are issues that concern the Ministry of Justice, of course we will take an interest.

I welcome the intention set out in the Queen’s Speech to improve judicial diversity. How do the Government intend to achieve that, and can the Minister confirm that the principle of the best person for the job will remain paramount?

We are starting at the top. We think diversity is very important so, through the Crime and Courts Bill, we are looking to reform the way in which judges’ appointments work, and we will be looking at that in the context of diversity.

The families of missing people welcome the recommendations of the Justice Committee on presumption of death, which were published 12 weeks ago. Can the Minister tell the House when he will respond to that report?

The Government realise the emotional and practical difficulties faced by the families and friends of missing people who are thought to be dead. We will respond shortly to the Justice Committee’s report.

I welcome the investment that the Government have made in rape centres. Can the Minister tell me when the sexual assault and rape centre is going to open in North Yorkshire and whether all the partners are signed up to it?

I will write to my hon. Friend, to make sure that I get the precise details correct in respect of her centre.

In 2004 Robert Levy, aged 16, was killed in Hackney. His parents, Ian and Pat Levy, will be receiving support from the probation trust to help them give a victim statement at the parole hearing, which is due next year, but their rights are limited. There is no guarantee that they will appear in person and there will be no cross-examination of them about the impact on their lives. Will the Minister look again at this element of victim impact and tell us what he is doing?

We have done so in the course of our consideration of our policy for victims and witnesses, and I hope the hon. Lady will be able to look forward to the conclusions that we take from that, in particular on the future rule of the victim personal statement. I agree with her about its importance. It is another vehicle for getting victims properly engaged in the exercise of justice.

Eleven thousand, one hundred and twenty-seven—the number of foreign national prisoners in our jails is down slightly from the peak of 11,546 under the previous Government at the end of 2009. What further progress can we expect from the Government to send these people back to prison in their own countries?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s interest in the matter, which continues to spur the Government into action. As he knows because he understands the subject, it is a difficult and multifaceted exercise to get serving prisoners to return to their own country. Every avenue is being explored, from entry into the system, through examination of conditional cautions and the individual bilateral relationships that we have with countries, to the operation of the European Union prisoner transfer arrangements and the European Council’s protocol on the subject. No effort will be spared between us and the UK Border Agency to achieve success and improve performance in this area.

Constituents of mine who are interpreters have given me a dossier about Applied Language Solutions and its failings. Court hearings have been adjourned and costs have been incurred. Will the Minister update the House on what action he is taking against ALS—for breach of contract?

On 24 May, we will publish a full statistical analysis of the performance of ALS up to 30 April. Since the contract went national after a successful regional pilot in the north-west on 30 January, there were significant problems with the exercise of that contract, both related to the administration by ALS and to the attitude of interpreters engaging with ALS. I am pleased to be able to report to the House that the performance of ALS and its owner Capita has considerably improved in this area. The position has improved further since 30 April, and it is achieving very nearly now the performance required under the contract.

Will the Minister rule out the use of closed material proceedings in inquest cases and cases that do not involve national security?

What progress has been made in tackling the issue of the number of drivers who continue to drive legally with more than 12 points on their licence, now numbering more than 10,000 people?

That is a matter for the Department for Transport and I will co-ordinate with it and write to the hon. Lady.

David Parfitt killed my constituent Ged Walker, who was a serving police officer. Parfitt was released from custody a few months ago after a long sentence. We understand that he appeared in Lincoln magistrates court charged with a new offence, but my constituent’s widow has not been given the details of that offence. Does the Minister agree that as a victim of crime, she is entitled to know if he has reoffended, and if he has, in what way?

I will want to examine the precise duties that the House and the Government have placed on the victim liaison services, both in the probation service and in the police, with respect to that case. The duties of the system to victims have improved, are improving and must continue to do so. They must feel very central to the exercise and administration of criminal justice.

I am very grateful, Mr. Speaker. In light of the impact that sexual assault referral centres can have on rape convictions, should sexual assault referral centres have their funding ring-fenced, both from the NHS and from the police?

Of course, our Administration is generally against ring-fencing, and it can be accepted only in very exceptional cases. My right hon. and hon. Friends in the Home Office are looking carefully at the whole area, and the case for ring-fencing is being strongly made. When we have reached a conclusion, I will report it to the House.