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Topical Questions

Volume 545: debated on Tuesday 15 May 2012

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.