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Volume 547: debated on Tuesday 3 July 2012

The Secretary of State was asked—

Prisoners (Training and Education)

1. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on improving training and skills of adult prisoners to improve their employment chances after the end of their sentence and reduce the risk of reoffending. (114716)

18. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on improving training and skills of adult prisoners to improve their employment chances after the end of their sentence and reduce the risk of reoffending. (114734)

I worked closely with the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning during the preparation of the new offender learning strategy published last year, and officials from both Departments have worked closely on implementation. I fully recognise the importance of learning and training in making prisoners more employable, and my officials and I are working with the Department for Work and Pensions to provide enhanced employment support via the Work programme.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. HMP Blundeston in my constituency is doing excellent work to provide prisoners with employment skills. It is seeking to bring in work, but faces a dilemma in that it does not wish to take contracts away from local employers. Will the Minister visit Blundeston to see that work and to discuss with the governor and staff what can be done to meet that particular challenge?

I wish to visit Blundeston to see a number of examples of good practice, not just those to do with work in prisons. We have developed a code of practice to demonstrate how we will work fairly to address concerns about unfair competition and protecting local jobs. It is vital that the growth in prison work add to the UK supply chain and increase rather than reduce employment opportunities for law-abiding citizens while aiding the rehabilitation of offenders.

Many education providers these days use online platforms and tools to provide education in prison and would like to do so more often using both better internet connections and better wi-fi internet connection. Obviously, there are security concerns about making such connections available. Will the Minister explain a little further what he could do to encourage such provision to enhance rehabilitation opportunities?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend because, as he says, it is essential to maintain security while enabling learning and skills to be relevant in prisons. Prisoners’ educational internet access will now be via the virtual campus that is being installed where it is technically possible to do so in all adult prisons in England. It offers very secure access to online tools and resources that have been through thorough quality assurance and rigorous security checks, and has the potential to be developed so that prisoners’ in-cell time as well as their out-of-cell time could be much more productive than it is today.

Is it not the case that despite good intentions, the Government are no closer to making work in prisons the norm than they were two years ago?

That is complete nonsense. There has been a culture change across the whole of the prison system, and prison governors are stepping up to the plate and driving the agenda forward. At the same time, we have taken an enormous amount of trouble to put in place a code of practice and the necessary policy underpinnings so that we can take work in prisons to the maximum level that we can achieve. There is a profound change under way involving substantial and substantive work and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support us in that endeavour.

The Minister will also recognise that issues such as drug and alcohol abuse, as well as mental health, have a huge impact on employability. How far is the Ministry of Justice prepared to work with—perhaps I should declare an interest, or at least a potential interest—the future police and crime commissioners to make sure that there is proper co-ordination of all the services necessary to get people back into work?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the integrated offender management that already happens in the case of prolific offenders, who tend to be drug addicted. Their support or treatment will be related, to a degree, to how they engage with their offender managers and their drug treatment providers in the community, which involves police, probation, health and local authority services all working together. That rather obvious, sensible example of integrated offender management is getting much wider traction across the whole offender management system. The hon. Gentleman is quite right: it is the way forward when all those agencies operate together. That is the purpose of all the work that we are doing with other Government Departments to advance that agenda.

European Court of Human Rights

2. What recent representations he has received on the implementation of decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. (114718)

I am very grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for that detailed reply. He will know that there is concern, certainly on the Government Benches, that the European Court of Human Rights gives insufficient weight to the decisions of national courts, and that in addition, given the backlog of more than 150,000 cases, the Court is not devoting its entire time and attention to truly serious abuses of human rights. In that context, what are the Government doing to ensure that votes of national Parliaments and decisions by national courts are better taken into account by the European Court?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. We addressed that during our chairmanship of the Council of Europe. We had a conference at Brighton of all 47 member states and produced the Brighton declaration. Our considerable achievement there was not very widely reported because, not surprisingly, the media regarded it as a footnote to the Abu Qatada case which was in the newspapers at the time. Forty-seven countries agreed that we should have a greater margin of appreciation, to use the jargon, and that more regard should be paid to those decisions of the courts of nation states which had obviously addressed their obligations under the convention. That will have a considerable impact on future cases.

Is it not long overdue that the Government move to ensure that the courts of the United Kingdom, rather than the European Court, have supremacy in the area of human rights, including protection of Christian liberties and freedoms?

We are taken to the Court much less than other members and we lose only about 2%. Sometimes that 2% includes cases where there is widespread support here for the decision, such as the holding of DNA and other information belonging to people who have never been convicted of a criminal offence, which was a recent judgment. The convention still has a very important role to play across Europe. It is hugely significant in the 47 member states and it enables standards to be applied in places all the way from Russia, Turkey and Azerbaijan across to us and Iceland. We have always been subject to the rule of law. We have always bound ourselves under the convention to accept the judgments. These are the standards that we all agreed upon after the second world war, which were not challenged in this country till 10 or 15 years ago, when some judgments here began to annoy sections of the media.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend take this opportunity to congratulate Mr Paul Mahoney on his election as the UK judge to the European Court of Human Rights, and does he share my satisfaction that the new judge is committed to ensuring that the principles of subsidiarity are held high in the Court—for example, in relation to the right of individual countries to decide issues relating to national religion?

I personally disapprove of a parliamentary vote on the appointment of judges, but that is the system that has prevailed there since 1947. Fortunately, the British put forward three excellently qualified candidates for the judgeship, so I congratulate Mr Mahoney on his election and I am sure he will make a very considerable contribution.

I am sure the Justice Secretary will agree that it would be inappropriate for him as a member of the Executive or me as a Member of the legislature to interfere with the appointment of judges in the UK. In the light of that and of his last answer, what are his views not on the vote but on the political interference that appears to have taken place with the appointment of the UK representative to the European Court of Human Rights?

The Council of Europe works on the basis that the Parliamentary Assembly votes from a shortlist of three people provided by the member state, and now steps are taken to ensure that all three come up to certain standards, which I am glad to say the British nominees quite easily did. It sounds as though the right hon. Gentleman and I would not start from here, and I agree that normally politicians should not vote on which judge ought to be appointed to any judicial post, but they did and Mr Mahoney, I am sure, will prove an excellent choice.

Intelligence Services (Court Proceedings)

3. What recent assessment he has made of arrangements for handling sensitive information from the intelligence services in court proceedings. (114719)

The Government have introduced the Justice and Security Bill to introduce a process by which such material may be considered by the courts in civil cases in future. The Bill is currently being considered and scrutinised in the House of Lords.

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply. Does he agree that if we do not make reforms in this area we run the risk of allowing a substantial industry to develop in expensive legal claims, which we are forced to pay out of court because the Government are unable to defend themselves in open court?

The Bill stems from our recent experience in the so-called Guantanamo Bay cases, when a very large sum of money was paid out to satisfy claims and legal costs when the security and intelligence services insisted that they had an adequate defence. An increasing number of those cases are coming along, and it is not for me to pre-judge any of them, but I should like the judge to be able to hear all the evidence in the circumstances that are possible—closed material proceedings—so that we as citizens obtain some judgment in the end about the merits or otherwise of the complaint. We certainly must not encourage people to go along for both the political publicity and the potential funds that might flow from bringing a claim that they know cannot be defended.

On what basis has the Justice Secretary decided not to allow closed material proceedings at inquests? Surely if there is a highly sensitive piece of intelligence that would help to explain the cause of someone’s death, the coroner should be able to see that information, albeit on a protected basis.

We canvassed that proposal in the consultation, and I have considerable sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman’s view, but we have responded to the consultation, in which there were strong feelings against the procedure being applied to inquests—despite the support that we had from coroners’ associations.

The argument is that the coroner cannot consider such material in closed material proceedings because it means that the family, the press and other interested parties will not be able to hear what the spies have to say, and that is the basis on which we have introduced the Bill—we are a listening Government. But I did canvass the measure that the right hon. Gentleman proposes.

Police and Crime Commissioners (Women’s Services)

4. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on providing high-quality services for women within the criminal justice system following the election of police and crime commissioners. (114720)

The Ministry of Justice has been working with the Home Office to ensure that local areas are prepared for the introduction of police and crime commissioners, who will have duties to work with local criminal justice bodies, including in relation to the provision of women’s services.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, but the proposal to devolve some victims’ services to police and crime commissioners is not without risk. What will he do to ensure a minimum standard of provision throughout the country, regardless of the area in which the victim lives?

First, it is important to point out that some specialist services, such as the homicide service, rape crisis centres and so on, will continue to be commissioned nationally, but we think it right in principle that elected police and crime commissioners should commission victims’ services locally. It will mean that there is a champion for victims in every single area; it will ensure the greater integration of such services with the police, who have a very important duty in relation to victims; and it will be for elected police and crime commissioners, accountable to the public, to ensure that they provide a high-quality service to victims.

In March, in recognition of the specific problems that women experience in prison, the Government committed to deliver a document setting out the strategic priorities for women in the criminal justice system. When will it be published, and how will it link with the work that Louise Casey is doing on troubled families and, of course, the work of elected police and crime commissioners?

The stock answer to all such questions is “in due course”, but my right hon. Friend is right that we need to ensure that such services are integrated. There is important work going on in the local criminal justice system in relation to women’s offending. Police and crime commissioners will have a role, in liaison with the local criminal justice agencies. The troubled families work being led by Louise Casey is very important in efforts to prevent crime. I believe that police and crime commissioners will be in a strong position to ensure local coherence in work to divert people from the criminal justice system and from crime.

In his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), who has considerable experience in providing victims services, the Minister confirmed that there will be no minimum standards for victims. To give just one example, two thirds of victims of stalking said that the police and the Crown Prosecution Service did not take their complaint seriously, and offenders are not charged in almost nine in every 10 cases. There is a risk of specialist services falling between the cracks—looking after the detail makes a difference—and such services are not likely to win PCC votes. Will the Minister consider intervening if the loss of specialist services for women continues after the election of PCCs?

But the whole point of the change is to ensure that there will be accountability for the provision of victims services, which will lie at local level with people who are already responsible for the police and who will be champions for victims. The cross-party Association of Police and Crime Commissioners has already welcomed the proposal, and the youth charity Catch22 says it believes that police and crime commissioners generally have the potential to bring real coherence at the local level to the planning and commissioning of services designed to reduce and prevent crime and support victims. I am sorry that Opposition Front Benchers do not support what I believe is a very good idea that will strength victims services at the local level.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that community women offender facilities, in which this Government have invested substantially, provide a real alternative to custody for many women in the criminal justice system?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The number of women in custody has been declining, in contrast with the number of men. We have been developing intensive treatment-based alternatives to custody for offenders with drug or mental health problems, including four women-only services in Wirral, Bristol, Birmingham and Tyneside. They are an important part of our strategy to ensure that offending by women is dealt with as effectively and appropriately as possible.

Imprisonment for Public Protection

5. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on public safety of the abolition of sentences of imprisonment for public protection. (114721)

As the published impact assessment for the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 makes clear, the continuing regime of life sentences and a new mandatory life sentence for a second very serious offence, as well as longer custodial periods and extended licence periods, all supported by compulsory sentence plans and multi-agency public protection arrangements—MAPPA—supervision, will ensure that there are sufficient measures to manage risk and uphold public protection.

I thank the Minister for his response, but the Justice Secretary is on record saying that the number of those currently in prison who have served beyond their minimum tariff on an IPP sentence is a scandal. What proposals does the Minister of State intend to make on the release test for those on IPP sentences?

There are no immediate proposals to change the release test. In March, there were 3,500 IPP prisoners serving beyond their tariff, a result of the administrative chaos that followed the unwise introduction of the sentence, with wholly unforeseen numbers being given such a sentence. I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the fact that, in addition to the measures I have outlined, violent offender orders and sex offending prevention orders will be available to the courts to use for public protection.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the use of indeterminate sentences for prisoners who would otherwise have received relatively short sentences, far from enhancing public safety consumes resources in the prison system that are desperately needed for effective rehabilitation and stopping reoffending?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: such sentences consume substantial resources, not just in the offender management system but in the Parole Board and elsewhere. The prison system was having to manage a potential future disaster in the ever-increasing number of indeterminate sentence prisoners. We have finally got a grip on the problem and are now addressing it.

In trying to save money, the Minister misses the point. Without indeterminate sentences, some of the most violent and dangerous criminals—rapists, armed robbers and those who prey on the weakest and most vulnerable—will be released from custody against the professional advice of the probation service and others. Will that make the public more or less safe?

The shadow Minister is wrong because indeterminate sentences remain—they are called life sentences. There will be mandatory life sentences for the kind of offender that he described.

In 2010, 1,019 individuals were given indeterminate sentences. Will the Minister assess the rehabilitation strategies for those currently serving indeterminate sentences?

My hon. Friend is right. We inherited a serious administrative problem in that the capacity of the offender management system was being overwhelmed by the number of people with indeterminate sentences—[Interruption.] It is absolutely not the judge’s fault; it is the fault of the previous Administration, who failed to put in place the resources to deal with the sentences that they then passed in the House. That is one of the many problems that we are having to address. IPPs are a classic example of the shambles that we have—

Order. The Minister should calm himself. The shadow Justice Secretary is a man of very great distinction. He would not behave like that in court; he would probably be turfed out or struck off. I cannot imagine it—very out of character.

The sense of my outrage on behalf of the system and the officials at the mess that we have had to clear up is perfectly clear to the House, Mr Speaker.

Probation System

On 27 March, in the consultation document “Punishment and Reform: Effective Probation Services”, the Government published proposals to deliver more effective and efficient probation services. Alongside that, we published proposals to deliver more credible and effective community sentences. We are currently considering the responses to the consultation, which closed on 22 June. We intend to publish the Government response later in the year.

I thank the Secretary of State for his response. Under a marketisation of the probation service, how can he assure the House that fragmentation of the service will not put the public at risk? What safeguards are in place to ensure that cherry-picking by private sector providers of individuals on probation does not occur?

I am somewhat astonished by the reaction of some Opposition Members. We are following the policy first laid out in the Offender Management Act 2007. The probation trusts have now all been set up and we are introducing principles to bring some competition and diversity of provider. There are very good people who can provide some aspects of the probation service. We believe that that will both enhance the quality of the service and achieve better value for money and better outcomes. Plenty of people in the probation service welcome our proposals; indeed, some are surprised by their modesty.

At a recent multi-agency public protection arrangements, or MAPPA, meeting that I sat in on, a probation officer reported that his client was having problems meeting a curfew of 7 o’clock at night. When the officer was asked what he was doing to deal with the curfew’s being breached, he said that he had changed the curfew to 9 o’clock to aid compliance. Will the Secretary of State tell me what he is going to do to stop such outrages, which make a complete mockery of the probation system and the criminal justice system?

I cannot comment on an individual case, although I am sure that my hon. Friend did when he had the pleasure of listening to that exchange. We are seeking to make both the probation service and community sentences more effective, by which I mean more punitive when necessary but also more effective in controlling the behaviour of the offender.

We have taken powers to extend the hours of curfew. We intend to make more use of tagging to enforce curfews, among other things. We are testing more effective equipment and consulting on how best to use tags and modern technology effectively.

I shall try to stun you, Mr Speaker.

The Secretary of State knows that the relationship between probation officer and offender is crucial to the rehabilitation process. How will he assure the House that opening up to the private sector will not undermine that crucial relationship?

In all these things, I take the view that the status of the person involved—whether they are classified as public sector or private sector, or who exactly they work for or which union they belong to—is a slightly subordinate issue. This is a rather sterile debate of a few decades ago about whether there should be private sector or public sector provision. What matters is the quality of what is done, the quality of the person, the relationships they develop, and what is available to them to make a community sentence more effective.

Fines (Collection)

In the financial year 2011-12, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service collected £279 million in respect of criminal fines, further reducing the cost of enforcement and achieving the best ever performance against the payment rate measure. But now we want to do better, so we have developed better-quality performance indicators for publication and are exploring the potential for creating a partnership with a commercial company to build on the improvements we have already made in fines collection.

What the Minister did not reveal is that over £600 million in outstanding fines is owed by criminals, of which £10 million relates to Staffordshire, and a further £5.5 million of unrecovered debts have already been written off. When faced with falling living standards and the effects of ill-planned spending cuts, my constituents want to know why this Government are allowing criminals to think that crime does pay.

The hon. Gentleman mentions the collection backlog, and thereby raises the collection inadequacies of the previous Administration which we are now having to sort out. In 2011-12, the payment rate was 106%, and last year, for the first time since 2003-04, the outstanding balance was reduced by £16 million—that is, 3%.

Given the new statutory presumption that victims of crime will be compensated, can we ensure that whatever the means of offenders, they will all have to make amends to their victims?

Young Offenders

Reducing reoffending is a key priority for this Government, and the challenge is most acute with young offenders. Recent steps that will specifically apply to under-18s include youth custody pathfinders, the troubled families programme, the programme on gangs and youth violence, restorative justice, new out-of-court disposals, increased curfews, more severe breach penalties, minimum mandatory custodial sentences for aggravated knife crime, and integrated resettlement support. These measures complement the already very substantial number of further measures and programmes that are aimed at dealing with all age groups who reoffend, not least young adults.

I thank the Minister for his breathless list. He will know of the charity User Voice, which engages those who have experience of the criminal justice system in bringing about reform and reducing reoffending. A group of young people from the organisation recently came to give evidence to the Justice Committee for its youth justice inquiry. It was striking to hear them say that having respect for the status and position of a youth offending team worker is not the same thing as connecting with them and having them make a reasonable difference to their lives. Does the Minister agree that there has to be a much greater role for offenders and ex-offenders in steering young people away from the spiral of offending and constant reoffending?

I have met people from User Voice several times, and I agree with my hon. Friend about the value of their work. I also agree that ex-offenders are uniquely placed to offer support to offenders, along with other professional services, and can connect with them in a way that many other agencies cannot. Peer-mentoring services using ex-offenders are being developed at Ashfield and Cookham Wood young offenders institutions, working with the Prince’s Trust.

What particular support will there be for young offenders institutions such as Lancaster Farms in my constituency, particularly in dealing with young offenders on short-term sentences?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support for the work of Lancashire Farms, which is a young offenders institute for young adults. There are a range of initiatives. The piloting of drug recovery wings will apply to those with short sentences. We are reforming the way in which education and training are delivered and linking them directly to the demands of the labour market on release. Prisoners who are assessed for jobseeker’s allowance before their release will be mandated to the Work programme on the first day of their release, and that will be an important way of joining up Government and involving the Department for Work and Pensions.

The lack of work opportunities is one reason young offenders go on to reoffend. Has my hon. Friend made an assessment of the link between youth unemployment and reoffending, and what steps is he taking to help young offenders find work?

We know that it is important to tackle youth unemployment. The £1 billion youth contract will encourage employers to give young jobless people a chance, the Youth Justice Board has developed an employing ex-offenders action plan, and resettlement consortia have achieved success in helping many young people to find employment on release from custody.

Does the Minister agree that the best efforts to reduce reoffending are often based on local courts with good local knowledge, working closely with local agencies? We have a very good magistrates court in Rotherham for Rotherham, and a very good one in Barnsley for Barnsley. Will he rule out any further magistrates court closures, which might put local justice in jeopardy?

The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that I cannot do that. We have to deliver the whole justice system as efficiently as possible. Because of the financial catastrophe that overtook the country under the last Administration, in which he played a prominent part in the Treasury, the provision of all court and prison infrastructure has to be examined so that we can deliver offender management considerably more effectively than the last Administration.

I welcome the new drug-free wing at Pentonville prison, which aims to cut reoffending. May I put to the Minister what I put to the Lord Chancellor when he gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee this morning? The key to ending reoffending is to help prisoners once they leave prison. That support is vital.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We are examining how we can make the transition from custody into the community much more effective for drug-addicted offenders. We want drug workers in the community to reach into prisons and link in the—

Order. We are grateful to the Minister. I do not wish to be unkind, but the answers are simply too long. Progress is too slow and it needs to be speeded up.

The double-dip recession created by the Government has made it much harder for young people in general and young offenders in particular to find work. What conversations is the Minister having with his colleagues to encourage growth in the economy and to solve the problem of youth unemployment in general and young offenders in particular?

The last time I looked, Spain’s interest rates were about 4% higher than ours. If we had those interest rates, it would cost the country £40 billion a year to borrow the amount of money necessary, which would certainly put paid to all the employment programmes that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting.


The Government will shortly publish plans on improving the criminal justice system, including by reinforcing the important role of magistrates.

The magistracy is one of the great glories of the English legal system, and Hereford magistrates court is a case in point. Will the Minister give some reassurance that there are no plans to change the services at Hereford magistrates court or to close it?

I agree with my hon. Friend about the value of magistrates. They are lay people who give of their time, and the community justice that they dispense is an important feature of our criminal justice system. That is too little acknowledged. As the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt) said, we continually review the estate to ensure that it is well utilised, but we have no current plans to close Hereford magistrates court.

Is the Minister aware that over many years and under many Governments the magistracy has been run down? It has been run down because so many local courts have been closed. Once the link between being a magistrate and the local community is broken, it no longer works. What is he going to do about that?

The hon. Gentleman should reflect on the fact that one of the issues that magistrates are most concerned about is the growth of out-of-court disposals, which soared under the last Government in response to the target culture. We continue to have concerns about the inappropriate use of such disposals. He should reflect on the role of the previous Government in undermining the magistracy.

Bailiff Services

Following the publication of updated national standards for enforcement agents in January, the Government launched a full public consultation on transforming bailiff action in February. The consultation closed on 14 May, and we are now carefully considering the 250 responses with a view to publishing our response in the autumn.

I am not sure whether any of those responses referred to the Government’s proposed cut of £500 million in council tax benefits next April, which is widely expected to prompt a surge in cases being referred to bailiffs for the recovery of council tax debts. What are the Government doing to prevent an escalation of intrusive, expensive interventions against low-income households?

If there are debts to be collected, bailiffs have to go and collect them; otherwise, the system would break down. However, the Government are clear that aggressive bailiff activity is unacceptable, and we are committed to introducing effective proposals that protect the public and ensure that bailiff action is proportionate.

I hear the Minister’s answer, but does he not agree that when public bodies such as councils procure bailiff services, they should take some responsibility for the methods they sanction?

They should indeed, and they do. The new guidelines are there to ensure that minimum standards of behaviour are adhered to. We have introduced the guidelines before legislating.

The Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 contains detailed provisions on the regulation of bailiffs, and in May 2010 the coalition agreement stated that action would be taken. Here we are in summer 2012, and no Government response to the consultation is expected until the end of the year and the Government are hitting households from every side, forcing them into more and more debt every day. With a catalogue of appalling behaviour by bad bailiffs, and even reputable bailiffs saying that they need regulation urgently, when will the Government finally stop delaying and get on with it?

Any delay arises from the non-implementation of part 3 of the 2007 Act, and the cause of our delay is the same reason why the Labour Government delayed—their legislation does not work. We have acted in the interim by putting guidelines in place, and we are now consulting on upgrading legislation in a measured and balanced way. We will consider the many interests that exist and the balance that we have to achieve.

Legal Advice/Welfare Reform

12. What assessment he has made of the availability of legal advice to people on low incomes who will be affected by the Government’s proposed welfare reforms. (114728)

During the development of the legal aid reforms, the Ministry of Justice conducted detailed assessments of the availability of legal advice funded by legal aid or provided by the not-for-profit advice sector. With regard to welfare reform, the Department for Work and Pensions is developing a strategy for working with the voluntary sector, including welfare advice services, to ensure that people on low incomes have access to the support that they need to understand their rights and entitlements following the move to universal credit.

During ping-pong on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, Ministers accepted that legal aid should still be available for an appeal to the first-tier tribunal if a point of law is at stake. How will someone establish whether a point of law is at stake, and when will the provision take effect?

I confirm that we are giving serious thought to the issue and considering the exact scope of the concession, as well as how such work will be delivered in future, because the operational aspects are just as important. Once we have considered that in full, we will make an announcement.

Office of the Information Commissioner

13. What recent assessment he has made of the value for money and effectiveness of the Office of the Information Commissioner. (114729)

The Ministry of Justice and the Information Commissioner’s Office meet regularly to ensure that the office operates effectively and secures the best possible value from the resources available to it. The ICO’s next annual report is due out on Thursday.

As I told the Minister when I wrote to him a few weeks ago, it took a long campaign in Parliament in 2010 before the Information Commissioner was prepared to admit that Google Street View had broken the Data Protection Act on an industrial scale. It has now taken an investigation by The Sunday Times and action in America for the ICO to actually act and pursue Google further. Surely the ICO should be accountable to Ministers, and therefore to the British people, so that when there are such problems someone can take charge.

The Information Commissioner is of course accountable to the public via Parliament. His annual reports are laid before Parliament, and he could be questioned on his reports by, for instance, the Justice Committee. It would be wrong for me to comment on the ICO’s handling of any particular case. That said, I understand that the ICO has reopened its investigation into Google Street View because it has received some new information about Google’s capture of data from wi-fi networks in the USA. The investigation is ongoing.

Community Payback

15. What recent assessment he has made of the operation of community payback; and if he will make a statement. (114731)

The Green Paper “Breaking the Cycle” contained proposals relating to community payback that have been confirmed by the Government. Plans are in place to implement these changes, and the results of the first competition to administer community payback in London will be announced shortly. My assessment is that this competition and the preparation for competitions in all other trusts have substantially improved all elements of operational delivery.

In Warwickshire, more than 63,000 hours of community payback are completed each year by offenders on a community sentence. They carry out projects such as litter removal, clearing undergrowth and removing graffiti—labour worth about £360,000. Does the Minister agree that in certain cases this is a worthwhile way for offenders to make a contribution to the society that they have harmed?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I understand that 179 organisations in Warwickshire benefited from community payback last year. Not only is there an opportunity to link with members of the public through the ability to nominate community payback schemes, but these nominations are now running at more than 1,000 a month.

Riots Communities and Victims Panel

16. What steps his Department is taking to implement the recommendations of the final report of the riots communities and victims panel. (114732)

The Government welcome the final report from the independent riots communities and victims panel and will publish a formal response in due course.

This very good report made some very good recommendations to the Ministry of Justice, including for more effective community sentencing—specifically, that communities should choose the projects and that the results, including reoffending rates, should be published. Will Ministers be positive about those recommendations? I am sure it would be appreciated.

I think we will be positive about exactly that kind of proposal—we have already published formal consultation proposals to strengthen community sentences, which was one of the recommendations in the report. That is important, because the report itself drew attention to the fact that those who were brought before the courts in relation to the riots had 11 previous convictions, which showed that the justice system had not been effective in dealing with such problem offending.

Topical Questions

Yesterday, the Government published their response to the consultation entitled “Getting it Right for Victims and Witnesses”. For too long, many victims have felt themselves to be an afterthought for the criminal justice system. Our reforms will ensure that victims and witnesses get the support they need when they need it. Our proposals include an aim to raise an additional £50 million from offenders to be spent on victims’ services. Responsibility for commissioning most victims’ services will eventually go to democratically accountable police and crime commissioners, ensuring that decisions about service provision respond to local need. We will reform criminal injuries compensation so that it is focused on victims of serious crime and is sustainable, and there will be a new victims code making it clear what victims can expect from the criminal justice system and ensuring that they are treated with dignity and respect.

A UK prisoner is litigating in the European Court of Human Rights asserting his right to vote. When does the Secretary of State expect that decision to be handed down by the Court, and does he expect the House of Commons to be able to vote on the issue of votes for prisoners?

There has been repeated litigation involving several member states that do not allow prisoners to vote, as we have never done. The most recent litigation was Scoppola v. the Italian Government, in which our Attorney-General intervened on behalf of the British Government to argue that Parliament was more responsible for this issue than the Court. The Government will respond to that judgment, which went against a blanket ban, in due course.

There are 6,500 prisoners who have been ordered by trial judges to serve indeterminate sentences for public protection. It is important for public safety that they be released only after a proper risk assessment, but more than 3,500 are waiting for appropriate programmes and a risk assessment. Does the Justice Secretary have any plans to increase the number of programmes and assessments to address this issue?

This system, which we are getting rid of, as the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt) reminded us earlier, has put a tremendous load on the prison service in terms of programme design, availability of suitable places and the Parole Board system. We are addressing that and trying to reduce the delays, but it will take us some time to get through the system. Of course, some will remain indeterminately imprisoned, but we want as many as possible to finish their proper sentence, to get them out and to put behind us this rather shameful chapter in the history of sentencing in this country.

As is normal, the Justice Secretary did not answer the question I asked. Let me try another. His ministerial colleague said that there were no immediate plans to change the release test. Yesterday, Lord McNally said that the Government may use Executive action to release those serving IPPs, and would also change the balance of judgment to be made by the Parole Board to free up prison places. Those two actions could lead to prisoners who are currently serving IPPs being released without due regard to public safety. Which Minister should we believe, and is it really worth taking a risk with public safety to reduce prison numbers?

I will check what Lord McNally actually said. We are not contemplating either of those steps at the moment. We are putting extra resources into programmes and into addressing the problems that the Parole Board is faced with. We are quite determined not to take risks with public safety, but indeterminate sentences really were one of the worst ways of trying to do that, as they left a grave sense of injustice and difficulty coping with the proper assessment of people, for open-ended release.

T2. My right hon. and learned Friend recently announced extra financial support of £50 million to be provided for victims of crime, with offenders being forced to make the financial contribution. I strongly welcome that, but could see no information on the Department’s website about when the scheme will start. Can he help with that? (114741)

Subject to parliamentary approval of the orders that have been laid before the House, the changes to the victim surcharge should be implemented in October. We would expect to see the revenue starting to come in six months thereafter. The money—up to £50 million—will come from offenders and go to victims, which is a move away from the taxpayer being responsible. The Government’s policies will also mean courts ordering offenders to pay more in compensation to victims—indeed, that will be the first duty on sentencers to consider.

T4. According to the Legal Services Consumer Panel, 180,000 wills are written each year by unregulated services. Both the national press and the Barnsley Law Society have reported that thousands of people are being ripped off by unregulated will-writing services. What does the Justice Secretary think is the solution to the problem? (114743)

The Government recognise this as a serious issue. We are in discussion with the Legal Services Board, which has just done a consultation, and we will be making an announcement in due course.

T8. In thanking my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice for visiting a community payback scheme in Kettering on 18 June, may I ask whether he agrees that the work we saw being undertaken was both worth while and sufficiently arduous to prevent future reoffending? (114748)

Yes. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for inviting me to Kettering to see that scheme. The offenders were wearing fluorescent jackets to identify them as people doing work on behalf of the community. They were working hard constructing a path alongside a river, which will be of huge value to the community and would not have been constructed but for that work. That shows that we can make community payback an effective and meaningful punishment on behalf of the community.

T5. Professor Harrington, the independent reviewer of the work capability assessment, has highlighted the fact that Department for Work and Pensions officials are not routinely given feedback when appellants’ appeals have been successful, which means that they cannot improve practice. Why not? (114745)

There are costs involved in feedback, but that does not mean that the DWP cannot ask for feedback if it wants it. The efficiency of the tribunal processes is being looked at carefully, with Ministry of Justice officials and Ministers working closely with DWP equivalents.

T9. Many countries outside the UK have legal systems that are based on ours, and this is particularly true in the Commonwealth. What has my right hon. and learned Friend done to market the legal services in the UK to those countries? (114749)

We are making a considerable effort to market British legal services, both within the Commonwealth and across the wider world, in many important emerging markets and elsewhere. I am glad to say that we are working closely with the Bar Council and the Law Society in doing so. Legal services in this country are held in the highest regard in the world—our judges are more trusted and our system is more effective than most others—and they contribute 1.3% to the GDP of this country. Legal services are second only to financial services in the City of London, and are something we should promote and support.

T6. Is the Minister able to put a figure on how much the repeated failure of Applied Language Solutions to provide interpreters in court proceedings has cost the taxpayer through delayed proceedings? (114746)

We have published assessments of ALS’s performance, and we will continue to do so, but it is impossible to arrive at the numbers the hon. Lady is seeking. Her question seems to imply that the previous system for booking interpreters was a model of exactitude and correctitude; it was not. ALS’s performance is now reaching the required contract level.

In this country, we now have 1,200 whiplash claims a day, which is about 30 times more than in France or Germany. The industry costs to the rest of us are £2 billion a year, resulting in many young people being unable to afford to insure their cars. What discussions has the Minister had with the relevant regulatory body of the Law Society that drives this industry?

The Government are committed to reducing the number of whiplash claims, and we have had discussions with all parties involved in these claims. We will consult over the summer on reducing the number of whiplash claims, including through looking at the medical certificates that are handed out, as well as at small claims levels.

T7. My constituent Sam Taylor has been subjected to, and still lives in fear of, the most terrible harassment from her ex-partner. The new offences relating to stalking represent real progress, but Sam’s case shows that serious work still needs to be done on the ground to ensure that she and her family can be properly protected. Will the Minister meet Sam, along with the chief superintendent of Sussex police and me, to hear why she remains concerned? (114747)

On 4 September, the European Court of Human Rights will hear the case of Nadia Eweida v. the United Kingdom Government. I understand that the Government are resisting the case. Miss Eweida is the lady who effectively lost her job with British Airways for wearing a cross, a symbol of her religion, at work. Is it any part of the British Government’s policy to support the denial of people’s religious rights at work? If not, will we reconsider our position on that case?

I will consult the Attorney-General, who is no doubt preparing the Government’s defence in this case. This is obviously a hugely difficult issue; the case has gone through the courts here and is now going to be heard in Strasbourg. Whatever one’s feelings about the narrow facts of the individual case, there are wider issues about the enforcement of religious rights in employment, and I have no doubt that they will be properly canvassed. I will consult my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General.

Will the Justice Secretary confirm that, despite Ministers’ claims to the contrary, judges will be left with no option under the proposals in the Justice and Security Bill but to grant closed material proceedings?

I disagree. It is certainly my intention—this is the way in which the Bill is drafted—that there will be closed material proceedings only when the judge is satisfied that there would be a risk to national security if the evidence were to be given in open court. We are not taking into secrecy or excluding from the court any evidence that is heard in court at the moment. For the first time, we are creating an opportunity for the judge to consider intelligence evidence, but that will happen only in those cases in which the judge is satisfied that national security is involved.

I am sure that Ministers would agree that causing death by dangerous driving is a serious offence, particularly when drivers are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, yet it is not regarded as serious by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority. I have had two constituency cases in which the families have suffered not only the appalling loss of a family member but huge financial loss. Unlike the families of manslaughter and murder victims, they are not eligible for any compensation.

Compensation is for criminal offences, and it depends on the severity of the injury. We are concentrating on the most severe injuries that can be suffered. It would be very nice to extend it to all road traffic cases, particularly those that cause outrage or particular damage, but it would be impossible to ask the taxpayer to pay compensation in such cases.

Last week, I had the opportunity to have an excellent meeting with the courageous and very impressive chief crown prosecutor of Greater Manchester, Mr Nazir Afzal. He has given his full personal backing to the pilot of Clare’s law, which will identify serial perpetrators of domestic violence and is due to be launched in Greater Manchester in the next few weeks. Will the Minister ensure that criminal justice systems across the country support those pilots so that we can protect people from domestic violence?

The failure to bring criminal prosecutions against those who have wrought such havoc to our banking system continues to cause huge public concern. Has my right hon. and learned Friend had any discussions with ministerial colleagues about how the proposed fresh investigations will be properly supported and resourced?

On reading what I have of these cases, it seems to me quite plain that possible crimes are involved in what has been described. I am glad to say that the Serious Fraud Office is, I am assured, investigating. It is properly a matter for it and not in the end a matter for Ministers whether anybody is prosecuted for anything. I think we are all reassured to know that this is being inquired into, as anybody guilty of crime must be brought to justice.

There is evidence in the south-west of companies setting up internal companies to pursue debt—in effect, two companies pursue the same debt. The Office of Fair Trading describes this as an unfair practice and the direction guidance says that such practice constitutes harassment when two bailiffs chase the same debt. There are clearly Chinese walls in this practice; is it going to be looked at as part of the regulation review?

If bailiffs are involved, it does fall within the terms of the consultation. I will come back to the hon. Lady on the specific point.

The Secretary of State could be forgiven for not knowing that 72 years ago yesterday, he was born in the same ward of the same Nottingham hospital as my constituent Mr Roy Plumb. Unfortunately, Mr Plumb had to retire as a magistrate on his 70th birthday. I do not expect the Secretary of State to refer to his own age and I would not want him to retire, but does he agree that the time has come to allow magistrates to serve beyond their 70th birthday?

I congratulate my hon. Friend’s constituent on his birthday yesterday. The argument for retaining a retirement age of 70 for judges of all kinds—I agree that this is a mere stripling for most occupations—is that, unlike me and most other people in their 70s, they cannot be removed from office: they are there for life, and can be removed only for quite serious bad behaviour. If we let everybody go on until whatever age, we will get into difficulties and politicians or somebody else will have to start appraising their performance, as they cannot be dismissed peremptorily. That is what has made us hold back from raising the compulsory retirement age for magistrates and judges at every level.

On 15 May, I asked the Minister when he was going to respond to the recommendations of the Justice Select Committee on the presumption of death in guardianship, which were published on 22 February. He responded, “Shortly”. May I please ask the question again?

A couple of weeks ago, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt) visited the high-performing Shepton Mallet prison in my constituency. It has a great team of staff. Will the Under-Secretary or the Secretary of State comment on the fairness of recognising the high numbers of years of service of prison officers with jubilee medals, but not honouring the support staff, who are equally important in the smooth running of this prison, in the same way? Would it not be churlish not to produce some more medals so that they can be given to the support staff as well?

It might be churlish to interrupt the hon. Lady, so on this occasion I did not, but a blue pencil would be of benefit.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her kind remarks about my visit to Shepton Mallet prison, and I would agree about the quality of the performance of all the staff in that prison. I have to say, however, that medals are probably above my pay grade.

The Secretary of State will know that his Department will face tribunal costs of almost £50 million, largely arising from appeals to the work capability assessment. Given that 40% of those appeals are successful, is it not now time that his Department and the Tribunal Service discussed with Atos Healthcare how to get some of the money back—otherwise, the public are paying twice for wrong decisions?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Better decisions need to be made by Departments in the first place so that fewer are appealed, and the Ministry of Justice is working with other Departments to that end.