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Topical Questions

Volume 547: debated on Tuesday 3 July 2012

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.