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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 550: debated on Tuesday 18 September 2012


The Secretary of State was asked—

Integrated Offender Management Framework

1. What steps he plans to take to ensure the future effectiveness of the integrated offender management framework through the funding of key partners. (121177)

Integrated offender management arrangements are helping to reduce crime and reoffending in local areas through effective partnership working and multi-agency co-ordination. A key strength of the approach is that it makes best use of the resources available locally. Many probation trusts and prisons are following an IOM approach. We hope that local partners will continue to invest in such approaches where they are delivering strong outcomes and offering best value for money.

I spent a day looking at IOM in Scunthorpe recently and was impressed by what I saw. Will the Secretary of State work with colleagues from the Department for Work and Pensions to give probation services using IOM the flexibility to provide intensive support to get offenders into jobs through projects such as Empower in north Lincolnshire, rather than allowing them to languish on an unresponsive Work programme?

Given my last job and my current job, I am probably pretty well positioned to ensure that the two Departments work closely together. I strongly believe in the linkage between the rehabilitation of offenders and work to try to get former offenders into employment, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the two Departments will work closely together to achieve that goal.

On behalf of the Select Committee on Justice, may I welcome the Secretary of State and Lord Chancellor to his office and wish him well?

Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that he is responsible for spending a lot of public money to ensure that people who come out of prison are effectively managed and assisted so that they give up on crime, and that we use prison for those for whom it is necessary, but use other means to get other people away from crime?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words of welcome. I look forward to having many dealings with his Committee, and no doubt some sharp questioning. Let me assure him that I view rehabilitation very much as a significant element of our criminal justice system. It will be a major theme of the work I do at the Ministry of Justice. Although people may have to go to prison in recognition of the offences they have committed, it is absolutely right and proper that we should do everything we possibly can to ensure that they do not go back.

I am pleased to see the Minister in his new role. Will he take a look at the “Choose change” project, which has been running in Manchester for a number of years, working with offenders in prison to prepare for all aspects of their lives on release? It has been an extremely interesting exercise in dealing with all the things that may lead prisoners back into crime on release, and practitioners in Manchester would very much welcome it if the new Minister paid a visit.

The hon. Lady is making an early bid. I can assure her that I have every intention of spending as much time as I can away from Westminster, looking at the work being done in the public sector, as well as by those working with the public sector, to try to understand where we can improve and build on existing successes. I am sure that if I am in Manchester and the opportunity arises, I shall do as she suggests.

Let me take this opportunity to welcome the Justice Secretary to his place—and, indeed, the prisons Minister and the other Ministers to their places. They say a new broom sweeps clean, so let us have a go. The last Justice Secretary thought that indeterminate sentences were a scandal. We are all hoping that the new Justice Secretary, given his comments in the past, is looking at how to introduce some form of risk-based release. However, given the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights this morning, how long are we likely to have to wait?

The ECHR ruling this morning was very much about rehabilitation, about which I feel strongly and which needs to be clear and present in prisons, as well as after prison. However, I am very disappointed by the ECHR decision this morning. This is not an area where I welcome the Court seeking to make rulings, and we intend to appeal this morning’s decision.

No Win, No Fee Agreements

The Government have made it a priority to reform the costs of civil litigation and, in particular, the no win, no fee conditional fee agreements. A package of major reforms is being implemented in April 2013, under the provisions of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. I would also refer my hon. Friend to two written ministerial statements, dated 24 May and 17 July.

I warmly welcome the Minister to her new role. Will she give the House an estimate of the cost of the current no win, no fee arrangements to the NHS, and of the savings that might consequently be achieved by the changes?

Defendants such as the NHS were required to pay inflated success fees under the old regime, as well as after-the-event insurance premiums. In 2010-11, the NHS Litigation Authority paid £200 million to claimant lawyers. Under the new reforms, those costs will be reduced, allowing more money to be spent on patient care.

I, too, warmly congratulate the hon. Lady on her new job. I am sure that she will be an absolute star. May I urge her, however, to think carefully about no win, no fee agreements? Last week, scurrilous and despicable low-lifes in France invaded the privacy of a young woman who is able to take legal action because she is very wealthy, but many people in this country, including the Dowler family, would never have been able to take legal action in a privacy case had it not been for no win, no fee arrangements. Can we please, please ensure that we do not chuck the baby out with the bath water?

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but we firmly believe that, while meritorious claims will continue to be made, unnecessary and avoidable claims have to be deterred. Legal aid will, of course, be available for those who need it most, and for the most serious cases, under the exceptional funding rules.

Police and Crime Commissioners (Victims’ Services)

3. What assessment he has made of the effect on victims’ services of the work of police and crime commissioners. (121179)

13. What assessment he has made of the effect on victims’ services of the work of police and crime commissioners. (121193)

We expect that the needs of victims will be one of the key priorities for police and crime commissioners and that the effect on victims’ services will be a positive one. PCCs will be ideally placed to commission the most appropriate services to support victims in their area.

Will the Minister explain how the necessary funding will be provided to the police and crime commissioners so that they can protect those services for witnesses and victims of crime?

Central Government currently spend about £66 million a year on supporting witnesses and victims of crime, and we aim to raise up to an additional £50 million a year from offenders, through the victims surcharge and other financial impositions, to be used for support services for victims and witnesses. The police and crime commissioners will therefore have sufficient budget to enable them to make their own judgments on how best to support victims in their area.

Many victims feel let down by the whole process. Does the Minister agree that the police and crime commissioners, with their local knowledge, will be able to ensure that victims get a fair deal throughout the investigation and sentencing processes?

My hon. Friend is right. Individual PCCs in specific areas will be the best placed to understand the needs of the local community and to commission the services to meet those needs, as they will be taking those decisions closer to the people who will be most affected by them. That is the whole thrust of this important reform.

May I first declare an interest, as I am standing as the Labour and Co-operative candidate for police and crime commissioner in south Wales?

Does the Minister agree that the treatment of victims and witnesses remains deeply unsatisfactory in many areas of the court system and in the criminal justice system generally? In providing resources to police and crime commissioners, will he ensure that attrition does not occur along the way and that those resources will be adequate to allow proper, enhanced attention to be paid to the needs of victims?

I am enchanted to hear a pre-bid for additional public spending from a candidate, even before the election. The right hon. Gentleman is demonstrating his experience there. As I have just explained to the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), we are seeking to increase the amount of money that the perpetrators of crime pass directly to the victims, through the victims surcharge, but it will be a matter for the individual police and crime commissioner—whether that will be the right hon. Gentleman or one of his opponents—to decide how best to spend that money in their local area. I am sure that he would agree that such decisions are better made locally than centrally.

People are concerned that funding for Victim Support might be lost following the introduction of the new services, including that for mediation and conciliation. Does the Minister agree that those important services save the police a lot of time and resources?

I agree with my hon. Friend that mediation services do a very good job. He mentions Victim Support, which has, of course, asked all PCC candidates to sign up to five pledges. Many candidates of all parties—and, indeed, independent candidates—have signed up to those pledges. With the range of services involved, I repeat that it will be for the PCCs to make a decision, and they are best placed to do so in their individual areas.

Victims will almost certainly be adversely affected when PCCs are elected in November, but the Government’s plans for the criminal injuries compensation scheme could make that even worse. After we forced last week’s dramatic eleventh-hour retreat, victims rightly want to know the Government’s next steps. Will the Minister confirm whether the Government propose to try once again to shove this deeply unpopular proposal through, rewrite it, apply cosmetic changes in the hope of dampening down the opposition on their own side or, as we hope, to scrap it altogether?

In the first instance, I find it extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman should attack all PCC candidates, including his own right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael), who has just announced that he is a PCC candidate, and that the hon. Gentleman is telling the people of south Wales that his right hon. Friend would not spend the money as well as I would. That is an extraordinary assertion. As for the second half of the hon. Gentleman’s extraordinary question, we will, of course, look at what best to do, and we will want to bring back the scheme, but in a better form so that individual cases can be treated in a more individual and sensitive way. I assure him that if he condemns every PCC candidate as being unable to deal with public money before they are even elected, he really does not understand democracy.

Prisons (Foreign Nationals)

The UK Border Agency removed 4,649 foreign national offenders from this country in 2011, but there is, of course, much more to do, so we are seeking to negotiate more compulsory prisoner transfer agreements and to improve administrative processes so that foreign national offenders are removed at the earliest opportunity. We also hope to reduce the flow into the criminal justice system through conditional cautions and to reduce the number already serving prison sentences through the early removal scheme and the tariff-expired removal scheme.

We would all like to welcome my hon. Friend to his new position and wish him the very best.

Over the last decade, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of foreign prisoners detained in our prisons. Many people in South Staffordshire feel that we are having greater trouble deporting these prisoners because of the European convention on human rights. What my constituents want to know is: what is my hon. Friend going to do to reverse that trend?

My hon. Friend and his constituents are right to be worried. It is true that foreign national offenders will continue to challenge deportation under article 8 of the ECHR, but he will be pleased to know that this Government have changed the immigration rules. New rules came into force in July this year so that only in exceptional circumstances will family life, the best interests of a child or private life outweigh criminality and the public interest in seeing foreign national offenders deported where they have received a substantial sentence. That is a better balance between the interests of foreign criminals and the interests of the British public in being protected from them, which have been neglected for far too long.

May I, too, congratulate and welcome the entire Justice team on their elevation, and wish well those right hon. and hon. Members who have been relieved of their duties?

The Prime Minister said in 2010 that he would

“personally intervene to send back thousands of foreign prisoners”

and alleviate the strain on our overcrowded and overstretched prisons. The last Government negotiated prisoner transfer agreements with more than 75 countries. I know that the Justice team and the Prime Minister believe in taking personal responsibility, so will the Minister tell us with how many countries this Government have finalised a prisoner transfer agreement over the last 28 months, and how many thousands of prisoners have been transferred during that period?

I think that the right hon. Gentleman knows how difficult this exercise is. He knows perfectly well that prisoner transfer agreements are a matter of negotiation, and he also knows that compulsory transfer agreements are much more valuable than voluntary ones. Most of the agreements that he has described his Government as having achieved are voluntary, not compulsory. This Government will attempt to negotiate more compulsory agreements, so that we can continue to send home foreign offenders whom we do not want in our prisons.

Now that we have a fresh, dynamic new regime at the Ministry of Justice, may we please move the subject of foreign national offenders to the top of the Ministry’s agenda? There are more than 10,000 foreign nationals in our jails, and that is far too many. Jamaica, Poland and Ireland are the three countries that send most foreign nationals to our jails, but we have compulsory transfer agreements with none of them. Please will the Ministry get on with negotiating compulsory transfer agreements, so that these people can be sent back to their countries of origin?

Let me say again that I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s concern. He has spoken out about this a number of times. However, I have at least some good news for him. European Union nationals account for about a third of foreign national prisoners. A European Union prisoner transfer agreement came into force in December last year, and EU countries are implementing it this year. I hope that that will not only help to remove foreign national offenders, but rank as one of the very few measures coming out of Brussels of which my hon. Friend wholly approves.

Prison Population

I have no plans to reduce the prison population. The only changes that I want to see in it will result from our returning more foreign national prisoners to their countries of origin, and—crucially—doing a much better job in rehabilitating offenders, so that far fewer people come back to prison.

I am not grateful for that cynical, backward-looking answer, which did not recognise the fact that not one of the fresh, dynamic teams that have been welcomed to the House for the past 42 years has reduced recidivism by one iota. People are still committing crime, and the same percentage of them are returning to prison. Can we say a word of regret for the loss of one of our few civilised, vintage politicians, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who demonstrated that he had a working brain and that he understood the benefits of remedial work in prison? Have we not, sadly, exchanged old lace for arsenic?

The hon. Gentleman can go on thinking what he likes, but as I have made absolutely clear, I also see it as a priority to ensure that this time we tackle the rehabilitation challenge, and that we stop people going back to prison again and again.

Has the new Secretary of State, whom I warmly welcome to his post, had a chance to look at a report from the National Audit Office which was published today? It says that the dropping of the previous Secretary of State’s proposal to let prisoners out early if they pleaded guilty, or to reduce their sentences, would lead to an increase in prison numbers, and that we therefore need to maintain our full prison estate.

I would have been very uncomfortable about inheriting a policy that allowed people to escape prison sentences by pleading guilty early. The National Audit Office report suggests that financial issues might be created for us. I can say that in the two weeks for which I have been in the Department, I have looked at the financial position, and I am comfortable that it is on track to achieve the savings that it should achieve during the spending review period. However, I want to ensure that that happens while also ensuring that the right people are still in our prisons.

One way of reducing the number of short-sentence prisoners would be to extend the intensive alternative to custody programme, which has been pioneered in Greater Manchester. When the Secretary of State makes his early visit to Manchester following the invitation issued earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), will he take a look for himself at how that programme is reducing reoffending, and how it could be rolled out still further?

I have had several bids from the Manchester area, and I am sure that I shall be in the city in the not-too-distant future. I shall happily consider whether I can look at the best projects there. Clearly there is good experience showing how it is possible to increase the likelihood of offenders’ returning to a life of non-offending, and any lessons that we can learn will be welcome.

I welcome the Secretary of State and his team to their posts. Does he agree that, with the annual cost per prisoner standing at about £40,000 and that figure rising to about £100,000 for young people, it is very sensible, partly in order to save money, to look for alternatives, in particular with regard to short-term schemes? Will he at least look at saving money in that way, which would also enable us to deal better with these people and help make sure rehabilitation happens?

My two initial thoughts are that the cost of prisons is too high but, alongside that, that the best way for us to save money is to break the cycle of reoffending that has people going back to prison, and back to prison, and back to prison. We release young people on to our streets with £46 in their pocket, to go back to the same places where they offended before and where the same people are, and we are surprised when they return to prison. That is what has got to change.

Courts (Applied Language Solutions)

6. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the language services for courts provided by Applied Language Solutions. (121183)

The hon. Lady may be aware of problems that occurred when the contract started in January, but the National Audit Office’s recent report, published on 12 September, showed that ALS was filling 95% of its bookings and complaints had fallen. The Department continues to monitor the performance of ALS against the key performance indicators. We published a statistical report in May and plan to publish an updated report later in the year.

I thank the Minister for her response and welcome her to her post. She brings a unique expertise to the team. May I also pay tribute to the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke)? He was a good Lord Chancellor.

The Minister will be aware that there is a legal duty under the Human Rights Act to provide interpreters, and a judge last month said ALS was dreadful—a plague on the courts and incompetent. What steps will the Minister take to ensure there is no waste of public money in delayed and adjourned cases?

The Ministry of Justice acted quickly to put a plan in place when it became obvious that there were performance problems. We are not being complacent and we will continue to monitor performance, but we are seeing some substantial improvements. The framework with ALS is intended to provide better value for money. It also provides an opportunity to reduce a great deal of the administrative burdens that were placed on the justice agencies under the old system. The contract is also expected to save the Ministry of Justice in the region of £15 million a year.

The Minister must be irritated to be spending her first few days in office reading NAO reports detailing her predecessor’s cock-ups. Does she agree with the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee that the NAO inquiry into the language service contract has uncovered some shocking failings which have had a dreadful impact on clients of the Court Service and people who work in the interpretation service? If she does, will she now suspend the contract with Applied Language Solutions, or is she happy to see interpreters with no experience, qualifications or criminal records checks being used in serious and sensitive criminal cases?

Yes we are, and the Opposition also need to accept that the NAO report accepted that the Government had good reasons for making changes from the old system.

Youth Offending Teams

Staffing of youth offending teams is decided by local authorities and their partner agencies, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that between 2009-10 and 2010-11 there were 835 fewer posts, which includes volunteers, part-time and temporary staff. That amounts to a 4% reduction. Over the same period, the number of young people supervised by youth offending teams dropped by 20%

I thank the Minister for his answer. Over the last 10 years we have seen a 25% reduction in the number of young people on the secure estate or in prison, and over the same period youth crime dropped by almost a third. The Youth Justice Board’s focus on young people has been a remarkable success and, thankfully, the board has been retained. Can the Minister explain why his predecessor tried to abolish it?

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman about the success of youth offending teams. It is the people on those teams—a mix from different agencies and organisations, working together—who are delivering the improvements he describes. It is not the case that the Government tried to abolish the youth offending teams. The Youth Justice Board is something different, but in any event the Youth Justice Board will stay, and we hope to work very closely with it to ensure that all the good things he has described continue.

Probation Service (Staffing)

Individual probation trusts determine their staffing requirements. The contracts negotiated and agreed with the trusts take account of the need to ensure that services are delivered effectively, efficiently and economically within the resources available. The performance data we collect indicate that probation trusts are making effective use of their resources to protect the public.

Many will recall that the Deputy Prime Minister said before the last election that he wanted to stop prisons turning into “colleges of crime”. Last week, the Minister revealed in a written answer to me that 4,175 offenders in England and Wales had been recalled to prison in the first three months of 2012 and that the rate is actually rising under this coalition, to more than 16,000 a year. Is that happening because the Government are failing on reoffending or because the probation service is totally understaffed?

I do not think it is either of those two things. It is right to be concerned about the rate of recall to prison; the hon. Gentleman is perfectly right to say that. It is also right that I put on the record, because this is my first opportunity to do so, that the probation service comes in for a great deal of criticism but does excellent work. It looks very hard at risk when it releases prisoners from custody and it does its very best to minimise that risk. Where we find that reoffending or breaches of licence resulting in returns to custody occur, we will work hard with the probation service to learn the necessary lessons.

Chancel Repair Liability

9. What assessment he has made of the need to review the law on chancel repair liability; and if he will make a statement. (121186)

Chancel repair liability is a long-standing interest in land under the law of England and Wales, and the Government have no plans to review the law relating to it.

I welcome my hon. Friend to her richly deserved appointment, but I am rather disappointed by her answer. As the October 2013 deadline for the registration of liabilities under this archaic law approaches, more and more parochial church councils will face the kind of acute dilemmas faced by my constituents in Broadway. I urge her to bear it in mind that this law does need fundamental reform, for the sake of fairness and justice.

I am aware that my hon. Friend has an ongoing interest in this area, and I thank him for drawing it to my attention. However, chancel repair liability is a valid property right, which has been upheld by the House of Lords. Properties have been sold subject to the liability, and insurance can be made available. The requirement for registration will help greatly in dealing with the problem of discoverability, but I will, of course, keep the matter under consideration and monitor developments carefully.

Court Proceedings (Televising)

Legislation to amend the current prohibition on televising court proceedings is included in the Crime and Courts Bill, which is currently being debated in the other place. Initially, we plan to allow broadcasting of judgments and advocates’ arguments from the Court of Appeal.

I thank the Minister for that response. Will he give a cast-iron guarantee that when the legislation comes before the House, safeguards will in place to ensure that we do not see a repeat of what happened with sensational trials such as those of O.J. Simpson and Conrad Murray in the United States? Will the Minister assure us that if such things do occur, the judge will be able to stop televised proceedings?

Absolutely, and I think that the hon. Gentleman’s concerns will be shared across the House and, indeed, across the judiciary and the courts system more widely. I am very clear that although this reform is in the interests of transparency, which we hold to be very important, it must not give offenders opportunities for theatrical public displays. Victims, witnesses, offenders and jurors will not be filmed, so I hope that we will be able to avoid the problems that we all want to avoid.

Bill of Rights Commission

11. What recent assessment he has made of the work of the commission on a Bill of Rights; and if he will make a statement. (121189)

The commission published its second consultation in July 2012; this is due to close on 30 September. In accordance with its terms of reference, the commission should aim to report no later than the end of 2012, taking into consideration responses from both consultations.

I apologise, Mr Speaker, for that rush; I was so excited to be asking the question.

Let me first congratulate the whole Justice team and thank the Minister for his response. Will he inform the House where he stands on the future of the Human Rights Act 1998? Is he with his predecessor in wanting it to be retained or would he prefer it to be abolished and replaced by a Bill of Rights? If the latter, which of the rights currently protected by the Act does he believe are no longer worthy of protection?

The hon. Gentleman should never apologise for his characteristic courtesy, which is welcome on both sides of the House. I will tell him what we hope to achieve through the commission: we hope to move to a position in which human rights are once again completely accepted. In this country, “human rights” has become almost a boo-phrase, which is ridiculous. They are the basic rights to which we and all democracies adhere, but in various actions inside the courts and outside, human rights have been abused and this Government will put an end to that.

May I congratulate the Minister on his appointment? Is not an important right the British people’s right to a final say, and, with 80% saying in opinion polls that they want the Supreme Court to have the final decision, is it not right that we should consider how that can be done?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. It is precisely because of the strong feelings that we have set up the commission, which will report in a few months’ time. I hope that then we can have a well-informed debate about how we will take forward human rights in this country, preserving what is essential while avoiding the terrible abuses that have grown over the past few years.

Will the Minister take this opportunity to say something positive about the European Court of Human Rights and the European convention on human rights, which have done so much to improve the human rights of minorities and individuals all over Europe, and stop listening to the neanderthal voices behind him of those who think there is some salvation in walking away from what was a very important step forward in European human rights after the second world war?

As I hope I made clear in my answer to the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), I want to restore human rights and the basic ideas behind them to their place as not only a central part of our political debate but something that is unquestioned on either side of this House or anywhere outside it. That is what we should think about human rights; the problem is that they have been abused in both the European Courts and our domestic courts and in other parts of the system. We need a proper balance and, once the commission has come up with recommendations on that, that is what this Government will achieve.

Prisons (Female Domestic Violence Victims)

12. What estimate he has made of the number of women in prison who have been victims of domestic violence; and if he will make a statement. (121190)

Estimating the number of women in prison who have been victims of domestic violence is difficult, as the information is not recorded centrally. However, surveys tell us that half of female prisoners report having been the victims of abuse of some kind. That includes abuse at any age, and is not necessarily domestic violence. The figures could also be a significant underestimate, as the hon. Lady knows, because admissions from victims of domestic violence are not always forthcoming.

I warmly welcome the Minister to her responsibility; she is a rare creature who cares seriously about this issue in her bones and not just in her words. If it is right that half or more of women in prison have been victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse and other kinds of violence, should not those victims be diverted from the criminal justice system rather than incarcerated in it?

The hon. Lady is very knowledgeable on such matters, having worked hard and effectively for a number of years, campaigning for both victims of domestic violence and female offenders. It was to my absolute delight that I was given this brief as a new Minister by the Secretary of State and I hope to draw on some of my experience before I came to this place while I undertake the role. Tackling domestic violence and women’s offending are priorities for the Government and me, and I am delighted to note that the National Offender Management Service has been working very closely with Women’s Aid to develop policies, strategies and training to support women who are in prison and to identify domestic violence. Considerable work needs to be done and I look forward to working closely with the hon. Lady and other Labour Members to drive through change and make a difference in this area.

Victims Commissioner

14. What plans he has for the future of the role of the victims commissioner; and if he will make a statement. (121194)

As a former chairman of Epsom and District Victim Support, I well understand the importance of the support we provide to victims. I am making an early assessment of how to take forward the role of the victims commissioner.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that very welcome answer. Does he agree that when those whose job it is to help victims of crime turn out to make things worse, so that a victim has to complain, the subsequent inertia can make them a victim all over again? When a new victims commissioner is appointed, will my right hon. Friend ensure that their remit is expanded, so that such examples can be taken into account, which are in effect in the civil rather than criminal area?

I am aware of the circumstances that prompt my hon. Friend’s question. He makes a valuable point and I would like to discuss the issue with him further. I am open to providing appropriate and more broadly based support to victims if that proves necessary.


I add my welcome to the Minister in taking up her new role and also welcome the new chief coroner, who of course takes up his role this week. Will she take the opportunity to disassociate herself from the actions of her predecessor, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), who did much to obstruct the role of chief coroner, and will she welcome the extra accountability the role will bring to the coroner service, particularly in assisting bereaved families?

The chief coroner will take up his role either tomorrow or the day after, and the Secretary of State and I look forward to meeting him shortly thereafter. The first of his new powers will come into force next week. The Government are determined to improve the coroner system. There needs to be much more focus on the bereaved and we must ensure that we minimise delays.

In welcoming my hon. Friend to her new post, may I ask her what is the average length of time for an inquest and whether there is anything she can do to speed up the process? Will she meet me to discuss the case of a young boy who died on the A64 and the trauma suffered by his family during the course of the inquest?

The average inquest lasts for approximately 27 weeks. On the matter my hon. Friend refers to, I will be happy to meet her to discuss it in more detail.

Sentencing Policy

16. If he will take steps to ensure that time served in prison by a prisoner reflects the sentence handed down to that prisoner by the court. (121196)

Prisoners must be released in accordance with the legislation laid down by Parliament. Parliament has consistently maintained the view that custodial sentences should be served in part in custody and in part in the community. Sentencers take that into account when determining the appropriate sentence in each case.

I warmly welcome the Minister and the Secretary of State to their roles, particularly given that I tried over the past couple of years to get their predecessors sacked. The Labour Government left us with a situation in which prisoners now have to be released halfway through their sentences, irrespective of how they behave in prison. Does the Minister think that is an acceptable state of affairs and, if not, what does he intend to do about it?

I am grateful to be in line for the same kind of treatment as my predecessor. My hon. Friend will find that I agree with him on many things, but I do not entirely agree with him on this. I think that there is merit in having a period, after a custodial sentence has been served in custody, when we can supervise and monitor offenders and send them back if they misbehave, so I am not in favour, as I know he is, of an entire sentence being served in custody. However, I think that there is scope for reform in sentencing, and we shall certainly look at those opportunities carefully.

Homeowners (Protection)

17. What steps he plans to take to ensure that home owners have the right to protect their property from intruders. (121198)

My hon. Friend knows well that I feel strongly about this issue. The Government and my predecessor have already made changes to the law, and I am now examining whether they go far enough.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response and welcome him and his ministerial colleagues to their new positions. Will he consider introducing legislative changes to give certainty to home owners on the level of force they can use to protect their families and properties from intruders?

I absolutely believe that a householder who finds themselves in the unbelievably stressful situation of facing a violent intruder should believe that the law is on their side. I give my hon. Friend an assurance that I will make sure that that happens.

Prison Officers (Fitness Tests)

18. If he will assess the effectiveness of the fitness tests that prisoner officers are required to take. (121201)

Prison Service fitness assessments test whether prison officers are capable of safely and competently carrying out control and restraint procedures on prisoners when necessary. The assessment has been validated by academic study. As with all Prison Service policies, it will be kept under review.

I am sure that the Minister has not yet had time to do the test, but it already means that a large number of prison officers are retired every year. Does he think that it is realistic for people to pass the test when he is raising the retirement age to 68?

The hon. Lady is right; I have not yet had the chance to do the test, but I have to tell her that I fancy my chances, because I understand that the pass rate is something like 99%. For her reassurance, the pass rate for those prison officers who are over 60 is something like 98%. It is worth making the point that most of our constituents would regard it as sensible that prison officers, who have to do difficult, challenging and sometimes very physical work, are fit enough to do it.

Topical Questions

Delivering an effective justice system is a key priority of this Government, so I am delighted to have been appointed Secretary of State for Justice and I am grateful to all hon. Members who have welcomed the new team. I am pleased to have such an experienced team who bring a wealth of legal knowledge to their portfolios, building on the excellent work of their predecessors. I should also tell the House that I have agreed with the Chief Whip that, on occasions, when necessary, the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr Evennett), will provide support to the team and the House. Our shared goal is to focus relentlessly on a rehabilitation revolution, improving our system so that it both punishes and reforms offenders.

There are British girls at risk of being taken abroad to be subjected to horrific, permanent violence. I know that the Ministry of Justice has been working with the Home Office on a draft declaration against female genital mutilation for at-risk girls to carry in their passports. Will my right hon. and hon. Friends ensure that the most robust legal language possible is used to maximise the document’s deterrent effect and better protect British girls?

I know that my hon. Friend has worked long and hard for many years to stamp out this abhorrent practice and that it affects a large number of women and girls in Britain today. I assure her that I will look very carefully at the language of the declaration to make sure prior to its being signed off that we will achieve optimum effect.

The new Justice Secretary has already said this morning that he does not believe in reducing the size of the prison population. Will he tell the House how else his approach and policies will differ from those of his predecessor?

I look forward to many months of debate with the right hon. Gentleman. I believe absolutely that the rehabilitation revolution should be at the top of the agenda. We want to deliver a system whereby we no longer send young people inadequately supported back out on to the streets, to reoffend and then go back to prison. I believe in having the right number of people in prison. We need our courts to send to prison people who need a prison sentence, but I also believe in doing everything we can to prevent them from going back.

We will wait and see whether the right hon. Gentleman keeps his brief, but I hope we will be debating for more than a few months; we could do with more certainty in the Justice Department. As the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) has pointed out, the National Audit Office has said today that, as a result of this Government’s botched policies over the past 28 months, there is now a £130 million black hole in the MOJ budget. We also know that our prisons and probation services are overstretched. Will the Justice Secretary reassure the House and the British public that, unlike the previous Justice Secretary, he will not risk public safety or let victims down in his attempts to fill the black hole?

I can absolutely give that assurance. As I said earlier, I have looked at the Department’s finances and it is on track to deliver the savings that it needs to deliver. My view is that reform is about delivering more for less, not about endangering public safety.

T2. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that those who sit on jury service are not in the country illegally? That point was raised with me by a member of the judiciary. (121203)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The Crown court carries out checks on jurors on their first day. Passports, national identity cards or Home Office documentation confirming their immigration status must be produced.

T5. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons recently said of HMP Liverpool that“resettlement resources were not adequate to meet the needs of the population held, with backlogs of the reviews necessary to address offending behaviour and little planning for short-term prisoners.”Given that HMIP report, what comfort can the Minister provide to my constituents that he is taking seriously the important issue of an overstretched service? (121206)

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I have not had a chance to look at that report yet. I will look at it and come back to him. Generally, resettlement is hugely important. We are keen to see offenders get back into the community and straight into productive work, which is one reason we want offenders to be admitted quickly on to the Work programme that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State introduced so successfully in his last job.

T4. In welcoming the Secretary of State to his role, may I ask what are his initial impressions of how his Department’s relationship with the European Court of Human Rights will evolve? (121205)

Although good work is being done to encourage initial reforms, decisions such as today’s in the European Court of Human Rights suggest that its focus is wrong. Through the work of our commission and discussions across the coalition, we will put considerable effort into ensuring that the human rights framework in this country is something that we can all have confidence in, as the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) said earlier.

T10. What assessment has the Department made since the riots last year of the initial lengths of the sentences that were imposed, the extent to which those sentences were reduced on appeal, and the extent to which proper pre-sentence reports were available at the initial hearings? (121211)

I have not yet had a chance to look at the detail of the sentencing packages after the riots, but it is clear that members of the judiciary responded in a robust way to a set of circumstances that was wholly and utterly unacceptable, and I praise them for it.

T6. Does the Minister agree that it is perverse that someone who was on probation and had funding for a course, so that he could get the qualifications to get a job, has had that funding withdrawn halfway through the course because he has been taken off probation for complying with everything that the probation service asked of him? (121207)

I am sure that hon. Gentleman will accept that I do not know the details of the case that he is raising. If he lets me have them, I will look into the matter and come back to him.

Further to Question 6, is there any indication that any prisoner has received an inappropriate sentence because of the failings of Applied Language Solutions, given that, as the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), said, it has failed to fulfil 5% of its bookings even after the improvements that she talked about?

We have seen no such evidence. If the hon. Gentleman has a constituency case that he wants to bring to us, he should feel free to do so.

T7. What progress has been made on the disposal of core buildings that are surplus to requirements and, in some cases, unsellable? (121208)

There is an ongoing programme to rationalise the estate across the MOJ, as there is across Government. We should always look to maximise the utilisation of public sector office space, and we will continue to do so.

Will the Secretary of State shed more light on reports in the press today that the Government are seeking to change the definition of domestic violence?

That matter is being dealt with by the Home Office and the Government Equalities Office. We are continuing to review it. We regard domestic violence as a particularly serious offence. It does untold damage to the lives of women. The Government will continue to work to find ways of reducing the likelihood of people suffering from domestic violence.

T8. Does the Minister agree that the British people have lost confidence in the Human Rights Act, with many seeing it as a charter for criminals? Will he consider bringing forward a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities? (121209)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to repeat that we have set up a commission to look at this important issue and that we want to get back to a position where human rights are taken to be one of the basic values of a democratic society, rather than having human rights abused in such a way that the whole concept has fallen into disrepute.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the problems facing the market testing of eight of Her Majesty’s prisons. When will an announcement be made in the House about who the preferred bidder will be at the end of that market testing?

I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. When I took over as Secretary of State, I made a decision to take two weeks in which to get around the task and not make decisions about anything. That means that the Department will not announce the outcome of the tendering process until after the conference recess, but it is better for a new set of Ministers to ensure that they know what they are talking about before they act.

May I warmly and genuinely welcome the new Secretary of State to his post—unlike some Opposition Members—and may I give him a heads up to keep a beady eye out later this year for the report into youth justice by the Justice Committee of which I am a member? I encourage him to look seriously at any credible ideas that seek to divert young people from the criminal justice system in the first place.

I assure my hon. Friend that I will do that. I do not believe that any ministerial team or Department has a monopoly of wisdom, and we will look for best practice and good ideas that will help us to deliver a better level of support to offenders so that they do not come back and reoffend. I particularly look forward to working with members of the Justice Committee. They will no doubt scrutinise our actions intensely, and I hope that we can have a constructive relationship.

Further to his earlier answer, how will the Justice Secretary fill the £130 million black hole in the National Offender Management Service budget that has been highlighted today?

As I have said, I will not give a detailed accounting statement today, but I have looked at spending trends in the Department and I am satisfied that we are on course to meet our goals for the spending review period.

My constituent, Lorraine Fraser, tragically lost her son who was brutally murdered by a gang of 30. Four of the murderers received life sentences, but two have been moved to an open prison under the Guittard arrangement, thereby depriving my constituent of the opportunity to attend the parole board, or present a victim impact statement. That has obviously had a devastating impact. Will the Minister agree to meet me and my constituent to discuss that worrying development?

Yes, I will happily meet my hon. Friend. What he describes sounds concerning, but we will obviously need to look into the details of the case.

The recent decision by the European Court of Human Rights ruled against Christians who were penalised for wearing a cross at work or taking a stand for their religious beliefs. That has caused great concern, and many people are asking where is the protection and religious freedom for Christians. What steps will be taken to prevent the erosion of justice for those with Christian beliefs, and to provide people with the protection that they should—and must—have?

The Government support people’s right to wear a cross, and the law requires employers to consider whether any provisions or criteria that they adopt would disadvantage employees of any religion. We have discussed court actions in a previous Question Time, and common sense is important on behalf of both courts and employers, so as to allow the legitimate expression of religious views in the workplace.

The previous ministerial team offered the astonishing innovation of drug-free wings in prisons. What progress is being made to ensure that prisoners returning to society are not burdened with an addiction to illegal drugs?

I understand my hon. Friend’s point, and of course the situation is worse than that because some prisoners actually gain a drug habit while in custody. There is a great deal of work to do, not only with drug-free wings but in reducing drug addiction across the prison estate. We will continue to work on that.

In his previous job, the Secretary of State responded to a debate in Westminster Hall on work capacity assessments, and one issue raised concerned the long backlog in dealing with appeals against decisions made in the Department for Work and Pensions. In his new role, what is the Justice Secretary doing to deal with the backlog of cases in the Ministry of Justice?

Having done my previous job and given my current job, I will obviously examine that matter carefully. Of course, the hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that the backlog was not created under the current Government. We inherited it, on a much larger scale, two years ago.

Too often, victims of crime get inadequate information about their case. What are the Government doing to ensure that better information technology is used so that victims are given the right information at the right time?

I regard the provision of information to victims as one thing that we really need to focus on. I have sat with many victims of crime and their families who have said that one of the biggest frustrations has been not having information about what is going on. I assure my hon. Friend that, although it is early days in the job, that is very much on my mind.

I understand why Ministers chose to withdraw proposals on criminal injuries compensation whereby innocent victims of crime would not have been able to make claims, but I do not understand why they also chose not to press ahead with proposals on victims of overseas terrorism. Will the Secretary of State explain that and say when those proposals will be brought back to the House?

The key issue related to last week’s criminal injuries debate is that I want to ensure that we prepare for the unexpected. I do not see that there is a case for targeting resources at minor injuries that do not have a significant effect on the lives of those affected. I want to concentrate resources on people who suffer life-changing circumstances as a result of crime. However, I want to ensure that we have enough flexibility to deal with unexpected lower-level cases that do not conform with the overall norms of the scheme.

My right hon. Friend will know that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is a non-state organisation that can bring prosecutions in its own name. Unlike the Crown Prosecution Service, however, when it loses cases because it has got either the law or the facts wrong, costs orders are never made in favour of the successful defendant. Will he investigate why the courts never award costs orders against the RSPCA and in favour of successful defendants?

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend and congratulate him on receiving his knighthood. I will certainly look into the matter that he raises.

I, too, welcome the new ministerial team, because I am ever hopeful that, unlike his predecessor, the Secretary of State or a relevant Minister will meet me to discuss the scandal of 10,000 people driving legally with more than 12 points on their licences. Will he do so?