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Topical Questions

Volume 550: debated on Tuesday 18 September 2012

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?