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Topical Questions

Volume 553: debated on Tuesday 13 November 2012

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would just like to say a few words about the Abu Qatada case. I strongly support the comments that the Home Secretary made yesterday, and would indicate to the House that my Department will do everything it can to support the Home Office in its efforts to get Abu Qatada deported. All of us believe that the law should not operate in this way, and this case underlines my view that there is a real need for major changes to the way in which the European human rights framework operates.

May I refer the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) back to the answer she gave a few moments ago in response to the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat)? Given the importance of this to victims of workplace accidents and industrial diseases, will the Minister meet a small delegation of Labour MPs to receive representations on the implications of the proposal to amend the ceiling on small claims compensation?

T3. Is it not rather counter-intuitive, given the Secretary of State’s excellent views, to be closing rather than opening prisons? Why then are the Government consulting on closing Lincoln prison, which, as far as I know, has caused no trouble to the community since Eamon de Valera escaped from it during the first world war, and which provides 400 jobs, and humanely and safely locks our local villains away? (127933)

First, let me explain the context to my hon. Friend. We are in the middle of a programme of new for old in the Prison Service; we are bringing on stream new capacity as well as closing down old capacity, as part of a drive to bring down the overall cost of running the Prison Service by making the unit cost of each place cheaper. We are looking at a number of options, and no decisions have been taken on Lincoln prison. There is no proposal to close it, and I can assure him that I will personally be looking carefully at this issue, as I am well aware of the geographical circumstances of Lincoln, particularly the lack of good transport to other locations in the prison system.

The Justice Secretary referred to the Abu Qatada case. We have also recently heard the ruling of Reading county court, which held that a same-sex couple had been discriminated against by a bed and breakfast owner who refused to let them stay in her B and B. Will the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice join me in welcoming that ruling?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I never comment on individual cases, but I voted for the law behind that case and stand by the decision I took at the time to vote for it.

Three minutes ago, the Justice Secretary commented on a case from yesterday. Three minutes later, he is unwilling to comment on a case from three weeks ago. He looks uncomfortable—does he think that he was wrong when, as shadow Home Secretary, he said:

“B and Bs should be able to turn away gay couples”?

Will he now apologise for those comments and commend the Equality Act 2010, which is doing so much to tackle discrimination in this country?

I was not aware that I was accountable to the House for Opposition roles, but I will say again to the right hon. Gentleman that I voted for the law as it stands and I stand by that decision.

T4. Does my right hon. Friend have plans to use the opportunities provided by new technology in tracking offenders? (127934)

Yes, we do. It will be important to consider the opportunities that GPS-based technology, in particular, gives us in the monitoring of offenders not just to enforce elements of a community order, such as an exclusion order, but to act as a deterrent for those offenders who might be minded to reoffend.

T2. The Association of Child Abuse Lawyers has expressed great concern about drastic changes to the rules on legal costs that are due in April next year. They believe that those changes could have serious implications for the victims of childhood abuse. Is the Secretary of State aware of those concerns and what does he propose to do about them, especially in view of recent events? (127932)

It is nice to get a serious question from the Opposition. These are sensitive issues and we have had to take difficult decisions about the legal aid system. We have the most expensive legal aid system in Europe and, given the financial challenges we inherited, no change was not an option. We will, of course, continue to review the impact of the changes we have made to ensure that there are no unintended consequences. I will not be afraid to reconsider some of those issues if it proves that what we have done has created a major problem.

T5. Will the Secretary of State urgently review the proposed changes to the Bail Act 1976 contained in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012? In some cases, magistrates will be forced to free defendants who they know will fail to surrender, will commit further offences while on bail and, in some cases, will go on to intimidate witnesses? To make matters worse, as the 2012 Act stands, if those offenders breach their bail conditions, the magistrates’ hands will be tied and they will have no choice but to rebail them. Is this not a ridiculous state of affairs? (127936)

The one point on which I will take issue with my hon. Friend is the fact that he talks about magistrates “knowing” that someone will commit an offence in the future. It is reasonably well established in British law that people are innocent until they are proved guilty—

To suggest, as the shadow Justice Secretary is doing from a sedentary position, that he, or a magistrate, knows who will commit a crime in the future seems to me to be an absolute breach of all the traditions of our justice system. Of course, if an offender goes on to commit another offence while on bail, including intimidation of a witness, that offence will be considered in its own right. If it could attract a sentence of imprisonment, the option of remand is still open to magistrates. I think we should stick by the basic tenets of justice.

In his response to my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) on the question of payment by results and reoffending, the Secretary of State talked about the importance of evidence. Will he share with the House his assessment of the reasons behind the failure of the Mayor of London’s Project Heron at Feltham?

Of course I am not responsible for the Mayor of London’s projects. On the question of our whole approach to the rehabilitation of offenders and the introduction of payment by results, the nature of payment by results means that we provide incentives to providers to deliver what works best. There is constant pressure in a payment- by-results system to find best practice and apply it in a way that delivers best results for offenders and for the taxpayer.

T6. The social impact bond from Peterborough prison to reduce reoffending was launched just over a year ago. Full results will only be available after year four. What assessment has the Secretary of State made so far of the effects of the work done? Has it reduced reoffending? (127937)

We have not yet done the assessment—the detailed work—but I think there are good grounds for believing that good work has been done, and I will provide more information in due course.

The lessons from the Qatada case are that it is quite difficult to deport people to jurisdictions that do not adhere to, as a basis, the UN convention on torture, for example. What is the Department doing to encourage jurisdictions outside Europe to sign up to a higher standard of international law, so that there is a greater sense of parallel of the rights of justice in this country, in Europe and in other parts of the world?

Of course, it is the role of Britain and other democratic nations to encourage non-democratic countries around the world to adopt democratic principles, the rule of law and a proper fair, independent judiciary. But I have to say that I do not believe it was ever the intention of those who created the human rights framework to which we are currently subject that people who have an avowed intent to do damage to this country should be able to use human rights laws to prevent their deportation back to their country of origin.

T7. Does the Secretary of State believe that the election of police and crime commissioners on Thursday will help restore public confidence in the way that offences are dealt with in local communities? (127938)

I agree with my hon. Friend, not least because although they are police and crime commissioners, people may have focused too much on the policing aspect. The crime reduction aspect is at the heart of what these new elected bodies will do, and crime prevention and some of the things that we have been discussing earlier this morning, such as restorative justice, will play a very important part in each locality in improving the criminal justice system and improving public confidence in the criminal justice system. The PCCs will play a significant part in that.

Harassment, threatening behaviour and bullying on social media are all increasing. What training has the Department put in place to enable probation officers, magistrates, judges and the court services to deal with that?

The hon. Lady is right that it is an increasing problem, and we will want to ensure that all those who have responsibility in this area understand it, and understand the reach of it. Of course, she will be aware that it is a problem that has, sadly, found its way into prisons also, so we want to ensure that we do everything we can to stamp it out, as she says.

T8. I wonder whether the Secretary of State might update the House on discussions he has had with the Home Office about deporting foreign national prisoners straight away when they complete their sentence in the UK. (127940)

We have regular contacts at both ministerial and official level and, of course, we now have the benefit of the presence of the former Immigration Minister, who brings knowledge of both sides of that challenge to our team. We intend to continue to work as hard as we can to secure the deportation of offenders after their sentences, as well as to transfer prisoners when we can during their sentences.

Has the Secretary of State any concerns that the provisions in the criminal injuries compensation scheme voted on by the House last night in terms of sex abuse victims aged between 13 and 15 are a dangerous and dubious legislative signal to be sent by this Parliament as its first legislative signal in the wake of the scandal concerning Jimmy Savile?

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but would point out that our reforms have led to no changes to the 2008 scheme in respect of certain sexual abuse issues. Further guidance has been given on other particular matters. Victims coming forward in the Jimmy Savile case should certainly be able to make applications for compensation.

When innocent people can be framed on social media sites will the Government consider, with some urgency, looking at a certain part of the libel laws? Innocent people do not deserve to be named; they certainly do not deserve to be put through the grilling that certain people have faced. Would the Secretary of State and the Government look at that as a matter of urgency?

I am as concerned as anybody about what has taken place over the last two weeks. It is utterly wrong that anybody should have their name blackened inappropriately and falsely on any form of social media. Of course, the laws of libel apply equally to what is published on a Facebook or Twitter page as they do to what appears in printed form, so those who are damaged in that way have full legal redress to try and get proper justice done.

What discussions are taking place between Ministers and officials in the Ministry of Justice and those in the Department for Work and Pensions in anticipation of the further burden that will be put on the tribunals service when the new personal independence payment comes in next year, because experience shows that the level of appeals resulting from benefit changes is very high?

We will continue to do everything we can to improve the process in both Departments. I am absolutely clear that we want to get the appeals process right, both in the tribunals service and in Jobcentre Plus, where we have introduced a mandatory reconsideration process. Ultimately, the reason we are doing all that is that there are large numbers of people out there who can return to work and make a better lot of their lives, which we want to help them to do, but unless we have a reassessment process, we will never find those people to deliver that help to.

Does the prisons Minister realise that staff at HM Prison Northumberland, who have successfully merged two prisons and earned a positive report from the inspector, are sickened and infuriated that the public sector bid will not go through to the final market testing round because of promises from private sector providers that the Department might lack the capacity to verify?

I understand the disappointment that will be felt by those who put in the public sector bid at HM Prison Northumberland but, as I have explained to my right hon. Friend, the difficulty is that the difference between the public sector bid and those we are taking forward to the next round of the competition was substantial, and it would not have been responsible to ignore that gap. However, I also say to him that this is a two-stage process. It will be important that the Government are satisfied that those who go through to the next round of the competition have the capacity to deliver what they say they can deliver, and we will look carefully at the bids in that context.

When my constituent Michael Dye was killed following a single blow at a football match between Wales and England last year, his family expected justice, but when they got to court the sentence that was given came as a complete surprise to them. What more can be done to ensure that the families of victims of crime have a better awareness of the likely sentence the perpetrators will receive in court?

I have a huge amount of sympathy for a family in that appalling situation. I have sat down and talked with many families who have lost loved ones as a result of violent crime and absolutely accept that our criminal justice system often does not seem responsive enough to their needs, does not explain enough to them what is happening and does not give them details of the process, even to the extent that an offender who has been convicted of a violent crime can be back on the streets without the victims knowing about it. That is why one of the first things I did as Secretary of State was appoint the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), as victims Minister so that there is someone in Government who is a champion for that cause and who will work with the next victims’ commissioner to ensure that we have a system that is as responsive as we can possibly make it.

My understanding is that the Law Society and the Family Law Bar Association have come out in opposition to the fixing of a time limit for courts to conclude care cases, so will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to remind family lawyers, and indeed judges, that the implementation of a 26-week time limit remains a core policy objective and that lawyers should be preparing now to meet those targets?

I can assure my hon. Friend that we have made no changes to the plans. We always listen carefully to outside bodies, but no changes have been made and we are not considering making any.

In view of the Qatada decision, has the Secretary of State considered requiring courts to take into account the likely cost to the public purse of their bail decisions, particularly in serious and high-risk cases?

In view of what the Secretary of State has rightly said about the case of Abu Qatada, a prominent supporter of al-Qaeda, will he say a word or two about an opponent of al-Qaeda, namely the special forces sergeant who has been sentenced to an 18-month term of military detention for having kept a pistol that was presented to him in gratitude for his services by the Iraqi special forces? I realise that court martial procedures might be outside my right hon. Friend’s immediate area of responsibility, but will he reflect public concern over that very serious matter?

I am aware of the public concern. My hon. Friend will understand that I cannot comment about an individual case, and of course courts-martial fall under the remit of the Ministry of Defence. However, I would always hope that common sense will lie at the heart of every judicial decision in this country.

Will the Minister give an indication of the cut-off date for claims under the criminal injuries compensation scheme? Victims of crime and their representatives need to know that date. Will it be Friday 23 November? Will it be Monday 26 November?

Does the Minister have an assessment of how curfew orders have been working since their hours and length were increased last year?

I will have to check to be certain, but I think that the changes made by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 have not yet come into force. However, my hon. Friend puts his finger on the opportunity for us to have available not only more hours spent under curfew but curfew orders that last for a longer time. In addition to new technology that will enable us better to monitor offenders, this can be a very effective means of keeping track of those who have committed offences.

Does the Lord Chancellor recall that in the reign of Henry VIII it was made high treason to take an appeal outside this kingdom? Has not the time come for this Parliament once more to legislate to prohibit appeals to foreign courts and to prohibit the judgments of foreign courts leading our judiciary?

I know that my hon. Friend has strong views on these matters. While I may not agree with every word he says, he will know that I have some sympathy with his frustration about international courts and the rulings that they make. That is why I am very clear that, in relation to the European Court of Human Rights, further reform is necessary.

My constituent Jermaine Sheerin and his family are suffering a cycle of despair since he was convicted and received an indeterminate public protection sentence in 2007. He remains in prison, and sometimes in hospital, at risk of suicide. The Government have said that IPP sentences are wrong, so why are people who are currently serving them left in limbo?

It is difficult for me to comment on the individual case, because that is a matter for the probation authorities. We have put in place a package of longer sentences for more serious offenders. In relation to those who are still in prison on an indeterminate sentence, they will of course have to submit to the procedures that were law at the time. It is particularly important for us to know that they are safe to be released before they are released.

Stafford prison was built in 1794 and is one of the cheapest prisons in the country to run. Will my hon. Friend visit Stafford with builders of new prisons to see how it is done?

I am sure that those responsible for the building of prisons will always understand that they have more to learn. We all want to learn whatever lessons we can from the excellent construction of Victorian prisons, in particular, as I have discovered in my time touring the estate.

In London, a third of people sent to prison for criminal offences are foreign nationals, yet we have the scandalous position whereby they can apply for British citizenship, while no attempt is made for them to serve their sentences in their countries of origin. What is my hon. Friend doing to remedy this, particularly given that many of those who are finally freed after their prison sentences are then free to come and go?

I do not think it is fair to say that nothing is being done about ensuring that foreign national offenders leave the country. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, we are making considerable efforts to negotiate compulsory prison transfer agreements so that these prisoners do not have the choice of staying in this country. We are also working as closely as we can with the Home Office to ensure that people who have completed sentences leave this country as soon as possible.