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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 555: debated on Tuesday 18 December 2012

Justice

The Secretary of State was asked—

Indeterminate Sentences

The widely criticised indeterminate sentence of imprisonment for public protection was abolished on 3 December. It has been replaced by a new regime of mandatory life sentences, which apply to anyone who is convicted for a second time of a very serious sexual or violent offence, and tough extended determinate sentences.

In a written answer published on 19 October, I was informed that 193 prisoners over the age of 60 were serving indeterminate sentences for public protection. Approximately 25 elderly high-risk prisoners are expected to be released in Greater Manchester, some of whom will have higher than average social care needs as well as a need for specialist supervision. What discussions have been taking place with local authorities about where those individuals are to be accommodated, and who will bear the cost?

As the hon. Lady will know, the probation service regularly engages in detailed discussions with local authorities to try to establish the right ways of dealing with individual offenders. In many parts of the country there is integrated offender management, which is designed to ensure that we provide the best possible support. My plans for a rehabilitation revolution will step up the support provided for such people, and will, I hope, ensure that we address issues such as where prisoners are to live after leaving prison.

On 25 April 2010, Irene Glen from Littlehampton opened the front door to her former partner Sean Benn. He came in and, with a kitchen knife, stabbed Mrs Glen 10 times. She was flown to London for several hours of emergency surgery, and mercifully survived. Sean Benn was convicted of wounding with intent, and was sentenced to detention in a secure hospital under the Mental Health Act 1983. On Thursday, a tribunal will consider whether to release him, a mere two years after that horrific attack. Mrs Glen believes that he may attack her again, and is terrified for her life. What can she do to prevent Sean Benn from being released, and what can we do to protect my constituent?

I shall look carefully at the case to which my hon. Friend has referred. Matters relating to release are handled independently by the different tribunals and assessment services that are there to decide whether it is safe to release a prisoner, and I should obviously be concerned to hear of circumstances in which a potentially dangerous prisoner was to be released. My Department will certainly be able to discuss with my hon. Friend whether there are any ways in which we can help either to support his constituent or to influence the process, should that prove necessary.

Age of Criminal Responsibility

The Government are not considering reviewing the age of criminal responsibility. They believe that young people aged 10 and over are able to differentiate bad behaviour and serious wrongdoing.

That was a very disappointing answer. The fact is that in England and Wales we lock up more children than any other country in Europe. We imprison four times as many young people as Portugal, 25 times as many as Belgium, and 100 times as many as Finland. I make no apology for the fact that in 1999 we changed the law to reduce the age of criminal responsibility from 14 to 10, but is it not about time that we accepted the recommendation of people throughout the civilised world that it should be at least 12? Why do the Government not agree with the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), who believes that that change must come about?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman found my reply disappointing. I think it entirely appropriate to hold children aged 10 and over to account for their actions, and to allow the criminal courts to decide on an effective punishment when an offence has been committed. It is important to communities, and particularly important to victims, to know that young people who offend will be dealt with appropriately.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that restorative justice, a flagship policy of this Government, is particularly effective for children around the current age of criminal responsibility?

I agree, and that is why I made the point to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) that it is for the courts to decide the appropriate punishment. That might well be the use of restorative justice, which is particularly effective with young offenders.

I declare my interest as a special constable with the British Transport police. Although the age of criminal responsibility is 10, effectively many police officers will not do anything in the case of a miscreant under the age of 16. May we have a change to the law, whereby if a police officer were to issue a fixed penalty notice for somebody under 16 who committed antisocial behaviour or a crime, it would be served on their parents or guardians so that they would ensure that their children behaved properly?

I am always interested by the expertise my hon. Friend brings to this issue, given his welcome work as a special constable. I shall certainly consider his suggestion seriously.

Dangerous Driving

The Government have legislated to create a new offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving. The new offence is subject to a five-year maximum prison sentence and was implemented on 3 December 2012.

My constituents, Mr and Mrs Galli-Atkinson, who have campaigned for safer roads for some time, point out that in cases in which a driver causes death while over the drink-drive limit but in which there is no evidence of careless driving, the only charge available to the police carries a maximum sentence of six months’ imprisonment, a fine and disqualification from driving. The law should reflect the fact that driving under the influence of drink or drugs severely impairs a driver’s reaction time. Given that the Crime and Courts Bill is currently going through Parliament, will the Minister find time to address that important issue?

I know that my hon. Friend has rightly campaigned hard on this subject. I am not entirely persuaded that there is such a gap in the law. If the driving is below the appropriate standard, a variety of offences are available, including causing death by careless driving while under the influence. If the driving had not been affected, it would not be right for the driver to be charged with anything more than a drink-driving offence.

Is the Minister not aware, however, that there is still a problem, in that the penalties imposed by the courts for driving without insurance are sometimes lower in cost than buying that insurance in the first place? Will the Minister take steps to address that anomaly, as too often there is a perverse incentive for young drivers in particular to avoid paying their car insurance, taking the risk that the penalty will be less than the costs involved?

The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point. The cost of insurance is one reason we have just published a consultation paper on whiplash claims, in which fraud is most commonly committed, an effect of which is to drive up insurance costs for respectable drivers. That could conceivably encourage the bad behaviour that he suggests.

In reference to the Minister’s comment about whiplash claims, false claims do much to discredit and undermine those who suffer real injuries as a result of dangerous driving. In Northern Ireland, where the costs are much higher than in comparable regions in Britain, what discussions have taken place with the Minister of Justice regarding whiplash claims?

I am sure that the Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland will have seen the Government’s consultation document and I hope that he, along with Members of this House, will welcome it. I would obviously always be willing to speak to him further about it.

Probation Service

As Minister with responsibility for probation, I have had the opportunity to see the hard work and dedication of many probation officers and I do not think the probation service always gets the credit it deserves for helping to keep the public safe. Probation officers will continue to have a key role. However, reoffending rates are still too high and we need to explore new ways of delivering rehabilitation and reducing reoffending.

I am sure that the Minister is aware of the most recent report from the inspectorate of probation, published today, which shows that vulnerable and troubled young people are not being adequately supported by the care or probation system. How will the Minister respond to the serious resource issues raised in that report?

The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to that report, which deals with the interests of children who have been in care. We will study it in detail and respond accordingly, but the report makes the point that this is not simply about money—it is also about attitudes. A great deal of work needs to be done to ensure that we meet our very important responsibility to those children who have been in care, who have particular requirements. We will consider the report and respond accordingly.

One of the particular pleasures that I had as Minister with responsibility for probation was to attend the awarding by the British Quality Foundation of the gold medal to the probation service. I know that the Minister and his colleagues are preparing exciting proposals with great opportunities for the development of probation as a profession, but further measures will be needed to support that, which I hope he will consider alongside the proposals that he will announce in due course.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who knows of what he speaks. The important point is that we need to recognise the achievements and the contribution of probation officers, alongside making sure that we introduce new and good ideas into the process of rehabilitating offenders. I will consider carefully what he has said and we will look at what we can do along the lines that he suggests.

Will the Minister confirm that it is his Department’s intention to brief the press this afternoon at 4 o’clock on possible privatisation of the probation service, a day in advance of advising the House?

The right hon. Gentleman will have to wait and see exactly what we propose and exactly when we propose it, but what he has just described is not going to happen.

Does the Minister agree that the new court and probation service delivery model, by which probation staff have to provide a statement on the day that a plea is taken, ensures that we get a swift, transparent response on the day?

I certainly agree that we want to ensure that justice is swifter and that where possible the probation service produces reports as quickly as it can. My hon. Friend will know from his experience of practising in the courts that probation officers often produce reports in very short time frames, which I am sure is of great assistance to the courts and to be commended.

I echo the words of the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt)—there cannot be many times when I have said that—and the Minister who commended the probation service for its fantastic work, which was recognised last year by the British Quality Foundation gold medal for excellence. Can the Minister confirm that the much delayed probation review will not be announced this week, as mentioned by the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd), and will not lead to the break-up of the excellent probation service or its privatisation?

This is a good time of the year for patience and I urge the right hon. Gentleman to be patient. It will be important in what we do, first, to recognise the key role of the probation service, as he says, and secondly, to do better than we have done on reoffending. When, as now, 50% of those released from prison reoffend within 12 months and a third of those on community orders do the same, we must look at ways of doing better.

Whole-life Tariffs

5. If he will make it his policy that courts will continue to have the power to impose whole-life tariffs for the most serious offences. (133870)

10. If he will make it his policy that courts will continue to have the power to impose whole-life tariffs for the most serious offences. (133875)

19. If he will make it his policy that courts will continue to have the power to impose whole-life tariffs for the most serious offences. (133885)

There is settled policy in England and Wales that some offences are so grave that they are deserving of imprisonment for the rest of the offender’s life for the purposes of punishment and deterrence. The Secretary of State and I take the view that whole-life tariffs should remain an option for sentences in appropriate cases.

What other measures has my hon. Friend taken to ensure that appropriately long sentences can be given by the courts, particularly for violent and serious sexual offences?

My hon. Friend is right to be concerned, particularly about those types of offences; they give the public a good deal of concern, too. That is why this month we have implemented new sentences, which will allow for a mandatory life sentence for a second serious violent or sexual offence, and for extended determinate sentences for the first or the second offence which is a serious offence and merits it. Those are new sentencing proposals produced by this Government to reflect exactly what my hon. Friend has identified.

There was some concern that the measure might be struck down by human rights legislation. One of the reasons for all the alienation of people from politics is that they feel that we are no longer in control of our destiny. Will the Minister today proclaim that we are the free Parliament of a free people and it is here that the liberty of the individual is determined, not by some foreign court?

The good news for my hon. Friend is that on this issue at least we are in agreement with the European Court of Human Rights, because it has upheld our view that whole-life tariffs are an appropriate disposal in the right cases. Let me make it clear to him—I think that I also speak for the Secretary of State—that for as long as we are Ministers in the Department, its policy will remain that whole-life tariffs should be available.

In the light of what my hon. Friend has said, will he reassure me and the British public that under this Government the criminal justice system will treat convicted criminals in a firm but fair way?

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. We are doing two important things in that regard: first, toughening up the sentencing regime so that the right people go to prison for the right length of time; and secondly, ensuring that there is more emphasis on rehabilitation and reducing reoffending. That is the way to avoid the misery that communities incur as a result of reoffending, to avoid making more victims and to avoid extra cost to the taxpayer.

Simon Crisp groomed boys on the internet and possessed and distributed indecent images of children, and earlier this year he was sentenced to an indeterminate sentence. However, had he been sentenced after 3 December, he would not have received an indeterminate sentence, because the Government have abolished them. Does the Secretary of State think that it is right that, thanks to the Government’s decision, there will no longer be anything anyone can do to keep an offender in prison at the end of their sentence even if they are still a risk to children?

Extended determinate sentences, which we have brought in to replace IPPs, can include an extended period of supervision at the conclusion of a custodial period. We have done that to deal specifically with cases that cause great concern, such as sexual and violent offences. The hon. Lady is right to be worried, but she is wrong to suggest that no provision has been made to replace what IPPs did.

Rehabilitation of Offenders

6. What steps he is taking to reform the rehabilitation of offenders by supporting people leaving prison who have served less than 12 months. (133871)

It might be helpful if I put the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) and other Opposition Members out of their misery and told them exactly what we are planning to do. As the House knows, I intend to apply payment by results to the majority of rehabilitation work conducted with offenders in the community. This rehabilitation revolution will stimulate innovation and open the delivery of services to a wider range of providers with the skills needed to change an individual’s behaviour and reduce offending in future. I aim to extend those services to cover those sentenced to less than 12 months in prison. I intend to hold a series of initial discussions with stakeholder groups tomorrow and to publish early in the new year a detailed consultation paper that will serve as both a response to the previous consultation paper and a direction for our reforms.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. How will he work with local authorities, social housing providers and other partners to ensure that suitable housing is available for ex-offenders?

One of the things that I believe are very important as we build a system of mentoring for former offenders is that there should be someone working alongside them to ensure that they have somewhere to live when they leave prison. Of course, the Department has worked closely with the Department for Communities and Local Government to address homelessness with a strategy that contains a number of measures to help ensure suitable accommodation for offenders, such as flexibility in the universal credit system so that short-sentence offenders do not lose their tenancies when they spend a short time in prison.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement that prisoners should be met at the gates by mentors—I am not sure whether he is volunteering to be one of them. Some 35% of prisoners have a drugs problem. Has he seen the latest Home Affairs Committee report, which suggests that prisoners should be compulsorily tested on exiting prison so that they can be given the support they need in the community as he has so rightly recommended?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s sentiment with regard to drugs, prisons and when offenders move back into the community. I have spoken to prison officers who are deeply frustrated by the fact that treatment begins in prison but then stops at the prison gate. I can assure him that one of the things we are working on is ensuring that the conditionality we introduced to surround our rehabilitation revolution will mean that treatment flows through the prison gate and continues after the prisoner has been released.

Can I ask the Secretary of State specifically about what he and his Department are doing to support former members of the armed forces who are in prison? I am thinking particularly of those who have served on operations. How is the Department helping them with rehabilitation and making sure that support mechanisms are in place so that they can get on with their lives and do not reoffend?

I regard it as a national shame that so many former members of our armed forces are in our prisons. I have discussions with the Minister with responsibility for veterans issues, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois). I see the issue as something that we need to take forward in the next few months. It is certainly sitting high in my in-tray as a priority for us all.

Reoffending

I refer my hon. Friend to the answer that I gave a few moments ago. We intend to apply payment by results to the majority of rehabilitation work conducted with offenders in the community as soon as we can.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and for the one he gave my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones). Reoffending is to some extent also linked to lack of preparation prior to release. As a member of an independent monitoring board, I noted that we placed a great emphasis on induction and less on “outduction”—preparation prior to release. What is my right hon. Friend doing in that respect?

Our aim is to deliver a service that flows through the prison gates. One of the failings of the current system is that, as the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) said a moment ago, there is not enough co-ordination between what happens in prison and after prison. The contracts that we build will begin while an offender is in prison and will see them through the prison gate to ensure that the continuity to which my hon. Friend refers is present.

Given the abject failure of the payment-by-results programme that the Secretary of State introduced in his previous role as Minister with responsibility for employment, does he not recognise how incredibly worried people in Corby and east Northamptonshire will be that his new privatisation —the new payment by results—will be equally damaging for offender management?

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the Work programme. About 200,000 people who were long-term unemployed have started work through that programme. The Labour party has been utterly disingenuous in how it has argued around the figures. There are people with first-rate expertise out there, particularly in the voluntary sector. I will be seeing such people tomorrow to talk about how we can help offenders participate. Those people can bring real expertise to make sure that reoffending rates, which are much too high, come down.

Our aim is to do so early in the new year, but we do not want to rush it. I recognise that there is a need to differentiate the needs of women in prison from those of men in prison. The challenges are different and our responses should be different. One of my early steps in recognising that was to separate ministerial responsibility for men and women in prisons so that we could place a proper focus on the latter and their distinctive needs.

Legal Aid

Legal aid is a fundamental part of our legal system, but resources are not limitless. Publicly funded legal support should be reserved for those who need it most—for the most serious cases in which legal advice and representation are justified. It will continue to be available in cases where people’s lives or liberty are at stake, where they are at risk of serious physical harm or immediate loss of their home, or where their children may be taken into care.

The Secretary of State said that the legal aid system is a fundamental part of the justice system, but we are witnessing a massive erosion of legal aid. Given the attacks on legal aid, on no win, no fee claims, on the Human Rights Act and on judicial review, and the drainage of resources at community legal advice centres and citizens advice bureaux, which are so important, particularly at the moment, do this Government truly believe at all in access to justice for all?

Of course we believe in access for justice, but we have to face the reality that we have had by far the most expensive legal aid system in Europe. At a time when we are still dealing with the financial debris left behind by the previous Government, it is impossible to avoid some tough decisions.

Reforms to legal aid to date have focused on civil legal aid. Future reforms will have to move on to criminal legal aid and, in particular, criminal contracting. Will my right hon. Friend therefore please say whether he has a timetable for criminal contracting?

Inevitably, we cannot avoid considering all the financial issues that face the Department. We are focusing on delivering the changes that we must soon introduce on civil legal aid; a number of measures need to come before this House in the next few weeks. That, for now, is our prime focus.

To avoid a 12th defeat in the other place on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, the Secretary of State’s predecessor promised this House that he would not cut legal aid at first-stage appeal in welfare benefits cases if a point of law were involved. The proposals finally brought forward were so inadequate that two weeks ago their lordships voted them down and told him to come back with something better. Now we hear that the Secretary of State, in a fit of pique, intends to do nothing at all. Why is he breaking a promise to Parliament and to some of the most destitute and vulnerable people in the country?

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we have promised to consider the decision by the Lords. I was a little surprised to see the rather unusual step taken in the other place of voting down a statutory instrument that was granting a concession, but we will of course review the issue and decide how to proceed.

Sentencing

9. If he will take steps to ensure that prisoners serve full sentences as handed down by the courts. (133874)

As my hon. Friend knows, prisoners are released in accordance with the legislation laid down by Parliament, and Parliament has consistently taken the view that most custodial sentences should be served part in custody and part under supervision in the community. Sentencers are fully aware of this when determining the appropriate length of sentence in each case. However, the good news for my hon. Friend is that on 3 December the Government implemented changes which will mean that some of the most dangerous offenders may serve their custodial terms in full.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for small mercies. However, according to the Ministry of Justice, somebody sentenced to prison for six months can be released within six weeks, somebody sentenced to prison for a year can be released within three months, and somebody sentenced to prison for two years can be released after just seven months. Does my hon. Friend think that that carries the confidence of the public at large, and if not, what does he intend to do about it?

The principle of some of a sentence being served in the community is, as we have discussed before, in my view a good one, because it enables us to have a hold over the individual when they come back out into the community. However, my hon. Friend will be pleased to learn that I am looking at ways in which early release in certain circumstances can be earned rather than automatically granted.

Sentencing Guidelines

Severe maximum penalties are available for the most serious and violent offenders. Sentencing guidelines are a matter for the independent Sentencing Council. Guidelines provide non-exhaustive lists of common aggravating and mitigating factors, and courts retain discretion to treat the particular circumstances of individual cases.

There is significant concern in Swansea about violent offenders being let off lightly, because the prisons are over-full with people who do not pose a significant risk to the community and because magistrates and judges are being pressurised to reduce costs. Will the Minister ensure that enough investment and priority is given to keeping violent offenders in jail for long enough that they are rehabilitated and do not go out and reoffend?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are very keen to see that violent offenders serve appropriate sentences. The length of sentences is going up and not down. He is not right to suggest that prisons are over-full. There is still capacity within the prison system to take those who ought to be there. I remind him that the only Government in recent history who had to let offenders out of prison because they ran out of space were the previous Labour Government whom he supported.

In July, a young constituent of mine tragically lost his life when he was fatally stabbed outside a nightclub in Wolverhampton. Although I understand that the Government have introduced minimum sentences for those who threaten people with knives, will the Minister consider introducing tougher and clearer sentences for those criminals who maim and kill people with knives?

I understand exactly what the hon. Lady has said and my sympathies go to her constituent’s family. It is right that we look again at the range of sentencing options available for offences involving knives. This is an endemic problem and one that we need to tackle, particularly among young people who persist in the wrong belief that they are safer carrying a knife than being without one. We have to look at this again and we will.

Courtroom Security

The security of our courtrooms and courts is a serious matter. Regular assessments take place at least once a year and they are monitored at cluster, regional and national level to aid in the continual review of security.

A suspect who had been released on bail entered Liverpool Crown court with a knife he had smuggled through security checks and threatened to kill himself in the dock. Tragedy was averted on that occasion, but will the Minister outline what steps she is taking to instruct security staff to be extra vigilant during their searches of suspects on bail?

We are aware of that serious incident and I assure the hon. Gentleman that a full review of security has taken place at Liverpool Crown court. An action plan for improvement has been put together and good progress is being made. Training in search procedures for all G4S staff was provided last summer and its effectiveness is being monitored. Security arrangements are now operating to a required standard, but remain under careful review.

Security in courtrooms is one of the issues of great concern to victims and witnesses. The announcement of the new part-time victims commissioner is imminent—they will do just 10 hours a month—but does the Minister think that the new part-time commissioner will have time to consider security in courtrooms as part of this Government’s approach to partly putting victims at part of the heart of the justice system?

Victims will certainly be part of the heart of the justice system. An announcement will be made imminently to confirm the name of the new victims commissioner and I look forward to working with her very closely indeed. [Hon. Members: “Her?”] A lot of work is being done to improve security and safety in courts in addition to what I and the victims commissioner will do. Work has been done to improve security, including improvements to buildings, improved ways of working and improved education and training. The provision for the presence of a court security officer and enhanced risk management have also been helpful additions. We will continue to make sure that security is a priority.

I look forward to hearing further details in due course, if we have not already heard all of them.

Criminal Justice System (Women)

13. What steps his Department is taking to address vulnerabilities faced by women involved or at risk of becoming involved in the criminal justice system. (133878)

The Government are committed to reducing offending and reoffending by women. We have a cross-government programme of work that seeks to address issues associated with offending, such as drugs, alcohol, mental health needs, domestic and sexual violence, accommodation and education.

I thank the Minister for her answer. Alana House in my constituency is a community centre supporting women experiencing problems whose behaviour has shown them to be at risk of offending. It has been particularly successful in providing the courts with a useful alternative to custodial sentences and helps vulnerable women to tackle their problems. The centre is in danger of closing. Will the Minister agree to visit Alana House to see the valuable work that the centre does, and to work with me to help ensure that this valuable community resource remains open?

I know that my hon. Friend cares deeply about Alana House and its future in his Reading constituency. He has already discussed the matter with me on a number of occasions. The National Offender Management Service has funded women’s community facilities successfully for a number of years and Alana House has been provided with funding of £111,000 for 2012-13. From 2013-14, probation trusts will commission these very important services for women. They are required to provide gender-specific services and if those services are not sufficiently robust they will be challenged. It is too early to say what that will mean for Alana House, but I can tell my hon. Friend that I would be happy to visit the facility.

The Corston report highlighted the need for women’s centres to work with women offenders and those at risk of offending. What is the Government’s current policy on continuing to provide support to such services?

As I said, that funding will continue. The National Offender Management Service has funded women’s services very successfully for many years. The funding for women’s services will continue at the same level, but from 2013-14 probation trusts will commission these vital services.

Does the Minister agree that one of the best ways to ensure that women do not enter the criminal justice system is to use restorative justice more imaginatively for out-of-court disposals? Will she give a commitment to examine that in detail, particularly for women offenders?

Prison Work

Getting more prisoners working longer hours is a key priority for the Government. Enforced idleness does nothing to help prisoners lead law-abiding lives on release. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that we are making good progress. Last year, public sector prisons delivered more than 11.4 million hours of work in production and service areas—an increase of 800,000 hours on the previous year’s figures.

PVC Recycling in my constituency runs a groundbreaking scheme in conjunction with the Prison Service and provides offenders with paid work for sorting through plastic composites. I am told that those skills are much in demand in the private sector when people finish their sentences. The work stops a huge amount of material going to landfill or being exported to the developing world. Will the Minister look at whether that scheme can be expanded, because I am told that there is considerable scope for expansion to prisons across the country?

Yes, I will certainly look at that. We are keen to see the expansion of exactly that kind of work, for the reasons the hon. Gentleman gives. It is good for prisoners because they learn the hard skills of a trade and the softer skills of going to work in the morning and working a proper day, and we all benefit if offenders have the skills they need to ensure that they do not reoffend on release. I will look at what he has described. If we can find a way of expanding it, we will.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is entirely right to make prisoners work, and that the enforced idleness that there has been in prisons has to be reversed because that will lead to prisoners getting gainful employment on release?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. It is right, and it is what the public expect, that prisoners do something productive while they are in custody, rather than simply sitting around in their cells. That could involve a range of things such as work, education or drug treatment, but he is right that his constituents and mine would expect them to be doing something.

Probation Service

15. When he expects to announce the Government’s response to the consultation on the future of the probation service. (133881)

As I indicated a moment ago, following my meetings tomorrow with a series of stakeholders, I will finalise a paper setting out my proposals for delivering a rehabilitation revolution. The paper will include a response to the previous consultation on probation reform and set out how my proposals have developed. It will be published early in the new year.

The Secretary of State will be aware that Northumbria probation trust has received the best inspection results so far from Her Majesty’s inspectorate. How will he ensure that probation trusts continue to be effective in protecting the public and reducing reoffending after the review, given that it is proposed that offender management will be fragmented across a wide range of providers?

As I have indicated, we have some high-quality probation professionals in this country. It is a profession that will remain important to us. We need specialist skills, particularly in the protection of public security, risk assessment and harm prevention. Such skills will remain integral to the way in which a public sector probation service works.

Restorative Justice

The Government published their restorative justice action plan for the criminal justice system on 19 November. It will improve the victim’s awareness of and access to restorative justice. We have also introduced legislation to put restorative justice on a statutory footing.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. I welcome the Government’s action plan, to which she referred, including the clear commitment to the needs of victims. However, if she and her colleagues are to embed restorative justice at the heart of the criminal justice system, she will need to find additional resources. Will she make a commitment now to allocate to restorative justice some of the extra money that has been raised from offenders through the extended victims surcharge?

Community Sentences

The Government are determined to ensure that community sentences are effective at punishing and rehabilitating offenders. We have increased the length and duration of curfews and given courts greater flexibility to impose programme and treatment requirements. We are also making the delivery of community payback swifter and more intensive. Provisions in the Crime and Courts Bill will ensure that new community orders contain a punitive element, give courts new powers to monitor the location of offenders electronically, and, following on from the comments of the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins), increase the use of pre-sentencing restorative justice.

I welcome the steps that my right hon. Friend has outlined. Newquay, in my constituency, sees a large and welcome influx of visitors each year, a minority of whom commit antisocial behaviour. What assurance can my right hon. Friend give me that community sentences will be served in the areas where the crimes occur?

That would of course be the norm, but the most important thing is not geography but that punishment takes place. Given the circumstances that Newquay faces, I hope that the addition of a punishment to a community sentence will be a timely reminder to a lot of young people of what they can and cannot do. That approach will create a system that is better and more appropriate for Newquay.

Wales probation trust has carried out excellent community-related work with local voluntary services in north Wales. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he sees a role for probation services in the brave new world to which he has referred?

I can absolutely do that. I have visited the Wales probation trust and am impressed by what it has done, and I am absolutely committed to seeing high-quality, specialist public sector probation officers continuing to deliver the support that we need them to deliver, particularly to prevent harm from coming to members of the public.

Topical Questions

Today, in accordance with the timetable set out in its terms of reference, the Commission on a Bill of Rights has delivered its final report jointly to the Deputy Prime Minister and myself. The Government thank the commission for the diligent manner in which it has discharged its task. It reflected the remit set out in the coalition’s programme for government of establishing a commission to examine the creation of a British Bill of Rights that

“incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, ensures that these rights continue to be enshrined in British law, and protects and extends British liberties.”

The House knows very well my strong views on these matters, and we will now give the report careful consideration.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the medium to long-term demand on the youth justice system, given that the budget for early intervention work such as helping troubled families and supporting teenage drug and alcohol programmes will have been cut by 40% by the end of this Parliament?

I think the hon. Lady misunderstands the position. The Government are putting a huge effort into tackling the problems in troubled families, with work taking place in the Departments for Communities and Local Government and for Work and Pensions. I hope that we can make a real difference by reducing offending. The contribution of restorative justice will make a difference, and our rehabilitation revolution will help to ease pressures on our criminal justice system.

T2. Last week, the Public Accounts Committee published its report on the Ministry of Justice’s language services contract. It concluded, among other things, that Applied Language Solutions does not have enough interpreters available to meet demand, and that the interpreters who are provided do not all have the necessary qualifications. Does the Secretary of State intend to implement the Committee’s recommendations to address those pressing issues? (133891)

Interpreting services in court are at a 95% success rate, and the National Audit Office has said that we should go on and implement the proposals fully. The contract is saving us £15 million a year of taxpayers’ money, and as long as we continue to work with interpreters—we have already had an important meeting with them—the new system will be more sustainable, effective and transparent than the old one.

The British Human Rights Act provides protection against cruel and inhumane treatment, including the right to a fair trial, the right to life, the right to family life and freedom of expression. It makes explicit the fact that Parliament is sovereign, and that even the Supreme Court cannot trump Parliament. Bearing that in mind, will the Justice Secretary make it clear that it is the British Human Rights Act that he so opposes, or is it the British courts that interpret the law? Which of the rights in the British Human Rights Act would not be included in his Bill of Rights?

The original human rights convention was a laudable document written when Stalin was in power and people were sent to the gulags without trial. Over 50 or 60 years of jurisprudence, the European Court of Human Rights has moved further and further away from the goals of its creators, and I believe that this is an issue that we have to address in this country and across Europe.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman has done the primer, but I did not mention the European convention or the European Court—I mentioned the Human Rights Act. Will he answer a simple question? Will he confirm that were it not for the Human Rights Act, the extradition of the Asperger’s-suffering Gary McKinnon to the USA could not have been stopped by the Home Secretary?

I am a bit puzzled by the right hon. Gentleman’s comment, because the Human Rights Act enacts the convention in the law of this country. I think, and many in the House agree, that the remit of the Court has expanded beyond its creators’ original intention, which is why we need reform.

T3. Will the Secretary of State seek to make an example of some of the best practice work experience schemes for serving prisoners such as the big society award-winning custody and community project at Norwich’s Chapelfield shopping centre, which is highly effective in cutting reoffending? (133892)

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that we want more prisoners to have experiences, such as the one he mentions, in the right controlled conditions, and we want to make sure, as I said, that prisoners have experience of work as well as of work experience.

T6. The prisons Minister recently met council leaders from north Wales to discuss the long-standing issue of a prison in the area. Will he meet north Wales Members of Parliament to keep them in the loop on his thinking, or does he intend not to keep them informed? (133895)

As I recall, almost all the council leaders who came to see me on that occasion were Labour council leaders, so I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has a communication problem with his own councillors. This is going to be part of a much wider consideration of the prison estate that we will undertake. As soon as we are in a position to make decisions we will attempt to keep informed all those who need to be informed.

T4. At this time of year, our thoughts often turn to those who are living on their own and are more vulnerable. Will my right hon. Friend set out what support is being offered to groups such as the Erewash community safety partnership in their fight against antisocial behaviour and to the efforts of all to bring the perpetrators of antisocial behaviour to the justice they deserve? (133893)

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the Erewash community safety partnership, and to reassure her that this is one of the many areas where the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice are working together closely. She will know that last week my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary published a draft Anti-Social Behaviour Bill, which aims precisely to help community safety partnerships put victims at the heart of their response to this problem. The Ministry of Justice is funding a number of organisations, including Victim Support, that are working to the same end.

T8. I know that the Minister responsible for probation has had the opportunity to visit Manchester and see for himself the intensive alternative to custody programme, which is co-ordinated by the Greater Manchester probation service and has achieved significant reductions in the rate and seriousness of offending. Will he and the Secretary of State make a clear commitment that, under the new commissioning arrangements, whenever they are announced, that tremendously important initiative will continue? (133898)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that, and I certainly enjoyed my visit to Manchester, where I could see that a great deal of good work was being done. He can take reassurance from the fact that the system we will roll out will reward those things that work. If the intensive alternative to custody programme is as effective as it appears to be, it will work and it will be rewarded.

T5. The Bill of Rights commission report that has just been published has split views on many issues, but a majority think that the status quo is unstable and, interestingly, a majority want further reform of the Strasbourg Court. What reassurance can the Secretary of State give us that he remains committed to defending the House from the creeping usurpation of democratic power by the Strasbourg Court? (133894)

I can give my hon. Friend an absolute commitment. The Conservative party—although not the Opposition, from what we have heard today—is committed to the need for change and to ensuring that international human rights frameworks do not inappropriately intrude on the democratic decisions of this Parliament.

Does the Minister agree that an essential part of probation for reoffenders is monitored interaction within the community, and that community service can be a useful tool for reintegration in society?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we must ensure that prisoners reintegrate. That work should start when prisoners are still in custody and continue through the gate into the community. We want to see more of that and will encourage it in any new system that we design.

T7. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) mentioned the victims commissioner. Will she update the House on what progress has been made towards the appointment of a victims commissioner, and when that appointment is likely to take place? (133897)

Very agog, Sir. Will the Secretary of State say when he plans to end the scandal of making welfare benefit payments to prisoners serving a sentence?

That is a matter for the Department for Work and Pensions but I am absolutely of the view that benefit payments should not be made to serving prisoners. I hope and expect that the DWP will deal with that issue. I believe that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has already taken steps to ensure that the system we inherited, in which that kind of thing could happen, comes to an end.

T9. Does the Secretary of State agree that although judicial review is important, in many circumstances its use can become excessive? (133899)

I absolutely agree. The proposed consultation and the measures that we set out last week, which we think will make a difference as a first stage towards reforming judicial review, are essential. We must bear in mind that only one in five judicial reviews succeed. They are a huge burden on our justice system and a price the nation has to pay. We will be looking at whether further changes can be made to ensure that we protect the integrity of judicial review as a valuable tool for challenging the Government, while not allowing it to continue as a tool that can be abused.

The most vulnerable people in my constituency will suffer most from cuts to legal aid. Is it not the case that under this Government there is one law for the few who can afford expensive legal advice and another law for the rest?

It is noticeable that time and again in these sessions we hear what are effectively spending commitments from the Opposition. They want to spend more money on legal aid, despite the fact that—by their own admission—they left us with no money in the bank. The hon. Gentleman must accept that we have to take tough decisions to reduce the cost of the most expensive legal aid system in Europe, and we will take those decisions.

Many of us who were young advocates took work from legal aid at the start of our careers. If that work goes, will my right hon. Friend look at promoting mediation across all departments—welfare departments, health tribunals and the works—to help young aspiring advocates and barristers make up the income they will undoubtedly lose?

My hon. Friend’s point about mediation is important and highlights the fact that when dealing with the financial challenges we face, the Government must look for innovative new ways of doing things. Mediation is certainly one of those.

How many people do the Government expect to be able to challenge welfare benefit decisions at the highest level on a point of law in the future if they continue to claim that it is too difficult to find a way to identify cases and provide legal aid, despite the Minister’s reassurances to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill Committee?

We are still in discussions about how to respond to the vote in the House of Lords, but we must accept that there are limits to what the Government and the taxpayer can provide in terms of legal support. There will always be limits to what the state can do, and we are trying to find the right balance in exceptionally difficult financial circumstances.

This week the public learned that the legal aid bill for the radical cleric Abu Qatada stands at over half a million pounds and is still rising. Will my right hon. Friend put an end to that misuse of public money?

I would make two points to my hon. Friend. First, whether we like it or not, we will always, in the interests of justice, have to provide some support to people whom we find distasteful. Secondly, the reality is that I share her concerns. I have already commissioned a review of aspects of our legal aid system in which I believe there are public confidence issues. I hope to give my thoughts on that front in due course.

The Courts and Tribunals Service has admitted that there is a 55-week wait for appeals on employment and support allowance in Coventry. That is higher than the 37 weeks admitted by Ministers and higher than the national average. What will be done to end that disgraceful state of affairs?

We are doing two things, but the right hon. Gentleman needs to bear in mind that the backlog has existed not just under this Government, but under his Government. The reality is that we are dealing with a very large number of cases. We are working hard to improve decision making within Jobcentre Plus, and have taken on board the recommendations of Malcolm Harrington to improve the process. One challenge we face is that when we are taking tough decisions on benefit entitlement and when people are free to appeal, there will always be a propensity to do so.

Will the Secretary of State ensure that charities and voluntary organisations can continue to provide their services for the rehabilitation of offenders?

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. We want to encourage the good work that is already being done by a large number of voluntary and community sector organisations to provide the expertise that all hon. Members want incorporated into the rehabilitation revolution. Yes, we want to see more of that.

The Secretary of State seemed to confirm a moment ago in a reply to the hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) that the legal aid bill for Abu Qatada came to half a million pounds, as has been reported in the newspapers. Will he therefore explain why he refused to provide that figure in a written answer to me last week?

I will have to look into that. I am not aware that I have refused to provide anything. The figure has been made publicly available.

Last year, the number of applications for permission to apply for judicial review in immigration and asylum cases reached a point at which they represent more than three quarters of the total number of such applications. What will my right hon. Friend do about that growing issue?

Our consultation includes proposals to introduce a series of limitations in the judicial review process, particularly to stop people coming back again and again looking for new legal nuances to launch a new case. I believe, as does the judiciary—this has been highlighted in a number of recent cases—that judicial review is simply being used as a vehicle to delay being deported from the country, which is wrong.

The all-party parliamentary group on child protection is conducting an inquiry into the review of family justice and the Government’s proposed reforms. We have today heard that in most situations the judge did not meet children in the looked-after system before making decisions about their lives. Is it not time that judges who work on family justice cases are dedicated to family justice rather than dealing with other cases, so that we can ensure that they are properly trained and can communicate properly with children?

It is not for me specifically to instruct the judiciary on how they handle cases—the independence of the judiciary is a feature of our system. However, I am sure the hon. Lady’s comments will have been heard by those who lead the family division. It is very much a matter for judges to decide how best to ensure that they have the right mix of experience.

Topically, Liz Calderbank, the chief inspector of probation, has today produced a report into what she calls the depressing and flawed care system, in which too many young people in care end up in the youth justice system. What part are Justice Ministers playing in the Department for Education review of vulnerable children placed a long way from home, often in inappropriate children’s homes and other accommodation?

We are doing two things. First, we are undertaking a complete review of how we detain young people. I am uneasy—to say the least—about a system that costs a substantial amount of money and yet has a high reoffending rate. I do not believe we are getting it right, and we are looking to introduce a process in the new year to address how we detain young people. Secondly, I am in regular contact with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education. I believe we are due to meet to discuss those issues in the next few days.

After a lengthy campaign, tomorrow the High Court will hear the application from the Attorney-General to quash the original verdicts into the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans at Hillsborough in 1989—

Order. The hon. Gentleman must resume his seat. My strong sense—I do not have advance briefing on the detail of the matter—is that the issue that he is raising could well be sub judice.

Order. It is not a matter to be raised now, so we will leave it there. I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman.