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Topical Questions

Volume 555: debated on Tuesday 18 December 2012

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.