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Topical Questions

Volume 558: debated on Tuesday 5 February 2013

Since becoming Justice Secretary, I have embarked on a programme of delivering more for less and of boosting public confidence in the justice system. We are consulting on transforming rehabilitation and will shortly be considering reforms to youth justice.

In the past, my Department has routinely undertaken 12-week written consultations in some areas, including legal aid. I want to be clear that although the Government still want to hear the views of stakeholders and the public on many matters, they should no longer expect a 12-week consultation, even where that has been the practice in the past. Instead, in line with the new Cabinet Office principles, we will take a fresh look across all areas at whether, how and for how long we should consult, according to what is appropriate and proportionate in each case.

I was going to use this opportunity to follow up on my previous question, but since I got a good answer, I will not bother.

I think that the hon. Gentleman has created a precedent, but I do not know whether it will ever be followed.

I only wish that I had received a good answer from the Justice Secretary. He has been busy in recent weeks chasing headlines with general statements on everything from Titan prisons to spartan prisons, and from gay prisoners to smacking children. May I ask him about the specifics? I note that his junior Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), could not answer earlier, but then he did not do the media appearances. When will the first Titan prison open, where will it be and how much will it cost?

We are not planning to build a Titan prison. We have a very good model for prison development in Oakwood, which opened recently in the west midlands. That site has multiple blocks and first-class training facilities. To my mind, it is an excellent model for the future of the Prison Service. We are looking at a number of sites and hope to reach a decision in the next few months on the best option. I would like to open a new generation prison as quickly as possible, because it will save the taxpayer money and the facilities will be better.

Four weeks ago, the Justice Secretary announced to the BBC, Sky and anyone else who would listen that he was going to open new super-mega Titan prisons in the near future and that he would undertake feasibility studies. Given his comments on Sunday, can he tell the House how many current prisoners are gay and are sharing a prison cell with another gay person?

I do not know how many people in prison are gay. I want to ensure that the regime in our prisons is appropriate, commands the confidence of the public and provides an appropriate environment for rehabilitation and training. We must have a prison system in which everyone can have confidence.

T3. An increasing number of international companies are looking to the UK for its legal services. That trade creates billions of pounds for our economy. Will the Minister tell the House what plans there are further to promote British legal services abroad? (141267)

As my hon. Friend knows, our legal firms and educational establishments are great assets to this country. The Ministry of Justice continues to work very closely with UK Trade & Investment and the profession to promote those wonderful services overseas. I am sure that my hon. Friend would take great joy in looking at the Unlocking Disputes campaign, which is a good example of recent fruitful activity.

T4. The Teesside coroner takes almost twice as long as the national average to conclude inquests, causing further anguish to grieving families. This matter has been raised many times with the Ministry. Why on earth, given his failing and unprofessional service, is the coroner still in post? What steps will the Secretary of State take to remove him? (141268)

I will not give a detailed response in the Chamber but I am happy to discuss the issue with the hon. Gentleman. I take seriously any concern about the effectiveness of the judiciary—which is, of course, independent—and I also take seriously my responsibilities as Lord Chancellor. I will look into the issue.

T8. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what steps he is taking to improve the youth detention system, and in particular to ensure that the great work done by secure children’s homes continues? (141272)

As I indicated earlier, I intend to bring forward shortly a consultation paper on the youth estate. Our challenge at the moment is that across the youth estate we are detaining a small number of young people at a very high cost and with an unacceptably high reoffending rate—something like 70%. I want to see whether there is a better way of doing things to reduce that reoffending rate and help turn the lives of those children around.

T5. This morning I met Bill Waddington, chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association. Despite what the Minister said in response to an earlier question, I was assured that there has been a sharp increase in cautions for serious offences, including sexual offences and violent assault. That is soft on criminals and harsh on victims. Will the Secretary of State meet me and Bill Waddington to discuss the issue? (141269)

I take seriously the issue of cautions being administered for serious offences. Indeed, one of the first things I did as Justice Secretary was commission work on the issue, and I am due to meet senior police officers to discuss it in the next few days. I do, however, caution the House to be careful. For example, we would all view a caution for rape as completely unacceptable, but in some cases where the victim is absolutely unwilling to give evidence it may be the only way to get something on the record about an offender. We must be careful about this issue and try to get it right.

T10. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the potential to reduce reoffending by providing treatment in prisons for gambling addiction? (141274)

We recognise that prisoners have a variety of causes for their offending and my hon. Friend is right to highlight one of them. We want to ensure that prisoners have access to the necessary schemes and interventions—both in prison and through the gate to the outside—to deal with whatever their issues may be. I will certainly look carefully at what my hon. Friend says about gambling and at whether more can be done.

T6. Just when MPs of all parties are seeing growing demand for housing, including as a consequence of the Government’s welfare and benefit changes, eight Shelter housing advice centres are scheduled to close. Those centres are lifelines to those in housing need, often at a time of crisis in their lives. Will the Secretary of State meet me and hon. Members from all political parties who are concerned about how to support those in housing need in their constituencies? (141270)

We will always discuss concerns that Members of this House have about their constituencies, but Labour Members must understand that we are dealing with an unprecedented financial crisis. We inherited from them a situation in which this country was borrowing £1 for every £4 that it spent. That inevitably means tough decisions that they may not always like.

Magistrates courts in Swindon and Wiltshire are about to make important decisions about the allocation of crime and family work. Will my right hon. Friend work with me and those on local magistrates benches to ensure that very long journeys in order to access justice do not become the norm?

I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that. Like me, I am sure that he will welcome the work done by the Courts Service to produce alternative ways in which people can give evidence—video links and so on—which mean that some unnecessary journeys and waiting times in courts can be removed.

T7. There are 500,000 victims of sexual offences but only 5,600 convictions. Why does the Secretary of State think that the number of sex offenders who are prosecuted is falling under the coalition Government? (141271)

We take the whole issue of sexual offences very seriously, which is why one of the coalition commitments is to expand the availability of rape crisis centres. I visited the team running one such centre in Devon last week, and I pay tribute to them for their work. The Government will do everything they can to ensure that offenders and people who commit serious sexual offences are brought to trial. Any ideas that come through our rape crisis network of ways we could do that will be listened to.

I want to refer to the Justice Secretary’s proposals to reform the probation service. I have received a communication from the police and crime commissioner for Wiltshire who expresses grave concern about the degree of consultation prior to that announcement, and about the level of involvement and discretion that the commissioners will have in providing those services locally.

One thing we are doing before launching our policy is consulting on the broad direction of travel. That creates an opportunity for police and crime commissioners and others with an interest to take part. We are listening.

T9. Most people accept that there is a need for change in the motor accident claims sector, but is the Secretary of State satisfied that new plans to raise the small claims limit from £1,000 to £5,000 will ensure that accident victims continue to find adequate independent local advice and access to justice? (141273)

I think the new plans will do that. Indeed, I think there is a case for saying that the small claims court limit of £5,000 is too low. I am keen for people to have access to a proper legal process, but the benefit of the small claims court is, in part, arbitration. The plans make the process simpler and cleaner for people who have been through a difficult time.

Last month in Bradford, Qamar Malik was one of the last people to be locked up on an indeterminate sentence for public protection. Malik is a dangerous, predatory paedophile who was convicted of kidnapping and sexual assaulting a six-year-old girl and of twice attempting to abduct a 12-year-old girl. Under his IPP, he will not be released until he is considered safe to be released, but under the Government’s new regime people such as Malik will be released whether or not they are safe to be released. How does that make my constituents any safer?

My hon. Friend knows how I hate to disagree with him, but he needs to recognise that we are replacing IPP sentences with measures that are just as tough and a lot more effective. The truth is that if someone is convicted of offences of a very serious nature, the judge has the option of passing the ultimate indeterminate sentence—a life sentence—if that is merited. We are therefore taking measures to protect the public. We are replacing an ineffective sentencing regime with a much more effective one.

As the Minister progresses his plans for probation services, what consultations has he had with the devolved Administration? When did he last meet the Justice Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and were probation services on the agenda?

I last met the Northern Ireland Justice Minister about 10 days ago and am meeting him again tomorrow. No doubt probation services will be one thing we discuss.

Given the renewed threat that convicted terrorists will pose to society on release and the amount of security and intelligence resources that will have to be devoted to monitoring them, will the Minister confirm that the use of automatic early release would be entirely inappropriate for them?

Our expectation would be that people receive an extended determinate sentence for an offence of terrorism, under which release would not be automatic. I hope that reassures my hon. Friend.

Further to that question, the Minister recently confirmed in a written answer that 12 terrorists convicted under the Terrorism Act 2000 and the Terrorism Act 2006 will be released from prison this year. How does he intend to ensure that the probation trusts responsible for their supervision have the necessary additional resources?

The right hon. Gentleman knows that the arrangements made for offenders of that nature will be multi-agency public protection arrangements. We want to ensure that local authorities and all other agencies responsible for joining in under MAPPA have the support they need. We will look carefully at what he has said and ensure that that happens in each of those examples.

Magistrates courts play a key role in the administration of justice in the UK, but too often their operation can be deeply chaotic—it can be unclear when cases will be heard, cases start and stop, and it is hard to follow proceedings. Will the Department consider reorganising how magistrates courts work so we get efficient and clear administration of justice in them?

I am at one with my hon. Friend on that. I visit magistrates courts and was at Maidstone recently to see a very well run magistrates court—it is well run not least because the court officials and those feeding the court can use new technology, which, increasingly, will speed up the process.

I thank the Ministry of Justice for granting the appropriate licence to the university of Leicester to exhume the remains that have turned out to be those of Richard III. Will the Minister confirm that under the terms of the licence, it is up to the university to decide what to do with the remains and that the university has handed them to Leicester cathedral and that Richard III will be buried there?

On behalf of the whole House, I congratulate all of those who have been involved. It is an historic occasion and an extraordinary piece of history. I hope everyone will come together for a proper service to mark the occasion, and for a formal internment in the cathedral.

I have been in touch with the Youth Justice Board about the decision to change Ashfield young offenders institution into an adult prison. I am told that young offenders from the Bristol area will now be sent as far away as Feltham. I am concerned about their contact with their families, chances of rehabilitation and so on. What reassurance can the Minister give me that those facts will be taken into account?

The hon. Lady puts her finger on one of the great difficulties we have with the youth justice estate. As numbers drop, it is inevitable that we will need to re-roll capacity, and that could mean young offenders and their families being further away from home. However, we will do everything we can for each reallocated young person to ensure that they are as close to home as we can make it. She will recognise that not everybody at that young offenders institution comes from the Bristol area, so it may be that some will be nearer to home.

Order. I am immensely grateful to the Minister. I am sorry to disappoint colleagues, but Chris Ruane will have to have the last question.

You have not disappointed me, Mr Speaker. The prisons Minister misunderstood the position of my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) on the issue of a prison for north Wales. Will he meet north Wales MPs of all parties to discuss this important issue, in the interests of clarity?

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is interested in clarity, because Government Members have been somewhat confused about what the Labour party in north Wales wants. Perhaps it would help if the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends were to meet their local councillors and decide what the Labour party in north Wales wants. We will then be happy to talk to them.