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Topical Questions

Volume 560: debated on Tuesday 19 March 2013

Last week I launched the “legal services on the international stage” action plan. It sets out the immense contribution Britain’s legal services sector can make both to reinvigorate our economy and to ensure that Britain remains ahead in the global race. Legal services employ 340,000 people nationwide, and contribute over £20 billion to the UK economy. Beyond London, the north-west, Scotland and Wales are also emerging as centres of excellence. The Government want to encourage and export Britain’s leadership in this industry. The action plan we have published sets out how we intend to do that. It requires opening up legal markets abroad and selling the benefits of British law firms and the English legal system, as well as championing our offer to overseas legal students. I am sure the House will want to back our industry and the efforts both my Department and UK Trade & Investment are making to help our businesses spread our footprint around the world.

I thank the Justice Secretary for his reply, but may I draw his attention to the Public Accounts Committee’s damning report on the Ministry of Justice’s handling of the court translators contract? Again it is a case of being penny wise and pound foolish. Two hundred cases in England and Wales had to be cancelled, costing the public purse millions of pounds. Experienced and trained translators are still refusing to work with Capita, which was awarded the contract. Will the Minister, as part of his action plan, rescue our justice service and abandon this failed contract?

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but we are working very closely with Capita. Our success rate is good, but it can, of course, improve, and it will improve. The British taxpayer will save some £15 million per annum as a result of this contract, and I am fully convinced that the new contract will be more accountable, transparent and effective than the old one.

T3. Has the Secretary of State considered increasing the maximum sentences available to magistrates from six to 12 months, so that justice can be delivered more efficiently, fairly and quickly by magistrates who live in, and have a good understanding of, the communities they serve? (148600)

We are considering the case for increasing magistrates’ custodial sentencing powers in the way that my hon. Friend and, indeed, the Magistrates Association has suggested. I agree that magistrates have a very important role to play in our society and we should be thankful for the work they put in. We are exploring other ways to make use of the skills and expertise they bring.

I am sure the Justice Secretary agrees that we need not only to ensure that people do not become victims of crime in the first place, but that those responsible for crime are caught and dealt with appropriately by the criminal justice system. Burglary can have a devastating impact on the victims of crime and leave families traumatised. What are the Justice Secretary’s views on those accused of burglary being given a caution?

I regard burglary as an extremely serious crime. As I have said publicly, I also have reservations about the way cautions are currently being used, and I have been clear that we are looking at this as a matter of priority. I can reassure the shadow Justice Secretary that in fact, the length of time burglars spend behind bars is increasing, not decreasing.

The right hon. Gentleman may therefore be interested to know that last year, 3,359 cautions were given for burglary, and in 2010 the figure was 3,484. There is concern that the use of more out-of-court disposals such as on-the-spot fines and cautions is cheapening our justice system. Although that may be desirable for the Treasury, it is not what law-abiding victims of crime want. The use of cautions and on-the-spot fines can lead to the public losing confidence in our criminal justice system. Does he agree and what is he going to do about it?

Actually, I do agree. I have reservations about the number of cautions being used. Of course, one has to remember that the current culture of the use of out-of-court settlements dates back to when the last Government were in power, and the use of cautions was much higher three or four years ago than it is today. I am very clear that we have to look again at the way cautions are used, and I have reservations about the way they are used for some serious offences. It is work we are currently doing.

T5. What progress has been made on the Secretary of State’s plans to introduce a greater emphasis on education into the youth custodial estate? (148602)

My hon. Friend will know that we are consulting on the idea that we should provide more education for those in youth custody than is currently provided. We are looking for good ideas—from wherever they may come—on how that might be done better, but she is entirely right: education needs to form more of a part of what we do. We have a responsibility to educate these young people, and doing so more effectively will assist in reducing reoffending.

T2. May I push the Secretary of State on the question of victims, particularly the families of victims of murder? Just over 10 years ago, eight members of a family in my constituency were murdered, five of whom were children. One of the two men who were found guilty has been released by the Parole Board, which is considering releasing the other one. What sort of justice is it when this decision is not communicated to the family of the eight people who died? (148599)

I am absolutely clear that it is not acceptable for people who have been the victims of horrible crimes to discover, without their knowing anything about it, that those who committed those crimes, having served an appropriate sentence, are on the streets again. I intend to ask the new victims commissioner to look into this as a matter of urgency. Tragically, she has direct experience of how this can affect families, and I believe there is nobody better qualified to fulfil that role. I absolutely understand the point the hon. Gentleman is making.

T6. A continuing issue is convicted criminals who hide their wealth or in other ways refuse to abide by financial assessment orders. Is there more we can do in this area? (148603)

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government recently published details of measures to strengthen the Crown court means-testing scheme. They include steps to ensure that if a defendant fails to co-operate with the new legal aid agency, and if it believes they have sufficient means to pay, they may be pursued for all their outstanding legal aid costs following conviction. From July, the Government will also introduce motor vehicle order regulations so that the agency can seize a defendant’s vehicle if they refuse to pay their contribution towards their costs. Significant action is being taken in this area.

T4. The failed contract with ALS/Capita is a year old. Does the Minister agree that her claims of massive savings cannot be demonstrated, given that the Ministry refuses to publish details of how much is spent off-contract to purchase interpreting services? (148601)

I think that I have made the position clear, but I will repeat it. The contract is operating at a very good success rate, but further improvements can be made. Having worked as a solicitor in the old regime, I can say that it certainly was not perfect. I am satisfied that the new regime will not only save the taxpayer a considerable amount of money, but be more effective, transparent and accountable than the old regime.

Far too many young people are essentially illiterate and innumerate when they start custodial sentences. Even worse, they still are when they finish them. What assessment has the Minister made of the extent to which the costs of providing educational services would be offset by savings through a reduction in reoffending rates?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We are already obliged to provide education for such young people, whether they are in custody or not. He is right that literacy and numeracy are a huge issue. That is partly because there are very high rates of exclusion from school among young people who eventually end up in custody. We need to do more to take advantage of the period of stability, which for many young people is unusual, that they have while in custody. We must do more to educate them in custody and to ensure that that education continues when they leave it.

T7. What is the minimum percentage that the Justice Secretary thinks needs to be in a contract for it to be considered a payment-by-results scheme? (148605)

I have been very clear that I find it profoundly unsatisfactory that people who get sentences of less than 12 months are not provided with supervision post-prison. The changes that we have put in place will include that group and people who receive community sentences. We must remember that 80% of those who end up in our prisons have completed a community sentence, so that part of our system is not working either.

The risk posed by offenders can change, as was illustrated all too vividly by news reports from Chippenham last week. Under his proposals, how will the Secretary of State ensure that medium-risk offenders are assessed to enable them to receive attention from skilled and experienced probation officers should they become a higher risk to members of the public?

We are very clear that there has to be a simple mechanism for offenders whose risk profile is changing to be reassessed by a public probation officer. As a result of our consultation, we are working through the details of how that process should work. I am very clear that the responsibility for protecting the public from the risk of harm should and will remain with the public sector.

T8. During the Report stage of the Crime and Courts Bill, there was unfortunately insufficient time for Ministers to speak to Government amendment 110, which provided for statutory guidance on the use of restorative justice. Will the Minister take this opportunity, given that there was extensive discussion in Committee and outside on this issue, to explain to the House how that amendment will extend and strengthen the use of restorative justice in the criminal justice system? (148606)

First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks on Third Reading of the Crime and Courts Bill last night. The Bill gives judges explicit powers to defer sentencing to allow restorative justice to take place between a victim and an offender. The amendment provides that restorative justice practitioners must

“have regard to any guidance that is issued”

by the Secretary of State, with a view to “encouraging good practice” in the delivery of pre-sentence restorative justice. That is a significant step forward for restorative justice and I know that the right hon. Gentleman will welcome it.

Will the Government aim to ensure that no prisoner leaves prison without being able to read and write as that would further reduce reoffending and give prisoners a chance of finding work when they leave?

Yes, we will make every effort to ensure that prisoners learn to read and write if they cannot do so when they arrive. A good deal of the excellent work to achieve that is done by volunteers, mentors and charities. That foreshadows what we hope we can achieve with the wider transforming rehabilitation agenda. My hon. Friend is right to focus on this issue because literacy skills mean that somebody has a greater likelihood of getting and holding on to a job, which helps to reduce reoffending.

T9. After 1 April, the courts will be full of people defending themselves because they cannot afford professional advice and no longer have access to legal aid. What is the Department doing to ensure that everybody gets access to justice, not only those who can afford it? (148607)

Opposition Members must realise that they left behind not only the biggest deficit in our peacetime history, but also the most expensive legal aid system in the developed world. We must take tough decisions and have a system that is realistic, given our financial constraints. I believe we have achieved that with the reforms we have put forward. We will monitor the impact of those reforms and ensure that we adjust anything that needs to be adjusted. Opposition Members should not believe that there are alternatives to what we are doing.

Felmores approved premises in my constituency is located near a school, a nursery, a playground and a densely populated housing estate. Does my right hon. Friend agree that although the provision of such premises is essential, a location such as the one I have described is inappropriate? Will he encourage probation trusts to work with the local community to find alternative locations?

I have a lot of sympathy with my hon. Friend and I will ask the Minister responsible for prisons and probation whether he will work with him to look at the situation described. Clearly, it is not sensible to locate such facilities in highly sensitive locations, although my hon. Friend will agree that their provision in the community is vital.

The Government have proposed to move personal injury cases below a certain level into the small claims court, which will mean more people representing themselves in person. That is likely to mean that a lot more time will be needed for those cases, as well as a lot of negotiation, which will lead to more costs. How does the Minister think that such a move will save the public money?

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady has experience of the small claims court, but this plays to the point raised by her hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel). The small claims court is more of a mediation environment than a combative legal environment, and that is a better way of dealing with many of the smaller claims that people need to bring.

Jamaican and Nigerian nationals make up a big proportion of the foreign nationals in our jails. What progress is being made on negotiating compulsory prisoner transfer agreements with Jamaica and Nigeria so that we can send those people back?

As my hon. Friend rightly says, Nigeria is a significant country in that respect, and he will know that one obstacle to negotiating such an agreement concerns the constitutional restrictions in potential receiving countries. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the Nigerian legislature has now passed legislation that makes such an agreement feasible, so we are making considerable progress with Nigeria.

Schedule 2 of the Armed Forces Act 2006 means that a commanding officer does not automatically have to refer to the service prosecution authority incidents of sexual assault, voyeurism and exposure. Will the Minister talk to his equivalent in the Ministry of Defence to ensure that victims, whether in the civil service or the military, have access to the same justice as in the civil justice and military systems?

Access to justice is obviously important for everyone, but the matters to which the hon. Lady refers are for my colleagues at the Ministry of Defence. I am sure that they will note her comments in Hansard and be aware of what she has said.

The Defamation Bill is a key piece of legislation, helping people to protect their reputations and supporting free speech. It was held up in the other place, but what progress is now being made and does it have a target date for Royal Assent?

I very much hope that now that cross-party issues on Leveson have been dealt with, there will be no obstacles to bringing forward the Defamation Bill in its original form, without the Lords amendments.

On compensation for people with pleural plaques, will the Minister look at what has happened in Northern Ireland, which has overturned the House of Lords ruling and restored the right of people to sue in the civil courts for compensation for that condition?

Yes, I am happy to look at that, but the law does not prevent a person with pleural plaques who goes on to develop any recognised asbestos-related disease from bringing a claim in relation to that disease. Obviously, England and Wales have a different legal system from those in Scotland and Northern Ireland.