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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 565: debated on Tuesday 2 July 2013


The Secretary of State was asked—

Whiplash Injuries

1. What steps he is taking to reduce the cost and quantity of claims for compensation for whiplash injuries. (162384)

Earlier this year, the Government consulted on proposals to reduce the number and cost of whiplash claims. We will publish our response after we have considered the Transport Committee’s report, which we expect to be published before the summer recess.

Car insurance premiums in Bradford are the highest in the country. The Institute and Faculty of Actuaries has released information showing that the number of third-party whiplash claims rose by 5% in the year 2010-11, although the number of accidents fell. According to the institute’s chairman, 60% of the claims were exaggerated, misrepresented or fraudulent. Will the Secretary of State look again at the period within which claims can be made? At present, a claim can be made up to three years after a whiplash accident.

We have no plans to change the law on limitation, but I assure my hon. Friend that the Government are absolutely committed to tackling fraudulent whiplash claims, while also ensuring that those with genuine neck injuries receive the compensation that they need and deserve. Making the system fairer for defendants does not, of course, compromise access to justice for claimants, and we will seek to restore balance to the civil justice system.

As the Minister knows, the vast majority of claims are genuine. Rather than being obsessed with this issue, should not the Government be targeting some of the practices of the insurance industry, such as cold-calling victims or referring them to its in-house lawyers in the hope of settling claims cheaply? Why are the Government not doing that? Is it because, again, they are on the side of the big battalions rather than the consumer?

The hon. Lady has got it absolutely wrong. We know that the Government, the insurance industry and claimant lawyers must all work to tackle fraud, because it is completely unacceptable. We fully expect the industry to pass on the considerable savings that it will make to the public in the form of reduced insurance premiums.

Having suffered a severe whiplash injury after someone shunted my vehicle many years ago, I have great sympathy for genuine victims, but there is widespread evidence that gangs have moved into what they see as a profitable business, generating deliberately fraudulent claims, and that that is driving up premiums for ordinary motorists.

I agree. Unfortunately, a compensation culture was allowed to develop under the last Government, and we are having to deal with it now. Our reforms will ensure that meritorious claims will always be possible, while also ensuring that unnecessary claims are avoided.

Given that the cost of car insurance is very high in Northern Ireland, particularly in relation to whiplash injuries, and given that the issue was referred to the Competition Commission last year, will the Minister tell us whether she has received any progress reports from the commission?

I personally have received no progress reports, but I am happy to look into the matter for the hon. Lady. The Automobile Association recently reported a 4.1% reduction in premiums, which it attributed to the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 and the Government’s other reforms, but it is clear that much more needs to be done.

Restorative Justice

The Ministry of Justice and the Home Office have commissioned an evaluation of a number of restorative justice pilot schemes, some of which have involved young people, but there has been no specific evaluation of the use of restorative justice on the youth secure estate.

We know that reducing the unnecessary criminalisation of children should be a key priority, and clearly children within the secure estate are particularly vulnerable. We also know that restorative justice approaches deliver better outcomes for all involved. Will the Minister commit to introducing a specific study on the use of restorative justice in the secure children’s estate?

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s underlying point. Restorative justice has proved to be an extremely successful method; evaluation has found that 85% of victims who have participated in it said that they were satisfied with the experience. We will certainly keep a close eye on how it can be used most effectively for young people.

Last year the Justice Committee visited Northern Ireland to see how restorative justice was working there. It is a mainstream means of disposal in Northern Ireland, and it works extremely well. Would the Minister care to look at the way in which it works in Northern Ireland in order to inform his decisions?

I would be very happy to do that. I am aware of the work that has been done in Northern Ireland, which has been extremely successful, and I should remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Crime and Courts Act 2013 places pre-sentence restorative justice on a statutory footing for the first time, so I very much share his underlying thoughts on this.


3. What assessment he has made of the contribution that financial inclusion programmes can make towards reducing reoffending rates. (162386)

Alongside our probation reforms, it is important to look at other areas in which we help offenders when they leave prison. It is often the basic things, like having a bank account, that they need help with to avoid slipping back into a life of crime. We recognise the importance of financial inclusion, which is why we grant-fund Unlock, a programme that helps prisoners establish a relationship with a commercial bank. Indeed, the prisons Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), is doing a lot of work at the moment with the banks to try to ensure we can offer financial services to those who leave prisons, so they can get their lives back together.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that credit unions can play a unique and valuable role not only in providing the nuts and bolts of banking, but in improving financial capability and promoting savings to increase financial resilience?

I am a great fan of the credit unions. I have seen their work both in my previous role as employment Minister and now as potential contributors to the process of rehabilitating offenders. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that we should support and encourage the work of credit unions. They can make a huge difference for those who cannot access financial services through other means.

In terms of reducing reoffending, will the Secretary of State look urgently at the case of John Cronin, a convicted sexual predator who was originally given a life sentence? He has now been released on licence and has broken the terms of that licence, and apparently has not been returned to jail and cannot be put on the sex offenders register. He is a very dangerous man. Will the Secretary of State look urgently at that case?

Order. He is indeed, by all accounts, a dangerous man, but it is not immediately apparent what the relevance of his case is to the issue of financial inclusion programmes—

Indeed, but not financial inclusion, which was the purport of the question. However, the Secretary of State is a dextrous fellow, and I am sure he can respond appropriately.

Drug Testing (Prisoners)

The right hon. Gentleman knows that we already have a system of random and intelligence-led drug testing in prisons. He knows, too, that we are not persuaded of the merits of adding further testing for all prisoners at the fixed points of arrival and departure from custody. However, we are working with the Department of Health to test an end-to-end approach to tackling addiction from custody into the community, which includes looking at which prisoners should be tested and when.

The Minister is right: I do, in fact, know all that. However, it does not deal with the problem. The problem is that 35% of those in prison have a drug addiction and 6% acquire that addiction once they are in prison, so more come out with an addiction than went in with one. Why do the Government not feel that mandatory testing on entry and exit will help break the cycle of drug dependency?

We are in agreement, because I knew all that, too, but it is worth saying to the right hon. Gentleman that we have one or two issues with the suggestion he and his Select Committee make in what is, I concede, an excellent report that makes a substantial contribution to this debate. The concerns we have are that if tests are done at a fixed point of exit, particularly from custody, the offender knows that is coming and can do things to try to mitigate the effect of the test. We think it is important to test on a random, and perhaps frequent, basis. We entirely agree with him and his Committee, however, about the importance of extending our testing to include prescription drugs as well as illegal drugs, because of the widespread abuse of those drugs, and I hope he will support the private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James), which will achieve exactly that.

We are very much in favour of the approach that attacks this problem in an intensive way and makes sure that prisoners understand that they need to get off drugs and stay off drugs. Drug recovery wings are extremely effective in that regard, and of course prisoners have an opportunity to move on to another wing thereafter, where they will be able to stay drug-free. That is an extremely important approach.

If the Government cannot control the taking of unlawful drugs in a prison—a completely controlled environment—what messages does the Minister think that sends out to the rest of society for reducing the drug problem?

It is important to recognise that the rate of mandatory drug testing producing a positive result has dropped considerably, from 25% or so in 1996-97 to about 7% now. So it is not that we are without success, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is no cause for complacency. We do everything possible to prevent the influx of drugs into our prisons, but that is an extremely difficult exercise. It is important to attack demand as well as supply, and to make sure that prisoners come off drugs and stay off them.

I warmly welcome last week’s announcement of a new prison to be built in north Wales. Will the Minister undertake that from the moment the new prison opens it will be 100% free of illegal drugs?

I suspect it would be unwise for me to make such a pledge, but we will make sure that in all our prisons we do everything we can to restrict the inflow of illegal drugs, by whatever means. As I said, we will also make sure that we provide the maximum effort to get prisoners off drugs and keep them that way.

Probation System

We will open up rehabilitation to a diverse range of organisations and introduce new payment incentives for providers to focus relentlessly on reforming offenders. We plan to commence the competitive process for our new providers at the end of this summer. We will also create a new national public sector probation service, which will work to protect the public.

It is a myth that there is no learning already available to the Government on payment by results; learning is available across government activities, and a number of pilots within the probation field have begun. Not all of them have been completed, but, as the hon. Gentleman will recognise, it is possible to learn something from a pilot even if it is not completed. We are confident that payment by results is the right way to approach this matter. It is also the right way, of course, to release the savings we need to pay for an additional 50,000 offenders who currently receive no supervision. If he has a better way of doing that, we look forward to hearing it.

The Minister is in the unusual position of wanting to both privatise and nationalise the probation service at the same time. Will he explain to the House why the probation service is to be trusted with the supervision of the most dangerous, but will not be allowed to bid to work with less serious offenders?

We think that a combination of approaches will work best. We think that the probation service has particular skills in dealing with the most dangerous and high-risk offenders, so we want to give it the opportunity to concentrate on those offenders. We also think that there is a huge range of innovation and good ideas among bodies of all sorts, in the voluntary sector as well as in the private sector, and we want to bring those ideas to bear on what has been an extremely intractable problem—driving down reoffending rates.

Despite record spending on prison and probation services, reoffending rates are still far too high. Will the Minister give an assurance that the new probation reforms will seek to address that issue, while also delivering value for money for the taxpayer?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. She is right to say that reoffending rates are far too high; 50% of those released from custody reoffend within 12 months. That is unacceptable, and people within the probation service know that. We need to bring those rates down, and the best way to do so is to unlock the innovation I spoke about a moment ago and to have a system where, if people succeed in driving down reoffending rates, they receive the maximum reward and if they do not, they will not.

One of the biggest weaknesses of the criminal justice system has been a failure to engage with short-term prisoners. Does the Minister therefore agree that probation assistance with that group of offenders is vital to curb reoffending rates?

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. He puts his finger on a big gap in the system up to this point in that those offenders who receive a custodial sentence of 12 months or less receive very little or no supervision at all. It is very important that they should, because that is the group with the highest rates of reoffending. Some 60% reoffend within 12 months. We need to address that and we will do so.

Highly respected former chief inspector of prisons Lord Ramsbotham has called on the Justice Secretary to withdraw his plans for probation as they are too complex to be achieved safely. Concerns about public safety meant that not a single Cross Bencher voted with the Government on his amendment in the Lords. The timetable is unrealistic, the IT is not ready and the Department’s risk assessment states that the proposal is unlikely to work. Is it not time for the Government to take stock and rethink before they waste any more resources on this rapidly unravelling plan?

The hon. Lady will not be surprised to learn that I do not agree with her. This is an important and urgent reform. She must recognise that every single year 600,000 offences are committed by people who have previously committed an offence. Until we start to address reoffending effectively, that number will not come down and we will not avoid the creation of tens of thousands of new victims every year. That is why this is urgent. As far as I understand the position of the hon. Lady’s party, she agrees that reoffending rates are too high, that something must be done about that and that there is a problem with the group with sentences under 12 months, yet we hear nothing from her about what she would do about that if it was not what we propose to do. If she has an alternative, let us hear it.

Legal Aid (Barristers)

Our analysis, based on applying our proposals to the cases handled by the Legal Aid Agency last year, suggests that overall the majority of criminal advocates would either be better off or see their income unchanged as a result of the fee proposals, while civil barristers affected, who generally receive higher fees than other civil advocates, could see their income reduced.

Could the proposals not have been centred around a fixed-fee per case, salami-slicing budget cuts across the board or restructuring? Will not this arrangement protect the incomes of lower paid barristers?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That was part of our objective. Some people argued that we should go for one case, one fee, but that would in my view do deep long-term—if not total—damage to the Bar. We chose not to go down that route. We have put together a package of proposals that, on the basis of the case mix carried out last year by junior barristers, should leave a substantial proportion of them either with an unchanged income or a slightly increased income.

19. If legal aid cannot be paid unless permission is granted for a judicial review, does the Justice Secretary accept that lawyers will be unable to take on some of the strongest cases such as when local authorities might refuse to recognise their duty to house a homeless family? Those are exactly the kind of cases where they will offer an early settlement or a no-cost settlement. (162402)

I am afraid that I think the current situation is unacceptable, whereby we are obliged to provide legal aid to anyone who starts a judicial review regardless of the strength of their case. If an individual has a strong case with their lawyer against a local authority, they should seek to recover their costs from that local authority. It is not the job of the taxpayer to bank-roll all cases.

Has the Lord Chancellor heard from the Bar Council since the Law Society sent me a letter yesterday describing the constructive progress that had been made in discussions? Does he recognise the genuine concern that when a fundamental change is made in the relationship between the two sides of the profession, it has to be after very careful consideration?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. Over the past few weeks, I have had very constructive engagement with the Law Society and I welcome the counter-proposals it has put to us. We have recognised many shared objectives in that and it has behaved with professionalism over this matter. I was very disappointed that when the Bar Council submitted its report and recommendations to us in response to our consultation it did not contain the same degree of constructive engagement. I am due to meet the Bar Council later today and I hope we will see that change.

Now that the Lord Chancellor concedes that client choice is integral to the criminal justice system, when will he announce that price-competitive tendering has been dumped once and for all?

The hon. Gentleman needs to realise that the concept of competitive tendering in criminal legal aid was originated by his own party. Now we are hearing the Labour party oppose the things for which it argued for years, and it is typical of this Opposition that they will say one thing when in government, and when in opposition will say something completely different. I am proud to be part of a party that is defending health budgets and taking tough decisions in other areas; the hon. Gentleman is part of a party doing the opposite.

Although legal aid is no longer available for most family litigation, it is still available for family mediation, yet many mediation services have seen their inquiries halve since April because clients are under the mistaken belief that it is caught up in the changes. Given that mediation is often better than litigation, what can the Secretary of State do to advertise the fact?

I am very concerned to pursue that. I am aware of the issues that my hon. Friend mentions. It may well be down to the fact that there was a surge in cases prior to the legal aid changes that came into effect in April, but I can give him an assurance that this is very much on my radar, and I intend to pursue it.

Last week, the Lord Chancellor was telling some of the 16,000 respondents to his legal aid consultation that their responses had been automatically deleted, but he must have read some of them, as they provoked his embarrassing U-turn on choice of solicitor yesterday. Will he now also U-turn on forcing small firms out of business and on giving cash incentives for guilty pleas, and will he abandon the further cuts in civil legal aid that will, according to the Parole Board among others, cost several times the £6 million he claims they will save?

Labour Members really do not get it, do they? Government Minister consults on proposals, listens, makes some modifications, and gives an early decision to help people, so they are not attacking proposals that have changed. Labour Members never listened to anybody when they were in government; they just ploughed ahead regardless.

The hon. Gentleman is the person who said, in 2011, that the Government should look for

“efficiencies in the criminal legal aid system,”


“save…money”.—[Official Report, 2 November 2011; Vol. 534, c. 958-9.]

We are now doing that; they have changed their minds. It is shambolic.

Criminal Legal Aid

8. What representations he has received from smaller law firms on his proposals to reform criminal legal aid. (162391)

The recent consultation “Transforming Legal Aid” generated around 16,000 responses, which, contrary to reports, have been read extensively by individuals, including many by myself. Many were from smaller law firms or those who work within a smaller law firm. I have personally attended events organised by the Law Society where I met many solicitors who practise with smaller firms. I met a number of people from smaller firms in the north-west last week, and we will continue to talk to all the representative bodies in the weeks ahead.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. On 24 May, when I met a number of solicitors and barristers from across Pendle, they raised several concerns with me. However, principally they believe the savings that my right hon. Friend is planning to make have already been made, and the figures the Government are using are out-of-date legal aid totals. What reassurance can he provide to them?

I can give my hon. Friend my assurance that that is not the case. There are a number of false rumours floating around. The figures that we used for the recent consultation were based on the criminal legal aid spend in 2011-12, which were the most up-to-date figures when we published the document. When developing these proposals, we have also taken fully into account the savings that came out of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which were presaged by the previous Government, who set in train the initial process towards cutting legal aid costs. However, given the continuing pressure on public finances, we do, I am afraid, still need to bear down on the cost of legal aid.

Could the Secretary of State assure the House that none of the e-mailed responses to his consultation has been deleted? To make everybody happy, will he ensure that every single one of them is published, because there seems to be a story out there that somehow or other his Department is not interested in the response to the consultation process, and therefore it has been deleting unwanted e-mails? I am sure that is not the case, but could he assure the House that it is not so?

My understanding is that that is not the case, and if there is any suggestion that it is the case, we will ask the people who sent the e-mails to resend them. However, I can assure the House that as far as I am aware, every submission is in our hands, is being read, and will be considered properly.

All of us understand the need to control costs, but I wonder how the Secretary of State will ensure that the creation of a single fixed fee, payable regardless of whether an individual pleads guilty, will not create a direct conflict of interest between the legal representative and his or her client.

It is clearly in our interests to have a system where we encourage people who are guilty to plead guilty early. That saves money. It is the right thing to do for society. I do not believe or accept that we would be in a position where any qualified lawyer would try to encourage someone to plead guilty when they were not guilty, but of course we are listening to all the responses from the consultation and will bring forward further proposals in due course.

May I say, in the most courteous way, to the Justice Secretary that he should revisit some of the answers on legal aid he has given today? He is just wrong on a number of points. There is now a general consensus that his Department’s reform of court translation services was a shambles—the Select Committee on Justice, the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee all agree. What differences are there in his plans to reform legal aid to avoid repeating the mistakes made in the previous set of reforms?

Let us be clear: it is no secret that the handling of contracting of translation services could have been better, and lessons have been learned. However, that service is now delivering to a very high standard and saving the taxpayer millions of pounds. The Opposition simply do not get that we have to take tough decisions to save money to deal with the mess they left behind.

Small Claims Procedure

In April, the Government increased the limit in the small claims track from £5,000 to £10,000, with the aim of ensuring that more claims are resolved in a way that is accessible, proportionate and cost-effective.

I am grateful for that answer and welcome the raising of the threshold from £5,000 to £10,000, but a constituent of mine has highlighted some of the difficulties people have enforcing some judgments. My constituent had a judgment in his favour for £475 against a tradesman who failed to complete a task, but never received the money; he found that his only remedy was to incur further legal and court costs. Does the Minister agree that we need to review enforcement in such cases where payment is not made?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Our “Solving disputes in the county courts” consultation considered reforms to the attachment of earnings order and the third party debt recovery order. We support those reforms and will implement them as soon as resources allow. Changes have been made to the charging order and order for sale procedures, which will help both creditors and debtors.


Under our “Transforming Rehabilitation” reforms, every offender released from custody, including those sentenced to less than 12 months in custody, will receive statutory supervision and rehabilitation in the community. We are also putting in place an unprecedented nationwide through-the-prison-gate resettlement service, whereby most offenders are given continuous support by one provider from custody into the community.

The Minister has already referred to the number of offenders who reoffend within 12 months, and we know that prisoners are spending an awful lot of time banged up in their cells, when what many of them really need is education, because all too many failed in or were failed by the education system before embarking on a life of criminal activity. Will the Minister undertake to ensure that more time in prison is devoted to prisoners’ education, so that they are better prepared for life outside and for employment?

The hon. Gentleman is right: education is extremely important, especially for offenders who have very low levels of educational attainment before going into custody, of whom there are many. We are working on that. More prisoners are now doing education courses—more this year than last year. Of course, it is also important that prisoners go to work while they are in custody, and more hours were worked last year than the year before. I hope very much that that trend will continue.

Just last week, I met the Prisoners’ Education Trust and was told that much prison work is low skilled and does not in any way improve employability on release. What will Ministers do to ensure that prison work increases people’s qualifications, improves their CVs and gives them a genuinely better chance of taking up work following release from custody?

The hon. Lady will understand that there are restrictions on the types of work that can be offered in a custodial environment, but there are jobs that will contribute to prisoners’ qualifications and experience. However, there is a wider point, which is that, for a great many prisoners, who simply have no experience of the world of work, the softer skills they need to be employable—working in a team, getting up in the morning and going to work for a full day—are valuable, too, and we will seek to extend those skills as far as we can.

Presumption of Death

11. If he will take steps to ensure that in cases where a person has disappeared and is presumed dead, their family and loved ones are better able to deal with the practical and administrative issues that arise. [R] (162394)

13. If he will take steps to ensure that in cases where a person has disappeared and is presumed dead, their family and loved ones are better able to deal with the practical and administrative issues that arise. (162396)

We are working with the General Register Office to create the rules and regulations necessary to implement the Presumption of Death Act 2013, which will create a single certificate of presumed death equivalent to a death certificate.

I welcome that response, and so will the family of missing York woman Claudia Lawrence. We have certainly moved on in the past few months and I am very grateful. Can my hon. Friend confirm that a Bill will be put before the House to deal with the issues around guardianship, and will she tell the House the likely time scale for that?

A consultation on guardianship will be launched this year, with a view to taking a final decision on guardianship next year.

Leading Seaman Timmy MacColl went missing while in Dubai with the Royal Navy last May. He leaves behind a wife and three small children. The Royal Navy is now seeking to get a certificate of death without any face-to-face consultation with his wife. On top of the emotional strain, this casts a question mark over the family’s financial future and where they will live. To what extent can the Ministry of Justice liaise with the armed forces in such cases and ensure that the family are much more involved in these decisions?

I know that my hon. Friend cares deeply about these issues and has worked tirelessly in assisting this family in her constituency whose loved one has gone missing. The Ministry of Defence has its own procedures for presuming missing service personnel to be dead and does not liaise with the Ministry of Justice in individual cases, but if my hon. Friend would like some further information on the involvement of family members, I am happy to make representations to the Defence Secretary on her behalf.

European Convention on Human Rights

12. What his policy is on whether the UK should continue to be a contracting party to the European convention on human rights. (162395)

The Government remain committed to the European convention on human rights and to ensuring that those rights continue to be enshrined in UK law. We are also closely involved in the process to reform the Strasbourg Court.

The Foreign Secretary promised that there would be no downgrading of human rights under this Government, so can the Minister explain why the Justice Secretary and the Home Secretary believe it is right to end 60 years of strong human rights protection drawn up by British lawyers and politicians, which have served both the United Kingdom and Europe so well?

Every member of this Government is concerned with making sure that human rights remain one of the bases of a good democratic society. There is no secret about the fact that the two parties in the coalition Government may have slightly different views about how to enhance human rights in future. I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that on behalf of my party I am leading work to make sure that human rights do not get devalued by being exploited, particularly in the courts, by those who should not be exploiting the legislation for their own ends.

I thank my right hon. Friend for this reply. Is he aware that one interpretation of the European convention on human rights could be that people are prevented from exercising freedom of conscience in relation to same-sex marriage in practising their profession while wanting to maintain their religious beliefs?

There are clearly a number of areas—my hon. Friend has mentioned one—in which the potential interpretation of the existing human rights legislation could lead to effects which many in this House and outside would regard as perverse. That is precisely the sort of area which we are looking at very carefully so that human rights can remain something that we all unquestioningly support.

I and my colleagues very much welcome the Minister’s commitment that this Government will stay within the ECHR. Does he agree that those who wish to leave ought to make it clear which articles of the convention they have a problem with, and which aspects they do not agree with? Are there any that he does not agree with?

Again, every member of the Government has made it clear that the original convention was written well and expresses views that all of us in the House share. Members in all parts of the House, even in the Labour party, might admit that the way the legislation is now being used brings human rights into disrepute and that we need to do something about it. That is the work that I am leading on behalf of the Conservative party.

Prisoner Literacy

Part of a prisoner’s induction involves screening for literacy needs, and where such needs are identified, prisoners are offered teaching and support as a priority. Improving prisoners’ literacy is a key objective of the learning and skills service in custody. Improving literacy skills means that a prisoner has a greater likelihood of getting and holding on to a job when released, which helps to reduce reoffending.

According to a recent Ministry of Justice survey, one in five prisoners needs help reading and writing. Charities such as Shannon Trust have pioneered peer mentoring and synthetic phonics to improve literacy rates. What steps is the Minister taking to expand such innovative programmes, and does he agree that they are absolutely crucial to equipping offenders with the skills they need to go straight on release?

I agree with my hon. Friend. He is right to cite the Shannon Trust. Its Toe by Toe project is an extremely good example of what we are discussing. We will help it in any way we can. I hope that he will hear a little more about that over the rest of the summer. The important changes we have made to the incentives and earned privileges scheme go beyond simply what we may take away from prisoners; they are also about the incentives we give them to help other prisoners. In order to reach the enhanced level of the scheme, a prisoner will have to help someone else in prison. That is a good opportunity for more mentoring and more learning coaching of the type he describes.

How supportive is the Minister of creative agencies getting into prisons to help improve language and literacy, and is he aware of any barriers they might have experienced to running workshops in prisons?

I am certainly in favour of anything that can be demonstrated to assist in reducing reoffending, but there is another test that needs to be applied: a public acceptability test. The public have certain expectations of what should and should not happen in prison, so we need to apply that filter, but I am certainly interested in imaginative ideas that will help to drive down reoffending rates.

Can the Minister assure the House that improving literacy among prisoners is provided equally across the United Kingdom? What consultation has he had with the Minister of Justice in the Northern Ireland Assembly?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. I think it is important to learn from good practice wherever it happens across the United Kingdom, and we will continue to try to do that.

Legal Aid

15. What impact assessment he has conducted on the potential effect of his proposed changes to legal aid on the quality and equity of legal representation in criminal cases. (162398)

Although we are clear that we must continue to bear down on the cost of legal aid, under our proposals, and indeed under any actions we take, quality legal representation will still be available to all who need it.

I congratulate the Government on having the political maturity to rethink their proposals. Does the Secretary of State agree that we cannot compromise the quality of British justice, even in a time of austerity?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Of course, I regard the qualifications available to both the solicitors’ profession and the Bar in this country as of a high international standard. If a qualified solicitor or barrister is available to help somebody in a legal predicament, that is a sign that we are doing the right thing to support them and that will not change.

Why, then, did the Secretary of State think it was a good idea to limit whom a person can pick to be their solicitor?

My key concern is to ensure that we have universal coverage, even in tough times. I have consulted the legal profession, put forward ideas and listened, which I think is what they hoped a Government would do. I have made a modification, but nobody, and certainly not the Labour party, should be under any illusions: we have to meet financial targets and tough decisions lie ahead. The question is whether the Opposition support those changes, because I have heard no suggestion that they would reverse them.

My right hon. Friend and I have already spoken about this subject. I believe that there would be very great difficulties for people in need of legal aid on the Isle of Wight. The travelling times and the difficulty and cost of accessing legal advice on the mainland would be of a completely disproportionate magnitude to those experienced elsewhere in the country. Will he outline how he plans to address that problem?

One of the comments from colleagues in the House and elsewhere, which we must clearly factor in when developing the next stage of the proposals, is what we will do in areas that are rural or have particular geographical issues. That is something I am very mindful of—

It is all very well for Labour Members to say that it is a mess, but we are making changes that they recommended and said were necessary. We are making a financial decision to sort out a mess they left behind. [Interruption.] Where do they stand?

Order. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) should not keep prating noisily from a sedentary position. When he was practising at the Bar, he would not have behaved like that in the courts. Due decorum should be observed by the hon. Gentleman.

This Government’s handling of the proposed changes to legal aid has been absolutely shambolic. Not only are they proposing to restrict access to legal aid—a right that goes back to Magna Carta—but their proposal will actually cost more. When will the Minister get a grip?

Sometimes, Mr Speaker, you have to pinch yourself when you hear Labour Members. It is true that we are going to limit access to legal aid to people who have a net disposable income of more than £3,000 a month after tax, national insurance, mortgage payments, food, council tax, and child care. My view is that if people have that much disposable income, they can make a contribution. Labour is only a party for the rich these days.

Judicial Review

There has been a significant growth in the number of judicial review claims, increasing by 86% between 2007 and 2012. Judicial review will continue to play an important role in holding Government and others to account.

Does the Minister agree that too much time and money are being spent on weak and unmeritorious cases, and that this needs to be addressed with some urgency?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent and astute point. Judicial review is a crucial check on the power of the state, and it will remain so. However, it is also subject to abuse—stifling innovation, frustrating reforms and incurring considerable cost. Our reforms will tackle the burden while maintaining the benefits of the rule of law and access to justice.

Aside from the near impossible job of getting the Attorney-General to quash an inquest, the only route that families have to challenge a coroner’s decision is through judicial review. The Government have already stopped bereaved families having a proper coroners appeal system. Is not the restriction of judicial review a further kick in the teeth for bereaved families?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is well aware of the actions that have been taken for bereaved families. I will not go into too much detail now, but I will say, picking up the point about judicial review, that these proposals strike the right balance and a fair balance, and they are proportional and targeted. The system is already subject to abuse. The reforms that we will put forward will not restrict access to justice or the rule of law, nor the right to a fair hearing.

Topical Questions

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) has already referred to the new prison in north Wales, and I thought it might be helpful to update the House on our plans. The purpose-built institution that we are planning will hold about 2,000 prisoners and bring about 1,000 jobs and a £23 million boost each year to the region’s economy. We expect work to start on the build in summer next year, with the aim of being fully operational by late 2017.

I want to put on record my thanks to the Welsh Government and the local authorities in the region for their co-operation in helping this, the first prison in north Wales, to become a reality. We will announce the specific set of sites in due course. I believe that this is the right thing for this part of the country and the right way to meet prison capacity demands. New prison builds represent much better value for money for the taxpayer, but as the recent report from Policy Exchange recognised, they are also the right way for us to cut this country’s stubbornly high reoffending rate. That is another reason why the announcement of this Government investment is such welcome news.

Only two years ago the probation service was awarded the British Quality Foundation Gold Medal for Excellence and was lavishly praised by the then responsible Minister, who was later sacked to be replaced by hard-line privatisers who are now determined to force more public money into private pockets, whatever the consequences. Is not that the simple truth?

It is important that Labour Members understand what they are saying when they oppose these reforms. Every day of every week, a young person, very often somebody who has grown up in the most difficult circumstances and found themselves with a short sentence in jail, is walking back on to our streets with £46 in their pocket and no support, and the majority reoffend. That is a scandal, it needs to stop as quickly as possible, and that is what we are aiming to do.

T2. May I commend my right hon. Friend for his courage in trying to tackle the legal aid budget, which certainly does need to be addressed, and thank him for the genuine consultation exercise on which he has embarked? May I gently suggest to him that, in particular, the plans for large criminal law legal aid contracts in rural areas need to be looked at? I am concerned about the decimation of specialist firms in Plymouth. I support his approach, but could he please look again at that issue? (162410)

I can give that assurance. As I said a moment ago, this is one of the things that has come out of the consultation—it is a genuine consultation, although I know that Labour does not believe that it should be genuine—and we are listening and I will review it over the next few weeks.

And all said with a straight face!

It is a statement of fact that the Justice Secretary’s plans for the probation service will lead to serious sexual and violent offenders being supervised by the likes of Olympic security and Work programme experts G4S, A4e and others. Why has he refused my freedom of information request to see the risk register for these plans?

Labour simply will not accept the need for change and for those under-12-months prisoners to be supervised. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, when his party was in government he did not publish risk registers, either. This is another example of Labour doing one thing in government but wanting the rules to change the moment it moves into opposition. It is very unedifying.

May I gently advise the Justice Secretary to seek advice from the Leader of the House, the former Secretary of State for Health, about how that movie ended for him?

The rest of us saw leaks of the risk register in last week’s media. What would the risk register need to say for the Justice Secretary to change his plans, or does he really not care?

Again, the right hon. Gentleman has conveniently forgotten what the purpose of a risk register is: it is a management document designed to ensure that we look at all the issues a project should address when formulating its plans and that we take the necessary steps to ensure that the process runs smoothly. That is what we are doing, and we are doing it because there is a large group of mostly young people on our streets who are likely to reoffend and have no support at all at the moment. I think that that is a problem worth sorting.

T3. May I pursue a little further the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) about the impact of these legal aid changes in rural communities? Does the Secretary of State recognise that in remote communities like my North Devon constituency all this work is currently undertaken by small firms that will not be big enough to tender for contracts, and that if they are not able to keep the critical mass of work in this area, they will not be there to be subcontracted to by bigger firms? How far will my constituents have to go for legal representation in the future? (162411)

We need to ensure two things. We have to bring down the cost of criminal aid, so no change is not an option. We have consulted on a package of proposals and there will have to be change in the solicitors sector. The Law Society itself accepted that in a letter to the Select Committee yesterday. However, as I have said, one of the issues that arose from the consultation related to rural areas and we will consider it very carefully.

T4. In answer to questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain) and others a few minutes ago, the Secretary of State and his colleagues were less than clear about the European convention on human rights. Which part of it do they object to and want to change, and are there plans to leave the convention altogether? (162412)

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not hear my answer. There is genuine discontent about the way in which the perfectly reasonable articles in the convention have been misused in this country’s legal system, such that in many cases people who should not be able to use them misuse them in order to abuse this country’s hospitality by staying here when they have no right to do so and generally bring the whole concept of human rights into disrepute. The hon. Gentleman and I would agree that human rights ought to be the bedrock of a democratic society, but the problem with the current system is that that is in danger of no longer being the case. I would have hoped that he would welcome our attempts to reform it.

T5. If it is true that there are still almost 11,000 foreign national offenders in our prisons, what steps are being taken to negotiate compulsory prisoner transfer agreements with other nations so that these people can be sent back to secure detention in their own countries? (162413)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that that is the right objective. We have negotiated a compulsory prisoner transfer agreement with Albania, which is a high-volume country. That was concluded in January. We are making better use than ever before of the European Union prisoner transfer agreement. My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that some 200 cases are currently processing through that method. We will remove as many as we can because, as my hon. Friend has heard me say before, the right place for foreign national offenders is their own country, not ours.

T6. Is the spoof Twitter account @FailingGrayling a reference to the failing Work programme or to the rushed probation reforms, which are sure also to fail? (162414)

The Work programme is not in my remit now, but Members will have noticed that in the past couple of weeks we have published figures showing that more than 300,000 people have started work through the Work programme and that 132,000 of them have completed lengthy periods in work, all at a fraction of the cost of the programmes that we inherited from the previous Government.

T8. The Secretary of State has expressed his concern recently about the use of cautions for people who commit burglary. What progress has he made on strengthening sentences, particularly for those who have been convicted of burglary, because it remains a serious offence? (162416)

I share my hon. Friend’s concerns. He will know that burglars now face sentences of up to 14 years and that those who commit a third domestic burglary face a minimum sentence of three years’ imprisonment. I am also happy to inform him, and those who are chuntering on the Opposition Front Bench, that the number of burglaries is clearly going down. Over the past 12 months, the number of burglaries has fallen by 3,000. That is an example of how our police reforms are working and how crime is falling in this country.

T7. The Conservative party has always claimed to be suspicious of an over-mighty state. Why, then, do the Justice Secretary’s plans for judicial review reform strengthen the role of the state at the expense of the rights of individual citizens? (162415)

I do not believe that anyone should just be able to make a case, find a lawyer and have the initial application paid for. That is what we are going to change.

T9. In its court translation services, Capita is delivering only 90% compliance against a contract level of 98%. Will the Minister tell the House the overall cost of that failure to the Courts Service and the total amount of the penalties that have been levied on Capita? (162417)

The were difficulties and teething problems at the beginning, but the contract is now running at a very good success rate. The contract saved the taxpayer £15 million in the first year. I believe that it will be more effective, accountable and transparent than the previous version.

T10. There are significant questions of confidence relating to the Justice Secretary’s plans to privatise courts, not least from the Lord Chief Justice, and the Justice Secretary’s own officials have little confidence in his plans to privatise the probation service. Does anyone in the criminal justice system have any confidence in the Justice Secretary? (162418)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the chance to make it clear that I have no plans to privatise the Courts Service. I have every intention of giving it additional commercial freedoms so that it is able to charge a proper rate from those who can afford to pay it. For example, when Russian oligarchs come to London to use our courts, it is right and proper that they should pay a significant amount for the job, as well as their substantial legal fees. I am sorry to hear that the Labour party is championing low bills for the rich and not the right job for this country.

Will the Secretary of State refute again the ridiculous scare stories? Does he agree that even combined courts in the counties can be more flexible, efficient and innovative, and that any talk of privatisation is ridiculous?

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. What we are hearing from Opposition Members throughout this sitting is that they are the same old Labour party: they have no answers to any of the problems, they oppose any change and they oppose savings. Frankly, they are not fit to be an Opposition, let alone a Government.

The appointment of registered intermediaries is an underused special measure for child witnesses. Because children do not hear or understand language in the same way as adults, they can find cross-examination very confusing. What more can Ministers do to encourage the appointment of registered intermediaries to help children give good quality evidence in court?

The hon. Lady is right that registered intermediaries do an extremely good job. On the wider front, I hope she is aware of the measures that we are taking to protect vulnerable witnesses and young vulnerable witnesses in particular. We have announced the reform that will allow them to give interviews by video link, so that they do not have to be in court; we are looking at ways to avoid unnecessary multiple cross-examinations by barristers; and we are piloting ways of allowing them to give evidence by video in advance. We have a number of ways to protect such witnesses.

I understand the need to bear down on costs that is driving the Lord Chancellor’s legal aid reforms. Given the disproportionate cost of defending corporate fraud cases, will he consider other ways to make savings, such as requiring those costs to be met out of companies’ public liability insurance?

I am all in favour of making anyone involved in our court system make greater use of insurance, as they do in Germany. However, it is a difficult place to get to if we are asking victims of crime to contribute to the cost of prosecuting that crime.

Further to Topical Question 1, will changes to the probation service mean that reoffending rates rise or fall? I am not asking for another paean for privatisation—will reoffending rates be cut or will they rise?

Evidence from where we have put such changes into practice in Peterborough—we have just published the first findings of the kind of mentoring approach I am talking about—shows a noticeable drop in the level of reoffending. I am confident that the reforms will deliver that. It is much needed.

What plans does my right hon. Friend have to improve the number of court cases that go ahead on the day that has been scheduled, in order to reduce the upset caused to victims and witnesses?

My hon. Friend is right to identify that problem. We have just published a wide-ranging transformation of the criminal justice system, which will include much better use of technology to ensure that information available to the court helps the case go ahead on the day. There is also the use of more specialist courts for high-volume regular business that can be taken out of magistrates courts. That will enable magistrates to use their expertise where it is used best—in more complex cases—and enable cases to go ahead more often on the day planned, for the greater convenience of victims.

Will the Secretary of State promise the House that if he were to close a women’s prison, he would ensure that some of the savings that arose went towards preventing women from going into prison in future?

The answer is yes. Our probation reforms will also involve greater mentoring support for those who receive community sentences. Our aim is to stop people going to prison in the first place, and help prevent them from going back if they do end up in prison.

My constituents expect prison to be a place of punishment and rehabilitation, not to provide a more comfortable lifestyle than the one inmates enjoy on the outside. Will the Minister explain how the incentives and earned privileges scheme will operate in the new prison planned in north Wales, and say whether daily life will be significantly different from elsewhere?

My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that the incentives and earned privileges scheme will operate in all our prisons from 1 November. It will mean that prisoners have to earn their privileges by doing more than just keeping their nose clean, and by engaging in their own rehabilitation. That is good for combating reoffending, and is the sort of process that people would expect to happen in our prisons.