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Topical Questions

Volume 565: debated on Tuesday 2 July 2013

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.