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Topical Questions

Volume 570: debated on Tuesday 12 November 2013

In 2015 we will mark the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. To mark that defining moment in the development of modern legal systems, the lord mayor of London and I are shaping a major programme of events and seminars to celebrate our justice system, and to promote the UK as a centre of legal services. The sector contributes £20 billion a year to the UK economy, and the global law summit will bring together leading practitioners from around the world to show what our legal system can offer, share expertise and open up opportunities for collaboration in new business. My Department has brought together the City of London, the Law Society and the Bar Council to plan the event under the stewardship of the former lord mayor Sir David Wootton and my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham). I hope and believe the summit will be a great moment to celebrate our proud legal traditions in the Magna Carta and to look to the future to promote our legal services, secure growth and win the global race.

I welcome the celebration of the great Magna Carta. In 2008, my constituent Carrie-Ann Wheatley was brutally attacked by three men who should not have been in this country. Her family are concerned that article 8 of the European convention on human rights might be used to stop their deportation on their release from prison. I seek reassurance that the Government will properly reform article 8.

I can give my hon. Friend the absolute assurance that both the Home Secretary and I are looking at ways of tightening the rules. There are provisions relating to article 8 in the Immigration Bill, and I am hopeful that our proposed reforms to human rights laws will strengthen the position of victims of crime in the terrible situation that his constituents have found themselves in. We will make sure that the offenders do not get away with it.

As a number of Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members have commented, the Justice Secretary is cutting and changing the funding for innocent victims of crime. For example, spending in Surrey and Hertfordshire will be £21.14 per victim, while the average in England and Wales will be £15 per victim. Why, under his plans, will spending per victim in London, at just £10.11 per victim, be 41% less than the national average?

It is nice to see the right hon. Gentleman launching his London mayoral campaign. I follow his Twitter feed, and for every tweet about justice, there are six about London. I will tell him simply and straightforwardly that under this Government the funding available for victims of crime in London has increased significantly, as it has across the whole country.

It is funny that the Justice Secretary says that, because I used the Mayor of London’s figures for that question. According to the Mayor, the reason for the cut in London is that the Justice Secretary has decided to use a formula based solely on population, while failing to take into account crime levels and the number of victims in police force areas. That means that London loses more than £3 million a year, according to the Mayor of London. As the Justice Secretary said, our justice system relies on the confidence of victims and witnesses, so he should be aware that the Metropolitan police have the lowest victim satisfaction rate of any police force in the country. What impact does he think his decision will have on that?

I wish the right hon. Gentleman well with his campaign, but I know that the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) is the frontrunner at the moment, so he has a bit of catching up to do.

Only in the world of Labour party mathematics and economics could an increased budget be described as a cut.

T3. The modern scourge of human trafficking is still with us. What action is my right hon. Friend taking to bring perpetrators to justice and to compensate the victims?[Official Report, 20 November 2013, Vol. 570, c. 6MC.] (901020)

My hon. Friend will know that the Home Secretary will shortly be publishing a modern slavery Bill that will deal with many of the issues that he rightly raises. Since July 2011, every trafficking victim has received Government funding, via the Salvation Army. The figures last year were about £3 million, with about 928 victims having received this vital support over the past year.

T2. The Secretary of State will know that 12 years ago five children and three adults were murdered by a gang of wicked men. Recently, the Parole Board, against the advice of probation and forensic psychologists, released one of those men before his minimum sentence had been served. What is going on in the Parole Board that it is releasing such men into the community? (901019)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Parole Board and its decisions are independent, but I hope that one benefit of the establishment of the national probation service, with expertise in dealing with the highest-risk offenders, will be a greater degree of expertise sitting alongside the Parole Board to advise it on when it is appropriate to release someone and when it is not. I share his concern about ensuring it is safe to release people on to our streets and that they do not continue to pose a threat to society.

T4. My right hon. Friend will be aware that there has previously been considerable disquiet within the country over the effectiveness of community penalties, in both marking the gravity of offences and ensuring the effective rehabilitation of offenders. I know that he is alive to those concerns, but I would be grateful if he told the House what steps he is taking to ensure they are met. (901022)

I entirely share my hon. and learned Friend’s concerns about public confidence in community sentencing, which is precisely why we have changed the system so that in the future every community order must contain a punitive element. Indeed, the Offender Rehabilitation Bill creates a new flexible rehabilitation activity requirement to aid the rehabilitation of offenders while they are doing some community activity.

T7. Companies such as G4S and Serco have lucrative, multi-million-pound contracts to provide public services. When will the Secretary of State adopt Labour’s plan to extend the Freedom of Information Act to these companies, so that the public have an equal right to know? (901026)

I said I would not comment—and I will not comment—about the current investigation. I will simply point out that the issues regarding G4S and Serco relate to contracts let by the last Government.

T5. Does the Secretary of State agree that we have a most excellent prisons Minister who has many superb qualities? One of the best of his qualities is that when he has made a decision and new facts are put to him, he has the courage to reconsider and change his decision. (901024)

The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright) certainly has those qualities, and he will undoubtedly look at all the issues carefully. Another quality he has is that, when he needs to take a difficult decision in the interests of the country, he will do so.

The Justice Secretary intends all those who are given short prison sentences to be supervised on release. How many will be allocated to the national probation service, and what funding is he making available?

The right hon. Gentleman will know, because the matter came up during last night’s debate, that the national probation service will carry out a risk assessment for all short-sentence prisoners. It will then decide whether to retain them because they are high-risk offenders or to pass them to community rehabilitation companies. So I cannot give him a figure, because each case will involve a judgment for the national probation service.

T6. Are the Lord Chancellor’s proposed reforms on judicial review intended to reassert the primacy of Parliament over the courts, or to save money, or both? (901025)

First and foremost, those reforms are about ensuring that the justice system in this country is there for those who need it, and not used for purposes other than genuine redress. My view is that judicial review is being used at the moment as a delaying tactic and as a PR exercise. It does indeed undermine the will of Parliament and the will of the Executive, and it costs the taxpayer money. It should be used only when it is appropriate to do so, and not for trivialities.

Will the Justice Secretary confirm that there will be no further court closures, which could undermine the administration of justice?

We will continue to review the court estate on an ongoing basis, but at this time I have no plans for substantial court closures. There might be occasional changes in the system, such as those we have seen recently in Liverpool, but I am not planning major changes to the court estate at this time.

T8. What steps is the Department taking to tackle reoffending among female prisoners? Has the Minister come across the excellent social enterprise called Working Chance? (901027)

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the excellent work that is being done with female offenders by various organisations in the voluntary sector. Those organisations make a huge contribution in this regard. We are seeking to ensure that we recognise the particular characteristics of female offenders, that we address the significant problems caused by distance from home, which can have knock-on effects for family life, and that female offenders have an opportunity to work outside prison and to re-engage with lawful society. That is the basis for our reforms.

A previous Justice Minister announced in a Westminster Hall debate that I secured just over a year ago that the Office of the Public Guardian had launched a fundamental review of the supervision of court-appointed deputies. Will the Minister tell us what changes will be made as a result of that review?

This is an ongoing matter, and we are looking into it. I am happy to take on any comments that the hon. Gentleman might have, and I will look into it.

South Yorkshire probation trust has reduced its reoffending rate by 13.4% over its target, and it attributes that in part to its use of impact teams. However, privatisation is likely to blow apart that collaborative working. Why are the Government pushing ahead with that plan?

The hon. Lady might be referring to the local adult reoffending rate. The difficulty with that measurement is that it measures reoffending only over a three-month period. It is much more reliable to measure it over a longer period. She has heard me say many times that I recognise that much good work is already being done within the probation service, but that does not mean that there is no case for change. The case for change is that we still have very high reoffending rates, and we think it is necessary to do something about that. Our proposals will do so.

One of the really bad ideas from the previous Labour Government was the so-called Titan prisons. The Attorney-General, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) said so, as did the Justice Select Committee, and I might even have said so myself. So will the Secretary of State tell my why that really bad idea might now be considered a good idea?

We are not building Titan prisons. The proposed new prison in Wrexham, for example, will be a campus prison with a number of separate small units for 250 to 300 prisoners. It will benefit from the economies of scale achieved by shared facilities, but we will not create a single monolithic institution in which people are detained.

In 2004, 16-year-old Robert Levy was murdered in Hackney Town Hall square. His parents, Pat and Ian, gave evidence to the murderer’s parole board this summer. Just recently, they received an insensitive and bureaucratic letter from Victim Support, requiring them to go through several hoops and to provide a lot of paperwork in order to claim the train fare. Let me quote Mr Levy:

“We are tired of jumping through hoops whilst on the face of things it appears the perpetrator has it all done for them without much trouble to them.”

We have a code and a commissioner, so when are we going to see an approach that will make it easier for victims?

As the hon. Lady knows, I have met her constituent, Mr Levy, and I have to say that I was extremely taken with his courage and dignity. I am very disturbed to hear what she says; if she gives me the opportunity, I will look into it.

Last week, a devastating report entitled “The Payment of Tribunal Awards” was published. It found that less than 50% of people received full payment of an award following a successful employment tribunal. Does the Minister agree that more needs to be done to enforce these claims? Will he meet me, my colleagues on the all-party parliamentary group on citizens advice and representatives from Citizens Advice to find ways to resolve this shocking injustice?

I am, of course, happy to meet my hon. Friend and his constituents. I would say, however, that in the context of the tribunal, there are two individual parties and none of the damages is owed to the state, so we have to be careful. We can provide advice and, where possible, assistance, but at the end of the day, enforcement has to be dealt with by the two parties concerned. As I say, I would be happy to see my hon. Friend.

A constituent had her name touted around Plymouth by a woman taking part in a custody case who, because of the cuts, had no legal aid and no support. This woman did not know that what she was doing was a contempt of court. What steps is the Justice Secretary taking to review the impact of his cuts and the potential rise in contempt cases as a result?

We will, of course, continue to review the impact of the changes we have made to legal aid, which were necessary because of the huge financial challenge we inherited in 2010. If the hon. Lady wants to write to us about the specific case, we will of course look at it.

How many foreign national offenders do we have in our prisons, and what steps are being taken to send them back to secure detention in their own country?

I am ready for this one this time! The answer is 10,833, and my hon. Friend and I are in agreement that that is far too many. As we have discussed before, the answer is that we need to make more use of compulsory prisoner transfer agreements. I can tell him that, as he knows, we have a compulsory prisoner transfer agreement with Albania, and 77 Albanian nationals have been referred to the Home Office for immigration enforcement and deportation. He knows, too, that we are part of the European Union prisoner transfer agreement—another compulsory PTA—under which 277 EU nationals have been referred to the Home Office. We are making progress, although it is not as quick as either of us would like.

Can the Justice Secretary explain why the Mesothelioma Bill is cited in the Ministry of Justice review of the mesothelioma exemption as one of the recommended criteria for bringing into force sections 44 and 46 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012? Those sections have nothing to do with the Mesothelioma Bill.

Off the top of my head, no, but I will happily trade letters with the hon. Lady and we will find out.

Does the Secretary of State agree with me that the comments by Frances Crook of the Howard League for Penal Reform—that magistrates should not be able to send people to prison at all—are typically idiotic? Does he further agree that the only Howard worth listening to on criminal justice matters is Michael Howard and not the Howard League for Penal Reform?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is always important for long-standing influential pressure groups to make sure they take a measured and responsible view in the discussions they have both in public and with Government.

My moustache and I are most grateful, Mr Speaker. More seriously, I remain optimistic that the Secretary of State will have a change of heart over Fenton town hall, which was used by the magistrates, and give it back to the people of Stoke-on-Trent. If he does not, what assurances can he give that the buyer that we think is waiting in the wings and subsequent purchasers will protect the first world war memorial that is located in that building? Many thousands of people are concerned about its future.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for his patience. I can assure him that, in the event of any transfers of the building, there will be a covenant to ensure that the new owner preserves that very important and historic monument, which is a tribute to all who paid the ultimate price in the first world war.

In May, the now Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), announced a new pilot in which tribunal judges would give detailed explanations to the Department for Work and Pensions of their reasons for allowing employment and support allowance appeals. When can we expect an evaluation of that pilot?

We are engaged in detailed discussions with the DWP. We are now providing it with much more detailed information, and paying close attention to the lessons that are learnt from that information.