The Secretary of State was asked—
European Court of Human Rights
The coalition agreement commits the Government to the European convention on human rights and the Strasbourg Court. However, the differences between the two parties’ views on this subject are well known, so there will be no major changes before the next election, although, of course, it is my party’s intention that there should be afterwards.
Does the Lord Chancellor agree with me that it is quite outrageous that the European Court of Human Rights has deemed whole-life sentences to be in breach of human rights laws? Is he aware that I used to be a strong supporter of the Court, but that I now feel strongly that the time has come when it is in our national interest to come out of it?
My hon. Friend echoes the view of many people in this country that the whole-life tariff ruling is entirely inappropriate. The Government are considering how best to respond to the ruling, but it is an example of why, in my view, the Court’s reputation in this country has fallen dramatically in recent times, and of why change is now so urgently necessary.
Will the Secretary of State think more carefully about this issue? Were Britain to withdraw from the European convention on human rights, and consequently, from the European Court, where would our moral stature be in condemning human rights abuses in any other European country, and what would be the future for human rights in this country? Does he not think that, instead, he should be more positive and proactive about the necessity of human rights legislation to protect us all?
Let us be absolutely clear: human rights are important and remain a central part of what this Government, and any Government in this country, do to promote good practice around the world. That does not necessarily mean, however, that we all have to endorse the working of a Court that, in my view, has lost its way.
It is five months since the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in the whole-life tariff case, so why are the Government still vacillating over what to do about it? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the problem is that the European Court of Human Rights is seeking to legislate rather than to interpret the law, because the whole-life tariff was a substitute for capital punishment?
My view is that it is not appropriate for the Court to seek to make law for this country in such an area, which should be a matter for Parliament. My hon. Friend will understand, particularly given the realities of coalition politics, the care we are taking with our response, but he should be in no doubt that both I and the Prime Minister believe that the ruling takes us into a place where we should not be.
Notwithstanding the difference between the two coalition parties in government, does the Secretary of State not believe that there are no examples of the Strasbourg Court defending our rights where domestic courts have failed?
That is an interesting point. Although we understand and respect the differences between the coalition parties on this matter, the Labour party is dancing on a pin. One week, it says that it opposes votes for prisoners; the next week, it supports the rulings of the European Court. As our party sets out its proposals over the next 18 months, it will be fascinating to see exactly where Labour stands.
It is important to say that my concern has always been about the Court, not the convention. As I have said to my hon. Friend in the past, anyone who reads the terms of the convention would find it to be a document that we would all agree with. The problem is the way in which it is being interpreted, which, in my view, has moved a long way away from the intentions of the people who drafted it in the first place.
This Government’s position on, and attitude to, Strasbourg was recently cited in Ukraine as a reason in defence of opposing one of the recommendations of the Court. Does the Secretary of State recognise that withdrawal from the Court would have implications for millions of people beyond our boundaries and beyond our nation?
The key point that the hon. Gentleman must understand is that we can be, and will continue to be, a beacon of propriety as regards human rights in the world, but that that does not mean that we have to continue to accept a jurisprudence that is treading on territory that rightly belongs to this Parliament. In my view, this Parliament needs to address that issue.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is no point in this country withdrawing from the European Court of Human Rights if we remain bound by the European Union and its charter of fundamental rights, because we will finish up being told what to do by the European Court of Justice?
As we renegotiate our membership of the European Union—as I hope and believe we will when we win the next election—it is important that we also address the legal position of the charter, which is not only an issue for this country, but conflicts directly, in a number of key areas, with the wording of the convention.
The Serious Fraud Office has launched a criminal investigation of issues that have been uncovered in relation to the electronic monitoring contracts that my Department holds with G4S and Serco. As that criminal investigation is taking place, I cannot comment further at this stage, but I will make a statement as soon as it is appropriate for me to do so.
Today we learnt that Professor Harrington had warned the Secretary of State against rolling out fitness-for-work tests as long ago as 2010. Also today, many experts, including the chief inspectors of prisons and probation, have advised against the privatisation of the probation service. Why is the Secretary of State a serial offender when it comes to ignoring expert advice?
I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. We are looking carefully at our own contract management approach and at the contracts that we hold. It is worth reminding the House, however, that the issues that are being referred to, and the contracts that we are looking at, date back to the time of the last Government.
We have several years of experience of multi-purpose companies that appear to bid for anything and everything, regardless of whether they have any particular expertise, and that is happening again with the roll-out of the personal independence payment. Promises that were made about the service that would be delivered are simply not being fulfilled. Is it not time for a complete review of contracting of this kind?
I am very much in favour of a broader supplier base and the arrival of new organisations to work with the Government. I think it important for us to work with third parties, as, indeed, the last Government did. I believe that when, in the near future, we publish the list of organisations that have passed the pre-qualification questionnaire stage in respect of the reforms of the probation service, every Member in the House will be encouraged by the mix of organisations that have put their names forward.
I have never before raised an individual case with the Secretary of State, but every now and again something happens that I think is worthy of being raised in the House.
The Secretary of State will be aware that last week, in court, it was reported that a woman had miscarried in her cell during her first night in a prison run by Sodexo, She informed health care workers, but was made to clean up on her own, and received no assistance for three days and no pain relief. Sodexo’s own inquiry into the matter is not sufficient. The Secretary of State should commit himself to some kind of inquiry, investigation or review to ensure that no other woman in a private or a public sector prison has to experience that level of neglect.
Let me make it absolutely clear that if what has been described is true, it is wholly unacceptable. My team will of course follow it up with Sodexo, and Sodexo itself will want to address it, because no one would seek to defend it. Things go wrong in public prisons and in private prisons, and whenever they do go wrong and what happens is unacceptable, it should be addressed.
Legal Aid (Funding)
The Ministry of Justice and the Legal Aid Agency keep the legal aid scheme under constant review, in terms of both expenditure and the impact of reforms. The Government will undertake a post-implementation review of the legal aid provisions in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 within the next three to five years.
Since the Government’s legal aid cuts, more of my constituents have had to represent themselves in family courts against former partners who can afford a solicitor, and local cases are being deferred by judges because they do not feel that the litigant in person is sufficiently prepared. Does the Minister agree that it is time to be transparent and produce figures showing the number of litigants who have appeared in person and the number of deferred cases that have taken place since the changes, so that we can judge the impact on our courts for ourselves?
Family Mediation Services
The Ministry of Justice does not regulate family mediation services, but it does award contracts for the provision of family mediation funded through legal aid to standards set by the Legal Aid Agency. We are aware that there has been a drop in referrals to mediation following changes to legal aid in April 2013, although there has been no drop in the number of mediations taking place. My Department is undertaking a range of activities to address this important issue.
We are working extremely hard to address the issue. One change that will come through when the Children and Families Bill becomes law relates to making it a requirement in a family process that the mediation referral takes place. However, as I say, the actual issue is about referrals, rather than about the number of mediations, which has not changed. We are working very hard with those in the mediation world to address that and ensure that the right referrals are made.
I would say the opposite to what the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) said: I am surprised that the number has fallen, because when the change to the regulations was made the Department gave full funding for all mediation to those in receipt of legal aid. Has the Minister thought, therefore, of encouraging more mediation by approaching lawyers and other venues to increase it?
We are following a number of different paths, including an increased promotion of mediation services and making some mediation compulsory as a result of the provisions in the Children and Families Bill. We are also looking for other measures to help ensure that mediation takes place. It is much better if these issues can be dealt with through a mediation service, rather than through the cost and difficulty of a full legal process.
But is the Secretary of State not aware that in the delicate environment of the beginning of a divorce case, specialist advice from legal practitioners leading to mediation is essential? That is why this Government’s policy has such a negative impact. Will he please look at it again?
I am not sure whether that is an attempted spending commitment from the hon. Gentleman. The reality is that we have had to take difficult decisions about the availability of legal aid in order to deal with the financial challenge we inherited. The issue is about trying to ensure that we make the best use of the network of mediators we have in this country. As I say, the number of actual mediations has not fallen, but we are not getting enough people into mediation in the first place. That is why we are changing the law, we are introducing better targeting of the routes into mediation and we are working with mediation organisations to help them get more people referred to them.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there seems to be a lack of clarity in this area? For example, it would not be appropriate to refer to family mediation a case in which a woman on low income, who could not pay for legal advice, wants to protect her child from going into custody. Such a case should still be legally aided, rather than being addressed through mediation.
The “Transforming Rehabilitation” competition process has been designed to allow, as far as possible, a range of different entities to bid to deliver services. But such entities need to be capable of bearing financial risk, because under our reforms we will pay providers in full only if they are successful in reducing reoffending.
The Justice Secretary is almost entirely without allies and without evidence for these privatisation plans. The Minister has confirmed that he is denying the experts in some truly excellent probation trusts, such as South Yorkshire’s, the chance to tender for these contracts. If South Yorkshire’s four local authorities combine to back the trust and take out the financial risks he talks about, will he think again?
I would say two things to the right hon. Gentleman. First, he understands, I think, that one advantage of what we are proposing is that we move risk away from the taxpayer, so that those prepared to take on these contracts on a payment-by-results basis put their own money at risk, not the taxpayer’s. In the scenario he is outlining, it is difficult to see how we avoid the taxpayer continuing to take that risk. Secondly, as he may also know, many of the talented individuals who work for probation trusts at the moment are exploring the possibility of setting themselves up as mutuals so that they can continue to do this work, and there is considerable support for that from our colleagues at the Cabinet Office—they are providing money and support to enable them to do that.
My right hon. Friend refers to the report that has been produced today. As he knows, a significant point in it is that there is not currently sufficiently good connection between offender management that takes place inside custody and that that takes place outside. As he will also recognise, our transforming rehabilitation proposals intend to close that gap, so that offender management involves the same provider from the closing months of someone’s custodial sentence, through the gate and out into the community. Transforming rehabilitation will start to address exactly the points that this report raises.
Thirteen police and crime commissioners, including Alan Charles in Derbyshire, have expressed grave concerns at the plans for the probation service because they could put public safety at risk. What has the Minister said to them to address their fears?
The first thing the House should know is that all 13 are Labour police and crime commissioners. Whatever party they come from, it is very important that we work with police and crime commissioners and that all providers who will be doing this work do so too. For that reason, we will ensure that police and crime plans from every area of the country will be clearly available to providers, and we will expect them to co-operate not just with police and crime commissioners but with a whole range of other local partners too.
Does the Minister agree that the supervision of short-term prisoners by the probation service within existing budgets is simply unaffordable and that the tendering process is needed to provide extra supervision for short-term prisoners?
A few days ago, the Minister and the Secretary of State appeared before the Justice Committee, during which the Secretary of State said that his door is always open to meet the leaders of the National Association of Probation Officers. When will that meeting take place?
I cannot give a date to the right hon. Gentleman. Both my right hon. Friend and I have met NAPO leaders before and are happy to do so again. What we will not do is pause the process in which we are engaged because the members of those trade unions would like some certainty over their own futures, and we think that is important, which is why we must get on with this process.
Victims of Crime (Code of Practice)
We are working with all service providers who have duties under the victims code to ensure that their operational systems, guidance and training are updated to deliver their new responsibilities to victims of crime. We will continue to work with our criminal justice partners to ensure there is appropriate oversight of the new code at a local and national level.
I am immensely grateful for that.
“There is more to be done to ensure agencies are made accountable under the code…this needs to be backed up by statutory powers.”
Those are not my words but the words of the Victims’ Commissioner herself. At every turn, the Government have paid lip service to victims and then acted against them. They have made the Victims’ Commissioner job part-time and then savaged the criminal injuries scheme. Will the Minister now give the victims code some real teeth, and not just warm words?
I am afraid the hon. Gentleman is massively out of touch with the sector that deals with victims if he expresses those views. When we launched the victims code, it was welcomed by a wide range of our partners in the voluntary sectors, including Victim Support and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The victims code is a significant step forward from the old impenetrable code that the previous Government put forward, and it has been welcomed by those who know most about the sector.
The one thing victims want most is to know that the perpetrators of the crime are brought to justice. Can the Minister assure us that we are doing enough to ensure that associates of the offender, or people who saw something, have the ability to report what they saw without fear of recrimination? If necessary, they can do it confidentially to start with.
That would be good police practice. One thing we are doing with the code is ensuring that the guidance that goes out to the police from the College of Policing will be improved to fit with the victims code. In other parts of the criminal justice system, both with the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts themselves, the code will make a difference in all instances and will enable victims to feel more confident.
The Secretary of State is planning to cut funding for Victim Support in London at a greater rate than anywhere else in the country. Will the Minister listen to his friend the Mayor of London and ensure that victims in London get the support they deserve?
I am happy to assure the hon. Lady and everyone else in London that the amount of money going to Victim Support in London is going up, not down, as it is in every other region of the country. More money will go to victims’ services under this Government than under the previous arrangements.
The right hon. Gentleman is usually a thoughtful and intelligent Minister and he will be aware that we already have a variety of codes of practice and charters for victims scattered across different Government agencies. Like him, I meet victims of crime all the time and they complain that the codes are toothless and offer no means of redress if their entitlements are breached. How will the new code differ and how will he measure success?
It will differ in a number of ways. First, the new code is written so that victims will be able to understand it—I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that the previous code was not written in that way, as it was written by and for professionals. Secondly, there are specific rights in the code that were not in the previous code, such as the very important right for a victim to be able to make their personal statement in court after the sentence. Many victims have said that that is a significant step forward in enabling them to feel that they are being taken more seriously than they have been before.
Dangerous Driving (Sentencing)
Causing death by dangerous driving is punishable by up to 14 years’ imprisonment. I have asked the Sentencing Council to look at its guidelines on causing death by driving to ensure that the sentences imposed reflect the seriousness of the offending. We are also considering whether further changes might be necessary to strengthen the law.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Constituents who have lost a close relative in a driving incident, perhaps a young son or daughter, face the stress of a court case along with a feeling that the sentences for serious driving offences are inadequate. Does he agree that the outcome of the review and the various issues he is considering must make a difference to irresponsible driving and the subsequent loss of lives?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. I feel strongly that we must take a tough approach to someone’s causing death and serious injury while disqualified from driving. Too often, it turns out that the people who commit such an offence have been disqualified again and again and do not have a licence when it happens. That is an area that I am keen to address.
The Secretary of State’s colleague at the Home Office, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), announced in Cambridge on 28 August that he had asked the Sentencing Council to review this very offence. Is this another request today? When exactly will the Sentencing Council review the offence and make a decision?
I put in the original request to the Sentencing Council some months ago. It intends to put this into its work stream for next year and will make recommendations. Separately, I am also looking at the current law. I feel that there is still scope for tightening and I will bring forward my thoughts in due course.
My constituents Mark and Sue Donnelly lost their 26-year-old son Stephen in a road incident on the A14 to a driver who was twice over the limit. He was sentenced to eight years in prison, which they do not think is long enough, and nor do I, but he was also given a 10-year concurrent driving ban, which they felt was particularly insulting since for most of that time he would be in prison and unable to drive. Will the Secretary of State consider concurrent driving bans to see whether they are appropriate?
Victims of Crime
This Government are committed to putting victims first and we will give victims a voice at every stage of the criminal justice system. It is crucial that victims receive the support and help they need to cope and, where possible, to recover. We are aiming to make up to £100 million available to support victims to recover, testing pre-trial cross-examination, considering how we might reduce the distress caused to victims by cross-examination in court and implementing the new victims code.
Can the Minister give me an update on the progress in providing funds for victims from prisoner earnings, which not only fulfilled an important manifesto commitment, but upheld the principle that criminals should pay victims for their crimes, not least when as prisoners they are earning?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Part of the extra money that is going to support victims in London and elsewhere comes from the proceeds of the Prisoners’ Earnings Act 1996. I am happy to tell him that whereas in 2011-12 some £332,000 went to Victim Support from this source, in 2013-14 the sum will be £825,000—more than two and a half times as much.
Victims of domestic abuse are placed at risk when forced to give their safe address in open court in unrelated proceedings. That not only places the individual at risk from the abuser, but deters the thousands of victims who suffer from domestic violence from reporting this horrendous crime. Does the Minister support Eve’s law, which seeks to address that anomaly, and will he work with the campaign to ensure its implementation in law?
I will happily consider that. The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. It is for the judge to decide in each individual case, and it is not for Ministers at the Dispatch Box to decide what judges do in each individual case. We are already taking a range of steps to protect people who may be victims of domestic violence, and I am always happy to look at others.
On a similar point, the families of victims of capital crimes, as well as coping with bereavement, will usually be unaware of their rights and the responsibilities of authorities to assist them in protecting the memory, reputation, estate and so on of the deceased. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the support available to victims’ families in such circumstances?
I think I know the case to which my hon. Friend is referring, as he and I have discussed it in Westminster Hall. He will be aware that I wrote to him on 4 December on the detailed issue. Victims of all kinds require support and are getting better support. As he knows, the specific issues related to cases such as he describes are being considered at present.
Justice System (Savings)
Across the spending review period starting in 2010 and running up to March 2015 the Ministry of Justice will have delivered annual savings of well over £2.5 billion. Building on successful delivery of these savings, the Ministry is developing reform plans to transform the way we deal with offenders and make courts, prisons and probation more efficient.
A unique feature of the legal aid system in the UK is that we pay a subset of practitioners several multiples of what we pay our Prime Minister. Can the Secretary of State give us some assurance that his changes and amendments to the legal aid system will bear down on those very high salaries, while protecting the majority of barristers who do such good work?
We have tried very hard in difficult decisions to make sure that we focus as much as possible of the impact of necessary changes to legal aid on the higher end of the income scale. Our changes to very high cost case fees and the approach that we are taking to Crown court fees are designed to ensure that, so far as possible, the impact of our changes is much less on those people at the bottom end of the income scale than it is at the top.
From 2008 to 2012, no children and young people were sentenced to custody for human trafficking as the principal offence. This Government are committed to combating human trafficking. On Monday we published the draft Modern Slavery Bill to strengthen our response and to underpin the work of law enforcement agencies.
As the Lord Chief Justice has ruled that victims of slavery should not be prosecuted for crimes they undertake under the direction of their slave owners, will the Minister undertake an audit of young people in offender institutions to establish how many are there, even if they have been charged under a lesser crime, in order to see whether their cases should be reviewed?
Yes, as part of the extra work we are doing under the aegis of the draft Modern Slavery Bill, to which the right hon. Gentleman has contributed significantly, we are obviously looking at the individual effects on those who might have been victims of trafficking and enslavement. He makes a perfectly valid point.
Restorative Justice (Funding)
We recently announced funding of £29 million over three years for restorative justice, at least £22 million of which is going to police and crime commissioners for victim-initiated and pre-sentence restorative justice services. The remainder is being used to boost capacity so that good-quality restorative justice is available at all stages in the criminal justice system.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he join me in affirming the excellent work of the Prison Fellowship’s restorative justice programme, known as the Sycamore Tree project, and will he be good enough to meet me and Prison Fellowship representatives to discuss how the project can be extended beyond the third of prisons in which it currently works to prisons across the country?
As my hon. Friend says, the Sycamore Tree project is already available in some 75 prisons. I certainly support what my hon. Friend says about the good work it does, as was showcased at the excellent event she hosted last week, which I had the pleasure of attending. I will certainly meet her to discuss it further.
The national probation service will continue to use the probation qualifications framework to ensure the competence of its staff. For the new community rehabilitation companies there will be a contractual requirement to have and to maintain a work force who have appropriate levels of training and competence. On 3 December we announced that we will be setting up a new probation institute that will promote the sharing of good practice to those working across the probation profession.
We are contributing some £90,000 towards the cost of setting up the probation institute. The remainder will come from the Probation Association and the Probation Chiefs Association. I am grateful to them and to the probation trade unions for working together so successfully to bring forward the proposal, which we entirely support and which will help to underline the professionalism and continuing professional development of those who work in rehabilitation.
Access to Justice
The fee remissions scheme was updated on 7 October this year. It provides for court and tribunal fees to be waived in whole or in part based on an assessment of the user’s disposable capital and gross monthly income. The scheme ensures that access to justice is protected for those who cannot afford to pay court or tribunal fees. Legal aid also remains available in many cases, and those granted legal aid will have their court fees paid.
I am interested in that answer. Why is it, then, that the legal profession in Bradford is telling me that, as a result of the Government’s introduction of charges for industrial tribunals—£1,500 before taking a case—and reduced support for legal advice workers, people will be denied reasonable access to justice?
The Secretary of State’s justification for the legal aid residence test is contribution, particularly through tax. Can he therefore explain his decision to exempt only certain categories of children from the test? If he fails to broaden the exemption, is he not in danger of falling into the trap that the Joint Committee on Human Rights described last week as
“knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing”?
I might be a bit old-fashioned, but I do not think that we should give civil legal aid to people who have just arrived in the country. However, I recognise some of the issues raised in the consultation and I have listened. The change with regard to very young children under 12 months old was specifically requested by people in the judiciary. I listened and I introduced it.
One group particularly badly hit by the Government’s restrictions on access to justice are mesothelioma sufferers. The Secretary of State has not carried out the review that he promised in order to get the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 through. He continues to confuse funding for mesothelioma with the Mesothelioma Bill, even though there is no connection. He has not even answered the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) asked at the previous Justice questions, which he promised to do. Why is he making people who suffer from that terrible disease pay 25% of their compensation in lawyers’ fees and then telling them to shop around? When will he give justice to mesothelioma sufferers?
Domestic Violence (Victims)
Domestic violence is a dreadful form of abuse and is not acceptable within our society. The Government are committed to providing greater protection to victims of all forms of violence, and their approach to domestic violence and abuse is set out in the violence against women and girls action plan, updated in 2013.
Last week’s report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights on the Government’s legal aid cuts said:
“We are particularly worried about the impact of the residence test on vulnerable groups such as children or victims of domestic violence.”
Will the Minister tell the House exactly how much will be saved by taking away legal aid from sufferers of domestic violence affected by the residence test, and explain what victims are expected to do if these plans strip them of the option of legal aid?
The Government have left in place all the exemptions in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 to ensure that the most vulnerable continue to receive legal aid. Beyond that, we have ring-fenced nearly £40 million for specialist local domestic and sexual violence support services. That, together with specialist domestic violence courts, provides a better specialist way of dealing with this terrible abuse.
Claims Management Companies
Our priority is to protect the public by rooting out and punishing bad practices by claims companies. The claims management regulator is expanding its resources and consulting on a new set of toughened rules to crackdown on abuses, and later next year claims companies will face fines for rule breaches.
I am happy to say that there has been a positive impact on the numbers. Between January and November 2013, the total number of authorised claims management companies decreased by 718; the total number of personal injury claims management companies fell by 917; and the total number of PPI claims management companies fell by 85. That is clear evidence that the Government’s tough measures are having an impact.
23. I serve on the Transport Committee, and we have just completed an inquiry into the effect of fraudulent whiplash claims on the cost of motor insurance. Will the Minister update the House on what steps the Government are taking to stop bogus claims by rogue firms driving up the cost of insurance premiums for drivers? (901672)
The Government have introduced various measures, one of which, on whiplash, is to have an accredited panel of medical experts. We want to make sure that there are proper experts who deal with this issue. The AA has reported that, as of October this year, the average comprehensive insurance for motor vehicles has gone down by £80.
Cautions (Repeat Offences)
Cautioning for repeat offenders is unacceptable and does not deliver justice for victims. That is why we have acted to ensure that criminals should no longer receive a second caution for the same, or a similar, offence committed in a two-year period.
I do agree; my right hon. Friend makes an extremely important and valid point. That is why we concluded after the simple cautions review that cautions should not be used for any offence that can be tried only in the Crown court. Indeed, going further than that, certain offences that can be tried either in the Crown court or in a magistrates court are also not suitable for cautions, including, in particular, possession of a knife.
When a literacy need is identified on arrival in prison, prisoners are offered teaching and support as a matter of priority. In 2014 we are introducing increased assessment for prisoners, including reading skills, to ensure that we maximise the benefits of the literacy support that is available.
I think my hon. Friend refers to a quote that is specifically about the youth estate, but he is absolutely right that education is just as important in the adult estate. Too many prisoners cannot read and write properly, which means that their chances of securing employment on release are much reduced. Under our reforms of rehabilitation, we will expect providers to ensure that someone is supported not only through the gate, but in the community for at least 12 months. One of the best ways of supporting them to stay free of crime is to make sure that they get employment, so I would absolutely expect them to be interested in literacy as well as many other things.
Voluntary Sector (Rehabilitation Contracts)
I am not sure I can live up to the expectations, Mr Speaker.
We have run a registration process for smaller providers to maximise the opportunities for them to be involved in the competition, and we awarded £150,000 to the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations to help the voluntary sector and mutuals to compete for contracts. We will embed good market stewardship principles in the system so that there is fair, reasonable and transparent treatment of all those involved in the direct and indirect provision of services.
I thank the Minister for that reply, but does he agree that in many previous exercises by other Government Departments, inappropriate scale of projects and burdensome bureaucratic detail have meant that small, voluntary local organisations have been ruled out? Will he undertake to ensure that high-quality, small-scale providers will be able to access these contracts?
I understand the point my right hon. Friend makes: it is very important that we reduce bureaucracy wherever we can. I know he has experience of this from his time in government. It is also important that we support those small, voluntary organisations when they show an interest and then support them through the contract-bidding process and contract management. My right hon. Friend will be reassured to learn that there is already considerable interest in the voluntary sector: some 550 voluntary organisations have already expressed their interest in participating.
My hon. Friend and I had the honour and pleasure of visiting Stafford prison last week. I pay tribute to the skills of the team working there. It has a strong and valuable future in our prison system.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for visiting last week. He will have seen the emphasis that Governor Oakes-Richards places on prisoners being in work, education and other purposeful activity. Will my right hon. Friend indicate what support the Ministry of Justice is giving to Stafford and other prisons to help them prepare prisoners for the world of work?
If you were to visit Stafford prison, Mr Speaker, you could not help being impressed by the work being done by the team on the ground, bringing valuable contracts and work experience into the prison. Of course, our central team that looks for opportunities to bring work into prisons will work with Stafford and other prisons to ensure that we do as much as we can to keep prisoners active.
The whole House is relieved to hear that, Mr Speaker!
The number and proportion of trials which crack and the reasons for this is reported by the Ministry of Justice in quarterly court statistics. As part of the Government’s criminal justice strategy and action plan, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is working with the Crown Prosecution Service and the judiciary to improve performance in the summary justice system, including reducing the volume of cracked trials.
No. The cracked trial rate in magistrates courts has remained fairly stable—between 43% and 45%—since 2006. I am happy to report that the rate in the Crown court has been falling steadily—from 43% in the third quarter of 2010 to 36% in the second quarter of 2013—so progress is being made.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. (901673)
Given the interest in victims’ matters today, I will briefly update the House on the new victims code, which came into effect last week. It is the culmination of a year’s work to make sure that victims are given back their voice, and it has been widely welcomed by victims’ groups. Crucially, it includes a new entitlement for victims to read out their personal statement in court, which means that offenders and the court will be left in no doubt about the full impact of the crime. Children and young people will get the enhanced levels of support that they deserve all the way through the criminal justice process. The new impact statement for business will make sure that when hard-working people and their businesses suffer from the effects of crime, the court can hear directly about its impact on their livelihood and on jobs. I want to make sure that all victims’ voices are heard, and this Government are working to ensure that they are.
You will be aware, Mr Speaker, that the Justice Secretary is unwilling to publish the MOJ’s assessment of the risks attached to his plans to privatise probation. Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether his plans will see the risk to public safety higher, lower or the same as it is now?
I owe the right hon. Gentleman an apology from last time, when I implied that his campaign to be Mayor of London had him trailing in third place. I have now discovered that that is not the case, and I wish him well. I have watched his progress carefully.
On the risk registers, I would say to the right hon. Gentleman that he never published them because they are a working tool for the civil service. This Government will not do anything that leads to a greater risk to public safety. Bringing supervision to under-12-month groups will make the public safer, rather than more at risk, through a system that he and his Government admitted was wrong but never did anything about.
The Secretary of State’s response is even more surprising, bearing in mind the very damning joint report from the chief inspectors of prisons and of probation, which is published today. They believe that the scale of the problems they have identified means that
“the entire thrust of the Government’s rehabilitation plans”
is undermined. We know that he ignored their last report in 2012, but bearing in mind the seriousness of the issue, will he meet the inspectors as a matter of urgency to hear their concerns that his plans could in fact make matters worse rather than better?
I hate to disappoint the right hon. Gentleman, but I last met the probation inspector about three days ago. I meet both inspectors regularly, and I take their views immensely seriously. That is one reason why we have put in place radical changes that will create a through the gate rehabilitation service to deal with many of the issues that they have highlighted. Unfortunately for the right hon. Gentleman, their report is not about our plans, but about the system we are trying to change, and that is why we are trying to change it.
T4. The Secretary of State will be aware that, following a spate of knife attacks in Enfield, my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) and I led a successful campaign to toughen up the knife laws. After the killing in my constituency of Joshua Folkes just two weeks ago from a knife attack, will the Secretary of State ensure that the law shows greater intolerance of those carrying a knife? (901676)
The whole House will share my hon. Friend’s horror at the death of his constituent in a knife crime, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his dedication to tackling that particular social scourge. He will know that the Government have recently created a mandatory prison sentence for threatening someone with a knife, and as I have just said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry), we are ending the use of cautioning for possession of a knife. Knife crime is falling, but we will of course consider any further changes that will continue that welcome fall.
T2. Bristol city council and Barnardo’s have just launched a charter for the children of prisoners, which is intended to prevent young people in such a situation from enduring their own hidden sentence and to reduce the impact of a parent’s imprisonment on their educational attainment, emotional development and behaviour. What support is the Justice Secretary giving to such initiatives, and will he review how his Department can help the 1,300 children in Bristol and the close to 200,000 children in England and Wales in such a situation? (901674)
What the hon. Lady says is very interesting and we will look at the details. She is of course right that it has a huge impact on young people when one of their parents serves time in custody. There is a knock-on effect on the likelihood of those young people going on to commit crimes themselves. Shockingly, something like 60% of young men who have had a parent in custody go on to commit crimes themselves. She is right to make that link and we will look at what she has said.
T5. The forfeiture rule precludes a person who has been convicted of unlawfully killing another person from acquiring benefit in consequence of the killing. However, if the deceased person is a close family friend, a spouse or a close family member, their killer can use and abuse the estate until they are convicted. Will the Government consider addressing that issue? Will the Minister meet me to explore whether the rule can be improved in that respect? (901677)
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. I would be more than happy to meet him to discuss the matter further.
T6. Further to the Secretary of State’s earlier reply, will he confirm that this country is a proud signatory of the original European convention on human rights and a founder member of the Council of Europe? Indeed, for its first five decades, the convention was hardly a controversial issue. The problem is that the Human Rights Act 1998 has been used by the European Court of Human Rights in a proactive way to deal not with gross abuses of human rights like those that we saw in fascist Europe, but with the decisions of a democratically elected Parliament. Why do we not simply remain a member of the Council of Europe, keep the convention, repeal the 1998 Act and create our own Bill of Rights? (901678)
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. A leading official from the Court came to this House a few weeks ago and described this country as “best in class”. If a country that is best in class on human rights has reached a point where it has lost confidence in the Court, it is clear that something needs to be done. Under a Conservative Government, something will be done.
T9. As well as the 13 wise Labour police and crime commissioners who have raised concerns about the Justice Secretary’s plans for probation, probation staff themselves have raised concerns and the internal risk assessment raises serious concerns about the dangerous and reckless plans. Given that, why is he signing contracts with private companies for up to 10 years, which will bind future Parliaments to pursue this privatisation whether it is successful or goes very badly wrong? (901681)
Let me remind the House what the Labour party opposes. It opposes extending supervision to under 12-month prisoners. It opposes a through the gate service. It opposes a system that will provide mentoring and support to people for 12 months after they leave prison. That is what the Opposition keep criticising. They could not do it because they could not find a way. We have found a way and we are going to do it.
T8. I listened with interest to the question that the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) asked about PPI claims. It is excellent news that the Competition Commission is taking action to address market failure in the car insurance industry. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Department for Transport and the Home Office are all making a contribution. Is there anything more that the Ministry of Justice can do? (901680)
T10. Given that new entrants will potentially be coming into an immature private probation market, will the Secretary of State guarantee that low and medium- risk prisoners will be managed correctly when their risk level increases so that public safety is not compromised? (901682)
A crucial part of the reform plan and the contracts that we are putting together will be to require an element of co-location between the members of the national probation service who carry out risk assessments and the teams in the new providers to ensure that there is a simple process that happens in the same office so that risky offenders can be transferred to multi-agency supervision as quickly as necessary when the circumstance arises.
I always try to accept my own Department’s figures, but I think my hon. Friend will accept that it is always in the minds of sentencers to try to avoid sentencing female offenders, in particular, to custody. As he will agree, however, that is sometimes unavoidable, which is why we need to provide the necessary places in the female custodial estate.
A few weeks ago I attended a public forum on domestic violence, where I was told that specialist domestic violence courts were being closed and that support for domestic violence victims to bring their case to court was being restricted. Why do the Government find it acceptable to deny the most vulnerable access to justice?
This Government have done more than any previous Government to give victims of domestic violence access to justice, and we are continuing to improve how such people, normally women, are treated in the operations of both the courts system and the police. As I said earlier, we have backed up that commitment with £40 million of ring-fenced money.
I can confirm exactly that, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and her constituents. Her work in this area is clear evidence that a Back Bencher bringing a genuine constituency case to the Government can make a real difference. She did that, she has made a difference and the world has now changed for such businesses, so the impact will be known.
The Secretary of State indicated earlier that he was planning a consultation on mesothelioma victims. Does he accept that the review that his Department recently carried out simply did not fulfil the requirements of section 48 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012?
Will the Minister confirm that if an alternative location can be found for the Felmores approved premises in Basildon, his Department is still willing to relocate it?
We will certainly look at that. May I say that it has been particularly helpful to receive submissions on the matter from my hon. Friend, who has been closely engaged in arguing on behalf of his constituents? Of course, if a suitable alternative venue can be found, we will co-operate with that.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that last Friday the prison capacity was running at 99.2%? Will he further confirm that over Christmas and into the new year, no police cells or custodial cells in courts will be used to supply the overfill?
The Opposition are desperate to find a crisis in our prisons. I can absolutely confirm that we are nowhere near the situation that they were in when they were in office, when they had to use police cells. We have plenty of capacity in our prison system and plenty of reserves that we can draw upon, and last week the prison population came down.
Does the Secretary of State share my concern about the case of Beth Schlesinger and the unusual decision by an Austrian court to deprive her of custody of her two young children? Will he undertake to make representations to the Austrian Government on what many people consider a serious miscarriage of justice?
May I take the Secretary of State’s mind back to the war memorial at the former Fenton magistrates court? There seems to be a bit of confusion among some of my constituents who are fighting for it about the difference between a covenant and a clause in a sale contract. Will he put on record whether there will be a permanent covenant or a temporary contract clause?
Well, this question is familiar to me. The answer is 10,789—I think that figure is heading in the right direction although there is a lot more to do. My hon. Friend is right to say that the Government’s clear intention is to return all the foreign national offenders we can back to custody in their own countries. That requires compulsory prisoner transfer agreements of the kind that we are negotiating and that Labour failed to negotiate.
I am very much of the view that the Freedom of Information Act should be extended to cover some of those provisions, and I am also in favour of an open-book arrangement with our contractors. I hope that when the hon. Gentleman looks at the list of organisations that have put their name forward for probation, which will be published shortly, he will see some powerful partnerships between the private and voluntary sector of the kind we all hope to see.