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Topical Questions

Volume 572: debated on Tuesday 17 December 2013

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.

Since May 2010, 47 courts closed by this Government have remained unsold. The cost to maintain those buildings is £2.2 million. Is that a good use of taxpayers’ money?

Clearly, we want to sell an unused property as soon as we can, and we are working to do so, but we of course need to have a buyer before we can sell it, and we are constantly looking for buyers.

T3. Will the Secretary of State provide the House with an update on when he intends to stop child sex offenders and terrorists being automatically released from prison early? (901675)

This is an extremely important area. A change is long overdue, and we will proceed with it in the next few weeks.

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)

T7. Will the Secretary of State confirm that neither G4S nor Serco will be considered for any further contracts with the Ministry of Justice while the fraud inquiries are continuing? (901679)

Mr Speaker, you will understand that, for legal reasons, I cannot discuss the outcome of a tendering process before the appropriate time. I will make the appropriate statements when the right moment arises.

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)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Given that the Competition Commission is undertaking that inquiry, it is probably best to listen to what it has to say, take note and see whether we can improve on its suggestions.

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.

According to Ministry of Justice figures, for every single category of offence, men are more likely than women to be sent to prison. Does the Secretary of State accept his own Department’s figures, or does he think they are wrong?

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.

Theft and vandalism against small businesses costs jobs. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that his changes to the victims code will mean that courts can take into account the economic consequence of crime from now on?

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?

We had a consultation, and we have come up with the preliminary report. As was said earlier, we will come up with a fuller report in due course.

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?

I am happy to discuss the case with my hon. Friend. I suspect that he, as constituency MP, may be better placed to make representations, but I am happy to discuss it with him.

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?

I have corresponded with the hon. Gentleman on the subject, and I can assure him that there will be a covenant to ensure that the monument is preserved, and not temporarily.

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

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 would not want the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) to feel either forgotten or ignored. We must hear the hon. Gentleman, with brevity.

For many years there has been an increase in private companies doing public sector work. Does the Secretary of State agree that that must be done in a transparent and accountable way, and will he extend the Freedom of Information Act to cover it?

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.