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Volume 575: debated on Tuesday 4 February 2014

The Secretary of State was asked—

Legal Aid

I welcome the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) to my Front-Bench team. I also inform the House that Lord Faulks has joined my team in the House of Lords. I pay tribute to Lord McNally, who has left the Front-Bench team, for the excellent work that he did on behalf of the Government.

I will shortly publish final proposals covering the two areas that are subject to consultation in the “Transforming Legal Aid: Next Steps” document: the procurement of criminal litigation services and reform of the advocacy fee scheme. I anticipate that the total saving from the transforming legal aid proposals will be £220 million per year by 2018-19. That is in addition to the £320 million that has been saved as part of the Government’s previous reforms, which were enacted in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.

Trafford law centre closed last week, Barnet law centre faces closure in March, and many more advice agencies and citizens advice bureaux face closure or redundancies, which will reduce services for the most vulnerable. What assessment is being made of the impact of those closures, which have been caused by the cumulative effect of cuts to civil legal aid and other cuts, through an increased demand on other public services, such as the health service?

We will clearly continue to review those matters. The decisions that we are making are of course difficult, but we have to make them because we have to bring down the cost of legal aid to deal with the enormous financial challenges that we face. We would not have wished to take these decisions, but given the inheritance that we received from the last Government, there is no option but to do so.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the reforms are designed to impact on those who receive the most in legal aid fees, while protecting those at the lower end of the scale?

I can confirm that. In taking a range of difficult decisions, we have sought to ensure that the impact is felt most significantly higher up the income scale. I am well aware that people at the junior end of the income scale face considerably more financial pressure than those who are further up. We have sought to put together a package that has a disproportionate impact further up the income scale, for example through our changes to very high cost case fees.

The Justice Secretary’s plan A of dismantling the independent legal Bar seems to be going very well. Will he tell us about his plan B and the public defender service?

I am having to take difficult decisions on the fees that we pay for the independent Bar, but I have absolutely no intention of dismantling it. It is an important part of our justice system and will continue to be so.

My right hon. Friend is to be congratulated on trying to get the costs of legal aid down. He knows that I have concerns about the impact on the criminal Bar. What alternative funding has he looked at or will he be looking at to get costs down?

We have looked at a variety of ways of minimising the impact on different parts of our justice system of the difficult decisions that we have had to take. I reassure my right hon. Friend that the decisions that we are taking on legal aid are in proportion to the decisions that we are having to take in the rest of the Department—the legal aid budget is coming down by the same proportion as the overall departmental budget. In relation to the Bar, I have sought, where I can do so, to put in place ameliorating measures, such as the offer to introduce a staged payment system, which at the very least will improve the cash flow of working barristers, even if we have to take tough decisions about the amount that we pay.

I, too, welcome the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) to his position and congratulate him on his promotion.

The Government’s salami-slicing of civil legal aid over the past three years and of criminal legal aid over the next 15 months will, according to independent experts, deny hundreds of thousands of citizens access to decent advice and representation. Law centres and high street firms are closing down, as we have heard, and junior barristers are leaving the profession. That should worry us all. If the Justice Secretary was provided with costed proposals that would make similar savings over the next 15 months but without the devastating consequences, would the Government reconsider their plans?

I sometimes find the Opposition’s attitude completely breathtaking. It is but two and a half years since they attacked our proposals to reform civil legal aid, saying that the savings should be found from criminal legal aid instead. Now they appear to have done a complete U-turn. Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to commit in the House today that if a Labour Government are elected at the next election, they will reverse the cuts? I suspect that the answer is no.


9. What assessment he has made of the potential role of mediation in reducing the number of court cases. (902382)

The Government have put in place an extensive awareness strategy, and we believe that the more people can attend mediation, the more significant the impact will be on reducing the number of applications made to court. We have increased the legal aid budget for family mediation. There are data about the amount of mediation that takes place, but we cannot tell specifically who has attended mediation rather than gone to court.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment. Does he agree that mediation is well established in the commercial law field and growing in the family and matrimonial law field, but that we are perhaps missing a trick in two areas? The first is in ensuring that more use is made of mediation in land compensation and related planning disputes. Will he meet me to discuss whether the Bill on High Speed 2 gives the Government an opportunity to promote that and to create greater awareness among fellow Departments, and—

Order. I say to the hon. Gentleman that if he was paid by the word when he was practising at the Bar, he must have become a very rich man indeed.

First, the whole Government are committed to mediation being used whenever possible, although it is not always practical. HS2 and other such matters are well beyond my brief, and I am not going to be that brave on my first outing.

In recent months, I have dealt with several cases for constituents, including one in which a constituent was presented with a £15,000 legal bill for civil court costs over the siting of his rubbish bin. Another constituent lost a case after failed joint legal action with the local council, when his wall collapsed after being damaged by a utility company. Will the Minister outline what measures the Government are taking to increase the number of such cases that are taken to mediation services before such costly legal action occurs?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to identify the costs involved. In matrimonial and other matters, if there is mediation the average cost to both parties is £500; if they go to law the average cost is £4,000. Mediation takes 110 days on average; going to law takes 435 days. The Government are committed to ensuring that we use mediation wherever possible, and we will collectively promote it heavily over the next few weeks. There will be a round table and a web interchange, and it will be one of the priorities for me and the Ministry of Justice.

The whole House agrees that mediation is preferable to ordinary members of the public falling into the hands of lawyers. However, given that the Government’s emphasis on mediation is largely driven by cost, is there not a danger that in family law, women will be left vulnerable to violence and abuse because of the emphasis on mediation rather than immediate legal redress?

That issue is very important and well understood. Under the Children and Families Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, there will be a requirement that people consider whether mediation is appropriate. We are clear that in domestic abuse cases, it absolutely may not be appropriate, and there will be no requirement of mediation in cases in which it would be to the disadvantage of either party or to the children of the family.

17. What guarantee can the Minister give that both parties will have access to legal advice before and during mediation? (902390)

At the moment, legal advice and legal aid cover mediation. Someone does not necessarily need legal advice to go into the process, although the mediators may recommend that they need legal advice, which will be available in a legally aided way. It is often necessary to have lawyers involved to draw up the agreement that the mediators have reached, and that will also be publicly fundable by the legal aid service if someone is within the eligibility limits.

Will the Minister advise the House on the take-up of mediation in the small claims courts since the threshold for small claims was increased to £10,000?

I do not have that figure in front of me, but I will willingly give it to the hon. Gentleman and make it known more widely. I am clear that we have a duty to re-engage people with the idea that mediation is available. The figures have gone down in some areas in the past year, and we want them to go up. We hope to be able to report a significant increase in the number of people using mediation by the end of the year, but I will of course give him the figures.

We know that the Secretary of State is not a big fan of due process, because otherwise he would not have briefed The Times this morning on how the criminal justice and courts Bill will keep developers and other Tory donors happy by curbing judicial review—a subject on which he has not yet responded to consultation. However, Ministers should play by the rules when answering questions in the Chamber, so will the Minister correct the record for Justice questions on 17 December, when the Secretary of State said three times that there would be no change in the number of mediations, even though his Department’s figures show a year-on-year fall of 35%?

First, on matters in the legislation to be announced I caution the hon. Gentleman to be careful of being overly critical.

It is certainly not all in the press, and the Bill might be much more encouraging to people than the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) might wish it to be. On the take-up of mediation, we do not have the figure for a full year but it is unarguable that figures have gone down. We are making sure, and we are hoping, that when we have the full-year figures, we will see that we have reversed that. I will keep the House and the hon. Gentleman updated about those figures over the year ahead.

Young Offenders

3. What plans he has to ensure that young offenders leave custody better equipped to avoid a life of crime. (902375)

5. What plans he has to ensure that young offenders leave custody better equipped to avoid a life of crime. (902377)

7. What plans he has to ensure that young offenders leave custody better equipped to avoid a life of crime. (902380)

11. What plans he has to ensure that young offenders leave custody better equipped to avoid a life of crime. (902384)

The Government will introduce a new pathfinder secure college in 2017, which will equip young offenders with the skills and qualifications they need to pursue a life free from crime. We are also enhancing education provision in young offenders institutions, and taking steps to improve the resettlement of young people leaving custody.

Last year the York and North Yorkshire Probation Trust community payback team joined forces with local residents to carry out a spring-clean in York. Graffiti was painted over, broken fences fixed, and public spaces brought back to life. Will the Minister join me in encouraging more initiatives of that kind, which provide young offenders not only with valuable skills, but also a sense of community responsibility?

I agree with my hon. Friend and think that where the court deems it appropriate, offenders young and old should be engaged in putting something back into the communities they have damaged by their offending. I also think it important that communities see that happening.

Will the Minister confirm that young offenders such as those in Her Majesty’s Prison Lincoln who have worked with Gelder Group, a forward-thinking construction company in Lincolnshire, say that better education and skills would help them stay away from crime once they are released from custody?

My hon. Friend is right: that is exactly what we hear from young offenders, and evidence is overwhelming that young offenders who engage in education, get qualifications, and go on to find work, have a better chance of staying out of trouble. That is exactly what we want to see.

Does the Minister agree that custody in secure colleges provides an opportunity to end the chaos that many of these children face and to impose boundaries that have all too often been lacking in their lives? Will he stick rigidly to the cross-departmental approach that was set out so intelligently in the “Transforming Youth Custody” paper, which is now a year old?

We want to see a cross-Government approach to this, and my hon. Friend is right to say that many other Departments have an interest in what we are doing. He is also right that a period of stability is vital. It may be a relatively short period of incarceration for those young people, but it is probably one of the few opportunities they have had to be clear about where their next meal will come from and where they are going to sleep, and to give us the space to address some of their significant problems. That is a large part of what we intend to do.

As well as providing support to young offenders to turn their lives around, will the Minister say what regime is in place so that a young offenders institution becomes a deterrent for going back there?

It is certainly important that the environment of a young offenders institution does not encourage those in it to think it is comfortable and to want to go back. For that reason, my hon. Friend will be encouraged to hear that we are looking at changes to the incentives and earned privileges scheme in young offenders institutions, in the same way as we have considered changes in the adult estate. We want to ensure that where young people have access to privileges, they get them only when they have earned them.

A report published by the chief inspector of prisons on 17 December last year suggested that it was easier for inmates to get drugs than clean underwear in prison, and a number of young offenders acquire a drugs habit in prison. How can we break the cycle when they leave?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that drugs in prison—whether adult prisons or young offender institutions—are a continuing problem, but as he and I have discussed, that problem is changing. Increasingly we see good reductions in mandatory drug testing rates for adult institutions—down from some 25% positive results to nearer 7%—but an increase in problems with drugs that are not in and of themselves illegal, but which should not be misused in prisons. For that reason we need to change the testing regime and give ourselves more tools to address the problem, which is what we seek to do.

Under the previous Government, the youth offending teams brought together professionals from different areas to help to tackle youth offending and bring down youth crime. What is the Minister doing to invest in mental health services and drug rehabilitation services in particular? Skills are important, but, if the issues that affect many of our young offenders are not addressed, they are likely to return to crime.

The hon. Lady is right that youth offending teams do valuable work. They continue to do that work, of course, supported by the Youth Justice Board. We are looking at the moment at how we can strengthen youth offending teams and have greater support from the Youth Justice Board to ensure that high standards are maintained. She is right, too, that one of the advantages of the youth offending team model is that it brings together a variety of different agencies, including those within the health sphere. She is right that mental health questions, in particular, are often relevant to addressing wider reoffending needs.

Children in care are some of our most vulnerable young people, yet far too many end up in prison due to a lack of support when they leave care. Will the Minister tell us what work he is doing with colleagues in other Departments to support care leavers, and to reduce the number of young people who turn to crime, both while in care and when they have left care?

I work closely with the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), the Minister with responsibility for children and families, who, as the hon. Gentleman knows, takes a close interest in the welfare of children in care and those who leave care. He is right that a connection is, unfortunately, often made between those leaving care and those who end up in the criminal justice system, but it is important that we address the needs of young offenders throughout the process. He will appreciate that the Ministry of Justice encounters these young people quite late on in that process, but he is right that there should be co-ordination and that will continue.

Recently, a jury inquest into the death of a 17-year-old at a young offenders institution indicated a string of failures by the authorities to safeguard the life of a vulnerable boy. In the past 10 months, there have been 12 deaths in custody of those aged 24 or younger. In the past 10 years, there have been 163 deaths. Will the Secretary of State and the Minister consider inviting the Justice Select Committee to undertake a review into how deaths of young people in custody can be prevented?

The hon. Gentleman is right to focus on this issue. Every one of those cases is a very real personal tragedy and a worrying sign for the system, but that does not mean that we should react in the wrong way. I think it is appropriate that we think very carefully about what level of investigation is necessary. I can tell the hon. Gentleman, as he may already know, that, in relation to each death, a variety of different investigations take place both internally within the prison system and from the coroner, and, in many cases, from others too. That does not mean, however, that there is not perhaps a case for looking more broadly at what wider lessons can be learned. That is exactly what we are considering at the moment. It is what I am applying my mind to now. I will let him know as soon as I can what we think the right conclusions should be.

Whole-life Tariffs

4. What recent discussions he has had with judges on the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights on whole-life tariffs. (902376)

I have had no recent discussions with the judiciary about the Strasbourg Court judgment in Vinter and others about whole-life orders. The reason for that is that the Government have been arguing in the Court of Appeal that whole-life tariffs are wholly justified in the most heinous cases. That process is continuing and we await the Court’s decision with interest.

Mr Justice Sweeney has already refused to give a whole-life tariff to a murderer due to a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights, and he has deferred the sentencing for the murderers of Drummer Lee Rigby, who most right-thinking people think should get a whole-life tariff. When are we going to withdraw from the European convention on human rights and the increasingly barmy European Court of Human Rights, so that we can ensure that a life sentence means a life sentence for the murderers of Lee Rigby?

I agree with my hon. Friend’s sentiments. We have gone to the Court of Appeal to ensure we can continue to give whole-life tariffs in this country. My view is that this should always be a matter for Parliament, but as he knows, while we have good collaborative relationships across the coalition and while we agree on many things, there are some things we do not agree on, and this is one of them, so I am afraid that wholesale change to our relationship with the European Court of Human Rights, which I personally think is urgently needed, will have to await the election of a majority Conservative Government.

Will the Justice Secretary think about what he just said? He might agree or disagree with an individual decision of the ECHR, but does he not recognise that having a Europe-wide convention which protects the human rights of everybody in every country that is a signatory to it is good for all of us, including victims of irrational justice decisions in other jurisdictions? Will he not declare that we support the idea of a European convention on human rights and that we will not withdraw from it?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman and I take a different view on this matter. I simply refer him to the recent comments by Lord Judge, the previous Lord Chief Justice and distinguished judicial figure who commands respect around the country. He said he believed the Court had overstepped the mark, and I agree with him. It is a tragedy, given the Court’s history, but it is the reality, and it has to be dealt with.

Does the Justice Secretary think it helps those of us campaigning for LGBT+ rights in Russia, for example, or trying to persuade Belarus to behave more like a responsible country for this country to be so negative about the European convention on human rights and the European Court? These are our standards, and we should be trying to export them, not pull away from them ourselves.

Fundamentally, in my opinion, the problem is that the Court is interpreting the convention as an unfettered jurisprudence that allows it to move into areas never envisaged by the people who wrote the convention. My clear view is that the Court is moving into areas that are matters for national Parliaments and which do not belong within the remit of an international court. It is a matter of disagreement between the coalition parties—we are open and honest about that—but we will leave it to the electorate in 14 months to decide which of our approaches they prefer.

Would the Secretary of State care to reflect on the role of the European Court of Human Rights in protecting fundamental freedoms in this country that he would support? For example, it was due to the Court that journalists were not forced to reveal their sources and that people were allowed to go on wearing crucifixes when they had been told not to wear them. These are essential and fundamental freedoms that I know he agrees with. Would he care to comment on that?

Where I differ is that I do not believe it is necessary to have an international court deciding things that should be a matter for this Parliament and our courts. That is what needs to change.

I strongly support my right hon. Friend’s stand on this matter. Does he agree that just one example of how far the European Court of Human Rights has moved from its original foundations is that the British Government and the lawyers who were instrumental in setting it up were also responsible for the largest programme of judicial executions—of Nazis at Nuremburg—in modern British history?

It is certainly the case that the jurisprudence of the Court has moved a long way from where it started, and some things have clearly changed for the better, but I would argue now that the decisions coming out of the Court are matters that should be addressed in this and other Parliaments. Of course, this is an area where there are divisions between all the parties in the House, and I have no doubt that it will be an area of lively debate as we approach the general election, when the people will decide.

HMP Oakwood

We are working closely with the contractor at Oakwood to implement the recommendations in last year’s report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons. As with other new prisons, Oakwood has experienced initial challenges, but action has been taken and the prison’s performance is improving. We expect that improvement to continue over the next 12 months.

A prison officer on the scene described the disturbance as a full-scale prison riot, but the Government and the contractor described it as “concerted ill-discipline”—that might be a perfectly adequate description of the behaviour of Back-Bench Tory MPs. I urge the Government to abandon this PR spin and for once to tell the simple truth.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the term “concerted indiscipline” has been used by both Governments to describe incidents that have occurred in both the public sector estate and the private sector estate. There has been no cover-up. I went to Oakwood 10 days ago and spoke to an officer engaged in the incident. I also spoke to a prisoner who, although not involved, was there at the time. I saw some of the CCTV coverage, too, so I am very clear about how serious the incident was, but to describe it as a full-scale riot is in my view inaccurate. Twenty prisoners were involved in the incident, out of a total of 1,600. The wing is now back in use and the issue was professionally resolved. That is what we would expect from prisons in the private or public sector. I do not think it is wise to overstate the significance of this incident in the context of what happens in other places.

Does the Minister agree that one way to relieve pressure on Oakwood would be to reopen the prison in Wellingborough, which took category C prisoners? Will he update the House on what progress has been made regarding Wellingborough?

Even by my hon. Friend’s high standards, that is inventive. As I have said to him before, we will of course consider again, as he has asked me to, whether Wellingborough is a suitable venue for a large new prison for the London area, but that is entirely separate from the judgments we need to make about how the rest of the estate operates. However, I will of course keep him informed as our thinking develops.

The coalition has characteristically dealt with the difficult decision of whether the prison at Wrexham will be in the public or private sector by deferring it, probably beyond the next general election. How can we prepare to ensure that the type of incident that occurred at Oakwood does not occur at Wrexham in 2017, when we do not know how the prison will be run?

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman’s case is that what happened at Oakwood was because it was privately run or because it was too big.

That is very helpful. Let me help the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend. In relation to the size of the prison, it was the last Labour Government who decided to set it at 1,600 prisoners, and in relation to its running, it was the last Labour Government who decided to put the management of the prison up for competition and not retain it in the public sector. Therefore, on both counts it is not us on the Government Benches whom the right hon. Gentleman should be talking to; it is those on his own Benches.

In relation to Wrexham, we have quite properly said that there is an initial decision to be made, which is whether a large new prison should be built at Wrexham. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we were asked to build it on that site by his own council and a large number of other members of the Labour party in north Wales. The decision to be taken now is who should build it; we will make a decision about who should run it in due course.

Will my hon. Friend look at what the chief inspector of prisons said to the Select Committee on Justice this morning about Oakwood, which is that there are special problems in managing very large prisons and in new prisons? When both things are brought together, there are surely training and staffing requirements that the Department needs to consider.

There are undoubtedly issues that arise with every new prison. New prisons in both the public and the private sector, and of all sizes, have encountered these kinds of difficulties. My right hon. Friend is right, too, that it is necessary to pay close attention to the training needs of staff. We will do that—that is already under way—and both the contractors and the MOJ are keen to ensure that these issues are addressed.

I am afraid this prison is two years old now, and we would have hoped to see some progress. The Minister is being way too complacent about the failure of G4S at Oakwood. Given the delay in implementing the probation changes, due to fears of public safety, how do we know that he will not be equally tolerant of failure when he privatises probation?

There is no complacency on this issue at all. Let us get the facts right. Oakwood has been operating at full capacity since February last year, and it is not unheard of that prisons—in the public or private sector, as I said—have difficulties of this nature in the first two years of operation. That does not mean that we do not address those difficulties, but it is important to put them in context. If I may ever so gently say so to the hon. Lady, when I was at Oakwood 10 days ago, one of the comments made to me by staff who work there was that it does not help their already difficult job when their workplace is used for party political purposes to exaggerate what is going on there.

Victims of Crime

The Government are giving more support to victims, and giving them a louder voice in the criminal justice system. We have introduced a new victims code, which gives victims more help throughout the criminal justice process. We are also exploring ways of reducing the distress caused to victims of sexual violence by cross-examination in court, and we aim to provide up to £100 million—more money than ever before—to help victims to cope and recover from crime.

My right hon. Friend is aware of my long-standing support for victims of crime. He is also aware that my constituent Marie Heath lost her job because she had to take time off work to attend the trial of criminals who murdered her son in Frankfurt. Does he agree that employers should show sympathy to employees who are bereaved in such horrific cases?

The whole House will sympathise with my hon. Friend’s view, and, in particular, with her constituent Marie Heath. The Government fund a national homicide service which supports bereaved people by, for instance, giving them access to support and guidance, helping them to explain their position to their employers, and enabling them to gain access to legal advice.

The extent to which sexual attacks and exploitation affect the way in which victims give evidence in court is poorly understood, and the difficulties that such people experience when giving evidence are often used to undermine them and their credibility as witnesses. The wider use of registered intermediaries would help to ensure that the evidence of the best possible quality was obtained during cross-examination. I know that the Minister is very supportive of that idea, but what is his view of the barriers that still prevent the use of registered intermediaries?

There are certainly no barriers as far as I am concerned. I entirely agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of registered intermediaries. As she knows, as well as introducing a victims code, we are taking other steps to help particularly vulnerable victims of the type that she has described, which include the introduction of changes in the way in which they can give evidence. In some cases video evidence can be used, and we are consulting on how to surmount the problems posed by the multiple cross-examination of vulnerable witnesses in other cases. Obviously, we will continue that work.

One of the Government’s objectives is to ensure that victims receive much more compensation and restoration from offenders themselves. What progress is being made in that regard?

I am pleased to report to my hon. Friend that we are making significant progress. Increased use of the victim surcharge means that more money is available for victims’ services than ever before, and we hope in time to double the amount that is currently available from £50 million to £100 million. I am sure that the whole House will welcome the fact that the extra money will come from offenders themselves.

As the Minister will know, those who deal with victims of domestic violence fear that the services they currently receive will not be maintained when police commissioners take over the provision of support for victims, and those in areas such as Warrington still do not know how much money will be provided in April. Is he prepared to give the House a commitment that support for those very vulnerable victims will be maintained?

Obviously that will be a decision for individual police and crime commissioners, but they will all be very aware of the need to help, in particular, the most vulnerable victims. As I have said, not only will the total budget available be greater than ever before—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady says that I am not deciding how the budget is distributed. No, I am not: the decision is being made by elected people at local level, and I think that that is more likely to provide locally sensitive and tailored services than a decision made by someone sitting in London.

Local commissioning of victim support will start in October. Will the Minister reject the proposal to base the funding on population rather than on the number of victims, so that police authority areas such as Cleveland do not lose out?

I do not agree with my hon. Friend. In particular, I do not agree with his suggestion that his area will lose out. The fact is that every area in the country will receive more money under our proposed system than it was receiving under the previous system, so no one will lose out.

Does the Minister agree that victims of assaults, especially serious assaults, should be warned when the offenders are due to leave prison? If he does agree, will he tell me what he is doing to ensure that that happens?

I do agree with the hon. Gentleman, and the system is there to enable that to happen. However, if he can cite individual cases in which it is not happening, I urge him to write to me, and I will investigate.

Property Boundary Disputes

12. What assessment he has made of options for reform of real property boundary disputes; and if he will make a statement. (902385)

The Ministry of Justice is in the process of completing the initial scoping study on the issue of property boundary disputes announced by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) in February last year in her reply to my hon. Friend’s written questions on this subject. The Department will publish its findings in due course, when Ministers have considered the options.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Property boundary disputes are stressful and cause a lot of heartache, and cost a lot of money unnecessarily. May I urge the Minister to move ahead on this and consider introducing reform proposals to this House?

I agree with my hon. Friend that boundary disputes can often be bitter, protracted and indeed expensive. I can assure him that the Department is working at pace to come up with the conclusions of the scoping study, and we hope to report on that as soon as is practicable.

Victims Code

13. What effect he expects the victims code to have on the experience of victims in the criminal justice system. (902386)

15. What effect he expects the victims code to have on the experience of victims in the criminal justice system. (902388)

The victims code will have a positive effect on the experience of victims in the criminal justice system. The new code gives victims clearer entitlements; a louder voice, including a right to read a victim personal statement aloud; enhanced entitlements for victims of the most serious crime, and vulnerable or intimidated and persistently targeted victims; and a more effective means of redress.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. How will he make sure restorative justice measures are truly victim-led and that those who wish to seek restorative justice at a stage later than the sentencing process will be able to do so easily?

I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that of the money the police and crime commissioners will be using, up to £18 million is specifically ring-fenced for restorative justice services. That funding will help us to ensure that restorative justice is available at all stages of the process so that victims can make properly informed decisions about whether they want to participate in restorative justice at the point in the process that best serves their needs.

What assessment has the Minister’s Department made of how the victims code will support the victims of human trafficking?

The new victims code provides an enhanced service for victims of the most serious crime and that includes victims of human trafficking. This will enable them to have quicker updates on the status of their case and to have referral to pre-trial therapy and counselling, which is often appropriate in those cases.

The Minister must have seen in the national newspapers this morning the incidents of alleged rape and how in some parts of the country there is very poor follow-up of these allegations. Will his victims code help those women who have been raped and then find that the police do not take their case seriously enough?

I agree that the point made in this morning’s reports is very serious, and I can assure the House that it is not just the victims code that will help. We have written to PCCs and chief constables encouraging them to use these recently issued data in conjunction with the data on referrals to the Crown Prosecution Service to improve all forces’ response to rape. We have also involved the Director of Public Prosecutions in setting up a scrutiny panel to look at how forces deal with rape in certain areas.

The criminal investigation into the Hillsborough disaster is still ongoing, but a very great number of people undoubtedly suffered, as we saw on last night’s “Newsnight”—I hope the Minister and Secretary of State will watch it if they have not already done so—when the survivors told their harrowing stories. May I simply ask the Minister to confirm that his Department will make available all support necessary to bring them justice as soon as possible?

When the hon. Lady refers to my Department, I should point out that it is the Home Office, where I also have a responsibility, that leads on Hillsborough. We are absolutely determined to do what she says through the Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation, which is ongoing, and the coroner’s action, which is due to start next month. I know the families are very much looking forward to those as a way of getting to the truth.

Shared Services (Tendering)

As part of the next generation shared services programme, the Ministry of Justice is reviewing the options available for the future delivery of our shared services.

A foreign multinational that has been awarded hundreds of millions of pounds of Government money to undertake work that was previously carried out in the public sector has admitted to exploring options to offshore that work. Surely the Secretary of State accepts that it is the Government’s responsibility to maximise employment in this country. Will he undertake to intervene if necessary to prevent that work from being offshored?

I have a track record of saying that I do not believe in offshoring UK jobs, and I will always look carefully at any such situation that arises. Whenever possible, the Government should prevent that from happening. I cannot say that it will never happen, however, as these are often decisions with a number of factors behind them, but I am not sympathetic to the offshoring of UK jobs.

Bailiff Reform

We have legislated to set out the process that bailiffs must follow when taking control of goods, and to introduce a simplified, transparent fee structure. Further legislation for a new certification process will ensure that only fit and proper individuals can work as bailiffs. These reforms will come into force in April.

I welcome that simplification, but what is the Minister doing to protect vulnerable people from some of the excesses of bailiffs?

May I first put on record what a doughty campaigner the hon. Gentleman has been on this issue? I very much hope that the proposals that we will be putting in place in April will meet with his approval. We are putting in place a governance system that will make it absolutely clear when bailiffs—or enforcement agents, as they will be called—can seize goods and when they cannot, as well as how they should deal with vulnerable people. We are also putting in place a fee structure that is clearly understood and, most importantly, ensuring that enforcement agents have mandatory training and receive a certificate. If anyone acts as an enforcement agent without that certification, they will be committing a criminal offence.

Topical Questions

This Government are committed to reducing the number of foreign nationals in our prisons. While Labour was in power, the number of foreign prisoners more than doubled, at great expense to the taxpayer. Since 2010, we have begun to clear up Labour’s mess. We have reversed that rising trend, and we are now looking at every option to send more foreign criminals back to serve their sentences in their home countries. Earlier this month, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright) travelled to Nigeria to sign a compulsory prisoner transfer agreement between our two countries, and I congratulate him on doing that. This is a significant achievement for the UK, particularly as Nigeria has one of the highest foreign national populations in our prisons. The agreement will be ratified in the coming months, and we expect to see Nigerian offenders being sent home within a year.

The Secretary of State is working hard to improve the chances of those who have completed a prison term. Does he agree that locally managed schemes such as Future Unlocked, which he visited in Rugby last year, have a key role to play in achieving that objective?

I very much enjoyed that visit, and I pay tribute to the work being done in Rugby. In setting out our probation reforms, we have taken steps to ensure that smaller organisations not only have the opportunity to participate in that way but have the simplest possible mechanisms to enable them to do so, with transparency of risk in the supply chain, with common contracts to save on bureaucracy and with measures to prevent anyone being used as what is commonly known as bid candy. We want to guarantee that supply chains will remain intact—without changes—through our consent.

Having seen the way in which the Ministry of Justice has been taken for a ride by G4S at Oakwood prison and by ALS in relation to the court translator services—both of which contracts were awarded by this Government—will the Secretary of State tell us just how bad a private company running a probation contract will need to be in order to be sacked?

Let me tell the House what being taken for a ride is. It is what happened under the last Government, under the contracts for electronic tagging, and we have been dealing with that and clearing up the mess in the past few months. I will take no lessons from Labour Members, who presided over an appalling system of contract management and exposed the taxpayer to considerable risk, leaving behind the mess that we have had to clear up. They are shocking, they were shocking, and I will take no lessons from them.

The Justice Secretary has been in the job long enough to understand that the way it works is that I ask the questions and he answers them. He and the Minister with responsibility for probation claimed that the main reason for privatising probation is that the savings can be used to provide probation services to those who currently do not receive them as their sentence is less than 12 months. The Justice Secretary has refused to publish costings and to pilot his plans, and he is already two months behind schedule. I will ask him a simple question, and I hope to get an answer: by what date will all those on sentences of less than 12 months be receiving through-the-gate supervision?

We will begin rolling out the part of the reforms set out in the Offender Rehabilitation Bill in the latter part of this year. I say to the right hon. Gentleman that he represents a party that was in government for nearly 15 years, during which time tens of thousands of offences were committed by people on short sentences who had no supervision when they left prison. The Labour Government did nothing about it. We are doing something about it, and it is not before time.

T2. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 is one of the great achievements of this Government but it left a few issues unresolved, one of which relates to humanist weddings, which are very popular in Scotland but currently not allowed here. The Act required the Secretary of State to conduct a review. What progress has been made on it, so that we can get on with allowing such weddings to happen? (902364)

My hon. Friend is right to say that the Government made a commitment to have a review, and we will do that. We will be starting it soon, and we will have a consultation. We intend to have the results of the review by the end of the year.

T3. The Secretary of State had previously been adamant that no further contracts would be awarded to Serco until it had received a clean bill of health from the Serious Fraud Office. Will he therefore explain why he awarded it a contract for the extension of Thameside prison on 20 December? When is a contract not a contract? (902365)

I can only assume that the hon. Gentleman was not in the House last June when I made the original statement about the electronic tagging situation and said that I had decided, in the interests of justice in this country, to proceed with two extensions at prisons run by the two organisations involved. I was completely clear about it, I explained why at the time and he clearly was not listening.

T4. Residents in Monmouthshire were recently very concerned when a man convicted of manslaughter absconded from Prescoed open prison. Will the Minister ask his officials to look into the risk assessments being used before prisoners are transferred to Prescoed to ensure that they are suitably rigorous? (902366)

We expect that the risk assessments in all these cases are rigorous. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to this case, and I will, of course, look into it and find out what has happened.

T7. Sunderland’s courts are in urgent need of rebuilding, as the Department has previously recognised, spending nearly £2 million in preparation. I am grateful for the meeting that took place with the Minister, but we have been in limbo on this since 2010. When will a decision be taken? (902369)

As the hon. Lady acknowledges, we have had a meeting, and I can assure her that of the 500 buildings the court estate encompasses, the ones to which she refers are very much at the forefront. She will appreciate, however, that we have a large estate and we keep matters under review, and we will keep her and her colleagues informed as soon as we are able to do so.

T5. More than half of the prisoners serving indeterminate prison sentences have passed their tariff date. Will the Secretary of State look at the parole and risk assessment process and review all cases where prisoners have complied with their sentence conditions but significantly exceeded their tariff? (902367)

As my hon. Friend knows, we have abolished those particular sentences because we do not believe they are the best way to deal with such serious offenders. However, that is not a retrospective change, and a number of prisoners in the estate are still serving such sentences. He will also appreciate that the decision on whether someone is released from such a sentence is to be taken by the independent Parole Board, not by Ministers. He must also recognise that the tariff is the minimum period to be served in custody, not the maximum. None the less, we will do everything we can to ensure that the process of these sentences is as efficient as it can be.

T10. The Secretary of State may recall that some years ago the police used a method called “trawling”, which became discredited, in order to find evidence about allegations against teachers and social workers. That destroyed many innocent people’s lives through false allegations of abuse. I understand that Operation Pallial is using trawling again, and many other hard-working social workers and educationists are being put in limbo and having their lives ruined. (902372)

I will happily discuss that issue with the National Crime Agency, which is in overall charge of that area, and will write to the hon. Gentleman with the results of my investigation.

T6. Does the Secretary of State agree that prisoners released on licence who reoffend or breach the terms of their licence should serve the remaining part of their original sentence in prison in full? If he agrees, what is he doing to ensure that that always happens? If he does not agree, why not? (902368)

As my hon. Friend knows, I have a lot of sympathy with him on these matters in areas such as breach of licence and automatic early release. For resource reasons, I cannot do everything that he would like me to do, but when he reads the Bill that is due to be laid before this House tomorrow, he will find things in it that are at least a step in the right direction.

There are 33 firms doing legal aid-backed criminal work in South Yorkshire, but only one in four or five will get duty contracts in the future, which means less competition, less choice and less access to justice. Surely what we are seeing is the slow, lingering death of legal aid at the hands of the Justice Secretary.

The argument for consolidation in the legal aid world goes back well before the last election to reviews carried out, and arguments made, by the previous Government. Our current reform proposals allow those firms to retain own-client work, which is what they argued for. What we are setting out around duty work is designed to ensure that, in tough times, we can guarantee that everyone arrested and taken to a police cell will always have access to legal advice.

T8. I welcome the Government’s transforming rehabilitation programme to cut reoffending, but will the Secretary of State reassure me that those suffering from mental health problems, both inside and outside prison, will also get the help they need? Will he outline what steps or initiatives his Department is taking, in conjunction with the Department of Health, on the matter? (902370)

My hon. Friend will know that, in relation to sentencing options, the courts have a number of choices they can make over mental health disposals. On the point he makes about co-ordination, he is right that the best thing we can do is ensure that people with mental illness are diverted away from the criminal justice system as soon as possible. To that end, we have been working with the Department of Health on liaison and diversion programmes. We are spending a considerable amount of money on that this year and over the next couple of years. We expect to have full coverage of all police custody suites and courts in the next three years or so.

Given the continuing high level of tribunals overturning Department for Work and Pensions decisions, particularly in employment support allowance cases, why did the Department offer up to the Deregulation Bill a provision that would take away the duty on the Senior President of Tribunals to report on the standard of decision making? Surely reporting on that might lead to better decisions being made in the first place.

The hon. Lady will be aware that the Ministry of Justice, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service and the Department for Work and Pensions have been working very closely to ensure that decisions by tribunals on social security and child support matters are passed on to the DWP. That is happening and, as a consequence, DWP decisions are being influenced and its decision-making guidelines have been changed.

T9. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State knows my interest and that of other colleagues in the reform of the criminal law of child neglect. Will he update the House on the progress he is making with regard to reviewing that particular provision of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008? (902371)

My hon. Friend is correct that this is an important area in which I have had fruitful discussions with Action for Children about the best way to make progress, and I hope to be able to report further on those discussions shortly.

Why is the Legal Aid Agency expanding the public defender service and recruiting barristers when reports from as far back as 2007 have found that it is between 40% and 90% more expensive than the independent professions? Furthermore, it cannot act in cases of conflict.

The public defender service was, of course, set up by the previous Labour Government, and it is always important to ensure that it is staffed properly.

The Secretary of State will recollect the prisoner deportation shambles of 2006, when huge numbers of foreign prisoners were allowed to stay in the country on release simply because of administrative incompetence. Will he assure me that foreign prisoners who should be considered for deportation are now properly being so considered?

My hon. Friend will know that that is primarily a matter for the Home Office, but none the less I can assure him that those of us who work in the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office do everything we can to ensure that foreign national offenders are deported as soon as they can be.

The House will be disturbed to learn today that since the CPS guidance on rape was amended in 2011 the number of people charged with rape over that period has fallen by 14%. There is concern that cases are being dismissed that could be successfully prosecuted. What will the Secretary of State do to ensure that the CPS has the appropriate resources to ensure that no victim of rape in this country is let down?

I am sure that the hon. Lady heard the answer I gave a few moments ago about the action we are taking with the Director of Public Prosecutions, police and crime commissioners and chief constables to look beneath the detail of that and ensure that all proper cases are referred. I am happy that the facts do not bear out her accusation that this is anything to do with resources, as in nine police areas the number of referrals has gone up over the two years since the new guidelines came in.

The maximum sentence for causing death when driving disqualified, uninsured and drunk is only two years and because of the rules of custodial sentences, the actual sentence served is only eight months. Does my hon. Friend agree that that only increases the sense of injustice felt by my constituent Mandy Stock, whose husband was killed in that way in Tredworth, Gloucester?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the advocacy he has engaged in on behalf of the Stock family. He will recall that we discussed the points he makes in the debate last Monday and I am happy to repeat what I said to him then, which is that the Government are considering carefully all that was said in the course of the debate and whether the sentencing is right for such offences. As he knows, we have particular sympathy for his points about those who cause death while disqualified.

On 23 January, the House of Commons voted 120 to three to release papers relating to the Shrewsbury 24. What is the Government’s response to that vote in the Commons?

As the right hon. Gentleman will remember, as he was in the Chamber for the debate, two things are happening. First, next year there will be a Cabinet Office review of the papers that are held and, secondly, a court reconsideration is in process. As a Government, we are ensuring that we increase transparency wherever possible but there will always be some papers that must be withheld on the basis of national security.

How many foreign national offenders are there in our jails, how does the figure compare to last time and when does the Minister expect the first Nigerian to be sent back?

Once again, I was ready for this one. There are currently 10,692 foreign national offenders, and when I last reported to my hon. Friend the figure was 10,789. The figures are heading in the right direction—

No, they have gone down. Let me correct the hon. Gentleman, whose mathematics is faulty. Last time, the figure was 10,789 and this time it is 10,692. I hope that is clear.

On Nigeria, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, we will make every effort in conjunction with our colleagues in Nigeria to remove Nigerians by the end of the year.

That is obviously the Wright effect, or the Hollobone effect, or possibly a virtuous combination of the two. Who knows? I will leave the House to muse on the matter.

One of the many excellent things the Secretary of State inherited from the previous Labour Government was an outstanding Probation Service in County Durham, which is now at risk from the Government’s privatisation. Will he now pay attention to the many issues raised in the Select Committee on Justice’s report of 22 January, and scrap that botched privatisation?

I do not recall the Justice Committee asking us to scrap our plans. Although good work is being done around the country by probation officers, we cannot go on with this situation in which 50,000 offenders are released from prison every year and left with no supervision on our streets, so that tens of thousands of crimes are committed, with victims around the country. We cannot go on in that way.