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Topical Questions

Volume 577: debated on Tuesday 18 March 2014

I would like briefly to inform the House of some important changes I am making to the use of release on temporary licence for prisoners, in order to tighten the current system and better protect the public. In future, all prisoners released on temporary licence will be tagged. Temporary licences will be granted only where a prisoner has demonstrated a commitment to change and there is a clear benefit in reducing reoffending. There will be a more thorough risk assessment before temporary licences are authorised and a more robust response for prisoners who fail to comply. For serious or violent offenders, I am introducing a new scheme of restricted temporary licences that will involve more stringent risk assessments and a more robust monitoring regime. These measures will ensure that we make more effective use of release on temporary licence and that we take the steps necessary to maintain public safety.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Does he agree that the best way to bridge the gap between prison and normal life is through help by organisations such as the Oswin project, based in Northumberland, which provides paid apprenticeships and paid employment such that the individuals concerned, who are all ex-offenders, are better able to integrate and manage their way back into normal life?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I am looking forward to visiting Northumberland shortly and seeing some of the work that is being done. This is enormously important. It is particularly important that we have really close links between the efforts provided to help people into employment and the efforts put into helping them to sort their lives out once they have left prison. Those two areas are integrally linked, and that work is immensely important.

Does the Justice Secretary think there is a problem with young men in particular being radicalised in our prisons? If so, what is he doing about it?

There is certainly a real issue. We have seen over the years the radicalisation of young men in prisons. We now have a first-rate team of imams in our prisons who are carefully selected and I have met a number of them. They are putting together carefully constructed programmes to help steer people away from radicalisation. I pay tribute to the work they do in often difficult circumstances and I believe they can really make a difference.

The sorts of things that the Prime Minister’s extremism taskforce, experts, governors and staff are saying are required are enhanced monitoring, better intelligence gathering, staff trained to recognise and deal with the issue, a dedicated expert unit within the Prison Service, a specialist programme to target prisoners and spare capacity for governors. What resources and how much personal attention is the Justice Secretary giving to that?

Let me assure the right hon. Gentleman that all of those things are, in fact, currently happening. The last meeting I had to discuss those issues took place in the past two weeks. It is a matter of great concern to my colleagues on the Front Bench and to me, and we will continue to work at it. I again pay the greatest of tributes to the staff involved in this work on the front line and the imams who are doing such good work in shaping the education programmes that can make a real difference. I think that there is agreement across the House that we need to ensure that the work is effective and delivers real results for us. I am very confident in the team who are doing it.

T3. Could the Secretary of State update the House on what recent discussions he has had in Brussels regarding any moves intended to create an EU-wide justice system? (903120)

I have continual conversations about that and continue to resist any attempts to do it. One of the areas I have been most concerned about is the creation of the justice scorecard, the latest version of which was published yesterday. I believe it is a vehicle that theoretically allows the Commission to extend its legislative remit. I am pleased to tell the House that the United Kingdom is the only country that is wholly not co-operating with the justice scorecard.

T2. Legal aid used for injunctions and stays pending judicial review has been vital in preventing ordinary families from spiralling into homelessness and, indeed, in saving the public purse the costs of incorrectly made homelessness decisions by local authorities. Will Ministers confirm whether the changes made to legal aid in regulations last week have retained that specific protection? (903119)

The provisions are there and there are exceptions. The hon. Lady will be aware that the argument constantly put forward that legal aid is being taken away from everyone simply does not match up. For those who are in need and when people’s individual liberty is at stake, legal aid is provided, as is the case with other provisions.

T4. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to give victims of crime a greater voice so that the impact of crimes can be seen and heard? (903121)

As I detailed earlier, we have taken a large number of measures. Perhaps the most significant one will be literally to give them a voice in court: victims of crime will be able to make a statement in court after the verdict but before the sentence. Many victims have emphasised that that will empower them: they will be able to look the offender in the face and say what effect the offence has had on their family. That is a very significant change in the court process in favour of victims.

T6. It is estimated that this year there will be 42,000 applications to the criminal injuries compensation scheme, which means that 15,000 people who would have been eligible under the old scheme will not get anything. Is the Secretary of State proud that he has taken away access to justice for so many victims of crime? (903123)

What we have tried to do in what are tough times financially is centre the resource we have on those who have been most badly affected by crimes. The reforms put together by my predecessor, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) were designed to ensure that those who had relatively minor injuries as a result of crime would not be where we focused our resource and would be excluded from the scheme. We have left in place discretionary funding so that in unexpected circumstances, where there is an unexpected impact, support can still be provided.

T5. I warmly welcome the use of mental health diversion pilot schemes in police stations pre-arrest, but more work needs to be done to ensure that the number of people with mental health conditions in our prison system is as small as possible. Which steps does my right hon. Friend intend to take to deal with that vital issue? (903122)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. For me, this issue is the next priority for my Department beyond the current reforms. I believe that we need to make better provision for people with mental health problems in our prisons. It is the next big piece of work that needs to be done, and I hope and expect that we will have the opportunity to put in place real change in the future that can make a difference for those people.

T7. Next Wednesday, I will host an event in Parliament on behalf of the Sophie Lancaster Foundation. Sophie and her boyfriend were Goths who were set upon by a gang and brutally kicked and beaten, and Sophie died of her injuries. What guidance is the Minister giving courts about treating such crimes and sentencing them as hate crimes? (903124)

May I first say that we in this House all abhor such horrendous incidents, and our hearts always go out to the families of the victims. The hon. Lady will of course understand that sentencing guidelines are created by the Sentencing Council, and that we as politicians do not have the power, unless we choose to legislate, to instruct courts how to act in particular circumstances. The message I would always give to courts is that it is the will of the democratically elected Parliament that horrendous and brutal crimes should be dealt with firmly and appropriately.

The recent orchestrated action by self-employed barristers in protection of their commercial interest is prima facie evidence of an anti-competitive cartel. Such a cartel would be illegal under EU and UK competition law. What can we do to uphold the law in this area?

The action taken by barristers recently is very regrettable. It caused a lot of inconvenience to victims and witnesses. I just want to assure the legal profession that the door of the Secretary of State for Justice and my door are wide open, and we hope that we can engage in constructive dialogue.

T8. Last autumn, Ministers said that no prisoners were being held in police cells, but figures show that there were 608 occasions on which prisoners were held in police cells between October and January. Will the Minister apologise? (903125)

No, because the hon. Gentleman is not correctly representing what we said. We said that Operation Safeguard was not in action, and that was true. He should understand that the use of police cells is routine—it was done under the previous Government—and occurs for a variety of reasons, some of which, for example, are down to courts finishing late and not being able to be get prisoners back to their home prison in time. Those things have happened under the previous Government and under this one. He might be interested to know that the use of prison cells last year was a little under 1,000; under his Government, it reached a peak of 50,000.

Given the level of support across this House for the decriminalisation of non-payment of the TV licence fee, does my right hon. Friend agree that the continued criminalisation of people whose only crime is being poor is completely untenable? What discussions has he had with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on this issue?

I have a lot of sympathy with what my hon. Friend says. We are giving this issue careful consideration. I have had discussions both with my counterpart at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and with the Cabinet Office. The three Departments will continue to have discussions both with him and other Back Benchers with an interest in this issue, and with the BBC.

T9. Last week, G4S repaid more than £100 million, after malpractice on its tagging contract. Should we be concerned that G4S has just bought itself a clean bill of health for future contracts? (903127)

We have said to both G4S and Serco—I deplore the actions of those companies in the things that have taken place—that simply repaying money is not sufficient, and that we expect them to go through a process of corporate renewal, which will involve comprehensive changes to both personnel and ways of working internally. I am not in the process of destroying British companies; I am in the business of saying, “You cannot expect to work with Government unless you uphold high standards, take a transparent approach and absolutely do not try to rip off the taxpayer.”

If someone is breathalysed and found to be over the limit, their driving licence can be suspended straight away. However, if someone is found to be over the limit and kills somebody, it can take months. That was the experience of the family of Jamie Still, whose killer drove for eight months after killing him in 2010. Prosecutors do not ask for the suspension of a driving licence in a case of death by criminal driving. What discussions will the Secretary of State have with the Crown Prosecution Service about that?

I am happy to take that matter forward. I was not aware of the situation to which the hon. Gentleman referred. We will take a careful look at it and discuss it with him.

Is the Secretary of State content with a system of justice in which people who have no criminal record can be dawn-raided, arrested and left in limbo for months and months, with their careers ruined? Is that the right sort of criminal justice system for our country?

It is impossible to answer that question without knowing the circumstances of the case and without understanding the reasons for what I assume are police actions. I want a justice system that acts appropriately, takes tough action where necessary and treats people fairly, including by giving them a fair trial. When people are found guilty, I want the system to treat them appropriately and punish them accordingly.

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

I took the trouble to look up that figure on the off-chance that my hon. Friend might ask for it. It is 10,689 as of last Friday, which, I am pleased to tell him, is a reduction from the last time that he asked for the figure and I told him it. It is important that he, I and other Members of the House support the Immigration Bill when it returns to this House, so that we can begin to deal with some of the obstacles to doing what he has described, which include the number of appeals that are available to some people to delay their return to the country to which they should go.

Humberside police have the highest number of reported child rapes. Last year, the figure was 176, alongside the 193 reported adult rapes. The cut to the money that is available to the Hull rape crisis centre will mean that the centre is no longer viable and that victims will have to travel 60-odd miles to Leeds to get the assistance that they need. Will the Minister and the Secretary of State look at that case to see whether the Ministry of Justice can support this very vulnerable group of people through the continuation of funding?

I will, of course, look at that individual case. However, I hope that the hon. Lady and the House will acknowledge that the Government are committed to funding 15 new rape crisis centres; that the 14th and 15th new centres will come on stream this year; and that we have provided an extra £4 million to allow that to happen. Inevitably, there are bids that cannot be met for perfectly valid reasons, but I will take a look at that case.

Will my right hon. Friend look again at the adequacy of the terms of reference and working practices of the Office for Judicial Complaints to deal properly with redress in the very rare cases in which our judiciary do not come up to the proper standards of behaviour?

I am happy to do so. Perhaps my hon. Friend will give me a bit more information on the detail of his concerns. I think that the office does a good job. My experience from my 18 months as Lord Chancellor is that it makes sensible decisions and takes a sensible approach when such issues arise. One hopes that they will not arise often, but I will look at his concerns.

May I ask the Secretary of State to correct the record? In the House, he said that family mediations had not fallen, but a letter from the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) says that publicly funded referrals and family mediations have fallen.

The position is clear and I tried to clarify it in my letter to the hon. Lady. Sadly, there has been a drop in the number of cases that are going to mediation. There has therefore been a drop in the number of cases that are going through the process. The percentage of successful mediations has not dropped. That is the issue to which the Secretary of State was referring. The Government are committed to doing what she would want, which is to ensure that from next month, when the law changes, there is an increase in referrals to mediation and an increase in successful mediations.

Her Majesty’s prison Northumberland was privatised on 1 December 2013. In the four months since, there have been 180 redundancies. Nearly a third of the work force have been released. Is the Secretary of State confident that HMP Northumberland is a safe place for prisoners and staff?

We are having to take difficult decisions about staffing levels across the prison estate. I am confident that every one of our prisons is a safe place to detain prisoners. I have not pursued a privatisation strategy across the prison system but accepted the recommendations of the Prison Governors Association and others, and the benchmarking programme that we are putting in place across the prison system was recommended in-house by the public sector team.