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Volume 580: debated on Tuesday 6 May 2014

The Secretary of State was asked—

Online Pornography (Sentencing)

1. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of sentencing policy in tackling the problem of violent and extreme online pornography. (903839)

Offenders convicted of possession of extreme pornographic images, including violent pornographic images, face a custodial sentence of up to three years. Sentencing in individual cases is at the discretion of the courts. Although there are only a small number of convictions for that offence each year, I believe that it is effective in tackling the proliferation of these images.

Is not the problem that existing legislation on violent pornography has been too narrowly interpreted, with only 310 prosecutions in the past three years? Rape Crisis South London has said that there is evidence of the easy availability of serious sexual violence on rape porn sites. I know that the Government are about to ban realistic rape porn online, but not staged child rape scenes. Why not, as the Prime Minister promised, bring online and offline in line?

We agree with the hon. Lady’s underlying point that the current offence is too narrow. That is why we are legislating to extend the terms of the existing offence to criminalise the possession of images depicting rape and other non-consensual penetrative sexual activity. As she knows, we introduced provisions in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill to criminalise the possession of such images, and those provisions received broad cross-party support at the Commons Committee stage. I hope that she and those on the Opposition Front Bench will continue to welcome that.

When considering sentencing policy for those guilty of observing or engaging in violent behaviour, will the Minister reconsider the Department’s policy of moving violent offenders such as Michael Wheatley to open prisons like Standford Hill in Kent? He will be aware of a pattern of absconding that has taken place in Ford open prison in my constituency, including by Derek Passmore and Paul Flint, both of whom were convicted of murder, and one of whom had already absconded from an open prison.

I am sure that many Members across the House will share my hon. Friend’s concern about people absconding. As we have heard, the number of people absconding from open prisons has, of course, gone down, but I hope he is reassured that we are in the process of making the conditions for those sent to open prison tougher, both in qualifying to go to open prisons, and in the punishments received for breaking the terms.

Single Family Court

2. What assessment he has made of the consequences of the establishment of the new single family court for the operation of the justice system; and if he will make a statement. (903840)

The family justice review produced recommendations that were implemented on 22 April, producing the largest ever change in the family justice system in our lifetime, and I pay tribute to all those from the president of the family division downwards who delivered that. The purpose was to have a single united family court that can sit anywhere with any level of judge, to ensure that cases are dealt with more quickly in the interests of children and families, and that children’s needs are always put first in all family proceedings.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will he explain how the reforms that he is taking through at the moment will ensure that cases, particularly those involving the most vulnerable children, will be dealt with efficiently, quickly and justly?

There are two major changes that will lead to a speedier and more just outcome, particularly for children. The first is a requirement that all cases involving care proceedings will be dealt with in 26 weeks, or half a year—only a couple of years ago, it was double that—and if there has to be an exception in the interests of justice, that will be made. Secondly, experts’ reports will not be commissioned and take up a huge amount of time unless that is necessary in the interests of the child. The process will be speedier, and children will have certainty much more quickly, as will their families and local authorities.

But is not the Minister aware that the withdrawal of legal aid in family cases has caused a massive increase in litigants in person, which will undercut and undermine any move towards shorter times for dealing with these cases? The Government have undercut and undermined their own policy, and strangled it at birth.

That is very easy rhetoric from the hon. Gentleman, but the evidence does not support it. The evidence is that there were always litigants in person in the family courts, and the time it is taking for cases outside the public system to be dealt with has not fundamentally changed. They take on average between 16 and 18 weeks now, as they did before. In addition, legal aid has been retained for most of the important issues. In particular, legal aid is available for people to be assessed for mediation, and for mediation. For those who go to mediation, seven out of 10 have a successful outcome, which means that they do not need to contest their matrimonial matters in the court.

The single court is a good idea, and I am pleased that the Government are taking it forward, but a considerable body of evidence from solicitors who specialise in family law suggests that judges are under huge pressure to allow contact too early in cases, even in those with safeguarding issues such as alcohol abuse and violence. How will the Minister make sure that family courts are closely monitored to ensure that vulnerable children are not put at unnecessary risk?

I respect the right hon. Gentleman’s expertise in this area. I was speaking to the court in Cardiff about these issues only on Thursday last week. One protection is that the 26-week norm can be extended in the interests of justice in every case. Secondly, from the president downwards, there is a regular review of exactly what is happening. There will be report backs, as well as a public report back to Parliament on a regular basis, and regular reviews to make sure that vulnerable children in the sort of families he describes are not put at risk. The whole purpose is to ensure that fewer children are at risk and more children are protected and cared for better.

Richard III (Reburial)

3. With reference to the statement by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice in Westminster Hall on 12 March 2013, Official Report, column 30WH, that his Department would facilitate a meeting between people from York and others with the university of Leicester to discuss the arrangements for reburial of the mortal remains of King Richard III, when that meeting will take place and which Minister or official from his Department will attend it. (903841)

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, arrangements for the meeting were put on hold in the light of litigation brought by the Plantagenet Alliance Ltd. The judicial review was heard by the Administrative Court on 13 and 14 March, and I look forward to receiving its judgment.

I understand the reason for the delay, but it is self-evident to me that a decision about the burial of a former Head of State of this country should be taken by the Government of the day, not delegated—as in the case of King Richard III—to archaeologists at Leicester university. Will the Secretary of State give the House an assurance that when the sub judice rule has passed, he will consult widely—including with those from the north of England who believe that King Richard should be reburied in York—before taking a final decision on the basis of advice about where the burial should take place?

Order. The issue is not sub judice. There are ministerial decisions involved, but there is no question of sub judice. I also appeal to the House for a degree of calm and restraint. We are discussing the burial of the mortal remains of a former monarch, to which fact, Mr Brennan, you should pay obeisance.

You are quite right, Mr Speaker, that these issues are not sub judice. Of course, it is hardly surprising that the hon. Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) is a keen advocate for the city he represents, but I shall not pass further comment on this matter before the court judgment is reached.

I am the hon. Member for Leicester, and I am a keen advocate for my city. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the dig for Richard III was well advertised, and the relevant licence granted by the Ministry of Justice was very specific that, should Richard be found, his remains should be buried in Leicester?

We are hearing the divisions in the House about an important strategic issue. I fear that I shall stick with my position that it would not be appropriate for me to comment further until the court case has reported.

Legal Aid (Vulnerable People)

One of the key objectives of the reform of legal aid is to improve its sustainability to make sure it remains available to protect vulnerable people. Legal aid continues to be available in cases where people’s life or liberty are at stake; where they are at risk of serious physical harm, or immediate loss of home; or where their children may be removed.

The pursuit of justice can be an extremely expensive matter. Everyone understands that the economic times we live in mean that there have to be constraints on legal aid, but will my right hon. Friend assure me that he is engaging with the legal profession on the implementation of the reforms?

I give my hon. Friend that assurance. We shall continue to look at the impact of the changes we have put in place. It is not our intention to disadvantage the most vulnerable in our society. We have taken a number of steps in the reforms to protect them and we will continue to review the changes we have made to understand their impact.

Now that a Cameron appears to have woken up to the impact of legal aid cuts and refused to take part in a trial last week because of a lack of defence, will the Secretary of State review that case and that judgment and tell the House how many cases he expects to be stayed as a result of legal aid cuts? What conditions does he have in place to ensure that those whose cases are stayed have a proper trial?

I fear this may be a repeat performance. That case is now subject to appeal, and it would not be appropriate for me to comment before the appeal hearing is held.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the recent case of a triple murderer who sued the Ministry of Justice for more than £800 because of alleged damage to his personal effects, including a nose hair clipper that went missing. Was legal aid allowed for the prisoner to bring that case? If so, was it a good use of taxpayers’ money?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that while I share his revulsion, the availability of legal aid was not a part of that case. The reforms we have put in place mean that prisoners cannot access legal aid for such cases, or indeed for a wide range of cases relating to conditions in the prisons they are kept in. I do not believe the taxpayer should be funding such court cases.

In Northern Ireland, leading lawyers and the Law Society have stated that the cuts handed down by Westminster and implemented by the Justice Minister will severely hinder the public’s ability to access the justice system. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with his ministerial counterpart in Northern Ireland on the impact of this policy?

I have indeed discussed legal aid funding pressures with my counterpart in Northern Ireland, who said to me that he faces similar challenges in balancing a tough budget. The reality is that we all face difficult financial challenges and we sometimes have to take difficult decisions to meet them.

The Secretary of State is taking legal aid from vulnerable people and imposing a residence test that would not have been met by the women at Yarl’s Wood detention centre sexually assaulted by guards, the family of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Gurkhas refused entry to the UK, or care home residents such as those in Winterbourne View or on the recent “Panorama” programme. Which of those would he be most proud to leave without help or representation?

Of course, these changes do not affect the support we provide at inquests. My challenge to the Opposition is this: they have yet to give us any clear answers on how they would bring down the cost of legal aid. They campaigned at the previous general election for reductions in legal aid costs. They continue to oppose the difficult changes we have made, but offer no alternative suggestions.

Employment and Support Allowance Tribunals

5. What assessment he has made of the consequences for future decisions by employment and support allowance tribunals of the provision by the judiciary to the Department for Work and Pensions and appellants of reasons for their decisions in appeals. (903843)

I appreciate the hon. Lady’s interest in this subject. Last year, a pilot scheme was introduced in four places around the country where employment and support allowance appeals had the summary reasons issued at the time of the appeal judgment. This was extended in March across the country in relation to all ESA and personal independence payment appeals. There is no current plan to make a further assessment, but the Ministry of Justice supports fully what is a Department for Work and Pensions initiative.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but this is a hugely important issue for many individuals who face great stress and anxiety in going through the appeal processes. Will the Minister not commit to evaluating both the pilots and the ongoing process properly, so we can understand fully whether they are working and whether further improvements are needed?

We shall of course watch what happens. We expect the process to be extended this year to many other forms of appeal in the social security system. The evidence will show whether it informs people and we do not have as many appeals in the future because the decisions will have been got right in the first place. The level of appeals that she highlighted in a question on a previous occasion—nearly 45%—will then disappear. My objective is to get decisions right in the first place. The stress to which she refers should be removed from many people. They should not need to have to go to appeal to get the right decision.

One of the biggest problems that I face as a constituency Member of Parliament is the time that it takes for ESA appeals to go ahead. It is good news that the delay has been reduced from an average of 23 weeks to 18, but what is the Minister doing to ensure that appeals speed up even more in the future?

Members on both sides of the House will have shared my hon. Friend’s experience, which is principally a matter for my colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions. It will certainly be helpful if the right decisions are made more often in the first place, but we must ensure that tribunals, particularly the Social Security Appeals Tribunal, have enough resources to be able to deal with cases as soon as possible after receiving the information that they require. Often the problem is collecting the data that will enable an appeal to be heard. The present situation is not acceptable, and we need to reduce the delay between initial decisions and appeals.

The Ministry of Justice faces large costs as a result of appeals against decisions made but by not just the DWP but the Home Office. Ensuring that the right decisions were made would save the MOJ a huge amount of money. Will my right hon. Friend consider applying the “polluter pays” principle, so that the Department that has caused an excessive number of appeals pays some of the MOJ’s costs? That would give Departments an incentive to make the right decisions.

My hon. Friend has mentioned that idea to me before, and I find it attractive. I have not had a formal discussion about it with the Secretary of State, but I imagine that he may instinctively find it attractive as well. We certainly expect our colleagues in other Departments to make decisions correctly, and not to incur costs that will be borne by our Department, and hence by the taxpayer, by getting those decisions wrong. I shall willingly engage in discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and with other Departments that ought to be bearing the burden of decisions that they got wrong in the first place.

Legal Aid

6. What his policy is on ensuring that legal aid is targeted at people with a strong connection to the UK. (903844)

10. What his policy is on ensuring that legal aid is targeted at people with a strong connection to the UK. (903848)

The Government believe that individuals should have a strong connection with the UK in order to benefit from the civil legal aid scheme, and we consider the residence test that we propose to be a fair and appropriate way in which to demonstrate that connection.

Will my right hon. Friend put an end to the availability of legal aid in relation to cases brought in the United Kingdom irrespective of any connection with this country, which encourages people to bring their disputes here?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend, although I do not think that Labour Members do, judging by the noises that they have been making. I think that the position is very simple. Our taxpayers pay the costs of civil legal aid, and I do not believe that people should be able to come to this country and have immediate access to our civil legal aid system. The test that we propose is designed to change that. I find it interesting that it is being challenged in court, but I am determined that British taxpayers should not be required to pay for legal aid for people who have no right to it because they have not earned it.

According to a written answer that I was given recently, two firms of lawyers that specialise in suing active servicemen, Public Interest Lawyers and Leigh Day, have received £10 million in legal aid in the last three years, and the Ministry of Defence has subsequently spent many more millions on defending those cases. No other country in the world would pay lawyers to sue its own army. When we will stop doing so?

My proposed residence test would mean that such cases were no longer possible. I think it important for there to be restraints on our legal aid system. I personally find some of the things that we have read about the inquiry into the cases brought as a result of action in Iraq extremely disturbing. I have asked my officials to examine in great detail what has happened, and to consider whether there are appropriate actions for us to take.

Will the Lord Chancellor think for a moment about the logic of his case? Surely all those who come before the courts have a right of representation, a right of access, and a right to have their cases heard. If the Lord Chancellor’s logic had been applied in the past, the Mau Mau people, who suffered the most grievous maltreatment by British armed forces in the 1950s, would never have had a chance to bring their case before the courts in this country, and would never have had any hope of securing justice.

The hon. Gentleman and I have always differed on these matters. It is important to deal with historical wrongs, but I do not believe that we should encourage British law firms to deal with cases from other parts of the world, at enormous cost to the taxpayer, when in the end—as in the case of the Iraqi situation—there are serious question marks over those cases. I think we need a system that makes our legal aid available to British people, but not to people in the rest of the world.

Many people with a strong connection to the UK face homelessness which is prevented only by the threat of launching judicial review proceedings. Does the Secretary of State accept that, as Shelter and other housing groups say, his changes to legal aid will make that much more difficult? Will he publish data to show the impact of the changes?

I guess it comes down to whether we believe that somebody should come to this country and make a contribution first. Our proposals exclude those who are refugees who are seeking refuge in this country, but they are set out in that way because, I think, people who come to this country should make a contribution before they can start taking money out of the state system for other means of support.

18. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as well as targeting legal aid on those with a strong tie to the UK, we should not make it available to those fighting weak cases that they would not pursue if they were spending their own money but will pursue if they are spending taxpayers’ money? (903860)

That issue applies particularly to judicial review. The proposals set out in the Bill currently before the House would set an appropriately high bar that will do precisely what my hon. Friend says. There must be a bona fide strong case that goes forward to the courts before the taxpayer will pay the bill.

I welcome the Justice Secretary’s reassurance, in answer to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), that families like those of Jean Charles de Menezes and Jimmy Mubenga would get legal aid at inquests even though they are not British citizens. But can he explain to the House how it is in the public interest, and somehow good, for the women at Yarl’s Wood detention centre who were sexually assaulted by guards, for the Gurkhas refused entry to the UK or for care home residents like those at Winterbourne View to be denied legal aid?

What divides us is the fact that the Government must take hard decisions. The Labour party has argued for reductions in legal aid; it had plans for reductions in legal aid in its manifesto but now, in opposition, it is trying to prevent reductions in legal aid. That is, I am afraid, another example of the Labour party saying one thing and doing another.

May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the Select Committee report on the impact on our armed forces of this deluge of cases? May I urge him to look again at the £10 million that went to those law firms who deliberately suppressed evidence that their clients were part of a terrorist organisation?

Let us be absolutely clear: in relation to the inquiry to which my hon. Friend refers, what has happened in those cases appears to have been untoward to say the least. If the taxpayer has ended up paying a large amount of money for a case brought on a false premise, I will want to take the strongest possible action, including looking at taking financial measures against the firms involved.

Criminal Legal Aid

8. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of recent changes to criminal legal aid on law firms and access to justice. (903846)

Recent changes have been made to criminal legal aid because of the imperative to make savings across the Department. We are committed to ensuring the sustainability of the changes that we are making, and to reviewing them a year after implementation of the respective new arrangements.

I recently met solicitors from a couple of small firms based in Bristol that deliver criminal legal aid work, and they told me that not only the 17% cut in fees over two years, but in particular the changes to the duty solicitor contract, will put them out of business. May I urge the Secretary of State to look at the smaller firms who will not be likely to win such contracts, and at the impact that will have on the representation of people who live in places such as Bristol?

We looked at these issues carefully and took two steps that I hope will help on this front. The most important step was that we are allowing those small firms to bid as consortia so that they can share contracts as long as they cover for each other to ensure the duty work is provided. We also did detailed work with external consultants to ensure that we identified how big a contract needed to be to be sustainable, so that we have sustainable contract size and the option for small firms to bid in consortia. That is the best way of delivering changes that I know are painful but, of course, were in the hon. Lady’s party’s manifesto.

When my right hon. Friend is drawing comparisons about the costs of cases, will he try to make sure that the income that will be expected to accrue to the various barristers taking part in those cases is considered, rather than the totality of costs, as it can be difficult to make a sensible judgment about what is fair and unfair?

My hon. Friend is right to say that we have to be very careful. Of course the gross fees that are cited include VAT and chambers’ fees, but those barristers also derive benefits from being self-employed that counteract some of the reductions they experience, because they can offset many other parts of their expenditure and overheads against tax in a way that employed people would not be able to do.

How many more serious fraud trials in the pipeline are struggling to secure legal representation for the defence, in a way similar to the case that collapsed last week, where the judge was forced, in effect, to abandon the trial because of Government legal aid changes?

As I said, given that this case is subject to appeal, I do not think it would be appropriate for me to comment further on it.

What is the Lord Chancellor going to do about the fact that senior counsel are not prepared to take on the defence roles in very complex cases, given that he has a case to put about cost saving and they have points to put about complexity? Talks will surely have to take place, and brinkmanship on either side will not serve the interests of justice.

We are taking the financial decisions we are taking for a simple imperative: we have to make an extremely difficult budget add up. We are applying the changes we are applying to those at the higher end of the income scale. I am confident that through the public defender service and other routes we will be able to meet the needs of cases, as and when they arise, and of course PDS advocates were available for these cases.

Will my right hon. Friend also look at the impact on the criminal legal aid budget and access to local justice of decisions such as that made by the judicial business group in Bedfordshire to move criminal cases from Bedford magistrates courts to Luton, thus, in effect, closing the magistrates courts? The move was opposed by local lawyers, local law firms and magistrates; it was an administrative decision designed to skirt democratic accountability. Does he agree that it could have an impact on costs, which should be part of the decision-making process?

I am aware that a number of decisions of this kind are being taken by local committees. Of course such decisions can also mean civil cases moving into those same court buildings, which brings justice closer to communities in matters such as tribunal cases. I am aware of the issues in Bedfordshire to which my right hon. Friend refers. Where changes of this kind occur I have asked my Department to examine possible uses of technology, for example giving access to courts for witnesses. I know he is discussing this matter with the Minister who has responsibility for courts and will continue to do so.

Judicial Conduct Investigations Office

11. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the powers of the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office. (903849)

The Judicial Conduct Investigations Office is an independent office that supports both me and the Lord Chief Justice with our joint responsibility for judicial discipline. Following public consultation, the JCIO introduced new rules and regulations governing judicial discipline on 1 October 2013. I am satisfied that it has the appropriate powers to carry out its function effectively.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. The judicial conduct cases the JCIO has examined are there for all to see, but does he share the concern of some of my constituents that where judicial misconduct has been proven there is no direct mechanism to challenge decisions made as a result of it in a court?

Clearly I would have to know about the individual cases in order to give a detailed answer to that question, but where a judge is found to have committed an act of misconduct in relation to a case, I would, of course, expect the person involved to take appropriate legal advice. My experience so far is that we have a good process that deals with these issues promptly and sensitively, and the work of the office is handled pretty well.

Literacy in Prisons

Improving prisoners’ literacy is a key objective of education in custody. Where literacy needs are identified, prisoners are offered teaching and support as a priority. That can take place in classrooms, through peer mentoring, in libraries, at work and during other prison activities.

New Government rules limit the number of books a prisoner is allowed to have at any one time to 12, which means that prisoners studying for Open university courses or other qualifications will not get hold of the required study material. Prisoners are much less likely to reoffend when they have taken educational courses, especially when they have completed them. What contingencies has the Secretary of State put in place to ensure that his rules do not undermine the educational outcomes of prisoners?

Let me start with where I agree with the hon. Gentleman: it is undoubtedly the case that education aids rehabilitation, and where people want to engage in education we support them wherever we can. However, I should point out to him that the changes to the incentives and earned privileges scheme do not affect the number of books prisoners are allowed to have in their cells—that remains 12. Prisoners also have unrestricted access, within sensible safeguards which he would understand on the nature of books it is right to have in prisons, to the library as and when they need it. There is, therefore, no difficulty with prisoners having access to books, and where there is a specific requirement for a particular book that is not in the library, every effort is made to get the prisoner that book.

As ever, the Minister is being infuriatingly reasonable, but we do know that opportunities for purposeful activity are plummeting owing to overcrowding and falling staff numbers. That makes the ban on having books sent in to inmates all the more senseless, and the Labour party has already committed to reverse the ban. Will the Minister explain why having a ban on books being sent in to prison in any way aids rehabilitation?

The hon. Lady is being uncharacteristically unreasonable. We are not banning prisoners having access to books. As I have just explained to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), there really is no difficulty with prisoners having access to books. If only that were the biggest problem we face in connection with literacy in prisons, but it is not. What she must consider is whether she is really going to allow people to send into prison unrestricted packages, which, as long as they say “Books” on the outside, she will be prepared to accept at face value. If that is the case, she will have a rude awakening. This is a sensible restriction on packages coming into prison, but it is no restriction on prisoners being able to read or to study, which they can do now and will continue to be able to do.

Foreign Nationals in Prison

13. How many foreign nationals are in prison in England and Wales; and how many such people come from (a) non-EU countries with which the UK has compulsory prisoner transfer agreements and (b) EU member states which are signatories to the EU prisoner transfer agreement? (903853)

As of 2 May, there were 10,516 foreign national offenders in custody. There are 798 prisoners from non-EU countries with whom we have compulsory prisoner transfer arrangements, and 4,162 from EU member states. All EU member states will be subject to the EUPTA, but 10 countries have not yet implemented it.

All those people should be serving out their sentences in their home countries, and it is costing British taxpayers just south of £400 million a year to pay for their board and lodging. Yet in a written answer I received on 7 April, the Ministry of Justice confirmed that in the past five years, only five individuals have been compulsorily transferred to prisons in their own countries.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that, wherever possible, these people should be serving their sentences in their own countries. He knows, from conversations on this subject that he and I have had, that huge effort is put into ensuring that they do so, but he knows too that this is not a straightforward matter. Many of those whom we would wish to transfer back to their own countries seek to resist that transfer. That is precisely why he and I are in favour of changes in the Immigration Bill, which will make it much more difficult for prisoners repeatedly to appeal their deportation, so that they can be transferred back to their own country. He will support it, I will support it, and I hope it will shortly become law.

Victims of Crime

The Government are committed to providing timely and effective support to help victims of crime to cope and recover. We have implemented a new victims code that tells people what to expect at every stage of the criminal justice process. More money than ever before—up to £100 million—will be made available to provide victims with the support they need, with the majority of services commissioned locally by police and crime commissioners. We are also piloting pre-trial cross-examination to help vulnerable victims and witnesses give their best possible evidence, without subjecting them to the full atmosphere of the courtroom. The first cross-examinations were recorded last week.

I thank the Minister for his response. He has just reiterated what he said in March, which was that the Government plans for victim support and for supporting families of pre-2010 homicide victims will be dealt with by PCCs. However, I am a little confused because in a recent letter to me, the Minister seems to suggest that that will no longer be the case. Will the Minister please clarify his new position and explain what has changed his mind?

Most services will be commissioned by PCCs, but I am absolutely determined that the families of pre-2010 homicide victims should not be disadvantaged in any way, which is why I have made the decision that, if necessary, there will be back-up from a national fund so that no victims will lose out.

Victims of crime, the families of Ross and Clare Simons who were tragically killed by a disqualified dangerous driver with a raft of previous convictions, would like to thank the Secretary of State for his support for their campaign, Justice for Ross and Clare—as well as Members of this House who took part in a Backbench Business debate on dangerous driving in January—as shown by his significantly increasing sentences for those who kill or maim while driving dangerously while disqualified. What will be the legislative timetable for putting those sentences into law?

I am grateful for the support offered by my hon. Friend for the announcement made today by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. The short answer to his question is the start of next year.

We all want a criminal justice system with victims at its heart, but will the Minister confirm that although police reports of child abuse, domestic violence and sexual offences are all rising, the number of cases going to court is falling, that rape cases last year were up but rape convictions were down, and that some victims, including a 24-year-old woman who was sexually assaulted in Hull last March, are having to endure the agony of waiting more than a year for justice? What action will the Minister take to ensure that victims feel that the system is working for them rather than against them?

The Government have taken a significant number of actions. The hon. Gentleman asked about domestic violence. The Home Secretary has commissioned Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary to conduct a comprehensive review, and as result of that review, she has written to every police force to seek their support for the Home Office’s strategy to address HMIC’s findings. He talks about rape victims, and he will know that the 2014 to 2016 rape support fund has provided funding to 80 rape support centres across England and Wales, and that this year the Ministry of Justice is providing funding for two extra rape support centres on top of the 13 set up since 2010.

In relation to supporting victims of crime and their families, I am delighted that the Secretary of State has now increased the sentence for those who cause death on the road while disqualified from two years to 10 years, which formed part of my Driving Whilst Disqualified (Repeat Offenders) Bill. Linked to that, the Secretary of State said that he would review sentencing for other road traffic matters. When is that likely to start, when will it be complete and will victims be able to have a say?

I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friend, who has campaigned long and effectively on this matter. The actions he wishes to see are in the process of being taken now.

Child Neglect

Child cruelty is an abhorrent crime which should be punished severely. Every child should be able to grow up in a safe environment. We are considering ways in which the criminal law can most effectively support that, and we will set out our conclusions and next steps in due course.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. May I urge him to introduce proposals in the next Session of Parliament that will bring the criminal law of England and Wales into line with the family law of England and Wales and recognise all types of significant abuse, including emotional abuse, which is, I am afraid, all too prevalent in the lives of many of our young children?

I am grateful for the information and campaigning verve that my hon. Friend has brought to this issue. As he knows, I have been speaking to Action for Children and other bodies that are campaigning on the issue and, as I said, he will have our conclusions in due course.

Prison Chaplains

We strongly support a vibrant and flourishing prison chaplaincy. Chaplaincy teams facilitate religious practice across the faith traditions, providing pastoral care to prisoners and staff, religious teaching and courses. Chaplaincy contributes to the deradicalisation, resettlement and rehabilitation agendas.

Will the Minister join me in thanking all prison chaplains for the important work they do in restorative and rehabilitative justice? Will he also commit today to write to all prison governors in both the private and public sectors to remind them that the Government are committed to the chaplaincy service and that chaplains should have unfettered access to prisoners?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question and I know that he takes a considerable interest in this matter. I shall certainly consider including a reference to the chaplaincy in one of our regular communications to governors. He will know that there are in the order of 350 employed prison chaplains and many hundreds more who attend on a sessional basis. I know that they will appreciate his support and that of many other Members of this House.

I know that the Minister understands the important part that chaplaincies play in the provision of music education in prisons. I thank him for undertaking to meet Billy Bragg and me to talk about some of the unintended consequences, perhaps, of the new restrictions that are being put in place. Has he had a chance to look at the recent Westminster Hall debate on this subject?

I have, and I apologise again to the hon. Gentleman that I was not able to attend the debate myself. I look forward to meeting him. He, of course, is concerned about a specific issue with regard to the types of instrument that can be kept in a prisoner’s cell, but he is right to refer to the music that is made in communal settings, including as part of religious services, which—and I entirely agree with him—contributes to rehabilitation.

Legal Aid (Non-EU Citizens)

We do not, as I discovered when I took the job, rather to my surprise, currently have data on the nationality or residence status of legal aid recipients. I think that in the future, individuals should in principle have a strong connection to the UK in order to benefit from civil legal aid.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his answer. It is quite a surprise, perhaps, that we have not kept a record of that in the past, but I am very grateful to him for the changes that he has made to the residence test, which should mean that whatever figure we spent on non-nationals last year, it will be saved for the British taxpayer looking forward. My constituents will welcome that.

We hear the chuckles from the Labour party, but let us face it: I had the same experience at the Department for Work and Pensions. The reality is that, Labour opened the door to immigration on a scale we had not seen before in this country. They kept absolutely no record of where state money was going. The reality is that they mismanaged things; we are picking up the pieces.

Topical Questions

Although it has been mentioned a couple of times, I should like to confirm to the House that we have announced today that disqualified drivers who cause death or serious injuries on the roads will face tougher sentences. Those who cause death will face up to 10 years in prison rather than the current maximum of two years, and we will also take action to address the current gap in the law for disqualified drivers who cause serious injury, by introducing a new offence that will carry a penalty of up to four years’ imprisonment. These much tougher sentences reflect the impact of these very serious offences on victims and their families. We will bring forward legislative proposals to give effect to these important changes as soon as possible. We will also launch a full review of all driving offences and penalties, to ensure that people who endanger lives and public safety are properly punished.

The majority of Members of the House will support the changes. I pay tribute to the determined work of Mandy Stock and her local MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), in bringing this important matter to the public’s attention.

Mr Speaker, you probably noticed that the Secretary of State did not answer the question, which was about the responsibilities of his Department. It was a statement. If he had outlined his responsibilities, I might have asked him, as I will anyway, why, when I ask him and his Department what his priorities are for provisions to contribute to the Modern Slavery Bill, which is under scrutiny in draft in this House, he transfers the question to the Home Office. When are we going to get an answer from his Department about its responsibilities and its contribution to dealing with the experience of victims of trafficking and abuse and of slavery in this country?

The reason that the hon. Gentleman’s question was transferred to the Home Office is that the Modern Slavery Bill is a Home Office responsibility. But I would say to him that, in terms of the support that we provide through victims’ finances, we are spending more on support for victims of modern slavery than this country has ever done before.

T4. I refer the House to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I welcome the decision of my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor, in agreement with the Criminal Bar Association, to postpone the latest round of cuts to criminal legal aid fees. I urge him to use the opportunity granted for a thoroughgoing review of the system of graduated fees and very high-cost cases, to eliminate bureaucracy and restore greater fairness to the system. (903866)

I expressed a willingness to work with the criminal Bar to try to create a more streamlined, more efficient, less expensive system. It is a matter of regret to me that the criminal Bar continues to decline to take important cases, and that is a matter that we are addressing hard at the moment.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans), whom I have notified of this question, had private means so he could afford the best defence, and justice, in his case, was done; but he finds himself more than £100,000 out of pocket. That has caused him publicly to question his support for the Government’s legal aid plans, which have led to a two-tier justice system. What advice does the Lord Chancellor give to anyone charged with a serious criminal offence who is not fortunate enough to have their own private means, to help them get a fair trial?

My advice to such people is simple: to apply for criminal legal aid. In a serious case such as the one to which the right hon. Gentleman refers, they will have access to a QC, who will represent them.

That is not the experience. The CPS has a QC and two barristers, but all people get on legal aid is a junior barrister. That leads to a two-tier criminal justice system. In answer to a previous question the Justice Secretary said that he could not answer questions about Operation Cotton because it is sub judice. I understand what sub judice is. My question is simple. How many other cases are similarly affected by applications to stay the trial because a fair trial cannot take place? The answer is not sub judice.

These are matters for the courts. I have no idea how many cases are subject to a request for a stay because those requests do not come to me personally. Two years ago Labour attacked our changes to civil legal aid. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) attacked our changes to civil legal aid, saying that we should be looking for reductions in criminal legal aid instead. Two years later the Opposition have conveniently forgotten that and have changed their position totally. That is a party that says one thing and does another.

T5. Further to the answer that my right hon. Friend gave to the first topical question, I know that he is committed to ensuring the end of modern-day slavery, but will he update the House on the progress of his Department in ensuring that victims get access to the justice system and to legal aid? (903867)

Victims funding is enormously important. Through the various changes that we have made to the levy on those who are convicted of offences, we have provided far more funding for the support of victims than we ever had before. A couple of weeks ago we announced an additional £13 million worth of funding to ensure what my hon. Friend talked about a moment ago—that we could provide support to those families who are victims of pre-2010 homicides. I have made it clear to the Home Secretary that from the victims funding that I have available, I am also prepared to make additional support available if it is necessary to support victims of modern slavery and human trafficking.

T2. I am pleased to see that the Government are planning to do more about banned driving, but when will they do anything about the travesty of many thousands of people driving legally with more than 12 points on their licence, including a person in Liverpool driving with 47 points and a woman in Bolton with 27 points? (903864)

The whole House will share the hon. Lady’s concern about these cases, where a large number of points are accumulated by someone who does not end up being disqualified. She will know that courts have discretion not to disqualify in those cases and we cannot affect individual decisions in individual cases. However, as she knows, we will conduct a review of driving offences ranging more widely than the changes that we have announced today, and I think what she has described is a good candidate for inclusion in that review.

T7. Will the Secretary of State consider following the example of Conservatives in the Canadian Parliament in putting forward a victims Bill of Rights in order to put the rights of victims ahead of the rights of criminals and put on a statutory basis a right to information, a right to protection, a right to participation and a right to restitution? (903871)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his suggestion. He will know that we now have a more all-embracing victims code than ever before. Also, with reference to getting the views of victims, tomorrow sees the first meeting of the victims panel so that the Secretary of State and I can hear face to face the experience of those who are victims and what they want to happen to future victims in the system.

T6. How many books, to the nearest thousand, sent to prisoners in 2013 were intercepted and found to include contraband? (903870)

The hon. Gentleman will not be shocked to learn that I do not have that figure in front of me. As I said to his hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), the Opposition need to think carefully about what they are really worried about. If they are worried about prisoners having access to books, I have reassured them that they do not need to worry about that. If, however, they are worried, as the shadow Secretary of State told us he was, about the influx of drugs and other contraband substances into prisons, they might want to reflect on the sense of restricting packages as they come into prisons. That is what we are proposing to do. What are they going to do?

What progress have the Government made towards their aim of greater honesty in sentencing so that the public at large and victims of crime in particular know that when a sentence is handed out, the time served will correspond to a greater degree to the sentence handed out?

As you know, Mr Speaker, I believe that in an ideal world 10 years would mean 10 years. I do not have the resource to deliver that immediately because of the financial constraints upon us, but I have started by ending automatic early release for the most violent and unpleasant offenders in our society so that they can no longer expect to be released automatically halfway through their sentence, and have a possibility of release ahead of time only if they are demonstrably no longer a threat to the public as assessed by the Parole Board.

T8. A number of solicitors in Coventry have written to me to protest about the cuts to legal aid there and the effects that they will have on justice. What representations has the Minister received regarding the effect of legal aid reform on victims of trafficking and domestic violence? (903872)

The Government were due to publish before March their response to the public consultation on their proposed changes to the Office of the Public Guardian and supervision of deputies. When will this happen so that we can better protect the vulnerable people whose best interests are meant to be served by them?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s continuing interest in this issue. I hope that we will be able to publish something before we break for the summer and elicit responses after that.

Has the Secretary of State looked at the damages awarded to triple killer Kevan Thakrar? Does he have any plans to change the rules so that serious offenders cannot profit from such compensation claims?

I regarded that as wholly unacceptable. It is a case that we defended in court, but, unfortunately, the judge reached a different view. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I have made sure that there is no possibility of somebody in that position receiving legal aid to pursue such a case. I have also asked my officials to look at any other ways we have to make it more difficult for prisoners to pursue such a case.

The Government have rightly said that they wish to speed up the placing of children in adoption, but will they confirm that that will not be at the expense of proper legal representation on legal aid for natural mothers who do not wish to give up their children for adoption?

The reforms are absolutely clear in wanting to do two things. The first is to ensure that cases are considered properly and in a timely way, and that is the joint concern of the Department for Education and the Ministry of Justice. The second is to ensure that all those who need to be represented in child-related cases have the adequate resources. I hope that that will give my hon. Friend the reassurance that she needs.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating Superintendent Derek Lockie on and, especially thanking him for, his outstanding work for victims and victims’ organisations during his time leading the Victims’ Commissioner’s office? But does the Minister agree that the loss of such a talented and fiercely independent lead in that office is a matter of great concern?

I am happy to share the hon. Gentleman’s tribute to, I assume, his constituent, Mr. Lockie, but I do not share his worries because I know that independence and feistiness are still more than fully available in the Victims’ Commissioner’s office in the form of the Victims’ Commissioner, whom I look forward to both working with and being held to account by in the coming years.

Does the Minister accept that most of the public think that open prisons are for people such as Lester Piggott rather than people serving 13 life sentences? Given that in a recent parliamentary answer that I received it emerged that 643 people are serving life sentences in open prisons, will he go back and assess each and every one of those cases to ensure that the open prison is the appropriate place for those prisoners, because I do not believe it is?

I assure my hon. Friend that proper reviews of each of those people are carried out, not just by us but, on a great many occasions, by the Parole Board too, to ensure that people are suited for open prisons. For those offenders who will be released one day, we have a choice to release them either straight from the closed estate or from the open estate. The objective here, which he and I will both agree on, is to ensure that when someone is released from custody the risk to the public is as low as it can possibly be. In each and every case, that is what we seek to do. In the particular case that has been raised already this afternoon, as he knows we will look very carefully at the circumstances of this temporary release.

My constituent Dr Heather Peto had her whistleblowing and discrimination case struck out by an employment tribunal judge because, she contends, the respondents’ lawyers deliberately withheld documents adverse to their case. Will the Minister advise me on how my constituent can request a police investigation, given that employment tribunal rules do not permit their judges to refer such matters to the police and the police will investigate only on the basis of just such a referral?

As with any other citizen of this country, if the hon. Lady’s constituent has evidence of criminal behaviour, she should take it to the police directly.

Does the Secretary of State agree that now is the time to introduce a mandatory prison sentence for those caught in possession of a knife so that we can send the strongest signal that carrying knives is unacceptable and will be punished?

As my hon. Friend knows, this is an area where our party has wanted change for a considerable time, and where I personally want change. Policy options are currently under consideration by the Government.

The Justice Secretary will want to see all court buildings used to their fullest and most efficient extent, so will he permit social security appeals to be heard in the Rotherham court buildings so that people no longer have to travel to Sheffield, Barnsley or Doncaster to seek justice?

The essence of the court reforms we announced six weeks ago is that we should have more flexible court buildings, using technology and new ways of working. I obviously cannot comment on the specific situation the right hon. Gentleman describes, but if he writes to me, I will happily look into the matter.

The Secretary of State has long been aware of the campaign run by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and me on mandatory sentencing for knife crime possession. He has had the privilege of meeting Yvonne Lawson, whose son Godwin Lawson was tragically killed in 2010, and who has now devoted much of her life to mentoring and educating young children away from knife crime. Does the Secretary of State understand that she believes that mandatory sentencing for second offences would be a significant deterrent?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to his constituent for the work they have done in this area. There is clearly an overwhelming view across the House in favour of change.

I, too, warmly welcome the announcement on increased sentences for disqualified drivers. Will the Secretary of State seriously consider another common-sense move as part of the review: making it a presumption that licences will be taken away as a condition of bail for anyone charged with killing as a result of criminal driving?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I invite him to take part in the review that we will be carrying out and to talk to my Department about these issues, because I am very sympathetic to what he says.