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Topical Questions

Volume 580: debated on Tuesday 6 May 2014

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.