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Volume 587: debated on Tuesday 11 November 2014

The Secretary of State was asked—

Prison Transfers (Assessments)

1. What steps he is taking to ensure that prisoners who have been convicted of a crime of violence are assessed before being transferred from secure accommodation to an open prison. (905984)

Progression to an open prison is never automatic; all prisoners undergo regular, mandatory assessments of their risk of escape or abscond, and the risk of harm to the public, and only those assessed as having an acceptable level of risk for lower security conditions can be allocated to an open prison.

I thank the Minister for that response, but there is another thing that I am concerned about. Sabul Miah recently absconded from Stanford Hill open prison in my constituency, causing a great deal of upset to the family of the man he was imprisoned for viciously attacking, particularly given that the first they heard of it was when they were contacted by a national newspaper. Would it not be possible for the families of victims of violent crime to be notified immediately by the Prison Service when the perpetrator of the crime either is released from prison or absconds?

I recognise the seriousness of the issue that my hon. Friend correctly raises. The offender absconded on 23 October. The victim liaison unit was informed of the abscond the next day and tried to contact the one victim who was on the victim contact scheme. They tried her mobile phone number several times but were unable to leave a voicemail. They had not been provided with an e-mail address so sent a letter at the end of that day. The offender was recaptured a week later and sentenced. However, I recognise the seriousness of what my hon. Friend says, and we will make every effort to ensure that victims are informed as soon as possible.[Official Report, 3 December 2014, Vol. 589, c. 3MC.]

Can the Minister confirm that 200 sets of prison keys have been lost since 2010? Does he think that that is good prison management?

I answered a parliamentary question on this matter, so the hon. Gentleman probably knows the answer to his question. Regrettably, keys are lost from time to time. The largest loss was by G4S, so there was no cost to the taxpayer, but it is obviously regrettable and we do not want it to happen. We investigate fully and will try to minimise it as much as possible.

Is my hon. Friend as concerned as I am that when a prisoner escapes from an open prison the public are invariably warned by the police not to approach him because he is considered dangerous?

I understand the point my hon. Friend makes, but perhaps that is the standard advice given by the police on all occasions. I can tell him, however, that absconds and escapes have fallen by 80% over the past decade, so we have got better at this, but of course we will try to ensure that no one escapes or absconds.

What programmes are undertaken in prison to help prisoners modify their violent behaviour, and do they have to pass such courses before they are even considered for transfer?

We are undertaking more detailed risk assessments than there were in the past, but my hon. Friend raises an important point. Members should be aware that the number of people sent to prison for violent offences has increased by 40% over the past decade. However, I have seen very good violence reduction programmes in our prisons and am looking to spread those as widely as possible.

Courts Reform

Since the Secretary of State’s written ministerial statement on 28 March this year, the programme team has been developing the detailed plans required to deliver the programme over the next five years, as well as working to identify the areas where we can make early progress.

I have lost count of the number of times I have raised with the Minister and his predecessors the wholly inadequate state of Sunderland’s court buildings and the need for a decision. Plans to rebuild the court complex have been on hold since 2010. Will the Minister now acknowledge to staff, to magistrates and to victims that they should not expect a decision this side of the election?

The hon. Lady is aware that I had a meeting with her, along with her colleague, the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), and she has corresponded with me. She talks about having said the same thing over and over again. I have to say to her, over and over again, that there is a courts reform programme and the proposals for the Farringdon road site that she mentions are part of the mix. As we speak, no firm decision has been taken.

Is it not the case that the rationalisation of the Courts Service by this Government has led to a faster, more effective and more efficient system? Therefore, is it not incumbent on us to move forward with further rationalisation as soon as possible, and would the Minister care to comment on the timing?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who, of course, speaks with considerable knowledge on these matters. We are working apace to try to ensure that our courts are fit for the 21st century in that we have expeditious handing of judicial matters where there is proper protection for victims, defendants, and, indeed, lawyers.

When victims have their day in court, far too many have to go through a traumatic experience that leaves them feeling like they are on trial themselves. That is one of the reasons Labour Members have been calling for a victims law. When I last raised this from the Dispatch Box, the Justice Secretary dismissed us as “always talking about laws”. Now that the Government have rushed out their own plans for a victims law, will the Minister tell the House when it will be published and explain what prompted his change of heart?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have done more for victims than his party’s Government did in 13 years. We are making sure that victims, who are often very vulnerable, have proper treatment and are looked after carefully. We have brought in measures that allow victims to have a say in court, which was certainly not the case before. We are bringing up the courts to be fit for the 21st century, which Labour failed to do in its 13 years. That will mean a better experience for victims, as some of the most vulnerable people who attend courts.

My hon. Friend has twice referred to the 21st century. Will he build into the courts system a free, searchable online record of judgments of civil courts, including, particularly, the property chambers?

My hon. Friend raises a good point. I shall certainly pass it on to the board of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service, and we will consider it.

Private Contractors

4. What progress has been made on investigations into the alleged misuse of public money by private providers holding contracts with his Department. (905988)

Investigations into misuse of public money are complete, with £179.4 million reclaimed from the well-publicised settlements with two of the Department’s major suppliers. Taxpayers can be assured that the work has not stopped there. A 12-month programme of diligent and detailed assurance across all major contracts held has uncovered no other further misuse of public money.

The Secretary of State has inserted unprecedented clauses into privatised probation services guaranteeing a decade of lost profits should a future Government walk away from these contracts. How much will the taxpayer have to pay the likes of Working Links, Sodexo, Interserve and Mitie in those circumstances?

That is a complete misunderstanding of the way in which government works. I simply refer the hon. Gentleman back to the contracts for the flexible new deal set in place under the previous Government, which contained standard penalty clauses for the termination of contracts. We have followed the same principles set out then by the Treasury in establishing these new contracts.

Probation Service

We are closely monitoring the performance of the national probation service and the community rehabilitation companies as we implement our reforms. Over recent years, probation trusts have improved their performance. That is a tribute to the hard work of probation staff at all levels. None the less, rates of reoffending overall remain unacceptably high. Our Transforming Rehabilitation reforms will tackle reoffending, which blights societies and costs the economy too much.

Many of my constituents who work in the probation service have written to me to share their concerns about

“the mounting chaos linked to the IT systems, the potential risks to the public, the reduced contacts with offenders and the increase in sentencing without reports.”

They want to know why

“the Government has abolished an award winning, highly effective Probation Service in Durham…and replaced it with a hugely inferior, largely privatised service”


“is putting the public at risk and failing to rehabilitate offenders.”

I would hope that the hon. Lady would pay tribute to the probation staff and voluntary sector organisations that have come together in her area to bid for the contract to take on the CRC, because they are committed and believe that they can do a better job in bringing down reoffending in the future. I am delighted by the outcome of the bidding process in her area, and I hope that, when we reach the point of contracts and the new arrangements are put in place, the expertise of all of those organisations will transform our work in tackling reoffending in the hon. Lady’s county.

I certainly welcome the prevalence of mutual organisations among the list of preferred bidders in our part of the country. What care is the Secretary of State taking in this process to ensure that their partners in those bids give them a genuine role as mutuals in providing those services and do not allow them to become bid candy in their proposals?

Let us be absolutely clear and put it on the record that it would be wholly and utterly unacceptable for any voluntary sector bidder involved in the preferred bidder status to be treated as bid candy. I am delighted that we have some really strong partnerships between the private and voluntary sectors. I have stood in this House on more than one occasion and said that I want to see those strong partnerships. They are not prime/sub relationships; they are partnerships at the top table. This is something of which we as a coalition should be proud. It is about the voluntary and private sectors working together in a way that I believe will make a real difference.

Argoed in my constituency was rocked over the weekend by a particularly gruesome and horrific murder, and I am sure the whole House will join me in extending sympathies to the family of Cerys Yemm, the young girl who lost her life. The Ministry of Justice has launched an immediate investigation into why her killer committed such a serious offence within 30 days of being released. However, reports yesterday said that he could not get a prescription for his paranoid schizophrenia, he was not met at the prison gate and he was referred to a local bed and breakfast, where this horrific murder took place. Does the Secretary of State agree with the need for an urgent investigation into how mental health is treated in prisons and the monitoring of prisoners after they are released?

Let us be clear that we all think that what took place was an horrendous incident. I offer my sincere condolences to the family of the victim. I also offer my sympathy to the hon. Gentleman as the local Member of Parliament dealing with this difficult situation. Of course, a serious further offence review is looking at what took place and it would be wrong of me to prejudge its outcome, but it is already clear to me that lessons will need to be learned and that we may need to make modifications to the way the system works in order to try to make sure that nothing as horrendous as this can ever happen again.

I would also like to take this opportunity to pass on our condolences to the family of Cerys and the community in Argoed.

On the Transforming Rehabilitation contracts, Sodexo won more contracts to deliver more services than any other bidder. Sodexo is run by the wife of the chief inspector of probation. Does the Secretary of State see that as a conflict of interest in any way and what does he intend to do about it?

We are, of course, at the preferred bidder stage. Clearly, the issue is under discussion and it will need to be addressed. I will give further information to the House in due course. We should also remember that people in public life are sometimes married to other people in public life. Simply put, I hope that the Ministry of Justice, were it to fall under the leadership of a Labour Government, would not be disadvantaged by the fact that the putative Home Secretary is married to the putative Chancellor of the Exchequer. We have to consider these things very carefully and deal with them in a mature and sensible way, and we will seek to do that.

Mesothelioma (Compensation Claims)

6. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that the compensation claims of mesothelioma sufferers are handled fairly. (905990)

11. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that the compensation claims of mesothelioma sufferers are handled fairly. (905995)

13. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that the compensation claims of mesothelioma sufferers are handled fairly. (905997)

Mesothelioma is an horrific industrial disease and its victims deserve much better than the shameful way in which they have been treated by this Government, with their botched consultations, prevarications and delays. Will the Minister, on behalf of the Lord Chancellor, confirm that he will not waste any more taxpayers’ money in further appealing the recent damning judicial review ruling made against his Department?

We will certainly consider the way forward on that, but I will take no lectures from the hon. Gentleman on what we have done. This Government are putting provisions into the Deregulation Bill that will enable Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to provide information to legal representatives without a court order. We are liaising with the national cancer registration service and others to allow expedited access to medical notes. We also introduced the Mesothelioma Act 2014, which again benefits sufferers and victims. I will not take any lectures from him on that front.

In the High Court case on the Government’s mesothelioma review, Mr Justice Davis ruled:

“No reasonable Lord Chancellor faced with the duty imposed on him by section 48 of the Act would have considered that the exercise in fact…fulfilled that duty.”

Will the Minister update the House on the Department’s response to that ruling?

The hon. Gentleman was obviously concentrating on his question, so he did not hear my response. I said that we will consider the way forward, and we will proceed accordingly.

The chair of the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK has said that the Lord Chancellor’s plans for addressing the issues facing mesothelioma victims were

“rooted in a culture of secret deals with insurers and flawed consultations which excluded the victims of asbestos.”

Is it not time that the Lord Chancellor honoured the promise he made in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 and stopped treating mesothelioma sufferers in this contemptible way?

Clearly, the hon. Lady did not listen to what I said either. Let me be clear: we are talking about people who are suffering from a very horrific and tragic disease, and this Government are committed to ensuring that victims and sufferers have the best possible way of going through the process, particularly in getting compensation.

As far as insurance companies are concerned, the hon. Lady will be aware that when we had a consultation in July, the submissions by victims and groups such as the one she mentioned stated that they did not like the proposals that were angled towards insurance companies. We listened to those people and did not go ahead with the proposals that the insurance companies would have preferred. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims took through the Mesothelioma Bill earlier this year, which is of benefit to all the sufferers.

It is not that Opposition Members are not listening, but that the Minister is not answering this question. Most civilised people would not have to be told that it is wrong to cut compensation for people suffering in great pain from a terrible disease that will kill them in a matter of months. Parliament told him not to do it, victims told him not to do it, the Justice Committee told him not to do it, and so did the High Court, but this Minister is trying to do just that to protect the profits of the insurance industry. Why do the Government always take the side of the strong against the weak?

Again, I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman did not listen to what I said earlier. [Interruption.] I am answering the question; it would help if the hon. Gentleman listened to the answer. As I said, we had a consultation in July, and we put forward proposals. We listened to people who made submissions —we listened hard—and we did not go ahead with proposals that would have been of benefit to the insurers. Which bit of that does he have a problem with?

Access to Justice

7. What steps he plans to take to ensure that people have access to justice regardless of ability to pay. (905991)

The Government’s reform programme to promote access to justice aims to deliver a simpler justice system that is more accessible to the public. It aims to limit the scope for inappropriate litigation and the involvement of lawyers in issues that do not need legal input, and to support people in resolving their disputes through simpler, more informal remedies.

The Minister will know that since this Government took the axe to legal aid, the number of litigants in person has been on the rise, clogging up the courts, costing time and costing money. How many more people defended themselves in court in the first six months of this year compared with the same period in 2010?

The hon. Lady will be aware that there have always been litigants in person, even before the legal aid reductions. The Government are putting in place measures to assist those people. Moreover, judges are working with us to ensure that they are assisted. We will continue to monitor the position and give assistance to people who are acting as litigants in person.

18. A retired Welsh judge told BBC Wales last month that cuts to legal aid in the family court meant rising numbers of couples representing themselves, more contested hearings and longer delays in resolving cases, which“must be damaging to the child”.What consideration are the Government giving to the extent to which the system is working in the best interests of children? (906002)

I remind the hon. Lady that the manifesto on which she stood at the last election referred in chapter 5, page 5 to legal aid cuts that would be made if Labour got into government. Perhaps she would like to ask the Opposition Front Benchers whether they intend to reverse the cuts that we have made.

The Minister will be aware that we disagree with the scale of the civil and criminal legal aid cuts that his Government have made. Has he read the serious recent criticism from a senior judge, Sir James Munby; a retired judge, Sir John Royce, about whom my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) asked a simple question; and Emma Scott, the director of the Rights for Women charity? They have all expressed concern about the impact of the Government’s cuts. Is the Minister aware of their concerns and will he meet them? They are apolitical, serious experts who are genuinely worried about the impact of his cuts.

The right hon. Gentleman asks whether I have read certain things. Has he read The Law Society Gazette of 24 September, following the Labour conference? The heading was, “Labour will not reverse legal aid cuts—Slaughter”. The reporter states:

“Labour’s legal aid spokesman has warned that the party cannot reverse the cuts of the current government if it comes to power next year.”

It goes on to say—I will be brief, Mr Speaker—that

“in a packed meeting organised by Justice Alliance UK in Manchester…Slaughter said he could not commit to re-establishing legal aid.”

It quotes the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) as saying:

“We’re not going to get in a Tardis and go back to before”.

Employment and Support Allowance Appeals

8. If he will conduct an evaluation of the effects of the judiciary providing the Department for Work and Pensions and appellants with reasons for their decisions in employment and support allowance appeals. (905992)

As part of the implementation, which commenced in March 2014, we will look carefully at the effects of the provision of summary reasons by judges in the social security and child support tribunal. The Department for Work and Pensions will provide feedback to the judiciary on the way in which summary reasons have been used. The Government have no plans to conduct a formal evaluation.

In the report by the Work and Pensions Committee on employment and support allowance in July last year, we pointed out that there was little point in having summary reasons if they were not used to drive better decisions and, ultimately, to reduce the number of appeals. Surely having a proper evaluation on a clear time scale would be the best way to ensure that that is happening.

As I have said to the hon. Lady on at least two occasions, the provision of summary reasons is having a positive impact. The Department for Work and Pensions is working with the judiciary and the quality of the decisions that it is producing is much better than before, which is leading to fewer cases going to appeal.

20. Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to review—I understand that the Ministry of Justice was reviewing this matter—the length of time that tribunals are taking to reach decisions on personal independence payments? The amount of time that is being taken is causing great distress for each constituent concerned. I am sure that they would welcome news of a review and evaluation of the length of time that is being taken for appeals. (906004)

Certainly. One of the issues at hand is that we are dealing effectively with the backlog of cases that existed before. As a consequence, the average time that is taken is being reduced. We are dealing expeditiously with new cases and trying to deal with the backlog.

Stalking Offences

The relevant offences under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 were amended by new sections 2A and 4A, which came into force on 25 November 2012. Sadly, it is too early for there to be meaningful trends. As soon as the trends are indicated to us, we will present that information to the House.

I thank the Minister for that reply. My constituent, John Clough, has sponsored a petition, which so far has attracted more than 120,000 signatures, calling on the Home Office to establish a stalkers register. How can my right hon. Friend ensure that more stalkers are convicted and their victims protected?

Being stalked must be an horrendous experience for anybody, and it is important that we look carefully at the legislation and keep the issue under review. In 2013-14, 743 prosecutions were commenced under the new legislation. We agree across the House that stalking is an abhorrent offence, and we should do everything we can to prevent it and prosecute those who perpetrate it.

Recalls to Prison

10. What proportion of recalls to prison were fixed-term recalls in the latest period for which figures are available. (905994)

Between 1 April and 30 June 2014—the latest period for which data are available—there were a total of 4,216 licence recalls. Of those, 42% were fixed-term recalls.

Most people around the country believe and expect that when a criminal is released from prison early, if they commit another offence before the end of their original sentence they will be sent back to prison for at least the full duration of that original sentence. As the Minister has confirmed, however, 42% of recalls are just 28-day fixed-term recalls. In the first nine months of last year, 1,260 burglars were given 28-day fixed-term recalls, instead of serving the full length of their original sentence. Will the Minister revisit that scandal, which alarms many of our constituents and puts them at unnecessary risk of becoming victims of crime?

My hon. Friend has taken a long-standing and serious interest in this issue. Fixed-term recalls can be used only when the offender does not pose a risk of serious harm to the public. When recall prisoners are assessed to pose a risk of serious harm to the public, they are given standard recalls to serve the remainder of their sentence in prison, and will be released earlier only if it is safe to do so. Under the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, offenders who do not comply with their licence and are highly likely to commit further breaches if released are deemed unsuitable for fixed-term recall. We therefore have measures either in place or in the pipeline to exclude high-risk and prolific offenders from fixed-term recalls.

Humanist Marriages

As the hon. Lady will know, this Government are the first ever to have addressed the question of humanist weddings in England and Wales. Following the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, the Government are honouring their commitment to hold a review. That review finished in September, and more than 1,900 people responded. We will honour our commitment to produce a report following that review by the end of the year.

It is ironic that humanists, who have been celebrating same-sex weddings for three decades, are the one group that has not yet achieved equality through the recent Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013. Will the Minister make a firm commitment that before the general election he will lay the necessary orders to ensure full equality, so that people can have a humanist celebration without also having to hold a civil ceremony?

The Government have legislated for same-sex marriages and were the first Government ever to address that question. I cannot anticipate the announcement at the end of the review. We are currently assessing the many responses to the consultation, as the hon. Lady would expect. We are committed to producing the report, and after that I will be happy to go into details of what the Government plan to do next.

An immensely strong case was made for humanist marriages during the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. On that occasion, the Government chose to duck the issue, but the question is not just on same-sex marriages but humanist marriages overall. The example of Scotland, where more than a third of marriages are conducted by humanists, is overwhelming. Can we please get on with this before the end of this Administration?

The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that in Scotland humanist weddings are permitted, and that has been the case since 2005. The Scottish system is entirely different from that in England and Wales because it is based on who officiates, rather than the place where the marriage takes place. It will be a major change in our law to go down that road. As I said, I will report to the House before the end of the year.

May I add my voice to those from both sides of the House urging my right hon. Friend to make progress on this issue? Humanist celebrations are not only successful in Scotland, as there are humanist ceremonies for births and deaths in England and Wales as well. He will be aware that there are already exceptions in marriage law for Jews and Quakers, so there is no real reason not to go ahead.

My hon. Friend is right that Jews and Quakers receive particular consideration, and I am also aware that—according to the figures we have—between 600 and 800 people conduct humanist weddings every year, although they are not legally valid. I understand the importance of the issue and I was fully supportive of the legislation when it went through the House. I undertake to give a full report to the House with a proposal on how we should move forward before the end of the year.

European Convention on Human Rights

14. Whether it is the Government’s policy for the UK to remain a party to the European convention on human rights; and if he will make a statement. (905998)

I welcome the Secretary of State’s answer. Given that the European convention on human rights was drafted by British lawyers, championed by Winston Churchill and has been instrumental in the protection of the rights of our armed forces overseas, does he agree that the interests of the British people will be best served by reforming the convention rather than taking cheap political shots and trying to get rid of it?

My hon. Friend may find that we disagree on this issue. I stand four-square by the rights that we signed up to in 1948: I do not stand by the way in which courts have evolved the jurisprudence since then into areas that are a long way from the original intentions of those 1948 authors. I personally believe—but it would be a matter for a future Government—that we need major change in that area.

The Secretary of State just said that the convention had moved into areas away from its original intention. One such issue is votes for prisoners. When will the Government give the House an opportunity to vote on votes for prisoners?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the recommendations by a Committee of this House on a draft Bill were wide-ranging and posed an interesting question about how one would manage a process of giving votes to those serving the last few months of their sentence, given that not all sentences are determinate. That is a matter that continues to be under the consideration of the Government, and he will be aware that the Council of Europe indicated recently that it would not seek to return to the issue until September next year.

Social Media Offences

15. What progress he has made on reforming sentencing for people convicted for making threats on social media. (905999)

The Government take seriously the offences on the statute book that cover threatening behaviour online, which includes abhorrent imagery that people do not want to see.

We live in a world of constantly changing technology, and it is hard to keep up. In view of that, what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that we take the battle to the hate tweeters, the trolls and the people who make threats and make other people’s lives hell?

We would all agree—and the law agrees—that the offence is the same whether face to face in public or on the internet. That is right and proper. The Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, which is being considered by the other place, will amend the Malicious Communications Act 1988 to provide a maximum sentence of two years’ imprisonment. That is the sort of thing we are doing, and people should listen and stop this abhorrent activity.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the growth of revenge porn websites and the recent hacking from iCloud of photos of celebrities. What action are the Government taking to stop intimate photos being posted on the internet without permission?

I am adamant that if we feel we need to change the law, we will do so to protect people so that intimate and personal images are never published. If they are, it will become an offence, as it should be.

Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill

16. What progress he has made on ensuring that members of the public who help others or intervene in emergencies are not prosecuted if something goes wrong. (906000)

We want to encourage participation in activities which benefit others, but people can be deterred from getting involved by worries about risk and liability. The Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill, currently before Parliament, will require the civil courts to consider whether a person has been acting for the benefit of society or intervening in an emergency if he or she is sued in negligence or for breach of statutory duty.

Clearly we want to encourage good Samaritans to go to the aid of those in distress. What further measures can my hon. Friend propose to ensure that people who assist those in distress are protected from unnecessary legal action?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The Bill will send a powerful message to the public that if they are acting selflessly in an emergency to help somebody in danger and something goes wrong, the courts will always consider the context of their actions if they are sued in negligence or for breach of statutory duty.

Cost of Legal Representation

21. What estimate he has made of the cost to the public purse of providing legal representation for offenders accused of trivial offences whilst in custody in the last 12 months. (906005)

The Legal Aid Agency does not record whether offences were committed while the offender was in custody, as that is not relevant to assessing eligibility for legal aid. In the magistrates courts relatively minor criminal offences are generally unlikely to pass the interests of justice test.

Will my hon. Friend reassure me and my constituents, many of whom work in the prisons, that changes made under this Government mean that inmates can no longer get legal aid for frivolous or vexatious causes, such as arguments over damaged property or the condition of their cells?

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. Earlier in this Parliament we reformed civil legal aid so that only the most serious compensation cases are in scope—for example, where there has been abuse of a child or a vulnerable adult, a sexual assault or a significant breach of human rights. Civil legal aid applications, including for exceptional funding, are subject to a merits test, as well as a means test. From 2 December last year, treatment matters, including prison conditions, were removed from the scope of criminal legal aid for prison law.

Unusually, we are ahead of time, but most of the principals are present and therefore we shall proceed.

Topical Questions

Today we stand together to remember all those who have lost their lives serving our country. The 100th anniversary of the start of the first world war is a hugely poignant reminder of the sacrifice made by so many of our service personnel who have given their lives in defence of our freedoms and security over the past century. I am sure the whole House will join me in echoing those sentiments. Among the many who lost their lives were members of the Prison Service, courts staff and staff of many other parts of my Department and its predecessors. I wish to pay tribute to their courage and remember their sacrifice. The Ministry of Justice is proud of those members of staff who have served and continue to serve with our reserve forces.

I associate myself with my right hon. Friend’s tribute to those in the Prison Service and the Courts Service who served and still serve in our armed forces.

I am sure my right hon. Friend is aware of the many people on probation who are placed in my constituency. What measures is the Department taking to ensure that they have sufficient connection to my area and that the impact on the local community is understood?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns. Under the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms, there will be a much closer link between a prisoner, their place of detention, the area into which they are released and the plans for supporting them after they leave prison. Should they need or wish to move to a different area, they will need consent from the probation service and their local probation officer to do so. My hope and belief is that this will lead to much better post-prison support, and in particular post-prison support close to their natural home, rather than the kind of issues that my hon. Friend has experienced.

The independent chief inspector of prisons appointed by the previous Government is well respected by prison governors, prisoners, experts, the wider community and on both sides of the House. As the Justice Secretary will be aware, he is not afraid to make critical reports. At a time of huge turmoil in the probation service, with massive problems throughout the country, why does the right hon. Gentleman think that the newly appointed chief inspector of probation, who has links to six of the 21 preferred bidders, has been so silent?

May I put it on record that I regard the current chief inspector of probation as a man of the highest integrity and of great professional expertise who has started to make a positive contribution to the probation arena. I recognise the issue raised earlier by the hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman). I indicated that I would make further comments to the House in due course. We are only at the stage of preferred bidders. As I said earlier, there are many people in public life who are married to other people in public life. We should be extremely careful before we start to damn them because of that situation, or we risk losing some extremely able people from our public life.

Maybe the Justice Secretary can reassure us. Has the chief inspector of probation at any time raised concerns with him or his Ministers about the Transforming Rehabilitation programme? If so, what were they?

The chief inspector of probation has done a detailed piece of work on the Transforming Rehabilitation programme, and that report will be published shortly. He has highlighted a number of areas we are addressing. The report will set out in detail some issues, many of which preceded the current reforms and go back many years, on how to improve performance on probation. As I said to the House recently, I have asked the chief inspector and all inspectors to come to my office immediately and tell me if they identify anything in the reforms that gives cause for concern about public safety. They have not done so.

T3. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the risks and penalties of using a mobile phone while driving? (905975)

The offence of using a mobile phone while driving is very serious and should be dealt with effectively by the courts. It is an area where the Government are giving active consideration to strengthening the penalties, as part of our driving sentences review. It is wholly unacceptable in our society, and the courts should deal with it appropriately.

T2. With no expert witness support at the Bill Committee stage and now three heavy defeats in the House of Lords, are the Government attacking judicial review because they are losing so many cases? (905974)

I stand foursquare behind our proposed reforms of judicial review. Let me give the hon. Gentleman an example of proposals disagreed with in the other place—when they come back here, I will invite this House to restate its support for them. I believe that if somebody brings a judicial review, the court and the judge have a right to know who they are and who is supporting them. I do not personally regard that as terribly controversial. I am surprised that the House of Lords decided to vote against it. It is an example of the kind of change to our judicial review laws that I believe is necessary and we will proceed with it.

T5. Last month saw the introduction of a fixed fee for whiplash injury reports, reducing the costs to insurers from several hundreds of pounds to just £180. Has the Minister made an assessment of the impact of this on spurious claims? (905977)

The introduction of fixed costs for medical reports is just one element, albeit an important one, in the Government’s whiplash reform programme. We have undertaken a detailed impact assessment of the programme, which we intend to publish very soon.

T4. How will the Secretary of State ensure that the new national helpline for victims is properly joined up with local information and support services provided by police and crime commissioners? (905976)

A lot of work is being done in this area. It will be very joined up and we will make an announcement shortly. I think the police and crime commissioners really get this now. It is really important that chief constables and PCCs do get it and that is something we are working on very closely. I am happy to work closely with the hon. Lady if she would like to do so.

T6. Will the Justice Secretary confirm that by our joining the European arrest warrant, from 1 December the European Court of Justice will have overarching powers over the extradition process in the UK? (905978)

I can indeed confirm that the measures debated by the House yesterday do involve, when we opt back into them, giving ultimate jurisdiction to the European Court of Justice.

T8. Drugs are a growing scourge in our prisons. Altcourse prison in my constituency was recently criticised by Her Majesty’s inspector of prisons for not making the necessary links between drug gangs and violence. Does the Minister agree with the right hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) who said:“If anyone is soft on drugs it’s my Conservative colleagues”? (905980)

We take drugs in prisons extremely seriously. We do our very best to make sure that they are not there. We have mandatory drug testing and the results have actually come down. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there are new psychoactive substances, and we have to make sure we are working with our scientific partners to have appropriate testing for them. We are also looking to make sure that tramadol is not abused in prisons.

T7. Yesterday Edward Graham, a retired serviceman, was sentenced by court martial to 13 years after being found guilty of 23 counts of sexual abuse against children. It is my understanding that he will be held in a civilian prison and that the appeal will by heard by a civilian court. What will the Secretary of State do to ensure that all future cases that do not involve matters only of military discipline are always tried in a civilian court, where the process is open to press and public scrutiny? (905979)

I am aware of this case, but at the time of the offences, this man was serving in the armed forces on a military base abroad, and it is right and proper that such a case be held in a military court.

T9. Official figures show that courts in the black country spend more than half their time dealing with people already convicted on 10 occasions. I think that decent, law-abiding people in Dudley will be appalled at that and will want a zero-tolerance approach adopted so that these people can be locked up and kept off the streets. At the same time as the courts are full of such people, magistrates in Dudley tell me that some offenders, including those accused of assault, robbery, domestic violence and even sexual assault and rape, are being dealt with by these so-called out-of-court disposals. (905981)

I hope, then, that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that under this Government offenders are going to jail for longer, that more people are going to jail and that in the short term we have reduced the use of the simple caution—it is no longer available, other than in exceptional circumstances, for more serious offences and repeat offences. I hope he will also support the trial we announced last week for replacing the simple caution with a suspended prosecution. These are things being done under this Government that were not done under the last one.

T10. The rate of self-harm in women’s prisons is much higher than in men’s prisons. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that women in prison have access to mental health care so that they can tackle the problems they face? (905982)

It is true that the rate of self-harm is far too high in our prisons and is traditionally higher among women than men. I can reassure my hon. Friend a little, however: between 2004 and 2010, the number of incidents was over 10,000 a year, but that has come down significantly in the last three years to fewer than 6,000 last year. However, this issue is clearly linked to mental health, and the Deputy Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and I have made it clear that we want mental health services to be as good in prisons as in the rest of the country and as good as all other NHS services and that we want to identify mental health issues when people first enter the criminal justice system, so that, ideally, they can be diverted from prison, not sent to prison.

In a recent court case where a child was being considered for adoption, it was reported that the president of the family division described it as “profoundly disturbing” that the parents did not qualify for legal aid and could not afford legal aid representation. Given the lifelong nature of adoption, will the Secretary of State look again at the issue of legal aid funding for these kinds of cases?

We are in regular dialogue with the judiciary—indeed, I have had a meeting with Sir James Munby—but we have had to take some tough decisions on legal aid. At some £2 billion a year, it was the most expensive legal aid budget in the world, and even after the reductions, it will remain one of the most generous in the world.

My constituents believe that the emphasis on human rights is leading to an excessively light touch when dealing with unauthorised Traveller encampments. Does my right hon. Friend agree that to enjoy the benefits of human rights, individuals should also acknowledge their responsibilities to abide by the law?

I absolutely agree. I cannot offer my hon. Friend change under this Government, but my intention is that a future Conservative Government would include in our proposed Bill of Rights a specific limitation to stop people claiming article 8 rights and overriding the law of the land that applies to the rest of us. That should not happen.

The Secretary of State will be aware that former Fenton magistrates court—now Fenton town hall building again—is currently occupied by protesters concerned about the memorials inside it and the building itself. In the past, he has kindly stood at the Dispatch Box and confirmed that the memorials would be protected by covenants if the building was sold, but my constituents are concerned that a developer might simply ignore those and demolish the building anyway, resulting in the loss for ever of these memorials, which are priceless and incredibly important to the people of Fenton. Will he meet me and a delegation of local residents to discuss this matter and, I hope, put their minds at rest, and to talk about the future of the building itself?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue and I can give him an assurance that my office has been in touch with people locally this morning. My main concern is that the protesters are safe and secure and that they have proper food, water, heating and other provisions. I am more than happy to agree to a meeting with the hon. Gentleman and the people who are very passionate about this issue.

I am a firm believer in the independence of the judiciary, but will my right hon. Friend look into the case of a constituent who was charged and sentenced under court martial? He is firmly of the view, as his superiors can apparently confirm, that he was not given adequate legal representation at any stage of the case. Will my right hon. Friend assist in at least reviewing the process and the natural justice of this case?

Although I cannot promise to review the case, I will ask for the files and take a close interest in it, and will probably meet my hon. Friend as soon as possible so that we can discuss it.

Following on from the earlier question about mesothelioma, more than 2,000 Harland and Wolff workers received compensation of £30,000 before privatisation in 1989. On 25 July 2012, it was announced that through the Bill that was to become the Mesothelioma Act 2014 there would be a compensation settlement of between £115,000 and £123,000. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that Harland and Wolff workers in Northern Ireland receive comparative and fair compensation?

It is crucial that the sufferers of this horrible disease get the full compensation they are due. We are working closely with victims groups and various other groups, as I mentioned earlier, to ensure that the process is as simple and easy as possible and that the compensation that is rightfully due to them and others is received as quickly as possible.

How many foreign national offenders are there in our prisons and what steps have been taken to return them to serve out their sentences in their countries of origin?

May I first commend my hon. Friend for persistently and regularly raising this issue? He is right to do so and I have no doubt that he will go on doing so. I can tell him that this Government, unlike the last, have removed more than 22,000 foreign national offenders. Their numbers doubled under the previous Government, but we are bringing their numbers down. Specifically, I can tell my hon. Friend that at the end of September there were 10,319 foreign national offenders in prison, fewer than the 11,153 in May 2010. The figure is down 515 from that in the answer I gave him in September’s oral questions.

On 19 September, Mr Justice Burnett ruled in the High Court that the consultation on criminal legal aid was so unfair as to amount to illegality. The entire criminal justice system is in chaos. What is the Lord Chancellor doing about it?

If the hon. Gentleman reads the details of that judgment carefully, he will see that it required us to carry out a short further consultation, which we have done. We will introduce our updated proposals very shortly.

Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the latest figures for the numbers of deaths and serious injuries due to accidents caused by drivers using mobile phones while driving?

I do not have the figures to hand, but as an ex-firefighter who used to go to many of these incidents I know the distraction caused by using a mobile phone. It is not only illegal but it kills people—the people using the phone and others—and we should all decry anybody who uses a mobile phone while driving.

Last month the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), called on the Government to launch a full review of family law and justice for children. Has he since been sat on by the Lord Chancellor or can he now stand up at the Dispatch Box and formally announce his review?

I have not been sat on and I work collaboratively with all my colleagues in the Department. We are committed not only to talking about these things but to doing things. Last month, we introduced a whole set of new provisions that give support to people in the family courts. We have added legal aid for people going to mediation and now for the first mediation. We are reviewing what further steps we can take, and there will be further announcements in due course.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the expert legal opinion published by the Freedom Association, stating that signing up to the European arrest warrant would render worthless and completely redundant the Government’s opposition to a European Public Prosecutor’s Office? While he is at it, will he tell us when we can have a vote on the European arrest warrant, in place of the farce and shambles we saw yesterday?

I am afraid I have not seen that legal advice because both the European Public Prosecutor and the European arrest warrant are Home Office matters rather than Justice matters. That legal advice would not naturally come to me.

Following the replies to my hon. Friends the Members for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) and for Shipley (Philip Davies), does the Lord Chancellor agree that if the European Court of Justice interpreted the rule governing the European arrest warrant in unwelcome ways, which this House would be unable to remedy, the British people would be more likely to vote to leave the European Union in a future in/out referendum, and that they would get the chance to do so only if a Conservative Government were elected next year?

That is, of course, the salient point. Many people here are deeply concerned about the current nature of our relationship with the European Union and want to see it change. That change, of course, can come about only with a Conservative Government, because for reasons that remain inexplicable to me, the Labour party seems to believe that things are fine as they are.

Talking of European matters, does the Minister share my concern that 75% of the British people consider European human rights to be a charter for criminals and the undeserving? Is it not time we reformed it to restore trust in the human rights ideal?

I very much share my hon. Friend’s view and concerns. In my view, this needs to change. Unfortunately, neither of the other two major parties in this place agrees with us. I thus hope that we will have a majority Conservative Government after the next election to deliver the change that the public want so much.