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Topical Questions

Volume 587: debated on Tuesday 11 November 2014

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.