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Volume 589: debated on Tuesday 16 December 2014

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. What steps Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is taking to ensure that urgent cases to remove trespassers from land are dealt with as quickly as possible. (906633)

HMCTS treats such applications with the utmost urgency. Hearing notices are served by hand and hearings before a judge are listed urgently, normally immediately after the two days’ notice period. Warrants are enforced by bailiffs as a matter of priority.

I thank my hon. Friend for helping me to resolve an urgent constituency case involving a mass trespass in Letchworth, and for doing so speedily. Is it his Department’s policy, and are the courts aware, that it is vital that these cases are dealt with speedily in order to avoid the risk of nuisance to local residents, as happened in Letchworth?

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for his kind comments. It was a pleasure to be able to help out in his constituency matter. He is right: there are existing processes that enable such cases to be dealt with and I am keen that they are dealt with speedily. I will certainly make sure that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is made well aware of that principle.

I would like to applaud the swift work of Basingstoke and Deane borough council in stopping unauthorised activity this year at Dixon road in my constituency, with the Crown Prosecution Service successfully prosecuting last week those who felled up to 800 trees on that site. Does the Minister agree that tougher fines might also help to deter this sort of criminal activity?

I join my right hon. Friend in congratulating her council. We have a lot of measures to deal with trespassers. On increasing fines, we are always on the lookout for ways of improving the law and I will take that on board.

Immigration and Asylum

2. What proportion of immigration and asylum appeals were made on the grounds of alleged breaches of the Human Rights Act 1998 in the last five years. (906634)

In 2009-10, 10% of recorded appeals, lodged from inside the UK, raised human rights grounds; in 2010-11 the proportion was 28%; in the last three years the proportion has been 34%. Information is not available for appeals lodged from outside of the UK.

Does my hon. Friend agree that incorporating the Human Rights Act into British legislation by the Labour party is rightly seen by the public as a disaster? It should be replaced with a Bill of Rights as soon as possible.

My hon. Friend’s comments are timely given that next year we will commemorate the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta. The House will be aware that the Government agreed in the coalition agreement that no major changes would be made to the human rights framework in this Parliament, but as he rightly says, the Conservatives believe that we need major reform to the way in which human rights operate in this country. We believe that we need to curtail the ability of the European Court of Human Rights to tell our courts what to do. We have an excellent record in this area, of which we should be proud, but Conservatives believe that a new British Bill of Rights and responsibilities would remain faithful to those basic principles of human rights while restoring much-needed common sense to their application. This is a debate that we will have over the next few months and I look forward to debating it with the Opposition, when they are prepared to listen, as well as with the Lib Dems and the British public.

It is obvious that Magna Carta in the 13th century was a great step forward and I am glad the Minister recognises that. Will he also recognise that the European convention on human rights and the universal declaration of human rights were massive steps forward, not just for this country but for humankind? Does he not recognise that the narrative of trying to leave the European convention on human rights and the Court diminishes our human rights, the human rights of everyone in this country and the human rights of people across the continent? Will he please rethink this narrative and be slightly more sensible about the universal need for human rights?

The hon. Gentleman talks about being sensible. He will be aware that it was only very recently that the convention was amended by the Brighton declaration, which was welcomed by all the countries concerned and made sure that nation states had a greater say in their own cases. That has to be good because it means that Strasbourg can deal with the urgent cases that should be dealt with there rather than having a backlog—there is a huge queue—because nation states cannot deal with a lot of the cases that should be dealt with domestically.

May I tell the Minister that my constituents in Dover and Deal feel that the level of immigration and asylum appeals that are being made undermines our border security? They want to see human rights reform to ensure that our borders are safer and more secure.

As I said, that is a debate that we shall have very forcefully with the British people and the other parties in the months ahead.

In relation to general human rights issues, does the Minister agree with the opinion of his right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) that non-compliance with the European convention on human rights calls into question the devolution settlements for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland?

My right hon. and learned Friend is a very distinguished Member, and he can speak for himself, so I do not need to comment.

Whiplash Claims

9. What recent steps he has taken to prevent fraudulent whiplash claims; and if he will make a statement. (906642)

The Government are taking forward a whiplash reform programme that will deter unnecessary, exaggerated or speculative claims. Reforms to control the costs of claims were implemented on 1 October, and on 2 December we announced further plans to have independence and quality safeguards in the system for obtaining expert evidence.

What evidence does the Minister have to demonstrate that his measures have been effective in cracking down on fraudulent whiplash claims, as it would seem that, as a nation, we are happy to allow both the profits of insurance companies and our reputation for having the weakest necks in the world to go unchallenged?

This Government have made and continue to make major changes to deter fraudsters and reduce the number and cost of whiplash claims. We have already seen an impact from these reforms and industry data show that they have contributed to a 14% reduction in premiums since February 2012.

Some years ago, I was shunted up my rear end—by a car on the M1, Mr Speaker—and I was then contacted by a number of companies that all said, “Surely you are suffering from whiplash. You should be making a claim.” Does the Minister agree that such actions are reprehensible?

I very much hope that there are no long-lasting effects from the experience my hon. Friend had. The Government take insurance fraud very seriously and have recently set up a taskforce to tackle this important issue and drive down premiums. The taskforce will consider insurance fraud across the board, and will aim to publish an interim report by March 2015 with a final report issued by the end of 2015.

I trust that the experience was even more unpleasant for the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) than it was for the car.

Fraudulent whiplash claims are criminal activity, plain and simple, and everybody in the House would condemn them. Will the Minister also condemn those insurance companies that created third-party capture, massively contributing to the number of these claims in the first instance? While he is at it, does he have any evidence to suggest that medical practitioners are failing their obligations under civil procedure rules—CPR—35?

For too long, honest drivers have been bearing the cost and, with that, higher insurance premiums because of the whole issue of whiplash. Government reforms have been robust. We have set up a system whereby we hope to deter unnecessary or speculative claims and ensure that those who are genuinely injured can claim. We have clamped down hard on the insurance companies. We have been working with them, along with the medical profession and the lawyers, to try to make the system a lot better. Medical reports from now on will cost £180 and lawyers will carry out previous claims checks on potential claimants in order to combat fraudulent claims. That will, of course, impact on the insurance companies.

Former Prisons (Disposal)

Canterbury prison was sold earlier this year. We have also exchanged contracts on Shrewsbury prison, and we are finalising commercial negotiations on Bullwood Hall, Shepton Mallet, Dorchester, Kingston and Gloucester prisons. When we dispose of surplus property assets, we will always seek best value for the taxpayer.

It is good to see that progress is inching forward as the former HM prison Gloucester is key to the regeneration of the city centre. Will my hon. Friend confirm, first, that the agreement will include provisions making the buyer subject to the broader aspirations of our master plan for Blackfriars, which will be published in January; and, secondly, that there is clear intent on both sides to finalise everything before the end of the financial year?

My hon. Friend is a great champion of Gloucester. Such a clause would be problematic to a bidder, given that master plans can change, but a purchaser seeking to develop the site inappropriately would not obtain planning consent from the local planning authority. We hope to give my hon. Friend and Gloucester an early Christmas present by exchanging contracts before Christmas if possible, with completion proposed for April 2015.

Will the Minister tell us how many prisons have been closed since May 2010, how many have been disposed of, and how much cash has been generated in receipts?

We have disposed of 14 prisons, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that when we disposed of Ashwell, Latchmere House and Canterbury prisons recently, we raised nearly £31 million. In general, we have a “new for old” policy. We are closing down old and inefficient prisons that are expensive to run, and creating new prisons that are better for prisoners and prison officers.

Since May 2010, 18 prisons have closed—some of which, as the Minister accepts, remain unsold, at substantial cost to the taxpayer—and one third of prison officers’ jobs have been cut. That has led to what the chief inspector of prisons has described as a “political and policy failure” resulting in increased overcrowding, violence and suicides. The highly regarded chief inspector was doing his job of telling the truth about the Government’s prison crisis, but he was effectively sacked by the Justice Secretary.

If we are to rehabilitate offenders effectively, we need prisons that work and chief inspectors who are able to do their jobs properly, without fear or favour. What does the Minister think the chief inspector meant by “political and policy failure”, and will he confirm that non-sycophants can apply for the vacancy created by his departure?

I have a very good relationship with the chief inspector, whom I meet regularly.

Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman what a real prison crisis looks like. A real prison crisis happens when 80,000 prisoners are let out early—many of whom, including terrorists, go on to commit further offences—and when it is necessary to spend £75 million on locking up prisoners in police cells.

Freedom of Information Act

5. What progress he has made on expanding the scope of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to include private companies providing public services. (906638)

The coalition Government are committed to increasing the accountability of private companies that deliver public services, including through freedom of information. As the Justice Committee recommended during its post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act, the best way in which to achieve that is to include transparency provisions in contracts. I am working to ensure that a revised code of practice and revised guidance are in place by the end of the current Parliament in March.

Transparency is at the core of the Government’s agenda, especially in the context of health. May I urge them to act more quickly, so that commercial confidentiality can no longer be used as a blanket term to obscure information to which the public should be entitled, and which would be available in the case of an equivalent public provider?

I am at one with my hon. Friend. Contracts between the Government, Government agencies or local councils and the private sector for the delivery of services on behalf of the public ought to meet at least the same standard of transparency as the Freedom of Information Act applies to contracts with public sector organisations. That is what the guidance and the new rules will say. Companies should do better than that if they can, but the public are certainly entitled to a similar amount of information. It is 10 years since we introduced the Act. We have extended it in this Parliament, and will extend it further before the end of the Parliament.

I agree with what the Minister has said about transparency, but should not the same level of transparency apply to lobbying companies which represent wealthy corporate clients, and which are trying to procure public sector contracts on behalf of those clients?

The rules about lobbying do not fall into the same category. They are dealt with by legislation, and the hon. Gentleman has been present for debates on it. We have legislated in relation to lobbying companies; the question relates to contracts for the provision of public services, and the need—about which I hope the hon. Gentleman and I agree—to ensure that the public know exactly what is going on. As a Liberal Democrat, I hope that we can extend the rules to other public companies and to private companies that are effectively public sector monopolies, such as the water companies, which are not currently covered by freedom of information.

The Government have never dissented from the principle advanced by the Justice Committee that information that would be available under freedom of information in the public sector should remain so when a service is outsourced to the private sector. While I welcome my right hon. Friend’s efforts in this direction, is he looking back at some of the older contracts to see whether that principle has been applied?

The answer is yes. My right hon. Friend and his Committee have been very clear as to the right way forward. We agree with them. There has been good practice and bad practice. The intention of the new guidance and the new code of practice is that we should monitor the situation carefully, and where bad practice follows, that should be made public so that we can name and shame those who do not deliver at least the standard that freedom of information legislation requires.

I am a bit confused. We have had one Minister answering questions on behalf of the Conservatives and now another Minister answering on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to answer this on behalf of the Government: have the Government looked at what the Public Accounts Committee said about the heavy reliance on a very small number of private sector contractors in justice, in health and anywhere they have been privatising our public services? Can we have more scrutiny? Can we have more information about who gets these contracts and how?

That question is to be put on this occasion only to the Ministry of Justice. Health issues are very important, but are for another day.

On behalf of both parties in the coalition, the answer to the hon. Gentleman is yes, we want maximum scrutiny of all those who have contracts with the public sector, and of at least as good a standard as legislation imposes on public sector authorities. The question of who gets the contracts—the PAC question—is a different question for different Ministers on a different day, but with the same commitment to openness on behalf of both parties in the coalition.

But does the Minister, who after all used to be a Liberal, agree that what he is proposing simply does not give the same rights to the public as they would have had with a public body under freedom of information legislation, and that the community rehabilitation companies this Government have set up, with the hundreds of millions of pounds of public money that is being given to them, should be subject to FOI in exactly the same terms as a public corporation, so that we can see not only how they are spending that money, but their links with others in the justice sector?

The community rehabilitation companies are part of a programme to do what the hon. Lady’s Government never did, which is to ensure that those who are in prison for a year or less come out and have support in a way that will reduce reoffending. The answer on accountability is, yes, they will be as accountable and transparent—

Yes, because those with contracts with the public sector will have an obligation, in contract, to have the same duty at least as the public sector, and if they fail, they will be held to account.

Crime Reduction (Ex-prisoners)

Despite investment, reoffending rates remain stubbornly high. We are fundamentally reforming rehabilitation services by opening up the market to new providers and incentivising them to focus relentlessly on reducing reoffending. For the first time in recent history virtually every offender released from custody will receive statutory supervision and rehabilitation and mentoring in the community. We remain on track to deliver these key reforms early in the new year.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. Notwithstanding the fact that I hope he would agree with my constituents that there are cases where offenders should remain in prison for considerably longer, what assessments has he made of the effect of extending supervision to the group of offenders who leave prison having served less than 12 months?

As was said earlier, this is the key part of the reform we are pushing through. There was a group of people who were literally left to walk the streets with £46 in their pockets, and not surprisingly the majority of them reoffended very quickly. From 2015 all those people will receive a 12-month period of mentoring, support and supervision after prison to try to turn their lives around, and we know from trials in different parts of the country that this can make a real difference to the level of reoffending.

Probation works best when the service has close relationships with prisons, councils and others, but under the Justice Secretary’s reforms is there not the real risk that police intelligence will not be shared with the new companies? Not only will that put at risk the tackling of reoffending, but it also runs the risk of jeopardising public safety.

The reason that that is simply not true is that, under the last Labour Government, we had examples of police control rooms being contracted out to private organisations. If the police are happy to share control room data with private organisations, there is no earthly reason to believe that they will not work together with providers of all backgrounds on the rehabilitation of offenders.

One in seven offences are committed by foreigners, and many of those foreigners are ex-convicts from foreign countries. What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that only people with good records can come into our country?

Of course, this is predominantly a matter for the Home Office, but I can say that we are working closely with the Home Office. I stand second to no one in desiring to see foreign national offenders moved out of this country. I hope very much that the European prisoner transfer agreement, as it comes on stream and is completed by 2016, will make a real difference to ensuring that offenders in prisons in this country are able to be returned to their home country as quickly as possible.

23. Given the amount of upheaval in probation caused by the Government’s reckless privatisation, I echo colleagues in saying that we need a strong, independent chief inspector in order to reduce reoffending by ex-prisoners. How can the current postholder possibly fulfil his duties, given his links to winning bidders? Why did the Justice Secretary appoint him, given that these links were known to him at the time? (906657)

Let us be clear: I regard the current chief inspector as a man of great integrity and great skill, who has been doing a very good job for the past few months. He was selected on merit by my Department and his appointment was approved by the Justice Committee. The fact that an issue has now arisen with the very recent appointment of a member of his family to a senior position in one of the providers clearly has to be addressed. It will be addressed sensitively and I will report to the House when it is appropriate to do so.

In order to prevent foreign national offenders from committing further crimes in this country, what steps are being taken together with the Home Office to ban them from returning to the United Kingdom once they are repatriated?

The deportation process should mean that these people are not entitled to re-enter the UK. Of course, the increased sharing of data between European police forces is one way of ensuring that we know who they are before they try to enter the country and that they do not return. My hon. Friend and I share the same ambition of ensuring that people who have committed terrible crimes in other countries simply cannot come to live here.

The Lord Chancellor is correct in describing the chief inspector of probation as a man of great integrity, because his report yesterday contradicts somewhat the description of the Transforming Rehabilitation programme that the Lord Chancellor has just provided us with, even though the chief inspector’s wife runs half the service now. The chief inspector said that splitting the probation service in two has caused problems with process, communication and information sharing—I am not being funny, but some of us have been saying that for quite some time. Is it not now about time the Lord Chancellor woke up to the reality of his risky, shambolic privatisation?

I do wish the hon. Lady would get her facts right. She just said that the chief inspector’s wife is running half the service at the moment, but of course that is not true. The service remains, as of today, entirely within the public sector, and she might get her basic facts right. Had she read that report, she would have seen that the chief inspector identified a number of long-term systemic problems that predate any change we have put in place and were ensuring underperformance. He said that it was necessary to move to a steady state—in other words, to complete the reforms and get things bedded in for the long term—as quickly as possible.

Judicial Review

Judicial review plays a crucial constitutional role as an essential component of the rule of law. When used properly, it allows public authorities to be held to account. But it can be misused, with unmeritorious challenges brought simply to cause delay. The Government’s package of reform, in particular the clauses in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, will limit the potential for abuse without undermining judicial review’s vital role.

I am grateful for that, but the Secretary of State’s proposals to reform judicial review have been condemned by, among others, the senior judiciary, leading civil liberties organisations and charities, and they have now been forcefully rejected by wide cross-party majorities twice in the other place. Will he now admit defeat, see sense and withdraw these unnecessary proposals?

Let me refer the hon. Gentleman to a wise comment about judicial review:

“Removing the constant use of judicial review, which frankly has become a lawyers' charter, will not remove the basic freedom to apply due process of law.”

“Oh dear!”, says the new shadow Solicitor-General. That quote came from the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), the former Labour Home Secretary. The reality is that we are pushing forward a sensible package of reforms, most of which have been approved in the other place. There are only two items left to be passed through.

There is clearly a balance to strike between trivial judicial reviews and defending the rule of law. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Pannick amendment, 102B, helps to strike a good balance between those two? Will he think carefully about whether he can recommend that we agree with the compromise suggested by that amendment?

I am giving careful consideration to that matter in the wake of the Lords debate. In the new year, I intend to return to the House with further thoughts on how we take matters forward. As my hon. Friend will understand, I will not set out those plans until I have carefully considered with my colleagues what we are going to do.

How does the Secretary of State intend to respond to what the Daily Mail calls his latest humiliation yesterday at the hands of the Master of the Rolls and the Court of Appeal? Having lost seven judicial reviews, does he now think it is time that he as Lord Chancellor stops acting unlawfully? In January, he will have a third chance to abandon his attempt at muzzling judicial review following two defeats in the other place. But will he tell us now—he does not need to wait until then—whether he intends to protect the rule of law or carry on getting confused by his own legislation and behaving like some tin-pot dictator?

May I start by extending my commiserations to the hon. Gentleman? It was widely expected on the Government Benches that he would become the shadow Attorney-General. He did not manage that, and we all express our disappointment about that and extend our commiserations to him. By retaining him on the shadow Front Bench, we will continue to enjoy in these sessions on a monthly basis the usual load of nonsense that he so often comes up with.

Recent figures show that the number of judicial review applications lodged between 2000 and 2013 increased threefold, and many of them related to immigration and asylum cases. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Government have a responsibility to ensure that the judicial review process is used appropriately?

I absolutely do. Interestingly, the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) talks about the views of the judiciary, but it was one of the immigration judges who said, 18 months ago, that judicial review was being abused for those cases. Opposition Members must understand that they themselves in Government said that the system needed to change. We are changing it in a measured and sensible way that will make a difference without compromising its principles. That is the right way to approach this matter.

Private Sector Contracts

A contract management improvement programme has been running at the Ministry of Justice since early 2014 in order to implement and embed best practices in contract management. As part of that programme, we have established new governance committees, strengthened our assurance of major contracts, clarified roles and responsibilities and improved the skills of our people. We have also renegotiated or retendered a number of our significant contracts to improve value for money from our private sector contractors.

Does the Secretary of State really think that guaranteeing a decade of profits to private companies as compensation when a probation contract is cancelled represents value for money? It is unprecedented and a scandal. What will he do to reverse that typical Tory rip-off?

It is so unprecedented as a typical Tory rip-off that it is a very similar approach to the one taken by the Labour party when it set up the flexible new deal. Sometimes its hypocrisy is breathtaking.

For public accounting purposes, many of the charities and new social enterprises that are coming into being to help with managing ex-offenders will be considered to be private contractors. Will my right hon. Friend explain to the House how he will measure the performance of these charities and social enterprises so that we can demonstrate that it is possible to have payment by results and to get better support for ex-offenders?

The mechanism for monitoring the performance of all our providers in the private, voluntary and social sectors is very simple: are they successful in bringing down reoffending? This is not a payment by results programme as ambitious as the Work programme because we have to fulfil the orders of the court over which there is no discretion. But they still represent good value for the taxpayer as they ensure that we pay when we get results. That is the way that Government should operate.

If the Government want to improve value for money, they should start by scrapping the £85 million contract for a secure college, which is a flawed proposal that has twice been rejected by the other place. Given the universal opposition, how close we are to the general election and the fact that the project is facing difficulties obtaining planning permission, will the Secretary of State agree that the contract should not be signed before 7 May so that we can avoid saddling the taxpayer with a huge bill for this untried, untested and unworkable project?

I am baffled by the attitude of the Labour party. The secure college will take troubled 16-year-olds out of prisons with iron bars and put them into a modern, supportive environment that is focused on education. My view is that we are much more likely to turn a troubled 16-year-old into an untroubled 16-year-old in a nurturing and supportive environment than we are by leaving them behind iron bars. I am astonished that the Labour party does not understand that.

Claims Management Companies

A number of reforms have been made or are being made, including a new set of toughened rules to crack down on abuses, a new power to impose financial penalties on CMCs from later this month and extending the legal ombudsman’s remit to consumer complaints against CMCs from January 2015.

Among other things, the bad behaviour of CMCs has contributed to car insurance premiums that are not only unacceptable, but unaffordable, particularly for many young people. Many have argued that the regulatory oversight of CMCs is simply too light. Does the Minister agree that, as the British Insurance Brokers Association has suggested, there is a strong argument that if the regulation were overseen by the Financial Conduct Authority, CMCs would have to abide by the FCA’s 11 principles of business, which would provide a more effective way of bringing down car insurance premiums?

It is important that the hon. Gentleman bears it in mind that since 2007, when regulation began, licences of over 1,200 CMCs have been removed across sectors, and others have left the industry after the commencement of enforcement action. We have introduced tough measures. From later this month the regulator will reinforce its enforcement tools with a new power to impose financial penalties of up to 20% of a CMC’s turnover. Next month, from 28 January, we will extend the legal ombudsman’s jurisdiction to deal with complaints from clients dissatisfied with the service provided to them by authorised CMC’s. The legal ombudsman will provide a new avenue of redress for clients of CMC’s and will assist the claims management regulator in driving up poor standards and practices in the market.

Perhaps the material can be placed in the Library of the House, where it can be devoured by colleagues at their leisure in the long winter evenings that lie ahead.

Victims of Crime

We published “Our Commitment to Victims” in September, which sets out a broad package of reforms, including a victims law that we will bring forward. Money is not everything, but we have increased the budget to £100 million for victims and victim support.

The whole House knows how much the Justice Secretary detests being held to account for his actions by judicial review, but because of this Government’s actions, 40% of women subjected to domestic violence are denied access to justice as a result of changes to legal aid. Does the Minister agree that a sign of a healthy democracy is groups such as Rights of Women challenging the lawfulness of the Government’s actions? Does he also agree that for so many women suffering domestic abuse to go without access to justice is a national disgrace?

Looking after victims and witnesses is one of the most important things that any Government can do, and I would have thought that there was cross-party agreement on the sort of work we all need to do to ensure that they are looked after. The hon. Gentleman’s question was very detailed, so I will write to him, because that is how we should answer questions when they are that long.

Many victims of crime still find the judicial process confusing and intimidating, so what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to make sure that vulnerable victims of crime find the court process less harrowing?

It is important that victims and witnesses have the confidence to go to court and give evidence in a way that they feel comfortable doing. We must amend the way that the court process works, and we must use video much more, particularly with young and vulnerable children. That is the sort of thing we are going to do as we go forward, and I would have thought that that had cross-party support.

Does the Minister agree that before a prisoner is downgraded to being suitable for an open prison, the victim of the crime should be consulted on whether that is appropriate? Can my hon. Friend guarantee that in all cases that will start to happen?

It is important that victims are informed at each stage of the pathway, from when they report the crime to when the offender is released from prison. They should not have a veto, but they should be consulted.

Compensation Orders

13. If he will undertake a review of the enforcement of compensation orders agreed by the courts. (906646)

The Government take enforcement of compensation orders very seriously and remain determined to find new ways to ensure that they are paid and that those who do not pay are traced and have to pay.

In the past five years on average only about 42% of compensation orders awarded to victims by the courts have been paid by the perpetrators of those crimes to those victims. Does the Minister think it is right that victims are victims of the crime and then victims because they are not paid compensation by perpetrators? What will he do to improve the situation?

I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman from the outset. He has written to me on several occasions about particular constituency cases which we have, I believe, resolved. The real problem, which is not new for this Government and has been going on for many years, is that the courts impose a fine or compensation or both and the person does not have the money to pay that. It is important, for instance, that the benefits system works with the courts and with the Ministry of Justice. I would be more than happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman as many times as he wishes so that we can try and get this right.

Women Offenders

The coalition Government are clear that reducing reoffending through effective rehabilitation of previous offenders is the most effective way to cut crime and reduce the victims of crime. As the hon. Lady knows, female offenders disproportionately have short sentences. The new reforms will for the first time mean that all those leaving will have targeted support on release. We are reconfiguring the women’s estate so that women spend the bulk of their time, if they are in prison, near where they will be released so that they have the best links with the community.

The Minister will be aware that maintaining good relationships with one’s family while in custody is a particularly important factor in rehabilitation, and for women in particular maintaining relationships with their children. But Women Moving Forward, a group of women offenders in Manchester has told me that a tightening of release on temporary licence provisions is making it more difficult for them to have time with their children. Will the Minister take a look at this situation, which is not just important for reducing reoffending among those women, but is in the interests of their children?

I am completely persuaded by the argument that women need more time with their children. We are expanding the capacity for that in all prisons. I will be up in Greater Manchester next month meeting colleagues and I am happy to meet the hon. Lady in Manchester with colleagues. We are clear that women in prison need to have maximum time with their children, and that children need to be protected as much as possible from the adverse effects of having their mother away from them.

In the previous Session of Parliament, the Justice Committee identified that under this Government the progress made in implementing the recommendations of the Corston report on women prisoners had stalled. What has happened in the past year to address that and to make sure that the different needs of women, particularly in preventing reoffending, are being properly addressed by this Government?

There is a list of steps that the Government are taking. I cannot give them all now because Mr Speaker would not allow me. We have legislated to make sure that women’s interests are specifically provided for in the rehabilitation process. There have to be specific programmes to meet the needs of women. We have made sure that in each of the women’s prisons there will be the capacity for women to have spaces outside the walls on a gradual programme, so that they can be rehabilitated more quickly. I am clear that the needs of women are entirely different from the needs of men in prison, not least because of their family responsibilities, and that is written through—as through a stick of rock—all that we are seeking to do in relation to women in custody. I will give the hon. Lady the full list later.

Mediation (Family Disputes)

The Government are committed to advancing mediation as the best way of reducing the stress on separating couples, alleviating pressures on the court system, and saving money for taxpayers. Last year, seven out of 10 couples who went into mediation had a successful outcome. In the past few months, we have set up a system where the first mediation session is free for both parties if one of the parties is legally aided, and we are already seeing an increased take-up in mediation as a result.

I welcome the progress that is being made in encouraging the use of mediation, but when does the external advisory group of experts on the voice of the child plan to put forward recommendations on improving best practice?

In the summer I made a clear commitment to make sure that the voice of children and young people is always heard, not just in the courts but in mediation too. The advisory group is due to make recommendations about best practice in February next year—in two months’ time. I am clearly of the view that the voice of children and young people must be heard in every single case where there is family breakdown so that their needs are taken into account and not just the needs of the parents.

22. Two cases have recently been referred to me where mediation has been used to review court orders for child custody arrangements. In both cases, one of the parties refused to co-operate and did not turn up to the mediation sessions. Will the Minister consider imposing penalties for such behaviour so that mediation can play a full role in settling such disputes without recourse to expensive legal proceedings? (906655)

I am sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman’s question, but the honest answer is no, because mediation requires both parties to agree, and it has to be a voluntary process. When people have a breakdown of a relationship, there is often anger and frustration at the beginning, but if they can get over that, it is far better for them to agree a solution with the other party than to go to court, where they may get something that neither party wants or something that they themselves might not be happy with.

Topical Questions

May I start by sending, on behalf of the whole House, the condolences of this Parliament to the people of Pakistan after this morning’s terrible terrorist attack?

I would like to inform the House about the continuing work that we are doing to help victims of rape and sexual violence. I can announce that we have established a fund which, for the very first time, has been created specifically to help male victims of sexual crimes. We have dedicated more than £1 million to provide services to support those male victims, including funding for face-to-face centres as well as creating a national website and online support service. Approximately 75,000 men are victims of sexual assault or attempted assault each year, while 9,000 men are victims of rape or attempted rape, yet fewer than 3,000 offences of male rape or sexual assault were recorded in 2013-14. We want to change this. We hope to encourage male victims to break the silence on a topic still seen as taboo by giving them access to crucial information and emotional support, either in person or online if they find that way more accessible. This Government will continue to put supporting victims of serious and sexual crime at the forefront of their plans.

I spent this morning at Kids Company helping to wrap some of the 20,000 Christmas presents that it will be giving out to children this year. I was told that 80% of the kids who go to Kids Company are involved in some way in criminal activity, but very few of those who spend time there go on to continue that activity. Will the Minister acknowledge that that sort of intervention is far more successful than putting kids in youth custody centres, and so we should be supporting it?

I think we would all pay tribute to the work done by Kids Company. I have been to see its work as well. Like many similar charities around the country, it makes an enormous difference to the support provided for people in the most difficult circumstances. The work that it is doing combines with the work done in our troubled families programme and with the work done in our schools to try to help those who start school behind to catch up before they go on to secondary school. Those are all important parts of the jigsaw puzzle of dealing with the real need to use early intervention to keep people out of the criminal justice system where we can possibly do so.

T3. A development that has the potential to create 4,000 jobs in my constituency is being further delayed by judicial review, despite its being approved at local, ministerial and parliamentary level. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the use of judicial review in such circumstances should be curtailed? (906660)

That is precisely what we are trying to stop. My hon. Friend makes the valid point that those opposed to essential developments in our country are able to use judicial review, on technicalities, to try to prevent them from going ahead or to delay them. It does nobody any favours that that can happen. It uses up huge amounts of taxpayers’ money, it wastes the time of essential projects and project teams, and it must change.

I find the Justice Secretary’s answer interesting, because there is a widely held view that one of the reasons why this Justice Secretary is so hostile to judicial review is that it means the unlawful decisions he makes can be challenged in court. In the past few days, he has been held to have acted unlawfully in relation to his decision to ban the sending of books to prisoners. Does the Justice Secretary accept the decision of the court and, very simply, will he now acknowledge that it was a stupid policy and that he acted unlawfully?

Let us be absolutely clear: I took no decision to ban the sending of books to prisoners. I simply unified across the whole of the prison estate the rule that existed under the previous Government, in almost all of our prisons, not to allow parcels to be sent into prisons. Once again, we hear the hypocrisy of the Opposition.

The right hon. Gentleman briefs his Back Benchers and the right-wing media that he is banning books, but when he has been found to have acted unlawfully he says something very different in the Chamber of the House of Commons.

We know this Justice Secretary is obsessed with repealing the Human Rights Act 1998, walking away from the European Court of Human Rights, making it very difficult to bring a claim for judicial review, and making access to justice almost impossible for people with limited means by ill-thought-through deep cuts to legal aid. When the highly respected, legally qualified and knowledgeable former Attorney-General, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), talks about politicians who risk “eroding” Britain’s legal framework for the sake of populism and short-term political gain, who does the Justice Secretary think the former Attorney-General is referring to? Why does he think that a highly respected and knowledgeable colleague has views so different from his own?

What I know is that I am pushing forward the policies that the public want. The fact that the right hon. Gentleman is opposed to them might explain the fact that his party’s ratings have been sliding persistently in the polls over the past two years.

T2. We know that sport has a vital role in rehabilitating prisoners, and evidence is mounting that limiting the sporting activities to which violent offenders have access can severely limit their rehabilitation possibilities. Will the Minister meet me to discuss this matter, and will he assure me that we will put practical reality over prejudice in getting outcomes? (906659)

I fully appreciate the positive impact that being a member of a sports club can have on release. The National Offender Management Service is keen to discuss options for how it can improve links between England Boxing, in which I know my hon. Friend has a particular interest, so that offenders can benefit once they have left custody. If she has new ideas to share on this matter, I will of course be delighted to meet her.

T7. Will the Secretary of State update the House on how many Members of Parliament have had their telephone calls with prisoners recorded, and have all those MPs been informed? (906664)

I can confirm that all MPs who have had their calls listened to have indeed been informed. I can also inform the hon. Gentleman that I have now received an interim report from the chief inspector, which is being made available to Members of Parliament through the Library. The chief inspector’s interim findings are that there is no systemic problem and that the situation has improved substantially since 2012, but he recommends a number of other things we can do to improve the situation still further.

T4. What progress are the Government making on the introduction of a women’s justice board? The important question asked earlier by hon. Member for Livingston (Graeme Morrice) emphasised the need to address such issues. (906661)

The coalition Government are clearly committed to making sure that we reduce the reoffending and imprisonment of women. As my hon. Friend knows, at the moment I chair an advisory board on female offenders, which is very helpful and successful—indeed, it is meeting this afternoon—in making sure we have a good policy. The introduction of a women’s justice board has been put forward. As it happens, our party, the Liberal Democrats, supports the policy. It is not yet an agreed policy across government, but I am determined that we will do as much as we can with the present structure in the rest of this Parliament, even though we might be able to change it in the next Parliament.

T9. Since the Government introduced employment tribunal fees, there has been a drop of 84% in the number of women who have been able to bring discrimination claims. Does the Minister accept that, because of the up-front fees of £1,200, many women are being denied justice under his Government? (906667)

The situation is a lot more complex than the hon. Lady makes out. First and foremost, anyone who does not meet the financial criteria has a waiver and can go to court. Secondly, there have been a lot of pre-determinations by ACAS. Employment is going up and there are fewer applications. There are a lot of factors and she does herself no credit by simplifying matters.

T5. Following the introduction of my private Member’s Bill, which calls for a tougher stance on repeat driving offences, will the Minister confirm that those matters are being reviewed fully, and will he clarify when the Government will respond to the review? (906662)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that he has done in that area. As a former Transport Minister, I have looked at this issue for many years. I will continue to look at the review and we will come forward with proposals. We are determined that whatever proposals come forward will be fit for purpose. His work will be very helpful.

The international child abduction charity, Reunite, reports that the wrongful overseas retention of children is up by 30% so far this year. We need urgent action to implement the welcome recent recommendation from the Law Commission that wrongful retention should be made a criminal offence. Will the Minister say when the Government will respond to that recommendation, and can he give a date by which we can expect to see the legislation that is needed?

Kidnap and child abduction can have devastating effects on victims and their families. It is vital that the law reflects the gravity of the offences, and that those who commit them are punished accordingly. I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues who formed a group in this House to argue for a change in the law. In the past, people could be punished for taking their children out of the country, but not for keeping them illegally out of the country rather than bringing them home. The coalition Government asked the Law Commission to consider the issue. It has reported back and recommended a change to the Child Abduction Act 1984. We are looking at that recommendation actively and I hope that we will be able to make progress in this Parliament.

T6. What steps can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his Department take to ensure that young people do not regard vehicle insurance as an optional extra, as is the case now due to the monopoly and cartel that is operated by the insurance companies? (906663)

While I was a Transport Minister, it was my honour to bring forward the continuous insurance legislation, which made it compulsory for all vehicles that are registered on the road to have insurance. We will continue to look at how we can stamp down on the hard core of people who do not have insurance, because they are a danger not only to themselves, but to others.

Does the Secretary of State agree that sex crimes against children are among the worst crimes on the statute book? Does he also agree that it is time that we had a national institute to look at the prevention of crimes of that nature against children and to help perpetrators—a “what works” foundation of the sort that he kindly supported on early intervention and policing?

First, the hon. Gentleman has a track record of addressing these issues to compare with anyone in the House. I commend him for the work that he has done. I share his view on sex crimes against children. That is one reason why the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill contains a provision to end automatic early release for those who commit such horrendous crimes. He has expressed an interesting thought today. We cannot have too long a conversation about it across the Dispatch Box, but my colleagues and I would be happy to hear his views.

T8. The Minister is aware of my request that the former Keighley magistrates court in Bingley be sold off as soon as possible. The failure to do so is wasting taxpayers’ money and preventing an important town centre building in Bingley from being regenerated and brought into use. There seems to have been a lot of faffing about between the Ministry of Justice and West Yorkshire police. I urge the Minister to get on with it and get the building up for sale to allow this regeneration to take place in Bingley and to save the taxpayer some money. (906665)

My hon. Friend is as forthright as ever. He is well aware that I wrote to him last week. We are doing all that we can to ensure that the court is sold and that the proceeds are put into the Exchequer.

I think that the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) regards “faffing around” to be a technical expression.

The Ministry of Justice has massively upgraded its prediction for the prison population, which could be up to 100,000 by 2020. Does that suggest a total failure by the Government to take seriously the reduction of reoffending, and was privatising the probation service precisely the wrong policy?

The Government are expanding prison capacity, and four house blocks are under construction and will open early next year. We have a new prison in north Wales, and we keep such matters under review. We will always have enough places for those sent to us by the courts, unlike what happened under the previous Government.

Will the Minister join me in commending Timpson shops that provide work for hundreds of former offenders, including many who are still serving their sentences? What can be done to encourage other employers to follow suit?

My hon. Friend is right to mention that issue, and I think that around 10% of Timpson’s work force are ex-offenders. Other companies such as Greggs do similarly good work, and I have been particularly impressed by the Halfords training academy at Onley prison. There is good work, and we need more companies to carry on in the same way.

In his drive to make savings in his Department, does the Secretary of State think it is time to start listening to legal advice that would save his Department an awful lot of money in lost cases in judicial review proceedings?

The hon. Gentleman talks about saving money, but I have waited in vain to hear how Labour would address the spending challenge. Last week, Labour Members said that they would deliver a spending reduction in this and other Departments year on year, but as of today we have no idea how they would do it.

My right hon. Friend recently visited Purfleet in my constituency where he saw the mile long fly tip that has been left following an unauthorised Traveller encampment. Does he agree it is important that the police and local authorities use the powers at their disposal so that public confidence in our justice system is maintained?

The scale of what happened in my hon. Friend’s constituency is shocking and the local police, local authority, and police and crime commissioner must learn the lessons to ensure that such a thing cannot happen again. If powers need to be taken at national level to help in that battle, the Government will certainly consider how we can contribute.

Two women a week die at the hands of their partner or ex-partner. Let me press the Minister on his earlier remarks. Is it acceptable that 40% of domestic violence victims cannot get access to legal aid?

I simply reiterate that we have tried to drive through the necessary change to meet a financial challenge in the most sensitive way possible. The changes that the hon. Lady describes in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 were considered in detail in this House and the other place. Time again I hear from the Opposition Benches that Labour would do things differently, but although Labour Members have said that they will match our spending plans, they have yet to give any sense of what they would do to save money elsewhere.

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

As always, I commend my hon. Friend’s persistence on this issue. There are 10,319 foreign national offenders in custody—down from 11,153 in May 2010—and that figure is the lowest for the end of any quarter since March 2006. That is in marked contrast to the Labour Government under whom the number of foreign national offenders doubled.

The Ofsted inspection of Hindley young offenders institution in my constituency rated it as outstanding, particularly in the provision of literacy and numeracy. Why was it slated for closure?

We are not closing it; we are re-roling it to put in adult male prisoners. I am sure the hon. Lady welcomes, as I do, the reduction in the number of young people in custody. We must take account of that and will use Hindley young offenders institution for adult male prisoners.