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Topical Questions

Volume 594: debated on Tuesday 17 March 2015

I am pleased to inform the House that last month the United Kingdom hosted the Global Law Summit. The event was a major success, highlighting the importance of the legal sector to our economy, promoting the quality of our legal services abroad, and celebrating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. More than 2,000 delegates from 110 countries attended, and 65 countries were represented by ministerial delegations. My departmental colleagues and I had productive discussions with our international counterparts. The summit was a unique event bringing together Government Ministers, senior legal figures and business leaders from around the world, and it was probably the largest legal event of its kind ever held. I am proud that working with the legal profession, the City of London, UK Trade & Investment and a range of commercial sponsors, the Government supported that summit and the UK hosted it. It was a fantastic advert for the rule of law, our legal sector and our country.

Can the Justice Secretary tell the House when the principle of adverse possession has been tested in the courts recently? Does he share my understanding that an owner of land can possess that land but still allow access over it, such as, for example, in the case of a village hall at Scrayingham where the villagers have used and maintained that hall and the landowner has previously allowed access to it?

I do not know the exact occasion on which that principle was previously tested, but I am aware of the case to which my hon. Friend refers. She and I have discussed it, and I am happy to work with her to consider whether there is a loophole in the law that should be changed.

In 2010 the prison riot squad was called out to prisons 118 times, which was too many. Last year it was called out 223 times—a 90% increase—and that is with 18 fewer prisons than in 2010. That is a disgrace. We have fewer prisons with fewer staff, and not enough work or training for inmates. We have record numbers of deaths in custody, and prisoner-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-staff assaults have surged. We heard a lot in 2010 about a rehabilitation revolution. Where did it go wrong?

Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman what is actually happening. The number of prisoner qualifications is up, as is the number of hours worked in prisons. On the size of our prison estate, we will go into this election with 3,000 more adult male prison places than we had in 2010, and we have done that while bringing down the cost of the prison estate to sort out the mess left behind by the previous Government. The Labour Government brought about a crisis in our prisons that led to them having to let offenders out early because they ran out of space in our prisons. I will take no lessons from Labour about how to run our prisons.

Evidence, if it was needed, of a man completely out of touch. Most judges, lawyers, probation staff, prison officers, victims, court staff, and people denied access to justice believe that the right hon. Gentleman has been the worst Lord Chancellor since Lord Shaftesbury in 1673—the two of you have a thing or two in common, so you should check him out. In a poll commissioned last month, 82% of people in the legal sector said that they were more likely to vote Tory if the Justice Secretary was replaced. Why does he think the figure is not higher?

In the last Justice questions before the election, all I get from the right hon. Gentleman is abuse. Do you know why, Mr Speaker? Since he has no policies and ideas, all he can do is resort to abuse, and that is all he ever does.

T2. Is the Lord Chancellor aware of a report by the Henry Jackson Society that shows that at least 20 foreign terrorists have used the Human Rights Act to prevent their deportation from the United Kingdom? Does that underline the need for modernisation and reform of the Human Rights Act, and its replacement with a British Bill of Rights? (908108)

Absolutely it underlines that requirement. All of us in this House will, I suspect, be debating these matters in a lively way in the next few months. I believe we need to reform. I think the people of this country need reform. It is a matter of surprise to me that the other parties in this House do not appear to agree.

T3. Everyone will support attempts to prevent drugs getting into prisons. Reports at the weekend said that £15 million is to be spent on a new state-of-the-art drugs scanner for prisons. Can the Justice Secretary say when the first scanners will be in place, and which prisons will be in receipt of them first? (908107)

We will invest in a new generation of body scanners that will help us to detect substances being smuggled into prison. In addition, the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 introduces powers to test specific non-controlled drugs as part of mandatory drug testing. We are providing new guidance to governors. Through the Serious Crime Act 2015, it is now illegal to throw anything over the wall, including spice or any other drug.

T4. A couple of months ago, I asked the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government if he would speak to the Justice Secretary about the prospect of speeding up the eviction process for illegal Traveller encampments by appointing specialist magistrates who are able to sit at short notice and out of hours. Has he had that conversation and is he sympathetic to progressing this matter? (908110)

We have had a discussion on the Traveller issue. It is an area on which we both feel strongly, and one that requires attention after the general election as soon as a Conservative Government are elected.

T5. Does the Justice Secretary not sense a little bit of irony in his hijacking of the 800th anniversary celebrations of Magna Carta at a time when his Government are constantly removing people’s rights and removing access to justice? Is that not hypocritical? (908111)

We hear the same old tune from the Opposition time and time again. They oppose the changes we have made, but they will not commit to reverse them. Until and unless they turn around and say, “We will reverse the changes you have had to make because of the mess that was left behind” I will not take them seriously.

T6. Breaking the cycle of crime is crucial. Does my right hon. Friend welcome the news that Out 4 Success, a former prisoners’ social enterprise, will be holding a launch event in Parliament next week? Would he be willing to pop along and meet its founders, Grant Doyle and Mark Hirst? (908112)

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. We are blessed to have 1,300 charities working in this sector. There are many social enterprises, such as the one he mentions, doing an excellent job. I will definitely try to meet the founders he has mentioned.

T8. What powers does the Ministry of Justice have to enforce UK family court orders, such as child custody, in the Crown dependency of Guernsey? My constituent’s access to his son is being prevented. These are very difficult circumstances. Will the Minister raise this issue with his counterpart? (908114)

This is an issue that has exercised a lot of colleagues in the House. We do not have any power to tell other jurisdictions what to do, including in the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man. We have a mechanism of communicating the decisions of our courts to their courts, and we have ways in which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and others support people in pursuing their rights, but there is no enforcement mechanism in international law. It is left to domestic jurisdictions to make their decisions.

T7. The Lord Chancellor has already referred to the Global Law Summit, which enabled the UK’s legal sector to highlight its pre-eminence as a centre of legal and business innovation. Will he tell the House about some of the benefits we will see as a result of this important event? (908113)

It is very much my hope that we will achieve two things. The event enabled contacts to be made around the world. That will enable law firms, our barristers and others who took part, to find new business opportunities to help enhance the economy of this country and the legal services sector and boost our long-term economic plan. In addition, I hope we have set a foundation that will allow the event to be held again in future and that we will continue to make London the centre of legal services internationally.

People with asbestos-related diseases not only have to cope with their illness, but often have a difficult court battle to get compensation. With the proposed rise in court fees, which are totally disproportionate—for example, going from £1,300 to £10,000—many claimants will be deterred. Will the Minister look again at the scale of those rises to see if they can be reduced to a more reasonable level?

Some 90% of people will not be affected by the enhanced fees, and we have waivers for people who do not qualify on financial grounds. The fees will apply only to a relatively small number of people, and even for them we have the waivers.

T9. Does the Secretary of State agree that burglary is a serious offence and causes great pain to victims, yet far too few people convicted of burglary offences actually receive custodial sentences? Will Ministers look at this and do something about it? (908115)

I agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that one thing we have done that will make a difference is tightening up the law on the use of cautions. We had a situation in which people could receive cautions time and again, rather than ending up in front of magistrates courts, but as a result of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, that situation will now change, and it is necessary that it does so.

In 2010, the Government put on hold plans to rebuild Sunderland’s court complex, and answers to recent parliamentary questions reveal what we have always feared—that no decision was ever likely to be taken in this Parliament. What would the Minister say to people across Sunderland to explain his Government’s complete failure to make any progress in the last five years?

I would say to the people of Sunderland: look at the record of the Labour party in government—it did absolutely nothing. We have put in place a five-year reform programme that will bring our courts into the 21st century. Her Government did not do that, but we have, and in five years, we will have the best courts in the world.

T10. My plans for the regeneration of the city of Gloucester include a new car park and entrance to Gloucester station, but they depend on a land sale agreement between the Ministry of Justice and the city council and the land’s onward leasing to First Great Western. Ministers have been sympathetic to urban regeneration. Will my hon. Friend confirm whether the MOJ has agreed an independent local valuation so that rapid progress can be made on the sale? (908116)

I commend my hon. Friend for his diligence in pursuing this matter. He has met me, and I have corresponded with him, and he will be aware that my officials and the council’s officials are in conversation. Like him, I look forward to seeing the way forward.

The Justice Secretary has confirmed that he will plough on with his barmy idea for two-tier contracts for criminal solicitors, so it will fall to either the Court of Appeal or my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) to kick this barmy idea into touch forever after we win the election. How does the Justice Secretary expect criminal firms and solicitors to give up 50% of their client work voluntarily? We have asked that lots of times, but we have never had an answer.

The important thing for any Lord Chancellor is to ensure that if somebody is arrested and taken to a police station, there will be a lawyer to represent them. These reforms will ensure that that happens, even in difficult times financially, when fee levels have to be cut. My disappointment is that although these reforms were agreed by the previous leadership of the Law Society, the current leadership has taken a rather different view.

There are 6,100 tariff-expired offenders serving indeterminate sentences, at a cost, I estimate, of £200 million annually. What are Ministers doing to ensure access to courses in prisons to facilitate offenders’ timely rehabilitation?

I can tell my hon. Friend that we are improving significantly the amount of work and education in prisons. As the Secretary of State said, the number of qualifications has increased, and the number of courses is increasing as well. We will keep a focus on this important area.

When the Lord Chancellor had the pleasure of meeting lawyers from all over the world at this global summit, how many of them came up to him and said what a great idea it was to advance the human rights cause around the world while withdrawing from the European convention on human rights, and did they offer him any advice on the need to remain within the orbit of international humanitarian law?

I had no such conversations one way or the other—[Interruption.]—because nobody raised the issue with me. The hon. Gentleman and I disagree fundamentally on this issue—I believe that change is necessary; he does not—but the difference is that the public support me, not him.