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Topical Questions

Volume 597: debated on Tuesday 23 June 2015

Today I was able to confirm that the Ministry of Justice will throw its full weight behind the reform programme for Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, led so ably by the Lord Chief Justice and supported by Sir Brian Leveson and the whole Judicial Executive Board.

I welcome the news that my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor shares my concern about issues in our courts that could lead to a two-tier justice system. As he will be aware, in Devon insufficient bids were received for the new legal aid contract for advice at police stations. Will he agree to meet me and representatives of the profession to discuss the specific issues that have led to that situation, such as the geography of the area, and how they can be resolved?

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend. It is very important that we ensure that in rural areas such as Devon everyone has access to the justice they deserve.

T2. In Lancashire almost one third of domestic abuse victims at multi-agency risk assessment conferences are repeat victims. Anecdotally, many perpetrators are repeat offenders, but no statistics are available on that. What action is the Minister taking to identify repeat and serious perpetrators of domestic abuse? (900476)

That is a very important question, and something we take very seriously. It is important that we make every effort to identify the perpetrators of these heinous crimes, but we are also determined to ensure that anyone facing the threat of domestic violence has somewhere to turn, which is why we are working closely across the Government, with the Home Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government, to address this important issue.

T9. Will the Minister update the House on progress being made to improve the military covenant by protecting service personnel from judicial expansionism? (900483)

My hon. Friend raises a really important issue. One minute our servicemen are heroes, and the next minute they are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. Charities such as Care after Combat, which was recently formed, are doing fantastic work that is being piloted in our prisons. I would like to meet my hon. Friend again to see how we can work together to ensure that our heroes do not end up in the criminal justice system.

T3. Last week the Scottish Government celebrated the 10th anniversary of legal humanist marriage. Given their popularity —there has been an upsurge in the number of such marriages in that country—and support in both Houses, can the Minister give us an idea of whether the Government would like to implement something similar in this country? (900477)

Yes, marriage is one of our most important institutions and we need to make sure that any changes to the law are carried out with care. That is why we have asked the Law Commission to undertake a preliminary scoping study to prepare the way for potential future reform. It is due to report in December and then the Government will consider the next steps very carefully.

Will my right hon. Friend look carefully again at the workings of the European arrest warrant following the announcements last night from London and from Kigali, Rwanda, and the misuse of the process by a junior Spanish judge for political rather than judicial purposes?

Few people know more about, or are more committed to, the welfare of the Rwandan people than my right hon. Friend, and few Members of this House are more committed to due process and human rights, so I take very seriously the points that he raises. I will look very closely at this case and report back to him.

T4. Could the Secretary of State explain exactly what is his policy towards the European convention on human rights and the European Court of Human Rights? On the one hand, he says that he supports the convention; on the other, he says that all decisions must be made in British courts. If all decisions are made in British courts, then the role of the European Court of Human Rights will be an utter irrelevance to Britain, and British people will therefore be denied the right of access to a treaty obligation that we signed in 1948. (900478)

May I, on behalf of everyone on the Government Benches, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on making it on to the ballot for the Labour leadership? Had he required any more signatures, I would have been happy to defect in order to ensure that a full spectrum of views was behind him. He makes a very important point. We want to ensure that people’s access to human rights is enhanced as a result of legislative changes that we make.

I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman has overcome his natural shyness, with which the House is well familiar.

You are very kind, Mr Speaker.

How many foreign national offenders do we have in our prisons, and what plans are under way to send these people back to secure detention in their own countries?

This Parliament would not have been the same had not my hon. Friend carried on with his diligent scrutiny of this important subject. I can report to him that at 31 March 2015 10,481 foreign national offenders were in custody in England and Wales, just over 6,000 of whom are sentenced prisoners. The Immigration Act 2014 has enabled us to cut the number of appeal rights from 17 to four. Over 800 removals have now taken place as a result of these changes. Last year, the Home Office managed to send back over 5,000 foreign national offenders.

T5. Most women entering prison serve very short sentences. Last year, 58% were serving six months or less. Twenty years ago, this figure was only a third. As 82% of women who enter prison under sentence have committed a non-violent offence, why is this figure increasing? (900479)

The decision to impose a custodial sentence is of course one for the independent judiciary. The law requires that a custodial sentence be passed only where an offence is so serious that neither a community sentence nor a fine will do. The courts take into account all circumstances regarding the offence and the offender. It is important to remember that just because an offence is not violent, that does not mean that it does not have victims—multiple victims—and that it is not serious.

I am delighted that the Lord Chancellor has committed himself to speeding up the process of justice—an essential task that I suspect he will find is like painting the Forth bridge with a toothbrush. Does he agree that one of the essential elements of that is that the digital technology increasingly available in courts talks to the digital technology that the police use in collecting evidence, because if not, it will not happen?

The technology that my right hon. Friend alludes to is now coming on to the front line, and it is the sort of kit that we absolutely need. Body-worn cameras are the new replacement for Airwave, and that is absolutely vital. We must make sure that the information taken by that technology on the streets can be used all the way through the criminal justice system, particularly in the courts.

T6. Yesterday it emerged that the Secretary of State was considering making it more difficult to get hold of official documents under freedom of information rules. I recall that the previous Cabinet Minister, the now noble Lord Maude, suggested that open data should replace freedom of information. Will the Secretary of State clarify whether he has any plans whatsoever to amend the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and if so, what he has to hide? (900480)

I think we do need to revisit the Freedom of Information Act. It is absolutely vital that we ensure that the advice that civil servants give to Ministers of whatever Government is protected so that civil servants can speak candidly and offer advice in order to ensure that Ministers do not make mistakes. There has been a worrying tendency in our courts and elsewhere to erode the protections for that safe space for policy advice, and I think it absolutely needs to be asserted. There is no contradiction between making sure that we give civil servants the protection they deserve and also ensuring that the data—for example, the amount we spend in any Government Department—are more transparent than ever.

I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities and Family Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) to her new position. Does she agree about the importance of maintaining family ties and ensuring the rehabilitation of female offenders, as exemplified by the hard work undertaken at Foston Hall ladies prison in my constituency?

Yes, it is important to maintain family ties, and family engagement workers are in place in all public sector female prisons, including Foston Hall. They meet all prisoners on induction to identify any support required to maintain or establish family contact. Women’s prisons are also looking at other support for improved family links, including family days, child-centred visits, homework clubs and specific relationship and parenting skills programmes.

T8. Following the question asked by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) on freedom of information, does the Secretary of State intend to introduce legislation on proposals to price out FOI requests and extend the ministerial veto, which my party would oppose, and will he give us a timetable for that? (900482)

We want to review the operation of the original Freedom of Information Act. Some of the judgments that have been made have actually run contrary to the spirit of the original Act, and some of those behind the original Act, including former Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Home Secretary who introduced the legislation, Jack Straw, have been very clear about the defects in the way in which the Act has operated. It is vital that we get back to the founding principles of freedom of information. Citizens should have access to data and they should know what is done in their name and about the money that is spent in their name, but it is also vital that the conversations between Ministers and civil servants are protected in the interests of good government.

Do Ministers agree that a British Bill of Rights is an important step towards ensuring that the matter of votes for prisoners remains a matter for this House to decide, and that the best way of rehabilitating offenders is through a good job and education, not political gimmicks?

I welcome my hon. Friend to the House. He is absolutely right: prisoner voting is a question that should be decided by democratically elected Members of this House. Our wider aim with a Bill of Rights is not only to protect our fundamental rights, but to strengthen the role of the British Supreme Court, defend the rule of law and shield the democratic prerogatives of this House.

The family of Richard Davies are devastated by his death on Yeadon high street. A man has been charged with manslaughter and yet has been granted bail, which is very distressing for the family. What guidance is given to judges—

Order. I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman must listen. My advice is that the case is sub judice and, on the basis of a charge having been brought, it is not appropriate to raise the matter in the Chamber at this time. I recognise the assiduity of the hon. Gentleman, who may find other opportunities, but not now.

Does the Secretary of State’s apparent commitment to access to justice for everybody in this country mean that he will reverse the cuts made by the previous Government to that very same access to justice?

We are committed to reviewing the reforms to legal aid, but I have to stress that it was the Labour party’s former justice spokesman, the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), who made it clear during the last Parliament that levels of spending on legal aid were unsustainable under the last Government and we needed to reform. After all, as the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) told us, there was no money left.

In March I brought the families of Ross and Claire Simons, who were horrifically killed in my constituency by a dangerous driver, to meet the Prime Minister to discuss the maximum sentence for death by dangerous driving, which is currently 14 years. In this particular case, the dangerous driver was given 11 years, which could be brought down to five years as a result of good behaviour. The Prime Minister made a commitment to the families to contact the then Justice Secretary to ensure that the Government looked seriously at extending the maximum sentence. Will the Secretary of State please look at this case once more?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. We have increased the maximum penalties for a number of driving offences, and we are looking carefully at the recommendations of the review announced by the previous Justice Secretary and considering how best to take them forward in a proportionate and consistent manner. We will report back to the House shortly.

The Lord Chancellor has suggested that there will be a further reorganisation of the court estate. How many courts does he anticipate being included, and given the number of courts that the coalition Government closed that are still lying empty and costing the taxpayer millions of pounds, can he assure us that there will be better value for the taxpayer this time round?

We suspect that a significant number of additional courts will have to close, and I will make sure that Parliament is fully informed about that process in due course. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We need to make sure that we get value for money from the disposal of those buildings, and decisions that have been made in the past suggest that the Ministry of Justice has not always done the right thing when investing in the court estate.

All the statistics demonstrate that a significant number of people with mental health needs end up in prison. Is the Minister really content that there is sufficient treatment for those in prison? She has said that she is in dialogue with the Department of Health. Does she not have the same suspicion as me that if we had more effective treatment in the general community, fewer people with mental health problems would end up in prison?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend, and we are doing just that. In England, we are working with the Department of Health and the Home Office to support NHS England to develop liaison and diversion services. Those services place NHS staff, usually a mental health nurse, at police stations and courts to assess offenders for a range of health problems, including mental health problems, and refer them to the right treatment and support services. The information can then be shared with courts, prisons and probation services to inform decisions on charging and sentencing.

The coalition Government increased the transparency of government by requiring Ministers to report on their meetings with outside organisations. Is the Justice Secretary not embarrassed that he now wants to reduce Government transparency by strengthening the ministerial veto on freedom of information requests?

I enjoyed serving in the coalition Government alongside the right hon. Gentleman, and I welcome him back to the House.

It is absolutely right that people should know who Ministers meet and which lobby groups and others take up ministerial time, but I hope the right hon. Gentleman would agree that it is vital that we protect civil servants by making sure that they can give full and frank advice. Sometimes, as well as respecting transparency, we have to respect confidentiality. We have a duty of care towards those in the civil service who do such a good job of supporting Ministers.

Ministers will be aware of the incident last week at Killingholme, in my constituency, when 51 illegal immigrants were apprehended following a successful operation by Border Force. They were dispersed to detention centres throughout the country. Can the Secretary of State assure me that adequate provision will be made for future incidents of this type, and that the legal process will not in any way hinder their speedy deportation?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that case. It is vital that we ensure that there is appropriate provision for people who have been taking advantage of our generosity. I will therefore work with the Home Secretary to ensure that we have the facilities necessary to deal with situations such as the one that my hon. Friend’s constituents have had to face.

The Government recently announced that they were going ahead with a further 8.75% fee cut to criminal legal aid, the second in a year. The existing system, especially the online Crown Commercial Service system, is already wholly inadequate. What justification is there for further cuts, other than to further reduce access to justice for those most in need?

May I first welcome the hon. Lady to the House?

It is important that we recognise that we have one of the most generous legal aid budgets in the world, and that it needs to be sustainable. It has to be fair to the people who need legally aided advice, fair to the providers and fair to the taxpayer, who ultimately pays for it. As far as the latest 8.75% cut is concerned, we have made sure that there will be proper access for all those who need legal advice.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues, but time is against us and we must now move on.