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Written Statements

Volume 699: debated on Tuesday 11 March 2008

Written Statements

Tuesday 11 March 2008

Courts: Leeds Magistrates' Court

My right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Jack Straw) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

On 29 November, I informed the House (Official Report, Commons, col., WS 172) that I had formally commissioned Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Courts Administration (HMICA) to lead a thorough inspection and prepare a report to Ministers into the “resulting” and warrant processes at Leeds magistrates’ court.

I have today placed a copy of that report in the Libraries of both Houses and published it on the Ministry of Justice website at www.justice.gov.uk/news/announcements110308a.htm. Copies are also available in the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office.

The concerns about Leeds magistrates' court relate to two issues: recording the results of cases within the courts system and subsequently, in the case of recordable offences, updating the police national computer (PNC). “Resulting” is the term used for this within the courts system. The second related issue centres on a process used for withdrawing warrants issued by the court for the arrest of defendants who failed to appear in court, which were identified during investigations into court resulting in Leeds.

I accept all of the findings and recommendations of the inspectorates’ report. The Government are already acting upon them.

As a result of these investigations disciplinary action has been initiated against members of staff at Leeds magistrates’ court who are implicated in these matters and in respect of those covered by a separate judicial report to the Lord Chief Justice. 

At the time of these failings, these matters were the responsibility of West Yorkshire magistrates’ courts committee (MCC).  MCCs were independent local committees, formed almost entirely of magistrates, responsible for the “effective and efficient administration of their courts”. The Government abolished MCCs in April 2005 through the implementation of the Courts Act 2003, following a review of the criminal courts in England and Wales by Sir Robin Auld.

Following the creation of Her Majesty’s Courts Service (HMCS) in 2005, anxieties expressed by West Yorkshire Police led HMCS to uncover evidence of historic failings at Leeds magistrates’ court. I commissioned the inspectorates to undertake their investigations to ensure that all of the historic issues had been identified and that systems were in place to ensure that any mistakes of the past would not be repeated. HMCS has co-operated fully with the inspection and has assisted them in uncovering the full scale of the historic problems at Leeds.

The inspectorates’ report paints a lamentable picture of the historic failure at Leeds magistrates’ court properly to record the results of court adjudication, dating back to 1980 with the vast majority occurring between 2001 and 2004.  

These failures led to:

a large number of adjudications not being recorded accurately at the time, or at all, meaning that the results for these cases may now have been lost;

the creation and use of a disk to store cases with missing adjudications (following the introduction of a new computer system);

the creation of artificial court registers on four occasions in 2002.  This meant inputting in respect of large batches of cases as: “entered in error”—or “audit cleardown” as an “administrative solution to remove unresulted cases from the court computer system” (page 16 of the inspectorates’ report);

the manufacturing of fabricated court adjudications on at least one occasion in 2004 involving 12 defendants and 27 offences where legal advisers made up the results by “guessing the result of the case where the true court adjudication could not be traced” (page 17 of the Inspectorates’ report); and

a situation where a prolific offender could have been sentenced to imprisonment twice for the same offence. Investigations are continuing into whether this meant the offender served additional time in prison. If there has been an error the defendant will be informed. 

The inspectorates conclude that there are now 2,206 defendants currently missing an adjudication, covering 3,260 offences of which 1,568 were recordable on the PNC. The report itself sets out the full number and nature of cases involved and describes a systematic covering up of errors.

Warrant withdrawals

A warrant is an order from a court for an individual to be arrested and brought back to the court, or to be bailed to attend a future court hearing. The warrant system is fundamental to the effective operation of the criminal justice system. In any court area a large number of warrants are issued. Some of these will be quite properly withdrawn (for example, where the defendant gives himself up voluntarily, is imprisoned by another court, has died, or the warrant has proved impossible to execute over a considerable period). 

The inspectorates also confirm considerable irregularities in the process for the withdrawal of warrants. This process had been agreed in a protocol between Leeds magistrates’ court, the West Yorkshire police and West Yorkshire CPS and was implemented between 2003-04 (see appendix 12). This was uncovered by HMCS in November 2007. Under this protocol, where there were no objections, warrants were to be withdrawn in bulk with no evidence that each case was given proper consideration by the court. This reduced the judicial warrant withdrawal process into an administrative act. This was intended to “get rid of the significant number of outstanding warrants”  (see appendix 12).

This led to warrants being withdrawn in relation to 555 defendants representing 1709 offences. Many of these offences were for low-level matters (for example, minor driving offences).  However, 67 defendants also had the record of their convictions withdrawn in relation to a total of 115 recordable offences (offences that need to be recorded on the PNC).

The inspectors have confirmed that HMCS at Leeds has now improved the controls in place to manage the number of unresulted court adjudications and all court adjudications are now included in the court register.

The inspectorates have also confirmed that there is no evidence of inappropriate warrant withdrawal or failures in the resulting process at Leeds since 2004. However, they have identified weaknesses in the underlying processes at Leeds (in relation to the quality and assurance of in court record). HMCS has already begun to implement these improvements. The inspectorates commend, “the willingness of HM Courts Service to accept responsibility for the failings at Leeds magistrates’ court even though they happened before the creation of HMCS in 2005” and the commitment to:  “fully identify and rectify all of the failures learning lessons as appropriate and engaging openly with the process”. 

Work will continue to identify results for the outstanding cases and progress has already been made to resolve and result the most serious offences. The results of 62 of the most serious offences have already been found and verified (and I can confirm the outcome of cases were appropriately resulted in the Crown Court).

The criminal justice agencies in West Yorkshire are establishing processes to review all of the warrants and proceedings withdrawn and, where appropriate, bring them before a formally constituted court. In line with the recommendations of the inspectorates a new inter-agency warrant withdrawal protocol is now in place in West Yorkshire.  In addition, we will revise the national guidance on warrant withdrawal, issued in 2006, to reinforce the key lessons learnt from the report. 

HMCS continues to work with the other agencies to seek the missing adjudications and resolve what should happen in relation to the withdrawn warrants.

Crime: Community Punishment

My right honourable friend the Minister of State (David Hanson) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

The Government have always been clear that prison is and will remain the place for violent and dangerous offenders, whilst there are many less serious offenders for whom community punishments can be more effective penalties than short prison sentences. Such offenders can be required to do unpaid work of real benefit, and provide some payback to the communities they have wronged. They can be subject to tagging, curfews and intensive supervision where appropriate and receive targeted interventions to tackle any drug, alcohol, mental health and offending behaviour requirements. Reoffending rates for offenders subject to community punishments are lower than those for short-sentenced prisoners.  Community punishments can be more cost-effective and can offer more opportunities for rehabilitation than short-term sentences, dealing with the offence and the causes of offending behaviour. We have therefore made very significant investment in probation—a 67 per cent real terms increase since 1997, and well over six million of hours of unpaid community payback done by offenders in 2006.

Recently, however there has been an increase in numbers of offenders sentenced to short periods of custody, something which inevitably created pressure on the prison service. I can therefore today announce that the Government are allocating further funds, including £40 million to probation in 2008-09, so that sentencers can be confident that the resources are in place to deliver effective community punishments.

The funds will be allocated in support of a specific delivery plan by probation areas. We will monitor the impact of these resources closely to ensure that they are spent in support of those sentenced to community orders rather than short prison sentences.

EU: Defence Ministers’ Informal Meeting

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

I represented the UK at an informal meeting of the EU Defence Ministers held on 21 and 22 February 2008 in Brdo, Slovenia. It provided an important opportunity for discussions on EU operations, capabilities and co-operation between the EU, NATO and the UN.

Ministers underlined their support to the upcoming ESDP mission to Kosovo, including the importance of the EU delivering results on the ground and liaising closely with NATO and the UN. Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe (DSACEUR), General Sir John McColl, briefed Ministers on Operation ALTHEA in Bosnia-Herzegovina, noting that the security situation remained good and that there was continued progress on implementing the remaining military tasks under the Dayton agreement. The EU Force (EUFOR) Chad Operational Commander, Lt General Pat Nash briefed Ministers on the security situation in Chad, noting that deployment of EUFOR had resumed following a temporary suspension due to rebel activity. Ministers discussed the continuing force generation for the mission and the need for the mission to remain impartial and co-operate closely with the UN.

Ministers also discussed the EU's military capabilities, including the use of EU battlegroups and the need to tackle capability gaps, in particular helicopters. I emphasised that addressing capability shortfalls required political will and effective investment from nations, and that the European Defence Agency had a role to play if it worked effectively with NATO.

In the final session, Ministers discussed EU-NATO and EU-UN co-operation, with particular focus on the importance of effective co-operation in Afghanistan where EU Police Mission (EUPOL) personnel were being deployed alongside NATO forces in provincial reconstruction teams. I emphasised that it was imperative to ensure clear understandings between the EU and NATO where they were operating alongside each other in operational theatres like Afghanistan.

Playing Fields

My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Gerry Sutcliffe) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

I have today deposited in the House Libraries a press release detailing the latest position in relation to school and community playing fields. The position remains a very positive one with 97 per cent of concluded planning applications for 2005-06 representing a net benefit or no change to sporting provision. These figures confirm that the Government are meeting their commitment to protect playing fields. I also want to draw attention to a revision of one aspect of the data from previous years due to the discovery of a technical error which I set out in the press notice (also available online at www.culture.gov.uk).

The Government’s policy is clear—no sports playing field needed by the community should be lost. And the figures collated by Sport England and released today show that our tough protections are working. They reveal that there were no complete losses of playing fields in 2005-06 without replacement provision or net benefit to sporting provision where Sport England has objected to a planning application and where planning permission has been granted against their advice.

The figures do not include information on new playing fields created outside of Sport England’s statutory role, for example through new housing development in growth areas (which is often built on brown field or previously arable land), but where we know from anecdotal evidence that there are positive gains.

Prisons: Drugs

My right honourable friend the Minister of State (David Hanson) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

I am announcing today that David Blakey CBE QPM, formerly Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary, has been appointed to lead a review of the Prison Service’s measures to disrupt the supply of illicit drugs into prisons.

It is of significant concern that on average 55 per cent of people entering prison have a serious drug misuse problem, with this figure rising to 80 per cent in some instances. Many have offended to fund their need for drugs. Inevitably, their desire for illicit drugs does not simply disappear when they enter prison. As a result, the Prison Service faces major challenges in trying to respond to prisoners’ attempts to secure access to illicit drugs. The Prison Service has a range of measures in place to tackle this issue—ranging from the searching of visitors to work with the police to identify criminal networks intent on supply drugs into particular prisons.

The level of drug positives detected by the random mandatory drug testing programme in prisons has fallen by nearly two-thirds since its introduction in 1996-97 from 24.4 per cent to 8.8 per cent in 2006-07. This is thanks to a number of initiatives including the introduction of mandatory drug testing, better detox, better treatment, CCTV surveillance of visits, increased used of closed visits, more drug dogs and improved security performance on searching and intelligence.

My right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Jack Straw) announced on 31 January 2008 (Official Report, Commons, 37WS) that further measures will now be considered to further develop this work. This will include reviewing the criteria for open/closed visits across the prison estate, with a particular focus on local prisons.

The review will look at introducing more rigorous searches, including the provision of more sniffer/search dogs.  Mr Blakey has been asked by the director general of the Prison Service to conduct a review of the measures in place to tackle the supply of illicit drugs into prisons. The terms of reference are:

to review the effectiveness of HM Prison Service’s measures for disrupting the supply of illicit drugs in prisons;

to make recommendations to improve the effectiveness of HM Prison Service’s measures for disrupting the supply of illicit drugs in prisons. Recommendations should take account of the legal, financial and practical limitations appertaining to HM Prison Service’s operating environment; and

to make recommendations regarding what additional measures might be possible, and at what cost, if resources were available for additional investment.

The review report will be submitted to the director-general by 31 May.

Schools: Admissions

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

Today the Schools Minister has made a Statement on parental preferences and school admissions for 2008, and published, for the first time, data, local authority by local authority, on the allocation of school places by parental preference.

This is the first year that places have been allocated under the new school admissions code which was introduced by the Education and Inspections Act 2006 and came into force in February 2007.

The new school admissions code prohibits those criteria and practices that could be used by schools to unfairly select children. The new code has been widely welcomed across the education sector and by faith groups.

All admission authorities, which comprise local authorities and the governing bodies of schools which are their own admission authority, are required to act in accordance with the code. This means they must comply with its mandatory provisions and take account of its guidelines when setting their arrangements. Admission authorities must also comply with other aspects of the law, such as the prohibition on interviews and the requirement to give highest priority to children in care.

Under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, schools have a duty to publish their admissions arrangements for consultation and, under the code, local authorities have duties to refer arrangements they believe to be unlawful or unfair to the schools adjudicator. He then has the power to change unfair and unlawful arrangements.

Admission authorities were required to consult on their proposed arrangements for 2008 by 1 March 2007. After this the arrangements had to be determined by 15 April and then published within two weeks to allow any objections to be lodged with the schools adjudicator. The period for objections was six weeks long and expired in June 2007. The schools adjudicator, in his annual report, published on 1 November 2007, revealed that he had received 79 objections about admission arrangements that did not comply with the code or the law.

Under the legislation, the responsibility for ensuring schools comply with the code rests with local authorities and the governing bodies of own-admission authority schools. However, in December 2007 we said in our children’s plan that we would monitor the impact of the code. In January, the Schools Minister Jim Knight wrote to all admission authorities and local authorities reminding them that they must comply fully with their statutory requirements.

In January, I also asked officials to undertake, for the first time and for internal purposes, an analysis of the published admission arrangements for 2008 in three local authority areas in order to sample the level of compliance. Having considered the evidence gathered from this sample I believe it is right that it should be made public and acted upon now.

We examined the published admission arrangements for three areas—Northamptonshire, Manchester and Barnet—on the basis that these represented a London borough, a shire county and a metropolitan authority for which no objections had been referred to the schools adjudicator.

Initial evidence across these three local authorities suggests that the large majority of schools appear to be complying with the code, including an overwhelming majority of academies and schools where local authorities are the admission authority. However, a significant minority of schools in our sample appear not to be compliant with the code, of which a disproportionate number are voluntary aided or foundation schools.

Practices revealed in our survey which are non-compliant with the code include: schools asking parents to commit to making financial contributions as a condition of admission; not giving looked after children the priority required by law; asking about the marital status, occupational or financial status of parents; giving priority on the basis of family members who are not siblings attending the school; and interviewing children.

The department has now written to each of the three local authorities covered by this initial work, and to the governing bodies of all voluntary aided and foundation schools in these areas that appear not to have complied with the code or the law, asking them to verify what we have found. Once verified, we will present the detailed information to Parliament.

However, it is right, based on this initial evidence that we take immediate steps now to ensure that all schools across the country that are not currently complying with the law are fully compliant for their 2009 admissions; in addition, and based upon advice from leading counsel, there are steps I can take now affecting the 2008 admissions procedures to ensure greater compliance with the code but without disrupting and delaying the current process of admissions in a way that would be unfair and disproportionate, adversely affecting parents, children and schools across the country.

Strengthening the admissions system for 2009

All admission authorities should by now have completed consultation on their proposed admission arrangements for September 2009 and must determine their arrangements by 15 April 2008. Local authorities have a duty under the code to refer objections to the schools adjudicator and I expect them to act where it appears that determined admission arrangements do not comply with the statutory requirements.

Other admission authorities, admissions forums and parents also have the power to object, and from this year religious authorities also have the power to object to the admission arrangements of schools for which they are responsible. The major faith bodies welcomed the code, and I know that they want to play their part in ensuring all schools adopt arrangements that are transparent and fair.

We will now take the following steps:

Strengthening the role of local authorities

It is right and in keeping with their responsibility as commissioners of children’s services that local authorities have oversight of admission policies in their areas. We will introduce an amendment to the Education and Skills Bill at Report stage to place a further duty on local authorities to report each year on the legality, fairness and effectiveness of all school admission arrangements in their area. The report will be sent to the adjudicator after the admission arrangements have been determined and before the end of the proposed new statutory objections period. This will ensure that admission forums and parents are properly informed and the schools adjudicator has the information he needs to investigate and ensure compliance with the code.

Improving Admission Forums

Admission forums have a vital role in monitoring admission arrangements. We will consult in the coming months on what further steps we can take to ensure that forums operate as effectively as possible.

Consulting and engaging communities and parents more effectively

Admission arrangements should be subject to proper scrutiny and discussion at local level while they are being determined. This should include an effective consultation that includes all those who have an interest in admission policies, especially parents, and when major changes are proposed. We will also amend the Education and Skills Bill at Report stage to take powers to enhance consultation arrangements and will consult on detailed proposals in the summer.

Properly informing parents

To ensure all parents are properly informed about their rights in this system, we will publish a guide for parents on the admission and appeals codes early next month. This will set out what parents can expect from the admissions system; give them information on how to object to admission arrangements that appear not to comply with the law; and signpost them to information and support when applying for schools. The guide will also outline the admission appeals process.

Extending the role of the Schools Adjudicator

To ensure that parents and local authorities have sufficient time to check proposed arrangements and to refer an objection we will urgently seek to amend regulations to extend the period in which objections may be referred from six weeks to 16 weeks starting from this year 2008. I am also asking the schools adjudicator to report to me on steps he is taking to ensure compliance with the statutory requirements in respect of 2009 admission arrangements and annually thereafter.

Immediate steps for 2008 admissions

There are some important steps we can take now affecting the 2008 admissions across the country.

For any school that is imposing financial obligations on parents I want to be clear that this practice must stop immediately. Parents must not be required to pay any contribution to the school as a condition of admission whatever they may have agreed to do when making their application. Any school that has asked parents to make a financial contribution as a condition of admission must make clear to those parents now that such a payment is not mandatory.

I also expect all local authorities immediately to ensure that the most vulnerable children, those in care or with statements of SEN are placed in the most appropriate school as required by law, whatever admissions criteria may have been used.

The evidence we have collected and are now verifying suggests that the large majority of schools are complying with the code this year. I want to ensure that every school complies with the code in 2009. The measures I have announced today will help ensure that every parent has a fair chance of getting their child a place at a school of their choice, and that no parent or child will be disadvantaged by unfair admission arrangements.

Schools: Admissions

My honourable friend the Minister of State for Schools and 14-19 Learners (Jim Knight) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

The Information as to Provision of Education (England) Regulations 2008, which were laid before Parliament on 15 January, committed the Government for the first time to publishing data, local authority by local authority, on how many families received an offer of a place at one of their preferred schools. This Statement fulfils that commitment. On Monday 3 March, which was national offer day, nearly 570,000 families found out where their children will start secondary school this September.

Today we are publishing data, showing that across the country 81.6 per cent of families received an offer at their first preference school, 8.9 per cent were offered a place at their second preference school and 93.9 per cent were offered a place at one of their three preferred schools. These figures are based on returns from 138 out of 149 local authorities. In addition, we are publishing unverified data from a further 11 local authorities and, once verified, we will publish further updates to Parliament.

The new school admissions code prohibits the oversubscription criterion known as “first preference first”, where schools gave higher priority to those who put them down as their first preference. For many parents this effectively meant that only their first preference mattered, and if they did not gain a place at their first preference school they risked wasting their other preferences.

Now this practice is no longer part of the admissions process, and parents are no longer deterred from expressing their true preferences we might have expected the proportion of first preferences offered to reduce. However, comparing data collected this year with the results of a survey conducted last year, the proportion of families gaining a place at their first preference school has remained broadly the same and, furthermore, there has been an improvement in the numbers of families obtaining an offer at one of their preferred schools.

There is considerable variation nationally. In the majority of local authority areas, more than 80 per cent of parents have been offered a place in their first preference school. By way of contrast 64 per cent of parents in Greater London have been offered a place at their first preference school.

Where parents do not receive an offer of a place at their first preference school, this does not necessarily mean that they are dissatisfied with their second or third preference. Recent research by Sheffield Hallam University revealed that where a child secured a place at their first preference school, 95 per cent of parents were satisfied and where they did not, 82 per cent were satisfied.

We are concerned about the small percentage of parents without an offer corresponding to any preference. We expect local authorities to analyse the reasons for this and to work with families, schools and, where appropriate, their neighbouring authorities to ensure that all parents are able to express meaningful preferences.

We cannot guarantee that every parent will be offered a place in their first preference school. Nevertheless, because of the huge strides we have taken in improving secondary schools, many more families find themselves in the position of being able to choose from a number of good schools for their children. Our first priority is to ensure that all schools are good schools.

Making a reality of choice for all families means creating more good schools and refusing to accept low standards. Today, there are far more good schools than in 1997 and standards have gone up across the board. There are now 891 secondary schools where 70 per cent or more children gain five A*-C GCSEs, compared to 83 in 1997. We are enabling the best schools to export their formula for success and support their local communities by partnering other schools in their area, sponsoring academies, or forming trusts. Our aim is to ensure that there are good school places across the country and in the right places for parents to choose from.

Ten years ago, a child had a 50:50 chance of going to a low-performing secondary school, which was unacceptable. Since then, the number of schools with under 25 per cent of pupils with five good GCSEs has dropped from 616 to 17. Furthermore, we have announced the national challenge to lift all 638 schools not achieving 30 per cent five A*-Cs at GCSE including English and maths above that threshold by 2012. Options for schools include becoming an academy, joining a trust, federating with a high performing school or receiving intensive support from experienced head teachers.

Parents have the right of appeal against any application that has been turned down; and, over the summer, local authorities and schools will be re-allocating places that become available where others have moved address or chosen a different education for their children. We are also working to ensure that the admission process is fair and transparent for all parents and children.

UK Border Agency

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department (Jacqui Smith) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

The Government are committed to the swift establishment of a UK Border Agency (UKBA), which will bring together the work of the Border and Immigration Agency, UK Visas and parts of HM Revenue and Customs at the border. The new agency will work very closely with the police and other law enforcement agencies to improve border controls and security. We will shortly publish our detailed plans for the UKBA's first year of operation, but we are able today to announce key measures to ensure an immediate and seamless operation between the police and the new UKBA.

First, to strengthen effective police co-ordination at a strategic level I am announcing that chief constable Roger Baker of Essex Police will join the UKBA board with immediate effect.

Secondly, to add to the 3,000 police permanently based at our borders, 39 new specialist posts at ports will be funded in 2008-09 to increase Special Branch coverage where it is most needed.

Thirdly, we will publish in April a new framework for inter-agency co-operation at the border. This can progress more quickly than further structural change either within the police service themselves or between the police and the UK Border Agency.

Fourthly, I can confirm that we will seek a new legislative basis and new powers for the UKBA as part of our Immigration Bill in the autumn.

Fifthly, the Government will be discussing with police forces and authorities whether change is necessary in the current regime for special funding of Special Branch posts at ports and airports with a view to implementing a new regime from 2009-10. The Government are also considering how to implement the conclusions of the independent report into airport policing, with the aim of clarifying the roles and responsibilities of the police, airport operators and other agencies to deliver a high level of security at UK airports and we will set out proposals on this later in the year.

Finally, in response to a recommendation in the Cabinet Office report Security in a Global HubEstablishing the UK's New Border Arrangements published last November, the Home Office is working with the Association of Chief Police Officers for England, Wales and Northern Ireland to consider how policing—which is currently delivered by the local force for each port and airports—may best be organised to deliver a fuller level of integration at the border, taking into consideration the drive for greater collaboration which is at the heart of the Government's programme for improving protective services. There are various models.

The Home Office will also be discussing with the Scottish devolved Administration and the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland ways of strengthening working relationships between the Scottish police service and the new agency taking into account the devolved nature of policing in Scotland.