Topical Questions

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 3rd February 2009.

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Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Chair of Parliamentary Campaigns; Shadow Defence Minister 2:30 pm, 3rd February 2009

If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am pleased to tell the House that this morning, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Maria Eagle, announced further progress building on the implementation of the Corston report recommendations on women within the criminal justice system. Some £15.5 million of new money will be spent over two years on additional services in the community for women, with the aim of cutting their reoffending and reducing the need to imprison women convicted of less serious offences.

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Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Chair of Parliamentary Campaigns; Shadow Defence Minister

That is very welcome, but when innocent people are wrongly imprisoned, it is a traumatic experience that can scar them for life. When they are released, they often receive little support other than a helpline, which is welcome but not sufficient. Will the Minister meet me, a cross-party delegation of Members and Paddy Hill and Gerry Conlon of the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation, to consider their proposal for a refuge that will give such people the residential, in-depth support that they need and deserve?

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Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments. Of course, I and my ministerial colleagues will happily meet him, because how individuals are reintegrated back into society, particularly when they have been proved innocent, is an important issue.

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Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

The Public Administration Committee has called for a mandatory register of lobbying activity by professional lobbyists, companies and pressure groups. I believe that there needs to be a legal duty to register in order to prevent lobbyists from claiming that they have a duty of confidentiality to their shareholders or clients. Will the Secretary of State consider legislating to create such a register in the forthcoming constitutional renewal Bill?

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

My hon. Friend will accept that the principal responsibility for the regulation of this House, as with the other place, lies with the House itself and not with Government. We look forward to recommendations from the Standards and Privileges Committee. It goes without saying that should there be a proposal for such changes that commands widespread support across the House, we shall consider it.

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Photo of Greg Mulholland Greg Mulholland Shadow Minister (Health)

Last year, the Secretary of State and I exchanged letters about the historic failings at Leeds magistrates court. He made it clear that all the answers that the public demanded would be provided. That has not happened and there is genuine consternation among the legal community in Leeds that the matter was tackled by scapegoating one individual. Some of the key answers to the problem, including what was meant by the fabrication of court outcomes and the number of convicted criminals who have not been followed up, have not been given to the people of Leeds. When will those answers be given?

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Let me make it clear that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Maria Eagle, who was the Minister responsible, and I did a huge amount of work on what happened in Leeds, which was a scandal. It arose when West Yorkshire magistrates courts committee ran the magistrates court service in Leeds; central Government had no direct responsibility whatsoever. It has fallen to us to sort out the mess that the lack of proper leadership, control and management by the magistrates courts committee and the officials in that system created. We have been trying to sort out the problem. Of course, I am happy to discuss with the hon. Gentleman any further information that should be released. I cannot comment on the disciplinary process, but the responsibility for a scandalous situation must rest where it began—in Leeds.

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Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

Is not it simply unacceptable for tax exiles to bankroll political parties? Will the Secretary of State support the amendments that I have tabled to the Political Parties and Elections Bill to make the practice unlawful?

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

When it comes to Report, we will actively consider precisely what my hon. Friend proposes.

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Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

Recent events have shown the clear and urgent need to clean up our political system, so I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State say that he will consider introducing measures that command widespread support. May I therefore urge him to include in the constitutional renewal Bill a provision that has widespread support and for which the House has already voted—that for an elected House of Lords?

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The House has indeed already voted on that proposal, as it has on the proposal for an 80 per cent. elected House of Lords. We have moved to a substantial cross-party consensus, as the White Paper, which I published last July, shows. Although we can introduce some measures in the remainder of this Parliament, conducting a full-blooded, root-and-branch reform of the House of Lords at this stage would be pushing it without full support from all parties.

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Photo of John Heppell John Heppell Labour, Nottingham East

The Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 came into force only in November. Although I acknowledge that it is still early days, has the Secretary of State made any assessment of its effectiveness and progress?

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Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice

My hon. Friend makes the fair point that the Act is very young. We will keep a close eye on it and monitor its success. Eleven cases have been considered under it since November, including that of a 16-year-old and, of course, that of the doctor who was returned from Bangladesh. Even in a short time, the Act has already been successful in ensuring that those who are vulnerable and coerced into a marriage against their will are given the protection of the law.

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Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Shadow Minister (Scotland)

The Justice Secretary is answerable to the House for party funding. An investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the Electoral Commission has already found the right hon. Gentleman to have broken his own law, and he is currently under investigation by the Electoral Commission for perhaps taking an impermissible donation. Given that he is in charge of trying to reform party donations and Parliament, would not being found guilty a second time undermine his credibility? Should he not seriously consider his position?

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The hon. Gentleman has made two complaints against me. In the first case, there was a breach, but the Standards and Privileges Committee found it to be wholly inadvertent, and I apologised for it. If he is proceeding with the second, that will be the subject of investigation in the normal way.

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Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

Does the Secretary of State share my pleasure at the public comments of the new Director of Public Prosecutions about the possibility of having more openness in the criminal justice system, by letting in the TV cameras in more circumstances than we currently allow? Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should let in the TV cameras to open up the criminal justice system to a wider audience?

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I of course commend the new director's policy of greater openness. However, there are slightly complicated issues when it comes to having cameras in trial courts. The proceedings of the Law Lords at the point of judgment are already televised and the proceedings of the supreme court, when it starts across the road in October, will also be televised. However, the House would wish to consider long and hard before going down the route of some but not all American states and televising court proceedings. That could cause many more problems than it would seek to solve.

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Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

In an earlier answer, to my hon. Friend Miss McIntosh, the Justice Secretary accepted that sometimes the sentencing guidelines were not being followed in cases of shop theft. Does he feel that they are being adequately followed for burglary? We have recently seen a rise in the number of burglaries, which is not a minor offence but a serious one that causes a great deal of pain and disruption. Is there any more that he can do to try to reduce its incidence in that respect?

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I say two things on burglary. One is that the decline in burglary over the past 12 years has been dramatic—it has gone down by, I think, more than 40 per cent. That has been a great success on the part of the police and the local authorities—we claim some credit for it, too—and a very important change in making people's dwelling houses far less vulnerable. Secondly, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, recently led the Court of Appeal criminal division to issue what amounts to very strong guidance to sentencers on burglary, particularly burglary of a dwelling. I think that we will see a toughening up of sentencing for burglary, and quite appropriately, too.

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Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

The Government have put an enormous effort into speeding up judicial processes and strengthening the rights of victims. In respect of consumer protection legislation, does the Secretary of State think that there is a greater role for local authority trading standards authorities to play in mediating between consumers who feel aggrieved by a supplier of goods and services? Would that not be a way of keeping more cases out of court and of moving more quickly towards the speedy resolution of disputes?

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

There is great merit in the suggestion that my hon. Friend makes and I will certainly consider it, along with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

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Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

May I draw the Secretary of State's attention to Question 19 and ask whether he will allow Bournemouth's court cells to be used by Bournemouth's police to detain suspected offenders? The police cells and the court cells are part of the same building. More police cells are being built, but unfortunately they currently get full—for example on a Friday night—and the police have to drive those who have been arrested all the way to Weymouth. There seems to be a lot of red tape, so I would be grateful if the Secretary of State looked into that.

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Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I hope that I can offer the hon. Gentleman a helpful answer. Dorset police force has been given permission to use the cells at Bournemouth magistrates court at weekends during peak summer months, pending the completion of its custody suite. The points that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned are valid, and the cells in Bournemouth will have a greater call on them than is normal, particularly during the summer.

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Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

What effect will the reclassification of cannabis have on the overcrowding of our jails?

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I doubt that it will have any particular effect. As my hon. Friend knows, the reclassification has led to a proposal that for a first offence, a penalty notice would be issued, consistent with the guidelines for penalty notices.

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Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster Shadow Minister (International Development)

Why does the Secretary of State's Department refuse to engage with local communities when deciding on new locations for bail hostels?

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Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

The Department and ClearSprings do engage with local councils. I have been very clear that since June last year, we have had to have discussions with the local council, the local police and the local probation board. From all such properties throughout England and Wales, roughly 7 per cent. of houses have attracted complaints from local councils or other organisations or individuals to date. The scheme is working quite successfully throughout the country, although in some small instances there will be difficulties.

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Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

Will the Justice Secretary reflect on the fact that, when a Prime Minister parachutes somebody into the House of Lords simply because he requires that person to be a Minister, it seems absurd and unfair to ordinary citizens that that person should remain a Member of Parliament in perpetuity? Surely those Ministers should cease to be Members of the House of Lords when, after 12 months, they give up? There is a precedent for this, because the bishops are not there for life—they are there only for the duration of their time as a diocesan bishop—and the same applies to the Law Lords. If my right hon. Friend agrees about this, can we incorporate the appropriate measures into this great legislative reform, when we get round to it?

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

It goes without saying that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's appointments of Ministers who have then been promoted to the House of Lords have involved people who can make a continuing contribution to the other place

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

For many years to come. However, there is much in my hon. Friend's point, and it was considered at some length by the joint cross-party group on House of Lords reform, which I chaired. I am quite sure that it will be an issue when—not if—this House finally considers the whole issue of House of Lords reform.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change

Given how few Government Bills have been programmed for this Session, will the Lord Chancellor proceed to introduce legislation if those on the Conservative Front Bench confirm their agreement to replacing an unelected second Chamber with an elected second Chamber?

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

If the hon. Gentleman looked around him, he would see that what he is proposing is a hypothesis that is unlikely to turn into a reality.

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Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

Will the Lord High Chancellor go very cautiously on that one? Will he also accept that, in the Bill introduced into the other place by Lord Steel, a number of anomalies in the present House—which is a very good House—are addressed? Will he support Lord Steel's Bill, as the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee has commended?

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I accept that a number of discrete proposals in the Bill are certainly worthy of support across the House. As the hon. Gentleman knows, however, the reason all three parties in this House have been reluctant to support Lord Steel's Bill is the high suspicion that his real purpose was to kick any greater reform of the House of Lords into touch. Many of us think that some of his proposed changes are necessary, but that they are by no means a sufficient part of a major reform of the Lords.

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