Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 23rd March 2010.
If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.
I would like to draw the House's attention to the publication that we issued yesterday, "Declarations of Interests: Guidance for Parliamentary election candidates", which was produced in response to a recommendation of the Committee on Standards in Public Life on MPs' expenses and allowances. It follows consultation with the other parties and amendments to take account of their concerns. I hope that it has the full support of the House.
Will the Justice Secretary indicate what action he is taking to give communities more of a say in the criminal justice system? In particular, will he say what work is being done in West Lancashire?
Yes, I can. We now have community payback, which involves offenders in high-visibility jackets. It is popular with the public-they can now see community punishments taking place-and it is accepted by offenders as part of punishment. There are five such schemes taking place in my hon. Friend's area. There is the Far Cotton alley gates scheme, the Camp Hill lighting scheme, the Safer Lumbertubs initiative and many other projects, all of which are improving the quality of life for her constituents.
It has been reported that Ian Huntley, who murdered two little girls, can claim £20,000 in compensation from the Ministry of Justice for having been attacked by a fellow inmate. Does the Secretary of State think that that is fair and just?
There is no way in which I can prevent prisoners from making statements through their lawyers in the newspapers, but I can say, very emphatically, that any such claim would be vigorously and very thoroughly resisted. My sentiments are the same as those of the hon. Gentleman and, I think, the House as a whole. I also point out that we have taken active steps to restrict the availability of legal assistance to prisoners, because it was subject to abuse, and it is now being severely restricted.
Will the Justice Secretary commission fresh medical evidence on pleural plaques, because it has come to light that the medical evidence on which he relied in coming to his judgment on pleural plaques came from a professor who openly admits that he has never come into contact with a pleural plaques victim?
We are always ready to look at further evidence, although it obviously has to come from those who are medically expert in this field. However, the evidence that we had to take into account was a report by the chief medical officer for England, along with a parallel report by the medical advisers to the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council.
Does the Secretary of State agree that violence at Her Majesty's Prison Frankland has affected not only Huntley and other inmates, but prison officers? Can he tell us what steps are being taken to deal with violence and dangerous weapons in Frankland?
First, I want to pay tribute in the House, as I have done privately in letters, to the three prison officers who have been injured, one of whom, Mr. Wilde, has been severely injured. Fortunately, such attacks on, and injuries to, prison officers are not frequent, but when they do take place, they are terrible for individuals, their families and their colleagues at work. They are also a reminder of the inherent danger that prison officers face, particularly in category A high-risk prisons. A lockdown is taking place at the moment-it takes two or three days in high-risk, high-category prisons. It involves going all the way through the prison searching for any kind of weapons. Other measures are also in place to ensure that those two incidents, which we believe are unrelated-but that is the subject of an investigation-do not happen again.
Given that, in recent years, overall crime rates have been falling, while the number of people in prison has been increasing, what assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the possibility of reducing the prison population by half, and what impact does he think that would have on overall crime rates?
I know that it is a dream of Mr. Grieve to get the prison population down to what it was in 1993-44,000 instead of 84,000.
The hon. Gentleman says that they want to do it by linking it to a fall in crime. However, I am clear, and so is my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, that one of the reasons why we have been the first Government since the war to get crime consistently down, rather than up, is that we have been locking up serious, dangerous and persistent offenders for longer; they are being taken out of the system. That is how hon. Members' communities, and mine, have been made safe. Letting out 40,000 prisoners would be a way of making the country even more dangerous than when the Conservatives were last in power.
Returning to the Secretary of State's admirably robust response to my hon. Friend Mr. Bone, will he confirm that this would be compensation culture gone absolutely mad, and will he also confirm that there are no conceivable circumstances in which a prisoner could receive compensation for violence-
Order. I think we have got the gist of it.
Were that to happen, of course it would be worthy of the description that the right hon. Gentleman has used. As I have said, however, all that has happened so far is that there has been a suggestion, apparently by the prisoner's lawyer, that he will seek compensation. I can tell the House as an absolute fact that that would be robustly and vigorously resisted by the Government, and we have absolutely no intention of making such compensation payments.
Cash-for-crash criminals and clipboard solicitors are causing our vehicle insurance premiums to rise astronomically. What action is my right hon. Friend's Department taking to try to prevent such cases from coming to court?
We are greatly tightening up on legal aid. Also, the major report by Lord Justice Jackson on fundamental reforms to the way in which legal costs are assessed should deal with some of the abuses to which my hon. Friend has referred.
Unlike in the United States, corporations and associations in this country are allowed to sue for libel rather than just for malicious falsehood. The Secretary of State's announcement this morning did not say that he was going to change that provision. Given the tendency of associations such as Nemesysco, Barclays, Tesco and the British Chiropractic Association to use our libel laws unjustly to restrict free speech, will he now consider such a change as part of libel law reform?
The announcement that I made this morning related to the publication of the report of the working group on defamation, which included representatives from both sides of the issue, as it were. I understand the case that the hon. Gentleman is making, although it is quite a complicated one. We are certainly happy to examine further his proposals, but I do not want to pre-empt the results of any such examination.
Next year will represent the centenary of the passing of the very first Parliament Act. Would not a good way to mark that occasion be to do what is provided for in the preamble to the Act-to legislate for a fully elected second Chamber of Parliament?
It would be a fine year in which to move towards a wholly or mainly elected second Chamber. This House agreed on such a move in free votes in March 2007, and it has also been the subject of broad all-party agreement in two sets of proceedings involving cross-party groups. I hope that it can be achieved.
Will the Secretary of State answer the substantive point raised by Andrew Stunell? Surely it cannot possibly be right that 2,400 prisoners serving indeterminate sentences who want to attend courses to address their reoffending behaviour are unable to do so. That cannot be either right or economic.
The Prisons Minister-the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend Maria Eagle-tells me that 69 per cent. of those prisoners have the opportunity to attend such courses. Following changes that I made in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 that led to a minimum tariff of two years-so that people were not on imprisonment for public protection tariffs for such a short time that they could not do courses-we are now ensuring that there is a greater opportunity for people to do these courses. But I come back to the point that the responsibility for showing that prisoners are no longer dangerous and that it is safe to release them rests fairly and squarely with those prisoners, and not with the Prison Service.
On the question of the Libyan who was released early from prison north of the border, what discussions, if any, has my right hon. Friend had with our country cousins north of the border, given that it is now eight months after that man's release, and that we were told at the time that he had only three months to live?
I have had no discussions with the Justice Secretary in Scotland about this. That is a separate jurisdiction; it made its own decision and must take responsibility for it.
I thank the Justice Secretary for the lockdown at Frankland prison in County Durham. Is he aware of recent similar incidents at young offenders institutions, whose prison officers are crying out for the tools to enable them to do their job properly? Will he conduct a thorough review of this issue to ensure that those prison officers can perform the tasks that we entrust them with?
The hon. Lady raises an important issue. I think that she is asking whether staves should be available to prison officers in young offenders institutions for under-18s. I received representations on that from YOI staff over about two years, and I conducted a review. This is quite a difficult issue, in terms of balance, and all the staff are agreed on that. In the event, I endorsed the existing policy, but I have looked into this very actively, and I promise her that it is a policy that has to be kept under active review.
Link workers are a primary source for prisoners on release, supporting their reintegration into the community. How are the Government supporting this group, ensuring that it is adequately resourced and not undermined?
We increasingly involve third sector and other organisations in offender management to make sure that proper arrangements are in place for those leaving prison, so that they do not fall down the cracks or between services and fail to get the support that they need. It is an increasing part of what we do.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the rules or legislation governing antisocial behaviour orders need to be looked at again in light of the serious percentage of reoffending taking place?
We are always looking at ways in which we can tighten up the legislation on antisocial behaviour orders. Before ASBOs were introduced-by me as Home Secretary in 1998, as it happens-there was no provision in the criminal law for dealing with persistent antisocial behaviour. ASBOs have been a successful tool available to local communities, police and the courts in dealing with this behaviour. Where someone breaches an ASBO, they commit an offence with a maximum sentence of five years. What we wish to see is these full powers being better used by the courts.
If a smug individual were to break a law, rule or regulation once, that is unfortunate; what advice would the Secretary of State give if they did so 37 times?
It makes that individual, whoever they may be, a persistent offender. Whether a community punishment or a short sentence would be appropriate is, I think, open to question. [Interruption.] I am therefore not surprised that the Liberal Democrats are opposing indeterminate sentences for public protection, which are, perhaps, what is needed.
I am grateful -[Interruption.] I am very grateful indeed for the support from the Conservative Benches. May I ask the Minister this very simple question? Are the Government going to accede to the request by Lord Hutton of
Unfortunately, I did not quite catch all of the hon. Gentleman's question. Insofar as I understood what it was about, the Government- [Interruption.]
Order. James Duddridge is in a state of almost uncontrollable excitement.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. As I was saying, insofar as I understood the hon. Gentleman's question, the answer is that the Ministry of Justice looks at each case on a case-by-case basis. As I have said to the hon. Gentleman, we can always look at matters again, and we will do so, if necessary.
What is the Secretary of State doing to address concerns from professionals, practitioners and the public alike about the staff shortages and massive casework increases in the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, including the problem of having a period of up to five months during which there has been no allocation of any guardian in a case involving vulnerable children?
I am not trying to excuse the situation, but may I gently point out that CAFCASS in England is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, while in Wales it is the responsibility of the Welsh Assembly Government? I will certainly take up the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has raised. I am aware of the pressure on CAFCASS, which has an impact, in turn, on the operation of the family courts, for which I am responsible.
Will the Secretary of State reassure my constituent whose relative was murdered by the Yorkshire Ripper many years ago that he will never be let out of prison, because of his heinous crimes?
I would like to provide that reassurance. I have to say to the hon. Lady and the House that ultimately that decision would be for the Parole Board and the courts, and perhaps mental health tribunals. However, I say to her, and through her to her constituent, that all the evidence I have seen in this case-it is a great deal-suggests to me that there are no circumstances in which that man will be released.
Under the Mental Capacity Act 2005, the court can determine that an adult does not have the right to decide where she lives, on the basis of the opinion of an expert appointed by the Official Solicitor. Do Ministers believe that a psychologist or psychiatrist should be required for such an assessment, or would a social worker be sufficient?
It is the job of the Court of Protection to make that assessment under the Mental Capacity Act 2005. The court will look in detail at the individual concerned and take a holistic approach to them. If it so wishes, it may choose to involve experts from across the piece, if appropriate. The hon. Gentleman might be interested to know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice has agreed with the president of the court that a review of its rules should take place, and that issue might be one of those that it considers.