I wanted to take this opportunity to thank the leadership of the criminal solicitors profession and the criminal Bar in England and Wales. Over the course of the summer, they felt it necessary to take action to show that they had legitimate concerns about the operation of reforms to legal aid. Thanks to the constructive dialogue that we have had with them and with Ministry of Justice civil servants, we are now in talks to ensure that access to justice can be enhanced and, at the same time, that the quality of advocacy improves.
According to newspaper reports, people recently subjected to the £150 basic criminal courts charge, which was introduced by the Secretary of State’s predecessor, on top of other penalties included a man who stole three bottles of baby milk and a homeless man who stole a bottle of Red Bull. Will the Secretary of State agree to an urgent review of the effect of that ludicrous charge on the recovery of compensation for victims, the pressure it puts on people to plead guilty, and its straightforward iniquity?
I have been made aware of widespread concern about the operation of the criminal courts charge, but it is important to stress that the charge is levied or taken from the offender only after other fines have been paid. It is important that the legislation is understood as having made it clear that the charge should be linked to ability to pay—the payment of that charge in due course should be linked to the offender’s means. We are going to review the criminal courts charge, but it is important not to rush to judgment, because we have to ensure that a change that was made and approved by the House in order to ensure that our justice system is fair, and that those who offended pay their way, is given time to bed in, so that we can form an appropriate judgment in due course.
Skegness court is one of the most underused in the country and one of the least able to cope with vulnerable prisoners. I am not sentimental about the building, but will the Minister assure me that we can still dispense justice locally in Skegness, perhaps in another facility?
I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. I very much look forward to hearing of any options he has when he responds to the consultation.
The National Audit Office has estimated that between 160,000 and 220,000 careworkers are illegally paid below the national minimum wage, but if they seek redress, those workers, without money, are expected to pay hundreds of pounds in employment tribunal fees. Does the Secretary of State accept that his Department’s tribunal fee policy makes a mockery of the Prime Minister talking tough on poverty pay?
I take the hon. Gentleman’s concerns very seriously. The Prime Minister last month made it clear that we will put in place new enforcement mechanisms to ensure that all employers live up to their responsibility to pay an appropriate wage for the job. That enforcement mechanism and that investigatory mechanism will ensure that those people, whom the hon. Gentleman and I both care about, are paid the right rate for the job.
Will the Minister with responsibility for prisons tell the House when the inquiry that is currently being held into allegations of a prisoner from Chelmsford prison engaging in sexual activity in an NHS hospital will be concluded? If the allegations, which were published in The Sun newspaper, are proved to be true, what action will be taken against the prison officers who were meant to be keeping an eye on that prisoner?
I agree with my right hon. Friend that what took place was completely unacceptable. I can tell him that very thorough investigations are currently taking place. They have not yet been concluded, although some staff have been suspended. I can also tell him that every governor has been written to in the strongest possible terms and told to take immediate action to ensure all escorts and bed watches are properly conducted.
When the criminal courts charge was introduced, Labour warned that the lack of judicial discretion would result in miscarriages of justice, with people pleading guilty to avoid additional cost. It concerns me that people may be pleading guilty to save money in the short term. That will have a longer term impact on employment opportunities. Does the Minister think that is right and fair?
I very much hope that if people are innocent, they will plead innocent. It is important to remember that the charge is levied at the end of all the other charges—costs, compensation, victims’ surcharge and so on. The charge is also based on ability to pay, so if people are having difficulty, they will not be forced to pay. If they do keep to their payments, no matter how minimal they are, then after two years the rest of the sum is actually scrapped.
Does my hon. Friend agree that on a complex constitutional Bill, such as the British Bill of Rights, it is important that time is taken and there is proper consultation so that all the issues can be considered, unlike in 1997 when the Human Rights Act was introduced?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I agree with him wholeheartedly. I know that he understands from his work at the Bar, which ranges from social housing to criminal law, the importance of getting the detail right. We look forward to hearing his contribution as the consultation and proposed legislation goes forward.
No firm decisions have been made at the moment. The consultation document has individual papers as far as each individual court is concerned. They are quite comprehensive. If the hon. Gentleman has issues and concerns, I am happy for him to write to me and I am happy to correspond with him while the consultation is taking place.
We obviously share my hon. Friend’s concerns about what happened at Rainsbrook. There was a rigorous inspection. There will be a further inspection and we will make absolutely sure that the new contractor maintains the highest possible standards.
We are very mindful of any potential impact of our reform on the Good Friday agreement and the wider settlement. We will pursue our reform of the Human Rights Act with those considerations in mind.
A key value of Tottenham magistrates court, which is earmarked for closure, has been the delivery of local, visible justice. Will the Department seriously consider Enfield’s civic centre, or other community buildings, so that young people in particular can see it as a place where first hearing youth courts can take place and deliver effective local justice?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s contribution. Yes, I am more than happy to consider other venues. I very much hope he will submit that suggestion, as well as any other venues that he may deem appropriate, formally to the consultation.
There are serious concerns about the proposed closure of St Helens county and magistrates court. It is a well- used, fit-for-purpose building and it was only in 2012 that £1.7 million was spent to accommodate the county court. The consultation document states that 95% of attendees will be able to travel within an hour, but no consideration has been given to outlying areas of our borough. Although there is a direct transit bus and rail, there is no direct—
I think we have probably got the thrust of it. It is a learning curve for new Members. It was a learning curve for me.
What, that I ever learnt? [Laughter.] Topical questions are supposed to be a little shorter.
I am pleased that the hon. Lady was able to get her contribution in at the end. As I said, this is a consultation and no firm decisions have been taken. I know she has written me a comprehensive letter, to which I have responded, but that was a while ago, so I am happy to have further correspondence with her, if necessary.
The Minister already knows my views on the unacceptability of the proposed closure of Lowestoft court. Is he aware that if the proposed closures of Lowestoft and Bury St Edmunds go ahead, Suffolk will be the worst English county in terms of magistrates courts per square mile, with one court covering 1,466 square miles, compared with 692 square miles in Norfolk, 355 square miles in Essex and 655 square miles in neighbouring Cambridgeshire?
It is clear that people in Suffolk are more law-abiding. My hon. Friend and I have of course met and corresponded, and I am happy to continue that engagement. No firm decisions have been taken, and I commend him for the conscientious way in which he speaks up for his constituents.
If the proposed closure of Scunthorpe magistrates and family court goes ahead, people living in Hibaldstow, Scawby and Redbourne will have to travel more than two and a half hours by public transport each way to access the courts system. Will the Minister take up the challenge from Mandy Talbot, the chair of the local bench, to come to Scunthorpe and look at the practical effects of these proposals on the delivery of local justice before he makes a decision?
As I have said a few times already this Question Time, it is intended that many people who currently travel to courts will not have to do so. Access to justice does not simply mean an actual physical presence in a court. If, however, the hon. Gentleman and his constituents want a meeting, I am more than happy to meet them.
I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. We will be treating all submissions carefully. No decisions have been made yet. We are proposing a radical new direction for the future of our courts system, and if sensible proposals are made, we will certainly consider them.
The Secretary of State will no doubt be aware that in their programme for government 2015-16 the Scottish Government said that they would abolish employment tribunal fees using powers to be devolved under the Scotland Bill. Will he now recognise that the introduction of those fees has prevented access to justice and follow the Scottish Government’s lead by abolishing those fees across the UK so that all workers in the UK can afford to have their cases heard?
I look forward to seeing what happens in Scotland as a result of devolution. One of the great things about devolution is that different parts of the UK have the opportunity to do different things and we can all learn from one another. For that reason, I was absolutely delighted when the First Minister of Scotland just last week adopted our policy on primary and secondary school testing after years when the gap between rich and poor in Scotland had grown wider and the gap between rich and poor elsewhere had narrowed. At last the SNP are learning from what this Government have achieved.
We are extremely grateful.
How many foreign national offenders are there in our prisons, and will any effective action be taken during the lifetime of this Parliament drastically to increase the numbers returned to secure detention in their own countries?
I commend my hon. Friend’s diligence in continuing to raise this matter. The answer to his second question is absolutely yes. On the specifics, 10,512 foreign national offenders were in prison at
No one can doubt the comprehensiveness of the hon. Gentleman’s response, for which we are extremely grateful.
The National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee and the Select Committee on Justice have been critical of the Government’s lack of understanding of the knock-on costs of their reforms to legal aid. Is it not now time that the Government reviewed them to ensure that cost shunting does not happen and that effective justice is available to those who need it?
Let me take this opportunity to congratulate the hon. Lady on her election as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. I know she will do that job brilliantly. She is absolutely right: changes to legal aid touch on the very heart of the principles of equal access to justice that we all hold dear. That is why I have been in intense talks with representatives from both the Bar and the solicitors’ profession in order to ensure that we can maintain access to justice and enhance the quality of advocacy in our courts.
I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues, but it seems that Justice questions are becoming an increasingly hot-ticket occasion, if I can put it that way—and credit will doubtless be claimed by all sorts of participants.