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Magistrates Courts (Fines Enforcement)

30. Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the system for enforcement of payment of fines by magistrates courts; and if he will make a statement. [25044]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Michael Wills): Responsibility for warrant execution for non-payment of fines was transferred from the police to magistrates courts committees on 1 April 2001. The Lord Chancellor's Department conducted a review of the new enforcement regime and concluded that, although there is significant room for improvement, the foundation has now been laid for the more effective enforcement of fines in future.

Mr. Luff: I am encouraged by that reply, as it suggests that the anecdotal evidence collected by me and other hon. Members that there is quite a serious problem with the enforcement of fines in magistrates courts is correct. Will the Minister do all in his power to make it easier for people to pay their fines—for example, whenever possible by retaining the facility to pay fines at the point of delivery, the magistrates court?

Mr. Wills: Of course we acknowledge that the situation is not all that it should be and that is why we are taking a range of actions to ensure that performance is better in future. We have been encouraged by the performance so far, but it could be still better. Of course the Government believe that defendants should be given the opportunity to pay their fines promptly and conveniently. A range of methods is now available for paying fines—for example,

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cash, cheque, credit and debit cards, bank giro, Transcash and Paypoint—so it is not absolutely necessary for there to be a cash office in every courthouse in the country. Furthermore, the hon. Gentleman will be well aware from his own experience that the closure of cash offices is a matter for individual magistrates courts committees.

Mr. William Cash (Stone): Would the Minister be surprised if I pointed out to him that I am anything but encouraged by the way in which this system is operating? To give just one example, in London the latest figures show that the fines imposed in magistrates courts amount to £92 million but, astonishingly, the fines collected are no more than £41 million, which I think the Minister knew when he got up to speak. Does he also accept that the Lord Chancellor has effectively declined to provide additional resources to make up the difference—so much so that a number of judges have been writing to one another complaining bitterly on behalf of prosecutors, the police, the Prison Service, probation officers and others? Will the Minister do something about that?

Mr. Wills: The answers to those questions are no, no and yes. No, I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman makes the point that he does. No, I do not accept that we have not made extra resources available. In 2001–02, £14 million has been allocated for the enforcement of fines and, as a result of the netting-off scheme, of which the hon. Gentleman will be well aware, magistrates courts committees will have nearly £10 million extra to spend on enforcement during the next two financial years. Finally, of course we will do all that we can to improve the record. It is not as good as it should be, and we are taking a wide range of actions to ensure that it gets better in future.

Patient Advocacy and Community Legal Service (NHS)

31. Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): If he will take steps to promote the establishment of a patient advocacy liaison service and community legal service information point in every NHS hospital. [25045]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Ms Rosie Winterton): The Lord Chancellor's Department supports the development of community legal service information points in places that can be easily accessed by members of the public. This includes primary health care outlets such as general practitioners' surgeries and NHS hospitals, where we are considering ways in which links might be established with the new patient advocacy liaison service.

Mr. Hopkins: My hon. Friend will know that, at my local hospital, the Luton and Dunstable, we have the first such facility in the eastern region, and that, so far, it has been a great success. It has been welcomed unanimously by staff and patients. I made inquiries today and found out that, in its first quarter of operations, patient complaints went down by 21 per cent. and, year on year in December, they were down by 59 per cent. Does my hon. Friend agree that that makes a powerful case for every hospital having such a facility?

Ms Winterton: I am well aware of the project in my hon. Friend's constituency, and I also know that the

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support that he has given to it personally has been extremely welcome. Luton and Dunstable hospital was the first hospital to be quality marked as a community legal service information point. We shall certainly consider whether the project could be an example of good practice that we could encourage other hospitals across England and Wales to follow.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): Has the hon. Lady been in touch with the Department in Northern Ireland to make sure that such a system is working there? Is she aware that, at times, the patient advocacy liaison service apparently advocates more for hospitals than for patients?

Ms Winterton: The hon. Gentleman is aware that the particular aspect for which I have responsibility is the community legal service, but I am sure that his comments will be noted by other Ministers. I can assure him that we are trying to ensure that there are community legal service information points in as many places as possible, including GP surgeries and NHS hospitals.

Asylum Seekers (Appeals)

32. Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): How many appeals against refusal of asylum have been lodged and are awaiting a hearing. [25046]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Ms Rosie Winterton): Of the 32,874 cases received by the Immigration Appellate Authority between 1 April and 30 November 2001, 11,554 asylum cases were awaiting a first substantive hearing as at 30 November. The remaining 21,300 were either completed, under consideration or awaiting a further hearing at either adjudicator, application for leave to appeal or tribunal stage.

Fiona Mactaggart: I thank my hon. Friend for her reply. We have had exchanges about delays in those appeals for some time and I know that she is putting a lot of effort into trying to improve the situation, but I am concerned about that group of appeals for which notification of the result comes from the Home Office, not her Department, following the changes to the regulations. What steps has she taken to ensure that the Home Office gives that notification swiftly to an appellant whose appeal has been refused? If it does not provide notification in a reasonable time, will she take action to ensure that appellants know the results of their appeals? We all know that the Home Office is not exactly a speedy animal when dealing with immigration and asylum matters.

Ms Winterton: I understand my hon. Friend's point and I know that she takes a close interest in the issue. Perhaps it will help if I explain the process. The Home Office will sift appeal determinations to identify those suitable for delivery in person. Resources will initially be focused on delivering decisions in person to failed asylum seekers who are at risk of absconding and whom it is possible to remove. Increasing the number of decisions delivered personally and speedily will depend on evaluating the success of the new measures and the

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gradual introduction of the new reporting centres, accommodation centres and removal centres. I hope that that reassures her.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): The Minister is aware that, following a day of pressure from Conservative Members yesterday, led by my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), the shadow Home Secretary, the Home Secretary finally agreed late in the afternoon that special arrangements would be made for asylum claimants from Zimbabwe. They will not be returned, rightly in my view, but what will be the effect on her Department, now that the Home Secretary has wisely changed policy?

Ms Winterton: Home Office policy has obviously—[Hon. Members: "Changed."] The change that the Home Secretary announced is that removals to Zimbabwe are temporarily suspended until after the March elections. The Home Office will continue to monitor the situation with a view to making a reassessment after the elections. In terms of the effect on the asylum system, outstanding cases will be considered in the light of those new decisions.

Sonia Deary

33. Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire): If he will make a statement on progress in the case of Sonia Deary. [25047]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Ms Rosie Winterton): The question concerns the progress of a long-standing High Court claim by Sonia Deary for an increased share in the estate of her late husband. The resolution of this claim is dependent on her and her solicitor either agreeing a settlement with other family members or bringing the claim to trial. I understand that the legal proceedings have recently been revived and I would not wish to comment further on a pending case.

Mr. Pickthall: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her reply and for her energy in pursuing this case since she assumed her office. Does she agree that whoever is to blame for the delay—I noted carefully what she said on that score—it is unacceptable for any citizen to have to wait for more than 16 years for an estate to be settled? Does she agree that it is at least part of the functions of the Lord Chancellor's Department to seek to clarify, simplify and streamline the systems in such cases to avoid circumstances in which British citizens find themselves akin to characters in "Bleak House"?

Ms Winterton: I am well aware of my hon. Friend's interest in the matter and I know that he has done everything that he can to assist his constituent. I am sure that he is also aware that this is an extremely complicated case. The intimate family and financial details of the estate should not be discussed in the House, but the role of the Official Solicitor and the matters that he has to deal with in such cases can be extremely complex. The time taken to resolve an estate might depend on many issues. For example, the deceased might have assumed several identities or outstanding business problems might need to

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be resolved. In that situation, the Official Solicitor should of course act expeditiously, but we must recognise that the cases can be complicated.

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