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Unpaid Fines

19. Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): What the level of unpaid fines was in 2004-05. [68819]

The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): In 2004-05, the level of unpaid fines, costs and compensation was 19 per cent. To increase the payment rate we have introduced attachment of earnings for fines to be deducted out of the pay packet. We can now clamp cars for unpaid fines, and courts have appointed fines’ officers who will agree the payment rate and make sure that it is kept to.

Mark Pritchard: Is it not the case that too many fines remain uncollected? Do we not have a system where fines remain unpaid, custodial service orders remain unfulfilled, and prisoners are released early? How is this sending out a message of punishment?

Ms Harman: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that too many fines, compensation orders and court costs remain unpaid. We started collecting the figures in 2003—they were not collected previously. At that point we discovered that the unpaid fines rate was 55 per cent., so just over half of those payments were being collected. We have increased the level of payments to
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83 per cent., but there is still a long way to go. On top of the additional measures that are set out in the Courts Act 2003, we are setting up the national enforcement service, which will keep an eye on these matters. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman will see continued improvement in his constituency.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): As part of the programme of combating antisocial behaviour, local authorities were rightly given powers to issue on-the-spot fines, almost 20,000 of which were issued last year. However, almost 9,000 remain unpaid. Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of that situation? What new powers would she suggest are provided to local authorities to ensure that the legislation sticks?

Ms Harman: We are aware of the situation. It is important that when those of us in the House recognise that there is a problem, we introduce the necessary legislation. We must legislate for penalties and we must ensure that that works out in practice. Our focus needs to be on that. We must put into effect enforcement powers and ensure that the system works so that we do not have a situation in which everybody feels that the offender has got off scot-free.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): The right hon. and learned Lady will know that over 70 per cent. of offenders are fined, and that over 1 million people a year are punished with a fine. First, given that a fine is the easiest and most effective remedy for lesser offences, will she look at measures that ensure that if someone appears in court in person, secure arrangements are made for payment before they leave, as the arrangements fail badly at present? Secondly, a non-attendance conviction should attract an incremental payment if the offender does not pay by the due date, just as is the case for on-the-spot fines, parking fines and so on. The penalty system could be made even more successful, and it is the best punishment because it is the quickest and most effective.

Ms Harman: I will look into the second point made by the hon. Gentleman and write to him. As for his first point about people leaving court, he is absolutely right. Everyone thinks that people cock a snook at the court if they leave with their credit card and a purse or wallet full of money and say, “Sorry, we can’t pay.” Courts are therefore gearing up so that they can ask for the money before people leave court and swipe their credit card if necessary. The hon. Gentleman has made a sensible point.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): The high-profile initiative nationwide to collect outstanding fines has been noticed by my Stafford constituents. [ Interruption. ] Will that more intensive activity continue in future, or is it a temporary initiative?

Ms Harman: It will continue in future. Hon. Members may scoff at the notion of people noticing it, but people respond badly if a compensation order is made in favour of a victim and that person is not paid, or is paid the first instalment but does not receive anything thereafter. There has been a strong focus on the problem in many local areas, and the National Enforcement Service, which was set up in April this
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year and has been trialled in a number of areas, will roll out nationally in April next year. We are in this for the long haul, especially now that we are collecting the figures and looking at the situation, instead of saying that our performance is great but failing to check the figures to see whether, in fact, that is the case.

Legal Aid

20. Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): If she will make a statement on the report of Lord Carter’s review of legal aid. [68820]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Vera Baird): Following the publication of his interim report on 9 February, Lord Carter is on course to publish his final report in the summer.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): On behalf of all my colleagues, may I welcome the hon. and learned Lady to her new role? However, is she not concerned that Lord Carter’s review will inevitably result in larger solicitors firms that adopt a depersonalised production-line approach to legal aid being favoured over the high-quality localised service provided by small firms? What will she do to prevent that?

Vera Baird: I understand why the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue, but I can assure him that everyone is bearing that point in mind. The proposal is likely to be a combination solution: “bigger is better” firms will probably be involved, but there is definitely a place for niche firms. May I mention the issue of BME—black and minority ethnic—small firms, as it has caused a great deal of concern? In his report in February, Lord Carter said that it will

That is a very important point. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State has since met the Black Solicitors Network, and we will very much bear in mind the need for people of the same profile as defendants to be available to look after their interests.

House of Lords Reform

21. Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Whether she expects a free vote to be held on the future composition of the House of Lords. [68821]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): Following the machinery of Government changes, that responsibility has been transferred to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House of Commons, but I have been asked to reply. As outlined in our manifesto, the Government are fully committed to allowing a free vote on the composition of the House of Lords. It is envisaged that that will take place before the end of the year, once the Joint Committee that is considering conventions has reported.

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Dr. Iddon: One of my predecessors took a strong interest in reform of the House of Lords, but he was elected 100 years ago. It is time that we resolved the question. Does my hon. Friend agree that if we are to do so clearly and decisively, we must think carefully—that was not the case on the previous occasion—and pose the question in such a way as to lead to decisive action.

Bridget Prentice: My hon. Friend is right. I hope that he will see the change in the machinery of government as one of the smooth transitions that we in the Labour party are so keen on. After our experience the last time, it is indeed important that we have clear objectives in mind. By setting up the Joint Committee and listening to its advice, I hope that by the time we come to make a decision, it will be clear what the serious options are.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given that in the name of democratic legitimacy and of parliamentary scrutiny alike, many of us in all parts of the House believe strongly that there should be a wholly or a predominantly elected Second Chamber, and in light of the welcome commitment to a free vote that we have heard, will the hon. Lady tell the House, in the interests of transparency and straightforwardness in respect of the forthcoming Division, which way she will vote?

Bridget Prentice: I am quite happy to do so, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman how I voted the last time. Last time I voted first for abolition, and then for a fully appointed House. However, I am well aware, as is he, of the strength of feeling in the House on the matter, and I am happy to enter into discussions and to be persuaded what the best compromise might be. As I said, that responsibility has now been transferred to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who may take a very different view.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

September Sittings

30. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): If he will bring forward plans for the House to sit in September. [68807]

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): As the provisional calendar for the remainder of this Session was announced in November last, the authorities have now made their maintenance plans, and right hon. and hon. Members and staff have made their vacation arrangements accordingly. It would therefore not be feasible to reinstate the September sitting for this year, although I hasten to point out that the House has to make its decision on that and has yet to do so. But I am open to representations from both sides of the House in respect of future years.

Mr. Bone: I thank the Leader of the House for his answer and welcome him to his new position. I am sure that I am not the only Member of the House who considers that his removal from the post of Foreign Secretary has weakened the Government and the country. Last Friday, the Prime Minister fired his Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, Secretary of State for Education and Skills, and Leader of the House. Had he chosen to do
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that on 26 July, it would have been 76 days before any Member of the House could have questioned the new Government. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that a recess for more than two and a half months is far too long?

Mr. Straw: I thank the hon. Gentleman for the compliment that he paid me, which I take in the spirit in which it was intended. I am looking forward very much to my responsibilities as Leader of the House. I have always regarded the job as extremely important. I have admired many Leaders of the House, and the ones whom I have admired most are those who have recognised their responsibilities to the House as a whole, as well as to the Government of the day.

It is no great secret that I was in favour of September sittings. Over a six-year period, between 1997 and 2003, the House had to be recalled on three occasions, and on each occasion I was the Minister who had to be recalled with it, so I understand the point. What the House has to appreciate is that there is a choice between having September Sessions and short vacations for half-terms, or having no September sittings and no vacations for half-terms. There are 11 weeks between the end of July and early October. It would be unacceptable if the House ended up sitting for less time than it did under the previous arrangements. It is a matter for the House. These decisions are made on a motion that is not before the House, but will be shortly. For this year, the matter is done and dusted. For future years, I am open to argument about it.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be a reform-minded Leader of the House and I offer my congratulations on his appointment. Acknowledging that change cannot be made this year, does he accept that it would be wholly unacceptable to go back to the position prior to 1997 when the House and Parliament closed down for nearly three months? Obviously, we carry out our duties in our constituencies—casework and the rest of it—but we are not allowed during that time to carry out the main job for which we were elected. From next year onwards, I hope that we are going to sit during September so that we avoid having this farcical long break, which is totally unacceptable.

Mr. Straw: I note what my hon. Friend says and I observe that for half the Sessions between 1997 and 2003, the House had to come back in any case—an issue that needs to be considered carefully. There are practical issues, too, in that some people argue that August is for family holidays and September is for constituency working, but I understand the strength of my hon. Friend’s point. Also, if we do not sit in September—as we will not this year—I am actively considering making arrangements whereby hon. Members will be able to put questions to Ministers during that month.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): May I also welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new post and say how much I welcome the fact that he is so evidently excited by the unique responsibility that he now has to protect the House from his colleagues in the Executive? [Interruption.] That may not be quite how he put it, but I am sure that that is what he intended it to mean.

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I welcome what the Leader of the House said about September sittings, but it is a fact that the House was not consulted on the loss of those sittings this year and we must be consulted in future. It is unacceptable that the Executive cannot be held to account by the House for a third of the year. We would be keen to work with the right hon. Gentleman to develop ways of producing some pro tem arrangements for parliamentary questions this year and to ensure that in future years, we make all our party arrangements to enable the House to sit in September or some other time during the long recess. That is important to ensure that we do our jobs as parliamentarians.

Mr. Straw: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm welcome. At the risk of appearing to mix it with the Liberal Democrats, which I rarely do, may I suggest that it would help to facilitate September sittings if the Liberal Democrats changed the time of their conference—or even abolished it altogether? [Interruption.] I think that the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) is saying from a sedentary position that they do not have a say anyway, so why not abolish it. I recall that when the House returned in 2002, it did so in the middle of the Liberal Democrat conference.

It is a complicated issue, but I accept what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said. I am here to protect the rights and privileges of the House and it may be the case that, one day, the interests of the Government and the interests of the House do not coincide, but over a period of time, the interests of good governance, good government and the House should indeed coincide.

House of Commons Commission

The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission was asked—

Statue Storage

31. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): What the cost was of storing statues owned by the House but not on display in 2005-06. [68808]

Nick Harvey (North Devon): All the statues that the House of Commons owns were on display in 2005-06, so no charges for offsite storage were incurred.

Mr. Prentice: A plinth in the Members’ Lobby has been empty for as long as I can remember, and I know that there is a statue of Lady Thatcher knocking around, so why cannot we dust it down and have something placed on the plinth, which is in such a prominent position in Parliament?

Nick Harvey: The hon. Gentleman may know that a statue is destined to sit on that plinth. The statue of Baroness Thatcher has been out on loan for some time to the corporation of London—it was damaged, but it has been restored and has been put behind protective glass. If the hon. Gentleman is keen to admire it, which I discern that he might be, he can do so, because it is on display at the Guildhall art gallery.

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Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

EU Legislation

32. Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): When and how he plans to reform parliamentary scrutiny of EU legislation. [68809]

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Nigel Griffiths): I will be considering closely with colleagues the proposals of the Modernisation Committee in the last Session on scrutiny of European business. We hope to bring forward ideas for taking this issue further forward in due course.

Chris Bryant: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. I urge him to push with some vigour on the issue, because Parliament does a poor job of scrutinising EU legislation. Most EU legislation ends up going through in an hour and a half’s debate in Committee with no opportunity to table amendments. We should have some means of making sure that more EU legislation is open to amendment.

Nigel Griffiths: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend’s point. It is certainly unacceptable that the House’s opportunity to scrutinise legislation often comes too late in the process, which means that there is insufficient time to give such matters proper scrutiny. However, there is not consensus in the House or its Select Committees on the way forward, which is what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I are seeking to achieve.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): May I suggest to the Deputy Leader of the House that he might suggest to the new Leader of the House, whom I look forward to welcoming properly to his new role in business questions on Thursday, that there is a chance to succeed where others have failed? It is more than a year since the Modernisation Committee produced a report stating that

Leader of the House after Leader of the House has put off that matter, and I suggest to the Deputy Leader of the House that now is the time for the Government to grasp that particular nettle and introduce firm proposals for improving this House’s scrutiny of EU business.

Nigel Griffiths: I do not accept the right hon. Lady’s account. The report to which she has referred was controversial. As she knows, the minutes of the Committee include the voting record, which shows the controversy—the Committee changed its mind before eventually coming up with a recommendation. The Committee was divided, and it is unfair of her to suggest that the Government could move forward as a result of that uncertain recommendation. I know that she shares the desire of my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and the rest of the House to have proper scrutiny of legislation, and we would certainly welcome any proposals from the right hon. Lady and her party on that matter.

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