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10 Oct 2006 : Column 40WH—continued

Simon Hughes: Throughout my time in the House, I have never had any reason to doubt that the right hon. and learned Lady or her colleagues as Law Officers in the Labour Government and past Conservative Governments have acted with anything other than absolute integrity and propriety in their function; as far
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as I am aware, they are beyond reproach. However, that is a different, although perfectly proper, issue from the one raised by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). When a criticism is made, even by the Home Office, it should be of the judgment and should invoke the opportunity of appeal; it should not be of the judges who give the judgment. It is always better to wait until the final judgment before coming to a final view. If the Government then think that the courts have got it wrong, they will know where the remedy lies.

Ms Harman: We can all agree with the principles. The difficulty in particular individual circumstances is knowing where to draw the dividing line between speaking out in a perfectly acceptable way on a matter of public interest—as democratic representatives are entitled to—and behaving in a way that is oppressive and which threatens the independence of the judiciary. We must keep an eye on that dividing line all the time, and I welcome the fact that this debate has been called so that we can focus on that issue once again.

The Constitutional Reform Act not only enshrined the independence of the judiciary in law, but put in writing for the first time the fact that

That is the first time that has been put into law as a statutory obligation. The Act also states:

As the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire said, we have disentangled the situation. Previously, however the system worked in practice, the idea that somebody in the Cabinet—a member of the Executive—would also sit as a judge was subject to misunderstandings. So, too, was the idea that the highest appeal court was part of the legislature in the other place and that our judges, who were obviously supposed to be independent, were appointed by someone who was a political appointee and a member of the Cabinet. The Act set up the Judicial Appointments Commission and a transparent process that operates according to proper criteria so that we know that judges are chosen on an objective basis. All that makes things much more transparent and pre-empts any possible criticism.

The hon. Members for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) and for Sheffield, Hallam mentioned sentencing and magistrates, and we must recognise that we are talking not only about the criminal courts, the Crown court and the Court of Appeal, but about the family courts—the fact that they should be well respected, have public confidence and be accountable to the public interest—and about proceedings in the civil courts, whether or not the Government are party to them. In respect of the criminal courts, we are talking, as the hon. Member for Kettering said, not only about the Crown courts, but about the important work of magistrates, whose impact most people see and feel in their local communities.

Hon. Members have talked about non-custodial sentences, and that is a legitimate subject for debate. Discussing the balance between custodial and non-custodial sentencing should not be seen as putting pressure on the independence of the judiciary—that is
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a public policy debate. The Government need to do more to build confidence in non-custodial penalties. If the court imposes a fine but the offender never pays it and that is the last they hear of the matter, the public will want prison sentences; they will think that that person will get off scot-free unless they get a prison sentence. If they think that unpaid work is ordered but not done, or is done half-heartedly half the time, they will think that the person will get off scot-free unless they get a prison sentence.

One issue that we are exploring as part of our community justice project in the Department for Constitutional Affairs, therefore, is whether the local magistrates in the 10 pilot areas that we will develop should advertise to the local community in the local newspapers. Should they ask, “Have you got some unpaid work that your voluntary organisation or your tenants group would like done? Is there a tenants’ hall that you would like to have repainted? Is there a bit of land on your housing estate that you would like to have cleared and goal posts put up on?”? The court would advertise and say, “You give us information about unpaid work that you would like to be done in the community”, and after that work is done, it would be badged. For example we might say that “Camberwell magistrates court has through sentencing in the community renovated this facility.”

People have had reason not to have confidence in non-custodial sentences, because there has been a lack of enforcement, to which we are now turning our attention forcefully. The more people have confidence in non-custodial sentences, the more they will think that perhaps it is better that instead of someone sitting in a prison cell they get out there and do something useful for the local community. Above all, it is that community that would have suffered from the offence.

We must also recognise that one of the things that sustains a community’s confidence in judges, and which will therefore sustain judges’ and magistrates’ confidence in themselves, is not only having a proper appointments system, but having some community involvement with it.

I formally invite any hon. Members who have not visited the Liverpool community justice centre to go there. I was most struck when I spoke to one of the community representatives who was at the formal opening of the court—of course, it had been operating for some time previously. She was like the type of tenants association rep that the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey and I know well in our area, and I asked her what she thought of the judge. She said, “Well, he’d better be bloody good, hadn’t he, because we appointed him.” Her point was that she had had an input into his selection and some sense of ownership. That sense of ownership was not over individual decisions—of course not, because she knows that he has to sit on the bench and make the decisions—but was a sense that he was connected to the community.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the police commander in Southwark used to be faceless and nameless when we first became Members of Parliament, but now our police officers are well known; they attend the Southwark police consultative group and all the local community movers and shakers know who they are. There is a process of building confidence in the judiciary,
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particularly locally, by letting people know who they are. Independent decisions can still be made but such people can be rooted in the community and accountable to it. Someone does not preserve their independence by removing themselves from the community, because that simply undermines public confidence, which causes a public critique of the judiciary, which in turn becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Mr. Heald: I have been to the North Liverpool community court and was very impressed with Judge Fletcher. An interesting experiment is going on there, but that is just one area of the country. We are also talking about small numbers with the Minister’s 12 courts scheme and with the one good police example from Southwark. Are the Government thinking nationally in respect of any of this? Is the North Liverpool centre the way forward? When will we know the answer? It has been mentioned in the Department’s reports for ages and has been going for more than a year, so are there plans to roll it out nationally? If not, why not?

Ms Harman: The important thing is to learn from the experience of pilot schemes. The hon. Gentleman would be the first to criticise us if we were to sit in Selborne house, think up a terrific idea and then impose it on the country far and wide. We have set up an experimental system in Liverpool and we are learning the lessons from it. As well as having the Salford community justice court, we are expanding to having 10 more. We will try yet further ways of doing things so that other magistrates courts can then learn lessons, not from what we have thought up on the seventh floor of Selborne house but from what other justices working in the community have done.

We are thinking nationally, but we want to build on the experience of people who are actually involved. We want to have the ideas, discuss the problems and come forward with the proposals, but we want people to try them out and to see how they work in practice. The Liverpool justice centre has been going for a little more than a year—I think that it is having its formal anniversary this Friday. It will be evaluated and we are learning lessons from it all the time.

Simon Hughes: All these innovative ideas are very welcome. The Minister knows that the Department’s lateral thinking about how to engage with the public is welcome. I want to put to her something that I believe I have put to her formally or informally before. In a borough such as ours, a huge way of engaging the public in the process without compromising judicial independence would be if the local authority leader, the borough police commander, the senior judge and the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for our borough were able to come before the public twice a year and be collectively accountable. It is often not the police that they are concerned about but the sentences of the judges or the decisions of the CPS. If they were accountable, the public could be engaged in that process too.

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman is right. One of the things that the judge in Liverpool does is go to a community reference group, which is comprised of a group of local representatives. One of the things that
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we will be trying in the further 10 community justice pilots is to assess whether instead of creating a separate community reference group, the existing organisational partnerships can simply include the magistrates or the district judge. In our situation, the Southwark police consultative group would be involved, as they are the people who are concerned about law and order in the borough and are already configured there. It should be perfectly possible for the bench to go along to hear the sorts of things that are being said. People well recognise that we cannot wave a magic wand and solve all problems. If people are prepared to listen to such bodies, they will give credit for at least understanding, knowing and trying to do what they can. The difficulty is that if people are told that decisions are being made in their interests and in the interests of justice, but they do not know who by and they do not believe that such people understand the problems that exist in local communities—

Mr. Hollobone: I endorse the suggestion made by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). May I make a plea about persistent and prolific offenders? Such people are recognised by the Home Office and the police have targets to arrest them. I understand that when they are brought before the courts on the judicial side of things there is no separate category of persistent and prolific offender and that they are not being dealt with in the way that the Government with their approach to joined-up government had originally intended. If we intend to get all the different parts of the criminal justice system together and make them accountable to the public, may I draw this to the Minister’s attention?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. There are problems. The Prime Minister has made the point on a number of occasions that there could be a situation where what appears on its own to be a relatively small offence is taking place, but if a load of people are doing the same thing in a particular area, and if someone does it over and over again, the very sight of them in the local area can make people feel intimidated. One of the things that we are looking to try out in the community justice centres is a community impact statement. There is a victim’s impact statement, whereby if, for example, an elderly woman is mugged she can write down the fact that she felt afraid to go out afterwards. There is sometimes a need for a description of that sort of offence in relation to the particular community to assist the court in understanding the effect on the community.

We have had something analogous to that in the way that we have dealt with unduly lenient sentences. For example, in the first case of human trafficking the charges were rape and other individual offences. When it was referred to the Court of Appeal we explained that it was a new phenomenon—girls were being abducted in large numbers, hundreds of millions of pounds were involved and it was very much part of organised crime—and that we needed to send a message to traffickers that they would be dealt with severely when they were caught. That was a sort of national impact statement about a particular sort of offending. We are thinking about how to draw up a community statement so that the community knows that although something might look like one incident of taking and driving away or of graffiti, the
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impact on the community, which may be vulnerable and not resilient, needs to be brought to magistrates’ attention.

We have sought to put in statute by way of statutory duties the importance of the judiciary’s independence and we have sought to clarify that by disentangling the judiciary from the legislature and the Executive, which was not the case in the role of the Lord Chancellor and the House of Lords Judicial Committee. We have also sought to find ways of building confidence in the judiciary at local level with more community engagement. The process is to write all that down in a big Bill of Rights or a written constitution, as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey said, with the Human Rights Act 1998, the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 and the different constitutional settlements in Scotland, Wales and London. In the olden days people might have taken it for granted that they understood all those things or did not need to understand them and we need to think about how to ensure that people understand the new constitutional settlement and how it fits together. I do not want it to be frozen in time and no one wants power to shift away from the elected part of the constitution to the non-elected part, but the question of how to bring it together and write it down as part of a process so that people understand the totality and can engage in the debate about whether there is yet more to do is a legitimate debate. I appreciate that it is taking place throughout the House. It is an important and constructive debate and I thank the hon. Gentleman for contributing to it.

12.22 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Benefits (Cancer Patients)

12.30 pm

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): My debate is about ensuring that terminally ill patients receive their benefit entitlement. I pay tribute to Macmillan Cancer Support, which provided me with much research for the debate. I have personal experience of the problem, because my second late husband, John, died two years ago from cancer.

No one can ever be prepared for the moment when either they or a much-loved partner or relative is diagnosed with cancer. For the person who receives the diagnosis, coping with the news either that their life as they know it will fundamentally change through a regime of extensive treatment, or that their life may be cut short—or a mixture of both—is more than enough for anyone. For the family member, it can be equally devastating, as they attempt to balance the need to support emotionally and physically a partner or relative with the need to handle their own fears and shock on that emotional rollercoaster. I speak from experience.

Cancer is indiscriminate. It can affect anyone, of any sex, at any age, in any occupation and at any time. No matter who that person is, a diagnosis of cancer in themselves, their partner, parent or child immediately turns them into one of the most vulnerable members of society. When dealing with the shock and the urgency of treatment, the need to enjoy every minute of what remains of life becomes all encompassing. While they—the patient or family member—deal with what life really means, they are exposed to the realities of everyday life. They and their family live with the knowledge that their, their spouse’s or their relative’s life is coming to an end, but bills still have to be paid, the shopping bought and collected and the daily chores carried out.

The simple truth is that cancer frequently causes additional financial hardship. A Macmillan Cancer Support report suggests that 91 per cent. of cancer patients’ households have experienced a loss of income and/or increased cost. Among the under-55s, 70 per cent. have suffered a loss in household income, and the average loss is 50 per cent. Imagine what it must be like to lose half of one’s income in the space of a few months or, in some cases, a few days.

A 2005 survey by Cancerbackup demonstrated that 39 per cent. of working-age cancer patients had experienced significant financial difficulties because of their illness. Increased hospital visits, time off work, transport costs, higher utility bills, special diets, wigs, repeat prescription charges and—most ludicrous of all—car parking costs at hospitals estimated at as much as £325 per person all add to the financial burden on the patient and their family.

At the time of diagnosis, neither the patient nor their family are likely to give any thought to the financial consequences, but someone should be there to guide them. If they are not given that advice, how can they be expected to cope with essential financial management as well as the battle against cancer? It is hard enough coping with a life-threatening disease without having to deal with the stress of financial hardship. For that reason, access to financial support at the right time is crucial. Hence my calling for this debate.

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The National Audit Office reported in February 2005 that 77 per cent. of patients had not been informed at any time of the financial support that might be available to them. Macmillan’s 2004 report, “The Unclaimed Millions”, showed that 54 per cent. of people who die with cancer are not in receipt of disability living allowance or attendance allowance, despite terminally ill patients being automatically entitled to such benefits. It is not surprising that the Public Accounts Committee described the situation as “scandalous”.

The DS1500 form caters for those people with a life expectancy of less than six months in order to fast track claims for disability living allowance and attendance allowance. Incapacity benefit, severe disablement allowance, income support and housing benefit may also be available. If the patient is unaware that they have six months to live, and in some cases it is better if they do not know, their carer, who almost certainly will know, can apply. If no one tells the terminally ill person or their family that they may be entitled to such benefits, however, how can they be expected to claim?

At such times of complete vulnerability and even despair, advice should be automatically triggered; it should not depend on chance. A well-informed and sympathetic GP, consultant, social worker or—dare I say?—MP’s office may be able to guide a cancer patient to the benefits to which they are entitled. Well-meaning tea and sympathy can be helpful, but readily available specialist advice is vital. No cancer patient or terminally ill person should be allowed to fall through the financial net.

In 2005, Macmillan advisers helped in 8,800 cases, enabling cancer patients to identify entitlements and grants worth £16.4 million. However, Macmillan reaches only 3 per cent. of new cancer registrations. Macmillan’s benefits helpline is a UK-wide freephone service for cancer patients. In a few towns and cities, there are specialist advice centres such as the Daisy Bank cancer support centre, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) and I visited last Friday. The centre is largely dependent on donations to help the 3,500 people whom it supports. The services are essential, and it carries out outstanding work that requires our continuous, long-term financial support.

In my constituency, there is the treasured Sue Ryder home, Manorlands, in Oxenhope. Dedicated staff provide specialist palliative care to support patients and their families. I welcome the Department of Health’s recent announcement of additional funding, which will go some way to assisting with the capital costs of Manorlands. However, I am concerned that the long-term funding equation does not adequately reflect the number of people who call on its services. If we do not get the equation right, we will threaten the delivery of that crucial service.

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