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Community Transport (Buses)

10. Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): What plans he has to enhance the role of community transport in the provision of bus services. [136912]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Gillian Merron): The community transport sector plays a valuable role in providing services that complement those of commercial operators. We are discussing with community transport sector representatives the proposals in “Putting Passengers First” to allow it to play a larger role by improving the regulatory regime that applies.

Dr. Whitehead: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does she accept that section 22 permits for community transport are particularly restrictive in terms of payment for drivers and the size of buses?
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Does she have plans to review both those aspects to make community transport more effective in local transport provision?

Gillian Merron: I accept the point made by my hon. Friend, who has campaigned in support of community transport in his area and beyond for some time. “Putting Passengers First” contains proposals to lift the restrictions on paying drivers, so that they can be paid more than expenses, and to lift the 16-passenger seat limit for the size of vehicle for which permits can be issued. I hope that that will be of great support to the role of the community transport sector.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): In my constituency, the Bakewell and Eyam and Ashbourne community transport schemes provide a fantastic service for elderly people in remote areas. Will the Concessionary Bus Travel Bill, which we discussed yesterday, be of any help to those two organisations?

Gillian Merron: The community transport in the right hon. Gentleman’s area is indeed to be commended. The Bill that the House passed last night extends geographical provision rather than extending provision to other sectors, but it allows for more provision should it be required in the future. Furthermore, local authorities such as the right hon. Gentleman’s are entitled to, and could, go beyond the national baseline for the provision of concessionary fares.

Coach Fare Scheme

11. Mr. Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): What funding his Department has provided for the half-price coach fare scheme for pensioners and disabled people. [136913]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Gillian Merron): Total funding of nearly £46 million has been provided to date for half-price fares for older people and disabled people making journeys on scheduled coach services.

Mr. Reed: Along with a number of other Members, I welcomed the Second Reading of the Concessionary Bus Travel Bill last night. Can the Minister assure us that the details of the financing of the new scheme will not affect the existing concessionary fares schemes that benefit my constituents so much?

Gillian Merron: My hon. Friend is right to refer to the benefits received by his constituents. Some 17,000 over-60s and disabled people in Copeland are entitled to benefit from both concessionary fares and half-price coach travel, and I can confirm that half-price coach travel will continue to be available to them.


The Minister of State was asked—

Prison Visitor Permits

20. Meg Hillier (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): What guidance her Department issues to prisons on the issuing of permits for visitors. [136922]

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The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): Guidance for prisons on visiting orders is contained in Prison Service standing order 5A, which requires visitors to convicted prisoners to possess a valid visiting order for each visit, which should be issued as soon as possible by the prison to enable the visit to take place. The format of visiting orders varies according to local requirements.

Meg Hillier: I am delighted to be the first to ask a question of the new Ministry of Justice, and to welcome my right hon. Friend to his new position.

I am pleased that the Department recognises the need for prison visitor orders to be issued swiftly, but I am afraid that that recognition does not appear to equate with reality. A constituent of mine, Father Mark Minihane of St Monica’s in Hoxton, had to make 31 calls to Wormwood Scrubs before he could obtain a visiting order. He wrote to me:

He reported that when people did get through, they often had to wait for 25 minutes.

What further work can the Department do to ensure that prisons comply with the instructions, and are there any other methods that people can use to—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. Hanson: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s welcome to the Department. We will be judged on whether we protect the public and whether we reduce reoffending, and I believe that the Ministry of Justice will do both.

I accept my hon. Friend’s criticism of the present booking system, which is not perfect in all respects. In 2006 we issued good practice guidelines for booking and arranging visits, which were issued to each prison. We want to find ways of improving contact with prisons, such as e-mail and enabling people to book further visits when they make their first visit. I believe that, given the co-operation of the Prison Service, all those measures will be introduced over time, but I accept that the prison to which my hon. Friend referred—I know that she has already written to the director general—is not perfect. I hope that the measures I have described will improve the system.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): The Minister will appreciate that prisoners are less likely to reoffend if they receive family visits, and also if they are taught to read, write and add up and can do useful work in prison. But, as we have just heard, visits are being made more difficult and are being rationed, courses are being disrupted and proper work is often unavailable, all because the prisons are so overcrowded. That really is criminally irresponsible: it encourages more crime, and wastes lives and money. Is not the Chancellor to blame, because he has failed to fund the number of prison places that we need?

Mr. Hanson: I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new, wider Front-Bench responsibilities. He will recognise that it is now on the table that 8,000 prison places will be built in the next five years and that there
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will be extra places by this summer, such as at Maghull. If he had joined me in my visit to Liverpool prison last week, he would also have recognised that much good education work is being done in prisons to help prevent reoffending. The hon. Gentleman has said that we are not doing enough. As he supports tax cuts and reductions in public expenditure, I do not know how he would find the resources to build the prison places, to have the education in our prisons and to make a difference to people’s lives. This Ministry of Justice will do those things, and I look forward to him supporting us in the Lobby on such issues.

Corston Review

21. Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): What assessment she has made of the recommendations of the Corston review of vulnerable women in prison; and if she will make a statement. [136923]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Vera Baird): The Government have given a broad welcome to the report. The Lord Chancellor has asked me to take responsibility in the new Ministry of Justice for women in the penal system. I visited one woman’s prison last week—Moreton hall—and I will visit another, Low Newton, on Friday. I have also had a first meeting with Baroness Corston today. Her recommendations propose action by a number of Departments, with whom they must be explored as we develop a detailed response. We will do that as soon as possible

Ms Keeble: I welcome that response and also the fact that my hon. and learned Friend has been given responsibility for this area of work. What are her views on the Corston review recommendation that there should be smaller, more secure units for women, instead of the larger, more regional prisons? Also, what are her views on early intervention to deal with women prisoners, who are often much more vulnerable than male prisoners, and on the expectation that that will better protect women prisoners and the wider public from repeat offending?

Vera Baird: The early interventions that my hon. Friend recommends follow on from the proposals in the “Together Women” project, which was resourced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) when he was Home Secretary and which offers a multi-agency, one-stop shop approach for women to better address their needs and to try to head them off at the pass in respect of their offending. Therefore, these proposals follow on in a natural progression from other proposals, and they will take matters forward. In respect of having local units, there will of course be resource implications and we will need to balance them against the obvious potential benefits and savings. However, if we can shift resources and move women to more local units then—the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) raised this point—they will have a better chance of staying in touch with their families and of not finding imprisonment so disruptive, and therefore perhaps of
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not being so distanced from the community and being thrown into chaotic lifestyles when they leave. All of these proposals have genuine promise.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Against the background of there having been an increase over 10 years in the total prison population from 60,000 to about 80,000 and the fact that the number of women in prison has almost doubled in 10 years to 4,300, have the Government accepted Lady Corston’s specific recommendation for “a significant reduction” in the number of women in prison and for community punishment to be an alternative?

Vera Baird: Essentially, that is what Lady Corston proposes, and we have given a broad welcome to it. As to refining the detail and the number of people who might be removed, that is probably a long-term project. However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government very much support the thrust of what she recommends.

Postal Voters

22. Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): What representations she has received on disfranchised postal voters in recent elections. [136924]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): I have received five representations on this subject since November 2006.

Mr. Dunne: May I be the first Member on the Conservative Benches to congratulate the new ministerial team on their new responsibilities? I sincerely hope that the usual channels will in future find more than 20 minutes a month for us to question them.

Thanks to this Government’s incompetent introduction of new procedures for postal voting—without there being sufficient time and technologies that worked, and without testing those technologies—how many people throughout the country were unable to exercise their right to vote by post in the recent local elections, and will the Minister accept a dossier being compiled at my request by the two returning officers of district council authorities in my area on the irregularities that have occurred?

Bridget Prentice: I am more than happy to receive any information from any returning officers about the running of those local elections. The Electoral Commission will of course conduct a review of all such matters. I noticed that the hon. Gentleman was complaining on his website about what was happening in the local elections on Thursday 3 May, when he said that he was very concerned about the deadlines and the complex procedure. On Friday 4 May, on the other hand, he said that he welcomed the previous day’s local election results for South Shropshire and Bridgnorth district councils, so within 24 hours he seemed to have changed his mind about the procedures’ effect. On postal votes, many more people have been voting by post, which is to be welcomed.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): In the recent elections in County Durham, the main problem was printing errors on ballot papers. The Electoral
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Commission tells me that it recommends printers on a tender list, but in a written answer that I received a week ago, the hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) told me that the Electoral Commission undertakes no checks of individual printers. Will the Minister instigate checks of these printing firms as a matter of urgency and ensure that the Electoral Commission starts doing the proper job of looking after elections that it is supposed to be doing?

Bridget Prentice: I will certainly take up my hon. Friend’s point about the Electoral Commission, but he and everyone in the House will know that it is up to each local authority to make its own arrangements for the running of local elections. Given that many authorities run elections annually—particularly those outside London—they should be building up good relationships with their local printing firms and ensuring that their needs are properly met.

Legal Aid

23. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): What assessment she has made of the effect of changes to the legal aid system on access to justice. [136925]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Vera Baird): Our legal aid reforms will improve access to justice because they will mean that we can help as many people as possible and place legal aid on a sustainable basis for the future. They will enable us to shift resources, so that we can spend more on civil and family legal advice and assistance, while being sure that those sectors, as they receive more, give best value to the taxpayer for that money.

Tony Baldry: I thank the Minister for that answer. She will be aware that Banbury citizens advice bureau gives legal advice on benefits, employment, debt and housing law. Last year, it gave advice to 569 people. As from October, following the introduction of the new contract, it will have to give, without any increase in resources, advice to 885 people—an increase of almost 50 per cent.—and if it does not, it will be penalised. That will obviously mean less time per person, at a time when high street solicitors are withdrawing from civil legal aid. Is not the consequence of all this that vulnerable constituents in all our constituencies will find justice much more difficult to access?

Vera Baird: No, that is not the case at all. The substantially improved efficiency and productivity of the not-for-profit sector—including of the CAB in his constituency—has very much been encouraged by the move from block contracts for hours to fixed fees. That requirement, established by the Legal Services Commission, has been in place for more than a year and the sector has responded very well; indeed, many such organisations have achieved productivity increases of 19 to 20 per cent. We expect that to continue and for better service to be given. The hon. Gentleman and his CAB need to read in detail the proposals on the transition from one system to the next, which show that the impact that he is concerned about will not take place.

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Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): What is the point of a system of fixed fees, given that the Government’s declared intention is to move to competitive tendering? Is this not an attempt to fix the market price that will cause people to leave legal aid work, which will mean that, when competitive tendering comes, the taxpayer will have fewer bidders from whom to choose and the citizen will have less access to justice?

Vera Baird: The point of moving over to fixed fees is that when competitive tendering comes in, it can realistically be achieved only on a fixed-fee basis. It is much more difficult to do it—except in select and specific cases such as the very high cost cases proposals—on the basis of payment by the hour. It is not the intention to fix the market rate. The right hon. Gentleman’s Constitutional Affairs Committee received a letter from the Lord Chancellor indicating that, in the absence of cartelling or any improper conduct, the market would indeed dictate prices. In the meantime, I have been very cheered by the number of solicitors who have taken on more employees, compared with the number who have let them go. In the criminal sector, which I can speak of most, that is indicative of people gearing up for the opportunities that these changes present.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): Is it the intention of my hon. Friend to monitor the progress of the competitive tendering regime for legal aid contracts and, in particular, will she monitor the second phase of tendering to ensure that there are sufficient tenderers to ensure that access to justice is secured on an equitable basis?

Vera Baird: Yes, the LSC will indeed monitor the process as it develops and is starting to model a process to ensure that it is practical to monitor it. The way in which the competitive tendering will be rolled out is not yet agreed, but it is likely to be on something of a phased basis, perhaps regionally, which will enable us to monitor it properly. We are aware of the problems of the second round, but we have some proposals—not yet totally cleared and fixed—that should ensure that firms can grow in the first round into the position of being able to bid for the second round. In short, we have all those problems very much in mind.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Is the Minister aware that the recent Select Committee report talks of a catastrophic deterioration in relations between solicitors and the LSC? It points out that if the reforms go ahead, there is a serious risk to access to justice, especially for the most vulnerable in society and ethnic minorities. The Minister has said that those criticising the report and the changes are wrong and misguided, but surely the time has come for her to listen to an all-party Select Committee, virtually every law firm in the country and many experts. Has it ever occurred to her that perhaps she is the one who is wrong and misguided?

Vera Baird: It is an extraordinary suggestion, coming from the hon. Gentleman, because—as Opposition Members will be pleased to hear, and I know that they are listening with care to me—he said, not two months ago, in Committee on the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill:

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There is no threat to advice to the poor from us, but there is from his party. Consider the position of the Hammersmith law centre. The Tory council in Hammersmith is cutting—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

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