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7. Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): What steps he is taking to draw lessons from the recent severe flooding; and if he will make a statement. [150594]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): We have set up a wide-ranging review to identify lessons to be learned from the recent flooding to help us to manage and respond to such events in future. We aim to publish initial findings by the end of the year and subsequently a formal Government report.

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Mrs. Cryer: May I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on his recent appointment and on the high-quality nature of his team?

Will my right hon. Friend report to the House any discussions that he has been having with representatives of British insurers regarding the recent flooding? I have in mind the difficulties that I experienced in my constituency in 2002, when one elderly lady was rendered homeless for 12 months because a big insurance company forced her to accept the lowest bid, which meant bringing in cowboys, and she had a very unhappy time.

Hilary Benn: I thank my hon. Friend for her kind words. I join her in welcoming the new ministerial team at DEFRA. I am greatly looking forward to working with my colleagues.

I have already spoken to the Association of British Insurers on the issues that my hon. Friend raises, and I know of the efforts that insurance companies are making to get round to visiting people and processing claims as quickly as possible, including changing some of the arrangements whereby they would usually require more than one quote. There will be big demands on the building and repairs industry to deal with the problems that people have experienced. My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, who is leading the recovery group, is also talking to the ABI about these issues.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): I welcome the Secretary of State to his post. Will he commit to ensuring that farmers such as Peter Vaughan in my constituency, who has lost 150 acres of potatoes, are guaranteed at least a large percentage of their single farm payment by Christmas? Many other members of the rural community have lost crops because of flooding, and constituents of mine in Tenbury Wells were flooded again this week. What can he do for Andrea Harrison and Mike Button of Phaze Computer Services who, despite the fact that they are not located in the rural community but in the more urban parts of my constituency, are very worried about their business?

Hilary Benn: I am acutely conscious of, and have discussed, the problems facing farmers in many constituencies, not least at last week’s Great Yorkshire show. Two issues were raised with me of which the hon. Gentleman will be aware: the cross-compliance arrangements, which normally prevent farmers from going on to waterlogged land, and the use of set-aside land for grazing and foraging. I went away to consider them, and within 24 hours we lifted the rules on cross-compliance and waterlogged land until the end of this month to enable farmers to get on to the land and do what they can to rescue their crops. By notifying the Rural Payments Agency, they are able to use set-aside land for grazing and foraging—unless the agency says there is a difficulty—in recognition of the fact that the land they would otherwise use is currently underwater.

We made those changes in direct response to representations made to me. We set the RPA a target for 2007—it having achieved the target of paying 96 per cent. of the money due by 30 June by reaching a figure of 98 per cent.—of paying 75 per cent. of the amount due by the end of March and 90 per cent. by the end of May. We shall look further at the position in the autumn.

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I met the agency’s chief executive yesterday; I recognise that the service it has provided has not been acceptable, but things are improving. I am determined that we shall maintain that improvement and I am grateful to agency staff for their efforts.

Single Farm Payment Scheme

8. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): If he will make a statement on the operation of the single farm payment scheme. [150596]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): I reported to the House on 2 July that, as at 30 June, the Rural Payments Agency had paid out 98 per cent. of the estimated total funds, thus meeting its target for this year. The agency continues to work on the remaining single payment scheme claims, including cases where entitlements may need to be adjusted.

Ann Winterton: The Secretary of State has acknowledged the mind-boggling incompetence of the RPA in the past, and we look forward to dramatic improvements. Is he aware of increased problems for those who farm on both sides of the Welsh border, owing to a failure to think through the implications of devolved agriculture for cross-border farms? Why are English farmers further disadvantaged by the fact that modulation is much higher in England, and in Scotland too, amounting to almost 10 per cent. of entitlement?

Hilary Benn: On top of compulsory modulation under the common agricultural policy, we have decided to have a greater degree of voluntary modulation. I think that that is the right policy. I shall go away and consider the specific issue the hon. Lady raises about farmers farming on both sides of the border.

Every Member recognises that this has not been a happy episode for the RPA, but I hope that the hon. Lady will acknowledge the steps that have been taken to try to improve the service. We should encourage agency staff to continue that work, and my noble Friend Lord Rooker has been holding surgeries at which Members can talk to him about individual cases. Those are continuing. I say to all hon. Members whose farmer constituents are experiencing difficulties, that they can talk to us about individual cases, and we shall do our best to sort them out.


The Solicitor-General was asked—

Domestic Violence

14. Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): What steps she is taking to raise awareness of Crown Prosecution Service measures to tackle domestic violence, with particular reference to Blackpool, North and Fleetwood. [150577]

The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): Yesterday, we published the Crown Prosecution Service’s annual snapshot survey of domestic violence cases, which shows that convictions are 66 per cent.—up by 20 per cent. since 2003, with 6 per cent. fewer cases being
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discontinued—and the number of cases recorded has doubled since 2002. There has been some success, and the latest figure suggests that complainants are starting to believe that they will be made safe and helped if they complain, and are therefore coming forward more. That should help to raise awareness in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and elsewhere.

Mrs. Humble: I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that reply and commend her and the Department on the success that they are achieving. The local Crown Prosecution Service in Blackpool—and, indeed, across Lancashire—is working closely with a variety of agencies to support the victims of domestic violence. However, some people still do not realise that changes have taken place and remain worried that perhaps they will not receive the sympathetic hearing that my hon. and learned Friend mentioned. What further steps can she take, working through a variety of agencies, to offer reassurances so that victims come forward and are heard, and that prosecutions take place?

The Solicitor-General: My hon. Friend makes a good point. There is a lack of confidence among complainants, approximately 94 per cent. of whom are women because, historically when they have come forward, they have not been taken seriously. My hon. Friend is doing a good job of publicising the changes at the moment. The fact that we label courts as domestic violence specialist courts makes it clear that they are places to which people have recourse.

However, the CPS has in recent years worked overwhelmingly with local non-governmental organisations and told them the sort of services it can offer. They are likely to be the place of first resort for domestic violence complainants if they come forward and I therefore hope that there is a continuum of information through that mechanism.

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Female genital mutilation is one of the most grievous forms of domestic violence in this country. Does it not shock and concern the Solicitor-General that, despite legislation that was passed in 2003 to prevent it, only one person has been investigated? As far I can discover through freedom of information requests, not one person has been prosecuted for that most grievous and wicked crime.

The Solicitor-General: I am glad to have the hon. Gentleman’s support in our attempts to tackle that grievous and often hidden crime. It is not easy to tackle—it is not easy to bring complainants forward or deal with them when they do come forward. However, we have no lack of political will to do that. If the hon. Gentleman can help us, I would be pleased to meet him and discuss the matter further. It will be a priority for my noble Friend the Attorney-General and me.

Disclosure (Offenders)

16. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): If she will discuss with the senior presiding judge the guidance on disclosure to courts of information on prolific and priority offenders. [150580]

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The Solicitor-General: I do not currently have plans to discuss the guidance, which has recently been reviewed, with the senior presiding judge. It is not the label “prolific and priority offender” that is important to the court when it sentences, but its function in ensuring that the defendant’s full offending history and the risks of reoffending are before the court so that it can sentence appropriately.

Mr. Hollobone: I urge the Solicitor-General to reconsider speaking to the presiding judge because the problem in Kettering and north Northamptonshire is that the police catch the prolific and priority offenders, bring them before the courts, but all too often they are let back out on the streets on bail, only to reoffend immediately. The police are tearing their hair out, and I suggest that it is up to her to ascertain whether she can persuade the Crown Prosecution Service and the Courts Service to do something about that.

The Solicitor-General: The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to tell me that such a problem was certainly perceived in his constituency. A “premium service” has been set up in the criminal justice system generally to deal with PPOs. Like many criminal justice issues, it is intended to be co-ordinated through the local criminal justice boards. The intention is that the police and the CPS share the targets for tackling PPOs, and the premium service consists of getting people to court more quickly, increasing multi-agency co-operation and listing cases quickly so that the sort of problem that the hon. Gentleman raises should not arise. We can only do our utmost to ensure that all the evidence of the local harm that PPOs cause is before the courts so that they can be rigorously sentenced.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I welcome the steps that the Solicitor-General and her predecessors have taken, but it is important that the information is accurate. Will she assure hon. Members that, when multi agencies approach the subject, the information gathering is done efficiently and the information is accurate and disclosed to the defendant?

The Solicitor-General: My right hon. Friend makes an important point. One reliable way of ensuring that the information that comes before the court is accurate is to ensure that it is agreed, as it were, by both parties to the case. As I have said, the CPS has been marked over the past few years by its ability to work closely with, and to enlist the support of, NGOs and other public sector and criminal agencies, to ensure that it makes progress in priority areas such as PPOs. Of course the CPS has a duty to try to ensure that the information that comes from those outside sources is accurate before it puts it before the courts.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): The Solicitor-General will be aware that the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) raised is about concrete examples brought to him of what one sometimes hears anecdotally from elsewhere. Is not the basic problem, if it exists in this form, nothing to do with whether there are prolific or priority offenders, but simply failures by the CPS in presenting cases in court to bring to the court’s attention previous convictions and previous breaches of bail? It is difficult to gauge the
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extent to which that might be happening, but will the Solicitor-General consider whether the Crown Prosecution Service should conduct a review of how such information is presented to the court? If my hon. Friend is right, something that can be easily rectified is not being addressed, but if it were, it would go a long way towards dealing with such cases much better.

The Solicitor-General: I take from that what I hope and expect is support from the hon. Gentleman for saying that it would not help to put the label “PPO” before the court. What is imperative is to ensure that the full history of offending is put before the court. The hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) has raised an important point. We will look across the board at how well we are doing that work. If I found deficits, I would have no hesitation in asking the inspectorate to look at the position.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): The debate so far illustrates how well the system can work when there are guidelines in place for which the Solicitor-General is accountable to the House. Does she accept that there is a case for maintaining that system, with the Solicitor-General and the Attorney-General on one side and the prosecution service on the other, so that instead of discussions and instructions on specific individual prosecutions, the relationship is always one where the Law Officers give guidelines to prosecutors?

The Solicitor-General: The hon. Gentleman and I were both involved in a debate about the roles of the prosecutors and the Law Officers respectively as recently as Monday. I believe that the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee is due to publish a report on the issue imminently, or that it has just published one. We shall publish a consultation document, I hope next week, which will look at the role of the Law Officers in that and a number of other regards. That is consonant with “The Governance of Britain”, which the Prime Minister announced a few weeks ago. We intend to encourage all sorts of participation throughout the House of Commons and elsewhere to ensure that we get the model for the Law Officers right for the 21st century.

Targets (Police and CPS)

17. Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): What steps she has taken to ensure that targets set for the Crown Prosecution Service do not conflict with targets set for police forces in England and Wales. [150581]

The Solicitor-General: The Law Officers agree public service agreement performance targets for the criminal justice system with the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor. Common performance targets help to ensure that there are no conflicts between the targets for the police and those for the Crown Prosecution Service, or at least minimum ones.

Mark Pritchard: With respect to the Solicitor-General, I beg to differ on that point. Does she share my concern that often, and mysteriously, the targets set for the police require a higher evidence threshold than those set for the Crown Prosecution Service? Police forces such as West Mercia work hard to bring criminals before the courts, only to find that they are put at the bottom of
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the pile because the CPS has another target to meet, and that, whatever the evidence produced by the police, it is not brought before to court, meaning that criminals go free.

The Solicitor-General: Quite honestly, I do not think so. The levels of evidence required before the Crown Prosecution Service will bring a prosecution are extremely well known. They have been in place in the code for Crown prosecutors for many years and were
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very clear even before that was drafted. They are well known to the police. There can be no real difference in the standards required of the two organisations. Local criminal justice boards ought to ensure that there is good co-ordination between police and prosecutors across a whole range of issues—indeed, across all issues. If there are specific difficulties in the hon. Gentleman’s area that he wants to draw to my attention, I hope that he will do so. I will ensure that they are forwarded.

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Mr. Speaker: I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Rating (Empty Properties) Act 2007

Appropriation (No. 2) Act 2007

Finance Act 2007

Mental Health Act 2007

Concessionary Bus Travel Act 2007

Vehicle Registration Marks Act 2007

Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007

Parliament (Joint Departments) Act 2007

Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Act 2007

Whitehaven Harbour Act 2007

London Local Authorities Act 2007

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