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House of Commons

Tuesday 29 April 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Private Business

St. Austell Market Bill

Read the Third time, and passed.

Transport for London Bill [Lords]

Considered; to be read the Third time.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Crime Reduction (Small Businesses)

1. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on sentencing and other policies to reduce crime against shopkeepers and small businesses. [202043]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I take very seriously the need for the whole criminal justice system to be as effective as possible in tackling crime against shopkeepers and small businesses. The number of people convicted of theft from shops and sentenced to prison immediately has doubled in all courts in the past decade, while the average sentence length for all theft and handling cases tried at Crown court has increased from 11 months to 13 months. The Government will soon respond to the Sentencing Guidelines Council regarding its draft guidelines on theft and burglary from non-dwellings.

Mr. Hollobone: Shoplifting, theft, graffiti and vandalism and violence against small businesses and shopkeepers hasten business closures and are leading to the wider decline of our town centres and greater communities. The threat of jail for shoplifters and yobs must remain, but will the Secretary of State work with the Home Secretary to ensure that police forces, including that in Northamptonshire, use the powers that are already available to them to issue fixed penalty notices to offenders aged under 16?

Mr. Straw: I entirely share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about levels of shop theft, burglary and robbery.
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He will be aware that in Northamptonshire there has, fortunately, been a decline in all those crimes in the past five years, particularly recently, as there has across the country. However, the levels are still too high. In answer to his specific question, yes I will work with the Home Secretary to encourage forces to issue fixed penalty notices to under-16s in appropriate circumstances, because the experience in my area, in Lancashire, is that FPNs work effectively.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments that he will not treat this subject lightly and that there will be stricter sentencing. At least, I hope that that is what he is saying. Currently, small businesses and shopkeepers are suffering attacks, violence and robberies, whereas companies such as Tesco can get protection from Securicor and other security companies. Attacks on small businesses are also attacks on the people who work in them and the customers who use those shops, and simply lead to further closures.

Mr. Straw: Small shops are a vital part of local communities in urban and rural areas, so we take very seriously the need to ensure that the whole criminal justice system—from the police through to the courts—works effectively. As I have spelled out, we have been encouraging the courts to be tougher, as they have been, on theft from and burglaries of shops and other small businesses as well as large businesses. That is why the number of people sentenced to immediate imprisonment has more than doubled in recent years, and why sentence lengths at Crown court for more serious offences are rising.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): Sentencing is extremely important to my constituents. Indeed, they like to read about the sentences that have been given by the local magistrates court, which is why I am disappointed to hear from my local newspaper, The Herts Advertiser, that for the past seven months the St. Albans magistrates court has not been providing the lists of offences to be considered in the court. What offices could the Secretary of State use to encourage the practice of making those lists more public? We have been assured that there is no data protection conflict issue, but the current situation means that local reporters cannot cover those cases and draw attention to the offences that are blighting the community.

Mr. Straw: I am not surprised that the hon. Lady is concerned about that. If I may, I shall arrange to meet her, perhaps after oral questions, to take down the relevant details and follow the matter up.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): Has the Justice Secretary seen early-day motion 1358, tabled in my name and that of other hon. Members, about crime against small businesses? If so, he will know that it praises the campaign of the Federation of Small Businesses, which is extremely concerned that the under-reporting of crime might be leading local police forces to take it less seriously than they should. Given that less than 40 per cent. of crimes against small businesses are reported, what measures will the Secretary of State take to encourage businesses into full reporting? Every crime should be reported.

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Mr. Straw: I have seen the early-day motion to which my hon. Friend draws the House’s attention. It is vital that small businesses report crimes against them; in fairness to the police, they are likely to be aware of crimes only if they are reported. I think that levels of reporting are pretty consistent. The better news is that, across the country, crime against businesses, particularly shops, is going down. However, we need to do more. Along with reporting specific crimes, I encourage small business federations, at a local level, along with larger retailers, to work through community and crime reduction partnerships to ensure that there is more effective policing and that other work is undertaken to reduce crime in their areas.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): The Havering chamber of commerce and industry has long been concerned about the level of crimes against Upminster’s many small businesses and it would like to see these statistics recorded separately. Will the Minister agree to record crime against business separately so that its real level can be acknowledged and greater steps can be taken to combat it?

Mr. Straw: I am very keen on ensuring that the data are not only accurate, but much more specific. I am not passing the buck, but this is the direct responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and I will certainly raise the matter with her. Some specific business crimes are separately recorded—for example, robbery of business properties, shoplifting and burglary in other buildings, which in practice refers to businesses. I will certainly follow up the hon. Lady’s point.

Youth Referral Orders

2. Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the use of youth referral orders. [202044]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): The referral order at 44 per cent. has the lowest reconviction rate of any court sentence for under-18s. It is the primary community sentence for young offenders appearing in court for the first time who plead guilty and comprises about a quarter of all juvenile community sentences.

Ms Keeble: I am very grateful for my right hon. Friend’s response and for the good record in respect of youth referral orders. Is he satisfied that there are sufficient resources on the ground to ensure that these quite complex orders can be properly managed and that young people can get the services they need to become constructive and functioning adults?

Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her comments. She will know that these orders have been successful and that some 28,722 were made in 2006-07. The question of resources is indeed important. Following some challenges in my hon. Friend’s own area of Northamptonshire, the local authority has reversed funding cuts to youth offending teams recently—indeed, it provided £165,000 of additional funds to support the referral order process. As I say, the issue of resourcing is very important and there is a priority for youth crime prevention.
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In our forthcoming youth crime action plan, we will be looking to see what further steps we can take to support youth offending teams and their disposal at local level.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): My constituents on the Swinemoor estate in Beverley want more effective action taken against the tiny minority of hooligans on that estate. I congratulate Inspector Alan Farrow and his team on their efforts to protect the public, but what assessment has the Secretary of State made of extending penalty notices for disorder to the under-16s?

Mr. Hanson: We are looking into that issue. The question refers specifically to the youth referral order. I commend the work of the police in such areas as Beverley. I was in Humberside only a few weeks ago, looking into how the probation service was working with the Prison Service and other community agencies to tackle antisocial behaviour and other related issues. I think that it is important to look into what further support we can give, and we are currently looking into extending prevention notices. The youth referral order has been a success with a 44 per cent. reconviction rate, which is a good figure for the Government, showing the performance in respect of this particular order.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): It gives me no pleasure to say that right across the country, thousands of communities—especially the parishes of Downton and Redlynch in my constituency—are dreading the onset of summer. During warm, light summer nights, a minority of young people—many drunk and on drugs—will cause low-level crime, intimidation and harassment and use bad language across these communities. When people talk to the police, the league tables on the wall are pointed out and they are told that crime is dropping. When will someone get the point that people are no longer reporting low-level crime and are not bothering to tell the police because the police do not have the resources to respond? It is no good anyone in this House trying to convince my constituents that crime, particularly among young people, is falling, with or without the youth referral orders. The problem really must be tackled if there is to be continuity of confidence in our local police and justice system.

Mr. Hanson: I think the hon. Gentleman does a disservice to the work of the police in his own community. He will know that the police actually take these issues very seriously. Over the past 10 years, we have had a 30 per cent. reduction in crime and we have more police on the streets than ever before. I am happy to receive representations from the hon. Gentleman on these important issues. Such low-level crime is significant because it damages the quality of life of people not only in villages but throughout the community. The referral order is successful in bringing individuals to court. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the range of disposals we have introduced in the past 10 years, including antisocial behaviour orders and the power for police to take young people to their parents, he will see that a number of significant measures are in place. As I said, I am happy to receive representations from the hon. Gentleman, but if he looks at the facts he will see that the Government have done a tremendous amount of work in reducing the levels of such crime.

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Civil Legal Aid

3. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): When he last met representatives of the legal profession to discuss the future of civil legal aid. [202045]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): My noble Friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath has regular meetings with representative bodies and individual providers, including the Law Society, with whom my Department and the Legal Services Commission have recently reached an agreement over legal aid contracts. That agreement will give stability and certainty for civil legal aid providers, and heralds a strong commitment to a new collaborative working approach.

Mr. Kidney: I am grateful for that answer. The Minister will know that the Ministry, along with the Legal Services Commission, has just settled a damaging dispute with the legal profession about civil legal aid contracts. Can she confirm that as a result of settling that dispute there will be sufficient numbers of lawyers taking up civil law contracts for legal aid and there will be sufficient money to pay them for the contracts, and that we will not have more court disputes between the sides over the adequacy of the scheme for the future?

Bridget Prentice: I am happy to be able to say to my hon. Friend that I think I can with confidence state that those things will happen. As he will know, increasing provision is going into legal aid. The reaching of an agreement on these contracts has, obviously, been difficult at times, but it is very important that we have done so. That shows that we can work together and achieve an agreement that makes sure that the most vulnerable will receive the access to justice that they deserve.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): What steps can the Minister take to ensure that legal aid and other legal costs that will come about as a result of public inquiries that are currently under way in Northern Ireland do not spiral out of control as they have done in the Saville inquiry?

Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and we are very conscious of the effect that some past inquiries have had on the whole system. We monitor this very carefully, and we will ensure that we get proper value for money in every aspect of our legal aid budget.

David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome what my hon. Friend the Minister said about the agreement that has been reached. However, will she agree to monitor the provision of legal advice, particularly on immigration and family law issues, under the new financial arrangements, because there is a fear in my constituency that there will be an increasing shortage of that provision?

Bridget Prentice: My hon. Friend makes an important and serious point. Expertise and sensitivity are required in the two areas he mentions, and it is important that we make sure they are properly covered by legal aid provision. I welcome the support we get, particularly from the not-for-profit sector, in dealing with many such cases, and I will ensure that my noble Friend Lord Hunt monitors provision in those areas.

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Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): May I put it to the Minister that her replies so far have been incredibly complacent? Is she aware that law firms up and down the country are giving up legal aid work on housing, immigration, mental health and family law cases? All of that was predicted in a Select Committee report of last year, which the Government completely ignored. Does she agree that the end result will be legal aid deserts and some of the most vulnerable people in society being denied justice?

Bridget Prentice: No, I do not agree at all with the hon. Gentleman, and I am disappointed that he felt he had to ask that question in the way he did. He will know that the increase in spend from the Legal Services Commission has gone up by 73 per cent. in the six years to 2006-07. We have looked into legal aid deserts in the past, and the new way of commissioning and the new contracts are in place particularly to make sure that legal aid deserts do not occur.

The third thing to mention is that we want to ensure that legal aid gets to those most in need—those who are dealing with mental health or housing issues, or with the immigration or family law matters that my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (David Lepper) mentioned. This Government’s approach to this series of reforms has aimed to protect those most in need.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Will a young person who is seeking an injunction against family members under the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 be able to access aid from September when the Act comes into force?

Bridget Prentice: Again, my hon. Friend raises a very important issue. I want to be able to tell her and the House that yes, young people will be able to access legal aid in those circumstances. It is vital that we ensure that everyone is aware of the provisions of the 2007 Act, that people feel able to access aid, whether through the not-for-profit sector or through women’s or youth organisations, and that, come September, young people will be able to get the protection that they deserve and need.

Court Buildings (Wales)

4. Jessica Morden (Newport, East) (Lab): If he will make a statement on funding for court buildings in Wales. [202046]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Maria Eagle): The former Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice Lord Falconer made a statement on 25 June 2007 about a £400 million investment in new courts in England and Wales. My hon. Friend might be interested to learn that Her Majesty’s Courts Service asset management committee considered a strategic outline case for a new courthouse in Newport on 23 April 2008. Further work is now required before a final funding decision can be reached.

Jessica Morden: Newport has needed a new courthouse for 25 years, and an inspection in 2002 deemed the current facilities unfit for purpose. Please could the Minister talk to the Treasury about speeding up the financial approval for this project, as it is the No. 1 priority in terms of new court buildings in Wales?

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Maria Eagle: I am very happy to discuss with my hon. Friend the details of the stage that we have reached in examining potential investment in that courthouse. I accept that Her Majesty’s Courts Service, regionally and nationally, has decided that the magistrates court in Newport is the most pressing priority in that area. I am happy to discuss the matter further with her, should she wish to do so.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I congratulate the Government on changing their mind on the Llandrindod Wells magistrates court, which appears to be continuing. I believe there are plans for a new court, as an area that is almost the size of Greater London is being served—although rather fewer people live there. The criminal justice system is still not well served because the custody cells have been deemed unfit for purpose, so prisoners have to be taken 30 miles to Brecon or Newtown. While the new magistrates court is being built, can we also be given a new police station, because the area would then be well served by the criminal justice system? Will the Minister visit the area so that she can understand the situation?

Maria Eagle: I am happy to take up the hon. Gentleman’s offer to visit his part of the world and to look at service provision across the criminal justice system. I congratulate him on his attempt to join up government from the Opposition Benches—that is not an easy thing to do even from the Government Benches. I would be happy to talk to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to see what plans there are to deal with the issues that he raises.

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