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Employment Tribunals

8. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the capacity of employment tribunals to discharge their functions in a timely fashion. [230377]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): The performance of employment tribunals is discussed monthly by the tribunal service executive team and quarterly by a special steering board. Officials also regularly meet statisticians from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to produce robust forecasts, and to inform resource and sitting day requirements. The tribunals aim to bring 75 per cent. of individual claims to full hearing within 26 weeks of the claims being accepted, and to issue 85 per cent. of judgments within four weeks of the date that cases are concluded. In 2007-08 the former target was missed by 1 per cent. and the latter exceeded by 2 per cent.

Tony Lloyd: Is my hon. Friend aware of the massive increase in the number of cases before tribunals concerning equal pay? Although they quite rightly need to be resolved, they take a long time because of the complexity, and the increase in numbers has been phenomenal. It is possible that half the cases before tribunals this year will involve equal pay. Can she assure the House that we will not get into a position whereby people whose cases do not involve equal pay will find themselves crowded out from the justice that they expect from the tribunal system?

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Bridget Prentice: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Equal pay claims have existed for more than four years, and so far we have been able to cope with the case load. Sometimes, however, they can be complicated and take quite a long time to settle. We are aware of the concerns that my hon. Friend raises about the growth in equal pay claims, and the impact that they can have on tribunals’ ability to manage their case loads and to hear other important and pressing cases. As a result, we have set up two specialist units, in Newcastle and Scotland, to deal with such claims. I assure my hon. Friend that I will monitor the situation closely to ensure that other cases that equally deserve a hearing will be heard.

End of Custody Licence Scheme

10. Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the operation of the end of custody licence scheme. [230379]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): The end of custody licence scheme was necessary when it was introduced, but, as I made clear to the House, I intend to phase it out as soon as there is sufficient prison capacity to do so. So far this year, about 2,500 additional places have been provided ahead of target.

Mr. Gray: Since the scheme was introduced, some 34,000 prisoners have been released early: 6,500 were violent and 650 have reoffended. When does the Secretary of State believe that he can end the scheme? It will not even be reviewed until the end of next year, by which time it is estimated that some 70,000 prisoners—many of them violent—will have been released on to our streets.

Mr. Straw: It is important to recall that we are considering release in the last 18 days—two and a half weeks—of a sentence. It is important to put that in perspective. There are a great many exclusions from the scheme, including serious violent and sexual offenders. It is not the case that we will review the scheme only at the end of next year. I keep it constantly under review and I understand the House’s concern, which I share—18 days is still 18 days. I do not dispute the public concern about the scheme, which we keep constantly under review. As soon as I judge that there is sufficient capacity in the system, I will phase it out.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): In a written answer published late last night, the Government reveal that three alleged murders were committed by prisoners while released early under the end of custody licence scheme. How can the Secretary of State have the front to talk about punishing offenders and being on the side of victims when his policy—under which more than 36,000 prisoners, including 7,000 violent criminals, have been released early—so clearly puts the public at risk?

Mr. Straw: Of course, I understand the concern. I gave the figures to the hon. Gentleman, and I was concerned to ensure that he got them and that they were comprehensive. There are three cases, out of the thousands of prisoners who have been released early, in which allegations of murder have been made. In one case the proceedings are continuing, and I cannot comment on
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it. In the second case, the alleged perpetrator subsequently killed himself. When the third case came before the court last December, Mrs. Justice Swift stated in her sentencing remarks:

that is, the murder. She continued:

Nick Herbert: I find that answer astonishingly complacent. It appears that three additional murders may have been committed by offenders who were released 18 days early. We already know that one prisoner who was released early was convicted of a murder when he should have been safely behind bars. Last night the Ministry of Justice claimed that the scheme was working well. What is working well about a scheme that releases early offenders who go on to commit such serious crimes? The Ministry said that it would scrap early release when it was safe to do so. Is it not obvious to everyone, except the Government, that the policy is unsafe now, and should be scrapped immediately?

Mr. Straw: I have given the answer about the three murder allegations. I simply repeat to the hon. Gentleman that the remarks about whether that particular terrible event would have taken place in any event were made not by me but by the honourable Mrs. Justice Swift, and she was very clear about it—sufficiently clear to put it on record in the sentencing remarks. In a circumstance in which I regret the scheme, I emphasise that the reoffending rate is 1 per cent., which is low, and that breaches are tackled quickly.

Since the hon. Gentleman takes the matter to a party political level, let me say that he got surprisingly little coverage for a speech that he made to the Prison Governors Association on 8 October. It requires a wider audience, because he claimed:

If that is the Opposition’s policy, they will have serious difficulties in cutting out end of custody licence release.

Topical Questions

T1. [230396] Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): I would like to report to the House that we have made considerable progress in protecting the public by reducing reoffending in both adults and juveniles. The latest figures show that between 2000 and 2006 adult reoffending was down by 23 per cent., while juvenile reoffending was down by 19 per cent., although we of course accept that we have a great deal more work to do.

Mark Hunter: Members will remember that the introduction of a British day was a key recommendation of Lord Goldsmith’s much heralded citizenship review, principally in order to encourage members of the public to celebrate our national identity and to promote greater integration and tolerance. However, there seems to be some confusion, which I hope the Minister can clarify.
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Last week the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) said in reply to a written question from the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell):

Last night, according to the BBC—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Supplementaries should be brief, particularly in topical questions, as I have said before. So perhaps we could have a brief reply.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that there is no confusion at all. We are considering all the Goldsmith review’s recommendations and will bring our conclusions to the House in due course.

T5. [230400] John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that the money that has been allocated to groups in Scotland through the Barnett formula, and in particular the money for the groups that need it most, has fallen into a black hole under the current Administration there. Is it not time we revisited the constitutional settlement, to ensure that the money that goes to Scotland through the Barnett formula gets to the vulnerable people who need it, and for whom it was intended in the first place?

Mr. Straw: I understand my hon. Friend’s deep concern for his constituents in need whose needs are not being met by the policies of the Scottish Executive. However, part of the settlement was for there to be a block grant, so that there is full accountability by those who are making the decisions on spending.

T2. [230397] Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): With repossessions going through the roof, surely we need strong protection enshrined in law on both sides of the border to ensure that repossession is only ever used as a last resort. Will the Minister confirm whether the recently announced changes to the repossession procedures are statutory, and say how they can be enforced?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): What I can say to the hon. Lady is this. The protocol will take effect from 19 November and will set out clear guidance from the judiciary on the steps that lenders are expected to take before bringing a claim in the courts, with a view to ensuring that repossession is a last resort. If a case reaches court, the lenders will be required to be able to tell the court precisely what they have done to comply with the protocol, which will apply to arrears on first and second-charge residential mortgages. The protocol does not alter the parties’ existing rights and obligations. The judiciary have brought the protocol forward and we welcome that move, so that we can safeguard those who are particularly vulnerable during this economic crisis.

T3. [230398] Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): On Christmas eve 2006, my constituent, Mr. David George, a serving police officer in the West Mercia police force, was brutally attacked and kicked unconscious, and needed hospital treatment. The offender was subsequently caught, prosecuted and sentenced to 14 months in
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prison. Does the Justice Secretary share my outrage and the outrage of my constituents Mr. and Mrs. George, who were informed only last week that the culprit had been released, having served only 12 weeks behind bars? Is this the Justice Secretary’s new definition of punishment?

Mr. Straw: My heart, and that of the whole House, goes out to the police officer who was injured, and to his family, colleagues and friends. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I cannot possibly make comments on individual sentencing decisions; no one in my position can. However, I can say without contradiction that everyone knows that the prison population has risen by a third in recent years, and that the sentences typically handed down by the courts are longer, particularly for those convicted of offences of violence.

Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that when an employment tribunal makes an award, the employer pays up?

Bridget Prentice: My hon. Friend makes an important point. There have been cases in which a tribunal has found in favour of a claimant, yet the employer has not been as willing as he or she ought to have been to pay them. Next year, under the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007, we will ensure that cases can be registered in the county court, so claimants will be able to get a speedier resolution to the issue. This is something that we are concerned about. When a claim goes to an employment tribunal and the tribunal upholds the claimant’s position, it is quite unacceptable that the employer should then either delay or deny the claimant their rightful compensation.

T4. [230399] Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): Prison officers in my constituency report to me that incidents of assault on prison staff by prisoners at HMP Dartmoor have recently risen sharply, perhaps reflecting a wider concern in society about the rise of violent crime. What steps have the Government taken to analyse this increase in assaults on prison staff, and what will the Minister do to ensure that these hard-working public servants are carefully protected?

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): This is an important issue. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are committed to ensuring that violence in prisons is not tolerated in any form. Since 2004, every public sector prison has had in place a local violence strategy, and we have just jointly committed, with the Prison Officers Association, to a policy of zero tolerance of assaults on staff. I have a number of statistics that I will happily give to the hon. Gentleman following this Question Time, which show that overall, although assaults are still present, they are on a trajectory that is falling compared with the prison population. This is an important issue, and we want to work with the prison officers on it.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): In his speech at the RSA yesterday, the Lord Chancellor prefaced some rather sensible remarks—about reducing reoffending rates and crime by putting what works first—with some frankly weird remarks about punishment for the sake of punishment. It was that part of his speech that he pre-released to the media. Does he not see that when he
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chases the headlines in that way, he undermines the case for putting what works first? It is not the offenders who suffer as a consequence of that, but the victims of the crimes that would have been prevented if we had been in a position to do more of what works.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman is entitled to his own view of my speech, but it is not the case that I was talking about punishment for the sake of punishment. I was drawing to the attention of my audience, and to that of those involved in criminal justice in the widest sense, that it is this Parliament, in one statute after another—not least in the principal sentencing statute, the Criminal Justice Act 2003—that sets out the punishment of the offender as the first principle of sentencing. We need to understand—perhaps the Liberal Democrats do not understand it—that that is what the public and the victims expect, although not in an unpleasant, nasty or inhumane way, as I made very clear. We need to ensure that the courts and everyone else associated with the criminal justice system use language that connects with where the public and the victims are. I went on to talk about the importance of reform alongside that.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that many trade unionists are demonstrating and lobbying here today on the issue of recognising pleural plaques as an industrial disease? When will he take the decision on this matter, and why is it taking such a while?

Mr. Straw: I am indeed aware of today’s lobby and demonstrations. I fully understand the concern of all who are here and the people they represent about the implications of the Law Lords’ decision last October. The consultation that I initiated earlier this year closed three weeks ago. We have received more than 300 responses to it and we are currently assessing them. I hope to announce our response next month.

T6. [230401] Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): May I press the Secretary of State to review the end of custody licence scheme as a matter of urgency? Since its introduction, nearly 800 crimes have been committed by offenders who should have been in prison. When it was introduced it was described as temporary, yet official prison population projections suggest that it will continue indefinitely. Will the right hon. Gentleman review the scheme, for the sake of the safety of the law-abiding majority?

Mr. Straw: I repeat what I said to the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues earlier. It is a temporary measure. The release is for two and a half weeks, not four months, in advance of when the sentence is due to end in any event. As for prison population projections, the hon. Gentleman will know that these are, and always have been, imprecise. There are high, medium and low trajectories. What I am trying to do, working hard with my colleagues in the Department and the Prison Service, is to ensure that we have sufficient headroom to be able to end the scheme. Unfortunately, I cannot say at the moment exactly when that will be—I wish I could—but as soon as I judge it safe to do so, the scheme will be ended.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): What steps is the Secretary of State taking to discharge his duty to represent the Isle of Man Government in their dispute with the Icelandic Government over the failed
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Kaupthing bank? Will he initiate wider discussions on whether loan assistance to the Isle of Man Government would enable depositors in that bank, including UK depositors, to get some of their money?

Mr. Straw: I have received no direct representations personally on behalf of the Isle of Man Government. I am aware, however, that there have been discussions between the Isle of Man Government and the Treasury.

Helen Southworth (Warrington, South) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that no decision has yet been made on the site of a titan prison in the north-west? Will he take note that the Omega site in Warrington is one of regional economic significance and intended to create a business park, building up to 24,000 high-technology jobs, and is completely unsuitable to be a titan prison site?

Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. She will know—we met and discussed the matter last week—that as of now, no decision has been taken on any titan site, whether it be in the north-west or any other part of England and Wales. We are committed to look for a site in the north-west, together with one in the south-east and one in the west midlands, but we will take the decision only after consideration of the results of the consultation on the titan programme that I recently announced.

T7. [230402] Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): I noted the Secretary of State’s comments on the early release scheme, but why are the Government continuing with the early release of violent offenders, including those who have committed domestic violence, without a substantial risk assessment or accommodation check before they are released?

Mr. Straw: I say again that there is a whole series of exclusions from the end of custody licence scheme, and they include serious violent and sexual offenders. I wish that no alleged reoffending had occurred by anyone released under the scheme, but the fact that the number is so low—1 per cent. of the total—indicates that those who made the assessments and constructed the scheme did as well overall as it was possible to do in the circumstances in which it was necessary to introduce it.

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