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Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Would I be right in thinking the special measures will include the use of public interest immunity certificates? The last time this matter was discussed on the Floor of the House, the Justice Secretary said that this would not work because the judge might decline to make the order. However, that would have been appealable, as is this proposal. Am I right in thinking that these measures will include PII certificates?
Mr. Straw: The difficulty with using just public interest immunity certificates is that, when a PIIC is refused in a criminal case, the prosecution can, in extremis, withdraw the prosecution, but there is no possibility of withdrawing an inquest. That is because an inquest is triggered by a death, not by a discretionary criminal charge. That is why we have come up with this proposal. There will be circumstancesalthough I think they will be very few and far betweenin which the learned judge might decide that the only way the protected information can be the subject of a proper judgment by the court while remaining protected will be for the judge to sit alone without a jury. I hope, however, that in many cases, the judge will come to the view that it will be adequate for the protected information to be gisted or summarised in a safe way to the jury.
David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): Any movement on this issue by the Government is to be welcomed, although Opposition Members will have to study the details of the proposals. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he now accepts the point of principle that there is a difference between removing a jury and holding proceedings behind closed doors? Does he acknowledge that those are different issues that need to be decided separately? Will he also confirm that one possible special measure would be to security-vet the jury?
Mr. Straw: Special measures involving a jury and the removal of a jury are part of a continuum. The most extreme measure is for a judge to sit alone, and the decision to do so will have been reached in order to protect information that cannot be made public. A judge could decide to protect that information in other ways, however, and it would be for the judge to come to a view on that. I doubt very much that they would form the view that the vetting of the jury would be adequate, but they might do so.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that he has consistently argued his case in favour of secret inquests on the basis that two inquests had to be halted because the existing safeguards were inadequate? That is the argument that he put to the House on 26 January on Second Reading. Is he aware, however, that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), has now written to the Committee to explain that one of those inqueststhat into the death of Terry Nicholaswas resumed on 6 January? Is that not quite staggering? Surely his argument must now fall apart, because he gave the House inaccurate information.
I think the hon. Gentleman will find that the second inquest was resumed on 6 February, which is a non-trivial fact because it is after I made my Second
Reading speech rather than before. This is what the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), has just told me, and if she is wrong she will be given career advice at the end of Question Time and I will make a grovelling apology. In any event, we have always made it clear that the circumstances in which a non-jury inquest might be necessary would be few and far between. I hope that the House will regard it as a good thing rather than a bad thing that, as a result of further examination of the original circumstances that led to the judgment that two of the inquests had to be held without a jury, we have now got the number down to one. Surely that is a good thing.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr. Shahid Malik): Lancashire police are among the best performing in the country and one of the leading forces nationally in developing restorative practices. Owing to the successes experienced in areas such as Lancashire, the Government want to see an extension of restorative programmes. To that end, we are currently working with interested groups, including the Restorative Justice Consortium, to develop a national victim-focused restorative justice strategy for adult offenders.
Mr. Marsden: I warmly welcome my hon. Friends support for the pioneering developments in Lancashire, which include a peer pilot project for younger people. Will the Minister tell me whether the Government have made an assessment of the impact of this project, particularly on reducing antisocial behaviour among young people, and will he tell me how best practice from the project can be disseminated to benefit my constituents in Blackpool?
Mr. Malik: Peer panels, to which my hon. Friend refers, are a Nacro-led project. An independent evaluation of them is now in its second year of a three-year pilot, so it is too early to judge the success. Having said that, there has been a lot of positive feedback and we have seen an increasing number of referrals from the police, youth offending teams, schools, primary care trusts and so forth. Any lessons we identify from the pilot will be fed back into the centre further to inform the development of the restorative justice strategy.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): Sharing information across Government Departments in a safe and proportionate way, with proper safeguards in place, is vital to the delivery of modern public services. That has always been Government policy.
Mr. Sanders: Many of my constituents are very concerned about clause 152 of the Coroners and Justice Bill, and I greatly fear that, whatever reassurance the Minister can give, unless there is some absolutely categorical mechanism for protecting information, people will not be reassured that their details are safe.
Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): On information sharing, we have today received the shocking report from the Healthcare Commission on the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. In the course of that report, the commission says:
We thought that information from the coroner would be useful for the investigation. We were disappointed that he declined to provide us with any information about the number or nature of inquests involving the trust.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): We all greatly welcome the withdrawal of clause 152 from the Coroners and Justice Bill, but can the Minister explain why it is that, although a moment ago the Secretary of State made great play of the fact that he had made the first announcement on jury-free coroners trials to the House, the announcement about the withdrawal of clause 152 was made not to the Bill Committee, of which I am a member, but to the Sunday newspaper The Observer two days earlier?
Mr. Wills: I think that if the hon. Gentleman looks at the Hansard record of the Committee stage, he will find that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), made it absolutely clear that we would revisit the clauses concerned. Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman that the commitment of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to the principle of parliamentary accountability remains inviolate.
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): Although I welcome the Secretary of States belated U-turn on proposals in the Coroners and Justice Bill for unlimited data sharing across Government, does he accept that the appalling case of John Worboys, who was reported to the police by 85 different women, demonstrates that the Governments approach, involving relying robotically on databases that are badly run, in fact exposes the public to greater risk?
Let me address several of the points of contention raised by the hon. and learned Gentleman. First, what he regards as a U-turn, we regard as a proper process of parliamentary scrutiny. What should happen with legislation is that the Government bring it to Parliament, it is then scrutinised, and when, on occasion, the Opposition make a reasonable point, we respond appropriately. In the case cited by the hon. and learned Gentleman, it became clear that the powers were drawn too widely. We have therefore withdrawn
them, will redraft them, and propose to introduce data-sharing powers in future, precisely because we believe that they can be in the public interest if they are implemented safely and if they are proportionate.
We do not implement such measures robotically, as the hon. and learned Gentleman claims. We bring them into play so that they can serve the public, and there are many examples of data sharing which do just that.
Mr. Grieve: The Minister is flannelling his way around the Governments U-turn, seeking to conceal the fact that he has given no answer to the second part of my question. Last week we learned that £41 million had been squandered on the Departments IT database, which was designed to enable police, prisons and the probation service to monitor dangerous criminals. Now it has been abandoned. The National Audit Office has referred to
inadequate oversight by senior management
no evidence of Ministerial involvement beyond them receiving standard summarised briefings.
Today we learned that parole decisions on dangerous prisoners were being undermined because of basic failures to provide the timely and complete information required. Does the Minister accept that no database can compensate for the basic human errors that are resulting from the Governments very poor management and serial incompetence when it comes to data?
Mr. Wills: The hon. and learned Gentleman really ought to have a look at his questions again before he asks them. He keeps returning to the same points. [Hon. Members: Robotic!] Yesin a robotic way.
The fundamental point remains that the creation of databases can be in the public interest. It is never easy to get these things right, but I think that if the hon. and learned Gentleman looks at the record of the private sector, just as much as that of the public sector, it will be clear to him that we all have a great deal to learn. We are learning those lessons, however. We have put measures in place constantly to improve data security. I entirely accept that we have some way to go, but the fact that there have been deeply regrettable breaches of data security is no reason for us to turn our back on all the public good that can be done by the creation of databases in the public interest, subject to the principles of data protection.
The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw):
Policing in England and Wales has always depended for its effectiveness on policing by consent, which in turn has required a high level of discretion within relevant guidelinesnot least in regard to arrest, charge and other disposalsto be exercised by police officers and prosecutors. Out-of-court-disposals are, therefore, as old as policing itself. What we have
done is ensure that their operation is transparent, consistent and proportionate. While, under us, crime has been falling year by yearby 39 per cent. over 12 yearsthe level of convictions by courts has been broadly stable.
Mr. Turner: I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, but the problem is that if, for example, someone parks their car in the wrong place for 10 minutes, they can get a fixed penalty of £120. Does the Secretary of State not understand that my constituents, along with people all over the country, believe that theft and criminal damage, which are often dealt with by a fixed penalty of £80, are far more serious offences? What will he do to restore public confidence that the punishment fits the crime?
Mr. Straw: I accept the basis of the hon. Gentlemans question; parking offences are a nuisance, but the two other offences he mentions are, of course, more serious. As I have said to his party colleague, the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), I am looking at whether penalty notices for disorder involving dishonestythe only one directly is that of shop theftshould continue to be subject to PNDs or should be subject to normal court process.
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Fifty-seven per cent. of serious offenders in Dyfed-Powys escape prosecution and are cautioned. That is compared with an all-Wales average of 36 per cent. and a rate of 22 per cent. in the North Wales police area, which is the local police force of one of the Departments Ministers. When figures vary so much across police force areas, are they audited by the Department to see whether they comply with any guidelines that are issued for the cautioning of serious offenders?
Mr. Straw: I have sat in this House for almost 30 years listening to lectures from Liberals and then Liberal Democrats about localism and the need for local areas to decide things for themselves without some central state direction, but now the hon. Gentleman wants a national dirigiste formula to be applied to Dyfed-Powys in the same way as anywhere else, without any local discretion whatever. He therefore needs to think again about the philosophical base of the party that he claims to represent. The other point I would make to him is this: overall, the reoffending rate in respect of reprimands stands at 28 per cent., which is significantly lower than that for those who receive a disposal order or those referred to custody. Reprimands can therefore play an important part in ensuring that offending is nipped in the bud, provided, of course, that the offence is not sufficiently serious to warrant a prosecution straight away.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice):
In 2000, we increased the maximum sentences available for production and distribution of indecent images of children from three years to 10 years,
and for the simple possession of indecent images from six months to five years imprisonment. The average custodial sentence imposed by the courts has increased by several percentage points since the new maximum penalties were introduced.
Mr. Howarth: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does she agree that not only are images based on real children unacceptable, but so too are images that people use for these purposes that they have generated either from their own imagination or electronically? Will she give the House an assurance that her Department will not be going down the route of believing that those sorts of images are a matter for the individual concerned and their own conscience?
Bridget Prentice: I can absolutely give my right hon. Friend that assurance. He will have been as surprised as I was when in the Coroners and Justice Public Bill Committee the Opposition spokesman, the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), said that he felt that our clause was, perhaps, over-egging the pudding. I do not for one minute think that taking action against these people in this way is over-egging the pudding. We need to protect our children.
Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): My own discussions with the police dealing with the child sex offender area has confirmed that many of the sentences are clearly inadequate, especially compared with what Parliament intended. Why have Ministers consistently declined to add the child pornographic offences to sections 35 or 36 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, thus allowing appeals against lenient sentences?
Bridget Prentice: I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken a great deal of interest in this area and has worked very hard to try to protect children. We have decided to go down the road that we have because we want to work with the industry, giving it the opportunity to regulate itself. Of course, if that does not work, we are prepared to legislate, if necessary, to ensure that children are properly protected.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): I understand that those involvedundertakers, local authorities, crematorium managers and the likehave disseminated the recent guidance to burial ground managers. It is a little too early to make a detailed assessment of the implementation, but practitioner representatives have agreed to provide regular feedback and we will be undertaking a sampling survey of burial grounds within the next 12 months.
The new guidelines are a long overdue improvement in health and safety in graveyards, but the January newsletter of the local authority Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management describes them as creating a dilemma for local authorities and having no logical basis. The Minister has issued excellent
guidance to sort out this scandal of health and safety zealousness in graveyards, but the local authorities are snubbing her and the Health and Safety Executive. What is going to be done to pull them into order and get rid of the nonsense of staking graves and laying down graves all across Britain?
Bridget Prentice: It is important that the House recognises the zealousness with which my hon. Friend has pursued this issue, and it is very much down to his campaigning that the guidance has been introducedI congratulate him on that. My officials have discussed this with the crematorium managers organisations, and they have assured us that they welcome the guidance in principle and that they will participate in arrangements to monitor its implementation. I take this opportunity to say again that where there is no need for a memorial to have been staked or laid down, we would expect the cemetery operator responsible to consider restoring it. The guidance recommends that neither mechanical pressure testing nor stakes should be used routinely, and although there may be the occasional case where careful and sensitive use of such equipment might be appropriate, it is clear that it is not appropriate in the vast majority of cases. We will continue to pursue that policy and encourage local authorities to do so too.
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