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Mr. Straw: We have worked very significantly over the past 12 years to improve the effectiveness of the probation service. The hon. and learned Gentleman’s Government abandoned or abolished the training of probation officers, and we brought it back. We have increased resources by 70 per cent. and increased the effectiveness of the service, so, for example, getting on for 90 per cent. of offenders who breach their probation are recalled quickly to prison, compared with 30 per cent. when his Conservative party was in power. On the issue of funding, let him return to the Dispatch Box and admit that the 10 per cent. cut that the Conservative shadow Chancellor is talking about would mean an £80 million cut in probation funding immediately.

Mr. Grieve: Will the Justice Secretary please confirm that he has given a direction to probation trusts to cut supervision reports on offenders sentenced to life but released on licence from once every three months to once every six? Will halving those reporting requirements strengthen or weaken public protection?

Mr. Straw: We are clear that, overall, the measures we are putting in place will strengthen public protection, as they have done. We will not take lectures from the Conservative party, which made probation enforcement voluntary when it was in power and would cut probation budgets by at least 10 per cent. over the next two years.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Unless the Front Bench opposite is prepared today to commit to an X per cent. increase in funding for that area, it is so much hypocritical hot air that we are hearing from it. In my constituency, the number of burglaries has reduced from more than 5,000 in 2001 to a little over 3,000 last year. That is through police work and probation officer work, and we should congratulate them. However, will my right hon. Friend write to me to set out the broader picture in south Yorkshire and Rotherham? There are genuine concerns and we must address them, but there are no lessons—no lessons at all—to take from the tax-cutting hypocrites of the party opposite.

Mr. Speaker: Order. Please withdraw the term “hypocrite”. There are no hypocrites in this House.

Mr. MacShane: I thought that I referred to the party as hypocritical. If we cannot say that in the House—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Members opposite. It is to be withdrawn.

Mr. MacShane: I am very happy to withdraw that, Sir.

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is fine.

Mr. Straw: Phew! I shall of course write to my right hon. Friend, pointing out that, although we are profoundly concerned about any failures, overall, in his constituency of Rotherham and throughout the country, including Beaconsfield, there has been a dramatic reduction in crime. We are the first Government since the war to see crime going down significantly rather than up.

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Family Division

2. John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the arrangements by which the Official Solicitor is appointed to act in the family division. [279664]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): There has not been a recent assessment and there are not any plans for one. However, the family procedure rule committee has invited the family justice council to consider producing good practice guidance for those cases in which parties lack capacity to give instructions. That is currently being considered by the relevant sub-committee.

John Hemming: I thank the Minister for that answer. More than 100 times a year, mothers are prevented from opposing the adoption or the taking into care of their children as a result of a single expert opinion part-paid for by the local authority. Will the Minister meet me so that I can reveal to her the details of the dossier behind that and demonstrate how many mothers have their right to oppose removed because of mental capacity when in fact they do have the capacity to instruct a solicitor? I hope that a further assessment can be made and that these miscarriages of justice can be stopped.

Bridget Prentice: I will be more than happy to have a meeting with the hon. Gentleman about that, but I should say that the expert witnesses called to court to decide on capacity are not in the pockets of the local authorities. They are appointed with the agreement of both parties and they are there to answer the questions that the courts ask of them. It would be scurrilous to suggest anything other than that. I remind the hon. Gentleman of what Lord Justice Wall said after the hon. Gentleman attacked such an expert recently. He referred to the hon. Gentleman’s allegations as untenable and said that the way in which the hon. Gentleman described the expert psychologist was an abuse of position. I ask the hon. Gentleman to think very carefully about what the Lord Justices have said about his own behaviour in some of these cases.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I fundamentally disagree with the Minister. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) is doing a great service to justice and the families whose children are unnecessarily, unjustly and wrongly taken from them. I also have such cases, and have liaised with the hon. Gentleman on the subject. Will the Minister accept his request for a meeting so that the dossier that he, I and others have produced can be discussed with her? In that way, she will see the injustice, secrecy and behind-the-door dealing involved in the current situation.

Bridget Prentice: I will be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss individual cases—as long as they are not in the middle of court proceedings, in which case such a discussion would be impossible. I shall be happy to discuss these things in general terms. The hon. Gentleman talks about the secrecy of the family courts, but my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State has only recently addressed those very points in giving the media more opportunity
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to scrutinise the substance of what happens in the family courts. He has done that for a number of reasons—not least to give back to the public the confidence that the family courts are acting in the best interests of the child. That is what everyone in the House and in the Court Service would want.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Does the Minister agree that since the abolition of the death penalty, the most drastic action that a court can take is the permanent removal of a child against the wishes of the parents? The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) referred to various cases involving mothers with low IQs who have their children put up for adoption; even though they wanted to contest the cases, the Official Solicitor refused to do so. Does she accept that the Official Solicitor’s inaction could be contrary to section 4(6) of the Mental Capacity Act 2005? Will she confirm that from now onwards, the Official Solicitor will contest all cases involving mothers with low IQs who wish to keep their children? Surely anything less would be heartless and wrong.

Bridget Prentice: These are very sensitive cases, and we should be very careful about the way we address them. The Official Solicitor’s job is to act on behalf of someone who lacks capacity. Their job is not to act on behalf of the child or the local authority, but, usually, on behalf of the adult—although occasionally it could be on behalf of the child—who lacks capacity. The Official Solicitor will so act only if there is evidence before the court suggesting that the adult lacks capacity to understand the court proceedings. The Official Solicitor would be acting outwith their responsibility as an officer of the court in doing anything other than acting on behalf of the person who lacks capacity.

Probation Services

3. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): If he will take steps to increase staffing levels in Her Majesty’s probation service. [279665]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Maria Eagle): Decisions on the size and scope of staffing rest with the 42 areas and trusts that are responsible for managing probation business at a local level. Between 1997 and 2007, the total number of staff was increased from 14,000 to 21,000—an increase of almost 50 per cent.

Mr. Cunningham: I thank the Minister for that answer. Following on from what my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) said, Ministers are telling us one thing about the probation service but we get told another when we talk to people employed there. How do the Government intend to improve the probation service, and, more importantly, what has its staff turnover been?

Maria Eagle: Between 2001-02 and 2008-09, there has been a 57 per cent. increase in resources received by my hon. Friend’s local probation area in the west midlands. I know that in his area there is an issue—a number of other Members have raised it in previous questions—about whether trainees who are due to finish their training will be taken on full time. My understanding is that only a small number in the west midlands know that they will
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be taken on at this time. The regional training consortiums are there to help, as they have done in previous years, in matching up those who finish their training with jobs available in other parts of the country, and some of the trainees who have not yet been offered jobs may find employment in that way. However, I am more than happy to meet any Member of this House—I may regret saying this—about issues that they have regarding their own probation areas.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): It surely must be a factor in probation service staffing levels that a large number of criminals are not reaching the probation service because they are not going to court but are being dealt with as out-of-court disposals. In Berkshire last year, 791 cases of actual bodily harm, 686 cases of common assault, 56 cases of sexual offences and eight cases of grievous bodily harm never even reached the courts. Will the Minister confirm that this is not some cost-cutting exercise that transfers justice to the police instead of taking it through established judicial processes of the courts and the probation service?

Maria Eagle: It is for the prosecutors and the police who investigate individual instances of crime to decide how best to proceed in any individual case. It is certainly true that some cases are dealt with by disposals instead of being brought to court, but many are brought to court.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I think that my hon. Friend would agree that staffing levels are very important, as this is about keeping the right number of staff in the probation service. However, it is also about ensuring that they have time to deliver properly, because we have seen that a lot of the work has been done through computers rather than face to face. What can we do to ensure that we keep the right numbers of staff, especially in the north-west, and that casework is done better than it is at the moment because of the time scales that are being put on the people who work there?

Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend has hit on an important point. We want our skilled probation staff to spend as much time as possible supervising those whom they have to deal with to prevent reoffending. We think that too much time is spent in front of computers ticking boxes. We would hope to see improvements over the next couple of years of tougher financial settlements partly through increased efficiencies—for example, streamlining and simplifying processes, reducing overheads, and freeing our skilled probation staff to do what they do best, which is dealing face to face with those they are supervising.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I begin by congratulating the hon. Lady on her promotion within the Department. Despite what she and the Secretary of State have said this afternoon, although the number of probation officers fell between 2001 and 2008, the number of managerial staff increased over the same period by 70 per cent. There was also a 77 per cent. rise in the number of less qualified probation service officers. Work loads have risen by more than a third in the past four years, yet 60 per cent. of all newly qualified and expensively trained people are not becoming probation officers.

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If I may say so, the Sonnex case tells us all that we need to know about this Government’s leadership of the probation service. Instead of fiddling the figures, why do they not spend the money on the front line rather than on fattening up NOMS HQ and on constant, morale-sapping administrative changes?

Maria Eagle: I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his welcome before I try swiftly to refute one or two of his points. I do not accept that NOMS HQ is being fattened up. It costs £74 million, which is 1.8 per cent. of the total spend on NOMS. Much of what is listed as spending on NOMS HQ is actually on front-line services, such as private prisons, prisoner escort contracts, electronic monitoring and administering the inspectorates and the Parole Board. That is not, by any definition, fattening up the HQ, so he is wrong about that.

The hon. and learned Gentleman is right to say that case loads have increased by about a third since 2001. A number of Members have referred to that. However, staffing has increased by 35 per cent.—a higher percentage increase than for case loads. Of course, it is for each local area to make the best use of its resourcing to balance the qualifications and types of staff that it has locally. There is therefore bound to be some geographical variation. We need the worst-performing to come up to the standards of the best, and encouraging that is part of what we can do from the centre. I would be more than happy to speak to any Member about how we intend to do that and how it will affect their local probation board.

Electoral Reform

5. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Whether he plans to bring forward proposals for electoral reform. [279668]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister confirmed last week that the Government would shortly be launching a debate on electoral reform.

Mark Lazarowicz: Having been a supporter of a fair voting system for more than 20 years, I obviously welcome any moves in that direction, and I look forward to that debate reaching a conclusion at a relatively early date. However, does my right hon. Friend accept that the alternative vote system, which appears to have support in some quarters of the Government, can be even more disproportionate in its effects than the first-past-the-post system? Will he ensure that any proposals brought forward provide a genuinely fairer voting system?

Mr. Wills: I would like very much to recommend to my hon. Friend the review of voting systems that this Department produced last year. It assessed different voting systems, and he will be well aware that we now have a whole range of voting systems in this country—a cornucopia of them—so we can assess the evidence of how they all work. The review assessed them against a number of criteria, including proportionality, voter participation, ease of voting and so on. It found that no system of voting is inherently fairer than any other, and it is certainly not the case that a proportional system is necessarily fairer than any other system.

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I emphasise that proportional systems tend inherently to produce coalition Governments. That may be a good thing for some parties, but it might not be a good thing for the country. First-past-the-post systems tend to produce clear majority winners and stable government. Although they tend to hand power to the biggest minority, the practice of forming coalition Governments often tends to hand power to the smallest minority. There is nothing inherently fair about that.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): In endorsing that outstandingly good answer from the Minister, may I also remind him that there is no way that the British National party or other poisonous extremists could ever get elected to a democratic Parliament, other than by proportional representation?

Mr. Wills: I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I commend to him, too, the review of voting systems, which made precisely that point about extreme minority parties.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend recognise that much of the debate is driven by the chattering classes? I can describe some of them no more politely. Parties that introduce sensible policies in the interests of the nation are best served by the voters, who know exactly what they want the outcome of a general election to be. First past the post is the only sensible system—we should do away with the flim-flam of proportional representation, which seems to take up an inordinate amount of time compared with other important matters.

Mr. Wills: As so often, my hon. Friend makes an important point. In the end, the voting system does not matter—the voters tend to get the sort of Government they want. The issues should therefore be addressed, not on the ground of partisan advantage, but on what provides a legitimate system. The voters of this country will decide that, not party politicians.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): It is a great pleasure to agree with every word that the Minister—and the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) and my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis)—said. I am delighted that the Government are delaying reform, but their latest diversionary tactic, of which I approve for the sake of diversion, seems to be setting up the National Council for Democratic Renewal. It sounds grand and full of promise, but what exactly is it? Is it just a bunch of Ministers sitting around, talking about things? To whom is it accountable? How much does it cost the taxpayer and when will it report?

Mr. Wills: Again, I am grateful for that support. I hope that the hon. Lady agrees that events in recent months have driven home the need for the House urgently to address constitutional reform across the piece. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it one of his three priorities, and the National Council for Democratic Renewal, as the hon. Lady called it, will ensure that those matters are given the prominence in Government that they deserve, and that they are driven forward to deliver the constitutional reform that the country so urgently needs.

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Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): As a supporter of a fairer voting system, I welcome the debate that will take place. What assessment has the Minister made of the systems that are already in place in the devolved bodies? How will that inform the debate?

Mr. Wills: Again, I am grateful for the welcome for the debate, which is important. For the reasons that I have outlined, it is important that we hold it now. Again, I refer to the excellent review of voting systems, which the Ministry of Justice published in January last year. It clearly sets out an analysis of the way in which the voting systems in the devolved Administrations deliver on the various criteria against which all voting systems are assessed in the document. I think that my hon. Friend will find that it is a mixed picture.

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