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Violent Behaviour (Court Cases)

6. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): What information his Department holds on the length of time between a charge being brought and the start of a trial in cases involving violent behaviour. [298569]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Claire Ward): The Ministry collects and publishes a range of information on the timeliness of cases in the criminal courts, including the quarterly time interval survey for timeliness in the magistrates courts and information on the time from receipt to commencement of cases in the Crown court. The information on magistrates courts is broken down into several offence categories, including violence against the person, while the information on Crown courts does not break down timeliness for cases involving violent behaviour.

Tony Lloyd: Does my hon. Friend agree that, even when things go well, the time between assault and trial can be one of great anxiety for the victim? It could also be one of great danger if there are threats of further violence. In that context, what can she do to impress on everyone-the prosecution services, the police, the courts and defence lawyers-that any delays are intolerable when violence is part of the case?

Claire Ward: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise concerns about delays. In fact, we have been working very hard to reduce the amount of delay in cases. There has been a 20 per cent. improvement in the average number of days from charge to completion in magistrates courts, with the period decreasing from 8.8 weeks in 2006-07 to 6.9 weeks in 2008-09. A minority of lawyers might perhaps be abusing their position by stringing matters out and playing the legal aid system, but that is not something that we would support. If my hon. Friend has examples of unacceptable delays by lawyers, police or any authorities, he should make them clear to us and to others.

Antisocial Behaviour (Sentencing)

7. Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): What his most recent assessment is of the effectiveness of sentencing policy in reducing the level of antisocial behaviour. [298570]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Claire Ward): This is the first Government ever to introduce comprehensive measures to tackle antisocial behaviour. There were none in 1997. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 imposed duties on local authorities and police to tackle antisocial behaviour, and those duties have been steadily strengthened. The National Audit Office found that nine out of 10 perpetrators ceased their antisocial behaviour after three interventions, in which a range of measures to tackle antisocial behaviour can be used.

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Derek Twigg: My hon. Friend will know, because she was there, that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister came to my constituency last Thursday to see what support is in place for victims of antisocial behaviour and crime. It is key that support is given to those victims, so what more are the Government going to do to support them?

Claire Ward: I was very pleased to visit my hon. Friend's constituency last week with the Prime Minister, and to see what his council is doing in working with all the local agencies and the local police to provide an effective service for victims and witnesses of antisocial behaviour. I was particularly interested in the work done by Andrew, the council's antisocial behaviour officer. The Home Secretary announced a range of new measures last month, including a national take-up campaign for the public, providing more access to information, and better communication for those engaged in tackling antisocial behaviour. Under the new deal for victims and witnesses of antisocial behaviour, 85 areas will receive funding for victims champions. My hon. Friend's constituency is one of those areas, and we will do more to work together with the crime and disorder reduction partnerships to improve local services in targeted areas.

Mr. Speaker: Order. From now on, I really do want to make sharper progress, which means short questions and short answers.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): May we please have some lists from the Minister showing which police authorities and which local authorities are using that legislation, and which ones are refusing to?

Claire Ward: I shall be very happy to provide that information to my hon. Friend and to the House.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): One problem is that a lot of what the authorities treat as antisocial behaviour is in reality crime-such as assault, criminal damage and public order offences. Should those offences not be treated as crime, rather than dealt with under a civil procedure?

Claire Ward: Before the introduction of antisocial behaviour orders and, indeed, other measures, such as acceptable behaviour contracts and parenting orders, many of those offences went either unreported or undealt with. As a result of the use of antisocial behaviour orders, many more are being dealt with effectively.

David Howarth: I thank the Minister for that answer, but is not the real point that the effectiveness of sentencing for those offences should be judged according to the type of offence, and not be treated as a rather less important matter, such as antisocial behaviour? Should not the Government look for sentences such as restorative justice, which work against real crime and do not downplay the seriousness of the offence?

Claire Ward: On the contrary, we do not treat those issues as insignificant. In fact, it is precisely because the Government have recognised the important role that antisocial behaviour plays in a community that we have made sure that we tackle it. We introduced ASBOs, and when they are breached somebody may be convicted, with a resultant prison sentence of five years. That shows that we do not take the issue lightly.

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Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): The Minister will agree that one driver of antisocial behaviour is alcohol and, in some cases, hard drugs. However, the average fine for possessing crack cocaine has dropped from £300 to £38 in just three years. Does the Minister accept that that sends out the most extraordinary mixed messages about the importance that the Government attach to the use of hard drugs and misbehaviour resulting from it?

Claire Ward: Obviously, sentencing in those circumstances is a matter for the courts, and we are sending out a strict and tough message about the impact on communities not only of drugs but of all forms of antisocial behaviour. It is this Government who have been strong on that message, and it is the Opposition who have not shown quite so much support.

Mr. Grieve: The Minister's comments are pure bluster. The situation is actually much worse than that. The Director of Public Prosecutions is now reviewing the Government's caution culture. Will the Minister explain how we have a situation in which a 15-year-old boy can be cautioned for rape and a man can be cautioned for glassing a woman in a pub? Is that the hon. Lady's idea of summary justice?

Claire Ward: We have made it absolutely clear that there is a place for out-of-court disposals and for cautions. They are not for serious, violent offences, and that is why my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary has announced a review of the circumstances in which those out-of-court disposals are used, and whether they are being used appropriately. If they are being used for serious, violent offences, as has been stated over the past few days, that is exactly why we need to review them.

Judges (Breach of Standards)

8. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): How many judges have stood down as a result of a breach of standards of conduct in court in the last five years. [298571]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): Between 2004 and 2009, 95 magistrates, 14 tribunal members and two judges were removed for misconduct. It is not known how many of these cases involved breaches of conduct within a courtroom. In addition, last year five tribunal members, 12 magistrates and two judges resigned during course of conduct proceedings.

Mr. Prentice: I am going to write to my friend on the Front Bench about these statistics and what he has just said. In this age of transparency, is it not a disgrace that he has decided to allow judges no longer to declare whether they are freemasons, as we know that one in 20 of our judges is a freemason? Why on earth the cloak of secrecy?

Mr. Straw: There was no secrecy about my announcement. I made an announcement by way of written ministerial statement last week in the light of a European Court of Human Rights judgment against the state of Italy that was made in 2006 and to which
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our attention was drawn by the grand lodge of freemasons. The judgment suggested that continuation of a compulsory register, which kind of register does not apply elsewhere within the criminal justice system, was likely to be unlawful. After legal advice, I accepted that. It is open to any judge to declare that they are a freemason. In 1996-97, the Home Affairs Committee, whose recommendations led to the freemasonry register across the criminal justice system, came to no conclusions about any unacceptable behaviour by freemason judges, and there has been no evidence since.

Debt Management

9. Jessica Morden (Newport, East) (Lab): What progress has been made in his Department's consultation on debt management schemes; and if he will make a statement. [298572]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): Helping those in financial difficulties is an important part of our purpose. Of course, that has to be balanced against creditors' right to recover their debts. In September this year, we published the consultation paper "Debt Management Schemes-delivering effective and balanced solutions for debtors and creditors", which seeks views on whether there is a need to intervene further in this sector and, if so, what action should be taken.

Jessica Morden: The consultation is very welcome. Will the Minister listen to the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux and look long and hard at how we can tackle the most unscrupulous debt management companies, which often prey on people when they are at their most financially vulnerable by not being clear about the cost of their services up front and by giving inappropriate advice?

Bridget Prentice: My hon. Friend makes an important point. One of the strands of the review is to look at the behaviour of creditors who continue to add interest to debts where there is already a debt management plan. She is right to raise the concerns of NACAB and others, and we will listen carefully to what they say. I hope that she and anyone else in the House who has such examples will bring them forward to us before the review closes on 18 December.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Will my hon. Friend also look at the rates that solicitors and insolvency experts charge the unfortunate small businesses and people who get into debt, then charging exorbitant fees on the pretext of helping them?

Bridget Prentice: Again, I endorse what my hon. Friend says. All those issues will be part of the review, and I hope that it will come up with some solutions and a way forward in the near future.

Criminal Trial Acquittals (Costs)

11. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): What his policy is on whether defendants who are acquitted in criminal trials should receive costs. [298574]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): Defendants who are acquitted in criminal trials should normally receive their reasonable costs from central funds unless the court decides that it is not appropriate to award those costs. Overall, central funds expenditure was £62 million in 2007-08 and £77 million in 2008-09. On current indications, I have no reason to believe that it will not increase during 2009-10.

Tony Baldry: Following that answer, can the Minister assure me that in criminal cases the principle will remain that costs will follow the event, and that if people are found not guilty in criminal cases they will usually be awarded their costs from central funds?

Bridget Prentice: Yes, that is the case, but it is of course up to the court to decide whether the award of costs is appropriate.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): Perhaps the Minister is not aware of a statutory instrument that is coming before the House this afternoon. I understand that the Government are proposing a change in this area of the law to bring in what would effectively be a stealth tax on innocence. Does she appreciate that after the Government's proposals become law, someone who has been accused of a crime, has met their own costs in defending themselves, and is then declared innocent will be required to pay their own costs? If she is now going to confirm that the information that I have about this is mistaken, we would be delighted.

Bridget Prentice: Where the hon. Lady is mistaken is in her understanding of the system. First, it is essential that we target our resources effectively. Secondly, what will be paid from central funds is costs at the same level as legal aid costs. If people wish to pay more than that, that is entirely up them and it is a choice that they make. They will be paid from central funds costs equivalent to legal aid, had they been entitled to it. That is a fair way of distributing funds that are taxpayers' money and that we have to spend effectively.

Prisoner Release

13. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): How many prisoners have been released early since 1997; and if he will make a statement. [298577]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): There are two schemes under which prisoners may be released before they have served half their sentence. The latest published figures show that of a total of about 800,000 prisoners who came through the system between 1999 and the end of 2008, some 159,000, or 20 per cent., were released under the home detention curfew scheme. Of about 200,000 prisoners who came through the system from June 2007 until the end of September this year, approximately 70,000 were released under the end of custody licence scheme.

Michael Fabricant: A few months ago Michael Eccles, a young father in my constituency, was murdered. The people who did it were found and sentenced to prison but, under the terms of their sentence, they could be released in just a few years. Can the Secretary of State
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understand the anger and frustration of the family and friends who feel that justice is not being served by such short sentences?

Mr. Straw: As the hon. Gentleman and all of us do, I share the grief of the family.

If the conviction was for murder, the sentence will have been for life. A minimum tariff will have been set, although I do not know what it was. Home detention curfew and early release from custody under the 18-day provision do not apply to any such serious offenders. Even once they have served their tariff-I would be very surprised if it were not in double figures-they will be released only once they have satisfied the Parole Board that it is safe. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the victim's bereaved family will have a right to appear before the Parole Board.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): Six years ago, in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, there were introduced a whole new raft of sentencing provisions in magistrates courts, such as custody plus, custody minus, the 51-week provision and so on. They went on to the statute book, so can the Secretary of State tell us why, six years later, they have not even been implemented?

Mr. Straw: Yes-it is because of resources. We have had to use a very large amount of resources to expand the prison estate, among other things. We have done so dramatically, and it is now up to 84,300-odd places and will get to at least 96,000 in five years' time. We have also spent money on probation, for which resources have increased as the number of offenders coming through the system has. I regret that we have not been able to do everything, but we have done a huge amount. The fact that we have greatly strengthened the correctional system is one of many reasons why this Administration are the first to see crime go down, not up.

Young Reoffenders

14. Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): What steps his Department is taking to reduce reoffending rates of young offenders. [298578]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Maria Eagle): The level of juvenile reoffending is at its lowest since 2000, with the rate having come down by more than a fifth between 2000 and 2007. The £100 million youth crime action plan is on track to cut youth offending further through a combination of tough enforcement against offenders, non-negotiable support to families of offenders and early intervention and prevention for young people at risk of offending.

Andrew Rosindell: With youth unemployment expected to top 1 million later this week, what further measures is the Department taking to ensure that young offenders are given gainful employment so that they do not return to a life of crime?

Maria Eagle: The Government's efforts to ensure that young people have employment and education or training will go a long way towards tackling the hon. Gentleman's concerns.

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