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Electoral Registration

12. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to increase the rate of electoral registration. [316142]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): The Electoral Administration Act 2006 imposed new duties on electoral registration officers to take all necessary steps to ensure a comprehensive and accurate register and to encourage voting. The phased implementation of individual registration across Great Britain will be supported by a drive to improve registration rates.

Chris Ruane: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. What measures might his Department take to ensure that the money it sends to the Department for Communities and Local Government for electoral registration is actually spent on electoral registration?

Mr. Wills: I agree that the money that the Government allocate to local authorities for that purpose ought to be spent on that purpose, but as my hon. Friend well knows, he needs to raise the matter with DCLG Ministers, not those at the Ministry of Justice.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): In areas of very low registration, is there not a case for resources to be targeted, so that there can be active canvassing of households in order to ensure much greater registration in those areas?

Mr. Wills: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We know that there are fundamental disparities in registration rates, especially among minority ethnic groups, people in privately rented accommodation, unemployed people and young people. That is why the Electoral Commission is specifically targeting registration campaigns on those under-registered groups. There is a good case for targeting, and we are doing that.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): The Minister will be aware that there are about 2 million British citizens living as immigrants in other EU countries and an estimated 10 million to 12 million living outside our borders all over the world, but just 13,000 of them are registered to vote. That is the lowest figure for overseas citizens who are registered to vote in any democracy. Why is it so low?

Mr. Wills: I suspect that my right hon. Friend already knows that overseas voters are, quite rightly, subject to the same registration requirements. It is often very difficult to find them, but that is not to say that we are not doing everything we can to encourage citizens overseas to register. The Electoral Commission has been carrying out promotional campaigning on the issue, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will come forward with suggestions as to how we can do still better.

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Legal Aid

13. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): When he next expects to meet the chief executive of the Legal Services Commission to discuss the commission's work in procurement of legal aid in England and Wales. [316143]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): Meetings are regularly held with the Legal Services Commission, at which a wide range of issues are discussed. One of the key current items on the agenda is the Public Accounts Committee report, which we welcome.

Mr. Harper: I am very pleased that the Minister will be discussing those issues. When she meets the LSC chief executive, will she discuss why it overpaid solicitors by £25 million in 2008-09, why its accounts have been qualified, and why the head of the National Audit Office says that it does not understand the markets in which it is buying services? Is that not an appalling record that needs to be fixed?

Bridget Prentice: If I may just correct the hon. Gentleman, it will not be me who will be meeting the LSC; it will be my noble Friend Lord Bach. Having spoken to Lord Bach, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that he will be discussing the issue of overpayment. Since the NAO report came out, 10 per cent. has already been recovered. We are taking a very robust view on the way in which the whole thing has been dealt with, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that further information will be forthcoming shortly.

Bail Hostels

14. Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of bail hostels in assisting prisoners' resettlement. [316144]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Maria Eagle): Approved premises-formerly known as probation and bail hostels-are the most effective form of supervision for many high-risk offenders on release from custody. They are far better than dispersing such offenders into less suitable accommodation elsewhere in the community. While in approved premises, offenders undertake offending behaviour work and purposeful activity to help them reintegrate into the community and reduce the risk that they will reoffend.

Mr. Baron: I thank the Minister for that answer, but Government figures show that a quarter of all those living in bail hostels are returned to prison because they have either reoffended or broken the rules. Does the Minister therefore think it fair that, if our suspects cannot be bailed to their own homes, we should be obliging other communities and neighbourhoods to take them?

Maria Eagle: The fact that there are recalls from approved premises because of breach of rules, absconding, further arrests or remand for other offences is a sign that supervision of those offenders is working. Such offenders are often highly dangerous and pose a high risk of harm. It is better that they are looked after in the
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community-which is often the community from which they originally come-with much greater levels of supervision than would be possible in any other way. Many of these people have been released at the end of their sentences and therefore cannot be retained in custody but need to be properly supervised when they are in the community. The fact that many of them return to prison is a sign of success.

Croydon Land Registry Office

15. Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): What financial provision has been made in respect of staff redundancies at the Croydon land registry office. [316145]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): If the proposed closure of the Croydon land registry goes ahead following the consideration of the responses to the public consultation, which closed recently, the estimated figure for redundancies is £11.7 million. The Land Registry plans to announce its final decisions, including a decision on Croydon, and to publish a full-responses document in March.

Mr. Pelling: Will the Minister take a keen interest in such a decision, particularly bearing in mind the fact that the Croydon land registry managed to secure a cost per unit of £14.01, which is much better than the target of £16.54? It is the best performing office of all land registries in terms of its cost per unit. Let us bear in mind, too, the fact that the sale of the building will cost the taxpayer-

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is pushing his luck. He got in and he had his opportunity, but he cannot have two bites of the cherry.

Mr. Wills: I will of course continue to take a keen interest in the proposals. I commend the hon. Gentleman for his diligence on behalf of his constituents in Croydon land registry and I know that the Land Registry will consider his remarks with great interest. The results of its deliberations will be announced in March.

Topical Questions

T1. [316154] Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): 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 draw the House's attention to two major reviews that have been announced recently. First, a working party has been established to examine issues relating to the substantive law of libel in response to concerns that our libel laws might be having a chilling effect on freedom of expression. Secondly, there will be a review of the family justice system in England and Wales to ensure that we can improve outcomes for children, support parents as fully as possible and ensure that court time is focused on protecting the vulnerable. These important issues need proper and due consideration and that could lead to a fundamental shift in the way in which family justice is done from the current adversarial system to a more inquisitorial system.

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Tony Lloyd: My right hon. Friend will be aware that community payback schemes are not only effective in dealing with offenders but popular with local communities, who believe that they provide valuable payback to the community. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether he intends to expand those schemes ?

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend is absolutely right that community payback schemes are increasingly popular. They have become additionally popular since 1 December 2008, when we introduced the high-visibility jackets so that the public could see who the offenders were. The system is working very well and, as I have seen in many parts of the country, the public are now voting on which schemes they want the offenders to undertake. We want to see the schemes expanded. The question of how many offenders end up on them is a matter for the courts, but they are expanding and we back that.

T2. [316155] Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): Will the Justice Secretary kindly explain why we will be wasting time today debating the alternative voting system rather than all the proposals of the Wright Committee report? We ought to debate them all instead of simply selected items in due course, as the Government propose. We need to discuss the whole report; why are we not debating it?

Mr. Straw: The Opposition are Johnny-come-latelies to the issue of parliamentary reform-[Hon. Members: "Rubbish!"] It is true. It was my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister who ensured that the suggestion from our hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) to establish a Committee was implemented. We have wholeheartedly welcomed the report. There will be a full day's debate on the whole report and there will then be votes on it. If the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) has concerns about the items on the Order Paper, my strong advice to him is to talk to his Chief Whip before he next stands up and makes pronouncements about it.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he has just said. I suppose that his answer is living proof that once a Leader of the House, always a Leader of the House. It was very generous of him to answer what was effectively a business question, but I do not think that we need further supplementaries on that particular matter, which is not relevant to the Ministry of Justice.

T3. [316156] Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): When will my right hon. Friend do something about the bloodsuckers who benefit when small businesses or individuals go bankrupt? One of my constituents was bankrupted for a sum of £9,000, but by the time PricewaterhouseCoopers had finished administering the case, she owed £80,000. When I inquired about that case, PWC charged her £800 for answering my letter.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): I fully sympathise with my hon. Friend and his constituent. If he wants to give me the details of that case, I will happily take it up not only within the Ministry of Justice but with colleagues in the
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Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, because I understand that small firms in particular that have become bankrupt or insolvent need immediate help. We have been doing a great deal of work in that area during the current economic crisis, and I am more than happy to share some of that with him.

T5. [316158] Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): The court fees paid by Leeds city council to cover care and adoption proceedings used to be capped at £150, but on the new scale it pays anything between £2,225 and £4,825. That acts as a tax on keeping children safe. There is the Francis Plowden review to consider, but this matter seems to be taking too long. Will the Justice Secretary say when the issue will be addressed and when the review will be made public?

Mr. Straw: Let me point out to the hon. Gentleman that there was a transfer of funding of £40 million from my Department to the revenue support grant to provide fully adequate compensation to local authorities for the increase in fees. [Interruption.] That was not ring-fenced, because local authorities object powerfully to ring-fencing, but they have had the money and we have lost the money. We are now studying Francis Plowden's recommendations with care.

T4. [316157] Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): May I ask my right hon. Friend whether an update of measures on witness protection-more importantly, witness protection in the courts-is under way?

Mr. Straw: We have made huge improvements on witness protection in recent years. The Crown Prosecution Service, the police and the courts now have witness protection measures in place, and some £22 million a year is spent by the police. We changed the law in 2008 to provide for a statutory scheme of witness protection, and that has been further extended by measures in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 regarding victims of serious gang and knife crime, which will shortly come into force.

T6. [316159] Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): There are 10,000 foreign national prisoners in British jails at the expense of British taxpayers. That is a massive 13 per cent. of the prison population. Will the Lord High Chancellor of all England confirm that, as of this moment, not a single foreign national prisoner has compulsorily been returned to his or her country of origin?

Mr. Straw: The proportion of foreign nationals in prisons in England and Wales is far lower than the European average. In most European countries, it is about 20 per cent. or much higher, particularly in southern European countries, so we are at the bottom of the league table, and I am glad that we are. On compulsory repatriation, the hon. Gentleman will know that it has been a long-standing practice of Governments, including those whom he has supported, for prisoner transfer arrangements to be subject to the consent of the prisoner. We are changing that practice, and the arrangements apply right across Europe.

Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): Can the Justice Secretary, even in his wildest dreams, think of any scheme dafter than the one under which pleural plaques
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victims in Scotland are compensated by the British taxpayer while English pleural plaques sufferers get nothing?

Mr. Straw: I obviously understand the concern that my hon. Friend raises, but he will be well aware that Scotland is a separate jurisdiction in respect of civil law. It is therefore inevitable that differences will arise-that is a natural and inevitable consequence of devolution. I understand his frustration about the issue of pleural plaques in this country, which is widely shared, but we continue to look actively for a solution.

T7. [316161] John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), is the Minister with responsibility for the family courts. She will recall the meeting that she had with the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) and myself, at which we discussed the conflicts of interest that can arise when solicitors are introduced to clients by local authorities and then paid by both sides. What have her conversations with local authorities about this matter brought up?

Bridget Prentice: I have not had any conversations with local authorities on this matter, but I shall be raising it with the Law Society and with other bodies that have a professional interest in it.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Ministers will be aware that there are currently 66 electoral registration officers who are not fulfilling their role of registering electors. What can be done to improve the situation?

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): May I commend my hon. Friend on his diligence in pursuing this matter? It is a scandal that 3 million or more people in this country who are eligible to vote are not able to do so because they are not registered. He has been diligent in trying to improve the situation. As he knows, the Government have taken a range of measures to try to drive up registration rates. The Electoral Commission is now monitoring the performance of all electoral registration officers closely. It is determined to make sure that they all do their job and that the scandal of having 3 million people not on the register when they should be is ended.

T9. [316163] Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): Will the Secretary of State tell us when a decision will be made on compensation for pleural plaque victims? He has been saying for 18 months that an announcement is imminent. Will it be made before the general election?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to chide me for saying that, and I wish that I could be more precise. However, I-

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): He is going to leave it to us.

Mr. Straw: No, as that would be leaving it for a very long time indeed. Counting chickens is not a wise idea but, to come back to the question, my hope remains that we can make the announcement as soon as possible.

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