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Written Statements

Tuesday 11 March 2008

Courts: Leeds Magistrates' Court

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Jack Straw) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

On 29 November, I informed the House (Official Report, Commons, col., WS172) that I had formally commissioned Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Courts Administration (HMICA) to lead a thorough inspection and prepare a report to Ministers into the “resulting” and warrant processes at Leeds magistrates’ court.

I have today placed a copy of that report in the Libraries of both Houses and published it on the Ministry of Justice website at Copies are also available in the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office.

The concerns about Leeds magistrates' court relate to two issues: recording the results of cases within the courts system and subsequently, in the case of recordable offences, updating the police national computer (PNC). “Resulting” is the term used for this within the courts system. The second related issue centres on a process used for withdrawing warrants issued by the court for the arrest of defendants who failed to appear in court, which were identified during investigations into court resulting in Leeds.

I accept all of the findings and recommendations of the inspectorates’ report. The Government are already acting upon them.

As a result of these investigations disciplinary action has been initiated against members of staff at Leeds magistrates’ court who are implicated in these matters and in respect of those covered by a separate judicial report to the Lord Chief Justice.

At the time of these failings, these matters were the responsibility of West Yorkshire magistrates’ courts committee (MCC). MCCs were independent local committees, formed almost entirely of magistrates, responsible for the “effective and efficient administration of their courts”. The Government abolished MCCs in April 2005 through the implementation of the Courts Act 2003, following a review of the criminal courts in England and Wales by Sir Robin Auld.

Following the creation of Her Majesty’s Courts Service (HMCS) in 2005, anxieties expressed by West Yorkshire Police led HMCS to uncover evidence of historic failings at Leeds magistrates’ court. I commissioned the inspectorates to undertake their investigations to ensure that all of the historic issues had been identified and that systems were in place to ensure that any mistakes of the past would not be repeated. HMCS has co-operated fully with the inspection and has assisted them in uncovering the full scale of the historic problems at Leeds.

The inspectorates’ report paints a lamentable picture of the historic failure at Leeds magistrates’ court

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properly to record the results of court adjudication, dating back to 1980 with the vast majority occurring between 2001 and 2004.

These failures led to:

a large number of adjudications not being recorded accurately at the time, or at all, meaning that the results for these cases may now have been lost;the creation and use of a disk to store cases with missing adjudications (following the introduction of a new computer system); the creation of artificial court registers on four occasions in 2002. This meant inputting in respect of large batches of cases as: “entered in error”—or “audit cleardown” as an “administrative solution to remove unresulted cases from the court computer system” (page 16 of the inspectorates’ report); the manufacturing of fabricated court adjudications on at least one occasion in 2004 involving 12 defendants and 27 offences where legal advisers made up the results by “guessing the result of the case where the true court adjudication could not be traced” (page 17 of the Inspectorates’ report); anda situation where a prolific offender could have been sentenced to imprisonment twice for the same offence. Investigations are continuing into whether this meant the offender served additional time in prison. If there has been an error the defendant will be informed.

The inspectorates conclude that there are now 2,206 defendants currently missing an adjudication, covering 3,260 offences of which 1,568 were recordable on the PNC. The report itself sets out the full number and nature of cases involved and describes a systematic covering up of errors.

Warrant withdrawals

A warrant is an order from a court for an individual to be arrested and brought back to the court, or to be bailed to attend a future court hearing. The warrant system is fundamental to the effective operation of the criminal justice system. In any court area a large number of warrants are issued. Some of these will be quite properly withdrawn (for example, where the defendant gives himself up voluntarily, is imprisoned by another court, has died, or the warrant has proved impossible to execute over a considerable period).

The inspectorates also confirm considerable irregularities in the process for the withdrawal of warrants. This process had been agreed in a protocol between Leeds magistrates’ court, the West Yorkshire police and West Yorkshire CPS and was implemented between 2003-04 (see appendix 12). This was uncovered by HMCS in November 2007. Under this protocol, where there were no objections, warrants were to be withdrawn in bulk with no evidence that each case was given proper consideration by the court. This reduced the judicial warrant withdrawal process into an administrative act. This was intended to “get rid of the significant number of outstanding warrants” (see appendix 12).

This led to warrants being withdrawn in relation to 555 defendants representing 1709 offences. Many of these offences were for low-level matters (for example, minor driving offences). However, 67 defendants also

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had the record of their convictions withdrawn in relation to a total of 115 recordable offences (offences that need to be recorded on the PNC).

The inspectors have confirmed that HMCS at Leeds has now improved the controls in place to manage the number of unresulted court adjudications and all court adjudications are now included in the court register.

The inspectorates have also confirmed that there is no evidence of inappropriate warrant withdrawal or failures in the resulting process at Leeds since 2004. However, they have identified weaknesses in the underlying processes at Leeds (in relation to the quality and assurance of in court record). HMCS has already begun to implement these improvements. The inspectorates commend, “the willingness of HM Courts Service to accept responsibility for the failings at Leeds magistrates’ court even though they happened before the creation of HMCS in 2005” and the commitment to: “fully identify and rectify all of the failures learning lessons as appropriate and engaging openly with the process”.

Work will continue to identify results for the outstanding cases and progress has already been made to resolve and result the most serious offences. The results of 62 of the most serious offences have already been found and verified (and I can confirm the outcome of cases were appropriately resulted in the Crown Court).

The criminal justice agencies in West Yorkshire are establishing processes to review all of the warrants and proceedings withdrawn and, where appropriate, bring them before a formally constituted court. In line with the recommendations of the inspectorates a new inter-agency warrant withdrawal protocol is now in place in West Yorkshire. In addition, we will revise the national guidance on warrant withdrawal, issued in 2006, to reinforce the key lessons learnt from the report.

HMCS continues to work with the other agencies to seek the missing adjudications and resolve what should happen in relation to the withdrawn warrants.

Crime: Community Punishment

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My right honourable friend the Minister of State (David Hanson) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

The Government have always been clear that prison is and will remain the place for violent and dangerous offenders, whilst there are many less serious offenders for whom community punishments can be more effective penalties than short prison sentences. Such offenders can be required to do unpaid work of real benefit, and provide some payback to the communities they have wronged. They can be subject to tagging, curfews and intensive supervision where appropriate and receive targeted interventions to tackle any drug, alcohol, mental health and offending behaviour requirements. Reoffending rates for offenders subject to community punishments are lower than those for short-sentenced prisoners. Community punishments can be more cost-effective and can offer more opportunities for rehabilitation than short-term sentences, dealing with the offence and the causes of offending behaviour. We have therefore made very

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significant investment in probation—a 67 per cent real terms increase since 1997, and well over six million of hours of unpaid community payback done by offenders in 2006.

Recently, however there has been an increase in numbers of offenders sentenced to short periods of custody, something which inevitably created pressure on the prison service. I can therefore today announce that the Government are allocating further funds, including £40 million to probation in 2008-09, so that sentencers can be confident that the resources are in place to deliver effective community punishments.

The funds will be allocated in support of a specific delivery plan by probation areas. We will monitor the impact of these resources closely to ensure that they are spent in support of those sentenced to community orders rather than short prison sentences.

EU: Defence Ministers’ Informal Meeting

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Taylor of Bolton): My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

I represented the UK at an informal meeting of the EU Defence Ministers held on 21 and 22 February 2008 in Brdo, Slovenia. It provided an important opportunity for discussions on EU operations, capabilities and co-operation between the EU, NATO and the UN.

Ministers underlined their support to the upcoming ESDP mission to Kosovo, including the importance of the EU delivering results on the ground and liaising closely with NATO and the UN. Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe (DSACEUR), General Sir John McColl, briefed Ministers on Operation ALTHEA in Bosnia-Herzegovina, noting that the security situation remained good and that there was continued progress on in implementing the remaining military tasks under the Dayton agreement. The EU Force (EUFOR) Chad Operational Commander, Lt General Pat Nash briefed Ministers on the security situation in Chad, noting that deployment of EUFOR had resumed following a temporary suspension due to rebel activity. Ministers discussed the continuing force generation for the mission and the need for the mission to remain impartial and co-operate closely with the UN.

Ministers also discussed the EU's military capabilities, including the use of EU battlegroups and the need to tackle capability gaps, in particular helicopters. I emphasised that addressing capability shortfalls required political will and effective investment from nations, and that the European Defence Agency had a role to play if it worked effectively with NATO.

In the final session, Ministers discussed EU-NATO and EU-UN co-operation, with particular focus on the importance of effective co-operation in Afghanistan where EU Police Mission (EUPOL) personnel were being deployed alongside NATO forces in provincial reconstruction teams. I emphasised that it was imperative to ensure clear understandings between the EU and NATO where they were operating alongside each other in operational theatres like Afghanistan.

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Playing Fields

Lord Davies of Oldham: My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Gerry Sutcliffe) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

I have today deposited in the House Libraries a press release detailing the latest position in relation to school and community playing fields. The position remains a very positive one with 97 per cent of concluded planning applications for 2005-06 representing a net benefit or no change to sporting provision. These figures confirm that the Government are meeting their commitment to protect playing fields. I also want to draw attention to a revision of one aspect of the data from previous years due to the discovery of a technical error which I set out in the press notice (also available online at

The Government’s policy is clear—no sports playing field needed by the community should be lost. And the figures collated by Sport England and released today show that our tough protections are working. They reveal that there were no complete losses of playing fields in 2005-06 without replacement provision or net benefit to sporting provision where Sport England has objected to a planning application and where planning permission has been granted against their advice.

The figures do not include information on new playing fields created outside of Sport England’s statutory role, for example through new housing development in growth areas (which is often built on brown field or previously arable land), but where we know from anecdotal evidence that there are positive gains.

Prisons: Drugs

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My right honourable friend the Minister of State (David Hanson) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

I am announcing today that David Blakey CBE QPM, formerly Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary, has been appointed to lead a review of the Prison Service’s measures to disrupt the supply of illicit drugs into prisons.

It is of significant concern that on average 55 per cent of people entering prison have a serious drug misuse problem, with this figure rising to 80 per cent in some instances. Many have offended to fund their need for drugs. Inevitably, their desire for illicit drugs does not simply disappear when they enter prison. As a result, the Prison Service faces major challenges in trying to respond to prisoners’ attempts to secure access to illicit drugs. The Prison Service has a range of measures in place to tackle this issue—ranging from the searching of visitors to work with the police to identify criminal networks intent on supply drugs into particular prisons.

The level of drug positives detected by the random mandatory drug testing programme in prisons has fallen by nearly two-thirds since its introduction in 1996-97 from 24.4 per cent to 8.8 per cent in 2006-07.

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This is thanks to a number of initiatives including the introduction of mandatory drug testing, better detox, better treatment, CCTV surveillance of visits, increased used of closed visits, more drug dogs and improved security performance on searching and intelligence.

My right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Jack Straw) announced on 31 January 2008 (Official Report, Commons, 37WS) that further measures will now be considered to further develop this work. This will include reviewing the criteria for open/closed visits across the prison estate, with a particular focus on local prisons.

The review will look at introducing more rigorous searches, including the provision of more sniffer/search dogs. Mr Blakey has been asked by the director general of the Prison Service to conduct a review of the measures in place to tackle the supply of illicit drugs into prisons. The terms of reference are:

to review the effectiveness of HM Prison Service’s measures for disrupting the supply of illicit drugs in prisons;to make recommendations to improve the effectiveness of HM Prison Service’s measures for disrupting the supply of illicit drugs in prisons. Recommendations should take account of the legal, financial and practical limitations appertaining to HM Prison Service’s operating environment; and to make recommendations regarding what additional measures might be possible, and at what cost, if resources were available for additional investment.

The review report will be submitted to the director-general by 31 May.

Schools: Admissions

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Darzi of Denham): My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

Today the Schools Minister has made a Statement on parental preferences and school admissions for 2008, and published, for the first time, data, local authority by local authority, on the allocation of school places by parental preference.

This is the first year that places have been allocated under the new school admissions code which was introduced by the Education and Inspections Act 2006 and came into force in February 2007.

The new school admissions code prohibits those criteria and practices that could be used by schools to unfairly select children. The new code has been widely welcomed across the education sector and by faith groups.

All admission authorities, which comprise local authorities and the governing bodies of schools which are their own admission authority, are required to act in accordance with the code. This means they must comply with its mandatory provisions and take account of its guidelines when setting their arrangements. Admission authorities must also comply with other

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aspects of the law, such as the prohibition on interviews and the requirement to give highest priority to children in care.

Under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, schools have a duty to publish their admissions arrangements for consultation and, under the code, local authorities have duties to refer arrangements they believe to be unlawful or unfair to the schools adjudicator. He then has the power to change unfair and unlawful arrangements.

Admission authorities were required to consult on their proposed arrangements for 2008 by 1 March 2007. After this the arrangements had to be determined by 15 April and then published within two weeks to allow any objections to be lodged with the schools adjudicator. The period for objections was six weeks long and expired in June 2007. The schools adjudicator, in his annual report, published on 1 November 2007, revealed that he had received 79 objections about admission arrangements that did not comply with the code or the law.

Under the legislation, the responsibility for ensuring schools comply with the code rests with local authorities and the governing bodies of own-admission authority schools. However, in December 2007 we said in our children’s plan that we would monitor the impact of the code. In January, the Schools Minister Jim Knight wrote to all admission authorities and local authorities reminding them that they must comply fully with their statutory requirements.

In January, I also asked officials to undertake, for the first time and for internal purposes, an analysis of the published admission arrangements for 2008 in three local authority areas in order to sample the level of compliance. Having considered the evidence gathered from this sample I believe it is right that it should be made public and acted upon now.

We examined the published admission arrangements for three areas—Northamptonshire, Manchester and Barnet—on the basis that these represented a London borough, a shire county and a metropolitan authority for which no objections had been referred to the schools adjudicator.

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