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Justice Questions

3rd July 2012

Jonathan Djanogly answers back bench MPs’ questions on topics including the collection of fines, regulation of bailiff services, legal advice and the Office of the Information Commissioner.

Fines (Collection)

Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the system for recovery of criminal fines. [114723]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): In the financial year 2011-12, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service collected £279 million in respect of criminal fines, further reducing the cost of enforcement and achieving the best ever performance against the payment rate measure. But now we want to do better, so we have developed better-quality performance indicators for publication and are exploring the potential for creating a partnership with a commercial company to build on the improvements we have already made in fines collection.

Tristram Hunt: What the Minister did not reveal is that over £600 million in outstanding fines is owed by criminals, of which £10 million relates to Staffordshire, and a further £5.5 million of unrecovered debts have already been written off. When faced with falling living
standards and the effects of ill-planned spending cuts, my constituents want to know why this Government are allowing criminals to think that crime does pay.

Mr Djanogly: The hon. Gentleman mentions the collection backlog, and thereby raises the collection inadequacies of the previous Administration which we are now having to sort out. In 2011-12, the payment rate was 106%, and last year, for the first time since 2003-04, the outstanding balance was reduced by £16 million—that is, 3%.

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Given the new statutory presumption that victims of crime will be compensated, can we ensure that whatever the means of offenders, they will all have to make amends to their victims?

Mr Djanogly: Absolutely, and if that is by way of a fine, we intend to collect it.

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Bailiff Services

Mr Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): What progress he has made with his proposals on regulation of bailiff services. [114727]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): Following the publication of updated national standards for enforcement agents in January, the Government launched a full public consultation on transforming bailiff action in February. The consultation closed on 14 May, and we are now carefully considering the 250 responses with a view to publishing our response in the autumn.

Mr Raynsford: I am not sure whether any of those responses referred to the Government’s proposed cut of £500 million in council tax benefits next April, which is widely expected to prompt a surge in cases being referred to bailiffs for the recovery of council tax debts. What are the Government doing to prevent an escalation of intrusive, expensive interventions against low-income households?

Mr Djanogly: If there are debts to be collected, bailiffs have to go and collect them; otherwise, the system would break down. However, the Government are clear that aggressive bailiff activity is unacceptable, and we are committed to introducing effective proposals that protect the public and ensure that bailiff action is proportionate.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): I hear the Minister’s answer, but does he not agree that when public bodies such as councils procure bailiff services, they should take some responsibility for the methods they sanction?

Mr Djanogly: They should indeed, and they do. The new guidelines are there to ensure that minimum standards of behaviour are adhered to. We have introduced the guidelines before legislating.

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): The Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 contains detailed provisions on the regulation of bailiffs, and in May 2010 the coalition agreement stated that action would be taken. Here we are in summer 2012, and no Government response to the consultation is expected until the end of the year and the Government are hitting households from every side, forcing them into more and more debt every day. With a catalogue of appalling behaviour by bad bailiffs, and even reputable bailiffs saying that they need regulation urgently, when will the Government finally stop delaying and get on with it?

Mr Djanogly: Any delay arises from the non-implementation of part 3 of the 2007 Act, and the cause of our delay is the same reason why the Labour Government delayed—their legislation does not work. We have acted in the interim by putting guidelines in place, and we are now consulting on upgrading legislation in a measured and balanced way. We will consider the many interests that exist and the balance that we have to achieve.

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Legal Advice/Welfare Reform

Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the availability of legal advice to people on low incomes who will be affected by the Government’s proposed welfare reforms. [114728]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): During the development of the legal aid reforms, the Ministry of Justice conducted detailed assessments of the availability of legal advice funded by legal aid or provided by the not-for-profit advice sector. With regard to welfare reform, the Department for Work and Pensions is developing a strategy for working with the voluntary sector, including welfare advice services, to ensure that people on low incomes have access to the support that they need to understand their rights and entitlements following the move to universal credit.

Stephen Timms: During ping-pong on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, Ministers accepted that legal aid should still be available for an appeal to the first-tier tribunal if a point of law is at stake. How will someone establish whether a point of law is at stake, and when will the provision take effect?

Mr Djanogly: I confirm that we are giving serious thought to the issue and considering the exact scope of the concession, as well as how such work will be delivered in future, because the operational aspects are just as important. Once we have considered that in full, we will make an announcement.

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Office of Information Commissioner

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the value for money and effectiveness of the Office of the Information Commissioner. [114729]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Ministry of Justice and the Information Commissioner’s Office meet regularly to ensure that the office operates effectively and secures the best possible value from the resources available to it. The ICO’s next annual report is due out on Thursday.

Robert Halfon: As I told the Minister when I wrote to him a few weeks ago, it took a long campaign in Parliament in 2010 before the Information Commissioner was prepared to admit that Google Street View had broken the Data Protection Act on an industrial scale. It has now taken an investigation by The Sunday Times and action in America for the ICO to actually act and pursue Google further. Surely the ICO should be accountable to Ministers, and therefore to the British people, so that when there are such problems someone can take charge.

Mr Djanogly: The Information Commissioner is of course accountable to the public via Parliament. His annual reports are laid before Parliament, and he could be questioned on his reports by, for instance, the Justice Committee. It would be wrong for me to comment on the ICO’s handling of any particular case. That said, I understand that the ICO has reopened its investigation into Google Street View because it has received some new information about Google’s capture of data from wi-fi networks in the USA. The investigation is ongoing.

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Topical Questions

Dan Jarvis (Barnsley Central) (Lab): According to the Legal Services Consumer Panel, 180,000 wills are written each year by unregulated services. Both the national press and the Barnsley Law Society have reported that thousands of people are being ripped off by unregulated will-writing services. What does the Justice Secretary think is the solution to the problem?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Government recognise this as a serious issue. We are in discussion with the Legal Services Board, which have just done a consultation, and we will be making an announcement in due course.

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Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): Professor Harrington, the independent reviewer of the work capability assessment, has highlighted the fact that Department for Work and Pensions officials are not routinely given feedback when appellants’ appeals have been successful, which means that they cannot improve practice. Why not?

Mr Djanogly: There are costs involved in feedback, but that does not mean that the DWP cannot ask for feedback if it wants it. The efficiency of the tribunal processes is being looked at carefully, with Ministry of Justice officials and Ministers working closely with DWP equivalents.

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David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): In this country, we now have 1,200 whiplash claims a day, which is about 30 times more than in France or Germany. The industry costs to the rest of us are £2 billion a year, resulting in many young people being unable to afford to insure their cars. What discussions has the Minister had with the relevant regulatory body of the Law Society that drives this industry?

Mr Djanogly: The Government are committed to reducing the number of whiplash claims, and we have had discussions with all parties involved in these claims. We will consult over the summer on reducing the number of whiplash claims, including through looking at the medical certificates that are handed out, as well as at small claims levels.

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Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): There is evidence in the south-west of companies setting up internal companies to pursue debt—in effect, two companies pursue the same debt. The Office of Fair Trading describes this as an unfair practice and the direction guidance says that such practice constitutes harassment when two bailiffs chase the same debt. There are clearly Chinese walls in this practice; is it going to be looked at as part of the regulation review?

Mr Djanogly: If bailiffs are involved, it does fall within the terms of the consultation. I will come back to the hon. Lady on the specific point.

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Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): On 15 May, I asked the Minister when he was going to respond to the recommendations of the Justice Select Committee on the presumption of death in guardianship, which were published on 22 February. He responded, “Shortly”. May I please ask the question again?

Mr Djanogly: The answer is now “Very shortly”.

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Tom Greatrex (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Lab/Co-op): The Secretary of State will know that his Department will face tribunal costs of almost £50 million, largely arising from appeals to the work capability assessment. Given that 40% of those appeals are successful, is it not now time that his Department and the Tribunal Service discussed with Atos Healthcare how to get some of the money back—otherwise, the public are paying twice for wrong decisions?

Mr Djanogly: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Better decisions need to be made by Departments in the first place so that fewer are appealed, and the Ministry of Justice is working with other Departments to that end.

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