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Queen’s Speech debate

10th May 2012

Jonathan Djanogly responds to MPs’ contributions in a debate on the Queen’s Speech.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The coalition Government have had a shared goal since entering office: to modernise the justice system so that it delivers better for the public. I want to respond to the many welcome contributions to what I considered to be a very thoughtful debate in the context of our overall ambitions for reform.

Our primary objective on home affairs and justice is to improve the system so that it keeps the public safe and secure and works to cut crime and reoffending. If we can deliver that, we will ensure that there are fewer victims and will raise public confidence. Not least owing to the vital need to control public expenditure in the face of the economic situation, we are determined to show that that can be done affordably, but we are also certain that any changes should be made without our sacrificing fundamental values in which we believe, such as freedom and liberty.

The shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), opened her speech with the Opposition’s standard line that the cuts have hurt but have not worked. It is true that the problems here in Europe and elsewhere in the global economy mean that it is taking us longer than anyone hoped to recover from the biggest debt crisis of our lifetime, but the one thing that would make the situation even worse would be for us to abandon our credible plan and deliberately add more borrowing and even more debt. That would jeopardise the recovery, and would jeopardise the low interest rates that are so important to families and businesses in this country.

I believe that we have already made a good start in delivering our home affairs and justice goals. We are making the police more accountable by moving towards the introduction of police and crime commissioners, and are changing the focus of our prisons to ensure that they are places of productive work rather than idleness. In abolishing ID cards and sorting out the DNA database, stopping the fingerprinting of children without parental consent and scrapping 28 days’ detention, we have also turned the page of civil liberties. We have taken real steps forward on efficiency, reorganising whole areas of justice so that they work for the public better and at a lower cost, while simultaneously bringing about a transparency revolution. All that represents good progress, but we cannot rest on our laurels. That is why the measures on home affairs and justice that we have been discussing today are important. They constitute a coherent and ambitious package which represents the next stage of justice reform.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) made some important points about the value of women to the economy and about how it could be developed, and also about the benefits of micro-financing. I fully support the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy)—I believe that the same point was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake)—that House of Lords reform should not be used as a political football. Whether the Opposition agree is yet to be seen, although what Opposition Members have said today suggests that that is likely to happen.

The right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke) clearly has strong views on House of Lords reform. He questioned the Government’s position on consensus and the proposed costs of the reform. All those matters will be debated fully as we go up what I think he called the garden path, although I prefer to call it the yellow brick road. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) observed that the issue should be seen in context, given the urgency of economic issues and the need to punish criminals.

On civil justice, we are building on the principles of efficiency and effectiveness that animate all our reforms by taking long overdue steps to sort out the operation of the family courts, to improve the performance of courts and tribunals, and to address the scandal of delays in our adoption system.

On criminal justice, we are legislating to ensure that we are smarter on crime and better at catching criminals. That is why we are making a step change in the country’s capability to tackle organised and serious crime with the creation of the new National Crime Agency. We must also make sure we are smarter at punishing and reforming offenders. Underpinning all our reforms, we are continuing to expose the false choice offered by those who say we have to choose between our security and our freedom. It is this Government who want to open up our courts to the public via television and who want to strengthen freedom of expression by reforming libel law, and it is this Government who are committed to enhancing judicial and parliamentary scrutiny of our security services while modernising the capabilities of the police and the courts so they can keep the public safe.

There have been many interventions on the subject of police numbers, including by the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd). We must be clear that the effectiveness of a police force depends primarily on effective deployment of police officers. That is what leads to effective policing. Sir Denis O’Connor has supported that view, and that is where we continue to focus our efforts. The link between officer numbers and crime levels is not simple, but we know that effective deployment is what matters most.

I welcome the support of several Members—including both the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), and the shadow Home Secretary—for setting up the NCA. Through its wider, joined-up remit, the agency will build on the work of its predecessors in tackling organised crime, protecting our borders, fighting fraud and cybercrime and protecting children and young people from sexual abuse and exploitation. The protection of the public will be at the heart of all that this agency does.

As the Bill progresses, the House will want to probe and test its detailed provisions, and I note that the Justice Committee will be keen to review the NCA start-up, as its Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), said. I am sure such issues will be scrutinised on Second Reading and subsequently, and I look forward to those debates.

I welcome the Justice Committee Chair’s support for many of the measures in the Crime and Courts Bill. The creation of a single family court will make the family justice system more accessible to the public and improve efficiency. Like him, I look forward to the Westminster Hall debate of 24 May, in which we will be able to consider the family justice system in more detail. I can also offer some reassurance on the question of litigants in person. I hope he is encouraged by the financial support made available by the Ministry of Justice to implement many of the recommendations of the Civil Justice Council for supporting litigants in person.

On immigration, the right hon. Member for Leicester East and others expressed concerns about the removal of a full right of appeal in family visa visit cases. As he will know, new evidence is often submitted on appeal that should have been submitted with the original application. The appeal then in effect becomes a second decision based on new evidence. The key point is that no other visit visa attracts a full right of appeal, and therefore this represents a disproportionate use of taxpayers’ money. Its removal was fully supported during consultation.

Keith Vaz: Will the Minister and the Home Secretary, who is also present, receive a delegation of Members of this House with an interest in these issues? I think a deal can be struck that will be fair to our constituents and that will help the appeal process. We want to look at the quality of the decision making as well as the appeal process. If the Minister is prepared to do that, and if the Home Secretary, through the Minister for Immigration, is prepared to meet the Chair of the Justice Committee, myself and others who have an interest in these issues, I think we can come to a compromise that is acceptable to all sides.

Mr Djanogly: Yes—[Interruption.] The Home Secretary has just advised me that the Immigration Minister would be delighted to meet the right hon. Gentleman and discuss this issue in the detail it deserves.

A number of Members raised the issue of broadcasting court proceedings. I would characterise the various contributions as having given a general—but, in some cases at least, a cautious—welcome to the Government’s proposals. The Government are committed to improving transparency and public understanding of the court system, and allowing broadcasting from courts will contribute to that. Of course, the filming and broadcasting of judicial proceedings must be carefully and sensitively undertaken, and I can assure Members that there will be no filming of victims, witnesses, defendants or jurors. There will of course be restrictions on the use of footage to ensure that it is only used sensitively and for informational purposes.

The hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) and my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) spoke strongly in support of our drug-driving proposals. I can tell my hon. Friend that we are working to ensure that the necessary “type approval tests” for devices to be used in police stations are completed without delay.

The Government’s proposals to reform civil proceedings to enable the courts to take better account of sensitive material and prevent damaging disclosure of intelligence material have been of great interest to the House and the public, and we have had many valuable contributions on that. The Government are committed to ensuring that we can reassure our allies that the confidential basis on which they share intelligence with us can be protected, while ensuring that the courts are able to make real findings on the merits of cases where sensitive information is given. I think the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) said that he is opposed to closed courts. Let me say to him—[ Interruption. ] If he would like to make his position clear, I am happy to give way.

Mr David: What I actually said was that the Government have certainly not made the case for them.

Mr Djanogly: There is a difference there, so we can yet persuade the hon. Gentleman. I am pleased to hear that, and we will do that.

Most people in this country are sickened at the thought of terrorists or suspected terrorists winning, as they have been winning, large sums in civil courts by reason not of their innocence, but because the authorities have not been able to use sensitive intelligence information which, if discussed openly, could endanger public safety in open court. We need a system—with checks and balances, admittedly—that will provide for this issue in the small number of cases where it is relevant.

Our core aim in introducing the Defamation Bill—

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): Before the Minister moves on, perhaps he can shed some light on a concern raised by the Royal British Legion and Inquest, about secret inquests. [ Interruption. ]

Mr Djanogly: I am advised that we are looking carefully at the issue, and we would be pleased to engage with the Royal British Legion and others on it.

Our core aim in introducing the Defamation Bill is to reform the law so that it strikes the right balance between the right to freedom of expression and the protection of reputation. As the points raised illustrate, there is a wide range of views on exactly what that balance should be and how individual issues should be dealt with. We look forward to an extensive and informed debate both here and in the other place as the Bill proceeds.

The draft communications data provisions provide for targeted, practical measures that are essential to enable our law enforcement agencies to keep pace with new technologies, with strong safeguards to protect civil liberties. We can protect the public while continuing to uphold civil liberties in an internet age. As the Home Secretary clearly set out, there will be no single Government database, no real-time monitoring of communications of individuals, and no new powers to intercept e-mails or phone calls of members of the public. That will address the concerns raised by several Members.

My right hon. Friends the Members for Berwick-upon-Tweed and for Carshalton and Wallington raised the issue of collection of data. I can assure them that we will be extending the role of the interception of communications commissioner to oversee the collection of communications data by communications service providers, and it will continue to be the Information Commissioner’s role to keep under review the security of information kept up to the end of the 12-month retention period.

Members clearly share views on the scourge of antisocial behaviour, to which several of them referred. Antisocial behaviour is an issue that really matters to the public, and for too many people it remains a nasty fact of everyday life. Despite the years of top-down initiatives and targets handed out by the previous Government, more than 3 million antisocial behaviour incidents are reported to the police each year and many are not reported at all. That is why this Government want a transformation in the way that antisocial behaviour is dealt with, and I thank hon. Members for their useful contributions and interventions. The Government have stripped away the targets that hampered professionals’ ability to crack down on this kind of crime. We will introduce more effective measures to tackle antisocial behaviour, including replacing the bureaucratic and ineffective antisocial behaviour orders, more than half of which are currently being breached at least once.

Mark Hendrick: The Minister will be aware that antisocial behaviour in Lancashire has been cut in recent years from 155,000 incidents per year to about 100,000 because of Labour’s measures. What does he think a 20% cut to policing will do to that?

Mr Djanogly: As I said, this is as much about how we use police officers as about the number of them.

Alun Michael: Does the Minister recall that I made the strong point that the Government are in danger of being guilty of surrendering the simple concept of an antisocial behaviour order, which has been effective in reducing antisocial behaviour by maintaining the restrictions that it imposes? Will he clear that up, remove the Home Secretary’s threat to get rid of ASBOs and simply make it easier to use that good mechanism?

Mr Djanogly: As I said, ASBOs are proving to have been ineffective and overly bureaucratic, and we are going to replace them with an order that is simpler to use and that works better. May I congratulate the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) on his support for police and crime commissioners? Although I wish him well in his campaign to be one, may I say that this is somewhat of a volte face from his position when Labour was in government?

Gloria De Piero (Ashfield) (Lab): Will the Minister confirm that a breach of the proposed replacement for the ASBO—the crime prevention injunction—will not result in a criminal record?

Mr Djanogly: ASBOs are civil orders at the moment. [Interruption.] A breach can lead on to a criminal offence, absolutely it can.

The Government want people to have powers that really work, that can be enforced, that provide faster, more visible justice to communities, that rehabilitate offenders, where possible, and that act as a real deterrent to perpetrators.

Alun Michael: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Surely it should be possible to correct what I am sure is an inadvertent misleading of the House by the Minister—he would not have intended to do it. The ASBO is a civil order. A breach of it is a criminal offence, tested by the criminal quality of evidence.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Further to that point of order, I call Mr Djanogly.

Mr Djanogly: I think that is exactly what I said. If I did not, I am happy to reaffirm it.

The community trigger will empower victims and communities to demand that agencies take action against persistent antisocial behaviour problems. The Government will shortly set out our formal response to the consultation and our new powers, which will put victims and communities at the heart of agencies’ response to this problem.

The Bill dealing with families seeks to ensure that we tackle the root causes of delay in care cases as part of a wider package of reform that was set out in the family justice review. I am grateful for the interventions of my hon. Friends the Members for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) and for Harrow East in support of the Government’s intention to tackle the delay in care proceedings. I am also grateful to the right hon. Member for Leicester East for his support of the Government’s intention to legislate on a target of six months in care cases.

Reforms to the use of experts in family courts—on both the number and quality—have been rightly raised by Chair of the Justice Committee. Proposed amendments to the family procedure rules and practice direction on experts were submitted to the family procedure rules committee in April. These amendments seek to ensure that expert evidence is commissioned only where necessary—this, in turn, will save time in proceedings.

On the quality of experts, Ministry of Justice officials have spoken to health regulators on developing minimum standards, and this will be an important area for my Department to improve.

Mr David: Will the Minister explain why the Government have not proposed a Bill on lobbying?

Mr Djanogly: I think that question is for others in the Ministry of Justice and the Home Department to address.

The adoption clauses on ethnicity will also help to reduce the time children have to wait for an adoptive placement and will see more children placed in stable loving homes with less delay and disruption. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North gave a very well-informed speech on adoption and my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) spoke very well on the urgency of the early years of a baby’s mental development and the benefits of early intervention—

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.

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