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Justice Questions

8th November 2011

Jonathan Djanogly answers MPs' questions on subjects including legal aid reforms, magistrates courts, the coroner service and the Freedom of Information Act.

Freedom of Information

Simon Wright (Norwich South) (LD): What plans he has to increase the scope of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. [78954]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): This month we extended the Freedom of Information Act to a further three bodies—the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Financial Ombudsman Service and UCAS. Additionally, we intend to extend the Act to over 100 more organisations through the Protection of Freedoms Bill. We have also begun consultations with more than 200 further bodies about their possible inclusion. Next year we plan to consult 2,000 housing associations and the housing ombudsman.

Simon Wright: I thank the Minister for his response and for the progress made by his Department. As he knows, Network Rail is responsible for spending billions of pounds of public money each year. Will he ensure that that organisation is brought within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act?

Mr Djanogly: The Government are committed to making Network Rail more accountable to its customers, and believe that there is a strong case for its inclusion in the FOI.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): Community organisations often have a great deal of trouble getting information out of local councils via the Freedom of Information Act. What plans does the Minister have to make the Act as currently drawn, with the organisations currently included, work better?

Mr Djanogly: If the hon. Lady has problems to be addressed, she should write to the Ministry of Justice and we will take them up.

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Topical Questions

Ian Swales: Teesside suffers from arguably the worst coroner service in the country, with families now waiting an average of 43 weeks for a verdict. How is the coroner service held accountable, and what can the Minister do to ensure that my constituents get the service they deserve?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): Ultimately, coroners are independent judicial appointments, and as such, complaints must be made through the judicial appointments service. Having said that, I have been in contact with people in Teesside and I shall continue to take an interest in this matter.

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Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): Has the Minister done an impact assessment on the effect of the legal aid reforms on women?

Mr Djanogly: Yes, an equality impact assessment was carried out.

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Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab): How does the Secretary of State plan to fill the nearly £280 million gap in social welfare law in respect of the provision of crucial advice and support on housing, debt and employment issues to some of the poorest people in our country, given that there is little to no evidence that the voluntary and charitable sectors will be able to back-fill that gap? The £20 million referred to does not seem to go far enough.

Mr Djanogly: First, it is important to appreciate that we are keeping £50 million of legal aid in social welfare law for the most urgent and vulnerable people who need it. We need to appreciate that, at the moment, legal aid is often used as a sticking plaster for matters that should properly be dealt with under general advice from citizens advice bureaux.

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Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): Constituents of mine with serious health conditions who have been turned down for employment and support allowance are still having to wait up to nine months for a tribunal appeal hearing. With more than 40% of them being successful on appeal, what is the Minister going to do to end this unacceptable wait?

Mr Djanogly: This is relevant to a number of Departments. We are working with them to ensure that the procedures are such that better determinations are made at the outset so that we get fewer appeals. This is taking up a significant amount of my time. The hon. Lady makes an important point.

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Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): When a magistrates court is forced to close, does my hon. Friend agree that every effort and flexibility needs to be shown to accommodate those magistrates in alternative courts?

Mr Djanogly: Yes, and they are. So far as I know, no magistrates have been forced to resign because of any court closure. They are normally encouraged to join the successor court, although some take the opportunity to resign at that point for their own reasons.

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Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): The Secretary of State will no doubt share my respect for those who carry out pro bono work, which makes a big impact in my communities and throughout the UK. What does he make of the assertion that cutbacks are going to have to be made in pro bono services because of the cuts to overall provision?

Mr Djanogly: I do not see any reason why that should be the case.

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Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): We have an excellent community legal advice centre in Hull. What are the Minister’s views on the future funding of CLACs and community legal advice networks?

Mr Djanogly: These will have to be looked at in the context of all not-for-profit organisations—citizens advice bureaux and so forth. If the hon. Lady wishes to discuss her particular concerns relating to her particular CLAC, I would be happy to discuss them with her.

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Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Following the publication of the Norgrove report, will my hon. Friend reassure anxious fathers in my constituency, including Mr Colin Riches, and will he make every effort to ensure that parents have equal access to children?

Mr Djanogly: We have every intention of ensuring that both parents have a meaningful relationship with their children, and we will look carefully at the Norgrove report in order to develop a Government approach to the matter.

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Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): A few months ago, the Minister said that the backlog of appeals on social security matters would be resolved through the employment of more people. That was before the summer, but the waiting times seem to be as long as ever. Why is that?

Mr Djanogly: There is still a significant number of appeals, but the number is now being stabilised and the delays are being reduced.

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