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Strategic Rail Authority

Mrs. May: To ask the Prime Minister what discussions his Policy Unit has had with the SRA on the development of the SRA's Capacity Utilisation Strategy. [45709]

The Prime Minister: Officials have meetings with a range of people in the course of their work. It is not the normal practice of the Government to release details of such meetings or discussions.

Illegal Meat Imports

Mr. Alan Reid: To ask the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on departmental responsibility for

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(a) preventing illegal meat imports entering the United Kingdom and (b) detecting meat imports which have entered the United Kingdom illegally. [46105]

The Prime Minister: DEFRA has lead responsibility for animal health controls on imports of meat working with the Food Standards Agency, HM Customs, the devolved Administrations, and local and port health authorities.

Gibraltar

Mr. Vaz: To ask the Prime Minister when he plans to visit Gibraltar. [46185]

The Prime Minister: I have no immediate plans to do so.

Mr. Vaz: To ask the Prime Minister when he last spoke to the Chief Minister of Gibraltar. [46184]

The Prime Minister: I have not spoken to the Chief Minister of Gibraltar. My right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Europe met the Chief Minister of Gibraltar most recently on 25 January and are in regular contact with him in writing and through the Governor of Gibraltar.

Correspondence

Mr. Bercow: To ask the Prime Minister what his target time will be in 2002–03 for (a) Ministers to reply to letters from hon. Members and (b) officials in his office to reply to letters received directly from members of the public. [44949]

The Prime Minister: The effective handling of correspondence is an issue to which I, and ministerial colleagues, attach great importance. My office takes action on all letter received within 15 working days.

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LORD CHANCELLOR'S DEPARTMENT

McKenzie Friends

Mr. Jim Cunningham: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department under what circumstances a McKenzie Friend (a) can and (b) cannot be used in court; and in which type of courts they are used. [44804]

Ms Rosie Winterton: The judgment in the 1999 Court of Appeal case of R. v. Bow County Court, ex parte Pelling confirms that litigants in person should be allowed the help of a McKenzie Friend in public proceedings, held in open court or in chambers, unless the judge is satisfied that fairness and the interests of justice do not require it.

In an open court hearing there usually must be some justification established if a person is not to have the benefit of a McKenzie Friend, or some evidence that the McKenzie Friend has acted or is acting inappropriately at the hearing which makes it reasonable to deprive the litigant of the assistance which would otherwise be permitted.

Where the proceedings are held in private then the nature of those proceedings (which make it appropriate for the hearing to be in private) may make it undesirable in the interests of justice for a McKenzie Friend to assist.

Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service

Simon Hughes: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department what proportion of the children's guardians who work for CAFCASS have been allowed to access the CAFCASS IT system; and if she will make a statement. [46011]

Ms Rosie Winterton: The CAFCASS IT system is available to all office-based employed guardians but not yet to newly employed home-based guardians who accepted an offer of employment last summer.

Simon Hughes: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department what the estimated date is for CAFCASS to be 'e' ready in line with targets set for public bodies; and if she will make a statement. [46013]

Ms Rosie Winterton: The CAFCASS Corporate Plan states that CAFCASS is contributing to the 'e' Government agenda through increased capacity, where appropriate, for services to be delivered by electronic means by 2005. CAFCASS is developing an IT infrastructure which facilitates efficient and effective exchange of information between agencies in the family justice system.

Simon Hughes: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department what frequency of board meetings the CAFCASS Support Infrastructure Project Initiation document specifies; and on how many occasions the board met between July 2001 and January 2002. [46009]

Ms Rosie Winterton: The Support Infrastructure Project Initiation document did not specifically state a frequency of meeting, nor is a specific frequency mandated in the PRINCE2 manual. The Support Infrastructure Project did not meet after July 2001 as the project was put on hold.

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Simon Hughes: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department if the CAFCASS IT system has database facilities installed; and if she will make a statement. [46012]

Ms Rosie Winterton: CAFCASS inherited systems with database facilities. The CAFCASS IT system continues to support and extend these databases. The recent Magistrates Courts Service Inspectorate (MCSI) report said that IT investment across CAFCASS was, in general, a success story once initial teething problems had been addressed.

Disputes Resolution

Mr. Kidney: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department what (a) action she has taken and (b) results have been achieved, pursuant to her pledge that Government legal disputes will be settled by mediation or arbitration whenever possible. [44959]

Ms Rosie Winterton: I refer my hon. Friend to the answer I gave him on 15 October 2001 in response to his question on how my Department will report to Parliament on progress with the Government's commitment to use alternative dispute resolutions where possible in resolving its own disputes. On that occasion I explained that the Lord Chancellor intends to make an announcement at the beginning of the next financial year, and has asked all Government Departments to collect the relevant figures.

Court Proceedings Pilot

Mr. Grieve: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department when the pilot for extended courts in Manchester and London will commence; when the courts will start and close business; and for how long the pilots will run. [42793]

Mr. Wills: The two pilot schemes are due to commence in spring 2002. The proposed plans for Manchester and London are different. They are:



Both pilots will run for approximately six months. The actual start dates and full details of the schemes will be given in a press notice which will be released when all of the aspects for the working protocols are agreed and finalised with the agencies involved.

Persistent Offenders

Vernon Coaker: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department what guidelines he has issued to courts about detaining persistent offenders under 16 years who are (a) charged with and (b) guilty of non- violent offences; and if he will make a statement. [42246]

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Mr. Wills: The decision whether to grant bail or not is a judicial decision taken within the statutory framework provided by the Bail Act 1976. Judges and magistrates carry out their duties independently of the Government. It would be wrong for Ministers to seek to direct judges or magistrates in the way they exercise their discretion. Accordingly, no guidelines have been issued on the use of bail or the related powers in section 23 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1969. For the same reasons, my Department does not issue guidelines on sentencing. Magistrates and judges are helped by decisions of the higher courts and, particularly, by the guideline judgments of the Court of Appeal. In R. v. Howells and others (1998) the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham, in a reserved judgment, considered, at length, the factors which courts should weigh when considering whether an offence is so serious that only a custodial sentence is justified.


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