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22 Oct 2002 : Column 116continued
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Yvette Cooper): The comprehensive spending review set out plans to invest more than #1 billion in IT in the criminal justice system over the next three years. The Lord Chancellor's Department, the Home Office and the Office of the Attorney-General have been working together to determine the best spread of investment throughout the criminal justice system. Those discussions are not yet complete, but we expect the programme to include IT infrastructure in the Crown courts, the development of exhibit and the investment for magistrates courts that is already under way.
Dr. Cable : Does the Minister's answer imply that she accepts the criticism of the Master of the Rolls, Lord Phillips, who said that the Department was seriously at fault for under-investing in IT in the courts, such that the Lord Chief Justice's reforms are being seriously imperilled and there is a major pile-up of costs and delays in the civil courts?
Yvette Cooper: We certainly believe that there is a need for more investment in IT infrastructure, not only in the courts but in other parts of the criminal justice system and on the civil side. We are making progress in using IT. For example, the money claim online service, which allows people to issue claims over the internet, is proving a great success. The number of cases that now go through it means that it is the fourth largest county court in the country. Progress is being made, but it takes time to put in place the new infrastructure and IT that we need.
Mr. William Cash (Stone): Does the Minister accept that it is a matter of using IT not only in her Department but in other Departments such as the Home Office? She knows that not enough progress has been made in reducing unnecessary delays in the court system from arrest to sentence. Surely the time has come to embrace the concept of modern IT strategy, which will assist with
Yvette Cooper: I am glad that the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) is present; we heard that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) had taken over his responsibilities. I am glad that the hon. Member for Stone remains in his place; I imagine that he would be reluctant to give up being the shadow spokesperson for the Lord Chancellor's Department's new responsibilities for referendums and European elections.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman's support for IT throughout the criminal justice system. He is right that it needs to be applied throughout the system and that we need to examine the links between the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, the courts, the prisons and so on. That is why all Departments have been working closely together. We are making progress in reducing delays. I draw to his attention that the time from arrest to sentence for persistent young offenders is now 66 days, whereas when the Conservative party left office in 1997, it was 142 days.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Ms Rosie Winterton): My Department is working with the child contact organisations to survey the current provision of child contact centres. This will help us to identify where the gaps are in provision and how we can improve that provision. The Government are also providing funding of #900,000 over three years to key child contact centre organisations to develop models of supervised contact aimed at supporting those most at risk.
Mr. Wright: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Is she aware that, in a few cases, contact is between not only parents and children but sister and brother? Over the past three or four years, I have been involved in a case in which the sister is also subject to the provisions involving supervision when she meets her brother. What facilities can the Minister offer in rare cases such as this, in which sister and brother also have to meet under supervision?
Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the importance to children of keeping in contact with their siblings, when it is safe to do so. Through the parenting plan, the Government are encouraging parents who are separating to take that into consideration and to discuss it with their children when appropriate. When a court is considering contact between siblings, the children's views should be taken into account, whether through parents or through reports presented to the court. A child may also be separately represented. Of course, if a sibling is unhappy with a contact order, there are ways in which he or she
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I welcome the Minister's statement concerning contact with children, but is she aware of the deepening concern in Northern Ireland, in the courts and among social services and parents, about the lack of secure accommodation for children and young adults who need that particular kind of care?
Ms Winterton: I am certainly aware of the need for more facilities for supervised contact. Obviously, the issue of secure accommodation is not a matter for my Department, but we are looking into the issue of proper facilities for supervised contact, which is why we are carrying out the current survey. I take on board the hon. Gentleman's comments and shall ensure that the appropriate Ministers are made aware of them.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Is my hon. Friend aware that, although the contact centres do a really important job, it is also vital that the supervision that they offer is precise? There has been a number of very upsetting cases in which children have been attacked, and I hope that my hon. Friend will look closely at the provision of proper security for children who are already at risk and need to be absolutely sure that they are not going to be put into an even more dangerous position by coming to a centre.
Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is not only an issue for children; it can be an issue for other family members as well, particularly women who may be bringing their children to contact centres. It is certainly true at the moment that we need to look much more closely at what is available, particularly in terms of supervised contact. We want to work with children's organisations to develop proper methods of determining what is supervised and what is purely supported. Too often, we feel that there is not enough information available. Sometimes, there is not enough information available to the courts about where children are being sent, or about the adequacy of their supervision. This is something that the survey that we are conducting and the work that we are doing with those organisations will sort out.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Yvette Cooper): The Government published the criminal justice White Paper, XJustice for All" on 17 July. Since then, the Lord Chancellor's Department has received 39 responses, the Home Office has received 64 and the Crown Prosecution Service has received four. A wide range of interested parties has responded.
Finally, does the Minister accept that we have not yet heard a good argument for changing the present rule under which previous convictions are not normally before a court because such evidence would prejudice a trial? Will the Government ensure that no such proposal is made unless there is a much better argument for changing the law than anyone has heard so far?
Yvette Cooper: I will certainly engage in further discussions about the responses that we have receivedmany from individual magistrates replying to letters we have sent them giving details. On previous convictions, the hon. Gentleman will know what was said in the White Paper. The Home Office has been leading a series of consultations and discussions with a range of stakeholders and will report to the House in due course.