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My constituent, Corporal Stephen Thompson, who, sadly, was killed in Afghanistan a couple of weeks ago after having volunteered to serve in 3 Rifles Battle Group, was serving his country and protecting democracy in Afghanistan. It is very important,
therefore, that servicemen in such a position are able to vote. The Minister said that he would put in place for this election a bespoke postal voting service. Can he assure the House that all the votes of service personnel serving in Afghanistan who use that will get back to their constituencies to count for this election? At the last election, only 28 per cent. of service personnel were able to vote.
Mr. Wills: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I am sure the whole House wishes to express its appreciation of the sacrifice that his constituent made. It is fundamentally important that we all do everything we can, for exactly the reasons that the hon. Gentleman set out. I can assure the House that we have better arrangements for postal voting in this election than we had in previous elections. It is worth reminding the House that every member of the armed services can vote by proxy, should they so wish, and there is no doubt about that vote being registered. But as the hon. Gentleman will know, there are service personnel operating in extremely difficult and arduous circumstances in Afghanistan, often in remote areas. We are doing everything we can to get the ballot forms out as quickly as possible and back as quickly as possible. There will be a significant improvement. I cannot guarantee that every one will be able to be counted, but we are doing everything we can. For the future-this is important-we are now looking into how we can move to electronic voting for the next general election, and we want to get support for that. It is very complicated and will involve huge changes to electoral law. We want to move together on an all-party basis. This will sort the matter out once and for all, and we hope we will have the hon. Gentleman's support in doing so.
Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): When I was Under-Secretary of State for Defence, a great deal of effort went in, with the Ministry of Defence, to get as many service personnel abroad registered to vote as possible. What role are the local authorities playing, and what efforts are they putting in to ensure that as many personnel as possible are able to vote?
Mr. Wills: Registration is the fundamental prerequisite to being able to vote, and I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend did when he was at the Ministry of Defence. Huge effort has gone into that, and it is working. In the past year the number of service declarations has gone up by 15 per cent., and we need to get the figure up higher. I think it will be higher by the election after next, and we will do everything we can. We have invited all hon. Members to contribute to the process, and that invitation is still extant. We want everyone to do everything possible to make sure that everyone serving in our armed services can vote.
Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on what he has done in achieving such a high return among service personnel. Does that extend to the families of personnel, many of whom are in Germany and elsewhere in the world?
I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend is doing with his constituents in the armed services and their families to make sure that they can vote. It is fundamental that families serving overseas
should have that facility. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), of course local authorities have a fundamental role to play in this. We all have a role, We should do everything we can, and the Government are doing everything they can.
Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): As the Minister has decided to leave the House at the general election, this might be the last opportunity we have to thank him for his consistent courtesy, and to pay tribute to him for his hard work, and for what I might describe as his good intentions. I am grateful to him for the letter to which he referred a moment ago, which he sent me last Thursday-and yes, I can answer that we will co-operate in a cross-party way. He says in the letter that the Government intend to launch a consultation for the next Parliament because members of the working group all agreed that concrete steps must be taken. That is a clear admission that the Government know that they have not taken sufficient steps to make sure that members of the armed forces serving our country abroad will be able to vote. I accept that the right hon. Gentleman may well have tried his best, but why do Ministers not want to hear the verdict of members of the armed forces on 13 years of Labour Government?
Mr. Wills: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for her kind words, but I am also particularly grateful-this is the really important point-for her agreement to work with us on a cross-party basis. We want service voters to be able to vote. It does not matter who they vote for; it is a fundamental democratic principle that those who are giving their all-and in some cases their lives-in the service of this country should be able, as far as they possibly can, to express their vote, whoever they vote for. It is wrong of her to suggest that anything sinister is going on. These are difficult and complex matters, and I have already said that we have taken a lot of steps to solve these problems. We have made considerable progress, and we are going to go on making progress.
I have said clearly that registration rates are going up-indeed, that they have gone up by 15 per cent. in the last year-and the hon. Lady must agree that that is a significant achievement by local authorities, by the Electoral Commission and by the officers and service personnel themselves, who are driving that increase. We are putting measures in place to ensure that service voters can vote as they want. That is the crucial point. She always overlooks the point that all service voters can vote by proxy, so they are not being denied a stake in the general election in this country. The question-
The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): The Government have received 74 items of correspondence calling for the introduction of a recall law. We are committed to legislating for a recall mechanism in the new Parliament, and I look forward to discussions with other parties, with a view to reaching an agreed solution.
Danny Alexander: The Minister says that he supports a power of recall, and of course I welcome that, but is it not disappointing, therefore, that the Labour Whips in another place ensured that an amendment to legislation there, which would have achieved such a power and allowed it to be put in place now, was defeated? In the light of the lobbying scandal and the pressure in favour of introducing a power of recall, rather than talking about it, is it not time for the Government to act?
Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman may not have spotted this, but there is going to be a general election some time before June the third-[Hon. Members: "The fourth!"] Some time before June the fourth. Sorry, Mr. Speaker, I hope that the record can be corrected and the tapes amended accordingly. The issue of recall legislation in this Parliament is, frankly, otiose. It is for the next Parliament to deal with, and we have to get the system right-but it comes as no surprise to this House that the proposals drawn up by the Liberal Democrats on the back of an envelope do not quite do the job that is required.
David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): Can we be specific about this issue? I know from their proposals that the Government support a recall mechanism for the other place, but is the Secretary of State now saying that he also supports a recall mechanism for the Commons? If so, that would be a very great advance, and we would very much welcome it. Indeed, if he has moved on that issue, will he now move on proportional representation, too?
Mr. Straw: This may well be the hon. Gentleman's last outing, too, so I pay tribute to him for the work that he has undertaken. However, he needs to get some better briefing, because my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced at the Labour party conference on 29 September that we were committed-
Mr. Straw: It was hardly a private meeting; it was in the middle of the leader's speech. In that speech on 29 September, the Prime Minister announced his commitment, and that of the Government and my party, to a recall mechanism for this House.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice):
Settlements are primarily matters between the parties to the case. It is a matter, therefore, for the claimant to decide whether to accept an offer at
any stage, including, in some cases, before court proceedings have been formally issued. Therefore, we do not hold figures centrally to reflect the number of court cases that end as a result of a settlement out of court.
Harry Cohen: Did not Mr. Justice Vos, in the Max Clifford case involving the private investigators of Mulcaire, Whittamore and News International, order the disclosure of documents which would have shown the extent of the industrial scale of the defendants' illegal hacking-so was not News International's settling out of court with Mr. Clifford a manipulation of the judicial system to avoid compliance with the disclosure orders? Is not this a scandalous process, amounting to a £1 million cover-up to protect Tory director of communications Andy Coulson, then News of the World editor, from being accountable for the gross malpractices for which he was responsible-
Bridget Prentice: I understand my hon. Friend's concerns. Of course, any further investigation into allegations about phone-tapping is really a matter for the Crown Prosecution Service and the police. However, we are aware of the report by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and we are considering our response to that. It has made some very serious recommendations, and we will of course take those on board and respond in due course.
The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): I thank the hon. Gentleman for the recent report on this issue by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which he chairs. In parallel, in January I established a working group on the libel laws, and I have today, by written ministerial statement, published that report. As the latter makes clear, action on libel tourism is urgently needed and will be taken as soon as possible. That will be part of a draft libel Bill that we intend to publish in the new Parliament, as well as other more immediate action that we believe, and the working party believes, could be undertaken by changes in the procedural rules and in judicial practice.
I welcome the Government's statement this morning, which appears to address a number of the recommendations made by the Select Committee on reform of the libel system. However, on the specific issue of libel tourism, is the Secretary of State aware
that only last month the Senate Judiciary Committee voiced support for federal legislation in America to allow US courts to negate the judgments of UK courts in libel actions, on the basis that UK courts do not give sufficient recognition to the need for freedom of expression? Does he accept that that is a matter of profound concern that we need to address as a matter of urgency?
Mr. Straw: Yes. The hon. Gentleman properly draws attention to the fact that our defamation laws have developed in rather an unbalanced way. They are now, for example, having a chilling effect on legitimate and important scientific research. We therefore have to bring them back, not into direct symmetry with those of other jurisdictions, but into a better balance.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware that we, too, support sensible and well-thought-out reforms of libel law? Why is the statutory instrument before another place being delayed by certain Labour peers? Does he agree that when it comes to capping success fees, we must strike a balance between controlling excessive costs and ensuring that our constituents have the right to access justice to protect their reputations?
Mr. Straw: I will answer the first one-the difficult one. I am afraid that I have no control over Members of the other place. I do not agree for a moment with the approach that they are taking. We are strongly committed to producing better sense in the no win, no fee arrangements. I am clear that reducing success fees from 100 per cent. to 10 per cent. will not prevent well-founded claims from being made, but it should put off those who are chancers, along with their lawyers, who have in the past obtained both costs and compensation, wholly disproportionate to the alleged defamation that they have suffered.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Claire Ward): Since 1997, the Government have been working to ensure that domestic violence law supports and protects all victims of domestic abuse. We have introduced practical system changes to promote co-ordinated community responses to domestic violence, including the establishment of specialist domestic violence courts. On 19 March, we announced that from 1 April 2010 there will be 141 SDVC systems. That means that the Government's target of having a total of 128 court systems in place by 2011 will be not only met but exceeded a year ahead of schedule.
Christine Russell: I thank the Minister for her detailed response. Will she join me in praising the Cheshire domestic violence partnership, which was recently shortlisted for a local innovation award? It is working extremely well with the special advisers that the Minister has mentioned.
Claire Ward: Of course I join my hon. Friend in praising the work of the Cheshire domestic violence partnership. The effect on children who witness domestic violence and abuse can be harrowing, and their needs must be reflected in any strategy dealing with the effects of such abuse. The services of independent domestic violence advisers are integral to providing additional support to the victims of domestic violence and their families in both normal criminal courts and family courts. I am happy to write to my hon. Friend about the other services that we are providing for victims, especially through the national victims service.
Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): How can it be just that last year, about 40,000 victims of violence saw their cases not taken to court but dealt with by a caution, and four out of five offenders who made it to court were not ordered to pay compensation? In the dying days of this Government, will the Minister ensure that we have not just a national victims service but national victims' justice, so that we see more offenders convicted in court and made to pay back for their crimes?
Claire Ward: This Government have done far more for victims by introducing the national victims service, which will provide caseworkers for those who are affected by the most serious crimes and those who are the most vulnerable. In addition to bringing more criminal cases, the Crown Prosecution Service continues to improve its performance in respect of domestic violence, and the charge to conviction rate for 2008-09 was 72.2 per cent., exceeding the CPS's target of the previous year.
Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend consider visiting West Lancashire and meeting representatives of West Lancashire women's refuge, who deserve congratulations on their effort and work on the front line in dealing with the fallout from domestic violence and who are keen to discuss with Ministers the positive Government contribution and commitment to funding the tackling of domestic violence?
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Maria Eagle): We take the issue of gangs and security in prison very seriously. We work with our law enforcement partners, including the police and others, to identify and manage risks to safety, order and control.
"Muslims run the prisons and there's nothing screws can do about it".
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