By Matthew Barrett
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Questions to Ministers of Justice were held in the Commons yesterday, the first real opportunity Members of Parliament have had to ask questions about the events of this summer.
The key question came from Labour MP Stephen Pound, who asked "Could I ask him to give credit to the prison officers who have participated in this expansion, and the people working within the prison estate? It cannot have been easy for them. An additional 500 operational usable places have appeared in the last few weeks. Where from?"
"First, I agree strongly with the praise that the hon. Gentleman gives to the prison officers. The system did respond—the criminal justice system responded very well to the totally unexpected pressure of the riots. Partly it proved that our criminal justice system does work well in such circumstances. Secondly, it was entirely because of the public-spiritedness and good will of prison officers, probation officers, policemen and court staff, all of whom responded to the events with horror, as did every decent member of society, and decided to put the public interest first. We always carry a cushion in the prison estate, because we do not know what number of prisoners will come. I know the consequences, which some of my predecessors have encountered, of running out of places in the prisons, and for that reason, I am glad to say, we were able to cope—there is still sufficient capacity—and it is very important that we continue to do so."
Mr Clarke had earlier been asked about the Human Rights Act. He remains stubbornly in favour of the Act, and determined to protect it from criticism. However, in his answer, he managed to appear to support three different views on the Act at once. Labour MP Willie Bain asked the Secretary of State:
"Does the Secretary of State support Liberty’s campaign, entitled “Common Values”, that seeks to separate the myths from the truths of the Human Rights Act, which has, for example, protected the victims of rape from being cross-examined in court by their assailants? Is this not the right way to tackle what the Prime Minister recently called the misrepresentation of human rights?"
"The best way to answer that is to say that I agree with the campaign, with the hon. Gentleman and with the Prime Minister. A perfectly serious debate has taken place about human rights legislation and I look forward to the commission’s advice. A lot of the difficulty comes when human rights are invoked by officials in excuse for bad decisions or in all kinds of cases that have nothing to do with any human rights legislation. We would have an altogether more sensible debate if people understood the real problems and difficulties—and that they are not all problems and difficulties."
An amusing moment came about when Mr Clarke answered questions on overseas victims of "corporate harm", and forgot what FCO stands for:
"Overseas victims of alleged corporate harm by UK international companies are, where appropriate, able to bring civil claims in the UK now, and that will continue to be the case following implementation of our reforms to civil litigation funding and costs. My officials and I are in contact with the Foreign and Colonial Office—[ Laughter ] —the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as and when necessary to discuss the impact of our proposed reforms to legal costs in this class of case in this country, the Commonwealth or the colonies."