Shailesh Vara answers back bench MP’s questions on issues including reform of the European Court of Human Rights, the operation of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act and protection of the right to anonymity of victims in rape cases.
European Court of Human Rights
David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): What assessment he has made of progress in reforming the operation of the European Court of Human Rights; and if he will make a statement. 
Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): What assessment he has made of progress in reforming the operation of the European Court of Human Rights; and if he will make a statement. 
Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): What assessment he has made of progress in reforming the operation of the European Court of Human Rights; and if he will make a statement. 
Mr Shailesh Vara (North West Cambridgeshire) (Con): Good progress has been made in clearing the backlog of inadmissible cases, but more work is needed to address the growing backlog of admissible cases, hence the recent Brighton declaration under the UK’s chairmanship of the Council of Europe, which represents a substantial and important step towards realising the Government’s ambitions.
David Rutley: Does my hon. Friend agree that the European Court should be a court of last resort and end the practice of revisiting domestic courts’ decisions when it does not need to do so?
Mr Vara: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. We expect the effect of the reforms agreed under the Brighton declaration to be that more cases are resolved at the national level, which should mean that fewer cases are considered by the Court.
Harriett Baldwin: In welcoming these reforms, my constituents fear that they might not be acted upon. What can my hon. Friend do to ensure that the Strasbourg Court recognises the will of this national Parliament?
Mr Vara: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Under the Brighton declaration, we have agreed a framework for longer term reform, with built-in review points up until 2019, to give impetus to the measures proposed under the Brighton declaration and to consider whether further measures are needed. We will, of course, continue to monitor progress.
Mr Marcus Jones: One of the problems with the European Court is its huge backlog of cases. What does my hon. Friend think the Government can do to reform the Court so that frivolous cases are not brought and the only cases brought are those of the nature of serious human rights breaches?
Mr Vara: This is a major issue. The measures agreed under the Brighton declaration will make a big difference once implemented. More cases should be resolved at the national level, which should mean that fewer cases are considered by the Court. Where cases go to Strasbourg, the Court should be able to focus more on the important cases and do so more quickly.
Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his elevation to the Dispatch Box. I hope very much that his temporary promotion will be made permanent in the imminent reshuffle. The hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) mentioned the backlog, which is now 152,000 cases. Does the hon. Gentleman not think it important to have a fast-track system through the European Court for national security cases?
Mr Vara: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. With the Brighton declaration, we have ensured that fewer cases go to Strasbourg and that those cases that can be handled at the national level are held and dealt with at the national level. That means that fewer cases will go to Strasbourg and that the important ones—we hope that only the important ones will go there—will be dealt with a lot quicker.
Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): If the hon. Gentleman eventually finds time to bring forward a British Bill of Rights, what elements of the Human Rights Act does he think will be in it?
Mr Vara: We certainly are considering a British Bill of Rights. We would take into account the various issues concerning Britain and ensure that freedoms and liberties were enhanced, so we would hope that a Bill of Rights would build on the terms of the convention. On the specific measures, we are signed up to the convention, so the whole of it would apply.
Mr Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Gentleman confirm, after giving that last reply, that there are no long-term plans to leave the European Court of Human Rights or to amend or leave the convention?
Mr Vara: I can happily tell the hon. Gentleman that we have no plans to leave the convention. We are signed up to it, along with the other 46 nations, but where we see the need for change, we will ensure that those changes take place, in the same way that changes took place in Brighton last month.
Rehabilitation of Offenders
Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): What recent representations he has received on the operation of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. 
Mr Shailesh Vara (North West Cambridgeshire) (Con): We receive regular correspondence on the operation of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. Following consultation and consideration of the representations received, the Government have introduced a package of reforms to the Act, through the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which recently received Royal Assent.
Ann Clwyd: Although I welcome the changes made in the 2012 Act, will the hon. Gentleman consider some loopholes that might be closed? A few months ago I brought up the case in the Chamber of a constituent, an ex-miner who had been fined 28 years ago for stealing a bag of coal in the middle of the miners’ strike. He subsequently tried for a job in a care home as a groundsman. He was offered the job, but it was then withdrawn. That seems ridiculous, because the job had nothing directly to do with the people in the care home, and he had not been accused of—
Mr Speaker: We are extremely grateful to the right hon. Lady, but is there a question mark coming?
Ann Clwyd: I started with a question mark, Mr Speaker.
Mr Speaker: It is a good idea to finish with one!
Ann Clwyd: I am very pleased to finish with one, Mr Speaker. The CRB check should not apply in the case of my constituent, so will the hon. Gentleman look at the loopholes?
Mr Vara: I am aware of the right hon. Lady’s interest in this matter. The vast majority of occupations for which people may make applications do not require a CRB search. Only a small number require a search, and even in those cases there are three categories of CRB searches. Searches are required for the occupations that are listed in the exceptions order to the 1974 Act, which involve sensitive issues or where people are dealing with children, vulnerable adults and so on. We have that list of people to ensure risk management in employment and the protection and detection of crime.
Mr Speaker: I thank the hon. Gentleman; I, too, welcome him to the Dispatch Box. It is a pleasure to hear him. We need now—not on account of the hon. Gentleman’s answers, but more generally—to make somewhat brisker progress.
Rape (Victim Anonymity)
Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): What steps he is taking to protect the right to anonymity of victims in rape cases. 
Mr Shailesh Vara (North West Cambridgeshire) (Con): It is an offence to breach the anonymity of a complainant in a case of rape or any sexual offence. Allegations that a complainant has been named will be investigated.
Kerry McCarthy: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that response, and I hope that he shares my concern at the online outing of the victim in the Ched Evans rape case who had her name emblazoned all over the social media. I am pleased that a number of arrests have been made, but does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that rape victims will be even less likely to come forward if they think that they might be outed in this way?
Mr Vara: The hon. Lady raises an important point. I want to make it absolutely clear that the anonymity of rape victims is there for life. When it is breached, the full force of the law must be brought to bear. My understanding of the case that she mentions is that, as at 10 May, 13 people had been arrested. It is right that the law should be enforced, but it is also noteworthy that we clearly need to monitor the internet and ensure that we supervise it a lot better than we perhaps have in times past.
Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con): I wonder whether my hon. Friend could help, as there is growing concern about the use of Twitter in the ways described, but for other criminal offences, what actions are the Government taking to make sure that people are not allowed to hide behind their own anonymity when they tweet or use the internet in this way, which is to commit a criminal offence?
Mr Speaker: It is most interesting to hear the hon. Lady’s thoughts, but they are relevant in this context only in relation to victims in rape cases, not more widely. That is what the question is about. We are immensely grateful for the hon. Lady’s musings, but I am not sure that they entirely pertinent to the matter under discussion.
Anna Soubry: I am sorry.
Mr Vara rose—
Mr Speaker: If the Minister thinks that the question is relevant, he can answer briefly.
Mr Vara: Briefly, I am aware that where breaches have occurred through the use of Twitter, the Communications Act 2003 has been used as a basis for taking action. My hon. Friend thus raises a good point, and I am happy to say that law enforcement is taking its course.
Mr Speaker: Honour is served. We are grateful.
Bill of Rights
Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): When he expects the commission on a Bill of Rights to publish its report. 
Mr Shailesh Vara (North West Cambridgeshire) (Con): In accordance with its published terms of reference, the commission should aim to report no later than by the end of 2012.
Fiona Bruce: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Will he update us on the work being undertaken by the commission?
Mr Vara: Last year, the Government received advice from the commission on reform of the European Court of Human Rights, which was taken into account in negotiations to agree the Brighton declaration. The commission’s website contains minutes of its meetings and details of seminars, as well as information regarding the public consultation held last year. The topics considered so far include: reform of the Strasbourg Court; possible options for a UK Bill of Rights; parliamentary sovereignty; and issues relating to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Government look forward to receiving the commission’s final report by the end of this year.
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): Is there any chance that the commission’s recommendations might include a recognition of the common-sense view that when people trample on the human rights of others, they should abrogate some of their own human rights?
Mr Vara: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that comment. This is an independent commission and it is not for me to say what it will eventually conclude, so I am afraid that we will simply have to wait for the final outcome.
Neil Carmichael: What is the Minister’s overall assessment of the recent Brighton declaration in terms of the European Court of Human Rights?
Mr Shailesh Vara (North West Cambridgeshire) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for that question. It is fair to say that the Brighton declaration was an excellent achievement for Britain. In his speech to Strasbourg on 25 January the Prime Minister outlined three achievements that he hoped for, the first of which was that there should be subsidiarity, with more decision making at the national level in the courts. That has been achieved. The second was that there should be more efficiency in the whole court structure, and that has been achieved. Thirdly, he hoped we would have a greater and better quality of judges in the Court, and that too has been achieved. We are going to have fewer cases going to Strasbourg and those that go will be dealt with efficiently. We dealt with 46 other countries, representing a total population of 800 million citizens, and I think it is a wonderful achievement on the part of Britain’s chairmanship to have got agreement between so many countries.