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Topical Questions

Volume 583: debated on Tuesday 1 July 2014

I wish to inform the House about the real progress that we are making on judicial diversity, and pay tribute to the work being done by the Judicial Appointments Commission on increasing the number of women in the judiciary. I am pleased that the latest statistics from the commission show that nearly half of all appointments are being taken up by women. There are now 21 women in the High Court—the highest figure ever—and following recent appointments, 26 women are being added to the circuit bench, and 29 to the district bench. A clear picture is emerging that the proportion of women in the judiciary is increasing year on year. That good work needs to continue, but I am pleased with the progress.

I am pleased that today the equal merit provision comes into force: where two or more candidates are of equal merit, selection can be based on gender or race for the purpose of increasing judicial diversity. I congratulate the commission on its work, and reiterate the commitment that I as Lord Chancellor, the Government, the Lord Chief Justice, and the chair of the Judicial Appointments Commission share in achieving a more diverse judiciary that reflects the society it serves.

It has come to light that Sodexo plans to bid for contracts to run 12 of the 21 probation areas. Does the Minister feel comfortable in trusting such vital work to a company that cut its staff budget so drastically that prisoners in Northumberland were able to riot?

First, I cannot comment on the nature of the organisations that have submitted bids. We have a good mix of organisations from a wide range of different circumstances across the country, I am pleased with the progress, and we will make further information available in due course. I have been to the prison in Northumberland since the trouble there, and I have no reason to believe that the event was connected to the public or private status of the prison—my understanding from staff is that it was started by a number of prisoners who were upset that their working day had been extended by an hour.

T3. We have seen another celebrity convicted of a string of appalling child sex offences—someone who used and abused their position and their power. Is it not time that we had an overarching inquiry into the culture at that time and those historical sex offences, so that we can bring closure and learn lessons for the future? (904555)

Order. Of course, no sentencing has yet taken place—a fact of which I am sure the Minister is well aware, and will frame his response as he thinks fit.

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker; I was about to make that point. I would also make the general point that there is clearly a large number of important criminal investigations going on at the moment, so it would be sensible to let them take their course before we decide what it is best to do next in this important and sensitive area.

We have been saying for a while that Government policies would lead to a prison crisis, and they have. The wrong sort of offenders are being sent to the wrong sort of prison. That is not just our view but that of the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb). When Michael Wheatley absconded last month and allegedly committed further offences, the Justice Secretary said that he would bring in new rules to prevent such occurrences from happening again. Today, the media are reporting that two men—one a killer, the other serving an indeterminate sentence—have absconded from Spring Hill prison. The police have warned the public not to approach the pair. Why is the Justice Secretary finding it so difficult to keep the public safe?

This is a matter of particular interest to me as that prison is in my own constituency, as the Secretary of State might know.

Mr Speaker, I can reassure you that the proportion of offenders who are sent to open prisons and who subsequently abscond is 20% of what it was when Labour was in power a decade ago. My question to the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan)is—[Interruption.] Over the past few weeks, as this has become a more high-profile issue—[Interruption.] I do not believe that it is sensible for this country to scrap open prisons. I believe it is sensible to have tougher risk assessment procedures and not to transfer people to open conditions if they have previously absconded, and we have put those changes in place in the past couple of weeks. To listen to the right hon. Gentleman, anyone would think that he believed in scrapping open prisons altogether. Actually, they are helping to rehabilitate offenders. They need to be there; they are there for prisoners who are in the last few months of their sentence. Almost everyone who goes to an open prison behaves well and is able to be released safely at the end of their sentence. Is he actually saying that that should change?

Nice soundbite, but people are absconding after the Secretary of State has made his changes. So much for keeping the public safe. Let me move on to the subject of temporary licence. Not only are the wrong sort of offenders being sent to open prisons, but the wrong sort are also being released on temporary licence. The use of these ROTL procedures has increased by 24% since 2010, with breaches of licence arrangements up by a staggering 57% in that period. Can the Secretary of State confirm that, in 2012, this Government relaxed the rules on temporary licence, and that PSI 21/2012 accepted that

“there will be an increase in the number of ROTL applications”?

The number of prisoners absconding from open prisons and while on temporary licence is a fraction of what it was a decade ago. I keep going back to that point. It is all well and good for Labour Members to rail against things when they are in opposition, but they now purport to be a potential party of government and yet they have nothing positive to say on how they would manage the system differently. I have tightened the regime and introduced tougher penalties for those who abscond. If the Opposition think that we should close down open prisons altogether, they should say so.

T5. Hereford county court is a highly effective and important local institution. However, there is a break clause in the lease for the court premises for this next year. If the court has to move, has the Secretary of State considered co-locating it with other public services in Hereford? Can he reassure local people that, whatever happens to the premises, Hereford will continue to have a county court? (904557)

I can tell my hon. Friend that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is aware of the break clause in the lease for Hereford county court’s premises for next year. The Courts and Tribunals Service continues to keep the use of its estate under review to ensure that it meets operational needs.

T2. Judge Robert Martin has heavily criticised the Government’s welfare and justice changes, saying that the work capability assessment is in a state of “virtual collapse”, and that the loss of legal aid funding“has severely reduced the help and support available to claimants to pursue their legal rights”.Why does the Justice Secretary think that it is acceptable to deny access to justice to people who are sick, disabled or poor? (904554)

I think we need to put things into perspective here. Before the reductions to legal aid were made, Britain had one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world, costing the taxpayer £2 billion. After the reductions have gone through, £1.5 billion will still go towards the legal aid system. That is a lot of money; it is one of the largest amounts being paid into any legal aid system in the world, and I can assure the hon. Lady that £1.5 billion buys a lot of legal aid.

T7. Will my hon. Friend the Prisons Minister update my constituents on his Department’s success or otherwise in regard to the sale of Reading prison? (904560)

As my hon. Friend knows, we do not decide what the future use of the site will be as that will be a matter for the local authority. I am always keen, however, to keep parliamentary colleagues updated at key points in the process, such as when a site goes on the market and when we have reached the point of negotiating successfully with a preferred bidder. I will of course do the same for him, and if I can give him any more information I will seek to do so.

T4. In a written answer on 6 May, the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) listed several domestic violence programmes for women in prison. His answer included some programmes that I am told do not actually exist. Can he tell me how many women are waiting, or being transferred to other prisons, to get the programmes they need? If he does not know now, will he write to me with the answer? (904556)

I do not have the figures with me and I will of course write to the hon. Lady with the answer. From my visits to women’s prisons, I know that that is an issue that is on the agenda of every single governor, is regularly discussed with the prisoners themselves and is regarded as an extremely high priority. I will supply the facts she needs and would be happy to meet her to discuss the matter.

T8. I recall a time under the previous Government when few prisoners did meaningful work in prisons and the interests of victims were left at the prison gates. Can the Minister provide an update on how much money has been raised from the implementation of the Prisoners’ Earnings Act 1996 for the benefit of victims? (904561)

I cannot do so off the top of my head, but of course I will write to my hon. Friend and give him that information. As he heard my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor say earlier, the number of hours worked by prisoners has increased considerably under this Government. We have made sure not just that they have more work to do, but that they are given every incentive to do that work. They will need to work or engage in other types of productive activity if they want to earn their privileges, and they will no longer be able to sit in their cells and watch television all day.

T6. The director of Ministry of Justice Shared Services has said that any proposals to offshore MOJ work in the future would need specific agreement from the Ministry. Can the Minister confirm today, for the benefit of staff in Newport and Bootle, that he will give no such agreement? (904558)

To reiterate what I said earlier, my views on outsourcing UK jobs are on record. I made them clear when I was an Employment Minister, and my position has not changed.

T9. Stafford prison has a very good record in securing paid work for prisoners to carry out, including reshoring work from the far east. What support is he providing to others across the estate to continue that good progress? (904562)

My hon. Friend is right. Reshoring is an effective way to provide more commercial work for prisoners to do, giving them not just purposeful activity but some of the skills and training they will need to earn a law-abiding life outside prison. In terms of what more we can do, he may know that in 2012 we set up an organisation called ONE3ONE Solutions which assists us to negotiate more commercial contracts and provide more work in prisons.

Staff at the Ministry of Justice Shared Services department in Bootle face privatisation, as do those in the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Newport East (Jessica Morden) and for Newport West (Paul Flynn). Given the shambolic write-off of £56 million on a previous Steria contract and the job cuts that followed the last privatisation the minute the 12-month moratorium ran out, what confidence can my constituents and those of my hon. Friends have that the privatisation of Shared Services will not cost them not only their civil servant status, but their jobs?

We are going through a complex process of change to deliver these services across the Government, rather than Department by Department. I cannot give long-term guarantees for the future. I have explained what the situation will be for the next 12 months and I have explained my position on the offshoring issue.

In the area of unpaid employment tribunal awards, I welcome the commitment from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to creating a penalty for those who do not pay awards handed down. Does the Minister agree, and will he commit the MOJ to supporting the proposal?

I am looking into the matter and I will be happy to come back to my hon. Friend at a later date.

I thank the Prisons Minister for meeting me and Billy Bragg recently to discuss the issue of guitars in prisoners’ cells. I welcome the fact that the Minister confirmed that his decision will be taken on the security advice that he receives. Has he had that advice, has it told him that this is a manageable risk, and when does he expect to be able to make an announcement?

May I, in turn, thank the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he conducted that meeting and for the very helpful information he was able to provide to me on that occasion? I am doing what I said to him that I would do, which is to look carefully at the security advice to ensure that it is robust, and that we make a sensible decision on the point he has asked me to consider. I will do that as quickly as I can.

Posting revenge pornography on the internet is an appalling crime. Does the Secretary of State agree that the law needs to change to ensure that perpetrators are properly punished, and that the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, which is currently being considered in the other place, could provide the Government with an opportunity to do just that?

I thank my right hon. Friend both for her question and for the contribution she made in the debate last week. She has done a very important job in raising this issue, which is clearly becoming a bigger problem in our society. What I say to her today is that the Government are very open to having a serious discussion, with a view to taking appropriate action in autumn if we can identify the best way of doing so.

Last month, Judge Rook argued that all advocates taking on sexual offence cases should be required to undertake specialist training, so that vulnerable witnesses are questioned in a fair and appropriate way. Does the Minister agree that this will protect witnesses, particularly children, from the distress of harsh cross-examination? Will he set out what discussions he has had with the Bar Standards Board on this issue?

There are a number of interesting ideas on the very important issue of how we protect vulnerable witnesses. As the hon. Lady will know and I am sure will welcome, we have now introduced a pilot scheme whereby young, vulnerable witnesses do not have to go through the whole courtroom ordeal. In three courts, they can now be interviewed beforehand and the interview recorded and played back to the jury. That is one of a number of ideas we are taking forward to ensure that young and vulnerable witnesses in particular are given better protection than they have ever had before.

As was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), meaningful work and training has an important role to play in reducing recidivism and encouraging rehabilitation. In developing future policy, will the Minister consider the success of the social investment bond at Her Majesty’s prison Peterborough?

The answer to that is yes. As my hon. Friend knows, the excellent work in Peterborough has formed a large part of our thinking in rolling out our transforming rehabilitation reforms across the country. What is being done there is a very good example of what can be achieved if rehabilitation is followed through out of the gate and into the community.

The Minister will know I have grave concerns, which are shared by the chief inspector of prisons, about the negative impact of overcrowding in Durham and in other prisons in my constituency. What specific steps is the Minister taking to alleviate this problem?

It is worth putting on the record the fact that the most recent figures show that the level of overcrowding in our prisons has fallen, not risen. Of course, there are challenges in parts of the prison estate—

Go and look at the figures. I can assure the shadow Secretary of State that the most recent figures show a reduction in the level of overcrowding in prisons. We are not in the position, as the previous Government were, of having to let prisoners out early because we have run out of space in our prisons.

Essex has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the country. My right hon. Friend will be aware of two tragic murders that occurred in Harlow. On speaking to the parents of one of the victims, I was told that they felt that the support they were given after their daughter’s horrific death was inadequate, with the Crown Prosecution Service and others appearing to be poorly trained, and with inconsistent service from Victim Support. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give those parents that families will, in future, receive proper support when they have been victims of crime?

I am, of course, aware of the tragic case to which my hon. Friend refers. He will know that the Home Secretary commissioned Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary to look at how the police respond to domestic violence, and action will be taken on that. He is right that other parts of the criminal justice system, including the CPS and the courts, need to take great care in how they treat victims and bereaved families. I know he has been in correspondence with the Minister with responsibility for crime reduction at the Home Office, and he is taking a close personal interest in how to progress.