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Topical Questions

Volume 589: debated on Tuesday 16 December 2014

May I start by sending, on behalf of the whole House, the condolences of this Parliament to the people of Pakistan after this morning’s terrible terrorist attack?

I would like to inform the House about the continuing work that we are doing to help victims of rape and sexual violence. I can announce that we have established a fund which, for the very first time, has been created specifically to help male victims of sexual crimes. We have dedicated more than £1 million to provide services to support those male victims, including funding for face-to-face centres as well as creating a national website and online support service. Approximately 75,000 men are victims of sexual assault or attempted assault each year, while 9,000 men are victims of rape or attempted rape, yet fewer than 3,000 offences of male rape or sexual assault were recorded in 2013-14. We want to change this. We hope to encourage male victims to break the silence on a topic still seen as taboo by giving them access to crucial information and emotional support, either in person or online if they find that way more accessible. This Government will continue to put supporting victims of serious and sexual crime at the forefront of their plans.

I spent this morning at Kids Company helping to wrap some of the 20,000 Christmas presents that it will be giving out to children this year. I was told that 80% of the kids who go to Kids Company are involved in some way in criminal activity, but very few of those who spend time there go on to continue that activity. Will the Minister acknowledge that that sort of intervention is far more successful than putting kids in youth custody centres, and so we should be supporting it?

I think we would all pay tribute to the work done by Kids Company. I have been to see its work as well. Like many similar charities around the country, it makes an enormous difference to the support provided for people in the most difficult circumstances. The work that it is doing combines with the work done in our troubled families programme and with the work done in our schools to try to help those who start school behind to catch up before they go on to secondary school. Those are all important parts of the jigsaw puzzle of dealing with the real need to use early intervention to keep people out of the criminal justice system where we can possibly do so.

T3. A development that has the potential to create 4,000 jobs in my constituency is being further delayed by judicial review, despite its being approved at local, ministerial and parliamentary level. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the use of judicial review in such circumstances should be curtailed? (906660)

That is precisely what we are trying to stop. My hon. Friend makes the valid point that those opposed to essential developments in our country are able to use judicial review, on technicalities, to try to prevent them from going ahead or to delay them. It does nobody any favours that that can happen. It uses up huge amounts of taxpayers’ money, it wastes the time of essential projects and project teams, and it must change.

I find the Justice Secretary’s answer interesting, because there is a widely held view that one of the reasons why this Justice Secretary is so hostile to judicial review is that it means the unlawful decisions he makes can be challenged in court. In the past few days, he has been held to have acted unlawfully in relation to his decision to ban the sending of books to prisoners. Does the Justice Secretary accept the decision of the court and, very simply, will he now acknowledge that it was a stupid policy and that he acted unlawfully?

Let us be absolutely clear: I took no decision to ban the sending of books to prisoners. I simply unified across the whole of the prison estate the rule that existed under the previous Government, in almost all of our prisons, not to allow parcels to be sent into prisons. Once again, we hear the hypocrisy of the Opposition.

The right hon. Gentleman briefs his Back Benchers and the right-wing media that he is banning books, but when he has been found to have acted unlawfully he says something very different in the Chamber of the House of Commons.

We know this Justice Secretary is obsessed with repealing the Human Rights Act 1998, walking away from the European Court of Human Rights, making it very difficult to bring a claim for judicial review, and making access to justice almost impossible for people with limited means by ill-thought-through deep cuts to legal aid. When the highly respected, legally qualified and knowledgeable former Attorney-General, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), talks about politicians who risk “eroding” Britain’s legal framework for the sake of populism and short-term political gain, who does the Justice Secretary think the former Attorney-General is referring to? Why does he think that a highly respected and knowledgeable colleague has views so different from his own?

What I know is that I am pushing forward the policies that the public want. The fact that the right hon. Gentleman is opposed to them might explain the fact that his party’s ratings have been sliding persistently in the polls over the past two years.

T2. We know that sport has a vital role in rehabilitating prisoners, and evidence is mounting that limiting the sporting activities to which violent offenders have access can severely limit their rehabilitation possibilities. Will the Minister meet me to discuss this matter, and will he assure me that we will put practical reality over prejudice in getting outcomes? (906659)

I fully appreciate the positive impact that being a member of a sports club can have on release. The National Offender Management Service is keen to discuss options for how it can improve links between England Boxing, in which I know my hon. Friend has a particular interest, so that offenders can benefit once they have left custody. If she has new ideas to share on this matter, I will of course be delighted to meet her.

T7. Will the Secretary of State update the House on how many Members of Parliament have had their telephone calls with prisoners recorded, and have all those MPs been informed? (906664)

I can confirm that all MPs who have had their calls listened to have indeed been informed. I can also inform the hon. Gentleman that I have now received an interim report from the chief inspector, which is being made available to Members of Parliament through the Library. The chief inspector’s interim findings are that there is no systemic problem and that the situation has improved substantially since 2012, but he recommends a number of other things we can do to improve the situation still further.

T4. What progress are the Government making on the introduction of a women’s justice board? The important question asked earlier by hon. Member for Livingston (Graeme Morrice) emphasised the need to address such issues. (906661)

The coalition Government are clearly committed to making sure that we reduce the reoffending and imprisonment of women. As my hon. Friend knows, at the moment I chair an advisory board on female offenders, which is very helpful and successful—indeed, it is meeting this afternoon—in making sure we have a good policy. The introduction of a women’s justice board has been put forward. As it happens, our party, the Liberal Democrats, supports the policy. It is not yet an agreed policy across government, but I am determined that we will do as much as we can with the present structure in the rest of this Parliament, even though we might be able to change it in the next Parliament.

T9. Since the Government introduced employment tribunal fees, there has been a drop of 84% in the number of women who have been able to bring discrimination claims. Does the Minister accept that, because of the up-front fees of £1,200, many women are being denied justice under his Government? (906667)

The situation is a lot more complex than the hon. Lady makes out. First and foremost, anyone who does not meet the financial criteria has a waiver and can go to court. Secondly, there have been a lot of pre-determinations by ACAS. Employment is going up and there are fewer applications. There are a lot of factors and she does herself no credit by simplifying matters.

T5. Following the introduction of my private Member’s Bill, which calls for a tougher stance on repeat driving offences, will the Minister confirm that those matters are being reviewed fully, and will he clarify when the Government will respond to the review? (906662)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that he has done in that area. As a former Transport Minister, I have looked at this issue for many years. I will continue to look at the review and we will come forward with proposals. We are determined that whatever proposals come forward will be fit for purpose. His work will be very helpful.

The international child abduction charity, Reunite, reports that the wrongful overseas retention of children is up by 30% so far this year. We need urgent action to implement the welcome recent recommendation from the Law Commission that wrongful retention should be made a criminal offence. Will the Minister say when the Government will respond to that recommendation, and can he give a date by which we can expect to see the legislation that is needed?

Kidnap and child abduction can have devastating effects on victims and their families. It is vital that the law reflects the gravity of the offences, and that those who commit them are punished accordingly. I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues who formed a group in this House to argue for a change in the law. In the past, people could be punished for taking their children out of the country, but not for keeping them illegally out of the country rather than bringing them home. The coalition Government asked the Law Commission to consider the issue. It has reported back and recommended a change to the Child Abduction Act 1984. We are looking at that recommendation actively and I hope that we will be able to make progress in this Parliament.

T6. What steps can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his Department take to ensure that young people do not regard vehicle insurance as an optional extra, as is the case now due to the monopoly and cartel that is operated by the insurance companies? (906663)

While I was a Transport Minister, it was my honour to bring forward the continuous insurance legislation, which made it compulsory for all vehicles that are registered on the road to have insurance. We will continue to look at how we can stamp down on the hard core of people who do not have insurance, because they are a danger not only to themselves, but to others.

Does the Secretary of State agree that sex crimes against children are among the worst crimes on the statute book? Does he also agree that it is time that we had a national institute to look at the prevention of crimes of that nature against children and to help perpetrators—a “what works” foundation of the sort that he kindly supported on early intervention and policing?

First, the hon. Gentleman has a track record of addressing these issues to compare with anyone in the House. I commend him for the work that he has done. I share his view on sex crimes against children. That is one reason why the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill contains a provision to end automatic early release for those who commit such horrendous crimes. He has expressed an interesting thought today. We cannot have too long a conversation about it across the Dispatch Box, but my colleagues and I would be happy to hear his views.

T8. The Minister is aware of my request that the former Keighley magistrates court in Bingley be sold off as soon as possible. The failure to do so is wasting taxpayers’ money and preventing an important town centre building in Bingley from being regenerated and brought into use. There seems to have been a lot of faffing about between the Ministry of Justice and West Yorkshire police. I urge the Minister to get on with it and get the building up for sale to allow this regeneration to take place in Bingley and to save the taxpayer some money. (906665)

My hon. Friend is as forthright as ever. He is well aware that I wrote to him last week. We are doing all that we can to ensure that the court is sold and that the proceeds are put into the Exchequer.

I think that the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) regards “faffing around” to be a technical expression.

The Ministry of Justice has massively upgraded its prediction for the prison population, which could be up to 100,000 by 2020. Does that suggest a total failure by the Government to take seriously the reduction of reoffending, and was privatising the probation service precisely the wrong policy?

The Government are expanding prison capacity, and four house blocks are under construction and will open early next year. We have a new prison in north Wales, and we keep such matters under review. We will always have enough places for those sent to us by the courts, unlike what happened under the previous Government.

Will the Minister join me in commending Timpson shops that provide work for hundreds of former offenders, including many who are still serving their sentences? What can be done to encourage other employers to follow suit?

My hon. Friend is right to mention that issue, and I think that around 10% of Timpson’s work force are ex-offenders. Other companies such as Greggs do similarly good work, and I have been particularly impressed by the Halfords training academy at Onley prison. There is good work, and we need more companies to carry on in the same way.

In his drive to make savings in his Department, does the Secretary of State think it is time to start listening to legal advice that would save his Department an awful lot of money in lost cases in judicial review proceedings?

The hon. Gentleman talks about saving money, but I have waited in vain to hear how Labour would address the spending challenge. Last week, Labour Members said that they would deliver a spending reduction in this and other Departments year on year, but as of today we have no idea how they would do it.

My right hon. Friend recently visited Purfleet in my constituency where he saw the mile long fly tip that has been left following an unauthorised Traveller encampment. Does he agree it is important that the police and local authorities use the powers at their disposal so that public confidence in our justice system is maintained?

The scale of what happened in my hon. Friend’s constituency is shocking and the local police, local authority, and police and crime commissioner must learn the lessons to ensure that such a thing cannot happen again. If powers need to be taken at national level to help in that battle, the Government will certainly consider how we can contribute.

Two women a week die at the hands of their partner or ex-partner. Let me press the Minister on his earlier remarks. Is it acceptable that 40% of domestic violence victims cannot get access to legal aid?

I simply reiterate that we have tried to drive through the necessary change to meet a financial challenge in the most sensitive way possible. The changes that the hon. Lady describes in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 were considered in detail in this House and the other place. Time again I hear from the Opposition Benches that Labour would do things differently, but although Labour Members have said that they will match our spending plans, they have yet to give any sense of what they would do to save money elsewhere.

How many foreign national offenders are in our prisons, and what steps are being taken to return them to secure detention in their own countries?

As always, I commend my hon. Friend’s persistence on this issue. There are 10,319 foreign national offenders in custody—down from 11,153 in May 2010—and that figure is the lowest for the end of any quarter since March 2006. That is in marked contrast to the Labour Government under whom the number of foreign national offenders doubled.

The Ofsted inspection of Hindley young offenders institution in my constituency rated it as outstanding, particularly in the provision of literacy and numeracy. Why was it slated for closure?

We are not closing it; we are re-roling it to put in adult male prisoners. I am sure the hon. Lady welcomes, as I do, the reduction in the number of young people in custody. We must take account of that and will use Hindley young offenders institution for adult male prisoners.