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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 592: debated on Tuesday 3 February 2015


The Secretary of State was asked—

Legal Aid Funding

1. Whether he plans to make further changes in the level of funding for legal aid; and if he will make a statement. (907362)

Legal aid is a fundamental part of our justice system, but resources are not limitless. When reform began, we had one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world, at about £2 billion a year. Even after our reforms are complete, our legal aid system will still be one of the most generous, at about £1.5 billion a year. The Transforming Legal Aid programme that is currently being implemented is designed to save an extra £215 million per year. There are no current plans for further changes to funding levels beyond this programme, but the financial pressure to balance the books remains.

Research by Rights of Women has revealed that six out of 10 women who suffered domestic violence and were then refused legal aid took no further action through the courts, and many, as a result, ended up staying in violent and abusive relationships. Will the Lord Chancellor look again at the barriers to access to justice that his legislation has created?

There are two issues involved. Clearly, domestic violence is a criminal offence and it should be dealt with properly by the police. Although we made a number of difficult changes in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, one of the groups we protected was women who needed to go to court after an incident of domestic violence, and that is the way it should be.

I would be grateful if the Secretary of State updated the House on what representations about current levels of legal aid he has received from the Bar Council and other organisations representing barristers.

Not surprisingly, the Bar Council has argued very strongly for the status quo on legal aid. We have worked with it closely over the past 12 months, particularly in the work done by Sir Bill Jeffrey and, most recently, Lord Justice Leveson on how we can improve the process to reduce work load, at a time when we face big financial pressures, and create a system that is more efficient.

Does the Secretary of State not agree that reductions in funding for this service could prevent those within the sphere of family law from accessing justice, thus reducing the ability to challenge unreasonableness?

As a Government, we have had to take some difficult decisions about legal aid. It is certainly the case that there is less legal aid money available for family law cases than there was. I am afraid that is a natural consequence of the financial challenges that we have faced. It is interesting that no party in this House has pledged to reverse these changes.

What has been the cost in wasted court time, particularly in family proceedings where people have not been properly prepared for their proceedings, as a result of cuts to legal aid?

So far, there has been an increase in the number of litigants in person. Of course, we have always had litigants in person in our courts. We continue to monitor the situation closely. The Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), is working hard to look at additional ways of smoothing the processes that people have available to represent themselves. None the less, progress in our courts has so far continued pretty well.

The Secretary of State’s third attempt to introduce a new contract for criminal legal aid is now stalled in the High Court and looks dead. Will he join the shadow Lord Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), in burying it? Will he work with the legal profession to devise a model that does not put hundreds of high street solicitors’ firms out of business and lead to more miscarriages of justice? Or is this just like prisons, probation and the Courts Service—another of the policy car crashes he is leaving to an incoming Labour Government to sort out?

The one thing we can always guarantee at these sessions is to hear a load of nonsense from the hon. Gentleman. I have listened carefully to Labour Members’ arguments over the past few months. They oppose when it is politically convenient to do so, but they have absolutely no idea what they would do in our place—and that is why the electorate are not going to give them the chance.

Rebalancing the Outer Estates Project (Nottingham North)

2. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the Rebalancing the Outer Estates Foundation in Nottingham North constituency on reoffending rates among young people not in education, employment or training. (907363)

I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to improving education, skills, training and employment for his constituents. He has a long record of working in early intervention projects—an area that I am personally very committed to.

I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

Does the Minister agree with the old cliché that the best crime prevention measure is a job for young people? Will he commend the work of the rebalancing foundation in Nottingham North and visit it in order to see a number of the schemes that we have undertaken, including building—or hoping to build—a special college for 14 to 17-year-olds who are not in education, employment or training?

The evidence backs up what the hon. Gentleman says: only 32% of adults said they were in paid employment in the four weeks prior to custody, so the hon. Gentleman’s question is along the right lines. The evidence also tells us that more than a third of young people who go to prison in Nottingham reoffend. That is why we are putting education and skills at the heart of our transforming youth custody programme. The Government have also given £100,000 from the local enterprise partnership to the project in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

Pre-charge Bail

I am lucky enough to be the police Minister in the Home Office as well as a Justice Minister, and this question falls under both portfolios. We do not hold those data centrally, but we are now gathering them because of the review of pre-charge bail announced by the Home Secretary.

Some of the answers I am getting from the Department do not include National Crime Agency figures. That is an omission. Does the Minister agree that for someone to be arrested and bailed without charge for months and months, such that their careers and lives are destroyed, goes against all the principles of British justice? Will he look at what Operation Pallial and the National Crime Agency are up to and at whether they are leaking private information to the media?

If there is any evidence of leaking to the media, I am sure the hon. Gentleman will pass it to me in due course. I agree that we need to make sure that bail is used correctly, and that is exactly why the Home Secretary announced a consultation, which is ongoing. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will give evidence to it so that we can get it right. People should not be on bail for any longer than they need to be.

Will my right hon. Friend advise people who are in that position that bail is voluntary, so they do not have to accept it? If they do not accept bail, the police will either have to charge or release them.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but someone who is arrested and offered bail when an investigation is ongoing faces a really difficult decision. We have indicated that the period should be no more than 28 days, and the consultation is looking at whether that is viable. The period may need to be longer in exceptional circumstances, particularly when the police are looking at encrypted hard drives, but at the end of the day it is for the individual and the police to decide.

Nuisance Phone Calls

4. What discussions he has had with his ministerial colleagues and the claims management regulator on tackling nuisance phone calls. (907365)

Tackling nuisance calls is a priority for the coalition and I welcome my hon. Friend’s interest in the subject. We are working closely with colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to reduce the irritation and distress they cause. Our Department’s claims management regulator has worked with industry and consumer groups as part of the nuisance calls taskforce. It published some recommendations on 8 December, which we believe will help reduce unwanted calls and texts, and we are actively considering which we can soonest implement.

One of those recommendations is that the Government should introduce new legislation to hold to account directors of companies that blatantly flout the law on making nuisance telephone calls. What progress has the Minister made on implementing that particular recommendation?

There are three specific issues on the table. The first is what we did in December, which allows for new, tough financial penalties on companies—by which I mean companies as a whole—that break the rules. The second is the proposal that we have consulted on and are about to respond to, which would lower the threshold at which enforcement action can be taken and produce a fine of up to £500,000, which should be a deterrent. The issue of holding individual company members to account is more complex and will not be the first of the two things we do.

The claims management regulator is often held up as the model for how to limit the number of nuisance calls due to the way in which the number of payment protection insurance call numbers has been reduced. However, recent discussions I have had with the Association of British Insurers indicate that it may not be working quite as planned. Will the Minister commit to a meeting as soon as possible to review whether the process is working as well as possible?

I recognise my hon. Friend’s assiduous work on this issue and I am very happy to pick up on the issue that the claims management regulation unit may not be as effective in practice as we believe it is in theory. We are determined to protect the public. Nuisance phone calls and nuisance texts, particularly to the vulnerable, are unacceptable. They must be dealt with and we will do that with my hon. Friend’s help.

HMP Altcourse

The National Offender Management Service is working very closely with the contractor in a number of areas to address those extremely important issues.

I visited the jail myself recently and there have been some welcome improvements since the action plan, but, given the damning report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons, can the Minister assure my constituents that the prison is not only safe, but fit for purpose?

The Government take this issue extremely seriously, and the Secretary of State was at that prison on Friday. We are taking five actions. First, a new director has been appointed. He was formerly director of Her Majesty’s Prison Rye Hill, and he took up his position on 8 December. There is a new head of security and a new security intelligence manager, and new search and security systems are in place. Two full lock-down searches of the prison were conducted in November and December, and improvements have been made in the operation of the basic regime, which will help with the issues that the hon. Gentleman quite properly raises.

25. As well as taking prisoners from Merseyside, HMP Altcourse takes prisoners from Cheshire and north Wales. What will be the impact of the new super-prison at Wrexham on prisoner capacity in Cheshire, north Wales and Merseyside? [Official Report, 25 February 2015, Vol. 593, c. 3-4MC.] (907386)

We need more adult male capacity so we are taking the right course of action by building the new prison in north Wales. There are currently no prisons in north Wales, and the new prison will enable us to house all Welsh prisoners within Wales, which we have not been able to do before. We will keep prisoners as close to their home areas as far as possible.

Youth Justice System

The Government are committed to preventing offending by young people. We are working to place education at the heart of youth custody, and will open the first secure college pathfinder in 2017. We have announced the commencement of our stocktake of youth offending teams, to give us a better understanding of how local youth justice services are delivered and to help ensure that we provide the best support possible to young offenders and their communities.

Will the Minister acknowledge the serious concerns that have been raised about the Government’s secure college proposals, and act on the advice of the chair of the Youth Justice Board and find alternative provision for girls and the youngest offenders?

As the hon. Lady knows, we will not be placing girls and young people under the age of 15 in the secure college when it starts, and those issues will be subject to a vote of both Houses of Parliament. At the moment we spend an average of £100,000 a year to keep a young person in custody, and we have a reoffending rate of 68%. We need to try something better, and putting education and skills at the heart of youth justice so that we turn young people into productive members of their community is the right way to go.

What plans does the Ministry of Justice have for alternative custody in the form of a secure residential drug treatment centre for young persons and adults? That could be piloted as an alternative for the future so that we can have better treatment in the longer term.

My hon. Friend is right to mention drugs in prisons as that issue is of great concern to the Ministry of Justice, not least because of new psychoactive substances that are getting into prisons. Our existing prisons have drug treatment programmes, and we are considering how we can continually improve and make that work more effective.

The Minister will know that many young people who become involved in offending have themselves been victims of crime—perhaps crimes that they have not disclosed such as sexual abuse. When did he last meet the children’s Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Education (Mr Timpson), to discuss that issue and consider how we can ensure that those young people, as victims, get the help that they deserve?

I reassure the hon. Lady that I am working closely with the children’s Minister and I have met him on a number of occasions, most recently last week. We are working closely together to address the issues that she has quite properly raised.

Not a single independent expert thinks that the future of our youth justice system should involve wasting £85 million on a flawed plan for a secure college, and Labour Members will not go ahead with that proposal. Will the Minister guarantee that the secure college contract will not be signed before the general election, so that we avoid saddling the taxpayer with a huge bill for an expensive, unnecessary prison?

The hon. Gentleman is not totally correct because the Youth Justice Board is a strong proponent of the secure college. Let me say what I said to the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) a moment ago: it is not as if what we are doing at the moment is a roaring success. We spend enormous amounts of public money to get very poor results, and it is right to look at education and skills. The matter has been considered in Parliament, as he knows, and we are on plan to sign contracts later this month.


I am pleased to inform the House that we have now completed our work and opened up the market for breaking the cycle of reoffending to a diverse range of new rehabilitation providers to get the best out of the public, private and voluntary sectors, and that we have commenced the provisions of the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014.

What role does the Lord Chancellor see for mentoring in addressing reoffending for those who serve short sentences?

Mentoring is a crucial part of the future of our work to break the cycle of reoffending. I have absolutely no doubt that the ability of those who have been through the system themselves and turned their lives around, and who currently work within the voluntary sector, to play a role in changing the lives of those who are still in the criminal justice system is enormous. One thing that excites me is that, with the presence in the rehabilitation arena of a number of our leading charities working hand in hand with the Government and the private sector to deliver better rehabilitation, I am convinced we will see those mentoring skills brought to bear on the problem.

We have heard a lot about conflict of interest this week. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether he believes it is a conflict of interest that a private sector company can be paid £35,000 per place to keep somebody in prison in one region, and that the same private sector contractor can be paid £1,500 to keep someone out of prison? Is that not a conflict of interest?

We get a lot of nonsense from Opposition Members. I want a joined-up process, in which we work with people in prison, help them to prepare for release, and work with them when they have left prison. No organisation that works for the public sector in this arena chooses who it gets in its prisons or rehabilitation arena. It is right and proper that that responsibility lies with the public sector. I think a joined-up approach is the right way forward.

Does the Secretary of State agree that work in prison should lead to prisoners gaining skills that improve their employability, leading to reduced reoffending rates on release? Will he indicate to the House the number of prisoners partaking in work activity this year compared with 2010-11?

The number of hours worked in prisons has increased dramatically in the past four years—the latest figures show 14 million hours—and we are seeking to increase that number all the time. Last week, I was at HMP Coldingley for the launch of a new partnership between the Ministry of Defence and the Prison Service, whereby prisoners will produce items such as sandbags for use by our armed forces. I hope that that work will continue, grow and develop. The more we can get prisoners in our prisons working, the more likely they are to get a job when they leave.

As we heard earlier from the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), drug addiction in the criminal justice system is a huge problem. There were 4,500 seizures of drugs in prisons last year. What further steps will be taken to deal with mandatory help in prisons and help for prisoners when they leave?

There are two parts to that equation. Although there has been considerable success over the years in tackling the problem of conventional drugs in prisons, the problem now is the arrival of new psychoactive substances that are not detected through the normal means. That has posed an additional challenge to our prison system, and is a significant reason behind the increase in the amount of violence—serious violence—in prisons in the past 12 months. We are taking additional measures to try to tackle that, including tougher security measures and tougher penalties within prisons, and the training of dogs to sniff out that new generation of substances.

Of course, alongside that, proper work must be done to try to tackle addiction. With the through-the-gate system we have created and are creating, it is important that we see a flow-through from work done in our prisons to work done after prison. I remember being told by prison staff how frustrated they were that they had no guarantee that the rehab being done in prisons would continue when prisoners left. That will now change.

The cycle of reoffending is not helped by the number of people who are released on bail rather than remanded in custody. As the Daily Mail reports today, two rapes a week and one unlawful killing are committed by people on bail. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) does not seem to care about the number of rapes committed by people on bail and is laughing about it. A previous parliamentary question I asked revealed that 20% of all burglaries are committed by people out on bail. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that more persistent offenders are remanded in custody and fewer persistent offenders are out on bail to commit more crimes?

Decisions on individual bail cases lie with the courts, which are independent of Government, but I never want the courts to be in a position where they do not have a place to send those whom they wish to put behind bars. I hope our courts will exercise extreme care in deciding whether to put somebody behind bars or to let them out on bail. As we go into the election in May, there are 3,000 more adult male prison places than there were in 2010.

Will the Justice Secretary outline some of the additional educational opportunities that he believes would assist in preventing people from falling back into a life of crime?

We continue to work to expand education in our prisons, and I am pleased that this year we expect a significant increase in the number of prisoner qualifications. Great work is done by our education professionals in our prisons. We will look to expand and develop that as far as logistically possible.

The Justice Secretary was warned about the risks of the appointment of Paul McDowell as chief inspector of probation, but he arrogantly ignored them. Despite the clear conflict of interest, he defended his decision at the Dispatch Box when I raised the matter. He has shown a clear error of judgment. At a time when an independent inspector is needed the most, we do not have one. Will he confirm that the taxpayer will now be left with a further bill of £70,000 for his error of judgment, with the former chief inspector free to join one of the private companies that are now running probation?

I have to say that the right hon. Gentleman’s comments are an insult to a fine public servant, who has taken a brave decision this week. I am not of the view that someone should be denied the opportunity to apply for a job because of the possibility that in the future their wife’s company might win contracts and she might be promoted. I regard Paul McDowell as a fine public servant who has done a good job for this country. I hope he will return to a new post somewhere else supporting our public sector in the future, because he deserves it. He has done a very good job.

Local Access to Justice

We keep the courts estate under review to ensure it meets operational needs and our aim to improve effective delivery of the justice system across our country.

Skipton magistrates court is key to providing local access to the justice system for one of the most rural parts of our country. Will the Minister confirm that he will do everything he can to ensure that that court is kept busy and stays open?

As the Police Minister, I am sure some of my colleagues in the police force will be doing exactly that. I do not think there has been a better advocate for a constituency magistrates court than my hon. Friend. Every time he opens his mouth in conversation with me or my colleagues in the Tea Room, he talks about Skipton magistrates court. I would do exactly the same if I was in his position.

When I had a meeting about my local magistrates court merger with the Courts Service, the court clerk in charge of the decision was based in Llanelli. Does the Minister regard that as local justice?

I honestly think that when we look at the courts estate we need to make sure it is fit for purpose around the country. Where someone is based is immaterial. What we need to do is ensure we make the right decisions.

Will my right hon. Friend take a critical look at the proposal on its way to his desk that there should be a single local justice area stretching from Berwick to Sunderland, which could lead to cases being transferred for administrative convenience to courts 70 miles away at great cost to witnesses and families?

I will, naturally, look at any submission that comes across my desk. I am sure the Minister responsible will look at that very carefully when it arrives.

How many courts, closed since May 2010, remain on the estate undisposed of? What is the cost to the taxpayer of this policy?

Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme (Women Prisoners)

9. What assessment he has made of the effect on women in prisons of the implementation of the incentives and earned privileges scheme. (907370)

We have some excellent women’s prisons led by excellent governors. The impact of coalition policies on women is always considered carefully by Ministers. I am committed to ensuring that that is done for women in prison, for which I have a particular responsibility. There was an equality impact assessment for the incentives and earned privileges policy, which came into effect in November 2013. Since then, we have subsequently continued to listen to prison staff, women in prison and organisations, and we make changes to the framework whenever appropriate.

I thank the Minister for his response, but clothes, books and stationery are the very necessities of life. He will know about the independent monitoring board’s report on New Hall prison and the effect on the female estate. Will he at least review the effect on female prisoners of the one-parcel-of-clothing rule?

The incentives and earned privileges policy framework is an important reform to ensure that privileges in prison are no longer automatic. It is a reform that we brought in—it was not the case under the last Labour Government—and I hope Labour now supports the principle that people should earn privileges. On women’s clothing, however, female prisoners are not required to wear prison clothing; unlike male prisoners, they do not have to earn the right to wear their own clothing. There has always been a restriction on the number of items of clothing they can have in their cells, but I have insisted that there be no restriction on the amount of underwear they are permitted at all times when in custody.

Assaults on Prison Officers

10. How many prison officers have been assaulted during the course of their work in the last 12 months; and if he will make a statement. (907371)

There were 3,470 assaults on staff in the year to 30 September 2014, and I can assure the hon. Lady that I get angry and upset at every single one. There is growing evidence that the increased smuggling of new synthetic drugs into prisons is a major factor in levels of prison violence, and we have already announced a series of measures to crack down on it. We will ensure that governors have the powers and support they need to tackle the problem.

Is the Minister as shocked as I am at the number of serious assaults in male prisons? The number has nearly doubled from 241 in September 2009 to 418 last September. Will he look at the record when the Conservatives were last in charge of our prisons, when they cut prison officer numbers and then had to undertake an emergency recruitment programme in 1996?

The hon. Lady is right that these are extremely serious issues, but there is a growing body of evidence that the increase in the number of serious assaults is linked to the increase in new psychoactive substances in prisons. I hear that from governors and prison officers in every prison I visit. We have taken a series of measures, announced only a couple of days ago by the Secretary of State, to give governors more powers to crack down on the problem. We are trying to educate families and friends of prisoners not to smuggle these substances into prisons. If we can reduce the amount of those drugs in prisons, we will reduce levels of violence. All those things, along with the protocol with the police and Crown Prosecution Service and the increased use of body-worn cameras, will help to tackle this serious issue.

Can we just remind ourselves what we mean by “a serious assault” on a prison officer? It can mean serious cuts, fractures, concussion, loss of consciousness and damage to internal organs. If these were any other public servants—nurses, for instances—there would rightly be a public outcry. These are public servants going to work every day too often now in fear of their lives. The Minister has a duty of care towards them. What will he do now—it is not just about drugs—to protect staff in our prisons?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that prison officers are front-line public servants who keep us safe, and I have told her how seriously I take this issue. I read the reports on a daily basis, and I can assure her that they affect me as much as they do her and everyone else in the House. We are taking action in three areas: a wider range of punishments to crack down on the use of new psychoactive substances; the new protocol—it has never happened before—between the CPS and police forces to ensure that prisoners who attack staff or other prisoners spend longer behind bars; and an increased use of body-worn cameras. All that will help.

Victims of Crime

We published “Our Commitment to Victims” in September 2014. In addition, I chair the victims panel, and we will bring forward a victims law. On Thursday, I launched TrackMyCrime, which, for the first time, will enable victims to track their crime as it passes through the criminal justice system. Across the House, we should congratulate Avon and Somerset constabulary on piloting and bringing forward this initiative.

In November, the Minister wrote to me to say that this Government had decided to be “silent” on the rights of murder victims abroad, so that they did not have to do anything to help the families secure justice. The Minister will try to talk about the new directives for victims, but why have the Government been silent about the rights of the British taxpayer Tyrell Matthews-Burton, and yet have spoken up for others?

I have met the hon. Lady, and I know that she is passionate—and quite rightly so—in speaking up for her constituents and victims. As she knows, it is about the definition within the law as it was, and it is no good attacking this Government, because it was exactly the same for the 13 years under the previous Government. We are making the changes.

24. Increasing numbers of victims are victims of crime committed online. Many have experienced disturbing and threatening behaviour. What steps are the Government taking to support victims of that type of crime? (907385)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the campaigning work she has done on this subject. The type of crime she describes is just as illegal if it is done online as it would be if it was done face to face. We are trying to support everybody, but there are difficulties, not least in getting people to come forward. TrackMyCrime will help. If a crime has been perpetrated in a domestic situation, for instance, people can get the e-mails at work; it is their choice where they get the information from.

21. Further to that point, what discussion has the Minister had with colleagues in the Home Office about how victims of cybercrime and other fraud are being treated by Action Fraud, when they are not even told whether their case is being investigated, let alone prosecuted? (907382)

I am a Minister in the Home Office, as I am sure you are aware, Mr Speaker, as well as the Ministry of Justice, so I am very close to this issue. Through TrackMyCrime people will know exactly where in the criminal justice system their case lies. Across the House, we should congratulate Avon and Somerset on bringing forward the initiative, which is now in 43 police authorities around the country.

The Minister of State is not omnipotent; he is nearly ubiquitous—a point of which we have been reminded several times today. We are aware of the sheer scale and extent of his responsibilities.

We have already legislated to increase the duty on sentencers to consider compensation from offenders to their victims. We have taken powers to increase the amount that can be attached against benefits in future, so that the sums are actually paid to victims. We are increasing work in prisons so that prisoners can earn resources that can be paid to victims. Will the Minister tell us what progress is being made on delivering compensation from offenders to victims of crime in reality?

I am proud to say that we have just announced that there will be £40 million extra each year on top of the £50 million compensation already paid. A lot of that money comes from the perpetrators of crimes. We hope to get more money from offenders, and we are working to ensure that that happens.

Boundary Dispute Cases

12. What steps his Department is taking to promote mediation and the use of independent experts to reduce the number of boundary dispute cases coming before the courts. (907373)

The coalition is committed to reducing the number of property boundary disputes that come before the courts, as we are to reducing pressure on the court system more widely. I pay tribute to the work my hon. Friend has done, particularly his Property Boundaries (Resolution of Disputes) Bill. We published a scoping study on 15 January, and I hope that will provide a basis for agreeing a way forward that will lead to greater use of mediation and expert determination.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he agree that when neighbour property boundary disputes reach the courts, the legal costs often rack up, making it harder to settle the case? That is why I have been making the case for compulsory fast-track mediation, as in the party wall legislation, to make it easier to proceed and to avoid this problem.

I am absolutely persuaded that costs mount as people go to court, and I want to see the pressures and costs on our court system, as well as on individuals, reduced. We have taken steps over the past year to increase the use of mediation in the family courts, which has been successful. That should be applied to other disputes, including over property boundaries, and experts should also be used, but whether it is right to go down a mandatory route is the difficult question. I will work with my hon. Friend to see if we can reach agreement on how to move forward.

I would have called the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), but she “boinged” too late. I call Kate Green.


13. What steps his Department is taking to encourage people to become magistrates and to train new magistrates. (907374)

I will just “boing” again, Mr Speaker. The role of a magistrate is already a sought-after role in our communities and competition for vacancies is very strong.

I declare an interest as a life member of the Magistrates’ Association, which has expressed concern to me about the new provisions of the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014, which came into force this week in relation to the new activity requirements. The association says that it has been inundated with queries from magistrates about these new provisions. Will the Minister tell us what detailed training has been given to magistrates?

There is a substantial and comprehensive training programme, which is under the overall supervision of the Judicial College. I will write to the hon. Lady giving a full and detailed answer—or, rather, the Minister responsible will.

Why do magistrates have to retire at 70? We are losing years of experience from willing volunteers. I think that the regulations should be scrapped, so that hundreds more people could continue to serve in our magistrates courts.

I understand exactly where my hon. Friend is coming from. That sort of experience is important. However, we must also bring young people into the magistrates service, otherwise there would be no throughput in the system.

Human Trafficking

That question does not sit within the responsibilities of the Ministry of Justice; it is a question for the Home Office. However, I can inform the hon. Gentleman that between 2010 and 2013—the latest year for which figures are available in relation to human trafficking offences on an all-offences basis—the number of convictions increased by nearly 66%. The Government are committed to stamping out this abhorrent crime, building on the United Kingdom’s strong track record of supporting victims and fighting the perpetrators.

I am sorry to learn that the Secretary of State for Justice thinks that convictions for trafficking are not really his responsibility. I should have thought that those at the Ministry of Justice were the very people to deal with them. In Scotland, the Minister for Justice takes responsibility for trafficking convictions there. My criticism of the new Modern Slavery Bill is that all the laws for which it provides are exactly the same as those that have operated up to this moment.

I do not know what “66%” means: 66% of nothing is nothing. We want to know why the Ministry of Justice did not argue for the new laws that Lord Judge and Peter Carter recommended to the Joint Committee that was set up to look into the issue.

In response to the hon. Gentleman’s first point, I can tell him that it is a simple matter of fact in Government that this issue is looked after by the Home Office. As for his second point, I do not believe that any past Government have done more than the present Government to tackle human trafficking. Work is being done across Government and across the public sector to deal with a crime that we all believe is abhorrent, and that we all want to see stamped out.

The Secretary of State says that the issue of human trafficking is not his responsibility, but the issue of convictions is, and one of the key challenges is gathering evidence. In my constituency, I often meet victims many years after the trafficking offences have been committed. The Home Office may be responsible for some of these matters, but what is the right hon. Gentleman’s Department doing to improve the evidential chain and ensure that the evidence is there in court to secure convictions?

The securing of evidence to bring prosecutions to court is a matter for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, but our Department will always do all that it can to facilitate their work. I expect our reforms of the court system to improve the process in both those organisations, but we depend on the very good work done by our police service and the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure that people are prosecuted.

Young Prisoners

In April 2010, 2,149 people under 18 were in custody. The latest published figures available for the youth custody population relate to November 2014, when 1,055 people under 18 were in custody. That is a decrease of 51%.

That is a substantial decrease and it is very welcome, particularly at a time when crime is falling. Much of it has been due to the excellent work of the Youth Justice Board, which should be congratulated. Does the Minister agree that we should take similar steps to try to reduce the number of women in prison, which is what has been argued for by the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes)?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words of praise for the Youth Justice Board. That organisation, along with colleagues in the youth offending teams, has done excellent work in reducing the number of entrants to youth custody. However, decisions about which people should be sent to prison are decisions for the courts, and women’s prisons are the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State.

Suicides (Remand Prisoners)

16. How many prisoners on remand committed suicide in the last five years; and how many such people were in safe cells. (907377)

Every death in prison custody is a tragedy. The Ministry of Justice records the number of self-inflicted deaths and does not make any attribution of intent; that is determined at inquests. In the last five years, there have been 108 self-inflicted deaths in prison custody of prisoners on remand. Safer cells are designed to have fewer obvious ligature points than conventional cells, but no cell can be entirely safe and free of ligature points. Three of those deaths were recorded as having taken place in safer cells.

I am grateful for that answer, but if the Prison Service had taken any notice of my Adjournment debate in 2000 on safer cells in prison, it would know that the quick arithmetic is that several hundred lives would have been saved. Will the Minister give an assurance that the Prison Service will get its act together and take the positive measures necessary for safe cells, which would minimise deaths in prison?

When I get back to my office I shall make it my business to read the hon. Gentleman’s Adjournment debate from 2000, as I recognise that he has a serious interest in this subject. Let me tell him the action that we are taking to deal with this issue. First, we accept, and act on, the many recommendations of the prisons and probation ombudsman. I also point out to the hon. Gentleman that the increase in deaths has occurred in a range of prisons in different circumstances, so there is no obvious pattern. We are putting additional resources and support into safer custody work and in particular into improving the consistency of the application of the case management system for prisoners identified as at risk of self-harm or suicide, and there is also additional support at regional level to share good practice.

This morning the Minister very kindly provided to the Justice Committee for publication the latest figures on suicides in prisons for 2011, 2012 and 2013 and nine months of last year. They show a total of 256 suicides in our prisons during that period. At the same time the Minister provided us with the figures on the ratio of the number of prisoners to staff. It has gone up from 3.8 to 4.9 in the same period. Does he not see a correlation between fewer staff dealing with more prisoners and less safe prisons?

I recognise that the hon. Gentleman, who is a distinguished member of the Justice Committee, takes a serious and ongoing interest in this. As I said to the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell), the rise in self-inflicted deaths has taken place in contracted prisons, which have not been subject to reductions, as well as in public sector prisons and prisons that have completed the benchmarking process, so there is no obvious connection between the two. I would just repeat what I have said: we look at every single death; we learn the lessons from the coroner’s report and the prison and probation ombudsman; we have put in extra resource both at prison level and at regional level to try to reduce the number of deaths; and we are absolutely as concerned about this as the hon. Gentleman rightly is.

Family Law Mediation Services

17. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of mediation services provided for family law cases. (907378)

Mediation between separating couples helps reduce the stress on children and families and the pressure on the courts system, and saves money for taxpayers. Last year nearly two-thirds of couples attending a single mediation session involving children reached full agreement at that session, and seven out of every 10 couples choosing mediation ultimately reached an agreement. That is why the coalition Government have funded a free mediation information meeting and a free first session provided that one party is legally aided.

My constituent David Burke has described the mediation process for family law cases as shambolic, and his experience is not unique. This is working against enabling parental responsibility, as the legislation originally intended. What are the Government doing to address these failings?

I have to tell the hon. Lady that the message here is not one of failure but one of increasing success. The number of people attending mediation assessment meetings has gone up in the last three quarters, and there is no report of these being shambolic. I will willingly meet the hon. Lady and her constituent on the subject, but I am clear that her party is committing no extra money for legal aid, so it will not be any different or greatly reformed under Labour.

Mobile Phone Use (Prisons)

We take this problem very seriously, stopping many mobile phones getting into prisons and finding those that do get in. We search prisoners, staff and visitors, we use X-ray and body scanners, CCTV and closed visits, and we deploy mobile phone blockers. We have also amended the Serious Crime Bill to enable the National Offender Management Service to instruct mobile phone companies to disconnect any phone that is found to be used within a prison. This Government have also increased the punishment for possessing an unauthorised mobile phone in prison.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Ministry of Justice figures reveal that there have been 7,451 seizures of mobile phones and SIM cards in 2013 across the UK. Is there a difference in detection rates between establishments run by Her Majesty’s Prison Service and those run by private contractors, and if so, what can that be put down to?

I am not aware of any difference in the rates of detection between different prisons, but my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to this issue. We want to protect victims from being terrorised by prisoners from within prisons, and we also want to stop prisoners carrying on organising crimes from within prisons. That is why we take this issue so seriously. We are using blockers and we are now disconnecting. We will continue to focus on the matter.

Topical Questions

I am pleased to inform the House that we have this week taken further significant steps in implementing our transforming rehabilitation reforms. This will reduce reoffending, which has been much too high for much too long. On 1 February, we brought into force the remaining uncommenced provisions of the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014. This means that, for the first time, virtually all offenders will be given a proper chance of rehabilitation. The Act extends statutory supervision and support to the 45,000 offenders a year who are released from prison sentences of less than 12 months, the majority of whom currently receive no support at all after their custodial sentence ends. They simply walk the streets with a few pounds in their pockets. This group of offenders has the highest reoffending rate of almost any group; almost 60% of those released from short prison sentences went on to reoffend within 12 months. The changes mean that any offender whose offence was committed on or after 1 February and who has been sentenced to a custodial term of more than one day will now receive at least 12 months’ supervision after release. That is a big step forward.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: to lose one chief inspector could be considered a misfortune, but to lose two looks somewhat careless. Will the Secretary of State tell the House precisely when he became aware of Mr McDowell’s links to Sodexo and whether that was before Mr McDowell was appointed to the role? Will he also tell us why he chose not to share that information with the Justice Select Committee when it was going through the pre-appointment scrutiny hearings?

Let us be clear that the recruitment of Mr McDowell followed Cabinet Office guidelines exactly, as I have said to the House and to the Select Committee before. I do not believe that someone should be denied the chance to apply for a job based on hypotheticals of what may happen. I would commend Mr McDowell for recognising the issue when it arose, when his wife was promoted in November, and for taking what I think was a sensible decision. I think he is an honourable and upstanding public servant, and I wish him all the very best.

T3. I should like to take this opportunity to extend my deepest sympathy to the family of Shaquan Sammy-Plummer, who was tragically and senselessly stabbed to death on Friday night in the borough of Enfield. The Secretary of State knows that there are many complex reasons surrounding the causes of knife crime, but he will also know that the House has approved a change in the law proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and me which would mean that the possession of a knife for a second time would carry a guaranteed jail sentence. Will he update me on the progress of that legislation? To kill someone with a knife, you first have to possess a knife. (907356)

I am sure that the whole House will want to send its commiserations to the family of my hon. Friend’s constituent who has lost his life. Naturally, the police investigation is ongoing so I cannot comment on that individual case, but we are awaiting Royal Assent to the Bill to which he alluded, and as soon as that comes through we will be able to take things forward.

We already know how little the Justice Secretary thinks of our international human rights obligations, given that he wants to repeal the British Human Rights Act and walk away from the European convention on human rights. What is the Ministry of Justice’s motivation for signing a £5.9 million contract with a country whose justice system is widely condemned for the use of torture—which is what a sentence of 1,000 lashes amounts to—and of execution by beheading?

We have not signed a contract. Under this Government and under the last one, our Departments have worked with other Governments around the world to try to encourage improvements and best practice in their justice systems. I believe that that is the right thing to do. We should try to influence countries to move their justice systems in the right direction, and we will continue to do that.

I look forward to hearing about the best practice for beheading.

We have a prisons crisis here, with the chief inspector of prisons being sacked. The chief inspector of the probation service has resigned. We have judges criticising Ministry of Justice policies on a daily basis, we have had disks containing sensitive information lost by the MOJ, and the legal profession is boycotting the summit to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, at which the Secretary of State is the keynote speaker. Why does he think that those who work in and use the justice system think so little of him?

The right hon. Gentleman cannot even gets his facts right; I am not the keynote speaker at the global law summit. It is being run independently with a number of key people from around the world, including the wife of a former Labour Prime Minister. The reality is that a leading figure in the justice world said to me last week, “Do you know, I may not agree with your policies, but at least you’ve got some; the other party hasn’t got any.”

T4. Last week, a much loved young man of 19, Zac Evans, was killed in a horrific attack by a man with a machete while trying to separate two women in a scuffle. The trial of the killer is due to be held in Bristol, but it would be better, especially for Zac’s family and, I believe, for all of Gloucester, for this local outrage to have justice delivered at the Crown court in Gloucester. Will my right hon. Friend support the letter I shall be writing to the Lord Chief Justice seeking precisely that solution? (907357)

We all condemn such a horrendous act and extend our best wishes and condolences to the victim’s family. The allocation of cases is and will always be a matter for the judiciary, and there are sometimes good reasons for their picking the locations that they do, as it is in the interests of justice to do so. I know the Lord Chief Justice well. He is deeply sensitive to the issues that victims face, and I am sure he will look thoughtfully at the letter that my hon. Friend sends him.

T2. Lord Lexden, the official historian of the Conservative party, has attacked the Lord Chancellor, saying: “Britain must have a Lord Chancellor who puts his duty to the law above party politics.”Why did he say that? (907353)

I believe it is the job of the Lord Chancellor not only to uphold the law but to change it where it is necessary to do so. The reforms of judicial review are necessary, measured and proportionate. They are reforms that were argued for by Ministers in the previous Government, but of course they never did anything about it.

T5. Last week, I was privileged to attend a ceremony at the Crawley Band of Brothers, where men mentor former young offenders to help them turn their lives around. What further steps can the Department take to encourage such voluntary groups to help the rehabilitation of offenders? (907358)

I share my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for what voluntary groups such as a Band of Brothers can do, alongside the work of our public sector probation professionals, to reduce reoffending further, which is what our reforms are all about. No doubt he will be pleased to know that 19 of the 21 areas have a voluntary group such as the one he mentioned in their tier 1 providers, and a Band of Brothers is part of MTCnovo’s supply chain, delivering rehabilitation services in London.

I do not think the Justice Secretary answered the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), so I will give him another go. Did the Justice Secretary know before the appointment of the chief inspector of probation that his wife was the managing director of Sodexo Justice Services? Why did the Justice Committee not have that information for its pre-appointment hearing?

I will say it once again. The hon. Gentleman asked about the Justice Committee. Of course my Department has been aware of the situation, but the reality is that we have followed, to the letter, the Cabinet Office guidelines. I do not believe we should disqualify somebody from applying for a job because of something that may, hypothetically, happen.

T6. My constituents are concerned about the claims culture that we saw in past times, which has been putting people off volunteering, and the risk of erroneous prosecutions. What progress have the Government made on dealing with those issues? (907359)

I am very pleased that we have now passed the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill through both Houses of Parliament. Interestingly, the Labour party has been saying all along that the Bill is meaningless, but in the House of Lords Labour tried to remove a chunk of it because of worries about the impact on employees. The Opposition cannot have it both ways: either the Bill does something, in which case they should ignore it, or it does not do something, in which case they might have a point. The reality is that the Bill makes a real difference: it will protect volunteers and small employers against spurious claims in the workplace. Once again, the Opposition say one thing in this place and do something completely different.

I recently wrote to the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), regarding the daughter of a constituent of mine who was murdered by her former partner in the 1990s. My constituent subsequently sought care of her daughter’s child, but, disgracefully, the law enabled her killer to obstruct the adoption proceedings. The Minister was unable to explain how this injustice was allowed to happen, and it appears that the legal situation has simply not changed in this regard. I urge him to take a proper look at this case, take whatever steps necessary to ensure it cannot ever happen again, and give my constituents some answers.

I am very sympathetic to the issue that the hon. Lady raises. The Secretary of State and I met people arguing that the law should be changed so that there is a read-across from criminal convictions to the application in family law of rights in relation to children. The matter is actively on our agenda, and I am happy to accept representations and to meet the hon. Lady and her constituent.

T7. My constituents are shocked by the recent appalling revelations about child abuse. What steps are the Government taking to toughen up sentencing for those who are found guilty of these appalling crimes against children? (907360)

I am sure the whole House wants to see people who perpetrate those sorts of crimes go through the criminal justice system and spend the right amount of time in prison. That is why we have toughened up this area and why the indeterminate sentences are there, and the European Court upheld the decision on that this morning.

Did the Secretary of State know whether Mr McDowell had a family relationship with Sodexo before he referred the case to the Justice Committee?

I think I have answered that question already. I said yes, we knew that Mr McDowell had that relationship, and yes, we followed the Cabinet Office guidelines to the letter. At the time, his wife did not hold a position in the rehabilitation arena. She has now moved to a position where she will be the head of that part of the business. Mr McDowell has decided to step to one side, which is a creditable decision to take. As I said earlier, I do not believe that somebody should be disqualified from applying for a job because of a hypothetical. I know that the Opposition do not agree, and they seem to be out to get Mr McDowell. I can only reiterate that he is a fine public servant. I regret the fact that he has had to leave and I hope that he has a good career in the future.

T8. Kirkham prison in my constituency has developed a solid reputation for retraining inmates to prepare them for life on the outside. Will the Minister update me on what programmes are available to assist them to re-enter the world of work and end the days of offending? (907361)

I pay tribute to the staff at Kirkham prison for the good work they do in getting inmates into work. My hon. Friend is right that this is a really important area; we do take it seriously. I am pleased to tell him that we have increased the number of hours worked in prison from 10.6 million to 14.2 million and that our transforming rehabilitation reforms will ensure that prisoners are prepared for the world of work as they leave. I am pleased to say that increasing numbers of employers are doing really well at taking on ex-offenders.

The average number of days taken to remove a foreign national offender has increased year on year from 143 days in 2010 to 187 days in 2013. Why is the Government’s record so poor?

I think the hon. Gentleman should tread carefully, given that the number of foreign national offenders in our prisons doubled while his party was in power and has come down while we have been in power. On a serious note, I share his frustration. I want to see removals speeded up. I can tell him that we now have the first prisoners taken back on the prisoner transfer agreement with both Nigeria and Albania, but he is right that there is further progress to be made.

Is the rehabilitation work with prisoners with a drug problem robust enough now to mean that the Secretary of State’s Department has finally halted the practice of retoxification of prisoners in anticipation of their release?

I think we still have work to do in that respect. In particular, we have a problem with the new generation of psychoactive substances that do not show up in tests. I remember a conversation with a group of staff in one of our prisons working with offenders with an addiction. They said that the problem was that when those offenders leave prison nothing happens. There is no requirement on them to carry on treatment. They disappear off into the community and get back on drugs. Under our rehabilitation reforms, there is now a power to require those people to take part in rehabilitation for a 12-month period after they have left.

Does the Secretary of State share my grave concerns at the recently published report by the chief inspector of prisons on HMP Northumberland? Does he agree that if the Government do not do something, one of these serious incidents will turn into a tragedy that we all regret?

I have visited HMP Northumberland. It has been going through a period of transition, but the model of a working prison that will substantially extend the amount of work done by prisoners in that jail must be the way forward. I look forward to seeing improved inspection reports in future and a dramatic increase in the amount of work done and in prisoners’ employability when they leave.

In the Select Committee on Home Affairs last week, we heard the anti-female genital mutilation campaigner Leyla Hussein describe the death threats and intimidation she and her family, including her 12-year-old daughter, have to endure as the price for her brave stand against this appalling form of child abuse. It is essential that the thousands of hidden victims and witnesses to FGM see how seriously the Government take it and know that if they come forward they will be protected. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that victims and witnesses to FGM are fully protected under the law?

I am very proud that this Government have changed the law to protect not only the people who have had FGM done to them but those who might have it perpetrated on them. They should be protected in every way possible so that they have the confidence to come forward. That is what we are working on at the moment, and it is an important piece of work. A lot of this nasty abuse is online, and that is just as illegal as if those threats were made face to face.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues, but demand has exceeded supply, as is usually the case.