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Topical Questions

Volume 592: debated on Tuesday 3 February 2015

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.