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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 594: debated on Tuesday 17 March 2015


The Secretary of State was asked—

Child Grooming

We have taken action to enable the police to intervene earlier to protect children where there is a suspicion that grooming has taken place. As a result of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, which amended section 15 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, we have reduced from two to one the number of initial occasions on which the defendant meets or communicates with a child considered at risk before prosecution can take place. I hope the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) believes that the Government are absolutely committed to making sure the law is as tough as it needs be to deal with this very serious evil.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I am not sure if he has had a chance to study the report published today by the Communities and Local Government Committee on child sexual exploitation in Rotherham. What is clear from that report is the catastrophic failure of all public services to protect vulnerable young girls. It is also clear that Rotherham is not an isolated case. What is apparent is that the victims have not been provided with the support they require and they were not believed by the authorities and were not protected when issues came to court. What further action can my right hon. Friend propose that will ensure that the victims are given support and protection through the justice system?

I am very clear that the point the hon. Gentleman raises is centrally important. I am aware of the report that has come out today, but I have not read it in full. The failing in the past has been that the young people have not been listened to and heard and, when they have spoken out, people have not believed them. Public authorities, the Crown Prosecution Service and the rest of the prosecuting authorities must work on the presumption that when young people say something, it is true and not false, and we should work on that basis.

In 2011 the child sexual exploitation plan issued by the Government tasked the Ministry of Justice to do certain things in respect of child sexual exploitation, including having a more practical and effective response to witness intimidation, supporting witnesses throughout the criminal justice process, for the CPS to promote within its organisation examples of good practice in relation to child sexual exploitation and work to increase the use of special measures in appropriate cases. Will the Minister give us an update on what progress has been made against those specific measures?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his continuing interest in this issue. As well as the working group he mentioned, which found that there were gaps in the availability of services and commissioning, the Government have strengthened the non-statutory services and put more money in to make sure they are able more competently to deal with this. The figure I have is £7 million—that was an announcement we made in December—which includes increased funds for the existing female rape support centres and greater support for organisations supporting victims in areas where there is a high prevalence of child abuse, such as Rotherham. Secondly, as well as the new offence of sexual communication with a child, we are legislating to remove references to child prostitution and child pornography from the Sexual Offences Act and making sure that the offence of loitering or soliciting for the purpose of prostitution applies only to adults. We have to protect children.

The right hon. Gentleman will know that many of the victims in these cases have been profoundly damaged by their experiences and need a great deal of support, including mental health support. Will he ensure that prosecutors do not deter them from accessing that support, as has often happened in the past, but work to ensure that they are supported through the ordeal of going to trial, because that is not only beneficial to them, but ensures that more cases can be prosecuted?

There are two points. First, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and all Ministers are very clear that when vulnerable individuals go into the criminal justice system we must identify whether in fact the issue that needs to be addressed is a mental health issue or is a drugs issue or something else. So we try to prevent people from going through the criminal justice system because it is not user-friendly, particularly for young people. If there is no alternative, we need to make sure that steps are taken, for example that youngsters do not have to come to court but can appear from a distance, such as by video-link, and that they are supported through the whole of that process, not just through the court case but a considerable time thereafter.

Has the Minister considered closer co-operation with the Department for Education to make this matter a staple subject in the curriculum? Would he further consider training for voluntary groups so that they can be aware of the telltale signs of grooming?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that issue. NSPCC research has shown that six in 10 teenagers have been asked for sexual images or videos online. That is an extraordinary figure, and many of them feel compelled to provide those images as a result of peer group pressure. We are absolutely convinced across the Government, including in the Department for Education, that personal, social, health and economic education—of which sex education is a part—is an important strategy. We need such an education process in the curriculum in every school to warn youngsters of the dangers, so that they know how to deal with them.

Rehabilitation Services

2. What assessment he has made of the performance of new providers of rehabilitation services in the rehabilitation of short-term prisoners. (908084)

The coalition is committed to transforming rehabilitation in order to reduce reoffending and, consequently, to reduce the number of people who are victims of crime. Since 1 February under the new system, providers from the public, voluntary and private sectors have been providing the new transforming rehabilitation services. The crucial thing is that all those people who are currently sentenced to less than a year in prison will have support when they come out. They are the people who reoffend most and who cause the most victims. Payments to providers will be dependent on results.

I realise that the Minister is not a prisoner, but I am not sure that being forced to answer so many questions will aid his rehabilitation when he is obviously struggling with a very sore throat. That seems to be a considerable unkindness.

I welcome the measures that the Ministry of Justice has taken to work with short-term prisoners. I think that this is the first time we have ever seen that happening, and it has become possible only because of the pioneering approach of the Ministry. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital to work with short-term prisoners, who often have more deeply rooted offending behaviour than many other types of offenders?

I am grateful to you for your concern, Mr Speaker. The Secretary of State offered me the chance to opt out, but I volunteered to come here and do my duty, so I hope I am forgiven. I might have to curl up and hide in the corner in a minute, however.

I would say to the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) that in the year ending last March, 57% of all adult offenders released from custody after serving a sentence of less than 12 months reoffended within a year. They are the largest group of reoffenders. They are the people who cause the most victims the most grief and the criminal justice system the most cost. We have never had a Government who have dealt with this issue, but we have been determined to do so and I believe that the way in which we rehabilitate those people will be transformational.

I welcome the Government’s decision to introduce drug scanners into prisons. As the Minister knows, 51% of prisoners report a drug dependency. Can he tell me how many have entered a rehabilitation scheme in the past year, and how many have been successfully rehabilitated in relation to their use of drugs?

I do not have all the details, but I will ensure that the right hon. Gentleman has a detailed answer, which I will put in the Library. Yesterday, when I was visiting a women’s prison in Yorkshire, I was looking at how we might improve the way in which we detect drugs. It is difficult because they are often hidden in very private places. We are absolutely determined to stop drugs coming into prisons over the wall, but also to stop them coming in on the person, which is a serious issue. I will give him the detailed figures on what progress we are making.

I, along with a small group of colleagues from the House, visited Brixton prison towards the back end of last year. We saw the benefits of the work that is being undertaken in two facilities there: the Clink restaurant and the Bad Boys bakery. Those benefits include a reoffending rate of only about 3%. That is the kind of work that short-term offenders need to give them the chance to restart their lives in a positive way.

Within the Department, I have particular responsibility for all female offenders. I have visited every single female prison and I am clear that the schemes that rehabilitate people through engaging with them and planning for training, work and housing are absolutely central. We are committed to using such schemes. May I also take this opportunity to say that there are some phenomenally excellent leadership teams in all our prisons, as well as many other people who are assisting with this project? The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that we need to give people incentives so that they can see their route out of prison and understand that life outside is better. That will give them hope for the future.

Legal Aid

3. When he next plans to meet representatives from (a) the Law Society and (b) the Bar Council to discuss legal aid. (908085)

Throughout the development of the “Transforming Legal Aid” package of reform, my officials and I regularly met the Law Society, the Bar Council and other members of the legal profession. Officials from the Department and the Legal Aid Agency continue to be in regular contact with the representative bodies as we implement the reforms.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that I represent a number of constituents involved with family law cases, including one young mother who is contesting adoption proceedings? She received legal aid for the substantive hearing, but she is now appealing and, unfortunately, cannot get legal aid. Has he made any assessment of the impact of the cost in respect of litigants in person within the family division? Without increasing the overall legal aid budget, will he consider some reallocation of resources within it to solve this particular problem?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and say to him that we do have one of the most generous legal aid budgets in the world and we have made sure that we provide legal aid assistance for those who need it.

In a previous Question Time, I raised the problem of victims of domestic abuse apparently being deterred from going to law because of the cuts in legal aid. Has the Minister discussed the matter with representatives of the law authorities? Does he have any statistics to confirm these reports?

We have paid particular attention to those who have been victims of domestic violence and we are very keen that, wherever possible, we will give legal aid to make sure that people get out of the abusive relationships in which they are caught.

Following on from that, on how many occasions have victims of domestic violence had their legal aid funding stopped because of the rule changes for evidence now being more than two years old? The Minister must have that information to hand.

What I will tell the hon. Gentleman is that this issue has been the subject of a huge amount of misunderstanding among the wider public, not least because of the misinformation imparted by people such as himself. On two occasions we have increased the criteria on the required evidence, once during the passage of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 and subsequently when we found that more evidence was required.

Legal Aid Budget

In 2009-10, as this Government took office, £2.2 billion was spent on legal aid. Following our two major reform programmes, spend has fallen to £1.7 billion in 2013-14 and is expected to fall to about £1.5 billion once the reforms have fully worked through the system.

I thank the Minister for that answer. A month ago in the High Court, Lord Justice Laws described the Government’s proposal to have two-tier contracting as reasonable, “proportionate” and a “proper way” to proceed. The case has now gone to the Court of Appeal and a decision is expected imminently. Can the Minister confirm that, subject to that decision, he will be proceeding in this Parliament with a tendering process and not be constrained by what appears to be legal time wasting?

Having successfully defended a challenge in the High Court, we robustly defended our position in the Court of Appeal and are awaiting judgment. If the appeal is dismissed, it is our intention to continue the tender that is currently subject to an injunction as soon as possible.

Access to justice is one of the cornerstones of our democracy. Given the reductions in legal aid, can the Minister say whether there has been a rise or a fall in the number of litigants in person?

I believe there has been a rise in litigants in person, but the Government have also made a huge amount of provision to cater for that. I also say to the hon. Lady and Opposition Front Benchers, who have never said that they are going to reverse the cuts that we have made, that we need a legal aid system that is sustainable, for the people who need it, for the legal providers and for the taxpayers who pay for it.

Has the Minister noted the Justice Committee’s conclusion that although the Government had achieved the cost reduction, there was some transfer of cost to other budgets and far too little availability of the exceptional cases fund, and that mediation, far from increasing, had actually dropped?

May I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question? As far as exceptional funding is concerned, the giveaway is in the title. The fund is meant to be exceptional, but some people have seen it as a discretionary fund. Not surprisingly, therefore, the numbers involved in it have been few.

I understand that the right hon. Gentleman is retiring at the end of this Parliament. Let me say what a pleasure it has been to work with him. I may not always have agreed with him, but working with him has always been a pleasure, and I wish him well for the future.

Perhaps the Minister should listen to the Chair of the Justice Committee and read his report that found that the Government had failed in three of their four objectives for legal aid: they have not discouraged unnecessary litigation; they have not targeted legal aid to those who need it the most; and they have not delivered better value for money for the taxpayer. That is what the report says. Does the Minister agree that that abject failure is a fitting epitaph for the least competent Lord Chancellor since the Reformation?

It is always helpful if shadow Ministers do their homework. The proposals to which the hon. Gentleman refers were achieved by the previous Lord Chancellor. As far as his comment on the Justice Committee’s report is concerned, I do not hear him or his boss saying that they will be reversing any of the cuts that we have made. If they want to do that, the shadow Chancellor will have plenty of opportunity so to do in due course.

Claims-handling Companies

5. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department's oversight of claims-handling companies. (908087)

Tackling bad practices by claims management companies is a priority for the Department’s claims management regulator. Recent measures taken to strengthen the effectiveness regulation include tougher rules to crack down on malpractice and a new power to impose financial penalties on CMCs that break the rules. Since regulation began in 2007, the licences of more than 1,200 CMCs have been removed. Between April and December 2014, we stepped up enforcement action, with 338 CMCs being warned for poor conduct or having their licences removed.

The whole country is sick of these companies ringing up day and night leaving answerphone messages and harassing pensioners. When it comes to PPI mis-selling, they are taking half the money that is due to decent people purely for writing a letter to a bank asking it to investigate the matter. We need to expose the sham of these companies more effectively, because, across the country, people are losing out and are getting increasingly sick of their behaviour.

I agree that many people are very upset with the behaviour of those companies. In fact, millions of people are upset with what is happening. This is something that requires joined-up activity. The claims management regulator is working closely with the primary enforcement agencies at the Information Commissioner’s office and at Ofcom to investigate practices and take firm enforcement action against rogue companies. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that much work on nuisance calls has already been done and that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is leading on reforms in this area. Last year, for example, the Department published a joint action plan, involving all the relevant regulators, including the Information Commissioner’s office, Ofcom and the claims management regulator.

Victims of Crime

The Government are committed to putting victims and witnesses first in the criminal justice system and to ensuring that they have high quality, effective and timely support to help them cope and, as far as possible, recover from the effects of crime. We published our document on commitments to victims in September 2014 and introduced a package of reforms that will provide even more support to victims, including establishing a new nationwide victims’ information service, strengthening the protection of vulnerable victims and witnesses at court, increasing transparency and accountability so that agencies are held to account for the services that they provide, and planning a victims law, setting out entitlements for victims in primary legislation. It is also worth saying that, under this Government, funding for services to support victims of crime has more than doubled to some £92 million in the coming financial year.

Murdered police officer Nicola Hughes was one of my constituents. Her father, Bryn, has worked relentlessly to campaign and raise funding for victims of crime, especially children, to help those who have lost a family member to violent crime and to keep Nicola’s memory alive. Bryn’s own experience of the criminal justice system was not a good one. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he will be supporting the proposals for a victims law in Labour’s victims taskforce report, which will transform the experience of victims and witnesses in the criminal justice system?

Let me first pay tribute to the hon. Lady’s constituent. We were all horrified and shocked by the terrible events that led to his loss. I extend my condolences, my gratitude to him, and indeed my gratitude to all the families of murder victims who have turned a terrible experience into positive work to help support the victims of crime, and to try to prevent these terrible events happening in future. We all owe them a debt of gratitude. It is clearly not our intention to allow the Labour party an opportunity to introduce a victims law, but it will be the intention of a Conservative Government to do just that and to continue the work we have been doing in this Parliament to extend the support provided to victims.

At the Justice Secretary’s first Question Time, he spoke of the importance of ensuring that victims get timely information. As this is the last Justice Question Time of this Parliament, will he update the House on what progress has been made in using technology to ensure that victims are put first when it comes to information about their cases?

We are making good progress towards the introduction of the victims information service, which will signpost victims to services available locally. We intend to mesh that with the current system for tracking crimes, so that we have a single point where victims can find out the situation with the case they are going through. It is really important that we do the right thing for victims, and we have done as much as any previous Government to step forward and provide that support.

The Secretary of State must acknowledge that many victims of crime feel that the criminals have more rights and protection than they do. For many that is not only a perception, but a reality. Therefore, we urgently need not only a strategy to support victims through the very difficult circumstances of their trauma, but to prove through the sentencing process that crime does not pay.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am pleased that under this Government sentence lengths have increased. It is absolutely right and proper that those who commit crimes should serve a proper period of recompense for what they have done. Of course, it is also important that we rehabilitate them to ensure that they do not do it again.

The whole House will have been disturbed by the story of Geraldine and Peter McGinty, parents who lost their son and have been repeatedly let down by the criminal justice system. After they heard from a judge last year that their victims’ personal statement would make no difference, the Justice Secretary met them and promised that they would be kept informed about the progress of their case. This month they were among the last to learn that their son’s killers are being released into an open prison. Does the Justice Secretary agree that the fact that victims can be forgotten like that, even after he personally intervened in the case, shows just why we need our plan for a victims law?

First of all, I have now met Mr and Mrs McGinty twice, including with the chief executive of the Parole Board, who apologised to them for the lack of information provided to them, and rightly so. This is about good practice and people behaving in the right way, and I am afraid that this kind of issue will not be solved by changes to the law; it will be solved by changing the culture in the system.

Youth Reoffending

The Government are committed to reducing offending and reoffending by young people. We are placing education at the heart of detention and improving resettlement processes, which will provide young offenders with the skills and support they need to build a life free from crime. We are also working to ensure that community youth services are as effective as possible in helping young people to adopt law-abiding lives, including through their role in delivering key cross-Government programmes such as the troubled families initiative.

Can my hon. Friend reassure me that changes to the probation service will reduce youth reoffending through a new culture and direction of travel? I, for one, would not wish to see senior managers reinventing themselves in these new community rehabilitation company positions.

I know that my hon. Friend takes a serious interest in these matters—indeed, I have met with him to discuss them. The number of first-time entrants into the criminal justice system who are young people fell by 59% in the four years to September 2014. We are also focusing on resettlement consortia in four high custody areas. We have a Turn Around to Work initiative in London and Greater Manchester, which is supported by a number of employers. We are also doubling the number of hours in education.

Obviously, the way to tackle youth offending is to tackle the causes. We know that mental health problems play a substantial role in youth offending. That is one reason that I welcome the Deputy Prime Minister’s announcement of a £1.25 billion investment in young people’s mental health, but what is the Ministry of Justice doing to try to make sure that young people with mental health problems—in or out of prison—get the support they need so they are treated rather than jailed?

I can give my hon. Friend good news on that front. Under this Government we have rolled out the liaison and diversion service—only last week, I visited the excellent scheme up in Wakefield—which is going to cover 50% of the country. It has made very good progress and is an excellent example of partnership working, and I look to seeing it expanded further.

Access to Justice

The Government’s reform programme to promote access to justice aims to deliver a justice system that is more accessible to the public. It aims to support people in resolving their disputes through simpler, more informal remedies, and to limit the scope for inappropriate litigation and the involvement of lawyers in issues which do not need legal input.

Let me give the Minister one more chance to answer a question on last week’s Justice Committee report on the civil legal aid cuts, which revealed that the Government have failed to achieve all three of their targets. Can the Minister confirm that there has been an underspend in the legal aid budget, and that exceptional case funding has failed to achieve the aim of protecting access to justice for the most vulnerable?

For the benefit of the hon. Lady, let me say once again that if it were not for the Government whom she supported causing the mess that they did, we would not have been obliged to make the cuts we have had to make. Despite making them, we still have one of the most generous legal aid budgets in the world.

As I said, we compare very favourably internationally. We have one of the most generous legal aid budgets in the world, and that is after the cuts have come through.

It is a fact that the Government’s cuts to legal aid have denied thousands access to legal advice. The Government’s changes to tribunal and court fees are having an additional impact on women and other vulnerable groups. The number of victims of domestic violence receiving legal aid has fallen significantly, and the number of sex discrimination claims is down by 90%. Unless the Government genuinely believe that this is an indication of significant improvements to society—that it indicates less domestic violence and less sex discrimination—women are being denied access to justice. Will the Government agree to an urgent review of the impact of the changes they have made on women and other vulnerable groups?

In that very long contribution from the right hon. Gentleman, it is regrettable that not once did he say that if he were Lord Chancellor, he would reverse the cuts we have made. That sums up where the Opposition are: they are happy to object, they are happy to write articles—[Interruption.] Yes, the right hon. Gentleman points to the public. I point to the public as well, and I say that nowhere did the right hon. Gentleman say that Labour would reverse the cuts we have made. [Interruption.]

Order. Members must calm down. The right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) is a distinguished ornament of this House, a celebrated figure, a former Minister. Decorum, I remind her.

When the right hon. Lady was a Minister, she had to answer questions. She is not burdened with that responsibility at present.

Reoffending Rates

We have opened up the delivery of rehabilitation services to a diverse range of public, private and voluntary sector providers who will be paid in full only if they are successful at reducing reoffending. Rehabilitation support is being extended to an extra 45,000 offenders on sentences of less than 12 months who have previously received little, if any, support on release and have the highest reoffending rates.

It seems to me that there is nothing better for the economy, society and our constituents than when offenders come out of prison and stay out of prison, so my spirits are lifted to learn that across the Windsor constituency there were fewer than 100 reoffenders in the year to 2013. Does the Secretary of State agree that we must continue to do all we can to help ex-offenders back into work and to help them regain a foothold in our society?

Absolutely—this is now the only way we can continue to drive down crime to the degree we want. We have fewer first-time offenders, as the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), said earlier, and that is good news. Crime increasing is caused by people going round and round the system. I believe that for the first time in decades, we have real chance of making a serious impact on that by providing support to short-sentence prisoners who were previously left to walk the streets with £46 in their pockets, and not surprisingly ended up back in the same places committing the same crimes all over again.

Prisoner and Staff Safety

We are committed to delivering safe, decent and secure prisons. Reducing the number of deaths in custody is a key priority, and we are working hard to reduce levels of violence in our prisons. We have introduced a new protocol that will ensure that when there are serious assaults on prison staff, the perpetrators will be prosecuted wherever possible.

What does the Secretary of State believe the new protocol between the Prison Service, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Association of Chief Police Officers will deliver with regard to prison safety?

I hope that it will make a big difference to our staff. I pay tribute to prison staff, who do a difficult job. It is particularly difficult at the moment, with an upsurge in violence. A lot of that is due to the prevalence of so-called legal highs—new psychoactive substances—in our prisons. We have taken a number of steps to try to restrict access to those drugs, which are absolutely unacceptable in our prisons. When serious assaults previously took place, prosecutions might not have happened because those people were in jail. Now, they will, and I hope that will be a deterrent.

An obvious way of enhancing safety on the prison estate is by boosting morale, so why has there been a 0% pay award to prison staff and a threatened injunction from the Secretary of State if those staff dare to consider opposing this imposition?

The prison unions asked me to implement the review of the recommendations of the public sector pay body—the Prison Service pay review body—and I have done so.

17. Given prison officers’ genuine concerns about the rates of violence and suicide in prisons, is there any chance of an independent review of the impact of benchmarking and staff reductions on those rates? (908102)

We will continue to review the impact of benchmarking. There is no evidence that connects changes within the prison sector to the number of suicides in prisons, which has been much too high in recent months. Suicides have happened in prisons where there have been no staffing changes, as well as ones where there have been staffing changes, and in prisons where there have been good inspection reports and poor inspection reports. This is an issue in our prisons and a broader issue in society as a whole, and we must all work hard to deal with it.

The Secretary of State did not respond to the latter part of the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), concerning the injunction he has threatened against the Prison Officers Association purely for convening a national executive committee meeting to discuss how to respond to the 0% pay rise. How can he justify this legal attack on the democratic rights of a trade union?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, in law, prison officers are not permitted to strike. I have done what I said I would do for the unions, which is to implement in full the recommendation of the pay review body.

The situation in our prisons is dire. Many times over the years we have heard the word “crisis” used. I have to say that the situation now is as bad as I have ever seen it. The most recent quarterly prison safety report makes exceptionally grim reading, with serious assaults on staff at an all-time high. Grimmer still was an e-mail I received from an officer who said:

“I have been a prison officer for 17 years. I have never felt so vulnerable before, we have had another serious assault on a member of staff that has required treatment. Do you have any idea what it’s like to go to work feeling scared?”

Is it not an outrageous truth that violence has become an occupational hazard for our prison officers?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that the rise in serious violence in our prisons is wholly unacceptable. It is pretty clear to me that the biggest cause of that change has been the presence of so-called legal highs—new psychoactive substances—in our prisons. Only last Friday, I spoke to a prison governor who said that it is the key problem that staff face. We have taken a number of steps, including criminalising the throwing of substances over a wall in prisons. We are about to trial body scanners in our prisons. We will take all steps that we sensibly can to protect our staff. These substances are a danger to our society as a whole. They need to be dealt with effectively in our prisons, and they will be.

Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act (Section 28 Pilots)

12. What recent assessment he has made of the outcome of the pilots of section 28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999. (908097)

Recorded pre-trial cross-examination is designed to help vulnerable witnesses to give their best possible evidence and to spare them the trauma of being cross-examined in front of a jury and the public. The hon. Lady will know that we have been piloting the scheme in Liverpool, Leeds and Kingston upon Thames Crown courts, and that the pilots ended in October 2014. Interim findings from the evaluation of the pilots are awaited, and an announcement of the plans for any future roll-out of the scheme will be made in due course.

I recently visited the recorder of Liverpool, Judge Goldstone, who said that the section 28 pilot in Liverpool had resulted in a sea change in culture in court: cross-examinations without the aggressive barracking and repetitive questions of defence lawyers, and impressive outcomes in the reduction of stress and anxiety in children. Does the Minister agree that if the pilot was rolled out to every court, it would hugely increase the confidence of child witnesses in the criminal justice system?

As I have said, we are awaiting the results of the pilots. Once we have considered them, we will take the proper action and, if necessary, roll them out further.

Foreign National Offenders

The total number of foreign national offenders released from prison between May 2010 and September 2014 is 38,256. That does not take into account offenders who have been transferred to an immigration removal centre, releases of indeterminate prisoners and those on home detention curfew.

Thousands of foreign criminals have been released from prison, and the Public Accounts Committee reported just two months ago that the number being deported is now 500 lower than it was in 2008-09 under the previous Government. The last Conservative manifesto said:

“We will extend early deportation of foreign national prisoners”.

What did the word “extend” mean?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the number of foreign national offenders in our prisons doubled when his Government were in power. This Government have brought the number down: from 11,135 in June 2010 to 10,503. He is of course right that we have further work to do. We have signed prisoner transfer agreements with Nigeria, Somaliland and Albania, and we are actively making sure that European Union prisoner transfer arrangements take place, notably with Poland at the end of next year. We are absolutely focused on continuing to make progress on this important issue.

When a foreign national commits a crime in the United Kingdom, they should be sent back to where they came from and banned from ever returning. Should we not also compulsorily transfer prisoners from our jails to prisons in their own countries? What new compulsory transfer agreements are the Government working on?

I commend my hon. Friend’s persistence, as always, on this issue. The introduction of the Immigration Act 2014 will make a significant difference. It gives us the ability to deport people first, allowing foreign national offenders to appeal in their home country later. We have reduced the number of appeal options from 17 to four, which is starting to make a difference.

Victims (Protection and Support)

14. What steps the Government have taken to provide greater protection and support for vulnerable victims during trials. (908099)

Last September, we published “Our Commitment to Victims”, a key plank of which is supporting vulnerable victims and witnesses in court. We are doing so by establishing non-court locations for vulnerable witnesses to give their evidence using a live link, evaluating the pilots of recorded pre-trial cross-examination—I am very much of the view that that should be extended nationwide if the trial proves successful—and strengthening the training requirements for publicly funded advocates in sexual offence cases.

My constituent Jane Clough was murdered by her ex-partner Jonathan Vass while he was out on bail. I have been very fortunate to be able to work with Jane’s parents, John and Penny Clough, in their successful fight to change the law to allow vulnerable victims to challenge judge-made bail decisions. Will my right hon. Friend confirm to the House that the provision is being used, and that vulnerable victims are being protected because of that change in the law?

I commend my hon. Friend for his work in this important area. He is referring to the provision that allows Crown court decisions to grant bail to be challenged in the High Court. That exists largely through his efforts and those of John and Penny Clough, whom I also commend. The provision is used sparingly, as was intended, but bail decisions are being reversed, from time to time, as a result.

Online Crime (Sentencing)

15. If he will bring forward legislative proposals to reduce the disparity between sentences for physical and online crime. (908100)

The sentences that are available for crimes that are committed online are the same as those for offences that are committed offline. Fraud or malicious communications, for example, carry severe maximum penalties, whether committed online or offline. Sentencing in individual cases is a matter for the courts. Sentencing guidelines are issued by the independent Sentencing Council to help ensure that there is proportionate and consistent sentencing.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the report released last week that suggested that the punishments for online and offline crime should be equalised demonstrates that education is needed to show that the two sentences should be equal?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I pay tribute to him, since this is his last Justice questions, for the work that he has done in this area over the past five years. He will be much missed in this place and I wish him the very best for the future. This is one area where his work has had an impact on the way in which the Government think and the way in which legislation is shaped.

18. The growth in online crime suggests that many people still do not understand that what is illegal offline is illegal online. Has the time come to make websites and social media operators verify the identity of the people who use their services in the UK to make it easier for people to be held accountable for their actions online? (908103)

My right hon. Friend has also done important work in this area, including her success in dealing with the issue of revenge porn. I have a lot of sympathy with what she says. This area needs continuous scrutiny, and my Department and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport continue to work closely on it. It is an area in which the next Parliament will have to do further work.

Prison Officers

16. What assessment he has made of recent trends in levels of prison officer recruitment, retention and training. (908101)

The National Offender Management Service is on course to recruit its target of 1,700 new prison officers by next month. The training capacity for new officers has been expanded to meet demand. There has been a small increase in the rate of leaving by new officers.

Will the Minister answer the final part of the question regarding the training of prison officers, which he omitted to do in his response?

Very willingly. I am always mindful of Mr Speaker’s injunction to keep answers short. We have a six-week residential training course to provide a custodial national vocational qualification. In time, we want to raise that to a 10-week course, but we have not been able to do so because Newbold Revel, which I visited last week, is full to bursting with prison officers. Prison officers are taught to a very high standard. On my visit last week, I spoke to prison officers in training, and I am very pleased with the excellent work that is being done there.

Domestic Violence (Legal Aid)

19. How many women who have been victims of domestic violence applied for legal aid in proceedings relating to their children in the latest period for which figures are available; and if he will make a statement. (908104)

From July to September 2014, there were 3,097 applications for legal aid in relation to private law proceedings under the Children Act 1989. Due to the way in which data are collected, that figure includes applications where there was evidence of child abuse and applications that were made by men. I will write to the right hon. Lady to provide a breakdown of applications by gender.

I asked for the figures because the gateway into legal aid for victims of domestic violence requires them to provide evidence that they have been victims of domestic violence in the last two years. We know that abusers use child custody and access arrangements to further abuse their victims. What is the Minister doing about that?

What the right hon. Lady does not seem to accept is that the Minister is listening. He has increased the criteria that are required. Thousands of people have successfully applied for legal aid in domestic violence cases and many more will doubtless be successful.

Child Grooming

In the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, the Government amended section 15 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 to reduce the number of initial occasions on which the defendant must meet or communicate with the child in question from two to one. That will permit more effective intervention by the police in relation to individuals who could otherwise have been prosecuted only when a second contact had been established.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the report into child sexual abuse in Rotherham highlighted the role of some taxi drivers in the town in facilitating abuse. The point has been raised with me that someone could apply for a licence in one authority and be rejected, but apply successfully in another authority. What measures are the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Communities and Local Government taking to prevent that happening and to safeguard children?

A cross-Government working group is looking at what took place in Rotherham, what lessons can be learned, and what changes can be put in place. I agree with my hon. Friend that that area should be given serious consideration.

Topical Questions

I am pleased to inform the House that last month the United Kingdom hosted the Global Law Summit. The event was a major success, highlighting the importance of the legal sector to our economy, promoting the quality of our legal services abroad, and celebrating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. More than 2,000 delegates from 110 countries attended, and 65 countries were represented by ministerial delegations. My departmental colleagues and I had productive discussions with our international counterparts. The summit was a unique event bringing together Government Ministers, senior legal figures and business leaders from around the world, and it was probably the largest legal event of its kind ever held. I am proud that working with the legal profession, the City of London, UK Trade & Investment and a range of commercial sponsors, the Government supported that summit and the UK hosted it. It was a fantastic advert for the rule of law, our legal sector and our country.

Can the Justice Secretary tell the House when the principle of adverse possession has been tested in the courts recently? Does he share my understanding that an owner of land can possess that land but still allow access over it, such as, for example, in the case of a village hall at Scrayingham where the villagers have used and maintained that hall and the landowner has previously allowed access to it?

I do not know the exact occasion on which that principle was previously tested, but I am aware of the case to which my hon. Friend refers. She and I have discussed it, and I am happy to work with her to consider whether there is a loophole in the law that should be changed.

In 2010 the prison riot squad was called out to prisons 118 times, which was too many. Last year it was called out 223 times—a 90% increase—and that is with 18 fewer prisons than in 2010. That is a disgrace. We have fewer prisons with fewer staff, and not enough work or training for inmates. We have record numbers of deaths in custody, and prisoner-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-staff assaults have surged. We heard a lot in 2010 about a rehabilitation revolution. Where did it go wrong?

Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman what is actually happening. The number of prisoner qualifications is up, as is the number of hours worked in prisons. On the size of our prison estate, we will go into this election with 3,000 more adult male prison places than we had in 2010, and we have done that while bringing down the cost of the prison estate to sort out the mess left behind by the previous Government. The Labour Government brought about a crisis in our prisons that led to them having to let offenders out early because they ran out of space in our prisons. I will take no lessons from Labour about how to run our prisons.

Evidence, if it was needed, of a man completely out of touch. Most judges, lawyers, probation staff, prison officers, victims, court staff, and people denied access to justice believe that the right hon. Gentleman has been the worst Lord Chancellor since Lord Shaftesbury in 1673—the two of you have a thing or two in common, so you should check him out. In a poll commissioned last month, 82% of people in the legal sector said that they were more likely to vote Tory if the Justice Secretary was replaced. Why does he think the figure is not higher?

In the last Justice questions before the election, all I get from the right hon. Gentleman is abuse. Do you know why, Mr Speaker? Since he has no policies and ideas, all he can do is resort to abuse, and that is all he ever does.

T2. Is the Lord Chancellor aware of a report by the Henry Jackson Society that shows that at least 20 foreign terrorists have used the Human Rights Act to prevent their deportation from the United Kingdom? Does that underline the need for modernisation and reform of the Human Rights Act, and its replacement with a British Bill of Rights? (908108)

Absolutely it underlines that requirement. All of us in this House will, I suspect, be debating these matters in a lively way in the next few months. I believe we need to reform. I think the people of this country need reform. It is a matter of surprise to me that the other parties in this House do not appear to agree.

T3. Everyone will support attempts to prevent drugs getting into prisons. Reports at the weekend said that £15 million is to be spent on a new state-of-the-art drugs scanner for prisons. Can the Justice Secretary say when the first scanners will be in place, and which prisons will be in receipt of them first? (908107)

We will invest in a new generation of body scanners that will help us to detect substances being smuggled into prison. In addition, the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 introduces powers to test specific non-controlled drugs as part of mandatory drug testing. We are providing new guidance to governors. Through the Serious Crime Act 2015, it is now illegal to throw anything over the wall, including spice or any other drug.

T4. A couple of months ago, I asked the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government if he would speak to the Justice Secretary about the prospect of speeding up the eviction process for illegal Traveller encampments by appointing specialist magistrates who are able to sit at short notice and out of hours. Has he had that conversation and is he sympathetic to progressing this matter? (908110)

We have had a discussion on the Traveller issue. It is an area on which we both feel strongly, and one that requires attention after the general election as soon as a Conservative Government are elected.

T5. Does the Justice Secretary not sense a little bit of irony in his hijacking of the 800th anniversary celebrations of Magna Carta at a time when his Government are constantly removing people’s rights and removing access to justice? Is that not hypocritical? (908111)

We hear the same old tune from the Opposition time and time again. They oppose the changes we have made, but they will not commit to reverse them. Until and unless they turn around and say, “We will reverse the changes you have had to make because of the mess that was left behind” I will not take them seriously.

T6. Breaking the cycle of crime is crucial. Does my right hon. Friend welcome the news that Out 4 Success, a former prisoners’ social enterprise, will be holding a launch event in Parliament next week? Would he be willing to pop along and meet its founders, Grant Doyle and Mark Hirst? (908112)

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. We are blessed to have 1,300 charities working in this sector. There are many social enterprises, such as the one he mentions, doing an excellent job. I will definitely try to meet the founders he has mentioned.

T8. What powers does the Ministry of Justice have to enforce UK family court orders, such as child custody, in the Crown dependency of Guernsey? My constituent’s access to his son is being prevented. These are very difficult circumstances. Will the Minister raise this issue with his counterpart? (908114)

This is an issue that has exercised a lot of colleagues in the House. We do not have any power to tell other jurisdictions what to do, including in the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man. We have a mechanism of communicating the decisions of our courts to their courts, and we have ways in which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and others support people in pursuing their rights, but there is no enforcement mechanism in international law. It is left to domestic jurisdictions to make their decisions.

T7. The Lord Chancellor has already referred to the Global Law Summit, which enabled the UK’s legal sector to highlight its pre-eminence as a centre of legal and business innovation. Will he tell the House about some of the benefits we will see as a result of this important event? (908113)

It is very much my hope that we will achieve two things. The event enabled contacts to be made around the world. That will enable law firms, our barristers and others who took part, to find new business opportunities to help enhance the economy of this country and the legal services sector and boost our long-term economic plan. In addition, I hope we have set a foundation that will allow the event to be held again in future and that we will continue to make London the centre of legal services internationally.

People with asbestos-related diseases not only have to cope with their illness, but often have a difficult court battle to get compensation. With the proposed rise in court fees, which are totally disproportionate—for example, going from £1,300 to £10,000—many claimants will be deterred. Will the Minister look again at the scale of those rises to see if they can be reduced to a more reasonable level?

Some 90% of people will not be affected by the enhanced fees, and we have waivers for people who do not qualify on financial grounds. The fees will apply only to a relatively small number of people, and even for them we have the waivers.

T9. Does the Secretary of State agree that burglary is a serious offence and causes great pain to victims, yet far too few people convicted of burglary offences actually receive custodial sentences? Will Ministers look at this and do something about it? (908115)

I agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that one thing we have done that will make a difference is tightening up the law on the use of cautions. We had a situation in which people could receive cautions time and again, rather than ending up in front of magistrates courts, but as a result of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, that situation will now change, and it is necessary that it does so.

In 2010, the Government put on hold plans to rebuild Sunderland’s court complex, and answers to recent parliamentary questions reveal what we have always feared—that no decision was ever likely to be taken in this Parliament. What would the Minister say to people across Sunderland to explain his Government’s complete failure to make any progress in the last five years?

I would say to the people of Sunderland: look at the record of the Labour party in government—it did absolutely nothing. We have put in place a five-year reform programme that will bring our courts into the 21st century. Her Government did not do that, but we have, and in five years, we will have the best courts in the world.

T10. My plans for the regeneration of the city of Gloucester include a new car park and entrance to Gloucester station, but they depend on a land sale agreement between the Ministry of Justice and the city council and the land’s onward leasing to First Great Western. Ministers have been sympathetic to urban regeneration. Will my hon. Friend confirm whether the MOJ has agreed an independent local valuation so that rapid progress can be made on the sale? (908116)

I commend my hon. Friend for his diligence in pursuing this matter. He has met me, and I have corresponded with him, and he will be aware that my officials and the council’s officials are in conversation. Like him, I look forward to seeing the way forward.

The Justice Secretary has confirmed that he will plough on with his barmy idea for two-tier contracts for criminal solicitors, so it will fall to either the Court of Appeal or my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) to kick this barmy idea into touch forever after we win the election. How does the Justice Secretary expect criminal firms and solicitors to give up 50% of their client work voluntarily? We have asked that lots of times, but we have never had an answer.

The important thing for any Lord Chancellor is to ensure that if somebody is arrested and taken to a police station, there will be a lawyer to represent them. These reforms will ensure that that happens, even in difficult times financially, when fee levels have to be cut. My disappointment is that although these reforms were agreed by the previous leadership of the Law Society, the current leadership has taken a rather different view.

There are 6,100 tariff-expired offenders serving indeterminate sentences, at a cost, I estimate, of £200 million annually. What are Ministers doing to ensure access to courses in prisons to facilitate offenders’ timely rehabilitation?

I can tell my hon. Friend that we are improving significantly the amount of work and education in prisons. As the Secretary of State said, the number of qualifications has increased, and the number of courses is increasing as well. We will keep a focus on this important area.

When the Lord Chancellor had the pleasure of meeting lawyers from all over the world at this global summit, how many of them came up to him and said what a great idea it was to advance the human rights cause around the world while withdrawing from the European convention on human rights, and did they offer him any advice on the need to remain within the orbit of international humanitarian law?

I had no such conversations one way or the other—[Interruption.]—because nobody raised the issue with me. The hon. Gentleman and I disagree fundamentally on this issue—I believe that change is necessary; he does not—but the difference is that the public support me, not him.