House of Commons
Tuesday 17 March 2015
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
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.
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 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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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
7. What his strategy is for supporting victims of crime. (908090)
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.
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.
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.]
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.
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?
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 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)
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?
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)
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)
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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?
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?
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)
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)
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)
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.
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.
Representation of the People (Candidate’s Disclosure)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the disclosure of convictions and sentences etc. by candidates for election to specified public roles; and for connected purposes.
The purpose of my Bill is to impose a legal requirement on a candidate for any of the roles mentioned in subsection (2), which reads:
“Application of Section 2 shall apply to candidates standing for election to the role of…member of the House of Commons…hereditary member of the House of Lords…member of the Scottish Parliament…member of the National Assembly for Wales…member of the Northern Ireland Assembly…member of the European Parliament for a UK constituency…member of the Greater London Assembly… elected mayor, including Mayor of London…district, borough, county, county borough or unitary authority councillor…parish or community councillor…Police and Crime Commissioner”.
The current position is set out in the House of Commons Library standard note of 16 April 2014 as follows:
“An individual who is convicted of a recordable offence will have a ‘nominal record’ of that conviction placed on the Police National Computer. Nominal records will also be created for individuals who are cautioned, reprimanded, warned or arrested for such offences. An individual’s nominal record is retained until his 100th birthday.”
The police national database is used to record details of “soft” police intelligence—for example, details of criminal investigations that do not lead to a conviction. The intention will generally be to retain this information for a minimum of six years, and longer if it relates to allegations of a serious offence or if the individual concerned is considered to pose an ongoing risk.
When a person applies for a so-called “excepted position”, he or she may be required to provide details of their record by way of a standard or enhanced criminal records check from the Disclosure and Barring Service, formerly the Criminal Records Bureau. Excepted positions cover, for example, work with children or vulnerable adults and roles in certain licensed occupations or positions of trust such as police officers and solicitors. It is my contention that elected representatives of the people as listed in subsection (2) fall within the category applicable to police officers, teachers, doctors, nurses, voluntary youth workers and so forth, and should therefore be added to the professions requiring disclosure statements.
The reputation of politics in general, and of some of its elected representatives in particular, has been tarnished in recent times. We have in no small measure a collective responsibility to do what we can to restore the reputation of Parliament and all our public institutions. If a school teacher, a school bus driver, a police officer, a doctor, a nurse, a community volunteer and many thousands of other public service professionals are required to have disclosure statements as a prerequisite to their being able to pursue their profession, why not MPs, councillors, MSPs, London Assembly members and so forth?
It was a school teacher from Lanark grammar school in my constituency who, during a meeting in my office at a prearranged visit with three of her students asked me, “Do MPs need to have disclosure statements?”, to which I felt sheepish in saying no. I am presenting the Bill today thanks to that teacher’s inquiry, and I look forward to the day when my answer will be, “Of course.”
On the eve of a general election, thousands of candidates are ready for the off following the Dissolution of Parliament next week. In truth, although all political parties have their own procedures for vetting their prospective candidates, they rarely, if ever, have information about a candidate’s criminal antecedence. That is surely an impediment to our doing right by the people we represent.
Child protection must and always will be at the heart of everything that we do in the House of Commons. Legislators must subject themselves to the same scrutiny, and the same laws that we pass, that apply to members of our electorate. I am sure that those taking part in Justice Lowell Goddard’s inquiry into historical child abuse will want to identify any potential weaknesses in child protection legislation with a view to scrutinising political institutions in connection with all aspects of child protection.
In the light of all that has gone before, my Bill is an attempt to bring the political elite under greater scrutiny, and to reassure the public that the laws that we pass for them apply to all their elected representatives. I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mr Jim Hood, Mr Brian H. Donohoe, Mr Dennis Skinner, Jim Sheridan, Mr Tom Clarke, Pamela Nash, Sir Alan Meale, Mr Frank Roy, Mr Ian Davidson, John Robertson, Ian Lavery and Mr Russell Brown present the Bill.
Mr Jim Hood accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 March and to be printed (Bill 189).
Modern Slavery Bill (Programme) (No. 3)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Modern Slavery Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Orders of 8 July 2014 (Modern Slavery Bill (Programme)) and 4 November 2014 (Modern Slavery Bill (Programme) (No. 2)):
Consideration of Lords Amendments
(1) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after their commencement at today’s sitting.
(2) The proceedings shall be taken in the following order: Lords Amendment No. 72; Lords Amendments Nos. 1 to 71; Lords Amendments Nos. 73 to 95.
(3) Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
(4) The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement..—(Karen Bradley.)
Question agreed to.
Modern Slavery Bill
Consideration of Lords amendments
I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that financial privilege is involved in Lords amendments 20, 45 and 61. If the House agrees to any of those amendments, I shall cause an appropriate entry to be made in the Journal.
After Clause 50
Protection from slavery for overseas domestic workers
I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 72.
As Members know, there has been considerable interest in the position of overseas domestic workers during debates on the Bill, both here and in another place. We have had excellent debates on this important issue. I am grateful to Members of both Houses for raising it, and I want to address it fully today.
At this point in my speech, I was going to wish the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) a speedy recovery, because he has been so instrumental in bringing us to this point in the Bill’s passage. I had not expected to see him here today, and I am delighted that he is present. I hope that he is feeling considerably better, and I look forward to hearing from him later in the debate.
I look forward to hearing from the right hon. Gentleman, and it sounds to me as though you will be obliging, Mr Speaker.
Holding anyone in slavery or servitude or trafficking them is an abhorrent crime, which this Government are determined to stamp out. Such abuse of anyone on an overseas domestic worker visa is totally unacceptable. This landmark Modern Slavery Bill’s core purpose is to make sure both that law enforcement has the tools to ensure those who commit these appalling crimes are caught and punished and that victims receive the protection and support they need to recover. This is crucial to our approach to overseas domestic workers. This Bill means those who traffic overseas domestic workers or hold them in servitude can receive a life sentence and that the slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour offence reflects the particular circumstances of vulnerable victims.
I applaud and understand what the Minister says about ensuring that those who enslave domestic servants should be given a life sentence. If that was to happen and the law enforcement agencies were to get involved with the employer, what would happen to the employee?
I shall address later in my remarks exactly what is envisaged through the amendment in lieu to give support specifically to people on an overseas domestic workers visa who are victims of slavery.
The Bill means that all victims of modern slavery will have major new protections such as the statutory defence to prevent them from being treated inappropriately as criminals. I understand and share the sentiment behind Lords amendment 72. When my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I looked at it and considered how to respond to the Lords vote, our priority was to improve the protection for victims of modern slavery. I know that that is in line with the spirit in which peers passed the amendment and I am grateful for their careful scrutiny of the Bill. That common focus on supporting and protecting victims of modern slavery is why I am not simply proposing that this House should disagree with the Lords amendment. Instead, even at this late stage of the passage of the Bill, we are proposing to add additional protections for overseas domestic workers who fall victim to modern slavery.
It is essential that we get this Bill on the statute book before the Dissolution of Parliament next week. Although the amendments coming from the other place, including amendment 72, have absolutely the right sentiment, does the Minister agree that it is vital that we ensure this legislation gets on the statute book at the earliest possible opportunity so that these fundamental and important protections can become the law of the land?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He is right: we are at a very late stage and we want this Bill to become an Act of Parliament. We want the Modern Slavery Act, the first piece of anti-slavery legislation for 200 years, to be on the statute book. We must make sure we achieve that, but in a way that provides all victims, including victims on an overseas domestic worker visa, with the support and protection they need.
The hon. Lady emphasised that she wanted, through the Government amendment, to give additional protections to domestic workers, but in fact I think her amendment has either confused her or is designed to confuse the House, because it actually reduces the protections that exist under the national referral mechanism. Has she looked at the National Crime Agency report about what happens to someone who has conclusive grounds? First, they are given 12 months’ leave to remain, but the Minister is suggesting that domestic workers get only six months’ leave to remain and cannot get access to public funds. Those two things are available to every other enslaved worker, but will not be available to domestic workers.
I am afraid that the right hon. Lady has misunderstood the amendment. The protections available to all victims of modern slavery who go through the national referral mechanism will be available to victims who have come here on an overseas domestic workers visa. That includes the discretionary right to stay for 12 months and one day if they are assisting the police with their inquiries. In addition, we are including in the Bill the provision for six months’ leave to stay and work irrespective of whether the person is assisting the police with their inquiries. That is a minimum of six months, in addition to the 12 months’ discretionary leave. It is in addition to the support that is available to all victims of slavery who go through the national referral mechanism.
The good progress in the Lords reflects the comments that were made in the Bill Committee. Will the Minister say a little more about the guidance and tell us what is going to happen on the ground to ensure that enforcement action will not be taken against overseas domestic workers who are going through the national referral mechanism? Will the guidance have proper bite to ensure that no inappropriate action is taken and that victims are properly treated as victims?
My hon. Friend and the right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) were strong and assiduous members of the Committee that scrutinised the Bill as it went through the House of Commons, which is when we started debating this issue. My hon. Friend is right to mention the guidance, and I shall explain more about that in a moment. It is absolutely clear that all front-line professionals need to understand that the visa situation of an individual is irrelevant in these circumstances: if they are a victim of slavery, they are a victim of slavery, and they will need the support that is available. As I have said, the amendment will give additional support for victims who are on an overseas domestic workers visa, and I shall explain why that is appropriate.
Before I explain the additional protections, which seek to address the important concerns raised in the other place, I should explain to the House why I am deeply concerned that Lords amendment 72 will not protect victims, however well intentioned it might be. There is a real risk that it will achieve the opposite. I want to ensure that a provision to support overseas domestic workers who fall victim to modern slavery will help those vulnerable people get the help they need and allow law enforcement to take action to prevent their abusers from doing the same to another domestic worker. I do not believe that the Lords amendment would achieve either of those things. Members will have seen from my letter that those worries are shared by senior law enforcement officers working in this field.
I should remind the House that the overseas domestic workers visa allows visitors to the UK to bring their existing domestic staff with them when they visit the UK, for a maximum of six months. Separate arrangements apply for the small number of overseas domestic workers who work in diplomatic households. Around 15,000 of these visas are issued every year, and the data suggest that visits typically last for only about 15 days, so the vast majority of overseas domestic workers will be here for a very short time. To qualify for this short-term visa, there must be evidence of a long-term employment relationship between employer and employee.
Even before the Lords debate on Report, the Government announced that the safeguards would be strengthened. There will be a new standard contract, along with changes to the immigration rules to strengthen the guarantees that overseas domestic workers will be paid at least the national minimum wage, pilot programmes of interviews for applicants overseas and the provision of information cards at the border. Given the specific circumstances in which the visa is applicable, it is not possible to change employer during the short period that the workers are in the UK or to extend the visa as a route to settling permanently in the UK.
Lords amendment 72 would change that, allowing overseas domestic workers to change employer and stay in the UK indefinitely, potentially gaining settlement. The Government have listened carefully to the debates on this issue, and we are keen to take an evidence-based approach. As the House will know, the Government have announced an independent review of the overseas domestic workers visa, which is to report in July. The review will look specifically at the ability to change employer. It is being undertaken by James Ewins, a respected expert on modern slavery who served as a specialist legal adviser to the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee on the Bill.
Would not the Lords amendment effectively bring us back to the position that we were in in 2012, which is when the Government changed the immigration rules? My question to the Minister is why did they change the rules in the first place? Why could we not have kept them as they were?
The hon. Lady will know that there was abuse under the old regime. We wanted to ensure that we were giving maximum protection to victims. I shall shortly give the House some information from the anti-slavery commissioner designate, who is quite clear about the abuse of workers that he saw when he was working in the Metropolitan police. Those workers were here on the visa and were able to change employer, and they were trafficked and moved between employers by organised criminal gangs.
There was abuse under the old system, so going back to the old system is not the right answer. The answer is to find out what the problem is with the visa and to ensure that we are not importing abuse. That is what I am determined to do, and that is what I have asked James Ewins to look at. The measures in the Bill today are designed to give as much protection, support and information as possible to workers on this visa. By July, we shall have a full evidence base for the best way of supporting those employees, and that is the point at which changes should be made. They should be made when we have the evidence.
I am grateful to the Minister for her answer, but I do not really understand why the rules were changed in 2012 if there was no proper evidence to enable them to be changed properly to give people protection. Why are we debating the issue now, three years later? The Government changed the rules, and they made things worse. I do not understand why we are having this debate three years on.
I want to understand what is happening with the visa and to ensure that we do not import abuse. The fact is that we need to find the evidence and we need to understand the problem. That is why we have instigated the review and why we are taking the steps that we are taking today.
The Minister has just indicated to the House that the person who will look at this issue was the adviser to the Modern Slavery Bill pre-legislative scrutiny Committee. As she will know, that Committee advised the Government to accept the changes that are being proposed today.
The right hon. Gentleman is an experienced parliamentarian, but he knows that there were problems with that visa prior to 2012. We need to root out those problems. We need to find a solution, but the way to do that is not to return to the system under which the abuse occurred. The answer is to find out how to stop the abuse in the first place.
Will the Minister give way?
I have been listening to what the Minister is saying. In the past, under the Labour Government’s visa arrangements, a large number of people reported being abused because they knew that they could leave a bad employer. The Minister boasts that the figure has gone down to 60, but that has happened because people are now trapped with the same employer and can do only one of two things: they can go home, or they can run away. They are not protected under the present visa system, and that is why the number has fallen.
The hon. Gentleman will also know that we have reviewed the national referral mechanism and that we are ensuring that it is being extended to all victims of slavery, not just to victims of trafficking. An argument that was always put forward about overseas domestic workers was that they could not qualify for the national referral mechanism because they had not been trafficked. We are changing that, with the Bill and the modern slavery strategy, to ensure that support is available to all victims of slavery. I want to make it clear that anyone who is here on an overseas domestic workers visa can come forward, confident in the knowledge that they will get the support they need and that they will not simply be deported, as the hon. Gentleman is suggesting. They will be able to go through the national referral mechanism. At the end of that process, they will be able to work in this country for a minimum of six months to help them to get back on their feet. When we have the evidence from the review, we will be able to determine our final, definitive position on the visa, but I want to make it absolutely clear to anyone who is here on the visa and to any victim of slavery that the Bill, which I want to see become an Act of Parliament, is there to support and protect them.
The Minister is moving the debate on, in that she is saying that a future Parliament will decide this issue. We have before us amendments that the Government hope the Lords will accept. The James Ewins review will presumably report after the election. I want to ask the Minister and my own Front-Bench spokesman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), whether they will give a commitment that whoever is in government will implement James Ewins’s report.
We have asked for this review to take place and we look forward to the recommendations. I cannot commit a future Government, but the intention is that whoever is in government—I very much hope it will be the Conservatives—will implement the review’s recommendations.
Let me go back to the point the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) made about what happens to the employee if an employer is prosecuted for slavery. What we are doing today is ensuring that the employee would receive help and support through the national referral mechanism, and the Government amendments add the new visa, which would allow the employee to work as a domestic worker after receiving a conclusive grounds decision. In addition, the employee may receive discretionary leave while helping the police with their investigation. So not only will the employee have the same protection as anyone else, but we will look at the right solution for an individual’s personal circumstances. They will have six months to work here and 12 months plus one day if they are assisting the police with their inquiries.
I tried to intervene on the point about Kalayaan, because I want to put on the record that Kalayaan would say the reason for the reduction in the number of people who sought its help was that the remedies available to them have gone away. Does the Minister share my concern that in primary legislation there is an entitlement to six-months’ leave, which may guide the courts and officers in what they do, but no entitlement to the one year she claims those helping the police with their inquiries will receive?
On the numbers, I accept and do not dispute what Kalayaan is saying. What I am saying is that through this Bill we are offering the support Kalayaan says it believes overseas domestic workers do not get. I can work only on the basis of the figures it has produced about the number of people who have come to it looking for support; that is the only evidence I have on this at the moment. I have the other evidence about people who have gone through the NRM having been on an overseas domestic worker visa, and they are far smaller in number than those going through the NRM for domestic servitude who are UK or European economic area nationals, or who are here completely illegally. I can work only on the evidence I have, which is why I have asked James Ewing to look at the point.
The right hon. Lady makes the point about the courts, but they are not determining whether somebody is given a conclusive grounds decision within the NRM. She knows we have reviewed the NRM and introduced, as we will discuss later, an enabling power to put the NRM on to a statutory basis, as and when we have completed the pilots. But it will not be the courts deciding whether somebody gets a conclusive grounds decision; it will be the decision makers within the NRM—those specialists, led at the moment by the Salvation Army, who run the care contract. So this measure will not make any difference to courts decisions or decisions about discretionary leave, but, as she rightly says, this will be the only set of victims who will have something in statute over and above what is available in policy. She should welcome that.
We are all united in wanting to ensure that victims have the confidence to come forward, knowing that they will be supported and not deported. But should we not all share the concern that amendment 72 contains a gap and a flaw, which is that the cycle of abuse could lead to those on domestic work visas changing employers and then not coming forward to the authorities? That issue has been taken up by, among others, the Organised Crime Command. We need to look at what we have before us. We can agree that there is a gap in Lords amendment 72, which needs sorting out.
My hon. Friend sums it up perfectly—I could not sum it up better. The problem we have with a system that just allows somebody to change employer is we are brushing the abuse under the carpet; we are not bringing it out into the light. That flies in the face of what we are trying to do through this Bill, which is find the victim.
I hope the hon. Gentleman will not mind but I am going to make some progress.
The victims of slavery I have met are incredibly vulnerable people. We have a duty to give them support, look after them, and make sure that they take control of their lives and make the right decisions. I have met too many victims in domestic servitude who were not on visas and who have gone from one abusive employer to another because they were not brought out into the open—we did not find those victims—and we did not give them the support they need.
Suggesting that somebody who has been through the kind of suffering we are talking about could just walk out and find another employer and their life will be okay is disingenuous; it does not reflect the realities of this horrendous crime and the vulnerabilities of these victims. I want to find these victims and give them the specialist support the NRM offers, and I want to make sure they then have control of their own lives to move forward and do the right thing.
I am trying to think about this in terms of the real world. It seems to me that the best way of escape for someone who is in servitude and being abused would be to find another employer, who could then be supportive. In those circumstances, someone could explain what had happened to them. Such a person is more likely to come forward in those circumstances than they are to come forward to the police when they are still in servitude and still being abused.
Let me be clear: this is not about coming forward to the police; it is about victims coming forward to a professional first responder who will refer them into the NRM. If someone chooses to give evidence that allows the police to instigate inquiries, they may be eligible for the 12 months and a day of discretionary leave. But what we are saying is, “You don’t need to come to the police. If you are a victim of slavery, you can come forward to a first responder—a professional—and a charity such as Kalayaan can help you by putting you into the NRM. And if at the end of the specialist support you are given a conclusive grounds decision, you will be allowed to stay and work for six months while you get your life back on track.” If the matter was as simple as someone changing employer, we would not have UK or EEA nationals being victims of slavery. It is not that simple to solve; it is a far more complicated problem. We are talking about 15,000 people who are, on average, here for 15 days. How do we make sure we find those victims? That is the challenge we face and that is what I want the review to deal with.
That is what happens to victims now. They are transferred from a caring organisation such as Kalayaan into what people see as a sterile organisation. Unfortunately, at the moment all the evidence shows that when people went to the police under the last Labour Government’s policy—the three-year visa— the police would send them to Kalayaan and it would then find their escape route. It was something people cared about, supported and had confidence in. Sadly, at the moment the official line—the police line, which is contained in the Government’s amendment—is not attractive to people who are in these situations. Whether the Minister likes it or not, escaping from an abusive employer and finding other employment where their employer does not abuse them is the solution for many people I have spoken to—the ones I met outside, when they presented me with flowers. Their solution is not to be put into some organisation where they are in an official system they do not trust.
I have enormous respect for the hon. Gentleman, but the way that he has painted the picture of the support given to victims in the NRM completely flies in the face of what those incredibly dedicated organisations that run the refuges and safe houses I have visited do. These are not sterile environments; they are caring family homes. They are places where people get incredible support and the opportunity to get back on their feet. I want to make it clear, for the record, that where people come forward as victims of slavery, whether they are on any visa or no visa is irrelevant; they should come forward to a first responder, not to the police. The first responder will refer them into the NRM, and just to be clear, it is the human trafficking centre or UK Visas and Immigration that currently makes the reasonable grounds decisions and, of course, the conclusive grounds decisions.
The Salvation Army runs the care contract and makes sure that those individuals who have been given a reasonable grounds decision and are therefore put into the NRM are then given the support they need. It does not matter—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman talks from a sedentary position about visas, but the visa does not matter; they will be put into the NRM and they will be looked after, not in sterile conditions but in very caring, supportive environment, with specialists who make sure that they have the support they need. If, at the end of the time, they have gone through the NRM and the decision is taken that they have a conclusive grounds decision that they are a victim of slavery, they will then be given a six-month visa to work. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman knows—
Order. We must conduct this debate in a seemly manner. The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) cannot just stand up and make his point without having secured agreement to his intervention. We will leave it there for now, but the Minister is understandably animated on the matter.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I do apologise for that.
It is important to make it clear that victims who go through the national referral mechanism and who have a conclusive grounds decision that they are a victim of slavery will, at that point, have the right to claim six months to stay and work here in the UK. Whether they take up that claim is entirely down to the individual. If that victim assists police with their inquiries, they will receive an additional year and a day discretionary leave.
Returning to my former point, the Government believe that, given the very different views on the effect of the visa tie, this independent review—the one being conducted by James Ewins—is a great opportunity for a careful and objective look at the issue, and we should not pre-judge its findings. It is particularly important that we allow the review to do its work, because I am deeply concerned that the approach in the Lords amendment will not encourage victims to report the perpetrators of these heinous crimes, so that they can be held to account, or help victims access the support they need to recover.
If an overseas domestic worker who has fallen victim to modern slavery on their short stay in the UK has the ability to change employer, the likelihood is that, if they can escape, they will simply look for another employer and not tell the authorities what has happened to them. The perpetrator would then remain free to go on to abuse other domestic workers either in the UK or in their home country.
If we are to catch these very serious criminals and stop them offending again, we must incentivise overseas domestic workers who suffer abuse to come forward; it is absolutely crucial that we do that. My main concern is to ensure that victims, who are often deeply traumatised and vulnerable, receive the care and support they need to recover from the abuses they have suffered.
Given that the Minister has said that the Government amendment requiring victims to go through the national referral mechanism is aimed at ensuring that there are prosecutions, what is the evidence to date that shows that such cases have led to successful prosecutions and convictions?
The hon. Gentleman, who was a distinguished member of the Bill Committee, knows that there are not enough prosecutions. But this Bill is designed to secure more. Increased prosecutions combined with the reviewed national referral mechanism, which we will be piloting shortly and hope to roll out nationally very soon, will mean that we will get the evidence and information that we need. This is about not just legislation but the modern slavery strategy. We want all the agencies working together to ensure that we identify victims and treat them as victims, and that those victims get the support they need, so that they can give us the information we require to find the perpetrators of these awful crimes.
A victim who manages to leave an abusive employer and who is not receiving appropriate support would be very vulnerable and at risk of moving on to yet another abusive employer, leaving the original abuser free to abuse again. There is a real danger that Lords amendment 72 will allow abuse to go unchallenged. However good the intentions, that would not protect overseas domestic workers. It risks giving a free pass to the criminals who abuse them, creating the conditions for yet more victims. Quite frankly, if eliminating modern slavery was as simple as being able to change employer, we would have no UK nationals or EU members as victims as they could simply move on. As we all know, the truth is very different, and we have all heard the traumatic accounts of those abused by unscrupulous agricultural gangmasters or tarmac gangs.
This is a complex topic, and simplifying the issue to whether an overseas domestic worker can change employer risks doing a grave disservice to victims. That is not just the view of the Government. I have taken advice from the law enforcement professionals responsible for investigating modern slavery. Chief Constable Shaun Sawyer, the national policing lead for modern slavery, and Ian Cruxton, the director of the Organised Crime Command at the National Crime Agency, have both expressed concern that the Lords amendment would inadvertently undermine the fight against modern slavery because victims will not come forward.
The designate independent anti-slavery commissioner, Kevin Hyland, whom I met this morning said:
“There is clearly exploitation taking place under the current system which needs to be resolved. However, there was also abuse under the old visa system—I personally dealt with cases of slavery where victims of domestic servitude were sold multiple times under the old system. The suggested amendment won’t go far enough to deal with the core of the issue. It is not enough to go back to a system where we know there was abuse taking place. This is why I fully support the review led by James Ewins which will look at the abuse in broader terms. I expect it to make recommendations which will end abuse within this sector. I’m clear that all victims of Modern Slavery, regardless of their immigration status or the sector they are exploited in, must receive the same level of support afforded by the provisions in this Bill.”
I ask the House to disagree with Lords amendment 72 in the spirit of protecting overseas domestic workers. We have an independent review looking at the visa tie. It would be wrong to legislate and to decide on this issue today, ahead of that review, when the advice from law enforcement is so clear that that approach puts at risk the fight against modern slavery.
I want not just to disagree with the Lords amendment, but to use the Bill to strengthen protection for overseas domestic workers who fall victim to modern slavery. I want to provide them with the confidence to come forward, which will also help law enforcement to catch the abuser and to stop the abuse continuing. This Bill is about protecting and supporting victims, and dealing with abusers firmly.
Non-governmental organisations tell us that overseas domestic workers have real fears about approaching the authorities and accepting support from the national referral mechanism. Those workers worry that they may be treated as being in breach of immigration law and deported and that, if they leave their abusive employer, they will lose their livelihood and not be able to provide for families back home. The Government amendments are intended to address both those concerns.
We have already made it clear that if overseas victims of modern slavery come forward, they will not be in breach of their employment-related visa conditions for leaving their employer. But to put the matter to rest once and for all, the Government amendments in lieu will place a cast-iron guarantee in the Bill that guidance will provide that no immigration enforcement action will be taken against an overseas domestic worker who may be a victim of modern slavery for overstaying or breaching an employment-related leave condition as a result of escaping slavery. After discussions with interested voluntary organisations such as Kalayaan, I should like to highlight that that protection starts from the moment that they leave their employer to escape modern slavery and it will continue throughout the national referral mechanism process.
In combination with the statutory defence for victims in the Bill, overseas domestic workers can therefore have real confidence that victims of abuse will be treated as such. That will encourage victims to agree to come forward, to tell the authorities what has happened and to receive support to recover through the national referral mechanism. In addition, we will enable overseas domestic workers who have received a conclusive decision that they are victims of modern slavery to apply for permission to stay to work as a domestic worker in a private household. During their stay, they will be free to change employer if they so wish. The ability to work for this period will allow victims to earn some money to help them rebuild their lives when they return home.
The amendments will allow the Government to fix in immigration rules a maximum period of stay and provide comfort that that period will not be for less than six months. It is intended that six months will be the standard visa duration, but the provision allows us to go further in future should we so wish. The independent review can consider whether that is the most appropriate possible period. A longer period could quickly be introduced by a future Government through the immigration rules with no changes needed to primary legislation.
Focusing that provision on victims of modern slavery will encourage victims to come forward to report the abuse that they have suffered, so that the police can investigate and prosecute those who have carried out the crimes. It will also mean that victims get the support and protection they need. The provision does not replace the ability of victims to apply for asylum or humanitarian protection or to have a discretionary period of leave in the UK for a longer period under the national referral mechanism process. That will allow them, for example, to help the police with their inquiries into the crimes they have suffered, pursue a compensation claim or to stay longer if they have compelling personal circumstances.
Any overseas domestic worker who is confirmed to be a victim will be able to apply for this new visa with very few conditions attached. We would expect that any work they do is as a domestic worker in a private household. We envisage that they should show us the contract they have agreed once they have a job, so that we can ensure that their terms and conditions are lawful to prevent them falling back into an abusive relationship, and we would expect them to maintain themselves without recourse to public funds.
There are very few circumstances in which we foresee a visa being refused. The House will understand that we need to retain the ability to refuse applications where there are public policy grounds for doing so—for example, when the applicant is a serious criminal. We would not expect those who have already benefited from a period of discretionary leave following a conclusive grounds decision that they are a victim of modern slavery to be able to claim that in addition to the time already spent in the UK.
I ask the House to focus today on the issue at the heart of the Bill: the protection of victims. I ask the House to pass this substantial additional support for overseas domestic workers who are victims of modern slavery and get the message out to overseas domestic workers that they can now come forward with even greater confidence if they suffer abuse. I am determined to work with NGOs, the Churches, the national referral mechanism and first responders to get that message out there. We will ensure that employers are aware that they could face life imprisonment if they abuse their staff.
I welcome this debate, which is the latest in a number of debates we have had on this issue. As the Minister knows, there have been long and detailed discussions in Committee, in the House of Lords and again today. Despite her valiant attempts today to convince the House of the Government’s position, she has not yet managed to convince those who work with the victims of overseas domestic worker abuse. She has not convinced the charity Kalayaan, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Anti-Slavery International, Liberty, Unite the union or the House of Lords, and she has not convinced me, my newly right hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart)—congratulations to her—or my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), whom I am pleased to see in his place.
Order. I should congratulate the right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) on her elevation to the Privy Council, despite her use of the word “shocking” three times in succession just now. She has been so elevated and is now a celebrated denizen of the House.
I wish to speak in support of Lords amendment 72 and try once again, alongside my right hon. and hon. Friends, to convince the Government that it would be in the best interests of overseas domestic workers. Today we revisit the regulations on overseas domestic workers that the Government changed in April 2012. Although the intention behind that change can be debated, I think that even the Minister would accept that the consequences have been dire. Domestic workers who come here from overseas are now tied to an employer, which in practice means that those who suffer abuse will immediately lose their right to reside in the UK if they escape the situation and seek help away from their employer. I believe that that disincentivises them from seeking help from the authorities in the first place because they fear being deported, and that allows abuse to become widespread and perpetrators to carry on uncontested.
The charity Kalayaan has done a great deal of detailed work to support overseas domestic workers, and the Minister knows of the statistics it has collated. It found that, of the workers who contacted it, 62% of the domestic workers who came on a tied visa were paid no salary at all, compared with 14% on the original visa, 96% were not allowed out of the house unsupervised and 74% faced psychological abuse. Those statistics are a small snapshot of what is a deeply difficult experience for too many overseas domestic workers in the United Kingdom.
If it was only Kalayaan saying that, it would be an indication from a respected charity, but the Minister knows—we have had this debate before—that a number of organisations have been considering this for some time. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has echoed the call for the review that Lords amendment 72 would effectively give. It states:
“We regard the removal of the right of an overseas domestic worker to change employer as a backward step in the protection of migrant domestic workers”.
The Minister and the Home Secretary produced the draft Bill and, helpfully, established the Joint Committee on the Draft Modern Slavery Bill, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead, to ensure that they looked at those issues and got the Bill right. The Committee included a number of notable peers from across the House of Lords: Baroness Butler-Sloss, the Bishop of Derby, Baroness Doocey, Baroness Hanham, Baroness Kennedy of Cradley, Lord McColl of Dulwich and Lord Warner. The Members from this House were the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), my right hon. Friend the Member for Slough and the right hon. Members for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Sir John Randall), for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) and for Hazel Grove (Sir Andrew Stunell). That cross-section of individuals looked at the matter in detail and concluded that the overseas domestic workers visa has
“unintentionally strengthened the hand of the slave master against the victim of slavery. The moral case for revisiting this issue is urgent and overwhelming”.
It called on the Government to take immediate action.
The Opposition tried to provide that immediate action in response to the Government’s lack of response to that particular aspect of the Joint Committee’s report. We tabled an amendment in Committee and had a good discussion about it. Mr Speaker, you know how difficult it is for an Opposition to get even close to winning votes upstairs in Committee. On the day in question, the result of the vote was nine-all, so it was decided by the Chair, the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), who voted for the status quo, in accordance with precedent. The Government hand-picked a Committee but still ended up with a nine-all draw on an issue recommended on a cross-party basis by Members of both Houses. I think that shows the strength and integrity of the issue before us today.
Surely the Joint Committee’s point about the moral case for revisiting the issue has been taken up, because that is precisely what the Government have just ordered because of the complexity of the issue and the changes they have made. Surely the tight vote to which the right hon. Gentleman refers is evidence of the fact that both sides of the House want the issue to be looked at in great detail in the review.
Let me reassure the right hon. Lady that we seek to support the Lords in their amendment. If the House divides on the issue later today and the Division is lost, we will certainly support the Government’s proposals to carry forward the review, because we do not wish to see that stopped. However, I think that it is important to reflect on what the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, a former Government Deputy Chief Whip, said: there are too many victims for us to say that this is a matter for another day. The Government’s proposal would put the matter off for another day. I do not think that that other day should await the outcome of the general election; we should do it now. The Government have a clear view from the Lords, given the vote that was won by Lord Hylton, an independent peer, a few weeks ago, when the Government were defeated.
On the subject of waiting for another day, is there not a problem with Lords amendment 72? If a victim of slavery left their current employer and that employer was able to go on to abuse more victims, both that day and another day, the Lords amendment would do little to tackle that, whereas the Government’s amendment in lieu would do that, because it would prevent victims from being left for another day.
There is the National Crime Agency, there is legislation against abuse and, as Kalayaan has said, there is a large number of overseas domestic workers who are currently not paid a penny. If the hon. Lady found somebody who had left their employment, was able to untie their visa and move on and who could still pass on reports on the national minimum wage or other issues to the National Crime Agency, the Lords amendment would not stop that aspect being enforced. There is a national minimum wage now and it should be enforced. There is a National Crime Agency if people are undergoing abuse. The amendment would allow people to switch employers and ultimately, if they wished to do so, make a report and recommendations to a proper authority. At this point we need to get to the basics of how to untie the visa so that individuals can leave and avoid abuse.
The evidence that we took in Committee was that these are very frightened and vulnerable people who will run a long way from the authorities. Does the right hon. Gentleman think there is some merit in a mechanism whereby, if they require to take advantage of the concession, they are also required to clock on, so to speak, with the law enforcement agencies?