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Volume 597: debated on Tuesday 23 June 2015

The Secretary of State was asked—

Prisoner Rehabilitation Services

1. What his plans are for the future of rehabilitation services for prisoners; and if he will make a statement. (900485)

2. What his plans are for the future of rehabilitation services for prisoners; and if he will make a statement. (900486)

10. What his plans are for the future of rehabilitation services for prisoners; and if he will make a statement. (900494)

14. What his plans are for the future of rehabilitation services for prisoners; and if he will make a statement. (900498)

May I begin by praising the work of my predecessor to improve the rehabilitation of offenders? Thanks to his reforming zeal, we have broadened the range of people providing and benefiting from rehabilitation, but there is still much more to do.

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply and for the great work to support the rehabilitation of offenders to give them a second chance. Will he assure me that that rehabilitation will never be appropriate in cases such as the brutal murder of Telford teenager Georgia Williams?

Absolutely. May I emphasise that, with heinous crimes such as the appalling murder of Georgia Williams, judges have the freedom to impose whole-life orders? One was imposed on the killer in that terrible case.

Clean Sheet and Footprints are two charities in Dorset supporting ex-offenders into work and reducing the risk of reoffending. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to support such charities and to ensure that offenders leave prison ready to face the world of work?

I commend my hon. Friend for raising the work of those two voluntary sector organisations. Without the work of voluntary and third sector organisations, we would not be able to provide the educational and rehabilitative services that enable people who are currently in our prisons to have a second chance.

It is not just voluntary services that have a role to play, but private businesses such as Marks & Spencer, and indeed other well known department stores. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should encourage private enterprise to help in the rehabilitation of offenders to get them back to work?

I absolutely agree—that is a very good point. May I single out for praise the John Lewis Partnership, which does such a fantastic job in helping people from a variety of backgrounds to be all they can be? I stress that there are other organisations, such as Greggs the bakers and, of course, Timpson, the shoe and key repair firm. John Timpson’s leadership in providing ex-offenders with a second chance is exemplary.

Given that 12% of the prison population are sex offenders, including many in the prison in Stafford, what specific rehabilitation work is being done for sex offenders?

The excellent work that is done in Stafford prison is close to my hon. Friend’s heart, and he is absolutely right. We need to make use of the most sophisticated means that psychologists can devise to help people to tackle the problems that led them to offend. I had the opportunity earlier this week to talk to the psychologist in charge of that work at the National Offender Management Service, and to guarantee her all support in the weeks and months ahead in dealing with those terrible crimes.

23. Lord Laming is inquiring into looked-after children and the criminal justice system. As well as rehabilitation, what is the Justice Secretary doing to help youngsters who have been in care to avoid a life in crime? (900509)

I welcome Herbert Laming’s work. He has been an inspirational figure in social work. He is right to draw attention to the high number of male and particularly female offenders in our jails who spent their lives in care. Working with the Education Secretary and the Minister for Children and Families, who has responsibility for children in care, I hope we can work on the reforms of the coalition Government to ensure that more children in dysfunctional homes can be adopted and fostered quickly, and that there are better educational outcomes for children who have to spend their lives in care.

Does the Secretary of State agree that central to reducing crime rates overall is reducing the rate of reoffending? Does he therefore also agree that to cut rehabilitative services, and funding for them, ultimately would be counter- productive in the long term?

The hon. Gentleman is a distinguished barrister and historian and is absolutely right, because the historical record shows that, overall as a country, we have been very poor at reducing the rate of recidivism. We need to ensure that, both in our prisons and afterwards, we have high-quality services provided by professionals who know how to change the behaviour of individuals who deserve a second chance.

I congratulate the Lord Chancellor on his recent appointment. He looked very impressive in his new robes, if I may say so.

Thirty-five per cent. of prisoners have a drug addiction and 6% acquire that addiction while in prison. What specific help is being given to those with a drug addiction when they come out of prison?

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his re-election as Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. He did an exemplary job in the previous Parliament and I know he will do a very good job in this Parliament. May I also thank him for his kind words about my dress sense? When it comes to cutting a sartorial dash, there are few who can match him.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that drug addiction is one of the principal factors that lead individuals to commit crime. It is also the case that there is an unacceptable level of drug use, both of illegal drugs and so-called legal highs, in our prisons. We are determined to ensure that the psychological support currently available in prison, and the support rehabilitation companies can provide for individuals who are drug-addicted, is enhanced so that individuals can be weaned off a habit that brings misery to themselves and to their victims.

Does the Secretary of State agree that an important part of rehabilitation is the nature of the custodial arrangements we make for our prisoners? He will have seen yesterday’s announcement by the Scottish Government on their plans to reform the custodial arrangements for female offenders in Scotland. Will he commit to considering a similar approach as he reforms the prison estate in England and Wales?

Both our jurisdictions have a great deal to learn from one another. I am very grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for mentioning that, and for the very constructive tone she took in last week’s Westminster Hall debate on these issues. I hope to have the chance to visit prisons in Scotland soon and to talk to the Scottish Justice Minister about some of these issues.

Court Estate: Gloucestershire

The court estate in Gloucestershire, and across England and Wales, is a major asset of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service. Any new proposals on the future of the courts will be subject to consultation.

Will my hon. Friend, as part of the Courts and Tribunals Service reform programme, consider establishing one purpose-built building to house all court services?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. I am very mindful of the state of affairs of Gloucestershire’s court estate. It is important that court buildings provide value for money and meet local demand. I will certainly ensure that his comments are taken on board.

I have discussed the issue of the courts in Gloucestershire—and in Gloucester in particular, where we have a Crown court that predates the battle of Waterloo—with the Minister and his predecessors for several years. As my neighbour and colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), has said, our courts are in a dire position. Will he confirm today that the Department will look very closely at the state of the courts and take advantage of the opportunity to use the site we have reserved free of charge in Blackfriars?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his re-election. I know the issue of the court structure was a key element in the general election. It is good to see that, post-election, he continues to battle for that cause. We have met and corresponded on this issue, so he will be aware that, as we speak, officials are engaged in considering the best way forward.

Prisons: Work

We want prisons to be places of industry and purposeful activity by replicating as far as possible a normal working week, and by teaching skills that lead to employment on release and reduced reoffending. From 2010-11 to 2013-14, the number of hours worked in prisons increased by a third from 10.6 million to 14.2 million in public sector prisons.

The Minister will be aware that a number of my constituents in North Sea Camp open prison are already undertaking a great deal of paid work. What work is the Department doing to ensure that people are moved to open prisons at the right time, rather than before time?

Only prisoners assessed as at low risk of absconding and low risk of harm to the public, and who are within two years of release, may be allocated to an open prison. An open prison provides resettlement opportunities, including paid work that can support successful reintegration into the community and help to reduce the risk of reoffending. We want all prisoners to take advantage of these opportunities. We will continue to encourage all prisoners to do so.

The prison service is housing an increasing number of older prisoners. What steps are being taken to rehabilitate prisoners who are too old or too ill to work?

We cannot require older prisoners to work, but I would certainly want those opportunities to be available to older prisoners, just as they are to many older people in society who want to carry on working. All our educational opportunities are, of course, open to older prisoners. We recognise the challenge, which the hon. Lady rightly raises, of an increasingly elderly prison population.

Between 2005 and 2009, I visited about 65 prisons in England and Wales, and it was my universal experience that the work done by prisoners was more or less useless to the outside world. In one prison, I saw people making hairnets. No doubt there is a market for hairnets—

None of the prisoners in that prison—it was not too far from Lichfield!—was ever going to leave prison to work in a hairnet factory. Will my hon. Friend please ensure that proper wages are paid for the work we tell prisoners to do, so that they can support their families, rather than the welfare state, and can leave prison and get a job that they want to do?

I think the hairnet has been replaced, to judge by the length of the question, but we greatly enjoyed the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s question.

I have great respect for my right hon. and learned Friend and for his seminal work, “Prisons with a Purpose”. Of course we want high-quality work. I could show him what is happening in Halfords academy at Olney prison, where prisoners are trained to be bicycle mechanics so that they can get a job on release; or I could tell him about the new work we are doing with the Ministry of Defence, which has been much appreciated by that Department.

The Minister will be well aware that one of the biggest safeguards against reoffending is getting people into a job. In a number of prisons, including HMP Risley in my constituency, however, prisoners are often denied access to work experience because the prison wings are locked owing to a shortage of staff. What is the hon. Gentleman doing to tackle this problem?

We are doing a great deal about it. The first and most important thing is that we were successful in recruiting more than 1,700 extra prison officers in the year to March, and we are going to carry on recruiting the same number of prison officers. That will lead to more staff on the wings, allowing more access to work activities to achieve exactly what the hon. Lady wants.


5. If he will take steps to increase the penalties available for people convicted of burglary offences. (900489)

Since 2010, crime has fallen across the country, and in my hon. Friend’s constituency by 19%. Burglary has a disproportionate effect on victims, which is why we are pleased that custodial cases for domestic burglary have increased from 22.6 months in 2010 to 26 months in 2014.

I am pleased that the Minister is taking this crime very seriously indeed. Police forces tell us that a very small number of people commit a very high percentage of burglaries. Is it not easier to take those people out of circulation for even longer so that, very simply, they will not be able to commit those crimes?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why this Parliament has decided that the maximum prison sentence for this offence should be 14 years. It is for the judiciary to decide what sentence burglars get, but I am sure that the judiciary listens to the will of Parliament.

Many burglaries are driven by major addiction issues, so what is being done to increase the range and variety of solutions? Is there not a place for innovative solutions?

A pilot project to get rid of cautions and defer prosecutions took place in three constituencies during the last Parliament, and it is doing really well at the moment. This is exactly the sort of thing that the hon. Gentleman is talking about. People will know how the offences they have committed affect the community. We can keep them out of prison for low-level offences, but put them in prison for high-level offences.

Mandatory sentencing with “two strikes and you’re out” has had its impact on burglary. When is the Minister going to get on and implement this mandatory “two strikes and you’re out” policy for knife crime? It was introduced in January, but now we need to ensure that we set a clear implementation date rather than have the latest “as soon as possible” response from the Department.

It is right and proper to pay tribute to Nick de Bois, whose work on knife crime from the Government Benches led to legislation being put on the statute book. My hon. Friend, who knows me well, will know that I intend to implement it as soon as I possibly can.

Is the Minister aware that in the last few weeks, the Northern Ireland Assembly has discussed the prospect of mandatory minimum sentences for those who attack elderly people within our society? Does he agree that it is time Parliament sent out a loud and clear message that attacking the most vulnerable members of our society will not be tolerated? Will he meet me to discuss the prospect of introducing mandatory minimums in that regard?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the issue of mandatory minimums is devolved to Northern Ireland, but we will continue to look into it very carefully. I am pleased to say that last Thursday I met David Ford, Northern Ireland’s Justice Minister, and the Deputy Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The matter was also discussed during the Anglo-Irish summit in Dublin.

Prison Officer Recruitment

I believe that prison officers are among the unsung heroes of the public sector. Day in day out, they do amazing work in protecting the public. I am pleased to report that we more than met our target of 1,700 new prison officers by March 2015, and we intend to recruit a further 1,700 by March 2016.

I welcome that update. As the Minister knows, prison officers serving in HMP Norwich in my constituency, which he visited recently, and at nearby prisons such as Bure, work incredibly hard in difficult circumstances. Will he do everything possible to support them in relation to their work and conditions?

Of course I will. Both Norwich and Bure prisons are well resourced with prison officers and have a full complement of staff, but the National Offender Management Service will continue to monitor the resources that are available to both governors. I was very impressed with the work that was being done in Norwich prison, and also by the work being done in Café Britannia, outside the prison gates.

How many prison officers were in post in May 2010, and how many are in post now? Have the numbers not been cut by about 40% overall?

I will write to the right hon. Gentleman with the exact figures. However, our benchmarking exercise has brought about a number of developments, not least the prisoner-facing roles that prison officers did not always have before. The right hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that we have closed 14 prisons. The National Audit Office has complimented us on our management of the prison estate, and we continue to recruit more prison officers.

I understand that the Minister has created a reserve force of prison officers and three reserve prisons, one of which is Wellingborough. Will he say a little more about that exercise?

As my hon. Friend may know, when soldiers leave the Regular Army, we encourage some of them to join the Army reserves, and I suppose that this concept is similar to that. The prison officer reserve has about 100 members, which gives us flexibility. I cannot update my hon. Friend any further on what I have said in the past, but this is the right thing to do.

Does the Minister share my deep concern about the fact that some of the prison officers who are currently being recruited have not even undergone a simple Criminal Records Bureau check?

I am very surprised to hear that. We take prison officer training extremely seriously, but I shall look into what the hon. Gentleman has just told me as a matter of urgency. We are increasing the amount of time that prison officers spend being trained, and we continually improve the training we give them.

Departmental Absence Management

7. How many days of sickness absence there were in his Department in (a) 2012, (b) 2013 and (c) 2014; and if he will make a statement. (900491)

The average number of days lost to sickness absence in the Ministry of Justice was 9.8 in 2012 and 2013, and 10.2 in 2014. The Department is committed to supporting the health and wellbeing of its employees and reducing sickness absence.

Obviously, those are disappointing figures. Is the Minister aware that last year’s figures were twice as bad as those in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and four times as bad as those in the Department for International Development? What will she, the Secretary of State and other Ministers do to improve morale and sort out this very disappointing situation?

A large proportion of Ministry of Justice roles involve front-line prison staff, whose working environment is, of course, more physically rigorous than those of staff with office-based roles. It is important to note that other Departments’ sickness numbers do not include front-line roles such as those of soldiers, police officers and, indeed, nurses. When we take into account only civil servants who are employed in Whitehall, we see that Ministry of Justice staff actually take fewer sick days than those in other Departments.

But that suggests that it is prison officers who have been the victim of assaults by prisoners, for example, who are taking sickness absence. What is this year’s rate of assaults on prison officers, and what is the Department doing to reduce it?

Of course the Department takes any assault on a prison officer incredibly seriously. It is essential that prison officers feel that the full weight of the state is behind them as they fulfil their duties. When there are serious assaults on prison staff, the perpetrators will be prosecuted unless there is an extremely good reason for not doing so.


May I take this opportunity to welcome the hon. Lady? Edmonton is a part of the world I know extremely well: it is where I grew up and did my early schooling, in Montagu Road. We have opened up the delivery of rehabilitation services through a diverse range of public, private and voluntary sector providers, who are providing excellent new facilities so that we can have fewer people reoffending.

Half of the prisons inspected by Ofsted in 2013 and 2014 were judged either to require improvement or as inadequate for learning and skills. Purposeful activity for adult male prisoners has plummeted in the past few years. Does the Minister agree that budget cuts are reducing opportunities for rehabilitation?

No I do not. We inherited a really difficult situation with the economy when we came to power, but the way we have reorganised rehabilitation and training is vitally important. The key to rehabilitation is to ensure that people do not reoffend, and education and training are often the best ways of giving them an opportunity in life.

In the last Parliament, I visited a prison in Denmark with the Justice Select Committee. One of the biggest contributors to preventing the prisoners from reoffending was their ability to cook their own food. Does the Minister agree that that ability is not a reward for good behaviour but an essential part of dealing with reoffending?

I am not the prisons Minister but I have visited many prisons, not least the ones on the edge of my own constituency, and I have seen that happening in our own prisons. Giving people life skills is vital, as is giving them somewhere to live when they come out.

Does the Minister agree that we need to retain the Human Rights Act as part of a programme established to deal with reoffending, in order to ensure that proper standards of human rights are adhered to in prisons?

This country has led on human rights for centuries, and it will be no different when we introduce the legislation to ensure that this Parliament decides exactly what goes on, rather than a foreign court.

Schemes such as that offered by National Grid get young offenders into a job and a routine and back on the right path. What assessment has the Minister made of such opportunities for the future?

I reiterate what the Secretary of State said earlier. Companies such as National Grid, Timpson and Greggs are doing a wonderful job for the community as well as for the individuals involved. Getting people back into work is by far the best way of giving them the self-esteem that they need and ensuring that they do not commit crimes.

Reconviction rates double for prisoners who report using drugs in the four weeks before custody. If the Minister and his many colleagues do just one thing, will they please ensure that they reduce access to drugs in prison?

I was responsible for drugs while I was at the Home Office as well, and I shall be responsible for taking the relevant legislation through the House when it arrives here from the other place. This matter is taken enormously seriously, and I am sure that the prisons Minister is doing everything he possibly can to ensure that drugs do not get into our prisons.

I am glad to hear that the Minister is taking the matter seriously—and so he should—but he might want to look at what is actually happening on the ground. Just this morning, the chief inspector of prisons published a report on Pentonville prison in which, among his many criticisms, he observed that there was no detailed drug supply strategy. How many other prisons do not have a detailed drug supply strategy?

I shall write to the hon. Lady on the exact question she has asked. The Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 has given prisons additional powers to test specifically for controlled drugs. I take this seriously, and I have stood outside prisons on patrol with the police and seen individuals pinging drugs across the fences. That is the sort of thing we need to address, making sure those people get penalised exactly like those who are taking the drugs.

Youth Justice

There has been a welcome decline over the past few years in the number of young offenders, but we know that more needs to be done to prevent young people being drawn into crime. We are committed to preventing youth offending and supporting young people to turn their back on crime.

The number of young people behind bars is indeed falling, but the latest figures show that the number of white children in custody has fallen at twice the rate of that for those from ethnic minorities. What is the Justice Secretary doing to ensure that we help all young people to turn their lives around, regardless of race or background?

The hon. Lady makes a very important point. As we discussed earlier in this questions session, there is often a link between circumstances of deprivation and a propensity to offend among young people. Sadly, far too many people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds grow up in homes where they do not have the stability, support and love that all of us think every young person should have. We need to do more to intervene long before young people fall into the hands of the justice system. Working with the Department for Education, I hope we can improve the way in which we support families, support the family courts and support the care system to look after damaged and fragile young people.

Consistently, Labour Members, along with charities such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, have argued that the idea of a secure college for young offenders is fundamentally wrong. Will the Justice Secretary indicate whether he has yet decided to drop his plans?

An interesting and pithy response, but it does not take us forward, does it? We all agree that education should play a central role in rehabilitation, but spending £85 million on a new prison of this kind is not the best way to help young offenders. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has expressed misgivings about these plans, so will the Justice Secretary tell us, here and now, whether the project will be cancelled?

The hon. Gentleman makes some characteristically effective points, and of course I was listening very carefully.

Court Reform

Thanks to the leadership shown by our judiciary—in particular, by Sir Brian Leveson—we are now in a position to reform access to justice comprehensively.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. Lowestoft magistrates court plays an important role in providing local access to justice in north-east Suffolk. Will he meet local users and me to agree on the steps that need to be taken to ensure that the court continues to play that role into the long term?

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and those who have benefited from the administration of justice in the part of Suffolk he represents, but it is important to recognise that a third of our courts and tribunals are used less than 50% of the time. We do need to reform our court estate, but we can do so and improve access to justice by taking a 21st-century approach to ensuring that justice is served.

Cuts to legal aid have meant that lots of our constituents are finding it even more difficult to access justice, and often they are the most vulnerable constituents who come to see us at our surgeries as a result. What is the new Justice Secretary going to do to make sure that those individuals get access to justice?

We are going to review the operation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, the Act that transformed and reformed our legal aid landscape. We are also, as I have today, going to ask the very richest in the justice system to do a little bit more. One thing that struck me is that there are people in senior solicitors’ firms and in our best chambers who are not doing enough, given how well they have done out of the legal system, to support the very poorest—they need to do more.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that to have a more efficient courts service we need a more efficient listing system, and that to get that we need to take more of our existing courts and put them into fewer buildings and to have more efficiency in the use of technology?

My hon. Friend is, not for the first or for the last time, absolutely right. He was a great Justice Minister and he is absolutely on the button when he makes the point that we need a more efficient administration of justice in the interests of victims, witnesses and taxpayers.

The Lord Chancellor has indeed had something to say about the reform of the court system this morning. May I say “Well done” for spotting the gaping inequality in the justice system that his predecessor has created? Did he have in mind the 89% fall in social welfare legal aid cases under the previous Government—legal aid for the very poorest—or his own further cut in criminal legal aid announced last week? The president of the Law Society said that that cut could

“undermine the criminal justice system to the point that it may no longer deliver fair outcomes.”

As usual, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the generous and bipartisan tone in which he conducts these exchanges. I am also grateful to him for drawing attention to some of the reforms that we have made to reduce the amount spent on legal aid. When his colleague and friend the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) was the shadow Justice Secretary, he made the point that the amount that the previous Labour Government spent on legal aid was unsustainable. We will review the reforms that we have made to ensure that we can maintain access to justice and also safeguard the interests of victims, witnesses and taxpayers.

Mental Health

12. What recent discussions he has had on the treatment of people with mental health issues in the criminal justice system. (900496)

Addressing the individual mental health needs of offenders and ensuring continuity of service from the community into custody are essential to wellbeing and rehabilitation. We work closely with the Department of Health and with the Welsh Government, who have responsibility for the commissioning of health services, in order to address this important issue.

May I welcome the Minister to her position? Autism is a lifelong developmental disability, which often mistakenly gets classified under mental health issues, especially in the criminal justice system where too many people do not get the help they need. I am heartened that many prisoners are now seeking accreditation from the National Autistic Society for the skills and the support required for people with autism, but we need better understanding in our courts and in the Crown Prosecution Service. Will the Minister update me on the long-awaited aide-mémoire and support material for the CPS prosecutors that the Department was going to produce after the Think Autism adult strategy was published?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her very kind welcome. I would like to praise her for her ongoing commitment to this really important issue, particularly her work steering the Autism Act 2009 on to the statute book. We are clear that we need a system that ensures that the most vulnerable have access to the right support and help. That is why we are putting in place a programme of reforms to improve the experience of vulnerable victims and witnesses in court, as well as enhanced protection outside.

I welcome both the Minister and the Lord Chancellor to their places. In November 2014, Argoed, a close-knit community in my constituency, was rocked by the horrific murder of Cerys Yemm. She was killed by a prisoner who had just been released and sent to stay in a bed and breakfast. Neither the council nor the landlady was told of his mental health issues. He could not get hold of the mental health medication he needed, the result of which was this unfortunate incident. His mother says that he was in and out of the criminal justice system all his life. He would go into a hostel, and then back to prison when he committed another crime. I thank the Lord Chancellor for agreeing to meet me to discuss this case. Will the Department now launch an urgent investigation into how we monitor the mental health of former prisoners?

It is really important that we carefully monitor how mental health is regarded from within the community into the prison system and then back out into the community again. I know that the Secretary of State and the prisons Minister have agreed to meet the hon. Gentleman and I am sure that they will listen carefully to everything that he has to say.

Further to that question, does the Minister agree that when somebody has had a psychiatric assessment in prison, the information about their condition should be shared with all services, including social services and the police, when they leave prison? That would ensure that we had continuity of information about their condition so that when they came back into society we were clear about what we needed to do with them.

Yes, in the community, community rehabilitation companies and the National Probation Service are required to ensure that offenders comply with court-ordered treatment services. Probation services also supply offenders with access to mainstream mental health treatment by referring as appropriate.

To protect and ensure sufficient access for people with mental health problems, the Justice Committee urged the Government in 2011—reaffirmed in a 2015 report—to carry out research into the geographical distribution of legal aid providers to avoid irreparable loss of capacity. What progress has been made on that recommendation?

I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with the exact details, but NHS England has developed national specifications for health and justice services. All prisons now have clear commissioning models, and that works as people leave prison and move into the community rehabilitation service as well.

European Convention on Human Rights

We will legislate for a Bill of Rights to protect our fundamental rights, prevent abuse of the system and restore some common sense to our human rights laws. Our plans do not involve us leaving the convention; that is not our objective, but our No. 1 priority is to restore some balance to our human rights laws, so no option is off the table for the future.

When will Ministers publish a draft Bill of Rights, as mooted in the recent election campaign?

We said very clearly that we shall deliver it in this Parliament. We shall have a consultation in this Session so our plans will be brought forward shortly.

Does my hon. Friend agree that this country has had a proud tradition with regard to human rights, and it will remain a central part of what we do to promote best practice around the world, but in the end, the country’s commitment to human rights will be judged on its actions, not merely the piece of paper it happens to have signed?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have a strong record on human rights. We will continue to set an example around the world, but in our own domestic laws we do need to make sure that we have a common-sense balance. It is not a left or right issue; it is what the public expect as a matter of common sense.

Is the Minister aware that the Church of Scotland has expressed concern about his Government’s plans to repeal the Human Rights Act? Will he now support the Church of Scotland’s call for human rights to be fully devolved to the Scottish Parliament?

We are well aware of the concerns that have been expressed. We will be consulting fully, including with the devolved Administrations, in due course.

I welcome the Minister to his place. We often hear about rights. Does he agree that perhaps it should be renamed the European convention on human responsibilities?

My hon. Friend has been tenacious in his campaigning on this subject. He comes up with an ingenious suggestion. Actually, our concern has been less with the black-letter text of the convention and more with its application. Some of the problems have arisen from judicial legislation in the Strasbourg Court, some of them through the operation of the Human Rights Act, as the former shadow Justice Secretary acknowledged. We want to protect our fundamental rights and prevent abuse of the system.

Sir John Major, giving the inaugural Edward Heath lecture on the subject of Magna Carta last week, said that he respected the “power and significance” of the European convention on human rights, and that where there was conflict with the UK Parliament,

“I expect consultation and compromise to settle this issue.”

Should not the Minister, and indeed the Lord Chancellor, heed the advice of someone with so much experience of running a Tory Government with a wafer-thin majority?

We listen to all the informed voices in this debate. That is why we are going to have full consultation. We look forward to discussing this with the hon. Gentleman and many others across the House.

Human Rights Act

16. What discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on the future of the Human Rights Act 1998. (900500)

I welcome that news. The Minister will be aware that the Scottish Parliament voted by 100 votes to 10 to endorse the Human Rights Act last year, and that parties representing 58 of the 59 Scottish Westminster seats are against the repeal. Will the Minister make a commitment to not imposing the repeal on Scotland against the will of our people?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her place, not just as the Member of Parliament who represents my parents, but as a Member of Parliament who was educated at the same school as me. She makes a very powerful point about the range of opinions in support of safeguarding, enhancing and indeed modernising our human rights in this country. I shall look forward to engaging with the Scottish National party and others, but I think it is important to stress that in this United Kingdom Parliament, human rights are a reserved matter, and parties that support reform of the Human Rights Act secured more than 50% of the votes at the last general election.

Prison Reform

We are very ambitious to reform prisons; to make them places of learning, training and work, and where healthy family relationships are kept strong, in order to change prisoners’ lives for the better, prevent people becoming victims and keep the public safe.

Long Lartin maximum security prison is in my constituency. In the context of any discussions on reform, does my hon. Friend agree that the safety and security of prison officers and prison workers is also of paramount importance?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; it is wholly unacceptable that prison officers should be assaulted during the course of their duties. We have extensive violence-reduction work going on within the National Offender Management Service, in which I am taking an extremely close interest—I meet officials every month to track progress. We are absolutely determined to get on top of it so that prisons are safe for prison officers.

Northern Ireland prisons are brimful at the moment and struggling, and the prison officers are suffering as a result of the cuts. Will we look at reform of prisons across all the devolved Governments, working together to find a way forward, or will it be a case of “devolve and forget”?

As the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State has said, the Government are keen to talk with all the devolved Administrations in the UK, because we absolutely believe that we can learn from each other. Where we can, I think that we should help each other as well.

21. I am sure that the Minister recognises the importance of reforming rehabilitation in prisons. Does he share my concern about reports from chaplains across the prison estate that they are struggling to organise collective worship because of the number of hours that prisoners are spending behind bars in their cells? (900505)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; collective or corporate worship is important and all prisoners should have access to it. We will do our absolute best to ensure that that happens. With the increasing number of prison officers, that should be increasingly possible.

Topical Questions

Today I was able to confirm that the Ministry of Justice will throw its full weight behind the reform programme for Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, led so ably by the Lord Chief Justice and supported by Sir Brian Leveson and the whole Judicial Executive Board.

I welcome the news that my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor shares my concern about issues in our courts that could lead to a two-tier justice system. As he will be aware, in Devon insufficient bids were received for the new legal aid contract for advice at police stations. Will he agree to meet me and representatives of the profession to discuss the specific issues that have led to that situation, such as the geography of the area, and how they can be resolved?

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend. It is very important that we ensure that in rural areas such as Devon everyone has access to the justice they deserve.

T2. In Lancashire almost one third of domestic abuse victims at multi-agency risk assessment conferences are repeat victims. Anecdotally, many perpetrators are repeat offenders, but no statistics are available on that. What action is the Minister taking to identify repeat and serious perpetrators of domestic abuse? (900476)

That is a very important question, and something we take very seriously. It is important that we make every effort to identify the perpetrators of these heinous crimes, but we are also determined to ensure that anyone facing the threat of domestic violence has somewhere to turn, which is why we are working closely across the Government, with the Home Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government, to address this important issue.

T9. Will the Minister update the House on progress being made to improve the military covenant by protecting service personnel from judicial expansionism? (900483)

My hon. Friend raises a really important issue. One minute our servicemen are heroes, and the next minute they are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. Charities such as Care after Combat, which was recently formed, are doing fantastic work that is being piloted in our prisons. I would like to meet my hon. Friend again to see how we can work together to ensure that our heroes do not end up in the criminal justice system.

T3. Last week the Scottish Government celebrated the 10th anniversary of legal humanist marriage. Given their popularity —there has been an upsurge in the number of such marriages in that country—and support in both Houses, can the Minister give us an idea of whether the Government would like to implement something similar in this country? (900477)

Yes, marriage is one of our most important institutions and we need to make sure that any changes to the law are carried out with care. That is why we have asked the Law Commission to undertake a preliminary scoping study to prepare the way for potential future reform. It is due to report in December and then the Government will consider the next steps very carefully.

Will my right hon. Friend look carefully again at the workings of the European arrest warrant following the announcements last night from London and from Kigali, Rwanda, and the misuse of the process by a junior Spanish judge for political rather than judicial purposes?

Few people know more about, or are more committed to, the welfare of the Rwandan people than my right hon. Friend, and few Members of this House are more committed to due process and human rights, so I take very seriously the points that he raises. I will look very closely at this case and report back to him.

T4. Could the Secretary of State explain exactly what is his policy towards the European convention on human rights and the European Court of Human Rights? On the one hand, he says that he supports the convention; on the other, he says that all decisions must be made in British courts. If all decisions are made in British courts, then the role of the European Court of Human Rights will be an utter irrelevance to Britain, and British people will therefore be denied the right of access to a treaty obligation that we signed in 1948. (900478)

May I, on behalf of everyone on the Government Benches, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on making it on to the ballot for the Labour leadership? Had he required any more signatures, I would have been happy to defect in order to ensure that a full spectrum of views was behind him. He makes a very important point. We want to ensure that people’s access to human rights is enhanced as a result of legislative changes that we make.

I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman has overcome his natural shyness, with which the House is well familiar.

You are very kind, Mr Speaker.

How many foreign national offenders do we have in our prisons, and what plans are under way to send these people back to secure detention in their own countries?

This Parliament would not have been the same had not my hon. Friend carried on with his diligent scrutiny of this important subject. I can report to him that at 31 March 2015 10,481 foreign national offenders were in custody in England and Wales, just over 6,000 of whom are sentenced prisoners. The Immigration Act 2014 has enabled us to cut the number of appeal rights from 17 to four. Over 800 removals have now taken place as a result of these changes. Last year, the Home Office managed to send back over 5,000 foreign national offenders.

T5. Most women entering prison serve very short sentences. Last year, 58% were serving six months or less. Twenty years ago, this figure was only a third. As 82% of women who enter prison under sentence have committed a non-violent offence, why is this figure increasing? (900479)

The decision to impose a custodial sentence is of course one for the independent judiciary. The law requires that a custodial sentence be passed only where an offence is so serious that neither a community sentence nor a fine will do. The courts take into account all circumstances regarding the offence and the offender. It is important to remember that just because an offence is not violent, that does not mean that it does not have victims—multiple victims—and that it is not serious.

I am delighted that the Lord Chancellor has committed himself to speeding up the process of justice—an essential task that I suspect he will find is like painting the Forth bridge with a toothbrush. Does he agree that one of the essential elements of that is that the digital technology increasingly available in courts talks to the digital technology that the police use in collecting evidence, because if not, it will not happen?

The technology that my right hon. Friend alludes to is now coming on to the front line, and it is the sort of kit that we absolutely need. Body-worn cameras are the new replacement for Airwave, and that is absolutely vital. We must make sure that the information taken by that technology on the streets can be used all the way through the criminal justice system, particularly in the courts.

T6. Yesterday it emerged that the Secretary of State was considering making it more difficult to get hold of official documents under freedom of information rules. I recall that the previous Cabinet Minister, the now noble Lord Maude, suggested that open data should replace freedom of information. Will the Secretary of State clarify whether he has any plans whatsoever to amend the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and if so, what he has to hide? (900480)

I think we do need to revisit the Freedom of Information Act. It is absolutely vital that we ensure that the advice that civil servants give to Ministers of whatever Government is protected so that civil servants can speak candidly and offer advice in order to ensure that Ministers do not make mistakes. There has been a worrying tendency in our courts and elsewhere to erode the protections for that safe space for policy advice, and I think it absolutely needs to be asserted. There is no contradiction between making sure that we give civil servants the protection they deserve and also ensuring that the data—for example, the amount we spend in any Government Department—are more transparent than ever.

I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities and Family Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) to her new position. Does she agree about the importance of maintaining family ties and ensuring the rehabilitation of female offenders, as exemplified by the hard work undertaken at Foston Hall ladies prison in my constituency?

Yes, it is important to maintain family ties, and family engagement workers are in place in all public sector female prisons, including Foston Hall. They meet all prisoners on induction to identify any support required to maintain or establish family contact. Women’s prisons are also looking at other support for improved family links, including family days, child-centred visits, homework clubs and specific relationship and parenting skills programmes.

T8. Following the question asked by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) on freedom of information, does the Secretary of State intend to introduce legislation on proposals to price out FOI requests and extend the ministerial veto, which my party would oppose, and will he give us a timetable for that? (900482)

We want to review the operation of the original Freedom of Information Act. Some of the judgments that have been made have actually run contrary to the spirit of the original Act, and some of those behind the original Act, including former Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Home Secretary who introduced the legislation, Jack Straw, have been very clear about the defects in the way in which the Act has operated. It is vital that we get back to the founding principles of freedom of information. Citizens should have access to data and they should know what is done in their name and about the money that is spent in their name, but it is also vital that the conversations between Ministers and civil servants are protected in the interests of good government.

Do Ministers agree that a British Bill of Rights is an important step towards ensuring that the matter of votes for prisoners remains a matter for this House to decide, and that the best way of rehabilitating offenders is through a good job and education, not political gimmicks?

I welcome my hon. Friend to the House. He is absolutely right: prisoner voting is a question that should be decided by democratically elected Members of this House. Our wider aim with a Bill of Rights is not only to protect our fundamental rights, but to strengthen the role of the British Supreme Court, defend the rule of law and shield the democratic prerogatives of this House.

The family of Richard Davies are devastated by his death on Yeadon high street. A man has been charged with manslaughter and yet has been granted bail, which is very distressing for the family. What guidance is given to judges—

Order. I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman must listen. My advice is that the case is sub judice and, on the basis of a charge having been brought, it is not appropriate to raise the matter in the Chamber at this time. I recognise the assiduity of the hon. Gentleman, who may find other opportunities, but not now.

Does the Secretary of State’s apparent commitment to access to justice for everybody in this country mean that he will reverse the cuts made by the previous Government to that very same access to justice?

We are committed to reviewing the reforms to legal aid, but I have to stress that it was the Labour party’s former justice spokesman, the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), who made it clear during the last Parliament that levels of spending on legal aid were unsustainable under the last Government and we needed to reform. After all, as the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) told us, there was no money left.

In March I brought the families of Ross and Claire Simons, who were horrifically killed in my constituency by a dangerous driver, to meet the Prime Minister to discuss the maximum sentence for death by dangerous driving, which is currently 14 years. In this particular case, the dangerous driver was given 11 years, which could be brought down to five years as a result of good behaviour. The Prime Minister made a commitment to the families to contact the then Justice Secretary to ensure that the Government looked seriously at extending the maximum sentence. Will the Secretary of State please look at this case once more?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. We have increased the maximum penalties for a number of driving offences, and we are looking carefully at the recommendations of the review announced by the previous Justice Secretary and considering how best to take them forward in a proportionate and consistent manner. We will report back to the House shortly.

The Lord Chancellor has suggested that there will be a further reorganisation of the court estate. How many courts does he anticipate being included, and given the number of courts that the coalition Government closed that are still lying empty and costing the taxpayer millions of pounds, can he assure us that there will be better value for the taxpayer this time round?

We suspect that a significant number of additional courts will have to close, and I will make sure that Parliament is fully informed about that process in due course. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We need to make sure that we get value for money from the disposal of those buildings, and decisions that have been made in the past suggest that the Ministry of Justice has not always done the right thing when investing in the court estate.

All the statistics demonstrate that a significant number of people with mental health needs end up in prison. Is the Minister really content that there is sufficient treatment for those in prison? She has said that she is in dialogue with the Department of Health. Does she not have the same suspicion as me that if we had more effective treatment in the general community, fewer people with mental health problems would end up in prison?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend, and we are doing just that. In England, we are working with the Department of Health and the Home Office to support NHS England to develop liaison and diversion services. Those services place NHS staff, usually a mental health nurse, at police stations and courts to assess offenders for a range of health problems, including mental health problems, and refer them to the right treatment and support services. The information can then be shared with courts, prisons and probation services to inform decisions on charging and sentencing.

The coalition Government increased the transparency of government by requiring Ministers to report on their meetings with outside organisations. Is the Justice Secretary not embarrassed that he now wants to reduce Government transparency by strengthening the ministerial veto on freedom of information requests?

I enjoyed serving in the coalition Government alongside the right hon. Gentleman, and I welcome him back to the House.

It is absolutely right that people should know who Ministers meet and which lobby groups and others take up ministerial time, but I hope the right hon. Gentleman would agree that it is vital that we protect civil servants by making sure that they can give full and frank advice. Sometimes, as well as respecting transparency, we have to respect confidentiality. We have a duty of care towards those in the civil service who do such a good job of supporting Ministers.

Ministers will be aware of the incident last week at Killingholme, in my constituency, when 51 illegal immigrants were apprehended following a successful operation by Border Force. They were dispersed to detention centres throughout the country. Can the Secretary of State assure me that adequate provision will be made for future incidents of this type, and that the legal process will not in any way hinder their speedy deportation?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that case. It is vital that we ensure that there is appropriate provision for people who have been taking advantage of our generosity. I will therefore work with the Home Secretary to ensure that we have the facilities necessary to deal with situations such as the one that my hon. Friend’s constituents have had to face.

The Government recently announced that they were going ahead with a further 8.75% fee cut to criminal legal aid, the second in a year. The existing system, especially the online Crown Commercial Service system, is already wholly inadequate. What justification is there for further cuts, other than to further reduce access to justice for those most in need?

May I first welcome the hon. Lady to the House?

It is important that we recognise that we have one of the most generous legal aid budgets in the world, and that it needs to be sustainable. It has to be fair to the people who need legally aided advice, fair to the providers and fair to the taxpayer, who ultimately pays for it. As far as the latest 8.75% cut is concerned, we have made sure that there will be proper access for all those who need legal advice.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues, but time is against us and we must now move on.