The Secretary of State was asked—
I believe that prisons need a new and unremitting emphasis on rehabilitation and redemption. The best way to secure that is to give greater freedoms to prison governors. I would like to give governors more flexibility in managing their budgets and overseeing work and education in custody. With greater freedom must come sharper accountability, so that governors are held to account for their prison’s performance.
Does the Secretary of State agree that a central cause of criminal behaviour and violence within prisons is an inherent sense of disfranchisement from society? What steps will he take in implementing his reforms to encourage prison governors to instil a sense of British pride, national belonging and responsibility to the wider nation?
My hon. Friend makes a characteristically acute point. It is vital that prison governors are given the right tools, particularly the capacity to play a greater role in deciding what curriculum prisoners follow, to ensure that prisoners, like any school student, have the chance, through the provision of great education, to appreciate the history of liberties that is so important to our country and our criminal justice system.
I am pleased that the Justice Secretary has said that accountability remains important. Will he consider how we can strengthen prison boards through more community involvement to give local direction to local decisions, while retaining accountability to the director general of the Prison Service and to Ministers?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. It is not only independent monitoring boards that are vital; a strong inspectorate is vital too. He is absolutely right that accountability to the local community matters. Only when prisons are rooted in their communities and forge the sorts of links that ensure that offenders go on to work and contribute to their communities on release can we make sure that prisons fulfil their task of rehabilitation effectively.
Prison governors already have a great role to play in deciding whether somebody should be released on parole, yet nothing is ever fed back to the governors, or anybody else for that matter, to determine whether their judgment was good or flawed. How can we give prison governors more discretion in decisions over whether prisoners should be released when we have no idea whether those prisoners go on to reoffend?
My hon. Friend will be aware that there is a vacancy for the chair of the Parole Board. I would encourage him to—[Interruption.] I encourage others to apply for that post who can ensure that we have a much more rigorous and evidence-led approach to reviewing the grant of parole.
This is a very serious problem and the hon. Gentleman is right to raise it. The work that Lord Harris of Haringey has done on self-inflicted deaths in prison has provided a series of recommendations that we are considering as part of our prison reform programme. More broadly, we are aware that the increased use of psychoactive substances in prison is leading to increased levels of self-harm and harm to others. The Psychoactive Substances Bill, which is being taken forward by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice, will play a considerable part in ensuring that our prisons are safer places.
Having listened carefully to the last reply, I should say that psychoactive substances are not the only factor. We broadly support the Secretary of State’s aim to increase governor autonomy. I have long believed that governors are the best at finding new ways to reduce reoffending. The big problem that he has—he cannot just blame it on psychoactive substances—is that prisons are becoming very dangerous. So far this year, there have been 95 suicides and seven murders in our prisons. Is it not time that he took a fundamentally new approach? Have not the last six years been a wasted opportunity, dogged by petty interference from the centre? We look forward to him changing that.
The hon. Lady is right to raise that point. One of the ministerial team’s biggest concerns is the incidence of violence and disorder in many prisons. As she acknowledges, giving prison governors a greater degree of autonomy is critical to changing things, as is a proper understanding of the mix of offenders in our prisons. As the balance of traffic through the courts has changed, a number of offenders who have violent pasts pose particular risks in prison, and we must ensure that prison officers are provided with the tools that they need to keep themselves and others safe. Those will sometimes be technical tools such as body-worn cameras, which are supported by my ministerial colleagues, but sometimes it is about ensuring that people have the support and training that they need to do their job well.
Human Rights Act
May I start by expressing my shock and sadness at the tragic death of Bailey Gwynne last Wednesday at Cults academy in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency? Our thoughts are with his family and friends.
We will bring forward proposals for a British Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act later this autumn. Preparations are going well, and we look forward to consulting widely, including with the devolved Administrations.
I thank the Minister for his condolences after the tragic events in my constituency. The thoughts of everyone in the Chamber are with the families affected.
As the Minister will know, human rights are not reserved under schedule 5 of the Scotland Act 1998, so the Human Rights Act cannot be repealed and replaced with a Bill of Rights without the legislative consent of the Scottish Parliament—the First Minister of Scotland has said it is inconceivable that that would pass through Holyrood. With that in mind, why are the Government wasting money pursuing something that they cannot do?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question but I am afraid that is not quite right. Revising the Human Rights Act can be done only by the UK Government. The implementation of human rights in a wide range of areas is already devolved to Scotland, and I urge the hon. Gentleman to focus his efforts in that area.
As we have heard, the Human Rights Act is fundamental to devolution in Scotland and there are different legal views about how changes might be introduced. The Act is also fundamental to Wales, and it is the cornerstone of the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland. Do the Government recognise that abandoning the Human Rights Act may have consequences that they had initially not thought of?
We have engaged in consultation and taken a pause at this stage precisely to ensure that we work through all the different points. The hon. Gentleman mentions Scotland, and he will know that in 2014 and 2015 YouGov polling showed consistent Scottish support for a Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act. On that specific question, in 2011 YouGov found that 61% of Scots wanted the UK Supreme Court and this Parliament to have the last word in this country and across Britain, rather than the European Court of Human Rights.
The article 8 right to family and private life under the Human Rights Act has been stretched to the extent that it is laughable, pitiful, and often costly and unjust. Will the Minister reassure the House that the abuse of that right will be dealt with in the consultation, to reinject proportion and to strike the right balance for fairness?
A whole range of issues will be covered in the consultation and there will be plenty of opportunity to receive and listen to views, especially on article 8. That provision has clearly created problems concerning the deportation of foreign national offenders, and I would have thought that people across the House and the United Kingdom would support our consultation on that.
Coroners: Out-of-Hours Service
The Government are committed to ensuring that bereaved people are at the heart of the coroner system, and we are working with coroners, local authorities and the police to develop a pan-London out-of-hours service. On 15 October we launched a post-implementation review of the coroner reforms of 2013, including views on the availability of out-of-hours services.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer, but may I press her specifically on Orthodox Jews and Orthodox Muslims, who require a speedy service and a speedy burial? Will she commit to giving strict guidance to coroners that they should turn around such decisions so that those burials can take place very quickly?
Coroners understand and should be sensitive to the fact that some faiths have religious and cultural wishes for burials after death. They should always try to take those wishes into account. In May 2014, the Chief Coroner issued guidance to coroners on their legal duties to deal with urgent matters out of hours. As I have mentioned, we are working with key partners to develop an out-of-hours service in London.
We have been working on that. The Secretary of State and I have met representatives from the Jewish and Muslim communities and are very sympathetic to their concerns. We are working with key stakeholders to develop an out-of-hours service across London.
Providing prisoners with employment is an important factor in preventing reoffending. In the Employers Forum for Reducing Reoffending, we have around 200 employers who are positive about employing ex-offenders. Working closely with the Department for Work and Pensions, we are developing plans to increase the involvement of businesses locally and nationally, and community rehabilitation companies should play an important role in making those links with businesses locally to help ex-offenders to get jobs.
My constituent Renee Blow, who volunteered with offenders for 15 years, emphasises that education is the most important part of rehabilitation. Does the Minister agree that making poorly educated offenders literate and numerate makes them more employable?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I thank and commend her constituent for volunteering in her local prison for 15 years. Her point is absolutely correct: we need good numeracy and literacy, and a good level of qualifications that employers respect and value.
Timpson has an extensive scheme to hire and train ex-offenders. The store in Wimbledon has benefited from that scheme and has found that ex-offenders are extremely hard-working and deserving of a second chance. Given the success of that scheme, does my hon. Friend agree that others might look at it, and particularly at the emphasis on training?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right that the example set by James Timpson for his business is outstanding. He does not do it just out of altruism; he does it because it makes very good business sense, and because he gets dedicated and loyal employees from the scheme.
Does the Minister agree that the attainment and availability of affordable insurance—whether public liability, employers liability, content or driving insurance—for ex-offenders is an inhibitor for employers who would otherwise wish to employ ex-offenders and set them on the right path? Will the Ministry of Justice commit to working on extending the availability of affordable insurance for employers?
Businesses can employ ex-offenders only if those ex-offenders have the skills that businesses need. Will the Minister therefore ensure that the shortage of staff in prisons—the shortage appears to be making it more difficult for prisoners to take part in education—is addressed as quickly as possible, which must happen if the scheme is to be successful?
There was a net increase of 420 prison officers last year, and we continue to recruit hard, but the hon. Gentleman makes the valid point that we need good quality qualifications. We will carry on with that work. Dame Sally Coates’s review will help us in that regard.
18. With reoffending rates as high as 59% for those sentenced to a year’s imprisonment or less, and with the clear link between not reoffending and securing employment, what steps can the Minister take to encourage more employers in Dorset and elsewhere to take on ex-offenders as apprentices? (901976)
I would strongly suggest that employers in Dorset and elsewhere join the Employers Forum for Reducing Re-offending, where they will be able to talk to other businesses that have already gone down this road and found it profitable and successful for their businesses. We need many more employers to respond to this call to arms and to join Timpson and Halfords and the many other businesses that have gone down this route.
I am sure that we all agree that education is the key to ex-offenders becoming employable. Given that 25% of our young people in young offenders institutions have special educational needs, will the Minister confirm that all teachers in those institutions will be qualified and able to identify and support children with special educational needs?
Will the Minister explain what consultations take place with potential employers to ensure that the courses and training in prisons are relevant to the skills that employers want? Also, when a prisoner who is in the middle of such a course has to attend court and is then taken to a different prison, could arrangements be made to ensure that they can complete the course in their new prison?
My hon. Friend makes two extremely good points. First, we have to ensure that the training and qualifications that prisoners get are of high quality and are valued by employers. We are committed to involving employers in the reviews that we undertake. Secondly, we are looking to reconfigure the prison estate so that we move prisoners around less, but I absolutely get her point about continuity and allowing prisoners to complete the courses they have started.
Dangerous Driving: Sentencing
The number of road traffic fatalities has fallen dramatically over the past 10 years, but one death is still too many. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, and to the family of James Still in his constituency. I know that they have been campaigning on this issue for a long time. We have toughened up sentencing and we are continuing to look at this area.
I thank the Minister for his answer, and for the real interest that he has shown in this issue. As he knows, we have presented a manifesto for better justice for victims of criminal driving, on behalf of a cross-party group of MPs and other organisations. Could we have a formal, point-by-point response to that from the Department? Will he also meet us again to discuss those points, so that we can get better justice for those people and their families?
We will respond point by point as we develop the review of sentencing in this area, and of course, as the Minister with responsibility for victims, I will meet the hon. Gentleman. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), will perhaps also be available to meet the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and the team, as we respond.
We have extended the sentence from two to 10 years for driving without a licence or while suspended, and we continue to look at the sentences. At the end of the day, however, we must convince people to drive sensibly so that the highways are safer for all of us. The figures are dramatically down, but we are continuing to look at the sentencing regime.
One of the most effective disposals for repeat dangerous driving offences involving alcohol is compulsory sobriety. Following the highly successful pilot in Croydon and the Minister’s very welcome licensing of that disposal across the rest of the country, will he join me in encouraging police and crime commissioners to set up facilities to allow for compulsory sobriety, so that magistrates can make use of them, particularly when dealing with repeat drink-driving offences?
I am aware of the scheme, and I discussed it with the Prime Minister only recently. I believe that one of the sobriety bracelets that are being used in Croydon is on the Prime Minister’s desk as we speak. I am encouraging PCCs around the country to push this measure forward, as it has been very successful. I congratulate those who are pushing it forward.
In 1998, Livia Galli-Atkinson was killed in Enfield by a dangerous driver. I know the Minister has in the past attended the Livia award, which was set up in her memory. This year’s award will take place this evening. The award commends service by police in relation to justice for victims, and highlights the fact that year by year too many drivers repeatedly flout the law, driving while disqualified and failing to stop. What action can follow on from the review?
This area has been reviewed continually by previous Governments and by this Government. There is a maximum penalty of 14 years’ imprisonment. It is for judges to ensure they understand what sentences should be for each offence, but we keep a very open mind and continue to look at the review as we go forward.
Litigants in Person
It has long been the case that some people represent themselves in courts. The proportion of individuals with legal representation has remained broadly stable in recent years, except in private family law cases where we have seen an increase in cases in which neither party has had representation. This year, we are investing in a new strategy designed to provide more support to litigants in person. Judges, magistrates and legal advisers are well equipped to support litigants in person through the court process.
It seems the Minister, in the company of the head of the Courts Service, is alone in thinking there is no crisis because of the increase in the number of litigants in person in our legal system. If the Minister really wants to know what is going on, will he commission an anonymous survey of district judges and court clerks to find out the truth of the crisis in our court system that is happening as we speak?
The Secretary of State and other Ministers will be aware of the concerns raised by the Justice Committee, the National Audit Office and others regarding litigants self-representing. Will the Department bring forward, from 2017, the planned review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012? It is sorely needed.
There are longstanding and very important issues relating to litigants in person that go back much further than the LASPO Act. What actions are the Government taking to simplify and demystify the court process, and to take away the complicated legalities that make it so difficult for litigants in person?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who was a very distinguished Minister in the Ministry of Justice not so long ago. He is absolutely right. The concept of litigants in person is not new: it has applied for many years, indeed decades. To demystify the court process, we have put better processes in place—online guidance, guidance from court officers and judicial training—to ensure as much support from the judiciary and other legal advisers as possible.
With the growth in litigants in person there has been a growth in McKenzie friends. There are two types: those who provide backgrounds to unfamiliar settings and those who act effectively as lawyers and charge for their services. What is the Minister going to do about the latter?
In the first quarter of the year, at least one party was not represented in 76% of private family cases, while the Master of the Rolls has warned that civil courts are experiencing significant impacts from the rise in the number of litigants in person. Part 1 of LASPO has been an unmitigated disaster. Will the Justice Secretary now bring forward the much-needed review of LASPO to mitigate the shambles of his predecessors?
The hon. Gentleman refers to family courts. Being relatively new to his post, he might wish to reflect on the comments made by his colleagues, particularly the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), as reported in the Law Society Gazette on 24 September:
“Slaughter conceded that the Labour party would have been forced to make cuts to family law funding and promote mediation as a cheaper option. He added that a Labour government would seek to promote and improve mediation services on offer.”
The article also said—[Interruption.] It is understandable that Opposition Members do not want to hear the truth, but I am quoting one of their own colleagues—[Interruption.]
I am sure that other Members, along with you, are keen to hear it, Mr Speaker.
The article quoted the hon. Gentleman as saying:
“‘We’re not going to get in a Tardis and go back to before,’ he said. ‘We are in a world where resources are tight and it would not be right to pretend otherwise.’”
7. What plans he has to improve the prison estate; and if he will make a statement. (901963)
Our current prison estate is overcrowded and out of date. We will close ageing and ineffective Victorian prisons and replace them with buildings fit for today’s demands. We will invest the money raised in a high-quality, modern prison estate, with facilities for training and rehabilitation, and where the dark corners that facilitate bullying, drug taking and violence can increasingly be designed out.
Given that the reoffending rate is nearly 50%, but that at Askham Grange open women’s prison just outside York it is 6%—the lowest in the country—and it has the best outcomes on all measures, why do the Government want to close that prison?
I heard from the hon. Lady in last week’s Westminster Hall debate how highly Askham Grange was performing, and I pay tribute to all its hard-working staff, who are doing extremely well. We have to look at the prison estate as a whole to make sure it is fit for purpose across the country, and all these decisions will be considered, but we will continue to focus on improving education and work opportunities for all prisoners.
The Minister will know how successful the social investment bond at Doncaster and Peterborough prisons has been in tackling recidivism. Indeed, he, the Secretary of State and his predecessors visited the prisons. Will he recapitulate his commitment to social investment bonds as a means of tackling reoffending across the penal estate?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and of course we recently provided additional capacity at Peterborough prison in the form of a new house block. We have studied carefully what happened at Doncaster and Peterborough and will learn lessons from it. The Government are keen that the use of social impact bonds continues across government.
What a prisons Minister we have! He is going to get rid of the Victorian prisons and open modern ones, and it just so happens that Wellingborough has a mothballed modern prison, so it is terrific news he is going to reopen it and get rid of the Victorian prison. I thank him on behalf of my constituents, and will he confirm he is going to do it?
European Convention on Human Rights
8. Whether he plans to hold a consultation on UK membership of the European convention on human rights. (901964)
As I have made clear to the House before, although we cannot rule out leaving the ECHR for all eternity, our current plans for human rights reform do not involve leaving it.
As I made clear, our current plans do not involve our pulling out of the convention, although we cannot rule it out for all eternity. The Human Rights Act 1998 already has an uneven application of rights to the devolved Administrations because of the devolved settlement. In Scotland, for example, the hourly rousing of detainees in police cells is unrelated to risk; in England and Wales, we do not have that, as it is focused on those who are vulnerable. I encourage the hon. Lady to focus her fire on addressing devolved issues such as that rather than pretending that there is some imminent threat to human rights from Westminster.
May I remind my hon. Friend that it was the English Parliament that brought in the Bill of Rights in 1688 and the British Parliament that brought in the Human Rights Act only 310 years later in 1998? Like so much legislation at that time, there were unintended consequences. Will the Minister therefore not listen to Opposition Members and get on with it?
My hon. Friend expresses himself in his usual tenacious and powerful way. It is true that the Conservatives have a long tradition of upholding freedom under the rule of law. We want to protect and strengthen that tradition, but we also want to avoid human rights being abused. We want this place to have the last word on where the bar is set for human rights, and we want the Supreme Court to be the ultimate body deciding on and interpreting them.
I thank the Minister for confirming that there are no plans to withdraw from the ECHR at this stage, but I note that he earlier confirmed that there will be a consultation on repealing the Human Rights Act and replacing it with the Bill of Rights. As he knows, the Human Rights Act applies across the whole of the United Kingdom, including Scotland. How does he propose to engage the people who live in Scotland, their Government at Holyrood and their elected representatives in this Chamber in his consultation on repealing the Human Rights Act?
Last week, despite objections from SNP Members in a debate on the Floor of the House, Conservative MPs joined forces with Labour MPs to ensure that no MPs representing a Scottish constituency would be on the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which scrutinises the compatibility of UK-wide Bills with human rights. In the light of that decision, how does the Minister expect us to have confidence that Scottish Members of Parliament will be fully involved in scrutiny of the implications of the Government’s consultations on repealing the Human Rights Act?
Does the Minister agree that any successor to the Human Rights Act should ensure that no compensation is paid in future to foreign nationals who move into foreign war zones and are then imprisoned by foreign countries? The British taxpayer should not be responsible for what takes place.
My hon. Friend, too, tenaciously raises these issues of extraterritorial jurisdiction and remedies for cases where people have behaved in an unsavoury or nefarious way. We will have full opportunity to look at all those issues in detail during the consultation.
Court and Tribunal Estate
The Courts and Tribunals Service reform programme is once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a modern, user-focused and efficient service. As part of that programme, I announced on 16 July proposals for reform of the court and tribunal estate. The consultation closed on 8 October, and I shall carefully consider all responses before taking forward any decisions.
Two courts in my constituency, Greenwich magistrates court and Woolwich county court, face closure under the Government’s proposals to reform the HMCTS estate. Although I do not dispute that there can be a case for the closure of under-used or inadequate facilities in some cases, I am extremely concerned that these proposals will further restrict access to justice for my constituents, particularly older people and those on low incomes who may face far longer journey times. Will the Minister guarantee today that in constituencies such as mine that face court closures, a local HMCTS presence will be retained?
First, may I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution to the consultation, which I read very carefully? He acknowledges in his submission that there are alternative methods, such as the use of alternative premises on a part-time basis. Access to justice does not mean physical presence in terms of attending a court. Modern technology such as video conferencing, teleconferencing and a variety of other methods is used in a variety of other sectors, so there is no reason why we should not be looking at that in terms of the court structure.
Given that the consultation has now closed, will my hon. Friend commit to publishing a detailed financial analysis of the cost savings in each court area identified, and publish any errors in fact that have been highlighted in the consultation documents?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his contribution. He has been very diligent in all that he speaks for in his constituency. We will, of course, abide by all the rules that Governments have traditionally followed in publishing information as and when necessary.
I am sure I do not need to remind the Minister that the Welsh Language Act 1993 requires his Department to consider the impact of new policies on the Welsh language. Will he commit to undertake and publish a Welsh language impact assessment before deciding on the future of courts in Wales?
Criminal Courts Charge
It is right that we find better ways to pay the costs of running our criminal courts, and the introduction of this charge has made it possible to recover some of the costs from offenders, which reduces the burden on taxpayers. The Government are, of course, keeping the operation of the criminal courts charge under review.
The Secretary of State will be aware of disturbing case studies highlighted by campaigners such as the Howard League showing that this charge is putting pressure on people to plead guilty in order to avoid legal costs, thereby restricting access to a free trial. I am pleased to hear that he is reviewing the charge, but will he admit that signing off such an absurd policy should not have happened in the first place?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this issue, because I know that concerns have been expressed across the House and, indeed, by members of the magistracy and the judiciary, as well as by pressure groups such as the Howard League. That is why we are reviewing the operation of the charge. It is important to stress, however, that our justice system already creates a number of incentives for those who enter early guilty pleas, in order to ensure that the wheels of justice can run more smoothly, but I will continue to listen to the points that the hon. Lady and others make.
Has my right hon. Friend had the opportunity to review collection rates of the criminal court charge, a system that is wholly despised by the lay magistracy? The concerns go beyond inherent unfairness; there are worries that bailiffs will chase debts that will simply be written off and never collected.
May I help the Secretary of State on the issue of collection? Earlier this year, the courts Minister told me that the minimum net sum that would be raised by the criminal courts charge in this Parliament would be £265 million. Last night, the Chair of the Justice Committee told the BBC that, as well as distorting the criminal justice system for most defendants and sentences, it may well run at a loss. The Secretary of State does not need to review the charge; it is worthless as well as dangerous. Should he not just scrap it now?
I believe in evidence-led policy and it is important that we should look at not just the evidence from the magistracy, but, as the hon. Gentleman points out, the collection rate. The criminal courts charge is generating revenue, which helps ensure that the taxpayer is not the first port of call for supporting the way in which our courts operate, but it is important that we balance all the criteria in making a judgment on the review of the charge. [Interruption.]
Order. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) is yapping incessantly, like an overenthusiastic puppy dog. He has practised in Her Majesty’s courts and I cannot believe that he comported himself in that manner when he was there. He must calm himself, even if momentarily.
13. What assessment he has made of the effect of changes to civil legal aid on access to justice; and if he will make a statement. (901970)
Civil legal aid reform has delivered important and necessary savings while protecting access to justice. Legal aid remains available for the most serious cases, including cases in which life or liberty is at stake, there is a risk of serious physical harm, or children may be removed from their families.
The Government rejected the Work and Pensions Committee’s recommendation that an independent body should be set up to investigate the deaths of social security claimants, saying that their relatives could seek redress through the courts. Given that the same Government have cut access to legal advice or representation on social security by 80%, how exactly are they meant to do that?
The hon. Lady will understand that I cannot go into details of such cases for reasons of confidentiality, but I will say that there are no easy choices when we are dealing with the deficit that we inherited from the Labour party. However, we recognise that legal aid is a vital element of any fair justice system, and ours is still one of the most generous legal aid systems in the world, on which we spend more than £1.6 billion a year.
The Minister talks about the scandal of our two-nation justice system, but under this Government many hundreds of thousands of ordinary people no longer have access to legal advice or representation. Other than asking lawyers to do more work for free, what does the Minister plan to do about that?
As I have said, we are already spending more than £1.6 billion a year on legal aid, and ours is still one of the most generous systems in the world. We have committed ourselves to a review of the reforms within three to five years of their implementation, and we have acted swiftly to address issues as they have come to light. For example, we have invested an extra £2 million in assistance for litigants in person.
Open Resettlement Establishments
When we are considering whether any prisoner should be transferred to open conditions, our overriding concern should be the protection of the public. Transfer to open conditions is not automatic, and should always be subject to risk assessment.
I am one of 14 Members of Parliament—including you, Mr Speaker—whose constituencies contain open prisons. Some 61 murderers have gone on the run from those prisons in the past five years. The opening of a new open prison unit in Don Valley, which has been given the welcoming name of Hatfield Lakes, has prompted concern about the kind of prisoners who are transferred to such establishments. The governor of an open prison often has little prior knowledge about a transfer, and may even have no say when it comes to the suitability of prisoners who are coming into their care. Will the Minister meet me, and other interested Members, to discuss the criteria for putting people in open establishments?
I pay tribute to the right hon. Lady, who has campaigned extensively on this issue over the years, but I must say to her that the problem did not suddenly arise five years ago. There were absconders before that, which is a fact that she forgot to mention. However, I am sure that the prisons Minister will be more than happy to meet her.
As this is national pro bono week, may I take this opportunity to congratulate and applaud the solicitors and barristers who do so much to represent individuals for free? In particular, may I draw attention to the fact that Baroness Lawrence is paying tribute this week to the lawyers who acted for her pro bono in securing justice for her son Stephen? They have proved that the law is not just a profession, but a vocation for justice.
Many of us were very pleased when, 546 days ago, the Government announced a full review of driving offences and penalties, but we were rather less pleased that it was 546 days ago, and we still have not seen the results of the review. May we please have a date on which we will be able to receive them?
The hon. Lady makes an important point, but it is vital that we look at sentencing in the round to make sure that we make balanced judgments. One of the problems we have sometimes had in the past is that new offences have been created and new sentencing frameworks have been laid down that have led to confusion rather than clarity, and we want to ensure we have swift and certain justice.
T2. What safeguards and guidelines are in place for the probation service regarding the category of residents at approved premises or bail hostels that are located within residential areas and within one mile of a school? (901948)
I am well aware of the concerns of my hon. Friend and her constituents about this issue. The fact is, however, that the rate of reoffending among residents in bail hostels is lower than in other types of accommodation, and of course they do allow us to have a proper risk assessment and supervision. If my hon. Friend’s local authority can identify another site with guaranteed planning permission, however, we will certainly look at it.
It looks likely that by the end of today 90 solicitor firms and 70 of the 85 bidding areas across the country will have started proceedings against the Legal Aid Agency over the award of criminal legal aid contracts. Given that we know, thanks to a whistleblower, that the tendering process was run by junior temporary staff with “very limited” legal training, does the Secretary of State agree with the Criminal Law Solicitors Association chair that if the Government
“were trying to handle it badly”,
“couldn’t have done a better job”,
and what chance does he think he has of winning those cases?
It is rare that I ever disagree with the CLSA, but on this occasion I have to differ. The individual referred to as a whistleblower is merely one voice. The voices I have heard from many others, including those who have received their contracts, is that this was a well-run process in the tradition that the LAA has upheld for many years now.
Turning from the chaos in the courts to the chaos in our prisons, the Secretary of State will agree with me that prison officers are doing an exceptional job in the most difficult of circumstances. Yesterday I met officers here who told me that, as one put it, as a result of the cuts in funding imposed so far,
“prison officer numbers have been cut to levels where prisoners are taking over the prisons.”
When we see that serious assaults on staff have risen by 42% in the last year, is he not right?
I find myself distressingly often these days agreeing with the hon. Gentleman that our prison officers do a fantastic job. I value the meetings I have with them and the feedback they give me. We have recruited 420 new prison officers in the last 12 months. Of course we keep safety and security in our establishments under review, but as I explained earlier we are taking steps on the use of technology and also on the increased powers that governors will have which I hope will make our prison estate safer and more secure for everyone.
T4. In evidence to the Justice Committee in July, the Secretary of State confirmed that his Department would be undertaking a review of the Legal Services Act 2007. Can he please confirm today if a date has been set for that review, and if not when the date of the review will be set?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question and he is right that my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice did say to the Justice Committee that there would be a review of the regulation of the legal services sector as well as the 2007 Act. Clearly this is something we need to give consideration to. It will happen within this Parliament and the House will be informed in due course of the exact scope and timeframe.
T3. Yesterday the Prime Minister announced changes to Government policy regarding the use of special guardianship orders. What assurances can the Minister give that this will not inhibit the ability of loving grandparents to assume legal responsibility for their grandchildren? (901949)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question. I know he has been campaigning very effectively on increased transparency in the family courts. One of the points the Prime Minister sought to make yesterday is that sometimes special guardianship or other kinship choices will be absolutely right, but there have been cases where special guardianship orders have been granted to grandparents and others who have had limited, and in some cases no, contact beforehand with the child placed in their care, so we do need to keep the system under review.
T6. Does the Minister agree that specialist courts for crimes with high reoffending rates like drugs and sexual offences can offer a number of benefits if implemented correctly, not only by reducing those reoffending rates but also by more sensitive handling of vulnerable witnesses, which can lead to better evidence and fewer cases collapsing?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that specialist courts can lead to a reduction in reoffending. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor recently visited the United States, where there is evidence that reoffending does diminish with specialist courts. We will be taking on board whatever we can learn to put into practice in the UK.
T5. In the new ministerial code, published on 15 October, Ministers are obliged to comply with “the law”, but the phrase “including international law and treaty obligations and to uphold the administration of justice”has been removed. The former Attorney General did not like that phrase very much, so does the Minister feel this changes the obligation to comply with international law? (901951)
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. There has been no change in obligations on Ministers. The code reflects the duty to obey the law. We have long had a dualist approach to international law, and it is also important that that is upheld.
T7. Rehabilitation is likely to be on a smoother path if prisoners have access to good education in custody. What steps is the Department taking, in conjunction with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, to ensure that maths and English are promoted within prisons? (901953)
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am inclined to take a leaf out of the Education Secretary’s book here. In a speech she is making today, she is making the point that we need to reform our testing system to know how well children are performing when they enter school and when they leave primary school. In our prison estate, we should have tighter monitoring of the educational attainment of prisoners when they arrive in custody and when they leave. I am delighted that we are ad idem.
T9. Legal aid was withdrawn from refugees who safely reached these shores and needed to be reunited with their families because this was deemed to be a straightforward process. The British Red Cross report entitled “Not So Straightforward” indicates that that is not the case. Has the Secretary of State read the report? Will the Government reintroduce legal aid or will they simplify the process so that legal aid is not required and the process in in fact straightforward? (901955)
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising the issue of legal aid again. As I said earlier, we have committed to having a review of the implementation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. That will be carried out within three to five years of its implementation, but we do keep a watching eye on matters as they evolve.
T8. The Prisoners Education Trust does much to prepare prisoners for release, but to ensure that they get the skills they need for release, does the Minister think it would be sensible to encourage prison governors to be more entrepreneurial and start up more businesses inside prisons? (901954)
My hon. Friend and the PET make extremely good points. I know that the Secretary of State was very impressed with the prison entrepreneurship programme he saw in America recently, and last week I was in a prison talking to Sue Ryder staff who were very keen to help prisoners set up their own bicycle repair businesses. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we need to go further.
A constituent of mine is seeking an appeal against an immigration refusal but has been waiting six months. Another has a family member who was given leave to appeal this June and has a date for a tribunal hearing next May. What is the Secretary of State doing to reduce these unreasonable waits?
T10. The Secretary of State has spoken about achieving swift and certain justice for the families of the victims of dangerous driving. Along with the families of Ross and Clare Simons, who were tragically killed in an incident in my constituency in January 2013, I have been campaigning for the maximum sentence to be raised from 14 years to life imprisonment. Will the Secretary of State meet my constituents and a delegation of interested MPs to discuss this issue? (901956)
The Minister will be aware of the case of Tara Hudson, the transgender woman who was placed in a men’s prison and then moved to a women’s prison on Friday. Can he explain why it has taken so long to get Tara moved? Will he clarify the guidelines for sentencing procedures for transgender prisoners?
I cannot comment on the details of Ms Hudson’s case, but I can assure the House that she is being held in an appropriate environment and is receiving the care that she needs for legal reasons. The National Offender Management Service incorporates equality and diversity in everything that it does and treats offenders with decency and respect. The guidelines allow some room for discretion in such cases, and senior prison management review the circumstances in the light of medical and other expert opinion to ensure that we get these issues right. More generally, prisoners who are in transition to their acquired gender are entitled to live in that gender.
Jobs, Friends and Houses is an award-winning initiative on the Fylde coast, which provides ex-offenders with real opportunities to work in the building trade. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating it on its excellent work and seek to support it and other such endeavours in the future?
Earlier, the Secretary of State mentioned the recruitment of prison officers. I think that the figure of 420 was used, but that is against a background of a 25% cut in prison officers in the previous Parliament. What is the current shortfall?
There is quite good news in this area. We appointed 2,230 prison officers between 30 June 2014 and 30 June 2015. That is a net increase of 420 additional prison officers. We have 600 candidates on the waiting list for when vacancies arise, and prison officer vacancies are at a low of 2.1% compared with 5.2% last December.
The Minister will be aware that the future of Chippenham’s courthouse is currently with the HM Courts and Tribunals Service consultation and that Swindon courthouse is in desperate need of renovation. While that work is carried out, Chippenham is perfectly placed to provide the ideal location. May I urge him to consider that key fact when the future of Chippenham’s courthouse is determined following the consultation?
The needs of female offenders are different from those of male offenders in the Probation Service. That has been established across three Prison Reform Trust reports. When the call for evidence of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation finally reports, will the Government finally allocate the resources required to ensure that we reduce reoffending among women prisoners?
The transforming rehabilitation changes have been about trying to stop reoffending. The fact that they are now kicking in for people who have been in prison for less than a year, which covers more than 70% of the female prison estate, is key. Transforming rehabilitation is about what works, but I am keeping up a constant dialogue with the community rehabilitation companies to ensure that what works includes a very special provision for women offenders.
Whether or not the criminal courts charge survives in the long term, will the Secretary of State give the most careful and timely consideration in the short term to giving discretion to judges and magistrates as to whether it should be imposed so that they can do justice in the instant case?
As I acknowledged earlier, the criminal courts charge is a cause of concern across the House, but it is also important that we maintain a balance between the funding of our courts coming from the taxpayer and that coming from those who use our courts. My hon. Friend makes a valuable submission on which I shall reflect.
HMP Northumberland, like many other prisons, is awash with the legal high, spice. It is creating a really dangerous environment for prison officers and offenders alike. What action is the Minister taking to tackle that very dangerous situation?
As the House is aware, we have just come out of the Committee stage on the new psychoactive substances Bill. I amended the provisions in Committee with the support of Her Majesty’s Opposition and the Scottish National party to make it a criminal offence to have spice, or any other NPS, in prison. That was at the request of the governors and the officers’ union.