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Topical Questions

Volume 601: debated on Tuesday 3 November 2015

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”,

they

“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?

(901950)

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?

(901952)

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?

As a consequence of the Immigration Act 2014, we anticipate the number of appeals going down. We are keeping an eye on the numbers and at the moment we do not see a particular concern, but if there is one, we will make sure that there are more sittings.

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)

My hon. Friend has been a particularly assiduous campaigner in respect of this heartbreaking case, and of course I would be delighted to meet him and other colleagues who want to make sure that the law can be changed appropriately.

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?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing that fantastic campaign to the attention of the House. In three simple phrases, he and the organisation sum up what ex-offenders need: work, strong relationships and a place to live.

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?

I assure my hon. Friend that no decisions have been taken with regard to the consultation and that I will be considering very carefully what she has just said as well as all the other submissions that will be made.

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.