House of Commons
Tuesday 3 November 2015
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
On the front page of today’s Order Paper, it is noted that on 3 November 1915, Lieutenant The Hon. William Lionel Charles Walrond, Rail Transport Officer in the Army Service Corps, Member for the Tiverton Division of Devon, died in Scotland of consumption contracted while on service in France. We remember him today.
Oral Answers to Questions
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.
Just before we come to the urgent question, I must advise the House that I have received a report from the Tellers in the Aye Lobby for Division No. 104 on the Housing and Planning Bill yesterday at 9.59 pm. They have informed me that the number of those voting aye was erroneously reported—
The right hon. Gentleman is easily shocked.
As I was saying before I was interrupted in such a gentlemanly fashion, the tellers have informed me that the number of those voting Aye was erroneously reported as 228 instead of 218. The Ayes were 218 and the Noes were 305. The House is now better informed.
Humanitarian Aid: Refugees in Greece and the Balkans
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for International Development to make a statement on humanitarian aid for refugees in Greece and the Balkans.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady and to you, Mr Speaker, for giving the House the chance to discuss this important matter today. As the House will be aware, more refugees made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean into Europe last month than in the whole of 2014. Indeed, in October 218,000 people crossed the Mediterranean, bringing the total for the year so far to more than 750,000. Greece and the Balkan states have borne the majority of that burden and although the response is being led by the Governments of those countries, the UK has led the way in supporting them and has provided essential humanitarian assistance across Greece and the west Balkans. That was part of the EU Ministers meeting that I attended last Monday, where we also discussed the issue of migration.
In September, anticipating the impact of the colder winter months, we released £11.5 million of life-saving aid for refugees in Europe, in the Balkans and in Turkey. This past weekend, I announced a further £5 million to provide sleeping bags, hygiene kits, nappies, food and clean water for people in need in Greece, Serbia, Macedonia, Slovenia and Croatia. In total, the UK has committed nearly £25 million to support refugees arriving in Europe as well as those on the journey in north Africa. We continue to respond to the requests that have been made. I recently approved a UK contribution to the EU civil protection mechanism, which deals with requests for in-kind assistance from other European countries. Of course, that is alongside the support that my Department has given in the Syria region over the past four years.
A total of £1.1 billion makes us the second largest donor country and that support has enabled the vast majority of Syrians affected by the crisis and displaced to stay in the region rather than feeling that they need to make the journey to Europe. Only a tiny fraction of the total number of displaced Syrians have therefore sought asylum in Europe and without the UK’s humanitarian response, that number would have been far higher. Of course, we continue closely to monitor the situation across Europe and we will consider further support as needs emerge.
I thank the Secretary of State for the work that her Department is doing in the region and in Greece and the Balkans, but she will know that across Europe we are simply not doing enough. Too many people are dying and too many children are suffering on Europe’s soil and off Europe’s shores.
I stood on the north shore in Lesbos and watched the flimsy dinghies pull in. We heard that smugglers are giving discounts when the weather is worse, so more people are arriving, and although valiant work is being done by residents and volunteers on the island, there is simply not enough basic support to help. There are not enough rescue boats in the area, and HMC Protector and HMC Seeker have been sent home. One family was in the water for five hours, with a baby pulled out by fishermen who then managed to resuscitate him. There are not enough boats, but there also is not enough shelter or support. There are not enough blankets or enough basic sanitation—toilets and taps. An aid worker told me that they are worried about cholera in Europe. There are not enough doctors, ambulances or even morgues to help.
Yesterday, someone from Save the Children said:
“I was stopped in my tracks by a child shivering…her hands and lips…blue…Minutes later, we found three young men unconscious with hypothermia…forced to sleep for three days in a field”—
to queue for papers—
“there are not toilets for those waiting in those queues—so faeces is mixing into the flowing streams”
of drinking water. This is in Europe, so we are all failing.
May I ask the Secretary of State to do three things? First, will she go to Lesbos and to the Balkans herself to see what is happening, particularly in the Moria camp, which is just appalling and should shame us all? Secondly, will she call for more direct immediate humanitarian aid, both from Britain and from Europe more widely, before more people die? Thirdly, will she ensure that the British boats can return to the Mediterranean to assist with search and rescue so that people do not drown? Winter is drawing in and this is on our conscience. All of us need to make sure that there is action now.
The right hon. Lady raises some very important points, which I and my Department have spent many years working on directly. She is right to set out the desperation that leads so many of those people to try and make what can, in some cases, be a fatal journey from the Syrian region to Europe. I can announce to the House that having been in touch with Frontex to offer further support, the UK will as of Thursday deploy a new ship to help provide search and rescue facilities in the Mediterranean. That offer has been accepted so VOS Grace will be part of that effort, which is good news. It is worth reflecting that the support from the UK by means of Border Force cutters and Royal Navy ships has saved over 8,000 lives to date.
The right hon. Lady is right about the need to press European partners to do more. We can be proud of the work that we as a country have done to help people affected by the crisis in Syria and latterly as they have arrived in Europe. That is not just the work I spoke about in relation to saving lives in the Mediterranean; we have provided asylum for thousands of people and, as I have just set out, we are actively helping key agencies on the ground, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Red Cross and the International Organisation for Migration. The right hon. Lady is right to highlight the fact that more needs to be done. That was precisely the point I made in Luxembourg last Monday at an EU Ministers meeting. Britain cannot do this work on our own. We can be proud of the work that we are doing—no country in Europe has done more—but we need other European states to join the effort, and I very much welcome the right hon. Lady’s highlighting of the issue through her own efforts.
I thank my right hon. Friend for all the work that she is doing. Some 10 days ago I was in Kos as a member of a small delegation from the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly. We could see with our own eyes how many of those hapless people have been cruelly misled into thinking that there is a place for them in Europe. My right hon. Friend refers to Syrians, but a large number of the people we saw were from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Why can we not do something to ensure that these people are processed, if that is the right expression, on the Turkish mainland, without the need for them to risk their lives crossing the Aegean?
Much of the discussion in Europe has turned to how we can work more effectively with Turkey. It is worth pointing out that Turkey has around half the refugees who have left Syria to date—about 2 million refugees. My hon. Friend is right to highlight that. We are working with Turkey. We have worked with it to help it in its humanitarian support. Some of the work that I have just described that we are doing in Europe more broadly relates to registration and helping countries in Europe to process the refugees arriving on their shores.
The Secretary of State will be aware that it is not enough to say that people have been cruelly misled. Some 570,000 migrants have crossed the Greek border this year, and because of the onset of winter and Russian bombardment we are seeing a spike in the number of arrivals. The mayor says there is no room on Lesbos to bury any more refugees. We note that £20 million has been allocated, the Secretary of State has announced a further £5 million emergency fund and we will be deploying a new ship, but what action will the British Government, working with EU partners, take to tackle the increasing activity of people smugglers? The Government have promised to resettle 4,000 refugees this year and 20,000 over the next five years. Can we have a progress check on this? Are there any plans to increase the numbers? Does the Secretary of State recognise that while the Government are to be commended for the money that has been spent on the camps in Syria, we are seeing a crisis unfolding in Greece and the Balkans that shames the European family of nations?
The hon. Lady raises important issues. The point I made at the EU Ministers meeting last week is that this is an issue of European credibility. We have been in New York signing off on new global goals, we have a world humanitarian summit coming up next May and the UK has been at the leading edge of providing support to people affected by this crisis. It is important that when people arrive on Europe’s shore they are effectively taken care of. I have set out some of the work that the UK is doing, but it is vital that other EU member states play their role alongside our efforts.
In relation to people smuggling, some of the work that our ships in the Mediterranean have done is not just to save lives but to catch some of the potential people smugglers. The deployment of VOS Grace later this week will enable all that work to continue. The hon. Lady is right to highlight that this is an important part of how we tackle the refugee crisis. It is not just about providing support to people; it is also about tackling the criminality that is at the heart of the situation. Many of these people have been conned into giving away their life savings and any remaining assets they have to be told that they can possibly make a new life for themselves in Europe, but by going on a boat that may never get them to where they want to get to. It is important that we tackle the criminality. That is why it is important that the vulnerable persons relocation scheme works as it does. We are enabling people to relocate without having to put their lives in the hands of a people smuggler in the first place. That is a safer, more secure route, but crucially it also enables us to target the people who are the most vulnerable in the camps and in host communities who have been affected by this crisis and who would probably never have the means or the capacity even to begin such a journey in the first place.
We have said that during this Parliament we will relocate and support up to 20,000 people to come to the UK. I can assure the hon. Lady that we are on track with our initial resettlement of 1,000 people by Christmas.
One of the challenges that Europe has had over recent months is understanding in detail the drivers behind the refugee flows. Of course, the two things that my hon. Friend set out are not mutually exclusive. Some Syrians are not only fleeing what they believe to be a very unstable region but are very well educated and want to get on with their lives and have a better life for themselves in Europe. The key drivers are instability and the search for opportunities. That is why all the work that DFID is doing, whether in humanitarian arenas such as the Syria region or in the doubling up of work that we have done over the past two years on economic development—creating jobs and livelihoods in Africa, for example—is so important. If people do not feel they have a life and a future where they are, in today’s modern world they will set off and find a better life and a better future somewhere else.
We welcome the announcement of additional support, especially as winter approaches, but I was interested in the list of provisions being made available by the UK Government. I did not hear mention of tents. Sleeping bags have been mentioned, but it would be interesting to know whether people are going to be supported so that they do not have to sleep out in the open in winter. Of course, the best thing to do is to move people into secure and safe accommodation. It would therefore be helpful to know what support and advice the Government are giving to reception centres in arrival countries as regards moving people into safer accommodation, and whether this ultimately has to include a proportion of people coming here to the United Kingdom. Should not the UK take a fair proportion of the total number of refugees coming into the EU?
The support we provide is very much driven by the needs set out to us by the agencies and non-governmental organisations with which we work. I can confirm to the hon. Gentleman that we have provided tents—for example, in Croatia—and we are playing our role in helping to make sure that when people arrive at reception centres, they are dealt with and processed properly.
As the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) set out, there is a real issue of scale, and Britain cannot solve that on its own. It is worth emphasising to the House that each of the countries where refugees are arriving is leading the response in that country, so it is up to UN agencies and NGOs to work as part of a national response by each country. As I have set out, Britain is also supporting those countries in order to have an adequate response. As the House has heard, there are real challenges, given the scale of the numbers and the flow of refugees who are arriving on European shores.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the UK taking its fair proportion. The reality is that we can be proud of the work the UK is doing to support refugees affected by the Syrian crisis—whether it is the work we are doing in the Mediterranean to save lives, the thousands of people who have been given asylum already, the approach we now have of relocating people from the camps safely and securely, or the kind of support closer to home that I have set out today. No country in Europe is doing more than the UK, and the House should be proud of that.
May I thank the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) for asking this urgent question? I entirely agree with the points she made. May I also thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for all the work that she and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees are doing? May I, however, urge the Government to engage directly with the Governments of countries which now have refugees? As winter comes, we cannot allow bureaucracy or any other impediment to get in the way of making direct contact to offer our support to the Governments of Greece and the other Balkan countries to ensure that no lives are lost needlessly.
I can assure my hon. Friend that we are doing just that. The problem he sets out is one we commonly face when we are trying to help any refugees, wherever they are. We only have to look at some of the challenges in Lebanon, where many of the refugees are in so-called informal tented settlements. That means that it has been far harder for us to put in place water and sanitation and to get education to the children in some of those camps than it otherwise would have been compared with the work in Jordan, which, broadly speaking, has been more Government-driven from the word go. We are now facing the issue closer to home on our own shores in Europe. I assure my hon. Friend that we are working with those Governments, while also urging our other European partners to step up to the plate, too.
One of the factors driving more refugees to Europe is the level of support from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Programme in neighbouring countries. What can be done to ensure that there is the right level of resource to enable families who wish to stay in neighbouring countries to do so? I understand that the UNHCR does not have the kind of authority in Greece and the western Balkans that it enjoys in countries such as Jordan. What can be done to enhance the authority of the UNHCR on the ground in Europe?
On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, the reality is that, even now, the UN flash appeal for Syria is just over 40% funded. As he sets out, the inevitable consequence is that it is actually hard for the World Food Programme to meet all the immediate needs of the refugees in the region, let alone to look ahead to providing some of the education that children need or some of the work on livelihoods that might, for young men, be an alternative to their setting off on the journey towards Europe. He is absolutely right to flag that up as a direct issue. On his second point, I will write to him.
We have seen great generosity across the country in relation to the refugee crisis. In my constituency a few weeks ago, I attended a church service in Irthlingborough, where local people had brought an inordinate amount of goods to help the cause. What steps can the Government take to make sure that those items go to where they are most needed and will have the biggest impact?
My hon. Friend highlights the huge generosity of the UK public in responding to the refugee crisis closer to home. I know that many NGOs are helping to get those very kind offers through to people on the ground. I recommend that he looks at the part of the Government website that sets out the key places where people can offer support if they so wish, and signposts how people can get more involved practically.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) who has quite rightly asked this question today. Like her, I recently visited Lesbos, where I found very similar things to those that she observed. Some 94% of those presenting on the isle of Lesbos are independently attested to be refugees fleeing war and persecution. It is not that there is anything wicked about being an economic migrant, but those people were clearly running away from war, fear of death and instability for them and their children. It is shameful that we as a country are not taking a single one of the people in those camps at the moment.
Last week, I asked the Prime Minister about this, but he dismissed my call for the UK Government to accept 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children in Europe. He inaccurately claimed that there were worries that some of the children would be taken from relatives. The UNHCR has since confirmed that these would be children with no identifiable family, so I repeat: will the Government now work with Save the Children to take in 3,000 unaccompanied children who may otherwise face abuse, trafficking and exploitation?
I have set out very clearly the approach that the UK has taken to helping people who are affected by this crisis. Our approach of taking people directly from the camps is safer and more secure. I have also set out how we have already provided asylum for several thousand people who have arrived in the UK, after making the journey because of the Syrian crisis.
The hon. Gentleman asks about unaccompanied children. If we look at Jordan, for example, about 80% of the children who originally arrived there unaccompanied were subsequently reunited with their broader family. The point that the Prime Minister quite rightly made is that it is very easy in this House to talk emotively about numbers and children. The reality is that we must be extremely careful to ensure that we do not make decisions on their behalf that fundamentally take them further away from the family with whom they would wish to be reunited. The hon. Gentleman has made his point very well, and I have responded to him.
Obviously, there is not agreement in the European Union on how to deal with these problems. Has the excellent Secretary of State thought of talking to the Council of Europe, which covers many more countries, about an overall solution?
We are having a range of discussions to see how the situation can be better managed in Europe. This is not just about the challenge we face in the Syria region. Frankly, that challenge is to have the kind of support at the scale needed, but which is currently not being delivered. I have seen for myself from discussions among EU Ministers from countries in the Schengen region that there is very little agreement. What we need, in effect, is a co-ordinated approach within the Schengen region, but as far as I could see at the time—this was certainly the case last Monday—there was no political prospect of achieving that.
Although such discussions need to go on, the UK is right to provide additional support on the ground. However, we clearly all need to keep in mind the key objective, which is to help Syrian refugees in the region. People are leaving the region because food rations from the World Food Programme are starting to be cut, and because they are worried about how their children will have an education when so few Syrian children can be in school, in spite of the best efforts of countries such as the UK. We were instrumental in setting up the No Lost Generation initiative, through which many children are in school, and we are working with the World Bank to look at how to have better livelihood programmes. There is no doubt that the answer involves, first, some political resolution—ultimately—in Syria, and secondly, some political resolution in Europe, too.
The Secretary of State is usually very sympathetic, but I do not like the way she has dismissed the claims of children, particularly unaccompanied children who have been separated from their relatives. Has she had any discussions with EU Ministers about what happened in Italy last year, when of the 13,026 children who arrived unaccompanied, 3,707 disappeared? What assessment has been made of where those children are? I support the request from Save the Children that 3,000 unaccompanied children be given refuge in the United Kingdom. It is not much to ask, surely.
The right hon. Lady makes an important point very clearly. The UK has helped the International Organisation for Migration to do better evidence gathering to find out what is happening on the ground. Part of the challenge is that people, including children, often turn up without any papers. Some people are even concerned about registering with the authorities in the countries that they reach because they are worried that they will not be able to continue their journey. This is a complicated situation, but I assure her that we are playing a key role in getting support to refugees who arrive here in Europe, including children.
I commend my right hon. Friend for the magnificent and effective way in which she is fulfilling the responsibilities of her office. The fact that the UK is second only to the United States in the amount of aid it is giving to the region is testimony to her efforts. Is it not the case that were all other EU countries to contribute towards aid in the region in proportion to what the UK is doing, the problem presenting itself on the Turkey/Greece border would not be nearly at its present scale?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course, the cost that many European countries now face to support refugees who felt that they had no choice but to set off on a life-or-death journey is immense. That money would have been spent far more effectively, produced far greater value for money and enabled support to get to many more people had it been put directly into the UN effort on the ground, working with generous countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, which have taken so many refugees. If we had worked with those countries more effectively, many of the refugees—I have met many of them in my visits to the region over the past few years—would have done what they had wanted to do, which was to stay there in the hope that, in time, they could rebuild their lives and go back to Syria.
The Secretary of State is right to be robust on criminality, but the only organisation that can deal with it on a pan-European basis is Europol. Why are we not giving more resources to Europol to deal with this problem? In the spirit of openness and transparency, will she tell the House today how many Syrian refugees have arrived in the UK following the Prime Minister’s pledge? That is a very simple question that has not been answered. It would be good to reveal that information to the House.
We have been clear that we will not give a running commentary on how many refugees have been resettled here, not least because they need to receive support and treatment and to get on with their new lives here without the glare of the media upon them. I will ensure that Home Office Ministers write to the right hon. Gentleman with further details on his point about Europol.
We have heard about the problems of the 3,000 unaccompanied minors and the Minister’s warm words on the generalities. May I press her on the specifics of the case of Mr Nawaf Ali, who fled Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime in Iraq 14 years ago and whose two daughters, aged 14 and 15, are currently unaccompanied and seeking asylum in Germany? Will she and the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees meet me to cut through the bureaucratic claptrap that I have had from the Home Office on this case, so that these children can be reunited with their parents in Wakefield?
The hon. Lady has raised that case with me, but it is not one with which I am familiar. I am happy to look at the details and, if necessary, to meet her. As she said, many of the refugees are going to Germany, where there is an existing Syrian diaspora. That is perhaps why the flows there have been larger than those to the UK, even though we have provided asylum to many of the Syrians who have arrived. I will look at that case and, if necessary, meet her.
We have been talking today about the symptoms of the crisis, but the cause, as the Secretary of State knows full well, is that 11 million Syrian people have had to flee their homes, 7 million of whom are internally displaced and 4 million of whom are refugees. What are the Government doing to stop the barrel bombing and brutality of the Assad regime? Some 250,000 people have died and many more will die as a result of Russian air strikes and Assad’s barrel bombing. What are we doing about safe havens, humanitarian corridors and the protection of the population inside Syria?
The hon. Gentleman has raised one of the most important elements of the response to the Syrian crisis. It is incredibly important that we can get to people inside Syria. Many of our cross-border supplies are going into the country from Turkey. It took us over two years to get a UN Security Council resolution even to do that effectively. The action by the Russians is taking us further away from reaching a long-term political settlement in Syria. As the Government have set out, we believe that more action needs to be taken against ISIL, which is also perpetrating huge atrocities against the Syria people.
The Greek economy is in crisis, yet the Greek islands are at the front of the European response to the crisis. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Greek people have shown extraordinary resilience in the face of that pressure? I have seen for myself half a dozen volunteers feeding 1,000 people in Greek feeding stations. The pressure on public services means that the Greeks are simply unable to process people who are waiting for transit papers on islands such as Kos and Lesbos. Will she work with our European partners to ensure that people who are desperate for travel papers do not have to wait for days in worsening weather in order that they can move on? Feeding and housing people is one thing; making sure that they can get the papers they need is another.
The hon. Lady is right that this is not just about giving people the bare essentials to be able to survive day to day. We are providing support for the kind of registration facilities that she has talked about. It is right to mention the broader issue of so-called host communities and their generosity. I have met communities in Lebanon and Jordan that have seen their local populations literally double in a matter of 12 or 24 months. That puts huge strain on the existing populations. That is why, as well as working directly with refugees, we are working with the communities that they suddenly arrive in. You may not be aware, Mr Speaker, that the refugees outside Syria are overwhelmingly living not in camps like Zaatari in Jordan, but in host communities. That accounts for 80% of them or more. That is why so much of the work that we have done has been to help local government and municipalities cope with those pressures.
I was on Lesbos three weeks ago volunteering at Moria camp and on the shore at Sikaminia, where the boats from Turkey come in. The conditions are appalling and the scale of the human suffering and tragedy is soul destroying. Every time we saw a boat, all we could do was hope and pray for a safe landing. There was a shocking lack of presence on the ground of official authorities and the larger international charities that one would expect to see when faced with such a crisis. Instead, the work was left to smaller organisations and volunteer groups, which are utterly overwhelmed. Will the Secretary of State consider visiting Lesbos and working with the Greek authorities directly to provide British co-ordination assistance and infrastructure, particularly at Moria camp and Sikaminia, because if the rest of Europe will not step up to the plate, she should bypass it and go to Greece directly?
I have been the first person to get on a plane. I have spent a lot of time in the region seeing for myself the issues affecting refugees, and I have no doubt that the European situation is no different. Such visits are important, and when I visited Lebanon we decided to introduce the No Lost Generation initiative to get children into school, because it was clear that there was so little facility. As the hon. Lady says, there are organisational challenges on the ground. Such initiatives are country-led—that is how they work—and in spite of efforts by countries such as the UK, and UN agencies, more work must be done to enable countries to cope with the flow of people arriving. Alongside such initiatives, the work that VOS Grace will be doing really matters, and we also need to disrupt criminality—the work of people smugglers is leading to the flows of people that countries such as Greece are finding it hard to cope with.
We have set out our position on the vulnerable persons relocation scheme, which I think is responsible, but the hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the issue of where refugees are. More than 85% of displaced people in the world—there are a record number at nearly 60 million—are in developing countries and the places least able to cope, rather than developed countries such as those closer to home in Europe. That is why the weight of our response has—quite rightly—been in the region, helping countries in Africa such as Ethiopia, which has 700,000 refugees. We do not see those refugees in the paper, but that country still needs assistance to cope with them.
Will the Minister consider further the response that she gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz)? Transparency is important because the Prime Minister made a pledge about a specific number of refugees, and it is important for public confidence that we know how many people have arrived. Will the Minister think again about her reluctance to let the public know?
The Minister responsible for the overall relocation scheme is in the Chamber—[Interruption.] I apologise. He was in the Chamber earlier, and I have no doubt that he will be watching these questions. We have been clear that we will update the House, but we will not be giving a day-to-day running commentary.
I also want to ask about the vulnerable persons relocation scheme, and I am disappointed that the Minister has left the Chamber. I was at a meeting on Friday in Hull, and I was told that four local authorities in Yorkshire are keen to take in Syrian refugees under the scheme and had reached a funding agreement with the Home Office. A few days later, however, they received a letter stating that the funding had been reduced by two thirds, which means that those local authorities are not in a position to take in the Syrian refugees who we all want to bring to this country. Will the Minister write to me and explain why the Home Office did that, and say what effect that will have on the 1,000 refugees who we are expecting here by Christmas?
Turkey is playing a critical role and has taken in 2 million refugees, compared with the 20,000 that the UK will take in over the next five years. Has the Secretary of State had time to assess the impact of the AKP victory, and does she think that it will lead to changes in Turkey’s attitude to the camps in that country? What might be the knock-on consequences for Greece and the Balkans?
The continued mandate of the Turkish Government means that there is some stability in terms of the partners we have been working with. It remains to be seen whether there will be policy changes for how Turkey chooses to deal with what is now a huge number of refugees in its midst.
The hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) asked a question on safe zones, which I did not answer at the time. Although safe zones may seem appealing, getting them in place effectively with UN backing, and enabling them to be delivered safely for people on the ground, is key. We never want to put people in the position that they faced in Srebrenica, for example, where they thought they were in a safe zone, but which proved fatally not to be the case. There is anecdotal evidence of refugees being worried that if safe zones are set up, they may be forced back over the border into Syria, and that is possibly one reason why some refugees are leaving the camps and making the journey to Europe. I assure the House that we are considering all possible means to ensure that we protect vulnerable refugees, but we also have a responsibility not to create a situation that could put people in even more danger.
Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe
(Urgent Question): To ask the Leader of the House of Commons if he will make a statement about the rationale that was applied in determining which members of the UK delegation should be reappointed to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work in the Council of Europe over the past 10 years. He will know that decisions about appointments to the delegation are a matter for different political parties, and places are allocated in proportion to representation in Parliament. Normally, decisions are taken through the usual channels and approved by the leaders of the parties represented on the delegation. I appreciate my hon. Friend’s disappointment at the changes to the delegation for this Parliament, but I am sure that he will take advantage of the extra time that he has to spend in the Chamber by making more of his customarily pithy and perceptive contributions to debates.
It is most reassuring to have confirmation from my hon. Friend that the issue of reappointment was not based on merit.
May I ask my hon. Friend what consultation has been carried out with political parties, as specified on page 174 of “Erskine May”? Why will she not confirm that the real reason why three independently minded former Ministers are being purged is because we voted in favour of a free and fair EU referendum with a strict 28-day purdah period, as recommended by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission and our Electoral Commission? Does she accept that that decision is being interpreted in Strasbourg as direct interference by Government in the work of the Parliamentary Assembly?
The Leader of the House said on Thursday that he was aware of the House’s desire to express its opinion on the membership of the new delegation, and he said that
“no doubt the House will give the matter careful consideration”.—[Official Report, 29 October 2015; Vol. 601, c. 511.]
How is that to be facilitated? Will the Deputy Leader of the House ensure that the House can express its opinion before you, Mr Speaker, transmit the list to the Parliamentary Assembly? As the Assembly cannot consider the list until 27 November, does she agree that there is plenty of time to do that?
Does the Deputy Leader of the House recall the speech made by our Prime Minister on 26 May 2009 entitled “Fixing Broken Politics”? In it he said that
“MPs should be more independent”
and that Select Committee members
“should be elected by backbenchers, not appointed by Whips”.
He called for Parliament to be a
“real engine of accountability…not just the creature of the Executive”.
Why do those fine words not apply to Conservative members of the Parliamentary Assembly?
Six months into this role, I am afraid that I have not digested all of “Erskine May”. I do not know what page 174 refers to, but since my hon. Friend has pointed it out to me, I will make it my urgent duty to consult it straight after this urgent question.
I recognise that my hon. Friend is disappointed. He was appointed by the leader of the Conservative party on the last two occasions, and new people have now been added to the delegation. The written ministerial statement was laid at 11.33 am today, and hon. Members can see the list. If it is of interest to the House, I could read it out, but I am sure that our time would be better served by moving on to important legislation, and that piece of paper is available in the Vote Office.
Far be it from me to intrude on private grief in the Conservative party, but we in the Labour party have elections for these posts. I recommend democracy to the Conservatives.
This smacks of a vindictive attitude by the Government towards some of their Back Benchers. I have never agreed with the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on a single thing in the history of his or my time in the House, and I am not entirely sure that I agree that he is always pithy—nor am I. He is, however, an extremely assiduous parliamentarian, as are the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan), who have also been removed. To be honest, the only rationale that I can detect at work in the appointments is that anyone who has ever disagreed with the Prime Minister is for the chop.
It seems that the Deputy Leader of the House does not understand the rules that govern the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The whole point of the Assembly is that its members are not Government representatives but parliamentary representatives. Indeed, the statute of the Council of Europe is very clear. Article 25a states:
“The Consultative Assembly shall consist of Representatives of each Member, elected by its Parliament from among the members thereof, or appointed from among the members of that Parliament, in such a manner as it shall decide”.
The key point is that delegates to the Assembly are either elected, which has not happened in this case, or appointed in such manner as the Parliament decides, not in such manner as the Prime Minister decides.
Does the Deputy Leader of the House realise that the way in which the Government have proceeded could mean that the Assembly ends up questioning the British delegation for the first time ever? Does she accept that the Government have taken so long since the general election that the six-month grace period will have elapsed, and that the UK Parliament will have no delegation from this Saturday until it is agreed by the Assembly? That is happening at a time when the Assembly has important business to deal with, not least human rights issues in Turkey and Russia’s ongoing suspension and boycott, all because the Prime Minister has stamped his little foot.