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Volume 603: debated on Tuesday 8 December 2015

The Secretary of State was asked—

Torquay Magistrates Court

1. What recent progress his Department has made on consulting on the future of Torquay magistrates court. (902593)

The Courts and Tribunals Service is evaluating all responses to the consultation, and no decisions have been made. An announcement on the future of Torquay magistrates court will be made in due course.

I thank the Minister for his answer. At the end of this month, a successful turnaround integrated offender management team that is based at the court building is due to be evicted. Can he confirm that this is not a sign that the decision has already been taken, and that the Government are still considering options to keep justice local in the bay?

May I first thank my hon. Friend for the submission that he made to the consultation? I am also grateful to him for raising this point so that I can clarify the issue. I can confirm that no decisions have been taken. Moreover, the arrangement for the turnaround IOM team to use the building was always due to come to an end this month. I understand that alternative arrangements have been made for it to continue to provide its very valuable services locally.

Parole Hearings: Victim Statements

The Conservative election manifesto included a commitment to introduce a new victims law enshrining the rights of victims, including the right to a personal statement before the Parole Board decides on a prisoner’s release. We will publish details in due course. I recognise and passionately believe in the importance of giving victims a voice.

Anne Forbes, whose son Iain was brutally murdered by five men in Corby in 1993, has this year alone had to go through the ordeal of reading out three of these victim statements. This has taken its toll not only on her family but on her health. Will the Minister meet me and Mrs Forbes to discuss the role of victim statements and how they can work better for victims and their families?

The whole idea of a victim statement is for the victim to feel that they are part of the process, and not for it to be a burden on them. Naturally I will meet my hon. Friend and Mrs Forbes to see how her experiences, and other victims’ experiences, can improve the situation for them. I look forward to the meeting.

The average time taken from charging to Crown court trial is close to a year. That is lamentable for victims. What is the Minister going to do to bring this time down substantially?

I fully agree that the length of time between charging and the case coming to court needs to be improved for victims, and that their whole experience needs to be improved within the criminal justice system. The Justice Secretary has already announced measures to speed up the process, and more will be coming forward shortly.

Victims always remain victims, whereas criminals eventually serve their sentence in full, so will the Minister ensure that especially in cases of violent crimes, parole is very rarely given?

That is obviously a matter for the Parole Board, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Victims are victims for life; it is something they have to live with for the rest of their life. That is why the support that the Government intend to continue to give to victims is very important.

My constituent Marie McCourt’s daughter Helen was murdered in 1988 and her body has never been found. Her killer received a life sentence, but despite still refusing to reveal the whereabouts of her remains, he is being considered for parole. Will the Minister look at the guidelines to ensure that this man and others like him are never released until they have given information about the location of their victims’ remains?

Naturally I cannot give a commitment on any individual case, but I would like to meet the hon. Gentleman’s constituent if possible to make sure that we can help her and her close family as much as possible. It is imperative that where victims feel that they want to, and that they have the courage to do so, their statements are taken into account by the Parole Board.

The victims can sometimes be the wider community. When are the wider community going to get a say on parole hearings— for instance, on violent crimes that might afflict a whole community? When are the community going to get a say alongside pre-sentence reports on some of these individuals, so that they are represented and their voice is heard regarding the criminal actions of those individuals and the impact they have on a wider number of people?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. We have to be really careful, though, that we do not take away from the individual victims the feeling that they are part of the process, which is something that all Governments have tried to address for many years. We are committed to doing that. We also have to be really careful that we do not create a vigilante situation, but I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. We have to make sure that the criminal justice system works for everybody.

Custodial Sentences: Women

Crime is falling and the female prison population is now consistently under 4,000 for the first time in a decade. Last year, over 70% of women successfully completed their sentence in the community. However, we want to do more, so in partnership with the Government Equalities Office we are making available a £200,000 grant fund to support local areas to pilot the development of multi-agency approaches to female offending.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but the number of women in prisons across the UK has doubled since 2000. Many are mothers serving six-month sentences or less for minor offences, and that causes irreparable damage to family life. Will the Minister follow the example of the SNP Scottish Government in working harder to reduce the number of women in prison and give community sentences where possible?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and that is what the pilots are about. Female offenders often have very complex needs. They are much more likely to self-harm and to be victims of violence or domestic abuse than their male counterparts. That is why the pilots, which seek to divert women away from a pathway to prison very early on in their offending behaviour, are fantastic. The schemes recognise that sending women to prison can have a devastating effect not only on their lives, but on those of their dependent children.

Will the Minister confirm that, for every single category of offence, a man is more likely than a woman to be sent to prison, to be sent to prison for longer and to serve more of their sentence in prison? Given this age of gender equality that the Government believe in so much, what possible justification can there be for releasing more women from prison than men, and what assessment has the Minister made of whether or not that breaks discrimination laws?

I am very happy to have the opportunity to answer that question. Obviously, sentences are based on the individual offence. Male offenders are, and will continue to be, supported through existing processes to address their needs, but let us not forget that our Prison Service and probation service were designed with male offenders in mind, because they make up 95% of their customers.

Will the Minister outline what levels of support will be available or are being considered for those women’s dependants, many of whom are quite young children?

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. That is why our women’s prisons have made an enormous effort to engage with families and children, and some of them give women the opportunity to hold overnight visits with their young children. That is what the pilots are about: they are about recognising offending behaviour very early on, so that we can bring in third sector organisations and local authorities to divert women from ending up in prison.

Legal Aid

The Government are committed to the civil legal aid residence test and are planning the next steps following the success in the Court of Appeal. Individuals should have a strong connection to the UK to benefit from the civil legal aid scheme.

The Minister was forced to admit last year that there were no precise figures for any savings from this policy area. The policy was also criticised by the Joint Committee on Human Rights and is subject to further legal scrutiny under the Supreme Court. Is it not time that the Minister gave up the ghost on this failed area of policy?

Given the Court of Appeal judgment on 25 November, when it sided with the Government, we have no intention of giving up on this. It is important to remember that people who seek to have benefit from UK taxpayers should show some connection to this country. It is perfectly reasonable to expect people to have continuous 12-month residency in the UK before they benefit from UK taxpayers’ money for their legal aid.

On legal aid and any potential change, has the Minister turned his mind to the disparity involved when one parent abuses the legal aid available to them in order to get an upper hand in contact cases with their children while the other parent has to self-finance?

There are, of course, rules and regulations as to who qualifies and who does not. I cannot comment on specific individual cases, but the Legal Aid Agency does try to make sure that it is only those who qualify who get the assistance it provides.

In June, the Justice Secretary criticised what he called the two nation justice system, but restricting civil legal aid according to how long an individual has lived in this country clearly widens the gap between those afforded access to justice and those not. The residence test would have denied justice to the family of Jean Charles de Menezes. Does the Minister think that that is right, and if not, will he drop the two nation justice policy of the Justice Secretary’s predecessor?

The hon. Gentleman needs to appreciate that we have had to take tough measures. It is vital, and the British people in their millions rightfully say that they want overseas people to have some connection with the UK before getting use of the taxes that they pay. The residence test has gone through the court process to the Court of Appeal, and if it goes further, the Government will object and robustly defend our stance on the residence test.

Criminal Courts Charge

5. If he will make an assessment of the effect of the criminal courts charge on access to justice; and if he will make a statement. (902597)

Last week, I announced that the Ministry of Justice will review the entire structure and purpose of the financial penalties and orders handed down by courts to offenders, with a view to considering options for simplification and improvement. The Government have listened carefully to the concerns raised about the criminal courts charge, and in the light of those concerns, I decided to pause the imposition of the charge while the wider review is carried out.

May I take the opportunity to congratulate the Secretary of State on scrapping yet another proposal put forward by his predecessor, but may I also remind him that he was Chief Whip at the time and voted for the policy? Individuals have incurred high levels of personal debt, which they are unlikely to be able to pay back, because of this cost. Bearing that in mind, will the Secretary of State review and waive the outstanding payments, which do nothing but blight the finances of our justice system and place an administrative cost on the taxpayer?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her kind words, and for reminding the House that, while I was not an unprecedented success as Chief Whip, I did manage to vote with the Government the majority of the time while I was in that post. It is the case that people will have paid penalties under the criminal courts charge. That was the law at the time, and it will be the law until 24 December. After that, people will not pay the criminal courts charge.

Members on both sides of the House will be pleased that the fixed charge will no longer apply from later this month, but does the Secretary of State agree that it is right that convicted criminals should contribute not only towards supporting victims, but towards the running costs of our criminal courts?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. One of the reasons why we are reviewing the way in which the court orders penalties and fines to be paid is that there is at least a triple purpose: of course penalties need to be paid in order to ensure that people recognise that they have crossed the threshold of the law and need to be punished, but the money raised also goes to help with both the administration of justice and the support of victims.

20. Until 24 December, magistrates will be forced to impose what is now a discredited charge, which has caused many of them to resign. What advice does the Secretary of State give those people in the meantime? (902613)

To obey the law of the land. It is my responsibility to uphold the rule of law. We sought to take steps as quickly as possible after a proper review of the criminal courts charge and after the spending review to suspend the operation of the charge. Twenty-one days after the requisite statutory instrument was laid—that is, on 24 December—there will be no further imposition of the charge.

May I, too, welcome the Lord Chancellor’s fifth U-turn—or is it his sixth? I note that it is somewhat unorthodox to rehabilitate one’s own reputation by trashing one’s predecessor. Will he now clean up the mess his Government have made, rather than walk away from it? When will the charge be repealed by primary legislation? Why is it still being imposed —it does not have to be—up to Christmas? Will the charges already imposed be remitted? Will the magistrates who resigned in protest be reinstated? Will he tell us the cost of the debacle, and how much it adds to the £15 million he has already wasted on the privatisation of fines collection and the secure college?

Order. That was something of a multifaceted question, but I think we can rely on the Secretary of State to respond with his customary elegant simplicity.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. You are quite right that there were more questions in that sally than in a multiple-choice maths GCSE paper.

Yes; I hesitate to say what the mark would be.

We moved as expeditiously as possible to suspend the charge. The best legal advice available to the Department suggested that this was the most effective way of relieving magistrates of the obligation to impose it.

HM Courts and Tribunals Service

I am delighted that we have secured over £700 million of funding to invest in our courts and tribunals. We have worked closely with the senior judiciary to develop a plan to reform our courts system so that it delivers swifter and fairer justice for everyone in England and Wales at a lower cost.

My constituents in Ogmore face the closure of two local courts: one at Pontypridd in the neighbouring constituency and one in Bridgend. How does the Minister respond to the president of the Law Society, Jonathan Smithers, when he warns that:

“Combined with the further planned increases in court fees and reductions in eligibility for legal aid, many of the proposed closures will serve to deepen the inequalities in the justice system between those who can and cannot afford to pay.”?

It is important in the 21st century that we recognise that a third of the 460 court and tribunal buildings are utilised at a rate of less than 50%. Many of the buildings are not fit for purpose, are listed or are not in compliance with equalities legislation. There is a host of problems and the cost of running the buildings is phenomenal. We need a reformed, up-to-date and modern courts system, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that it will provide access to justice for all.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he agree that it is high time, as we are in the 21st century, that we updated outdated court practices, with particular regard to the way in which those with learning disabilities are treated in the system?

Absolutely. As a consequence of the £700 million investment that we received in the spending review, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a modern, user-focused and efficient Courts and Tribunals Service. Reform of the service is crucial to enable much more efficient access to justice for everyone, including people with learning difficulties. In the one nation Britain that we seek, we want to ensure that everyone has access to all the public facilities on offer.

As part of the Government’s welcome courts modernisation plans, Cheltenham magistrates court can expect to hear cases from across Gloucestershire, not just from Cheltenham. What measures will be taken to ensure that such courts have the physical and staffing resources they need to deal with the increased case load?

It is already the case that all magistrates court work in Gloucestershire that requires custodial facilities is heard at Cheltenham magistrates court. Should more work be moved to Cheltenham following the outcome of the consultation, the Courts and Tribunals Service will continue to assess the resources that are available at the court to ensure that they meet operational requirements. I should, however, emphasise that no decisions have yet been taken regarding magistrates courts in Gloucestershire.

My constituents in Stockport would probably understand where the Minister is coming from, were their courthouse not down for closure. It is one of the busiest in Greater Manchester, was refurbished as recently as 2010 and has specialist facilities for witness support and protection. Is this not a short-sighted move by the Ministry of Justice? Will he now save Stockport courthouse?

There is nothing short-sighted about having a consultation, the purpose of which is to allow people such as the hon. Gentleman and his constituents to have their say and try to persuade us that, all things considered, the court should be retained. As I said, no decisions have been taken and we are carefully considering all the submissions.

I listen to Tory MPs and Ministers talking constantly about localism. How can this be a form of localism, when people are having to travel 50 or 60 miles to get justice, instead of going to the local court? It is nothing but hypocrisy.

I have the utmost respect for the hon. Gentleman, but may I gently bring him into the 21st century, which he may not be familiar with? We will ensure that with modern technology such as video-conferencing and telephone facilities, people will have access to justice without having to go to court. Access to justice does not mean simply attending a court and the physical building that it represents.

22. I understand the rationale behind court modernisation, as it will help to create a more streamlined and responsive justice system while generating substantial savings for the taxpayer, and I am grateful to the Minister for meeting me to discuss the proposed closure of Stockport court, which is a mutual interest. Following our conversations, will he provide an update on that court’s future, and say whether the proposals that I presented to him, which would mean that that court remained viable, have been considered? (902616)

My hon. Friend is right to say that we have met. With this proposed closure of 91 courts, I have tried to make myself available to as many colleagues as possible—as far as I am aware, I have met every person who wanted a meeting. I am seriously considering my hon. Friend’s proposals, and I am grateful to her for submitting them.

Prisons’ Engagement with Employers

7. What steps his Department is taking to improve prisons’ engagement with employers; and if he will make a statement. (902599)

12. What steps his Department is taking to improve prisons’ engagement with employers; and if he will make a statement. (902604)

The investment in prison reform announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the spending review is designed to make it easier to get prisoners learning and working. As a result, I recently met the Employers’ Forum for Reducing Re-offending to discuss how we can improve employment opportunities for ex-offenders.

New Call Telecom in Pendle is working with Spacious Place, a social enterprise, to help young offenders at Forest Bank prison with training and employment opportunities. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming New Call Telecom’s work to improve rehabilitation and get young offenders back into society and into employment?

I wholeheartedly welcome its work, and I commend its efforts to other companies. About 20% of companies employ ex-offenders, but as many as 90% of companies have expressed an interest in doing so. I suspect that the example set by the employer in my hon. Friend’s constituency will inspire more companies to support ex-offenders into work.

Given that prison is an expensive option, does my right hon. Friend agree that it makes moral sense to give people who wish to turn their lives around the opportunity to work? Does he also agree that that makes sound business sense, because those people are often hard-working and very loyal employees?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. It is economically sensible to ensure that ex-offenders are in work—about 22% of those in receipt of out-of-work benefits are ex-offenders—and it makes moral sense to give people dignity and a chance to redeem themselves by contributing economically to society.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of my interest in the work of the Cascade Foundation, which was founded by my constituent Jackie Hewitt-Main, and does amazing work in educating and rehabilitating offenders with learning needs. Will he meet me and the Cascade Foundation so that it can share some of its observations about ways we could further improve and streamline rehabilitation through education in prison and on release?

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and her constituent. Many outstanding firms, from Cisco Systems to Greggs the bakers, Halfords and DHL, are doing more and more to employ offenders, and we must reduce the bureaucratic burdens standing in their way.

When I sat on the Justice Committee earlier this summer, I visited Holloway prison and saw how release on temporary licence allowed women to carry out jobs that led to employment on the outside, and to stability. That worked extremely well in Holloway because the transport links are so good, but how can the Secretary of State ensure that such facilities are consistently good across all women’s prisons in the UK?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point. I would like to see an expansion of release on temporary licence across the prison estate, not just in women’s prisons. We must ensure an appropriate assessment of the risk posed by releasing offenders in such a way, but we must also reinforce the initiative of prison governors who want people out there working and accustoming themselves to life on the outside.

May I beg the Secretary of State not to forget what has worked in the past? Will he look at the experience of British Gas, Ford and a cluster of companies in the very famous Reading prison, which I believe is due for closure, working with young offenders? The employment rate was amazingly successful. Let us make sure that that model is not forgotten.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. In my constituency, HMP Coldingley works with a group of disparate employers to provide offenders with the chance to contribute again. He makes a very important point.

What specific measures are being put in place to reduce the bureaucracy that companies have to overcome to employ offenders?

The first thing we need to do is give governors a greater sense of freedom so that they are able to invite employers in, ensure they can make use of prisoners while they are still on the prison estate and employ them through the gate. Specific reforms we hope to bring forward in the new year will give more governors precisely that freedom and flexibility.

21. Does the Secretary of State agree that the key to improving employment in prisons is giving more power and control to governors over what goes on in their prisons, including the accountability and control to ensure that the quality is appropriate? (902615)

I absolutely agree. I think many Members will be aware of the Clink Restaurant social enterprise. A visionary prison governor at High Down in Surrey and a succession of great governors at HMP Brixton have helped it to expand. One of the most impressive prisons I have visited, HMP Parc in Bridgend, is also part of this initiative—all because of great governors leading institutions that we can learn from.

Military Veterans

The Government are determined to help all offenders, including ex-armed forces personnel who enter the criminal justice system, to turn their lives around and move away from crime. I was surprised, when I took over as Veterans Minister, to learn that we were not asking prisoners when they came in whether they had served in Her Majesty’s armed forces. We are now doing that when they enter the criminal justice system, so we know better how to help them.

The vast majority of military personnel successfully transition back into civilian life, having left the armed forces. However, veterans represent the largest single cohort in our prisons. Will my right hon. Friend join me in praising the excellent work of Care After Combat, whose Phoenix project aims to reduce reoffending rates by mentoring veterans both in prison and on release?

I would like to take this opportunity to praise all those in the voluntary sector who help in the criminal justice system for the work they do, particularly for veterans. The Phoenix project, piloted in February last year by Care After Combat, seems to be very successful. We look forward to seeing exactly what is going on, but it was successful in getting £1 million from the LIBOR fund in the autumn statement and I wish it every success.

With the Ministry of Defence, will the Minister look at what the stresses are when members of the military leave the armed forces, so we can help to reduce reoffending in the first place, rather than just dealing with it in prison? Will he undertake this important task to identify those causes?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good and important point. As someone who served in the armed forces but left fairly early on—I did not do 22 years—I found that the support was very minimal. We need to make sure that we support our heroes, who have fought for us, in a way that keeps them out of the criminal justice system and gives them the help they need.

On a similar note, will the Secretary of State for Justice work with the Secretary of State for Defence and the Ministry of Defence to review the transition process, so that we really understand why so many veterans are going to prison?

The Government brought in the Act establishing the military covenant to deal with exactly this sort of situation. I have the honour and privilege of sitting on the Prime Minister’s military covenant committee, where such discussions take place regularly.

Prison Initiatives and Programmes

9. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of increasing the use of sport-based initiatives in (a) rehabilitation and (b) counter-extremism programmes in prisons. (902601)

We are interested in developing and testing sports-based initiatives as part of our approach to rehabilitation, and remain committed to using evidence to drive better outcomes and value for money. In October this year, we part-funded an initiative called the National Alliance of Sport for the Desistance of Crime, which will provide further evidence for whether and how sport may assist desistance.

The often troubled young men and women who, instead of having their anger and drive directed elsewhere, fall prey to manipulative and destructive extremist ideology are to be pitied. Is the Minister aware of the success of boxing in rehabilitation and helping to prevent extremism, including in prisons such as HMP Doncaster, and will he consider piloting non-contact boxing schemes in more prisons and for more categories of offender?

My hon. Friend, who has been persistent on this issue, is right that there is promising evidence for the positive influence of sport in rehabilitation. Across prisons in England and Wales, we have 183 different sports-based interventions, although not all of them are available in all prisons. The National Alliance of Sport for the Desistance of Crime will go further in this area, but I would be happy to meet her to talk further about the initiatives she mentions.

I am not convinced that teaching potential jihadists boxing or table tennis will form an essential part of a de-radicalisation programme, but I am ready to be convinced on the pilot. Does the Minister agree that one way to do this is to appoint an extremism officer to monitor radicalisation in prison and ensure that people are de-radicalised when they leave prison?

We will of course proceed according to the evidence from the initiative we have just launched. The right hon. Gentleman will also know that the Secretary of State has launched an independent review of extremism across the prisons estate. Yesterday, I met the excellent former governor who is conducting the review, and we will report in due course.

I am afraid there is an ever-widening chasm between what the Secretary of State and the Minister say about what is happening in our prisons and the reality. I do not doubt that the Minister is sincere in his belief that improvements are being made, but, given that in most prisons exercise in the fresh air, which the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) so wishes to see, is limited to just 30 minutes a day and purposeful activity outcomes are currently at the lowest level inspectors have ever recorded, owing to understaffing, how can he suggest that there is anything other than a crisis in our jails?

I genuinely respect the hon. Lady’s experience in this area, but we have been extremely successful in getting a lot more prison officers on to the landings up and down the country. In the year to 30 September, we saw a net increase of 540 prison officers, meaning less restrictive regimes and more activities. The good news is that we will carry on recruiting at that number up to the end of March next year, when we are seeking an additional 1,700 to 2,000 prison officers.

Legal Representation: Children

11. What assessment he has made of the ease of access for children to appropriate legal representation. (902603)

The Government believe it is important for children and young people to have access to justice. That is why we have made sure that legal aid funding is available for the highest priority cases, including many that are of relevance to children.

The director of the Youth Justice Legal Centre has said that many children are more reliant on the advice and support of their security guard than on their solicitor or legal team. What other steps are the Government taking to ensure that children and young people have access to proper support so that they can participate in a process that could affect the rest of their lives?

We are monitoring closely the impact of any changes—we keep this constantly under review—and we would be very concerned if there was any evidence that vulnerable children were not getting the help they needed.

Legal Aid

In the past five years, we have taken action to put the country’s finances back on track, while protecting legal aid for those who need it the most. Legal aid remains a vital part of our justice system, and we must ensure that it is sustainable and fair for those who need it and those who provide legal services, and fair for the taxpayer. I am pleased that the recent spending review led to no further reductions in criminal legal aid.

All victims of domestic violence must be fully supported in freeing their lives from this menace. Does the Minister agree that it is vital to maintain full access to justice for victims of domestic violence all the way through the legal system?

Yes, I do agree with my hon. Friend, and we have made sure that legal aid remains available for victims of domestic violence who need it. We have also made recent changes making it easier to obtain legal aid in cases where domestic violence is a factor, and we have made sure that once legal aid is granted, no further applications need be made for the duration of the case.

Chester is a city for the legal industry and the legal sector. I am told that numerous criminal legal aid solicitors have been forced out of business or forced to amalgamate with large national firms, while barristers on the Chester circuit are being forced to subsidise access to justice in legal aid cases because they are not getting paid enough through the current legal aid system. Will the Minister review his changes to legal aid, and perhaps deal with them in the same way as the criminal courts charge—by reversing the disastrous changes made in the first place?

We have a legal aid budget of £1.6 billion, which is one of the largest in the world. By comparison with other common law jurisdictions such as Australia, Northern Ireland and Canada, we have double the expenditure per inhabitant. We have started a process and we will see it through. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that those in need of legal aid will be able to have it where it is necessary.

EU Convention on Human Rights

15. What the Government’s policy is on the UK remaining party to the European Convention on Human Rights. (902608)

We cannot rule out ever withdrawing from the ECHR, but our proposals for a Bill of Rights are focused on remaining within the convention, which contains a common-sense list of rights.

Does the Minister agree that a constitutional court could have primacy over decisions in Strasbourg and that such a possibility should be at the heart of any further consultations?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. We respect the fact that the convention includes a common-sense list of rights, and we want to ensure that we have the proper interpretation of those rights. We also want to ensure that we have a Supreme Court that remains supreme. It should be said that where the goalposts of human rights shift, it should be elected Members here that have the last word.

It was reported last week that the long-awaited consultation on the Government’s plans to scrap the Human Rights Act would not be published until the new year. Will the Secretary of State confirm when he intends to bring forward a British Bill of Rights, and will he commit to ensuring a full consultation on these proposals and that adequate time will be given to consider and answer any responses to the consultation?

We have made it clear that the proposals will be brought forward in the new year for full consultation. One area that we want to look at a bit further is the impact of the jurisprudence of the Court of Justice in Luxembourg as well as the Court of Justice in Strasbourg. I can reassure the hon. and learned Lady that we will take the Scottish view very seriously. I have already met the Scottish Justice Minister, Alex Neil, and a range of Scottish practitioners and non-governmental organisations. I look forward to continuing that consultation.

In June the Secretary of State assured this House that, in his view, human rights were a reserved matter. Last week, however, he told the House of Lords Constitutional Affairs Committee that legislation regarding human rights is neither reserved nor devolved. Does he therefore now accept that any legislation repudiating the Human Rights Act and introducing a British Bill of Rights will require the consent of the Scottish Parliament? Is he aware that there is no question of such consent being given?

As we have said many times before, revising the Human Rights Act can only be done by the UK Government, but implementation of many human rights issues is already devolved. I have to say that the SNP’s policy on this issue is rather “cake and eat it”. SNP Members suggest that Westminster is attacking Scottish human rights, but the SNP continues to agree that it does not want to give prisoners the vote. After the Scotland Bill becomes law, the Scottish Parliament will be able to decide who votes in Scottish elections, so the only way that the SNP will be able to maintain the bar on prisoner voting in Scottish elections is by relying on Westminster legislation. Can the hon. and learned Lady confirm that that is her intention?

Order. The hon. and learned Lady has no responsibility to confirm anything. The Minister is a dextrous fellow, engaging in a certain amount of rhetorical pyrotechnics, but I do not think we need a treatise on Scottish National party policy on these important matters on this occasion. He should keep it for the long winter evenings that lie ahead.

The Government’s policy of bringing in a British Bill of Rights will, I am sure, be welcomed across the House. Will the Minister confirm that rather than rushing through the proposal, we should get it right and bring it forward when everyone has had their say and it can stand the test of time?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We make no apology for thinking through tricky constitutional issues. If only the last Labour Government had done the same—but we were saddled with the Human Rights Act 1998. Tony Blair claimed that he had secured an opt-out from the charter of fundamental rights of the European Union, only to find that it leaked like a sieve. It may take a little longer to clear up the constitutional mess, but that is what we intend to do.

Order. I do apologise. I think we nearly missed the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David). We must hear from the hon. Gentleman first; let’s hear the feller.

You are very kind, Mr Speaker. Thank you very much. May I return to the issue of Scotland and human rights? Clarity on that issue is now extremely important. The Deputy Leader of the House said that human rights were

“reserved for the UK Parliament and not a devolved matter.”—[Official Report, 15 June 2015; Vol. 597, c. 132.]

Will the Minister say quite clearly that she was wrong?

I have made the position very clear; we have consistently made it very clear. Only the UK Government can revise the Human Rights Act, but the implementation of human rights issues in many areas is already devolved.

Civil Court Fees

16. What assessment he has made of the effect on court users of recent changes in civil court fees. (902609)

The Government are monitoring data on case loads and fee income from the civil courts, but it is too early to draw any firm conclusions. We will continue to keep the impact of fee changes under review. We recognise that fee increases are not popular, but at every stage we have sought to protect the most vulnerable by ensuring that they will not have to pay new and higher fees. In the current financial climate, it is only right that we are considering every option to raise fees to meet the budgetary challenges that we face.

In March 2015, the court issue fee for a £200,000 claim was raised by more than 600%, from £1,500 to £10,000. Does the Minister appreciate the impact of that on small start-up companies, of which there are many in my constituency, and will he assure those companies that there will be no further rise after the current consultation?

It is important for the hon. Gentleman to recognise that the court system needs to be properly funded. However, we have a very effective remission system, and those who cannot afford the fees do not have to pay them. He should also bear in mind that court fees amount to a tiny fraction of the total amount of legal fees that are incurred.

Topical Questions

With your permission, Mr Speaker, let me say that I hope the whole House agrees that we are all in the debt of the dedicated prison officers and prison staff who will be working on Christmas day and over the Christmas season. In that spirit, let me also congratulate the newly elected leader of the Prison Officers Association, Mr Mike Rolfe. My Department looks forward to working with him to improve the situation of all prison officers. They do an invaluable job, and we should support them in every way we can.

I associate myself with the Justice Secretary’s remarks. Secure colleges, criminal court charges, court fine enforcement and Saudi Arabian contracts— £40.7 million has been wasted so far. Will the Justice Secretary reveal to the House the full costs of those policy changes, and will he tell us which Minister is responsible for that waste of public money?

The hon. Lady started very well, in a bipartisan way. The point about each of the policies that she mentioned is that we made those decisions in both the national interest and the taxpayer’s interest.

T3. Paul Gambaccini, Jim Davidson and Jimmy Tarbuck have all spoken about the appalling trauma and stress involved in the conducting of an investigation, following allegations, in the full glare of publicity, and then the closing of the case because no further action has been taken. That is quite apart from the appalling collusion of the BBC and the police over the investigation of Cliff Richard. Have the Government given any consideration to turning the clock back, so that such investigations can be conducted with no publicity until the person concerned has been charged? (902585)

I absolutely take account of my hon. Friend’s point. The Government’s position is that, in general, there should be a right to anonymity before the point of charge, but the decision to release the name or details of a suspect in an investigation is an operational one for the police to make. Ministers should not interfere in the operational independence of the police, but I think that the case made by my hon. Friend and others is important. It is vital for us to recognise that the right to be regarded as innocent should be respected by everyone involved in the administration of justice.

Working Links, which runs three community rehabilitation companies in Wales and the west of England, is announcing redundancies of up to 44% of staff—some 600 jobs. If these redundancies go ahead, what will the Secretary of State do to ensure that standards of service and the safety of the public are maintained?

The transforming rehabilitation reforms, which were introduced in the last Parliament by my predecessor, have enhanced the quality of probation support that offenders enjoy, and we needed to make sure the improvements that have been made are built on. Each of the individual community rehabilitation companies will make their own decisions about the mix and qualifications of staff required in order to enhance that service, but these transforming rehabilitation reforms are welcome and are in the interests of offenders and of community safety.

The Lord Chancellor will have seen the reports today of the outrageous treatment of Andrew Waters, whose right to a private life under article 8 of the European convention on human rights was breached by East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust, which placed a “do not resuscitate” order on him, listing his Down’s syndrome and learning difficulties among the reasons. Given that these are exactly the rights the Government wish to opt out of, is it not time, in the week we celebrate international Human Rights Day, for the Lord Chancellor to do another of his famed U-turns and keep the Human Rights Act?

The case the hon. Gentleman raises is indeed very serious, and I cannot imagine any human rights legislation, or indeed any legal architecture that any of the parties in this House would subscribe to, which would in any way countenance the sort of behaviour he has described.

T5. A recent report revealed there had been nearly 400 illegal Traveller encampments across Warwickshire in the last three years, including four in Alveston and Bedworth in my constituency this summer alone, and these are costing the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds. The previous Justice Secretary pledged to address this issue, so will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss what progress has been made, and how the rights of local businesses and residents can always be put first? (902587)

These illegal encampments cause real worry to communities, and I fully understand where my hon. Friend is coming from. I am more than happy to meet him, but I should also say the police and local authorities have substantial powers already. He might look at what happened in Harlow, where we had a very similar situation that has been completely resolved, because there was some backbone in the local government, which actually brought in orders, with the help of the police.

T2. Many magistrates resigned over the fees that the Secretary of State has now reversed his decision on, partly because they felt people were pleading guilty when they were innocent, as the fees would be excessive. In taking his decision, what estimate did the Secretary of State make of how many innocent people pleaded guilty during that time? (902584)

I take account of the hon. Gentleman’s point. In the circumstances, we have to let the judgment of those courts rest, but I invite every single magistrate who felt, for whatever reason, that they could not sit on the bench as a result of that policy to reconsider and revisit their decision.

T7. Wimbledon is the home of one of London’s probation service resource centres, where there is a real focus on providing ex-offenders with the education and skills they need. Given the importance of education and skills to the rehabilitation of ex-offenders, does the Minister agree that it is essential that the next head of the probation service is someone who can really concentrate on that and on vocational training, as that is what the service needs? (902589)

I very much agree with my hon. Friend and welcome that point. He will be aware of the importance we are placing on improving education in prisons with the Dame Sally Coates review, but it must follow on through the gate, so that, for example, courses started in prison are completed in the community if they have not already been finished.

T6. Further to my earlier intervention, may I simply remind the Minister of the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of pounds that have been spent in recent years on the courts in Pontypridd and Bridgend? He urges me to consider the upgrading. They have been upgraded; do not close them. (902588)

Access to justice comes in various forms. An African chief justice who visited me earlier this year told me that he wanted a justice system in which the people living in the villages outside the capital city could access their courts through their mobile phones. That is how the world is progressing, and we have to ensure that we keep pace with it. We will keep the majesty of the court building for those serious cases that require it, but we also need to recognise that modern technology requires different forms of communication, and that access to justice is not what it used to be in the past.

The Lord Chancellor’s speech to the Magistrates Association last week was very welcome on a number of counts, particularly his reference to the success of problem-solving courts in New York, such as that at Red Hook, which the Justice Committee has looked at in the past. Will he give us further details of his discussions with the Lord Chief Justice and the judiciary on how we can take that process forward? [Interruption.]

Order. There was rather too little regard being paid to the fact that we were listening to a question from the Chair of the Justice Committee, a point of which I hope hon. Members will take proper note in future.

There is broad bipartisan support for the idea of problem-solving courts. Lord Woolf, when he was Lord Chief Justice, and David Blunkett, when he was Home Secretary, both agreed that it was important to explore the potential of problem-solving courts, not just to keep our streets safe but to ensure that offenders changed their lives. I had the great privilege of meeting Judge Alex Calabrese last night. He has been very successful in this area, and I know that the Justice Committee has highlighted his work in America. We will make an announcement shortly on the joint work that the current Lord Chief Justice and I will take forward in this area.

T8. The Government’s own figures reveal that the number of serious crimes committed by violent and sex offenders who are being monitored after leaving prison has risen by more than 28%, and that some 222 offenders under supervision in the community were charged with crimes including murder and manslaughter and with sexual offences in 2014-15. The National Association of Probation Officers has said that this is partly due to the privatisation of probation, which means that the exchange of information between agencies is not quick enough. What urgent steps is the Minister taking to address this issue? (902590)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to suggest that serious offences are a very serious matter from which we must learn every possible lesson to ensure that there is no repeat, but I do not agree that the transforming rehabilitation reforms are in any way responsible for a degradation of the probation service. I remind her that 45,000 criminals now receive probation supervision who did not get it before, because the last Government brought in probation for those who are sent to prison for less than a year.

I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that his Department is giving full consideration to the compelling, evidence-based and locally produced case for Lowestoft magistrates court to remain open.

I have met my hon. Friend and debated this matter with him, and I can assure him that we are giving serious consideration to all the information that he and his colleagues have given us regarding his local court.

T9. Has the Minister read the recent “Locked out” report from Barnardo’s, which claims that changes to the incentives and earned privileges scheme mean that a child’s right to see their father is being withheld in order to enforce discipline? Does he think that this is good for the 200,000 children who have a parent in jail? (902591)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. I have met representatives of Barnardo’s on a number of occasions, and I pay tribute to the work that they do in this area. The Secretary of State and I place the highest importance on maintaining the family links of prisoners, and we will continue to look at this policy and at all policies that affect strengthening prisoners’ family relationships.

On 27 November, a transgender prisoner killed herself while serving in a male jail. What are the Government planning to do to address the concern about another tragic death in this vulnerable group of people?

We take every death in custody very seriously. The management and care of transgender people in prison is complex, and the Government take it very seriously. The National Offender Management Service is undertaking a review of the relevant Prison Service instruction to ensure that it provides an appropriate balance between the needs of the individual, and the responsibility to manage the risk and safeguard all prisoners. I can announce today that the review will be widened to consider what improvements we can make across prisons, probation and youth justice regarding the future shape of services for trans prisoners and offenders. The review will engage with relevant stakeholders, and Peter Dawson from the Prison Reform Trust and Dr Jay Stewart from Gendered Intelligence will act as independent advisers to the review, which we expect to conclude next year.

I say in a very kindly way to the Minister, whom I much esteem, that sometimes Ministers, who of course are ultimately responsible, must trim the officialese that is penned for them by others. The hon. Lady is her own best judge in these important matters, and I know she is perfectly capable of doing that herself.

T10. The prison in Wrexham is extremely welcome, but has the Minister had a chance to look at the concerns raised by the First Minister about the healthcare costs for prisoners, many of whom are from England, falling entirely on the Assembly? (902592)

I had the pleasure of visiting Wrexham a couple of weeks ago, and I can tell the House that the prison is progressing well, and it has excellent work facilities. I am aware of the point the right hon. Gentleman raises, and we will continue negotiations with the Welsh Government on the issue. That is all I can say to him at this time.

Our courts system not only provides effective justice to us domestically, but is the forum of choice for much foreign litigation. When considering the civil courts charge, will the Secretary of State ensure that our courts remain not only effective places for the resolution of domestic litigation, but at the forefront of international dispute resolution?

My hon. and learned Friend makes a good point, but I think she also ought to bear in mind that the reason why people come to Britain for their litigation is not because of the fees, but because of the expertise we offer, the impartiality of our judges and the fact that UK law is used by a large part of the world as well.

How is the transforming rehabilitation programme in Wales likely to achieve its targets if the only CRC—community rehabilitation company—is to base its operations in Middlesbrough and make 200 staff redundant?

These reforms give us the opportunity to bring down reoffending rates, which have been stubbornly high for a very long time. We are tracking the performance of the CRCs very closely and we will continue to do so, and in time I think we will see significant results from these reforms.

I recently wrote to the Lord Chancellor and received an uncharacteristically non-committal reply, unbelievable though that may seem. I therefore ask him again: does he believe the maximum tariff for child cruelty, which is set at 10 years, is too low, and will he use the upcoming criminal justice Bill to raise it to 14 years?

Normally I like to give my hon. Friend satisfaction, but on this occasion I am afraid I will have to maintain the enigmatic prevarication that characterised my previous communication with him.

I hope the Secretary of State will be aware of the High Court ruling of 26 November on the legality of the benefit cap when applied to disabled people and their carers. What advice will the Justice Secretary give the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in the light of that ruling?

I will discuss the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State later today.

New Member

The following Member took and subscribed the Oath required by law:

James McMahon, for Oldham West and Royton.

Bill Presented

Fracking (Measurement and Regulation of Impacts) (Air, Water and Greenhouse Gas Emissions) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Geraint Davies, supported by Mike Weir, Jonathan Edwards, Kate Osamor, Tulip Siddiq, Neil Coyle, Caroline Lucas, Chris Evans, Dawn Butler, Mr Mark Williams, Dr Rupa Huq and John Mc Nally presented a Bill to require the Secretary of State to measure and regulate the impact of unconventional gas extraction on air and water quality and on greenhouse gas emissions; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 29 January 2016; and to be printed (Bill 105).