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Topical Questions

Volume 603: debated on Tuesday 8 December 2015

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).