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Topical Questions

Volume 605: debated on Tuesday 26 January 2016

I have already had occasion in the House to offer my thanks and gratitude to Nick Hardwick, the outgoing chief inspector of prisons, and to Paul Wilson, the outgoing chief inspector of probation. Their expertise will not be lost to the criminal justice system, however, because, as I am delighted to announce today, I will be appointing Nick Hardwick as the new chair of the Parole Board. He will succeed the current chair, Sir David Calvert-Smith, who is due to leave at the end of March. I thank him for his service.

The courts Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), will know that last year I wrote a report on former service personnel in the criminal justice system that recommended, among other things, training for members of the Bar, solicitors and judges to deal with this cohort—albeit a small cohort—of offenders. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that court staff—those actually employed in the courts—receive appropriate training to deal with these individuals?

My hon. and learned Friend, who is a distinguished veteran as well as an outstanding silk, makes an important point. He produced an excellent report on offenders who have been in the armed forces. Court staff are trained to deal with the specific needs of veterans, and we are aware that there are particular needs, which might relate to post-traumatic stress disorder and associated mental health concerns, to which court staff need to be sensitive.

I commend the Secretary of State for his appointment of Nick Hardwick to the Parole Board. I am sure he will be just as forensic there as in his current role.

Exactly a year ago, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), with his usual prescience, said that the new criminal legal aid contracts were

“making a pig’s ear of access to justice”

and should be abandoned. Will the Secretary of State confirm the press reports that he is about to do just that?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his praise for Nick Hardwick. I believe he is the right person to discharge this role precisely because he has spoken without fear or favour and has been an honest critic who has followed where the evidence has led him. I am sure he will appreciate the bipartisan support for his appointment.

We have had to reduce the spend on criminal legal aid to deal with the deficit we inherited from the last Government, but this country still maintains more generous legal aid than any other comparable jurisdiction.

An hour ago at the Justice Select Committee, the Master of the Rolls described the fee increases affecting civil litigants of small businesses as a desperate way of carrying on based on hopeless research. He laughed when asked by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) if anything in the Government’s argument stood up to scrutiny.

I can hear, borne like music upon the zephyrs, words from my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) suggesting that, for once, the hon. Gentleman may be misinformed about what precisely happened in the Select Committee. But putting that entirely to one side, one of the biggest barriers to justice, as the Master of the Rolls and others have pointed out, is costs. Action needs to be taken to reduce costs in civil justice. It is not enough simply to say that the taxpayer must shoulder the burden. We need reform of our legal system to make access to justice easier for all.

T2. I know that my hon. Friend regards access to justice as a clear priority. With that in mind, and given the large area of north-east Cheshire that will be without easy access to a court under the proposals in the current consultation, can he tell the House what progress is being made in considering the Macclesfield proposal for a single, combined Macclesfield justice centre? (903225)

I thank my hon. Friend for the meeting we had and for the justice centre report that he and his constituent presented to me. He will be aware that we are giving serious consideration to that report and, indeed, to the 2,000-plus submissions made in the consultation, to which we will respond soon.

T3. Women’s Aid published a report last week entitled “Nineteen Child Homicides”. It tells the story of 19 children and two mothers killed by known perpetrators of domestic abuse in circumstances related to unsafe child contact. How will the Department work with Women’s Aid and others to ensure that no further avoidable child deaths take place where perpetrators of domestic abuse have been allowed contact through the family court? (903226)

We take concerns about child safety extraordinarily seriously, and I know that my colleague the Minister responsible for family law has been in touch with charities that work in this sphere in the past. We will make sure that we pay close attention to that report.

T6. Does my hon. Friend share my anger and that of my constituent Carol Valentine, whose son Simon was tragically killed while serving his country in Afghanistan, at law firms such as Leigh Day, which are heavily involved in actions against veterans and serving members of our armed forces? What action can the Government take to close down this industry, which is causing so much unnecessary distress to our armed forces and their families? (903229)

We do share my hon. Friend’s concerns. He will be aware of the Prime Minister’s announcement on Friday. The professionalism of our armed forces is second to none, but we cannot have returning troops hounded by ambulance-chasing lawyers pursuing spurious claims. The Justice Secretary has asked me to chair a working group with the Minister for the Armed Forces to look at all aspects of this—no win, no fee; legal aid rules; time limits for claims; and disciplinary sanctions against law firms found to be abusing the system—so that we prevent any malicious or parasitic litigation from being taken against our brave armed forces.

T4. Can the Minister confirm how many times contract breaches at G4S establishments have occurred under contracts with his Department and what amount in fines has been incurred by G4S in respect of those breaches? (903227)

I do not have the detailed information that the hon. Lady has asked for, but if she will allow me, I will write to her with the details.

T8. My hon. Friend is aware of the serious problems associated with radicalisation in our prisons. Can he update the House on what steps are being taken to tackle it? (903231)

I understand my hon. Friend’s proper interest in this subject. As the threat evolves, we evolve our response. I can tell her that we are strengthening the training for new prison officers to ensure that they are able to tackle criminal activity in whatever form it takes within prisons. As the Secretary of State said earlier, he has asked the Department to review its approach to dealing with Islamist extremism in prisons, and we await that report shortly.

T5. It is worth repeating the damning indictment of this Government given by the Lord Chief Justice just two weeks ago:“Our system of justice has become unaffordable to most”.Will the Secretary of State take heed of those comments and also follow the Scottish National party lead by committing to the abolition of tribunal fees? (903228)

I take very seriously everything that the Lord Chief Justice says, and that is why I am delighted to be able to work with him on a programme of courts reform, which should make access to justice swifter, more certain and cheaper. Of course it is important that we learn from different jurisdictions, but even as we look to Scotland from time to time to see what we can learn from the development of the law there, it is also important that from time to time those charged with what happens in Scottish courts should look at the tradition of English justice, which, as a Scotsman myself, I would have to acknowledge has certain superior elements.

T9. Does the Minister agree that improving the mental health of prisoners should be a top priority and specifically that when a prisoner is released from prison with a known mental health condition, there should be close liaison between the prison authorities, local GPs and local health services to put a care plan in place? (903232)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I pay tribute to his long interest and great expertise in this particular issue. He will probably know that local commissioning groups in England and local health boards in Wales are responsible for services in the community. NHS healthcare staff in prisons are responsible there. It is their job to make sure that services provided in the prison are followed through in the community. We go to great efforts to make sure that happens.

T7. Will the Secretary of State meet his colleague the Immigration Minister to explain that the Minister’s Bill, which would allow migrant families to be evicted without even a court order, is contrary to the rule of law and the right to a fair hearing, and must be urgently reconsidered? (903230)

I enjoy meeting both the Home Secretary and the Immigration Minister, and this Government would never do anything that was contrary to the rule of law, but we must ensure that we safeguard our borders. It is an issue of profound public concern that immigration across the European Union is not being effectively controlled. Our Home Secretary is in the lead in taking the measures necessary to keep our borders secure. I would have thought it would be in the interests of every citizen of the United Kingdom to stand behind her in that fight.

T10. Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey), does my hon. Friend agree that people in this House will find it despicable that two firms and possibly more are actively seeking—soliciting, in fact—people in Iraq to make spurious and bogus claims against our servicemen overseas? Will he reject reports in newspapers that we still intend to give legal aid to these appalling claims? (903233)

My hon. Friend will have heard my earlier remarks. I am concerned about the way in which the system operates. It is important to say that there is accountability for any wrongdoing, but that does not mean giving lawyers a licence to harass our armed forces. We will look at every angle, including the point about legal aid that he made, as well as no win, no fee, and, of course, disciplinary powers against lawyers who try to abuse the system.

In 2012, the Minister’s own Department spent £1.7 million refurbishing St Helens courthouse to accommodate civil and criminal proceedings in the same building, declaring that it was efficient and logical. Are we to assume therefore that considering the closure of the same courthouse just four years later is illogical and inefficient, or would the Minister like to rule that out today?

No final decisions have yet been taken, and we are taking into account a whole variety of considerations. The consultation concerns 91 courts throughout England and Wales, and it is about making our system better and one of the best in the world.

Following the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris), what steps are being taken to ensure that all prisoners with mental health issues are dealt with safely, appropriately and compassionately?

I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised this issue again. Whenever a prisoner comes into prison, they immediately have a full health assessment. That health practitioner has the ability to refer on to the prison’s in-reach mental health services. Furthermore, through our liaison and diversion services, we now have either learning disability or mental health nurses available at police stations and in courts, so we can start the mental health treatment right at the beginning of the journey into the criminal justice system.

I hope that the Secretary of State, who takes a keen interest in this issue, will meet me and Brake to discuss my Criminal Driving (Justice for Victims) Bill. May I gently point out that the consultation on this started on 6 May 2014 —a very long time ago, and we are not expecting to hear anything back from the right hon. Gentleman until later this year?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the persistent and effective way in which he has continued to campaign for a change in the law. We had the opportunity to meet MPs from many parties to discuss the case for change. There was widespread agreement that change was needed, but no agreement about precisely what change. We will get back to him in due course.

Given the significant rate of reoffending, would it not be better to focus on improving rehabilitation rather than simply on incarceration, especially in relation to short-term prison sentences?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Few know more about what happens in our courts than he does as a result of his work as a barrister. Yes, it is important to put an emphasis on rehabilitation, but it is also important that we give all our citizens the security of knowing that those people who pose a real threat to us are incapacitated behind bars and receiving the punishment they deserve for the most heinous crimes.

Last week the Public Accounts Committee heard from the chief executive of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority. He was asked what three projects kept him awake and worried him most, and the courts programme was one of them. We can add that to the list: to the tagging and translation services fiascos, and the concern that has been expressed about the big probation and prison programmes. Does the Secretary of State fear that his Department cannot cope with all this change?

I look forward to having a cup of cocoa with the gentleman concerned to help him sleep more easily at night, as I manage to do.

The Secretary of State made his name in the Department for Education as someone who would take on vested interests, but he has gone native in record time as Secretary of State for Justice. That includes hanging on every word that is said by the Howard League for Penal Reform—the NUT of the justice system—and reappointing Nick Hardwick. When will he get back his mojo and put the victims of crime at the heart of what he is doing? Come back Ken Clarke, all is forgiven!

I am not sure that Labour Members would agree with the suggestion that I have become a sandal-wearing, muesli-munching, vegan vaguester. I think that they would probably say that I am the same red-in-tooth-and-claw blue Tory that I have always been. It is because I am a Conservative that I believe in the rule of law as the foundation stone of our civilisation; it is because I am a Conservative that I believe that evil must be punished; but it is also because I am a Conservative, and a Christian, that I believe in redemption, and I think that the purpose of our prison system and our criminal law is to keep people safe by making people better.

We have learnt about the Secretary of State’s personal domestic habits, his political philosophy and, apparently, his religiosity to boot, and we are all greatly enriched as a consequence.

On 4 November, the Prime Minister agreed to meet my constituent Tina Trowhill to discuss the baby ashes scandal. My constituent had already had a very helpful meeting with the Under-Secretary of State, and I wonder whether she will now help me to secure the meeting to which the Prime Minister agreed. May I enlist her support?

We are very clear about the fact that what happened at Emstrey—and, sadly, at other crematoriums in England and Wales—must never happen again. In December, as the hon. Lady will know, we launched a consultation which will end in March. However, I shall be more than happy to make that representation on her behalf.

We are running very late, but the hon. Gentleman has not had a question, and I should like him to have one.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I greatly appreciate that.

The Minister will be aware of the strength of representations from Torbay about the proposal to close Torquay magistrates court. What progress is being made in the consideration of that proposal, and in the making of a decision to keep justice local in the bay?

I hear my hon. Friend’s message loud and clear. We have met and corresponded, and I am giving serious consideration to all that has been said about the court in his constituency.