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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 607: debated on Tuesday 8 March 2016


The Secretary of State was asked—

Foreign National Offenders

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Home Secretary on steps to remove foreign national offenders from UK prisons to their home countries. (903940)

4. What recent discussions he has had with the Home Secretary on steps to remove foreign national offenders from UK prisons to their home countries. (903944)

9. What recent discussions he has had with the Home Secretary on steps to remove foreign national offenders from UK prisons to their home countries. [R] (903950)

The Justice Secretary and the Home Secretary have regular bilateral meetings in which they discuss progress on removing foreign national offenders from UK prisons and more generally. It remains a top priority for both Departments.

In London, we welcome people who come here to study, be tourists or add to our economy, but not those who commit crime and are then imprisoned. With 40% of crime in London committed by foreign nationals, what more can my hon. Friend do to ensure that those responsible are deported at the end of their sentences and not allowed back into this country?

The number of foreign national offenders in the prison population went down by 1,240 between June 2010 and December 2015, but my hon. Friend is right and we strive to do better. Further action is being taken. As the Prime Minister announced on 8 February, we have introduced in the Policing and Crime Bill a new clause that requires defendants appearing in court to provide their name, date of birth and nationality. That is an important tool, backed up by a criminal offence for failure to respond that will help us to remove even more FNOs. That is vital for public protection and vital to saving precious taxpayers’ money.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is totally unacceptable for the British taxpayer to be paying for foreign criminals?

My hon. Friend is right. We have a range of existing measures, as well as the new action I have just described. The early release scheme allows for the early removal of foreign national offenders. We remove about 1,800 prisoners per year under that scheme and there are also prisoner transfer agreements. Overall, 29,000 FNOs have been removed between 2010 and 2015.

What efforts are made to ensure that EU national foreign offenders who have been returned to their countries are banned from returning to the United Kingdom—or is that sort of sensible precaution not possible while we are a member of the European Union?

My hon. Friend makes, if I may say so, a predictable but powerful point. There clearly are restrictions as a result of free movement, but we try to exercise the powers we have as strenuously and as vigorously as possible.

My constituent was stabbed by a criminal who was given an indefinite hospital order. In my view, he should be deported. If I write to the Minister, will he look at the case to see that justice is done for my constituent?

Those kinds of cases are very serious and very traumatic for the family. I am very sympathetic, and the hon. Lady should please feel free to write to me. All I would say to Opposition Members is that when we come to consider human rights reform, I hope that on the substance we can enlist as much support across the House as possible.

The Minister will know that 25% of the foreign national offenders in our prisons come from three EU countries: Ireland, Poland and Romania. What is the reluctance of other EU countries to take back their own citizens who have been committing crimes in our country?

We try, through our prisoner transfer agreements and residual national powers, to exercise powers as robustly as possible to remove as many people as possible. The right hon. Gentleman will know that, as a result of the EU free movement rules and of the Human Rights Act 1998 and human rights regime—which is, in fairness, separate, albeit related to some degree—there are restrictions. As I said to the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), when it comes to looking at human rights reform I hope sensible people with experience, such as the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, will look very carefully at the substance and not just take a purely political stance.

In July 2012, when the Government signed a compulsory transfer agreement with Albania, the then prison Minister said he hoped it would be the first of many. How many have there been since then, and how is the arrangement with Albania going?

We have more than 100 bilateral prisoner transfer agreements, as well as Council of Europe and Commonwealth schemes. If the hon. Gentleman wishes, I can write to him in due course on the particular numbers under the Albanian agreement.

Does the Minister agree that the deportation of foreign national offenders is in some cases inhibited by the operation of the Human Rights Act? If so, will the Minister update the House on plans to repeal it and replace it with a British Bill of Rights?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One specific issue we want to look at in some detail is the scope to which our Bill of Rights can facilitate the removal of serious offenders, particularly when they have relied on their rather elastic, opaque and ever-expanding rights under article 8. The removal of serious offenders is made even more difficult because of the Human Rights Act. Our proposals will be coming in due course.

There are many convicted criminals in our prisons who, after committing crimes in the UK, fled the UK and were then returned here to face justice, thanks to the European arrest warrant. Will the Minister explain to the House how the interests of victims of crime can be protected if we leave the EU and, as a result, the scope of the EAW?

I think the hon. Lady is slightly confused about the difference between extradition and deportation. As a result of European law, it has become harder and harder to deport foreign national offenders, while unfortunately the fast-track extradition of innocent British citizens has become easier and easier. That balance should be addressed, and in that I hope we can enlist her support.

Mental Health Treatment: Young Offenders

2. What steps his Department is taking to improve mental health treatment for young people serving custodial sentences; and if he will make a statement. (903942)

May I, through you, Mr Speaker, apologise to the House on behalf of the Minister for Policing, Fire, Criminal Justice and Victims, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning)? He is unavoidably detained in Bristol on departmental business.

We work closely with the NHS to make sure that young people serving custodial sentences have access to comprehensive mental health provision, and as part of his review of the youth justice system, Charlie Taylor is looking at ways to improve the provision of mental health care for children and young people.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the steps he is taking in this important area, but will he consider making mental health and substance misuse treatment one of the accountability measures in the new prison league tables, including for the youth estate?

My hon. Friend makes a characteristically acute point. According to academic research, up to 70% of prisoners are likely to have had a mental health problem, often related to drink or drug abuse. It is therefore in all our interests that we do everything possible to ensure that appropriate therapy and rehabilitative activity are available to those prisoners.

What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that young people in custody are given adequate safe time outside to protect and safeguard their mental health and wellbeing?

The hon. Lady makes a very good point. As part of the youth justice review, I have tasked Charlie Taylor with making sure that purposeful activity—education, sporting activity and time outside—is part of the regime that all young offenders in custody can enjoy.

What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the impact on prisoner mental health and rehabilitation of ensuring that prisoners serve their sentences as close as possible to their family homes?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is important to ensure that families have access to prisoners. Sometimes, of course, that is facilitated by the prison or secure training centre being close to families, but there are ways to ensure that even geographically distant families have effective access to their loved ones.

Six weeks ago, at the last Justice oral questions, I asked how many fines G4S had received since 2010 and how many times it had breached its contracts for youth training facilities. I was told by the Minister that he would write to me, but I am yet to receive a letter. I have asked written questions asking for this information, but still nothing. It beggars belief that such information, relating to a contract of this size, is not immediately available to Ministers. It also raises a question about what internal row is going on within the Department over the delay of the information.

I can only apologise again, through you, Mr Speaker, to the hon. Lady. She has been persistent on this important issue, and I am truly sorry she has not received answers to her questions. She will be aware, of course, that G4S has said it wants to remove itself from the administration of secure training centres for young people, but it is important that there be full accountability about how public money is spent and how these organisations have operated. I will make sure that a reply comes to her as soon as possible.

We know that many of the young people in secure training centres have serious mental health problems and therefore require specialist support. That is certainly the case at Medway STC. As the Justice Secretary said, we understand that G4S has decided to end its contract at Medway and at another training centre, but I was surprised to learn that it can sell its contracts to other private companies. There is widespread agreement that G4S has an appalling track record in running STCs. In allowing it to sell its contracts, are not the Government rewarding it for failure?

Absolutely not. It is our responsibility to ensure that children in secure training centres are kept in decent and supportive circumstances that enable them to reintegrate into society. As a result of Youth Justice Board monitoring, the work of the improvement board I set up and the wider work by Charlie Taylor, we are monitoring very carefully the health and welfare of children in all our secure training centres. My Department will have the ability to scrutinise any other organisation that takes over the running of these STCs to ensure that children are kept safe.

Legal Services (Brexit)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that on 19 February, the Prime Minister set out the Government position on remaining in the European Union.

The former head of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Sir Hugh Orde, says that leaving the European Union would increase the risk of terrorism and would mean that Britain would become a safe haven for criminals. I am sure that the Minister agrees with Sir Hugh, but will he explain why the Justice Secretary is so keen to ignore this advice from such a well-respected authority and to take such a risk with public safety?

May I make it absolutely clear to the hon. Gentleman that the Government’s position is that we would be better off in the European Union and that we would be safer and more secure in it? It is also the case that the deal struck by the Prime Minister in Brussels very much achieves those objectives.

England and Wales have by far the largest law firms in Europe and provide by far the largest legal services market in Europe, which is 1.5% of UK gross domestic product. Does the Minister not agree with most commercial law firms and the Law Society that up to £1.7 billion of annual legal services output could be lost following a Brexit?

We have one of the best legal sectors in the world. We are thriving both within and outside the European Union. Whatever the decision on 23 June, I am confident that our legal sector will continue to thrive.

Given that an assessment of the impact on legal services will have been made by the civil servants in the Department, does the Minister think it fair, right and proper that his colleague, the Justice Secretary, is denied the opportunity to see the paperwork?

As I said earlier, the Government’s position is very clear—that we will be better off in the European Union. As for any potential disagreements, let me gently say to Opposition Members that it is a bit rich for them to be engaging in this sort of conversation in view of the level of unity in their own party. I am prepared to bet a substantial amount with any Labour Member that tomorrow, in 24 hours’ time, when we have Prime Minister’s Questions, the cheer for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be a lot louder than the cheer that the leader of the Labour party will receive.

May I invite my hon. Friend to think about how he would choose to spend part of the £350 million that we will save every week when we leave the European Union? Will he also confirm that there will be a big saving in translation services currently expended on foreign national offenders?

My hon. Friend makes his point as robustly as he always does. I simply say that the Government position is that we would be better off in the European Union; he might wish to reflect on the 3 million-odd jobs that we have secured that are linked to our being in the European Union.

It must have been tricky choosing who should answer this question. According to The Spectator, the Secretary of State has three Ministers for in, three Ministers for out—a perfect miniature of the Conservative party. Given that the Minister for Policing, Fire, Criminal Justice and Victims is away, perhaps we should take the departmental vote today because there would be a majority for in.

We were promised a British human rights Bill last year, a consultation on the repeal of the Human Rights Act in the new year and then a sovereignty Bill last week. Are we going to get anything before the Secretary of State moves on or by the end of June, whichever comes sooner?

The hon. Gentleman is a seasoned politician, so he will know that Governments operate and timetables are dealt with in the usual way through the usual channels.

Prisoners: Employment after Release

5. What progress his Department is making on plans to ensure that more prisoners obtain employment after release. (903946)

12. What progress his Department is making on plans to ensure that more prisoners obtain employment after release. (903953)

13. What progress his Department is making on plans to ensure that more prisoners obtain employment after release. (903954)

18. What progress his Department is making on plans to ensure that more prisoners obtain employment after release. (903959)

I hope you will allow me, Mr Speaker, to express on behalf of the whole House our utter disgust at the attempted murder of a prison officer in east Belfast on Friday. I am sure that prison officers throughout the United Kingdom will join us in wishing him a full recovery from his injuries.

I meet regularly with businesses and trade bodies to talk about the benefits of employing offenders on release. Following the Prime Minister’s announcement of changes to recruitment practices for the civil service, to give offenders a fair chance of a job, I am keen to encourage all employers to “ban the box” when recruiting.

May I associate myself with the Minister’s initial remarks?

Given the reoffending rates of those who leave prison and manage to secure employment—the evidence shows that fewer than half reoffend, compared with those who do not secure employment—will the Minister support initiatives such as the excellent Footprints project in Dorset, which provides help and mentoring through its team of volunteers? Will he ensure that such projects operate a clear and transparent process of referrals from the new community rehabilitation companies?

I warmly commend the important work that Footprints is doing in Dorset. I want to see greater use of the voluntary sector, and an increased focus on offender employment on the part of CRCs. I made those points to CRC leaders only last week.

As a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, I, too, wish to associate myself with the Minister’s initial comments.

How can we ensure that prisoners do not become institutionalised as a result of seeing prisons as “safe havens”, rather than rebuilding their lives once they have been released?

My hon. Friend has raised an important point. We need to help prisoners to take responsibility for their lives, and that includes helping them to find legal work in order to support their families. I believe that the Prime Minister’s announcement that we will measure employment outcomes for prisoners will drive further progress.

Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the work of Goodwill Solutions in Northampton, which is running a “back to work” programme that is helping ex-offenders, homeless people, those with substance dependencies, and vulnerable young people to secure training and employment in the logistics sector?

I certainly welcome the work of Goodwill Solutions in my hon. Friend’s constituency, but the truth is that we do not have labour shortages only in the logistics area. We have them in construction, engineering, catering and many other areas, which is why I am very ambitious about increasing offender employment.

As was noted by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson), the key to rehabilitation is employment, and the key to employment is training. What is the Department doing to encourage all employers to take an interest in training inside prisons, in order to help offenders to find employment?

That is an extremely important point. The model that I like best is that of the Clink restaurants and the Timpson, Halfords and Aramark academies, which offer demanding work and training in prison and a job and ongoing support on release. It works: I call it the gold standard. Clink graduates, who probably include some of my constituents, are now working at some of London’s top hotels and restaurants.

May I, on behalf of Labour Members, associate myself with the Minister’s remarks about the prison officer who was so severely wounded in Northern Ireland?

We have heard the Minister make a commitment to providing education and employment for prisoners, but surely he is aware that the shortage of prison officers is causing many prisoners to be locked in their cells for long periods, unable to gain access to education and training opportunities. Will he commission a report from within the Department on the impact of staff shortages on prisoners’ education and employment, given that, as many have pointed out, the best way of ensuring that people do not reoffend is to get them into jobs?

The hon. Lady has made a valid point. The good news is that last year we appointed 2,250 prison officers—that is a net increase of 440—and we will continue to recruit the prison officers whom we need.

Employment is the single biggest factor that prevents reoffending, and I remind the House of the excellent changes that were made under the coalition Government in 2012, but will the Minister update us on what cross-departmental work takes place? This is a process that must start within the prison system but must continue afterwards, and that is obviously the job of the Department for Work and Pensions.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there is indeed some very good cross-departmental working. The Social Justice Cabinet Committee takes the issue very seriously, and I have had outstanding help from the Employment Minister, who has been extremely supportive. We have been given plenty of practical help by the DWP, the construction industry and training organisations. Buses are sent into prisons so that prisoners can complete their construction skills certification scheme cards, and sewing machines have been bought so that they can use them after their release.

Following on from the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), what is the Minister’s assessment of the impact of overcrowding on educational opportunities for offenders?

What I can say to the hon. Lady is that we are building a prison estate that is fit for purpose. The Chancellor has just given us £1.3 billion to build nine new prisons, we are opening two new house blocks and we are about to open HMP Berwyn in February next year, so we are in the process of building a fit-for-purpose prison estate.

Women in Prisons

I have been clear that I want to see far fewer women ending up in prison. We are committed to improving the treatment of female offenders and to putting in place the interventions needed at each stage to help them to turn their lives away from crime.

I associate myself and my colleagues on these Benches with the Minister’s earlier comments.

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice in Scotland has made clear the Scottish Government’s commitment to tackling the number of women in prison by consulting on proposals to strengthen the current presumption against short sentences, by continuing to invest in robust community sentences and by investing an additional £1.5 million annually in community justice for women. Will the Minister join me in commending the efforts of the Scottish Government to apply a community-based rehabilitative approach?

Absolutely. We are keen to learn from any experiences in Scotland and elsewhere in the world that are successful in diverting women away from prison. Here in England and Wales, we have awarded £200,000 of grant funding to pilot earlier and more sequenced interventions with the right sort of multi-agency approach, which should see fewer women ending up in prison for short periods.

The Scottish Government’s approach to justice has resulted in the number of offenders serving sentences of three months or less plummeting since 2008, and reconviction rates are at a 16-year low. Will the Minister look to the progressive example of the Scottish Government as a new approach to reducing the number of women in prisons?

We know that almost 45% of the women who were released from prison in 2010 reoffended within 12 months, and the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to suggest that the maintaining of family ties and the education and rehabilitation of women while they are in our care will have a good impact on their life outside prison. That is why our transforming rehabilitation changes are showing unprecedented levels of support for offenders who have been released after very short sentences.

Research by the Prison Reform Trust shows that female prisoners are far more likely to receive custodial sentences even when they have no previous convictions or cautions. What interventions are being used at the sentencing stage to keep women out of prison?

Sentencing is a matter entirely for the courts, and they take into account the circumstances not only of the offence but of the offender. As the Prime Minister set out in a speech earlier in the year, we are also looking into how tagging, problem-solving courts and alternative resettlement units can support us to deal appropriately with female offenders, especially where children are involved.

20. The Scottish Government have moved to relocate female prisoners from Cornton Vale prison to HMP Polmont as part of the first phase of their plans to transform the way in which Scotland deals with women in custody. Improved facilities will clearly give additional support to address the underlying issues that fuel crime. Will the Minister join me in welcoming this progressive step towards the rehabilitation of female offenders? (903961)

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. This is exactly why we have set about shutting Holloway, an estate in which brilliant work is undertaken by some exceptional people despite the constraints of the building that they are in. We hope that by offering a much better environment we will be able to improve outcomes.

23. In 2015, the Prison Reform Trust published research suggesting that 32% of women prisoners were borderline learning disabled, compared with 24% of males. Does the Minister agree that community sentencing such as that advocated in Scotland would be more appropriate than prison for such women? (903964)

So many of the women who end up in our prisons represent a failure of society to intervene and address the causes of their offending behaviour or other issues in their lives. The whole-system approach that we are piloting in England and Wales will enable us to intervene earlier to put in place the right interventions and support that will enable us to do just that.

The case of Sarah Reed highlights the Government’s failings on the mistreatment of prisoners with mental health issues. With women accounting for around a quarter of self-harm incidents, but only 5% of the prison population, will the Minister outline what action she is taking to lower the number of women who self-harm in prison?

We know that the women in our prisons are more likely to self-harm than their male counterparts. They are also more likely to suffer from mental health problems, to have drug and alcohol addictions and to have experienced such things as domestic violence and sexual abuse earlier on in their lives. That is why we are trying to divert as many people as possible from prison by putting in place interventions to address their offending behaviour as early as possible and to support them in any way that we can, and why we also have interventions within the prison estate to support such women.

Does the Minister agree that going in and out of prison has a damaging effect not only on women themselves, but on their families and communities? Will she welcome the Scottish Government’s efforts to transform and improve services for women and to break the cycle of reoffending with targeted support to address underlying issues, such as alcohol, drugs, mental health or domestic abuse trauma? Will she tell us what specific actions her Department is taking to address those underlying issues?

The hon. and learned Lady makes some excellent points. The whole-system approach that we are piloting is all about trying to divert women away from prison and putting in the right interventions much earlier on in their offending behaviour. We are also doing a lot of work looking at problem-solving courts and how we can address such things as drug and alcohol problems much earlier on in people’s experiences of the criminal justice system.

The Howard League for Penal Reform in Scotland has said:

“The emphasis must be on preventing women from becoming caught up in the criminal justice system in the first place, diverting them at the point of arrest and prosecution wherever possible, and reducing the use of remand and short term prison sentences.”

It has also said that there must be

“sustainable funding for community-based services and there are lessons to be learned from the success of work with young offenders and the reduction”

in the number of young offenders at Polmont prison in Scotland. Does the Minister agree that the success in reducing the number of young people in custody in Scotland could be replicated across the UK for the number of women in custody?

I am certainly keen to take another look at that. Although sentencing is a matter for the courts, work is ongoing to improve the quality of the information that sentencers receive about community-sentencing options and we want to look more at that moving forward.

Prisons: Mental Health and Substance Misuse

7. What steps his Department is taking to improve mental health and substance misuse treatment in prisons; and if he will make a statement. (903948)

Providing appropriate treatment at the right time is vital to improve outcomes for people with mental health problems. The NHS of course does a superb job in providing services for prisoners, but we want to give governors a much bigger role in helping to secure the treatment that prisoners need.

I am grateful for that answer. Drones can be great fun. I have been promised one for my birthday in June and I am looking forward to getting it. However, as my right hon. Friend says, this is a serious subject. Substance abuse is even more serious. Is he aware of press reports that drones are being used to smuggle drugs, mobile phones and other things into prisons? If he is aware of that, what can we do to stop it?

The fact that it is my hon. Friend’s birthday in June means that I am looking forward to celebrating two significant anniversaries in that month. His substantive point is actually very important, because even though instances are still mercifully rare, there is a real danger that drones can be used to smuggle contraband into prisons: mobile phones that can be used in criminal activity; and drugs that can be used in unfortunate ways. That is why we have introduced new legislation to make it illegal to land a drone in a prison or to use a drone to drop contraband.

Last month, the Prime Minister announced that prison governors would have far more autonomy to start tackling these issues in prisons, based on the academy model for schools. As the Secretary of State will know from his previous job, the lesson of academy schools is that more autonomy must be matched by stronger local governance. Can he reassure us that governors who do have more independence will have a stronger local governance arrangement to match it?

The hon. Gentleman makes a characteristically acute and intelligent point, and I absolutely agree that with greater autonomy must come sharper accountability. In the first six reform prisons that we are going to establish, which will model, in some respects, the freedoms that academy schools have, we are exploring exactly how we can ensure both that the local community is appropriately involved and that accountability measures ensure that areas such as mental health and substance abuse are tackled effectively.

Oh good, the hon. Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway) is now stirring. We are grateful to her, as she has an identical question.

22. Following the release of Lord Harris’s report last year on self-inflicted deaths in custody of 18 to 24-year-olds, will the Department be looking to implement any of its recommendations? (903963)

We very much welcome the report of the Harris review and we agreed with 62 of its 108 recommendations. A further 12 are being considered alongside wider prison reforms in 2016. It is appropriate that we all recognise there has been an unwelcome increase in the incidence of self-harm and deaths in custody, and we need to do everything we can to tackle it. We also need to ensure that the mental health problems and substance abuse problems often associated with self-harm and deaths in custody are tackled even before people enter custody.

Education in Prisons

8. What steps his Department is taking to improve education in prisons; and if he will make a statement. (903949)

As the House will know, I have asked Dame Sally Coates to bring forward the publication of a report on how we can improve education in prison. Crucial to the direction of travel that Dame Sally is recommending is more control for governors to decide the type of curriculum that prisoners should enjoy while in custody.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that too much emphasis is placed on the quantity of education in prisons rather than on its quality?

I could not agree more. Inmates are often cycled through a series of low-level qualifications, none of which, after it is initially passed, secures any additional employability gains for the individuals concerned. I was very impressed on Friday, when I visited the military corrective training centre in Colchester, to see how our services have a prison that succeeds in helping individual prisoners to acquire more qualifications en route either to being reintegrated into the services or entering civilian life. That model could be applied with success in the civilian estate.

Magistrates Court Hearings: Torbay

11. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of using other venues in Torbay for magistrates court hearings after the closure of Torquay magistrates court. (903952)

My officials are engaging with the local authority and will evaluate the suitability of any proposed venue. The majority of the work, however, will transfer to Newton Abbot, seven miles away. In addition, video link facilities are available in Newton Abbot for any victims or witnesses who are unable to attend court where cases are listed in Plymouth.

As my hon. Friend the Minister will be aware, there is disappointment in Torbay that justice may no longer be local after the closure of our magistrates court. Will he look again at options for holding some criminal cases at the town hall and county court buildings in Torquay?

My hon. Friend will be aware that we have had a lengthy and thorough consultation, where there were more than 2,000 responses. We have had to make some difficult decisions. I am afraid that Torquay magistrates court is in a poor condition, with inadequate facilities, and the majority of work will be transferred to Newton Abbot, seven miles away. We are, however, evaluating options to continue to provide access to services locally. My officials in the region have written to the council inviting alternative solutions for the provision of services.

Prisoner and Staff Safety

We are committed to running safe and decent prisons, and are taking action to improve this. We are trialling the use of body-worn video cameras, and the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 introduces new offences to control supply and possession. We recognise that our prisons need reform, and there is still much more to do to ensure that prisons are places of decency, hope and rehabilitation.

I have a large prison in my Stockton North constituency, and prison officers there tell me of an increasing threat of violence, with the latest figures showing that the number of serious assaults on prison staff is up 48% in a year. They blame staff cuts and increased substance misuse. What does the Minister blame? What does he want me to tell prison officers in my area? Do his plans include granting academy status to Holme House?

The hon. Gentleman can tell his prison officers that all violence within prison is a crime. We strive to eradicate it, and it is wholly unacceptable. We take it very, very seriously. As I told the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) a moment ago, we appointed 2,250 extra prison officers last year—a net increase of 440—and we will carry on recruiting. Really importantly, we will be testing for new psychoactive substances throughout every prison next month, and that will make a significant difference to the important issues that he raises.

Access to Justice

The Government’s programme of reform aims to deliver faster and fairer justice for all citizens, by speeding up decision-making, giving parties the ability to submit and consider information online, and considering issues far more proportionately. We have committed to invest in the technology that will underpin that.

The introduction of employment tribunal fees has caused the number of new cases to plummet. Sex discrimination cases are down by 80% and equal pay cases by 84%. Will the recently announced review publish an impact assessment on the introduction of those fees, and say whether it has disproportionately affected the number of women bringing forward cases to tribunal?

The hon. Lady raises some important points. On the employment tribunal, she should consider the alternative facilities that are available. For example, the early conciliation service has reported that, in the first 12 months, 83,000 people used its services, and that the vast majority were happy with the services that they received.

A total of 3,600 barristers, including a third of all Queen’s counsel, contribute voluntarily to the Bar Pro Bono Unit. I am honoured that, as a barrister, I was one of those statistics. Does the Minister welcome the significant contribution that the Bar Pro Bono Unit is providing to free access to justice?

I certainly commend not only my hon. and learned Friend’s contributions, but the contribution of the Bar and the legal profession generally. Pro bono work benefits many people, and I am pleased to see that our engagement with the legal sector is fruitful, and that it is considering other ways of helping the community.

17. Today is International Women’s Day, which gives us the opportunity to reflect on the fact that financial abuse is not just a crime in itself, but also a way for domestic abusers to control victims and to prevent them from leaving abusive relationships. Following the recent Appeal Court decision on legal aid in cases of domestic violence, how is the Ministry of Justice intending to make access to justice a reality for victims of financial abuse? (903958)

The hon. Lady refers to a recent case. She will be aware that the court did confirm that the Lord Chancellor has the power to set domestic violence evidence requirements. As for the other issues, we are considering the outcome of the case and will clarify our decision on the way forward in due course.

In his latest annual report, the Lord Chief Justice makes an astonishing admission. He said:

“Our system of justice has become unaffordable to most.”

Does the Minister accept that that is a wholly unacceptable state of affairs?

May I say to the right hon. Gentleman that we work very closely with the senior judiciary? On access to justice, he knows only too well that, despite the reductions that we made to the legal aid budget, it remains, at £1.6 billion, one of the most generous legal aid budgets in the world.

Violence against Women

16. What discussions his Department has had with the Home Office on steps to reduce the level of violence against women. (903957)

The Government are committed to ending all forms of gender-based violence, which has absolutely no place in our society. Justice Ministers attend the regular inter-ministerial group, which is chaired by the Home Secretary and drives forward work on this matter. Today, the Government are publishing their ending violence against women and girls strategy, which sets out the whole package of support for victims

Many women who experience violence are forced to flee to refuge accommodation, often with their children. Is the Minister aware of the devastating effect that the Government’s housing benefits limit will have on these women? Given that it is International Women’s Day, will she discuss these concerns urgently with her colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions and in the Home Office?

Under this Government, there are more refuge places than ever before. Since 2010 we have criminalised forced marriage and revenge porn, we have strengthened the law on domestic violence and female genital mutilation, there are now more successful prosecutions for domestic violence than ever before, and we have introduced FGM protection orders. We will build on that by doing more to deter and rehabilitate perpetrators, while continuing to improve the process for victims.

Estate Requirements and Disposals

19. What progress his Department is making on implementation of its strategy on estate requirements and disposals. (903960)

We keep our estate office under review to make sure that it delivers and supports business transformation, operates efficiently and effectively, and delivers best value for the taxpayer. By closing less efficient, poor-quality court buildings, for example, we will raise £40 million to reinvest in the justice system, and have saved hard-working taxpayers £27 million per year.

The Ministry of Justice kindly agreed a year ago to dispose of an unused car park in Gloucester to provide more parking and an additional entrance to our railway station—a very good regeneration cause. The Justice Minister assured me that this would be resolved before the end of the financial year. However, we are almost there and there is still no resolution. Does my hon. Friend therefore agree that the time has come to lock the Courts and Tribunals Service real estate representatives in a room with representatives of Gloucester City Council and Great Western Railway, and to leave them there until they have reached agreement?

That may be a little drastic as a negotiating procedure, but my officials are engaged in conversations with Gloucester City Council. Those are at an advanced stage. My hon. Friend will not expect me to make commercial comments at the Dispatch Box, but I hope that a final decision will be arrived at very shortly. He and I are due to meet shortly, when we will discuss the matter further.

Can the Minister provide any further update on his plans for the Victorian prison estate and, in particular, any information regarding HMP Norwich in my constituency?

I am keen that my hon. Friend should have the most up-to-date response, so I will write to her about that.

Public Understanding of the Law

The Ministry of Justice is working to increase public awareness of the law and of important initiatives in the criminal justice and civil law system. We do that by disseminating information to the media, by using our website and digital channels, and through bespoke campaigns of particular importance, such as on access to victim services.

I welcome the efforts made by the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor. May I encourage my hon. Friend to do more to broaden public legal education? Having just set up a new all-party parliamentary group on the subject, I urge him to work with us to provide such education not just in schools and through adult services, but perhaps in prisons. Although it may not reduce the inmate population, it may reduce the future conviction rate.

My hon. Friend is right. I commend him for his efforts and his initiative. One illustration of the things we are doing is the victims information service, which provides information on the criminal justice system, on what a victim can expect and on restorative justice. He is right—we need to strive to bring the law and its operation closer to the citizens it serves.

Topical Questions

As a number of Members have pointed out, today is International Women’s Day. It is therefore appropriate that we should think of those brave and idealistic women who serve in our prisons and who do so much to keep us safe and to improve the lives of the individuals who find themselves in custody. It is appropriate, too, that today we are publishing the conclusions of the Prison Service Pay Review Body, and I am delighted to be able to inform the House that we will be accepting the PSPRB’s recommendations. That will include a non- consolidated pay rise for those who work in our prisons.

The director of Amnesty UK has said:

“The UK is setting a dangerous precedent to the world on human rights.

There’s no doubt that the downgrading of human rights by this government is a gift to dictators the world over and fatally undermines our ability to call on other countries to uphold rights and laws.”

In the light of that advice, is it not time to drop plans to scrap the Human Rights Act 1998?

Absolutely not. Frankly, it is irresponsible of any of our critics to weigh in with that kind of scaremongering before having seen the substantive proposals.

T3. Pilot studies into critical time interventions for released severely mentally ill patient prisoners have shown promising results in improving care for people released from prison with severe and enduring mental illness. They have also helped to cut reoffending rates. Will the Minister meet me and the team who helped to put this important work together to look at the potential for rolling out a national scheme? (903932)

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend, who is a distinguished former Health Minister, to discuss this important matter. As he might know, although mental health provision on release is provided by our health partners, probation staff work with health colleagues as part of their Through the Gate resettlement service, making sure that offenders access appropriate services and liaising with prisons and community mental health services.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) referred to the short and very clear recent judgment by the Court of Appeal, which said that the evidence criteria for accessing legal aid by domestic violence victims were unlawful in two important respects—something the Government have been told ever since the law was passed four years ago. The Secretary of State has had enough time to consider the matter. On International Women’s Day, will he tell us what he will do in the light of the Court’s ruling?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very serious point. We want to ensure that we get it right. He is absolutely correct to say that criticism was made of the provisions that we put in place and that the Court’s judgment is clear, so we want to ensure that in future we have an approach that ensures that victims of financial abuse receive the support they require.

It is not only the financial abuse; it is the two-year rule as well. If the Secretary of State is going to go further than the Court of Appeal’s ruling, that is all well and good. He should bear in mind that 40% of victims of domestic violence fail to meet the evidence criteria. They must then get into debt by paying for a solicitor, represent themselves and risk cross-examination by their abuser, or—this is the case for the majority—have no access to justice and continue to suffer. That is unacceptable, is it not?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that victims of domestic violence need all the support that we can give them, which is why I am reflecting carefully on the judgment and will come forward in due course with proposals that I hope will meet with the support and approval of as many Members of the House as possible.

T4. Many prisoners in our system suffer from mental health and substance misuse problems. Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), what further support can be given in prison to support people with mental health and substance misuse problems? (903933)

I welcome my hon. Friend’s continued focus on this important issue. As the Prime Minister said in his speech on 8 February, we believe in humane treatment and care. In our work in prisons we are going to give prison governors more say in this area, and we are going to move towards full co-commissioning for governors with NHS England, meaning that prison leaders can have more of a say in defining what kinds of services prisoners need and the budgets available for them.

T2. Will the Secretary of State welcome back, after her long illness, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire)? Will he also consider giving the House a report on the Peterborough prison experiment, where a social impact bond involved voluntary and private sector investors to reduce the amount of recidivism in prisons? May we please have a report on how that is going? (903931)

First, may I take up the hon. Gentleman’s kind offer, because we are all delighted to see the hon. Member for Bristol West back in her place—fully recovered, I hope—and look forward to her playing a prominent part in our debates in future; she is a real asset to the House. Secondly, the social impact bond that ran in Peterborough prison helped to inform some of the changes that we made through Transforming Rehabilitation. I have had the opportunity to visit Peterborough prison, which is run by a private company. It provides a significantly improved level of care, compared with the mean level offered by many other custodial establishments. I think that the spirit of the SIB lives on, both in Transforming Rehabilitation and in the way in which Peterborough prison operates, but I am open to other ideas about how social investment can help to improve the justice system.

T8. My constituent Mr Tony Conti was convicted last November of fixing LIBOR when he worked for Rabobank. Given that the US established the international prisoner transfer programme in 1977 to make it easier for foreigners who are convicted to return to their country of origin, will my hon. Friend consider such a transfer for my constituent? (903937)

I have listened carefully to what my hon. Friend has said, and we will give careful consideration to any transfer application from his constituent that is referred to us by the US authorities.

T5. It surely cannot only be Opposition Members who are dismayed that, to quote the Lord Chief Justice again: “Our system of justice has become unaffordable to most.”Has the Secretary of State discussed this dreadful situation with the Lord Chief Justice, and is there a plan to do something about it? (903934)

I have discussed this issue with the Lord Chief Justice, the Master of the Rolls and other members of the senior judiciary. It is a complex matter. One of the key things that is problematic is the level of costs in the justice system, and we need to bring about reform, particularly to the civil justice system. That is why the report by Michael Briggs, which lays out particular reforms, including more justice being transacted online, is a powerful way forward, but much remains to be done.

The Government have given strong support to the idea of creating a new legal form of guardian, to help with the property and affairs of the 3,000 people who go missing every year in the UK. Will the Minister confirm when that might be brought into effect?

I know that my hon. Friend has a family in his constituency who have been through the ordeal he mentions. We are absolutely committed to helping families of missing people to deal with the administrative problems they face over and above the heartache that is involved. We are working on creating the new legal status of guardian of the property and affairs of a missing person, and we will introduce measures to the House as soon as parliamentary time permits.

T6. On International Women’s Day, it is truly shocking that one in four women will experience gender-based violence. On 4 February, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), stated that primary legislation was required to ratify the Istanbul convention to try to tackle that disgrace. When will that legislation be brought forward? (903935)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The last Government signed the convention in 2012. We have already implemented almost all its provisions, so the purpose would be to promote it abroad. There is a specific issue, as she may know, about extraterritorial jurisdiction under article 44. We are looking carefully at how that might be addressed.

I apologise for my absence earlier, Mr Speaker. In the recent case of Kiarie and Byndloss, the Court of Appeal roundly upheld the deport first, appeal later policy, which prevents foreign national offenders from extending their leave to remain in the UK while their immigration appeals are pending—the two men in the case were convicted of serious drug offences and had leave to remain here. What assessment has my hon. Friend made of the judgment of Lord Justice Richards, which highlights the need for more clarity in the guidance given to caseworkers so that the policy can be better applied?

My hon. Friend brings considerable experience from her time as a barrister. We welcome this decision. This is an important area of policy. It is also a Home Office lead, but I can reassure her that the relevant guidance for caseworkers was updated following the decision back in October.

T7. Today is International Women’s Day, as other Members have noted. A recent survey by Women’s Aid of women survivors of domestic abuse who have attended the family courts regarding child contact found that a quarter reported being directly cross-examined by their abuser. Does the Minister agree that that is completely unacceptable? What action is being taken to address it? (903936)

Protecting women and children from violence is, of course, a key priority for the Government. We will be working with others in the family justice system to discuss and address the report’s conclusions, including in relation to the measures already in place to protect women and children, and their effective implementation.

The Secretary of State knows my real concern about the accessibility of certain high-powered laser pens, which have been used to target civilian and military aircraft, cars and trains. I have called for them to be made a prohibited item. Will the Department look at my request before a major tragedy occurs in our country?

My hon. Friend has campaigned consistently and effectively on this issue. We are reviewing what steps we and other Departments can take in order to mitigate this danger.

T9. Last Thursday, the House voted for the Government to set up an all-party commission to look into gangs and serious youth violence. Will the Minister’s Department contribute to that commission? (903938)

The problem of gangs and serious youth violence was the subject of discussion between me and Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe only last week. We will do everything we can and report back to the House on what we as a Government, collectively, are doing to deal with these problems.

The Secretary of State knows how much I, and many of my constituents, welcome the Prime Minister’s big speech last month on prison reform. While there is little benefit in trading numbers, does he agree that the logical consequence of rehabilitation that really works is not only fewer victims of crime, but ultimately fewer people locked up in our country, with huge savings?

I applaud my hon. Friend for the work that he did when he served on the Justice Committee in pioneering the case for a transformed approach towards justice. He is absolutely right. If we get prison reform right and get rehabilitation right, crime will fall, individuals will be safer, and of course the number of inmates in our prisons will fall.

On a basic point of clarification, can G4S sell the Government contract it has in place on the secure training centres to the highest bidder without any Government veto or Government involvement? It really is concerning that that could be the case.

First, I take this opportunity to thank the hon. Gentleman for his diligence in asking questions on behalf of his constituents, and also for his historic work for mineworkers in distress. I know that over the past couple of days there have been reports in the press. I want to say in the House that he is an exceptionally dedicated worker for people who have fallen on hard times and the vulnerable. As someone from another party, I want to say how much I admire him for that work.

The hon. Gentleman’s question was in that tradition. It is absolutely not the case that G4S can simply sell the contract to the highest bidder. We have the right to ensure that any transfer is done appropriately. I will make sure that he is briefed on the progress that we are making in order to ensure that these young people are looked after well.

I trust that the hon. Gentleman will have the tribute framed and put in an appropriate place in his constituency office for everyone to observe. He should savour it—it was very, very fulsome.

In 2013, my constituent Adele Bellis was the victim of an acid attack. There has been a significant increase in such attacks in the past three to four years. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State could confirm that the Government will bring forward a strategy to address this, particularly the need for tougher sentences. Adele has shown great courage, but she has to live with that attack for the rest of her life.

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. That is an absolutely appalling case, and all cases of that kind are absolutely abhorrent. I would certainly be willing to hear from him about the specifics of the case, and we will of course look to see whether there is a case for additional sentencing powers over and above those that we already have.

Before the legal aid restrictions were introduced, 78,000 disabled people a year were able to challenge social security decisions, 80% successfully. How can withdrawal of legal aid to disabled people, who are twice as likely to live in poverty, be fair or just?

It is important that the hon. Lady appreciates that we have not withdrawn or abolished legal aid. Legal aid still exists for the most vulnerable and the most needy. We do have certain criteria. However, in terms of the decisions that are coming to the courts, the officials who take the decisions in the first instance are looking at the decisions of the courts, so that they do not have to come to the court by way of appeal in the first place.

In 2009, Walter Scott and Ross, a solicitors firm in my constituency, was closed down by the Solicitors Regulation Authority due to financial irregularities. Since then, the SRA has systematically failed in its duty of care to former clients of the firm, leading to at least one bankruptcy. Will the Minister agree to investigate that case as a matter of urgency so that we can at last secure some closure for my constituents?

My hon. Friend will know that the regulation of the legal profession is independent of Government. It would be wrong and improper for a Minister to try to intervene in any individual case, but there is an ombudsman service that allows for review of complaints against the SRA, and I encourage her to consider that possibility.