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Topical Questions

Volume 607: debated on Tuesday 8 March 2016

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.