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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 608: debated on Tuesday 26 April 2016


The Secretary of State was asked—

Mental Health

1. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of provision for people with mental health issues in the criminal justice system. (904662)

10. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of provision for people with mental health issues in the criminal justice system. (904672)

14. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of provision for people with mental health issues in the criminal justice system. (904676)

Mental health is taken extremely seriously across the criminal justice system. Mental health services are commissioned by NHS England and by local health boards in Wales, and they are based on locally assessed need. We are working with health partners to improve services in custody and in the community.

Liaison and diversion services are really important in ensuring that people with mental health issues get the help they need. The expansion of the programme is welcome, but about half the country is still not covered, and there has been a long wait for the business case on getting to 100%. Will the Minister explain what the delay is, and will she confirm when all areas expect to have a liaison and diversion service in place?

We have developed liaison and diversion services in partnership with other Departments to divert some offenders away from the criminal justice system and into the support they need. Through that system, clinicians assess those with mental health needs and refer them to the treatment they need—ideally, that happens at the earliest contact with the criminal justice system. The liaison and diversion system is working well, and it is very much a joint government programme. I would like to see it rolled out as early as is convenient, and we will certainly keep the hon. Gentleman updated.

The mental health charity Mind has said that people with mental health problems are sometimes unable to advocate for themselves, so cuts to legal aid will undoubtedly have impacted on their ability to access justice. Should the Government not rethink their refusal to conduct a full post-implementation review of the damaging effects their harsh legal aid cuts are having on some of the most vulnerable?

The hon. Gentleman will know that we are spending £1.6 billion, so this is one of the most generous legal aid systems in the world. However, he is absolutely right that vulnerable people should be supported at every point in the criminal justice system. That is why the judiciary are trained to be able to assist those people, and the changes to the court system will support that.

An increased number of survivors of domestic abuse are forced to represent themselves in the family courts as litigants in person. The 2015 Women’s Aid survey found that 25% of women had been directly questioned by the perpetrator in court. Being cross-examined by the perpetrator, who may have beaten and raped them, is undoubtedly causing mental distress. What is the Minister doing to improve access to legal aid for victims of domestic abuse, as the current system is clearly not working?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this issue. The Government are absolutely committed to supporting all vulnerable and intimidated witnesses—especially those who have been subjected to domestic abuse—as well as to helping them give the best possible evidence and to seeing offenders brought to justice. That is why we have put in place measures that give witnesses the ability to give evidence using things such as a screen in the courtroom or a live videolink from a separate room or a location away from the court building. The hon. Lady will also know that, following the Court of Appeal judgment, we are taking immediate action to change our arrangements, and we are more than doubling the original time limit for evidence in domestic violence cases, from two to five years, and introducing a provision on the assessment of evidence of financial abuse.

Will the Minister outline how the Government’s prison reform plans will give prison governors greater autonomy, allowing them to tailor services such as mental health provision for the benefit of all prisoners?

We are moving towards full co-commissioning of mental health services between governors and NHS England, meaning that prison leaders can have much more say in defining the services their prisoners need and how the available budget is used. That will begin in reform prisons; if successful, it will apply nationwide from 2017. It will be backed by a high-quality, modern prison estate with rehabilitation and treatment at its core.

The criminal justice system is complicated enough whether someone has mental health issues or not. Will the Minister ensure that victims of crime who have mental health issues are given the particular help they need to submit victim impact statements to the court in the proper way?

Yes; this is absolutely fundamental. Supporting people through their individual circumstances is fundamental to everything we are looking at in the Justice Department at the moment. Judges are trained to be able to support vulnerable witnesses and victims at every stage.

There is a key relationship between mental health and addiction, so can the Minister assure me that when these matters are dealt with in court there is effective referral to effective treatment? When I accompanied the Justice Secretary to Highbury Corner magistrates court, it was evident that some local authorities had provision for drug treatment, particularly for youth offenders, but other authorities did not. Can we ensure that there is proper, uniform provision when people get referred from court?

This is a really crucial point. We are already working across Government to bring together mental health and drug and alcohol treatment at every stage, alongside police, courts and prisons and probation. That includes making sure that appropriate treatments are made available if they are part of sentences with mandated health interventions.

Charities like Langley House Trust offer specialist mental health support to prisoners when they have left prison and have been rehabilitated in the community. It has recently acquired a property on Milton Street in Fleetwood. Will the Minister support my call for it to meet the town council this evening to reassure the local community about its fears and to show that charities like Langley House Trust and communities can work together to ensure that prisoners can be rehabilitated?

I would very much like to look at the circumstances that the hon. Lady has mentioned. Our Transforming Rehabilitation changes have put in place the sort of support that sometimes prisoners who had had very short sentences might never have had before. The community rehabilitation company might be able to give some support on that as well.

The jury have just given their verdicts at the inquest into the death of 96 fans at the Hillsborough disaster. Today is a hugely important day for all those who seek to protect and promote justice. In particular, our thoughts are with those families who have fought for almost 30 years to establish the truth of what happened on that day.

The number of suicides in prison between 2013 and 2015 was 53% higher than over the previous two years and amounted to one person tragically taking their life every four days. Only 40% of those who died last year had been identified as at risk under the assessment, care in custody and teamwork process. Will the Minister explain why so many vulnerable prisoners are not being identified in the first place, and even when they are, why so many are not getting the help that they need?

The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the Hillsborough report. I understand that the Home Secretary will make a statement on that tomorrow.

The hon. Lady is right to say that every self-inflicted death in prison is an absolute tragedy. We are committing to reduce the number of self-inflicted deaths in prison. There have been no more this year than there were last year, but every single one is absolutely a tragedy. We will overhaul how mental health is treated in prisons, giving governors a much greater say over what services their prisoners need and how the available budget is used. However, it was Labour’s inexplicable refusal to introduce waiting times for mental health care at the same time as introducing them for physical healthcare that set back the cause of mental health for so many years, and in some cases saw people being sentenced to prison in order to access the support that they could not get in the community.

Order. I am very disappointed that the Secretary of State is not sitting at the very heart of his ministerial team. I hope the right hon. Gentleman is not lurking uncharacteristically in the shadows—we would not want that.

Prisoners: Meaningful Work

2. What progress his Department has made on ensuring that offenders are engaged in meaningful work in prison. (904663)

6. What progress his Department has made on ensuring that offenders are engaged in meaningful work in prison. (904668)

We want prisons to be places of hard work and high ambition. That is why we will give governors more autonomy and hold them to account by publishing employment outcomes for prisoners so that we can compare results between prisons.

We know how beneficial employment is for the rehabilitation of young adult offenders, in particular. Will my hon. Friend advise the House on specific plans that he has to increase employment in this cohort?

I know how seriously my hon. Friend takes this issue, and she is right to do so. I point her, particularly for young offenders, to construction, where I think that there are huge opportunities. For example, the National Grid young offender scheme has a 10-year reoffending rate of less than 7%. I was with Balfour Beatty, which employs young ex-offenders, in a prison in North Yorkshire last Thursday. We now have two Land Securities construction academies, comprising dry lining, scaffolding and tunnelling. I am assured that the last two activities have been risk assessed. [Laughter.]

Is the Minister aware of an outstanding pathfinder project at North Wales Women’s Centre in Rhyl, in my constituency, which offers holistic support to women offenders in line with recommendations in the Corston report? Will he join me in urging the Government to pursue improved provision and rehabilitation for women offenders to help to avoid the cost and family disruption of incarceration for relatively minor offences?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing the House’s attention to the good work of the North Wales Women’s Centre, and I commend it for what it does. The Government are committed to supporting vulnerable women to turn their lives around, and we plan to expand that important work.

May I remind the Minister and the recumbent Secretary of State that one of the real problems that we face—it is World Autism Week—is that when prisoners go into prison, they are not assessed properly for autism, literacy skills and many other things? Could we have a system in which autism is important? Many people who go into prison are on the autism scale.

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has raised this issue, and I am extremely proud that the United Kingdom has the world’s first autism-accredited prison in Feltham, which I visited recently with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan). I want more prisons to go down that route, and he is absolutely right to raise the issue.

The Minister has two laudable objectives: work in prison and reducing reoffending by getting prisoners employment outside prison. How does he intend to achieve those objectives when staffing is under such severe pressure because of the reduction in the number of officers, and when does he intend to produce the guidance to governors on reoffending in their prisons?

We continue to recruit prison officers at full throttle. Last year, we recruited 2,250. I am optimistic about the employment agenda as more and more employers realise that our prisons can be part of the answer to the nation’s skills shortage. We will provide governors with all the guidance that they need as we roll out the reform prison agenda.

23. Will the Minister support employers coming into prisons to offer training, so that offenders can be better placed to find a job when they leave prison and are more likely to stay out of prison? (904685)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and more and more employers are coming to do exactly that. I have been to several employment roadshows around the country. I have mentioned Balfour Beatty, and last Thursday the Mitie Foundation was in Durham prison, where six prisoners were offered jobs during the day.

I recently met Shona, a Glasgow lady who started up her own enterprise producing reusable sandwich wrappers. The manufacturing is predominantly done by inmates at Kilmarnock prison, who learn a skill that, we hope, helps their rehabilitation and future job prospects. What measures is the Secretary of State taking to encourage similar local schemes in England and Wales?

I am really pleased that the hon. Lady has mentioned that, because just as employment is important, so are self-employment and enterprise. We have schemes to encourage them, and various Government loans can be drawn down. The Mitie Foundation business challenge day in Durham was also about encouraging business to go down the self-employment route.

I do hope that the Minister can assure the House that the prisoners he mentioned a few moments ago were given their tunnelling skills after they left prison, not as a means of departure. Has he looked at some form of apprenticeship programme within prisons to give vocational skills to those who need them?

I am very keen to develop the avenue down which my hon. Friend is taking me. We could certainly look at a traineeship, which is often the first step towards an apprenticeship, within prisons. I will shortly meet the apprenticeships Minister—the Minister for Skills—to try to take forward this matter.

Will the Minister hold discussions with Justice Ministers in the devolved legislatures so that best practice—particularly as practised in the prison in my constituency, where prisoners near the end of their sentence are relocated outside prison for work—is followed and prisoners can do the productive work that leads to lower reoffending rates?

I will certainly seek to learn from that best practice. If the hon. Gentleman would be kind enough to write to me with details of the good work going on in the prison in his constituency, I will certainly look at that.

Another day and another critical report is published by the chief inspector of prisons. This time, it is about Lewes prison. The Minister’s words about meaningful work in prison ring very hollow when inspectors found prisoners at Lewes routinely kept in their cells for 23 hours a day. This follows their report on Wormwood Scrubs, which is described as continuing

“to fall short of expected standards”.

At the time of their inspection, there was “little cause for optimism.” Suicides, self-harm, violence, psychoactive substances and alcohol finds in prisons, and reoffending rates are at an all-time high. The Justice Secretary has been in his job for a year now, and we have had a lot of talk about reform. Is it not time for him to stop talking and to start doing something?

The Government recognise that we have a long way to go to improve our prisons, which is why the Secretary of State has laid out a full reform programme. I went to Wormwood Scrubs last week, and I can tell the hon. Lady that there were a number of jobs fairs in the prison that have led to jobs. We have a good new governor there, and I am hopeful that we will see improvements. I have looked at the Lewes report. There are of course things that we will take further, but there are also some positives, not least the very good relationship in Lewes between the prison and the community rehabilitation company.

Prisoner Education

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for your tender solicitude earlier, but as you can see, I have an amazingly talented team of Ministers. They are the Arteta, the Oxlade-Chamberlain and the Özil of this Parliament, and for that reason I am very happy to be on the subs bench for most of the time. I am also very happy that you have allowed me to group these questions.

Dame Sally Coates has been leading a review of education in prisons. Her interim report made clear her view that governors should be able to choose their education provider and hold them to account for the service they give.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is imperative the recommendations of the Coates review are acted on in a way that focuses on both paths into employment and the wider non-utilitarian personal and moral benefits that education can bring?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Colleagues may know that as well as being a distinguished Member of Parliament, he has also written for Inside Time, the prisoners newspaper, about the need to improve prison education. His own experience both in music and in education equips him superbly to make the point that education should be about not simply the utilitarian gathering of skills, but opening minds to art, culture and the possibility of new horizons.

As we have heard, we know that better education slows the revolving door between crime and incarceration. Will my right hon. Friend therefore update the House on the announcement made by the Prime Minister about a Teach First-style scheme in prisons?

Absolutely. One of my former colleagues, David Laws, is leading work, along with a formidable social entrepreneur called Natasha Porter, who herself previously worked with Teach First, to establish a new charity. More details will be announced about both the Government funding and how we propose to recruit a generation of talented graduates to work in our prisons.

I understand that the average reading age of prisoners is just 11. What plans does my right hon. Friend have to ensure that, when they leave prison, people can read, write and be off drugs?

My hon. Friend strikes at the heart of three of the principal problems that prisoners face. It is very often the case that prisoners have had a very poor educational experience. That is one of the reasons—it does not of course absolve them of moral responsibility—why they can often be drawn into criminal activity. As Dame Sally has made clear, we need to screen every prisoner effectively when they arrive in custody so that we can ascertain the level of skills that they have, and we need to judge prisons on the value that they add. As for removing the taint of drugs or substance abuse, that is a huge problem and one to which we will be returning.

But in Ofsted’s annual report, Sir Michael Wilshaw highlighted the fact that provision for learning, skills and work in the prison estate was among some of the worst available in the higher education sector. What more is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that that vital part of prisoners’ rehabilitation is brought up to scratch, as it should be?

Michael Wilshaw has been a brilliant chief inspector, and he is absolutely right about the situation in our prisons. There are some outstanding examples of educational provision in prison, but, sadly, too few. One problem has been that a small group of providers has been responsible for providing education in prison, but large and inflexible contracts have meant that those providers have not necessarily been as responsive to the needs of individual prisoners as they should have been. That is changing, thanks to the Coates report. One thing that will not change, however, is the amount that we spend on education, which has been safeguarded and ring-fenced.

Are there any formal links between the Prison Service and further education colleges to develop the apprenticeship schemes that we heard about earlier?

I am very anxious to expand apprenticeships in prison, and have been working with my hon. Friend the Minister for Skills, who is responsible for apprenticeships, and of course the prisons Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), to do just that. One challenge is that, although, as I say, there are excellent examples of good practice, current further education providers in prisons have not been as responsive as they should have been in every case.

22. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that educational progress in prisons will form one of the metrics of the new league tables for prisons? (904684)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that if we give people greater autonomy—governors, in particular—they need to be held to account. It is absolutely vital that, in the new prison accountability measures and league tables, they are held to account for educational performance and the value they add.

The Secretary of State’s personal commitment to this issue is very clear from his excellent interview in Inside Time, which a lot of us read. Does he accept that, as well as provider quality, one of the biggest obstacles is the fact that in the current prison estate prisoners are locked up for great lengths of time, as the physical facilities needed are not there? That makes it difficult to achieve anything on this. Will he assure us that this issue will be integral to the prison renewal programme and the new estate and new properties coming forward?

The Chair of the Justice Committee is absolutely right, as is the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), to point out that it is simply not good enough that prisoners are in their cells for up to 22 or 23 hours at a time. Time out of cell is a key indicator of how effectively a prison is run—it is not the only one, but it is really important. My hon. Friend is also absolutely right to point out that when we think about new prison design we should concentrate on the time out of cell. I was privileged to visit a prison just outside Berlin where prisoners spend far longer out of their cells, either at work or in education, than in most institutions in this country. We can learn a great deal from the Germans.

Personal Injury Law

4. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of planned changes to personal injury law and whiplash claims on access to justice. (904666)

The Government remain concerned about the number and cost of whiplash claims, and in particular the risk that unmeritorious claims push up the cost of insurance for customers. New proposals have been announced. We will consult on them in due course, and they will be accompanied by an impact assessment.

There still appears to be no independent verification of the fraud culture and pandemic of claims cited in the autumn statement as the reason to raise the small claims limit for personal injury. In fact, not one motor insurer even mentioned fraud as a material risk when reporting their annual returns to the stock market. What independent evidence does the Minister have of a fraud culture? Would it not be more effective to legislate to stop the ambulance-chasing claims management companies making unsolicited calls, rather than denying justice to those who have been injured through no fault of their own?

We should address both angles. The Chancellor has already announced proposals to remove the right to claim damages for pain and suffering for very minor claims and to increase the small claims limit to £5,000. That is important, as it will help us cut the cost of resolving cases. As I said, we will consult on the reforms, but, critically, they will save the insurance industry £1 billion annually. The industry is committed to passing those savings on to customers, which will reduce premiums by £50.

20. Does the Minister share my concern that car insurance premiums are £93 a year higher than they need to be thanks to fraudulent claims, and that claims here are orders of magnitude higher than in Europe? Does he agree that the new limit will go a huge way towards combating this costly and invidious practice? (904682)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As we move forward to the consultation and take into account all the evidence, the key thing is to make sure that there is proper access to justice but also that we cut the cost of insurance premiums for consumers. That is what we intend to do.

24. If these reforms are so positive, why is the president of the Law Society gravely concerned that they may undermine the rights of ordinary citizens to obtain compensation for negligence? (904686)

The Law Society quite properly protects the professional interest of its members. We must consider all evidence that we receive and look at this in the round, rather than just take into account what the lawyers think.

Even if the number of fraudulent claims is as high as the 7% that some believe it is, given that courts already have the power to strike out fraudulent claims, why should the innocent majority of genuine claimants be penalised because of the potentially criminal behaviour of a few?

Our reforms are precisely aimed at weeding out spurious, frivolous or trivial claims, and ensuring that we preserve access to justice for important and meritorious claims. At the same time we must ensure that people who pay their insurance premiums year in, year out, are not penalised by those who are taking the system for a ride.

Dangerous Driving: Sentencing

The hon. Lady was quite close, but we are on Question 5. She is ahead of herself, and not for the first time I am sure.

The Government are committed to ensuring that we have robust and consistent punishment for those who cause people to be killed or seriously injured on our roads, and we intend to consult on further proposals this year.

I was unnecessarily keen, as always, Mr Speaker. I asked that question on behalf of one of my constituents, 21-year-old Alex Jeffery, who was killed by a dangerous driver. The sentence given was only four years and three months, and we all know that it will probably end up being less than that. Will there be a time when sentences for causing death by dangerous driving are the same as those for murder? A car can be a weapon in the wrong hands.

I am very aware of the tragic case of my hon. Friend’s constituent, and our deepest sympathies go to his family. Since 2010 the custody rate for causing death by dangerous driving has risen from 52% to 61%, and the average prison sentence has risen by around six months to just under four years. We will look again at that area, and my hon. Friend is right to say that there should be commensurable consistency with sentencing for homicide offences.

The review of sentencing in this area was announced in May 2014, so simply to say that there will be “consultation” this year is not good enough. Will the Minister give the House a clear date, and will he consider ending the charge of causing death by careless driving, which denies families justice?

As I have said, we will consult this year and consider the full range of driving offences. It is important to ensure that there is proper accountability, as well as consistency between bespoke sentences for offences in this area and wider sentencing, particularly for homicide offences.

One key driver of deaths on the road, and indeed all dangerous driving offences, is alcohol. Given the enormous success of the pilot in Croydon, with 93% compliance, and the compelling evidence from the United States, will the Minister consider alcohol abstinence monitoring orders—otherwise known as compulsory sobriety—as a mandatory punishment for those who are convicted of driving offences when alcohol is involved?

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point that is grounded in practice from overseas, and we would certainly be willing to consider that during our consultation.

Courts and Tribunals: Technology

7. What progress has been made on the modernisation programme to upgrade technology in the courts and tribunal estate. (904669)

I assure the hon. Lady that significant progress has been made to upgrade technology in the courts and tribunal estate. The vast majority of our criminal courts are now equipped to work digitally, and we are reducing reliance on paper bundles. New digital services such as in-court presentation, shared drives and wi-fi are enabling professional users, the judiciary and court staff to work digitally.

As the Minister knows, the magistrates court and the family and county court in Halifax are due to close. An answer to a recent written question revealed that overall investment plans for the courts and tribunal estate have not changed or been updated following the announcement that 86 courts were to close across the country. What plans are there to update the digitalisation programme to include measures that ensure that justice is accessible in areas that are soon to be without a court?

I know the hon. Lady takes this issue very seriously, and I want to assure her that it is at the top of the agenda in my regular meetings with the senior management of the Courts and Tribunals Service. A lot is happening, however, not all of which gets into the public domain. For example, we are reducing reliance on paper bundles in the criminal courts, and the digital case system in Southwark Crown court now holds over 94,000 pages of information that would otherwise have been printed in triplicate. Also, the new national automated rota system for magistrates, which is now live for 2,500 magistrates, has eliminated a complex and error-prone manual process.

I welcome the upgrading of technology in the traditional court setting—for example, for civil claims, the Rolls Building now takes claims on line—but will the Secretary of State also be implementing the more radical proposals of the Civil Justice Council to include an online dispute resolution service for low-value claims?

We are keen to have the most up-to-date and modern courts system in the world—one fit for the 21st century—and we are ruling nothing out.

The National Audit Office warned against focusing all our attention on technology, and not users, so what is being done to encourage buy-in from the legal profession and to help with training?

First, we need to recognise the world we live in, which is technologically advanced, and we are working closely with users, lawyers and everyone else involved in the legal process. I am happy to confirm to the hon. Gentleman that, at the moment, the buy-in from the judiciary, the lawyers and the public is very optimistic.

G4S: Secure Training Centres

8. What recent discussions he has had with G4S on its proposal to sell its contracts for the operation of secure training centres. (904670)

The MOJ has been in regular contact with G4S. We are closely monitoring the progress of the potential sale to ensure that it does not jeopardise the delivery of care at its secure training centres.

I am sure the Minister agrees that the breach of care at Medway secure training centre demonstrates the risks involved when a state duty of care is entrusted to a private organisation. How will he ensure that any transferee of the contracts observes the duty of care more robustly, and what assessment has he made of transferring such contracts back to the public sector?

The MOJ retains its rights over determining any transfer of the contracts from G4S, and the Secretary of State appointed an independent improvement board at Medway, whose recommendations we will consider and which will no doubt be of value for the future. Finally, the Charlie Taylor review is looking at youth justice and how to put education at its heart by creating a safe and nurturing environment in which people can make real educational progress.

Next week, we will see a new contract holder for the Rainsbrook secure training centre. The contract has been awarded to an American company called MTC Novo. Given G4S’s appalling record at Rainsbrook and Medway, how can the Minister justify the contract being awarded to a company that has one of its American prisons under judicial oversight, owing to “cruel and unusual punishments” being administered by its staff?

I think there is some dispute over MTC’s American history, but I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman on that point. We are agnostic on provision; we want the best possible provision. As he will know, G4S runs extremely high-quality prisons in Wales, such as Parc prison at Bridgend. I also remind him that the contract with G4S ran under three successive Labour Governments.

Access to Justice

The Government are determined to deliver a swifter and more certain justice system that is more accessible to the public. We are investing £700 million in our courts and tribunals, and our reforms will digitise the justice system to speed up processes and provide services online; remove unnecessary hearings, paper forms and duplication; cut costs for litigants; and make justice more accessible. Moreover, they will remove hearings from the courtroom that do not need to be there; ensure we make full use of judges, courtrooms and legal teams only where necessary; and support people in resolving their disputes by means of more informal and less costly remedies.

The UK Government are proposing fee increases of up to £800 for a full hearing in asylum and immigration tribunals. This means that applicants seeking to challenge decisions on their right to enter or remain in the UK will struggle to afford this, despite the Home Office’s often getting the decision wrong. Does the Minister agree with me that access to justice should never depend on an individual’s ability to pay?

It is important that we have a court and tribunal system that either pays for itself or goes towards paying for itself. In many cases, there is a remission system to which people can apply, as appropriate under the circumstances.

Citizens advice bureaux, including those in Havant, play an important role in helping people to access justice and to understand the legal system. Will the Minister join me in congratulating them on their work and in encouraging more people to use them?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the Citizens Advice service provides invaluable advice to the population. I wholeheartedly congratulate citizens advice bureaux, and I suspect I speak for the whole House in commending them for all the wonderful work they do.

15. The Supreme Court has found that the Justice Secretary acted without moral authority and in a legal vacuum. Will he now ensure that there will be access to justice for those who do not meet the residence test? (904677)

The Government are disappointed with the findings of the Supreme Court on the residence test, particularly when the last Government listened to Parliament and the public, and we made exceptions to that test. I am minded to say that there are millions of people across the country who take the view that it is right that there should be some sort of connection with Britain for people who seek to have their legal aid funds paid for by the British public.

19. Claudia Lawrence from York was last seen on 18 March 2009; she is still missing, as are around 2,500 people in the UK. In the midst of their grief, families have to battle to deal with financial and property affairs, and they need access to justice. There is a simple solution: guardianship on behalf of the missing person. The Government promised this over a year ago. Will the Secretary of State commit to putting it in this year’s Queen’s Speech? (904681)

That is a very good example of what I call “shoe-horning”. The hon. Lady shoe-horned in a later question into this one, and was just about in order. She is very ingenious.

The hon. Lady raises a very good point. There is a huge amount of sympathy across the political divide for the individual about whom she spoke. She will appreciate, however, that it would be inappropriate for me to pre-empt what will appear in the Queen’s Speech.

In order to avoid discriminating against people with disabilities, will the Minister confirm that personal independence payments will not be used in calculations that determine whether or not someone is entitled to help with employment tribunal cases?

Much consideration is given when assessing the criteria to be taken into account. The Ministry of Justice, the Department for Work and Pensions and others are involved, and it would be inappropriate for me to make a decision right now from the Dispatch Box in the way the hon. Lady asks me to do.

I listened very carefully to the Minister’s previous answer, but I still find it very difficult to understand that while this Conservative Government voted not to take in 3,000 refugee children, the Ministry of Justice is proposing to raise written first-tier immigration and asylum tribunal fees by a massive 512%. How on earth are vulnerable people going to be able to challenge what are quite often errors by the Home Office? Will the Minister please tell me where the justice is in this?

I simply say to the hon. Lady that there are a series of exemptions for vulnerable people. We need to recognise that the court system has to be paid for, and it is perfectly reasonable for the British taxpayer to expect those who use our court system to make a contribution towards its running.

Legal Aid

Before the process of legal aid reform began in 2010, our legal aid system cost the taxpayer over £2 billion each year. During the period 2014-15, the legal aid spend was £1.64 billion.

Ours is still the only country in the world that pays foreign nationals to sue our own soldiers, and last week the Supreme Court told us that the Government did not have the power to curtail legal aid for that purpose. The only solution, apparently, is primary legislation. Will the Minister tell us how he intends to make progress on this matter?

I refer my hon. Friend to some of the comments that I made earlier. However, he has made a good point about the residence test. He will appreciate that, while I have enormous sympathy with his view—as do many other people, including, in particular, millions in the country outside—we for our part await the written judgment of the Court, and will reflect on it.

Every solicitor who practises in England and Wales, as I did, has a client account. In some jurisdictions in north America, the interest earned on moneys held in client accounts is devoted to legal aid. Would the Government consider introducing such an arrangement in England and Wales?

We already have one of the most generous legal aid budgets in the world. As for what solicitors’ firms do with the interest on client accounts, the regulation of the legal profession is independent of the Government.

When it comes to legal aid, I wonder what help will be given to the family of Lance Corporal Young. They have been refused legal aid and therefore cannot take civil action against John Downey, the republican bomber who is believed to have been behind the Hyde Park bomb, and who was let off as a result of the “on the run” letters.

All decisions on whether or not legal aid is paid are made independently of Ministers. They are made by the Legal Aid Agency, on the basis of individual cases and individual facts. As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, I cannot comment in the House on a specific case.

British Bill of Rights

The Minister will recall saying to me, on 30 June,

“the United Kingdom has a strong tradition of respect for human rights that long predates the Human Rights Act 1998. The Government are proud of that tradition and will be true to it in delivering our reforms. As I explained…our plans do not involve us leaving the convention. That is not our objective.”—[Official Report, 30 June 2015; Vol. 597, c. 429WH.]

Is that still Government policy?

The right hon. Gentleman was absolutely right when he said last month that the Human Rights Act was not the last word on human rights. I look forward to debating the proposals with him.

The Government’s position on the European convention on human rights remains clear. We cannot rule out withdrawal forever, but our forthcoming proposals do not include it, not least because we have been clearly advised that if we withdrew from the convention while remaining a member of the European Union, that would be an open invitation to the Luxembourg Court to fill the gap, which could have far worse consequences, and also because the convention is written into the Good Friday agreement.

We are confident that we can replace the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights and reform our relationship with the Strasbourg Court, and that is precisely what we intend to deliver.

A condition of entry for new applicants to join the European Union is that they must be signatories to the European convention on human rights. Would putting into practice the Home Secretary’s welcome announcement yesterday of what I presume is now the Government’s policy to withdraw from the convention require us to leave the European Union?

My hon. Friend is tempting me—coaxing me, I might say—down a route that I am not going to take. I have set out the Government’s position very clearly, and our current plans, at least, do not involve withdrawing from the convention.

The Minister says that he and the Government want to stay in the convention, but we know that he wants to leave the European Union. The Home Secretary told us yesterday that she wants to leave the convention, but she wants to remain in the European Union. Should we understand that the Government are as divided on the question of ECHR membership as they are on the question of EU membership?

SNP Members have been asking for a long time when the Government will publish their consultation paper on repeal of the Human Rights Act. Does the Minister understand that the Home Secretary’s statement yesterday has caused particular concern in Scotland, because in Scotland the convention is embedded in the devolution settlement, as it is in the other devolved Administrations? Does he appreciate that the convention could never be withdrawn from without the consent of the Scottish Parliament, and that there is no question of that consent ever being given?

I hope that I have reassured the hon. and learned Lady by reiterating the Government’s position.

Topical Questions

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to associate myself with the remarks made earlier by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger). Today we had the decision by the jury sitting in the inquest into the tragic death of 96 people at Hillsborough. It has been a terrible tragedy, and it has taken a long time for those families to arrive at justice. Today is a significant day and I simply want to place on record my thanks to the coroner and his team and to the jury for their work.

Victims of domestic violence need a modern family court system that provides special, well considered safety measures for people who are directly facing the perpetrators of those horrific crimes. Can the Minister assure me that the Department is doing everything possible to ensure that we have a modern family court system that protects vulnerable individuals at those times?

Yes, the Government are absolutely committed to supporting all vulnerable and intimidated witnesses, especially those who have been subjected to domestic abuse, to help them to give the best possible evidence so that offenders can be brought to justice. That is why we have put measures in place including, as I said earlier, the ability to give evidence while screened from the accused in the courtroom, by live video link from a separate room within the court building or from a location away from the court building altogether. Our changes to the courts will only help this.

In a year of saying little and doing less on his flagship manifesto policy of repealing the Human Rights Act, the one thing that the Lord Chancellor has made clear is his position on the European convention on human rights. To quote his official spokesman in February,

“Our plans”—

not “our current plans”—

“do not involve leaving the convention”.

We now know that the Home Secretary said yesterday that we should leave the ECHR regardless of the result of the EU referendum. So who is right on this? What is today’s policy, and who is in charge of justice policy? It does not seem to be the Lord Chancellor.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind inquiry as to my welfare. The policy is as was spelled out earlier by my admirable colleague the Minister with responsibility for human rights, my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab).

Let me make sure that I have got this right. We have the leaders of the Tory Brexit campaign saying that we will stay in the ECHR, while the Home Secretary is explaining her support for remain by saying that we should leave the convention altogether. Is that not a shambles? Was not the former Attorney General, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), right to say that the Lord Chancellor’s “single-issue obsession” with Brexit means that he is

“no longer seeing the wood for the trees”

and that he is relying on arguments that are “unfounded and untenable”?

I am, as so often, at one with my right hon. and learned Friend. Both of us believe that we should remain within the European convention on human rights. Both of us also recognise that a far greater threat to our liberty and sovereignty is the European Court of Justice, which he has described as an institution that is “predatory” and often inimical to Britain’s interests. That is a view I share.

T3. In view of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association’s campaign concerning certain cases relating to taxi and private hire drivers refusing carriage to guide dog owners, will the Minister tell the House what the Government’s position is on this important issue? (904654)

I am happy to set out the Government’s position on this important issue. It is an offence under section 168 of the Equality Act 2010 to refuse to take an assistance dog in a taxi or private hire vehicle. The penalty is a maximum of £1,000. As far as sentencing is concerned, my hon. Friend will appreciate that that is a matter for the judiciary, which of course acts independently.

T2. Last week, the Justice Committee was at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, where the judges praised the UK for incorporating the Court’s principles into our law to provide effective redress. However, the Lord Chancellor wants to tear up the Human Rights Act and it now looks as though the Home Secretary wants to leave the convention altogether. I know that an attempt was made to get an answer to this question earlier, but can we actually have some clarity on this? To the outside world, it looks as though the Conservatives have a blind spot in relation to anything containing the words “European” and “human rights”. (904653)

The European convention can be implemented in UK law, but we have to trust the Supreme Court to apply it. It is odd that the Labour party, which set up the British Supreme Court, is so keen to subordinate it to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

T4. Will the Minister confirm that when the Government bring forward their plans for a British Bill of Rights, they will restore power to the British Supreme Court and British common sense to the human rights debate? (904655)

My hon. Friend makes that point powerfully. It is precisely one of the issues that we want to address.

T6. The Joint Committee on Human Rights was also in Strasbourg last week and heard testimony from representatives of countries that do not enjoy the tradition of stable democracy and human rights that we have in this country. Their message was clear: Britain provides leadership and inspiration in a troubled world. What kind of message do Ministers think they are now sending by providing such confusion and ambivalence over Britain’s commitment to the European convention on human rights? (904657)

The Government led the world on human rights before the Human Rights Act and will do so afterwards.

T5. Too many prisoners enter and leave prison without qualifications. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that prisoners get recognised qualifications in prison, so that they can have a second chance and a second career when they leave jail? (904656)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is important that there should be progression. Many prisoners secure level 1 or 2 qualifications, but we want to ensure that they can go on to pursue either apprenticeships or, in some cases, even degrees.

T7. A report by Citizens Advice states that“nine out of 10 people who have gone through the family courts, under new rules that heavily restrict access to legal aid, suffer strain in their mental and physical health, working lives and finances”,which is surely unacceptable. What will the Minister do to put that right? (904658)

As was said earlier, much is being done for people who need legal aid, particularly in the family courts. Our judges are aware of the difficulties of the people before them and are trained to help and assist them. The Government have also provided much money and support for litigants in person. People talk about more legal aid, but it is important to remember that it is taxpayers’ money and to recognise that we spend £1.6 billion on legal aid, which is one of the largest such budgets in the world.

T8. What steps are the Government taking to identify and remove preachers who are radicalising prison inmates? (904660)

My hon. Friend draws attention to an important issue. Shortly after being appointed, I asked Ian Acheson, a former prison governor with experience of working with the Home Office, to consider radicalisation and extremism in our prisons. He recently submitted a report to me, and we will be acting on it and publishing it shortly.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) highlighted the division between Government Members on membership of the European convention on human rights and the European Union. Does the Minister agree that that sends a message to my constituents that a single, stand-alone Bill of Rights would not be fit in a 21st-century system of legal governance? Does he also agree that we need something more, which is to remain part of the European Union and the ECHR?

I have set out the position on the ECHR clearly. When it comes to a Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act, we will consult widely, including the devolved Administrations.

T9. Last year, 15 teenagers were tragically stabbed on the streets of London. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is essential that we elect a Mayor of London on 5 May with an action plan to drive knives off the streets and to ensure tougher sentences? (904661)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Under a Conservative Mayor of London, tough action has been taken against crime. That is why it is vital that the Conservative candidate secures election on 5 May instead of the radical, divisive figure whom Labour has chosen as its candidate.

Is the Secretary of State in a position to inform the House when he expects the review of education in prisons conducted by Dame Sally Coates to be published?

It will be after 5 May, when I hope our Conservative candidate is returned as Mayor of London and also when I hope that Ruth Davidson takes over as leader of the Opposition in the Scottish Parliament. It will be a triple reason to celebrate.

A constituent of mine and her sisters were sexually abused by their father over many years. He is now in prison. The sisters were eligible for compensation, but my constituent was not as her abuse stopped before 1979, yet she continues to suffer the trauma of the abuse. Will the Minister please look again at this unfair rule?

My hon. Friend kindly informed me of this case, and I would like to meet his constituents, if possible. This is difficult because even when the 1964 scheme was amended in 1979 this was not done retrospectively. I can understand what the family are going through, but it is a difficult situation when a line is drawn and a date is put in any compensation scheme. It has not been retrospective in the past, and probably will not be in the future.

What use is made of ex-prisoners who have undergone mental health treatment in our prisons to feed back into our mental health service and perhaps support current prisoners who are undergoing this treatment?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. Ex-prisoners are very useful in rehabilitation, drug abuse and other services, and we will absolutely explore what further role they can play in mental health services as we progress work in that area.

The hon. Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway) is to be congratulated on her marathon on Sunday. She is looking in remarkably good nick.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Perhaps my colleagues would like to join me next year, as I try to smash my time of seven hours and 17 minutes.

Last month, I visited a prison in Nottingham that serves as a primary prison for many offenders in Derby. Today, an ongoing inquest into the death of a Derby man who died in his cell revealed that traces of legal highs were found in his body. What assurances can the Minister give me that the Department is doing all it can to tackle the levels of legal highs in our prison system?

Obviously, my hon. Friend raises a tragic case, and I can tell her that it will shortly be a criminal offence to possess lethal highs, as I prefer to call them, in prison. In addition, we are starting a testing regime. Together, those two measures will help us get on top of this evil trade in our prisons.

Understanding the impact of crimes on victims should be central to education in prisons. What steps are Ministers taking to help develop that agenda, particularly among prisoners who have committed the most serious crimes?

I believe the whole House would think that restorative justice, and victims’ involvement in it, is crucial. That will be part of the victims’ law proposals that we will come forward with in this Parliament.

May I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to early publication of the report on counter-radicalisation policy within prisons? He will understand the significance of this issue, and the Justice Committee is carrying out an inquiry into prisoner safety as part of that. Will he and his ministerial team come to update us on progress on that report?

I would be delighted to do that. The Chairman of the Select Committee’s question gives me an opportunity to confirm that we will be publishing the report in a suitably edited form, because it contains some material that cannot be shared in the public domain as it relates to sensitive security issues. I would, however, be delighted to accept an invitation from the Select Committee to talk to it, both about the problems that have been identified and the steps we need to take. I know how much the Committee wants to ensure that appropriate steps are taken, and I look forward to appearing before it as soon as is possible.

A National Probation Service report on the murder of my constituent’s sister has just been published. Davinia Loynton was brutally murdered by an offender who had been released on licence, following a conviction for previous violent crime. The report shows that there were a number of failings by the NPS. Will the Minister review the serious further offence report into this tragic death and ensure that Dale Loynton is satisfied that the NPS is doing what needs to be done to ensure that the public are properly protected?

I am sure the whole House would want to pass on their deepest sympathies to the family of Davinia Loynton following this horrific incident. Although the serious further offence review makes it clear that Kevin Hyden bears the full responsibility for Miss Loynton’s death, it also found that the NPS could have done more. As such, we will make sure that the NPS does all it can to learn the lessons from this tragedy so that future operational practice can be improved.

Having represented many innocent drivers who have been caught up in fraudulent low-velocity impact claims, I have seen how rackets are operating to exploit the low thresholds, and the technical and legal loopholes. I therefore welcome the rise in the small claims threshold. Will the Minister confirm whether there are any plans to explore reform of the standard of proof, evidential requirements and causation to make it even more difficult for such unmeritorious claims to succeed?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We will have a proper consultation on that in due course, and she raises the kind of issue I imagine we can incorporate and consider at length.