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Topical Questions

Volume 608: debated on Tuesday 26 April 2016

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.