House of Commons
Tuesday 26 April 2016
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
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.
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.
Prisoners: Meaningful Work
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.
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.
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?
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.
11. What plans he has to reform education in prisons. (904673)
17. What plans he has to reform education in prisons. (904679)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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?
Courts and Tribunals: Technology
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?
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
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
9. What steps the Government plan to take to improve access to justice. (904671)
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?
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.
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)
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.
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?
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
We look forward to presenting proposals for a Bill of Rights in due course, and we will consult on them fully.
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?
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?
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,
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.
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.
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)
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)
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
European Convention on Human Rights: UK Membership
I am answering this urgent question today on behalf of the Home Secretary, but my right hon. Friend will be making a statement to this House on the Hillsborough inquest findings tomorrow. Mr Speaker, I hope that it is in order for me to make a brief comment on that subject before I turn to the right hon. Gentleman’s question.
As the House knows, the inquest jury has now returned its verdict. I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in thanking the jurors for the considerable public service that they have performed. As a result, this morning I have written to Members advising that care be exercised when making public statements, to ensure that nothing is said that suggests that any individual or organisation has been found to be criminally liable. Ultimately, a jury in a criminal trial may need to decide that issue, and it is important that nothing is said that may prejudice the right to a fair trial, or make it more difficult to pursue appropriate prosecutions.
On the subject of this urgent question, the United Kingdom is a founder member of the European convention on human rights, and lawyers from the United Kingdom were instrumental in the drafting of the European convention. We are signatories to the convention and we have been clear throughout that we have no objections to the text of the convention; it is indeed a fine document and the Government are firmly of the view that the rights that it enshrines are rights that British citizens and others should continue to hold as part of a reformed human rights framework.
However, this Government were elected with a mandate to reform and modernise the UK human rights framework: the 2015 Conservative party manifesto said that a Conservative Government would scrap the Human Rights Act and introduce a British Bill of Rights. As with all elements of our manifesto, we intend to meet that commitment in the course of this Parliament. Members will be aware that we have set out our intention to consult on the future of the UK’s human rights framework both in this country and abroad, and that consultation will be published in due course. We will fully consult on our proposals before introducing legislation; in doing so, we will welcome constructive contributions from all parts of the House.
The intention of reform is to protect human rights, to prevent the abuse of human rights law and to restore some common sense to the system. The Prime Minister has been clear throughout that we
“rule out absolutely nothing in getting that done”.
Our preference, though, is to seek to achieve reforms while remaining members of the European convention. Our reforms will focus on the expansionist approach to human rights by the Strasbourg court and under the Human Rights Act, but although we want to remain part of the ECHR, we will not stay in at any cost. We have been clear that if we cannot achieve a satisfactory settlement within the ECHR, we may have no option but to consider withdrawal.
However, the question before the people of the United Kingdom in June—again, thanks to this Government—is not about our future membership of the European convention on human rights, but about our future membership of the European Union. It is important that, in taking that significant decision, people do not conflate those separate questions.
Let me make one thing absolutely clear: the United Kingdom has a proud tradition of respect for human rights that long pre-dates the Human Rights Act—and, indeed, the European convention on human rights. Any reforms that we make will maintain that protection. Those are not just words. This Government and the coalition Government who preceded them have a strong record on human rights, both here and abroad.
We brought forward the Modern Slavery Act 2015 to protect some of the most vulnerable and exploited people in our society and to punish those responsible for that exploitation. We have fought to promote and protect human rights internationally. We are one of the leading members of the UN Human Rights Council, leading negotiations to set up international investigations into human rights abuses in Syria and elsewhere. We have transformed the fight against sexual violence in conflict, persuading more than150 states to agree for the first time that sexual violence should be recognised as a grave breach of the Geneva convention. We have been leading the world on the business and human rights agenda: we are one of the first states to argue for the UN’s “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights”, and the first state in the world to implement them through a national action plan.
That is a track record of which we can justifiably be proud, and it is that track record on which we will build when we set out proposals for the reform of the human rights framework in the United Kingdom.
I am grateful to the Attorney General for that answer. I should make it clear that I hold him in the very highest regard; I enjoyed working with him as a Minister in the previous Government. But he is not the Home Secretary, and he should not be responding to the urgent question today. The Home Secretary was the one who could make the speech yesterday and she can, apparently, come and make a statement tomorrow. She should be here today. Yesterday she went rogue; today she has gone missing.
There is total confusion at the heart of Government policy. What the Attorney General has just said at the Dispatch Box contradicts clearly what has been said previously. Yesterday the Home Secretary said:
“The ECHR can bind the hands of parliament, adds nothing to our prosperity, makes us less secure by preventing the deportation of dangerous foreign nationals – and does nothing to change the attitudes of governments like Russia’s when it comes to human rights. So regardless of the EU referendum, my view is this: if we want to reform human rights laws in this country, it isn’t the EU we should leave but the ECHR and the jurisdiction of its court.”
That contradicts what the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab), who has responsibility for human rights, previously told the House at Justice questions and in a succession of Westminster Hall debates. On 30 June, he said:
“Our plans do not involve us leaving the convention; that is not our objective”—[Official Report, 30 June 2015; Vol. 597, c. 426WH.]
Clearly, there has been a major shift in Government policy and this House should have been the first to hear about it. The Home Secretary tells us that she wants to remain in the European Union but leave the convention; the Under-Secretary of State for Justice wants to leave the European Union but remain in the convention; and the Lord Chancellor wants to leave the European Union, stay in the convention, but ignore the jurisprudence of the Court. Thank goodness we do not have the instability of a coalition Government any more.
It has been apparent for some time that everything in Government thinking is seen through the prism of the European Union referendum. Now it seems that the Home Secretary has taken that to the next level. She has an eye on the next election—the Conservative leadership election.
To be a member of the European Union requires us to be a party to the European convention. How is the Home Secretary’s speech yesterday consistent with that policy? The devolved settlements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have the European convention hard-wired into them. They are required to abide by the convention. How can that be done if the United Kingdom as a country is no longer a party to the convention? Does the Attorney General, a decent man who genuinely respects human rights, honestly want to see his country and mine stand alone with Belarus against the convention?
May I start by returning the right hon. Gentleman’s compliments? I very much enjoyed serving in government with him and I have the highest regard for him as an individual. He is a little unfair about coalition government; in my experience, it was not unstable much of the time. We should recognise—he and I, and all other Members of the House—that what we did in coalition was to produce pieces of legislation such as the Modern Slavery Act that recognised the real actions we could take in pursuit of defending human rights, and this Government will continue that course.
It is not right to say, as the right hon. Gentleman suggested, that there is confusion on this policy. I have set it out and he was here in the Chamber when my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Justice did the same. There is no confusion here. What has been said throughout—by the Prime Minister and all other Ministers—is that we rule nothing out in seeking to achieve the policy objective that we have set and for which we have a clear mandate from the recent general election.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about membership of the European Union. It is not, I am afraid, in any way clear that membership of the European Union requires membership of the European convention on human rights; as with most of these things—he and I are both lawyers—he will understand that there are considerable legal complexities, so that is certainly not a clear statement that I or he can make.
Let me simply say this to the right hon. Gentleman: what the Home Secretary was doing yesterday—in a speech with which, I suspect, he broadly agreed, and which I certainly found made a very persuasive case for remaining in the European Union—was setting out some of the difficulties with the human rights landscape as it stands. We think there are considerable difficulties: there is an absence of common sense and there have been cases that have demonstrated that human rights law is headed in the wrong direction. Restoring that common sense is the objective of the entire Government.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that our fight against terrorism and excessive immigration has been persistently undermined by not only the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg but the European Court of Justice adjudicating on the charter of fundamental rights, and that the only answer is to leave the European Union?
I certainly agree that there have been cases in both Luxembourg and Strasbourg with which we have found difficulty and which we have sought to contest. It is certainly right, as my hon. Friend suggests, that not everything about our membership of the European Union is wonderful, and the Home Secretary made that point very clearly yesterday. However, it is a question of deciding whether, on balance, it is right or wrong to be in the European Union—whether, on balance, it is better or worse for the United Kingdom to be there—and he and I have come to different conclusions on that.
On my hon. Friend’s specific point about the charter of fundamental rights, he will know that the charter covers areas where European law is applicable; it does not cover other areas, so it is not quite the same as our membership of the European convention on human rights.
One thing we can say about this Government is that we are not short of a choice of policy on the European convention on human rights. The Prime Minister reminded us yesterday that he wants to see reform of the ECHR—not, we note, withdrawal. The former Attorney General, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), who is on the sensible wing of the Tory party, called the ECHR a
“central pillar of foreign policy.”
When the Ministry of Justice clarified its position in February—that took some time—its line was:
“Our plans do not involve leaving the convention”—
and the Justice Secretary has repeated that today. However, the Home Secretary was absolutely clear yesterday that we should leave the ECHR, whatever the outcome of the EU referendum. What status do the Home Secretary’s remarks have? Are they Government policy? Do they bind the MOJ and the Government, or is it just the Home Office that is coming out of the convention?
It is always a pleasure to see the Attorney General, and I mean no disrespect when I say that this is rather like “Hamlet” without the prince—or the princess. Why could the Home Secretary, or even the Lord Chancellor, not have clarified Government policy, as they have caused the confusion? [Interruption.] It would be comic if it were not tragic.
The Home Secretary has set out a series of legal nonsenses. She claims there is no connection between the EU and the ECHR, but it is a requirement of EU membership that countries joining the EU sign up to the ECHR. She elides the fact that European Court of Human Rights judgments are advisory and that the UK Parliament remains sovereign. She wrongly dismisses the importance of Britain’s membership of the convention as an example to Putin and his ilk, downplaying this country’s record on human rights and its influence in Europe. She also ignores the success of the Human Rights Act in incorporating the ECHR into UK law, giving a remedy to vulnerable people suffering discrimination.
I thought the legal, moral and practical arguments had persuaded the Government to abandon attempts to leave the ECHR. We are not going to deal with the legal and technical arguments today, but will the Attorney General say when the consultation will be published so that we can get down to that? Will he at least clarify today what the Government’s policy is? If what the Home Secretary said is not Government policy, what is the status of her remarks? Are they just a stump speech for the Tory party leadership?
It is, of course, an immense pleasure to see the hon. Gentleman too. I pass over what I am sure my hon. Friends, at least, will regard as the supreme irony of being lectured by a member of the Labour party about unity and common purpose.
What the hon. Gentleman will find is that I am saying, the Home Secretary is saying and the Lord Chancellor is saying that the status quo on human rights law is not acceptable so we are bringing forward proposals for reform. We will do that when they are ready. The contrast is marked between what Conservative Members say, which is that there is a deficit of common sense in much of human rights law, and what Labour Members say, which is that the status quo is fine, all is well and we should leave it all alone. The hon. Gentleman will find that many of his constituents, like many of mine, do not think the status quo is acceptable and do wish to see reform. That is what we had a mandate for in the general election, and that is what this Government will deliver.
Does not this unholy muddle demonstrate the trouble we get into when we contract out our policy to the tabloid leader writers? Is it not the truth that the simplicities that suit them override this immensely complex issue and that our nation should send out a message about our commitment to human rights through an unswerving commitment to the convention? The Court has been made to work better over the course of the past four years, not least by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) in Brighton in 2012. The Court is learning its lessons; let us work with it and not undermine it, and human rights, in the process.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that these are not simple matters and that there is huge complexity here, and it would be quite wrong to attempt to reduce this debate to simplistic statements. However, it is also right that our commitment to human rights is not limited to our signature on pieces of paper but is explained and demonstrated in the actions that we take.
I have set out some of the actions that this Government have taken as well as those that the previous Government took, in conjunction with the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) and others. I have mentioned some of the things that we have achieved, and there have been others. We were the Government, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who reduced the maximum period that someone can spend in detention without charge to 28 days. We were the Government, too, who abolished ID cards. These are pro-human-rights measures. We demonstrate our commitment to the protection of human rights by what we do.
I am very grateful to the Attorney General for what he has said so far, but his response, and the absence of the Home Secretary, simply will not do. There is confusion here. Less than an hour ago, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab), assured me that the Government have no plans to withdraw from the ECHR, but yesterday in her speech the Home Secretary said that withdrawing from the ECHR was a must. Why is she not here to answer this urgent question? Does she not realise that what she said yesterday has caused grave concern across these islands, particularly in Scotland?
I assure hon. Members on both sides of the House that the unity and purpose missing from the Conservative and Labour parties is present in the Scottish National party in relation to the ECHR and human rights, and also present in the majority of the elected Members of the Scottish Parliament, who made it very clear that under no circumstances would they ever consent to a repeal of the Human Rights Act.
As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) said, the ECHR is hard-wired into the Scotland Act. Everything that the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament do is governed by the ECHR. I assure the British Government that given the composition of the current Scottish Parliament and the likely composition of the next one, there is no question of the Scottish Parliament ever giving its consent to Britain’s withdrawing from the ECHR. Does the Home Secretary not realise that if Britain were to attempt to withdraw from the EHCR, it would cause a constitutional crisis within these islands?
On EU law, it is correct that all EU member states and candidate states are required to be signatories to the convention. If the Attorney General is in any doubt about that, he could consult a number of legal academics, including Professor Sionaidh Douglas-Scott, the professor of European and human rights law at Oxford University, who has written extensively on this issue. I was going to suggest that the Attorney General needed to give the Home Secretary a tutorial on European Union law, but if he does not accept that signatories to the EU must also be signatories to the convention, perhaps he himself needs such a tutorial. [Interruption.] Yes, there is a question. When will this much-promised consultation come forward? Prevarication will not do any longer. When will the Government bring it forward, and will it include withdrawal from the ECHR as well as the HRA?
There is a risk in this discussion that we make a little too much of what happened yesterday. Let us be clear. I have said a number of times, and the hon. and learned Lady has heard different members of the Government make it clear a number of times, what our policy is in relation to human rights reform. I say again that the Prime Minister has been clear and we have all been clear—we rule nothing out. It follows from that that we do not rule out withdrawal from the convention should we not be able to achieve the changes that we all believe are necessary.
I accept that the hon. and learned Lady’s party and the official Opposition do not take the view that the status quo is unacceptable; we disagree about that. What I find odd about her position and, indeed, that of the official Opposition is that, as far as I can tell, they are saying to us: “Whatever you do on human rights reform we will oppose it. There is nothing you can do that we will ever support. There is no reform you can bring forward that we would ever regard as valid, but would you please get on and bring forward your reforms, which we will oppose anyway whatever you say?” That is not a sensible position for her and her colleagues to take.
The hon. and learned Lady is right, of course, that whatever proposals we make, there will be significant devolution consequences. As she has heard me say, and ministerial colleagues say, when we bring forward proposals we will ensure that full consultation happens with the devolved Administrations to ensure that we work through those issues.
Those of us who represent this House in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe are acutely aware of the fact that the convention on human rights has been extended way beyond the original remit that was drawn up, in part by the United Kingdom, in the immediate aftermath of the second world war. My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right to seek to pursue changes. Will he do so as swiftly as possible to get the thing back under control?
The difficulty, as I have said, is not with the convention but with its interpretation, which has been extended well beyond what the original drafters intended. Perhaps the most evident example of that is in so-called extra-territorial jurisdiction. It was not intended that those conducting themselves and making decisions on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan should be subject to European human rights law; we have international humanitarian law that does a good job in that field, and it was not intended that that should happen. My hon. Friend is therefore entirely right.
The more the Attorney General and the Justice Secretary say that they have not ruled out the UK leaving the European convention on human rights, the more it sounds to me like exactly the direction of travel they intend to take, and I find that chilling. The Attorney General cited the proud tradition of this country in establishing this international system of guaranteeing human rights here and abroad, yet it is that very proud tradition that he appears to be about to kick into the gutter. Does he recognise that we cannot both be a signatory to the European convention and reject the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights? It is not just about having these substantive rights and paying lip service to them; it is about accepting the jurisdiction of the international court to enforce those rights. Does he recognise that every Government in this country needs to have that restraint? All Governments are tempted to abuse their power, and this international system is an important guarantee. Does he recognise, as Conservative Members have said, how important it is for those who are struggling for human rights in other countries to be part of a system that we play a part in guaranteeing? I hope that enough Members in this House and the other place will share that view, so that, if the Government drift towards a position of trying to leave the European convention, this Parliament will stop them.
I will start at the end of what the right hon. and learned Lady has said. She is quite right to say that the example that we set to other countries is something that should occupy our minds. Again, I make the point that the example we set comes from our actions—from what we do—and I do not think that there is any prospect of this Government or any other likely British Government moving away from a clear wish to protect human rights in this country and abroad. I have set out some of the ways in which the Government have done that.
I think that the right hon. and learned Lady attaches too much significance to the convention and the Human Rights Act. I understand why those who were in office in the Labour Government that introduced that Act feel very attached to it. She must also recognise that that Act and what it attempted to do—no doubt from the best of motives—have been tarnished by a number of cases that followed, which have led many of our constituents to believe that “human rights” is a term to be deprecated, not a term to be supported and celebrated. I am sure that she and I agree that we need to get back to a place where all our citizens are keen to support human rights and their protection.
My final point is this. In terms of restraint and what we are prevented from doing, as the right hon. and learned Lady would put it, by our membership of the convention on human rights, I am surprised that a former Law Officer overlooks the role of our own courts, which are robust in the way in which they hold Government to account and restrict the freedom of manoeuvre of Ministers—quite rightly so. I do not believe that we need to rely solely on the exercises of foreign jurisdictions to restrict our Government appropriately.
The Attorney General has been properly measured and thoughtful in his comments. There is a lot of fuss about what is really obiter dicta at the moment. Does he accept that the commitment of the Government and our domestic courts to human rights is demonstrated by the fact that only 0.4% of live cases before the ECHR involve the United Kingdom as a state party? Does he also accept that, as is recognised by many Strasbourg jurists, it would be perfectly possible to take word for word the protections in the convention and incorporate them into a British Bill of Rights, while staying entirely compliant with the convention, as most of us would wish to be?
There are, as my hon. Friend wisely suggests, many ways in which reform might be achieved. I will not, of course, pre-empt the proposals that my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor will introduce. My hon. Friend is right that there are many cases that the United Kingdom fights and wins, and it is worth recognising that. He will recognise, however, that one of our difficulties is the fact that, even when we fight and win, we spend a good deal of time and effort doing so. If cases are brought because people are encouraged to do so by an expansionist view of human rights law in Europe and elsewhere, we have to spend a good deal of time and effort dealing with those cases when perhaps that is not appropriate.
The convention on human rights was drawn up by British lawyers and has been hugely powerful in spreading standards of human rights and our common humanity not only across Europe, but much more widely. The Home Secretary did not say yesterday, “We should try to reform the Court and then have a think about it.” She said that we must pull out of the convention. Is that the Government’s policy—yes or no?
I think I have been very clear about what the Government’s policy is. The Home Secretary yesterday explained why the status quo is unacceptable. There is a difference between the convention that was drawn up in the 1950s and the interpretation given to it by judges in Strasbourg since that time. It is with the latter that we have an issue, not with the former.
One of the great advantages of the Attorney General’s coming to speak on behalf of the Home Secretary is that he is not enmeshed in the near-Trappist reticence that normally applies to a Law Officer. Given the freedom that the Home Secretary has kindly given him, will he invite her, next time he has a candid conversation with her, to explain something to the Turkish journalists, media organisations, police and judges, all of whom have been the subject of some pretty revolting treatment by the Turkish Government, and who look to the convention and to the Court for protection that they cannot get in their domestic courts and jurisdiction? Will he ask the Home Secretary to look those people in the face and say that our leaving the convention would not affect their rights or undermine their proper reliance on the standards of civilised behaviour, with which I thought we agreed?
There is very little doubt that I have fundamentally abrogated my Trappist vows this morning. My right hon. and learned Friend makes the crucial point that there are real human rights abuses in the world today, and this country should stand four-square against those abuses. We should do so regardless of what international convention we may be part of and regardless of what Act we have passed. We should make that position clear, as I have no doubt responsible Governments in this country will do, now and in the future. It is important that the Foreign Office and, indeed, all parts of Government do their part to enhance human rights here and abroad.
Post-1945 Europe should be proud to have such a convention, which has existed for so many years. If the argument is that from time to time, the judgments are faulty, what about judgments in this country, such as those in the cases of the Birmingham six and the Guildford four? Surely, they were hardly an argument for changing our judicial system. The reason the Attorney General is putting this forward, whether or not it represents his own personal and political views, is that there is an extreme element in the Conservative party that deeply resented having the convention in the first place.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that no court system is perfect. All systems are capable of making mistakes, and we should be grateful for the fact that our judicial system permits those mistakes to be corrected, as they were in the cases that he mentioned. I do not think that that is comparable to the exercise that has been conducted by Strasbourg jurisprudence on the European convention on human rights, which has moved that document fundamentally away from its founders’ intentions. That is a different thing. The Labour party is content to allow it to proceed, but we are not content to let it go.
A rule of thumb in life, I have found, is that when you throw a grenade, you usually retreat for cover. I wish that the Home Secretary were here to answer this urgent question, because I feel as though this has come up under the pressure of concerns about criminals, borders and so on. Conflating the two issues is fundamentally wrong. I would like to know whether the Home Secretary discussed her views before she made them known, because bringing them up now has made it look as though our Government are in disarray over the matter, and that is not acceptable. The Home Secretary should make it very clear whether she supports being in the ECHR. I respect my right hon. Friend’s views on the matter, but we cannot get away from the fact that she made a very clear statement yesterday, which was not helpful in the debate that many of us are having about control of our borders and criminals coming and going.
I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns. If she reads the speech that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made yesterday, however, she will see that there was no conflation of the European convention on human rights and our membership of the European Union; indeed, my right hon. Friend made it very clear that they are two different things, to be approached in different ways. I do not think that there is a conflation, and we must all be cautious about making sure that we understand clearly what our colleagues are saying before we comment on it.
Following on from the comments that the Attorney General has just made, does he accept that there is a distinct parallel? Six months ago, many Members in this Chamber accepted the sincerity of the Government’s statement that they ruled nothing out but would seek substantial and meaningful reform of the European Union. If the point made yesterday was that the European convention on human rights is binding on this country and that that is a problem, why should Members accept today the veracity of statements about reforming or leaving? Does not the speech made yesterday prove the fundamental principle that, when someone tries to please everyone, in the end, they please no one?
I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that we have not succeeded in pleasing everyone. I grant him that, but there is no doubt, so far as the European Union question is concerned, that the Government’s position is very clear. It is that we have secured substantial and meaningful reform, and on that basis the Government can recommend to the British public that we should remain within the European Union. We are all entitled to our own views about whether that judgment is right or wrong, but that is the Government’s judgment. We have not yet made the same judgment about the European convention on human rights, because we have not yet brought forward our proposals or, indeed, negotiated a different settlement. That issue is yet to be determined, which is why it is in a different category from the European Union question.
I support my right hon. and learned Friend in making the case for sensible reform of our domestic human rights architecture. Is it not the case that whether such human rights are upheld in a supranational court or by our own courts and Parliament, there is no doubt that there will always be respect for fundamental human rights in this country, many of which have been guarded and promoted by Parliament itself? By contrast, is it not the case that the most egregious human rights abuses are found abroad, as evidenced, for instance, by the brutal murder of the editor of a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender magazine in Bangladesh yesterday? Should the UK not use the full force of its influence to stand against such abuses?
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. He makes the case very well for what we will do, which is to bring forward sensible reforms to our human rights framework but maintain our robust protection of human rights both in this country and around the world.
Will the Attorney General confirm that, if the Home Secretary’s wish came true, the UK would no longer have a British judge at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and we would therefore not be party to making judgments to uphold international law across the whole of Europe?
Again, I would say to the right hon. Gentleman that there is more to promoting human rights here and abroad than our membership of that court or even of the convention. We do a great deal more to help to promote human rights, and we should continue to do so.
May I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for showing himself also to be gallant in defending the Home Secretary’s position? There seem to be a couple of errors in her speech. One was that she said it was the European Court of Human Rights that stopped us deporting foreign people, when it was in fact the ECJ that stopped Abu Hamza’s daughter-in-law being removed, contrary to the Home Secretary’s view.
On the issue of whether we have to be in the European convention on human rights while in the EU, I refer my right hon. and learned Friend to article 6.3 of the treaty on European Union:
“Fundamental rights, as guaranteed by the European Convention …shall constitute general principles of the Union’s law.”
Furthermore, the Commission, when asked specifically what would happen if a member state left the convention, said it would consider using article 7, which allows for the suspension of a member’s voting rights. It seems to me that, for once, European treaties are written in clear language that is understandable even to non-lawyers.
On my hon. Friend’s last point, if only that were true. I do not think there is the simplicity that he suggests there is on that point. He is of course right that ECHR principles contribute to European Union via the charter, but that is not the same as putting together the European convention on human rights and European law and saying that they are indistinguishable and indivisible from each other. That is not the position.
In relation to deportation, the difficulty we often face, as my hon. Friend will know, is the interpretation of article 8 of the convention, which deals with the right to a family life. That is a good example of the way in which rights drawn up perfectly sensibly in the convention can be extended beyond where they were meant to go, or of how the balancing exercise at the heart of all human rights law is not conducted in what he and I would consider to be a sensible way.
In his reply to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), the Attorney General conceded that there would be substantial proposals in respect of devolution, but that there would also be “full consultation”. Does he accept that it is not a matter of full consultation, but of fundamental change to the way that the Welsh Assembly and the other Assemblies actually operate, so how will they operate?
As I have said, we will have to wait for the proposals to be brought forward before it is sensible to discuss them in detail, but the hon. Gentleman has my undertaking, as he has had that of other Ministers, that when the proposals are brought forward, there will be a full conversation about how the devolution aspects of such proposals will be managed.
I have given evidence at four trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The ICTY judges told me that the UK had a superb record on upholding human rights. I must say that was very pleasant for my men and me to hear, having had to go through four trials. Does my right hon. and learned Friend think that such a verdict could be applied to all other members of the European convention on human rights?
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that being a member of the Council of Europe and a signatory to the convention is no guarantee that a country’s human rights record will be spotless. It follows logically, of course, that not being such a signatory does not mean a country cannot have a hugely impressive record on the protection of human rights. Many countries around the world that are not signatories to that document have demonstrated exactly that.
Since the urgent question was asked, the Attorney General has made several references to the UK Government’s commitment to human rights being demonstrated by actions rather than by words. How can that commitment be squared with the UK Government voting yesterday against the human rights of child refugees requiring shelter in this country?
Mr Speaker, I am sure you will not want me to rehash the arguments made in the Chamber yesterday. I think that the hon. Lady should at least accept that this Government’s record in providing huge amounts of aid to those in need—not just in Syria, but around the world—demonstrates that we do care and that we do act in defence of the most vulnerable. Human rights is only one aspect; there are other very real needs that we help to support. The fact that this Government, against considerable opposition across many areas of opinion, have maintained our commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP on foreign aid shows that as clearly as anything does.
Surely the test is how our human rights work. The fact that this Government passed the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which is leading the way in Europe—I must say that it was largely due to the intervention of the Prime Minister—shows that we have an excellent human rights record.
I am grateful to the Attorney General for being at the Dispatch Box because there is one thing I would like to know in legal terms. From what has been said, this is a confusing issue. Can a country remain in the European Union and still come out of the convention? What is his legal opinion on that?
As I have suggested, the legal position is not clear. Neither my hon. Friend nor I have the time to go into all the ins and outs of that particular question now, but I suggest it would also be wrong to say that it is clear in the opposite direction. It is not at all clear that if the UK left the European convention on human rights, it would not be able to remain a member of the European Union. It is certainly not clear, and it would be wrong to suggest that it was.
As my hon. Friend has mentioned the Modern Slavery Act, may I take this opportunity to pay tribute to his own part in the process? I think the whole House recognises that my hon. Friend played a leading role in making the arguments on a subject that was not well known and not especially prominent. He brought it to prominence and secured a remarkable piece of legislation.