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Topical Questions

Volume 611: debated on Tuesday 14 June 2016

A number of distinguished figures were recognised in Her Majesty’s birthday honours list at the weekend, but one of them I took particular pleasure in seeing recognised—Mr Elroy Palmer, who works for the St Giles Trust. He is an ex-offender who now devotes his time to helping young people to avoid crime and make constructive use of their lives. Last year, Elroy spoke at the Conservative party conference, where he received a standing ovation. His testimony, his experience and his example show what can be achieved if an individual in custody decides to change their life. His life has changed immeasurably for the better, and he has changed the lives of others immeasurably for the better as well.

I add my congratulations to those recognised in the honours list last week. Is there any requirement on Her Majesty’s Government under article 2 of the European convention on human rights to initiate a new coroner’s inquest if there is any potential state involvement and if a further inquest is requested by the family member of the deceased?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue; he gave me notice that it was of concern to him and to many people in Northern Ireland. Our legislation provides that there must be an inquest in cases where there may have been state involvement in the death of any individual. In such cases, the coroner investigates not only who died, and where and when, but the broader circumstances of the death. This wider investigation ensures compliance with the European convention on human rights. There may be an inquiry, instead of an inquest, if the coroner’s investigation cannot ascertain all of those matters.

T2. Roughly 20% of prisoners have spent some time in care. I have met some young care leavers in my constituency and prison is often seen as an attractive option because it provides a roof over their heads and a hot meal each day. What measures are this Government taking to ensure that care leavers have better options in life than prison? (905374)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that very important issue. The Government have asked Sir Martin Narey to review residential care for looked-after children, and some of his recommendations will touch on the criminal justice system. The care and supervision of young offenders in custody is not good enough, which is why the Government have asked Charlie Taylor, a former chief executive of the National College for Teaching and Leadership, to lead a review of the whole of the youth justice system, and that final report will be out shortly.

So far today we have asked the Secretary of State about the risks that Brexit poses to workers’ rights and human rights, to the European arrest warrant and the prisoner transfer directive, and even to his cherished prison reform programme, but we have had no answer from him on any of them. Are not the Government and the Opposition right to say that those who want to protect human rights, strengthen national security and make our country safer should vote remain on 23 June?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for speaking from the heart with such passion for the European Union. It is not a view that is universally shared, I have to say, by Labour voters, but I respect the way in which he put his case. I am speaking on behalf of the Government at this Dispatch Box, and the Government’s position is clear: some of us as Ministers have been given leave to depart from that position. I have done so outside this House, but I do not intend to dwell on the issue now.

Let me have one more try. The Justice Secretary is right to recognise that human rights and our membership of the EU are linked; it is just that we think that that is a good thing, and he thinks that it is a bad thing. Is not the choice on Thursday week between working with our closest neighbours to strengthen democracy and the rule of law, and his recipe for bleak isolationism, which has him, in the words of Lord Heseltine, marching

“to the drum of Farage, Trump and Le Pen”?

I entirely understand why the hon. Gentleman makes the case in the way that he does, and he does so with great force and fluency, as he always does. Whatever the decision of the British people on 23 June, I have confidence in them to ensure that workers’ rights and human rights, friendly co-operation and the principles of decency and fair treatment for all will be preserved come what may, because I have ultimate confidence in the British people and their elected representatives to defend our democracy and to safeguard decent values. I would not for a moment suggest that anyone in this House, whether they are advocating a remain vote or a leave vote, is anything other than someone who wants to uphold democracy and the rights that all of us have inherited.

T5. What support is, or will be, available to people with mental health problems in the criminal justice system? (905378)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this extremely serious point. He may know that mental health provision in prisons is provided by NHS England and by local health boards in Wales, and that it is based on locally assessed need. All prisons have procedures in place to identify, manage and support people with such health needs. We are, however, keen to give governors increased freedoms and flexibilities to be able to respond to the needs of their populations, and we are actively talking to Ministers in the Department of Health about this issue.

T3. Will the prisons Minister simply confirm that, despite his recruitment efforts, there are still 7,000 fewer prison officers in post today than there were in May 2010? Will he simply say yes? (905376)

I do not deny what the right hon. Gentleman, a distinguished former prisons Minister, says. However, I repeat to the House that since 1 January 2015, we have appointed 2,830 extra prison officers, which is a net increase of 530 since the start of last year. I also point out that the average prison population in 2010 was 84,725, while, as of 3 June, it is 85,291, so it has in fact remained reasonably stable over the past six years.

T6. Hampshire’s new police and crime commissioner, Michael Lane, has put restorative justice at the heart of his agenda. Will the Minister join me in supporting that policy to ensure that victims of crime are never ignored in Havant or across Hampshire? (905379)

This is the first opportunity that I have had on the Floor of the House to congratulate Michael on his election. There were excellent results in the PCC elections around the country, particularly in relation to turnout. I was very conscious of the part that restorative justice played in the campaign. Restorative justice is an important component of helping victims, but we must make sure that victims want to be part of it and that it is not forced on them in any way.

T4. With regard to employment tribunals, does the Minister have any plans to include personal independence payments in the calculations for assessing eligibility? (905377)

As far as employment tribunals are concerned—as the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab), said earlier—the review will be published shortly. It is a fact that a lot of people who would previously have gone to employment tribunals are now going to the ACAS conciliatory procedure. We will certainly make sure that all the issues referred to are covered in the review.

T8. At Justice Questions in March, I raised serious concerns about the systematic failure of the Solicitors Regulation Authority in relation to a case in my constituency. From my experience of dealing with this case, it has become clear that the self-governing SRA needs reform both to improve accountability and to restore public confidence. Will the Minister meet me to discuss this issue so that, together, we can bring forward proposals to ensure solicitors are regulated properly and independently? (905381)

My hon. Friend will appreciate that the Solicitors Regulation Authority is an independent body. If she wishes to have a meeting, I am certainly happy to arrange one.

T7. Will the Secretary of State be good enough to tell us, in the wake of the atrocity in Orlando, what steps he is taking to monitor and address homophobic hate crime against lesbian and gay people in this country? (905380)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I think everyone in this House will have been utterly disgusted by the atrocity perpetrated in Orlando. It is clear from the choice of target that the hate in that killer’s heart was a prejudice—a homophobic prejudice—that I think everyone in this House would want to denounce. For that reason, I think he is absolutely right to say that we, too, need to be vigilant.

Let me first pay tribute to everyone who attended the vigil in Old Compton Street last night to show our solidarity with the victims of this atrocity. Let me also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who has been leading work to ensure that we can both anticipate any threats to the LGBTQ community in this country and review not just the operational but the legislative requirements to keep people safe.

It is a critical part of being British that we celebrate the right of people to live and love in different ways. For that reason, I think all of us would want to send our condolences and sympathies to the victims and that all of us would want to say, as a House, that we stand resolutely behind the vital importance of recognising and celebrating difference in our society.

Earlier this month, my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor expressed his frustration at our country’s inability to prevent the entry of foreign national criminals and even terror suspects. Can he tell the House how things will change when we leave the European Union?

I think it is well known that the current test for denial of entry for people coming from the EU is that they must pose a serious, genuine and present threat, which has obviously created difficulties over the years.

Last week the Public Accounts Committee published a report on the criminal justice system. One of our conclusions was:

“The criminal justice system is not good enough at supporting victims and witnesses.”

We also cited the fact that only 55% of witnesses, many of whom are of course victims as well, say that they would go through the process again. Does the Secretary of State agree with our conclusion?

Yes, I do. It has sometimes been the habit in the past for people to be greeted with a report from the National Audit Office or the Public Accounts Committee and attempt to suggest that it is an exercise in—well, there have been criticisms in the past. I certainly do not criticise the PAC or the NAO. The report is a welcome wake-up call. My right hon. Friend the victims Minister will bring forward a Green Paper with details on how we can better help victims and witnesses, but there is much that we need to do to improve the criminal justice system, and our judiciary get it.

I, too, attended the all-party group on autism’s visit to Feltham and was inspired by what the governor and his team are doing. Will the prisons Minister consider using the forthcoming prisons Bill to improve the life chances of the 5% of the prison population who are estimated to suffer with autism?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for showing serious interest in the issue. I was pleased that he was able to go to Feltham yesterday. I am not sure that we need to legislate; we need to spread the good practice from Feltham across the prison system, and I hope that the reform prison governors will be in the lead in doing that.

On 19 April, the Secretary of State said in a statement:

“It is hard to overstate the degree to which the EU is a constraint on ministers’ ability to do the things they were elected to do”.

Given that being able to constrain this Tory Government can only be a very good thing for the people of this country, what did he have in mind?

My view is that any Minister—Conservative, Labour or, who knows, Scottish National party in the future, perhaps as part of a coalition—should be accountable to the people of this country for the decisions that they make. When the European Court of Justice can rule in such a way that there is no recourse or appeal, our democracy is undermined. Our democracy is precious, and the European Court of Justice is no friend of it.

Next week the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe will appoint a new British judge to replace Judge Paul Mahoney upon his retirement. Does the Lord Chancellor agree that that makes this an appropriate moment for us to recognise Judge Mahoney and thank him for his work, and to recognise the contribution that British judges and lawyers have made to the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights throughout its existence?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Of course, the European convention on human rights was authored in large part by a British lawyer—a former Conservative Lord Chancellor, in fact. Whatever one thinks of the operations of the Court at different times, the rights contained in that convention are precious. I thank Judge Mahoney for his outstanding work, and I know that there are some brilliant lawyers who stand ready to replace him. I am sure that the Council of Europe will give careful thought, as ever, to ensuring that we have the right candidate in place to emulate Judge Mahoney’s outstanding work.

Constituents including the families of Jamie Still and of David and Dorothy Metcalf were dismayed after the report in the Telegraph that there would be an announcement on criminal driving in the Queen’s Speech turned out not to be correct. Will the Secretary of State give a clear assurance that the review will happen quickly and that we will finally get changes to give victims of criminal driving and their families better justice?

I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a close interest in this issue. Everything that we do on sentencing is informed by the need to protect the public and drive down reoffending. We will look at a range of proposals in due course with those twin objectives in mind, including the potential for prisoners to earn their release from custody. We are also looking at driving offences and, as with stalking, we will welcome any further ideas along the way.

The former Justice Secretary was warned that cuts in legal aid to domestic violence victims were “grossly unfair” and “harsh”. That is why the Court of Appeal shot them down. In response, the Government decided to do a survey, which had a very limited timeframe for being filled in. Do the Government think that that was a reasonable way to show that they take the situation seriously? Would it not be better to have a full, open, public and transparent consultation?

I say very gently to the hon. Lady that she is completely misinformed and wrong. Following that court judgment, the Government increased the time period for the production of evidence from two years to five years, and have allowed financial abuse to be taken into account. What is more, having made those immediate changes to the system, we are now engaging with the relevant stakeholders to bring in a better system that will be satisfactory to all concerned.

The Home Office has reportedly refused to disclose data on sexual violence towards detainees at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre because the information could damage the commercial interests of the company that runs the facility. Is the Minister able to assure the House that Ministry of Justice policy will not put profit before people in prisons?

The hon. Lady is understandably concerned about the fate of detainees. I stress that the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office work closely to ensure that detainees are well looked after. My understanding from the Home Secretary is that press reporting may have inadvertently led the hon. Lady to raise something that is not strictly the case. I will work with the Home Office in order to properly address her concerns.