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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
06 September 2016
Volume 614

Justice

The Secretary of State was asked—

Human Rights Act

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1. What steps she is taking to reform the Human Rights Act 1998. [906054]

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First, I would like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work on human rights reform as a Minister in this Department. He is a great champion of liberty.

The Government are committed to scrapping the Human Rights Act and introducing a British Bill of Rights.

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May I say at the outset that it is an honour to be the first Member to welcome the new Justice Secretary and the new Front-Bench team to their posts? I wish them every success. I also reassure my right hon. Friend, from experience, that being a lawyer is of very limited value in her Department—no offence to the Minister of State.

Britain’s decision to leave the EU will remove the jurisdiction of the Luxembourg Court, which is probably the biggest obstacle to delivering a Bill of Rights. May I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement on the intention to continue this reform and encourage the Government to proceed to consultation as soon as possible?

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This is an important reform; we need to get it right. We will be introducing proposals in due course. We will deliver on this manifesto commitment.

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Which convention rights does the Justice Secretary propose to leave out of the Bill of Rights?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and I remember with fondness our time together on the Justice Committee, where he had many good thoughts to put forward. We will be putting out our proposals in due course, which will discuss these issues in detail, but one of the important points is that we want the ultimate arbiter of those rights to be the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the problems with the current set-up is that the code of rights includes many reservations and qualifications that the European Court does not embrace? A British Bill of Rights can ensure that there is proper balance and that the interests of justice are served.

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My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is absolutely the reason we want to pursue a British Bill of Rights to put that in place.

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If we are to have the Supreme Court as the ultimate arbiter, does that mean that the Lord Chancellor wants to withdraw from the European convention?

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The Prime Minister has been very clear that leaving the European convention on human rights is not something that we are going to pursue.

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May I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend to her post and her determination to proceed with a British Bill of Rights? Could I urge her to remember that the cornerstone of the rule of law in this country has always been the sovereignty of Parliament? May I urge her not to listen to those who argue that getting rid of an Act that came 40 years after we signed up to the European convention on human rights somehow or other undermines our position within the treaty.

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right: human rights were not invented in 1998 with the Human Rights Act. We have a strong record, as a country, of human rights, dating back to Magna Carta, and the British Bill of Rights is going to be the next step in enshrining those rights in our laws.

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May I welcome the Secretary of State to her new role and say that while, of course, it is not a prerequisite for the person in her role to be a lawyer, she will no doubt wish to listen carefully to any legal advice she receives about any proposals to reform the law?

There is almost universal opposition to the repeal of the Human Rights Act in Scotland; this is reflected in the Scottish Parliament and across Scottish civic society. On 11 August, I wrote to the UK Government seeking clarification of their plans for so-called reform of the Human Rights Act, following press reports. I have yet to receive a substantive response. At what stage in her plans will the Secretary of State seek to consult the Scottish Government, and can she confirm that she will listen to and respect their answer?

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I have already had a number of legal meetings about this issue, and I am sure I will enjoy working with the legal profession in my role. The Prime Minister has already had a very good meeting with the First Minister of Scotland. I will be meeting the Scottish Justice Minister shortly to discuss a number of issues.

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I call Richard Burgon.

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rose—

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Order. I do apologise; I had not realised that the hon. and learned Lady wanted a second bite of herself.

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I was rather hoping to have a second bite of Her Majesty’s Government, Mr Speaker.

If the Secretary of State has been having legal meetings about the Human Rights Act, she will have been advised that human rights are not a reserved matter and that therefore the Scottish Parliament must be consulted regarding any legislation with regard to human rights. During the independence referendum, Scotland was told that it was an equal partner in this Union. Does she appreciate that to proceed with repeal of the Human Rights Act across the UK would fly in the face of that promise and exacerbate the democratic deficit that already exists in Scotland, where a Tory Government we did not vote for are planning to take us out of the European Union against our will?

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I would point out that this was in the Conservative party manifesto and we secured a majority at the general election. As I said, I will be in touch with the Scottish Justice Minister; I look forward to talking to him about this subject.

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I welcome the Secretary of State to her new role. It is good to see a Leeds person at each Dispatch Box. I understand that, like me, she comes from good, left-wing Leeds stock, and I look forward to our exchanges.

At the Secretary of State’s swearing-in ceremony, she quoted with approval the late Lord Bingham. On the Human Rights Act, Lord Bingham said in 2009:

“Which of these rights, I ask, would we wish to discard?”

He went on to say:

“There may be those who would like to live in a country where these rights are not protected, but I am not of their number.”

To give the Secretary of State another chance, because she failed to answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), which of these rights does she wish to discard?

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I, too, welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box. It is great to have somebody who is also from Leeds facing me, although I learned the error of my ways after growing up in a left-wing household in that great city.

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Shocking!

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All I can say is that I believe that everyone is capable of reform, even those on the Opposition Benches. I have not yet given up hope on the shadow Secretary of State for Justice.

The whole purpose of the Bill of Rights is to enhance human rights in this country. We have led the world in human rights since Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights that was published in Wales in 1689, and we will continue to do so.

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I thank the Secretary of State for that response, but let me say this:

“We were very clear that we will replace the Human Rights Act, which isn’t working for British people, with a British Bill of Rights that gives the ultimate power to citizens in this country.”

Those were the words of the Secretary of State on the “Today” programme in May 2015. Given that, and in the light of the answer that she has just given, can she explain to the House why she wants to rob the people of Britain of their rights? Will she admit that talk of a so-called Bill of Rights is simply posturing and making concessions to the hard right of the Conservative party?

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Human rights were not invented in 1998 with the Human Rights Act. There are major issues with the Human Rights Act and we need to move forward. We need a British Bill of Rights that enshrines our ancient liberties.

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Order. We now need to make progress as there are a lot of questions. Progress thus far has been slow, so we can be speeded up by Mr John Mann.

Online Hate Crime

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2. What assessment she has made of her Department’s contribution to tackling online hate crime. [906055]

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Hate crime is abhorrent and has no place in society. The Government published their plan to tackle hate crime, “Action Against Hate”, in July 2016. This Government believe that the enforcement of criminal legislation has an important role in tackling online hate. We also need deterrence and prevention, which require a broader response, from counter-narrative activity through to effective management from the internet industry.

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The last time I asked the Secretary of State a question in here, she invited me to join her on a delegation to China. May I reciprocate and invite her and her Front-Bench colleagues to come to Bassetlaw day in the Jubilee Room, hosted by me and the hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick)?

True Vision, the internet reporting organisation based in the Secretary of State’s offices, is the pride and joy of her Department and the envy of every other Government in the world. Is she going to allow it to disappear into some other Department, or is she going to keep it in her Department?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his characteristically delivered question. The Secretary of State has, I gather, recently written to him on this matter. The cross-Government hate crime programme is highly regarded by this Government and internationally. I am committed to ensuring that that important work continues.

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I welcome my hon. Friend to his post. The Government were right to make posting revenge porn online a crime. Figures released today show that there have been 200 prosecutions for revenge pornography, yet more than 1,000 cases have been reported to the police. Does the Minister agree that, as with other sex-related crimes, anonymity for victims perhaps needs to be carefully considered in cases of revenge pornography?

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I thank my right hon. Friend for her question and, indeed, for the work that she and her Select Committee do in this area. Revenge porn is a terrible abuse of trust that can leave victims feeling humiliated and degraded. By making it a specific offence carrying a maximum sentence of two years behind bars, we have sent a clear message that this crime will not be tolerated. On anonymity, I am interested in what she says; if she would like to write to me about that issue, I will consider it.

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I welcome the Minister to his post. Has he seen this morning’s comments by the Director of Public Prosecutions that social media is one of the driving forces behind the record high in recorded violent crimes against women and girls? I welcome what the Minister has said about the need for a broader response, so what does he plan to do to safeguard the many specialist services that exist to support women who are suffering online harassment and abuse, many of which are suffering funding cuts?

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As I have already said, this crime is deplorable. I suspect that it has always happened and that social media has facilitated it, and that we are now detecting more crime of this kind. I am determined to maintain services that support women and, indeed, men who are subjected to the crime, and I will continue to keep a close eye on that.

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What action are the Government taking to combat online anti-Semitic hate crime emanating from extremist groups on campus?

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Online anti-Semitic crime, like revenge porn, is an appalling crime that is more easily committed through use of the internet and anonymity. With specific regard to anti-Semitism, the Government, thanks mainly to the fantastic work done by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and his all-party group, have made significant advances. I will consider my right hon. Friend’s comments on anti-Semitic crime, particularly on campus.

Prison Safety

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3. What recent assessment she has made of safety in prisons. [906056]

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In the last year, assaults have risen by 31% and those on prison staff have risen by 40%. That is totally unacceptable and I am determined to tackle it. Reforming prisons will be possible only if they are made safer places for staff and offenders alike.

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As the Secretary of State’s response makes clear, prison safety continues to deteriorate. That significant problem puts both prisoners and staff at risk, but a major issue that must be tackled is the retention of staff. Will she set out exactly what she will do to make that a priority and how she will succeed where her predecessors have failed?

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I absolutely agree that the retention of staff is a very important issue. I have been to a number of prisons and seen how brave, fearless and hard-working our prison officers are. They are vital in turning around offenders and getting them the education and skills they need to succeed outside. I am determined to support and work with them, and over the coming months I will lay out more detailed plans.

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May I warmly welcome the Secretary of State and her team to their posts? Lawyers do sometimes have their uses, and so do non-lawyers. Her predecessor made prison reform a centrepiece of the agenda and rightly described the deterioration of safety in prisons as terrible. The figures have now got worse. He committed to an action plan to tackle violence in our prisons. Will the Secretary of State reaffirm that, and what specific steps will be taken to deal with what is a ticking time bomb in our criminal justice system, because nothing else has worked?

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May I say how pleased I am to have been able to meet the Chairman of the Justice Committee? I take the advice of all my lawyers, but particularly that of the Chairman of the Select Committee, extremely seriously.

This is a critical issue that faces our prisons. We cannot have reform in our prisons if we do not have safe prisons for people to work in. Those two things go hand in hand. I am committed to an agenda of making our prisons safe and places of reform. I will be laying out my plans very shortly on this issue, and I look forward to discussing it more with the Select Committee tomorrow.

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Will the Secretary of State look again at statements that were made by her Department recently about the number of prison officers? The Department claims that the number has increased, but it has not. Will she look at the matter again? I believe that she did not take into account staff being regraded or the number of hours that they actually work when she examined the number of officers in the system.

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I will, of course, look at those numbers in detail. In fact, I am looking at them at the moment. As well as the number of staff, it is important to consider how staff are deployed and trained, and the powers that governors have to get the best out of staff working in prisons. I am looking at all those aspects, but I agree that staff are absolutely crucial to make our prisons work well.

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One of the causes of a lack of safety in prisons has been novel psychoactive substances. Does the Secretary of State agree that the ban on the possession of those substances in prisons should really improve the safety of other prisoners and prison officers, if it is properly enforced?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right that NPS have been a major issue in our prisons. When I visited HMP Norwich last week, I was pleased to see that it was using the new legislation to tackle that issue in the prison, to search people and to catch them out. HMP Norwich has succeeded in reducing the usage of such drugs already. I would like to see that type of programme happening more across our prison estate.

Prison Safety

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4. What steps her Department is taking to improve safety for prisoners and prison staff. [906057]

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Minister at the Dispatch Box.

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Forgive me, Mr Speaker; I think that the summer recess has taken its toll on my memory of parliamentary procedure.

I am determined to ensure that our prisons are places of safety and reform. We need to help offenders to get off drugs, improve their education and get the work skills they need so they are less likely to reoffend when they come out.

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I thank the Secretary of State for concentrating. Does she see a connection between the long-term decline in prison officer numbers—they went down 30% between 2010 and 2013, and they are going down again—and this massive increase in assaults on staff, which went up 90% over the last Parliament?

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There are many factors driving prison violence and self-harm. I am looking at the evidence about what will work and what steps we can take, but I am determined to tackle this. I am very clear that the current levels of violence are unacceptable.

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May I also warmly congratulate the Secretary of State and the new ministerial team on their appointments? Of course we need more prison officers in prisons, but may I urge the Secretary of State and her Ministers to consider the greater use of prisoners as mentors? Wandsworth is leading the way, with 50 mentors providing teaching and education, but that could also be used in employment, for therapeutic purposes and to cut down the use of drugs.

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As a Prisons Minister, my hon. Friend did tremendous work in this area; we are very much learning from the work that he carried out in the Department. He makes an important point, and I think we need to look at the overall culture in some of our best prisons. We have exemplary work going on, such as mentoring, and we need to make sure that that is happening right across our prison estate.

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The Secretary of State may be aware that the head of the prison service in Northern Ireland recently stood down. Attacks on prison staff are on the rise. Will the Secretary of State ensure that her Department engages actively with the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland to see what lessons can be learned and to try to improve safety in prisons in Northern Ireland?

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I have been in touch with the Justice Minister in Northern Ireland, and I look forward to talking to her in due course.

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May I, too, congratulate the Secretary of State on her appointment? Is not a large part of the problem the fact that we have so many Victorian prisons? Does she have any plans for a prison rebuilding scheme?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have a big issue with prisons that are out of date and not fit for purpose, which makes it more difficult for our excellent governors and officers to manage them well. I am pleased to say that this summer we were able to close Holloway prison. We have a £1.3 billion building programme. I want new modern prisons to be built in which prisoners will get the education and work they need to succeed in outside life, and to close down some of our most dilapidated and out-of-date prisons.

Victims of Crime

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5. What her Department’s strategy is for supporting victims of crime. [906058]

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It is crucial that victims of crime are supported as effectively as possible. The victims code was revised in 2015. Victims of all criminal offences are now entitled to support from a wide range of organisations, as well as from criminal justice agencies. The reforms we are making to our courts will significantly improve services for victims and their families—for example, to enable them to give evidence remotely and digitally.

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More than 23,000 individual crimes have been reported in Enfield during the past 12 months. For far too long, the victims of these crimes have been forgotten and ignored by the criminal justice system. Given that the Victims’ Commissioner supports the introduction of a law for victims of crime, when will the Government fulfil their election manifesto commitment to bring forward legislation on this issue?

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We want to make sure that all vulnerable and intimidated witnesses can give their best evidence in court and feel less anxious. We are committed to making sure that victims of crime get the support they need. We have protected the overall level of funding for victims across the spending review period, and we announced funding of more than £95 million in 2016-17 to fund critical support services. We will bring forward our legislation, as promised, in due course.

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Victims of crime want to see the perpetrators of that crime properly punished. Is the Minister happy that prisoners are automatically released halfway through their prison sentence no matter how disruptive they are or how much of a threat they still pose to the public, or does he agree with me that prisoners should serve the sentences handed down by the courts in full?

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The purpose of justice and the primary goal of the justice system must be to reduce reoffending. If somebody in prison has been assessed, is deemed not to be a risk to society and has been properly rehabilitated, it is in the best interests of that individual and of society for that person to be released.

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Too often the victims of criminal driving and their families are not actually treated as victims of crime, but told that they have been involved in an accident. How can that culture be changed, and when, finally, will we get the review of sentencing for these types of offences?

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I do not believe that that is in my purview, but if the hon. Gentleman writes to me I will by all means reply to him on the issue. I agree that victims in such situations need more protection and that the culture needs to change.

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One of the best ways to ensure that justice is served is to ensure that victims have the chance to make a victim impact statement to the court, but that does not always happen. What can the Minister do to ensure that it happens in every case?

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As I understand it, victims are now getting more of an opportunity to make a victim impact statement because they can do so online. I agree with my hon. Friend that that should be possible.

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As has been mentioned, today’s report on violence against women and girls shows an increase in prosecutions. However, victims charities remain concerned about their futures, as was stated by the chair of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners Supporting Victims Group when asking the Ministry earlier this year to clarify what funding is available to PCCs. The Minister told my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) that he will be “keeping an eye on this matter”. With respect, keeping an eye on the matter is not good enough. Will the Secretary of State now confirm that victims services will receive the full funding that they require?

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The victims services budget has increased significantly from £48 million in 2010-11 to about £95 million in the current financial year. In 2016-17, for example, we have allocated about £7 million to 99 rape support centres to provide therapeutic and practical help to male and female victims of rape and child sexual abuse. I do not recognise the description given by the shadow Secretary of State. The Government are committed to protecting victims, particularly women who have been victims of crime.

Prisons: Mobile Phones

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6. What steps her Department is taking to prevent the use of mobile phones in prisons. [906060]

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The illicit use of mobile phones in prison undermines security, order and control, and has been linked to many forms of criminality. The Government are determined to take action to stop it.

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The connection between technology and radicalisation by the dissemination of extremism in prisons is one of the most critical challenges we face. Will my hon. Friend continue to do everything possible to ensure that prisoners, who already face difficulties re-engaging with society, do not have that difficult task made impossible by those who would use technology such as mobile phones to spread extremist poison?

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My hon. Friend will no doubt have seen the Government’s response to the review on extremism. I assure him that we will continue to work tirelessly to ensure that extremist ideologies are not spread by any means, including mobile phones.

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There have been reports from Swansea prison of people throwing mobile phones over the wall, which provides anonymity that allows prisoners to indulge in all sorts of criminal activity. What is the Minister doing about that sort of thing?

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The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Every governor I have spoken to in the last six weeks has mentioned the growing problem of illegal mobile phones in prison. I believe that technology is vital to detecting and blocking such phones. That is why, in addition to the range of technologies that have already been deployed across the prison estate, we have held a high-level meeting with mobile network operators and asked them to use their expertise to develop new technological solutions to deny mobile phone signals in prisons. As responsible businesses, I expect those operators to co-operate fully.

Court Provision: Bury

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7. What assessment she has made of the adequacy of court provision in Bury. [906061]

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There is, and there will be, an appropriate level of court provision for the people of Bury.

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I warmly welcome my hon. and learned Friend to his new role and thank him for that brief reply. Although court provision might be regarded as adequate now, it is important that it continues to be adequate in the future. I ask the new Lord Chancellor and ministerial team to look again at the proposals for north Manchester and, in particular, at the consequential effects on the police budget, given that the police will be faced with longer journey times when they attend court.

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We might be faced with longer questions as well, but we are immensely indebted to the hon. Gentleman nevertheless.

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May I start by paying tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done and the proposals he has made for his local courts? He will know, as a lawyer, that we are investing a huge amount of money—a good £1 billion—to transform our courts and tribunals. Modern technology improves efficiency and means that fewer people need to attend court in person. Excellent facilities are available to the people of Bury and Manchester, which have some of the best courts in the country.

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The Minister will know that the proposals across the whole of Greater Manchester are far-reaching and that they are controversial in parts of the city region. Will he explain to the House precisely what was agreed with Greater Manchester combined authority in the memorandum of understanding that his Department signed with it? Does it mean that the combined authority can look again at some of the court closures?

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The hon. Gentleman will realise that none of these decisions is taken lightly. It is important to work closely with local government, and that is exactly what has been happening. To give him an impression of the tremendous improvement the court modernisation programme is making, it has been going for four months and 6 million pieces of paper have been avoided as a result.

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Avoided?

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Yes, 6 million pieces of paper have been avoided by using digital case files. That is a pile of paper as high as the Shard—the largest building in London.

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rose—

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Order. Huntingdon is a splendid part of the world that deserves to be represented effectively by the hon. Gentleman, whom I have known for a quarter of a century, but it is a long way from Bury, to which this question exclusively relates. [Interruption.] Order. The question is about Bury, I say to the young fellow. He can come in later—we look forward to hearing from him.

Legal Professionals

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8. What information her Department holds on the level of social mobility and social diversity within the legal professions. [906062]

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That information is published by the legal professions. For example, 13% of QCs are women, and 6% declare themselves as coming from a black, Asian and minority ethnic background.

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Available data show very limited progress, particularly with only 13% of QCs and only a third of the people practising at the Bar being women. What can the Government do to improve that and rattle up the profession a bit?

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We want a justice system that works for everyone and a legal services industry that uses all the talent in our country. I have already had very positive conversations with the Lord Chief Justice, who is keen to improve diversity figures in the judiciary, and I am due to meet the Bar Council shortly to talk specifically about the Bar.

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What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of opportunities to increase apprenticeship-based routes into the legal professions and prison services to increase social mobility?

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I am a huge fan of apprenticeships. The new apprenticeship levy brings a big opportunity for some of our large legal services firms, and right across the board, to increase the number of apprenticeships. I will certainly be talking to those firms about that over the coming months.

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At one London provider of legal education, fees for the academic year ahead are as follows: nearly £11,000 for the graduate diploma in law; more than £15,000 for the legal practice course; and near to £19,000 for the Bar professional training course. That is on top of the cost of university education. Such fees are beyond the reach of many people from ordinary backgrounds. Given that reality, how will the Minister ensure a diverse legal profession?

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I have been discussing this matter right across the legal profession. At the younger end we are seeing a lot more diversity; the question is how people progress through the pipeline. I would like more transparency so that we can look at people moving through the system. I have no doubt that the Lord Chief Justice and leading judges want to see more diversity. They are very keen to work with me on this agenda.

Prisons: Mental Health

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9. What steps the Government plan to take to tackle mental health issues in prisons. [906063]

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15. What steps the Government plan to take to tackle mental health issues in prisons. [906069]

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Prisons must become places of rehabilitation where offenders can change their lives and turn away from crime. Addressing health needs, including mental health, is key to creating a safe and rehabilitative environment for prisoners. We are committed to meeting the mental health needs of prisoners. All prisons have procedures in place to identify, manage and support people with mental health illness.

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Will the Minister confirm that governors will have new powers and abilities to run their own mental health and health budgets, and will that include co-commissioning of mental health services with local clinical commissioning groups?

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The approach going forward is under consideration at present. Governors have an important part to play in helping to structure healthcare services within their prisons.

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Does the Department have a precise figure for the number of people in prison at the moment who have mental health issues? Will my hon. Friend reassure me that prison staff are adequately trained to deal with people who exhibit mental health issues?

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Based on a Ministry of Justice survey, 49% of prisoners were assessed as being at risk from anxiety and/or depression and 16% reported symptoms indicative of psychosis. Department of Health figures, however, are somewhat different; north of 90% of prisoners have a mental health problem if substance misuse is included. I am seeking more data on this area. We are committed to meeting the mental health needs of prisoners, which is why all new intake prison officers receive mental health awareness training as part of their entry-level training.

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One hundred people have taken their lives in our prisons in the past year. That is the highest level for over 25 years. More than 9,000 people have self-harmed in our prisons. That is an increase of over 25% in the past year alone. The Government should be ashamed: it is a dereliction of their duty of care. I want to know, having listened to the answer from the Government, what they are actually going to do to look after the thousands of prisoners who have serious mental health conditions and are not being looked after.

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The aetiology of mental health is pretty complex. The genesis of problems do not just occur over the term of a Parliament. The system in place for mental healthcare and the continuity of care for people before, during and post their stay in prison is clearly not where it should be. I would argue that that has been the case for many decades. I have been asked to look at this matter and will be doing so, but it is a huge and complex area. As a consequence, I am not about to make any commitments at the Dispatch Box.

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There is a particular risk for women in prison. Some 30% of women prisoners have had a previous admission for a psychiatric problem before they went into prison. In the past year, 11 women have killed themselves. My impression is that that is because the previous Secretary of State did not focus on the recommendations of the Corston report, which would have ensured a better level of mental health for women in prison. What is this Minister going to do on the Corston report and on women in prison?

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I have read the Corston report and it is a good report. It was published in 2007 and it is still relevant today; it has intellectual coherence with the Charlie Taylor report on youth offenders. I will be looking at it and I am personally persuaded by some of the arguments in it, but I see no evidence that the former Secretary of State was not in any way keeping a close eye on the matter.

Prisons: Sexual Offenders

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10. What steps her Department is taking to provide additional support for prisons with increased numbers of inmates who are detained for sexual offences. [906064]

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We will always have prison places to fulfil the orders of the courts. Those convicted of sexual offences are just one cohort of a range we manage daily across the estate. In doing so, we will make sure that estate capacity is realigned to meet the demand for places, including for those convicted of sexual offences.

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Her Majesty’s prison Lewes in my constituency has seen a huge surge in prisoners either on remand or serving a sentence for sexual offences. This is putting massive pressure not just on staffing but on space and resources. What specific help can the Minister give HMP Lewes?

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My hon. Friend makes a very valid point. Those at HMP Lewes who are charged with sexual offences are generally held in separate units that provide suitable accommodation for their offending behaviours. Perhaps I can reassure her that the prison received £153,000 of the Government’s £12 million fund for safety, and that it plans to spend that on staff, focusing on safety and on violence reduction. There is a recruitment drive going on at the moment. Staff are being vetted and a number of staff will be starting imminently.

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Surely the Minister understands that, whether it is prisoners who have been tried and convicted for crimes of a sexual nature or prisoners with mental health and other problems, it is the quality of the management of our prisons that must give us all great concern. When my Select Committee looked at education in prisons, we kept coming back to the fact that the culture of the prison comes from the top and is supported by well trained and well educated prison officers.

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On this rare occasion, I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman—the quality of leadership in a prison makes a huge difference to the regime. It makes a huge difference to how staff are inspired and to the rehabilitation of offenders. That is why Government Members are arguing for prison reform to empower governors, give them control of budgets and enable them to get local resources to meet the needs of offenders.

Released Offenders: Employment

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11. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that offenders find employment on release. [906065]

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16. What progress her Department is making on ensuring that offenders find employment on release. [906070]

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Most offenders arrive in prison with very low levels of educational attainment, very high levels of substance misuse and a very poor employment history. I believe that the purpose of modern prisons is to keep the public safe and to tackle each of those issues, so that prisoners have the foundations to secure and hold down a job on release.

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I thank my hon. Friend, but I have recently visited prisoners from my constituency who told me that offenders do not have access immediately on their release to national insurance numbers, bank accounts or unemployment benefits. Will the Minister let me know what steps the Government are taking to improve this situation?

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I agree with my hon. Friend that if “through the gate services”, as we call them, are to work and to stop reoffending, national insurance numbers, bank accounts and so forth need to be in place. There is a series of programmes in place to tackle this problem, including an offender banking programme, which opens about 5,000 new bank accounts every year.

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The Minister has rightly identified the fact that research shows that employment after custody greatly reduces the chances of reoffending, so what work is his Department doing with the Department for Work and Pensions to make sure that offenders not only find work after they leave prison, but stay in work?

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As my hon. Friend has rightly identified, tackling the challenge—and it is a challenge—of getting prisoners work when they leave requires a concerted effort across government and locally across the community. Every prisoner has the opportunity to meet a DWP work coach before release, and the work coach’s role is to guide them towards employment. Work coaches can also ensure that prisoners know their national insurance numbers and get the other services they need to be able to make an appropriate transition into the community.

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Many prisoners are already on short-term sentences of under nine months and are often in prison for very short periods. Will the Minister give us some advice on how governors will be judged on placing such prisoners into employment when the challenges are very difficult?

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Since being appointed to this job, I have met a number of governors, and most of them tell us that they want to be empowered to match resources to the needs of prisoners in their prisons, working with local employers and the whole community. That is what governors want, but this is not the responsibility of governors alone. If we want prisoners to be able to go out and find work, businesses have a role, the community has a role and we all have a role. If prisoners can leave, get jobs and restart their lives for the better, we all benefit.

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More than 60% of young people within the justice system have a communications disability, and more than a third of young offenders have speaking and listening skills at the level expected of an 11-year-old. With these skills being fundamental to the ability to hold down a job, will the Minister update us on what assessment the Government have made of speech and language support needs and of how well those needs are being met?

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The hon. Lady is obviously right that many prisoners arrive at prison with huge learning difficulties and disadvantages. That is well documented. We need individual programmes tailored to the needs of the prisoner, and the way to do that, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, is to empower governors to work with probation companies and rehabilitation organisations to deliver those programmes.

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I gently say to the Minister that I wrote a little report on this matter in 2008, a copy of which I dare say he will find either on the internet or in the House of Commons Library, if it is of interest to him.

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I look forward to reading it.

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I am sure he does. We are immensely grateful to him.

Prisoners: Literacy

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12. What proportion of prisoners are illiterate. [906066]

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Fewer than half of the people entering prison have basic standards of English and maths. This is a huge problem because we know that low levels of education can prevent people from securing jobs on release and leading law-abiding lives.

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The Secretary of State is quite right to say that both literacy and numeracy are essential to getting a job. Should we not therefore put more resources into educating prisoners on release so that they are able to get jobs?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The fact is that too many people enter our prisons without those skills. We need to use their time in prison to help them to gain the basic skills so that they can succeed outside. We have started measuring prisoners’ skills by testing them as they enter prison. I am keen to see that we measure real progress made during prisoners’ stay in prison and hold governors accountable for that.

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Will the Secretary of State confirm that there will be no return to the policy of banning books for prisoners?

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I confirm that books are freely available in prison.

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I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend to her position. I was delighted to hear the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport talking about the importance of the arts in prisons. I hope that my right hon. Friend will recognise how the arts can bring prisoners to literacy and teach them a huge range of skills. I hope she will meet the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance at the earliest opportunity to discuss what the arts can do, particularly in respect of literacy.

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May I say what a fantastic job my right hon. Friend has done in championing the arts in every part of our country? His legacy lives on, and it will live on in our prisons.

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I think that the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) is overcome with emotion. What a happy day for the feller!

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What discussions will the Secretary of State have with Justice Departments in devolved legislatures throughout the United Kingdom to ensure that best practice is replicated in the improvement of literacy in all UK prisons?

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I look forward to meeting my counterparts from all over the United Kingdom and discussing these critical issues, because this is a challenge that we all face.

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Order. We are running late, so extreme brevity is now required.

Access to Justice

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13. What steps her Department is taking to ensure access to justice regardless of ability to pay. [906067]

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The Government’s reform programme is intended to deliver a simpler modern justice system that is available to everyone.

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East Lancashire, which includes my constituency and up to five other constituencies, has only one legal aid solicitors firm to deal with housing. What is the Minister going to do about that legal advice centre desert?

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It is important for legal aid to be available, and it is, in housing cases. It is also available in the most vital cases, in which people’s lives, liberty or homes are at stake. It is available in domestic violence cases, and cases in which children may be taken into care. I am, of course, grateful to the hon. Lady for highlighting the issue, but let us be clear about the fact that legal aid in housing cases is available, as is a national helpline, as well as the services of lawyers throughout the country.

Topical Questions

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T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. [906035]

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I am proud to take on the role of Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, upholding the rule of law and reforming our justice system. I am determined to ensure that our prisons are places of safety and reform where offenders can get off drugs, improve their education, and develop the work skills they need so that they are less likely to reoffend. I pay tribute to our brave prison officers and probation staff.

Over the next couple of months I shall lay out my plans for prison reform, and set out plans to modernise the courts so that we can continue to have a world-leading justice system.

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Sir James Munby was asked to undertake a review of the family courts in August 2014. Can the Secretary of State update the House on any progress that has been made in opening up the family courts and ending the secrecy that can lead to injustice?

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I am due to meet James Munby next week to discuss that issue in more detail. Some progress has been made in opening up the family courts, but there is, of course, a balance to be struck between highly sensitive issues and opening them up fully. I will look at the issue in more detail.

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T2. Will my right hon. Friend commit herself to using all the powers at her disposal to protect British military personnel and veterans, who have served our country bravely and with great honour, from spurious and outrageous legal claims such as those pursued by, for instance, public interest law firms? [906036]

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I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend that this summer the Legal Aid Agency pulled the plug on its contract with Public Interest Lawyers, who will no longer be ambulance-chasing our brave service personnel. Legal aid should support vulnerable people in our society, and should not be used to pursue spurious cases against the armed forces who do so much to serve our country.

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May I join colleagues in welcoming the new Justice Secretary and her team to their roles?

The Government created the toxic conditions for the record levels of violence, drug finds and deaths throughout the prison system by reducing the number of prison officers by a third, yet the former Prisons Minister spent much of his time at the Dispatch Box this year telling me quite proudly about his Department’s successful recruitment drive. The Justice Secretary did not seem to have the figures with her earlier when she answered a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman), so I will help her out. Can she explain why we have 421 fewer full-time equivalent front-line prison officers working in our public prisons than we did a year ago?

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I fully acknowledge that we do have issues with violence and safety in our prisons. The levels are unacceptable. I am determined to deal with this issue and I will lay out my plans very shortly.

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Since the Government’s probation privatisation, concerns have repeatedly been raised about the quality of pre-sentence reports for the courts as a result of arbitrary targets set. The probation inspectorate has this month described that as a persistent problem leading to inappropriate sentences being handed down. Vital safeguarding checks, such as domestic violence checks with police and child protection checks with children’s services, are not taking place prior to sentencing. Will the Justice Secretary today commit to an urgent review so that the public, probation professionals and sentencers can have confidence that when convicted criminals are sentenced, those deciding on them have all the necessary safeguarding evidence available?

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Our probation services do vital work and the Minister responsible for prisons and probation is looking very closely at this issue, but I would point out that those now on shorter sentences get much more support thanks to our new probation contracts.

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Contributions to topical questions must be brief, whether from the Back Benches or the Front. There is a lot to get through and not much time in which to do so.

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T3. I would never excuse criminal behaviour but some prisoners and former prisoners I have met have been denied opportunities in life that many of us take for granted. What are the Department and other Departments doing to ensure the life chances agenda extends to prisoners? [906037]

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I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Some of the problems in society are magnified in our prisons. As the Prime Minister said, if we are going to have a country that works for everyone, prison reform is very much a part of that, including on literacy, training, work in prisons and employment opportunities when people are released.

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T4. The Secretary of State will know that Charlie Taylor was asked to carry out a review of the youth justice system last year. An interim report was published in February, and we were promised the final report in July. We still do not have it; can the Secretary of State tell us when we will have it, and give us an explanation for the delay? [906038]

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This is an incredibly important issue. Both the youth justice Minister and I have met Charlie Taylor and we will publish our response this autumn.

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T5. Does the Department intend to promote English law, the rule of law and our legal sector around the world, particularly to take advantage of the opportunities that may arise from Brexit? [906039]

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English law has had a huge impact, spreading the rule of law around the world. It is the law of choice in over a quarter of jurisdictions, and Brexit gives us even more opportunities to promote this. I will be championing our £25 billion legal services industry as a key part of post-Brexit global Britain.

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T7. The Justice Committee has expressed concern that judges are now reporting that they hear no money claims at all—claims that were brought by workers in low paid sectors and which often succeeded. So when will the Government publish the review of the impact of employment tribunal fees, which is now six months overdue, and act to restore justice for low paid workers? [906041]

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May I start by welcoming the Justice Committee’s report on court and tribunal fees? We are intending to respond, and we are also going to publish the review of changes to employment tribunal fees in due course. This is an important area and we will do that.

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T6. I want to ask the new Secretary of State about the treatment of women giving birth in prisons and those with young children, and whether she will do more to ensure children have access to their mothers and, where appropriate, their fathers, and can be as near to them as possible. [906040]

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One hundred babies resided in mother and baby units in English prisons in 2015. Prisons do an excellent job in making these environments as pleasant as possible and babies are able to spend time away from the prison with nominated carers. However, knowing the importance of the early years for child development, it is essential that we consider alternative ways of dealing with female offenders, including those with young children and babies and other caring responsibilities.

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T8. The Secretary of State alluded earlier to the closure and imminent sale of Holloway prison and she may be aware of the wish to site a woman’s centre on the site. Discussions are taking place, I understand, with the Mayor of London. Can the Secretary of State confirm that she and the Government will play their part in ensuring an outcome that secures services for women on that site? [906042]

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I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and I will be very interested in looking more at the details of that proposal.

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T9. Following the closure of Buxton courthouse in my constituency, the previous Minister decided, following my representations, that the work should go to Stockport, not Chesterfield, as had originally been intended. However, a sign has now appeared on the disused courthouse saying that the work has gone to Chesterfield. Will my hon. and learned Friend please investigate this and ensure that the decision made by the Minister is implemented, rather than the one envisaged by the officials in the original, flawed consultation? [906043]

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. He will be pleased to hear that I have had that notice taken down. The response to the consultation stated that the work would go to Stockport and Chesterfield, and that is what is happening.

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Further to a previous question, I have many constituents who cannot get access to employment tribunals because the fees introduced during the last Parliament have proved prohibitive. Will the Minister promise to make a statement to the House on the impact of those fees?

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As the hon. Gentleman will have heard, we recognise that we need to produce our review—which we are going to publish—and to respond to the Justice Committee’s report. Those documents will be available in the Vote Office, and that will happen in due course. We are committed to doing that.

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Effective court administration is a very different matter from retaining inefficient and costly court buildings. The question is whether the closures are going hand in hand with investment, efficiency and the best use of technologies in the surrounding courts—not least in Bury, Mr Speaker.

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I was not psychic; I now realise what the hon. Gentleman was driving at earlier. I am glad that he was persistent. Persistence pays.

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My hon. Friend is right. We need a programme of transformation that maintains the very high quality of our legal system—I am sure Members would agree that it is one of the best in the world—but we want to make it the most modern as well, and that is what we are doing. We are investing £1 billion, we have saved a Shard-load of paper, as I mentioned earlier, and we are going to do a lot more, so that our courts can benefit from the digital revolution that every other part of society is already benefiting from.

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My constituent’s 17-year-old son Shaquan was murdered last year in Brockley. Will the Minister meet me and Sharon, Shaquan’s mother, to discuss the repeated failings in our justice system that mean that his killer is still walking the streets?

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I would be very happy to meet the hon. Lady and her constituent, and I am very sorry to hear about that case.

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Colin Pitchfork was convicted of raping and murdering two young girls in the 1980s. Will the Minister please assure me and the public of their safety, given that Mr Pitchfork is being moved to an open prison?

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My hon. Friend will be aware that the transfer of prisoners from one prison to another is based on a careful assessment of the risks involved. I am sure that that will have taken place in this case, but I would be happy to discuss the matter with him in more detail if he wants to do so.

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Does the Secretary of State accept that the Human Rights Act 1998 is an indispensable part of the Good Friday agreement and that, whatever the plans are for elsewhere, the Government, as a co-guarantor of the agreement, are obligated to retain the Act in Northern Ireland?

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The UK has led the world in human rights, from Magna Carta to habeas corpus, and the Government are committed to bringing forward a British Bill of Rights further to build on those ancient protections. The Prime Minister has already met Nicola Sturgeon to make sure that the UK works together—[Hon. Members: “This is about Northern Ireland.”] As the Secretary of State said, we intend to meet all those across the United Kingdom who have concerns about this.

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Over the summer I visited the job club at North Sea Camp prison in my constituency, which was set up at the behest of prisoners there. Does the Minister agree that some of the best examples of rehabilitation are to be found in category D prisons? Will he come and see that prison so that we can learn about what really good rehabilitation can do for prisoners’ life chances across the wider prison estate?

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Spreading best practice is obviously essential, particularly for rehabilitation. I welcome the opportunity to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency to see the excellent work that is being done by the job club.

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Half an hour ago, the Secretary of State said that when the Human Rights Act is repealed it will be replaced with a new British Bill of Rights that will include additional human rights. What additional human rights will there be?

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I said that we will enhance human rights in this country, and we will bring forward our proposals in due course.

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With proactive cross-Government work, we have seen a 41% increase in disability hate crime prosecutions. Will the Secretary of State keep that as a priority?

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I absolutely agree with that.

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I received assurances from the Government that the post-implementation review of tribunal fees would be published late last year. Nine months on and after thousands more discrimination cases, we are still waiting. Why has it taken so long for the Government to get a move on and publish the review? Will the Government follow the Scottish Government by abolishing tribunal fees completely—that is Scotland, not Northern Ireland?

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As the hon. Lady says, it is right that the review should be published. It will be published in due course with the reply to the Select Committee. We welcome the report and the discussion, so I thank her for her question.

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Will a Minister confirm that this ministerial team will continue the good work of its predecessor in considering how prisoners’ family ties can be strengthened to improve rehabilitation and reduce recidivism?

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My hon. Friend has a long-standing interest in this matter, as does the former Prisons Minister. We are determined to pursue this important part of rehabilitation.

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I am sorry to disappoint some colleagues but, as usual, demand has exceeded supply.