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Topical Questions

Volume 614: debated on Tuesday 6 September 2016

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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

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)

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.

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?

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.

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.

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

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.

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?

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

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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

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?

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?

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.

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?

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.