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Topical Questions

Volume 616: debated on Tuesday 1 November 2016

First, I would like to express my deepest sympathy for the family and friends of Jamal Mahmoud, who, sadly, died at HMP Pentonville on 18 October. We need to address the major issue of violence in our prisons, and that is why I have been conducting a comprehensive review of the system. I will shortly be launching a White Paper on how I plan to transform prisons into places of safety and reform. I have announced immediate investment of £14 million to increase staffing levels in 10 of the most challenging prisons.

I thank the Minister for that, but may I change the subject slightly, to domestic violence? Incidents are sharply up, successful Crown Prosecution Service prosecutions are up, which is good, but references to the CPS are, puzzlingly, down. What is the Minister’s take on this anomaly, and do we need some positive feedback from the courts to the police?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We have put in extra measures—particularly the law on coercive behaviour, which has been very important. What I am determined to do is make sure our courts system treats vulnerable witnesses and victims as well as possible to encourage more people to come forward.

A very pithy question. The new threat from drones is a game-changer, not just for prisons but for other parts of the Government. That is why I am working with Ministers across the Government to engage with drone manufacturers to find a solution to this problem. I am keeping a close eye on what is happening internationally, particularly in Holland, where eagles are used to stop drones. I am sure that we will find a solution in the UK that will take off.

T2. I hope that the Secretary of State is aware that the Scottish Government are going to grant a pardon to men who were convicted of historical consensual same-sex offences involving parties over the age of 16. Will she follow the Scottish Government’s example and commit to a pardon that covers the living as well as the dead? (906929)

The Government are intent on delivering on their historic manifesto commitment to grant a pardon to all those convicted under archaic gay laws. The Scottish Government have announced their plans, but I note that, even in those plans, they are talking about a disregard process in just the same way as the UK Government. Our disregard process will ensure that people who are guilty of crimes that are still a crime do not accidentally get pardoned. That is absolutely right: to have an appropriate safeguard, we do not right a wrong by creating another injustice.

I noted—I am sure colleagues did—that the prince of pithiness was about to leave the Chamber, and I think it ought to be noted.

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We want to make sure that vulnerable witnesses, including children, who have to go in front of an open court at the moment, testify and be cross-examined can be cross-examined in advance—pre-trial and pre-recorded. This is much less intimidating, and I think that it will encourage more victims to come forward.

T8. One of the Secretary of State’s four departmental priorities is to build a “One Nation justice system…for all citizens whatever their background”.What impact does she think yesterday’s Orgreave announcement will have on ordinary people’s confidence in our justice system? (906935)

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made it absolutely clear why she has made that decision. It is very important that people have access to justice and we have a country that works for everyone.

T6. The Lord Chancellor, in her role as head of the judiciary, has oversight of all legal action that continues in our country. Today there is an abuse of power whereby soldiers are facing, in effect, double jeopardy through the work of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team. Although I understand that the Ministry of Defence is leading on this, will she, as the chief judicial officer of this land, please comment? (906933)

Our armed forces make huge sacrifices, and plainly no current or former serving member should face unwarranted investigation. However, where there are credible serious allegations of criminal behaviour, they must be investigated; I think that everyone in the military world understands that. It is important to make rapid progress with the Iraq Historic Allegation Team’s caseload. The team expects the caseload to have reduced from the original 3,300 cases to about 250 by early January.

Plans to rebuild Sunderland’s courts complex have been on hold since 2010. Despite raising this issue on numerous occasions with the Courts and Justice Minister’s predecessors, we still have not had a decision. Will the current Minister meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) as a matter of priority to see whether we can make any progress?

T7. Given that 20% of the prison population have spent some time in care, what steps are the Government taking to prevent children in care from ending up in the prison system? (906934)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are working very closely with the Department for Education, and we will shortly produce our paper on youth offenders, which will talk about how we intervene earlier before people end up with custodial sentences.

My constituent, Mrs Fleeting, tragically lost her son, Robert, when he was serving honourably on an English base. The family cannot gain closure, as there is no automatic inquest by jury, and they are understandably distraught. Will the Minister meet Mrs Fleeting and me to discuss the case and access to justice for the late Robert Fleeting?

T9. The reforms to family justice included in the Children and Families Act 2014 implemented by the coalition Government are bold and invaluable. However, as the president of the family division recently commented, care applications are rising and high-conflict divorce cases linger for too long in the system and cost far too much money. What steps are the Government taking to resolve this outstanding issue? (906936)

Care applications are made only when a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm. The rise in care applications requires a cross-system response, and we are working closely with a range of partners to establish its causes and mitigate its operational impacts. Conflict during divorce is often focused on children and the division of assets. Mediation can be a quicker alternative to court, and legal aid is available to eligible parties.

Recognising the significant flexibility recently given to the governor of Ranby prison in employment and rehabilitation matters, may I propose that the Prisons Minister and I conduct a joint visit to maximise local and national support for that reform?

With trepidation, I accept the hon. Gentleman’s invitation to a joint visit to Ranby. I am grateful that he appreciates the reform. Giving prison governors real power can make a difference.

We learn a lot more about the opinions of the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) on a vast miscellany of matters—of that he can rest assured.

The Justice Secretary will be aware that in the past couple of years considerable progress has been made in allowing UK lawyers to practise in India. Will she update the House on progress so far, particularly given that the Prime Minister will be visiting India in the next few days?

I commend my hon. Friend for his work as a Minister in the Department to promote legal links with India; I am pleased to say that those are being taken forward. The Prime Minister will visit India this month to pave the way for UK lawyers to practise there, helping to improve our international business and trade. English law is a massive asset that we can leverage for wider business negotiation.

How many of the inquest reports on self-inflicted deaths in custody has the Minister read, and what actions has he taken as a result of the recommendations of inquests that have caused real distress to families?

Every death in custody is a tragic event. As the Minister with responsibility for prisons—I have been in the role for four months—I take every one of them seriously. I look at all the reports and I sign many of the responses to those reports where, for example, the independent monitoring board is involved. We have plans to make sure that we deliver on them.

Does the Secretary of State agree that we need bold reform to cut reoffending and that that must mean giving prison governors the powers and the accountability to innovate, especially when it comes to skills training and drugs rehabilitation in the prisons that they run?

My hon. Friend is nothing but bold. I absolutely agree with him that we need to change the way we are doing things, because the fact is that we have had a persistently high reoffending rate. Almost half the people in prison will reoffend within a year, and that is not acceptable. We need to give governors the power to turn lives around, to get people off drugs and to get them into work.

The Ministry’s review into the care and management of transgender offenders was due to be concluded in the spring, but almost a year since the review was first announced, a report is yet to be published. Can the Secretary of State update the House today on when we can expect to see that report?

The Government are firmly committed to ensuring that transgender offenders are treated fairly, lawfully and decently and that their rights are respected. A Ministry of Justice-led review of the care and management of transgender offenders concluded that treating offenders in the gender with which they identify is the most effective starting point for safety and reducing reoffending, where an assessment of all known risks can be considered alongside the offender’s views.

Mary—not her real name—a constituent of mine, went to Benidorm on a hen do. Her drink was spiked by a British man known to one of the group, and then she was raped by the man. It is now six months since the offence, and the Spanish police seem no closer to taking the case seriously. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the ability to bring to trial in this country a case involving a sexual offence against a Briton overseas is vital for justice when the country in which the offence occurred does not take it seriously?

Yes, I do agree. The Istanbul convention, which the UK signed in June 2012, requires ratifying states to assume jurisdiction over offences of this sort when committed by our nationals overseas. But we need to make changes to primary legislation to introduce this, because the existing law applies only where the rape involves a person under 18 years of age.

Will Ministers update the House on progress with the Missing Persons Guardianship Bill? It is of great interest to my constituents Mr and Mrs Lawrence; they are the parents of Claudia, who went missing seven long years ago.

I will write to my hon. Friend, because this is a subject on which we will be saying something shortly.

The illicit use of mobile phones in prisons is a pernicious issue that must be tackled. Will the Secretary of State update the House on what more the Government are doing to make sure that we use a technology solution to deal with that?

My hon. Friend is right. Technology is the problem here, and we believe that technology is the answer. We are working very closely with mobile network operators to develop a solution to stop the illegal use of mobile phones in our prisons.

Does the Secretary of State share my concern at the 40% increase in suicides in 2015-16 among offenders undergoing supervision in the community? Will she therefore expedite the Department’s review of the effectiveness of the transforming rehabilitation programme?

I thank the Committee Chairman for his question, and I share his concern about this issue. We recognise that there are benefits from the transforming rehabilitation programme: for example, 45,000 people with sentences of less than a year who previously were not being supervised are now being supervised. However, the Minister is conducting a review, as we do with all new legislation, to check how it is working. That is one of the aspects that he will be looking at.