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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
01 November 2016
Volume 616

Justice

The Secretary of State was asked—

Prison Safety

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1. What steps her Department is taking to improve safety in prisons. [906937]

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12. What steps her Department is taking to improve safety in prisons. [906949]

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16. What steps her Department is taking to improve safety in prisons. [906954]

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Last week’s violence statistics show the very serious issues we have in our prisons, including a 43% rise in the number of attacks on officers. This is unacceptable, and I am determined to tackle it. I have already announced an investment of £14 million in 10 of our most challenging prisons, and I shall say more with the launch of our White Paper shortly.

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Order. Just before we take the question, I am very pleased to announce that today we are joined by Lobsang Sangay, the Sikyong or Prime Minister of the Tibetan Government in exile. It is a pleasure and a privilege, Sir, to welcome you to the House of Commons.

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What an honour that is, Mr Speaker.

We welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to prison reform, but those sitting on the Justice Select Committee are very concerned about the recent statistics that she mentioned, not just in relation to the safety of prison workers, but in respect of vulnerable prisoners. What steps is she going to take to improve assessment and screening, so that those people can be identified at the beginning of their sentence?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am extremely concerned about the level of self-harm, which is particularly high in the women’s estate. We know that the first 24 hours are absolutely vital, and we are already taking steps to provide vulnerable prisoners with immediate mental health support. Next year, we will bring out a strategy on women offenders.

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Given the level of violence in Lewes prison over the weekend, will the Secretary of State update the House on what progress has been made to secure the prison, and what steps are being taken to increase staffing levels to prevent this from happening again?

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The incident at HMP Lewes has been resolved and the prison remains secure with no threat to the public. The prisons Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), spoke to the governor, Jim Bourke, offering support for him and all his staff. We are going to make sure that we have sufficient staff in that prison. I shall have more to say about staffing when we launch the White Paper.

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The number of front-line prison officers has fallen by over 30% under this Government, and the Secretary of State’s own Department’s statistics show a correlation between those cuts and increased levels of violence in prisons. Does the right hon. Lady now accept that what she has announced goes no way towards solving these problems and that there needs to be a thorough investigation so that we can have the safe levels of staffing required in our prisons?

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I have acknowledged that we have a serious issue. I think we have to recognise that there have been a number of causes. The prison and probation ombudsman said that the emergence of dangerous psychoactive substances was a game changer for prison security. We are taking measures to put in place proper testing for that, which we announced in September. I acknowledge that there is an issue with staffing, which is why I have already taken steps in 10 of the most challenging prisons to increase staffing levels, and why we are due to do more in the White Paper.

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In addition to the staffing cuts mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), there is the problem of prison officer retention. The 400 by which the right hon. Lady has said she is going to increase staff numbers are being lost because of the number of people who are leaving. Experienced staff are leaving, and experienced prisoners are now running prisons.

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The right hon. Gentleman is right that we need to make sure that, as well as recruiting prison officers, we are also retaining our fantastic prison officers. At every prison I visit, I meet fantastic people who have come into the service to turn people’s lives around. I want to encourage more people to become prison officers, which is why we launched a programme to bring former armed service personnel into the service. We will announce more about recruitment shortly.

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As part of taking those important steps, will the Secretary of State revisit and act upon the Select Committee’s recommendation that we should be able transparently to measure the performance of the National Offender Management Service by publishing and making available the key data on indicators of disorder; staffing and turnover, and the reasons for turnover; its performance ratings, including those for individual prisons; and activity—the amount of time each prisoner is out of cell or in cell, and what they are doing?

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The Select Committee Chairman is absolutely right that we need clear and transparent data and metrics to be able to understand what is happening in our prison system. I will outline more detail on that issue when we launch the White Paper.

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Suicides in prisons are at record levels, and self-harm and violence are soaring. The situation in women’s prisons is worse than it was a decade ago. The Government’s own statistics show that the rate of deaths in England and Wales has risen to almost one a day—a record high of 324 in the last 12 months. Does the Secretary of State recognise that cutting staff and prison budgets while the number of people behind bars grows unchecked has created a toxic mix of violence, death and human misery?

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I agree with the hon. Lady that we need to act on those very problematic statistics, and in particular to deal with the high levels of self-harm and suicide. One of the 10 prisons to which we have given additional money for staffing is a women’s prison. We are looking more widely at how we can ensure that women offenders are given the support that they need, because many come into prison with mental health issues and many have suffered abuse in the past. I want to ensure that those offenders have the support that will enable them to turn their lives around.

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I hear what the Secretary of State has to say about funding for the 10 prisons, but Pentonville, where only last week there was a stabbing and two people were injured, is not one of them, and the events that took place at Lewes prison at the weekend also underlined the problem of prison understaffing. John Attard, of the Prison Governors Association, has written that we need

“more than the….400 extra officers in just 10 prisons.”

Will the Secretary of State listen to what is being said by that association, and by the Prison Officers Association, about the Ministry’s failings in respect of prison staffing?

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I agree with the hon. Lady that violence and levels of suicide are serious issues, and I am determined to address them. That is my No. 1 priority. I have made an immediate start in 10 of the most challenging prisons, and I will be outlining more in the White Paper. Let me, at this point, express my sincere condolences to the family of Jamal Mahmoud, who unfortunately died in Pentonville.

We all need to recognise that these are serious issues, which have numerous causes including the rise in psychoactive substances. It will take time to turn the situation around—it takes months to train prison officers —but we have developed and will be launching a comprehensive strategy. I want our prisons to be places of safety but also places of reform, where we address reoffending and make our society as a whole safer.

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I am extremely grateful to the Secretary of State. I call Fiona Mactaggart.

Deaths in Custody Suites

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2. How many deaths have occurred in (a) custody suites operated by G4S and (b) other custody suites in the last three years. [906938]

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G4S has not operated court custody suites in England and Wales since 2011.

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Very vulnerable people are held in custody suites, and many have committed suicide. That translates into the presence of such people in prisons, where, as the Secretary of State has just acknowledged, there have been more deaths in custody than there have been for many years. More women are killing themselves than at any time since the Corston report. When we know what has gone wrong from the reports of coroners’ courts or the Corston report, which have given us real advice on what ought to happen, why is it not happening? Has the Minister read those coroners’ reports?

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Order. We really do need to make progress. This is very slow.

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All deaths in custody are a tragedy. They are fully investigated by the independent prisons and probation ombudsman and are subject to coroners’ inquests. As the Secretary of State pointed out, a number of women in prison have been victims of crime themselves and are incredibly vulnerable members of society. As well as modernising the women’s prison estate, we are looking into diversion tactics to ensure that those women do not end up in the criminal justice system in the first place.

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Which country in the world has the fewest deaths in custody, and what lessons are we learning from that country?

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I am afraid I cannot name the country with the fewest deaths in custody, but what I can say is that we in this country work to create decent and humane prisons, and we are a signatory to the relevant United Nations protocols. As the Secretary of State has rightly pointed out, the rise in the number of deaths in custody is too high, and for that reason we shall shortly be publishing a safety and reform plan in our White Paper.

HMP Chelmsford

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3. What steps she is taking to tackle bullying and drug abuse at HMP Chelmsford; and if she will make a statement. [906939]

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I share my right hon. Friend’s concerns about what has happened at HMP Chelmsford. I can confirm that it is one of the 10 prisons for which we are training up additional officers. This will provide a 30% increase in officer numbers to help tackle the scourges of bullying and drug abuse.

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I welcome that answer. It is crucial that more is done to eliminate bullying in the prison. On drug abuse, can the Secretary of State confirm whether sniffer dogs are being used on a regular basis on not only the prison inmates but all types of people entering and leaving prison?

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I can confirm that that is happening. We have trained 300 sniffer dogs to be able to detect new dangerous psychoactive substances, and that testing was being rolled out across the prison estate in September. [Interruption.]

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Order. I say very gently to the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) that I am sure his constituency has many magnificent merits but it is a long way from Chelmsford.

Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act

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4. What steps she is taking to assess the effect of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 on access to justice. [906941]

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The coalition Government promised to review parts 1 and 2 of the Act and we remain committed to undertaking that review.

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We are grateful to the Minister for that reply, but I think he may want to take question 15 with question 4.

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I would be very happy to do that, Mr Speaker.

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It is very good of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Minister to be willing to do what he asked me for permission to do; that is extraordinarily gracious of him.

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15. What assessment she has made of the effect on people on low incomes of changes made to the legal aid system by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. [906953]

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I thank the Minister for his answer to my question, but a TUC report of this October raised concerns that the Act is a barrier to access to justice for victims of domestic violence. The regulations concerning the provision of evidence of domestic violence are restrictive and narrow and have led to a 16% drop in applications and a 17% drop in applications granted. Is it not time the Secretary of State admitted that the Act is denying access to justice for thousands and must be amended?

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It is of course important that legal aid is available for victims of domestic violence, particularly those seeking protective injunctions. On the evidence requirements, in April we more than doubled the time limit on evidence from two to five years, and we have introduced a provision that allows the Legal Aid Agency to grant legal aid if it is satisfied that an application demonstrates financial abuse. This is important and it has been varied in the light of experience over the last two or three years, and we will continue to monitor it.

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Access to justice and legal aid are pillars of the welfare state, yet almost one third of legal aid areas in England and Wales have one or no housing advice providers, including the legal aid area covering my constituency. One provider is not enough, so what steps will the Government take to ensure there are at least two providers for each area?

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It is important to recognise that housing cases where a person’s home is at risk fall within the scope of legal aid. The Law Society has raised concerns, as the hon. Gentleman will know. There are a lot of these cases in some parts of the country, but very few in other parts. What we have done is, through the Legal Aid Agency, taken active steps to ensure that there is adequate provision of housing advice around the country.

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On the point about one or two providers, there are some places where one firm is providing a range of offices and functions across a number of clients, and other areas where the circumstances only really require that there should be something like a telephone hotline, which there is. The provision that is being made is what is needed.

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There seem to be conflicting reports on the Government’s position on raising the cost bar for personal injury claims from £1,000 to £5,000. I would be grateful to hear what the Government’s position is.

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important point. The Government have been looking at this issue. I do not think we have made a formal announcement on it yet, and therefore I will write to him giving him the absolute latest position.

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What assessment has the Minister made of the recent report by Amnesty International, which has found that insufficient resources for legal aid are creating a two-tier judicial system?

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It is important that legal aid is available in the most serious cases, such as those in which life or liberty is involved, a person’s home is at risk, domestic violence is involved, or children are being taken away from their families. That is the legal aid provision that we have here. The hon. Lady claims that that is a two-tier system, but we claim that it is one that is targeted on need.

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I should declare an indirect interest, in that my wife is a legal aid solicitor and part-time judge. The previous Lord Chancellor promised a review of LASPO. The legislation has not worked. It is a complete and utter shambles, and it urgently needs a review. When will it be properly reviewed?

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As the hon. Gentleman knows, a promise was made that the Act would be reviewed within three years and five years of implementation—[Interruption.] Yes, within the period starting at three years and going up to five years. That period has just started, and an announcement will be made in due course.

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Exceptional case funding was introduced as part of LASPO with the aim of ensuring that out-of-scope cases with exceptional circumstances would have access to legal aid. Between 2013 and 2016, 4,032 applications were made but, due to the stringency of the criteria, a staggering 3,081 of those applications were not granted. Will the Minister commit to broadening the criteria for exceptional case funding to allow more people to become eligible for this safety net and to increase access to justice for those who need it most?

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The hon. Lady raises an important point. The number of cases being applied for and granted is rising, but there is also the question of ensuring that people who might need this funding are aware of it. That is an important part of the picture. Exceptional needs funding is a vital part of the picture and we will certainly keep it under review. If she wants to raise a detailed point with me about how it is operating, I would be more than happy either to discuss it with her or to enter into correspondence about it.

Human Rights Act

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5. What recent progress has been made on the Government’s plans to replace the Human Rights Act 1998. [906942]

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We will set out our proposals for a Bill of Rights in due course. We will consult fully on our proposals.

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This question is to be taken with No. 7. There is something missing from the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s briefing today.

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I am so sorry, Mr Speaker. Perhaps with your leave I could also answer question 7 in the same way.

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7. What recent progress has been made on the Government’s plans to replace the Human Rights Act 1998. [906944]

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We are no closer to a timeframe, a plan or a common theme in regard to how the Human Rights Act is to be replaced. Earlier this year, Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, said that the

“repeatedly delayed launch of the consultation process”

was

“creating an atmosphere of anxiety and concern in civil society and within the devolved administrations”.

Will the Minister tell us exactly when the consultation on this matter will be brought forward?

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The Government were elected with a mandate to reform and modernise the UK human rights framework, and there are good reasons for that. We have a proud tradition in respect of human rights. The Government are also considering the overall constitutional landscape and how this will fit it following Brexit, but this is something that we are committed to.

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The Council of Europe commissioner for human rights has also said of the consultation on the Human Rights Act:

“My impression is that the debate over the HRA in Westminster is not a true reflection of concerns outside England”.

Does the Minister appreciate that there is no support in Scotland for the plans, and that the impact of any attempt to repeal the Act would be to provoke a constitutional crisis?

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The issue of human rights is important in all parts of the United Kingdom, and we accept that. We will fully engage with the devolved Administrations on this question. Many people feel that there is a need for a British jurisprudence to emerge on the European convention on human rights and a need to assert certain ancient rights that we have in Britain, such as that relating to jury trial.

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I welcome that statement from my right hon. and learned Friend, but I urge him to look particularly hard at the military aspects. The efforts of those who currently risk their lives for us on operations are being overshadowed by what is going on with IHAT—the Iraq Historic Allegations Team—and the pursuit of human rights cases under British law by people who were our enemies.

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My hon. Friend makes an important point. He will be aware of the announcement about derogation. Previously, there have been occasions when industrial-scale allegations could be made, many of which were later proved to be false, but that will change once the derogation process is in place.

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It has been reported that 28 terrorists have used the Human Rights Act to avoid deportation—no doubt using legal aid as well. Is it not time to scrap the Act and to start thinking less about the human rights of terrorists and foreign-born criminals and more about the human rights of law-abiding members of the British public?

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The House will be aware that there are concerns among the British public about the barriers to the deportation of criminals that should not have been there. There is also a need for British conditions and British jurisprudence in this area, something which the Conservative party has been calling for over many years and which the Government are alive to.

Justice System: Women

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6. What steps her Department is taking to address the specific needs of women in the justice system. [906943]

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Crime is falling and fewer women are entering the justice system, and the female prison population is now consistently under 4,000. Women who commit crimes are often some of the most vulnerable in our society, which is why we are developing a strategy for women to be set out in the new year. We want to see fewer women in custody and to promote a greater focus on early intervention, diversion and multi-agency approaches to ensure that the justice system can take proper account of the specific needs of women.

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There are many victims of domestic violence within the justice system with multiple complex needs—mostly women. What are the Government doing to address the concerns of Women’s Aid about the perverse impact of gender-neutral commissioning cutting women-only specialist services?

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I am committed to ensuring that victims of crime get the support they need. Specialist services for victims of domestic abuse are commissioned both locally by police and crime commissioners and nationally. It is important that a range of provisions are in place to meet the diverse needs of domestic abuse victims. The Government’s new strategy on ending violence against women and girls sets out an ambition that by the end of this Parliament all victims of abuse will get the support they need. We have pledged increased funding of £80 million for that between now and 2020.

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Some 82% of women who are sentenced to prison are convicted of non-violent crimes. Is it not about time that the Government had a cross-Department agenda that focuses on early intervention, so that we avoid locking women up?

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I am aware of the complex problems often exhibited by women offenders—mental health and substance misuse problems—and I am actively engaged with other Departments to bring forward such a strategy in the new year.

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Both boys and girls have to wear uniforms at school. Both men and women have to wear uniforms in the workplace. However, convicted men have to wear uniforms in prison while convicted women do not. Does the Minister agree with that? If so, what does the word “equality” mean to him?

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My hon. Friend has a rich track record in this area. Women are twice as likely to report experiences of abuse as a child. They are more likely than men to be primary or sole carers of their children. They are more likely to display mental health problems and, indeed, class A drug use. It is important that we have a gender-specific approach for women and if that involves different uniforms, so be it.

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At the last Justice questions in September, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), said that he was not going to “make any commitments” about what he or the Department were going to do to provide adequate support to the thousands of people in our prisons with mental health conditions, including so many women. The latest figures show another increase in suicide in our prisons. Since the new Secretary of State took office, one person takes their own life every three days—the highest level in 25 years. Is the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice ashamed of the figures? Will he now commit to ensure that paying for crime in this country will never mean paying with one’s life?

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I recall answering the hon. Lady’s question at the last Justice Question Time, and my point was that the cause of this is very complex. I am very much aware of the suicide list, and we know that we have had an increase in the number of suicides this year, particularly in the women’s system. One case in the north-east, that of Michelle Barnes, is particularly shocking. The hon. Lady can be assured that I am looking closely at it, but there have been others. In dealing with this, I am not only trying to work on a women’s strategy that can be brought forward in the new year, but looking at offender mental health across the entire prisons system.

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Will the Minister commit to work with devolved Governments to ensure funding for third sector organisations such as the North Wales Women’s Centre, which supports women in the criminal justice system as an alternative to prison?

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I have already met Claire Sugden, Northern Ireland’s Justice Minister, and I intend to meet Justice Ministers from the other devolved regions. I am very happy to discuss those issues with them.

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The continued cuts to legal aid funding mean that there is a rising number of litigants in person. Many women have to face their abusive partner in court, with no assistance on how to navigate the complexities of the law. More needs to be done to protect women during the legal process. What steps is the Minister taking to increase legal assistance for women and ensure that justice can truly be done?

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Women do need additional support, not just in going through the legal process, but in housing and on many different issues, before, during and after their time in prison. I have already visited the Pause project in Hackney, where I was struck by how effective its approach has been in helping these vulnerable women. On the specific questions, we are working on this, but I would be happy to write to the hon. Lady with a more detailed response.

Access to Justice

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8. What steps her Department is taking to improve access to justice. [906945]

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The Government’s reform programme is intended to deliver a simpler, fairer justice system that works for everyone. We are reforming our courts to make them more modern, open, swift and accountable. Since January 2015, we have invested £3.5 million to provide more support to litigants in person.

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The Government have utterly undermined access to justice for EU citizens and other migrants with their incredible 500% increase in immigration tribunal fees. Will the Minister at least closely monitor the drastic impact that that ridiculous increase is going to have and respond accordingly when everything the Government were warned about during their consultation actually comes to pass?

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The Government take a markedly different view from the hon. Gentleman about this. The fact is that these tribunals cost money and there are people making applications to them who are not in the category of needing help with fees. Where people need help with fees, we of course have a remissions scheme, but where they do not need help, how can it be wrong that they should pay for the costs of the system? It is only right that they do so.

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21. As the Minister has mentioned, an important element of improving access to justice is reform of the courts system. Would he like to say a little more about the modernisation of that system and, in particular, whether Lord Justice Briggs’s concept of an online court will be introduced? [906960]

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Lord Justice Briggs has prepared a report that has been not only revolutionary, but extremely helpful in the modernisation process, and I pay tribute to his work. We do intend to introduce a new online procedure for lower-value civil money claims. This procedure will be a mix of new technology, conciliation and judicial resolution, and will provide a simple dispute resolution process. We intend also to create a new rules committee to design the simpler rules this will require.

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The Minister says that the Government take a “markedly different” view on tribunal fees from my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald). However, when the Justice Committee published its review of court and tribunal fees earlier this year, its excellent chairperson, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill)—a Government Back Bencher—stated:

“Where there is conflict between the objectives of achieving full cost recovery and preserving access to justice, the latter must prevail.”

Does the Minister agree with that statement?

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Yes, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) for the work that he does, chairing the Committee so ably. There is no question but that we do need a mitigation system, as we have for fees, but having said that I welcome the Justice Committee’s report, which goes into a wide range of issues and we will respond to it shortly.

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Employment tribunal fees are an additional pressure on people who have been relieved of their employment in inappropriate circumstances, and they create a very real restriction on access to justice for those who are vulnerable. The group Maternity Action has said that, since the introduction of employment tribunal fees, there has been a 40% drop in claims for pregnancy-related detriment or dismissal. Why do the Government not follow the example of the Scottish Government and commit to scrapping employment tribunal fees?

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The principle should be that if someone cannot pay and mitigation is required, then there should be a system of mitigation of fees. If someone is able to pay, given that this costs the country a huge amount of money, why should they not make a contribution if they are using these facilities?

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In our country, it is a cornerstone of access to justice that there should be equality of arms in court. I was therefore shocked last week to hear the Minister of State for Courts and Justice tell us in an Adjournment debate on the Birmingham pub bombings that only

“an element of equality of arms”—[Official Report, 26 October 2016; Vol. 616, c. 400.]

is necessary. Will the Minister come to the Dispatch Box and either reassure us that this was a mere slip of his well-trained legal tongue, or, alternatively, admit that his Government are reducing, not defending, access to justice?

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That is a bit rich when, at that debate, I was able to announce that the families had got a legal aid certificate through the Legal Aid Agency. The hon. Gentleman is now talking semantics. I was saying that the element that was needed of equality of arms was being met in accordance with the rules of the agency. When it comes to Labour politicians talking about cuts and concerns about legal aid, it is worth remembering why it was necessary to make those cuts—it was because of the mismanagement of the economy, which the Government inherited in 2010.

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On the subject of that Adjournment debate of last Wednesday, Lynn Bennett died—[Interruption.] I will not give it up. Lynn Bennett died aged 18 in the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974. Her father, Stanley Bennett, and her sister, Claire Luckman, are still searching for the truth. On principle, they refuse to fill in means-testing forms for legal aid representation in the inquest into Lynn’s death. They believe that the state is forcing them effectively to beg for access to justice. Will the Justice Secretary today agree to go back to the Home Secretary and ask her to reconsider this, so that Stanley and Claire can have access to justice on behalf of Lynn?

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As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Legal Aid Agency, which is independent, has considered two applications for legal aid. One has been granted, and on the other, as was pointed out in the debate, a way has been described and set out in which it would be possible for those families to have legal aid, too. There is no question but that the families can be, and will be, represented. I accept that the Birmingham pub bombings were the most dreadful incident of a generation. I said in the debate that I remembered, as a young student, the powerful effect on the whole country of the worst bombing incident since the second world war, in which 21 people died and 222 were injured. All our thoughts in this House are with the families, their loved ones, and those who had their lives affected. On how we deal with these very difficult inquests in a very special category of cases, I made it clear in the debate that the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice are working on that matter, looking at the precedents of what happened with Hillsborough and waiting for Bishop James Jones’s report. We will also look at all the matters that were discussed in that debate.

Released Offenders: Employment

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9. What steps her Department is taking to help offenders find employment on release. [906946]

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We know that getting prisoners into employment is key to reducing reoffending. While there are some excellent initiatives in the Prison Service, there is still no coherent system that links work inside with education and training, and employment opportunities on the outside. That is why I will be bringing forward a plan, early in the new year, to boost offender employment.

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Despite undergoing training in prison, some offenders are still struggling to secure employment on their release, as highlighted recently by one of my constituents. What more is being done, and can be done, to ensure that the qualifications undertaken by inmates while in prison are both relevant and acceptable to potential employers?

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My hon. Friend describes a situation that is all too familiar in our Prison Service where prisoners undertake courses in prison that bear no relation to the outside world or the ability to get a job. In our White Paper, which will be published shortly, we will be saying how we can improve that education system—we have already accepted the reforms announced by Dame Sally Coates in her review—and how we can help governors work with prisoners in the local labour market to boost employment for inmates.

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There is a well-established link between unemployment and reoffending, and we are now five years on from the Government’s rehabilitation revolution. Will the Minister let us know whether the latest reoffending statistics show an increase or a decrease in reoffending rates?

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It is still the case, as it has been for decades in the UK, that roughly a third of people who leave our prison system reoffend. The hon. Lady mentions the Government’s record. I do not recollect the last Labour Government ever talking about rehabilitation and reform in our prisons. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will introduce plans that will give governors real power on the frontline, so that they can act as the ringmasters working locally to deliver real reform.

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Will the Minister agree to visit Jobs, Friends & Houses, which not only gets ex-offenders into construction jobs, but helps to find them somewhere to live, gets them off drugs and provides them with a supportive group of friends. That is such a good project; I am hoping to set it up in Bedfordshire as well.

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My hon. Friend the former Minister mentions an excellent scheme that I definitely support, along with a number of other schemes that are going on in the Prison Service and with some great employers such as Timpson’s, Greggs and Halfords. In our employment strategy, we will make sure that that works throughout the system, rather than having a few bright spots here and there.

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An important follow-on to that is the impediment that insurance premiums caused for employers who wished to engage somebody who had left prison. The former Minister, the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), was seized of the issue and pursuing good work in that regard. Will the Minister give an update on the progress with insurers and continue the hon. Gentleman’s good work?

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I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there are a number of barriers for employers in taking ex-offenders—some around trust, some around stigma—and some real hard issues such as insurance. We will be looking at all those issues and reducing those barriers, so that employers are incentivised to take on ex-offenders. Interestingly, those who do so, such as Timpson’s, say that some of their most loyal employees are those who have come out of the prison system. We want that to continue.

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19. Some 15% of young people in custody are autistic. With yesterday’s publication of the Government’s excellent Green Paper on halving the disability employment gap and the recognition that autistic people need specific personal help, what contribution will the Department make to ensuring that autistic offenders find employment on release? [906957]

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The issue is not just autistic offenders. We know that many people in the youth justice system, as well as in the prison population as a whole, have special educational needs and low levels of literacy. A key step that the Government have taken is moving the relevant education budgets from the Department for Education to the Ministry of Justice. We will be delegating those budgets to prison governors, so that they can spend appropriately on the needs of each prisoner to help them to get the right education so they can get employment.

HMP Maghaberry

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10. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on the future of the separated prison regime at HMP Maghaberry. [906947]

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I have had no such discussions on this issue. Prisons are a devolved matter and responsibility for HMP Maghaberry lies with the Northern Ireland Department of Justice.

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I was hoping that we would not hear about devolved matters now that we are all pulling together more as a Union. This is a vital matter and we must move on. Will the Minister discuss with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Justice Minister how we achieve a level playing field, change the present system and, more importantly, make sure that there are no on-the-run letters in the system?

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The hon. Gentleman refers to on-the-run letters, which is a vital issue. This is normally an issue for the Northern Ireland Office, and as the previous Secretary of State for Northern Ireland set out in her statement to the Commons in 2014, the so-called on-the-run administrative scheme established by the previous Labour Government is at an end.

Criminal Driving Offences

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11. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of sentencing policy for criminal driving offences. [906948]

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The Government are very much aware of the concerns expressed about sentencing for driving offences. We are committed to making sure that the courts have sufficient powers to deal with driving offences appropriately and proportionately. We will consult by the end of the year on those offences and penalties.

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Members across the House have supported families who have lost family members to the most reckless criminal driving. Members have also had to support such families through the reality of being failed by our justice system. The Department announced a review two and a half years ago, which should have concluded by now. Three Secretaries of State later, we are told again that there will be consultation this year. It is not good enough. Can the Minister give the House a clear date when the review will finally be published and there will be more justice for victims of criminal driving?

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I am aware that a constituent of the hon. Gentleman was recently knocked down and killed by a driver over the drink-drive limit, and I offer my deepest condolences to the family of that constituent. Parliament sets the maximum penalties for road traffic offences, and we intend to consult by the end of the year on driving offences and penalties for the most serious cases that result in death or serious injury.

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I welcome the Minister’s comments, but will he reassure me that part of the review will consider whether greater use can be made of the charge of manslaughter, so that those who have behaved so recklessly and caused someone’s death get the same type of penalty for doing that with their car as they would if they had done it with anything else?

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The Crown Prosecution Service can and will charge a person with manslaughter where the evidence supports that charge, it is in the public interest to do so and there is a reasonable prospect of a conviction. In many driving cases, however, the offending behaviour, which may be highly irresponsible, does not suggest that the vehicle was intentionally used as a weapon to kill or commit grievous bodily harm or that the standard of driving was grossly negligent.

Pardons for Gay and Bisexual Men (Northern Ireland)

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13. What discussions she has had with the Northern Ireland Executive on pardons for gay and bisexual men convicted of offences which have subsequently been abolished. [906951]

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I am aware that Lord Lexden has tabled amendments seeking to extend to Northern Ireland the provisions tabled by Lord Sharkey in respect of England and Wales on this issue. Northern Ireland has legislative powers over matters relating to justice and policing. This is a devolved matter.

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Given the unique equality legislation in Northern Ireland, does the Minister see a problem in any attempt to introduce such a measure in the Province?

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If legislation is to be introduced extending the Turing pardon and a disregard process to Northern Ireland, that is a decision for the Northern Ireland Assembly to take. Were the provisions to be extended to Northern Ireland, a legislative consent motion would, by convention, be required.

Leaving the EU: Departmental Responsibilities

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14. What assessment she has made of the implications for her departmental responsibilities of the UK leaving the EU. [906952]

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The Ministry of Justice is leading work on future arrangements with the EU for civil, family and commercial law. We are also working closely with the Home Office on EU criminal justice measures. I am determined to make sure that UK legal services, which contribute £26 billion a year to our economy, continue to thrive once we leave the EU.

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Official figures show that between 2010 and 2015 the UK made 1,424 requests to EU members under the European arrest warrant, as a result of which 916 successful arrests were made. Will access to the system continue when the UK leaves the EU?

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As I have said, the Home Office is leading on criminal justice matters. We are working very closely with the Home Office, and we want to preserve those beneficial policies where we can deal with criminal and civil justice matters, so that we can make sure that we have the best possible legal services in the world.

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English law—particularly English commercial law—is respected around the world for its quality. Will the Secretary of State confirm that her Department will use Brexit as an opportunity to spread its use around the world, working with our international law firms?

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I completely agree with my hon. Friend, who has a background in commercial law in one of the top City firms. I had a roundtable with the magic circle and the silver circle to talk about how we can promote those legal areas, as well as all the practices right through the UK, including those practising in Scots law. We have a big opportunity to promote this more widely, and we are using the GREAT campaign as a vehicle to do that.

Topical Questions

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T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. [906927]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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T3. Can smuggling into prisons by drones be stopped? [906930]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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.

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T4. What action are the Government taking to protect vulnerable witnesses when they testify in court? [906931]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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?

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My right hon. and learned Friend will be extremely happy to meet the hon. Lady.

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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]

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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.

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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?

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Yes, I would be more than happy to meet the hon. Lady and her constituent.

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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]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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

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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?

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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.

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Finally, the Chair of the Select Committee on Justice, Mr Robert Neill.

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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?

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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.