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Volume 618: debated on Tuesday 6 December 2016

The Secretary of State was asked—

Prison Safety

Last month, we launched the White Paper “Prison Safety and Reform” and we are already implementing measures to track all drugs, drones and phones. This major overhaul of the prison system will include the recruitment of an extra 2,500 front-line officers. Our reforms will empower governors to make the changes that they need.

I warmly welcome the Government’s decision to invest £555 million to recruit 2,500 extra guards, and I hope that Lewes prison in East Sussex, where staff had to deal with a serious incident involving threats of violence a month ago, will benefit from that. The Home Affairs Committee, of which I am a member, released a report on psychoactive substances and their increased availability in prisons. Given the aggressive and violent behaviour that they cause, what is the Secretary of State doing to clamp down on drugs of all types available in prisons?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about psychoactive substances. They have been a serious issue in our prison system. That is why we have developed tests, which we have rolled out across the prison estate, to detect these substances and why we have trained up 300 sniffer dogs.

The suicide rates at HMP Hewell in Redditch are unacceptably high. May I invite my right hon. Friend to update the House on what the Government are doing to ensure the safety of prisoners and to reduce suicide rates in our prisons?

First, may I welcome my hon. Friend back to the House? It is great to see her back on our Benches looking so fit and well.

Indeed. Finally, I can agree with a comment from the Opposition.

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the issue of self-harm and suicides in our prison. The rates are too high, which is why we are taking steps to increase the number of prison officers. We will have a dedicated officer for every six prisoners and they will be responsible for those prisoners’ welfare and for helping them to turn their lives around so that they do not go back to reoffending.

The suicide rate in our prisons is the highest it has ever been in 25 years. It is absolutely shameful. Just the other week, the Health Secretary appeared before the Health Committee and admitted that he has never visited a prison mental health service. Will the Secretary of State tell us whether she has visited one, and if not, why not and when will she?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that mental health is a real issue in our prisons. I recently had a meeting with the Health Secretary on how we can improve mental health services. We are enabling governors to co-commission those health services. I was recently at HMP Lincoln discussing mental health services with the governor. Such services are available only from Monday to Friday, and he wants them to be available all week round, and we will enable that to happen.

In part due to increased attacks on prison officers, more than 200,000 days were lost through ill health by prison officers in the past 12 months. Will the Secretary of State update the House on what the figure lost through sick days is as of now, and what steps she will take to reduce that figure?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. There is an issue with sick days. The the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), who is responsible for prisons and probation holds a daily meeting in which he goes through the levels of sickness at each prison and works with the governors on what we can do. One thing we are doing is strengthening the frontline to ensure that we have more officers available for support.

I am glad that the Secretary of State recognises the importance of the number of officers, and I congratulate her on the extra moneys available. Does she agree that in potentially violent situations one of the most important factors is the availability of experienced officers who have the knowledge and the personal relationships with inmates to calm them down? Can she give us more detail about what is being done to deal with the current very high levels of wastage of experienced officers?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend, and the evidence backs him up that having experienced officers is vital. We have a higher proportion of experienced officers in 2016 than we did in 2010; more than 80% of our prison officers have five or more years of experience. I am absolutely determined to keep those officers in the service. Two weeks ago, we launched a fast-track programme to help people already in the service to progress in their careers. We are also offering retention payments, particularly in hard-to-recruit areas, because we certainly need to keep those very important staff on board.

In every one of Her Majesty’s inspector’s reports on closed male facilities published during the Secretary of State’s time in post—reports on Bedford, Chelmsford, Hindley, Onley, Risley, Swaleside and Winchester, and the youth facilities at Isis and Wetherby—outcomes of the test of prison safety deemed them to be either poor or not sufficiently good. When can we expect a positive report on prison safety in closed male prisons?

The hon. Lady is right that current levels of violence in our prisons are not acceptable. That is why we launched the prison safety and reform White Paper, with measures to deal with drugs, drones and phones, as well as to bolster the number of front-line staff. We are also working directly with governors to help them to deal with issues that might trigger incidents in their prisons while we build up that front-line capability. I announced in October that we are recruiting an extra 400 staff in 10 of the most challenging prisons; we have already given job offers to 280 people, so we are making progress.

The Ministry states in the White Paper that it will trial the inclusion of prison co-ordinates in no-fly zones to prevent banned items from being dropped into prisons. How will that work in practice and what is being done now to reduce demand for banned items in prisons?

The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey is working with drone manufacturers and leading a cross-Government taskforce to get in place the technology needed to do that. We are also employing solutions such as installing extra netting. Last week I was at HMP Pentonville, which now has patrol dogs whose barking helps to deter drones. We are using all sorts of solutions to deal with contraband entering our prisons.

Mental Health: Prisons

A key aspect of our prison reform programme will be to address offender mental health and improve outcomes for prisoners. We are introducing co-commissioning, which will make sure that governors are focused on and accountable for those outcomes, alongside health commissioners. I know the Secretary of State has discussed the matter with the Health Secretary and it is a high priority for both of them.

Last year, I spent more than a month in a small room, unable to leave. I lost track of where I was. I became tearful over the slightest of issues. I felt that I could not breathe. I was not incarcerated in prison; I was in hospital following a physical illness, but the experience made me reflect on how easy it is to develop a mental health issue when confined in a small space and lacking orientation. With that in mind, what assessment has the Department made of people developing mental problems in prison, rather than going in with such problems, and what can be done to reduce that?

I am glad to see my hon. Friend looking so well, following such a significant illness.

Prisoners are entitled to the same levels of care as those living in the community, but there are specific measures in place for their care. All prisoners have a health assessment on arrival, all prison officers receive training to help them to recognise mental health issues, and all prisons have on-site primary healthcare teams who can provide mental health care, refer to counselling, or refer for a further psychiatric assessment for serious mental illness.

A recent report by the prisons and probation ombudsman found that 70% of those who committed suicide had a mental health issue. What steps will the Government take specifically to tackle this problem?

Every death in custody is a tragedy. We are committed to reducing the number of self-inflicted deaths. We have reviewed the case assessment care in custody and teamwork process for prisoners assessed as being at risk and we are piloting revised safer custody training in response. All prison officers, both new and experienced, receive training to help offenders with mental health issues.

Statistics show that 50% of those who are in prison suffer from personality disorders. Does the Minister agree that it is important to assess such issues when people enter the criminal justice system—even at the stage of the custody suite—rather than after their incarceration?

Of course the initial assessment is important, as is who does that assessment. In addition to our work on that, the care following the assessment and ongoing care, as well as the observation of prisoners, are being closely looked at.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) asked the Secretary of State when she had last visited a prison’s mental health service. Suicide in prisons is at a 25-year high. It is utterly disgusting that neither the Health Secretary nor the Secretary of State for Justice has visited prisons to see what is going on. What is happening?

As I have said, each of those suicides is a tragedy. The Government are fully aware of that, and I am aware that the Secretary of State for Health will be visiting a prison. I was at Peterborough prison last week discussing mental health provision there, and I visited the mother and baby unit at the same time. I am under no illusions about the challenges involved in addressing the problem. We are fully aware of the problem and I intend to make further statements on the subject because the mental health of prisoners is such a key problem.

However important it is to improve and enhance mental health care in our prisons, little will be achieved without continuity of care once prisoners leave prison. What is the Department doing, with the health service, to ensure that continuity of care is provided for prisoners from day one when they leave prison?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question which, as ever, is a wise one. Yes, continuity of care before, during and after prison is key, not just for the mental health of prisoners, but for their physical health too. We have ongoing discussions with the Department of Health on the matter, and my intention is to make the continuity of records and the continuity of care as a consequence much better in the future.

Does the Minister accept that many prisoners with mental health issues would be better served and facilitated outside the prison regime? If so, what alternatives are being looked at?

Of course, the hon. Gentleman is right. However, prison can be an opportunity to address mental health problems that have not previously been diagnosed and properly treated, so being in prison may be an opportunity for someone to receive proper care, which is ultimately what I am about.

Apprenticeships: Prisoners

As outlined in the prison safety and reform White Paper, we will introduce a prisoner apprenticeship pathway that will offer prisoners opportunities that count towards the completion of a formal apprenticeship on release. This scheme is being developed as part of our offender employment strategy which will be published in the new year.

HMP Lewes is exactly the kind of local prison that will benefit from the new prison apprenticeship pathway. I anticipate that the prison will also benefit from the new Prison Service apprenticeship scheme that we are launching in 2017, which will help recruit members to the Prison Service by widening the number of entry points into the service.

16. Most apprenticeships require literacy. What proportion of prisoners was functionally illiterate at the start of their sentence and what proportion was functionally illiterate on release? (907689)

The hon. Gentleman asks a very important question. At the moment, roughly 50% of prisoners are illiterate as far as English and maths are concerned. Our prison safety and reform White Paper proposes that we test prisoners’ literacy on entry and on exit so that we can measure the distance travelled and progress made in prison.

Which prison has the best record for training prisoners for gainful employment once they leave, and how might that best practice be rolled out across the prison estate?

My hon. Friend asks a very important question. Across the Prison Service there are patches of good work aimed at employment post-release. We want to create a system to measure that, and to identify and rank prisons according to how well they do in that respect. That is precisely what our White Paper does. Employment post-release is one of the outcome measures against which governors will be judged once we proceed with reform.

Work experience outside prison can also enhance a prisoner’s employment opportunities on release, so what guidance is the Minister giving prisons—not just reform prisons, but governors of all prisons—in relation to release on temporary licence?

Release on temporary licence has a huge role to play in helping prisoners to gain employment in the wider world. I have been speaking with Timpson’s, for example, which employs a lot of ex-offenders, and that is how they are trialled before release. We are looking at that to ensure that the guidance that governors receive allows them to do more with release on temporary licence, specifically in relation to employment opportunities.

Prison Reform

5. What plans the Government have to increase the autonomy of prison governors to enable them to make reforms. (907678)

We will turn around offenders’ lives only if governors have the levers they need over education, work and health in prison. That is why our reforms devolve power over budgets and services to governors.

Procurement is a complicated business. What guidance and training are governors being given to ensure that they can complete the procurement process properly, be that for the provision of mental health services or even the recruitment of the dogs that bark at drones?

It sounds like my hon. Friend is asking for some of those patrol dogs at her local prison, HMP Bullingdon, which I am delighted to say will be one of the 30 prisons that will be recruiting locally to build up a local cadre of staff, starting next January. The answer is that we will be setting up a What Works network to help governors gain the expertise they need to take those decisions and make those things happen locally.

Government Front Benchers seem to be doing a bit of sleepwalking this morning. I know that it is nearly Christmas, but can I ask them to wake up to the dangers of empowering governors too much? When the former Select Committee that I chaired looked at prison education all those years ago, we found that one real danger was that a very good system of education and training in a prison could suddenly be wiped out by a new governor who wanted nothing to do with it. We need common standards across all prisons. Is that not right?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We are being very specific about what we are asking governors to achieve in raising education standards, getting prisoners into apprenticeships and work, and improving health standards. We are specifying the what, but giving governors much more freedom over the how, because they are the people with the expertise. The officers on the landing are the ones who talk to the prisoners, and they need that freedom to be able to turn people’s lives around.

Dangerous Driving

6. What progress the Government have made on the sentencing review of motoring offences and penalties relating to dangerous drivers. (907679)

The Government yesterday issued a consultation paper following a review of driving offences and penalties. The consultation focuses on the driving offences that result in death or serious injury and proposes that the courts should be able to impose a life sentence, or longer determinate sentences, in the most serious cases.

I welcome the consultation. Does the Minister agree that it presents the perfect opportunity to close a loophole whereby in the event of a pedestrian being hit by a driver under the influence of alcohol or drugs, as happened to my constituent Sean Morley, who was tragically killed as a result, the maximum sentence available for failing to stop and report is just six months, leaving no incentive for the driver to stay around? In Sean’s case, the Crown Prosecution Service and the judge had only the charge of failing to stop available to them, not death by dangerous driving.

The case to which my hon. Friend refers is truly horrific, and I extend my personal sympathies to Sean Morley’s family. Nothing can compensate for the loss of a loved one by a killer driver who drives irresponsibly. I encourage the family to contribute to the consultation so that we can take their points on board.

Campaigners and families are delighted that the Government have now announced this review, and I pay tribute to all of them, and to all hon. Members on both sides of the House who contributed to the cross-party manifesto in 2014. The direction of travel is clearly welcome, but I just ask that consideration is given to getting rid of the charge of careless driving, because at the moment some of the most dangerous sorts of reckless, criminal driving are called careless, and that is wrong.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I congratulate him on his long-standing campaign on the issue. We looked very carefully at the distinction between careless and dangerous driving, which he wants us to get rid of, but we came to the view that a sense of culpability needs to be reflected in the decisions that the courts come to. For example, someone could be momentarily distracted by their children crying in the backseat and—God forbid—something bad then happens. That is very different from someone involved in speed racing. That is why we have chosen to keep that distinction.

My constituents George and Giulietta Galli-Atkinson set up the Livia awards in memory of their daughter. She was killed by a driver who mounted the pavement, but who was found guilty of causing death by dangerous driving and received only a fine. My constituents have campaigned for over 20 years for tougher sentences. How might that be achieved as a consequence of the Minister’s consultation?

We are proposing a new life sentence as a maximum penalty for those convicted of dangerous driving. As a consequence, we are giving the courts the tools they need to make the punishment fit the crime, and that is testimony to the campaign my hon. Friend’s constituents have been running for years.

I welcome the consultation on this matter, but I seek some clarity from the Minister on the distinction between careless and dangerous driving. The consultation makes it clear that the Government do not propose any changes but seek instead to explain and address misconceptions about the law. How exactly does the Department intend to ensure greater consistency across the UK in applying this law?

The consultation does have question 7 —an open question—so if the hon. Lady has any specific concerns that are not reflected in the consultation, she can by all means submit them in that question.

Prisoners: Rehabilitation and Work

7. What further plans the Government have to provide prisoners with (a) drug rehabilitation and (b) education and skills training to improve their prospects for finding work on release from prison. (907680)

10. What further plans the Government have to provide prisoners with (a) drug rehabilitation and (b) education and skills training to improve their prospects for finding work on release from prison. (907683)

As part of our reforms, we are going to set clear standards on the outcomes we expect each prison governor to achieve on drug rehabilitation, education and other drivers of rehabilitation.

I thank the Minister for that. Given that 42% of adult prisoners in England and Wales were permanently excluded from school, does he agree that it is only through education that the cycle of reoffending can be stopped? What more can be done to ensure that this message properly resonates across the prison estate?

My hon. Friend makes an important point: education is one of the key ways in which we can help to break the cycle of reoffending—when the offender, obviously, is willing. One of the things we have done to speed up this process is to transfer the education budget from the Department for Education to the Ministry of Justice. That budget will be delegated to governors so that they can organise education that suits individual prisoners’ needs.

I am pleased to hear about the steps that have been taken to improve drug rehabilitation and education. Could I suggest that prisoners close to release are also given careers advice and experience mock interviews to aid their search for work on release?

Again, that is an important point. If someone has spent quite a lot of time inside, it is highly likely that they will be unused to the world of work and certainly to interviews. One of the things we are doing is having Department for Work and Pensions work coaches work with prison governors as part of the regime. Their job is to help to prepare prisoners, alongside rehabilitation companies, for life after release.

17. A constituent of mine has a criminal record but has been a law-abiding citizen for over 40 years. Should there not come a time when she is able to move on and no longer has to explain to prospective employers the mistake she made when she was much younger? (907690)

My right hon. Friend raises a point around conviction and time spent. Obviously, there is the Ban the Box campaign, which we are supporters of, that encourages employers to look beyond these things, certainly when it comes to employing ex-offenders. I would be happy to speak with my right hon. Friend directly about the case of her constituent.

22. In Havant, the Hampshire community rehabilitation company helps offenders and drug users to find employment and training opportunities. Will the Minister continue to support its excellent work in breaking the reoffending cycle? (907696)

Prison Safety

8. What steps she is taking to reduce the number of assaults, incidents of self-harm and deaths in prison. (907681)

We take the safety of prisoners in our jails extremely seriously. It is of paramount importance that they are kept safe and given the opportunity to reform.

At the Justice Committee last week, the prisons Minister said in reply to a question regarding the recent escape from Her Majesty’s Prison Pentonville, that the frequency of cell searches was determined locally by the governor. Does he remain satisfied that the coalition decision to end daily cell searches was right, or does he think they might have prevented this escape and limited the use of mobile phones, drugs and weapons?

Cell searches are carried out on an intelligence-led basis at establishment level. In addition, we are investing £3 million on a regional and national intelligence network so that we can identify where phones, for example, are being smuggled in to aid criminal activities in our prisons and deal with such situations appropriately.

Our prison chaplains deal with all these issues daily and are almost universally well thought of, so will the Minister tell the House what steps he is taking, first, to recruit the full number of chaplains, and secondly, to make sure that they have the time to do the important work they are there to do?

Is the Secretary of State for Justice aware of the situation at HMP Maghaberry, where three prisoners have tragically taken their own lives, and will she and her team use all their influence on the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Justice Minister to make sure that this is dealt with immediately?

As my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice said, every death in prison is a tragic one. Such people are in the care of the state, and we have to make sure that we take good care of them in that respect. I am willing to look in more detail at the situation that the hon. Gentleman has outlined.

As I have mentioned on a number of occasions, there is no real incentive for prisoners to behave themselves in prison because of the law introduced by the previous Labour Government that prisoners have to be released halfway through their sentence irrespective of how badly they behave or whether they are still a danger to the public. I am still waiting for the Government to give an explanation of why they think this law should still be on the statute book, and I have yet to receive a satisfactory response. Will the Minister now give us the reason why, by law, prisoners should be released halfway through their sentence irrespective of how badly they behave or whether they are still a danger to the public?

My hon. Friend raised this issue at the Select Committee last week, and I will give him the same answer I gave then. When prisoners are released, even at the halfway point, they remain on licence, and if there is a breach of the licence, they are recalled to prison. That remains the case.

Prison Officers

A core part of our prison safety and reform plan is the recruitment of an additional 2,500 prison officers. In 10 of our most challenging prisons, we have already started a recruitment programme, and we have made 280 job offers.

We have nearly 7,000 fewer prison officers in our prisons than in 2010. The Government have announced an increase in the prisons budget of £100 million to recruit or re-recruit an extra 2,500 officers. Is it any wonder that the service is in a mess?

In our “Prison Safety and Reform” White Paper, we make it very clear that it is important to have a skilled force of officers. That is why we are investing £100 million, which will enable us to make sure that one officer is responsible for six prisoners. Through our work, we have shown that that is effective in keeping a prison safe, and in being able to turn around the lives of offenders.

I have three prisons in my constituency. Combined, they have one of the largest concentrations of prisoners in the country. The prison officers in Sheppey’s prisons are fantastic people—dedicated, hard working and highly responsible—but Sheppey’s prisons are seriously understaffed. Because of our location in the south-east of England, it is difficult to recruit officers, given the number of other jobs available to them. What reassurance can my right hon. Friend give my prison officers that steps will be taken to solve the problem of recruitment on Sheppey?

I agree with my hon. Friend that prison officers do a fantastic job. When I visit prisons up and down the country, I meet officers and see the great work they do, their dedication to the job and why they have gone into it. There are staff recruitment issues in about a quarter of our prisons because there is high demand for employees, particularly in the south-east of England. That is why we are enabling governors to offer market supplements of up to £4,000 to recruit officers, and retention payments of up to £3,000 to keep those officers on board.

It is not just the cut of 7,000 prison officers, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Sir Kevin Barron) talked about; another 7,000 non-officer grades are also being cut. That is a total cut of 14,000 staff—2,000 is a drop in the ocean. That is why people are getting hurt and killed in Britain’s prisons. When will the Secretary of State return staffing to pre-2010 levels, which is needed to ensure safety in prisons?

The important point is that the staffing that we are putting into our prisons is evidence-based and enables us to operate with a ratio of one officer for every six prisoners. That is what works.

In a Westminster Hall debate last week, the prisons Minister confirmed that it is his intention for each prisoner to have a dedicated prison officer, who will be responsible for six inmates. He called it the new offender management model and the new staffing model. Will the Secretary of State explain whether that is based on current staffing levels or whether it is an aspiration for the future? What are the details of the new models?

That is what we will operate when we get up to the full complement of having the additional 2,500 officers. We have already started with 10 of the most challenging prisons. Of the 400 prison officers we are seeking to recruit, we have offered jobs to 280. It will take time to build up the prison officer workforce. That is why we are launching a new apprenticeship scheme, a new fast-track scheme for graduates, and a scheme to recruit former armed forces personnel. We will not achieve this overnight, but it is important to build up the workforce to improve safety and reform in our prisons.

The prisons Minister also told the Justice Committee last week that, in order to recruit an extra 2,500 prison officers by 2018, the Ministry of Justice would have to recruit a total of 8,000 officers, due to the staff leaving rate. Michael Spurr said that the leaving rate after just the first year as a prison officer is 13.5%. How does the Secretary of State plan to retain the new staff who are leaving and the prison officers that she plans to recruit in future? Will she spend whatever it takes to get a grip on the crisis?

As I said, we are investing £100 million in recruiting the additional 2,500 officers. We are launching a new apprenticeship scheme, a new graduate scheme and a scheme to recruit people from the armed services. We are improving career progression in the Prison Service to ensure that our experienced officers get the opportunities that they deserve. In the 25% of prisons in which we struggle to recruit in London and the south-east, we are offering additional payments. We are doing everything we can to build up that strength because it is important to delivering safe and reformed prisons.

Human Rights Act

11. What recent progress has been made on the Government’s plan to replace the Human Rights Act 1998. (907684)

As is well known, we shall set out our proposals for a Bill of Rights in due course, and we shall of course consult fully on those proposals.

In the light of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities finding that cuts to benefits meet the threshold for human rights violations, instead of replacing the Human Rights Act, should not the Secretary of State focus on ensuring the protection of rights to which the Government are already committed?

The UK Government and this country do not need lectures about our human rights record. Our country has a proud tradition that goes back 800 years of pioneering human rights and spreading our values around the world. We do not need any lessons.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that not only is it a good idea to make the change, but that we were members of the European convention on human rights for a whole generation before we put human rights legislation into British law, and that the clear understanding needs to be that British courts, informed by legislation from this Parliament, make the decisions?

Of course it was Winston Churchill in his famous speech in Place Kléber in Strasbourg who pointed out the importance of fundamental human rights after the second world war, and British lawyers played a very important part in framing the European convention on human rights. Having said that, it is right to consider what that should be in the modern context, and whether we need a British jurisprudence over those rights. That is what we are doing.

19. Five times in the past few years the UK Government have been found guilty of a breach of article 3 of the European convention on human rights for their treatment of people with mental health problems in immigration detention. Many more cases have been settled or are pending. Will the Minister confirm that the solution to that shameful state of affairs is not to water down that absolute right in order to avoid being found out? (907692)

Of course we respect human rights and the rights that are within the convention. No country has a better record of abiding by those decisions than this country. Having said that, there is a need to look critically at the Human Rights Act and how it operates, which is what we will do.

Does the Minister agree that the example of countries such as New Zealand, Canada and Australia prove that a country does not have to be a member of the European convention on human rights to have an excellent human rights record?

My hon. Friend’s point is that those countries have the common-law tradition that was founded in this country by our judges and our Parliament. The fact that it is expressed differently in Canada and countries of that sort does not mean that it does not have the same root. We in this country should be proud of that.

Judicial Independence

The independence of the judiciary is the cornerstone of the rule of law, vital to our constitution and freedoms. As Lord Chancellor I frequently make this clear, both in private and in public.

After the press attacks on the judiciary, it took the Justice Secretary nearly 48 hours to release a statement. The former Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge said of that statement that he thought it was

“a little too late—and quite a lot too little”.

Does she agree with Lord Judge, and if so will she take the opportunity to apologise?

It is not the job of the Government or the Lord Chancellor to police headlines. The process is working absolutely as it should. People have a right to bring a case to court. The Government have the right to defend our position in the court. The judiciary is independent and impartial, and the press can scrutinise the process within the law.

I agree with my right hon. Friend. As we sit here today in this Parliament, just across Parliament Square the Supreme Court is sitting with 11 Supreme Court justices. Does she not agree—and does this whole House not agree—that the integrity of the Supreme Court and the justices should not be impugned?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. As I said last month, the Supreme Court justices are people of great integrity and impartiality.

In response to the constitutional change brought about by devolution, the renowned international jurist, the late Professor Sir Neil MacCormick, stressed the importance of the principles that justified judicial independence and the concept of the separation of powers. As the United Kingdom once more faces major constitutional change after the EU referendum, will the Justice Secretary join me in reaffirming the importance of those principles?

I absolutely will. The independence of the judiciary is a vital part of our free society, as is our free press. Both those things are important. We have seen over the last months that we have a robust independent judiciary and a robust free press, which I look forward to discussing with the hon. and learned Lady very soon.

In recent years, it has become commonplace for some Conservative Members to deprecate the judges of the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights simply for doing their job. Does the Lord Chancellor agree that such scant respect for the rule of law has encouraged a climate in which a major tabloid, which I believe some people call a newspaper, thinks it is appropriate to describe justices of our own Supreme Court as “enemies of the people”?

I have been very clear that the independence of the judiciary is a vital part of our rule of law. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Courts and Justice has just said, it is important for the UK that British courts make those decisions, and that is precisely what we are going to achieve.

Yesterday, the President of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger, said at the beginning of the article 50 appeal:

“This appeal is concerned with legal issues, and, as judges, our duty is to consider those issues impartially, and to decide the case, according to law. That is what we shall do.”

Does the Lord Chancellor agree that if she had done her duty and spoken out at the time to defend the judiciary, those words would not have been necessary?

As I said earlier, I frequently make it clear that the independence of the judiciary is a vital part of our constitution and our freedoms. I also think that it is absolutely right that the President of the Supreme Court, who has absolute integrity and impartiality, should make that case as well.

Vulnerable Witnesses

13. What steps the Government are taking to protect vulnerable witnesses when they testify in court. (907686)

We are committed to helping vulnerable witnesses to give their very best evidence. A range of measures exist to help to reduce the anxiety of giving evidence, including video-link evidence away from the courtroom, and, within the court, giving evidence behind a screen.

Following the closure of my local court in Buxton, witnesses will have to travel from my High Peak constituency to the nearest court. Can my right hon. and learned Friend provide further assurance that there will be protection for witnesses not only in the court, but when they are travelling to it?

Yes, I can do that. When a witness needs protection, the police assess what is required to keep them safe. Witness care officers also help to ensure that the witness has any help that they need to attend court.

Prisoners: Rehabilitation and Work

The prison and courts reform Bill will, for the first time, set out in legislation that the reform of offenders is a key purpose of prison. Prison is not just about housing offenders until release. Everyone involved in prisons, from officers to headquarters, will be focused on turning prisoners’ lives around.

Will the Lord Chancellor think about the pathway back to independent crime-free living and the use of organisations such as the Amber Foundation, which do a lot to look after people before they have developed the life skills to live independently and free from crime?

I congratulate the Amber Foundation on its work, particularly in turning around the lives of young people. We will shortly issue our response to Charlie Taylor’s review on how we will improve the youth justice system to do just that.

23. Given the recent attack on a prison officer in my constituency, what will the Secretary of State be doing to ensure the safety of prison officers at work? (907697)

Making our prisons safer places is my No. 1 priority. That is why we are dealing with drugs, drones and phones, and it is why we are investing in additional prison staff across the estate.

Missing Persons

18. What steps the Government are taking to help relatives of missing persons manage financial and other affairs on their behalf. (907691)

We are preparing legislation to create the new legal status of “guardian of the property and affairs of a missing person”. We will introduce it as parliamentary time allows.

I hope to introduce a ten-minute rule Bill on guardianship that would help relatives and friends to manage the affairs of missing people. In memory of Claudia Lawrence, my constituents’ daughter who went missing seven long years ago, will the Government offer that Bill their full support? Will they also be willing to honour her memory by referring to it, whenever possible, as Claudia’s Bill?

That is good news, and I wish my hon. Friend well with his Bill. I understand why he wants to refer to it as Claudia’s law. I would like to extend my sympathies, as I am sure the whole House would, to Peter and Joan Lawrence. The Government will formally announce their position on Second Reading, but we are keen for this matter to be tackled.

Topical Questions

Our probation officers do a vital job—it is one that I value highly—in turning offenders’ lives around, and the prisons and probation Minister is conducting a comprehensive review of the probation system that is focused on improving the quality of our probation services. As with our plans for prisons, we want a simpler, clearer system, with specific outcome measures such as getting offenders off drugs, improving educational standards, and getting offenders into apprenticeships and work. We also want closer working with the Prison Service. We will set out our more detailed plans after our review is completed in April.

Guide dog owners are too often turned away by taxis, despite that being illegal, and research has shown that when offenders are prosecuted, they can be fined less than £200. Will my right hon. Friend review the situation and find ways to increase the penalties to ensure that such discrimination is better addressed?

It is appalling that some taxi drivers refuse to take assistance dogs. That is an offence under the Equality Act 2010, and it can result in a fine of £1,000. I know that the Department for Transport is looking at improving training for drivers, and at the role that taxi licensing can play in eradicating this discrimination.

Given the Government’s climbdown on their outrageous plan for immigration and asylum tribunal fees, and if they really believe in access to justice, is it not about time they listened to opposition to their unaffordable employment tribunal fees and their small claims limit changes, which hit injured people on lower incomes, and to the urgent demands that they finally begin a review into their savage legal aid cuts?

We have already announced a review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012—we will shortly be announcing the timetable—but we need a system that is both open and affordable, which is exactly what the Government are delivering.

T2. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that an independent judiciary and a free press are two pillars of a free society, and that, while we might not always like how each acts, we should be proud of, and protect, those freedoms. (907666)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We can be incredibly proud of our independent judiciary, which is the cornerstone of the rule of law and supports our commerce and trade, and we also have a robust free press, which is vital to ensuring a free society.

T3. As has been stated, last June the Government commenced their review of the future of employment tribunal fees. As of yet, we have not seen any results. Will the Minister give me a firm date for the review’s completion and publication? Is it not time the Government abandoned these unfair fees, which cut across the rights of working people? (907667)

There is a difference: Government Members think it only fair that those who can afford to should make a contribution to a service that costs hard-working taxpayers £66 million a year. We are reviewing the situation—we are doing a careful job, because this is an important issue—and we will publish the outcome in due course.

T4. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agrees that one of the main challenges facing the justice system is integrating ex-offenders back into the outside world upon their release. Does she agree that this requires the co-operation of employers as well as former prisoners? What is the Department doing to ensure that such co-operation is both encouraged and increased? (907668)

I completely agree with my hon. Friend about this vital means of reducing reoffending. We will be launching a new employment strategy next year in partnership with employers, and prisoners can take up apprenticeships in and out of prison so that we create the link between prison and the outside world. Most importantly, we are matching jobs that are available on the outside with the training and work that prisoners do on the inside so that there is a pathway to employment.

T8. The European criminal records information system enables the UK to access information about the convictions of EU nationals, but the future of our involvement is now unclear. What plans does the Department have to ensure that there is effective engagement post-Brexit? (907672)

It is important that the Scottish Parliament and Government liaise with the UK Parliament and Government about Brexit, and that is happening, as the hon. Gentleman knows. ECRIS is an important system, but the Government are not announcing their Brexit negotiating position at this stage.

T5. With care applications rising dramatically in the family courts, what steps is the Minister taking to head off what Sir James Munby, the president of the family division, has referred to as a “looming crisis” in the family courts? (907669)

My hon. Friend’s question is about a very important point. In the same period, the time taken to complete a case has halved, and the Family Justice Board, which I co-chair, is investigating the reasons for the increase in cases and whether it is temporary. I agree that there are some vital issues here, such as helping women not to lose successive children to care. My hon. Friend might have heard about the Pause project, which is doing promising work in this area, and I would be happy to have a meeting with her to discuss the issue further.

Three Secretaries of State—for Justice, for Health, and for Communities and Local Government—believe that parents in Hull should have an independent inquiry to find out what happened to their babies’ ashes. Does the Secretary of State fully understand the disappointment of those parents that she will not stand up for justice for them by establishing an independent inquiry to find out what happened to those ashes?

I am sympathetic to the hon. Lady’s concerns and I offer my sympathy again to her constituents. We are supportive of local historical investigations, but we do not plan to order an historical inquiry in Hull or elsewhere. Hull has made significant improvements, including by putting in place measures to improve practices across, and communication between, the cremation authority, local funeral directors and NHS trusts.

We are working to ensure that we take proper account of the specific needs of women at every stage of the criminal justice system so that they receive the support that they need to make positive changes in their lives. We want to see fewer women offending and reoffending, and we will set out our strategy for how we manage female offenders in 2017.

May I give the Secretary of State another opportunity to answer my question? She told the House that she has had meetings to discuss the record levels of suicide in our prisons. Has she actually visited a prison mental health service—and if not, why not?

I have visited a number of prisons where I have discussed mental health services. I have already answered the hon. Lady’s question.

T9. What specific actions are my right hon. Friend and the Government taking to ensure that the UK remains a specialist leader in world legal services? (907673)

We are a modern global centre for legal services and dispute resolution, and English law is the international law of choice. Our legal services sector contributes £26 billion to the UK economy. We have the best legal system in the world, and our modernisation programme will maintain that situation. I will be championing, as will the Secretary of State and the whole team, our legal services sector as a key part of post-Brexit global Britain.

The family of Richard Davies of Yeadon are dismayed that the man found guilty of his manslaughter is being considered for a move to an open prison a year before the family was told that that would be considered and after spending only a year in prison. Is that justice?

There is obviously a careful risk assessment before people are moved into open prison. I am not aware of the specific facts of the case that the hon. Gentleman has outlined, but I will be happy to meet him to discuss it.

The hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) said that he thought that Lord Neuberger had mentioned that he would decide the case in accordance with the law on the basis of something that the Secretary of State had or had not said. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that Lord Neuberger said that he was deciding the matter on the basis of the law because that is his duty, and because it was stated that the matter would be decided on law, not politics, in paragraph 8 of the High Court judgment?

My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right about Lord Neuberger’s role—[Interruption.] It is pronounced “Newberger”; I have had frequent conversations with him. It is important that the judiciary itself states the case, too.

Prisoners serving IPP—imprisonment for public protection—sentences have remained in custody long beyond their tariff and long after the coalition Government abolished such sentences. I understand that a dedicated Ministry of Justice unit is looking into the position of IPP prisoners. Will the Secretary of State tell us exactly what it is doing?

I have met a number of IPP prisoners who are anxious to hear more about the progress that they will make through the system. The unit is ensuring that there are sufficient parole hearings and that sufficient courses are being taken, and getting people to a stage at which they are ready for release. However, it is always important for us to focus on public protection, and we make sure that we only release people who do not pose a huge risk.

Woodhill prison in my constituency has had more suicides than any other prison this year. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that she is working urgently with the governor to address the situation?

I can assure my hon. Friend that we are working urgently with the governor to address the situation, as well as addressing the overall issue of the number of suicides in our prisons, which is far too high.

Reoffending rates among young offenders remain stubbornly high. Earlier this year, the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers said that there had been a record cut in funding for youth offending teams. What is the Secretary of State doing to address that?

The hon. Lady will not have to wait long before we release the Charlie Taylor report and the Government’s response, which will explain how we will improve outcomes in youth justice.

In February this year, 21-year-old Croydon resident George Beresford was knocked over and killed by a drink-driver. Because the police and the Crown Prosecution Service were unable to prove that the drink-driver was also driving carelessly, he received only a relatively short driving ban, rather than a custodial sentence. I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), for agreeing to meet the family this afternoon, but does he agree that the case should be considered as part of the consultation on driving offences, and that when a drink-driver kills someone, a custodial sentence is appropriate irrespective of whether careless driving can be proven?

Our consultation proposals make it very clear that when a driver has consumed drugs or alcohol and then kills someone, and if there is sufficient evidence to charge that driver with careless or dangerous driving, he or she could face a life sentence. Obviously it is for the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute on the basis of the evidence, and it is for the courts to hand down the relevant sentence. I look forward to discussing the details of that specific case with the Beresfords later this afternoon.

A constituent of mine who has pleural plaques is raising an action against his former employers, of whom there are many because of the nature of his work. His claim is subject to a time bar and must be submitted by the end of the year. However, he cannot obtain a list of his employers because Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs says that that will take 321 days. I am sure that he would appreciate it if the Secretary of State asked the Treasury to make an exception.

On her first day in office, the Prime Minister said:

“If you are black you are treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you are white.”

I am pleased to be working with the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) on a review of the treatment of, and outcomes for, black, Asian and minority ethnic individuals in the criminal justice system. What steps will the Secretary of State take to act on the emerging findings, which show that, in respect of arrests and charging, such people are disproportionately affected?

I am delighted that my hon. Friend has joined that review, to which I am sure that she will make a major contribution. Clearly there are issues throughout the criminal justice system that we need to examine, but I am certainly keen to see more diversity throughout our legal services industry and our judiciary, and we are working very hard on that.

Education budgets are being devolved to prison governors. Will each of those budgets be ring-fenced for education spending purposes?

Well! A one-word answer. Absolutely magnificent. I very much doubt that we shall hear a one-word question, but we can always ask the Chair of the Justice Committee, who is himself an accomplished lawyer. There is a hint there. I call Mr Robert Neill.

Given the Government’s welcome development of a corruption prevention strategy for our prisons, will the Minister look personally at the allegations of systemic corruption raised by BuzzFeed News today on the basis that this presents a serious risk of undermining our prison system?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. While the vast majority of prison officers are hard-working and dedicated, there is a small minority that is an issue. We acknowledge that in the White Paper, and we are reporting early next year on our corruption strategy. We are also considering options for a prison-specific offence of corruption to crack down on that scourge.

I have previously raised my concerns with the Lord Chancellor about the rise of gangs promoting extremist ideology within prisons. Will she update the House on how her Department is cracking down on extremist behaviour?

My hon. Friend is right about our concerns. We launched our response to the Acheson review in the summer. I am pleased to say that all prison officers are currently being trained—and will be by the end of the year—in tackling extremism, but I would be very pleased to have a meeting with her to discuss what further measures we can take to deal with this issue.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

When the previous Labour Government changed the law so that prisoners had to be released halfway through their sentence irrespective of how badly they behaved or if they were still a risk to the public, the then Conservative Opposition were apoplectic and voted against the change. Do the Government think that the then Conservative party was wrong to oppose that change in the law?

I refer my hon. Friend to the answer I gave earlier today and last week to the Select Committee.