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House of Commons Hansard
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24 January 2017
Volume 620
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T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. [908328]

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Today the Supreme Court issued its judgment on article 50. The 11 justices of the Supreme Court heard evidence over four days in December before handing down their judgment. Our independent judiciary is the cornerstone of the rule of law and is vital to our constitution and freedoms. The reputation of our judiciary is unrivalled the world over, and our Supreme Court justices are people of integrity and impartiality. While we might not always agree with judgments, it is a fundamental part of any thriving democracy that legal process is followed. The Government have been clear that they will respect the decision of the court.

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The Secretary of State has been gallivanting with City of London law firms of late, most recently on Thursday in Fleet Street, promising to put English law at the forefront of the attempts to create global Britain. Does she think that English law is superior to Scots law? What efforts is she making to promote the international interests of law firms from across the UK, and will firms not in the City of London get the same consideration as the firms in that one square mile?

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I want to promote both English and Scots law internationally; I think they are both huge assets to our country, and a very important part of commerce and business and the trust people have in our system. When I meet the Scottish Justice Minister, I will be delighted to meet some law firms up in Scotland.

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T2. I welcome the Government’s commitment to creating the status of guardian for the property and affairs of a missing person. This is much wanted and much needed by the affected families. Will the Minister tell us when this legislation will be brought before the House? [908329]

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We welcome the Bill from my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) on this subject, because we are determined to provide help to the families left behind when a person goes missing. It is our policy to introduce legislation, but we also now look forward to responding to my hon. Friend’s Bill on Second Reading.

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There are two things that are dangerous for our democracy: attempting to ignore the outcome of the referendum, and standing by while the independence of Britain’s judiciary comes under attack. In the light of that, I welcome the progress that the Secretary of State has made today, under pressure, in speaking up for the independence of our judiciary, but that has not deterred the continuation of the attacks. Will she now, once and for all, condemn the attacks on our judiciary?

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I am delighted to hear that the Labour party wants to support the will of the British people. That is a welcome development. As I have said, I am intensely proud of our independent judiciary—it is a core part of our democracy—but I am also proud to live in a country that has a free press.

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T3. Will consideration be given to whether the courts give both parents fair access to their children? There is a perception that, on occasions, fathers do not get the fair access that they deserve. [908330]

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My hon. Friend and I have discussed this matter informally. The welfare of the child is always paramount in court decisions, but he will remember that parental involvement provisions were inserted into the Children and Families Act 2014. The courts are now required to presume that a parent’s involvement in the child’s life will further that child’s welfare unless the contrary can be shown.

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T5. All Members will have been appalled by the recent findings of the inquest into the tragic death of Dean Saunders in Chelmsford prison. This was a man in a mental health crisis who should never have been sent to prison, and he was failed by everyone who should have been there to protect him. According to the charity Inquest, he is one of the 113 prisoners who took their life last year. When will the Secretary of State provide a full and frank response to the question of why Dean died? [908332]

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My condolences go to Dean Saunders’ family. This is a dreadful case. I have seen the details of it, and I am seeking the details of all those cases to see whether there is a pattern in why they are happening. I hope to come forward later in the year with suggestions for policy change relating to mental health assessments in prisons.

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T4. Figures released last month show that women are twice as likely as men to be prosecuted and seven times more likely than men to face the maximum £1,000 fine for non-payment of the TV licence fee. Additionally, figures show that in 2015 the number of women jailed for offences relating to this matter doubled. Will my hon. Friend explain to the House why women seem to fall foul of the TV tax so disproportionately? [908331]

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Of course, sentencing in individual cases is a matter for the courts. However, the Government are concerned that women—and, indeed, men—should not be sent to custody if they do not need to be there. Revised guidance on sentencing for non-payment of the TV licence fee was issued today by the Sentencing Council. The guidelines set out possible factors that could reduce the seriousness of TV licence evasion, including circumstances in which the culprit is experiencing significant financial hardship.

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T6. The proposed closure of Camberwell magistrates court would require my constituents—whether victims, witnesses or defendants—to make unacceptably long bus journeys to Croydon and Wimbledon to attend court. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the implications of the proposed closure for access to justice for my constituents? [908333]

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I thank the hon. Lady for her response to the consultation, which has now closed. We will, of course, announce our decision in due course. As was made clear in the consultation, there is excess capacity in London magistrates courts. Camberwell Green has significant outstanding maintenance, totalling more than £1 million. The consultation is about ensuring modern and efficient courts and improved court arrangements for everyone.

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T7. Assisting victims of crime is clearly at the centre of the Government’s attempts to modernise the court system. What steps can my right hon. Friend take to ensure that victims of sexual crime are assisted and that their rights are preserved in the court system? [908334]

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My hon. Friend makes an important point. We are seeing a record number of people prosecuted for sexual crimes, but I make it clear that victims and witnesses should be able to come forward. We are having more pre-trial cross examinations so that people do not have the difficulty of appearing in court. I recently held a summit with victims’ organisations about what more we can do to protect vulnerable victims.

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Does the Secretary of State recognise that, in relation to the Human Rights Act, the Good Friday agreement requires the European convention on human rights to be directly enforceable in Northern Ireland?

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As the hon. Lady knows, it is important that all matters to do with devolved arrangements are fully considered in that context and, in the light of my announcement today, there will be more time for that.

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T8. Will the Minister outline the support that has been provided to Lewes prison since it went into special measures at the end of last year? Is there any update on the progress that is being made in tackling some of the key issues that put the prison into special measures in the first place? [908335]

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HMP Lewes went into special measures on 12 December, and a bespoke package of support is being developed for the newly appointed governor, who took up his post on 9 January. I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the support in detail.

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The consultation on driving offences and penalties related to causing death or serious injury closes on 1 February. When does the Minister expect the report on the outcome of the consultation to be available?

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I understand that we have received thousands of responses to that consultation, and obviously we will be analysing the results. Once we are in a position to do so, we will bring further proposals to this House.

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T9. What is the Department doing to recruit high-quality graduates to forge their career in the Prison Service? [908336]

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We have launched the Unlocked programme, which is like Teach First but for prisons, to encourage the brightest and best graduates. We have had a huge response, with more than 1,000 expressions of interest within 24 hours. I look forward to them joining our fantastic Prison Service.

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It is two years this month since the Government signed the prisoner transfer agreement with Nigeria. Will the Minister tell me how many prisoners have been removed to Nigeria since that agreement?

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Again, I am happy to provide that information and put it in the Library.

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T10. Following last week’s announcement by the Prime Minister that Britain intends to leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice once we leave the EU, will my right hon. Friend outline what preparations her Department is making to ready the UK court system to assume the roles and responsibilities previously carried out by the European Court? [908337]

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Once we leave the European Union, British judges will once again be the final decision makers in our courts. I am sure that our world-renowned judiciary will rise to the challenge, and I am working very closely with them on arrangements.

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The Government have signalled their intention to remain a member of Europol after we leave the European Union. Is there a similar resolve to continue membership of Eurojust?

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I am working with the Home Secretary on arrangements for criminal justice after leaving the European Union, as well as with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union.

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The Justice Secretary has already said that four of the 10 biggest legal firms are based in the United Kingdom. What steps is she now taking, given the similarity between English law and the law in New York state, Australia and New Zealand, to promote opportunities for British law firms after we leave the European Union?

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Last week, I hosted a meeting with the Lord Chief Justice and leading legal firms to talk about mutual recognition and enforcement of contracts. In the spring, we will hold a global Britain legal services summit to promote the fantastic capabilities we have in the law.

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When people leave prison, we need to ensure that those addicted to drugs or alcohol have the best start away from their dependency so that their loved ones can be protected from that harm. Does the Minister agree that former prisoners with a substance addiction, who might come back coercively to control their families to get to that substance, can be managed better?

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I think it extremely important that ex-offenders receive appropriate substance misuse treatment in the community, and I am looking at that extremely closely.

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Ah, a Crabb or a Berry? I think we will have the Crabb.

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Ministers will be aware of the disturbing incident that took place recently at Haverfordwest magistrates court, where a defendant, while in the dock, was able to use a sharp object to carry out a serious act of violence against themselves. Will the Secretary of State please commit to looking into what went wrong with the security arrangements at the court? No one should be in a position to do harm to themselves or others in any courtroom in England and Wales.

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My right hon. Friend makes an important point about an extremely concerning incident. I have been briefed already, but I have asked for a further report from Her Majesty’s Courts Service on exactly what happened and what measures are necessary to ensure that such an incident does not happen again.

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Let’s have a Berry.

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When I met Lancashire police federation representatives last Friday, they said that they believe the sentencing guidelines dealing with an assault on a police officer to be adequate, but that in some cases they are not properly enforced by the courts. What will the Secretary of State do to ensure that an attack on a police officer is always considered an aggravating factor, because an attack on the law enforcers is an attack on society itself?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his comment, and he is absolutely right about attacks on police officers—and also on prison officers. We have strengthened the law in those areas and I have regular discussions with the Sentencing Council.

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The use of psychoactive substances, especially Spice, was highlighted in a Home Affairs Committee report last year. Will the Secretary of State tell me what links can be highlighted between the rise in psychoactive substances and levels of violence in prisons?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right that psychoactive substances have had a serious effect in our prisons: the prisons and probation ombudsman described them as a “game changer”, which is why we have now rolled out testing to deal with those substances. We have extra sniffer dogs to deal with them as well, and we are making progress.

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Recognising the consequences of crimes for victims must be at the forefront of offenders’ minds as they leave prison, so what steps are Ministers and the probation service taking to ensure that that is the case?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right: victims have to be at the centre of the justice system. That is what our court reforms will help to deliver. Restorative justice programmes, led by our police and crime commissioners, can help to bring a sense of justice to victims.