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Topical Questions

Volume 622: debated on Tuesday 7 March 2017

Last month, we introduced the Prisons and Courts Bill. For the first time, as well as punishing offenders by depriving them of their liberty, a key purpose of prison will be reforming offenders. There will be a new framework and a clear system of accountability. I will account to Parliament for progress. We are also putting in a strengthened inspectorate and an ombudsman for sharper external scrutiny. We are modernising our courts system and ensuring that vulnerable victims and witnesses are no longer cross-examined by their alleged abusers in the family court.

My Homelessness Reduction Bill reaches its Committee stage in the House of Lords on Friday. One provision is to ensure that prison governors prepare prisoners so that they are not homeless when they leave prison. What action has my right hon. Friend taken to ensure that prison governors are aware of their responsibilities under the new law?

First, I can tell my hon. Friend that we are making sure that we measure how successful prison governors are at getting people into accommodation once they leave prison. The public will be able to see that information, as it will be publicly available. I am also speaking to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and working with him on his homelessness plan, and helping ex-offenders get into homes is a key part of that.

T2. The Secretary of State for Scotland indicated that sweeping powers would be devolved to Edinburgh following Brexit. However, when asked for clarification, he promised criminal justice powers, which are already devolved. Will the Justice Secretary confirm what that will entail, or is double devolution just a cover for a post-Brexit power grab? (909112)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, those issues are being discussed by my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Scotland. It is important that we get a deal that is good for the entire United Kingdom.

T4. Mobile phones in prisons allow criminals to deal drugs, intimidate their victims and continue criminality from within their prison cell. Will my hon. Friend say how the powers in the Prisons and Courts Bill will help to address the scourge of mobile phones in prisons once and for all? (909114)

The measures in the Prisons and Courts Bill will allow the Secretary of State to authorise mobile network operators to block illicit mobile phone signals across entire prison sites. That will allow industry experts to work more creatively and effectively to block signals, which means that we will not require a court order to stop the illicit and harmful use of mobile phones in prison.

T3. Obviously, we do not want to follow the United States in politicising the judiciary. However, to ensure some degree of public accountability when appointing Supreme Court judges, might the Minister consider allowing the Chair of the Justice Committee to sit on the relevant appointment panel? (909113)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his thoughts on this issue. I point out that there is currently an open competition for Supreme Court justices. I want to encourage as many qualified candidates as possible to come forward. The closing date is the 10th, so if any are listening, I want them to apply for the role. It is very important to distinguish between the situation in the US, where there is a written constitution, and here, where we have a sovereign Parliament and the role of the Court is to interpret legislation. The Select Committee absolutely has a role to play, post-appointment, in making sure that it is holding the Supreme Court justices to account, but I think that it would be dangerous to muddy the water with pre-appointment hearings.

T5. Some of my constituents who work in Winchester prison have highlighted directly with me the challenges that they have at work, locally and nationally. As the Lord Chancellor is keenly aware, there are rising challenges around extremism in prisons. Will she update the House on the progress of the new directorate for security, order and counter-terrorism? (909115)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: extremism is a worry in our prisons. That is why we set up the new security and counter terrorism unit in the Ministry of Justice. That unit is progressing with implementing the recommendations of the Acheson review that the Department adopted last summer.

T6. The Government sensibly introduced section 67 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 to allow the police to arrest paedophiles for sending sexual communications to children, rather than waiting until they actually meet. However, the power cannot be used until the commencement order is passed. It is two years since the Act became law. Will the Secretary of State say how much longer the police will have to wait until they can keep our children safe? (909116)

T8. I have been raising the issue of false and exaggerated whiplash claims ever since I was elected. Can the Lord Chancellor ensure that her plans for change in this area will be successful and result in real benefits, such as much lower premiums for law-abiding drivers? (909118)

May I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done on the Transport Committee to highlight this important issue? We hope that every motorist will see a benefit of £40. We are certainly pressing hard on the issue.

T7. Police and voluntary services are being overwhelmed on the streets of Wrexham by incidents of the use of psychoactive substances. Will the Lord Chancellor please ask Her Majesty’s prison Berwyn to share its specialist knowledge of the subject with agencies in Wrexham? (909117)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We have expertise in dealing with psychoactive substances. We have rolled out tests across the prison estate, and we are working on prisoner education to deter people from that type of drug abuse. I am very happy to facilitate a meeting with the Prison Service and the hon. Gentleman, so that we can make progress together.

T9. Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State share my concern at the content of the answer to my earlier question? Will she get a grip on this important issue, and will she follow the lead of my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) in saying that prisoners such as the one I mentioned earlier should be released immediately? (909119)

First, I am very happy to make sure we look into the case my hon. Friend raises. We do have to remember that public protection must always be our priority, so while we are keen to see people get the training and re-education they need to secure a successful parole hearing, we must always make sure the public are kept safe.

T10. Rather than curtailing access to justice for those with legitimate personal injury compensation claims, why are Ministers not cracking down on the cowboy aggressive marketing of claims management companies? (909120)

It is important to do both, and we have a package of measures that achieves that, so I do not think the hon. Lady need concern herself that we are not taking this forward.

As the Secretary of State mentioned, the Supreme Court judges application process ends on Friday. In circumstances where around 20% of Court of Appeal judges and 20% of High Court judges are female, what is she doing to ensure we get more diversity in our highest courts?

My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. We have never had a female Lord Chief Justice or a female Master of the Rolls. Out of 11 Supreme Court justices, only one is a woman, and that is not good enough in modern Britain. What we need to do is make sure it is easier for highly talented solicitors to apply to go on the bench, and Lord Kakkar is looking at that. We are creating direct entry into the High Court for talented individuals, and we are also creating the 100 top recorders competition to encourage more entrants from among good individuals.

Given the 30% cut in prison officer numbers since 2010, and given the poor retention rates among new recruits, at what point will the number of officers reach the appropriate level?

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in answer to an earlier question, we are investing £100 million to add 2,500 prison officers, and we have more officers in training than we have ever had before.

The vast majority of successful personal independence payment appeals succeed because of late additional submitted evidence. What discussions has the Minister had with colleagues in the Department of Health to automatically share supportive medical evidence at the beginning of the process?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the way in which the process should work, and it has been the aim of the reforms to achieve that, but I am happy to discuss the issue further with him.

Does the Secretary of State recognise that current human rights legislation adheres minimally to the provisions contained in the Good Friday agreement for Northern Ireland and therefore that the Human Rights Act 1998 should be retained?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that. As she knows, we have made an announcement that there will not be an imminent change, because, although we have a mandate for that, we want to find out what the outcome of the Brexit negotiations is, and that is, in itself, a major constitutional change.

Developing skills in prison is crucial to successful rehabilitation, but it is important that those skills translate into the real world. What consideration are Ministers giving to ensuring that skills development in prison dovetails with the needs in the industrial strategy?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I know he is a big supporter of the new Wellingborough prison. In that prison, as well as in others across country, we are looking at areas where there are skills shortages—whether it is in construction or catering—and making sure that we start apprenticeships in prison that can then be completed on the outside, so that we can bring new, skilled people to important industries.

There are reports today of children being held in solitary confinement in prisons in this country, which is shocking, immoral and probably unlawful. Surely, the Secretary of State understands that, whatever chance these young people have of turning their lives around, they will not find it if they are locked in a cell for 23 hours a day. Will she commit now to ordering an end to this practice?

I am aware of the reports from the Howard League. The safety and welfare of young people held in custody is our highest priority. I would stress, though, that these cases are extremely difficult. Some of these young individuals are extremely difficult to manage, and governors on the ground have to make decisions that are in the interests of the broader community in prison and the wider security of society.

Given the disturbing revelations this morning relating to Facebook and the use of sexualised images of children online, are we doing enough to protect our children, online and offline?

I am working on this subject very closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. We need to ensure that more people are brought to justice—in fact, there has been an increase of 140% in those brought to justice for sexual offences—but we also need to make sure that internet companies are doing their bit to crack down on this practice.

Order. If the right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) can be as brief as she is illustrious, the House will be blessed.

Ministers have praised the Corston report on women in the criminal justice system and yet are currently planning, I hear, to open specialist units for women as adjuncts to men’s prisons, going in the opposite direction to the Corston report. Can they reassure me that I am wrong?

I can reassure the right hon. Lady that she is wrong and we are not doing that. In fact, I will be giving a speech this afternoon on the 10th anniversary of the Corston report, and she is very welcome to come along.

The Ministry has released figures showing that the number of incidents of drugs being found in prison more than quadrupled from 2,500 in 2015 to 10,400-plus in 2016, yet the National Offender Management Service does not keep a central register of cell searches, which is where many of these drugs are found. Will that change?

I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee for that question. We will take every action necessary to make sure that we deal with the scourge of drugs in our prisons.

After a constituent of mine residing in HMP Lindholme was seriously assaulted when other inmates had access to keys to their cells while he did not, is it not abundantly clear that the people who are in charge of our prisons are not governors, and certainly not the Secretary of State, but the prisoners?

That is certainly not the case. We do recognise, however, that by recruiting more staff and strengthening the frontline we will make it much easier for staff to challenge and support prisoners. That is why we have announced new investment to recruit 2,500 new officers for our jails, and we are also enabling a caseload of one prison officer per six prisoners, so that they can support our prisoners in the efforts to rehabilitate them.

While significant progress is being made on foreign national offenders being returned, what analysis is there of foreign national offenders coming into the system—and, crucially, do we monitor whether there is a net reduction in foreign national offenders on the estate?

The number of foreign nationals entering our prisons is monitored by the Ministry of Justice. Our figures indicate that between 30 June 2008—the highest point—and 30 June 2016, there was a 14% decrease in the total foreign national prisoner population. This is good progress, but I acknowledge that there is still a lot more to be done.

Despite the Government’s attempt to recruit more prison officers, staff rolls at many prisons continue to fall—High Down’s went down by 30. Is this recruitment drive working, or are demoralised prison officers leaving before they can recruit more?

We have launched a very important prison officer recruitment programme, and we have a record number of officers currently in training. However, we need to recognise that it takes time to recruit and train these officers. That is why we are also making sure that we pay our experienced officers at the right level and creating new, more senior roles for experienced officers as well as getting new recruits in.

I am afraid that the Secretary of State’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) was simply not good enough. Can she explain why, after two years, she still has not commenced the law to protect our children from sexual predators?

I assure the hon. Lady, as I assured the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins), that this is imminent.

With cuts to local government funding and other sources, access to advice on civil matters is being squeezed harder than ever. There are cuts of 50% in York. What is the Justice Secretary doing about this?

As I explained earlier, we are re-engineering the system, so that it is much easier to access for members of the public, and we are also reviewing legal aid.