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Commons Chamber

Volume 624: debated on Tuesday 25 April 2017

House of Commons

Tuesday 25 April 2017

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business Before Questions

New Southgate Cemetery Bill [Lords]

Third Reading opposed and deferred until Tuesday 2 May (Standing Order No. 20).

Faversham Oyster Fishery Company Bill [Lords]

Bill read the Third time and passed, with an amendment.

City of London Corporation (Open Spaces)

Bill, as amended, considered.

Bill to be read the Third time on Wednesday 22 May.

Today, 25 April 2017, marks the 200th anniversary of the first printing of the daily Votes and Proceedings and an Order Paper setting out the business of the House. This followed an initiative by my predecessor in the Chair, Speaker Abbot. Members have relied ever since on these papers. This is a good moment for us to thank all those responsible in the House service for their preparation and distribution ever since, and for their unfailing appearance, rain or shine, printed or digital.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Domestic Violence: Legal Aid

1. What progress the Government have made on their review of legal aid domestic violence evidence requirements. (909794)

10. What progress the Government have made on their review of legal aid domestic violence evidence requirements. (909803)

Following our completion of the review we announced our intention to make changes by secondary legislation that would make it easier for victims of domestic violence to access legal aid. These changes include removing the time limit on all forms of evidence and accepting evidence from domestic violence support organisations.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer. I appreciate that he might not be able to go into detail just yet, but can he offer a commitment to the victims of domestic violence of his continued support for them in the justice system in the next Parliament, if a Conservative Government are returned?

I can certainly do that, and I can also point to the recent changes made in courts to help victims of domestic violence to give evidence, such as the video links that we have introduced, and the provision for recorded evidence and cross-examination which is about to be rolled out. It is also important to say that the House generally supported the end to cross-examination by perpetrators.

I thank the Minister for his answer and welcome the announcement. Will he join me in commending the Southern Domestic Abuse Service, a Havant-based charity that helps victims of domestic violence report to the police, and ensure that he continues working with such charities to make sure that the evidential guidelines are consistent with the sensitivity of this issue?

I am happy to pay tribute to organisations that help victims of domestic violence on their work, and I know from talking to my hon. Friend, who is a strong advocate for them, that that service in Havant is excellent—so, yes, I agree with him.

The Ministry of Justice committed to reviewing the domestic violence evidence requirements for legal aid. That was a clear admission that the scheme was not working and was not fair. Since the passing of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, the family courts have become more adversarial. Should the Minister not admit that the withdrawal of legal aid for so many family cases has caused real unfairness to families?

As the hon. Lady will remember, we promised at the time that there would be a review of LASPO and the legal aid provisions, and we have announced the timetable for that review, which has been welcomed, but I agree that we should have a process of constant improvement in helping the victims of domestic violence.

The Government have made huge progress in tackling domestic violence both at home and overseas. However, my surgeries are often filled with people who are suffering or have suffered from domestic violence and who are stuck in the family courts system. They are receiving legal aid, but the situation has caused distress. I know the Minister has personally looked into these issues, but will he meet me, hopefully after 8 June, to discuss them further?

Novel Psychoactive Substances

2. If she will review the effectiveness of legislation relating to novel psychoactive substances. (909795)

This is a matter for the Home Office. The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 requires the legislation to be reviewed within 30 months, so the review of that Act will happen in late 2018.

Wrexham, like many other towns up and down the country, is being blighted by the impact of so-called Spice. I received a letter this month from the Home Office that directly contradicts a letter from the Minister on the question of whether the possession of Spice is an offence. The confusion is causing real enforcement problems for police officers, who have already had their numbers cut by this Government. Will the Minister take this matter more seriously and act urgently to confront this really serious problem?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is a serious problem and, as I have said before, it is also a problem in our prisons. Possession of Spice in a custodial setting is an offence and is subject to imprisonment. If the hon. Gentleman could forward me his letter from the Home Office, I will look into this in more detail and get back to him.

May I say how much I welcome the 2016 Act, having lost two young men to what used to be called legal highs? The extra powers that it provides and the rigorous application of the law to rapidly changing chemicals are extremely welcome.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I should also like to emphasise that the possession of Spice has been subject to further controls, and that that includes making it illegal.

As the Minister will be aware, the use of Spice and its impact on our communities are now reaching epidemic levels. This is particularly hitting city centres such as Manchester and other towns and cities across the country. What discussions is he having with colleagues in other Departments to get a proper handle on this issue and to crack down on it? It is putting intolerable pressure on our public services.

The hon. Lady makes an important point. Spice is a blight on our communities as well as in our prisons, where it fuels the disorder and violence that we see there. We take this extremely seriously and I am working with my colleagues in the Home Office to deal with the issue not only in the custodial system but in the community.

Banning psychoactive substances is one thing, but physically keeping them out of our prisons is quite another. Will the Minister tell the House what active measures he is taking to prevent these substances from getting inside our jails?

My hon. Friend is right. We are determined to keep these drugs out of our jails, and that is why we have trained 300 dogs to detect them. We have also introduced a new drug test for psychoactive substances, and the UK is the first jurisdiction in the world to do that. The testing has been rolled out, although we cannot comment on its impact because it started only last year. However, we know from the evidence that drug testing has a deterrent effect on use and possession.

With four suspected drug-related deaths in one weekend at the start of this month in Belfast and the coroner reporting that the number of such deaths has doubled in the past two years, this is an important issue that affects cities right across the United Kingdom. Will the Minister confirm that his review in 2018 will also draw on the experience of the implementation of the Act in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales in order to get the full picture of how well the legislation has been operating?

As I have said, the review will be carried out by the Home Office, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s question has been noted and will be reflected in the review.

Extremism in Prisons

Extremism in prisons is something we take very seriously. The Department has set up a new directorate to oversee all aspects of our work on extremism and terrorism. We have also created a new joint unit encompassing the Prison Service, the national probation service and the Home Office, with enhanced resources to deliver our extremism strategy.

Extremism in prisons means that vulnerable people, such as those with mental health problems or those on the autistic spectrum, could be at great risk in those closed environments. Will the Minister tell me what work the Government are doing to protect people from extremism within the prison system and what reasonable adjustments are being made to help those particularly vulnerable people?

My right hon. Friend, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on autism, understands the particular vulnerabilities of such people within the prison system. Prison staff take extra care in monitoring and understanding the threats to vulnerable people such as those with autism, and robustly intervene where there are any threats, including of extremism and radicalisation.

There has been an issue with some religious converts being drawn into extremist ideology and going on to carry out terrorist acts without knowing the true values or teachings of those religions. What specific steps are being taken to address that, and what extra support is being given to religious faith representatives to ensure that we tackle this evil issue?

My hon. Friend, the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on communities engagement, makes a vital point. We have to be clear that conversion to a religion, including Islam, does not necessarily mean radicalisation but, where conversion happens in the prison estate, people are encouraged to go on education courses. There is also support for imams to make sure that people do not get drawn to the poisonous ideology that often seeks to prey on vulnerable individuals.

Ian Acheson, who reviewed this matter for the Government, told the Select Committee on Justice only last year:

“I do not have confidence that the National Offender Management Service…has the capability or, indeed, if I may be frank, the will to implement some of the recommendations that I have made.”

Does the Minister feel that his changes are not just recommendations but that there is capacity to deliver them?

Absolutely. As I said right at the start, we have a new directorate within Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and a new team across the Home Office and the Prison Service, with new funding to tackle that and to roll out our anti-extremism strategy. The right hon. Gentleman, who is a member of the Justice Committee, will also be aware that just last week we announced the separation centres that Ian Acheson recommended in his review and that will remove the most poisonous individuals from the main population of our prisons.

About 1,000 individuals have been identified as extremist or as vulnerable to extremism, so the creation of those separation units is welcome. However, the key is monitoring people when they come out of prison. Can the Minister reassure us that that will happen?

To be precise, there are actually about 700 people of concern. Of those 700, about 180 are in prison or on remand for terrorism-related offences. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about what happens when people come into the community. The multi-agency protection arrangements with law enforcement mean that those people are subject to strict licence conditions, and if they breach those licence conditions, they can and do end up in jail. The police are obviously part of that.

I take this opportunity to thank the police, especially those who protect us here as we go about our daily jobs.

Are the Government planning to provide any specific training for prison officers to help to identify those inmates with extremist tendencies?

Prison officers play a vital role in combating extremism in our prisons, given the contact and proximity they have with prisoners. Just last December we rolled out a new extensive training programme for all our prison officers to enable them to identify that threat and to help to deal with it.

Northern Ireland Ministers have had to deal with extremism in prisons over the years, with the segregation of loyalist and republican prisoners being an example. Has the Minister had any opportunity to discuss those matters with the relevant Minister in Northern Ireland in order to learn from what we have learned in Northern Ireland to help him to do his job across the UK?

We have looked very carefully at the lessons from Northern Ireland in setting up the separation centres that we announced last week. There are significant differences between what is happening in England and what happens in Northern Ireland. No prisoner will default to a separation centre. Ending up in a separation centre will be the result of a prisoner’s behaviour behind bars, and they will be selected by a panel that has been told about their behaviour. The panel will decide where those prisoners go in the prison system, so there are appropriate safeguards in place.

These units will affect only a small section of the prison population, but the rising lack of safety in our prisons is itself a potential breeding ground for extremism. Has the Secretary of State considered the extent to which that environment of violence has contributed to extremism?

The hon. Lady is right; the separation centres will hold 28 prisoners, and our evidence suggests that that is sufficient. We have a broader strategy to deal with extremism in our prisons, which includes support to imams, looking at religious texts and a range of education programmes to deal with the challenge of extremism in our prisons.

It is understood that the prisoners designated for these separation units will be able to appeal against that decision, and their places in the units will be reviewed every three months. Given the Court of Appeal’s recent decision that denying legal aid to many prisoners is unlawful, will these individuals have access to publicly funded legal advice?

We are considering the result of that Court of Appeal case, and the Government will make their position known on it. As part of due process in prisons, if an individual is selected to go into a separation centre, it is of course right that the panel tells them why they have been selected and allows them to make representations.

Leaving the EU: Justice System

The Government are clear that they want a smooth and orderly exit from the EU. Legal certainty is fundamental to that, as is laid out in the great repeal Bill White Paper. We will bring an end to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice so that our courts will be the ultimate arbiters of our laws.

The recognition of enforcement of judgments across the EU has benefited millions of citizens. Does the Justice Secretary agree with the Law Society of Scotland that if we leave the EU with no deal and return to pre-EU mechanisms, the likely outcome is that the weakest and the poorest in society will suffer, as the processes become costlier?

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that having mutual enforceability of judgments and civil judicial co-operation is very important, which is why we have made it a priority in the Brexit negotiations.

May I commend to the Secretary of State and to the House the Justice Committee’s report on the implications of leaving the European Union for the justice system, which was published last month? In particular, on the basis of overwhelming evidence, we stressed the importance, first, of continuing co-operation in criminal justice matters, including information sharing, the recognition of judgments and having proper transitional arrangements, so that commercial and civil justice sectors have certainty going forward.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that, and I would add to that list by saying that family law co-operation is also extremely important. We are working very closely with the legal profession, a working group is looking at working with industry across Europe, and, as I have said, this is a key priority as part of our Brexit negotiations.

Does the Secretary of State share my concern that leaving the EU will weaken our power on extradition? She will know that I have been dealing with a case of someone who fled to Pakistan after killing 11 members of a family, and we have been working across Europe to try to bring this man back. He is now in prison in Pakistan. Will our getting out of the European Union hamper extradition in the future?

We are working very closely with the Home Office on criminal justice co-operation, and we want to secure a good deal, but it is important that we all get behind what the British people voted for and get a secure deal with the European Union.

11. Brexit will, in a new, deregulated environment, provide a great opportunity for legal services, but what plans do the Government have to support our legal services abroad after Brexit? (909804)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; four of the 10 top global legal firms are based here in the UK. We have huge opportunities to promote English law and Scots law, and we are working on a global Britain legal summit to bring together leading figures in the industry to promote what we do overseas.

My Bulgarian constituent murdered his wife by stabbing her to death 25 times in broad daylight. The Home Office has finally agreed to have him deported. Will the Secretary of State assure me that he will serve his full sentence in Bulgaria, both pre and post-Brexit?

It is important that that individual is brought to justice. That is part of how we organise our prisoner transfer agreements and it will be part of our Brexit discussions.

Does my right hon friend agree that we cannot remain part of the European single market because that would inevitably mean that the European Court of Justice would retain jurisdiction over us? That is exactly not what the British people voted for.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we are leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. The ultimate arbiters of our laws will be our own courts here in the UK. That is incompatible with being in the single market.

Prison Staffing

5. What assessment she has made of the effect of increasing the number of prison staff on the (a) safety of prison officers and (b) capacity of prison staff to spend more time directly engaging with and supervising prisoners. (909798)

12. What assessment she has made of the effect of increasing the number of prison staff on the (a) safety of prison officers and (b) capacity of prison staff to spend more time directly engaging with and supervising prisoners. (909805)

13. What assessment she has made of the effect of increasing the number of prison staff on the (a) safety of prison officers and (b) capacity of prison staff to spend more time directly engaging with and supervising prisoners. (909806)

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Sir Simon Burns), whose 30 years in the House have been a joy to behold—although I have been here for only seven of them. We recently visited Chelmsford prison together, and I saw at first hand his commitment not only to his constituents but to the cause of improving prisons in this country. Chelmsford prison is one of the 10 prisons we selected for the early recruitment of prison officers. We said that 400 prison officers would be recruited by the end of March. I can confirm that they are now in training or in post in those prisons, including Chelmsford.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the extremely kind and generous comments at the beginning of her answer. I welcome the fact that, following the recognition that more staff are needed at Chelmsford prison, new staff are now being trained up. Does she know when those staff are likely to come on stream, to ensure that we have proper staffing levels and the proper protection for prison officers?

The training period for a prison officer is 10 weeks, so we will see them come on stream very shortly. Since November, 43 job offers have been made to new prison officers at Chelmsford. Following our visit to Chelmsford prison, we announced a rise in starting salaries for prison officers there, so they will now be paid a minimum of £26,500.

Prison officers have to be both tough and humane; it is a difficult path and a difficult job to do. What plans does the Secretary of State have to increase the professionalism of the people who do that job? That may in turn help with their retention.

First, may I say what a fantastic group of professionals we have in our country’s prison officers? I want to make sure there is good career progression right through from entry into the Prison Service to becoming a governor, and good training—we are launching a new apprenticeship scheme for prison officers to make sure people have the right skills all the way through.

The Unlocked scheme is like Teach First for the Prison Service. We have had an incredible number of applications to join it. The final assessment was held on 1 April and we are now able to offer places to 60 candidates, who will start their training on 18 July. It is a really important scheme for not only bringing top graduates into our prisons but exposing employers to the fantastic work that goes on there.

Of course we all welcome the recruitment of new prison officers, but does the Secretary of State not agree that the problems in our prisons stem from the mistaken actions of her Government in cutting 6,000 prison officers in the first place?

I have been very clear that we need to recruit more prison officers. It has been my No. 1 priority in this job. We are on track to achieve the 2,500 officers. We have faced a number of challenges across our prison estate, and we have already talked about psychoactive substances, drones and mobile phones. I am clear that we need the prison officers in place. When we have achieved the 2,500 officers, we will be able to ensure that each one has a caseload of six prisoners whom they will look after, and that will help us to turn those lives around.

I have been pressing for a number of years for a new- build prison in Magilligan in my constituency. Hopefully, that will take place in the next year or two. Will the Secretary of State undertake to ensure that any future Government will closely liaise so that prisoner supervision, whether in prisons in Northern Ireland or in England, is replicated to achieve best practice to ensure the best possible outcomes?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We need to learn from each other to make sure that our prisons do the best possible job. Of course they are there to punish offenders, but they also must turn lives around and reduce reoffending rates.

What assessment has been made of the high levels of turnover of prison staff and the negative consequences that that has on the management of prisons in Northern Ireland? I know that the matter is devolved. There are extremely low pay rates, low prospects and nothing to encourage people to work in the Prison Service.

In prisons in England and Wales, 80% of our staff have been with us for more than five years. However, I want us to retain and train up those experienced members of staff. We are creating 2,000 new grade 4 posts at a salary of £30,000 to make sure that we retain those experienced prison officers who are so vital to running our prisons well.

Will the Secretary of State clarify whether there are any plans to increase the numbers of staff providing education and training to prisoners, because that will help prisoners’ employment prospects and stop them reoffending?

We are making sure that governors decide how education will work in their prisons. We will set standards. We will see how fast prisoners progress in English and maths and whether they are getting the vocational work skills they need to get a job. I was recently in HMP Onley and saw the fantastic work being done by Halfords, getting those people into employment. Ultimately, the governor will have control of the education budget. Governors can decide how best to spend it and how to get the best results.

Cammell Laird

6. What plans the Government have to publish a response to the findings of the European Parliament's Committee on Petitions in December 2014 relating to a petition on the treatment of Cammell Laird strikers in 1984. (909799)

8. For what reasons the Government have not responded to the findings of the European Parliament's Committee on Petitions in December 2014 relating to the treatment of Cammell Laird strikers in 1984. (909801)

16. For what reasons the Government have not responded to the findings of the European Parliament’s Committee on Petitions in December 2014 relating to the treatment of Cammell Laird strikers in 1984. (909809)

I believe the question refers to petition number 1961/2013 by Edward Marnell, on behalf of Cammell Laird strikers, on unjust treatment of Cammell Laird strikers. I welcome the questions and recognise the hard work and dedication of the hon. Members involved in this. Industrial relations and how they were historically dealt with are not a matter for the Ministry of Justice, and as such it would be inappropriate for me to comment. A conviction and/or sentence can be challenged by way of appeal. Once the appeal route has been exhausted it is possible to apply to the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

In 1984, workers at Cammell Laird’s shipyard took official strike action over job losses just as the Thatcher Government were trying to privatise British shipbuilders. They were dismissed, jailed in a category A prison for 30 days, and lost their redundancy and pension rights. The Minister has tried to give us a technical answer today, but will he now undertake to release all the documents relating to the decision to prosecute and to the severity of the sentence so that this clear miscarriage of justice can finally be put right?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Of course I am sympathetic to the case and to the individuals affected by it, but as I said, the Criminal Cases Review Commission has the power to review and investigate possible miscarriages of justice in England and Wales and Northern Ireland. Where there is a real possibility that the conviction or sentence will not be upheld, the commission can refer the case to the appropriate court, which will treat the referral as a new appeal.

Ten Cammell Laird workers and one apprentice have died since those events without the answers to why the decisions were taken to imprison them and who took those decisions. Surely it is now time to listen to calls from family members and the GMB trade union to do the right thing by having a proper inquiry and publishing the information that the Government have access to. What is there to hide?

This is clearly a difficult case for the people concerned. As I said, when a conviction is subsequently quashed, compensation can be sought by an application to the miscarriages of justice applications service. I am not in a position to comment on whether a future Government should engage in an inquiry, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will look at this case further if I am returned to this role after the election.

This is the last time that I will speak in this House. Therefore, I was keen that it should be a really important question. This was something I championed when I was the shadow Europe Minister, and I was delighted when the European Union joined the GMB and the Cammell Laird workers in demanding the release of Government evidence and papers. This is about papers that the Government hold. I hope the Minister will respect the fact that this is my last time speaking in the House by giving me a proper answer, not the fob-off that we have had so far. Will he commit to releasing the papers that the Government hold and putting an end to one of the most shameful episodes in British industrial relations?

The hon. Lady has represented a beautiful part of the country, in which I have some family roots. I am sure that the Prime Minister, as a former candidate in that constituency, would agree with me about that. This case is clearly emotive, judging by the responses on the Opposition Benches. As I have said, I will look at the situation once again if I am returned to this position after the election. I will not make any commitments this side of an election, but I fully recognise the sensitivity of the case, its emotive nature and the individual people involved.

GMB union research points towards state interference in the Cammell Laird industrial dispute, yet the picture remains incomplete because of withheld documents, as we have heard. That era of Conservative government is becoming defined by suspicion of institutional interference and state wrongdoing. We know the names: Hillsborough, Orgreave and Cammell Laird. If that interference is extended to the prosecution of those trade unionists, do they not have the right to know?

I do not share such a jaundiced view of the Conservative Government of the 1980s. As I have said repeatedly, I will look at this case again once we are outside of purdah and once we are returned. I hope and expect a Conservative Government to be returned in a few weeks’ time, and I promise to look at this case again in detail then.

As this is the last week of questions, I am especially keen to try to get through the Order Paper. I appeal to colleagues to help each other to achieve that objective.


Of course, prisons should be places of punishment, but they also need to be places of safety and reform. Around half the people who leave prison reoffend within a year. We know that getting offenders off drugs, dealing with their mental health and housing issues, improving family ties and getting them into work are all critical to reducing reoffending. That is why we are giving governors power over all those issues.

Hopefully, my private Member’s Bill will become the Homelessness Reduction Act on Thursday. Under the Act, prison governors will have a duty to provide prisoners with homes and prepare them for life outside prison so that they do not reoffend. What communication and training have been given to prison governors in preparation for that Act becoming law?

First, I commend my hon. Friend on his fantastic Bill. We have recently written to governors about their new powers over areas such as preparing prisoners for release, education and employment. Housing is one issue covered in that communication.

HMP Lewes

9. What improvements there have been at HMP Lewes since that prison was placed in special measures. (909802)

I thank the Minister for his reply. Could he set out how the Government’s prison reform will help HMP Lewes—particularly prisoners who are trying to stop reoffending, and the prison officers, who do a difficult job?

A key part of our reform programme is adding 2,500 staff to our Prison Service. As far as HMP Lewes is concerned, we have made 24 job offers for additional prison officers since November. Starting pay at HMP Lewes is now £26,500, and along with more prison officers, that will enable the prison to support and challenge prisoners to turn their lives around.

Prisoners in Lewes, as elsewhere, will reoffend less if they get sustainable work. Many private sector employers are rising to the challenge of providing ex-offenders with work. Will the Minister give us an update on what is happening across the wider public sector so that it can lead by example?

Employment in prisons, but also preparing prisoners for employment on release, is vital if we are to stop reoffending. The New Futures Network, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has launched, will work with a range of organisations, including public sector organisations, to help to create employment opportunities for prisoners.

Leaving the EU: Human Rights

15. If the Government will take steps to ensure that any provisions proposing changes to human rights protection in UK law which result from the UK leaving the EU are laid before Parliament for scrutiny. (909808)

Amnesty International, Liberty and other human rights groups have raised the issue of diminished human rights protection as a result of the great repeal Bill and the Government’s plans to correct the statute book through secondary legislation. Will the Minister provide more detail on the extent of these correction powers and whether the changes will include human rights protections?

As the hon. Lady will know, I cannot make any announcements today because of purdah, but what I can say is that, as I explained in giving evidence to two Select Committees, it is not our intention to have any gaps in our human rights protections.

We do want a British jurisprudence, and that is what we will have following Brexit. Human rights were not invented with the Human Rights Act; this country has been a leading pioneer in human rights since its first gasps of breath as a nation, so there is no reason for us to think that we will not continue to express our values.

Why are the Government continuing to confuse and, indeed, deceive people by suggesting that the European convention on human rights is anything to do with the EU? It was signed up to by nations that had just come together after the most disastrous war in our history, and it was supported by Winston Churchill. Why can the Minister not support it?

I have always tried to uphold the vision expressed by Sir Winston Churchill in his great speech at the Place Kléber, when he spoke up for the need for human rights across Europe, and, of course, he did not mean the EU.

European Convention on Human Rights

17. What the Government’s policy is on the UK remaining party to the European convention on human rights. (909810)

The European convention on human rights guarantees the right to free and fair elections to the legislature, but the vast majority of legislators in this country are unelected peers of the House of Lords. Have the Government ever taken legal advice on whether the existence of the House of Lords is compatible with protocol 1, article 3 of the ECHR?

I spent about 18 months on the Joint Committee looking at reform of the House of Lords in the last Parliament, and we took legal advice on every possible issue. If the hon. Gentleman would like to read the proceedings, he will enjoy them.

Order. Even though the hon. and learned Lady is a very distinguished lawyer, I shall still appeal to her for reasonable brevity.

Earlier this month, when I met UN officials in New York to discuss human rights issues, they were appalled to hear that the British Prime Minister had said that at the next general election she would be campaigning to withdraw the United Kingdom from the European convention on human rights. Can I take what the Minister said previously as a guarantee that this abhorrent commitment to withdraw from the European convention on human rights will not be in the Tory party manifesto for 8 June?

That was a good try, but I am afraid that I am not going to be launching the manifesto here at Justice questions. The hon. and learned Lady will have heard my earlier answer.

Article 8 of the European convention on human rights guarantees the right to respect for family and private life. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has written to the Government saying that the controversial rape clause raises serious issues under article 8. Can we assume from the Government’s insistence on proceeding with the rape clause that article 8 covers one of the rights guaranteed by the ECHR that they find inconvenient?

The Government are committed to supporting victims of rape and domestic abuse. This approach is crucial to protect women who face very difficult circumstances, and that is what the Government have been doing through the reforms to which the hon. and learned Lady refers. As part of these reforms, we have made sure that victims are able to use third sector professionals to endorse their claim while they receive support to help them to cope and recover. No Government have a better record on helping victims.

Child Arrangement Orders

19. What steps the Government are taking to ensure effective enforcement of child arrangement orders. (909813)

The family court has powers to address a breach if someone has been wilfully obstructive. When a child’s welfare requires it, the court can transfer the child’s residence to the other party. This Government are keen that there should be effective action, and a Green Paper on family justice has already been announced.

Unfortunately, enforcement is a serious problem in the courts because of the criminal threshold and a lack of an effective penalty. In some of the worst cases, the non-resident parent—usually but not always the father—can be cut out of the child’s life. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that this issue needs to be addressed if we are to see equity in the family justice system?

It is right that there should be a clear system to establish the facts about a breach, and it should then be possible to deal with the breach effectively. Of course I am unable to make any announcement today but, as I have indicated to my hon. Friend, a Green Paper on family justice has been announced for later in the year, and she and I have already had the opportunity to discuss some of her ideas.

Courts: Digital Technology

20. What assessment she has made of the effect of increased use of digital technology in the courts system on the effective delivery of justice. (909814)

We are investing over £1 billion to create a straightforward courts and tribunals system so that people can have confidence in using the system themselves or with the help of their excellent lawyers.

The current reliance on printed documents in civil courts burdens people with significant unnecessary costs, and the UK is lagging behind many countries, including Australia and even Turkey, in the use of innovation and technology in civil claims. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we must speed up the process of digitising courts in England and Wales if we are to retain our place as a world-leading provider of legal services?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I do agree. We are making progress. We have equipped our criminal courts to work digitally, reducing reliance on paper bundles, and we are doing the same in the civil courts. So far we have saved, in one year, an enormous pile of paper. Devotees of these questions will know that I measure this by the height of the Shard, and we have now saved 4.3 Shard-loads of paper.

Prisons: Mental Health Provision

Prisoners are more likely to have mental health problems than the broader population. We are looking at custody and community for improving the mental health offering. We are looking at a community protocol to be followed and enhancing custodial mental health services.

There were 119 prison suicides in 2016—an increase of 32% on the previous year—and cases of self-harm were up by 19%, at more than 10,000. Does the Minister agree that these are appalling statistics? What are the Government going to do to address this human misery?

Each and every one of those cases is a human tragedy, and I have looked at a large number of them in detail. Indeed, last week I was at HMP Downview, a women’s prison at which a suicide took place. We are investing in better healthcare facilities at that prison, and I am also looking at access to secure accommodation across the country, because that might well be an issue.

Extremism in Prisons

The Government introduced an amendment to prison rules last week meaning that prisoners can be placed in a separation centre if they are involved in planning terrorism or are considered to pose a risk to national security. Those who are spreading views that might encourage or influence others to commit terrorist crimes, or whose views are being used in a way that undermines good order and security in prisons, may also be placed in one of the centres.

What is the Minister doing to ensure that prisoners with extremist beliefs do not oppress other prisoners for their faith?

People in prison convert to religion for all sorts of reasons. As I have said, conversion does not mean radicalisation. It is important that prisons have a regime whereby people who convert are not exploited in any way. The separation centres are one way of removing dangerous people, but obviously education and the support of prison officers play a vital role.

Women’s Centres

23. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of women’s centres in reducing reoffending; and if she will make a statement. (909818)

The data on women’s centres are quite mixed. I am a strong advocate of the benefits of women’s centres in the community. On reoffending rates, the figures are somewhat mixed across the county. We continue to look at the situation closely to find out exactly what works about those women’s centres to reduce reoffending.

But is it not a fact that most women in prison are extremely vulnerable and have been victims themselves, including of domestic abuse, addiction and mental health problems, and that women’s centres actually deal with the whole problem? I was a Home Office Minister who helped to persuade Baroness Corston to produce her excellent report, and the reason why we did that was the number of women who were killing themselves in jail. The Government are planning new women’s jails, but more women will murder themselves—we are at a record level. How is the Minister going to stop that happening without investing in women’s centres?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her question. I should have wished her the best of luck as she stands down at the election. She represents a town that I know very well, and I also know that she is a particularly popular Member of Parliament.

The building of the prisons should not be interpreted as increasing the number of places to lock women up in—that should be clear. On women’s centres, I agree that women often have very complex problems, and that is a reason why I, for one, am trying to increase the number of women’s centres in the country. As the right hon. Lady has rightly said, bringing everything under the same roof can really help those women to make the right turn in life, away from crime.

Topical Questions

In November I committed that the Government would invest an additional £100 million annually to recruit 2,500 prison officers. I can confirm that our recruitment figures show that we are on track to deliver that. On 3 April we launched the new “You at your best” recruitment campaign to encourage more people to apply. We also launched the new Unlocked graduate programme, which is offering more than 60 places this year.

It is vital that we strengthen the frontline to turn our prisons into places of safety and reform, and to reduce unacceptable levels of violence. That is my No. 1 priority as Secretary of State. Of course that will take time—we will not fix our problems in weeks or months—but the figures show that we are making real progress.

With three former Secretaries of State, including the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) last year, taking the view that families in Hull deserve to find out what happened to their babies’ ashes, why does the current Justice Secretary refuse to back those families’ calls for an independent inquiry in Hull?

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

T2. Following the important work done by the parents of my constituent Sean Morley, who was tragically killed in a hit-and-run incident in Bedworth, and the representations that I have made to the Secretary of State, will she confirm whether she intends to see through the progress that has been made towards much tougher sentences for dangerous drivers in the next Parliament, should the Conservatives be returned to government? (909785)

Yesterday the Leader of the Opposition confirmed that a Labour Government would launch inquiries into blacklisting and Orgreave; the current Government have blocked all such efforts. Successive Conservative Justice Secretaries have also refused to release papers concerning the Shrewsbury 24. As her final act, will the Justice Secretary do the decent thing, review that decision, and release the papers to give those men and their families a chance of justice?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that we are currently in purdah, so we are not able to make announcements at this point.

According to the legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg, this is the Secretary of State’s very last Justice questions, so I will give her one last chance. In March, the Lord Chief Justice said that the Secretary of State was “completely and utterly wrong” to say that she could not speak up for the judiciary in the face of personal abuse. Will she finally admit that rather than doing her duty, she kowtowed to her friends in the press?

I am a great believer in a strong, independent judiciary, but another bulwark of our democracy is a free press, and I do not think that Ministers should be saying what it is and is not acceptable for the press to print.

T6. Colchester is home to the Military Corrective Training Centre. If the Government are returned to power, will the Secretary of State visit the MCTC with me to see its education work, in particular, and to find out what civilian prisons can learn from it? (909789)

I have heard great things about that facility in Colchester, and I would be delighted to come and visit my hon. Friend, perhaps in the next few weeks.

T3. When I was recently called to do jury service, I got the chance to experience at first hand the current state of our courts. The jury canteen had to close down because it malfunctioned, the ladies’ toilets malfunctioned, the water machine malfunctioned and the computers malfunctioned, meaning that juries could not even be chosen. Despite the fantastic and very patient work of the employees of the court system, the whole thing was a mess, and it was in need of substantial financial investment. The Justice Secretary should not be proud of her record on this matter, so what is she going to do about it? (909786)

What we are doing about it is investing £1 billion in modernising our courts, bringing more cases online and improving the physical facilities, including all aspects of the way in which our courts operate. I launched a joint statement with the judiciary late last year about precisely that.

T8. I recently visited Dickson House, an approved premises in Fareham that provides support and accommodation to ex-offenders as they transition to life outside prison. Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the team at Dickson House, and explain what more support is available to ensure that ex-offenders secure housing so that they do not fall into homelessness and, thereafter, criminality? (909791)

I pay tribute to the work done by the staff at Dickson House and all who work in approved premises around the country—they do a great job. Accommodating ex-offenders when they leave approved premises is an important issue. We are working with the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Local Government Association on ways in which we can improve this, including by improving statutory guidance.

T4. My constituent, 29-year-old father Alex Everington, was the victim of a road crash that left him paralysed from the neck down. His dad Ian said:“He can never take care of himself. He will never have a normal life…How do you explain this to a 10-year-old child?” Ian Maughan was found guilty of causing serious injury by dangerous driving. He had taken cannabis before the crash, and he had 81 previous offences, including a catalogue of motoring offences. At the time of the crash, he had been banned for careless driving. He received a sentence of just three years and four months, despite having destroyed Alex’s life. Will the Minister pledge to consider the effectiveness of driving bans and, crucially, to look again at the length of sentences for causing injury by dangerous driving? (909787)

I firmly believe that the punishment must fit the crime. In the case of dangerous driving, there is a need for the law to be toughened up, which was why we launched a consultation to achieve precisely that last year. Obviously a general election is coming up, but if a Conservative Government are elected, I am sure we will see through these vital reforms.

Section 33 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 is landmark legislation that makes revenge porn a specific offence. In Eastbourne, we have just had a high-profile case in which a serial offender walked free with a caution. One of his victims was a minor, and to add further insult to injury, images posted with incitements are still online. What more can the Government do to make sure that this groundbreaking legislation really delivers justice?

My hon. Friend is known for the way in which she has highlighted in the House such incidents of criminality and really pressed the case for proper and effective punishment. In relation to this particular incident, the offence is relatively new, and the good news is that many people have come forward to report instances of disclosure during the short period since it came into force. There have been a number of prosecutions, with more than 60 convictions so far. It is early days, but I agree that the Crown Prosecution Service needs to treat these cases very seriously.

T5. The Government undertook by this month to renegotiate transforming rehabilitation payment structures as a result of community rehabilitation companies experiencing significant difficulties with the contracts. For how many of the 21 community rehabilitation companies have new payment arrangements now been agreed and put in place? (909788)

We have been working on this issue very carefully, and we will announce the results in due course.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement that a fresh Conservative Government would be committed to ongoing prison reform. Will she use an early reintroduction of the Prisons and Courts Bill as an opportunity to follow the evidence given to the Justice Committee about placing our excellent national preventive mechanism on a statutory basis to fit in with our international obligations?

I thank the Chairman of the Justice Committee for his question. I know how committed he is to prison reform, given the leadership that he and the Committee have shown. I have to tell him that our manifesto will be announced in due course, and the Prime Minister will be making such decisions.

T7. This afternoon in Parliament, the families of four British soldiers murdered by the IRA in the Hyde Park bomb are launching their campaign to bring the chief suspect of the atrocity, John Downey, to justice and to ensure that no terrorist is ever allowed to act with impunity within the United Kingdom. Will the Secretary of State meet Members and peers who support the victims’ campaign to consider the Government making exceptional funding available to remedy a situation in which the victims have been denied justice for 35 years? (909790)

May I say that our deepest sympathies remain with those affected by the dreadful Hyde Park bombings? Those terrible terrorist atrocities were really dreadful for the nation at the time. Decisions on legal aid in such cases are made through an independent process. A fresh determination was given by the Legal Aid Agency on 2 February, but my understanding is that there is a right of review and that the case is still ongoing with the agency. I therefore cannot comment further at this time, and a decision would have to be made before any meetings occurred.

My constituents very much welcome the Department’s decision not to proceed with the change to probate fees because the increases would have fallen disproportionately on London and the south-east, given the cost of housing there. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the next Conservative Government will not again proceed on such a basis?

As the Secretary of State said a moment ago—I think she was about to say this again—I am afraid that we are not in a position to say what will be in the manifesto. However, I thank my hon. Friend for his comments, and we will obviously take full account of them.

T9. I am helping families across Southwark who have been denied access to justice as a direct result of the coalition’s legal aid cuts. Three years ago, the Children’s Commissioner said that those cuts were undermining human rights. Was the former Liberal Democrat Justice Minister speaking for the Government when he promised a review and did he break that promise in not delivering it, or was his promise a cynical ploy to deflect attention from the damage his cuts were having on my community and the rest of the country? (909792)

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, I know Simon Hughes well, having been his opponent in the 1987 general election. I think that I am still the president of Bermondsey Conservatives.

No, I deny that I am the only member—we have quite a few.

The Government have announced the timetable for the review, which has been welcomed. It was odd that Simon Hughes called for a review when he was the Minister, but it was a Liberal Democrat press release, and we all know about those.

Pictures have recently emerged of people on the streets of Derby city centre that reveal the shocking effect of Black Mamba and the zombie-like state the drug can induce. The police in Derby have been very proactive in taking a stance on this matter, but can the Secretary of State assure me that everything is being done to tackle the availability and use of this type of drug?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend about the effect that such drugs have on people both outside and inside prison. One of our key priorities was to roll out testing, which we did by September, to detect such substances and eliminate their use in prison.

T10. Under this Government, poor people have had their legal aid cut by 40% and thousands upon thousands of people have been denied an employment tribunal because they cannot afford it. Are the Government proud to be on the side of the rich, the powerful and the bad bosses? (909793)

It is, of course, a union campaign to talk about employment tribunal fees. Let us be clear that the number of people taking up cases about the workplace has increased, not gone down—it is up to 92,000. Those people are being helped by a free service from ACAS, which the Labour party used to support. Fewer cases are going to tribunal because of the work of ACAS.

Exclusion zones are an important tool to protect victims, but for those living on a county boundary, an exclusion zone that just covers the county is not particularly helpful. Will the Minister undertake to look into that?

My hon. Friend does great work on behalf of victims in his constituency. He raises an important point about the way in which exclusion zones, which are there to protect victims, are designed and operated. I am sure that that is something we will look at in great detail.

Websites such as Craigslist are being used by corrupt individuals to advertise free accommodation in return for sex. Does the Secretary of State agree that that is currently happening within the law and that a review needs to take place so that the people who are exploiting extremely vulnerable young women in that way face the full force of the law?

How many foreign nationals do we have in our prisons, and what steps are being taken to send them back to prison in their own country, at the expense of their own Governments?

We are taking active steps to ensure that every foreign national who should be deported from our prisons is deported. Since 2010, 33,000 foreign nationals have been deported from our prisons. In 2016-17, a record 5,810 were deported, and I am sure that that progress will continue.

Would we not be more reliably informed about justice if we were not hearing from a Tory Minister whose friend the Prime Minister has called a snap election on 8 June, about a fortnight before the Director of Public Prosecutions was due to adjudicate on 30 Tory MPs who are being investigated for election fraud at the last election?

The Prime Minister is absolutely right to call a general election. We need strong and stable leadership of this country, and we need to ensure that the Prime Minister has a mandate to deliver for Brexit and beyond.

The all-party group on preventing modern slavery, chaired in an excellent manner by the sadly departing right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), heard from the parents of a young man who had been imprisoned for 15 years as a slave. The culprits were sent to prison for only two and a half years. Will the Justice Secretary agree to speak to the Sentencing Council about the severity of sentences for those who imprison our fellow citizens as slaves?

First, I echo my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) for her work on modern slavery. I also pay tribute to our Prime Minister, who has made huge strides in putting people away for these heinous crimes. We are doing more, and I am working closely with the Home Secretary to make sure that we crack down on this further.

In correspondence with the Criminal Cases Review Commission over recent months, I have repeatedly asked it to release and review crucial evidence that is vital to the case of one of my constituents. However, the CCRC has been less than helpful. As the deadline for the evidence to be deleted approaches, my constituent’s chances of justice could be killed for good. Will the Minister step in to ensure that the crucial evidence is released and reviewed so that justice can be done?

The dedicated governor and staff at HMP Bristol do a brilliant job, but right now they are struggling with inadequate staffing ratios, prisoner use of the dangerous drug Spice, and poorly delivered privatised maintenance contracts. When will the Government give the prison in my constituency the tools it needs to do the job?

I can tell the hon. Lady that when I visited HMP Bristol I found some fantastically dedicated prison officers who are doing excellent work. We are investing £100 million to recruit 2,500 officers across the country, and we are on track with that recruitment.

In order to make a claim under the rape clause, a woman has to sign a form stating:

“I believe the non-consensual exemption applies to my child”.

Will the Government explain how that can possibly be in the best interests of the child and in respect of our duties under the UN convention on the rights of the child?

The hon. Lady does not seem to understand that this is about supporting victims of rape and domestic abuse. This approach is crucial to protect women who are faced with very difficult circumstances—[Interruption.] I am answering. As part of these reforms, we have made sure that the victims are able to use third sector professionals to endorse their claim while they receive support to help them to cope and recover. No Government have done more to help victims.

Order. May we please have two short, one-sentence questions? That is what topical questions is supposed to be about.

Will the Justice Secretary have it in her heart to look into the case of Charlie Gard, a very sick eight-month old baby boy with a rare mitochondrial depletion condition who is legally unable to leave Great Ormond Street hospital to receive treatment in the US that might just save his life? His family are constituents of mine and my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), and they have raised £1.25 million to get Charlie to the United States. This is a complex legal case, but if the Justice Secretary has any powers to intervene I plead with her to do the right thing.

I will say in the hon. Lady’s defence that there were probably a number of semi-colons in there, but I accept that this is a very important matter.

This case is particularly emotive and has been in the media. As I understand it, clinicians at Great Ormond Street have made a judgment on this case. I think that that should be respected.

Knowing the huge cross-party support for better justice for victims of criminal driving, will the Minister today commit to bring in the legislation that has been promised before the end of this year if the Government are re-elected?

I understand that the hon. Gentleman has been campaigning on this issue for some time, but we cannot make commitments as we are in purdah.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your advice and guidance regarding parliamentary protocol in the case of a Member writing to another Member’s constituents as part of an election campaign. The hon. Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) has written, as a Member of Parliament, to postal voters in my constituency on Conservative-branded paper ahead of the Cumbria County Council elections asking them to vote for the Conservative candidates. I know of postal voters in her own constituency who have not received any such letter from her.

This is the second time since her election to this place only two months ago that the hon. Lady has campaigned for the Conservative party in my constituency using her status as an MP without informing me. I did not make a fuss the first time as she was new to the House. However, she is now fully aware that in the British parliamentary system one Member represents a single constituency and conventions have developed so that one Member’s relations with her constituents are very much a preserve that other Members should not interfere with.

I have had complaints from constituents, some of whom are now confused about who their Member of Parliament is. My constituency office is receiving phone calls from constituents who think that this must mean that the boundary changes have gone through and that I might no longer be their representative. As far as I am concerned, this is unacceptable. Mr Speaker, I would be grateful for your comments and advice on this serious matter.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Has it not always been the case that if a Member writes, on Conservative party notepaper, a political message to anyone, that is in order, and that it is only a problem if someone represents themselves as an MP for a particular constituency using our stationery?

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. To clarify, the letters were signed “Trudy Harrison, MP”, and across the top it said “MP”. She described herself as an MP. [Interruption.]

Order. We cannot and will not have a debate on the matter. The hon. Lady was courteous enough to give me advance notice of her intention to raise this point of order, for which I thank her, and I have attended both to the substance of what she has said and to the remarks of the Minister.

I must say to the hon. Lady that, disquieting though the experience might have been, and relatively irregularly though it might occur, it is not clear to me that the hon. Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) has broken any convention. It is certainly a convention to notify another Member of an intention to visit his or her constituency in a political public capacity. It is also a very well established convention that a Member of Parliament should not purport to represent or offer to represent people who are not her or his constituents. [Interruption.] Order. Writing, however, in a campaigning context on party notepaper, though it might not happen very frequently, is not—and I have some experience of these matters—a demonstrable breach of a long-standing convention.

I say to the hon. Lady, whose concern I treat very seriously, that I appreciate that concern, but it seems to me that courtesies between Members of the House, which are important, are best arrived at and adhered to by informal discussions between colleagues. It is not desirable that they should ritually be attempted to be resolved by being raised on the Floor of the House with the Chair. That is to say, to be clear, that they are not matters of order but matters of informal agreement and understanding. It is much better if such understandings can be reached between neighbouring colleagues.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You have often stated from the Chair that answers to written parliamentary questions from Back-Bench Members from all parts of the House should be answered in both a timely and a substantive manner by Ministers. On 24 March, I tabled a named day question to the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), asking, very simply, how much the Government had spent on advertising in the Evening Standard in the last financial year. Three days later, I received a holding answer. Now, over a month later, I still have not received a substantive answer. I am concerned that the Government might now simply be winding down the clock, with the intention of not providing an answer before we prorogue. The public might also draw the conclusion that they have something embarrassing to hide that they do not want to reveal during an election campaign. Is there anything you can do from the Chair, Mr Speaker, to encourage Ministers to answer such questions substantively this week, so that both Members of the House and the public can know the truth?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. I do appreciate his concern. The content of Ministers’ answers is, of course, not a matter for the Chair. That is a matter exclusively for the Minister giving the response. However, the hon. Gentleman references my repeated exhortation to Ministers to provide timely and substantive responses, an exhortation in which I am regularly joined by the Leader of the House. Many Ministers attach a premium to adhering to that principle and expectation. I agree that it is unsatisfactory if the Government are unable to give a substantive answer to a named day question tabled well before Prorogation. No doubt the concern articulated by the hon. Gentleman has been heard on the Treasury Bench. In so far as he further seeks my advice, it is encapsulated in one sentence: the hon. Gentleman should seek to speak to the Leader of the House, sooner rather than later.

No semi-colon was required. I was deploying a number of sentences to try to attend to the substance of colleagues’ inquiries, but I am always grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his observations, even when they are proffered in a disorderly manner from a sedentary position.

That is extremely kind of you, Mr Speaker. This is the tie of Anglia Farmers, one of the largest buying co-operatives in the agricultural sector in this country. I gave one to the last Prime Minister and the last Chancellor of the Exchequer, in the hope that they would wear one on the Treasury Bench, but they have not so far done so.

I was only going to ask whether the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Rob Marris) agreed with me that the semi-colon is a very fine thing and that it should be used more often.

I agree; the hon. Gentleman is an authority on the matter and on a number of other matters relating to language and syntax.

Unauthorised Overdrafts (Cost of Credit)

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Financial Conduct Authority to make rules restricting the cost of credit for unauthorised overdrafts on bank accounts in certain circumstances; and for connected purposes.

I want to begin by urging all parties to include in their election manifestos a commitment to capping charges on unauthorised overdrafts. Following the great work by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), huge progress has been made on the charges faced by people who access finance through payday loans, with the introduction of a cap. Mandated by the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Act 2013, the Financial Conduct Authority has introduced a cap set at £24 a month for anyone borrowing £100 for 30 days. Millions of people are struggling with spiralling debts and overdrafts. They deserve to be protected from excessive charges and rip-off practices that only make their situations worse. We have seen from the payday loan cap that this can be achieved. Legislation would allow the FCA to implement a cap without delay or the risk of the banks taking the matter to the courts.

Imagine, Mr Speaker, that you are £200 overdrawn. It is not great, but as you have an overdraft arrangement with your bank that allows you to go £200 overdrawn without incurring charges, it will not cost you anything except for the interest. Then, imagine that a direct debit goes through and puts you into your unarranged overdraft. Unless you can quickly pay money into your account during any grace period, you will quickly start to rack up charges. Going as little as 10p overdrawn can mean charges of £5 a day from high street banks.

Research published in February by Which? found that consumers needing to borrow as little as £100 could be charged up to seven times more, or £156, by some major high street banks than the Financial Conduct Authority allows payday loan companies to charge when lending the same amount over the same period. Because bank overdraft charges apply to monthly billing periods, not the number of days that money is borrowed for, consumers who need £100 could pay up to £180 in fees if they borrow over two calendar months from their high street bank in the form of an unauthorised overdraft. The same applies if they go just a few pence over the overdraft limit. These charges are totally disproportionate to the offence committed.

Last year banks made £1.2 billion from charges on unauthorised overdrafts, mostly from financially vulnerable customers. These are customers who banks should be helping, not pushing further into the red. These are customers who the Competition and Markets Authority has labelled in its report a “captive audience” for the banks and their “uncomfortably high” charges. The CMA has described unauthorised overdraft charges as

“the biggest single problem in the personal banking market”.

Action needs to be taken.

StepChange Debt Charity estimates that 1.7 million people in the UK are trapped in an overdraft cycle and consistently use overdrafts to meet essential and emergency costs. Too many vulnerable customers who are already struggling regularly have to go into an overdraft or over an overdraft limit, which can exacerbate their financial difficulties. Many hard-working families live constantly on their overdrafts, and those in chronic financial difficulties face impossible choices between meeting the costs of essential bills and going further overdrawn or over their overdraft limit. As fees and interest build up over time, these families find it increasingly hard to get out of their debt.

Last year StepChange surveyed its clients with overdraft debt to explore their experiences of overdraft charges. It found that people with overdraft debt who contact the charity regularly go over their overdraft limit. Almost two thirds—62%—of the people StepChange helps with overdraft debt regularly exceed their overdraft limit as they struggle to make ends meet, and on average they did so in five of the past 12 months. These borrowers face average charges of £45 a month for slipping into unauthorised overdrafts, which adds up to a massive £225 a year of unauthorised overdraft charges, and for many the charges are much higher.

StepChange has told me of two cases of vulnerable customers being unfairly pushed into debt spirals by the decisions of banks. The first is of a 42-year-old man who racked up overdraft charges after losing his job. Interest on his overdraft and persistent charges for going over his limit meant that, on average, £80 a month was added to his debt. Over a year, his overdraft debt increased by more than £1,000 because of interest and unauthorised overdraft charges. The second case is of a 38-year-old woman who faced spiralling overdraft debt after getting divorced. The increased burden of managing financial commitments on her own meant that she slipped into an unplanned overdraft by just £90. That led to a cycle in which she was consistently in and out of an unauthorised overdraft, which increased to £1,000 due to interest and charges. Those people, like so many others, were already in difficulty and trying to manage their debt from day to day.

Overdrafts are among the most widely used credit products in the market and form part of a worrying trend in our economy. Our savings ratio as a nation is now at a record low of 3.3%. Our household debt-to-income ratio is at 145%, up 6% in the past year. Unsecured debt has grown by 10% in just 12 months. I am worried about the sustainability of our personal finances and about a consumer demand too heavily reliant on debt and personal borrowing. The Government need to do more to ensure that our economy is not built on the shallow foundations of debt and overdrafts, but instead on investment and secure, decently paid jobs. Rising debt is symptomatic of a wider problem in our economy, which is reflected in growth levels and rising inequality. We need an economy that works for the many and not just the few, and a banking system that does the same.

Last year the Competition and Markets Authority published a review, which disappointingly fell short of proposing an independently set maximum cap on the charges on overdrafts, as we have with payday loans. Instead, the report said that banks will be required to set their own ceilings on their unauthorised overdraft charges, in the form of a monthly maximum charge. However, most banks already have that—it might be £5 a day or £90 a month. The problem is not that there is not a voluntary cap; the problem is that we need a lower cap, set by the regulators and not individually by the banks. The monthly maximum cap proposed by the CMA will do absolutely nothing to stop the deepening of a person’s debt crisis. Banks should be passing on the low bank rate to their customers, not punishing them with disproportionate charges.

Competition in this section of the market in personal banking is weak, and in the past few years it has become weaker still as a result of the merger of many high street banks. The recent troubles at the Co-operative Bank, which has lower charges than many others, could reduce competition further. As the CMA’s review found, heavy unauthorised overdraft users are the least likely to switch bank accounts. Given the substantial revenues that unauthorised overdrafts generate for the banks, there is little financial incentive for them to lower their charges. I do not want to deny the banks the right to charge for the services that they provide, but what I am calling for is some fairness and proportionality. There are simply no great offers among the high street banks for financially vulnerable customers; in fact, the exact opposite is the case.

Most of us regard banks as more reputable and fair than payday lenders, so it is a bitter irony that it is a better deal for some people who need short-term credit to go to payday lenders rather than their high street banks. Banks need to improve their behaviour, and I urge them to step in and protect their customers. After the CMA effectively passed the buck to the Financial Conduct Authority, the FCA made the welcome decision to include this issue in its ongoing—and welcome—review of high-cost short-term credit, which will report later this year, but in order to take action, the FCA would benefit from a mandate from Parliament.

I urge the Government to support the Bill and make those changes a reality, to help the customers who are being ripped off by their banks. This cannot continue.

Question put and agreed to.


That Rachel Reeves, Stella Creasy, Wes Streeting, Helen Goodman, John Mann, Yvonne Fovargue, Chris Evans, Gloria De Piero, Stephen Hammond, Chris Philp, Sir David Amess and George Kerevan present the Bill.

Rachel Reeves accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 12 May and to be printed (Bill 172).

Finance (No. 2) Bill

Considered in Committee (Order, 24 April)

[Mr Lindsay Hoyle in the Chair]

Clause 1

Income tax charge for tax year 2017-18

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Clauses 2 to 6, 16 to 47, and 52 to 56 stand part.

Government amendments 13 to 29.

That schedule 3 be the Third schedule to the Bill.

Government amendments 30 to 56.

That schedules 4 to 15 be schedules to the Bill.