Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 628: debated on Tuesday 5 September 2017

My priorities as Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State are to uphold and defend the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, and to ensure that our prisons are safe and secure places that also work effectively, and with the probation service, to rehabilitate offenders. That means strengthening the frontline in the way described by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), but it also means that we need to respond better to reports from prison inspectors. I am therefore setting up a new unit, ultimately accountable to Ministers, to ensure that we respond to, and follow up, inspectors’ reports swiftly and effectively.

How many foreign-national offenders are there in our prisons, and why is not more being done to send them to secure detention in their own countries?

As of 30 June this year, there were 6,792 convicted foreign-national offenders serving sentences in our prisons. In 2016-17, we removed 6,177 such offenders from the United Kingdom—that is including prisoner transfers—and that is the highest number since records began.

I hope the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) will shortly reissue his textbook for colleagues on succinct questions.

This summer I was proud to sign up to the campaign launched by Gina Martin to change the law so that the disgraceful practice of so-called upskirting is made a specific sexual offence. So will the Minister finally join with us today in backing this call for a change in the law?

I have taken very seriously the representations made not only by Gina Martin, but by some of the police and crime commissioners around the country. I have asked for detailed advice on this, but I hope the hon. Gentleman will understand that, before proceeding to a commitment to legislation, I want to be absolutely certain that this would be the right course to take.

T3. Legal services in the UK are rightly held in the highest regard around the world and are a major asset to our economy. What is the Minister doing to ensure that we champion and defend the interests of the legal sector in this country? (900706)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: legal services exports contribute a trade surplus of £3.4 billion to the UK economy. The UK is a global leader in dispute settlement. We are working with the sector to promote this key comparative advantage. It is a priority for the Brexit negotiations, and, as a global leader, this is the message my ministerial colleague Lord Keen will be taking to the International Bar Association conference in Australia just next month.

T2. Last week a report from the committee of the United Nations made 60 recommendations to the Government on how they could better comply with the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. How will the Government respond, and what changes in Government policy can disabled people expect to see as a result? (900705)

It is obviously for the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work and the Department for Work and Pensions to decide overall on the Government response to that report. However, I think that the Government were right to express disappointment that the report failed to acknowledge the significant advances this Government have made in improving the lot of disabled people in this country, not least in seeing a record number of people with disabilities now in employment.

T5. What upgrades have been achieved in prisons since we came into office, and how are we going to rehabilitate prisoners even further? (900708)

I assume my hon. Friend is referring to the upgrades in the prison estate, where we are investing £1.3 billion to modernise the estate. As part of that, we will be building 10,000 modern prison places. That should help with offender rehabilitation. In terms of where we are now, we have started with the proposed developments at Glen Parva and HMP Wellingborough, and we have also announced plans to build four new prisons: in Yorkshire, adjacent to Full Sutton; at Port Talbot in Wales; and the redevelopment of the young offender institutions at Rochester and Hindley.

T4. Given the problems the Department has had when it has privatised many of its services, it seems extraordinary that there are now plans to privatise the collection of court fines and outsource the work of civil enforcement officers. When will the Government appreciate that the public expect these sensitive public services to be delivered by the public, not a bunch of cowboys? (900707)

What the public expect is for those fines to be collected in the most efficient and effective way possible.

T9. Can the Minister update me on when the revised version of practice direction 12J will be adopted and how the Government will ensure that judges and magistrates are aware of the change in order to improve guidance for judges overseeing child contact cases with allegations of domestic abuse? (900712)

We are absolutely committed to doing everything we can to improve the treatment of victims in the justice system. In relation to the practice direction to which my hon. Friend refers, we expect to receive the revised version from the president of the family division for ministerial agreement by the end of this month.

T6. Since the election, hundreds of constituents have contacted me about our current animal cruelty laws, which are not fit for purpose. A maximum prison sentence of six months for some of the most appalling crimes, including torturing a dog to death, is completely unacceptable. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that the sentencing guidelines are rigorously reviewed and strengthened? (900709)

I share the hon. Lady’s desire to see the most robust sentences for animal cruelty. The Government keep the sentencing framework under regular review, and I am not sure whether she is aware that in January the Sentencing Council published new guidelines on relevant aggravating factors in animal cruelty cases.

In the past 18 months, three of my constituents have died in HMP Bristol, which has one of the highest numbers of self-inflicted deaths in custody. What reassurance can be provided that that prison is being given the scrutiny and support that it needs to get those figures down?

Every death in custody is a tragedy, and I offer my condolences to the families of my hon. Friend’s constituents. We have increased the staffing level at HMP Bristol by 31 prison officers in the past year. I chair a weekly safer custody meeting with officials to drive forward improvements, and I review the details of every self-inflicted death to see how we might prevent others. We have also launched an internal review of our approach to safer custody, specifically in relation to mental health patients, and I would be willing to visit my hon. Friend’s prison in order to deal with this further.

T7. Last week, a Tory peer said that Brexit was a good thing because our young people would be able to work longer hours. Can the Minister confirm that his Government will continue to guarantee protections for workers in accordance with the European working time directive? (900710)

The Prime Minister could not have been clearer: we are committed to the best possible employment conditions for all British workers. We have a fine record of achievement on that, and we will ensure that when we leave the EuropeanUnion, there is no diminution in workers’ rights.

In January last year, an Afghan national who had previously served time for murder in the Netherlands attacked two Crawley police officers with a clawhammer. Recently, the Court of Appeal has reduced his sentence. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the Sussex Police Federation’s requests to the Home Office will ensure that he is deported at the earliest opportunity?

I can give my hon. Friend an assurance that the views of the Police Federation and others in his constituency will be conveyed fully to the Home Office. It remains the Government’s collective will to ensure that those foreign national offenders who merit deportation are deported as soon as possible after serving their sentence.

T8. Is the Minister aware that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has recommended that the protections afforded by the EU charter of fundamental rights be retained in the UK? What is he going to do about that? (900711)

I am always bewildered by the approach of the Opposition to the charter. When Labour was in power, it claimed, rather fraudulently, that it was seeking an opt-out, but now that it is out of office and we are leaving the EU, it wants to opt back in. We have the strongest protections for human rights in this country, and they have been reinforced. We are going to see no diminution in those protections, but the charter adds uncertainty and is frankly surplus to requirements.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the pilot scheme that allowed the filming of judges’ sentencing remarks in criminal courts has been a success? Will he now consider going further in allowing the broadcasting of court proceedings, so that justice is not just done but seen to be done?

We have made considerable progress in the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal, and my right hon. Friend is right to say that one of the areas under review is the broadcasting of judges’ sentencing remarks in the Crown court. Last year, we conducted not-for-broadcast tests in eight Crown court centres, and we are looking at the experience from those trials with the judiciary in order to see how best to proceed.

T10. Last year, 316 people died in our prisons. Emails from prison doctors printed in the media a few days ago say that there are not enough medical staff in our prisons and that urgent hospital referrals are being cancelled because of prison escort shortages. What are the Justice Secretary and the Health Secretary planning to do to tackle this growing healthcare crisis in custody? (900713)

We are very conscious that the Government have a duty of care to everyone we hold in custody. We are working with the Department of Health on a number of protocols, including some relating to mental health, as well as working to ensure that prisoners get access to the healthcare that they need, when they need it.

Will Ministers give the House their response to Lord Farmer’s recent report on the importance of strengthening prisoners’ family ties to reduce reoffending?

Lord Farmer’s report is excellent. Family ties are important not only to help people to turn their lives around, but to improve stability in prisons. We will publish our response in due course and will make the House aware of that.

While I welcome the Minister’s news about increased prison officer numbers in HMP Bristol in my constituency, I am concerned by the Department’s figures, which show that 1,770 experienced prison officers left the service last year. What is the Minister doing urgently to retain valuable experienced prison officers for the longer term?

It is always the case that people will leave an organisation voluntarily or due to retirement or—[Interruption.] May I finish my point? In some cases, people may leave because they have not been too happy with what has been happening in our Prison Service. A retention plan is available, but the numbers that I gave earlier—868 net new prison officers so far this year—take account of people leaving the service, so we are actually up on last year’s figures.

Having recently met the governor of Styal prison in my constituency, I know that drones are an increasing problem in prisons, as is the illegal use of mobile phones. The two are linked because mobile phones allow for greater frequency and accuracy of drone activity. Does the Minister agree that the way to curb drone activity and stop illegal mobile phone use is to block phone signals in prison? Will he support my private Member’s Bill to do that? The Second Reading is on 1 December.

I fully support my right hon. Friend’s Bill. It is what we need to deal with the illegal use of mobile phones, which are used to carry on criminal activity from behind bars.

The Minister’s plans to build a prison on the Baglan industrial park in my constituency are causing a huge amount of concern and disquiet within the community. May I urge the Minister to come to the public meeting that I have organised on 20 September in Baglan to explain the position to the community?

The hon. Gentleman is aware that Ministers do not attend public consultation events about obtaining planning permission for new prisons. He is also aware that the Port Talbot site was proposed alongside several other sites by the Welsh Government, who continue to support us in redeveloping the site for the purpose of the new prison. I have received his representations on behalf of his constituents—he is diligent and persistent—and we also had a meeting on 12 July. Subject to the two-day consultation, which is more than would ordinarily happen, I am willing to engage further with him on what could be done to ameliorate his constituents’ concerns.

Order. We often have time for the questions but rather less time for the answers, which tend to take up rather more time.

Will the Secretary of State look at how families are treated by the insurance industry when a householder gets a criminal conviction? The Salvation Army recently highlighted several cases in which insurance had either been denied or made prohibitively expensive in a way that seems to me, as a former chartered insurer, to be neither reasonable nor necessary.

I am happy to look at that and would welcome a conversation with my hon. Friend to examine the matter further.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Given the historical child abuse in north Wales, will Ministers now place in the Library the unredacted copy of Lady Macur’s report on the Waterhouse inquiry, which relates to many of the children involved?

The honest answer is that I am not familiar with the detail as to why an unredacted copy has not been published, but I will undertake to ask for urgent advice on that and will write to the right hon. Lady.

I will call the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) if he confines himself to a short sentence.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the work of Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, the Lord Chief Justice, who will have retired by the next Justice questions, both for his integrity as a judge and for his modernising work as head of the judiciary in England and Wales?

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in his salute to Lord Thomas, who has been a formidable and exemplary leader of the professional judiciary. What has struck me in the short time that I have held my office is the enormous respect and affection in which Lord Thomas is held by his colleagues on the judicial bench. I am sure the entire House will want to wish him all the best.

In the last Parliament, a joint report of the Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee found widespread exploitation of women at work, and especially of young women in vulnerable employment. Now that the barrier of fees has been removed, will the Minister look seriously at the report’s recommendations and work with other Departments to ensure that women are aware of their access to justice?

As I explained earlier, we will take into account all the recommendations and findings of the Select Committee report as we chart the way forward.

Did the Secretary of State read the letter in the press by the widow of our late colleague, Ian Gow, contrasting the fact that the two IRA murderers suspected of killing him have no fear of arrest with the recent revelation that hundreds, if not thousands, of letters are being sent out to veterans of the troubles with a view to further prosecutions? Will he support the policy of a statute of limitations to put an end to this grotesque inequality of treatment?

The answer to my right hon. Friend’s question is that, yes, I did read the letter to which he refers. Those matters, as he knows, are the responsibility of my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who is very concerned to ensure that a proper examination of the past, and a search for the truth about the past, does not lead to the unfair and disproportionate arraignment of British soldiers who stood firmly for democracy and human rights in Northern Ireland.

The Minister will be aware of the serious disorder at HMP Birmingham in my constituency on Sunday, which follows the very serious riot in December 2016 and serious incidents at other prisons across the country over the summer months. Clearly our prisons are in absolute crisis. Is it not time that we had an independent inquiry into the state of our prisons?

We have already said that the level of violence in our prisons is too high. I spoke to the Gold Commander at HMP Birmingham on Sunday night, and we should first praise the professionalism of the Prison Service in dealing with what are very difficult and very challenging situations in our prisons. Of course, a key part of dealing with the stability and security problem in our prisons is increasing the staffing levels, on which there has been a number of questions today, and we are doing so. A wider part of the reforms is dealing with drones, mobile phones and illegal drugs, and it will take time to do that, but I praise our prison officers for their brave work in containing these disturbances.