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Topical Questions

Volume 630: debated on Tuesday 31 October 2017

Since the last Justice questions, it has been my pleasure to welcome the appointment of Lord Burnett of Maldon as Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, and the historic appointment of Baroness Hale as President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. Where she leads we hope that many others will follow. I look forward to working with them both to ensure that the judiciary’s essential role at the heart our nation continues to be championed and respected.

Further to the comments made a few moments ago by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), about the new guidance issued by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, I can tell Members that I have asked my Department to give full consideration to wider concerns that have been expressed in the House about the rules of the compensation scheme as part of my Department’s work to develop a strategy for victims, and in the light of recommendations we expect next year from the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse.

After last week’s “Panorama” investigation into the dangerous failings of the privatisation of probation, will the Minister halt any plans to outsource night-time supervision in probation hostels?

Of course we seek to get the best value for money for the taxpayer in all our services. I understand that we are hiring people to cover some night-time shifts in probation hostels. We will ensure that we bear in mind value for the taxpayer while also protecting the public.

T5. As my hon. Friend the Minister is aware, Kirkham Prison is a category D open prison in my constituency that works to enable prisoners to make the transition to life outside. What steps are the Government are taking to support Kirkham and other prisons to rehabilitate offenders and to improve prisons’ ways of operating? (901506)

In prisons across the estate, including Kirkham, we are empowering governors by giving them control over their budgets and holding them accountable for training and education outcomes so that we enable them to deliver rehabilitation.

The family courts are full of people representing themselves. The new President of the Supreme Court, Lady Justice Hale, has described the Government’s legal aid reforms as a “false economy”. Does not the Minister agree that restoring early legal aid would not only reduce the number of cases coming to court, but save court time? Will he guarantee that the legal aid review will include an analysis of the cost to the rest of the legal aid system that has resulted from the Government’s abolition of early legal aid?

It is certainly right that we need to try to reduce the number of cases getting into the family courts in the first place, especially given that witnesses and others involved are often more traumatised by the process of going to court. The terms of reference for the legal aid review have been clearly set out, and there is wide scope for the issues that the hon. Lady mentions to be taken into account, but I will not pre-empt or prejudice what the review will look at right now.

The exceptionally high cost to businesses of commercial litigation is good for commercial lawyers—perhaps I should declare an interest—but it is not good for businesses, whether they are large or small. One answer that has recently been developed is the use of commercial litigation financing. Will my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor look into ethical and other concerns surrounding that, as outlined by Lord Faulks in the other place recently?

We will be happy to look into that and to take account of any representations that my hon. Friend wishes to make.

T2. Why are the Government planning to give security companies and bailiffs the power of arrest, because that will be the result of privatising the collection of court fees? A petition opposing those plans has been signed by 16,000 people because they do not believe that either 150 jobs, or the safety and finances of vulnerable people, should be put at risk. (901503)

These are not in fact new powers; they have been in use across the country for many years. They apply to arrests relating to debt and community penalty breaches, and they must follow the issue of a warrant of arrest from the criminal courts. Any use of these powers is overseen by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service.

Following the triumph of the Conservative manifesto at the election, may I congratulate the Lord Chancellor on finding another half-baked and unpopular policy to put before the electorate: giving prisoners the vote? Will he acknowledge that nobody is taking the vote away from prisoners—they are taking it away from themselves? If voting is so important to them, perhaps they should not commit the crimes that lead to them being sent to prison in the first place. I urge him to reject this ridiculous policy, which goes down like a lead balloon with the electorate.

The Government are preparing their position ahead of the December meeting of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. We will announce any changes in our position to Parliament in the usual way.

T3. What steps are the Department taking to ensure that there is adequate funding for youth justice services in places such as Warwickshire, which has seen significant funding cuts? (901504)

We spend more than £200 million a year on youth justice and, as I outlined earlier, we are spending an additional £64 million on the custodial estate. We are conscious of the difficulties within the custodial estate, but this is about not just the estate, but the community, which is why I have commissioned a report on the value of sport to the criminal justice system, and especially young people, which will be published in the new year.

Tomorrow sees the release of Mubarek Ali, who is a serial child sexual exploitation offender in Telford. Will the Secretary of State please confirm whether all that should be done has been done to protect the public and the victims concerned?

To the best of my knowledge, that has been done. Mr Ali is, of course, being released in accordance with the law having served the term that was set out by the judge in his case for the purposes of punishment and deterrence. However, if my hon. Friend or her constituents have any concerns about the circumstances of the release and the supervision arrangements that should follow, I ask her to bring them to my attention without delay.

T4. Sixty-one per cent. of women who leave prison after a sentence of less than 12 months are reconvicted in the first year. In my recent Westminster Hall debate on women leaving prison, the Minister made various commitments about new interventions and various reviews to support women in prison and those leaving it. When will those reviews be complete? When will there be a better, fuller programme to support women in and leaving prison? (901505)

The hon. Gentleman arranged a good and well-attended debate. He is aware that I have committed to producing a women’s strategy. It will be published once all the moving cogs of government are in place, and I can promise him that it will be about how we can do more in the community to prevent locking women up.

May I invite the Minister to join me in saying to our hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) that most people in prison never voted and are unlikely to vote when they come out? By making it compulsory for them to register to vote, they are far more likely to think about other people, not just themselves.

We hope that all prisoners will be fully integrated into society when they come to be released from prison and will lead a law-abiding life of constructive citizenship. As I said a few moments ago, the Government will make clear their approach at the forthcoming Committee of Ministers meeting and in an announcement to Parliament in the usual fashion.

T7. Some 54,000 women lose their jobs each year due to pregnancy and maternity discrimination. The Secretary of State may remember the chaos of the early weeks of caring for a newborn, but the time limit for bringing an employment tribunal claim is just three months, so will he look again at this issue, as recommended by the Women and Equalities Committee, the Justice Committee and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and extend the time limit for claims related to pregnancy and maternity discrimination? (901508)

I have looked into this important and sensitive area, and I have also spoken to my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee. I urge the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) to send me any evidence that putting the limit back to six months would actually make a difference, because some of the considerations that apply in relation to three months would also apply to six months.

I welcome the news that the Government are again considering prisoners’ right to vote. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State may find that this is a matter on which public opinion and the mood in this House has shifted. It is high time that we remedied something that places us in a very small category of countries. Most countries manage to allow their prisoners to vote—certainly those sentenced to short terms of imprisonment—without the world coming to an end, and it is an important tool for both civic participation and rehabilitation.

My right hon. and learned Friend expresses a view that he has held for a long time and has been clear about, and I am sure that he will be following the debate closely. When the Government have reached a view on our approach to the Committee of Ministers meeting, we will share that with Parliament.

T8. The Government have new proposals to limit legal costs and damages recovered in clinical negligence cases. Patient groups are extremely concerned this will mean serious cases involving older people, child deaths and stillbirths will be impossible to pursue. Will the Minister meet me and those groups to hear their concerns and to sort out the proposals? (901509)

Serious and sensitive though that matter undoubtedly is, it falls in large part to the Department of Health, but either myself or the Minister of State would be happy to discuss it further with the hon. Lady.

Following my ten-minute rule Bill in March calling for the reform of family law, including a robust enforcement of child arrangements orders, opening up the family courts in care proceedings and updating our anachronistic divorce laws, what progress have the Government made on their family law review, which was announced in the summer?

I thank my hon. Friend for her proposals and the thought that she has put into them. The time taken to conclude public family law cases has nearly halved since 2011. We are still working through very real issues with the relevant Departments, including the Department for Education. On private law, we are committed to facilitating the settlement of far more family disputes so that we avoid families, vulnerable witnesses and sometimes victims having to go through the trauma of court proceedings.

T10. Following a meeting with the Courts Minister, I received a letter from him last week that described Sunderland’s court building as below what would be expected, but that is putting it mildly. The court is more than 100 years old. It is damp, has very poor accessibility, and is wholly inadequate for victims and staff alike. Will he visit Sunderland and explain to the people of Sunderland, including my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), why they do not deserve better from his Department? (901511)

The hon. Lady raises her point tenaciously. I welcome the opportunity to sit down with her and the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) to look at the issue. We will ensure that the refurbishment is carried out as soon as reasonably practical. In the long term, we want to ensure that in her constituency and across the country we have the right courts in the right places, and with the right technology and refurbishment, to ensure that they deliver the best access to justice.

The reputation of our legal system partly depends on our respect for our international obligations. In advance of the Committee of Ministers, will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State bear in mind that respecting the judgments of the European Court of Justice is a better guide for this country’s reputation than the amateur jurisprudence of the Dog and Duck?

The rule of law is at the heart of this country’s constitutional traditions and is expressed in the oath that I and every Lord Chancellor has to take. My hon. Friend will recall that the manifesto on which he, I and other Conservative colleagues stood earlier this year committed us to remaining party to the European convention on human rights for the remainder of this Parliament.

The recently published Bach commission report highlighted a number of serious issues relating to access to justice, including representation at inquests. In the light of tragic events such as Grenfell Tower and Hillsborough, will the Minister commit to providing legal aid for inquests in all cases when the state is funding one or more of the other parties?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question on this pertinent and salient point. Legal aid remains available for inquests through the exceptional case funding scheme. Although those decisions are obviously decided independently, I reassure her that more than half the applications in relation to inquest cases in 2016-17 were granted.

Full-body scanners that detect drugs that are concealed within the person are successfully used across America. The Ministry of Justice has trialled one scanner. Has there been an evaluation, will we see more trials, and could the scanners be used on a mobile basis?

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in his party conference speech, one scanner was trialled in Wandsworth and we are looking at doing that across the entire estate. There has been an evaluation. Full-body scanners are not the only way to combat drugs and to prevent drugs from getting into prisons, as using intelligence, going after organised crime and working with law enforcement are also ways of dealing with drugs. We will use every measure possible to make sure that we stop the epidemic of drugs in our prisons and the flow of drugs into them.

The Minister will now be aware that there is a covenant on the land on the Baglan industrial park, in my constituency, where he wishes to build a prison. That covenant states that the land should not be used

“other than as an industrial park”,

or for

“any offensive, noisy or dangerous trade business manufacture or occupation or for any purpose or in any manner which may be a nuisance to the Agency or the occupiers of neighbouring or adjacent premises.”

Does he agree that the covenant is the final nail in the coffin of the Ministry’s plans to build a prison on the Baglan industrial park?

The hon. Gentleman is incredibly persistent and tenacious in fighting for his constituents. Before moving ahead with any building project, we will of course carry out all the necessary legal and local authority searches. If they turn up any objections, we will take those into account accordingly.

With a population of more than 80,000, our prisons are bursting at the seams, yet according to the Ministry of Justice’s own figures, we transferred a pathetic 110 foreign national prisoners to prison in their own country last year, and this year’s number is 56. Surely we can do better than that.

I think my hon. Friend is referring to the numbers transferred under prisoner transfer agreements. Last year, the overall number of prisoners deported from this country was a record high. We continue to work consistently with foreign Governments, and there is an inter-ministerial group that links not only the Department for International Development, the Foreign Office and the MOJ, but the Home Office, to make sure that we iron out all the issues that can be impediments to transferring prisoners to serve their sentence abroad. I assure him that this is a key focus that we will continue to pursue.