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Topical Questions

Volume 632: debated on Tuesday 5 December 2017

Since the last Justice questions I have introduced a new urgent notification process, which allows the chief inspector of prisons formally and publicly to notify me, as Secretary of State, where he judges that urgent action is required to improve a prison with significant problems. This new procedure will require a joint response from Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and my Department to ensure that decisive action is taken to address immediate concerns, and we will demonstrate our commitment to transparency by publishing both the chief inspector’s notification letter and my response within 28 days.

I am sure the Secretary of State will join me in condemning the shocking and senseless attack on a police community support officer in my constituency. The PCSO was reportedly deliberately lured into some woods before being attacked with a knife. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me and other relevant partners to discuss what more the Government can do to ensure that our justice system properly reflects the gravity of such serious crimes?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it would be wrong for me to comment in detail on an individual case when it is a matter of investigation and, conceivably, a trial. In general terms, the Government are committed to ensuring that the law protects those dedicated, professional public servants, including PCSOs, who do their utmost to keep us safe. That is why the Government are supporting the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill, introduced by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), to give such greater protection.

T2. What does my right hon. Friend think can be done to make sure that community sentences are not just robust and effective but are seen as such? (902766)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have a range of robust community sentence options, which can include the whole range from unpaid work and curfews to rehab programmes and treatment for mental health and substances misuse problems. We are working with the judges and magistrates, and with the national probation service, to make sure community sentences are as operationally strong as they can be and can command public confidence.

I have repeatedly asked the Secretary of State how many staff have been axed since probation was privatised, and I have repeatedly been refused an answer. It is now being reported in the press that there was a 20% cut in the number of probation staff in the privatised community rehabilitation companies between 2015 and 2016. Can he confirm that CRC staff have been cut by a fifth?

It is for individual community rehabilitation companies to take decisions about the staffing and what kind of staff they need to deliver on their contractual obligations to the Government. The Government’s responsibility is for staff in the national probation service, and we are recruiting additional staff to it.

T6. Given that a rise in fraudulent claims can push up the cost of insurance for all, what assessment has the Minister made of the levels of holiday sickness insurance claims and the impact of false claims on the cost for honest holidaymakers? (902770)

My hon. Friend raises a good point. The Association of British Travel Agents reported a sixfold increase in gastric illness claims against tour operators between 2013 and 2016, but reports in resorts of illness were declining. This cost operators about £240 million last year, which of course hikes the cost for holidaymakers. We are calling for evidence on our plan to fix the legal cost to make it easier to defend dishonest claims, which will mean that honest families pay less for their hard-earned holidays.

T3. The current prison system is failing young people and women. Youth and female offending needs a different approach, based on the community and community services, rather than simply imprisonment. What will the Secretary of State do to help ensure education and rehabilitation, not punishment and not prisons? (902767)

I was in Cardiff last Thursday, when I met the pathfinder team there who work with women offenders, both in the community and when they are in custody, and I was very impressed by the work they do. I went on to the youth offending establishment at Parc, where I was particularly impressed during the visit. On both youth and women, our strategy is that if we can keep people out of custody, we will, but if they need to be in custody, we will make that decision.

T7. Will my right hon. Friend advise me as to what steps are being taken to reduce reoffending levels among young people in the west midlands, including in my constituency? (902771)

The current rate of reoffending among the youth population is way too high, and I have taken measures to address it. Part of that has been investing £64 million in the youth custody reform programme, which includes better training for staff.

T4. Does the Justice Secretary not share my concern that handing over powers on court fine collection to private bailiffs will place the safety and finances of vulnerable people at risk from rogue operators? (902768)

No, we are making sure we have robust and rigorous regulation in place. The most important thing is to make sure that precious taxpayers’ money is put to the best use and that the debts are most effectively recovered.

T8. Is the Secretary of State aware that there remains a serious illegal drugs problem in Norwich and Wayland prisons? Many Ministers talk about creating drugs-free prisons, but when is that going to become a reality in Norfolk? I would like the Secretary of State to answer, please. (902772)

Norwich prison, like all prisons in the system, is being challenged by new psychoactive substances, which are causing behavioural problems that add to potential aggression on the part of prisoners. These are being actively promoted by organised crime. We are addressing that, both by the provision of improved health and detoxification methods in prisons, and by active intelligence work to disrupt the supply of drugs into prisons, because rolling up those supply chains is what gives us the real opportunity to crack down on drugs.

It has to be said that normally hon. Members get the Minister they are given, but the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham)—I say this for the benefit of new Members—is an old hand and a wily fellow, and he knows how to get what he wants.

One of his ancestors might have bumped off a Prime Minister, but the hon. Gentleman cannot be held responsible for the behaviour of his distant ancestor.

T5. We all know that too many women are being given short custodial sentences for minor crimes when rehabilitation through women’s centres would be far more productive. Will the Minister assure me that there are no plans for a women’s prison in Wales or, even worse, for a female offender unit annexed to a male prison, and that there are plans for women’s centres in Wales? (902769)

I can confirm that no decision has been made to build a female prison in Wales. As I keep emphasising, the strategy is about what more we can do in the community to help women. I understand and recognise that short sentencing is not delivering the goods, and I also recognise that a number of women are victims themselves. Ultimately, the women’s justice estate is about security for the wider public—to keep people who have done things wrong away from the public—and reducing crime in the longer term by working better with the women concerned.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is as much in the interests of the EU 27 nations as it is in the interests of my constituents in Clacton and, indeed, people throughout the UK, for there to be a seamless continuation of civil co-operation between the EU 27 and the UK to provide companies, individuals and families with confidence that judgments can and will be enforced across borders? Will he update me on what is being done to secure that co-operation?

I was going to suggest that the hon. Gentleman seek an Adjournment debate on the matter, until I realised that in fact he had just conducted one.

These days, there are tens of thousands of families and businesses that live and operate across national borders within Europe. A comprehensive and ambitious civil justice co-operation agreement between the United Kingdom and the EU 27 will be very much in the interests of all parties.

T9. Last week, I visited Medway secure training centre for 12 to 17-year-olds which, in 2016, was the subject of a “Panorama” report that exposed widespread abuse while it was run by G4S. The centre is now run by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and things are improving. Young people talk positively about rehabilitation and staff are motivated. Many STCs and secure children’s homes remain in private hands. Given the lessons of Medway STC, will the Government now commit to reversing the privatisation of the youth justice system? (902773)

The hon. Lady is not to be outdone by the hon. Member for Clacton (Giles Watling). This Adjournment debate fetish is rather catching, I think.

If one looks back at inspection reports over the years, one can see examples of good practice and poorer practice at both state-run and privately operated prisons and secure training centres. There are good reports on, for example, how G4S has operated HMP Parc for adult and young offenders. When there are problems with privately operated prisons, my hon. Friends and I take them up directly and firmly with the company concerned.

I warmly support and welcome the Secretary of State’s and the prisons Minister’s support for and implementation of the Farmer review. How will the Minister ensure that the policy will be implemented across the board to ensure that reoffending is reduced? I would be very happy for the prisons Minister to answer.

My pleasure. The Farmer review is absolutely key to highlighting the importance of family connections in not only preventing self-harm in prisons but turning around lives. We have accepted all its recommendations and are going through the process of implementing them. I would be happy to update my hon. Friend personally.

T10. You will know, Mr Speaker, that girls and vulnerable women were subject to horrendous abuse and rape by a sexual exploitation gang in Newcastle. Some of the perpetrators were recently convicted as part of Operation Sanctuary, but there are victims who feel that they have not had justice. I know of at least one who has been denied compensation for horrific abuse, because of time spent in juvenile detention as a consequence of that abuse. Does the Minister think that is just? If not, will he amend the criminal injuries compensation scheme to ensure justice? (902774)

I recently met the chief executive of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority and was convinced that it has in place systems to deal appropriately with all cases. However, if there is a particular case that is of concern to the hon. Lady, would she please write to me? I will respond.

Repeated failures in facilities management contracts are discovered every time the Justice Committee visits a prison. The latest example is the 22 showers left unrepaired for months at Rochester that we saw last week. Will my right hon. Friend conduct an urgent review of the operation of the contracts and the appropriateness of penalties, and will he speed up the work that is required to be done?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. When an inspector or, for that matter, my hon. Friend’s Committee draws attention to problems of that kind, we certainly take that up firmly with the contractor concerned. I am also keen that we learn and apply lessons about how previous contracts were negotiated to ensure that we get better performance in future.

It was confirmed in the Budget that the Ministry of Justice will be cut by 40% in the decade to 2020, which is more than any other Department. We have already seen a significant reduction in judges, lay members and accessible tribunal hearing services. Will the Minister confirm today that enough is enough and that there will be no more cuts in the south-east region?

The figures that were issued at the same time as the Budget simply repeated those that featured in the current public expenditure round, so there was actually no change. Within our budget, we are investing £1 billion in the modernisation of the courts and recruiting 2,500 additional prison officers.

I thought that we had signed up to the all-singing, all-dancing EU prisoner transfer directive, so why, still, are 42% of the 10,000 foreign nationals in our prisons from EU countries? Why do we not send them back to where they came from?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question —again. I think he asked the same question at the previous justice Question Time. As he is aware, even with prisoner transfer agreements, it is down to the receiving country to take those prisoners. We cannot force them to do so even when we have an agreement in place. The majority of prisoners who we send back to their home countries are sent under the early removal scheme, and 40,000 prisoners have been sent back home since 2010.[Official Report, 21 December 2017, Vol. 633, c. 6MC.]

Members regularly ask the same question again, as I am often wont to observe. Repetition is not a novel phenomenon in the House of Commons.

I have been approached by a constituent whose vulnerable daughter was raped by a male under the age of 18 who was not given a custodial sentence. I am concerned that the lenient sentence sets a precedent for lesser sentences and does not give sufficient regard to the suffering of the victim. Will the Minister agree to meet me and the family of this rape victim to discuss the sentencing guidelines for those who commit rape when under 18?

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I totally understand the anguish of the victim and the family in these kinds of cases. He will know that sentencing guidelines—not just the sentences—are set by the Sentencing Council and not the Ministry of Justice, but I can confirm that the new guidelines on sentencing under-18s for sexual offences came into effect in June, and he may wish to take a look at those.

There are very few Scottish National party Members in the Chamber. I will take a couple more questions.

In my constituency, we have a higher level of road traffic incidents, including fatalities, compared with the rest of Sussex. I have long campaigned for increased sentences for dangerous driving. What signal does my hon. Friend believe was sent by the Government’s recent announcement on proposed increases to dangerous driving sentences?

We consulted extensively on that matter. Bearing in mind the seriousness of the worst offences and the anguish of the families, we have set out proposals to increase the maximum sentence for dangerous driving to life imprisonment. That is the reality for those engaged in such wilful acts.

My constituents, Mr and Mrs Fleeting, lost their brave son, Robert, in a non-combat death when he was serving in our forces at an English base. There cannot be closure for them as there was no inquest by jury. After a positive initial meeting with the Minister, there has been no follow-up, and that is compounding Mr and Mrs Fleeting’s grief. Will the Minister today agree to meet my constituents to address this appalling issue?

I or one of my ministerial team will be happy to discuss the case further. The hon. Lady will appreciate that we need to understand all the detail before we make any public comment.

I believe that the point of order flows directly from questions. I will take it if it is dealt with very briefly.

Mr Speaker, you will be aware of my campaign to introduce Helen’s law. On 14 September, I wrote to the Justice Secretary, asking him to meet Marie McCourt, Helen’s mother, and victims’ families about this issue. Having not received a reply two months later, I tabled a parliamentary question to ask when that meeting was likely to happen. That parliamentary question was answered on 1 December and said that the correspondence had been sent to my office on 16 November. After a trawl of my correspondence, I found that none such had been received. Having contacted the Ministry of Justice, it transpired that, in fact, none had been sent because it was still waiting on ministerial approval. What does that say about the Government’s attitude to the families of victims who have suffered so grievously? Can you advise me, Mr Speaker—

Order. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I can certainly give him two pieces of advice. First, a very important matter though this is, it does not flow from this oral questions session, as I had, perhaps wrongly, understood it to do. Secondly, may I offer the hon. Gentleman a tip, which he could learn from many a senior hand in this place? If what the hon. Gentleman described happens again, he should table a question to the Minister—

Let me finish. The hon. Gentleman should table a question to the Minister, demanding to know when that which was promised will be delivered. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is gesticulating from a sedentary position to give the impression that that is precisely what he did. If he still did not get a response, as he should have done, my advice is that persistence pays; he should just keep going until he gets there. Alternatively, he should approach the Minister’s office and seek a meeting. This is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs. However, knowing the Secretary of State for Justice as I do, I know that he is polite to a fault. Therefore, the error will have been inadvertent. It is extremely incompetent, but no further time of the House should be taken up today. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman and the Secretary of State meet, but I readily acknowledge to the hon. Gentleman that the situation is most unsatisfactory.