The Secretary of State was asked—
Leaving the EU: UK Legal System
The Government have made it a top priority to ensure that there is a smooth legal transition, both in our negotiations with the EU and as a matter for our domestic implementing legislation.
What steps will the Department take once we have left the EU to secure a review and possible reversal of European Court of Justice rulings that are affecting British companies and citizens?
We are taking back control over our laws—that is what the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill does—so that hon. Members in this House are properly accountable to the voters and the UK Supreme Court has the last word on the law of the land. From that point on, we can retain, revise or repeal any piece of retained law as we see fit for the British national interest.
The Minister may have seen the recent TheCityUK report, which underlined the importance of the legal sector to the United Kingdom’s economy and the City. Will the Minister update the House on the negotiations in respect of the report’s principal concern, which is whether contracts will continue to be enforceable and respected across the European Union after we leave?
In our negotiations with the EU, we have made it clear—for example, in our position paper on civil and judicial co-operation—that we want to maintain that win-win co-operation in areas such as recognition of contractual judgments, but also on decisions in family law disputes that support businesses and individuals on all sides.
Will the Minister get out and meet more people in the justice system? I have been talking to judges, barristers and campaigners who are all terrified about what will happen to our justice system if we leave the European Union. Who is he talking to, and why does he not broaden his circle?
May I gently suggest that the hon. Gentleman does not engage in such scaremongering? I have been talking to practitioners, legal groups and the judiciary. We have set out our plans in our position paper, and I would have thought that he would welcome that. Through the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, which I hope he will support, we will make sure that we have a smooth legal transition.
Will the Minister confirm to the House that it is his policy that the European Court of Human Rights will still have jurisdiction over Britain after we leave the EU?
The right hon. Gentleman will know, because it was in our manifesto and it has been repeated since, that we have no plans to withdraw from the European convention on human rights or the Strasbourg Court.
Does the Minister agree that we had a very effective legal system before we joined the EU, and we will have a very effective one for many years after we leave?
My hon. Friend is right. Of course, I take very seriously the concerns of those who think we need to mitigate the risks, and that is what our negotiations and the EU (Withdrawal) Bill will do. We also have a huge opportunity to promote UK legal services on a global level through trade liberalisation and by promoting the UK as a hub for international dispute settlement. We should grasp the opportunities as well as managing the risks.
Last month—just two weeks ago—while the House debated the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, the Prime Minister’s spokesman told journalists that the Government expect the role of the European Court of Justice to remain unchanged during an implementation period of two years after the Brexit date in March 2019. Will the Minister confirm to the House that that means that it will not be possible to bring into force large parts of the EU (Withdrawal Bill), including the repeal of the European Communities Act 1972, until the end of the implementation period?
The position is set out in the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, and the hon. and learned Lady will know from Committee debates that we have made it very clear that we are not going to pre-empt or prejudge the outcome of the negotiations on either the withdrawal agreement or the implementation period.
Last week “Sky News” reported that the Government wish to stay in the European Aviation Safety Agency after Brexit and accept that that will mean remaining under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, because it is the ultimate arbiter of EASA rulings. Will the Minister now confirm that this means the Prime Minister’s red line of no ECJ jurisdiction after Brexit has been shown to be utterly and completely untenable?
I am afraid that the hon. and learned Lady is relying yet again on second-hand reports via the media. We will not pre-empt or prejudice the outcome of negotiations on the partnership deal, and I hope that she will support us in getting the very best deal for that sector and for the UK as a whole.
Order. The hon. Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) has an exactly similar question. I would have called him if he were standing, but he was not, so I did not, but if he does, I will. No? The hon. Gentleman does not wish to do so. So be it; it is his choice.
Can the Minister confirm that elements of our civil and criminal law go back to Magna Carta in 1215 and earlier, that our legal system is far more long established than any EU legal system, that we have one of the most respected legal systems in the world and that, as far as future laws in this country are concerned, Brexit holds no fears for us?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. We have a rather different legal system, through our common law, and we have variations across the UK, but I think that we should have the courage of our convictions and confidence in our democracy. When it comes to the judiciary, of course, we want the UK Supreme Court to have the last word on the laws of the land.
The Government have published a post-legislative memorandum on the legal aid reforms introduced by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. We have launched a review of the operation of that Act, which will be thorough and will report by the summer recess.
I recently visited Hull chamber of commerce, where a solicitor explained to me that the cuts in legal aid are actually costing the courts so much more money, because so many people in Hull are trying to represent themselves, and the President of the Supreme Court has said that the legal aid reforms are actually a false economy. Does the Minister agree that restoring early legal advice would not only help solve some legal problems, but save taxpayers’ money?
I understand the point that the hon. Lady is trying to make, and she has done so in a constructive way, but I am not sure that the evidence is there to back up her assertion. We provide a wide range of legal help, for example in civil and family cases. Last year we spent £100 million on legal help, including practical support and telephone helplines that provided advice on 20,000 occasions last year. There are also online tools to make it clear to people when legal aid is available, but other sources of legal advice are also available.
When changes were made to legal aid in family matters, it was anticipated that there would be considerable growth in the use of mediation. In fact, the numbers using mediation have dropped massively, and all the evidence indicates that that is because early legal advice is a gateway to mediation for assisted parties and reduces the burden of litigants in person in the courts. Is it not time that the Minister looked again at the issue?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to be encouraging more alternative dispute resolution, and I think that there is agreement on both sides of the House that we should incentivise cases being settled and not going through the courts, because of the cost and the trauma for those involved. The LASPO review provides an opportunity to look at all of this in the round, but I do not think that the answer will be exclusively about money; it will also be about the positive incentives that we put in place.
It is estimated that providing early legal help in family court cases would cost less than £14 million because, as the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) has just said, many cases would be resolved before getting to court. Why does the Minister continue to insist that this is not a cost-effective way of dealing with cases? Does he actually know how many cases are proceeding with litigants in person, and how much that is costing the courts system?
There is a range of support for early legal help, as I have already detailed—£100 million of support—and that can be online or telephone support, but also representation. Since 2015 we have invested £5 million in the litigants in person strategy. There is a range of support available, but of course we can review this in the round through the review.
We are a nation of laws, but we must be one nation too, with access to justice for people from all backgrounds. Does my hon. Friend agree that, post the LASPO review, the most careful thought should be given to bolstering legal aid resources so that we can have early advice and assistance for all?
My hon. Friend, as usual, makes a powerful point. We will be able to look at this in the round, but we do still spend £1.6 billion on legal aid, which is a quarter of my Department’s budget. If we want to put more resources in, the money has to be found elsewhere. We will also be looking carefully at making sure we have the right allocation to support those in the greatest need.
Was not the founding principle of legal aid full and free access to justice regardless of ability to pay? Has not that principle been eviscerated and ripped up by the Government, with the able assistance of Nick Clegg and his little Liberals?
The hon. Gentleman makes his point in his usual punchy way, but I have already detailed the support for early legal help and set out some of the support for litigants in person. The fact is that we provide £1.6 billion in legal aid. If we look at Council of Europe comparisons—I know that we cannot compare like with like exactly—we see that we are providing more legal aid per capita than any other Council of Europe country.
We have heard from the Law Society and the president of the Supreme Court on early legal help, which Labour’s manifesto also backs. My hon. Friends have asked questions about this and the Minister has said that the evidence is not there. I want to help the Minister, so will he show today that he is not driven purely by ideology and agree to a simple thing: to commission independent research into the savings that can come from early legal help to inform the Government’s legal aid review before it reports back next summer? Will he do it?
We have got the review in place. We will take a wide range of advice and set up expert panels to ensure that we get the proper and best advice. The hon. Gentleman should feel free to contribute. However, his proposals would add £400 million to the cost, and he needs to explain where the money would come from because it does not just grow on trees.
Victims and Witnesses: Court Experience
We are investing more than £1 billion in our court reform programme to make our justice system more sensitive to victims and witnesses and more accessible to the average citizen.
It is almost a year since I met Jill Saward, who sadly passed away at the beginning of this year. Jill was a tireless campaigner for victims of rape and sexual assault and she led the campaign that brought an end to accused rapists cross-examining victims. Will my hon. Friend outline what progress is being made to extend the law to protect victims of domestic violence during trials in family courts?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the way in which she has championed this issue and to Jill Saward for her campaigning work. As part of our reform programme, we are rolling out section 28 pre-recorded cross-examination for vulnerable witnesses in the Crown courts. That will be rolled out initially in Leeds, Liverpool and Kingston upon Thames from next year, but the plan is for a national roll-out. We are also committed to extending section 28 to family law cases and we have announced legislation for that purpose in the Queen’s Speech.
The Minister is right that the victims should be central to Government policy. What support is available for both adult and child rape victims after the verdict, and will he outline the process whereby support is offered, regardless of the verdict?
In 2017-18, the Ministry of Justice allocated around £7 million as a contribution to 97 rape support centres across England and Wales to provide independent specialist support. In the same year, we allocated £68 million to police and crime commissioners. The hon. Gentleman raised an important aspect of the support, which remains available to victims after as well as before the conclusion of a trial, regardless of the verdict.
The Minister just said that legislation relating to this matter was outlined in the Queen’s Speech. We are particularly concerned about domestic violence victims in the family courts. When will that legislation be introduced on the Floor of the House?
The announcement was made in the Queen’s Speech. We are looking at the parliamentary timetable and we will be able to say something about that shortly.
Perpetrators of domestic violence can currently commit abuse of process by bringing vexatious court actions against their victims, often cross-examining them in person in civil and family courts. Will the Minister consider introducing legislation on that? When will he do it?
As I have just said, the legislation was announced in the Queen’s Speech. Obviously, we have a packed parliamentary timetable at the moment, with the EU measure and other aspects of that, but we are committed to introducing legislation and we will announce details soon.
Earlier this year, the Secretary of State generously agreed to amend the Courts legislation and introduce primary legislation to outlaw the cross-examination of victims by domestic abuse perpetrators. The principle of using primary legislation to tackle the matter has been agreed. When will he introduce primary legislation to tackle the issue?
As I have already made clear in two answers, we are committed to not only the courts Bill, but that specific reform. I look forward to the full-throated support of the hon. Gentleman and other Opposition Members.
Reoffending Rates: Custom House Building
Accommodation is the foundation of preventing reoffending. Currently around 30% of people leave prison without a stable home to go to, and that is why my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary has made employment on release and accommodation for offenders a key priority of our prison reform programme.
Given that the Self-build and Custom Housebuilding Act 2015 is now on the statute book, is the Minister aware that probation officers and ex-offenders can now register as associations of individuals under the Act? Will he meet me and the National Custom & Self Build Association’s right to build expert taskforce, so we can brief him on how people building their own dwellings can transform lives and reduce reoffending rates?
I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to listen to whatever creative solutions he can bring to the long-standing problem of accommodation for offenders.
The joint report of the chief inspectors of prisons and probation looked at through-the-gate services and revealed that 10% of prisoners were homeless on their first night out of prison. Having a home is key to reducing reoffending, so what assessment has the Minister made of reoffending rates?
The hon. Lady makes a very important point. As I said in response to the previous question, this is a priority for us. We are looking at expanding bail accommodation and support services to include lower risk offenders, utilising spare MOJ capacity, expanding our approved premises programme, and working very closely with other Government Departments, such as the Department for Communities and Local Government, to solve this serious problem.
While strongly supporting the initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon), will the prisons Minister tell the House which construction companies get this and actually offer fair opportunities to ex-offenders in the construction sector? Will he perhaps also tell us which companies need a bit of a nudge in this area?
My hon. Friend is pre-empting our employment strategy, which we will announce very soon. He will be aware of the New Futures Network, which the Justice Secretary announced at party conference. This will bring together employers and ex-offenders to help to create employment on release. The construction sector is a key sector and he will be hearing more from us in due course.
A 2015 Ministry of Justice study found that community orders have a substantially lower rate of reoffending than short prison sentences. What is the Minister doing to reverse the sharp fall in community sentences that has taken place under his Government?
Of course we want to reduce reoffending. The presumption in this country is against prison. It is up to the judiciary to sentence how they see fit. We want to make sure that there are appropriate interventions in the community and we are looking at that.
Litigants in Person
The Government’s litigants in person support strategy provides a range of practical support and information to those without legal representation before the courts.
Senior judges are warning that the growing number of litigants in person is creating a huge burden on judges, lawyers and the litigants themselves. Will the Minister commit to restoring legal aid to the family courts, where this problem is most serious, as Labour has promised to do?
We have the LASPO review, which I have described. If I may, I will take this opportunity to point out that since 2015 we have invested £5 million in the litigant in person support strategy, which includes practical support such as: online and self-help resources, access to free or affordable legal advice, and, where possible, legal representation.
Representing themselves in court has been a real issue for domestic violence victims. Restoring legal aid is welcome, but that will not happen until January. I note the Justice Secretary is advertising for a second speechwriter at a rate of £70,000. As there is cash to spare, will he commit to ensuring that domestic violence victims who seek legal aid, as of yesterday’s announcement, will be able to claim retrospectively under the new criteria?
We will be laying the statutory instrument shortly and I think, beneath the political point-scoring, the hon. Lady welcomed it. It will make it easier to apply for legal aid in family cases where there has been a victim of domestic abuse. More broadly, wider personal support units provide trained volunteers who give free independent assistance to people facing proceedings in the family sphere and beyond. There are 20 centres in 16 cities. I hope she would welcome that.
The Prison Service pay review body recommendations, which I accepted in full, were implemented in the October and November pay of officers. It is therefore too early to assess the effect of this particular award, but I can report to the House that at the end of September this year total prison officer numbers were up by more than 1,200 full-time equivalent staff compared with the previous 12-month period.
Given that the leave rate among key prison officers in bands 3 to 5 is still running at 10%, does the Secretary of State not think it time to offer prison officers more than the 1.7% they have been offered in order to retain experienced prison staff and keep our prisons safe?
For those prisons, mostly in London and south-east England, experiencing particular challenges over both recruitment and retention, we are offering additional support and resources. I would have hoped, however, that the hon. Lady would have welcomed the significant increase in prison officer numbers over the last year. The prison officer pay recommendations were implemented in full, and prison officers received a pay rise of 1.7%. In terms of the total bill, that is more than was awarded to other public sector workers.
What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact of prison officers’ terms and conditions and pay scales on their morale now compared with five years ago?
Prison officers certainly are working under very challenging conditions, not least because of how organised crime is promoting traffic in new psychoactive substances across prison walls, but we believe that not just the increase in numbers but the shift, in forthcoming months, to the new offender management model, under which each officer will take responsibility for about half a dozen named offenders, will contribute to increased morale.
One in four prisons have seen a reduction in the number of prison officers over the past year, including a quarter of prisons the Government label as being of concern, so given their so-called recruitment drive, will the Secretary of State guarantee today that no prison, apart from those planned for closure, will have fewer staff at the end of the year than they did at the beginning?
As I said in response to the last question, the new offender management model, which we are implementing throughout the system, will reduce the pressure on individual prison officers. Where a particular prison has greater than average difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff, we will continue to put in extra resource and support to help them.
Prisoner Rehabilitation: Sporting Activities
There is strong evidence that physical education and sport improve the wellbeing and motivation of those in custody and ex-offenders in the community. Both improve their prospects of successful resettlement.
Team sports promote the values of hard work, accountability and team work. Does the Minister agree that these are exactly the values we should seek to instil in offenders, particularly young offenders, to cut the risk of reoffending and give them a better chance in life after release?
Yes, I do. I hope that every Member would agree. I have commissioned Professor Rosie Meek of Royal Holloway to compile a report on the impact of sport on offenders in custody and in the community so that I can get a complete picture of what I think are the positive benefits. I look forward to her report being published in the new year.
What is the purpose of prison? Is it punishment or rehabilitation?
The purpose of prison is to play its part in reducing crime. That is the fundamental challenge that our Department and the Home Office face, and I believe that sports clubs can play a part. For example, the Saracens project with Feltham young offenders institution has a recidivism rate in its small pilot of about 10%, which compares very favourably to the overall rate.
As well as sport, does the Minister agree that arts and crafts could also play a part in the rehabilitation of offenders? Prisoners in Hull Prison were involved in creating a replica of Jason, Amy Johnson’s plane, for city of culture year. It is now in Hull Paragon train station. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Justice seems to want to move it to York. Will he look at that again and keep it in Hull to recognise what the prisoners have done?
Order. The hon. Lady has raised an ingenious point, which is at best tangentially related to the question on the Order Paper—rather as one might say that Hull is tangentially related to York, both of them being in the north of England. Given that she has been so ingenious, however, let us hear the Minister and find out whether he is comparably dexterous.
Thank you for the opportunity, Mr Speaker.
I agree with the hon. Lady that it is not exclusively sport that can make an impact on the lives of young offenders in particular. I remember visiting Cookham Wood Prison and being overwhelmed by the quality of the artwork that was being undertaken there.
Prisoner wellbeing and rehabilitation at HMP Nottingham continues to be of major concern after five people died there in four weeks. When I raised the issue at the last justice questions, the Prisons Minister, the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), echoed my concern and undertook to write to me. May I ask whether Ministers are still concerned about HMP Nottingham, and when I will receive that letter?
If the hon. Gentleman would like to write to me about the matter, it would be very helpful.
Write another letter?
The matter is not specifically in my brief, because HMP Nottingham is not a young offender institution.
In April this year, governors were given authority to devise the daily routine in prisons—the way in which they organise staff—and to have a greater say in the health services received by prisoners. In October, governors gained control of the new family services budget, and next year we will devolve the prison education, careers advice and libraries budget to governors in England.
That is enormously helpful. Does my right hon. Friend agree that governors know their prisons and their prisoners best, and that many of the day-to-day operational decisions about such matters as the core regime, education and training are best devolved down from Governments into their local hands?
Yes, I do agree. I think it important for Ministers and officials in the Prison Service to trust the professionalism of governors who are in charge of individual establishments, which is why, as national contracts for particular services expire—for example, maintenance, repairs and food procurement contracts—we will seek opportunities to devolve them to establishment level.
The Secretary of State will have noted that comments made by chief inspector of prisons about one of his reform prisons are quoted in today’s edition of The Times under the headline “‘Trailblazing’ jail is swamped with drugs”. The prison is said to have deteriorated over the last 12 months. I am genuinely interested to know whether the Lord Chancellor can tell us who is responsible for that—the governor, the head of the prison and probation service, Michael Spurr, or the Lord Chancellor himself.
Ultimately, I am responsible for the Department and the services that it provides. As is the case with every inspection report, the Prison Service will take action to remedy the problems identified by the chief inspector, and a new scanner to detect drugs has already been installed at Holme House.
Order. There are plenty of other questions on prisons, to one of which we now come.
The organised criminals who use drones to smuggle drugs and phones are a major threat to the stability and safety of our prisons. We are taking decisive steps to tackle that threat through joint intelligence-led operations with law enforcement agencies to identify and disrupt the individuals involved.
What more can be done to harness the power of intelligence-led work to track drones, not just to stop them coming into prisons but to find the criminals who are seeking to use them to disrupt our prison system?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of not just stopping contraband coming into prisons, but stopping the organised crime networks that are behind that. The specialist staff in our regional and national intelligence teams are transforming the way in which we work with the police to that end. We have launched Operation Trenton, in which a specialist team of police and Prison Service investigators will work together to intercept drones and track down the criminals behind them. So far there have been at least 17 convictions related to drone activity, and those convicted are serving about 50 years in prison.
Prisons: Mobile Telephones
Illicit phones erode the barrier that prison walls used to place between prisoners and the community. They can be used to harass victims and to support the trade in contraband that, as we know, drives violence and self-harm. We are working with law enforcement partners to identify and disrupt the organised crime networks that supply phones and other illicit items to prisons. For example, our recent joint operation at HMP Hewell recovered 323 items, including 79 mobiles and a large quantity of drugs.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we must be constantly alert to the potential for new technology to deter, detect and disrupt the illicit use of mobile phones in prisons? Does he therefore welcome the potential offered by the private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), which received its Second Reading last week and which will help to block mobile phone signals around prisons?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The consequence of illicit items in prisons is violence and instability for the regime, and the way to counter that technological threat is through technology. The private Member’s Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes, which the Government are backing, would give us more power to switch off mobile phones in prisons and therefore deal with the scourge that they present.
Prison Officers: Safety
In addition to strengthening the frontline by boosting prison officer numbers, we are using intelligence-led searches and joint operations with law enforcement agencies to disrupt the supply of drugs, phones and other illicit items that drive violence in prisons. We have invested in 5,600 body-worn cameras to help to protect prison staff, and we are working with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute prisoners who assault officers.
On a visit to Rochester prison last Thursday, I heard that perceptions of prison officer safety were affecting recruitment. Can the Secretary of State tell us what the Department is doing to support the recruitment of prison officers?
We are meeting with considerable success in filling the 2,500 additional prison officer places that my predecessor, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), successfully negotiated a year ago. We are also developing a graduate entry scheme for prison officers, and working with the armed forces to ensure that the service leavers scheme takes proper account of the opportunities in the prison service.
The hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mrs Badenoch) makes an important point about how the perception of safety can affect recruitment and retention in the prison service. Will the Secretary of State give me an update on the Government’s workforce strategy for all justice sector staff—safety issues affect everyone in the sector—and commit today to involving all trade union stakeholders in the development of that workforce strategy?
The right hon. Lady makes a good point. Within Government, we continue to discuss how we might look at changes and reforms to the way in which the prison and probation workforces are structured, but irrespective of those discussions, we are proceeding with measures to give additional support to prison governors and prison officers by boosting regional management teams and trying to ensure that professional development is taken seriously at all ranks of the prison service.
The reality of life in our prisons is one of inexperienced prison officers dealing with more violent and dangerous situations on a daily basis, and that is a direct result of this Government’s cutting 7,000 prison officers. They have now slammed that into reverse to recruit 2,500 officers, as has been announced today. There are prison officers in the Gallery today who are visiting on a lobby with the Prison Officers Association. Will he agree to meet them to discuss prison officer safety?
My hon. Friend the Prisons Minister and I meet representatives of the Prison Officers Association both at national level and whenever we go to visit prisons, where we make a point of talking directly to staff and listening to their concerns. I believe that, as well as recruiting additional officers as promised, we need to ensure that anybody who attacks a prison officer is properly prosecuted, where there is good evidence available. That is what ought to happen, and I hope that the police and the Crown Prosecution Service will work with us to ensure that we get those outcomes.
Female Offender Management
We are investing over £1 million between 2016 and 2020 to support local areas in developing multi-agency approaches to female offenders. We also developing a strategy for female offenders to improve outcomes for women in the community and in custody.
East Sutton Park Prison in my constituency does a fantastic job in helping women offenders prepare for life after prison, and I look forward to welcoming my hon. Friend to the prison in the new year. What are he and the Government doing to help women across the country prepare to make a fresh start on leaving prison?
I look forward to visiting East Sutton Park with my hon. Friend in the new year. It has an excellent record of building strong links with both national and local employers such as Timpson, Sainsbury’s and Specsavers. We want to develop and spread such relationships across the country, because people who have a job on leaving prison are less likely to reoffend.
It is 10 years since the Corston report. Can the Minister update us on the progress the Government are making in meeting all 43 of Baroness Corston’s recommendations, in particular funding for specialist units such as Eden House in Bristol?
The Corston report was the very first document I read on being made the relevant Minister in July 2016, and it is a very good document. Since then I have worked tirelessly, along with my officials, to develop a women’s strategy that goes some way to meeting the challenges set by Baroness Corston. I recently met the Corston funding group to discuss the proposals that we will bring forward when the strategy is published.
As female offenders are more likely than male offenders to have caring responsibilities for children, what role does the Minister think prison governors should play in maintaining and strengthening family ties?
In my travels around the country, every governor of a women’s prison I have met knows the importance of maintaining good family links. In the strategy, we have this in our minds in developing an infrastructure for the future, whereby women are held as close a possible to their families, if they have to be locked up.
What action are the Government taking to reduce the incidence of breach and recall, which is leading to an increase in the women’s prison population?
We are aware of the challenges around recall, and some of this is to do with the fact that women go back out into the community and into exactly the same situation they were in before going into prison. This is being considered in depth, and our approach to it will be part of the women’s strategy.
The Minister will know that a disproportionate number of women are sentenced to very short prison terms, and judging by his previous statement he probably shares the view that they are generally ineffective in breaking the cycle of reoffending. Will the Government think seriously about adopting the Scottish system, under which short sentences have to be actively justified by the court before they are passed?
We already have a presumption against custody in our system in England. I acknowledge, however, that Scotland is embarking upon an exciting path in managing its women offenders, which is why I am going there on Thursday.
Given that half of all women in prison are there just for a few weeks, does the Minister agree that we can achieve a better outcome for the women themselves, and reduce the number of victims of crime, if we invest in women’s centres, rather than sending non-violent women to prison?
When visiting prisons and meeting prisoners, what is striking is that many of them have been victims themselves. I am very conscious of that, and the strategy will try to deal with it through the way in which we handle and manage women who have committed offences.
Exceptional Case Funding Scheme
We are looking at ways to make inquests more sensitive to the needs of bereaved families. The Lord Chancellor will update the guidance on exceptional case funding by the end of the year, and we will also look at this issue as part of the wider LASPO—Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012—review.
My hon. Friend will be aware that I raised the case of the Shoreham air show crash with the Prime Minister at questions a month ago. The Legal Aid Agency has refused exceptional case funding to the families of the victims. Can it be right that the families of the victims of an event that at the time resulted in the largest civilian loss of life since 7/7 might be the only ones not to have legal representation at the coroners’ inquest next year, not least when there is a wider public interest for the over 2 million people who attend 300-plus civilian air shows each year?
My deepest sympathies go to the victims of the Shoreham airshow disaster. My hon. Friend knows that I cannot comment on individual decisions, but I can say that we have protected early legal advice for inquests within the scope of legal aid, and there is an opportunity to look at the issue more broadly as part of the LASPO review. Legal aid is decided independently, but it was granted in over half of cases where inquest applications were made last year.
Youth Custody: Physical Restraint
We are clear that restraint should be used only when it is absolutely necessary and when no other form of intervention is possible or appropriate. The number of incidents in which restraint was used reduced by 11% between the year ending March 2015 and the year ending March 2016.
In September, I asked why the Ministry of Justice’s approved methods for restraining children in young offender institutions and secure training centres can actually kill children or leave them disabled. I have since received a letter from the Minister stating that pain-inducing restraint techniques may be necessary in limited circumstances. The Department of Health launched a consultation last week about children in the care of the state, on the premise that restraint should not be used to punish or with the intention of inflicting pain, suffering or humiliation. What exactly is the Government’s position on restraint?
The restraint techniques that are used were developed in consultation with a medical panel and a medical adviser—[Interruption.] I must emphasise to the hon. Lady that we are dealing with sometimes quite violent individuals. Violence levels in the youth estate are 10 times that in the adult estate, and decisions are sometimes made, however difficult, to protect the individual concerned, other children in the unit and the staff. [Interruption.]
Order. The hon. Lady continues to chunter from a sedentary position in evident disapproval of the thrust of the reply provided from the Treasury Bench, but the hon. Lady has a recourse: she can apply for an Adjournment debate and dilate on such matters at greater length, which I am sure will be of great satisfaction to her and, possibly, to others.
Court System: Modernisation
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer Question 19 together with Questions 20 and 24. We are investing £1 billion in the modernisation of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service. This summer, we launched the first online courts pilots, covering divorce, social security and civil money claims. In October, I visited the Manchester civil justice centre and saw some of that work first hand.
Order. The right hon. Gentleman had not asked in advance for my agreement to the grouping, but I am nevertheless happy to provide it. Presumably, the request was not made to my office on account of the expectation that we would not get this far, but Ministers ought to know better by now; we do tend to make quite quick progress. We will take supplementary questions from those who are here—I think at least one is not.
Part of the problem with the courts system is that the lay person does not understand the jargon. Will my right hon. Friend examine how we can improve communication within the system so that the ordinary man on the street can understand what is going on in court proceedings?
I apologise to you, Mr Speaker, if there was a mess-up in communications with your office.
In response to my hon. Friend, as we test and pilot the online court proposals it is important to ensure that the process is stripped of legal jargon so that our constituents—men and women who may have no particular knowledge or experience of the technicalities of law—are able easily to understand, follow and use the process.
As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on public legal education and pro bono, I was wondering whether my right hon. Friend had made any assessment of how the online process will save many people who go to small claims courts from unnecessary stress and hassle when all they are often trying to do is resolve a simple money claim.
Having tried out the small money claims process, my view is that it provides a user-friendly way for a consumer to seek redress from somebody against whom they have a claim. So far, more than 3,000 people have used the pilots that I have described, and they have received straightforward digital access to our courts.
Order. I would call Mr Courts to ask about courts if he were here and given the likely affinity that he would feel towards the subject, but he is not, so I cannot.
I wrote to the Government in October to ask about the impact of the closure of Oldham magistrates court and county court, but they said they do not collect data on non-attendance. How on earth can the Government know about the impact of closures if they do not collect that data?
When a proposal is made to close any court centre there is a public consultation, which enables representations to be made and evidence to be looked at seriously. Such a consultation is always accompanied by an analysis of the travel times, both by car and by public transport, for people who use the court centre scheduled for closure to attend the proposed alternative. These things are considered in detail.
In the context of court modernisation, will the Secretary of State look at making the courts more transparent, particularly by allowing defendants and those who have been sentenced to get court transcripts and copies of the judge’s direction to the jury? Especially in cases of potential miscarriage of justice, it can be incredibly difficult to get that information.
I would like to take away and reflect on the serious points made by the hon. Lady. Obviously the conduct of a trial in court is a matter for the trial judge, but I will look seriously at the issue and write to her when I have had the chance to take advice on the matter.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
They bump off Prime Ministers.
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.
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.
Time at last to hear the voice of Clacton.
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.
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.
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.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
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.