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Topical Questions

Volume 635: debated on Tuesday 23 January 2018

The Worboys case has made it clear to me that there are some aspects of the Parole Board’s decision-making process that need to be examined and improved. It is crucial that we preserve the independence of the Parole Board, but equally important that these decisions can be scrutinised and, in some circumstances, reconsidered. That is why I announced on Friday the expansion of the scope of the review of the Parole Board to include not just transparency of decision making, but whether, in what circumstances, and how outcomes can be challenged. I will not rush to conclusions. This is a complex area where the rightful concerns of victims will be considered but also balanced with the legal rights of offenders. We will have completed the review by Easter, and I will report thereafter.

The Lord Chancellor will be aware of the case of my constituent who was left blinded in one eye and unable to work because of her abusive ex-partner. The offender was sentenced by our court to a pathetically small 22 months and released early, and the Crown Prosecution Service could not be bothered to pursue a compensation order. Will he personally review how this case has been handled, the soft sentence given, and the failures of the criminal justice system to support the victim?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising what certainly appears to be an extremely distressing case. We are looking at options to strengthen our response to domestic abuse and hope to bring forward proposals soon. I cannot comment on individual sentencing decisions, and prosecution decisions are made by the CPS. I will, however, look at the role that my Department had in this case and write to her in response to her specific questions.

T2. My constituent Kim Mitchell was the victim of child sexual abuse in 1990 when she was only eight years old. Kim had to suffer the trauma of growing up with the authorities not believing her, yet after a long battle her abuser was eventually charged just last year. Sadly, Kim has been denied criminal injuries compensation due to a minor unspent criminal conviction. Does the Secretary of State think this is fair? (903474)

T4. Constituents repeatedly complain to me that dangerous criminals do not as a matter of course serve the sentence given by the courts. What action is the Department taking to ensure that sufficient prison places are available so that dangerous criminals can serve the sentence deemed appropriate by the courts? (903476)

We focus on making sure that we have a proper capital investment programme in place, so additional money has been allocated for the building of new prisons, two are currently being commissioned, and we currently have spare places in our prisons. To reassure my hon. Friend, it is absolutely vital that we have the places so that people can serve their sentence. Sentences should not be driven by availability of prison places.

T3. In my recent community consultation, real concern was expressed about the lack of access to legal aid, particularly for employment, housing and welfare cases. In an earlier exchange, the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. and learned Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer) failed to acknowledge that, since the 2012 changes, there has been a 75% fall in the number of civil legal aid cases. With the Department facing cuts of £800 million, how confident is the Minister that the review she mentioned earlier will provide the access to justice that is currently being denied to hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable? (903475)

It is very important that those who are most vulnerable get access to legal aid, and legal aid is available for those who are in need at the most critical moments in their life. The hon. Gentleman mentioned housing, and legal aid is available where there is homelessness or where disrepairs to the home seriously threaten an individual’s life or health. We are reviewing legal aid, and we will update the House accordingly.

T8. Islamic and Jewish religious traditions insist that bodies be buried as soon as possible after death, so does the Minister agree with me that it is reprehensible for the north London coroner, Mary Hassell, independently to insist on a policy in which“no death will be prioritised in any way over any other because of the religion of the deceased or family”? (903481)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I am aware of the situation, having met representatives of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and Muslim burial representatives in October 2016. Coroners are independent of the Government, but I do recognise that there are some sensitivities around this issue and that there have been some difficulties in communication between the coroner and certain parties. That is why I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend and, indeed, those representatives again in the Department.

T5. Does the Secretary of State think it right that the number of women experiencing domestic violence who are forced to represent themselves in court has doubled since 2012, and what steps is he taking to give them better access to legal representation? (903477)

First, as I said a moment or so ago, we are looking to say more about domestic violence in the near future. This is a matter that the Government take very seriously across the board. On legal aid, as the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire, has already pointed out, we are currently undertaking a review.

We know that conversion to a radical brand of Islamist thinking too often occurs in a prison setting. Will the Minister update the House on the work being done to address this issue and set out the procedures to vet religious officials working with the vulnerable prison population?

This is a hugely important issue for Members on both sides of the House. We know absolutely that extremism—we can see this in France, and we of course saw it in Iraq—can be driven in a prison setting. The problem is not simply the 230 prisoners arrested for terrorist offences, but others who can be influenced when they are in a prison setting. We are working very hard with colleagues in the Home Office on this issue, and it will be a priority for the Secretary of State and me during our time in office.

T6. Does the Minister believe that the funding gap in the NHS is having an impact on healthcare provision in our prisons? (903478)

Healthcare in prisons was a priority for me when I took over in July 2016: it was the first thing I started to ask about. The Ministry of Justice now has a much closer relationship with the Department of Health with regard to the provision of healthcare. We have made advances in the transfer of patients’ information—when prisoners come in, their patient data follow them—which was a problem in the past. I am under no illusions about the healthcare challenges still faced within the prison system, and that is why I will continue to work actively with the Department of Health, which is ultimately the Department responsible for the provision of those services.

I was pleased, along with other Shropshire and Telford MPs, to see last Friday that Telford magistrates court was not included in the list of courts to be consulted on, but will the Minister meet me and other Shropshire MPs to understand how important it is to retain the last magistrates court in our county?

I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend and other MPs from the area. There are two consultations taking place: one in relation to eight specific court closures, and a wider consultation on the future of our courts. I encourage my hon. Friend to participate in that, and to highlight any concerns he has about his local area or nationally.

T7. Can the Minister tell the House why Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is paying more than £30 million to PwC consultants for a digital court system that has not been subject to democratic processes, and is not backed by evidence that it will improve access to justice? (903479)

As I have outlined, there is a £1 billion modernisation programme, which is very complex and which we need to get right. It involves a number of aspects that need scrutiny. PwC is replacing a number of smaller providers and fulfilling an important service.

Recent reports by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons reveal a consistent failure by the Prison Service to act on recommendations made by the inspector in previous reports. Does the Minister agree that compliance with inspectorate reports should be the norm, rather than the exception?

Absolutely. Peter Clarke, the chief inspector of prisons, does an extraordinary job. We are doing two things to make sure that we implement those recommendations better. First, we have set up a special unit in the Ministry to follow up on every one of those recommendations. Secondly, we have introduced an urgent notification process, which requires us to reply within 28 days to any issues raised by the inspector.

T9. Following the recent round of court closures, the MOJ committed to ensuring that there was adequate alternative provision after closing Eastbourne courts. That has not happened, despite the Courts and Tribunals Service saying that it had. Will the Minister agree to meet me and legal representatives from Eastbourne to resolve this wholly unsatisfactory situation? (903482)

Pakistani nationals make up one of the largest national groups in our prisons, but the prisoner transfer agreement with Pakistan has been suspended for the last eight years. As a matter of urgency, can we get it up and running again?

My hon. Friend will be aware that the prisoner transfer agreement was suspended because of the corrupt release of prisoners from Pakistani prisons. We are addressing that at the moment with the Government of Pakistan, and we continue to work very closely with officials in the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development and the Home Office to make sure that we continue to return a record number of foreign national offenders—4,000 last year—to the places from which they came.

In the 18 months prior to May 2017, three openly transgender women took their own lives while they were in custody in England. What is being done to ensure that staff have the right training and, critically, that prisoners have the right mental health support to head off such tragic events?

The hon. Lady is right that such events are tragic. We are working extremely hard on training staff to recognise the particular needs of transgender offenders. The challenge for the system is that they are a relatively small number of people spread across a number of prisons. We are making some progress, but there is more to do.

It is good to hear the Minister offer to speak to Members around the House about the courts in their patch. When she does so, will she explain to them about modernisation and digitisation, and how those changes may improve access to courts?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. First, this is a consultation, and I am very happy to engage with any colleagues who would like to discuss it, because we are listening. Secondly, the future of our courts is exciting, and transformation will take place through technology. Interestingly, in a document entitled “Transforming Our Justice System”, the then Lord Chief Justice, the then Lord Chancellor and the Senior President of Tribunals highlighted the fact that as our courts and tribunals are modernised, we will need fewer buildings.

I congratulate the hon. and learned Lady, my neighbour, on her appointment. She will have noticed the very strong and universally hostile reaction in Cambridge and Cambridgeshire to her plans to close the magistrates court. Can she reassure us that local people will be properly listened to, and better still, will she withdraw those plans today?

As I have highlighted, these plans take place within the context of a £1 billion modernisation of the court system, and in circumstances where, nationally, courts and tribunal services are not used at capacity. As I have said, I will listen properly in the court closures consultation, although the Lord Chancellor will make the ultimate decision. I would like to point out that five sites identified in the last consultation on court closures remain open following the review. When strong cases are made, we will listen.

When a prisoner is released, they are not even at base camp in their rehabilitation unless they have accommodation. Some local authorities actively discriminate against ex-offenders—for example, by claiming that they have no local connection because they have been sent to a prison a long way away. Fairness is what is required. Will the Minister challenge that behaviour with his counterparts in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his knowledge of this issue. There are three things we are doing to address this issue, but we can do much more. The first is having a statutory duty on governors to identify prisoners who are at risk of homelessness. The second is investing more in bail accommodation support services to provide temporary support and accommodation. The third is working with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to make sure that, through the Housing First pilots, we can actually have homes available even for people with severe mental health needs. Housing is essential.

One of my constituents has a young son who is serving a very long prison sentence. He often spends 23 out of 24 hours locked up in his cell. How does the Minister think that is affecting his mental health and his chances of rehabilitation on release?

Clearly, this is not good. Prisoners need decent, purposeful activity. If they are locked up in their cell for too long, they are obviously not having educational opportunities. We should aim, as the chief inspector of prisons made clear, to make sure that people are spending eight or 10 hours a day outside their cells. That is partly about numbers of staff, which is why we have brought 250 more staff into the Prison Service. It is also about better scheduling of educational and vocational provision. However, the situation the hon. Lady describes is not acceptable.

Following campaigns by victims’ families, the Government announced in October last year that they would bring in tougher sentences for those causing death or serious injury by dangerous driving, but still nothing has happened. Why the delay?

I would like to put on record my role as co-chair of the justice unions parliamentary group.

When north Wales’s only prison, HMP Berwyn, partially opened on 28 February last year, its regime of skills development and rehabilitation was lauded as pioneering, yet we now learn that, in its first six months, 27 staff members left, and I am told by the Prison Officers Association that morale is at rock bottom. I understand that, in the early months, prisoners assaulted staff on nine occasions, and only one was referred to police. How will the Minister improve offenders’ rehabilitation when recruitment, retention and, critically, staff safety at HMP Berwyn are in crisis?

I am very happy to speak in detail with the hon. Lady, who has put an enormous amount of passion and energy into studying issues in prisons in Wales. We believe there are some very positive signs now at HMP Berwyn, but we can talk those through. Recruitment figures have actually been very positive—we are ahead on the recruitment of 2,500 people across England and Wales—but I am very happy to sit down and talk about Berwyn in particular.

While the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) was ploughing through her question, the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) was doing his customary knee exercises, from which I hope he greatly profits. I call Mr Andrew Slaughter.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

Has the Secretary of State seen the investigation published at the weekend by The Sun into new allegations of misconduct by the west London coroner, including bullying, sexism and homophobic conduct towards staff? Despite previous findings of serious misconduct, three-year delays in issuing death certificates, secret inquests being held at night and important case papers being lost, he has been cleared by the Secretary of State to return to work. Will the Secretary of State meet west London MPs and council leaders to discuss this crisis?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I know that the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), who is responsible for coroners, will be happy to meet him.

The number and percentage of women given custodial sentences has dropped in many areas of the country. In north Wales, the figure has increased by 57%. Will the Minister look into the reasons for this huge increase?

Some women in York have been taken to the family courts on multiple occasions by former partners. This process is clearly being used as a form of emotional abuse, and is highly costly to constituents and the state. What steps is the Minister taking to recognise court abuse, and what actions will she take now?

Using the court process to further any abuse is completely unacceptable, particularly in relation to domestic abuse. The court can already take actions if it thinks that there is abuse of process, by restricting litigants’ ability to continue with further applications and further claims. New family court rules were introduced in November to make sure that vulnerable court users get the support they need in courtrooms.

Individuals with autism spectrum disorder are some of the most vulnerable inmates in prison and are often subject to bullying, abuse and victimisation, with high rates of suicide. What progress is being made on autism accreditation in prisons?

This is a hugely important issue. I would very much like to sit down with the hon. Lady, because the Scottish Prison Service has a lot that it can teach us. It is doing a very good job on many of these issues, and I think we can learn a great deal from it.