House of Commons
Tuesday 23 January 2018
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Leaving the EU: Legal Systems
The Government have made it a priority to ensure that there is a smooth legal transition both in our negotiations with the EU and in our domestic implementing legislation. I fully appreciate that Scotland and Northern Ireland have distinct legal systems, and that is why my Department has been working closely with the devolved Administrations, looking at how our legal and justice systems are affected by EU exit. The Government are clear that a good deal with the EU will be one that works for all parts of the United Kingdom.
I welcome the new Secretary of State to his position, having shadowed him for a few months when he was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.
The UK Government’s position papers on judicial co-operation in civil matters, data protection and judicial oversight have been dismissed by EU interlocutors as unsatisfactory, due to their lack of realism and detail. Does the Secretary of State intend to respond to that by producing more realistic and detailed proposals?
First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words. It is pleasing to know that, wherever I go, he follows.
Regarding the hon. Gentleman’s question, we are ambitious—we want to get the best deal. I appreciate that, in the course of negotiations, it is possible that our interlocutors will express an adverse opinion, but we will continue to engage and to be ambitious.
The Secretary of State has acknowledged Scotland’s distinct legal and judicial system. The role of Lord Advocate in overseeing the investigation and prosecution of crime means that, in Scotland, there is direct co-operation between Scottish law enforcement agencies and their European counterparts. Will the Minister give details of the consultations between his Department, and the Scottish Government and Scottish Law Officers in that regard?
Will the Minister update the House on plans in relation to foreign criminals in UK prisons and on whether, after we leave the EU, we might be able to return those who break our laws to their country of origin, rather the UK taxpayer footing the bill for their stay at Her Majesty’s pleasure?
Since 2010, we have removed more than 40,000 foreign national offenders from our prisons, immigration removal centres and indeed the community. There is a range of removal mechanisms that enable the return of foreign offenders to their home countries. The Government are now considering future criminal justice arrangements with the EU with the aim of continuing our close working relationship.
The Secretary of State will be aware that in family law there are mutual and reciprocal arrangements between EU countries to ensure that judgments are recognised and enforced. How does he envisage the interests of children being protected after we exit the EU and are no longer able to rely on those mutual arrangements?
I welcome my right hon. Friend to his post—it is nice to see a lawyer there. I hope that he has a lengthy tenure, if not quite as long as that of the last lawyer from Ipswich who was Lord Chancellor, and with a better ending.
Much of the debate has been concentrated on criminal justice co-operation. In his speech on being sworn in, my right hon. Friend rightly referred to the importance of the UK as a jurisdiction of choice in civil and commercial litigation. Will he make sure that that aspect is not lost in our negotiations, in particular the importance to London and the UK’s financial services sector of having contractual certainty?
I thank my hon. Friend. Given that the last Lord Chancellor from Ipswich was Cardinal Wolsey, who ran into some difficulties in negotiations with a powerful European supranational body, I should tread carefully. It is important that in our negotiations we try as best we can to provide the certainty my hon. Friend seeks.
I welcome the new Secretary of State for Justice to his place. Sir David Edward, a distinguished former judge in Scotland and at the European Court of Justice, has said that so far
“the UK Government has overlooked the significance of the separate Scottish legal system, the Scottish judicial system and the Scottish prosecution system in relation to justice and home affairs issues”
in their negotiations with the EU. Will the new Secretary of State undertake to meet me to discuss how those oversights might be rectified?
I am not sure that I would accept the hon. and learned Lady’s characterisation of the position as one of oversight. I made it clear in the very first answer I gave in this role that I fully appreciate that Scotland had a distinct legal system. However, I would certainly be delighted to discuss the matter with her further.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for agreeing to meet me, but that was not my characterisation; it was the characterisation of a senior judge in the Scottish courts and in the Court of Justice. The judge went on to describe the UK Government’s paper on enforcement and dispute resolution as
“an undergraduate essay which would have failed”.
He says that those who are writing the papers are not aware of the problems posed by the separate Scottish legal system and that they do not want to hear from the experts who have offered to help. This is a serious problem. Will the Secretary of State, in his new role, undertake to listen to those who know about the Scottish legal system and to take on board their concerns in his negotiations on these matters?
I want to ensure that we end up in a position that is good for the legal system and legal services in every part of the United Kingdom. That certainly includes Scotland, and of course I will want to engage with representations and representatives from all parts of the United Kingdom to ensure that we get the best possible deal.
After Brexit, can we do something that we cannot do now? In other words, if an EU national is found guilty of an imprisonable offence, will we be able to deport them to serve their sentence in prison in their own country and ban them from ever returning?
As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley), we are considering future criminal justice arrangements with the European Union. We want close working relationships, but we also need to work together to ensure that foreign national offenders can be removed when possible.
Homelessness Reduction Act 2017
I should like to begin by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for his work on the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. With the agreement of colleagues from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Act should come into operation in April. It is absolutely vital that every prisoner leaving custody has a home to go to.
I thank my hon. Friend and welcome him to his new position. As he rightly says, it is in our best interest that ex-offenders leaving prison do not reoffend. One of the key issues is to ensure that prison governors honour their commitment under the Homelessness Reduction Act to ensure that people are prepared for life outside prison. What action will he take to ensure that prison governors train offenders who are due to leave prison so that they do not reoffend?
There are two key things to do: first, to empower governors so that they have real flexibility and control over education budgets and career advice; and, secondly, to connect that to housing. There is an obligation under the Act that my hon. Friend has championed, and co-ordination with local authorities will be essential.
There are a number of complex issues relating to homelessness, but we absolutely agree that this is unacceptable and shocking. We need to work much more closely with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, with local authorities and with prisons to ensure that we cut those numbers.
The provision of legal aid to support the most vulnerable is an important part of our justice system. We spend £1.6 billion a year on legal aid, which is more than a fifth of the Ministry of Justice’s budget. In terms of accessing legal aid, there is an online tool at gov.uk to help people to check their entitlement to it.
I welcome that answer, but people in my constituency in west Cornwall find it hard to access the legal aid that they are entitled to. In fact, there is only one office there that holds a legal aid contract, and it deals only with family law. Will the Department assess how the changes in legal aid funding have affected rural people, and consider measures to address the shortage?
Maintaining access to justice is extremely important, which is why the Legal Aid Agency regularly reviews the capacity of the legal aid market to cope with demand and takes action when regional shortfalls develop. Those in need of urgent advice in Cornwall and elsewhere can always use the civil legal aid specialist telephone service. In autumn 2017, the Legal Aid Agency began national tendering for new civil contracts to start in autumn 2018.
I have received hundreds of emails from people in my constituency who face eviction, live in overcrowded conditions or rent properties that are in dire need of repair. Does the Minister agree that early legal advice in housing matters needs to be restored urgently, and that it is unacceptable that large parts of the country have no housing legal aid providers at all?
As the hon. Lady will know, the previous Lord Chancellor committed to a review of legal aid later this year, and I also commit to reviewing the situation later this year. Legal aid for housing is always available and can be accessed through the telephone gateway.
Judicial review is a key tool for ordinary people to challenge unjust and unlawful decisions by the state and other public bodies. Deep cuts to legal aid have undermined that ability, so will the Minister commit to reviewing legal aid funding for judicial review in the Government’s forthcoming legal aid review?
Oakhill Secure Training Centre
The findings of a recent Ofsted inspection report on Oakhill secure training centre are completely unacceptable. We took urgent action to address Ofsted’s concerns. The Ministry of Justice’s monitoring team has been carrying out further scrutiny to investigate Ofsted’s findings.
The right hon. Gentleman, as a previous Minister responsible for the institution, will acknowledge that the contract is subject to a series of obligations. It was signed in 2004 and lasts for 25 years. I am fully aware of the need to improve standards at Oakhill. I rule absolutely nothing out, and I have already met senior people at G4S to point that out.
Oakhill, which is run by G4S, was found last year to make use of high levels of force, but G4S is not the only private security company using high levels of force against vulnerable groups. Today’s report into the Sodexo-run Peterborough Prison shows that it has become the first women’s prison in years to be deemed not safe enough, with high levels of force and the overuse of strip searching, so is the Minister worried that profit is being put before prisoner safety?
The children being held at Oakhill can sometimes be extremely challenging, and the staff have to be able to control them to protect not only themselves, but other children and staff. With reference to Sodexo and the report into Peterborough Prison, the situation is not acceptable. We have already engaged with Sodexo, particularly around strip searching, and I expect and have demanded improvements.
Victim Impact Statements
It is critical that the voice of the victim is heard in the criminal justice system. The victims code is clear that victims are entitled to make a victim personal statement to explain in their own words, to a court or to the Parole Board, how the crime has affected them. We are spending £96 million this year to fund critical support services for victims of crime. Under the code, all victims are entitled to a needs assessment to determine what emotional and practical support they need.
I know from a family in my constituency that making a victim impact statement, and having to do so regularly, is a very stressful and nerve-racking experience. What steps is he taking to ensure that in those situations the victim, rather than the offender, is the priority?
My hon. Friend has raised this with me before. We are committed to making sure that practical and emotional support is in place for victims throughout the criminal justice process, such as by providing independent sexual violence and domestic violence advisers. If victims wish to attend a parole hearing to present their victim personal statement, a Secretary of State representative is allocated to provide support and guidance on the day.
Steven Mullins was 12 years old when he was abducted, sexually assaulted and brutally murdered on his way home from school. His killer was released last month. Although the family submitted a victim impact statement, they feel extremely let down both by the Parole Board and by the victim liaison service, which have lost their letters, ignored their letters and left so many of their questions unanswered. It appears that a worrying pattern is emerging. Will the Minister please meet me and Mr and Mrs Mullins to give them some of the answers they deserve?
First, I express my sympathy with Mr and Mrs Mullins, who have experienced the most horrendous situation. In the context of another case, I have already made it clear that we need to look again at how the victim support process works. We want to look at that specific case and, more generally, at how we can improve the situation of victims. In this particular case, of course I am willing to meet the hon. Lady and Mr and Mrs Mullins to see if their concerns can be properly addressed.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to his post. In 2009, my constituent Mr Samuel was acquitted of common assault following an unsuccessful prosecution centred on a fabricated witness statement by the police. Since then, his efforts to seek redress through the courts have been frustrated by a cover-up that I believe reaches right to the top of the Crown Prosecution Service. Will my right hon. Friend please accept a meeting with me at his earliest convenience to discuss the real issues concerning this case?
I welcome the Secretary of State to his post. Victims must be at the heart of our justice system, but we have seen failings in enabling victims to give their impact statements in the Worboys case. We have seen the police failing victims, and victims are asking why there were no further prosecutions. In fact, victims feel let down throughout the process. I ask the Secretary of State once again to support victims, and to help to restore their faith and that of the wider public in our justice system. Will he agree today to an independent end-to-end review of the whole handling of this case?
As I announced to the House on Friday, Dame Glenys Stacey has agreed to undertake a fact-finding review of what happened with regard to victims in the Worboys case. It is important that we get to the bottom of precisely what happened and whether processes were followed. I am aware of conflicting evidence on that point, so it is important that we pursue it. I quite understand why the hon. Gentleman suggests an end-to-end review, and indeed there are questions that need to be considered about what happened in 2008-09 and so on. As I have said before, at the moment I want to focus on the immediate questions in front of us in terms of support for victims and the Parole Board process.
The proposed release of John Worboys has absolutely horrified and terrified his many, many victims. Like me, they are appalled to learn today that he has been moved to London’s category A Belmarsh Prison. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that he will do everything in his power to ensure that Worboys is released with strict licence conditions that keep him out of Greater London?
My hon. Friend has been tireless on this matter in recent weeks. The precise conditions are operational matters that are decided at operational level, but let me reassure him that nearly a fortnight ago I wrote to the relevant authorities and stressed the need to ensure that the concerns of victims are at the heart of the process and that the most stringent conditions are applied.
I visited Liverpool prison yesterday. The inspector’s report was genuinely disturbing, and of course that is reflected on the ground. There are some very good prison officers working there, but unfortunately the conditions are really shocking, particularly basic sanitation, with piles of garbage. We now have a new governor in place, millions of pounds are going into the infrastructure, and 172 places have been closed so that we can begin a proper refurbishment and maintenance programme. Most importantly, we must not allow this to happen again.
These appalling conditions did not emerge overnight. Who will be held to account locally and nationally for failing to implement the recommendations of the many critical reports about the prison? How in 21st century Britain could this national disgrace be allowed to happen? Lack of adequate healthcare meant that lives were lost. What happened to the regulators and the leadership? Were they being paid while asleep?
Those are important questions that we will look at closely. We have published an action plan for Liverpool prison. There are two key things we need to do. The first is about leadership. The governor has now been replaced. The second is that we have put in place a new urgent notification process, so if anything like this happens again and inspectors raise it, we will be forced to reply within 28 days. But that is only the beginning, because this requires a complete change in culture that focuses on getting back to basics: cleaning the prison, reducing the violence, reducing the drugs and making sure the healthcare provision is in place.
This is a big question of management. There are many very hard-working people at Liverpool prison who take their jobs very seriously and work very long hours, but we have to balance that with a recognition that clearly there have been fundamental failings. People will be held to account. Above all, we need to work with the team at the prison to ensure that in future it is a clean and decent place, both to protect the public and to reduce reoffending.
I welcome the Minister’s prompt visit to HMP Liverpool in his new role, and to Altcourse prison, which is in my constituency. His action plan states that there will be a full conditional survey and investment proposal for medium-term refurbishment. Given that Walton prison was built in 1855—some 15 years before this Palace was completed—is that the most realistic outcome for the future of the prison?
It is certainly true that there are challenges with older buildings, as we see with this place, but it is possible to keep them going—Westminster Hall was built in 1080. Stafford prison, which was built in the late 18th century, is a clean and decent prison. We will look carefully at the fabric, and in some cases there is reason to build a new wing. But in Liverpool prison we can make a huge difference simply with £2.5 million for new windows and for refurbishing individual cells.
The inspectors described the conditions at HMP Liverpool as the worst they have seen, citing rat infestations and filthy conditions. Prison maintenance at Liverpool was outsourced to Amey. This shows that the problems with outsourcing go way beyond Carillion, which mismanaged maintenance at 50 different prisons. Will the Secretary of State commit to a review looking at bringing prison maintenance back in house, in Liverpool and at all prisons, as Labour has pledged to do?
We will look carefully at the maintenance issues in Liverpool, but sadly the problems are not only to do with Amey; they are also to do with relationships between management and the contractors and how prisoners were, or were not, used to clean the estate. We have made a huge amount of difference in just the past five weeks by changing not the Amey contract but the management approach and the focus on cleanliness.
I thank the Minister for his answer on Amey and contractors, but it is hard to have faith that he will address the problems at Liverpool or, in fact, any prison, because it has recently come to light that his Government handed £40 million to Carillion in 2017, even after the then prisons Minister had expressed concerns in Parliament about Carillion’s performance in prisons. Will not poor maintenance in Liverpool continue to contribute to inhumane conditions while responsibility is left in the hands of private contractors who, in reality, put profit first?
We do not believe that this is fundamentally an ideological fight between the private and public sectors. Most of those people working for Carillion—70% of them—were public servants just three years ago, and most of those people working for Amey were public servants in the prison service. Most of the problems have been solved through basic management and leadership. There has been a deep clean, the yard units have been increased from five to 18, and the conditions have improved rapidly. In the end, a lot of this is about management, not a private/public debate.
Offenders: Employment and Education
We have been doing three things on education: first, we have been making sure that governors are empowered to bring in their own education providers; secondly, we have been setting minimum standards, particularly on English language learning; and thirdly, through the new futures network, we have been connecting people to jobs.
My hon. Friend the Minister knows that 46% of prisoners have a literacy age of only 11. That proportion is three times the national average, which is still too high. Does he agree that that lack of literacy is often the reason why people go to prison in the first place? Will he explain in a bit more detail how we can reduce the illiteracy level so that we do not get reoffending?
As the Speaker implies in his reprimand to me, the causes of offending are many and multiple. Literacy is one of them, along with many issues relating to people’s health, education, social background and, indeed, our criminal justice system as a whole. Nevertheless, literacy is key to the reduction of reoffending because it is key to getting a good job. Good education provision in prisons, driven by governors, is going to be key to addressing this issue.
Yes. We have empowered governors by having in place a new procurement contract, which means that we in the Ministry are going to do the central procurement bureaucracy, but the governors will be able to choose who they use to train and educate the prisoners. I saw a good example in Altcourse Prison in Liverpool of how governors are also going to be able to choose which companies to pair with. The excellent work on metal welding that I saw in Altcourse will really contribute to those prisoners getting jobs in the community.
Does the Minister agree that whatever plans he comes up with will require there to be enough prison officers on the estate so that they can release prisoners from their cells and take them to education and training classes? Does he now accept that the Government’s dash to reduce the number of prison officers has seriously hampered the chances of preventing prisoners from reoffending?
Among the many challenges that face education in prisons is the issue of numbers, which is why we have now committed to having 2,500 more prison officers on the estate, and we are delivering that ahead of target. That will allow us to have in place the key-worker programmes, in which each officer will be paired with six prisoners to guide them through the process.
Does the Minister accept that there are some good examples of literacy classes in prisons and reoffending rates thereby reducing? Will he undertake to ensure that best practice from throughout the United Kingdom is replicated so that reoffending rates fall across the UK?
That is absolutely true. An enormous number of programmes have huge success in reducing reoffending. For example, in Brixton prison, the Clink programme has reduced reoffending by 43%, but we can do much more to learn the lessons and have a proper standardised document that takes what works elsewhere and drives it through the entire system.
In order to encourage more businesses to take on ex-offenders, the Government need to lead by example and not just by exhortation. The Ban the Box initiative was brought in across Government a few years ago to encourage that. How is ex-offender employment going within Government and the public sector?
First, I wish to pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who did this job far better than I will be able to do. One of the things that he introduced, which is going very well at the moment, is working with the Ministry of Defence. We are providing basic supplies for British military troops. It is something that is providing not just employment to prisoners, but the training and vocational skills they require for future employment.
Prisoners move round the prison system and, in the end, they come out of the prison system. One thing that consistently goes wrong is the lack of consistency in education and training between different institutions and in institutions once the prisoner leaves. The Minister has talked about power to the governor, but governors must work within the construct of the wider environment. What will he do to ensure that we have that consistency?
This is of course a balance between empowering the governor so that they can have a tailored programme that is flexible and works for the prison and having decent national standards. That will mean setting the curriculum at a national level, having the area managers engaged over the governors and also giving the governors the ability to have education that is relevant to their areas—skills that are relevant to the jobs outside the prison gates.
Public safety is the primary consideration in Parole Board decisions on releasing a prisoner. The law requires that the Parole Board may direct release only if it is satisfied that continued detention is no longer necessary for the protection of the public. Parole Board members are selected on account of their experience and ability to assess risk. Their decisions are based on a comprehensive assessment of the ongoing risk posed by the offender, using detailed reports produced by risk management professionals. More broadly, I have already announced that my Department will be carrying out a full review of the relevant processes and procedures in place for victims relating to Parole Board decisions, and we will consider whether they should be improved.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to his post. Both of us worked in the same City firm—Richards Butler—at different stages over a number of years. In light of the recent John Worboys case, my constituents have raised similar concerns with regard to the release of Colin Pitchfork who brutally raped and murdered two teenage girls in my constituency and pleaded not guilty. He was only found guilty as a result of DNA evidence, which was a first at the time. What assurances can my right hon. Friend provide for the safety of my constituents and others who have not been fully considered in this matter? Will he assure us that the Parole Board will take into account the safety of our citizens in regard to Mr Pitchfork’s release?
I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. The safety of the public is the Parole Board’s overriding concern in considering whether a prisoner should be released, and that will be the Board’s concern when it comes to reviewing Pitchfork’s detention. I can confirm that the families of Pitchfork’s victims are receiving regular contact under the Probation Service Victim Contact Scheme. Specifically, they have been given the opportunity to submit a victim personal statement to the Parole Board and to make representations regarding licence conditions for any upcoming parole hearing.
In relation to the Parole Board’s review of public safety, for those of us with deeply concerned victims of John Worboys in our constituencies, can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government will at least co-operate with the judicial review now being brought by victims?
In my statement to the House on Friday, I set out that I would not be pursuing a judicial review on behalf of the Government in this case, but I also made it very clear that I did not want to say or do anything that would in any way stand in the way of others who may have different routes into a judicial review. I maintain that position.
Victims of Crime
The Government want victims to get the support they need to cope with, and as far as possible recover from, the effects of crime. We are spending £96 million in 2017-18 to fund critical support services for victims of crime. That includes £7.2 million for nationally commissioned rape support services.
John Worboys lived in Rotherhithe in my constituency and is not welcome back. He has not served the sentence he was given and was not prosecuted for the vast majority of his crimes. How are the Government working with victims, police authorities and the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure that sex attackers are prosecuted for their crimes, and how is the Ministry of Justice better ensuring that victims’ rights are upheld in future parole decisions?
The case of Worboys has troubled us all; it has troubled me personally—of course it has. In this particular case, Dame Glenys Stacey is investigating the review from a probation point of view. As the Secretary of State has already said, there are operational responsibilities with regard to where he is transferred to and the directions when he is released and where he can go. The Department is engaged with that on a daily basis.
The biggest insult that can be given to a victim of crime is the imposition of a derisory sentence on the offender. Will my hon. Friend update the House on his plans to widen the scope of the unduly lenient sentence scheme, as set out in the Conservative party manifesto?
We all know that, too often, victims are failed by the criminal justice system. That is presumably why, in 2015, the Conservatives matched Labour’s manifesto commitment to enshrine victims’ rights in a victims law. It is three years on. Can Ministers give me a single good reason why it has not happened?
I first pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), for his extraordinary work on drones. We have done a range of work, ranging from Operation Trenton with the police, which took place in 2016, through to the conviction of over 28 individuals for drone-related offences.
We have established specialist teams for prisons that have particular vulnerabilities to drone attacks. I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss some of the legislative issues. I also believe that there is much more we can do on basic issues such as netting and grills, as well as focusing on high technology.
Two types of technology can be used on mobile telephones. One is jamming technology, and the second, which is more commonly used in prison, is a wand to detect mobile telephones. An astonishing number of phones—at over 20,000, there are far too many—are detected in prisons. We should be addressing this in two ways. The first is by making sure that they do not get in: these are closed environments and we should be able to massively reduce the amount coming in. The second is that, by putting phones in cells to allow people to talk to their families, we can monitor the calls and control the need for phones in the first place.
The Ministry of Justice has plans for a £1 billion modernisation programme for the courts. This will streamline and simplify processes using technology, helping those who work in the courts and those who use them.
Will the Minister give an assessment of the Department’s recent work in improving the performance of the alternative dispute resolution scheme, which is intended to help consumers resolve disputes with traders but also to ease the volume of work in the courtroom?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance and value of alternative dispute resolutions. Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service already runs a small claims mediation service to help parties resolve claims worth under £10,000 before a hearing. We are also working to offer an online mediation service for those who begin their claims online.
Under this Government hundreds of courts have closed, and I now see that Fleetwood court is on the latest consultation list. How do these court closures contribute to a positive experience for “those who work in the courts and those who use them”?
Last year, nationally, court and tribunal services were used at only 58% of their available hearing capacity. Moreover, as I have outlined, we are planning to spend £1 billion on modernising the courts service by using technology to put some processes online and employ video evidence more effectively. In those circumstances, it is appropriate to consider the best use of the money that we spend on the legal services system, as we are doing through a consultation that will include the hon. Lady’s local magistrates court. We will listen closely. It is important to remember, however, that all the money saved through any court closures will be put back into the justice system, making sure that it works effectively for everybody in it.
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.
It sounds like an appalling case. I ask the hon. Lady to write to me about it and I am happy to meet her.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Personal Independence Payment
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to make a statement on the recent ruling by the High Court over the judicial review on the application of personal independence payments to persons with mental health problems.
After careful consideration, I took the decision not to appeal the High Court’s judgment on this case. I informed the House of my decision immediately by tabling a written statement on Friday last week. The written statement set out my decision and the steps that my Department will now take to implement that judgment, although I welcome coming to the House today in addition to that.
I repeat once again my commitment to implementing this judgment in the best interests of our claimants and through working closely with disabled people and key stakeholders over the coming months. The Department for Work and Pensions will undertake an exercise to go through all affected cases in receipt of PIP and all decisions made following the judgment in the MH case to identify anyone who might be entitled to more as a result of the judgment. We will then write to the individuals affected and all payments will be backdated to the effective date in each individual’s claim.
In accepting the outcome of the High Court judgment, the Department does not agree with some of the details in it. The 2017 amending regulations were introduced in response to an upper tribunal case that broadened the interpretation of eligibility for mobility 1—the ability to plan and follow a journey. Our intention has always been to deliver the original policy intent through clarifying how symptoms of overwhelming psychological distress should be assessed. We are not appealing the outcome of the recent High Court judgment to provide certainty to our claimants.
Our next steps will build on the positive work that the Government are already undertaking: spending on the main disability benefits—PIP, the disability living allowance and the attendance allowance—has risen by £4.2 billion since 2010 and real terms spending on disability benefits will be higher every year to 2020 than in 2010. The Government have commissioned two expert-led reviews and invested a record £11.6 billion in mental health services. Access to Work’s mental health support service has been expanded with a two-year trial of targeted support for apprentices with mental health conditions. We have also accepted all the recommendations in the independent review by Lord Stevenson and Paul Farmer, including establishing a framework for large employers to voluntarily report on mental health and disability within their organisation.
With regard to the next steps following this judgment, the DWP will write to those who may be entitled to a higher rate of PIP. Where relevant, all payments will be backdated to the effective date in each individual claim.
PIP is a modern, dynamic and fairer benefit than its predecessor, DLA, and focuses the most support on those who are experiencing the greatest barriers to living independently. At the core of PIP’s design is the principle that awards of the benefit should be made according to the claimant’s overall level of need, regardless of whether they suffer from physical or non-physical conditions. The Government are committed to furthering rights and opportunities for all disabled people and we continue to spend over £50 billion a year to support people with disabilities and health conditions.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for attending the House today and welcome her to her recent appointment. It seems that Secretaries of State for Work and Pensions change with astonishing regularity, but the Government’s callous and chaotic attempt to attack the rights of the poor, sick and disabled continues unabated. Although the Secretary of State said that she is pleased to come to the House to make this statement, she did not take the two or three opportunities she had over the past few days to do so, without waiting for an urgent question. Instead, she waited for a month after the High Court decision and then submitted a written statement on a Friday morning, when she knew nobody would be here to read it.
The High Court has ruled yet again that the Government have been acting unlawfully in their incessant attack on the very people the DWP should be seeking to protect. We now know that up to 164,000 people will get higher disability payments—or, to put it another way, that the Government have unlawfully been seeking to withhold benefits from up to 164,000 people who are not only entitled to them but who need them if they are to have anything like the normal life that the more fortunate among us take for granted.
This is not the first time the Government have been overturned in the courts. We have previously seen the courts ruling against the Government on the imposition of benefits sanctions, where the Government were acting unlawfully, and before that on the iniquitous bedroom tax. That one is particularly poignant for my constituents just now because the man who stood up to the DWP over the bedroom tax and won, Davie Nelson, a Glenrothes man through and through, sadly died very suddenly last week. His family and friends will be pleased that others are continuing the campaign for social justice that Davie fought so bravely.
The Secretary of State has promised that her Department will now seek to identify anyone who should be receiving higher benefits. My office has estimated, on the basis of preliminary constituency casework, that there could be 71 people in my constituency alone not getting the money they are entitled to. Will she update us on how many people she now thinks have been underpaid? How long will it take to carry out the review? How much longer will these people have to wait to receive the money that they rely on and which is rightfully and lawfully theirs? Will she explain why her Department is amassing such an appalling record of defeats in the courts? Does that not tell the Government something about how they are making these cuts to benefits? Finally, will she now commit to delivering a social security system whose fundamental principle is not to work down to a budget but to protect and respect the dignity of those who rely on it, and not continue to punish people for having disabilities?
There have been changes in the DWP. Some people have come back, having previously worked here and seen what the changes were, and I am back here, several years later, and hence was probably a good person to say that we would not be appealing the court case.
On the timetable, I made the judgment just a week and a half after being made Secretary of State. It took up most of my time. It was a Friday—and could not have been any other time—because that was the deadline I had to meet for the legal judgment. At the same time, I made sure, following all protocol, that there was a written statement on exactly what had been done.
The benefit was always intended to be a dynamic benefit. Hon. Members on both sides of the House understood that DLA was focused on physical disabilities, and all parties decided there needed to be a more dynamic benefit that reflected invisible disabilities, which we all know are very difficult to assess. The extra money and support went into acknowledging that.
There has been massive change, and also massive understanding, in terms of what is going on. When I stood here all those years ago in 2013 talking about what the budget would be, people said we were cutting it. I explained the matter very clearly, though it fell on deaf ears, and I was often vilified. People still said it was being cut, but it was not. When I arrived, the budget was just over £13 billion, and it has gone up every year since, and will continue to go up. That is in real terms. Much of the vilification, therefore, was not only unnecessary but deeply untrue, and that again is why I welcome the opportunity to come to the Dispatch Box to explain what is going on.
Changing benefits is not always easy. Expanding support is not always easy. We knew at the time we were taking on a very difficult change and that there would no doubt be legal challenges. When there are legal challenges, however, we must look at them, make a true and fair judgment and carry on along that path, and I believe that in this instance I made a fair judgment. Today, the Glasgow Herald welcomed the decision—although I accept that the piece in question picked on various other issues—and it was also welcomed by Paul Farmer, the chief executive of Mind. My hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work has met her Scottish counterpart; they, too, welcome the decision and look forward to establishing closer working relationships and making plans for its implementation.
I hope that what I have said explains what we have done, and I hope that what we have done is welcomed by Members on both sides of the House. If the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) would like to talk to me about a specific case or constituent, my door is open, and I will meet him.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to her post, and I welcome her knowledge in making this decision. In supporting her, I remind the House that it was our predecessor Labour Government who put off changes in disability living allowance deliberately before the election and that afterwards we were faced with the decision to make those necessary changes. More money is now spent on disability benefits year on year, and more people, including those with mental health conditions, will receive them. DLA never delivered that to those people before.
I thank my right hon. Friend. He spent many years working on social issues and cases, and established the Centre for Social Justice. The change that he brought about was not just about changing the benefits, but about reaching out to people who are sometimes left alone. Some of those people did want to be helped to get back into work. They did want to talk about their hopes and aspirations. There are now over 600,000 more disabled people in work, because they chose that path towards self-determination and the fulfilment of their ambitions and hopes.
Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant).
Any disabled person who listened to what was said by the Secretary of State will have been gobsmacked by the suggestion that there is a commitment to disabled people. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has described the Government’s action as a “human catastrophe”. The cuts that they have wrought on disabled people are an absolute disgrace.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) said when she raised a point of order yesterday, the Government sneaked out a written statement late on Friday, announcing that they would not appeal against the High Court judgment of 21 December, in effect reversing the emergency PIP regulations that they had introduced in February last year. Those regulations were introduced without a vote or a debate, despite two urgent questions and an emergency debate, and despite widespread concern about their impact. The Government’s own Social Security Advisory Committee was not consulted. I warned at the time:
“The move to undermine and subvert independent tribunal judgments is unprecedented, and ... marks very troubling behaviour by the Government on cases they lose that could weaken such social security tribunal judgments’ reach, influence and effectiveness in making independent decisions.”—[Official Report, 28 March 2017; Vol. 624, c. 145.]
I am pleased that the Secretary of State and her Department have finally seen sense, but there are a number of questions that the Secretary of State must answer—questions that have already been put by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea. How many people does her Department estimate have been affected? How quickly will her Department be able to identify affected claimants, and by what process? Given the issues relating to letters from that Department, it is a little worrying if that is the only means.
How soon after identification will the Department make back payments? Will there be an appeal process for PIP claimants who are not contacted by the Department and who believe they should receive such payments? Will the Department compensate claimants who have fallen into debt and accrued interest charges? Will applicants be entitled to a reassessment if they were given the standard rate of the PIP mobility component after the February 2017 changes to PIP regulations, when the cause of the claim was “psychological distress”?
Finally, just how much public money has been spent by the Department on lawyers and legal advice seeking to defend the indefensible in the initial tribunal and the more recent court case?
This sorry debacle should serve as a warning to the Government of the dangers of seeking to undermine and subvert the decisions of our independent judiciary and the House of Commons.
Can we start the dialogue on a firm and factual footing, which I set out before, and dispel the myth about the spend on disabled people? The facts speak for themselves: in real terms, the money has gone up. In this place, we are supposed to have the definitive facts of an argument, so I seek to give those here.
This was not about a policy change; it was about implementing the correct regulation after a court case. It came about after taking advice from and working with experts in the field on how to help people with severe psychological disorders. It was about support by prompting and by aid and assistance; at the time, it was not deemed to be something for people with severe learning disabilities, who might want a constant companion. That was how the regulations were set down, after advice was sought on the best approach, because this is a tailor-made benefit. However, the judgment in the case went the other way. We will work with MIND and with charities and stakeholders in the field to implement this as quickly as possible, but it is not just about speed; it has to be right and effective and to work for the people it is made for. That will take some time, but we will do it as quickly as possible.
Up to 220,000 people could be affected. That is why we are taking the process very seriously. We as a Department will reach out to those people, once we know exactly what we are doing. I reiterate that, according to figures from 27 October, 66% of PIP recipients with mental health conditions get the enhanced daily living component, compared with 22% who received the highest DLA care component; and 31% of PIP recipients with mental health conditions get the enhanced mobility rate, compared with just 10% of DLA recipients. Those facts speak for themselves. We know that this is a highly emotive issue, but it would be helpful if all MPs when working with their constituents offered them the help and guidance they need, and not ramp up some of the rhetoric and incorrect information we have heard here.
Finally, I was asked about legal costs. The cost in these cases was £181,000, but a Department as big as the DWP expects the costs of court cases to be that high, and they are comparable with those of other Departments engaged in similar judicial review cases.
I am so pleased the new Secretary of State has decided to accept the court ruling, and I thank her very much indeed. As I and colleagues said last year, we should have listened to the message the courts were giving us. Accepting their ruling will be a significant step forward in achieving parity of esteem for mental and physical health. The Select Committee on Work and Pensions, of which I am a member, is about to publish a report on PIP and employment and support allowance. Will the Secretary of State seriously consider our recommendations on how to improve both those benefits? We all want the same thing—the best possible support for people who need it.
I thank my hon. Friend, who is a vocal champion of people with disabilities, as is every other Conservative Back Bencher—and Members in all parts of the House. That is why this is sometimes such an emotive issue—everybody wants to be heard. I will indeed listen to her and take on board the recommendations of the Select Committee.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this important urgent question. I congratulate my hon. and assiduous Friend the Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) on securing it.
The High Court ruled that the UK Government’s PIP regulations were “blatantly discriminatory” against people with mental health impairments. That follows the damning report from the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which found “systematic violations” of disability rights. Although I welcome the Secretary of State’s acceptance of the High Court ruling—a position I hope the Government will adopt more regularly in response to High Court defeats on social security policy—I was worried by an aspect of her written statement, which was sneaked out on Friday. She said on Friday and again today that
“Although I and my Department accept the High Court’s judgment, we do not agree with some of the detail contained therein.”—[Official Report, 19 January 2018; Vol. 634, c. 30WS.]
Will she clarify that she will implement the ruling in full? Will she make an oral statement on the Floor of the House, so that we can consider whether the response follows the High Court ruling? Will she answer the pertinent questions put by my hon. Friend regarding the timescales—a matter she has not covered? Finally, in the light of the ruling and other external interventions, will the Government admit that their policies are causing harm and commit to widescale review of the social security system in the United Kingdom?
We will implement the judgment in full, but we will work with stakeholders and charities to understand and implement what was said. When we said we did not agree with the detail, it was a reference to the language and terminology that went above and beyond a legal ruling and judgment, but we saw through that to the facts and that is why we decided not to appeal.
I reiterate that I am not the kind of person who sneaks anything out. I have come to this House and answered every question. I set out the timetable. The matter had to go to the Court for a decision on Friday. The House was not sitting by the time I made the decision, so I put out a written statement. I hope that all hon. Members understand that it is better to get a decision right than to rush just to answer in a different way. Nothing was sneaked out.
Again, I reiterate the support the Government give and have said they will give to people with mental health conditions. The Prime Minister has made that a key issue that she wants to deal with, and she and I came to that decision to do so.
I strongly welcome the Secretary of State’s decision, which will benefit a lot of disabled people. We all know that DLA was a far worse benefit for people with mental health problems than PIP. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, even before the ruling, far more disabled people were receiving PIP than had ever received DLA?
Absolutely. I thank my hon. Friend, who knows a great deal about this subject and is also a member of the Work and Pensions Committee. He has given the correct facts. We as a compassionate Conservative Government will do as much as we can to help people who need our help.
I welcome the right hon. Lady to her place and I welcome her statement. Given the size of the task before her, with up to 220,000 people affected, may I again press her to give some sort of timetable for meeting that objective? Might she start by writing to the oldest claimants first, and might she put a monthly report in the House of Commons Library on progress to that end?
The right hon. Gentleman is another champion for these causes. As he suggests, this is a mammoth task, and I will be working with experts in the field and doing things as sympathetically and effectively as possible. I will listen to all the advice that he has offered me.
I very much support the Secretary of State’s decision, and I am sure that she is delighted that the Opposition parties called for an urgent question so that they could tell her how much they support her decision on the court case. Or at least I think that is what they were saying. I also very much welcome the fact that we are now spending far more money on people with disabilities than the last Labour Government did, which probably explains the anger with which the shadow Secretary of State gave her performance. Will my right hon. Friend look at measures to try to get the decision making on PIP right first time? In too many cases, the right decision is not made the first time, and I hope that she will look at that urgently, and early in her time in office.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for his comments. He always likes to see things in his own inimitable way, and he is quite right. Both sides of the House are meant to be supporting this decision, but listening to the tone and the noises coming from the Opposition Benches, it is difficult to believe that. He makes a fair point about getting the decisions right first time and helping the decision makers to get it right. There was an independent review—the Gray review—and we will be taking its advice on board.
I, too, welcome the right hon. Lady to her post. I also welcome the decision that she has made. Bearing in mind the fact that many disability benefit claimants with mental health issues struggle to get out of the house, does she share my concern and that of the Work and Pensions Committee about the great discrepancies between contractors and between regions? There are discrepancies relating to the number of people being allowed a home visit for their benefits assessments. Will she please review this, to ensure that those people can get the benefits they deserve and not be sanctioned because they cannot leave their house?
The hon. Lady has raised a good point about how some people are visited while others have to go in for assessment and support. That was part of the freedoms of contracting, so that we could get best practice. Were some people better seen at home? Were other people better seen in their local community? We constantly gauge and value that, and we will continue to do so.
Building on this very positive announcement, we all need to do more to support people with mental health conditions, and one of the biggest challenges is identifying people with those conditions. The PIP process can play a crucial role in that. Will the Secretary of State therefore bring forward plans to enable us to signpost those identified for the additional targeted support that is available across all parts of the Government, so that they can get the maximum amount of help?
How many staff in the Department for Work and Pensions will be directly deployed on the rectification process? I ask because the evidence is that the number of staff in the DWP used to complete any kind of task involving a complaint or a rectification is directly relevant to how long it takes them to complete the process.
My right hon. Friend raises another good point. The UK is one of the most generous countries in the world when it comes to supporting its disabled people. In the G7, only Germany spends more. We spend what is deemed appropriate and available, which is more than £50 billion. I reiterate that we are one of the most generous countries in the world.
Vulnerable people with severe mental health problems in my constituency have had to resort to a distressing appeals process in order to secure the support they are entitled to. This is wholly inappropriate. Pursuant to the answer that the Secretary of State gave to the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), may I ask when we can expect to see some progress from her Department to ensure that individuals are assessed for psychological conditions by mental health clinicians in the first instance?
I welcome my right hon. Friend to her place. We are all right behind her, whatever some people might say. From my experience as an MP in South Dorset, I suspect that the main problem relating to people slipping through the net is the lack of home visits. I agree with the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) on this point. I suspect that such visits are more expensive, but I think that they would save money in the longer term because the assessment would be more accurate. Will my right hon. Friend look into this, to ensure that we hit the targets smack on, first time?
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words and support. Anyone in need of a home visit can have a home visit, and I will be looking at the communications relating to this, because perhaps people, including MPs, do not know that. This is something else that we need to work on.
We on the DWP Select Committee heard some alarming evidence and unconvincing answers from contractors about the number of staff who had specialist knowledge of mental health. Can the Secretary of State confirm that she will take this up with the contractors and carry out a review of the assessment process?
I have indeed got a date in the diary to be on a PIP decision-making process. I met the contractors last week. I had obviously done that when I was last in the House, but I need to be updated to see exactly what is going on. I have had meetings on this, but the hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that there is nothing quite like going through the process myself.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her statement. I recently visited my local jobcentre in Stockport and met the great work coaches there who are doing so much to help people back into work. Will she join me in congratulating them, and perhaps explain how this is going to help us in our quest to help a further 1 million people into work?
My hon. Friend and neighbour rightly acknowledges the work that the work coaches do in her constituency and right across the country. The aim of the Government in carrying out this transformation was to get a tailor-made benefit service, whether through PIP or universal credit, so that the work coaches know who they are dealing with and therefore how they can help and support them in the best possible ways. The Government should be proud of what they are aiming to do.
This was an ill-advised attempt to reduce the amount of benefit payable to people with mental health problems, and I am glad that it has been abandoned. Will the Secretary of State take steps to ensure that, in future, her Department complies with its obligations under the Equality Act 2010?
The right hon. Gentleman is very knowledgeable on this subject, and we spent hours debating these issues across the Dispatch Box when I was last in the House. He knows as well as I do that we always aim to fulfil all obligations. If we do not, this is what happens: we get a court case and we have to deal with the consequences. I hope that I have dealt with them correctly today and received support across the House. I will not be seeking leave to appeal, and that is right on this occasion.
I, too, warmly welcome the Secretary of State to her post. I am visiting my local jobcentre in Poole on Friday, so will the Secretary of State set out how our new jobcentres will support my constituents and others across the country with mental health challenges into work?
As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson), this is about tailor-made and flexible support. We are putting in place more training so that people understand mental health conditions, and we are giving our work coaches and mental health assistants as much support as possible. As I say, this is about tailor-made and flexible support.
The Secretary of State talks about the unnecessary vilification of her policies, but her Government were responsible for the vilification of so many mentally disabled people by presenting them as applying for benefits to which they were not entitled. I have seen the misery that such decisions caused many of my constituents, including those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a consequence of sexual abuse. Will the Secretary of State now confirm the maximum amount of time that they will have to wait to have their cases reviewed?
It is unfortunate when Opposition Members try to ratchet up the level of emotion in the Chamber, especially when the situation is as emotional as it is. Nobody has ever sought to vilify anyone, and we should get it on the record now that this is not about vilifying anybody—it is about the giving the right support to those who need it. Surely all of us want to focus resources and money on the most disabled people and on the disabled people who need that money. I hope that I can end on that note. The facts speak for themselves: we have spent more than Labour ever did.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s decision. Does she agree that it is simply nonsense to suggest that the Government are not interested in this agenda? More money is going into the programme than ever. The life chances agenda, which has significantly challenged the welfare state that previously kept a lot of people out of work, is fundamentally changing our country, including communities such as Plymouth, for the better.
My hon. Friend hits on an important point. The Conservative party and the law that it is bringing in are all about life chances. That is how we view the world. Social mobility, life chances, a foot on the ladder and a career ladder are what we aim to provide all the time.
This will sound like a bit of an advert, but I want to highlight the fact that the Minister for Disabled People holds PIP sessions that all MPs can attend. If anybody has anything that they want to bring to her, they can go to one of those sessions. The sessions take place regularly, and she is holding one today.
What we are hearing about today is a court judgment that found the Government’s policy wanting, but the Secretary of State has come to the House seeking plaudits for now not appealing that decision, and that is frankly unacceptable. While it is right for those who were not given the help and support that they needed to get a backdated payment, that payment does not remedy the trauma that they faced during the years when they did not have support. Will the Secretary of State offer an unequivocal apology from the Dispatch Box for the consequences of her Department’s policy? Whether intended or not, it was her Government’s decision that led to people struggling at home, and that is simply not right.
That was another reason for making a written statement, as well as the time constraints and what we had to do to adhere to the legal ruling. I have not come here today for plaudits. I have come here to do what is right and to explain what is right. That is what I have done, and that is the key thing for all our constituents and the people who are watching this closely at home. We have made a decision. I believe that it has been accepted on both sides of the House, and we are going to get things right.
I warmly welcome this decision, and it is worth noting that this new Secretary of State made it after only eight working days in her role, which represents a decisive course of action. Is it not the case that the entire focus of the Department, which I know well, is on ensuring that those with mental disabilities and challenges have opportunities to access the workplace and lead independent lives? In making this decision, the Secretary of State has shown that that is her focus.
I thank the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) for securing this urgent question, but I also thank the Secretary of State for her response and promise of action. In my office, transfers from DLA to PIP occupy a large proportion of my staff’s time. For people with severe anxiety, depression and emotional and mental health issues, some of whom are suicidal, the system has pushed them to the very edge, even when there has been copious evidence and information from consultants, GPs and family members. I ask that the staff who process applications do so with more knowledge, more understanding and certainly more compassion.