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Volume 637: debated on Tuesday 6 March 2018

The Secretary of State was asked—

Court Closures

1. What recent assessment his Department has made of the effect of court closures on access to justice. (904186)

Maintaining access to justice is a key principle when changes to the estate are proposed. Before issuing our consultation on court closures in January, we assessed the impact on access to justice—principally, the changes in travel time for court users. The decision to close a court is never taken lightly, and is made only after full public consultation and where we are satisfied that access to justice is maintained. Our reform programme will improve access to justice for many users, while allowing many needs to be met without the need to attend court. Online solutions and video hearings will make access to justice easier.

The Minister’s experience is not happening in my constituency, where Buxton court closed in 2016. Some of my constituents now have to travel 40 miles on a one-and-a-half-hour trip to Chesterfield court. The police say that it now takes them a whole day to take someone to court, whereas it used to take less than half a day, and that is having an impact on the number of offenders they can bring to court and on justice in my area. Please will the Minister take this into account in the current consultation?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments, but we also have to take into account the fact that 41% of courts and tribunals used less than half their available hearing capacity during the financial year 2016-17, and across the country courts are utilised at 58% of their capacity. In those circumstances, where resources are scarce we have to make decisions about the reforms we undertake.

I have been raising concerns about the closure of Lambeth county court for the past two years, and the court finally closed in December. My constituents facing the repossession of their homes must now attend Clerkenwell county court, which lawyers report to be a chaotic environment, which is impossible to contact by telephone, where cases and files frequently go missing and where the number of respondents failing to attend is rocketing. When will the Justice Secretary take action to address this unacceptable situation?

The reality is that we are undertaking a series of reforms, making much greater use of digital technology and increasing access to online ways of dealing with this. This is an important modernisation that the courts system needs.

Very sadly, we have lost our magistrates court in Kettering, which, I have to say to the Government, was a mistake. It means that magistrates, the police and witnesses are all having to travel further. The closure of court sends a poor signal to the magistracy that they are not valued. Can we get rid of this ridiculous age limit, whereby magistrates have to retire at the age of 70?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this point, on which I have received representations. This is consistent with what happens elsewhere within the judiciary, but I am conscious that it will continue to be a matter of some debate.

The Government are continuing to cut court staff, close courts and sign contracts worth millions of pounds for their digitisation programme. These are huge changes, which will have an impact on our courts for decades. Will the Minister promise not to close any more courts or sign contracts until the courts Bill is published and the matter has been debated fully in this Chamber?

I hope to be able to bring forward further news on the courts Bill in the near future, but I am not going to give the undertaking the hon. Lady seeks. It is important that we continue to look to get the best out of the resources we have. If that means reforms here in making greater use of digital technology and ensuring that our court estate is as rational and efficient as possible, we will need to continue to do that.

Vulnerable Witnesses

3. What assessment his Department has made of the time taken to bring to court criminal cases involving vulnerable witnesses. (904189)

I understand that the hon. Gentleman has a great interest in this area and did a lot of work when he was the police and crime commissioner of Greater Manchester, calling for a review of how victims and witnesses are treated in the criminal justice system. It is right that cases come to court as quickly as possible, and timeliness in the criminal courts system is improving. The average mean number of days from listing to completion is down from 33 in 2015 to 27 in the third quarter of 2017. Unfortunately, as he will know, there are particular challenges in relation to sex offences, where it does take longer for cases to come to court.

The Minister is absolutely right that there are complexities in cases of, for example, child sexual abuse or rape. Nevertheless, constant, even legitimate, adjournments in cases can lead to months of delay. Sometimes, it takes years before victims come to court. Victims who are already traumatised by what has happened to them deserve better than to be traumatised by the process. Can we make them a priority?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we need to be extremely careful with vulnerable witnesses and witnesses in sex cases and ensure that they get justice. We are bringing in and rolling out measures on the taking of their evidence to ensure that they can do that pre-trial and therefore safely, which will speed up justice. As the hon. Gentleman knows and as the Secretary of State has mentioned, we are hoping to introduce the courts Bill, which will ensure the streamlining of justice and do away with unnecessary hearings. Hopefully, that will speed up access to justice.

Will the Minister further outline what training lawyers receive in the handling of vulnerable witnesses? Does the Department intend to make updates to such training compulsory?

In the family court, all judges have training on dealing with vulnerable witnesses. I am sure that the Crown Prosecution Service has training as well.

Victims and Witnesses: Court Experience

4. What steps his Department is taking to improve the court experience for victims and witnesses. (904190)

We are committed to improving the experiences of those who have become victims of crime, which is why, by the summer, we will publish our victims strategy, a key aspect of which is how we can improve support for victims as they interact with the criminal justice system.

I welcome the steps the Government have taken. Does my hon. Friend agree that the video hearing system and other new technologies have the potential not only to improve victims’ experience in court but to increase court capacity?

My hon. Friend is right. Ensuring that victims of crime are able to give evidence in the easiest possible way is among our highest priorities. The roll-out of new video and audio technology will ensure that courts and their work loads are managed more efficiently.

The serious case review of the appalling sexual abuse of girls and vulnerable adults in Newcastle was published last month. Although it generally praised the actions of local authorities, the police and so on, it also raised significant concerns about how the victims of these appalling crimes were supported and the way they were made to relive harrowing experiences. Will the Minister be responding directly to the Spicer review’s recommendations?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. The Department is of course aware of that serious case review of the sexual exploitation of children. The details are shocking. Like all the agencies involved, we are looking into ways to continuously improve our service. I shall write to the hon. Lady about whether we will respond directly to that review.

Is the Minister aware of new regulations that the Scottish Government are introducing to exempt domestic abuse victims, recipients of crisis welfare support and those on low incomes from civil court fees? What discussions is he having with the Scottish Government about what lessons he might learn from that process?

We have plenty to learn from what is happening in Scotland with regard to the way we deal with women who are victims of domestic abuse, and indeed offenders who have been victims of domestic abuse. As the Justice Minister with responsibility for the devolved Administrations, my discussions continue regularly. I look forward to learning from Scotland in future.

The Government had plans to legislate to ban alleged domestic abusers from cross-examining their victims in the family courts. Is that still Government policy? If so, when will such a provision be put before the House? Every day that there is a delay, more vulnerable people get tormented in court.

The right hon. Gentleman is spot on in his analysis. The abuse and coercion of females, invariably by males, through the court process is wrong and not acceptable. We will bring forward details on how we intend to address that in the Bill that is coming later this year.

The court experience can be a bewildering one—it can often feel like a different planet. That is not helped by the fact that 72% of court judges are men. It is International Women’s Day on Thursday; will the Government commit to a timetable to ensure that 50% of court judges are women?

The hon. Lady points to something with which I would agree. It would be appropriate if the number of women in that position in our society was greater. I am supporting International Women’s Day by visiting HMP Bronzefield on Thursday evening. I cannot commit to a timetable—the hon. Lady knows that—but I will certainly take away her suggestion.

Unduly Lenient Sentences

As the House will be aware, a major change in the law was brought in in 1988 to allow victims to be able to challenge unduly lenient sentences. At the moment, that applies to the most serious indictable offences, but the Government have recently extended it to a range of terrorist offences.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, but as he well knows the Government have promised for quite some time—including in our manifesto—to extend it to a further range of offences. When will the Government pull their finger out and extend the number of cases that can be appealed for being unduly lenient, as we have been promising for quite some time?

As I have already said in my answer, the most serious offences—murder and so on—are already covered by the unduly lenient sentence scheme. We have extended it twice in the past few years, but we are talking very closely to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General about looking at other opportunities to extend the scheme.

The Secretary of State will know that I regularly write to him about unduly lenient and unduly severe sentences, but I never ever seem to get a reply. The fact is that too many women are locked up for non-violent offences for long periods of time, and that is the sort of case that I write to him about. Why do we never get any comeback?

It is reassuring to know that I am not the only person to whom the hon. Gentleman regularly writes. I am grateful to him for confirming that important fact on the Floor of the House.

To get to the nub of the hon. Gentleman’s question, there is a very serious issue here, which is that it is absolutely true that there are many more women in prison than we would like. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), is working very hard to reduce that population for exactly the reasons that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

While I welcome the fact that victims can ask for a review in relation to unduly lenient sentences, there is an absolute 28-day limit on that. A criminal case can be very traumatising for victims. Will the Minister consider perhaps introducing a discretion in relation to that 28-day absolute limit?

That is a very interesting idea. Perhaps the hon. Lady and I can sit down to discuss that interesting idea in more detail.

Prison Officer Recruitment

Skilled professional prison officers are absolutely heart and centre of running good prisons. That is why we have committed to recruiting 2,500 extra prison officers. I am pleased to say that we are now nine months ahead of target on delivering those prison officers.

I of course welcome the fact that the Government are making progress in recruiting extra prison officers, but will the Minister reassure the House that he is making every effort to retain the services of experienced and long-serving officers who are absolutely essential for mentoring new recruits into the service?

Absolutely. As my hon. Friend points out, this is not just about numbers. Working in a prison is incredibly challenging, and having the experience and the prison craft to do it is vital, so we are putting incentive schemes in place to try to retain our most experienced staff and to understand, when they do leave, why they are doing so.

There is a huge opportunity for rehabilitation in prisons, which is often not taken. What rehabilitative capacity will this increase in prison officers create?

The central objective of bringing in 2,500 extra prison officers is to allow us to pair each individual prison officer with six prisoners, which allows them to develop their individual personal relationship over time through weekly meetings to achieve exactly the rehabilitative and educational objectives needed to reduce reoffending and protect the public.

The redevelopment of Wellingborough prison will provide many new employment opportunities for people across Northamptonshire, including in my constituency, but what are the Government doing to attract local people into the profession and to encourage them to stay in the role—including, for example, former members of the armed forces?

I am very pleased that this has been raised. As you will be aware, Mr Speaker, almost 40% of prison officers traditionally came from the armed forces, but that number has fallen. We are now working very closely with the Ministry of Defence to explain what an interesting career this can be, and we are doing a lot of advertising. But the most important thing we can do is remind people that, as we have all seen when meeting prison officers, although it is a very challenging and sometimes quite difficult career it also can be a deeply fulfilling one, and we would like to encourage many more people to come forward into the profession.

15. What effect does the Minister think the shortage of prison officers has on the number of suicides and the amount of self-harm in prisons? (904202)

There are a number of drivers of suicide and self-harm, of which the number of staff is one. There are other questions around the estate, but probably the largest single driver that we have seen since 2011 is the use of new psychotropic drugs that are creating extraordinary psychotic episodes and leading to a direct increase in violence. We must address those drugs.

The Government’s recruitment drive is welcome, but is it not true that we are just now catching up? The number of staff at Feltham young offenders institution in my constituency has fallen by a third, from 600 in 2013 to 461, which has had a huge impact on the governor and staff. The institution has been deemed unsafe for both staff and prisoners. Is it not time that the Government committed to working closely with staff and the Prison Officers Association to tackle this crisis and ensure that we get back on track with rehabilitation for young offenders?

One hundred per cent.—we will be working very closely with prison officers for exactly that reason. As the hon. Lady points out, we must get the numbers right. Those 2,500 extra prison officers will be vital in order to get the 1:6 ratio needed for rehabilitation.

I have listened carefully this morning to the Secretary of State talking about high-security prisons. Ministers talk of finally starting to address the crisis that they made by axing so many prison officers, yet over a third of high-security prisons have actually seen a fall in the number of prison officers since the Department’s so-called recruitment drive began. Will the Minister guarantee that these high-security prisons will have more staff by the next Justice questions?

One of the challenges around the high-security estate, particularly in places such as London, has been the employment opportunities. We have put new incentives in place—a signing-on bonus and a retention bonus—to recruit people in London. I am not in a position to guarantee the employment market exactly, but we are making a lot of progress—for example, in recruitment to the high-security Belmarsh Prison in London.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but nearly one in four prisons has seen prison officer numbers fall since the Government’s recruitment drive began. Moving on, we have another problem of very experienced officers leaving the service, creating a dangerous cocktail of inexperienced officers and experienced prisoners. In the last year alone, 1,000 prison officers with more than five years’ experience each have left the service. That is the equivalent of more than 5,000 years of experience in the Prison Service lost in the last year alone. Will the Minister guarantee that there will be more prison officers will five years’ experience at the end of the year than there are now?

The hon. Gentleman’s fundamental point is right: we need experienced prison officers. It is very difficult working in a prison. We can bring in huge numbers of new junior staff, but it will be difficult to get the kind of results we need unless they have experience. We therefore have a plan whereby we have targeted the prisons that are losing the most experienced officers and we are understanding why that is happening. We are both working with the staff and putting in place financial incentives to retain experienced staff.

22. The new recruits are certainly welcome, but senior officers are also important. I am told that on certain grades, prison staff acting up to higher roles are paid more than if they accepted the actual promotion. This acts as a disincentive to staff looking to take on more responsibility. Will my hon. Friend look into this anomaly? (904209)

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend, particularly on prisons and advocating for the prison population in her constituency. It is absolutely true that there is a strange anomaly in the human resources procedure, and we must tackle it. It cannot make sense that people are paid more to act up than to occupy the role. We want people to have career development and we will focus on the issue immediately.

Prisoner Work Experience

In 2016-17, offenders completed 16 million hours of work and there were, on average, 11,200 offenders working in prison workshops. In the same period, 2,048 individuals were released on temporary licence for work-related purposes. The New Futures Network will aim to get even more prisoners working during their sentence and to see that that work leads to employment on release.

I know that the Secretary of State is new in office, but people at Ranby Prison have been waiting for two years now to be able to get on with creating the sports facilities that they are capable of building inside— the seating, the dugouts for community sports, and even the changing rooms—but the one thing they have not been given is the Secretary of State’s permission to proceed with doing this commercial work. Could I incentivise him with perhaps a cup of tea afterwards, to concentrate his mind on why he needs to make this decision urgently?

Certainly, the prospect of a cup of tea with the hon. Gentleman does concentrate the mind, and I would be delighted to accept his invitation. We are trying to ensure that we have a prison system that encourages people to progress by having opportunities to gain experience of work, and I am keen to do that in this post.

The hon. Gentleman’s offer is an interesting one. It might also be thought by some to be a divisible proposition.

The Secretary of State’s speech this morning and his emphasis on more use of release on temporary licence is extremely welcome and constructive. Will he bear in mind, though, that the Through the Gate programme currently involves careers and employment advice being given only towards the very end of a prisoner’s sentence, whereas all the evidence suggests that that should happen much earlier?

I thank the Chair of the Justice Committee for his comments. I do want to look at whether we can expand release on temporary licence and provide these opportunities more widely. On his second point, I am keen to ensure that we provide as much support as possible and make it clear that there is a second chance for people who have gone to prison. If they abide by the rules and comply with the system, we want to give them the support to turn their lives around.

Will the Secretary of State consider what can be done to facilitate prisoners in applying for universal credit before they are released, so that they can receive the support of jobcentre and other staff immediately on release to move into paid work as quickly as possible?

The hon. Lady raises a good point, and rightly so. I am keen to do precisely as she suggests. A lot of work already goes on in prisons with, for example, work coaches providing this support. Part of the challenge is about access to emails. We need to look very carefully at that because it raises a large number of questions.

Work experience in prison that leads to work on release is proven to reduce reoffending. Does the Secretary of State therefore believe that, while we rightly praise employers who offer ex-offenders work experience, we need to call out those employers who have a blanket ban on employing ex-offenders unrelated to any reasonable or fair risk assessment of doing so?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I have seen surveys suggesting that some 50% of employers simply will not engage. It is frustrating that when one speaks to employers who do take on ex-offenders, their experience is frequently very positive indeed. If we can increasingly build a culture whereby these offenders are given that opportunity, that is good for the offenders and good for society, as it will reduce reoffending.

Port Talbot Prison

I believe that the hon. Gentleman and I have discussed this issue about five times in the past six weeks. I pay tribute to him for being a very firm advocate for his community. We have listened very carefully to his complaints. A decision on this prison is not likely to be imminent, as construction is not likely to be imminent. I would like to say, however, in addition to having listened to his complaints, that a prison built in the right place in the right way can provide significant economic opportunities for an area.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but the problem is that the proposed site is right next to residential areas, schools and a care home; is served by very poor transport links; is on a designated enterprise zone; is on marshland; and is restricted by a covenant saying that it can only be used as an industrial park. The Minister must surely agree therefore that the whole idea is a non-starter and should be scrapped with immediate effect.

The hon. Gentleman has made those points on a number of occasions. We are listening very carefully. Indeed, two members of our Department travelled to Port Talbot, to a very lively public meeting where those points were made repeatedly. We are listening very carefully to him.

Would there be an answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question on the industrial estate if any new prison fully incorporated the work of ONE3ONE Solutions, which was designed more than six years ago to increase the productive and commercial output of prisoners? The numbers given by the Justice Secretary just now suggest that we have not made much progress in the number of prisoners who are working. Will any new prison include ONE3ONE Solutions, and how are we getting on with prisoners working overall?

Particularly if any prospect of their working is in Port Talbot, upon which the question is focused.

If a super-prison is built in Port Talbot, there will up to 1,000 more prison places in Wales than there are currently prisoners from Wales. Does the Minister share the Howard League’s concern that Wales is set to become Westminster’s penal colony?

I think we ought to be very careful with that kind of language. There are currently about 85,000 prisoners within the estate, so having 1,000 extra prisoners in Wales is not the creation of England’s penal colony.

If that prison is built, will the Minister ensure that its chaplaincy avoids the extraordinary carrying-on that has recently been reported at HMP Brixton?

I would like to take this opportunity not to get drawn into the individual case of Brixton, which I am looking at personally, but to pay tribute in general to the work of the chaplaincy—that is the Christian chaplaincy, the Jewish chaplaincy and the five imams I met recently at Belmarsh Prison who are doing extraordinary work with the Muslim community.

Leaving the EU: Legal System

9. What assessment his Department has made of the effect of the UK leaving the EU on the operation of the legal system in each jurisdiction of the UK. (904196)

We are seeking a new deep and special partnership with the EU that works for the whole United Kingdom. Of course, Scotland and Northern Ireland have distinct legal systems. That is why, in the negotiations on civil judicial co-operation, market access for our legal services and criminal justice, I want a deal that works for Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as England and Wales. That is also why my Department is meeting regularly with the devolved Administrations to look at the ways in which our legal and justice systems are affected by EU exit.

Unlike the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, the Scottish Government’s legal continuity Bill gives the Scottish Parliament an enhanced role in scrutinising legal changes to devolved laws due to Brexit. What is the Secretary of State doing to urge his Cabinet colleagues to make similar provision for this Parliament for reserved matters in the EU withdrawal Bill?

In terms of what is described as the continuity Bill, I am not sure, in all honesty, how helpful or useful that will prove to be. The reality is that there is very close scrutiny in this House of the measures the Government are taking and the negotiations we are having.

The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) has the next question, so he does not have long to wait. We are saving him up for the delectation of the House. It will be a short wait.

Is the Secretary of State looking forward to April next year, when each of the jurisdictions across the United Kingdom will be able to fashion and formulate legislation in keeping with the demands and the requirements of the people of the United Kingdom?

The hon. Gentleman states his position very clearly and forthrightly. As we leave the European Union, new flexibilities will arise for all parts of the United Kingdom.

Unlike the EU withdrawal Bill, the Scottish Government’s legal continuity Bill contains a power to enable devolved law in Scotland to keep pace with EU law after Brexit, where appropriate. Does the Secretary of State agree that similar provisions should be made in the EU withdrawal Bill for reserved matters and for the benefit of the English legal system?

The extent to which this Parliament decides that it wishes to replicate provisions of EU law is a matter for this Parliament, and whether or not we put that in the EU withdrawal Bill, that freedom will continue to exist for this Parliament.

Another point of contrast between the Scottish Government’s legal continuity Bill and the EU withdrawal Bill is that the Scottish Government’s Bill incorporates the charter of fundamental rights into Scots law in so far as it applies to devolved matters. What is the Secretary of State doing to make sure that everyone in the United Kingdom keeps their rights guaranteed by the charter, regardless of which jurisdiction they live in?

When the charter of fundamental rights was brought in, the argument was made at the time that it was essentially replicating rights set out elsewhere in other parts of EU treaties. To the extent that that fundamentally changes matters, there is certainly a debate to be had about it.

Leaving the EU: UK Legal System

10. What plans the Government have to ensure that the UK legal system operates effectively after the UK leaves the EU. (904197)

20. What plans the Government have to ensure that the UK legal system operates effectively after the UK leaves the EU. (904207)

21. What plans the Government have to ensure that the UK legal system operates effectively after the UK leaves the EU. (904208)

It is absolutely right that we provide legal certainty for businesses, families and individuals as we leave the European Union. That is why, as the Prime Minister said in her speech on Friday, part of our future partnership with the EU will be to have effective reciprocal arrangements with the EU to deal with cross-border legal disputes in civil and family matters. The best way to deliver that co-operation is with a close and comprehensive agreement between the UK and the EU that sets out coherent common rules.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Leaving the EU is likely to lead to additional workload for the UK legal system. What additional resources have been made available to his Department and to the legal and courts system more generally to ensure that they are fully prepared?

My hon. Friend is right that we should be prepared. He will be aware that the Treasury has made another £3 billion of extra funding available to Departments for 2018 to 2020. We are in discussion with the Treasury about the allocation for the justice system, and we hope to agree it soon.

As we leave the European Union, many powers over many aspects of our legal and judicial enforcement will return from Brussels. What discussions have the Government had with the Scottish Government on how such policies will be implemented after Brexit, and does the Secretary of State agree that the SNP Government’s disruptive continuity Bill will do nothing but add to the uncertainty in our country?

We are committed to securing a deal that works for the entire United Kingdom—for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and all parts of England. The Government expect that the outcome of leaving the EU will significantly increase the decision making of each devolved Administration. I can tell the House that I wrote to Michael Matheson last month to reaffirm the Department’s commitment to continue meaningful engagement with the Scottish Government.

Professional services, including legal services, are clearly one of the key exports of this country. What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that there will be new arrangements for the recognition of legal standards and qualifications?

My hon. Friend raises a good question. We recognise that this is an important right to protect UK nationals, so that they can continue with their chosen line of work. It has already been agreed that those who have received a recognition decision or applied for one before the withdrawal date will be able to have their qualifications recognised after exit, including lawyers. Talks on many key issues, including the mutual recognition of professional qualifications, will continue into the next phase of negotiations. We will seek to reach an agreement with the EU on parts of MRPQ that are not seen as in scope of the withdrawal negotiations, such as home title practice. The Prime Minister has been clear that she wants EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU to be able to continue their lives broadly as now.

Order. The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) has a not wholly dissimilar inquiry at Question 19, and he is welcome to come in on this question if he is so inclined, because we are not likely to reach Question 19.

19. I would be delighted to do so. Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.As the Prime Minister has made a number of concessions with regard to the European Court of Justice after Brexit and given that the Scottish Government’s legal continuity Bill provides that, when exercising devolved jurisdiction, Scottish courts may have regard to the decisions of the ECJ, is it not time to amend clause 6 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill to the same effect? (904206)

On clause 6 and this question more widely, let us be clear: we are leaving the EU, so the jurisdiction of the ECJ will end, but EU law and the decisions of the ECJ will continue to affect us. For a start, the ECJ determines whether agreements the EU has struck are legal under the EU’s own law. If, as part of our future partnership, Parliament passes an identical law to an EU law, it makes sense for our courts to look at the appropriate ECJ judgments, so that we interpret those laws consistently. We have to remember, however, that our Parliament will remain ultimately sovereign. It could decide not to accept such rules, but there would be consequences for our membership of the relevant agencies and linked market access rights.

Private Sector Probation Companies

There have been a number of challenges with the community rehabilitation companies—CRCs—particularly in transition. It is not all bad news: in fact, the number of people reoffending has come down by 2% and certain CRCs, such as Cumbria and my own county, are performing well. But we need to focus particularly on the questions of assessment, planning and meeting, and that is what we have focused on in the report on London that is due on Thursday.

Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation recently warned that private sector probation companies’ focus on contract compliance rather the true quality of supervision was inevitably having an impact on culture and was undermining the established values of probation professionals. Does the Minister agree that it is time to put proper probation ahead of private profit?

The hon. Gentleman is a Nottingham Member, and I had a very interesting meeting with the CRC last week on my visit to Nottingham Prison, where the CRC is providing very good Through The Gate services—in fact, services for prisoners in prison that did not exist before the transformation reforms. Before, they were outside the prisons. I do not believe this is a question whether it is done by the private sector, the public sector or the voluntary sector, but it is a question of getting the basic standards right. As I say, that is exactly what we will be assessing the London CRC on on Thursday.

Putting it bluntly, probation privatisation has been a disaster. Despite that, the Government are still pursuing their privatisation agenda. Last week, the Government outsourced night staff in probation hostels. Given that those hostels house some of the most dangerous ex-offenders, will the Minister accept full responsibility for any impact on public safety resulting from that ideological outsourcing?

The shadow Minister refers to a decision by the National Probation Service—which is a Government- run service, so it is not a CRC service—to bring in additional contracted staff to provide double night duty in the hostels. That has been done because it is not work that is traditionally done by trained probation officers, but by contracted staff. Of course I will accept full responsibility for that decision.

Supreme Court Judgment: Metropolitan Police Commissioner

12. Whether he has discussed with the Home Secretary the implications for Government policies of the Supreme Court judgment on the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis v. DSD and another. (904199)

This case is a matter for the Home Office and the police. However, I understand that the Home Office is working closely with the National Police Chiefs Council to understand the impact of the ruling and monitor current claims.

Failures to disclose digital evidence have led to the collapse of four rape trials in recent months. Does the Secretary of State agree that, in the light of the landmark ruling on the Worboys case, the lack of digital capacity now exposes the police to huge financial liability and risks breaching the human rights of victims on an unprecedented scale? Will he make representations to the Home Office to carry out a full resource impact assessment of the decision?

As the Attorney General has said, disclosure in cases is a question of public authorities performing the roles that they should and doing their jobs properly. Clearly, it is of great concern that there have been cases in which that appears not to have happened.

Service Animals

13. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential merits of creating a specific offence of attacking service animals. (904200)

I would like to express, as I am sure would the whole House, our immense gratitude for the role that service animals play and have played for a long time in public life. They frequently do things that humans would not do, ranging from detection of bombs and drugs to taking on violent criminals. There are serious aggravating circumstances that a judge can take into account when sentencing, and serious sentences can be given to anyone attacking a service animal—that is absolutely right.

Police dog Finn was brutally stabbed several times in my constituency while apprehending a violent criminal. The current law treats police dog Finn, a canine hero, like a piece of computer equipment—the charge is criminal damage. This is unacceptable. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) is leading a campaign to introduce Finn’s law. Will the Minister agree to meet me and my right hon. and learned Friend, so that we can provide greater protection for our service animals in the course of their duty?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and others for the very active campaign that they are leading. I would of course be delighted to meet them to discuss that law.

Given that Canada, America, Australia and many European Union states have a law similar to that being introduced by the right hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire—I am a sponsor of his Bill—why did the Minister order the Government to block the Bill last Friday?

As we have discussed, very significant sentences of up to 10 years can already be imposed for this kind of action, but I would be delighted to discuss the issue in more detail with the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friends.

And doubtless with the right hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald).

I am very grateful to the Minister for that kind offer. I just make the point that there is a gap in the law. There are legal difficulties with prosecuting under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, because of the drafting of section 4. Prosecuting for criminal damage means that the value of the animal determines the sentence. However, a police dog like Finn, who was eight years old, is not worth much money—he is of course invaluable to PC Dave Wardell and the country’s police enforcement efforts, but he is not worth a lot of money. I am therefore grateful that the Minister will to talk to us about this issue.

Perhaps we could have an Adjournment debate about Finn, if the right hon. and learned Gentleman has not already procured such.

Very well done. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is obviously ahead of events. I was enjoying the family history he was educating us on just now.

My right hon. and learned Friend is a great authority on the law. There are a number of issues here, ranging from the exact sentences that can be imposed to the work my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is doing to introduce new sentences for animal cruelty. I look forward to discussing all those issues both in the House and over a cup of tea.

Violence and Self-harm in Prison

Health services are commissioned by NHS England, which is responsible for assessing provision of mental health treatment in prisons in England. In Wales, health is devolved to the Welsh Government and separate arrangements are made for assessment.

I think the Minister might be a bit confused. I have the impression that he is answering a question that would have been put if the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) had not been called earlier on a different question. The question with which we are now dealing is Question 16, on levels of violence and self-harm.

My apologies, Mr Speaker.

There have been worrying increases in levels of violence and self-harm. As was said earlier, a lot of that is being driven by new drugs inducing psychotic episodes. We are working hard on this issue. We have provided training to an additional 14,000 prison officers focused on issues of violence and self-harm. More staffing will help, but there is much more to do.

The Minister will be aware that incidences of self-harm in prisons have risen by 75% since 2007. I appreciate the Minister giving us the drivers of violence and self-harm in prisons, but will he tell us in more detail what steps he will take to reduce the amount of self-harm and suicide? Does he agree that part of the solution is encouraging the use of mental health treatment requirements, which has fallen by 48%?

The hon. Lady is absolutely correct that mental health is at the heart of a lot of these issues. On the concrete steps we are taking, one is the training for 14,000 additional officers and the second is the proper use of the ACCT—assessment, care in custody and teamwork—strategy, which is the process for assessing the risk posed to the prisoner and coming up with a plan to deal with it. We have managed to significantly reduce suicide over the past 18 months, but the level is still far too high. Any death is a great tragedy, and we will continue to work very closely to reduce suicide further.

Sixty-two years ago, Bessie Braddock, the then MP for Liverpool Exchange division, stood in this Chamber and raised concerns about the appalling conditions at Liverpool Prison—then called Walton Prison—and particularly the treatment of prisoners with mental illness. In the past two years at that very same prison, seven inmates have taken their life, including Tony Paine two weeks ago. I note that the Minister said on 22 February that the conditions at the prison were “very disturbing” and “unacceptable”. What action is he going to take today to ensure that all prisoners’ mental health needs are adequately met and that no other prisoner takes their life in one of our prisons?

As the hon. Lady mentions, the situation at Liverpool Prison was very disturbing. I have visited Liverpool Prison, and mental health provision is now significantly better than it was at the time of the inspection—I spent quite a lot of time with the mental health staff there—but there is a broader issue. Although we are reducing suicide, there is still far too much of it happening. A lot of this will be about making sure not only that we deal with drugs, but that we have the right kind of purposeful activity in prisons, so that prisoners do not feel the temptation to take their own life.

Legal Aid

17. What research his Department has conducted on the cost-effectiveness of providing legal aid for early legal help. (904204)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight the value of early legal advice, which is why the Department spent £100 million in legal aid on early legal advice for civil cases last year.

Citizens Advice has estimated that for every £1 of legal aid spending on housing advice the state would save over £2, and that if the advice was on debt and housing, it would save even more. Will the Minister commit to commissioning research into the cost-effectiveness of reintroducing early legal advice in the housing sector, so that we can save money in the long run?

Advice can already be taken through a telephone hotline in relation to housing. Legal aid is available where homelessness is a risk, and debt leads to homelessness. A whole variety of early legal advice is available through legal aid at the moment, but as the hon. Lady will know, we are conducting a review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, and this issue will be considered.

Family Contact for Prisoners

Reducing reoffending is above all about having healthy relationships between the individual and their family, the individual and society, and the individual and the state, so having that relationship with the family is vital. That is partly, of course, about the prisoners’ entitlement to two visits a month. There have been some excellent examples in Liverpool—for example, at Altcourse Prison, with its fantastic family centre for meeting family—and it is also about having telephony in place to keep those contacts up.

I thank the Minister for his response. Does he agree with the findings in the Conservative-led strengthening families manifesto, which found that if family contact is maintained, reoffending can be reduced by more than 39%?

Absolutely. Getting that family relationship right and embedding people properly with their family is vital to reducing reoffending, along with many of the measures we take on education.

Topical Questions

For prisons to be effective, we must get the basics right. This means creating prisons that are safe, secure and decent. It also means tackling the ringleaders of serious organised crime, so that they cannot continue to profit from their crimes and ruin people’s lives through drugs, deaths and violence from behind bars. I can announce that we are investing an extra £14 million to tackle serious organised crime. This includes creating new intelligence and serious organised crime teams to support work with the National Crime Agency, and enhancing our intelligence and information-gathering capacity across the country. I will also look at how we categorise prisoners to make sure that we are using our most secure prisons to tackle ongoing criminality behind bars. At the same time, we will reset the system of incentives in our prisons, so that they work much more in the favour of prisoners who play by the rules and want to turn their lives around, while coming down harder on those who show no intention of doing so.

The number of foreign national offenders from EU countries in our prisons remains at around 4,000. As part of the negotiations on leaving the EU, is my right hon. Friend liaising with other Government Departments, including the Home Office and the Department for Exiting the European Union, to ensure that we can deport more of the thousands of EU nationals who are in our prisons and remove these dangerous people from Britain?

Since 2010 we have removed more than 40,000 foreign national offenders from our prisons, immigration removal centres and the community. A range of removal mechanisms exist that enable foreign offenders to be returned to their home countries, and we are working closely with the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Home Office as we consider our future criminal justice arrangements with the EU, with the aim of carrying on our close working relationship.

In a formal statement, the previous Secretary of State for Justice said that the Grenfell inquiry would

“get to the truth and see justice done”.

For that to be the case, Grenfell survivors and the bereaved families must have full confidence in it, so to tackle the obvious current lack of trust, does the Minister agree with survivors and bereaved families who are calling for a broad inquiry panel, as there was in the watershed inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence?

I believe that the processes have been set up, that the inquiry led by Sir Martin Moore-Bick is the right approach and that the focus should be on ensuring that the inquiry can make progress rather than trying in any way to undermine it.

T2. Family law has been in need of reform for far too long. We now have a situation where the judiciary is supporting early intervention and wishing to carry out a pilot scheme. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how to make this excellent solution a reality? (904212)

I am very aware of the importance of looking at family law, in the context of the fact that relationship breakdown leads to unwelcome life chances for the children of that relationship. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend, who should know that I have already met the president of the family division and the chief executive of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, and to discuss this issue.

T5. As the Minister knows, there has already been a public meeting in my constituency about the prison there. He will be delighted to know that we have organised another on 12 April, to which he has been invited. May I encourage him to come and meet my constituents to hear directly their concerns, and I can guarantee that he will receive a warm welcome in the valleys? (904215)

I am very grateful. There is almost no Member of Parliament who has been more assiduous on this subject, with, I think, five meetings in the past six weeks. There was a vigorous encounter between my officials and the hon. Gentleman’s community on their last visit. I would like very much to have the next meeting here in London, if that is possible, and I would be delighted to discuss the issues on that occasion.

T3. The Torbay offender management team works to reduce crime and prevent those released from prison from reoffending. What assessment has the Lord Chancellor made of its effectiveness in preventing crime in Torbay? (904213)

That is an interesting example of a community rehabilitation company in Devon and Cornwall. The particular strengths of the Torbay approach seem to us to be in the partnership working with the police and children’s services and in the work done with Catch22 on accommodation.

T7. In December, the previous Prisons Minister wrote to me saying that the spate of deaths at HMP Nottingham was a random occurrence, blaming a phenomenon called “suicide cluster”. In January, an inspection of the prison deemed it fundamentally unsafe. Last month there was another death, reported to be a suicide. Will Ministers now accept that there is nothing random going on at this jail and that it is not a safe environment? (904217)

As the hon. Gentleman will know, I had a serious visit to HMP Nottingham last week. I pay tribute to the prison officers and the governor for their work, but there are a number of serious challenges in the prison. We are particularly focused on safety. We have a new manager in place and a new violence reduction strategy, and the ACCT process will be central to solving these problems.

T4. I am sure that in 100 years’ time people will look at our prisons in the same way as we look at Victorian prisons—as being cruel and locking up too many people with health problems. One thing we could do is clear out of our prisons people serving less than a year. It does no good, they are moved around and they cannot be trained. Will the Minister look at that? (904214)

It is absolutely true that many of the serious challenges we have been discussing in the House today, particularly on violence, self-harm and drug use, focus on the population imprisoned for less than 12 months. The more we can do to try to rehabilitate people in the community while protecting the public the better.

T9. Since 2010, six successive Courts Ministers have dodged a decision over the future of Sunderland’s court estate. Despite more than £2 million having been spent on preparations for a new centre for justice, a further £284,000 will now be spent on urgent repairs to the city’s crumbling magistrates courts as a result of that unacceptable delay. Will the new Minister meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) to see whether we can put an end to this saga and give the people of Sunderland a decision at last? (904219)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. It was a pleasure to meet her recently to discuss the issue, and I am grateful to her for following up with an email on Friday. I am very happy to meet her again to discuss the issue, and I have sent her a letter today, as I said I would, setting out a timetable for the consideration of sites. When she has had a chance to look at that I am happy to meet her again.

T6. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as he reforms the justice system, a system of incentives could help prisoners with good behaviour records and reduce reoffending in the future? (904216)

I very much agree. Indeed, I advanced that argument this morning in a speech to the Royal Society of Arts. If prisoners are abiding by the rules and complying with what is required of them, governors should have more flexibility to reward them with additional privileges. I think that that could help to move people in the right direction and change behaviour in a positive way.

T10. The most recent figures from the Department show that only 6% of employment tribunal fees have been repaid, although the Supreme Court declared them unlawful last year. If the Department cannot uphold the law, how can it expect anyone else to? (904220)

The Department is responsible for upholding the law, and it does so. As for the specific issue of refunds, the Department has done a great deal of work in trying to explain to interested bodies how they can make a refund. It has written to Citizens Advice, the Law Society, the Bar Council and the Free Representation Unit. New figures will be published on 8 March. If people do not receive refunds, we will continue to liaise with them.

T8. What percentage of inmates currently have literacy problems, and what solutions are the Government coming up with to tackle those problems? (904218)

Levels of literacy in prisons are shocking. About 54% of prisoners currently have a reading level below that which we would expect in an 11-year-old. Let me put that in context. Nearly 50% of prisoners have been excluded from school at some point, compared with about 2% of the general population. Our solution is to give governors more control of their education budgets, and to ensure that literacy training is available in every prison as part of the core curriculum.

The Minister’s earlier answers to questions about violence in prisons focused on prisoner violence. Our hard-working prison officers face daily violence in their jobs. I have just written to the Minister about a constituent who had urine and excrement poured over him, but let me now ask him a wider question. What is the Department doing to ensure that prison officers are given full support when they are assaulted, and also to ensure that mental health services become better than they are at present?

We have a huge obligation to prison officers, particularly when they are assaulted. We can deal with the problem in a number of ways. We need to ensure that prisoners are punished for assaults, and to make it clear that they will be punished. We need to reduce drugs, and we need violence reduction strategies. We are already using more CCTV cameras and body-held cameras to record assaults, but our prison officers must feel safe in their environment. [Interruption.]

I very much hope that the Foreign Secretary is beetling his way towards the Chamber as I speak, and I dare say that that will be the aspiration of the House. Either the right hon. Gentleman himself or one of his ministerial accomplices is required in the Chamber. We cannot ask the Lord Chancellor to deal with the next business; that would be unreasonable. [Hon. Members: “Border check!”] I do not think that the Foreign Secretary is between Islington and Camden. No, I am sure he is not.

No, I will not take points of order now. I am always interested in the views of the hon. Gentleman, but not now. We will hear from him in due course, and we look forward to that with interest and anticipation. Well done—the hon. Gentleman should stay in his seat, and we will hear from him in due course.

I commend the Prisons Minister for following up his predecessor’s strong support for Lord Farmer’s review. Will he meet me to discuss extending its reach to the welfare of prisoners’ children, especially at the point—[Interruption.]

Order. It is very good of the Foreign Secretary to drop in on us—we are deeply grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. However, I think that the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) should be given a chance to reprise her question, because I have interrupted her. Blurt it out from start to finish.

Will the Prisons Minister meet me to discuss the welfare of prisoner’ children, especially at the point of sentencing? There are 200,000 such children a year, and they often fall through the care system completely.

Absolutely. One of the most terrifying statistics is the very high number of prisoners’ children who go on to offend themselves. I should be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss not just the issue of families, but the issue of children in particular.

What are the Government doing to reverse the dramatic fall in community sentencing, which has nearly halved in the past decade, with a particularly sharp drop in recent years?

We have seen an increased use of suspended sentences, but the hon. Lady is right that we must do more. We want to work closely with community rehabilitation companies and the National Probation Service, because the judiciary must have confidence in non-custodial sentences as well as custodial sentences.

The Foreign Secretary is scribbling away with great determination and no little emotion, and we are grateful for that, but I have an appetite to hear a couple more questions—[Interruption.] Yes, I want to hear a couple more questions to the Justice Secretary while the Foreign Secretary is recovering his breath.

We need compulsory prisoner transfer agreements to send foreign national offenders back to prison in their own country. Are the Government seeking to sign any new such agreements? If so, with which countries?

As I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), in the last few years, something like 40,000 foreign national offenders have been returned to their own countries. We continue to seek to sign additional agreements so we can continue to make progress with this.

Will the impact of cuts to legal aid on unaccompanied and separated children under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 be considered?

The purpose of the review is to look at the effectiveness of the legislation, so any changes made by LASPO will be considered.

That is a brilliant question. The answer is that I am still trying to get to the bottom of it and I cannot provide an answer to the House.

May I exhort the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) for the umpteenth time to circulate his textbook on succinct questions to all colleagues in the House? If he is in a generous mood, he might even offer copies to people sitting in the Public Gallery as well?

I will ignore that sedentary chunter from the hon. Gentleman, which is unworthy of someone of his normal generosity of spirit.

Last week the Justice Committee produced an excellent report highlighting some of the issues around virtual courts. We might have a virtual Foreign Secretary today, but the Committee raised some important issues, so why is the Secretary of State rushing to close courts such as that in Cambridge when we are yet to have a wider discussion about virtual courts?

As I said in reply to the very first question of this session, it is important that we make progress in using the court estate as sensibly as possible. It is underused, and when resources are scarce, it is important that we use them more efficiently. It is also right that we make advances in using digital technology so that access to justice becomes easier.

Last weekend a prison officer at HMP Bedford was rushed to hospital with a serious brain injury inflicted by a prisoner. Other serious incidents occurred over the weekend, such as prison officers running for their lives to hide from an out-of-control prisoner. The weekend before, five prison officers were taken to A&E due to injuries inflicted by prisoners. Will a prison officer have to die before this Government act to keep prison staff safe in the line of duty?

The events in Bedford at the weekend were deeply disturbing and the sympathy of the whole House goes out to that prison officer and his family. Violence against prison officers is at an unacceptable level. There were 8,000 incidents last year and, as I set out in a speech this morning, we must take this incredibly seriously. We must recognise that the driver of a lot of this violence is drugs, and that the driver of a lot of drugs in prison is serious organised crime. I want to ensure we do everything we can to address that, because prison officers do a great job and it is far too dangerous for them.

With the support of Co-op Funeralcare, Dignity plc, the National Association of Funeral Directors, the bereavement charity Cruse and the all-party group on baby loss, 50 bereaved parents in Hull are still seeking an independent inquiry into what happened to their babies’ ashes. Does the Minister still stand by Hull City Council, which has refused to have that independent inquiry?

This situation was truly appalling—the hon. Lady knows that I think that. The review was comprehensive, so I will not be changing any decisions any time soon. My heart goes out to all those involved, as clearly this was very traumatic, but the review was comprehensive.

Instead of carrying out their in-house review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, should Ministers not follow the excellent example of the Scottish Government by having an independent review of legal aid, and perhaps looking at how the Scottish scheme has managed to achieve greater scope and eligibility but with lower costs?

The review of legal aid will be important. We will be inviting a number of independent experts to give evidence so that we can make the necessary decisions.

The Secretary of State will know that even in the best justice systems there are miscarriages of justice. Will he therefore pay attention to the fact that so many people who are later found to be innocent and have their sentences quashed, having spent years in prison, never get any compensation?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. If he wants to raise a specific case, I am happy to meet him to discuss it.