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Topical Questions

Volume 637: debated on Tuesday 6 March 2018

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.