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Topical Questions

Volume 647: debated on Tuesday 9 October 2018

Following a successful pilot, we have made the decision to equip every prison officer in the public sector adult male estate with PAVA spray. PAVA can help to prevent serious harm to staff and prisoners alike, as well as being a tool to persuade prisoners in the act of violence to stop. All officers will receive specialist training before being allowed to carry the spray, and it will be delivered only where key worker training has already been rolled out. Key working will allow officers to build more positive relationships with prisoners, support their rehabilitation and manage difficult behaviour.

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. and learned Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), for meeting me and the family of Jerome Rogers before the summer recess. Jerome took his own life after aggressive bailiff threats and intimidation. Does the Secretary of State not find it astonishing that charities giving advice about debt, such as Citizens Advice, are regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, yet bailiffs, with infinitely more power, are not? Will he confirm that this will form part of the consultation?

As my hon. and learned Friend mentioned a moment ago, we will conduct a call for evidence shortly. That will be an opportunity to look at all these issues. I express my condolences to the family of the hon. Lady’s constituent.

T6. What progress has been made towards introducing a presumption against short-term prison sentences, which will both help to support victims and reduce reoffending? (907015)

As the Secretary of State has made clear, we feel very strongly that we should look and act on the evidence that a short-term prison sentence is more likely to lead to reoffending than a community sentence, and that therefore, in a sense, it endangers the public. The point of a sentence of any kind must be primarily to prevent offending happening in the future. For that reason, we will look very carefully at emphasising community sentences.

It defies belief that a spouse convicted of attempting to murder their partner can have any financial claim on their assets as part of a divorce settlement. Does the Minister agree with that principle and will she meet me to look into changing the law to ensure that there is no financial entitlement in all but the most exceptional of those cases?

The shadow Minister makes a very important point, and the issue has also been highlighted by The Guardian. The Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 says that the conduct of the parties in a divorce can be taken into account in the distribution of assets and, if it would be inequitable, to disregard it. I am very happy to discuss the issue with her and to meet her to do so.

T7. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that when two parties take the decision to divorce, the legal process does not exacerbate conflict? (907016)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Once parties have made a decision to get divorced, the law should make it straightforward for them to do so, making it less acrimonious, which makes it better for children. For that reason, on 15 September we launched our reducing family conflict consultation on no-fault divorce.

People are still having to wait an average of 42 weeks to get a hearing before the immigration and asylum first-tier tribunal, which is a long time to be in immigration limbo. What steps are the Government taking to reduce that time and what do they regard as an unacceptable waiting time target?

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight that waiting times for tribunals could be reduced. We are recruiting new members of the tribunals; in February and March, we appointed 226 new medical members of the social security tribunal. I am also meeting, and have met twice, my counterpart in the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that we can get those waiting times down.

T8. One problem that we have faced in Harlow with unauthorised encampments is the cat-and-mouse scenario that when camps are evicted they can just move further down the road. What can my hon. and learned Friend do to strengthen the law and end the problem of unauthorised encampments once and for all? (907017)

As I represent a rural constituency, I completely understand my right hon. Friend’s point. The Government have recently consulted on the powers available to local authorities to deal with such problems and we are now looking at how we might strengthen the powers of local authorities and landowners.

The Prime Minister told her party conference that austerity is over, but if that were true, everyone in the justice sector would be breathing a huge sigh of relief. Tory cuts have unleashed an unprecedented crisis in our prisons and wider justice system. Justice faces the deepest cuts of any Department, totalling 40%, with £800 million in cuts between April 2018 and 2020 alone. Those cuts risk pushing justice from deep crisis into full-blown emergency, so will the Secretary of State confirm that that £800 million of cuts will not go ahead? If not, will he agree with me that the Prime Minister’s words were nothing more than yet another Tory con trick?

What I can confirm is that we are continuing to recruit more prison officers and to invest in court reform. As the hon. Gentleman mentions party conferences, I have to point out to him that as the shadow Lord Chancellor, when somebody suggested an illegal general strike, the hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] Well, he denied that he joined in a standing ovation, but he did say that he stood up and clapped.

To bring things back down to earth, the people who clean and tidy the Secretary of State’s office—perhaps even when he is in it—have been demanding a real living wage of £10 an hour. Those Ministry of Justice cleaners are sick and tired of being treated like dirt, and his security guards, who keep the Ministry of Justice safe, are in the same boat. I wrote to the Secretary of State demanding that he sort this out, but he used outsourcing as his excuse for inaction. Instead of repeating his excuses to me today, will he address the Ministry of Justice staff watching us today and tell them why he thinks that they are not worth £10 an hour?

We are the Government who introduced the national living wage, which increased in April by 4.4%. We were able to do that because we are running a strong economy. That would not happen if the hon. Gentleman got his hands on this country.

T9. What steps are being taken to reduce the waiting time for personal independence payment and employment and support allowance appeals? (907019)

I referred earlier to the steps we are taking in the MOJ in relation to medical members to reduce social security PIP and ESA appeals, but we are also introducing 250 more judges across tribunals. I welcome the very recent appointment of Grant Harvey Bird in September as a salaried judge for the first-tier tribunal in Gloucestershire.

T2. Last year, my constituency had the third highest rate in the country of complaints against bailiffs. Since 2014-15, Citizens Advice has seen a 74% increase in people seeking help with how to complain about bailiffs. Will the Minister commit to exploring the need for an effective mechanism, as well as the independent regulator, for registering complaints against bailiffs? (907011)

As I mentioned, we are looking into this, and we will, I hope, very shortly launch our call for evidence, which will look at a number of issues.

People in Chelmsford are concerned about levels of violence in the prison, and they want to know that prison officers are safe. Will pepper spray help?

This morning, we announced that officers will be able to carry pepper spray on their belts. This is to be used as a last resort, in the same way as a baton would be. It means that if, for example, a prisoner was in the process of stamping on another prisoner’s head, an officer could intervene safely from a distance to resolve the incident and potentially save lives. It is only one measure, along with a dozen other measures that we have to take to improve safety in prisons, but it is an important measure to protect the people who protect us.

T3. Over the conference recess, the inspectorate of probation published a report on the Merseyside community rehabilitation company. The report observes that the approach to reviewing risk of harm is limited, putting vulnerable people in danger. Have Ministers read the report, and what will the Department be doing to ensure that vulnerable people in Liverpool are given the protection that they need? (907012)

We take the report very seriously, as we take all reports, including the recent report on domestic violence. It is absolutely right to say that we need to improve the risk assessment, the programme plans and the frequency of meeting. We are doing a consultation at the moment, to which we invite the hon. Lady to make a submission, on exactly what we can do to tighten up procedures for the CRCs. They have reduced reoffending by 2%, but there is much more that we can do on the quality of delivery.[Official Report, 22 October 2018, Vol. 648, c. 3MC.]

Given that, yet again, the recruitment round of High Court judges has fallen short, and given that many distinguished retired judges are kept busy as arbitrators and wish to continue working, is it not time to look again at whether the arbitrary judicial retirement age of 70 is out of line with modern practice?

This is an issue that we continue to look at. I think it is a finely balanced matter, and we continue to look at the evidence. The argument is sometimes made that if we increase the retirement age, we will increase the age at which people apply to become judges. We will continue to look at the matter.

T4. Recent research published by the Law Society found that people who did not receive early advice were 20% less likely to have had their issue resolved than those who did. Will the Minister commit to reintroducing legal aid for early advice? (907013)

I read that advice from the Law Society with interest. I recently met the Law Society and a number of solicitors that it brought with it to discuss the issues that face the profession, in relation not only to legal advice but to the age of the profession. As I have mentioned, we are doing a legal aid review, which will report at the end of the year.

Ministers in the Department are aware of the deep concerns of one of my constituents, who has been impacted by a very long wait for a second post-mortem following the loss of her brother. This has also impacted on other people, up and down the country. Will the Minister agree to meet me to see what more can be done to address the concerns of my constituent and her fellow RoadPeace campaigners?

T5. Given the criticisms contained in the report produced recently by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation, what assurances can the Minister give that all community rehabilitation companies’ contracts will stipulate that the probation officer qualification is absolutely necessary for the safe supervision of cases in which domestic violence is a factor? (907014)

As I have said, we have looked very seriously at the inspectorate’s domestic violence report. It is worth bearing in mind that this has been a problem in many probation services across the world, and that it was, in fact, a problem before the CRCs were introduced. We are looking closely at the question of qualification during the current consultation, which will run for a further six months.[Official Report, 22 October 2018, Vol. 648, c. 4MC.]

I know that the Lord Chancellor takes the role of the rule of law in this country very seriously, but can he reassure me that the Government will always stand up for it, and would resist—and certainly would not stand up and clap—any suggestions that it should be broken?

I can certainly give that assurance, and I must say that it is extraordinary for the shadow Lord Chancellor to condone mass law-breaking.

Last month prison officers took unprecedented action by staging a day of protest outside prisons, including HM Prison Liverpool in Walton. Has the Minister spoken to the Prison Officers Association since then, and what has changed since its members took their unprecedented action?

That action was very regrettable. As the hon. Gentleman knows, prison officers are not entitled to strike legally, because it endangers prisoners and other prison officers. I met the chairman of the POA on the morning of the action—two hours later—and we had a number of discussions, which focused particularly on safety. We believe that working constructively, and not engaging in illegal strike action, is much better for prisons and prison officers.

If the Minister is sincere when he insists that the decision to build new private prisons is not ideological but based on evidence, why is he trying to bury the evidence by refusing to release the official report on public-versus-private procurement for the two new prisons, despite freedom of information requests from the Prison Officers Association and parliamentary questions that remain unanswered?

If it is okay, I would like to meet the hon. Lady to understand in more detail exactly which request is being discussed. I am very happy to talk about it in person.

Given the very lucrative public contracts given to Atos and Capita, and the fact that they are clearly failing—71% of assessments for personal independence payments are overturned in the upper courts—what discussions has the Justice Secretary had with his counterpart in the Department for Work and Pensions about the imposition of a fining system? Atos and Capita are not only blocking up the courts, but treating disabled people appallingly.

I have regular conversations with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about a range of matters, including this one. We continue to do everything we can to ensure that the system is working properly.