House of Commons
Tuesday 9 October 2018
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Now that the Chief Coroner has published the conclusions of the inquest, I know that the whole House will want me to say again how deeply grateful we are to PC Keith Palmer, the courageous police officer who was killed on 22 March 2017 doing the job he loved: keeping Parliament and us safe. Everyone who works here was shocked and saddened by his death, and we continue to express our heartfelt condolences to his family and friends.
As we reflect upon the findings of the inquest, we pay tribute to PC Palmer and to those whose lives were lost on Westminster bridge. We need to take all possible action to prevent a similar tragedy in the future. Carriage Gates are now kept closed and opened only to allow vehicles in or out. The Parliamentary Security Department and the Metropolitan Police continue to work hard to protect us from danger, but our co-operation is required, too. In that light, I encourage all Members to wear their security pass when on the estate. We should remember that security in Westminster is everyone’s responsibility.
Business Before Questions
University of London Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Second Reading opposed and deferred until Tuesday 16 October at Four o’clock (Standing Order No. 20).
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Mr Speaker, may I share in your remarks about PC Palmer and pay tribute to him and his work in this House?
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on debt and personal finance, the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) is campaigning hard on this important issue, and she is right that bailiffs are not operating as they should in some areas. I was pleased to have the opportunity to meet with the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) and her constituents, the Rogers family, who sadly lost Jerome as a result of and following some action by bailiffs. We intend to launch a call for evidence shortly to evaluate our most recent bailiff reforms.
I, too, met the family of Jerome Rogers, and I pay tribute to them for their courage in taking the campaign forward. However, Jerome’s case perfectly highlights why the industry needs regulating, because his problems were just the tip of an iceberg. Citizens Advice helped 41,000 people with 90,000 bailiff issues last year—one person every three minutes. The call for evidence relates to rogue bailiffs, but this is not just about one or two wayward individuals; the whole system is rotten. Will the Minister consider the need for an independent body to regulate and police the industry properly?
The hon. Lady makes some important points. Officials in my Department recently met with Citizens Advice, StepChange, the Money Advice Trust and AdviceUK to discuss such issues. Last month, they also met the Certificated Enforcement Agents Association. I have met Peter Tutton, the head of policy at StepChange, and he made a statement similar to the hon. Lady’s about the need for independent regulation. We will be putting forward a call for evidence and questions will be asked on a variety of issues.
There will always be difficulties when debts are pursued, particularly when people may genuinely be struggling to pay them. As for the call for evidence, how will the Minister be working with local authorities, which obviously engage bailiffs to enforce council tax debt against those who may be struggling most to pay off such debt?
Will the Minister call for accurate statistics as part of the review? It is difficult to get to the facts in this area, including the number of people who are suffering because of bailiffs, so will she look into that as a matter of urgency?
Of course, evidence is extremely important. I should mention that when we reviewed the legislation earlier this year, we found that not all bailiffs act inappropriately. A large number act in accordance with the regulations that we set out, but we need to look at the small number who do not.
But it is like the wild west at the moment, and often there is no redress when the bailiffs have made a mistake. I have one case in which a family lost their property because the bailiffs went to Treorchy instead of Treherbert. Three years later, the police will not investigate and there is no body to which the family can go to get their place back. It is surely time that we acted instead of having yet more consultation.
I would be very interested to hear about the case that the hon. Gentleman mentions. There is regulation in relation to bailiffs. For example, they have to be appointed by the court every two years. They come to the court to get their authorisation. So measures are in place to protect people, but we are looking at the issue and we must go further.
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the fact that prosecutions can be brought by private bodies as well public bodies. The Ministry of Justice data does not currently identify whether a prosecution is public or private.
Like me, the Minister will have heard reports of police allowing perpetrators of domestic violence and especially of FGM to escape justice by a reluctance to prosecute. Will the Minister please inform the House of what is being done to ensure that we do not simply push responsibility to prosecute on to already traumatised victims?
We must of course prosecute those who are alleged to have committed the terrible crimes that my hon. Friend talks about. We have strengthened the law. Failing to protect a girl from FGM is now an offence, and we have introduced an element of coercive control in domestic violence. We in the Ministry of Justice continue to work closely with the Home Office and the Attorney General, who is responsible for the Criminal Prosecution Service, to ensure that crimes are prosecuted.
Offenders and Employment
In May we published the education and employment strategy, which will set each prisoner on a path to employment, with prison education and work geared towards employment on release from the outset. Since publication of the strategy, we are working with about 70 new organisations that have registered an interest in working with offenders.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s response. Given that we have a shortage of about 60,000 HGV drivers in this country—it is a good job, paying a decent wage—does my right hon. Friend think that there is an opportunity in his strategy to work with industry bodies and other Government Departments to deliver a pathway for ex-offenders to train, get their HGV licence and be able to walk into a job on day one when they walk through the prison gates?
My right hon. Friend is right to raise the point. My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) has also raised that point on the Floor of the House, and we are working on proposals to do precisely that. Getting offenders into work makes them less likely to reoffend and enables them to contribute to society. It is something that we should absolutely aspire to.
Despite progress in some prisons, too many prisoners still leave custody without a bank account, which is liable to increase the incidence of reoffending. As part of the ongoing review of probation services, will the Secretary of State look at what more could be done in prisons to ensure that this most basic of facilities is held by all prisoners before they are released?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. It is worth pointing out that the offender banking programme ensures that prisons that release a significant number of prisoners have a relationship with a commercial bank to enable prisoners to open a basic bank account in the last six months of their sentence. A record number of accounts—6,500—were opened in 2017. He is right to highlight the matter.
The Right Course is a programme set up by celebrity maître d’ Fred Sirieix, which helps train prisoners to run prison restaurants and therefore qualify for jobs once they have left prison. Will the Minister meet me and Fred to discuss how similar programmes can be expanded?
The Secretary of State is correct to say that it is through employment that we often have the best chance to reduce and stop reoffending. What discussions has he had with his counterpart in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy about mainstreaming incentives to employee ex-offenders in apprenticeship and internship strategies?
We work across government on this matter and are considering a number of proposals across government, including with BEIS, on how we can encourage employers in this area, including on apprenticeships. Let me make a point I have made before: employers are increasingly looking at employing ex-offenders. We should all welcome that, and I would be supportive of any constructive steps to progress this.
The biggest employer in Britain today is the Secretary of State and other Ministers, through themselves in their Departments and through the suppliers that they use. What steps has he taken to improve employment opportunities for offenders within his remit?
That is a good point. One thing we announced when I launched the education and employment strategy was the fact that the public sector—the civil service—was taking people on. We had a pilot in the north-west of England, which we are now extending to other parts of the United Kingdom. The Prison Service also takes on ex-offenders. The right hon. Gentleman is right to highlight this, and the public sector has a role to play in the area, too.
Five years ago, the Government sold off half the probation service, giving the justification that “through the gate” services would be improved. That aim has not been met by that project, and neither have any of the other aims described at the time. Is it not time to bring probation back together?
The reoffending rate has actually fallen since then, but we recognise that issues need to be addressed. That is why earlier this year I announced a series of reforms to the probation system, including spending an additional £22 million on “through the gate” services to address this specific point.
One problem with “through the gate” is not who delivers it, but the fact that too often the interventions start so late on in the prisoner’s career. If six months is appropriate in terms of opening bank accounts—sensibly, it is—is it not sensible that resettlement interviews and work should be started at least at that time, if not earlier, rather than at 12 weeks or so, as we currently have it?
My hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Justice, raises an interesting point. The point I make to him is that we need to make sure that this system is working. There is scope for improvement, and, as I say, we have announced additional expenditure in this area, but he is right to say that this is not about who does it, but how it is done. There are steps we can take to improve it.
Prison officers play a vital role in equipping offenders for their release, including by helping them prepare for work or education on the outside. In his speech to the Tory party conference, the Justice Secretary committed to recruiting more prison officers to fill the huge gap created by his Government’s austerity cuts. So can he guarantee that by the end of this Parliament there will be the same number of frontline officers in our prisons as there were in 2010?
What I can guarantee is that we are increasing the numbers—they have gone up by 3,500 in the past two years. That is enabling us to implement a key worker strategy, so that prison officers have the ability to spend more time with prisoners and can build that personal relationship, providing the support and advice necessary. That is an important step forward and I am pleased we are able to do it.
We do not believe this is an ideological divide between the private and public sectors. We are looking at the relationship between the community rehabilitation companies and the national probation service, in terms of their geographical spread and how they work together. However, we are finding across the country that having the public sector focus on the highest risk prisoners and the private sector and other, non-profit actors focusing on delivering for the lowest risk offenders is delivering innovation, from Cumbria right the way down to London.
In the Committee on the Bill that created the service we have today, many weeks were spent trying to convince the Government that their privatisation experiment with the probation service would fail, and it has. The exception might be the only not-for-profit public sector CRC, which covers the Tees Valley, part of which I represent. It has been singled out in Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation reports as delivering best practice. What will the Minister do to ensure that the Tees Valley CRC is not subsumed into another privatised contract, to learn from it, and to return the probation service to the public sector?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s local CRC, which is a good example of how CRCs can work. Durham CRC is a good example of the local authority and the previous probation trust working together. It has met 85% of its targets and is a well-performing CRC. There are also good examples to be followed elsewhere in the country, including in Cumbria, where the CRC is working with rural communities, and in London, where the CRC has improved dramatically and done some very good work with Grenfell survivors. I certainly pay tribute to the work done in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.
A manageable case load is of course absolutely central, as is the flexibility to make sure that when a probation officer has a high-risk offender—a criminal who is more challenging to deal with—they have smaller numbers of offenders to deal with and can adjust their case load according to the risk posed by the individual and the complexity of the case.
The best guarantee that these companies are performing is the action of Parliament and of the chief inspector of probation, to whom I pay tribute for her series of hard-hitting reports, most recently on domestic violence. As the Secretary of State has pointed out, we have seen a 2% reduction in reoffending. That has been driven by these companies and is to be welcomed, but there is of course much more to be done to protect the public.
Sentences: Reoffending Reduction
As I have said recently, there is persuasive evidence that short custodial sentences do not work in terms of rehabilitation. In certain circumstances, community sentences are more effective in the reduction of reoffending and therefore keeping the public safe. The reoffending rate of offenders who serve fewer than 12 months is around 65%, but earlier research has shown the reoffending rate for similar offenders who receive a community penalty to be lower. We will look at what more we can do to emphasise that short custodial sentences should be viewed as a last resort.
The Secretary of State may be aware that the rate of women reoffending and being recalled to prison is higher than that of men, with three out of every five women offenders being recalled or re-prosecuted and sent back to prison. There is now a real need to implement the female offender strategy and ensure that women are given as much support as they can be given. There is also a real need for the Secretary of State to take action on short-term offences and look into other ways to sentence women, because the current approach simply is not working.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. He referred to the female offender strategy; as he will be aware, its focus is on alternatives to custody, particularly for minor offences. There are particular issues for females offenders in respect of the nature of the offences and the issues that female offenders face, so it is right that we implement the new strategy.
Over the past five years, the use of community sentences has declined, and it has declined fastest for theft and drugs offences. Does the Secretary of State think that prison is the best place for people with drug addictions and shoplifting convictions? If not, how is he going to reverse that trend?
Often, it is not the right place, which is why my hon. Friend the Prisons Minister and I have been clear that we need to consider alternatives to custody and explore what more we can do with community sentences. In some cases, the issue is getting to the heart of the problem, which often might be drug dependency and so on. Some encouraging pilots are ongoing in respect of community sentence treatment requirements. Those are some of the steps that we are taking. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for our approach.
Short-term sentences are catastrophic for reoffending rates, and if the Government are serious about reducing both crime and our prison population they must recognise the importance of early intervention. With the Home Office now pursuing a public health approach to violent crime, will the Minister tell us how he is engaging with this strategy?
We are very much engaging with the strategy, and it is a strategy that I support. We are ensuring that we work across government to intervene as early as we can and that we have strong alternatives to custody that are not soft options but are effective. I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the work that we are doing on community sentence treatment requirements as a way in which we can work across government to address some of these issues. For some people, prison is the right place, but for many of the petty offenders, there are more effective things we can do, and I welcome her support for the approach we are taking.
The Justice Committee report on transforming rehabilitation recommended a presumption against short sentences. Statistics show that the reoffending rate for women prisoners currently stands at 61% for those serving sentences of less than 12 months, yet, since 2010, community sentences for women have nearly halved. Will the Secretary of State therefore fully commit to the Committee’s recommendations and implement a presumption against sentences of less than 12 months?
We are looking at various options in this context. I know that Scotland introduced a presumption against three months. I think it is fair to say that that did not make much of a difference, and it has now been extended to 12 months, and we are looking at the evidence from that. I hope it is very clear to the House that, when it comes to reducing reoffending and to rehabilitation, we do question the effectiveness of short sentences.
Would not the effectiveness of all custodial sentences be increased if we reduced the number of prisoners who were released on a Friday night when no public services are available for them, often leaving them to fall into the hands of the local drug dealer and go straight back into a life of crime?
My hon. Friend is right to raise that concern. There are different ways in which one can address that matter. More support could be provided. For example, there could be release on a temporary licence a few days before the final release so that many of the public services can be accessed. Whether we look at release on a particular day or at other ways of addressing that matter, I completely understand his point. We need to make sure that when people are released, they are in a strong position to access accommodation and a job and to be able to maintain their family links; that is what we want to do.
The figures from the Ministry of Justice consistently show that the longer people spend in prison the less likely they are to reoffend. When the Secretary of State says that he wants to see the end of short-term sentences, does he agree with me that those people should be sent to prison for longer, or does he agree with the Opposition that those criminals should not be sent to prison at all?
I had a feeling that the consensus was not going to last much longer. The reality is that for petty offenders who tend to be prolific and tend to be repeat offenders, the evidence shows that non-custodial sentences are more effective at reducing reoffending than custodial sentences and that is the approach that we want to take.
Would not reoffending rates for those on short-term prison sentences go down if life was made as uncomfortable as possible for them while they were in jail? Instead of spending all day in their overcrowded prison cell either on their mobile phone or going through the satellite TV channels, should they not be out breaking rocks in a quarry or picking up litter in the rain?
I support the idea that short custodial sentences often serve little purpose in reducing reoffending, but does the Secretary of State agree that to convince the public of this—to take them on this journey—they need to see both transparency of sentencing and that any discounts on tariffs are rewards, rather than the rule?
My party agrees with the Secretary of State regarding the evidence on the inappropriateness of many short-term prison sentences, but community sentences need to be properly resourced to ensure that they work as an appropriate alternative. Will the Government increase funding to local authorities for the delivery of effective community sentences alongside any presumption?
We need to make sure that the alternatives to custody are effective—that they are not soft options, but that they do enable people to turn their lives around—and that the public have confidence that this is the proper course of action to take. That is our ambition.
Sport and Recidivism
I recognise the value of sport and physical activity for the physical and mental health benefits they bring, and for the role that they can play in encouraging positive behaviours among offenders. That is one of the main reasons that the Ministry of Justice commissioned Professor Rosie Meek’s review of sport in prisons, which published its recommendations this summer and to which I have responded.
The impact that sport can have is highlighted by the incredible story of John McAvoy, who discovered a talent for endurance sport while in prison serving a long sentence, and who is now a world record holder and a professional triathlete. Although not every offender will go on to complete an Ironman, sport can greatly reduce reoffending rates. What consideration has been given to improving the opportunity for offenders to participate in sport while in prison, and to encourage people such as John McAvoy to share his experience by speaking to offenders?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. John McAvoy’s story is an important one, and he helped to play an important role in promoting sport in our custodial estate. On my recent visit to HMYOI Wetherby, its impressive governor Andrew Dickinson set out the work that he is doing with local sports clubs such as Leeds Rhinos to provide important role models in that institution. Sport and programmes such as these can help to develop attitudes and skills such as discipline and teamwork that are valuable in making a success of life outside custody and in reducing reoffending.
With more over-60s in our prisons than under-21s, and claims that provision for women and girls is being underdeveloped, will the Minister outline whether he believes that a holistic approach for sports programmes throughout prisons is a realistic approach to prevent reoffending?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about the ageing population in our prisons. The approach that we have adopted—which was set out in Professor Rosie Meek’s report—is designed to provide sport and physical education opportunities for all those in our custodial institutions, regardless of gender or age.
Yesterday I attended the launch at Chester cathedral of an impressive display of artwork by prisoners, the production of which had clearly helped many in their journeys towards personal wholeness. In what other ways can the Ministry of Justice produce an environment that is conducive to good mental health?
My hon. Friend raises an important point; she has done a lot of work in this area and more broadly around mental health. Sport can play a significant role in addressing mental health issues in prison, but so too can arts, education and others approaches, as she highlights. If she feels that it would be useful, I would be happy to meet her to discuss further her visit and what she took away from it.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to highlight again the importance of sport. The report published by Professor Meek in the summer, of which we have accepted 53 of the 54 recommendations, sets out a clear direction of travel—that is, alongside education and developing skills, and provisions for mental and physical health, sport plays a key role for prisoners in the rehabilitative process.[Official Report, 22 October 2018, Vol. 648, c. 3MC.]
Violence in Prisons
The influx of drugs has had an impact on violence levels in both public and private prisons, which is why we are investing in body scanners, improved searching techniques and phone blocking technology. In 2017, four of the top five assault rates in local prisons and category C prisons were in public prisons.
It remains the case that the prisons with the highest number of assaults are all private. In the first quarter of 2018, the top five most violent prisons were privately run. Will the Minister commit to an independent review of violence in private prisons and to a moratorium on any new private prisons in the meantime?
No, the reality is that there are issues with violence in both public and private sector prisons. Certainly, the numbers that I have suggest that there is a significant issue in public sector prisons such as Liverpool, Exeter and Bedford, where there have been urgent notifications. We should not take an ideological approach. There are very good private sector prisons, and there are some very good public sector prisons, and it is right that there is a diversity of prisons in our system.
Will my right hon. Friend pay tribute to the prison officers in both public and private prisons who, by and large, do an exceptional job in very, very difficult circumstances? Does he agree that we should on every occasion do what we can to encourage them and raise their status as an important part of the whole process of judicial sentencing?
My right hon. Friend is right to make that point, and I happily pay tribute to the work that prison officers do in this country—a point that I made in my party conference speech in Birmingham last week. The work that they do in protecting the public and rehabilitating prisoners should be valued by us all. It is not often very public, because it is, by definition, behind locked doors, but they do excellent work and we should recognise that.
There is a worrying level of violence, and increasing violence, in both state-run and privately run prisons. Does the Secretary of State agree with Phil Taylor, a former governor of Wormwood Scrubs, who said:
“What we’ve got here is a reduction in prison staff by over 10,000, and the government lauding the fact that they replaced it with three and a half thousand inexperienced staff who lack confidence and ability to deal with the things that they are confronted with on a daily basis”?
It is the case that in the past two years we have increased the prison officer population, and we will continue to do so. That enables us to implement changes, as we have key workers—a point that I made a little earlier—and a relationship is built up between prison officers and prisoners. Alongside additional measures that we have taken to stop, for example, drugs getting in, and the announcement that we have made on PAVA, all of that is designed to assist prison officers in doing a very, very important job.
The prison officers in my constituency continue to be worried about the lack of a deterrent to prevent prisoners from assaulting them. Will the Minister reassure the House that far harsher sentences should be handed down to those who dare to assault our prison officers? [Interruption.]
Indeed, and as my hon. Friend knows there is a new law that does precisely that. We were very happy to support the private Member’s Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on that front. We are increasing legislative ability, and we want to make sure that we work closely with the police to ensure that prosecutions are brought. It is the case, as I have mentioned, that we are giving prison officers a new tool, with access to PAVA.
The prisons Minister theatrically announced to the press this summer that he would resign if the 10 prisons he had identified did not improve on his watch. I have been looking at the prisons that he chose. It turns out that, of the 10 prisons he identified, only three are in the bottom category of the four prison performance categories. It gets still stranger when we see that there are 15 prisons in that worst performing category. I am sure that the Minister is sincere in his desire to improve prison standards, so instead of cherry-picking prisons for a media stunt, will he agree today that if all the 15 worst performing prisons identified by his own Ministry do not improve on his watch, he will quit?
The prisons Minister has set out a plan for 10 prisons that we are going to focus on. If the hon. Gentleman wants an explanation as to why we have chosen those specific 10 prisons, I am happy to meet him, and I know the prisons Minister would be happy to meet him. This is an area where we believe it is necessary to take action, and we have a plan to reduce violence in those prisons. If it works, we can look to extend it elsewhere. The fact is that we are gripping this issue. We are putting measures in place to address it, and we will deliver.
Mobile Phones in Prison
There are basically four ways in which we can detect mobile telephones coming into prisons: we can get them at the gate, coming over the wall, in use on the landings and in the cells. We are addressing it in all those ways. We are increasing searching at the gates. We are putting up grilles and netting to stop phones coming over the walls. We are putting dedicated search teams into cells, and we are using equipment to detect phones in use.
I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. He obviously is aware that illegal mobile phones in cells are currently being used for drug trafficking, intimidating witnesses and other criminal activity. Can he make it 100% crystal clear that under no circumstances will he or the Secretary of State ever go down the route of allowing prisoners to have legal mobiles in their cells?
We are absolutely clear that a mobile telephone, and particularly a smartphone, in a prison is a form of weapon. It allows a prisoner to jump the prison walls, effectively; they can transfer money, record videos and intimidate witnesses. We are encouraging prisoners to continue to use regulated landlines in prisons to contact their families. We are investing in in-cell telephony, because keeping family relationships will reduce reoffending by 37%, but a mobile telephone is a weapon, and we will find them and remove them.
I thank the Minister for that answer. The Justice Committee was told at a recent session that prison governors do not have sufficient flexibility to purchase the equipment they need—particularly the right scanning equipment—and that if they had more flexibility over their budgets, they might be able to invest in that equipment or other things that they feel their prison needs. What is the Minister’s response to that?
Thanks to a private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), which we have been proud to support, new technology is available that should not force governors to have to come up with a bespoke solution prison by prison, but will allow us nationally to have much better technology to identify these phones, listen to them and ultimately seize them.
Employment and Education: Reoffending Reduction
Prison education is key to achieving better outcomes for offenders and has been proven to reduce reoffending by approximately 9% and increase P45 employment by 1.8%. We are empowering governors, who will be given the budget and controls to tailor education provision in their prisons, to both better engage their prisoners and meet their specific learning and employment needs. On 17 September, we launched a new innovative commissioning portal, which will give governors direct access to a huge range of learning and skills providers, including local educators and employers.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Does he agree that in some cases, self-employment—for example, as a sole trader—may be appropriate? Can he set out whether those new support measures will include mentoring for offenders who want to start a business when they leave prison?
The Secretary of State will know that most veterans make a successful transition from the armed forces into civilian life, but inevitably some will end up in the criminal justice system. Will he say what work is taking place to support veterans with employment and training, not only to reduce reoffending but, frankly, to ensure that they do not end up living on the streets?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. He will know that there is a strong voluntary sector that provides a huge amount of support. I pay tribute to the work that many of those charities do. We work closely with them because it is particularly important, for those who have served their country, that we do not let them down subsequently.
We are taking a large number of measures to ensure that our court system is brought up to date in the 21st century. For example, we are allowing people to make applications online, with over 50% of divorce petitions now submitted online. We are making better use of technology, so that in some cases vulnerable witnesses can give pre-recorded evidence. We are also allowing those with small claims, up to £10,000, to start their claim online, defend it online and in some cases settle before the case comes to court.
I was pleased to meet my hon. Friend, together with Heather Buchanan from the all-party group on fair business banking and finance. The APPG has produced a thorough report on this very issue, which I have read with interest. As he identifies, it is important that small businesses can bring claims against the banks when they need to do so. I have spoken to the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who is carefully considering the APPG report, together with—when it comes out—the Financial Conduct Authority’s consultation on expanding the role of Financial Ombudsman Service, and who will consider Simon Walker’s independent review of complaints. I know that he is keen to set out the Government’s position as soon as possible after that.
Given the findings of the Lammy review, which showed that those from black and ethnic minority backgrounds face discrimination in the criminal justice system, what progress has the Department made in ensuring that juries and judges better reflect the communities that they are there to serve?
The hon. Lady makes an important point, because everyone who takes part in our justice system, as in politics, should reflect the society that it represents. That is not only juries; it is the professions that are there to support the judiciary on the bench. It is important that we look at the position in relation to juries.
My hon. Friend has campaigned hard on the closure of her court. I am always happy to meet with her. She made a lot of submissions to me during the consultation on the closure and put in a fair report. I am happy to meet her, and I know that she is very keen on alternative provision.
We hear a lot from the Government about this so-called court modernisation programme, but many people believe that it is simply a smoke-screen to cut the number of courts and reduce the provision of legal representation for those in court. Will the Minister agree to the Law Society’s call for an independent economic review of the long-term viability of the criminal legal aid system?
Court Experience for Victims and Witnesses
On 10 September, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I published the first ever cross-Government victims strategy, reflecting the Government’s clear commitment to further support victims of crime. Central to the strategy are commitments to strengthen the victims code and develop legislation to underpin it, to continue ongoing work to improve the court environment, as the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), has already set out, to increase the use of digitisation, to increase facilities for the use of video links, to improve provision for pre-recorded cross-examination for vulnerable witnesses and to raise awareness of the importance of the victim’s personal statement and opportunities for how it can be used.
I am grateful to the Minister for that comprehensive answer. I know from some of my constituents about the stress, strain and emotional toll of having to repeatedly face those who have hurt them or their loved ones. What steps is his Department taking to support victims who find themselves having to repeatedly give victim impact statements?
My hon. Friend takes a close interest in this area. I can entirely understand the impact on a victim of having to relive a crime multiple times. That is why the victim’s personal statement is hugely important. One of the measures that we are putting in place is the use of body-worn cameras to record the statement, which should help to reduce the number of times it needs to be made. Underpinning the strategy is the aim of reducing the number of people a victim has to interact with. If my hon. Friend wishes to highlight a specific case, I would be happy to meet him.
What steps will the Minister be putting in place to support litigants in person, particularly those employees who have to take their employer to court to seek damages for personal injury at work under the raising of the small claims limit in the Civil Liability Bill?
My Department greatly appreciates the great work that law centres are doing across the country. We support law centres with grant funding and through legal aid contracts. In April, I met Julie Bishop, the director of the Law Centres Network, and I was pleased to share a panel with LawWorks at our party conference last week. My officials are engaging actively with law centres as part of the review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
I declare an interest, having been an employee of the Hillingdon legal resource centre and the Ealing law centre before entering Parliament. Since the Government’s disastrous cuts to legal aid, many law centres have been forced to close, leaving advice deserts in parts of the country. Will the Government commit to new funding for solicitors and paralegals to work in law centres in those parts of the country that have the greatest unmet legal needs?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the work he did in his community before becoming a Member of Parliament. I should also declare that I did voluntary work in a law centre for a very brief period as part of my work as a barrister. We must encourage people to volunteer to do that work, because it is greatly appreciated. As part of the LASPO review, we are looking at how we provide advice to those who need it most, and the work that law centres do is a key part of that advice. We will be reporting on that by the end of the year.
Burglary and Custodial Sentences
Burglary is a particularly disgusting crime, especially domestic burglary—it is not just the loss of someone’s possessions, but the terrible intrusion on their privacy and the humiliation of having someone in their home. The majority of first-time offenders do receive a conviction—73% of domestic burglars receive a prison sentence.
I thank the Minister for that response and particularly welcome his condemnation of burglary, which, as he rightly says, is a very serious offence. I therefore urge him to ensure that the sentence fits the crime, so that potential reoffenders are deterred from doing it again.
The maximum sentence for aggravated burglary is currently a life sentence. The maximum sentence for burglary is 14 years. The sentence length given by judges, and reflected by the Sentencing Council, has increased over the past 10 years. That is as it should be, because domestic burglary is a particularly disgusting and uncivilised crime, and society should be making a symbolic statement against it.
My right hon. Friend is right to highlight this issue: 23% of those given short custodial sentences were previously excluded from school. I have not personally met the Secretary of State for Education to this discuss this matter, but I have corresponded with the Minister with responsibility for schools on exactly this issue. I regularly meet the Under-Secretary of State for the Department for Education about linked issues, and my officials and I are engaged with the Department for Education on its exclusions review.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. An increasing number of pupils are being excluded from our schools, and 60% of our prisoners were excluded when in our education system. What action is the Ministry of Justice taking to work with the Department for Education to provide serious support to those who have experienced exclusion and are at risk of offending?
As I briefly mentioned, my officials and I have already engaged with the Department for Education’s exclusions review, submitting an analysis by the Ministry of Justice on the correlation between offenders and exclusions. Key to tackling this issue is joined-up working across government and agencies. I heard about this issue on a recent visit to Hackney youth offending team. I will continue to work closely with Ministers and other Departments to develop measures to support the exclusions review when it reports.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I am always happy to look at the devolved nations for examples of best practice from which we might learn. She is right to highlight the links in this area, which is one reason why, in the victims strategy, we allocated moneys to support children who have witnessed domestic abuse in their past—to help to break that cycle and give them a chance of recovery.
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 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
I am very happy to give the assurance that I will meet my hon. Friend.
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?
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?
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.
Food Labelling and Allergy-Related Deaths
To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what action he is taking to improve the quality of UK food labelling to prevent further allergy-related deaths.
Order. Before I call the Minister to respond, I should make it clear that I have waived the sub judice resolution to allow reference to the inquest into the death of Mrs Celia Marsh. However, I ask right hon. and hon. Members to exercise caution in referring to that case—if they are minded to do so at all—in order to avoid any possible prejudice to those proceedings.
First, I want to say how deeply upsetting the deaths of Celia Marsh and Natasha Ednan-Laperouse are and that my heart goes out to the families, friends and loved ones affected by those tragedies. This House will appreciate that investigations into Celia Marsh’s death are ongoing and it would be inappropriate for Ministers to make further comment on this particular incident at this stage. However, Members should be in no doubt about how seriously we take these issues. It is essential that all UK consumers have complete trust in the food they are eating.
Current food labelling law is set out in the EU’s food information to consumers legislation. This legislation includes a list of 14 allergens, including milk and sesame, which are legally considered to be mandatory information that must be available to consumers. The regulations currently allow for some flexibility at a national level as to how this information is provided on food that is not pre-packed and food which is “pre-packed for direct sale”. The former includes products such as loose cookies or sandwiches which are prepared and wrapped directly for the consumer. The latter category—“pre-packed for direct sale”—includes products such as freshly prepared sandwiches made on site, as compared with packaged food such as a chocolate bar or ready meal that we might find in a supermarket.
I must make it absolutely clear that, under the current regulations, information must be made available to the consumer in all cases. However, whereas packaged food must include all allergens in bold in the ingredients list, information about non pre-packed food, such as pre-packed food for direct sale, can be made available by any means the operator chooses, including the use of clear signs indicating that the customer should speak to a member of staff who will provide the information orally.
As the Secretary of State announced at the start of this year, we have been looking at developing new approaches to food labelling to ensure that consumers have the information they need. The death of Natasha has shone a harsh spotlight on the issue of allergen labelling in particular and whether the current framework is still suitable. Natasha’s parents have made a powerful case for change, and I am sure the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the tremendous grace and strength they have shown in these particularly challenging circumstances.
The Secretary of State has asked the Department for urgent advice on how we can strengthen the current allergen labelling framework. That review is under way, and DEFRA is working closely with the Food Standards Agency and the Department for Health and Social Care. This morning we received the coroner’s report into Natasha’s death and we will study it very carefully as part of that review. Tomorrow, DEFRA will be holding talks with the devolved Administrations to see what approach they may wish to take, as this is a devolved matter.
We take this issue very seriously. I assure Members that we are working at pace to review the current rules and will set out our proposed way forward as soon as possible.
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for allowing this urgent question. The Minister is absolutely right: it is the tragic cases of 15-year-old Natasha Ednan-Laperouse and Celia Marsh that have thrown into sharp focus the common practices used by high-street convenience food providers to avoid doing all in their power to ensure their customers are safe. The Minister says the Government are taking this very seriously, but if that were the case surely the Secretary of State would be here to respond to the urgent question.
For years, this situation has been defended by the Government, who have said that tighter definition around, for example, regulation 5 of the food information regulations would be damaging to small business. But when did the Minister last review food label standards, and, given that regulations are supposed to be the bare minimum expected of companies, what have the Government done to make clear their expectations of food providers? The Minister referred to the expectation that, where there is signage, staff would be asked by customers whether there were any products with allergens, but how does he know whether those staff have been properly trained? Does he still think that signposting is sufficient as notice of potential allergy risks?
Have the Minister or the Secretary of State ever told larger companies that the expectations of Government are higher for them, given their vast customer base and extensive resources? Pret now says that it will include full ingredient labelling on all products—so they can do this when they want to. Must it always take a tragedy to effect meaningful change from this Government? Has the Secretary of State ever put this case across when in meetings with representatives of the sector?
Earlier in the year the Secretary of State spoke of “gold standard” food labelling but failed to mention allergies. Do he or his Department regret putting off a review of food labelling until after Brexit? If the Department introduces new legislation as recommended by the coroner in this inquest, will he also be ensuring that the Food Standards Agency is adequately resourced to make preventive checks in advance of another fatal incident occurring? Finally, does the Minister agree that, with food allergies seemingly on the rise, improved labelling, regulations around labelling and broader education about food allergies need to be put to the top of his “to do” list?
I thank the hon. Lady for her points, which she has raised with great sincerity and conviction, as always. I am sure that food is an important priority for the businesses in her constituency; it certainly is for many of us as well. She made an important point about discussions with small businesses. The Food Standards Agency, with whom I have been speaking this afternoon, is responsible for policy, and our local authorities work hard to take forward enforcement. In those conversations, it is clear that we are taking forward campaigns to improve awareness among consumers and businesses.
The hon. Lady also made important points about the steps that Pret a Manger is taking. It has set out what it is going to be doing initially, and it will—like the rest of us, particularly officials in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—be studying the coroner’s report carefully, as it sets out some challenging conclusions. Pret will want to consider how it will approach its business in the light of those conclusions. I hope that I have set out clearly that it is a priority that we take action here, and as I have said, this is something the Secretary of State talked about in January, saying that we wanted to move this forward. Clearly, because of these tragic cases, that work needs to be accelerated with real pace.
These are tragic cases, and it is clear that the law needs to be updated. Will my hon. Friend tell us how quickly he expects the law to be changed in this regard? Will he also say more about what the Government are doing to provide guidance to retailers, to ensure that this type of tragedy does not happen again?
I thank my hon. Friend for his questions. As I have said, we are taking this review forward at pace, and it is now being accelerated so that we can take forward a review of food standards and food labelling at real pace.
The other thing that we have been doing—clearly, in the light of these cases, we need to do more—is to make consumers and businesses aware of the options available, particularly to consumers. It is worth highlighting that we need to find ways of communicating to 16 to 24-year-olds, who are very vulnerable, the ways in which they can find the important information that they need when making food choices.
Clearly, the recent news of these two deaths caused by allergic reactions to Pret a Manger products has been absolutely tragic; I would like to echo the Minister’s earlier comments and say that all our thoughts are with the families and friends of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse and Celia Marsh. These cases have demonstrated just how serious food allergies can be and the fatal consequences that can ensue. That is why proper, rigorous food labelling is paramount to our food safety standards. It was welcome that the Prime Minister called last week for a review of food labelling laws; that is something that I agree with and support. The Minister mentioned the review earlier, but when can we expect further information on when it will be completed and what it is likely to contain?
I appreciate that it is early days, following these events, but as we have seen, food labelling is a serious public health matter. To that end, what discussions have DEFRA Ministers and officials had with their colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care? We welcome the fact that Pret a Manger and other retailers such as Greggs have said that they will review how they label their food. Pret is now saying that it will list all the ingredients, including allergens, in its freshly made products, but we need this to happen right across the board. This is absolutely vital for people with life-threatening food allergies. Full ingredients lists should not just be a “nice to have”. For some people, they really are the difference between life and death. Food producers, suppliers and retailers have a public health duty to ensure that every food item is properly labelled.
Tomorrow, we will be discussing the Government’s Agriculture Bill, which will mean that the Environment Secretary will be in charge of our nation’s food production for the first time in decades. The Bill also provides a unique opportunity to put in place strong laws around food that could include the full labelling of all ingredients, allergens in particular. As we have heard, the Food Standards Agency states that food products containing the 14 main ingredients likely to cause an allergic reaction must be labelled as such and that manufacturers must then make it clear whether products contain those allergens. However, under EU law, as the Minister mentioned earlier, that can be done orally—it does not have to be written down—so customers will have to go out of their way to ask staff if allergens are not listed on a label.
I am pleased that the Minister referred to that anomaly but, as requested by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), does the Minister believe that it is time to mandate that all allergens must be set out clearly in written format? Will he provide the House with a cast-iron guarantee that there will be no attempt to water down any current food labelling laws after Brexit? For example, in US law only eight major allergens have to be listed, as opposed to the FSA’s 14, and any trade deal with the US cannot come at the price of watered-down food safety standards. We clearly need urgent action to ensure that British food labelling is as good as it possibly can be to ensure that such tragic cases never happen again.
I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. She makes penetrating points, as always. As the father of a daughter with allergy problems, I assure her that I take such things incredibly seriously. I have recently come to this post—we have worked together on issues such as the ivory ban—and she can rest assured that I will be taking this matter up with the utmost seriousness and will tackle it as a matter of urgency.
Natasha Ednan-Laperouse was my constituent. When I met her father early last year, he relived the hour he spent trying to save her life on the British Airways flight from Heathrow to Nice. No parent should have to go through such an appalling experience. I say gently to the Minister that I think he is the wrong person giving the wrong response today. Pret and the other food outlets have passed the buck to the Government, and the Government should not pass matters of policy to the Food Standards Agency. Will he at least say when the review will report back and whether he will issue unofficial guidelines to food outlets in the meantime about listing ingredients and contamination? Finally, will he co-ordinate with his colleagues in Government on consumer safety? Local authorities are now so denuded of funds that trading standards and other agencies are unable to enforce the law even as it is.
I am sitting next to a Health and Social Care Minister, so I can assure the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) that we will be working closely and carefully across Government. He makes an important point about the tragic circumstances in which Natasha’s parents found themselves, and this situation is testament to them and the way that they have conducted themselves. The Secretary of State has written to them and is keen to meet them to discuss their concerns and how to move things forward. The report will be swift, but we received the coroner’s report only today and it sets out some challenging conclusions to which we need to respond properly.
I am sure that every one of us who is a parent will have found the account of what Natasha’s parents had to go through harrowing and awful. I am therefore delighted that the Minister is responding as he is. Does he agree that a new law to recognise their daughter would be a fitting tribute to their bravery and dedication?
Speaking as one who always has to carry two epipens, I think that the Government need to take a wider view. Please could the review also include restaurant food, and will the Minister talk to his colleagues in the Department of Health about better training for medics and paramedics and more research into this growing crisis?
I very much echo the condolences offered from the Dispatch Box, and warmly welcome the review that my hon. Friend the Minister has outlined today. However, in my constituency there are dozens of small food producers, many of whom produce food for direct sale at markets around Somerset and the wider south-west. While my hon. Friend will want to strengthen the regulations for large retailers, may I encourage him to apply some common sense in the way in which we apply them to small producers selling locally?
Common sense, yes, but the priority has to be food safety. UK consumers need to feel safe when they consume food, wherever it may be, and we need to find mechanisms to ensure that, whether food manufacturers and retailers are small or large, they get information across to consumers. It needs to be proportionate, but it needs to be effective as well.
I am sure that the hearts of the whole House went out to Natasha’s family as they relived at the coroner’s inquest her tragic and avoidable death. Natasha was a careful consumer who was not given the information that she needed from Pret a Manger to keep herself safe. Does her death not show that the current food labelling regulations are not fit for purpose? Will the Minister ensure that no amount of special pleading, loopholes and laxity on the part of the food industry deters him from his, I am sure, definite intent to tighten the labelling regulations, strengthen trading standards enforcement and increase the money that goes from his Department to the public analysts so that food in shops can be tested?
As I have said on several occasions in responding to this urgent question, there is no question but that we need to strengthen the regulations. We need to get to grips with the coroner’s report. I echo the hon. Lady’s point that there should be no wriggling off the hook here. It is important that Pret a Manger and other companies look at that report and its implications and work out how they are going to respond.
It is 30 years since my father was diagnosed as a coeliac—a condition that I know is shared by at least one person on the Treasury Bench this afternoon. In that time, we have gone from having to walk round a supermarket with a book, hoping that ingredients had not changed since it was published, to being able to rely on the labelling on a product to know whether it is suitable for him.
What further progress does the Minister think that the Government could make in looking at technological solutions that allow consumers to use smart phones and apps to get a full list of ingredients, not just the ones that might be on a label?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We need to look at all means possible to provide the information. It is pivotal that we respond to the needs particularly of 16 to 24-year-olds, who are beginning to make independent choices about their food. Let us find ways of making that information available. Technology will be important, especially for that generation.
Most of those who suffer from food allergies rely on medicines to manage their reactions, but the data sheets for the medicines themselves are often incomplete. A constituent explained to me last week that medicines for handling anaphylactic reactions can often include lactose and soya without having that on the data sheet. So as well as looking to his own departmental responsibilities, will he speak to his colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that when people rely on medicines, they know that they can use them safely?
As well as more careful food labelling, will my hon. Friend look at fake labelling? I do not know whether he has seen today’s Daily Mail, which suggests that the claims made by Pret a Manger of supplying fresh bread are far from the case and that the bread is actually frozen for a year and comes from France. It is important that consumers are not deceived—they pay a lot of money for these products. Will he therefore look at fake labelling and make sure that it does not happen?
We should be proud of the standard of our food in the UK; we are world-renowned for it. My right hon. Friend makes an important point: retailers and manufacturers need to be transparent about the quality of their food. We want it to be of the highest level. We need to be clear as to where the product—in this case, bread—is sourced from and how it is then prepared for consumption. All these things need to be much more transparent for the consumer—he is absolutely right.
Pret is not a small corner shop, but a large industrial producer of food. It baked into that baguette a known allergen and then proceeded to sell it without labelling it, using a loophole meant for small corner shops. The Minister should be outraged about that. I welcome the fact he has said he will strengthen the law, but what is he going to do to strengthen enforcement and the capacity of trading standards and the FSA to enforce the rules? Enforcement is as important as getting the rules right.
Yes, we need to get the rules right, we need to enforce and we need to ensure that business steps up to the plate. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that Pret is not a corner shop, but a major player in the food sector. I hope Members of this House will read the coroner’s report, because it is incredibly challenging and Pret needs to step up to the plate and see what the reports are—[Interruption.] She asks from a sedentary position what the Department is doing. As I have said, we are going to be strengthening the allergen labelling framework. That review is under way, but I hope she will understand when I say that we do need to take into account what the coroner’s report has said and we received it only this morning.
Surely the Government should step out of their complacent attitude to regulation and strengthen enforcement, too. Instead of seeing regulation as something to be avoided and red tape as a dirty word, surely it is about time the Minister and his Department stepped up to the plate and did the things that need to be done to protect the consumer.
The investigation into Natasha’s death showed that she died a tragic and avoidable death, one that could have been prevented by better food labelling. I welcome the fact that the Minister is looking at this issue with great speed. Can he give any indication about the timeframe, because others remain at risk during this period?
I cannot given any further indication, other than that we will be working at pace and taking the report forward as soon as possible. As Members have said—and I feel the same way—we want to make sure that all consumers are safe. I re-emphasise, though, that the coroner’s report has only just been received and we need to take it into account in the final conclusions.
Food labelling concerns put pressure on the NHS as people check for allergies. Knowing about an allergy can be a matter of life or death. What are the Government doing to approve and promote fast and reliable tests to diagnose allergies and help to save lives?