House of Commons
Tuesday 13 November 2018
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Community Rehabilitation Companies: Probation
The CRCs currently supervise just over 59% of all offenders and the National Probation Service supervises 41%.
The CRC contract has been a dog’s breakfast, so what is the Minister going to do to make sure that CRCs work better to support people, particularly those on shorter sentences?
First, I pay tribute to the Public Accounts Committee for its work in looking at exactly this subject. In order to work better, we are consulting on having a closer relationship between the National Probation Service and the CRCs. Secondly, we are making sure we put much more focus on the basics, by which we mean the risk assessment, the plan for probation and regular contact.
I recently visited the Kent, Surrey and Sussex CRC to see the great work it is doing to support 9,000 low-risk and medium-risk offenders across three counties, including through an excellent partnership with Buckmore Park scouts for community payback. Will the Minister join me in congratulating it on its creative partnership and holistic approach to the offender, which is bringing about positive results in rehabilitation?
Yes, I would like to pay tribute to that CRC, which is performing well, and to other CRCs such as Cumbria’s. I also pay tribute to the London CRC for the innovative work it is doing on knife crime rehabilitation.
There is a lack of information about, and confidence in, how CRCs are using rehabilitation activity requirements. Will the Minister look at how, in the negotiation of new contracts, there can be more precision about the expectations on CRCs as to how they administer RARs and, in particular, how they provide evidence that structured activity is taking place?
Very much so; a key part of the new consultation is taking some of the previous flexibility away and defining much more closely the requirements on regularity of contact, type of contact and the expectation on the offender.
Does the Minister agree that one of the keys to rehabilitation is to ensure manageable case loads for probation officers, so that more time and energy can be spent on each individual?
That is correct, which is why we are currently recruiting more than 1,000 new probation officers and probation support officers. But this is about not only the case load per prisoner but making sure we can focus most on the most risky prisoners and getting the right relationship between staff and risk.
Does the Minister believe that charities such as YMCA and the Prince’s Trust have a vital role to play in community rehabilitation?
Absolutely. YMCA and the Prince’s Trust have a role to play, and indeed more than 15,000 charities in Britain have working with offenders as one of their objectives. The third sector has so much to offer, and, in renegotiating and redesigning probation contracts, we must make it much easier for charities and the third sector to engage in them and bring their skills and knowledge.
Family Court Reform
People often come to the courts system when they are at their most vulnerable, and we want to ensure not only that they have a fair system to determine their disputes, but that it is as simple and straightforward as possible. In the family courts, we are making the process not only more simple but less antagonistic. For example, we are making our application processes more straightforward in divorce and child arrangement applications; we are committed to giving the family court the power to prohibit abusers from cross-examining their victims; and we are consulting on taking the requirement of fault out of divorce.
If the courts were to publish clear advice as to what access parents might reasonably expect, fewer of them would perhaps be tempted to litigate, would they not?
As my right hon. Friend implies, every parent who separates wants to continue to have contact with their child. I was pleased to talk about this issue with him and my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen). I have taken up their proposal and spoken about it with the president of the family division, as well as with a number of organisations that deal with children and legal representatives in the family courts. I should say that they all have differing perspectives, but we are looking at this matter very closely.
It is now two years since the Government made a commitment to ban perpetrators from cross-examining victims of domestic abuse in family courts, which the Minister has just mentioned, but when will she actually follow through on that and finally act on this issue?
We will follow through on this issue, which is a Government priority—
It will be in a Bill as soon as legislation and the parliamentary timetable allow.
Does the Minister agree that the consultation on divorce law reform is an opportunity to look into ways to cause less harm to children of all parents who separate, as well as to strengthen families along the lines of the marriage and relationship support initiative brought in by Lord Mackay?
We in the Ministry of Justice are committed to the institution of marriage and recognise the value that it brings to the children of a marriage, as well as to society as a whole. Our proposals and consultation on divorce are about looking at how to make the process easier when the very difficult decision to divorce has been made. Of course, any measures to strengthen families would be welcome.
Will the Minister outline the steps that have been taken specifically to address the reform of fathers’ rights during divorce proceedings on access to children?
All parents’ rights are incredibly important, but in the family court the heart of every case is the child’s best interests. That is the basis on which judges make their determination. There is a presumption that contact with both mother and father is in the child’s interests, but each case depends on its own facts.
Women’s Aid has long been concerned that although the experiences of victims of domestic abuse are taken seriously in the criminal courts, they are diminished or even ignored in the family courts. That is exactly what is happening to a woman with whom I am in touch, whose spouse is serving time for attempting to murder her. She has been asked to provide pension and bank statements, payslips, proof of the valuation of her home, and even evidence of the medical toll on her health. It is wrong. Will the Minister work with me to change the law to stop those who attempt to murder their spouse reaping any financial benefit?
Domestic violence is a huge issue on which the Government have taken several steps, including by widening the scope of abuse that is caught by the law on coercive control and by the requirements for legal aid. I am pleased to have met the hon. Lady already to discuss the issue that she mentions, and we are looking into it.
Prison Officer Recruitment
I am delighted to say that we have been very successful and are well ahead of schedule. Instead of simply 2,500 extra prison officers, we have 3,653 more than we had in 2016, and job offers have gone out to a further 2,000 potential prison officers.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer and welcome those additional prison officers. What protective equipment is being provided to prison officers to keep them and the prison population safer?
The use of body-worn cameras and CCTV cameras, which we have rolled out, makes it much easier to monitor what is happening in prisons. For extreme situations, we are rolling out the ability to use pepper spray. The key will be not the protective equipment but having in place the right support and training for prison officers, to make sure that their behaviour to a prisoner is appropriate, both to challenge and to reform. That involves investing in our senior staff to provide that model.
Data shows that a third of new prison officers leave the service within the first two years, so even if the Government meet their 2,500 recruitment target, nearly 800 officers will leave within the first 24 months. What steps will the Minister take to address the shockingly low level of staff retention in the Prison Service?
I am glad to say that attrition rates are beginning to stabilise, but they are of course a massive concern. More decent, cleaner, less drug-filled and violent prisons will be important for staff morale, and the right training—we are transforming training courses—will be central for prison officers. We have a huge opportunity. These are young, idealistic people, often with fantastic communication skills. We need to invest in them, because they are the foundation for the future of the Prison Service.
Central to the welcome drive to recruit more prison officers is the need to ensure that they can work safely. Prison officers at HMP Gartree in my constituency are concerned that sometimes, as a result of local police and Crown Prosecution Service decisions, assaults on staff are not prosecuted. Will the Minister assure me that he will look into the matter if I write to him, and that any act of violence against our brave prison officers is unacceptable?
This point is central. We need to make sure that prisoners are appropriately challenged and punished, particularly if they assault prison officers. Far too many prison officers who are protecting us —protecting the public—are being assaulted. We are therefore piloting in HMP Isis in London a system whereby the Metropolitan police is putting officers into prisons to follow up and increase the chance of prosecution. That is also why we pay tribute to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who has worked with us to double the maximum sentence for assaults on prison officers, and that comes into effect today.
The Minister would not need to be talking about training for new officers had the Government not got rid of 7,000 experienced prison officers to start with. Does he now accept that that was a massive mistake and has contributed to disorder, the rising drug use and assaults on prison staff within our prisons?
To agree with the hon. Lady to some extent, clearly the fact that we are recruiting 2,500 more officers reflects the fact that we think we need 2,500 more officers. Looking forward, the key is to make sure that people are supported both in college and on the landings to have the skill and experience they need. The challenge now is not numbers, but training and the estate.
Access to Legal Aid
As a committed member of the Select Committee on Justice, the hon. Lady knows that we are spending £1.6 billion on legal aid and reviewing the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. She raises one of the issues at which we will be looking very closely. I am sure she will be interested to hear that, after the latest legal aid tender, the number of officers providing access to legal aid services has increased by 28% in immigration and asylum, by 188% in welfare benefit and by 7% in housing and debt.
I thank the Minister for her answer, but a Citizens Advice study estimates that, for every pound of legal aid expenditure spent on housing advice, the state potentially saves more than £2, and that savings are even greater for legal advice on debt and benefits. Will she commit to undertake independent research into the savings that the state could make by returning early legal help as a component of legal aid?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. I have looked at that study as I have many other studies that talk about the downstream impacts of the lack of legal help at an early stage. As she will know, we are in the process of a LASPO review. We are looking at these matters, and I am interested that she highlights the need for further independent study.
Citizens advice bureaux do exceptionally important work in providing early advice and assistance, which is invaluable for my constituents. Will my hon. and learned Friend pay tribute to Cheltenham citizens advice bureau for its important work and ensure that it continues to receive the support and assistance that it requires to do it?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that citizens advice bureaux across the country, including in Cheltenham, as well as many other legal help organisations, help to ensure that the most vulnerable people are getting the support that they need. This week, the Ministry of Justice brought together 200 organisations that help and support people in need to talk to them about what more we and they can do.
Investing in high-quality legal advice for asylum seekers at an early stage is critical if we are not subsequently to waste large amounts of public money supporting failed asylum seekers who perhaps do not have a case, but who have been misadvised. What can the Minister do to assure me that all asylum seekers will get the highest-quality legal advice through legal aid at the earliest stage?
It is important to highlight two things. One is that the Government spend about £100 million on early advice every year. The second is that there is a misconception about what legal aid is and is not available. In fact, legal aid is available for asylum work as well as for non-asylum work, including detention, Special Immigration Appeals Commission, domestic violence and trafficking cases.
Will my hon. and learned Friend expand on the Department’s current review of legal aid reforms and say what representations have been received from the Labour party?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. We have received a large number of representations from across the country about what we should be doing in relation to legal aid, and we are looking at them carefully. The Labour party has not put in any representations.
At yesterday’s Sanctuary in Parliament event, we heard about the huge importance of family reunion for refugees, but also about the complexity of the application process. Will the Government support the Refugees (Family Reunion) (No. 2) Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil), and restore legal aid in England and Wales for such applications?
Family reunion is an important issue, and I have met a number of Members to discuss that Bill. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are looking at legal aid broadly and will set out the consequences of our review by the end of the year.
Of all the cuts to justice, the slashing of legal advice for sick and disabled people who are unfairly denied their benefits is one of the cruellest. We now have a shameful situation whereby people are first denied the financial support to which they are entitled and then must struggle through a difficult appeal without legal advice. This situation is bad enough already, but it will be even tougher under universal credit. Under the Conservatives, legal advice for welfare benefits cases has been cut by 99%. Is the Minister ashamed that sick and disabled people are paying the price for this Government’s ideological cuts agenda, or was that the deliberate intention?
I am not aware of any representations from the Labour party in relation to any provisions that it would make on legal aid funding. This is an important area involving people who are vulnerable and need help. Prior to LASPO, people did not get help at the representation stage of welfare cases—only at the advice stage. We are making a number of changes to make the tribunal process that people go through much simpler and more straightforward.
Let us be clear: legal advice was given to 91,000 people in the year before this Government’s reforms to legal aid. How many was it last year? It was 478 people, not 91,000. Can the Minister honestly tell the House that the need for legal advice has reduced by such a degree, or should we instead conclude that—just as with employment tribunal fees, housing advice, employment advice and immigration advice—the cuts to legal advice for the sick and disabled are really about targeting the weak so that they can enrich the powerful?
As I mentioned earlier, we spend £100 million on legal help and we are improving the tribunals service to enable people to access and liaise with judges to improve their process through the court system.
Leaving the EU: Justice System
We laid out our ambition in the policy paper that we produced in August 2017 and again in the most recent White Paper, setting out that we want the closest possible co-operation in civil and family justice matters. We continue to negotiate with the EU on these matters; in the meantime, as a responsible Government, we continue to prepare for no deal.
The UK currently extradites more than 1,000 people a year to the rest of the European Union using the European arrest warrant. Does the Minister accept that withdrawing from the European arrest warrant would make extraditing dangerous criminals from the UK slower and much more bureaucratic?
We are very keen to ensure that we have a good relationship with the EU in relation to security matters going forward. I recently spoke to my Home Office counterpart, who is leading the negotiations on the European arrest warrant. I was pleased to see in the European Council’s negotiating guidelines that:
“The EU stands ready to establish partnerships in areas unrelated to trade, in particular the fight against terrorism and international crime, as well as security, defence and foreign policy.”
Since 2011, more than 760 people have been subject to court proceedings at a Scottish court after being arrested under the European arrest warrant. Will the Minister set out what will happen to schemes such as the European arrest warrant in the event of a no-deal Brexit?
It is both in our interests and the EU’s interests to ensure that we have as good as possible a mutual arrangement in relation to these matters. I look forward to ensuring that we negotiate the best possible deal on this matter going forward.
The recent Scottish Government publication on security and judicial co-operation emphasises the need for Scotland’s separate legal and judicial system to be taken into account during the Brexit negotiation process. Can the Minister give a cast-iron guarantee that any new arrangements between the UK and the EU will respect Scotland’s separate and independent judicial system?
The hon. Lady is right to identify the separate and distinct legal arrangements that we have in Scotland. We negotiate and work very closely with Scotland and the Scottish Government on all these matters. In relation to no deal planning, there is almost weekly contact between my officials and those in the Scottish Government.
Our legal system is respected throughout the world. What steps are being taken to ensure that that continues through Brexit and beyond?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Although Europe is a key partner for us throughout our services and legal services industries, there is a world beyond Europe. We in the Ministry of Justice are supporting, through our Legal Services are GREAT campaign, the continued work and co-operation of legal services abroad. We have been to Kazakhstan and to Nigeria.
The effect of a no deal Brexit will obviously range widely, but it has not been much reported how it will affect our justice system. Will the Minister assure the House that we are putting in place all the necessary planning for a no deal Brexit even though we hope that it will not arise?
My hon. Friend is right. As a responsible Government, we are ensuring that we have our preparations in place. We have published two technical notices, one on civil judicial co-operation and one on legal services. We are putting together our statutory instruments to pass to ensure that our legal system continues to work, and we have £17.3 million from the Treasury for no deal preparations.
I can hardly overstate the importance of persistence in bobbing. I say to the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) that to bob once is inadequate. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to participate, he should now bob again.
He is bobbing. Persistent bobbing is a very important principle in the House.
There are many areas of security and justice where it is important and beneficial to get the best possible arrangement. The European arrest warrant is an important one, and we are negotiating hard to ensure that we get the best possible arrangement going forward.
The former director of Europol, a Brit, has warned that deal or no deal, leaving the EU means that the UK will lose our leadership role in Europol and Eurojust, often both critical for fighting the most serious criminals. How does the Minister believe that leaving the EU will help Britain to bring serious organised criminal gangs to justice?
As I have mentioned, Europol and the European arrest warrant—all these areas where we share data—are incredibly important to us, as they are to the EU. We are one of the largest contributors to security information within the EU. The Home Office leads on these matters, and it is trying to ensure that we get the best possible co-operation going forward.
Contrary to the assurances that the Minister gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell), the process of leaving the European Union has been marred by the UK Government’s consistent failure to consult the Scottish Government or Scotland’s Law Officers about the impact on Scotland’s separate and independent legal system. Can she now give me an assurance that this is not indicative of a plan to use Brexit to undermine Scotland’s independent legal system, which is of course protected by the Act of Union?
We have a devolution Act that sets out very clearly the separate and distinct nature of Scotland. We have almost weekly contact with officials on no deal planning. Paul Candler, who is a director in the MOJ, had a director-level meeting with his colleagues from Scotland and Northern Ireland on 9 November. We are legislating on behalf of Scotland at the Scottish Government’s request and with their permission. We are working very closely with Scotland on a number of SIs. I met the Scottish Law Society chair, Michael Clancy, earlier this year.
It is Government contact I am talking about, not contact with the Law Society, important as that is. The Minister should realise that Scotland’s independent legal system is protected not by devolution, but by the 1707 Act of Union. Scotland’s highest court has made a reference to the Court of Justice of the European Union on the question of whether article 50 is unilaterally revocable, not by the Government, but by this Parliament. The case will be heard on 27 November, but the UK Government are fighting it tooth and nail, even to the extent of attempting an appeal to the Supreme Court, despite the fact that an appeal to the Supreme Court is expressly prohibited in Scots law where there has been a unanimous interlocutory decision of Scotland’s highest court. Can the Minister tell me whether that is part of the plan to undermine Scotland’s separate legal system? How much money are the Government prepared to spend on keeping MPs in the dark about the revocability of article 50?
This Government are committed to the Union and to respecting the distinct Scottish legal system. I am fully aware of the matter before the Supreme Court, and we look forward to its judgment.
Access to Justice: Persons with Disabilities
The Government remain fully committed to the convention, and we assess the UK’s implementation of article 13 of the convention as part of the reporting process to the UN. The latest report to the UN was this year. To improve access to justice for people with disabilities, we are investing £1 billion in reforming the Courts and Tribunals Service, to continue to ensure that we have a modern justice system that is accessible to all. We are also increasing the use of technology to benefit the mobility impaired, who may have greater opportunity to participate in court and tribunal services without needing to travel to a hearing centre.
Article 13 of the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, to which we are a signatory, goes well beyond access to and the right to a fair trial and includes all aspects of democracy, rule of law and the effective administration of justice for all people. Given that disabled people have been disproportionately affected by cuts to legal aid for social security cases, and that hate crimes against disabled people are on the rise and employment discrimination is increasing, when will the Justice Secretary ensure that we fulfil our commitments under article 13?
We do fulfil our commitments, and I have to point out what we do as a country. We are proud of our record in supporting disabled people, including through the landmark Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and we have some of the strongest equalities legislation in the world, including the Equality Act 2010.
In order to deal with drones, we need to focus on electronic interference with and electronic interrogation of drones. We also need better intelligence systems, but in the end, a drone is just a delivery system; it is a way of getting things into a prison. Better grilles, better netting and better processes with prison officers to ensure that we inspect the yards will be central, whether we are talking about drones or throw-overs.
I thank the Minister for that advice. Drones are undermining the effectiveness of a number of our prisons. Does he agree that on top of what he suggests, we should be working with the manufacturers of drones, to ensure that they are helping to keep criminals under control?
Absolutely. There is much more that we could do with the manufacturers of drones. Drones contain geo-fencing equipment, which prohibits them going over civil aviation space, for example. We can do more there, but we cannot just rely on software. In the end, good intelligence and good processes and procedures in prisons are the real guarantee against drones bringing in drugs.
Criminal Legal Aid Fees
Criminal barristers play a fundamental role in ensuring access to justice, often for the most vulnerable in our society. Having already increased their fees by £9 million in April this year, we launched a consultation on a proposal to increase fees by a further £15 million. That consultation has recently closed, and we are carefully considering the responses.
Our justice system depends on proper legal representation. A constituent of mine, a dedicated and experienced barrister, works 15 hours a day, six to seven days a week. Two years ago, he earned £8,000; last year, he struck lucky and earned £26,000. Will the Minister commit to honouring the letter and spirit of the advocates’ graduated fees scheme, and make sure it has an early review?
The Lord Chancellor and I take very seriously the importance of having a system of advocates that represents people, and we value the independent Bar as well as the employed Bar. I met the leaders of the Bar Council last week, as well as the leaders—the chair and the vice-chair—of the Criminal Bar Association to hear their concerns, and we are listening very closely to what they have to say.
I call Chris Evans, for Question 9—not here. Where is the feller? I hope he is not indisposed.
The hon. Lady is right to highlight that we need to protect debtors from aggressive behaviour by enforcement agents. I have read the report that Citizens Advice has released today, and I am aware of the issues. We intend to launch a call for evidence before the end of the year to help to protect even further those in debt.
A constituent of mine, who is disabled and vulnerable, was petrified when she thought she was being burgled: two bailiffs aggressively entered her house without showing any ID, rummaged in her bag and took £240 out of her purse. She was made to pay another £180 on top of that. She only learned afterwards that this was due to a parking fine because her disabled badge was out of date. Given the shocking figures from Citizens Advice, which the Minister referred to, showing that a bailiff breaks the rules every minute, when will the Government urgently review the rules and introduce an independent body to police the rules?
I am very sorry to hear about the hon. Lady’s constituent’s situation. I would be very happy to discuss the individual case, as we look at evidence, following the call for evidence. As I have mentioned, we intend to launch the call for evidence before the end of the year, when we will look at these matters very carefully.
In relation to Question 9, Bishop Rachel of Gloucester has called for short-term prison sentences for women to be replaced with community-based rehab—
Order. The hon. Gentleman is ahead of himself. Let me explain to him that Question 9 was not asked, and he cannot shoehorn his inquiry into a question that was not asked. He can shoehorn his inquiry only into a question that has been asked, if it is germane and within scope. I was trying to be helpful to the hon. Gentleman, whose Question 22 is highly unlikely to be reached. I was very happy to accommodate him on an earlier question, on the premise that his supplementary to it is within its scope. Knowing the intellectual ferocity of the hon. Gentleman and the helpful delaying tactic I have just deployed to give him a little time to reflect, I feel sure that he can now produce a wonderful, perfectly formed and very brief inquiry.
Very well done, indeed. The question was nothing if not roguish.
That was a very intriguing question on one about bailiffs. This matter is reflected in our female offenders strategy, and I am sure that the Minister responsible, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), will be very happy to discuss it further with my hon. Friend.
Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) about the experience of her constituent, 2.2 million people contacted by a bailiff in the past two years have experienced the bailiff pushing the legal limits—my hon. Friend’s constituent experienced that—including forced entry into a home, removing goods needed for work and refusing a reasonable payment plan. The 2014 reforms clearly are not working. Does the Minister not agree that it is time to have an independent bailiff regulator to get a grip on these abuses of justice?
I know that the hon. Lady cares deeply about the matters under discussion and was quoted this morning in relation to them. I recently met Peter Tutton, who is head of policy at StepChange. He made the point about independent regulation and we will consider it in due course.
What was the outcome of the review of the implementation of the bailiff reforms?
We reviewed them recently and made a number of proposals to protect vulnerable people. Interestingly, although it criticises enforcement, the Citizens Advice report, which came out this morning, says that the changes we made in 2014 were largely positive.
Access to Justice: Court Staffing
It is great to have an opportunity to highlight the important role of staff at Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service. I have recently visited a number of courts, including in Liverpool, Nottingham and Newcastle, and have been impressed by their commitment to justice. Our reforms, which will reduce staffing levels as they modernise the system and which are delivered by our staff, are improving, not diminishing access to justice.
Over the past few weeks I have been participating in the Industry and Parliament Trust’s superb courts and tribunals service parliamentary scheme. The National Audit Office warns that two thirds of the Department’s efficiencies have come from reducing staffing levels. Courts and tribunals staff do an amazing job, but there are simply not enough of them. Will the Minister agree to meet me so that I can pass on my first-hand experience of that excellent scheme, to inform Government policy?
I would be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman. I am very pleased that he took part in the scheme and that it is excellent. I encourage all other Members to take part in it, too.
Will the Minister provide further detail on how the planned reforms will enable judges to be deployed more effectively?
As my hon. Friend has highlighted, a very effective and efficient measure is in the process of going through Parliament and it will enable judges to be deployed very effectively, to sit in other jurisdictions and to be used in the best possible way.
Reducing Reoffending Rates
Reducing reoffending is essentially about many things, but the three most important are making sure that someone has a job, that their addiction problems are addressed and that they have accommodation. We are addressing accommodation in Bristol, Pentonville and Leeds, through new wraparound support to help people into accommodation. We have a new education and employment strategy, and we are working with the NHS on addiction. It is possible to reduce reoffending but, as we learn internationally, it is never easy.
May I commend to the Minister the report of the all-party parliamentary group on mental health, ably led by its chair, the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately)? It focuses on the issue of mental health and the support required for people who have left prison. Will the Minister say more about the work he does with the Department of Health and Social Care and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure that that support is available?
That is absolutely essential. More than half of our prisoners are currently presenting with mental health issues. When I shadowed a prison officer in Wormwood Scrubs last week, I had a long conversation with somebody who had attempted to kill themselves and had been hearing voices. That is not unusual. We have to work much more closely with the NHS. I am very pleased at the progress that the NHS is making, and I hope that future investment in the NHS and mental health will go directly into prisons.
The work being done by the Minister is very welcome, but will he also recollect that we need to start on preparation for release much earlier thnewlandsan the 12 or so weeks currently built into the contractual arrangements?
That is absolutely right. The key worker scheme that we are rolling out allows the prison officer to develop a relationship with an individual prisoner, to work with them on their sentence plan and education plan. One reason why it is so important is that it will help us to settle people into the community much earlier in their sentence.
Between April and December 2017, National Careers Service advisers aided almost 4,000 prisoners into employment or non-OLASS—offender learning and skills service—learning. How many prisoners have been referred to employment or education since the Government scrapped those advisers in March? The Minister has rightfully said that this is important for rehabilitation.
First, I pay tribute to the work the National Careers Service did, but there are many other providers working within the prison estate. The New Futures Network, which we are now rolling out, is doing things that were not done by the National Careers Service, in particular bringing more employers into prison to develop those relationships. There is a great deal we could learn, but we believe the current system will deliver better results and our employment figures for prisoners are looking very promising.
The work of Care after Combat with veterans on rehabilitation is making a real difference and meets the needs of the Department of Health and Social Care, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Defence. Will the Minister congratulate Jim Davidson and his team on the remarkable work they are doing on this agenda, and help to take a lead across government to ensure that that wonderful charity can access the funding it needs to continue and expand this important work?
Care after Combat does terrific work. I was lucky enough to meet Jim Davidson and his team—indeed, I did so with a Defence Minister. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), will meet Mr Davidson again shortly. It is a great example of the way a proper wraparound service that addresses mental health, accommodation and employment can really help to prevent reoffending.
The issues in HMP Liverpool were of course shocking. It was a very challenged prison and some challenges still remain, in particular around the issue of self-harm. Nevertheless, Governor Pia Sinha and her team have effected a real transformation. I hope the hon. Gentleman will recognise, from visiting Liverpool prison, that over 100 cells have now been fully refurbished. We have reduced the population and, above all, there is a sense of a much safer, more orderly prison. This is real progress in 11 months. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Pia Sinha and her team.
I join the Minister in those comments. In August, he announced the 10 prisons strategy to tackle violence and drugs in 10 of the worst prisons in the country. I am wondering why HMP Liverpool was not included in that project. As the Minister offered to resign should he not be able to reduce the levels of drugs and violence in those prisons, what promise will he make to HMP Liverpool?
I will resist the temptation to offer to resign on every single issue within my Department, but I repeat that I will resign if I do not turn around those 10 prisons by August. Why were those 10 prisons chosen? They largely focus on Yorkshire and London. There are many other challenged prisons in the system. Which is challenged day by day alternates a great deal—it depends on the particular population—but I do not think that anybody would suggest that prisons such as Wormwood Scrubs, Nottingham and Leeds, which are among the 10 prisons, are not very seriously challenged prisons.
I am pleased to say that, at the most recent Budget—I do not wish to get involved in the next Budget and the spending review, on which I am confident—we got a great deal of investment into the prison estate, which makes a huge difference. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the issue of the future budget, but watch this space and see how our negotiation goes.
Privatised provision of maintenance at HMP Liverpool was to blame for a lot of the appalling conditions there. Despite that, the Government plan to run two new prisons for private profit. I do not expect the Government to agree with me that the privatisation of justice is wrong, but surely we can get a consensus that companies engaging in fraudulent activity should not be able to profit from the public purse. Will the Secretary of State today commit to G4S and Serco not being allowed to run those two new privately run prisons while they remain under a Serious Fraud Office investigation for ripping off the Ministry of Justice?
There is of course one important point here, which is that we need to make very sure that the people we work with are reliable and trustworthy. I absolutely agree on that. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that G4S is running some good prisons in places such as Parc and Liverpool. We need to get the balance right between making sure that these are reliable providers and making sure that they protect the public.
We know they’re dodgy.
Order. The hon. Gentleman keeps chuntering from a sedentary position, “They’re dodgy”. He is entitled to his view. It is better if he expresses it on his feet than from his seat. He is now fast competing with the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), who has been a model of quiet this morning, but who, it has to be admitted, normally shouts from a sedentary position at the mildest provocation.
Focusing on education is about getting employers into prisons and making sure that the education that we provide is relevant not just to employment, but to local employment. If there is a shortage, for example, of window cleaners in an area, it is about making sure that prisoners can get education in window cleaning. We have launched the New Futures Network, which helps to settle employers into employing prisoners. Getting this right will mean employers learning, as Timpson has in the past, that prisoners can be among an employer’s most loyal, dedicated employees, changing their lives and ultimately protecting the public.
Women in East Sutton Park Prison in my constituency get to gain qualifications and work while they are in prison, but the nearest parole hostel is in Reading, so some have to quit their jobs after they leave prison. Could my hon. Friend look into this and see whether something can be done?
There is a big challenge about where prisons are located, as the whole House understands. It is often very helpful to have prisoners located near the place where they are eventually going to be settled. We are not able to do that in every case, but the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), is leading an investigation into new forms of women’s centres to provide rehabilitation and resettlement for exactly those women prisoners.
A sentence from Kettering—I call Mr Philip Hollobone.
Will the Minister consider introducing a Queen’s award for offender rehabilitation to encourage employers to employ ex-offenders?
I think that is a very, very good idea. We need to recognise and honour employers who do this. A Queen’s award is a fantastic idea. I would like to give credit to my hon. Friend for coming up with it and would like his permission to pursue it.
Well, that really is a quick and easy win for the hon. Gentleman. I have a feeling that it will appear in the Kettering media ere long.
I call Matt Western—not here. Where is the chappie? What is happening this morning?
Family and Magistrates Courts: Closures
Whenever we close courts, there is of course always a public consultation, and we always carefully consider the consequences of any closure. However, in circumstances where, in 2016-17, 41% of our courts and tribunals used less than half of their available hearing capacity; where any money from the proceeds of sale is reinvested back into the Courts Service; and where we are reforming our courts with technology and bringing them up to date, we have to ask ourselves whether spending money on physical buildings is always the best use of money in our legal justice system.
We are all now better informed.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Will she commit to doing an evaluation of the impact that the closure of Scunthorpe magistrates court and family court will have on the costs of other services and the diversity of the magistracy sitting in Humberside?
I am very interested in considering whether it is appropriate to do that in relation to a particular court. In general terms, it is interesting that although we have closed courts since 2012, the magistracy has diversified slightly, so we still have more women and more black and minority ethnic magistrates than we did in 2012. In relation to the wider justice system and other agencies, I am pleased to have visited recently a police station in Lewisham and a prison in Durham to see how our agencies can work better together, using technology as we progress into the next stage of justice.
We are running very late but I want to hear the voice of Cleethorpes. I call Martin Vickers.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Like Scunthorpe, there are reports that Grimsby magistrates court, which serves the Cleethorpes area, is under threat of closure, with the possibility of cases being transferred to Hull, which is a round trip of 66 miles. Will the Minister give an absolute assurance that Grimsby is not under threat?
There is a consultation in relation to remand hearings at the moment, but I am happy to confirm that we are not considering closing Grimsby court.
The Conservative decision to cut 2,500 court staff has caused delays for victims and deterioration in the functioning of our courts, but that is just the start; the Conservatives plan to cut many more thousands of court staff in the next few years. Will the Minister commit today to halting those court staff cuts until this House has debated properly the court reform programme, which, to many, looks like a smokescreen for more austerity and which is being driven through without proper debate in this House and with the public?
In the justice system, we are reforming the courts. We are investing £1 billion in that process. That is not austerity. On staff, we are modernising and bringing in technology to make our systems work more effectively. That is in the interests of victims, witnesses and defendants. We are making our court processes much more effective. There are some reductions in staff as a result of that, but we are increasing access to justice.
Female Offender Strategy
Our female offender strategy, which was published in June, is clear that, while custody should always be an option when the severity of the crime justifies it, we wish to see fewer women sentenced to prison for short periods, and we set out a plan to deliver robust and effective alternatives to custody. Last week, the Secretary of State and I announced the allocation of the first tranche of funding, totalling £3.3 million, to organisations around the country doing great work to further drive forward the implementation of the strategy.
Today’s Guardian reports research by Dr Laura Abbott, a specialist midwife and senior lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire, who found that some female offenders give birth in prison cells and do not have access to midwives, even when babies are born prematurely or breech. I am sure the Minister agrees that that is a serious flaw in the medical treatment female offenders receive. If we are to get female offending right and improve outcomes, we must start with very basic maternity services.
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the report by Dr Abbott referred to in The Guardian, which I read about this morning. I reassure him that our key focus is ensuring that all prisoners, female and other, have access to the medical services they need.
I say to the hon. Gentleman in all courtesy that it is almost always a great pleasure to listen to his mellifluous tones; however, there is a very strong convention in this place that a Member does not ask two questions in the substantive section. As soon as he started bobbing in hopeful expectation of being called a second time, the Clerk not only consulted his scholarly cranium to advise me that he should not be called, but swivelled round with a speed that would put to shame most professional athletes. My advice to the hon. Gentleman is that if he wants to get in again, he should try his luck at topical questions, to which we now come.
I am pleased to inform Parliament that, as the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), announced on Friday, we have awarded £3.3 million to 12 organisations to help to divert vulnerable women from crime and reduce reoffending. We know that a large number of female offenders are in extremely vulnerable positions. Many face issues with substance misuse and mental health problems, often as a result of repeated abuse and trauma. This is the first wave of funding from the £5 million investment in community provision announced in the female offender strategy, which sets out a range of measures aimed at shifting focus away from custody towards rehabilitative community services.
My constituent Alison suffers economic domestic abuse from an ex-partner, but because of this Government’s cuts to legal aid she cannot afford legal representation to get the fresh start she needs. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss Alison’s situation and explain how she can navigate an underfunded legal system that limits access to justice?
The hon. Lady will be aware that we are currently looking at access to justice as part of our post-implementation review. In terms of the particular case she mentions, I know that the courts Minister will be happy to meet her.
My hon. Friend raises a very important issue. It is important that all prisoners are treated with respect, but it is also vital that the safety of all prisoners is prioritised. Detailed procedures are in place in Prison Service instruction 17/2016 to do that in respect of transgender prisoners. The offences at New Hall are very serious and we are looking at how those rules were applied in that case. In the light of that, I can confirm that I continue to look carefully at the content and application of PSI 17/2016.
I do not know whether the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) knows this yet, but I do know that he will shortly introduce an Adjournment debate on this matter. His views, and the views of others—which, in many cases, are different—will therefore be heard at rather greater length before very long.
The Prime Minister told her party conference that austerity was over, and the Chancellor said that austerity was finally coming to an end, but it seems that they did not have the Ministry of Justice in mind. The Treasury’s own figures—I have them here—show that justice budgets will be slashed by £300 million next year, and that is on top of hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts this year. Those cuts risk pushing justice from repeated crises to breaking point. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, as the Treasury says, justice budgts will indeed be cut by £300 million next year, and that these brutal cuts show that we cannot rely on the Conservatives to end austerity, injustice or anything else?
In the recent Budget, the Chancellor announced an extra £52 million for the MOJ to be spent in the course of this year. The figures to which the hon. Gentleman has referred are in the 2015 spending review. At the time of the 2017 general election, when the Labour party proposed spending that would increase Government debt by a trillion pounds, there was nothing there for the MOJ. Let us remember that next time the hon. Gentleman stands up and rants about spending on the MOJ.
A firework factory explosion in my constituency killed two members of the public and there was a criminal conviction as a result. The widow of one of those people applied to the criminal injuries compensation scheme, but was refused. Will my hon. Friend look at the scope of the scheme to ensure that such injuries are included in future?
I was very sorry to hear about the circumstances that my hon. Friend has outlined. As he will know, we have announced a review of the scope, affordability, sustainability and rules of the criminal injuries compensation scheme, but I shall of course be happy to meet him to discuss the specifics of that case if he wishes.
The MOJ is investing a significant amount in our justice system—£1 billion on reform. The hon. Gentleman makes a number statements. We are currently reviewing legal aid. As I mentioned earlier, we invested £9 million in criminal advocates’ fees in April, and we are in the middle of a consultation and have proposed a further investment of £15 million. We take our responsibility in relation to justice very seriously and are working hard to ensure that we deliver justice in this country.
I will call a colleague who promises to ask a short, one-sentence question. If it is a long question, do not bother. Kemi Badenoch.
Will the Minister update the House on the progress of the refurbishment of the prisons estate?
As the Secretary of State has pointed out, £58 million more has come in the Budget. In individual prisons, we have now invested more than £16 million, which has been spent particularly on replacing windows and refurbishing cells. In Wormwood Scrubs, for example, as I have seen, the whole of the fourth landing on Delta wing has been refurbished. That is good progress, but there is more to do.
Since the introduction of the minimum custodial term in 2015, people who are caught for repeat possession of a knife are now more likely to go to prison. Recent statistics show that 83% of offenders received a custodial sentence, which is an increase from 68% in the year ending June 2015. It is also worth pointing out that average custodial lengths are also going up—from 7.1 months in the year ending June 2017, to 7.9 months in the year ending June 2018.
When a prisoner commits a serious violent offence in prison, will Ministers take action to ensure that prosecutions for such offences result in additions to the prisoner’s sentence, not concurrent sentences?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Of course, the House recently passed legislation to increase sentences for violent crimes committed against prison officers and other emergency workers. It is right that we do so, and these matters need to be taken very seriously. It is important that the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and prison authorities work closely to ensure that we do not allow this activity to continue.
It is the responsibility of the police primarily to work on supporting the Prison Service. Our responsibility at the Ministry of Justice extends to what happens within the prison walls. It is true, of course, that with prisons—regardless of whether they are in north Wales or London—there is additional work, particularly on prosecution, but we do not feel that the imposition of Berwyn leads to the kind of financial pressures that would require a rethinking of the entire settlement.
I welcome the Lord Chancellor’s confirmation that the female offender strategy signals a shift from custody to rehabilitation. I am also grateful, as it will be, for the award to the Nelson Trust. Would the Minister like to come and see the astonishing work of the Nelson Trust in Gloucester to help former female offenders?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his persistence on this topic, and I am pleased to say that I understand that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), will be visiting the Nelson Trust very shortly.
I am very happy to look at what is happening in Bristol. Clearly it is right that debt collection measures are proportionate, and the hon. Lady raises an important point about that. One of the best ways to ensure that living standards increase and debt levels do not rise is by making sure that we get more people into work, and we are succeeding in that.
In order to discourage reoffending it is essential that ex-offenders have settled accommodation when they leave prison. What action is my right hon. Friend taking so that prison governors ensure that there is settled accommodation, as is required under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work on the Homelessness Reduction Act. It is right that local authorities and prison governors work closely together to make sure that we provide that accommodation. There are three factors that help to bring down reoffending: ensuring that an offender gets a job, has accommodation—a roof over their head—and maintains family ties. If we can pursue all those, we will help to bring down reoffending.
As I have already set out, we are seeing more people going to prison and custodial sentences are increasing for these offences following the change in the law. On the question of deterrence, this is in part about sentencing, and these are clearly serious offences, but there are other factors when it comes to the deterrent effect; it is not just about sentences. We have to bear that in mind as well.
How do we have a “fair and more progressive” way to pay probate fees, as the Minister put it, when the fees for an estate worth £499,999 have risen from £215 to £750, and those for an estate worth £500,000—just £1 more —will rise to £2,500 for not a jot more work on behalf of the Government? How is that fair?
My hon. Friend, as a former Justice Minister, will know that charging fees is an essential part of funding an effective and modern Courts and Tribunals Service and of ensuring justice. We listened carefully to the concerns that were raised in relation to our previous proposal, and we have significantly reduced the levels. This system will lift 25,000 estates out of paying probate fees at all.
Those specific cases will be a matter for the police and for the Crown Prosecution Service, but if activity of this sort is targeted on the basis of religious belief, that is completely unacceptable and I am sure that the whole House is united in condemning it.
I think the Chair of the Select Committee should have a second bite of the cherry. I call Mr Bob Neill.
I am very grateful, Mr Speaker. The Secretary of State has a particular responsibility to protect the interests of the judiciary. Recruitment to senior judicial office is a continuing problem, and there is a regular shortfall. He has indicated that he intends to consider seriously the recommendations of the Senior Salaries Review Body. When can we expect a response to this, given that a number of important posts are due to fall vacant?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the shortage, particularly at the High Court, and it is right that we should look seriously at the proposals of the Senior Salaries Review Body. I am not going to put a date on when we will have completed that process, but it is important that when we do so, we get judicial recruitment on to a sustainable basis.
The proposals in the female offenders strategy, which I look forward to working across the House in implementing, are clear in that they are giving the judiciary alternative routes to custody. We are working on the implementation of those proposals now, and I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady to talk about her specific views on this, if she wishes to do so.
Amazon and eBay are selling tiny mobile phones that are explicitly marketed for their ability to be smuggled into prisons. Does the Minister agree that they are abetting criminality and that they must stop doing this?
These beat-the-boss phones are designed explicitly to be concealed. We must crack down on the people who are selling them but, more than that, we have to get processes right in prison. This includes investing in more sniffer dogs to pick up the phones and in better scanners, and the staff having the morale, the confidence and the training to challenge prisoners, inspect cells and stop this stuff being smuggled in.
The most important response is that we have decided not to close that court.
Given that we have 10,000 foreign national offenders in our prisons, with which new countries are we seeking to sign compulsory prisoner transfer agreements?
We always seek to find new opportunities to improve the system, and we will continue to do so.
What conclusions did the Minister draw from any recent discussions with police and crime commissioners about their future role in our probation service?
Police and crime commissioners play a central role in the system, so we are consulting and redesigning it to make that role more influential. It will not be possible to devolve fully to the PCCs, but we will design the system so that the National Probation Service chief in each region works closely with the PCC to ensure that their views determine how the system is run.
Order. I was awaiting advice on an important matter, so it was advantageous to have a slightly protracted exchange, but that should not be taken as a precedent for future sessions. Other Members who are standing have already asked a question, but the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) has not, so we will have one more question.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Does the Secretary of State recognise that it is intolerable that employment and support allowance claimants at the Norwich tribunal are waiting 40 weeks—nine months—for their appeal hearing, and that personal independence payment claimants are waiting six months, particularly when 71% of those appeals are successful? What is he doing to change that?
We work with the Department for Work and Pensions on such matters. If I recall correctly, there has been, over a period, progress in bringing down some of the lengths of time, but I will happily look into the matter and write to the right hon. Gentleman.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would not normally make a point of order like this, but I wonder whether you have received any indication from a Department for International Development Minister about their intention to make a statement regarding the UK’s continued membership of UNESCO. Reports in the press today suggest that the Government are actively considering withdrawing from the organisation, which supports the culture of our cities, sites of historical interest, and academics in the UK and around the world—not least the UNESCO Chair in Refugee Integration at the University of Glasgow in my constituency. Surely such a major decision should be communicated to the House first, not leaked in the press, so what means are open to us to ensure that a Minister comes to the House to justify the decision—if indeed a decision has been made?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for his courtesy in giving me advance notice of it. Before I say anything else, I might add that we are of course in a UNESCO world heritage site ourselves, which is a source of some pride to the House. I have received no indication that the Secretary of State for International Development intends to make a statement on the matter, nor have I received any indication that any other Minister intends to do so, but the hon. Gentleman’s observations will have been heard loudly and clearly on the Treasury Bench. If there is a need for a statement, I trust that a Minister will volunteer it. In the absence of any such indication, the hon. Gentleman knows the devices and instruments that are available to him to try to secure parliamentary attention to the matter in question.
I had been expecting a point of order from another hon. Gentleman—
Ah. It is the hon. Gentleman’s choice; he should not feel obliged.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am extremely grateful to you for accepting this point of order. On Second Reading of the Finance (No. 3) Bill yesterday, it was brought to my attention that a fellow Member of this House, rather than engaging with the substance of the issue being discussed, chose to make disparaging remarks about my accent. It is unfortunately not the first such incident in this place. There was a well-documented incident a few weeks ago involving a Scottish Member of Parliament. This House is meant to be representative of all the nations, accents and backgrounds of the British state, and such behaviour serves only to reinforce the perception of Westminster politics as privileged and exclusive. Mocking an accent is a serious matter, as it ultimately undermines the identity of an individual or a group. I seek your advice as to whether such behaviour—a Member mocking the accent of another Member of this House—is befitting of this place. May I also put it on record that I am extremely proud to be Welsh and of my accent?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and, indeed, for his courtesy in giving me notice of it. He is absolutely right to raise the issue, not least in view of our recently expressed determination on how we treat everybody in this place—be that person a Member, a member of staff, somebody working with Members or someone present on the estate for other reasons.
Personal mockery of one another—Members come in all shapes and sizes, with a wide diversity of accents, national origins and ways of speaking—is wrong and, to many people, it constitutes a form of bullying. I am the last person to deprecate good humour in the way in which we interact. I may on occasion myself have caused offence by my extraordinarily ineffective mimicry, for which I apologise. I have been known to seek to imitate the Father of the House, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who has been a friend of mine for well over 20 years. As I say, my efforts at imitating him are usually pretty feeble, and they have always been undertaken in a friendly spirit, but mores change.
I think it is a safe rule of thumb that people should not mimic others. Let us debate the issues—play the ball, rather than the man or the woman. Very specifically, belittling mockery, which I have had occasion in the past to raise with the powers that be in relation to particular Members, is not acceptable. The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) is absolutely right about this, and I hope it will not be necessary for the issue to be raised again, or for me to have to repeat what I have in good conscience just said to him and to the House.
By the way, I think that the hon. Gentleman has a magnificent accent, and I think the House is proud of him, because he is a very good example of someone who debates the issues but does not engage in personal attacks. I have known him for many years, and I have never heard him make a personal attack.
Gypsy and Traveller Communities (Housing, Planning and Education)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about periodical local authority reviews of the housing needs of Gypsy and Traveller communities; to make provision for the conversion of caravan sites into settled accommodation; to require local authorities to provide temporary caravan stopping sites where there is a demonstrated need; to create a criminal offence of unauthorised encampment; to make provision about the education of Gypsy and Traveller children; to require schools to have regard to Gypsy and Traveller culture and heritage in teaching; and for connected purposes.
I present this motion to Parliament today because current Traveller law, created with the best of intentions since the Caravan Sites Act 1968, is not working. My local authority has 40 Traveller sites. Settled residents of the area, Travellers themselves and, especially, their children and many others who live on Traveller sites have all had terrible experiences in recent years. The current policy of segregation has resulted in a failure of integration and poor community cohesion.
We are sent to this place to represent all our constituents, whatever their identity. I will set out the recent experiences of settled residents, Travellers and tenants living on Traveller sites. I want the best outcomes for every one of those groups, and I am convinced that the current legal framework under which we make local authorities work has completely failed.
A growing number of settled residents have recently written to me to say that they are now moving out of my area because they no longer feel safe, as they have been repeated victims of crime, including physical assault, theft from their home and from vehicles, especially vans, and trespass around the home. Others told BBC reporters following my third Adjournment debate on this issue in September 2018 that they wanted to leave the area because of those problems, but are not able to do so.
This disgraceful state of affairs should shame us all, and it should be a wake-up call for the Government to take action. Shopkeepers, businesses and pubs, as well as individuals and families, are regularly raising these concerns with me. Many local farmers and rural businesses live in constant fear, but that fear is also experienced by many people in neighbouring towns. Traveller ponies are often let loose over other people’s property, and levels of fly-tipping are extremely high.
I would not claim for one moment that such crimes are committed by one section of the community alone—of course they are not. There is good and bad in every group across our society, but I would not be honest if I did not point out the considerable police activity expended in relation to Traveller sites, a number of which are, in effect, ungoverned space where it is difficult to enforce the rule of law.
When I look at the standard of accommodation that many Travellers and their children are living in, I am truly shocked. In a large number of Traveller sites there is no proper sewerage system, with human excrement flowing into local ditches. Some sites do not even have proper water supplies and, in some cases, neighbouring settled residents have lost their supply of water when it has been illegally tapped into. I have repeatedly raised these issues with the Environment Agency, which has told me that it struggles to deal with them. It is also a disgrace that we tolerate such deplorable accommodation in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
We know from the Prime Minister’s race disparity audit that Traveller children have the worst educational outcomes of any group in our society. I was so concerned about this that I asked the Children’s Commissioner for England to visit one of my local schools, which is attended by many Traveller children, and the commissioner wrote back to me after her visit to say that some children were not in school at all during the summer travelling season, which is when children sit exams that open up their life chances to all the opportunities they should have available to them. The commissioner also said that most of the Travellers talked about their children leaving school when they are 14 to 16 years old, and their educational outcomes bear witness to the fact that the home education they may or may not be provided with is not leading to good outcomes for those children. Education inclusion officers—I have some of the best—struggle to get Traveller children into school. There are also concerns about child welfare.
There is also a third group that we should remember: those who are sub-let to on these sites. Many have come to me reporting intimidation, violence, summary rent increases, and failures to provide tenancy agreements or to return deposits. There have also been not one but three incidents of modem slavery requiring massive police resource on one of my sites.
In order to deal with those issues, part 1 of the Bill would seek a unified planning system by amending the current periodical local authority reviews, which force councils to provide separate Traveller sites. Local authorities would have a duty to provide enough settled accommodation for everyone—Travellers and settled residents alike. Some 76% of Travellers already live in settled accommodation, and I have many positive examples of parents joining formal work and children attending school regularly when Travellers in my constituency have moved into settled accommodation. The measure would end the current policy of segregation, which pits community against community and leads to terrible outcomes for both settled residents and Travellers themselves.
Part 1 would also end the current situation in which local authorities that have some Traveller sites are then told by the Planning Inspectorate to build more and more sites, with a multiplier effect. My authority already has 40 Traveller sites, the vast majority of which are privately run—the authority has very little control over them—whereas other local authorities have no sites at all, which is fundamentally unfair.
Part 2 of the Bill would allow the conversion of current Traveller sites to settled accommodation to allow greater integration on existing sites. Part 3, having removed the requirement of local authorities to authorise permanent Traveller sites, would require local authorities, when there is a demonstrable need, to follow the successful policy of Sandwell Council in having temporary stopping sites, for which a deposit and rent would be paid. Such sites would facilitate Travellers in being able to travel.
Part 4 of the Bill would make unauthorised encampments a criminal offence, as is the case in Ireland, a country that is also subject to the European convention on human rights. Part 5 would ensure that schools would have regard to the underachievement of Traveller children, given that the race disparity audit shows that they have such bad educational outcomes. In the same way as we teach Black History Month in some of our schools, Gypsy culture and heritage would be taught as well.
Overall, the Bill would end the current, failed segregation policy, which causes so much misery to the communities affected, allow current sites to become properly integrated into existing communities, allow Travellers to travel on properly authorised and regulated sites, and take steps to deal with the huge levels of illiteracy and underachievement among Traveller children. It is a balanced, humane package that would end the misery that so many settled communities endure at the moment and deliver better outcomes for Travellers themselves.
The Government are examining the submissions to their consultation on unauthorised encampments at the moment. Although that significant issue absolutely needs to be addressed, it is only one part of a much wider issue of which the Government need to undertake a complete review. For too long, the Government have ignored the mounting evidence of the failure of their current policies; all I see is misery, criminality, mounting frustration and real anger at those in authority. As Members have pointed out in previous debates, there is not much point in getting elected to Parliament if it is not possible to do anything about these issues. Current policy contributes to the undermining of our democracy. I know that the inertia bias or the tyranny of the status quo is a significant influence over Governments of every composition, but we are elected to bring about policies that are truly compassionate, that genuinely work for all in our society, and that are based on the evidence of what is happening in our constituencies. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Andrew Selous, Sir David Amess, Tim Loughton, Steve Double, John Spellar, Priti Patel, Victoria Prentis, Mr Mark Francois, Mark Pawsey, Sir Robert Syms, Ruth George and Jim Shannon present the Bill.
Andrew Selous accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 November, and to be printed (Bill 285).
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Have you received any indication from the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs of whether he plans to make an oral statement on the forced repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar in less than 48 hours’ time? Last week, 4,355 Rohingya refugees were placed on a list for return without their consent, with repatriations due to commence this Thursday. Reports today have highlighted how refugees are fleeing the camps or attempting suicide out of fear of returning to the horrors from which they fled one year ago. Having escaped incomprehensible brutality, and despite this move being condemned by the United Nations, they are still due to be returned on Thursday. As a leader in the international community, an oral statement from the Secretary of State would give Members the opportunity to seek clarity on the steps the Department intends to take regarding the ongoing safety of the Rohingya.
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point of order. Of course I am extremely conscious that she has made a substantial personal and professional commitment to this issue. I know that she has seen at first hand scenes that greatly distressed her and would be the source of widespread sadness to people who similarly observed them. I have not received any indication that the Foreign Secretary plans to come to the House to make a statement on the matter. However, it would be perfectly open to him to make a statement in the House tomorrow. Having keenly listened to what the hon. Lady said, and being aware of the situation myself, I realise that it is a matter of considerable urgency if the House is to discuss it. So there may be a statement tomorrow, but in so far as the hon. Lady is seeking my advice, it is that she should not depend upon there being a statement tomorrow; she could always apply for an urgent question. If she wishes to put in such a question for tomorrow, I do not promise it will be granted, but I do promise that it will be very, very seriously considered.
[18th Allotted Day]
EU Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Advice
I inform the House that I have not selected the amendment.
I beg to move,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, that she will be graciously pleased to give directions that the following papers be laid before Parliament: any legal advice in full, including that provided by the Attorney General, on the proposed withdrawal agreement on the terms of the UK’s departure from the European Union including the Northern Ireland backstop and framework for a future relationship between the UK and the European Union.
I will go into the details of the argument in just a moment, but may I first attempt to set out the context for today’s debate? Last December, the Government signed the joint report—the phase 1 agreement. It contained a number of important points, including, of course, in relation to Northern Ireland. I remind the House that the phase 1 agreement committed us, first, to maintaining the north-south co-operation provided by the Good Friday agreement; and, secondly, to avoiding a hard border, including any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls in Northern Ireland. Those, of course, are commitments that will apply “in all circumstances”. The idea is for a legally binding backstop to kick in
“In the absence of agreed solutions”.
That was the commitment made, and I know the Government are solemnly committed to it.
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that that report also made a commitment, in paragraph 50, that there would be no differences between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, unless it was with the agreement of the devolved legislature in Northern Ireland?
It did. A number of other important commitments were made in that agreement, but I am focusing for the moment on the two that relate to the Northern Ireland border. Since then—and it has been 11 months—a number of options have been mooted to meet that commitment. First, the EU proposed a Northern Ireland- specific backstop earlier in the year. The Prime Minister was right to point out the threats that that posed to the UK. Then, the EU proposed a UK-wide backstop, certainly in so far as a customs arrangement or union is concerned, but that runs into the problem that the EU wants an insurance measure that applies until something equally robust replaces it, whereas the UK wants a provision for unilateral withdrawal—and so that got stuck. A third option has been proposed, which is a UK-wide backstop of some sort, with unilateral withdrawal but with a Northern Ireland-specific backstop as a backstop to the backstop. After 11 months, this is unresolved.
I am not going to stand here and pretend that any of this is easy, because it is not—these are complicated negotiations and very serious commitments—but I am sure I am not the only one in this House who feels as though we have lived and re-lived the same week over and over again in the past few months. We begin the week being told, “There is going to be a deal. Cabinet meetings are scheduled. Dates are due—votes are being held in Parliament; there will be emergency summits in Brussels.” By the end of the week we are told, “Next week is decision time.” We have been going around that circuit for some time, and this can go on for only so long. The important point is this: if a deal is reached, it is proposed that the backstop will be legally binding as part of the withdrawal agreement. So it is in the legally binding part of the agreement, not the political declaration. That is a very important provision. Under section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, this House will of course be asked to approve that withdrawal agreement, or not approve it, so there is a special statutory process for this House that everybody in this House is well aware of.
On 17 October, it was reported that the Attorney General had been asked by the Cabinet to provide a full assessment of the legal ramifications of the backstop. I pause here to identify and emphasise what it is that the Attorney General has been asked to do: to provide a full assessment of the legal ramifications of the backstop. That is important for later, when I shall get into questions of privilege and non-disclosure.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman will be well aware that the Belfast/Good Friday agreement has particular constitutional significance for Northern Ireland. Do he and his colleagues therefore agree that it is of the utmost importance that the people of Northern Ireland understand and have sight of the legal advice given to the Government about the impact on the Belfast/Good Friday agreement of any Brexit deal negotiated by the Government?
I do agree, and I shall develop the point about why we are making an exceptional ask today. In relation to everybody throughout the United Kingdom—
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?
I am just answering the previous intervention.
In relation to everybody throughout the United Kingdom, but particularly those in Northern Ireland, this is an important measure, as it is to all those who represent people in Northern Ireland.
I will give way in just a minute.
I am very grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for giving way. Does he not accept that with a live negotiation continuing, the Attorney General is giving legal advice about the situation, probably with several options? That is the sort of advice that is never revealed. It is of course different if we get to the point at which a decision has been made and that decision is being presented to the House, which is when the Government would always justify their legal position, but to give away the Attorney General’s legal advice while the negotiations are still continuing would be completely unacceptable.
I understand the point made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman—I had the privilege of working with him when I was Director of Public Prosecutions—and I shall address that directly, because I do understand the distinction between legal advice that is being given in real time and legal advice that may come to be given when a backstop is agreed and presented. [Interruption.] I will address that directly to make it absolutely clear what we are asking for, but I recognise the distinction that is being made and shall address it in due course—
But even on the basis of that distinction—
Perhaps it is better if I actually get to the distinction between real-life legal advice given in real time and the sort of advice that may be presented when the deal is being put to Parliament. I will deal with it, I am well aware of it and I know the distinction between the two. If I duck it, I am sure to be challenged later. Let me make some progress.
The chronology is this: as I said, on 17 October the Attorney General was asked by the Cabinet to provide a full assessment of the legal ramifications of the backstop. A few weeks later, on 6 November, it was reported that the Cabinet had been provided with a summary of the Attorney General’s advice on the options for the backstop. It was also reported that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs wanted to see the advice in full. There is no doubt that there will be final legal advice if the Government are able to reach an agreement with the EU. It is that final advice that we want to see, and I shall develop precisely what I mean by that in just a moment.
Just like the Environment Secretary, we want to see it in full. Let me make it clear: we do recognise and understand the convention that Government legal advice should normally remain confidential, and that in ordinary circumstances it would not be appropriate to publish full advice, for good reason. But today I wish to make four points as to why in this case that convention should not apply. I shall summarise them and then develop them. The first is the unprecedented nature of the Brexit decision. It is both legally and technically complex and it is of huge importance across the United Kingdom. This is not just another vote.
As I will set out, successive Governments have waived the convention against non-disclosure in exceptional circumstances, and these are clearly exceptional circumstances. That is the first reason.
Secondly, the nature of the advice we are asking to see is general and different from other advice that the Law Officers give. That is important when we consider the convention on confidentiality and legal professional privilege.
Thirdly, although legal professional privilege can attach to legal advice given by the Law Officers, it operates differently in relation to their advice from how it operates in relation to the advice of other lawyers. I shall develop that point.
Fourthly, what cannot be allowed to happen is that the advice, or bits of it, are shown to some Members of Parliament outside Government and not others, in order to persuade them about the deal or the backstop. In other words, once the disclosure goes beyond the Government, or in this case the Cabinet—if it does; I am not suggesting that it has at this stage—it must then be made available to everybody.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?
Let me just make this point, because I have been challenged on it twice. It is a fair challenge and I need to meet it.
What we are calling for today is the publication of the final advice provided by the Attorney General to the Cabinet concerning the terms of any withdrawal agreement. The final advice. [Interruption.] I am making clear what we are asking for. I am at the Dispatch Box, I am on record, and I know precisely the importance of the words that I am now putting on record.
We are calling for, first, the publication of the final advice provided by the Attorney General to the Cabinet concerning the terms of any withdrawal agreement; secondly, that this to be made available to all MPs; and thirdly, that it should be made available after any withdrawal agreement is reached with the EU, but in good time to allow proper consideration before MPs are asked to vote on the deal. So, it is the final advice, it is available to every MP, and it is available at the point at which the final proposed withdrawal agreement that has been agreed with the EU is being put to this House for this House to consider.
I shall give way in just one minute. We are not calling for legal advice to be published in its draft form, or as it is given between now and then, or on a rolling basis.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek clarification, because presumably we are going to be asked to vote on the motion on the Humble Address, which clearly says,
“that the following papers be laid before Parliament: any legal advice in full”.
It says “any legal advice”, yet the shadow Secretary of State is now defining the legal advice that he wants to present. What are we to vote on, Mr Speaker?
How the Government respond to a motion, if it is passed by the House, is a matter for the Government. I do not think we need to invest this with greater complexity than is warranted. The motion is clear and people can make their assessment of it. The shadow Secretary of State has made it clear that it is the final advice that he is seeking. It is perfectly possible for a Member, in the course of a speech, to develop an argument. By definition, that speech and the development of that argument will involve the use of a greater number of words than are contained in a simple motion. How the Government respond to the motion, if it is passed, is then in the first instance a matter for the Government. It is probably best if we now proceed with the debate—
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I apologise, but I remain slightly confused by the difference by the difference between what the shadow Secretary of State said and what is in the motion. I wonder whether you could help me. I would specifically like to know whether the motion relates to the legal advice being provided just to MPs or to its being made public and laid before Parliament, which is what it appears to say.
Order. I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady. It might profit her and all Members of the House if they listen to the development of the argument in which the shadow Secretary of State is engaged. Frankly, it is not really very confusing at all. There is a motion, and Members can read the motion and form their own view of it. People can presumably listen to a speech and form their view of the speech. In fact, it is really so very simple that only an extraordinarily clever and sophisticated person could fail to grasp it.
Let me clarify the position, and then, as I indicated, I will give way. Just to be clear: it is the publication of the final advice provided by the Attorney General to the Cabinet concerning the terms of any withdrawal agreement; and that this be then made available to all MPs after any withdrawal agreement is reached with the EU and in good time before MPs are asked to vote on the deal. As for the way in which I put the case, when I last dealt with the Humble Address it was in relation to the impact assessments. I made a number of points from the Dispatch Box that were important to how that was handled afterwards and the agreement that we reached with the Government.
I will give way as I indicated.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for giving way. Does he agree that the unprecedented nature of the meaningful vote that this House will have in the event of a withdrawal agreement being made makes it imperative for those of us who have to make that decision to have access to the Attorney General’s best view and his legal advice as to what the implications of that decision are?
I completely agree. The first argument that I will develop is that this is an exceptional case. There is a convention against non-disclosure; I accept that. There are exceptions to it, and if ever there was an exceptional case it is this.
I am most grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way. I have great sympathy with the anxieties he is expressing about the legal issues surrounding the potential backstop, but surely he would agree with me that the proper practice is for the Government, at the conclusion of negotiations, to publish a document setting out the Government’s position on the law, and, if I may say, if that differs from what the Attorney General has advised, I would expect the Attorney General to resign forthwith.
I will give way to the right hon. Lady, and then I will deal with both interventions.
I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way. Can he help us with this? Is this a motion that was drafted by the Office of the Leader of the Opposition, which has subsequently been changed quite dramatically at the Dispatch Box? Is it an intervention, yet again, by the shadow Secretary of State to make good the failings of the leader of his party?
As the right hon. Lady knows, I have great respect for her, but I really do not think that engaging in that kind of intervention is helpful in this serious debate.
In relation to the intervention of the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) and the general point, my response is this: this issue of the disclosability of legal advice has been discussed very much in the past two or three weeks. As soon as I started calling for it, I made it very clear, when I was pressed as to what procedures we would use to try to obtain the advice, that I did not want to use any. I invited the Government to indicate that they would disclose the advice in full rather than have this fight in the House, and therefore I declined, three weeks ago, to say what procedure we would use. I wanted the ball to be in the Government’s court. I wanted the Government to see the good sense in putting the legal position before the House, for all the exceptional reasons that have been set out, and the Government have not responded in kind. That is why we are here today with this Humble Address.
I will press on, because the first point that I need to make is that this is an exceptional case—in other words, there is a rule or a convention, and there is an exception to it. First, of course, there is the unique importance of the peace process in Northern Ireland, which plenty of Members have experienced at first hand. There are politicians throughout the House who played an important part in that process. I had the great privilege of working for the Northern Ireland Policing Board for five years in Northern Ireland, where I saw for myself the progress that had been made and the ramifications of the Good Friday agreement. That was of unique importance.
Allied to that is the central importance of the withdrawal agreement itself. That critical document will determine the future relationship between this country and the EU, and it will be legally binding not just in international law, but, it is proposed, in domestic law through the EU implementation Bill. Therefore, the withdrawal agreement will not just be discussed in this House but will become international law and part of our law—a hugely important, exceptional case.
There is, of course, the special procedure in the House, to which I have already alluded, now reflected in section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. It is very unusual for us to have that legislative process for a motion on the deal. As has been said, it is critical that Parliament is fully informed of the details and the Government’s thinking. I know that the Government recognise that. They know that all material and detail should be put before the House so that it can consider the withdrawal agreement and future relationship carefully. In the 2018 White Paper, “Legislating for the withdrawal agreement between the UK and EU”, the Government committed to providing “appropriate analysis” before the meaningful vote and went on to say that this information
“will ensure that Parliament can make an informed decision about the implications of our new relationship with the EU in all areas.”
I readily accept that that was in the context of requests for impact analyses, but the same point applies: if we are to make a decision of this importance, it must be an informed decision, and that means that the details in every respect must be put before the House.
There is, of course, precedent for the Government publishing legal advice—albeit, I accept, in different and limited forms. The first is the Iraq war. I remind the House that, prior to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the then Attorney General set out in a written question in the House of Lords his views of the legal basis for the use of force against Iraq. He did not publish the full advice before the Commons vote to approve military action, even though many individuals, including me, felt that he should have done so on an issue of that importance.
Importantly, though, in April 2005, the Government did publish the Attorney General’s final advice to the Cabinet on the legality of the war with Iraq. I think there is general agreement now—there is certainly a majority view—that the Attorney General should have provided in 2003 the full advice that he finally produced in 2005, because the decision was so important. Therefore, there are exceptions to the convention in exceptional circumstances.
There is further precedent of advice being made available in the case of other military conflicts. For example, in November 2015 the then Prime Minister set out his justification for military action, including the legal basis, before the House was asked to approve action in Syria. I accept that what he did not make available at that stage was the full advice, but it is a clear precedent for the publication of details before a vote. In other words, when the House is coming to an important moment and making a decision of this kind, the convention of non-disclosure is open to exceptions. This is clearly an exceptional case.
Secondly, the nature of this advice means that it is not the same as other advice that the Law Officers give. The advice here is about what the proposed provisions in a treaty mean, and that is different from the advice that the Law Officers often give. The right hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) may recall that, when he was Solicitor General, he gave a lecture on this very topic and set out that the core function of the Law Officers in giving their usual advice was to ensure that the Government and the Ministers act lawfully. That advice is given, as I and many other people in this House know, on a regular basis, and there are reasons why confidentiality has to be attached to it. It is, by its nature, advice to the Government, or even to individuals, on whether they are acting lawfully. They may often be in a position where somebody wants to challenge them directly about the legality of what they are doing. In those circumstances, the rule of non-disclosure applies.
The advice that would be subject to this motion is a fundamentally different type of advice that the Cabinet is seeking, because it is about the general interpretation of an important provision in the treaty, I assume so that the Cabinet can be assured about how it would work. Equally, the House could be assured about how it would work.
The point I am making to the right hon. and learned Gentleman is partly about the sequence of events. At the point where the Government have made an agreement and the matter is being put to the House, clearly the Government will need to be able to justify their legal position and what they believe the agreement means. But at this stage advice is being given, no doubt on a range of options, and often the question whether something is lawful is also a question of how arguable a particular position might be, what the various options are, and perhaps what the Solicitor General or Attorney General thinks is the best option legally. Those points should not be in the public domain. It is the final legal position that should be made clear.
I am grateful for that intervention, which builds on our previous exchange. I agree; this is in relation to the final advice about the interpretation of the proposed withdrawal agreement and in particular any backstop arrangement that may be put in place.
I am deeply unclear—are you asking for publication of the final advice or of any legal advice in full that has happened during the entire negotiation? [Interruption.] With due respect, I am being asked for my vote regarding the motion on the Order Paper. Are you asking for what is on the Order Paper, which is,
“any legal advice in full”—
that is, during the whole negotiation? Are you asking me to vote in—
Order. Will the hon. Lady please resume her seat? I understand that she is seeking clarification, but her intervention is too long and she keeps saying “you”. I am not asking for anything; that is quite important.
No, no, no; I think we have the thrust of it.
Well, I am making a judgment that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has heard the thrust of what the hon. Lady has said. I am not debating that point with her. If she wants to intervene again in due course, she can try to do so, but perhaps she would do me the courtesy of acknowledging that I do know how to chair in this place. I call Sir Keir Starmer.
I am grateful, Mr Speaker. I have said I think three—
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?
No, I will not. I have barely started responding to the hon. Lady’s last intervention.
I have set out clearly three times—not for the sake of an intervention, where there is an element of deliberately not listening, but for the benefit of the House—precisely what we are asking for, and I do not think I could be any clearer.
Like a number of other Members, I was here when we got legal advice over the war in Iraq, so when the Government come back with their proposals—regardless of the wording of the motion on the Order Paper—I will want to know whether what we are doing is legal. That is the important point for me.
I am grateful for that intervention. I think that everybody across the House will want to know the legal ramifications of the decision that we are being asked to make, which is precisely why this advice should be disclosed at that stage.
I will now develop my third point, which is that legal professional privilege operates differently in relation to the advice of Law Officers than it does to other lawyers. That is an overlooked legal point, but an important one. Let me give the House two examples. First, legal professional privilege applies in ordinary civil litigation, but in general the Government waive that privilege when advice is central to the importance of the case and withholding it might prevent the court from reaching a conclusion that is fair and in the overall public interest. The ordinary rules of confidentiality that apply to all legal proceedings are waived as a matter of convention by the Government even when they are engaged in civil litigation, which is where such rules would be at their height, if they would prevent the court from reaching a conclusion that may not be fair or otherwise in the public interest. In other words, there is a public interest element that comes into the operation of privilege when it applies to the Government.
I see the Solicitor General agreeing; he knows this because he operates this way all the time in the advice that he provides.
The second example is that section 42 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 provides an exemption for the disclosure of information from the Law Officers that attracts legal professional privilege, but it only applies if the public interest in withholding outweighs the public interest in disclosure. In other words, there is an overriding public interest test in relation to advice provided by the Law Officers that does not apply in the same way to lawyers in private litigation.
My fourth point is a very important one. Confidentiality and privilege can justify non-disclosure, but what the Government cannot do is waive the rule for some MPs and not for others. There are a number of important individuals and groups of MPs whom the Government may well find themselves wanting to persuade to back their deal. In order to do so, they might be tempted to share the advice with those individuals to persuade them of the legal ramifications of the backstop.
I know that the Democratic Unionist party in particular—and everybody who represents anybody in Northern Ireland—is very concerned about that for obvious reasons, and I think I am right in saying that its Members have called for the legal advice to be published. It is acutely important to those in Northern Ireland, but I say to the Government that it cannot be acceptable to share the advice, or bits of the advice, with some in this House and not others. Therefore, if there is any proposal or suggestion that it is to be or might be shared with individuals in relation to this vote, it cannot then not be shared with others, because the ring of confidentiality and privilege will have fallen away, and there could be no justification for it not being available to all.
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of any precedent for such a differentiation?
No, I am not. I think I would be right in saying that if any advice was shared outside the ring of confidence, confidentiality would fall away as a basis for non-disclosure to the House. That must be right in principle; it cannot possibly be right that some in this House have seen bits or all of the advice and others have not.
I agree entirely with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. If the advice were prepared for the Cabinet in order for it to act collectively in taking its decisions, but it were then shared more widely outside, I agree entirely that it ought to be shared with every Member of this House at that point.
I am grateful for that intervention. I had the privilege of working with the right hon. and learned Gentleman when he was Attorney General, so I know how carefully he attended to his work.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend also be clear that this must extend to Parliamentary Private Secretaries, who they are not members of the Government and are not bound in the same way under the ministerial code? Ministers tend to refer to bits and pieces of the legal advice, which is why it is important to see the whole of the legal advice in the round.
I am grateful for that intervention and agree on both fronts, particularly on summary or editing. In my time as a lawyer, I saw various attempts to edit or summarise legal advice. Even done with the best of intentions, it can lead to some misinterpretation of the advice that has been given.
There is a convention, but it is subject to exceptions and this is an exceptional case. There is good reason and good precedent for publishing this advice, and it is the right thing to do. I think there is growing cross-party support for that, and rather than fighting this unnecessary battle with Parliament, the Prime Minster should accept the motion and agree to publish the full advice.
May I first genuinely express my appreciation to the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) for the courteous and constructive way in which he has presented his case? As will become apparent to the House, I take issue with some of his arguments, but I hope that we can continue this debate in such a tone. As he said, we are dealing with issues of the most fundamental, political, constitutional and legal importance—not just to us, but more importantly to the people who send us here and whom we are here to represent.
As the right hon. and learned Gentleman acknowledged, the proposed withdrawal agreement—as it is referred to in today’s motion—has not been finalised. There is a live negotiation still ongoing in Brussels and the Government have consistently said that we will not provide a running commentary on our negotiating position. It is a cardinal principle of our system of government that Ministers and officials need to be able to prepare the British negotiating position in private. After all, the European Commission does not show its hand in negotiations—nor does it publish the legal advice underpinning its position on live negotiating issues—and I do not believe the Government of the United Kingdom should be expected to do so either.
I want to make it clear that I welcome the acknowledgement by the right hon. and learned Gentleman that what he seems to be seeking through this motion is perhaps not quite as all-embracing as a literal reading of the motion would lead the House to conclude. I did have some preliminary analysis done yesterday after we got sight of the Opposition’s motion. The first conclusion we came to is that if we took the wording of the motion literally, then, at a conservative estimate, we could be looking at upwards of 5,000 different pieces of documentation going back over the two years since the referendum and covering, of course, matters deriving not just from the Law Officers’ Department but from legal advisers in every Government Department in Whitehall.
However, I completely understand the concern that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has expressed, which is, I think, felt in all parts of the House by hon. Members of all political parties, that if and when—I hope when—a withdrawal agreement comes forward for debate in Parliament, right hon. and hon. Members should have access not only to an economic and political analysis of what we are being asked to approve or disapprove, but to detailed legal analysis of the meaning and the implications of the agreement.
Of course, one option is that the House or one of its Committees should itself commission its own independent legal advice separate from the Government’s, but I accept that it is a perfectly fair request to be made of Government that we set out the legal implications, as we see it, of the agreement, should we successfully conclude these negotiations. To avoid any risk of misunderstanding, I want to make it clear that when I talk about the agreement, I also refer to any protocols that might be attached to such an agreement.
I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for the tone that he is using in this debate. In his penultimate paragraph, it seemed that he came quite close to accepting the spirit of what the Opposition are saying. I am no lawyer, but the House is about to vote on this agreement, with Members carefully considering what may be one of the most important votes that we take in our political lifetime, in the light of what is in the best interests of their constituents and their country. Would it not assist the Government in securing the support of the House if, exceptionally and in a spirit of good will on this frankly unprecedented occasion, they released the Attorney General’s advice?
I will come on to the specific issue of formal advice from the Law Officers in due course slightly later in my speech, but I first want to conclude the point I was making about the Government’s approach. I hope that, as my right hon. Friend suggested, what I say will be read as an attempt to find some common ground across the House, even if there is not complete agreement.
Can I ask the Minister something before he moves on? He referred earlier to the importance of providing not only some legal advice but economic analysis. Can he confirm that that economic analysis will include the merits or otherwise of our staying in the European Union?
If I may, I will answer the right hon. Gentleman while also responding to something that was said by the Opposition spokesman when he referred to the commitment that, yes, is there in the White Paper that the Government published earlier this year to provide Parliament with information and analysis ahead of the meaningful vote. I want to agree and accept on behalf of the Government that that information and analysis should include not only such things as impact assessments, which the Opposition spokesman mentioned, but a legal analysis as well.
In specific response to the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), we certainly do intend to provide an economic analysis. The Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Suella Braverman), will have heard what he has proposed one of the options should be.
I am glad that the Minister recognises, I think, that no Opposition Member is trying to drive a coach and horses through the fundamental principle that the Government should be able to take confidential legal opinion and advice during a live negotiation. None of us is seeking to transform that. However, we need to be able to understand in full all the parameters of why the Government, when they come forward with a deal, believe that it is going to be legally watertight and practicable.
Let me give just one example. The Government are saying at the moment that it is impossible to implement the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018 until such time as we finish the transition period—in other words, not for another two years. Why on earth is that the Government’s legal position? When every other Government in Europe is able to implement their own sanctions, why cannot we do our own now? We would like to see the legal advice behind that.
That particular point is a matter to be followed up with the Ministers in charge of that particular legislation. However, I recall from my time at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office discussions with other European Governments about sanctions policy, and it was very clear that, I am afraid, contrary to what the hon. Gentleman said, a number of EU countries have, while remaining members of the European Union, given up the right to set their own policies on sanctions and rely on European Union instruments in order to give effect to those policies.
Unfortunately, though, when the Minister was a Minister in the Foreign Office, he himself, quite rightly, introduced sanctions on Iran that were not being implemented by the European Union, so we are perfectly free to introduce our own sanctions, and if they should be against Russia, we should do so now.
In the case of the United Kingdom, we have some sanctions, while members of the European Union, that are applied by virtue of European Union instruments, and there are others additional to those that we have had the freedom to apply on our own. It would probably be unwise of me to try to supplant Ministers in the Department for International Trade and get into the detail about this, but I am sure that the Secretary of State will be only too delighted to listen in detail to the hon. Gentleman’s concerns.
I want to return to the main point that the shadow Secretary of State put to me.
Will the Minister give way?
All right. Then, if the House will forgive me, I will try to make some progress, because there are some really important points that I want to respond to.
In the light of the Minister’s very welcome admission that the Government are to publish economic analysis on the withdrawal agreement, and in the light of his failure to deny on Radio 4 this morning that Britain may well be worse off as a result of leaving the European Union, could he confirm that that analysis will measure whether we will be worse off leaving versus remaining in the European Union?
There will be considerable economic analysis. I do not know quite how great the hon. Gentleman’s appetite for the detail will be, but I am sure that in addition to what is provided by the Government, there will be multifarious pieces of advice and analysis from outside organisations.
I want to make it clear that the Government fully understand the historic nature of the decision that Parliament will be asked to take. Frankly, as someone who feels sometimes as if I have been living through these issues for a considerable number of years, I think that nothing would be served by coming out of the debates that we will have on the meaningful vote and then, if approved, the implementation Bill with people feeling that they were not in full possession of the arguments and the evidence in order to take a decision. When we come through this particular period in our history, we have—all of us, from our different political perspectives—to find a way of moving on, to establish this country’s new relationship with our neighbours, friends and allies in the EU27 and to get on with the debates and the work on domestic policy issues, which I certainly find are what people raise first on the doorstep, rather than the detail of article 50 procedures.
I want to give a commitment to the Opposition and the House. We will make available to all Members of the House, following the conclusion of negotiations and ahead of the meaningful vote, a full reasoned position statement laying out the Government’s political and legal position on the proposed withdrawal agreement, including any protocols that might be attached to it.
In addition, my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General has authorised me to confirm to the House this afternoon that he is ready to assist further by making an oral statement to the House and to take questions from Members in the normal way. I think that that would go a lot further than the Libya precedent cited by the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras.
Ministers are also very willing to engage in further discussions with colleagues of all political parties, including the Opposition spokesmen, about how best, in terms of both substance and timing, we can provide analysis in the form that Members will want and need in order to make an informed decision when that is presented to them.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will just refer to the hon. Lady before I give way. I thought it was perfectly reasonable of her to ask for the analysis to include the impact that a possible Northern Ireland protocol might have on Belfast agreement commitments. I would certainly see that as the kind of thing that Ministers should be discussing with her and other colleagues from Northern Ireland, to ensure that we include everything they want.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. Can he be absolutely clear in what he is saying to the people of Northern Ireland and confirm today that the people of Northern Ireland will not be kept in the dark by the British Government as to the exact legal consequences for the Belfast/Good Friday agreement of any negotiated deal by the British Government in good time, before we have to vote on this deal?
I am happy to give that assurance, and to say further that the relevant Ministers will be happy to talk to the hon. Lady and other Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies about exactly what form of analysis should be presented to the House, so that people in Northern Ireland can understand clearly both what is being proposed in any potential withdrawal agreement and what the legal, constitutional and practical implications of that might be.
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. I was very pleased to hear the assurances he just gave as to how the Government would proceed and how the Attorney General would play a part. Might my right hon. Friend also take on board the fact that, if we come to debate this matter on the Floor of the House, it has been a custom—although one that may have fallen by the wayside—for there to be a Law Officer sitting on the Treasury Bench during the debate who is able to respond to any queries of a legal nature that might arise?
My hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General tells me that he looks forward to being there. It is not really for me to speak for the Law Officers, but I know that both the Solicitor General and the Attorney General are utterly committed to their parliamentary and governmental responsibilities.
I am grateful to the Minister for the commitment he just gave, but it sounded very similar to the compromise amendment that stands in my name on the Order Paper but has not been selected. Will he clarify that it is a full reasoned position statement laying out the Government’s political and legal position?
That was a cheeky endeavour on the part of the hon. Gentleman. We cannot debate the terms of an amendment that has not been selected, and the House will know that reasons are not given for non-selection; I had to make a judgment about how best the debate was served. It is rather cheeky, but I am sure that the Minister can deal with it dexterously.
I have been here long enough to know that one should accept rulings from the Chair, but I can say to my hon. Friend that our intention in Government is to provide the kind of analysis that I believe he has been seeking, but which also meets the requests and calls of Members of all shades of opinion on the European issue, not just in my party but in all parts of the House.
I want to put on the record that there have already been discussions through the usual channels on a cross-party basis about how the Government can facilitate the briefing of Members in every party represented in this House. I can give the House a further commitment that those contacts and conversations will continue.
What my right hon. Friend is setting out seems to be more or less what the shadow Secretary of State was asking for. Can he confirm that, if we were called to vote on this motion, we would be voting on something entirely different, which would be to produce all legal advice in connection with this matter?
I always try to build bridges. I hope that what I have said is of some assurance to colleagues in all parts of the House. As I said earlier, I think that the motion as worded goes wider than what the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras, in all fairness to him, was clear about in his introductory speech.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
I will, and then I really must make progress.
I am incredibly thankful to my right hon. Friend for his thoughtful tone in this debate and for the important reassurances he has given to the House, but could he give me one more reassurance, which is that he opposes in principle the thin end of the wedge on the Order Paper? I worked with brilliant civil servants for five years, and if they had to give any legal advice in full, written as if it were for publication every single time, their jobs would simply be impossible.
I want to come on to that point now. Where I part company with the Opposition motion is over the proposed disclosure of Law Officers’ formal advice. Everyone in the House will know that there is a strong long-lasting constitutional convention, followed by Governments of all political parties, that the opinions of the Law Officers remain confidential. That is reflected in the words of the ministerial code, which seeks to balance the Government’s twin duties of accountability to Parliament and maintaining confidentiality where necessary and appropriate. The code explicitly provides that
“Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament and the public,”
but also expressly notes that the advice of Law Officers and even the fact that such advice has been sought or obtained
“must not be disclosed outside Government without their authority”—
that is, the authority of the Law Officers themselves.
Furthermore, “Erskine May” on page 447 specifically states that
“the opinions of the law officers of the Crown, being confidential, are not usually laid before Parliament, cited in debate or provided in evidence before a select committee, and their production has frequently been refused”.
“Erskine May” goes on to explain that
“The purpose of this convention is to enable the Government to obtain frank and full legal advice in confidence.”
Successive Governments have upheld that principle because the work of Government—Governments past, present and future, of different political persuasions—benefits from receiving such frank, confidential advice. The convention exists for very fundamental constitutional reasons, and to uphold the rule of law.
The right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras referred to the entrenched tradition of privileged legal advice: in this country, we operate on the basis that advice given by a lawyer to his or her client, whether an individual, a corporation, the Government or a political party, should be treated as confidential. Although he cited exceptions to that, those exceptions were about litigation in court, rather than about the circumstances we are deciding here.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that, in giving advice, the Law Officers are often looking at questions of a very sensitive nature with an international content, that it is not always about a case that is going to come before a court in the UK, and that often it would be very difficult for our country if all the advice and various options and what the Law Officers’ are saying about them had to be laid out?
My right hon. and learned Friend is spot on. The Law Officers’ advice goes beyond other forms of legal advice in its particular complexity, sensitivity and constitutional importance. For that reason, there is a high premium—higher even than that in respect of other forms of legal advice—on protecting that advice.
The Law Officers convention is also a facet of the important constitutional convention of collective Cabinet responsibility. Again, the ministerial code is clear on this. It says that all members of the Cabinet must publicly support collective decisions, but are able within Cabinet to debate and raise concerns privately, and the Law Officers’ contributions to those Cabinet discussions and decisions should similarly be protected, just as the contributions of other Cabinet Ministers or the minutes of Cabinet meetings themselves are protected. That ensures that the public debate is about the Government’s collective decision and the Government’s accountability to this House, rather than about internal processes.
Where the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras was correct was to say that, in the case of the Iraq war and Lord Goldsmith’s advice, an exception was made to this general rule. It is certainly the only one of that nature in modern times that I have been able to find so far. However, it was done some years—two years—after the event, following the appearance in the media of selected verbatim extracts from the advice. However, the key difference between that case and what we are debating this afternoon is that, in the Iraq case, the point at issue was not the legal implications of particular policy options, but whether the Government’s entire action in Iraq was or was not lawful. That was the point at issue then, which is why the then Government decided that it was right for them to make an exception to what is normally a very firm convention.
I believe that, if this convention were to be set aside, there would be an adverse impact on the quality of discussions within Government and of the Government’s collective decision making, which would not be in the interests of any Government of any political party. Whether by means of resolutions of the House or otherwise, if Law Officer advice is made public, future advice is likely to be less frank and candid than at present and less likely to be written down. That is not going to make for good government.
Is there not another aspect to this? A number of the Minister’s Cabinet colleagues have said that they did not properly understand the legal implications of what was agreed to last December. That is of course what has led to the dilemma in which the Government now find themselves about the backstop. If the Cabinet were not able to understand the legal advice last December, surely that means they will not understand it this time round and it is important that this House, which will take the ultimate decision, fully understands the legal implications of what is about to be agreed to, if indeed there is going to be an agreement.
I go along with the hon. and learned Lady this far: I have set out how the Government intend to discharge the commitment that we have given to making sure that Members in all parts of the House are fully informed and do understand the nature of the legal, as well as the economic and political, implications of the decision that we are facing. However, at no time in our Parliament’s history has any Government operated in an environment where legal advice is prepared for Ministers one week and then made public the next.
I have to be clear that this motion does go against the Law Officers convention, which Governments of all colours have defended. I hope, therefore, that, during this debate, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras and his colleagues will reflect on the assurances I have sought to give to the House this afternoon; will take them in the spirit in which I, on behalf of the Government, certainly intend them; and will, having reflected on these matters, decide not to press their motion to a Division, but to go forward in a spirit of cross-party consensus, so that we can work out together how to present to the entire House the information and analysis that Members on all sides rightly expect to have available in order to make an informed decision on a political issue of this historic importance.
I am grateful for the chance to lead for the SNP in the debate. May I commend Opposition Front Benchers for allocating time to debate what is clearly a fundamentally important question? While I agree that the wording of the motion could have been tighter, the Government had to amend their own European Union (Withdrawal) Bill about 100 times in the Lords because the version that had passed through the Commons was such a mess that the finest legal minds in the country did not have a hope of making any sense of it.
I note with some encouragement the comments from the Minister, and it seems to me that there is a way of getting some kind of agreement. What is fundamentally important, however, is that when 650 of us take the most important decision we will ever take in our lives—short of a decision to go to war—every one of us is absolutely certain that we are armed with the best information and advice that can possibly be given.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there are other avenues for getting that advice? I have been approached by any number of legal charities, which have offered advice on many different things, but particularly on the EU. I know that Speaker’s counsel has been extremely generous in giving advice to Select Committee Chairs, and such advice is certainly available to me. I also know that many other people in the House can give advice—not least the Opposition spokesman, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), whose legal intellect is, frankly, second to none. The ability to acquire legal advice in this place is enormous, so it seems odd to force the Government to disclose their own advice, and therefore to undermine their own ability to pursue a case, when other avenues are available.
I was about to say something very similar. Others in this House are much better qualified than me to decide what mechanism would best make sure that all Members of Parliament have possession of the facts, information and advice that we need. Whether that is achieved through the exact wording of the motion or a better way can be agreed in discussions elsewhere is not for me to rule on.
I come to this debate with one significant disadvantage compared with a lot of others who will take part in it, and with one significant advantage. The significant disadvantage I have is that I am not, have never been and never intend to be a lawyer. The significant advantage I have is that I am not, have never been and have no intention to be a lawyer. That means that I have no conflict of interest in saying that the law and lawyers are there to serve the public. Parliament and parliamentarians are here to serve the public, not the other way round. In this context, the law and lawyers are here to serve Parliament; Parliament is not here to serve the lawyers.
A number of really extraordinary concerns have been raised about what the motion, amended or otherwise, would mean if it was agreed. As far as I can see, this is not about abolishing the convention that legal advice is privileged or confidential, or about insisting that from now on every Attorney General who ever gives evidence has to do so on the assumption that it will be on the front page of the Da