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Volume 649: debated on Tuesday 13 November 2018

The Secretary of State was asked—

Probation: Community Rehabilitation Companies

1. What estimate he has made of the proportion of offenders on probation being supported by community rehabilitation companies. (907501)

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?

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.

Legal Aid

4. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the number of people that are able to access legal aid for (a) immigration, (b) welfare benefit and (c) housing cases. (907504)

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

18. What recent assessment he has made of the effect on the justice system of the UK leaving the EU. (907519)

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 to ensure that we have a mutual arrangement on these matters that is as good as possible. 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 how it will affect our justice system has not been much reported. 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.

20. I appreciate your advice, Mr Speaker.Despite the answer given to my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), the Institute for Government states that if the UK leaves the EU without a deal, extradition arrangements will revert back to the European convention on extradition. That process takes, on average, a year, while the current arrangements under the European arrest warrant take 48 days. Does the Minister not accept that a no-deal Brexit would cause significant challenges in tackling cross-border crime? (907522)

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

6. What recent assessment he has made of his Department’s compliance with article 13 of the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities on access to justice. (907507)

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.

Prisons: Drones

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

8. What assessment he has made of the effect on the earnings of barristers of recent changes to criminal legal aid fees. (907509)

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.

Rogue Bailiffs

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.

22. Thank you, Mr Speaker. In terms of rogue activities, Bishop Rachel has called for community-based rehab for women prisoners; the high cost and the low outcomes for them are not very satisfactory. Does the Minister share my strong support for this proposal, which would reduce the number of rogues in prison and offer an important role for the high-quality rehab work of the Nelson Trust in Gloucester and Stroud? (907524)

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.

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 than 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 rightly said that this is important for rehabilitation.

First, I pay tribute to the work of the National Careers Service, 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.

HMP Liverpool

14. What progress his Department has made on the implementation of its action plan for HMP Liverpool. (907515)

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.

21. Given the £300 million cut next year to the Ministry of Justice’s overall budget, including for prisons such as Liverpool, does the Minister expect to be able to maintain prison budgets at their current level at least? (907523)

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.

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.

Offenders’ Employment

15. What steps the Government are taking to help offenders find employment immediately after they leave prison. (907516)

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.

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

17. What assessment his Department has made of the effect on (a) costs borne by partners, (b) magistracy diversity and (c) access to justice of the closure of family and magistrates courts. (907518)

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.

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.

Topical Questions

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.

T2. What is the Ministry of Justice doing to ensure that female prisoners can never again be assaulted on the female estate by male prisoners who claim to be transgender? (907527)

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.

T3. The criminal justice system is on its knees. The police and the Crown Prosecution Service are failing to make important disclosures in criminal proceedings because they do not have the necessary staff. Defendants are representing themselves, often in complex cases, because they have failed to qualify for legal aid. Interpreters are not turning up because the system is broken. Solicitors and barristers are leaving the professions and are not being replaced. The failed probation privatisation project has caused chaos and is putting people at risk. Family proceedings are just as chaotic. When will the Government do something about our once proud justice system? When will they get a grip and end austerity in the system? (907528)

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.

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.

T4. A knife crime epidemic is facing this country, so can the Government explain why four in 10 criminals who are caught in possession of a knife for a second time are not jailed, as the law requires? (907529)

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.

T5. The North Wales police and crime commissioner has made it clear that the growing prison population at HMP Berwyn is putting increased demand on policing. The cost of that is wholly borne by the people of north Wales through the police precept. Can the Minister explain why his Department does not provide additional policing resources but instead expects North Wales police to find this from already desperately constrained budgets? (907530)

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.

T6. Today’s Financial Times cites Bristol Citizens Advice as saying that many more people are now getting into problem debt because of household bills rather than, for example, overspending on their credit cards. Will the Minister urge councils to follow the example of Bristol City Council which, led by Councillors Craig Cheney and Paul Goggin, is introducing an ethical collection policy, rather than deploying bailiffs to collect what are sometimes very small debts from people who have got into debt through no fault of their own? We have already heard today about some of the problems involving intimidation by rogue bailiffs. (907531)

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.

T7. In the light of yet another stabbing at the weekend in Skelmersdale, and having heard the Secretary of State’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), will the right hon. Gentleman indicate whether he is satisfied that the penalties for knife crime and for those convicted of illegally carrying a knife are adequate and effective, especially as a deterrent? (907532)

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.

T8. Within the last week, two separate Hindu temples, the Shree Swaminarayan temple in Willesden and the Shree Kutch Satsang Swaminarayan temple in Kenton, have been broken into and religious icons have been stolen. Can the Minister confirm that these will be treated as hate crimes and not just ignored by the police, given that they targeted people of one faith? (907533)

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.

T9. Will sentencing women to the proposed new residential women’s centres rather than to prison custody require a change to the sentencing framework and/or new legislation? If so, will the Minister commit to consulting widely with the sector before bringing forward the reforms? (907534)

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.

T10. There were many hundreds of responses to the Ministry’s proposals to close Cambridge magistrates court, but there has still not been a proper response to the consultation. Will the Secretary of State tell me when that will happen? (907535)

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.