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—
Probation: Community Rehabilitation Companies
The CRCs currently supervise just over 59% of all offenders and the National Probation Service supervises 41%.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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?
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—
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]