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Commons Chamber

Volume 651: debated on Tuesday 18 December 2018

House of Commons

Tuesday 18 December 2018

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Justice

The Secretary of State was asked—

Legal Advice: Workplace Injuries

1. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that workers can access legal advice on workplace injuries. (908244)

4. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that workers can access legal advice on workplace injuries. [R] (908248)

I believe that the hon. Gentleman is referring to our proposal to raise the small claims limit for employees’ personal injury claims to £2,000. That change is not only in line with inflation, but will give those affected the opportunity to be heard in an uncomplicated, accessible court, without the need for a lawyer if they so choose.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Could she inform the House why the Government are avoiding full parliamentary scrutiny by putting the most damaging part of the Civil Liability Bill, which raises the small claims limit, in a statutory instrument, rather than on the face of the Bill, where it could be properly scrutinised by the House?

The Ministry of Justice always ensures that it brings measures to the House in a way that is appropriate for them. Of course this measure will have scrutiny; statutory instrument procedure involves the scrutiny of the House. This measure will ensure that people can access the courts in an accessible way, without the need to spend excessive amounts of money.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I listened carefully to what the Minister just said, but what guarantee can she give us that the civil procedure rule committee will be able to consider the proposed small claims increase, which covers workplace injuries, independent of Government? Why can we not debate the measure on the Floor of the House?

As we see from the questions raised today, there is an opportunity for Members to make points they wish to make. Our Department is always listening, and there will be scrutiny through the statutory instrument procedure in due course.

Every time I am foolish enough to turn on the television, there are adverts from lawyers offering free advice on workplace injuries. Surely we cannot be in want of any more such advice.

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. We are here to serve the people, and we are here to serve people who have claims. People can still bring their claims through a very simple process in our courts. I should also mention that the Ministry of Justice has brought forward and is progressing an online system for money claims, which is achieving a great deal of satisfaction among users.

The Government have rightly exempted vulnerable road users from the proposed changes. However, two colleagues—say, two paramedics or two police officers—who are both injured at work on the roads could be treated quite differently, with one able to get legal advice and pay no cost to get compensation, and one having to fight insurers on their own, simply because one was injured on a motorbike and the other in an ambulance or squad car. Rather than hold working people to different standards, can the Government exempt all people injured in the course of their work?

We are concerned about the injury that is suffered, not the person’s profession. As I said, this measure will help people to access courts. The small claims limit for other money claims is £10,000, not £2,000, and people will still be able to get justice.

Short Prison Sentences: Homelessness

2. What estimate he has made of the number of people who become homeless immediately after being released from short prison sentences. (908246)

11. What estimate he has made of the number of people who become homeless immediately after being released from short prison sentences. (908255)

Far too many people on short sentences—almost 35%—struggle to find suitable accommodation. That is why we are now focusing on a pilot in Bristol, Pentonville and Leeds. We not only want to get ex-offenders into accommodation, but are putting £6.4 million into ensuring that they have right kind of support, with up to five hours a week on life skills and financial management skills, and access the right services.

I thank the Minister for his response. A study done by the charity Revolving Doors estimates that there was a 25-fold increase between October 2016 and June 2018 in the number of prisoners sleeping rough who have served less than six months. Does that information embarrass the Government and the Minister?

First, I pay tribute to Revolving Doors, which is a very impressive charity. I am afraid those are not the figures we have in the MOJ, but I am very happy to sit down with Revolving Doors and understand how it is arriving as such figures. Broadly speaking, sadly, the level of homelessness among people on short sentences has remained, in our terms, relatively static over the past decade, but I respect Revolving Doors, and I am very happy to look at that evidence with it.

When prisoners fall on that fine line between being criminals and actually being victims of crime themselves—I am particularly thinking of young people who are caught up in gangs and county lines-type drug dealing—what support is being given to them to make sure that if they are rehoused, they are rehoused away from the scene from their offending, so they are in a safe place and do not get dragged back into gang activity?

This is a very good challenge. We can use licence conditions to try to ensure that somebody does not return to the scene of their offending. The problem, as the hon. Lady will be aware, is that we of course have to balance that against the importance of family relationships for rehabilitation. We want to try to locate someone in a place where they will not be tempting into further reoffending, but we do not want to locate them in a place where they lose all contact with family and community.

Does the Minister agree that it is wrong for local authorities to discriminate against ex-offenders by putting them at the bottom of the queue, sometimes saying they have no local connections—through no fault of their own, if they have been in prison—and that ex-offenders should be treated fairly and equally, along with everyone else?

I agree 100%. That has now become easier to enforce through recent legislation, but we continue to work very closely with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. There are local councils that are doing fantastic work in housing ex-offenders, but it is true that ex-offenders can fall through the gaps. In particular, the pilot in Bristol, Pentonville and Leeds is an opportunity to demonstrate how we can work better with local authorities.

I am proud to have become a trustee of Nacro recently. Will the Minister continue to work with me and Nacro to reduce the number of prisoners who are released at the end of the week, which thereby reduces the number of services available to them?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work she has done with Nacro. Indeed, we had an excellent hour-long session with Nacro on the issue of Friday releases. We are looking at this, but it is worth bearing it in mind that we cannot simply solve this by releasing people on Thursday. That would mean dealing with everybody who will otherwise come out on Friday, Saturday and Sunday as well, so we would have four times the workload on a Thursday. We are, however, looking for solutions to this problem.

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), does the Minister recognise that housing allocation policies often mean it is difficult to remove an offender from an area where they have criminal connections, because they do not have local connections in the area to which it would be sensible to move them? What discussions is his Department having with the MHCLG about housing allocation policies supporting the relocation of those offenders?

The answer is that we have two formal mechanisms: we have a taskforce focused on housing and we have a taskforce focused particularly on rough sleeping. In both those scenarios, we are pushing very hard with the MHCLG to resolve many issues, of which that is an important one.

Care after Combat’s mentoring scheme for 360 veterans has achieved a fivefold reduction in reoffending. Quite rightly, we are spending a small amount to save £20 million in the system. What are the Government doing further to support these sorts of mentoring initiatives to tackle both homelessness and reoffending?

I pay tribute to Care after Combat, which I have had the opportunity to meet, along with the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who has responsibility for veterans. There is a great deal of support, particularly that provided by military charities, and I would like to pay tribute to SSAFA—the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association—the Royal British Legion and, of course, Help for Heroes, which has done incredible work on the issue of offenders who are also veterans. It is important to understand, however, that the issues faced by veterans are often a subset of the issues faced by many of our offenders, particularly in relation to mental health, addiction, housing and employment. We need to think about them, whether they are veterans or civilians, in a single act.

EU Withdrawal Agreement: Co-operation on Justice

3. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the proposed EU withdrawal agreement on UK-EU co-operation on justice matters. (908247)

The withdrawal agreement will ensure a smooth and orderly departure from the EU on 29 March. It includes an implementation period until the end of 2020, during which existing civil and commercial judicial co-operation will continue. We have also agreed that the cases started before the end of the implementation period will be concluded under existing EU rules, and subsequent judgments in those cases will be enforced.

Police Scotland currently benefits from a strong relationship with other EU partners, such as Europol and Eurojust, which is vital for dealing with the cross-border crime that takes place. What assurances can the Minister give me that Police Scotland will continue to have such direct links after Brexit?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about Eurojust and Europol, which are under the direct remit of the Home Office, but we of course work closely with them. I was pleased to see references in the political declaration to mechanisms to ensure that the services and intelligence operations under them will continue.

The Minister will know that the Justice Committee has published two reports that set out some of the key areas that will be put at risk for British legal services, British companies and British citizens if we do not have legal continuity, should we face the regrettable event of a no deal. Is that why, perhaps, the Secretary of State was entirely right to write as he did in the Financial Times the other day?

I know that my hon. Friend, as Chair of the Justice Committee, has done a significant amount of work on this issue, and I have been pleased to respond to a number of debates that raised these important issues. The deal will allow us to continue working closely with the EU, specifically on family matters, which are important to so many citizens. We will continue to press for broader civil jurisdiction arrangements.

Can the Minister confirm that the Brexit talks on co-operation on justice and security have not yet been concluded, and that the limited text on justice and security in the political declaration is not legally binding? Can she give the House her best estimate of how long, were the House to vote for the withdrawal agreement, it would take to conclude the specific Brexit talks on justice and security? One year? Two years?

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the political declaration sets out the framework for the negotiations that will go forward. I would encourage him to read the assessment the Government produced on 28 November on the security partnership, which compares the impact of the criminal justice and law enforcement proposals set out in the political declaration with a no deal scenario.

At any one time, there are about 5,000 EU nationals in our prisons, yet in the last six years, under the ineffective EU compulsory prisoner transfer agreement, only 217 have been sent back to prison in their own country. Will the Minister ensure that we can deport more EU nationals from our prisons once we leave the European Union?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about prisoner transfer. Since 2010, we have removed more than 44,000 foreign national offenders from our prisons, our immigration removal centres and the community. Of course, the EU prisoner transfer provisions facilitate those arrangements, but we have other measures in place with over 100 other countries to ensure that we can continue prisoner transfers.

The political declaration makes no reference to the Schengen information system database or the European criminal records information system. Both Police Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service in Scotland are concerned about that, because both tools are fundamental to fighting and investigating crime. Can the Minister confirm that Scotland will lose access to these measures after Brexit?

As I mentioned, the Prime Minister has made it clear that she is seeking to ensure that the measures that underlay them, and the co-operation within them, will continue as far as possible post Brexit.

I should mention, because the hon. and learned Lady often asks about liaison with the Scottish Government, that I spoke to my counterpart, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice on 29 November, and he reiterated to me how pleased he was with our engagement at official level on the negotiations with the EU.

The Government have created a Brexit crisis through their rotten deal, which is abhorred by both sides of the House. While the Prime Minister runs scared of democracy and delays the meaningful vote, Cabinet responsibility has broken down, with Ministers pitching their own plan B or even plotting leadership bids. Planning for future judicial collaboration with Europe is suffering as a result. The Justice Committee says the Government are providing “little detail or certainty” about future judicial co-operation. The Lords EU Justice Sub-Committee warns of a “worrying level of complacency”. When will the Secretary of State pay as much attention to dealing with this problem as he does to problems in his own party?

My Department is making a lot of efforts to ensure we have the right deal. We have received £17 million for EU Brexit preparations. We have over 110 full-time employees, including newly recruited employees, working across deal and no deal. I would say, as the Lord Chancellor said in his FT article at the weekend, that the Conservative party is ensuring the future of our country, whereas the leader of the Labour party is just trying to make political points to ensure a general election.

Ease of Initiating Legal Proceedings

5. What steps the Government are taking to make it easier for people to initiate legal proceedings. (908249)

The Government are simplifying many application processes, making it much easier to initiate proceedings. Once a decision to get divorced has been made, one can now petition for a divorce online. Probate can be applied for online and a money claim can be issued, for up to £10,000, using our online courts process.

Will the Minister go a little further and say how she can make it easier for people to participate in proceedings once they have initiated them?

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. It is important not only to be able to initiate proceedings easily, but participate in them. Recently, we had early testing of full video hearings held in a tax tribunal, enabling the applicant and the respondent to not have to travel to court or take any time off work. In fact, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs was based in Belfast in those cases and the applicants were elsewhere in the country—and, in one case, in Greece. That small scale evaluation shows that participants found them convenient and easy to understand. They will not be appropriate for every case, but this is technology we need to consider.

The number of litigants in person has shot up. What urgent action is the Ministry of Justice taking to ensure proper representation for people across the board?

Litigants in person do need support through our justice system, which is why, over the past few years, we have spent £6.5 million investing in helping them through the court process. Many of our reforms which form part of our £1 billion programme will make sure that forms are easier, applying to court is easier, getting to court and the whole process is easier for people whether they have a lawyer or not.

Will the Minister outline any intentions to review the legal aid process, which currently does not allow middle class families to access legal redress due to a lack of ability to pay bills and thereby pay for legal help and assistance?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are in the process of an extensive legal aid review, which will look at many aspects and report early in the new year. [Interruption.]

I hear the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) burbling from a sedentary position about the spirit of Christmas. I call Mr Barry Sheerman.

Mr Speaker, are we really going back to the old days when people used to say that the courts of England were open to everyone, just like the Ritz hotel? The truth is that access to justice in this country is being diminished. The Department’s budget has been cut badly. Indeed, in the area I am very interested in, miscarriages of justice, there is not the money to keep the commission going properly.

In my experience the hon. Gentleman is interested in every area of every policy in our public life.

I have now heard that phrase three times in debates I have taken part in. The reason various cuts were made in 2010 was the perilous financial situation that our Parliament found itself in. We in the Department are looking extremely carefully at how we deliver justice for people. We are investing £1 billion in our core reform programme, while ensuring we use taxpayers’ money efficiently and well.

Prison Officers: Retention

Recruiting and retaining engaged and motivated staff is critical to making our prisons safer and stopping reoffending. We have spent an additional £100 million to ensure we have thousands of extra prison officers at the frontline, allowing us to run better regimes and improve staff-prisoner relationships. From October 2016 to September 2018, there was a net increase of 4,364 full-time equivalent prison officers. We know that the retention of staff will take more than a one-size-fits-all approach. Specific action is being taken where attrition is most acute.

Morale among prison officers is at an all-time low because of low pay, understaffing and soaring violence, and now a retirement age that could go as late as 68. Police officers get the same protection as prison officers, and they are allowed to retire at 60. Why can prison officers not?

Of course, a deal was offered to prison officers and rejected a couple of years or so ago, but to come back to the point about morale, it is important that we address violence in prisons. That is why we have increased the number of staff, why we are giving prison officers the tools that they need—for example, PAVA—and why we are determined to ensure that we can turn this increase in violence around.

It is clear that we have an issue with experienced prison officers leaving the service. Can my right hon. Friend reassure the House that, in line with best human resources practices, exit interviews are being conducted with staff before they leave so that we can address the issues that are causing them to leave the service?

My hon. Friend is right to say that that is best practice, and it does happen within the prison service. We are looking at the evidence of the effectiveness of that to ensure that we make best use of it. It is important that we learn from the experiences of prison officers and get their feedback, so that when prison officers do leave, we understand the reasons why.

The independent monitoring board at HMP Birmingham has said that standards have improved as a direct result of the reduction in the prison population and the addition of much needed staff. Already this year, urgent notifications have been issued at Nottingham, Birmingham, Bedford and Exeter prisons. How bad do things have to get before the Government launch a specific plan to re-recruit experienced prison officers who have left the prison system due to the Government’s austerity?

I am glad that the hon. Lady acknowledges that progress is being made at Birmingham, and it was right that we stepped in in August last year to turn that prison around. I reiterate that we have increased prison officer numbers very significantly, by 4,364, when our target was to recruit an additional 2,500 prison officers. We achieved that well ahead of schedule, and we have got the numbers increasing. We are seeing some signs of improvements in our prisons—not just at HMP Birmingham—but we need to build on that. It is still the early stages, but we are making progress.

Prison officers in HMP Lewes tell me that the scourge of mobile phones in the prison, which are used to co-ordinate violence and drugs, makes their job much more difficult. Does the Secretary of State therefore welcome the news that the Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Bill, which will block mobile phone signals in prisons, is likely to get Royal Assent this week?

I am delighted to do that and to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that she put in on that Bill. It is an important step forward. She is right to highlight the problems with mobile phones. As a Government, we are determined to take action to address that, and her work helps us.

Offenders: Access to Education and Employment

8. What steps the Government are taking to improve offenders’ access to education and employment. (908252)

In May, we published the education and employment strategy to create a system where each prisoner is set on a path to employment, with prison education work geared from the outset towards employment on release. We have launched the New Futures Network and appointed a CEO to drive its roll-out. The NFN identifies where skill gaps exist and works with employers to fill them. We are also empowering governors to commission education provision that leads to work. Activity to appoint the new education suppliers who will deliver the curricula that governors have designed is almost complete.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the New Futures Network. Will he expand a bit more on how that is achieving employment for offenders upon release?

The New Futures Network brokers partnerships between prisons and employers in England and Wales, which help businesses to fill skills gaps and prisoners to find employment on release. The NFN has a central team based in London that works with large national employers. We are also placing employment brokers across England and Wales to work with small and medium-sized enterprises and regional businesses. I am pleased to say that since the publication of the strategy in May, more than 100 new organisations have registered an interest in working with offenders.

I have been working with a constituent who has recently completed a nine-and-a-half-year prison sentence. He has reminded me that in that time, a great deal has moved online—the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. and learned Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), referred to initiating legal proceedings online. My constituent says that that places him at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing services and applying for jobs, so what steps are the Department taking to ensure that offenders gain digital skills and retain them?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Digital skills are already taught in many prisons. We are empowering governors to have more control over the curriculum, but we are also determined to ensure that there is some consistency, so from next April our core common curriculum will include ICT, which must be taught in every prison.

It is a good idea to empower governors to make the right choices for their establishments, either as individuals or in clusters, but does the Department intend to give them a sufficient budget to enable them to do that in a way that will actually make a difference?

We want to ensure that the path to employment is set out for every prisoner, that all prisoners have that opportunity to receive the education that they need, and that there is a focus on work. That is a priority for our Department, and I am confident that we can deliver on it.

Reoffending rates remain stubbornly high, but in Magilligan prison in my constituency, prisoners reaching the end of their sentence are allowed out under close supervision to work in the community. Does the Secretary of State agree that such action leads to a reduction in reoffending and should be replicated throughout the United Kingdom?

That is an excellent point. Workplace release on temporary licence has a key role to play in giving prisoners employment opportunities and easing the transition from prison life to post-prison existence. I am keen to ensure that we do what we can with workplace ROTL, and I should like it to be used more.

What further action can be taken to encourage more employers to offer such opportunities during the final period of a sentence? That is being done very effectively at Thorn Cross prison in Appleton Thorn, near Warrington.

Encouraging employers is very much what the New Futures Network is about. I sense a change of attitude among employers: more and more of them want to do this, because they recognise that there are benefits for them as well as for society as a whole. As I have said, more than 100 employers have signed up to the network, and I encourage those who are following our proceedings closely to do as much as possible on this front.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the disproportionate levels of often undiagnosed special educational needs and disability—especially difficulties with speech and language, dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—in the prison population. What measures has he introduced to ensure that all those prisoners are assessed and then appropriately supported in their education?

We are keen to develop specialist education plans when people come into prisons, because that is when we need to identify issues such as those that the hon. Lady has mentioned. However, the really important point that she has raised is the need for us to work across Government. It is not just about what happens in the Prison Service or the Ministry of Justice; we need to co-ordinate with, for instance, the national health service, the Department for Work and Pensions and local authorities. If we are to turn people’s lives around, we need a cross-Government approach. I am pleased that the Reducing Reoffending Board has been established, and that there is a real willingness across Government to make progress.

Prisons: Drones

Preventing drones from going into prisons is, of course, a huge priority. First, that means working to identify and catch the criminal gangs who are flying them in; secondly, it means electronic measures to interrupt the drones and make it possible to interrogate those people; and, thirdly and most fundamentally, it means protective security. For example, Mr Speaker, if there is a good grille on the window, you cannot stick your hand out of the window and take the drugs from the drone.

Drug use in prisons frequently fuels serious violence, but those who fly the drones or throw the drugs over the walls often receive little more than a ticking off. What more can be done to dissuade people—especially young people— from such behaviour?

I know that my hon. Friend does wonderful work with the prison in her constituency. As she says, we need to take action, and we are taking action. There have been 40 convictions of people using drones, and we have imposed 140 years’-worth of prison sentences. No one should be in any doubt that importing drugs into prisons with a drone is a very serious crime, and I am pleased to say that, thanks to the Department’s work since 2015, we are getting on top of the problem.

The Minister mentioned in July and re-emphasised today the importance of jamming equipment in prisons; how many prisons have that equipment?

First, that is classified information, but, secondly, the answer is not that many prisons. It is very expensive equipment to use, but we are looking at an electronic fencing technique which has been deployed in Guernsey. We can learn a lot from Guernsey prison: if that electronic fence in Guernsey works, it is a good cheap solution. We would need to check its technical specifications and then we could look at rolling it out.

Prisons: Prevention of Violence

Violence in prisons is fundamentally driven by three things: drugs, the conditions in the prison, and relationships between prison officers and prisoners. We are addressing all three. To cut down on drugs, we are putting much more perimeter security in place to make it more difficult to get drugs in. Secondly, we are investing a great deal in decency and cleanliness in prisons. But the most important thing is the training and support for our hard-working prison officers so they can develop the right relationships with prisoners—ones that are strict but also humane—in order to bring proper behaviour management into place.

Clearly reducing violence in prisons does depend on effective training of prison officers, but what assessment has my hon. Friend made of improvements in the way violent offenders are handled?

We repeatedly survey this; we have a specialist team looking at it. We have a long study under the violence reduction strategy, and the real conclusion is that it is about training. It is about what happens at the cell door—about how we develop respectful relationships in the same way that a good teacher would. There are high expectations on prison officers and on prisoners, so that we can have a safe, humane relationship that also has boundaries in place to control behaviour.

23. The Minister has made much of the 10 pilot areas, and I am glad that Bristol is one of them. However, what comfort does he have for the prison officers and prisoners of the other 110? (908267)

This challenge is absolutely right; we are focusing initially on 10 prisons, as it is difficult to achieve cultural change in 120 prisons simultaneously. The idea is to develop in those 10 prisons the right standard model on drugs, violence and decency, and if we are successful, as I believe we will be by August, to then roll that out across the rest of the estate.

The Minister yet again comes to the House all gung-ho, even though he has absolutely no reason to be since safety in our prisons continues to be compromised and they remain in a state of emergency. One such example is HMP Birmingham, one of the most dangerous prisons in the country with conditions there found to be so bad by the prisons inspector that control was taken away from G4S. At the very minimum will the Minister give me assurances, or a guarantee, that this prison will not be returned to the private sector?

As I have said on a number of occasions, this is not fundamentally about private and public: there are good private prisons and good public prisons, and there are bad private prisons and bad public prisons. But I will give this assurance: unless G4S can demonstrate that it can take back that prison and run it both well and sustainably, we will not be returning the prison to G4S.

Legal Advice Deserts

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who chairs the all-party group on legal aid and has done a lot of work in this area. We recognise that in some sparsely populated areas it is more difficult to find service providers, but the Legal Aid Agency regularly reviews market capacity to make sure there is adequate provision across the country and moves quickly to fill any gaps that it identifies. At the latest civil legal aid tender, the number of offices providing access to advice increased by 39% for immigration and asylum, by 188% for welfare benefits and by 7% for debt and housing.

With homelessness up by 70%, with universal credit wreaking absolute havoc on housing costs and with 1 million properties unfit for occupation, why do the new figures reveal that there are 1 million people with no access to a legal aid-provided housing lawyer at all and 15 million people in areas where there is only one provider, raising huge issues of capacity and potentially conflicts of interest? Will the review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, when we finally get to see it, address that issue so that people everywhere in the country can have access to the legal aid services they need?

The hon. Lady is right to identify the fact that dealing with housing issues is important. As at today’s date, there is at least one provider offering housing and debt services in all the 134 procurement areas except for seven, and the Legal Aid Agency is doing what it can to ensure that appropriate services are available in those seven areas. It is due to launch a further tender in areas where there is currently low access to services, and that tender will begin on 17 December.

Across Cornwall, access to a legal aid lawyer for housing and families is particularly difficult. I have raised that matter before. What can the Minister do to create a greater incentive for lawyers to take up that work?

Cornwall is a sparsely populated area and there are difficulties there, but there is always access to the telephone service. It is right that we should look not only at face-to-face advice but at where technology can help to deliver legal advice to people.

24. The United Nations special rapporteur’s recent findings were shameful and damning. They highlighted the fact that the “dramatic reductions” in the availability of legal aid since 2012 have“overwhelmingly affected the poor and people with disabilities, many of whom cannot otherwise afford to challenge benefit denials or reductions and are thus effectively deprived of their human right to a remedy.” When will the Government accept responsibility for the most vulnerable in our community, and will the Minister commit to ensuring that the overdue review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 will reinstate legal aid for early legal advice? (908268)

The hon. Lady makes an important point about ensuring that we have support for those who are most vulnerable, but I would like to make two points on welfare benefits, which she has highlighted. First, the most important outcome for benefit claimants is that the decisions on their claims should be right first time. This avoids the need to go to court at all, and my Department is working closely with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure efficient decision making. I have met the Minister twice to ensure that we get those decisions right first time. Secondly, while decisions on welfare claims significantly impact the lives of often vulnerable people, the claims are often not complicated. We are making changes to the tribunal system to ensure that those cases are handled simply, effectively and more quickly.

20. My constitu- ency has been rated by the Law Society as a legal aid desert. In all of Somerset, there is only one firm that is authorised to provide legal aid on housing. What specific advice can the Minister give to my constituents on that? (908264)

As I have recognised, there are areas of the country that suffer. The Legal Aid Agency looks at those areas, and re-procurement tender exercises are going out in seven of them.

Order. I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) is seeking to take part in Question 12 or anticipating Question 13.

It is the latter. We will get there when we are ready, and we are grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm.

The Law Commission of England and Wales says that working people on low incomes are being systematically denied the right to a fair trial because of restrictive legal aid rules. When will the Government act in this shocking and shameful situation?

The hon. Gentleman will have heard that we are doing a review of legal aid, which will be published early in the new year. I was interested to read the recent Scottish Government report on legal aid, which implements a number of the things that we are already doing, including using technology to help our court processes.

The current Prime Minister unleashed the Home Office’s hostile environment against migrants, and the Windrush scandal shows just how easily people can fall foul of this Government’s complex and cruel immigration rules. It is even tougher for those who have to navigate this hostile environment without legal advice, yet access to legal aid-funded immigration advice has fallen by 68% under the Tories, from 120,000 cases in 2010 to 39,000 cases this year. So do the Government regret scrapping such publicly funded legal advice that can save people from unfair decisions and deportations, and if so, will they reinstate it?

The hon. Gentleman has not made that offer. The Opposition have made an offer in relation to welfare, but not, I note, in relation to immigration. Let me remind him that people can already get legal advice for asylum and non-asylum cases, and for cases involving detention, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, domestic violence and trafficking. I want to make it clear to the House and to everyone who is listening that people are often not claiming legal aid because they do not believe they are entitled to it, because the Opposition and some others suggest that it is not available.

Prisons: Mobile Phones

Fundamentally, a mobile phone needs to be moved by a person, it is a metal object and it transmits, which means that the three ways of dealing with a mobile telephone are to get intelligence on the organised criminal gangs that are moving them around, to use metal detectors to discover the devices, and to use electronic measures to identify where the devices are located within prisons, to jam the signals and to interrogate the calls.

It has been reported that Anthony Russell, a contestant on “The X Factor”, used a mobile phone to communicate with a convicted prisoner by FaceTime from the ITV studios, of all places. Will the Minister consider making it a specific criminal offence for anyone knowingly to communicate with someone in the criminal justice system?

I am happy to sit down with my hon. Friend. It is absolutely a criminal offence to have a mobile telephone in prison, but the complexities of what my hon. Friend suggests go a long way beyond that. It is certainly not an offence to communicate with a prisoner. In fact, we encourage prisoners to continue family relations, which is important to prevent reoffending and protect the public.

While we of course do not want prisoners using mobile phones, we are happy for prisoners to watch television. The Minister knows that I am unhappy about his decision to buy televisions from China instead of from Cello in my constituency. Will he look again at the criteria for such public contracts?

This is a kind of debate between mobile televisions from another part of the world or mobile televisions from Bishop Auckland.

The hon. Lady powerfully represents her constituency’s interests. The issues around procurement are complex, but I will look carefully at the case. However, it is important to bear in mind that we also have a duty to get value for money for the taxpayer and ensure that we are purchasing affordable goods.

Rogue Bailiffs

We are determined to protect debtors from aggressive behaviour by enforcement agents while balancing that against the need for effective enforcement of debts. We launched a public call for evidence on 25 November to help us to understand the extent of the problem, and it is open until 17 January.

A constituent of mine, John Stevens, lost thousands after he was threatened by bailiffs in connection with his son’s debt, which arose through no fault of his own. My constituent was never told his rights, and there was no independent regulator to which he could appeal. Given that 40% of people contacted by bailiffs are threatened or intimidated, will the Minister take action following the call for evidence to right those wrongs?

I am sorry to hear about the experience of my hon. Friend’s constituent and I am happy to discuss the matter further with him. The 2014 reforms require bailiffs to send a letter before they visit to set out where a debtor can go for advice, but we want to ensure that that mechanism and others are working. We are asking that question in our consultation, so I encourage his constituent to tell us more about his experience in our call for evidence.

I welcome the Government’s call for evidence. Since it was launched, the Minister has said that a small number of bailiffs are breaking the law. The truth is that a YouGov poll shows that a third of people contacted by bailiffs in the past year have experienced law breaking, so this is much more than a small problem. Will the Government therefore change the language and see where the evidence takes them, rather than concluding that a minority of bailiffs are behaving in this way?

It is important to gather the evidence, which is what this consultation will do. As the hon. Lady will know, because she asked a question at the previous Justice questions when the Citizens Advice report had just come out, we want to examine the evidence fully, and we are asking for evidence not just from individuals, but from the enforcement agencies themselves. My officials have asked Citizens Advice for a meeting to discuss the content of the report, which identifies a large amount of inappropriate behaviour.

Prison Officers: Safety

We do not tolerate violence against our dedicated and hard-working prison officers. We are strengthening frontline officer numbers and rolling out a key worker scheme to improve prisoner-staff relationships and to tackle the causes of violence. We are giving officers the tools they need, such as body-worn cameras and PAVA spray, to respond where incidents do occur.

The Secretary of State will know that, in the past year, there has been a 20% increase in violent crime against prison officers. Does he agree there is a disparity between prosecutions when members of the public are assaulted and prosecutions when people in the public service are assaulted? Also, is it not correct that an assault against a prison officer is just as bad as an assault against a policeman?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have to take assaults against prison officers very seriously. They are putting their lives on the frontline, and we are working closely with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to make sure that crimes committed in prison are dealt with effectively. There are good examples of work with the police and the CPS, such as at HMP Isis. The Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018 came into force in November, and it increases the maximum custodial sentence from six months to 12 months for those who assault emergency workers, including prison officers.

Recent incidents at Long Lartin Prison in my constituency show that more work is still needed on prison officer safety. Can the Secretary of State assure my constituents who work at Long Lartin that the Government do not consider it job done on prison safety and that they will continue to explore further ways to improve prison safety?

Indeed, we will continue to find ways of making improvements. I visited Long Lartin in the summer and met a number of my hon. Friend’s constituents who work as prison officers to discuss this issue. The high assault figures are something that we have to address, which is why we have taken the measures I have already outlined. We will continue to focus on bringing down those numbers.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the high number of prisoners with mental health conditions is also a serious problem for prison officers? Will he look into the two separate incidents at Nottingham Prison where, even though my constituents had been independently assessed by psychiatrists as needing to be transferred to secure mental health beds, it took five months for them to be transferred?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising those cases and I will certainly look at the incidents she mentions. She is right to highlight the importance of addressing mental health issues within prisons. A very large proportion of prisoners have mental health issues and, in answer to an earlier question, I addressed the need to work closely with the NHS and the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that we address such points.

Topical Questions

Today the terms of reference for the review of the criminal injuries compensation scheme have been announced. Compensation has long been an important part of the Government’s support for victims of violent crime, and we are determined to ensure that every victim gets the compensation to which they are entitled. The review will look at the scope of the scheme, its eligibility rules, the value and composition of awards and how to provide easier access to compensation. The review will give particular consideration to victims of child sexual abuse and terrorism and look to ensure continued financial sustainability. We have separately announced our intention to remove the pre-1979 same roof rule from the scheme and we will table an amended scheme before Parliament as soon as possible.

We know the Government see public services as a cash cow for the private sector, but the privatisation of the probation service has been an abject failure. The contract had to be terminated two years early, despite a £0.5 billion bailout. The privatised service failed to reduce reoffending, so why is the Secretary of State proposing to privatise the service again in 2020? Is this not an example of ideology over plain common sense?

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is best placed to lecture on common sense versus ideology.

The reoffending rate has fallen in the time since “Transforming Rehabilitation” and we would like it to fall further. There are issues with how the system is working, which is why we took the entirely pragmatic approach of bringing the contracts to an end and making some important and necessary changes to ensure that we can do more to reduce reoffending.

T3. Will the Minister update the House on progress towards the abolition of the same roof rule? (908271)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. Further to the Secretary of State’s answer a few moments ago and the tabling today of the written ministerial statement on the review of the overall scheme, let me say that earlier this year we committed to remove the pre-1979 same roof rule more swiftly. In that context, I pay tribute to the work of the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) in her campaign on this issue. As the Secretary of State has said, we anticipate, subject to the parliamentary timetable, to be able to lay an order as swiftly as possible.

Can the Lord Chancellor assist me in finding out the answer to a question that the Attorney General and the Brexit Secretary have been unable to answer: how much taxpayers’ money did the UK Government spend fighting the litigation that established that the article 50 notice can be unilaterally revoked?

I certainly cannot give that answer this morning, but of course there is no intention to revoke article 50.

T5. In Chelmsford, the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the youth offender programme have occasionally recommended that a young offender be placed on a curfew in order to safeguard that young person from being further targeted by criminal gangs, but sometimes the magistrates are not fully aware of the circumstances and overturn the curfew. May I encourage Ministers to encourage the magistrates to work more closely on sharing information between services, so that the full information can be taken into account? (908273)

It is of course for magistrates to make decisions and they do have the right to overturn recommendations. However, as my hon. Friend says, when making those decisions, they should be in possession of the full facts from the youth offending teams, the police and the CPS. She is right to highlight the importance of information sharing and sharing that information in good time. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), and I continue to work on that.

The Government’s ideological experiment of privatising probation has been a calamitous failure. It was such a flawed idea that even this Government have had to cancel the current private contracts, which were costing the public more and more money while leaving them less and less safe. Yet the Government are set to re-tender those contracts back to the private sector. Interserve is currently the largest probation provider, supervising 40,000 offenders, yet it is now in rescue talks, trying not to become the next Carillion. So will the Justice Secretary commit today to ensuring that Interserve is not awarded any of the new private probation contracts?

We will award the contracts to those best placed to carry them out. I have to say that the hon. Gentleman’s hostility to the private sector, in all its forms, in all contexts, is not a sensible or pragmatic approach to trying to ensure that we get best value for money for the taxpayer while making improvements to reducing reoffending.

Senior managers at Lloyds-HBOS were found guilty of a scandalous fraud against their own business customers but, thus far, the bank itself has avoided or evaded any corporate sanction. Would my right hon. Friend support the Solicitor General’s efforts to make failure to prevent an economic crime a corporate offence?

My hon. Friend, who campaigns tirelessly on these issues, will be aware that we ran a call for evidence on corporate criminal liability to determine whether the current law is adequate. This is a complex part of the law and consultation responses offered a broad range of views. We are currently analysing those with Departments across Government and we will publish our response in 2019.

T2. On Friday, I visited Nottingham Prison; I am grateful for the support of the prisons Minister in securing that meeting. Drugs continue to be a significant problem in our prison, as in many others, and body scanners are a really important way of tackling that. What is the Government’s current position on the use of body scanners and when will we get them in Nottingham? (908270)

First, I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the work he does in supporting the work of Nottingham Prison, which is one of the 10 priority prisons. We are therefore bringing scanners into those prisons. We are currently shipping those scanners over, but a range of different types of scanning will be taking place: X-ray scanners used on an intelligence-led basis, which can penetrate through the skin; metal detectors on a more regular basis as people go through; and additional dogs.

The Minister responsible for rehabilitation will be aware of the great work that groups such as St Mary Magdalene church in Torquay do with ex-offenders. That work could be enhanced if such groups could use the old Torquay magistrates court, which is still empty. Will he agree to meet me and representatives of the church to discuss how, if they acquired the building, they could make a real difference?

I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that matter, and if any other colleagues wish to meet as well, I am sure they will do so.

T4. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) for asking almost exactly the question that I was about to ask, because that gives me the opportunity to expand on the answer he was given. Will the Minister tell us a little more about whether the Government are minded to make Spice and Mamba—drugs that are causing huge problems in Nottingham Prison and many others—class A drugs? What other strategies do we have to reduce the amount of drugs in prisons? (908272)

The big legislative change that we are trying to introduce, and for which we would very much like to get cross-party support, is a provision to allow us to do proper testing on Spice—an endeavour that is in a private Member’s Bill that is currently trying to make its way through the House. As the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, Spice is a real problem. It is provoking unbelievably aggressive behaviour and it is extremely bad for people’s health. We can search along the perimeter but yes, we also need to do more in the law.

Citing reputational reasons, one of my local authority employers failed to keep on a member of staff after a probation period because of a spent conviction that was known about. Would public sector employers not get a better reputation if they helped to turn people’s lives around when they want to put something back into society?

I could not agree more. One of the best ways to prevent reoffending and therefore protect the public is to help people into employment. Ex-prisoners can be some of the most loyal and hard-working employees one can find. We encourage all employers to take a realistic, pragmatic approach. Many convictions are absolutely irrelevant to the work that the person is doing or to public protection. The best way to protect the public is to provide a job.

T6. My constituents Gemma and Paul Black were devastated last year when their 22-month-old daughter, Pearl Melody Black, was killed by a runaway car. I understand that the police and Crown Prosecution Service have been unable to bring charges because of a loophole in the law. Will the Secretary of State or a Minister meet me, possibly with Department for Transport colleagues, to discuss how we can avoid having other parents facing this suffering? (908274)

First, let me share our very sincere condolences. It is the most horrifying thing to lose a 22-month-old in that way. Secondly, we are currently consulting on changing the law to have a life sentence for causing death by dangerous driving or by careless driving under the influence. We can do an enormous amount more, both legally and in terms of road safety and driving tests. We must bring down the number of people who are killed. The hon. Gentleman raises a particularly tragic incident, and I would be delighted to meet him to discuss it.

Last week, the House passed the Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill, which is an important part of court modernisation. Does the Lord Chancellor accept that there remains a pressing need to introduce the remaining primary legislation necessary to underpin the rest of Sir Michael Briggs’ reforms?

I share the desire of my hon. Friend the Chair of the Justice Committee to do that when parliamentary time allows. Of course, there are currently some pressures on parliamentary time.

T7. Too many prisoners are in desperate need of drug rehabilitation services. How many inmates are currently using drug rehabilitation services and what is the MOJ’s target for 2019? (908275)

We do an assessment whenever a prisoner comes in. In a prison such as Humber, for example, almost a quarter of the prisoners are currently on some form of drug rehabilitation treatment. Those are very high numbers. Drugs in prison are a big issue: nearly 50% of prisoners have alcohol or drug-related addiction issues. The NHS takes the lead on that; I would be happy to get back to the hon. Lady with the figures.

Will the Minister endorse the excellent work of Youth of Walsall and its campaign “Real Knives, Real Lives”, which seeks to educate young people on the dangers of carrying a knife?

I welcome any initiative that aims to combat knife crime by educating young people about the potentially devastating impact it can have, not only on victims and their families but on the perpetrators themselves. I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has highlighted and would be happy to learn more about it. We must all do more to tackle serious violence, which is exactly what the Government are doing.

In the name of fairness to colleagues, those asking a question should confine themselves to a single short sentence.

T8. What discussions has the Minister had with the Home Secretary on the use of Clare’s law in cases where a restraining order has been granted through a civil process, which puts the onus on the victim? (908276)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that question. She rightly highlights a very important issue. I work closely with my opposite number in the Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), on tackling domestic abuse. We will be publishing a draft domestic abuse Bill and consultation response shortly. In respect of the hon. Lady’s specific point, I am very happy to meet her and discuss it further.

The Government already have agreements with around 100 countries in relation to prisoner transfers.

T9. The Scottish Government have raised concerns about the effectiveness of the European arrest warrant as European member states will be permitted to operate constitutional bans on extraditing their citizens during transition. Can the Minister clarify this situation? (908277)

I think the hon. Lady will have been pleased to see a paragraph in relation to extradition in the future framework.

Ministers will be aware of the very low attainment in reading among prisoners. Is anything being done to try to improve the situation? I understand that the average reading age in a prison is 11.

It is a very serious problem. As my right hon. and learned Friend has pointed out, almost half the prisoners have a reading age of under 11. Perhaps 25% of prisoners have a reading age of six. There is an enormous amount that we can do and that is where the education and employment strategy comes in, which is about making sure that the education is relevant and leads to a job.

T10. The Tories have cut £1 billion off the legal aid budget to the poor. This has meant a cut of 99.5% in the number of people receiving legal aid for benefit cases. Will the Tories sleep well at Christmas knowing that they are starving the poor? (908278)

Various changes were made as a result of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are undertaking a significant review. My Department has met with more than 100 organisations or individuals to discuss the changes that were brought in and my Department will be reporting in the new year.

Will the Secretary of State commit to implementing the recommendations of the independent Mental Health Act review to reform mental health tribunals and will the Government commit adequate resourcing to the recommendations?

As the hon. Lady will be aware, the Government have welcomed the independent review of the Mental Health Act and have rightly committed to reform mental health legislation. Some of the review’s recommendations, as she alludes to, have particular implications for civil justice and particular reforms to the Mental Health Tribunal. My Department is working closely with the Department of Health and Social Care to consider the review, its recommendations and implications in detail and we will respond shortly.

Today, it has been confirmed that three quarters of all Welsh female prisoners are serving a custodial sentence of less than six months. There is no women’s centre in Wales, so may I ask the Minister to introduce new funding for a women’s centre in Wales, so that we are able to have different ways of putting women forward, other than custodial sentences, because it is not working?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Something that runs through our female offender strategy is moving away from short sentences to alternative provisions. He highlights a particular issue in the context of Wales. It is something on which I have had discussions with the previous Cabinet Secretary, Alun Davies, and I look forward to meeting his successor in that role to have further discussions.

Many of those convicted of murder under joint enterprise thought that they would be able to seek appeals of their convictions after the Supreme Court ruling that the law had taken a wrong turn. However, the recent loss of the Laura Mitchell case, the first brought by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, has shown that the appeal bar is impossibly high. What will the Government do about that?

I know that the hon. Lady has campaigned very hard on this. I was very pleased to answer her debate shortly after my appointment. As she knows, the appeal bar is set in relation to all cases, not just in relation to this case, but I am very happy to discuss this issue in a meeting with her.

It was two years ago that the then Secretary of State for Justice agreed to outlaw the cross-examination of survivors of domestic abuse by the perpetrators of their crime, yet the misery goes on. When will the Government outlaw that?

Ofsted’s recent annual report yet again raised its concerns about high levels of violence in children’s secure training centres. The use of pain-inducing restraint techniques in youth prisons and right across the secure estate has been found to carry up to a 60% chance of causing serious injury to children. This is Government-sanctioned abuse of children. When is it going to end?

As the hon. Lady will be aware, we have commissioned an independent review, which is being led by Charlie Taylor. I look forward to receiving his report in due course.

When we debated legal aid last month, the Minister was expecting to publish the LASPO review before Christmas. It is already eight months late, so will she tell us the date on which it will now be published? Why are we not getting it until next year? What is the reason for the delay?

I am happy to take the hon. Gentleman’s question. I remind him what he said to the Law Society several months ago—that it is important to take time to review this important subject. It is important and, as I have said, we have met over 100 organisations and individuals. We finished our final engagement with organisations at the end of last month and we will publish the review early in the new year.

ONS Decisions: Student Loans

(Urgent Question): To ask the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to make a statement on the ONS decision on the treatment of student fees and maintenance loans in the Government’s accounts, and its implications for the public finances.

After its review of the treatment of student loans and Government finances, the Office for National Statistics has decided that some of the spending on student loans will be included in the deficit when the money is first lent to students. This is a technical accounting decision by the ONS, whose independence we support and whose diligence we commend. It is for the independent Office for Budget Responsibility to decide how to reflect this decision in future forecasts, but the ONS has made it clear that there is a lot to decide before the numbers are finalised.

This decision does not affect students’ ability to receive or repay loans. They can still get access to money to help with fees and the cost of living, and they will only start repayments when they are earning £25,000. Moreover, this decision does not have any implications for public debt, as the data and forecasts already include the impact of student loans, including repayments.

The Government make decisions on taxes and spending at Budgets, and the OBR judges whether the Government have met their targets. At the recent Budget, the OBR forecast for headroom was higher than the estimate of the impact of the student loans accounting change. The recent Budget also showed that the Government are meeting their fiscal rules with room to spare, and that debt is beginning its first sustained fall in a generation. This Government are committed to keeping taxes low and investing in Britain’s future.

I thank the Chief Secretary for that reply.

The Treasury Committee welcomes the ONS decision, which is in line with our recommendations, but this is more than a little embarrassing for the Government. The OBR estimates that yesterday’s decision adds £12 billion to the deficit, but even the OBR’s method of calculating the sum does not appear entirely consistent with the ONS decision. Can the Chief Secretary therefore tell us what the right figure is, or has the Government’s creative accounting become so creative that it has left even the Chief Secretary bamboozled?

Can the Chief Secretary at least tell us what the fiscal impact will be? Will there be any impact on departmental budgets or on the devolved nations? What does it mean for the Government’s predisposition for selling the student loan book for a song? Does that policy still make sense? Indeed, did it ever make any sense? Vice-Chancellors are understandably worried that yesterday’s decision will lead to a reduction in funding available to our universities.

Given that the Chief Secretary says this is effectively a matter of accounting, rather than cash flows, does she agree with Paul Johnson at the Institute for Fiscal Studies that

“IF it was right to aim for zero deficit on old definition THEN it is right to aim for £17bn deficit on new definition”?

Will she confirm that the Government will now revise their fiscal targets in the spring statement, or does she expect students and universities to pay the price for the Government’s accounting trickery and meaningless fiscal targets? Only a matter of weeks ago at the autumn Budget, the Chancellor boasted,

“Fiscal Phil says, ‘Fiscal Rules OK’”—[Official Report, 29 October 2018; Vol. 648, c. 655.]

He looks a bit silly now, doesn’t he?

Where does this leave the Augar review on post-18 education? Can the Chief Secretary assure the House today that the Augar review will focus on further and higher education policy aims first and foremost, and not on how to design a student loans system that is attractive due to its accounting features?

The ONS decision yesterday makes the case for real reform of our higher education system more compelling. Instead of tinkering around the edges, flirting with cuts in fees that would benefit the richest graduates and cuts in places that would only hurt the poorest students, is it not time for real reform: a system that is publicly funded and genuinely free at the point of use?

I have been very clear in my response that this is fundamentally an accounting decision. It does not affect our decisions on higher education policies. The bodies that we are talking about—the ONS and the OBR—are independent bodies. It is right that the Government do not make decisions on how to treat these figures in our national statistics—they are made by independent bodies, and we fully respect that. The ONS is going to be working out more details. It would therefore be completely wrong for me, outside a fiscal event, to comment on the precise implications for the public finances.

I can reassure Members across the House that we will do the right thing by students, and we have done the right thing by students. We have a record number of students in our universities. We rightly have a system where students contribute to their degrees, which deliver them higher future earnings and greater prospects in later life.

It is a bit of a cheek hearing all this from Labour Members, whose party promised in the 2017 general election that it would write off all the student loan book and then—surprise, surprise—said after the election that it would not any more. I think it is a bit of a joke that Labour Members are coming to this House and trying to give us lectures about student finance.

The hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) is right to say that the Treasury Committee covered this in our report to the House published earlier this year, but the Chief Secretary is right to say that the decision does not affect any financial help that students now, or students starting in September or beyond, will get. Does she agree that this is actually a debate about political scrutiny of the deficit, which is an important figure at every fiscal event, and that the change will give a truer picture of what is happening with the deficit?

My right hon. Friend, the Chair of the Treasury Committee, is correct. Ultimately, this is about making sure that our independent bodies are giving us advice about how our public finances should be presented in order to give the best possible picture. That is completely independent from our decisions about what is best for students. The fact is that this decision does not affect cash flows; it affects the presentation of accounts. We should not conflate that with the very right and proper debates we are having about making sure that our students have a finance system that supports them.

This is not creative accountancy; this is fantasy accounting from the Government. The shadow Chief Secretary talks about Labour’s policy—[Hon. Members: “You’re the shadow Chief Secretary.”] Well, that is not very far away. The Chief Secretary can try to make up Labour’s policies on the hoof. She might make her own up on the hoof, but she should not make up ours on the hoof.

The ONS announcement ends the fiscal illusion that kept student debt off the Government’s books. This is not technical, and it blows a potential £12 billion hole in the Chancellor’s spending plans. At the last Budget, the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned the Chancellor that he was gambling with the public finances, and it seems that he has lost the bet: a reckless Chancellor bluffing his way through Budgets in a desperate attempt to keep his party together while the country is led to ruin and uncertainty.

This change raises a number of serious questions that the Minister must now answer, and has not answered. First, what impact will the additional £12 billion have on the Treasury’s ability to meet the fiscal targets that the Government set out most recently? Or will it mean that the Government have to abandon their fiscal rules yet again, for the umpteenth time? Secondly, will the Chief Secretary guarantee—she has not yet—that students and universities will not be adversely affected by this change? Thirdly, can the Government guarantee that no cap on student numbers will be introduced?

Finally, does this not pose a major challenge to the entire system of student finance which the Government have not only maintained but exacerbated with a trebling of fees—a system that creates a mountain of debt, placed first on the backs of students and now on the Government’s books when students are unable to pay? Would it not be better to adopt Labour’s policy of free university education, as set out in our manifesto—a very popular manifesto—and grey book, which invests in the future of our country by investing in the future of our young people, rather than giving billions of pounds of tax cuts to large corporations?

I find it extraordinary that we are being lectured on debt by a party that wants to add half a trillion pounds to our national debt. As I said in my earlier answer, we would still meet our fiscal targets on both the debt and the deficit with the numbers that the ONS currently estimates, but it is very premature to have this discussion when the ONS has not given the detailed figures.

I am willing to respond to the hon. Gentleman’s question about whether we will give a guarantee that this will not affect students—absolutely we will. The Augar review is being conducted on the basis of what is best for students. The fact is that we have one of the best higher education systems in the world, of which we should be rightly proud. We have a record number of students attending university and a record number of students from low-income backgrounds attending university, thanks to our policy.

The hon. Gentleman has to answer this question: is it really right that people who do not go to university and generally earn lower sums of money should subsidise those who do go to university and go on to earn more in later life? We can see the result when that happens—it is what has happened in Scotland. Places end up getting rationed, and higher education ends up not getting enough income.

The House might be gridlocked on Brexit, but it does not need to be gridlocked on more ambitious reform of the higher education finance system. That is what young people want to see. I urge my right hon. Friend to look at the changes that young people want, which are the introduction of maintenance grants and reform of the student finance system away from student debt and towards a graduate contribution, making it better value for money and more progressive—not less progressive, as Labour suggests—so that young people who get the most financially out of going to university pay the most for the chance to go there.

My right hon. Friend clearly spent a lot of time working on that when she was Education Secretary, and I commend her on her contribution to that debate. I am pleased to welcome to the Front Bench the new Universities Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), who is leading the work on the Augar review. As Chief Secretary to the Treasury, I am concerned to ensure that we get good value for money and that our universities are properly funded. I am closely involved in supporting the Augar review, as are my colleagues at the Department for Education.

The Chief Secretary clearly has not read the UCAS figures, which show that more Scottish young people than ever before are accessing a place in higher education, including more from a deprived background than ever before.

This ruling does not come as any surprise. We already know that England has the highest tuition fees in the industrialised world. It confirms what we have been saying for a long time—this is not saving public money in the long run. This Government remind us regularly of how economically brilliant they are, but we can clearly see that they have been shifting their fiscal responsibilities on to a Government 30 years in the future. The real issue is that these short-term accountancy gains are won off the back of our young people. Average student debt in England is more than £50,000, and continuing to charge fees of more than £9,000 per annum is morally wrong. Since we know that three quarters of student loans will be written off eventually, will the Government follow Scotland’s lead and slash student fees or, better still, abolish them completely?

What assurances can the Chief Secretary give to students trying to pay off debt with spiralling interest rates that the interest on student loans will be capped at a far lower level? For those young people who currently have debts with no possibility of repayment, will this Government do the right thing and write off the portion of debt that will never be repaid, and write it off now?

The reality is that fewer students from disadvantaged backgrounds as a proportion are going to university in Scotland. The SNP Government have not only failed with the higher education system; they are also getting worse results for literacy and numeracy in primary schools. I suggest that the hon. Lady goes back to her colleagues in Scotland and starts looking at some of the reforms that have taken place across the rest of the UK, to see what could be learned.

Instead of listening to the braying of Labour Members, will my right hon. Friend remind them who first put this money off the books and into this category of spending? This is no different from what happened with Network Rail, when money was spirited into a different account so that it did not appear in the public finances. Will she take this opportunity to say that it is high time we renamed this money and turned to a graduate tax?

My right hon. Friend is correct; that was done under a previous Labour Government. In fact, that Government also introduced tuition fees, which I supported at the time and continue to support. I probably have more in common with some of the last Labour Government than many Members on the Labour Front Bench today. In those days, the Treasury marked its own homework. We have moved on. We now have the independent OBR, which makes decisions about forecasts, and that is the right approach. We are listening to this accounting advice and will take it on board. It will not affect decisions about how we conduct the Augar review or about student finance.

I am grateful to the Chief Secretary for indicating that this will have no impact on students, but she has conceded that it will have a fiscal impact. Our young people at the moment are worried about the cost of living, the broader economy and the prospect of getting jobs. They would like to see maintenance grants. Can she put in the Library, when she is aware of it, what the fiscal impact will be on young people and their parents?

The fiscal impact of the accounting decision—that is what this is; it does not alter the amount of cash going out the door—will come to light at future Budgets, and all these decisions will be taken in the round. As I have said, the Augar review is being conducted independently of that. It is about what is right for students. Of course we look at issues such as cost of living. Other aspects affect cost of living, including housing, and we are building more new homes to make housing more affordable across the board.

It is fair that students contribute to their higher education—it is fair to the taxpayer and fair to the student—but what is unfair are the high interest rates. Will the Secretary of State for Education and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury look at the huge interest rates on student loans and see whether something can be done?

That issue is being considered by the Augar review, which is properly being led by the Secretary of State for Education, who is sitting beside me. From a Treasury perspective, my role is to ensure that we get good value for money from our public finances and that we are fair and transparent in the way we present things. That is what the OBR and the ONS look at.

Ah, the key there was a reference to the ONS. It would be helpful if colleagues would frame their questions with reference to the Office for National Statistics, because that is the gravamen of the matter.

The fact that the ONS has said that student loans will push up the UK’s deficit undoubtedly provides an incentive to reduce fees, but that could create a huge problem for university funding. I hope the Government will take stock and introduce a new system of student finance that does not rely on loans, massive student debt or punitive interest rates, but gives our universities the stable funding they need to thrive.

The hon. Lady is right that we have well-funded, world-leading universities, and we need to make sure that continues.

Order. Perhaps the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) can offer us a reprise of his masterclass on brevity.

In the short term, will the Treasury review the inflation-busting 6.3% rate, and in the longer term will the Government admit that feeble wage growth is at the bottom of this problem?

That is a slightly strange question from the hon. Lady, given we have just seen the highest real wage growth for 10 years coming through our economy.[Official Report, 20 December 2018, Vol. 651, c. 6MC.]

Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that part of the ONS thinking is based on the fact that the amount someone has to earn before they start to repay has been increased very substantially under this Government, saving hundreds of thousands of students £300 or £400 a year? The effect of that, however, is that less of the money is repaid quickly or, indeed, at all.

My right hon. and learned Friend is right to point out that people do not pay back on their student loan until they are earning £25,000.

When I went to university 10 years ago, I was the first member of my family to do so, but because I was from a low-income background, I benefited from bursaries, which supported me through education. Unfortunately, Governments in both Edinburgh and London have cut back bursaries over the past decade, meaning that student loan debt in Scotland is £5 billion this year—up from £1.8 billion 10 years ago, which is a 169% increase—and that the individual debt of a student in Scotland has gone from £5,900 a year to £13,000 a year on average. Do the Government not recognise that such an increase is unsustainable and, reflecting the ONS results, that we have to restore a grant system?