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Volume 654: debated on Tuesday 5 February 2019

The Secretary of State was asked—


Sentencing must match the severity of the crime, but there is persuasive evidence that short sentences do not work in helping some offenders to turn their backs on crime, which is why we are exploring options that would see them used much less frequently.

A deeply concerning incident took place in my constituency at the weekend involving an assault using a noxious substance. May I ask the Secretary of State for a clear commitment not only that the sale and possession of acid will be targeted, but that he will ensure that those guilty of these despicable and evil crimes receive significant prison terms?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising a very serious incident. Such attacks are truly dreadful and have life-changing consequences, and anyone committing them must feel the full force of the law. That is why the Offensive Weapons Bill, which is currently being considered in the Lords, will change the law to stop the sale of acid to under-18s and to make it an offence to possess a corrosive substance in a public place. It is for the independent courts to determine sentences handed down in individual cases, but it is already the case that the use of a weapon, including acid, in any offence is treated as an aggravating factor meriting an increased sentence.

Statistics show that 36% of rough sleepers in London have previously been in prison—the figure is up three percentage points on the year before—which is deeply concerning. Short sentences do nothing but exacerbate the issue and do not reduce reoffending. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is now time to introduce a presumption against prison sentences of less than 12 months?

The hon. Lady makes a very important point. If someone is given a short sentence, it can mean that they lose their home, which would put them in a more difficult position, and then on their release they would be at much greater risk of rough sleeping. We are looking at our options, and I welcome her support. We are running pilots at Pentonville, Bristol and Leeds to see what we can do to address the problem of rough sleeping.

I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s much more realistic and nuanced approach to sentencing and the use of imprisonment. Does he agree that it is essential that we have space in our prisons for those whose crimes are so serious that only custody is appropriate, but that we do not overcrowd prisons with those who have mental or medical difficulties, or literacy or social problems, or those who might be better dealt with through rigorous community sentences?

I completely agree with the Chair of the Justice Committee. There are serious crimes for which a strong custodial sentence is exactly the right answer, but there are also cases for which short sentences, in particular, are ineffective for rehabilitation and do not serve society well. Prison should be used when appropriate, and we should look to develop alternatives to prison wherever possible.

I am heartened by the Secretary of State’s answers thus far. Last September the prisons Minister, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), said that

“the evidence on what could be done to reduce reoffending by not overusing short prison sentences inappropriately is a good lesson from Scotland from which we wish to learn.”—[Official Report, 4 September 2018; Vol. 646, c. 41.]

At Holyrood, however, the Scottish Conservatives have long campaigned against the presumption against short sentences, claiming it to be a soft-touch approach. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Scottish Conservatives are out of touch in wanting to pursue an old-fashioned and entirely ineffective approach?

I will focus on the approach that I want to take in England and Wales. If we can find effective alternatives to short sentences, it is not a question of pursuing a soft-justice approach, but rather a case of pursuing smart justice that is effective at reducing reoffending and crime. That is the approach that I want to take in England and Wales.

In reality, sentences and the prison population have gone up in recent years. I maintain that there are circumstances in which significant prison sentences are right as a means of punishment and a demonstration of society’s abhorrence at particular behaviours, but we also have to bear it in mind that some people who go to prison end up in a cycle of reoffending, with little achieved to the benefit of society or those individuals.

Probation Service

Order. I think that the Secretary of State’s intended grouping of Question 2 is with Question 18, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris), who was looking mildly perturbed, but whom I hope will now be greatly reassured.

We have made it clear that the probation system needs to improve, and we have taken decisive action to end current community rehabilitation company contracts and to develop more robust arrangements to protect the public and tackle reoffending. We have seen examples of good and innovative work from CRCs in Cumbria, where probation is being adapted to a rural setting, and in London, where CRCs are working with the Mayor’s office on programmes to rehabilitate offenders involved in knife crime.

I believe that public, private and voluntary organisations all have a role to play. The reforms that we are making are crucial to integrating the system better so that different providers can work more effectively together, and we will set out our proposals later this year.

I am grateful for that comprehensive answer but, in the light of the prisons Minister’s praise at our last session of Justice questions for the not-for-profit Durham Tees Valley CRC—one of the best, if not the best, at inspection, and, according to Napo, also one of the best to work for—may I ask how the Secretary of State will protect this rare success story, given that his own reprivatisation plans are set to allow security giants such as Sodexo to swallow it up?

I, too, pay tribute to the work of that not-for-profit CRC and its focus on rehabilitating offenders. The expertise and commitment of not-for-profit organisations are vital in helping offenders to turn their lives around, and the changes on which we are working will ensure that the probation system benefits from having a diverse range of providers, while also doing more to deliver operational stability.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, and for drawing attention to the statistics that we have seen in Durham. However, probation failures cause reoffending and place strains on already overburdened police resources. Will the Secretary of State consider meeting police and crime commissioners such as Ron Hogg, Durham’s police, crime and victims commissioner, who happens to head the only outstanding police force in the country, to discuss the devolution of probation services so that they can be tailor-made to meet the needs of local communities?

I have already met a number of police and crime commissioners to talk about this very issue, but I should be happy to meet Mr Hogg, as well as other PCCs, to discuss these matters again. We want to ensure that PCCs can play a full and active role in this process, and I am heartened by the determination and willingness of many of them to do all that they can to help to develop it and to ensure that we have a strong probation system.

Prisons: Criminal Activity and Drug Abuse

3. What steps the Government have taken to tackle criminal activity and drug abuse in the prisons in the 10 prisons project. (908989)

Turning around the problem of drugs in prisons involves focusing on relationships, staff and perimeter security, but for the first time, every one of those 10 prisons will have proper dog teams, X-ray scanners and full airport-style security. I believe that that will drive down the supply of drugs in those prisons, and I expect to be judged on the results.

The Minister won the admiration of the nation when he put his neck on the line in pursuit of his ambitious targets to reduce drugs and violence in our prisons. What other practical steps is he taking to meet those targets and to ensure that our prisons not only keep prisoners in, but keep drugs out?

As well as ensuring that people are searched at the gates, we are investing more in netting and grilles. We are also investing a great deal more in staff training and support. Last week, I was lucky to be able to visit Newbold Revel, our prison officer training college, to see the passing out parade of the new set of individuals who are bringing standards to those 10 prisons.

Violence in prisons has reached record levels, with assaults on prison officers up by 30%. When will the Government realise that their cuts are causing this crisis in our Prison Service?

The assaults on prison officers are genuinely shocking. That is why we have doubled the sentence for such assaults, and why we are investing in perimeter security. It is also why I have said that if I do not bring down the incidence of that violence, including assaults on prison officers, I will resign.

When I last visited HMP Bullingdon, it was explained to me that much of prisoners’ mail is saturated with drugs. How is the plan to photocopy mail where appropriate going?

Every one of the 10 prisons where we are running the pilots will either photocopy the mail or put it through it through a Rapiscanner, which will identify Spice and other psychoactive substances to ensure that prisoners cannot use mail to bring drugs into prison.

Order. In calling the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), I congratulate him on his tie, inserting only the modest caveat that it is perhaps a tad understated.

This is my celebration tie for Autism Day, Mr Speaker—a little bit of flamboyance for autism.

Nobody wants our prisons to have a culture of drugs and violence, but can the Minister imagine what it is like to be in prison and not to be guilty? I co-chair the all-party group on miscarriages of justice—we are meeting tonight. Some people do 18 years in prison are then found not guilty, but have no compensation and no reintroduction into society. When are we going to do something about that?

I think that this is a slightly different subject, but I would be very happy to sit down with the hon. Gentleman to look at the rare but tragic cases when somebody is wrongfully convicted.

Domestic Abuse Victims

4. What support his Department provides to victims of domestic abuse in taking abusive former partners to court. (908990)

Domestic abuse is a dreadful crime. We are determined to ensure that those who commit it face justice and that the victims of it are supported and feel able to come forward. A range of measures is available to support victims in taking their abuser to court, including eligibility to apply for special measures, and the use of video links and recorded evidence. However, we believe that we can and should do more, as we set out in the draft Domestic Abuse Bill, which was published last week.

In June 2012, Eystna Blunnie, a 20-year-old, heavily pregnant young woman, was unlawfully beaten to death by her abusive former partner—her unborn child also died—despite the abuser being known to the authorities and the Crown Prosecution Service. Will my hon. Friend take steps to strengthen the support and protection available to victims of domestic abuse to help to prevent such tragedies from ever happening again and so that such a situation never occurs in Harlow again?

I was sorry to hear about the dreadful and tragic case of Eystna Blunnie in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Strengthening the protections that are available to victims lies at the heart of the draft Bill. Its provisions include automatic eligibility for special measures in court for domestic abuse victims and, to better protect victims, a new domestic abuse protection order to enforce more stringent conditions on suspected and convicted perpetrators where breach will constitute a criminal offence.

Before Christmas, Sammy Woodhouse and I met the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. and learned Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer). Will the Minister update the House on the action taken after that meeting, particularly in relation to guidance issued to local authorities on exemption regarding the duty to notify? Is the Department willing to conduct a review to get to the heart of the scale of the issue that affected Sammy?

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady and to Sammy for their work in highlighting the terrible situation and looking at what more can be done. I know that she had a positive meeting with my hon. and learned Friend and we are determined that the family court system should never be used to coerce or re-victimise those who have been abused. My hon. and learned Friend is liaising with the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services in respect of councils’ obligations and has invited the president of the family division to consider clarifying the practice direction on notification.

The Public Accounts Committee held an inquiry into children’s social services yesterday. Does my hon. Friend agree that domestic violence is one of the key causes of the growth in the number of children being taken into care in local authorities? Will the Department work closely with the Department for Education to ensure that children’s social services have the information and finances that they need to deal with that growing problem?

I can offer my hon. Friend the reassurance that we are working extremely closely with colleagues across Government to do that. We often see that some of the young people who end up in the criminal justice system have come from homes or families where they have witnessed domestic abuse. It is incumbent on us all to do all we can to tackle that.

Practice direction 12J requires that a court must be sure, when ordering parental contact, that neither the child nor the other parent is at risk of harm. The direction makes it clear that this is an obligatory requirement, but campaign groups and lawyers say that its implementation is patchy, as we saw in the Sammy Woodhouse case. Will the Government task the new domestic abuse commissioner with responsibility for monitoring its implementation, with annual reports of any breaches to be laid before Parliament?

I am grateful to the shadow Minister for her question, and I should have said in response to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) that I knew that the shadow Minister was concerned about this case and had done work on it. As I have set out, in the shorter term we have asked the president of the family division to look at that practice guidance to see whether it is working as it should. The hon. Lady mentioned the domestic abuse commissioner. In the context of the draft Domestic Abuse Bill, the commissioner will have powers to investigate these matters. I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady, as my opposite number, to discuss how that might work in practice.

Prisons: Violence

The scourge of violence in prisons must be tackled. To do this, we need to get the basics right. We have strengthened the frontline with more than 4,300 new staff so that we can run full, purposeful regimes, and we have moved to a new key worker model to support prisoners. We are also supporting prisoners with measures to tackle drugs and to make the physical environment in prisons decent and safe.

We know that a positive working relationship between staff and prisoners is key to running safe, decent prisons. Will my right hon. Friend tell us more about what is being done to improve the relationship between staff and prisoners?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I pay tribute to the work that she does in this area. I know that she is a frequent visitor to Chelmsford prison in her capacity as its constituency MP. In fact, I understand that she might almost have her own cell there, such is the regularity of her visits. She highlights the important relationship between prison officers and prisoners. We are introducing the key workers programme across the prison estate, and the early signs are that it is making a positive difference in terms of relationships and of reducing violence. There is more work that we need to do, but I am pleased that we are able to do that and to ensure that prison officers get the training they need to make best use of it.

Out-of-control drug use in prisons fuels violence. Yesterday I met the hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), the Health Minister who is dealing with this issue. I want to know what more can be done both before a prisoner enters the prison system and afterwards, as well as how we can ensure that during that crucial period when he—it is usually a “he”—is in there, he can have proper drug rehab so that his time in prison is not wasted.

The hon. Lady makes an important point. We have formed a drugs taskforce and we are working with law enforcement and with health partners across Government to restrict supply, reduce demand and build recovery. The taskforce is developing a national drug strategy, which will provide all prisons with guidance and examples of best practice to support them in tackling drugs. I should also point out that we are investing £6 million in 10 of the most challenging prisons to tackle drug supply and reduce demand. There is a greater focus on drug detection, on dedicated search teams, on body scanners and on improved perimeter defences.

Purposeful activity for prisoners is vital to encouraging rehabilitation and reducing volatility in our jails. What steps are being taken to drive down the number of prisoners who are locked up for 23 hours a day, which does not help to bring about peace in our prisons?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The additional 4,300 prison officers will help to ensure that we can do this. A particular area on which I have been keen to focus is the education and employment strategy, which will ensure that we provide those prisoners who are prepared to take responsibility with the opportunity to educate and prepare themselves for the world of work. I am very keen that we should continue to do that.

We found out from the Secretary of State’s Department last week the alarming fact that 51% of our youth offenders now come from a black minority or ethnic background. That puts us in a worse position than the United States. Given that context in our prisons, will he revisit my review, and may I meet him urgently to discuss how we can accelerate progress?

I am grateful for that question, and I would be happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman. I know he regularly meets the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), on this subject. I am also concerned about the proportion of BAME children in custody, which is something we take very seriously. My Department has introduced a dedicated team within the youth justice policy unit with a key focus on explaining or changing disproportionate outcomes for BAME children in the justice system.

The Justice Secretary has been in post for just over a year. In that time, every set of prison safety figures has shown violence spiralling out of control. In January 2018, assaults were up 12% year on year, reaching new record highs. In April 2018, assaults were up 13%, reaching new record highs. In October 2018, assaults were up 20%, reaching new record highs. And last week we saw yet more record highs—a record high for assaults on staff, a record high for prisoner-on-prisoner violence and a record high for self-harm. Does he agree that his Government have lost control of violence in our prisons? When will they get a grip?

Clearly, the figures set out last week, which relate to what was happening in July, August and September 2018, are not acceptable and we need to bring those numbers down. That is why we have increased the number of prison officer staff, it is why we are focusing on purposeful activity and it is why we are taking steps to reduce both the supply and the demand for drugs. We are seeing some encouraging signs, but I do not want to make too much of that as yet. We need to wait to see the numbers in April, when we will have details about the last quarter of 2018. I am beginning to feel that we have turned the corner, that the additional staff are making a difference and that the measures we are taking are making a difference, but I fully accept that much work still needs to be done.

Prison Officer Safety

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

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer but, in order to protect prison officers, what measures are the Government taking to ensure that the police and the justice system take crimes committed in prison as seriously as those committed outside in the community?

My hon. Friend makes a fair point, and it is important that crimes committed within prisons are taken seriously, just as crimes committed outside prisons are taken seriously. We have taken a number of steps, and I have already alluded to some of the measures we are taking to help prison officers in these circumstances. We also recently changed the law to strengthen sentences against those who commit crimes against prison officers.

A week before Christmas, one of my local prison officers, Ashley McLean, received horrendous facial injuries when he was violently attacked by a prisoner who was allegedly high on Spice. This was not an isolated incident. It happens every day of every week in one or other of our prisons. Much of that violent behaviour, as we have heard, is caused by drugs, so what steps are being taken to increase sentences for those found guilty of supplying drugs to inmates?

My hon. Friend rightly highlights an horrific incident, and I know the prisons Minister has already replied to a letter from him on this matter. We are fully committed to addressing the significant increase we have seen in the number of assaults on our hard-working prison staff. The new Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018 increases the penalty for those who assault emergency workers, including prison officers, and I understand that the police are continuing to investigate this particular incident.

We have already heard that assaults against prison officers are at record levels, and those levels are rising at a record rate. Why is the Secretary of State more interested in taking prison officers to court for raising health and safety concerns than in sitting around the table and working with them to develop an urgent violence reduction strategy?

We are very focused on reducing violence, which is why we are taking the measures that we are: introducing the extra staff; giving prison officers access to PAVA; increasing the use of body-worn cameras; and increasing measures to stop drugs getting into prisons—as we have heard, they can often be a driver of this violence. So that is precisely what we are doing and will continue to do.

I recently met someone who trained to be a prison officer and left the job after six months. He told me that the three months of training left him ill-equipped to deal with the violence and intimidation, and to deal with prisoners with mental health problems. The Secretary of State will know that this is not an isolated case—it is widespread. What is he doing to improve training for prison officers so that they are equipped to deal with these incidents and have support when they are encountering this type of violence?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are constantly looking at ways in which we can improve the training for prison officers. The prisons Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), has been very focused on that. We have managed to increase the number of prison officers significantly—as I say, the figure is up by 4,300. We are now seeing those prison officers gaining more experience and becoming increasingly effective. As I say, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic that we are moving in the right direction, but there is still much more that needs to be done.

What specific assessment has the Secretary of State made of the opportunities associated with the use of body-worn cameras by prison officers, given the successes we have seen in policing?

Again, my hon. Friend is right to highlight this issue. The increased use of body-worn cameras can help to ensure that we have evidence that can ensure that wrongdoing by prisoners can be brought to book—it can enable prosecutions to be brought. It also provides an ability to ensure that the truth can always be discovered, which is important. Body-worn cameras are not the sole answer, but they are part of an answer on how to bring the number of these incidents down. The nearly 6,000 additional body-worn cameras, alongside staff training, can help us to move in the right direction.

Every assault on a prison officer is, of course, one too many. In the last full year, there were five times fewer serious assaults on prison officers in Scotland than there were in English and Welsh prisons. Given that stark contrast, and the fact that while this Government were slashing prison officer numbers by nearly a third their numbers in Scotland actually rose, will the Secretary of State meet the Scottish Government to discuss what he could learn from Scotland’s approach to this issue as well?

We have a co-operative relationship with the Scottish Government and that will continue. Let me point out that since October 2016 we have seen an increase in prison officer numbers of 4,300, which is to be welcomed. At one stage, people said, “Those are new numbers but they are very inexperienced”, but of course as each month goes by those prison officers are gaining experience and confidence. I believe we will see improvements in the months and years ahead.

Prisoner Transfer Agreements

7. How many (a) compulsory and (b) voluntary prisoner transfer agreements the UK has with other countries. (908994)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for advocating on this issue consistently and for reinforcing a policy that has led to nearly 45,000 foreign national offenders being deported. In answer to the question, let me say that 46 of the 110 prisoner transfer agreements we have are compulsory. However, it is worth pointing out that, were we to leave the European Union with no deal and no transition period, we would lose 26 of those and face significantly greater challenges in deporting foreign national offenders who constitute nearly 40% of the cohort.

I understand that under those 26 EU agreements only about 200 prisoners have been compulsorily transferred to other EU countries, so that would make little difference. The point is that at any one time 10% of our prison population is made up of foreign national offenders. The best way to reduce overcrowding is to send these people back to prison in their own country. Will the Minister negotiate more compulsory prisoner transfer agreements so that we can get these people back to prisons in their own abode?

I agree strongly with what my hon. Friend says, and indeed we are actively engaged in this; my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor will be in Romania to discuss these issues, and I am meeting the Albanian Justice Minister this afternoon. But it is important to understand that, if we are going to put someone back into prison in another country, that country’s police, courts and prison service need to be onside, and that is a diplomatic challenge.

One of the saddest groups in our prisons are those women from abroad, usually with children, who have been duped into being drug mules. In the past, the Government have helped with the building of prisons abroad to allow those women to go back to their country of origin; is that still this Government’s policy?

As a former Minister in the Department for International Development, I assure the hon. Gentleman that we remain open to that. We have recently faced problems in Jamaica because there has been political resistance, not from us but from the Jamaican Government, to British development money being used in that way. We remain open to investment in the rule of law, and if it helps us to return foreign national offenders, at the same time as helping prisoners in that country, we will do that.

Court Closures and Staffing

8. What assessment he has made of the effect of recent (a) changes in court staffing and (b) court closures on access to justice. (908995)

I assure the hon. Lady that any decision to close a court is taken incredibly carefully, but in circumstances in which 41% of courts were operating at half their available capacity in 2016-17, it is right that the Ministry of Justice considers how best to spend its resources. We are investing £1 billion in our courts, bringing them up to date, improving back-office systems and making it easier for people to access justice.

Three years ago, I expressed concerns about the impact that the closure of Lambeth county court would have on the efficiency of the court system and access to justice for my constituents. Lambeth was closed two years ago and the workload was moved to Clerkenwell and Shoreditch. Yesterday, I heard from a local legal aid solicitor that Clerkenwell and Shoreditch county court is completely overwhelmed, that delays of six to eight months to receive court directions are common, and that the contact centre cannot provide up-to-date information on cases. When will the Government act to sort out this shambolic mess?

I am happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss that specific situation. The MOJ is taking a number of steps to improve court timeliness, which is of course important. We are digitising a number of services—people can now track their tribunal appeal online—and recruiting more judges to tribunals, with more than 225 recruited over the past year. I am happy to discuss that particular case.

Under the smokescreen of a digital revolution, the Government have taken the axe to our court system. A victim of crime who wants justice through their day in court will now have a much more difficult experience, perhaps having to travel much further after the closure of hundreds of courts, and perhaps finding that the help and support they need are lacking after the sacking of thousands of court staff. Given the recent chaos, instead of forcing through yet more court reforms, will the Minister agree to a moratorium on further cuts and closures, at least until this House has been offered a chance to scrutinise changes that will affect access to justice for decades to come?

The hon. Gentleman is right to identify the fact that an IT issue affected courts towards the end of January. That disruption was caused by an infrastructure issue in our supplier’s data and I apologise for any issues for people who were affected. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have consulted on what principles will guide any future court closures, and that consultation has now come to an end.

Victims: Policy Alignment

9. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that measures in the victims strategy, the forthcoming violence against women and girls strategy and domestic abuse Bill are aligned. (908996)

22. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that measures in the victim strategy, the forthcoming violence against women and girls strategy and domestic abuse Bill are aligned. (909009)

The victims strategy is the first time that we have looked in such detail and in such a joined-up way at how we treat victims of crime. The strategy provides the vision for the Government’s approach to victims. The Government’s violence against women and girls strategy refresh and draft domestic abuse Bill have been developed with this vision in mind, and have been designed to sit within the framework of the wider victims strategy. The Bill is a joint Home Office and MOJ Bill, with close ministerial and official-level working to ensure close alignment.

To return to a theme raised on the Opposition Benches earlier, there is great support on the Government Benches for closing the loophole that may allow convicted rapists to gain notification rights to children conceived through those heinous crimes. Will the Minister assure me that if it turns out that practice directions will not have the requisite strength, legislation will be looked at? When he meets the hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) to discuss the possibility of the commissioner having powers with regard to practice direction 12C, will he consider including practice direction 12J under those same powers? That will also give safeguards to women and children.

Building on the answer that I gave to the shadow Minister, I hear what my hon. Friend says and I know his work in this area and his commitment on the issue. I am very happy to look at the points that he raises. It is a draft Bill and I very much hope that he will consider putting his views to us in that process.

For many victims of domestic violence and coercive control, like my constituent Chloe, and for their families, the process of giving evidence and preparing for trial adds to the pain of the original abuse. What is the Minister doing to support vulnerable witnesses, including victims of domestic abuse?

We are determined to improve the family justice response to vulnerable witnesses, including people such as my hon. Friend’s constituent Chloe and victims of domestic abuse. Family judges have a range of powers to make sure that difficult courtroom situations are handled sensitively. In particular, we are looking to give the courts a specific power to prevent perpetrators of certain offences, including domestic abuse, from cross-examining their victims in person. We will also give the courts the power, in certain circumstances, to appoint a lawyer to conduct cross-examination on the preventive party’s behalf.

Victims Law

In the victims strategy published on 10 September, we committed to consult on the detail of a victims law in the course of 2019. In taking that work forward, we have already begun discussions with both victims and victims’ groups. We will consult on amending the victims code before bringing forward detailed proposals for a victims law. That will allow us to update entitlements to ensure that they better reflect victims’ needs before considering the detail of legislation.

I welcome the Department’s victims strategy, particularly the review of the criminal injuries compensation scheme. The Manchester Arena bombing almost two years ago left people with serious and life-changing injuries and brought to light questions about the scheme’s suitability in providing support for victims of terrorism. Will my hon. Friend outline what plans are being considered by the Department to improve support for victims of major tragedies such as the Manchester bombing?

The Government are committed to ensuring that victims of terrorist attacks such as the Manchester Arena bombing receive the help and support that they need. In the victims strategy, we set out our intention to consult on changes to the criminal injuries compensation scheme, including considering how the scheme can better serve victims of terrorism. Terms of reference were published on 18 December 2018, with the review expected to report this year.

My constituent, Helen Hill, whose husband was murdered in 2002, has started a petition that has more than 8,000 names. The petition is about having supervision for life for murderers. I am sure the Minister understands the suffering that she has endured and is enduring to this day. Is not she the sort of person to whom he should be talking as a result of this, and will he please agree to meet me and Mrs Hill in the near future?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that specific case and I am very happy to meet him.

Farmer Review

12. What progress the Government have made on implementing the recommendations of the Farmer review, published in August 2017. (908999)

I pay tribute to Lord Farmer for this review. We have accepted all its recommendations and have implemented more than half of them. I meet Lord Farmer very regularly, most recently last Sunday, because we realise that good family ties can reduce reoffending by 37%.

Women prisoners face particular difficulties when parted from their families—as do their families. What consideration has been given to this issue?

The specific issue raised by my hon. Friend relates to women in the criminal justice system, many of whom are the primary care givers. So putting those women in prison has a very serious impact on their children, many of whom, unfortunately, then go on to commit crime themselves. We have therefore commissioned Lord Farmer to do a review looking specifically at the family ties of women.

Criminal Justice: Children

As far as possible, we believe that children should be diverted from the criminal justice system through liaison and diversion services. A custodial sentence should be used only as a last resort. As we have seen over the past 10 years, the number of children entering the criminal justice system has fallen by 86%, with the number getting custodial sentences falling equally dramatically.

According to the latest research, between 40,000 and 120,000 children are born every year with foetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Those with FASD often do not understand consequences, so will the Minister look at the special courts that have been set up in Canada, designed to reduce reoffending by helping those with FASD to understand the consequences of their actions?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. If he writes to me with more details, I will be happy to look at the matter.

If the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) were standing on this question, I would call her; if she does not, I will not.

23. As well as the importance of employment opportunities for ex-offenders, does the Minister agree that the provision of affordable housing for former prisoners is a significant factor in preventing reoffending, and will he outline what steps he is taking on this? (909010)

Just a heads up in case the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) requires it—the same would apply to him in a moment.

No, no, not now. The hon. Gentleman can work up his question while the Minister is responding to the hon. Lady. [Interruption.] No, no, I am giving him preparation time; he should be thanking me.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) makes an important point about the importance of stable accommodation, which can play a key part in reducing reoffending and giving people the opportunity to get their life back on the right track. We are working with partners across the Government, local authorities and others to ensure that the system works for those people.

17. You are most kind, Mr Speaker. Given that the latest report published shows the lowest reoffending rate in the 12-year time series for which data is available, will the Minister outline the correlation between training and education in prison, and employment and a clean slate? Will he also give us the most recent reoffending rates for those who have gained qualifications while in prison? (909004)

Reducing reoffending is a key goal of the prison system, as we set out in the White Paper. Plans such as the New Futures Network show that we are serious about this. Research published by the Ministry of Justice last year showed that prisoners who have undertaken learning activity have a significantly lower reoffending rate on release than their peers, with a one-year proven reoffending rate that is 7.5 percentage points lower. Offenders who found P45 employment in the year after leaving prison had one-year reoffending rates that were six to nine percentage points lower than similar offenders who did not find employment.

While the total number of children in prison has declined over the years, the number of black and minority ethnic children in the prison system has remained static. How can the Lord Chancellor reassure BME communities that their children are not being disproportionately targeted?

The shadow Minister makes an important point, building on the point made earlier by the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). I am concerned about the black, Asian and minority ethnic people in custody. As the Lord Chancellor has said, we take this matter very seriously. This runs through our response to the Lammy review and the race disproportionality work that we undertake in the Department. I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady on this topic, if she would like me to.

Prison Overcrowding

We are making good progress with Wellingborough and Glen Parva Prisons, which will be modern and provide uncrowded capacity and will open in 2021 and 2022 respectively. This is against a background where the long-term population trend has put a stress on the prison estate. I am pleased that the prison population has decreased by around 2,000 in the past year. We will continue to look into how we can ensure further reductions, including looking at better community sentences. Our new prison estate will have up to 10,000 new uncrowded prison places, creating the physical conditions for governors to achieve better educational, training and rehabilitation outcomes.

Nearly two weeks ago, I raised concerns about broken screens at HMP Bedford that have resulted in my constituents having to put up with loud, intimidating and lewd behaviour from prisoners, and daily intrusions on to their properties by criminals smuggling contraband through their gardens and over the prison wall. The Minister committed to immediately raising the matter with the governor. Will he confirm what action has been taken?

The Prisons Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), has indeed visited Bedford Prison and is in contact with the governor. The prison is introducing new scanners to help to address some of these issues. We will look at anything that we can do to ensure that no burden is placed on the local community.

Overcrowding in our prisons leads to inhumane conditions and puts pressure on provision, services and training. That is unacceptable. The public expect reform and rehabilitation. What is the Minister doing to address this issue, as well as the over-representation of black men within our prisons?

I agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of rehabilitation. We have stressed that point, and it has been stressed a number of times this morning. Of course we want to bring overcrowding levels down. It would be fair to say that overcrowding levels have been pretty consistent; they are essentially at the same level as in 2010. On the disproportionate numbers of people from ethnic minorities within the prison system, we take that seriously, as the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), has just pointed out. I look forward to meeting the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) to discuss this shortly.

One source of overcrowding is the indefinite detention of prisoners using the imprisonment for public protection—IPP—sentences, which were introduced under the previous Labour Government but ruled unlawful in 2007. Why are 3,300 prisoners still in prison having served their sentence? Many of them—51%—have served five years or more after their sentence and are still in prison to this day.

Over time, more of those IPP prisoners are being released, but the Parole Board has to make a judgment in each individual case on whether there is a risk to society from releasing a particular individual. Those judgments can be difficult. Sometimes the Parole Board faces criticism when it does decide to release somebody in these circumstances. These matters have to be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

Last year, almost half of prisoners held at HMP Birmingham were held in overcrowded cells, contributing to the crisis of violence that six months ago forced the Government to step in and take control away from G4S. On the last occasion I asked about this, the Minister of State was unable to give a response, so will the Secretary of State now confirm that he will not be handing HMP Birmingham back to G4S, and will he draw the obvious conclusion that privatisation has been a failure in our prison system?

We will not hand HMP Birmingham back if it is not safe for us to do so. I am afraid that the attack on any involvement of the private sector in the prison system that we hear from Labour Front Benchers does not represent a balanced approach. We have to look at the successes that exist within the prison system, where the private sector has run very effective prisons. That cannot be ignored, notwithstanding the very real problems that exist, and have existed, with Birmingham.

Finally, before we move on to topicals, I say to the right hon. Gentleman that he is an extraordinarily senior and distinguished denizen of the House, but he will have to be a little patient and he may get his chance in due course, queuing up with the rest. Meanwhile, he will, I am sure, celebrate the success of his hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone).

Prisoner Rehabilitation

Over time, we have invested more and more in this, particularly in individualised rehabilitation programmes. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to Stephanie Covington and Edwina Grosvenor, in particular, for their trauma-informed approach to counselling.

When we think about prisoners, we should understand that we all have a past that we cannot change but a future that we can change, hopefully this side of eternity. Many prisoners out there have records of good conduct and are desperately trying to turn over a new leaf. Surely we should therefore be doing everything in our power to encourage still more firms, companies and other organisations to offer suitable short-term placements to these people, because those placements can be so successful in terms of rehabilitation.

Absolutely. It totally transforms a prisoner’s life to have a job, and it leads them to be less likely to reoffend, therefore protecting the public. I pay tribute particularly to the work of Tempus Novo in Leeds, which brings businesses into prison, with two experienced ex-prison officers, and helps companies to become comfortable with employing ex-offenders, thus ultimately changing lives and protecting the public.

Topical Questions

Yesterday, I published my review of the Parole Board rules and the Government’s response to the public consultation about creating a new reconsideration mechanism for Parole Board decisions. I have decided to proceed with changes to the Parole Board rules that will introduce such a mechanism later this year. Our report also sets out additional reforms that will bring greater transparency and improvements for victims. I announced the launch of a tailored review of the Parole Board that will consider whether more fundamental reforms are necessary in the longer term, including those that may require primary legislation.

New technology can play a key role in reducing the flow of contraband into our prisons. Will my right hon. Friend outline what support and financial investment his Department is providing in that area?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We are strengthening the countermeasures against contraband for every route into prison, and technology is an important part of that. In 2017, we invested £2 million in modern technology, including hand-held and portable mobile phone detection devices. In 2018, we invested a further £7 million to enhance security in prisons through scanners, improved searching techniques and phone-blocking technology. In the work that my hon. Friend the Prisons Minister has done with 10 of our most challenging prisons, he is emphasising the use of technology to search letters, bags and people, and he announced last week that those prisons all now have scanners that can detect drugs on clothes and mail.

There is deep concern that the Government want to use the cover of Brexit to roll back citizens’ rights. Such fears have been further fuelled by the recent failure of Ministers in a letter to the House of Lords EU Justice Sub-Committee to rule out repealing the Human Rights Act 1998 post Brexit. Labour introduced the Human Rights Act. We will fight any attempt by the Tories to undermine it or dilute our hard-won rights. Will the Secretary of State give a reassurance today that the Government will not repeal or reform the Human Rights Act in the aftermath of our departure from the European Union?

We certainly have no plans to do so, but on the subject of human rights, I am a little surprised that we are getting lectured by the hon. Gentleman, who will not condemn the Venezuelan regime.

T2. Body-worn video cameras are available to every prison officer in England and Wales, but they are not routinely provided in Scotland. Will the Minister outline the benefits to both prisoners and officers of those cameras and encourage the Scottish Government to follow this Government’s lead? (909013)

We often pay tribute to the Scottish Government, but I am proud to say that we are ahead of them on this. We have rolled out body-worn cameras, which are making an enormous difference to safety in prisons. We are also ahead of the Scottish Government in having fully smoke-free prisons. There is something, at least, that Scotland can learn from us.

T3. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is unconscionable that the workers who clean his offices and the security guards who keep the Ministry of Justice safe are not paid the living wage? Will he commit today to finally paying them a wage they can decently live on, with terms and conditions that mean they can take a family holiday? (909014)

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the cleaners and security guards are employed by private contractors, and that is a matter for them.

T4. Following the sexual assault of four female prisoners by a male claiming to be transgender, what additional advice has been given to prison authorities about housing transgender prisoners? (909015)

We take the Karen White case very seriously. In the light of that, we are reviewing both the content of prison service instruction 17/2016, which sets the policy on these questions, and its application. New guidelines will be published shortly, to ensure that it continues to strike the right balance between ensuring that all female prisoners are kept safe, that transgender prisoners have their rights respected and that we comply with our legal obligations under statute.

T5. Can the Minister tell the House whether it is a requirement for prison governors to stay up to date with control and restraint training to receive the required hours addition allowance? (909016)

T6. People were shocked to read that over half the knife crime in London is associated with teenagers or children. Can my right hon. Friend reassure the House that he is working with the Home Office to ensure that the new knife crime protection orders will effectively target children who are carrying knives and not end up putting into custody children who are at risk but have never carried a knife? (909017)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We are working with the Home Office to ensure that these orders are truly preventive in nature and put children on the right path away from a life of crime. These orders will give the police the opportunity to intervene earlier, and the court can include in the order a range of conditions that can be both prohibitive and proactive. They will be used only if the court is satisfied on the balance of probability that the child has carried a knife, or if they have been convicted of a relevant criminal offence and the order is necessary to protect the public or prevent crime. Sentencing is, of course, for the judge, but we are consulting on these proposals.

The Secretary of State is providing much exercise for the knee muscles of Opposition Members. It is an important fact of public interest that I think thus far he has not noticed, but of which he may wish to take account.

T7. The Government continue to drag their feet on publishing their review of legal aid. Will the Minister tell the House exactly when we can expect it by? (909018)

We said that we would publish the review early in the new year, and we will be publishing it early in the new year. The hon. Lady should expect it shortly. This is a serious matter that takes time. I would like to quote the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), who told the Law Society Gazette early last year

“that I would rather the government take this seriously and take their time with it.”

That is exactly what we are doing.

Access to justice was denied to a constituent of mine who had a child taken away from her, after birth, by social services. She has struggled find legal representation because lawyers refuse to take on a local authority with huge financial resources. How will the Government help constituents such as mine?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. Care proceedings are incredibly important, and when a child is taken away from their parent, it is a tragic matter that affects them for a long time. My right hon. Friend should be aware that legal aid is available for public law cases. I am very happy to discuss that particular matter with her.

T8. The Minister of State said earlier that the best help for rehabilitation is to have a job. Do we not urgently need to reform the Disclosure and Barring Service system, so we still protect the public from dangerous criminals and dangerous people, but stop blighting the lives of hundreds of thousands of citizens who are trying to turn their lives around? (909019)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that question. There has obviously been a recent case on this. We need to look very carefully at this to ensure we get the balance right between protecting the public and ensuring that those who have committed a crime in the past are given a second chance and have the ability to turn their lives around. I am keen to look further at this in the light of the recent judgment.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is vital to ensure continuity of contractual obligations and enforceability of judgments once we leave the EU, which would be prevented by a no-deal outcome?

T9. Nepacs provides a very valuable family support service to Kirklevington Grange Prison in my constituency, but its Big Lottery funding runs out in May. Will the Minister meet me and Nepacs to see whether there is any way we can continue this great service? (909021)

Over the past eight years, the number of trials listed at Northampton Crown court without a firm date—categorised as floating trials—has increased from 10% to 23%. Why is this, and what can be done about it?

This is a really important point because it is important that justice is not only done but done speedily. I should emphasise that listing is a judicial function, but it is important that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service works closely with the judiciary on it. For that reason, I held a roundtable only a few weeks ago—with the judiciary, listing officers, the Bar Council, the Criminal Bar Association and the Law Society—to solve this issue.

The number of outstanding repairs in prisons is 22,000 higher than this time last year and the number of outstanding planned repairs is 9,000 higher. Why is this?

It is largely to do with degradation across the estate, but we have had significant improvements in the performance of Amey recently, and we have of course taken Carillion back in-house so a Government company is now operating there. We therefore expect improvements to go with millions of pounds of extra investment into the estate.

Does the Minister agree with the Taking Control coalition of debt support charities that independent regulation of the bailiff industry is necessary to protect the public from the unscrupulous practices that have driven some of my constituents to the point of suicide and despair?

The hon. Lady is right to highlight that unscrupulous practice by bailiffs is unacceptable. I know that she will be aware that we are looking into the matter, and our call for evidence closes on 17 February, so I encourage anyone who is interested to submit. One of the questions we ask in the consultation is about an independent regulator.

Studies of offenders have suggested that 45% of young people and 24% of male adults screen positive for a childhood history of ADHD. Will the Minister therefore agree to attend the next meeting of the all-party parliamentary group for attention deficit hyperactive disorder to discuss the ways in which we can reform the criminal justice system?

Wales has the highest incarceration rate in western Europe, which has risen to 154 per 100,000 of the population. Custodial sentences are also up in Wales but have dropped 16% in England. What more can Ministers do to bring about a bespoke solution for Welsh prisoners and to try to improve the criminal justice system in Wales?

The big transformation that will take place in Wales is bringing probation back fully under Government control, so we will have a much closer connection between prisons, probation and the devolved authorities. In the Welsh context, we think that is particularly suitable for the devolved Administration and should address some of those concerns.

Why is it that grown men in their 30s and 40s involved in county lines cases are escaping jail, even though we know that their trafficking in drugs and children is blighting the lives of children growing up in communities such as mine?

This is an enormously important issue. It is fundamentally a question for the police and Crown Prosecution Service, but I absolutely agree that those people should be prosecuted and put into jail.

I call a south-west London knight, a former Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and, by all accounts, a cerebral denizen of the House of Commons, Sir Edward Davey.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, especially for allowing me to exercise my knees more than usual today.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the offer and acceptance of payments to and by an MP for the benefit of their constituents by a Minister of the Crown in an attempt to influence votes in this House could represent breaches of sections 1 and 2 of the Bribery Act 2010?

I am loth to provide legal advice, but the right hon. Gentleman has clearly raised a significant point. I would like to hear more of what he is saying and I am happy to discuss this with him. He is clearly alluding to something, but I am afraid that I am not quite aware what it is.