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Topical Questions

Volume 654: debated on Tuesday 5 February 2019

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.