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Topical Questions

Volume 656: debated on Tuesday 12 March 2019

Yesterday, the Government were pleased to give their support and time to the Children Act 1989 (Amendment) (Female Genital Mutilation) Bill, sponsored in this House by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith). The Bill, which seeks to make a small yet important change to the Children Act 1989, offers both a sensible simplification of the court process and a useful extension to the family courts’ powers to protect girls at risk of female genital mutilation. It will add to the measures that the Government have brought forward to tackle FGM issues.

Can my right hon. Friend provide an update on the Government’s consideration of giving children the right to have access to their grandparents in the event of family breakdown or divorce?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s activities in this area. I am reviewing the options for strengthening the involvement of grandparents in children’s lives to be explored in a future consultation. I will make an announcement on the Government’s plans in due course.

Too many young lives are being lost to violent crime on our streets. Whatever the Prime Minister may say, substantial reductions in police numbers leave our communities less safe—so does shutting hundreds of youth centres and so, too, does the Ministry of Justice’s halving of funds for youth offending teams since 2010. Tens of millions of pounds that once went to protecting children in their communities have needlessly been taken away, so when will the Government stop trying to do justice on the cheap and instead properly fund youth offending teams?

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s criticism. This Government have announced a £200 million youth endowment fund. We are taking measures to deal with the sources of problems with this, and we will continue to do that.

T3. Will the Minister confirm that he is working with his colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on introducing the necessary legislation to increase the maximum penalty for animal cruelty from six months’ imprisonment to five years? (909737)

I absolutely confirm that. Britain has a very proud tradition in campaigning nationally and internationally against animal cruelty. The Government remain committed to increasing the maximum sentence for animal cruelty to five years.

T2. Means- tested criminal legal aid can be granted only where there is a realistic prospect of custody. Consequently, has a detailed impact assessment been undertaken to show how many people will no longer qualify for legal aid in the event of the reduction or abolition of prison sentences of six months or less? (909736)

As the hon. Gentleman will know, thresholds across the board, including in relation to criminal legal aid, are part of the legal aid review that we are now undertaking.

T5. Some of my constituents have told me that they have waited over a year for a court date to appeal a welfare decision. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he is taking steps to improve access to justice for benefit claimants? (909739)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight that we need to speed up the hearing times for people’s welfare claims. There are two aspects to that: the first is that we need to work with the Department for Work and Pensions, which we are doing, and I am doing with my counterpart in the DWP, to get decisions right first time; and the second is to speed up those hearings.

T4. Both the prisons Minister and the Secretary of State have heaped praise on the Durham Tees Valley community rehabilitation company when I have asked about the not-for-profit organisation’s future, but will the Minister tell me whether it will survive the next round of reforms or be swallowed up and privatised with the rest of them? (909738)

As the hon. Gentleman says, that is a fantastic organisation. We are, of course, conducting a very detailed consultation on the future of probation, but to reassure him, the principles behind Durham’s CRC and, in particular, the involvement of local authorities and of the voluntary sector and the close co-ordination with the National Probation Service are fundamental to our reforms.

T9. Given the Minister’s opposition to short prison sentences, it must follow that he is equally opposed to fixed-term recalls of 28 days when criminals reoffend when out of prison on licence or when they break their licence conditions. Will he therefore pledge to scrap these fixed-term recalls and ensure that any such offenders are returned to prison for the remainder of their original prison sentence, as was the case in the past? (909743)

Where an offender is assessed as presenting a risk of serious harm, they will receive a standard recall and may only be released into the community if they can be safely managed there. If there is not that risk, a proportionate response is sensible. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation has found that probation services, in the vast majority of cases, are making the right decisions.

T6. What discussions is the Minister having with her colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions about the appalling tribunal backlog they are creating with poor assessment and decision making, particularly on personal independence payments, universal credit and employment and support allowance? (909740)

I have had a number of meetings with my counterpart in the DWP, and my officials discuss this issue with the DWP regularly. I and my counterpart in the DWP will undertake a joint meeting at an assessment centre to further consider these important issues and ensure that we get decisions right first time.

There are 9,090 foreign national offenders in our prisons, including 760 from Albania. Why are those people not serving their sentence in prison in their own countries?

That is a very good challenge. My hon. Friend specifically raised Albania, with which we have a prison transfer agreement in place. I met the Albanian Minister of Justice two weeks ago. We need to ensure that more returns take place, but we are well ahead of Italy and Greece on returns to Albania.

T7. Youth justice funding has fallen from £145 million to £71 million in the past 10 years. Yesterday, the Local Government Association said, “No more.” Is it right? (909741)

My Department will continue to argue the case for spending our money sensibly and getting the best deal for justice.

I pay tribute to Fern Champion, who has been incredibly courageous in speaking out recently about this hugely important issue. We provide funding for 89 rape support centres. From April, we will increase funding by 10% for them all, with a 30% increase in London, and move to a three-year funding settlement.[Official Report, 21 March 2019, Vol. 656, c. 12MC.]

T8. My constituent Phil suffered from addiction, became homeless and then became involved in criminal activity. Because he was given a suspended sentence, he was released from court with no money, no support and nowhere to live, and he spent the night on the streets. If he had been released from serving a sentence, there would have been support in place. Do the Government have a plan to address that disparity, to give people like Phil the best possible chance of rehabilitation? (909742)

It is absolutely true that we need to look not just at convicted prisoners but at people with suspended sentences. That is something we are looking at in reforming probation, and the pilots on homelessness will also seek to address it.

T10.   Derbyshire Law Centre is the only place to which I can refer many of my constituents who are in desperate need of legal support. Will the Minister commit to securing Treasury funding to provide essential grants to law centres to help ensure their survival? (909744)

Law centres play an absolutely fundamental role. I recently visited Bromley by Bow Centre and Islington Law Centre. As part of our pilots, law centres will be able to bid for new ways to interact with their clients, and I hope they will take that opportunity.