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Volume 656: debated on Tuesday 12 March 2019

The Secretary of State was asked—

Victims Giving Evidence

The hon. Lady has done so much on this issue and on campaigning for victims more widely. While a range of special measures already exist, we can and will do more. As she will recall, last September we published the victims strategy, which sets out the steps to support victims of crime further, including in court, and those steps have recently been added to with our commitments in the draft Domestic Abuse Bill.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Adult survivors of child sexual abuse often wait decades to see their abuser face justice. While survivors are often key witnesses, there is no statutory duty for them to get paid leave. I have met many survivors who have to take unpaid leave or holiday, but cases could unravel without their attendance. Once again, victims are being penalised for the abuse that they have suffered, so will the Minister review the matter and ensure that no victim experiences a financial loss for getting justice?

I mentioned the hon. Lady’s work campaigning for victims, and she is particularly active in campaigning for the rights of those who have suffered child sexual abuse. She makes an interesting point, and I would be happy, as always, to meet her to go into it in more detail.

Victims want criminals to face the full justice of the law and to be sure that the punishment fits the crime. What are we doing to ensure that, once sentenced, criminals serve their time in jail in full?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Victims expect justice to be done, and when someone is convicted of a crime and sentenced, they expect them to serve that sentence. Of course, sentencing is a matter for the independent judiciary, and we have complete confidence in its approach.

Is the Minister aware that it is not only victims who are affected, but everyone else? A member of my family has just done jury service, and she was amazed by the inefficiency and poor quality of management in the court process, which wastes the time of those on jury service and is wrong for victims. It is wrong for everyone, because it is a badly managed process. Let us get more money for the Ministry of Justice so that it can do things properly.

The hon. Gentleman makes his point powerfully, as always. We have undertaken a number of reforms of the court system and the criminal justice process, and he will have seen in the victims strategy our clear commitment to improve each stage of the process for victims and witnesses. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), has been doing a lot of work to ensure that cases run more smoothly, with fewer adjournments, so that victims and witnesses know that when they come to court they have a high chance of actually being heard on the day on which they expect to be.

I welcomed the publication of the victims strategy back in September but, as my hon. Friend will know, giving evidence is one of the most stressful parts of seeking justice for any victim of crime. Will he reassure me that he will also be working with people such as police and crime commissioners to ensure that there is no patchwork quilt of support for victims across the country?

My hon. Friend is consistent in speaking up for victims’ rights, and I believe that his county’s police and crime commissioner has spoken about such rights more broadly. He is right that the victims strategy seeks to adopt an approach that will give a more consistent level of support across the country.

I welcomed last week’s announcement of an end-to-end review of how rape and sexual violence cases are handled across the criminal justice system. Am I right in my understanding that the review will also consider the effect of rape myths on juries?

The hon. Lady highlights an issue that the House has quite rightly debated on several occasions. I hope that all such relevant considerations will be examined in the end-to-end review.

Back in October, I raised with the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. and learned Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), the case of a Nottinghamshire woman whose husband, despite being convicted of her attempted murder, is able to continue a cycle of abuse through the courts by claiming entitlement to their financial assets, including her home. The Minister offered to look into my suggestion of a change in the law that would ensure no financial entitlement to spousal assets following attempted murder, and to provide me with an update. Five months later, can we now have that update?

I am grateful to the shadow Minister for once again highlighting an important and distressing situation. I am reassured that my hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary of State continues to look carefully at the matter. I appreciate that the shadow Minister will want rapid progress, but it is important that we get this right, so my hon. and learned Friend is examining the issue and will report back in due course.

Probation Services

We have been clear that probation needs to improve, and we have taken decisive action to end current community rehabilitation company contracts and develop more robust arrangements to protect the public and tackle reoffending. I am determined to learn lessons from the first generation of contracts in developing future arrangements. I believe that public, private and voluntary providers all have a role to play. We want to improve integration under new arrangements so that providers are able to work together effectively to protect the public and tackle reoffending.

The recently published National Audit Office report on probation services highlighted not only the staggering additional costs of privatisation but the fact that CRCs are failing to provide even the most basic rehabilitation services. With nearly £0.5 billion-worth of bail-outs and only six out of 21 CRCs achieving significant reductions in reoffending, is it not now time to put probation back where it belongs, under public ownership and control?

The hon. Lady talks about costs and bail-outs. We have to remember that we are spending considerably less on CRCs than was anticipated when the contracts were entered into—some £700 million less—but it is right that we learn the lessons from the first generation of contracts. I am not satisfied with where we are, and the NAO has raised its concerns. We have also heard concerns from the inspectorate of probation, and we need to learn the lessons. It is important that this continues to be a mixed market. There is a place for the private sector and the voluntary sector, as well as for the public sector, in probation.

As the Secretary of State knows, the Select Committee on Justice has looked into this area in some depth. Would he agree that the most important issue is not the ownership of the contracts or who provides this service but ensuring that there is no fragmentation of the service, which is a risk? There should be a proper join-up between leaving prison and going out into the world of freedom.

These are important points, and the debate can sometimes be a little simplistic, whether it is “public sector good, private sector bad” or vice versa. A lot of this is about integration and making services hang together. One of the things we did last year was to announce additional money for through-the-gate services, which is important, but a lesson from what has happened in the past is that we need to make sure the system hangs together more, which it has not been doing sufficiently.

Before wreaking havoc in the Department for Transport, the Secretary of State for Transport was busy wreaking havoc in our justice system. He unleashed a crisis in our prisons and then he privatised probation, leaving the public less safe and costing the public hundreds of millions more than necessary. The world’s media are treating the Transport Secretary as a laughing stock, but the joke is on us because this Government are set to repeat past errors by signing a new round of private probation contracts. When will the Justice Secretary do the decent thing and put an end to the failed experiment of a privatised probation system?

The hon. Gentleman takes a somewhat simplistic view. His approach appears to be that he wants all probation services to be nationalised and every offender intervention to be done by the public sector. I think there is an opportunity to make use of both the private sector and the voluntary sector. If he takes the approach he appears to advocate of closing off any activity performed by anybody other than the public sector, we will not get the best probation service we could have.

PAVA Pepper Spray

The hon. Lady and I have sat down and discussed this matter with the unions. We are determined to make sure that we have safe and appropriate ways to protect prison officers, which is why we have piloted PAVA at four sites, two of which I have now visited. We are currently completing an equalities assessment, and we should be in a position to begin the full roll-out in April.

I thank the Minister for that answer, which is good news. I hope he will keep in mind that a significant proportion of prisoners expressed the view that PAVA is necessary, so I hope he will give me a guarantee that he will stick to his word and that this vital protective equipment will be rolled out soon in the spring.

Absolutely. As the hon. Lady will bear in mind, we have to be thoughtful about how we use this spray. It is there to deal with issues of extreme violence. This type of pepper spray is a new measure, and we have to be particularly clear when we use it against people with protected characteristics, which is why we are conducting the assessment. I believe that once we have conducted it, this will mean less extreme violence in prisons.

In the past 12 months, there were more than 10,000 assaults on staff in our prison service, which is more than one every hour and represents a 30% increase year on year. Clearly that is unacceptable, and it is having a deterrent effect on the recruitment of prison officers, who are so important in keeping prisoners and other staff safe. How is the Department doing on the recruitment of additional staff to make up for the 7,000 who have been lost?

The answer is that recruitment has gone quite well. We now have 4,700 additional officers; we have more than we have had at any time since March 2012, so we are at the highest level for seven years.

Taking into account the fact that prison officers are allowed to claim for compensation for only three attacks throughout their career, will the Minister outline his opinion on the abuse that prison officers are expected to take as part of their jobs, which would be unacceptable in any other job?

The important thing is to begin by paying a huge tribute to prison officers, who are doing an incredibly important job. They are probably one of the most important operational bits of any public service, and we owe them a huge duty of care. We have to make sure that the drugs and weapons do not get in. We have doubled the sentence for people assaulting prison officers, and I am happy to sit down with the hon. Gentleman to talk about this in more detail.

European Convention on Human Rights

5. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the future status of the UK as a signatory to the European convention on human rights. (909714)

22. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the future status of the UK as a signatory to the European convention on human rights. (909732)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has regular meetings with Cabinet colleagues relating to the UK’s exit from the EU and issues such as our approach to human rights and the ECHR. The UK is committed to membership of the ECHR, as my right hon. Friend has previously set out, and we will remain a party to it after we have left the EU.

In a letter written last year, the Minister implied that the Human Rights Act would come under threat post-Brexit. He said that

“our manifesto committed to not repealing or replacing the Human Rights Act while the process of Brexit is underway. It is right that we wait until the process of leaving the EU concludes before considering the matter further.”

So, for the avoidance of doubt, will he rule this out today?

This country has a long tradition, which long predates the ECHR or the EU, of championing and setting the highest standards on human rights. The Human Rights Act 1998 reflects that and gives further effect to the ECHR in our domestic law, and we are not considering amending or repealing it.

Despite the Prime Minister’s previous wish for the UK to leave the ECHR, the Brexit White Paper committed to membership of the convention. However, the political declaration talks only of respecting the ECHR, so can the Minister explain the change of language and clarify whether the Government plan to repeal or protect the Human Rights Act after Brexit?

I do not accept that our position on the ECHR is ambiguous. Both the political declaration and the White Paper make it clear that our future relationship with the EU should be underpinned by our shared values of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and this includes our ongoing commitment to the ECHR. As I have just made clear, the HRA gives further effect to the ECHR in our domestic law, and we are not considering amending or repealing it.

Human rights are, of course, not a reserved matter, and the Scottish Government have an advisory group on human rights in relation to devolved matters. Will the Minister commit to full consultation with the Scottish Government about his future plans for human rights protection across the United Kingdom?

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady, as ever, for her question. We work closely with the Scottish Government. I am always willing to listen and speak to them, and I will continue to do so.

The Scottish Government’s advisory group on human rights reported in detail on 10 December, setting out three guiding principles for Scotland’s approach to human rights:

“non-regression from the rights currently guaranteed by membership of the European Union; keeping pace with future rights developments within the European Union; and continuing to demonstrate leadership in human rights.”

Can the UK Government commit to each of those principles for the whole of the UK? If not, why not?

The hon. and learned Lady will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe Professor Miller chairs that advisory group. We debated this issue in Westminster Hall some weeks ago and I read his report with interest. We note with interest the measures being considered by the Scottish Government to enhance human rights in Scotland, and the principles and seven recommendations set out in that report. Of course, Scotland’s legal system is separate and distinct from that of England and Wales, but I am considering that report, and others, with great care.

Female Genital Mutilation: Prosecution

6. What discussions he has had with the Crown Prosecution Service on improving prosecution rates for people responsible for female genital mutilation. (909715)

Last night, the House unanimously passed legislation to further protect women and girls from the horrific crime of FGM, and I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Faversham and Kent served on the Bill Committee that was part of the passage of that legislation through the House. My hon. Friend asked particularly about improving prosecution rates, and I am pleased to tell her that each CPS area now has a lead FGM prosecutor. Those prosecutors will be working with their local police forces on arrangements for the investigation and prosecution of FGM offences.

The voice of Faversham and Mid Kent, rather than of Mid Faversham and Kent; I call Helen Whately.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for her support for the FGM Bill that was passed last night and for her work in this policy area. As she knows, as many as 137,000 women and girls in the UK have suffered from FGM. I urge her to take further action to make sure that we end FGM in the UK.

My hon. Friend is not only a constituency MP in Faversham and Kent but the Conservative party vice-chair for women. She makes a really important point about the number of women who have suffered from this crime in the UK, pointing out that 137,000 women living in the UK right now are suffering the consequences of FGM. Some of those women had the crime inflicted on them here, while others had it inflicted on them in other countries, so our response needs to be two-pronged. First, we need to ensure that we support other countries, which the Department for International Development is doing—it recently made the largest single donation of £50 million to help countries overseas. Secondly, we need to tackle it in this country. We are taking a cross-governmental view, with many Departments taking action, from the Department for Education to the Home Office to the Department of Health and Social Care, and of course my Department is enacting legislation.

In general terms, when it comes to domestic abuse and so forth, cases take far too long. What is the Minister doing about that?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the importance of all cases that come to court. Obviously, for those who have been the victim of horrific sexual crimes, including domestic violence, we are committed to ensuring that those crimes come to court and are dealt with swiftly. There are a number of ways to do that, including by using judicial resource. We recently saw a significant increase in the number of hours allocated to judicial sittings in the family court. Listing is a judicial matter, but in some courts those trials are fixed for particular days, whereas other cases float and and may come on that day or be adjourned to a later date.

Living Wage

We pay, both directly as the Ministry of Justice and indirectly through our suppliers, the national living wage in line with legislation.

I thank the Minister for his answer. I hope he is aware that I have previously raised in the House the problems relating to procurement and ensuring that every subcontractor adheres to the same rules as the people directly employed by the Department. Will the Minister ensure that subcontractors also pay all their staff the real living wage?

The point, which is an important one, is that we have to ensure that our subcontractors follow exactly the same rules as Ministry of Justice direct employees. We insist that the national living wage should be paid both to Ministry of Justice employees and to our subcontractors.

Cleaners and security staff at court buildings up and down the country are currently in dispute with outsourcers Mitie and G4S over poverty pay and draconian terms and conditions. The Minister can try to wash his hands of this mess and blame his predecessor’s appalling contracts—he is now wreaking havoc with the Brexit ferries—but when is he himself going to intervene to demand that, under new planned contracts, the hard-working staff who clean and protect his Department’s buildings are paid the real living wage and not exploited by their unscrupulous employers?

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to those staff—the people who maintain the courts and the people who provide the security—who do a very important job. We are absolutely clear that this is a Government policy across the board and that everybody, regardless of whether they are in the private sector or the public sector, is obliged to pay the national living wage.

Prison Estate: Reducing Costs

Although our real-terms spending on the prison estate has increased, we continue to drive efficiencies through to make sure that we can put as much money as possible into keeping our prisons safe, decent and secure. The best way of driving down costs is through technology, particularly video conferencing, which reduces the costs involved in moving people to and from courts; facial recognition technology, which has begun to deal with queues in visitor areas; and kiosks, which are overcoming some of the challenges around logistics supply.

I thank the Minister for that considered answer, but may I ask him to assure me and the House that, in his efforts to reduce the cost of the estate on the taxpayer, he will not scrap short sentences, given that 4,300 knife-wielding criminals last year would have remained on our streets?

First, I make it absolutely clear that no decision on sentencing policy will be driven by anything other than public protection. That is the key in any sentencing decision. Secondly, I make it absolutely clear that we are fully behind the Home Secretary and the work that is being done on knife crime and we want to make sure that judges have the full powers at their disposal to deal with people who are wielding knives.

Will the Minister confirm to the House that he will not go cold on the Justice Secretary’s pledge to reduce short sentences? Short sentences and removing people from prison who will reoffend if they go to prison are the surest way to save money and to stop reoffending in the long term.

As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, this is something that we are continuing to look at very carefully and we are continuing to learn both from what has happened in Scotland and the evidence that suggests, on the basis of a study of 130 different characteristics in 300,000 separate offenders, that people are more likely to reoffend with a short custodial sentence and therefore that tens of thousands more crimes are committed every year by the wrong use of a custodial sentence.

In seeking to reduce costs, will the Minister give a pledge not to cut corners? He is seeking to build a new prison in my constituency at Full Sutton, but the traffic assessment that has taken place is, I believe, deeply flawed. Will he look at that again? Even if it means extra cost, if he deems it is warranted, will he order a new traffic assessment please?

I absolutely undertake to look again at the traffic assessment and to sit down with my right hon. Friend to examine it in more detail together.

Previous cost cutting in the Prison Service such as reducing staff has proved to be a false economy. In Nottingham Prison, the prisons Minister has needed a surge of staff to try to stabilise what had become a very violent and dangerous prison. Can I have an assurance from him that, once things improve at Nottingham, those staff will not be withdrawn again?

Some of the staff at Nottingham, to which the hon. Gentleman is referring, have come from other establishments in other parts of the country, but when they return they will be replaced because we must ensure that Nottingham is fully staffed. That is essential particularly in order to continue with delivery of the key worker programmes so that each prison officer can be paired with six prisoners. That will be vital to getting violence under control in Nottingham.

Leaving the EU: Departmental Priorities

24. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his departmental priorities of the UK leaving the EU. (909734)

My Department continues to ensure that the necessary preparations are in place to mitigate potential impacts associated with leaving the EU wherever possible. For all scenarios, these preparations remain on track. In a no-deal scenario, we do not expect any immediate impacts on our departmental priorities, although there are risks in terms of pressures on the courts. We will react to longer-term impacts that are harder to predict, such as financial impacts, should they arise.

In recent years, 15 German nationals have been extradited from Germany to the United Kingdom, including for some very serious offences, but last month that country made it clear that it will no longer extradite its citizens to the UK after Brexit. What other countries does the Secretary of State anticipate will take a similar approach, and what, if anything, can he do to respond to this massive Brexit headache?

In terms of the European arrest warrant, we have to accept that as a consequence of Brexit the current arrangements will no longer be available, but we will continue to work very closely with EU member states to ensure that we can address this matter as effectively as we can.

Last week, I met the area commander in Glasgow East, and it was clear that the police are having to focus on Brexit preparations, yet that is not what people in my constituency actually want them to be focusing on—they want them to be focused on catching criminals in the street. If we do not have access to the European arrest warrant, it will not matter that all these contingency plans are in place. The only people who are going to benefit from that are those who seek to evade justice.

As I say, largely because of the constitutional issues with Germany, there are issues with the European arrest warrant; I absolutely accept that. We will take every measure that we can to ensure that authorities can co-operate. With regard to security issues, leaving the European Union with a deal is much better than leaving without a deal, and therefore the House should support the deal this evening.

The Tories’ disastrous handling of Brexit poses a serious threat to our economy and to our rights, and a real threat to our justice and security too. Any loss of access to the European arrest warrant or to European criminal records databases would damage our justice system, yet we have nothing but warm words from the Government on future justice co-operation. I was recently in Brussels discussing this with European partners, and it is obvious that the Government have failed to give this matter the priority it so urgently deserves. So what guarantees can the Secretary of State give today that his Government’s approach to Brexit will not leave our citizens less safe and will not let criminals off the hook?

If the hon. Gentleman cares about criminal justice co-operation, as I am sure he does—I certainly do—then there is a course of action available to him later today to ensure that we can have further criminal justice co-operation, and that is voting for the Government’s deal.

Violence in Prisons

In order to tackle violence in prisons, we first have to make sure that drugs and weapons are not getting into prisons. We need more prison officers, which is why we are pleased that we now have 4,700 more prison officers in place. We also need to invest much more in staff training and support. In the end, the key to reducing violence is good relationships between prison officers and prisoners.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Clearly, preventing violence in prisons is a priority, so, to that end, will he update us on what plans he has to increase searches of cells and wings?

This is absolutely central. Getting on top of cell searching—making sure that we understand what is in a cell, what should not be in a cell, getting the mobile phones and getting the drugs—is vital to having the baseline for a safe prison, so we are investing in more dog teams, in more mobile phone detection equipment and in dedicated search teams across the estate.

In the past eight years 7,000 prison officers have been lost. That means that there is still a deficit, on the Minister’s own figures, of 2,300, with attacks on officers going through the roof. At what point will the number of officers rise to the level where safety is assured?

We believe that the current number of 4,700 is the appropriate number that we require—in particular, because it allows us to deliver the key worker system. We continue to use operational support grade staff on perimeter security. We think this is the right balance.

In order to better support our prison officers, I have suggested that anybody who is found guilty of assaulting a prison officer should lose their right to automatic early release from prison. Will the Minister take on board that suggestion?

We believe that the appropriate response to someone assaulting a prison officer is to work with the Crown Prosecution Service and the police to prosecute them. That is why we are pleased that we have doubled the maximum sentence for anyone assaulting a prison officer, and we are working much more closely to increase the number of prosecutions and the sentences for those who break the law against people we should protect.

I spent yesterday on D and F wings in HM Prison Swansea, and I was told time and again, including by the dedicated search team, that the prison desperately needs a body scanner to reduce the incidence of drugs arriving there. What are the Minister’s plans to roll out body scanners to the entire prison estate?

Body scanners can be very useful, particularly in local prisons where prisoners are coming in and out a great deal. They are very expensive bits of kit to not only install but manage, and they have medical implications; they can be used safely perhaps 50 times in a year. We are conducting a pilot with 14 X-ray scanners across the estate. Once we have looked at the evidence and convinced ourselves that that is the best way of doing it, we will move forward and prioritise local prisons in that roll-out.

Inexperienced prison officers, poor conditions and more time being spent in cells contribute to violence in prisons. What steps are being taken to address those factors?

In terms of inexperienced prison officers, it is about longer training courses and better mentoring on the wings, with band 4 officers in particular working day in, day out with new staff. In terms of time out of cells, this is why having 4,700 more staff is really important—it allows us to unlock people more and get back to a regime that allows people to get into education and work and protects the public.

The point that the Minister conveniently misses is that frontline prison officer resignations have more than tripled since 2010, and now one in three officers has less than two years’ experience, as the Minister fails to get a grip on a retention crisis caused by years of relentless cuts. Does he really think that this exodus of experienced staff will keep prisons safe, as assaults and violence rise to record levels?

There are two separate things here. The shadow Minister is correct that experienced staff are vital, but it is also worth bearing in mind that one reason why there are so many new staff is that we have recruited 4,700 additional officers; by definition, many of them will be new. Retention is vital. The development of the advanced prison officer grade, which allows experienced closed grade officers to move from band 3 to band 4, will be very important in stabilising prisons.

Probation Reforms

Transforming Rehabilitation opened up probation to a diverse range of providers and extended support and supervision to an additional 40,000 offenders leaving prison. The National Probation Service is performing well in supervising higher-risk offenders, but we have been clear that the performance of community rehabilitation companies needs to improve. That is why we have taken action to end contracts early and conducted a public consultation on proposals to better integrate probation services. We are reflecting on the feedback received and lessons learned from current contracts as we develop future arrangements, and we will announce our plans in detail later this year.

My constituent Nicholas Churton was murdered by an offender who was on licence. Following his release from prison, an assessment was not carried out by the CRC, and the murderer committed two further offences before he went on to kill Mr Churton. All this information is in the public domain because I have put it there. I want there to be an independent inquiry into this case, to inform Justice Ministers, all of whom I respect, to ensure that the probation service is functioning and to prevent people from suffering in the way that my constituent’s family have because of the appalling current system.

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important matter. I would like to express my sympathies to his constituent’s family for what they have undergone. I know that the hon. Gentleman has met my hon. Friend the prisons Minister to discuss this, and they may meet again. These tragic cases are rare, but that does not in any way undermine how tragic they are. Because there is a greater workload, with a greater number of people dealt with by CRCs than before, we have seen some increase in the numbers, but the rate falls below 0.5%.

Last week, the prisons Minister offered to meet the family of Sam Cook, who was murdered by a convicted offender who was released on licence, in a similar case to the one we have just heard about from my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas). They would very much like to meet the Minister. Can the Secretary of State ask his officials to arrange that meeting as soon as possible? They want to speak to the Minister to make sure that no one has to experience what Sam Cook experienced and that the probation service is doing its job to protect the public from offenders who are released on licence and is supervising them properly.

I know that the prisons Minister would be very willing to have that meeting, but I make the point to both hon. Gentlemen that we want to get this right, we do recognise that we need to reform the probation system and that that is exactly what we intend to do.

Access to Justice

I am very pleased to have an opportunity to highlight the important work that we are doing in the criminal justice system. Last year, we spent £882 million on criminal legal aid and this year we announced an investment of a further £23 million for criminal advocates. We are spending £1 billion to transform our Courts and Tribunals Service. However, improvements to the criminal justice system, as with the civil justice system, are not just about money and we are seeking to bring our justice system up to date, modernising it and making sure that people have swift and effective access to justice.

The Loughborough University report “Priced out of Justice?” identified how many people were excluded from justice because of the means test. I welcome the review of the means test that the Government are conducting but, pending the outcome, would the Minister support calls from the Law Society for the means test threshold to be uprated now as part of the spring statement?

As the right hon. Gentleman said, we have recently done a legal aid review. As part of that review, we were not obliged to look into thresholds because there were not very many changes to thresholds as part of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. However, we recognise the need to look at that because the figures have not been uprated for some time. We are undertaking that review and the timetable for that is set out in our legal support action plan.

A recent report from Women’s Aid has set out that many women are now having to represent themselves because they do not meet the threshold for legal aid. But the report also says that the only savings the women have cannot be used because they have to be able to rehouse themselves. Can the Minister give some assurance that she is willing to look at improving the situation of these individuals, so that they do not have to represent themselves in court, which can have a hugely negative impact on the victim’s experience within the justice system?

I am fully aware of the issues that these women face. I am very pleased to have held a number of roundtables, as part of our understanding for the review, with a number of vulnerable parties, including women. Women’s Aid was part of those roundtables, where we had an opportunity to hear from it directly. That is one of the reasons why we have specifically mentioned victims of domestic violence, and we will look at the thresholds in the legal aid review that we are conducting.

Prison Officer Safety

We are doing everything we can to protect prison officers. That is about perimeter security to make it more difficult to get the drugs and weapons into the prisons, making sure that prison officers have the protective equipment to protect themselves against attack, gathering the forensic evidence when an attack takes place, and prosecuting prisoners who attack prison officers. We have a huge duty and we will do everything we can to protect them.

I thank my hon. Friend for that good answer. The hard-working staff at HMP Lancaster Farms are doing a very good job in this respect and I invite my hon. Friend to come to Lancaster Farms whenever he can.

Lancaster Farms is a cat C training prison. It is a challenging prison and we are very pleased with the recent inspection report that we have received from Peter Clarke. He is a tough critic, but he sees it as a decent and competent prison. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the governor, Derek Harrison, for the work that he does.

Children Conceived through Rape

15. What steps he is taking to ensure that rapists do not have access to children conceived through rape. (909724)

The hon. Lady raises an important and sensitive issue, but I would like to reassure her that our family law system is centred around the child and the welfare of the child. When judges make decisions about contact or care, the welfare of the child is always paramount, but we have been looking at various ways to strengthen our procedures and practice directions in relation to who gets notice of particular court applications. However, I remind the hon. Lady that the central principle is very important.

Following the recent high-profile case in Rotherham, has the Minister’s Department carried out a review of what went wrong? Is she considering a change in the law to ensure that such a case cannot happen again? If not, why not?

I am aware of the case the hon. Lady refers to, and I am pleased to have met Sammy Woodhouse some time ago, along with other Members of Parliament, to discuss the issue. We are continuing to look at this issue, at the principles that underlie it and, as I mentioned, specifically at the practice directions and procedures around these cases.

Access to Justice: Court Staffing and Closures

16. What assessment he has made of the effect on access to justice of recent (a) changes in court staffing and (b) court closures. (909725)

I would like to assure the hon. Lady that any decision to close a court is not taken lightly, but in circumstances where 41% of our courts operated in 2016-17 at half their available capacity and where we are investing £1 billion in courts and bringing them up to date, the Ministry of Justice has to think carefully about where our court resources are most effectively and efficiently spent.

I thank the Minister for her response. However, the recent closure of courts in West Yorkshire is putting additional pressure on those that remain, causing backlogs and delays. The Hands off HRI campaign, which is fighting to save services at our local hospital, Huddersfield Royal Infirmary, is waiting for a consent order that is with Leeds Crown court. However, the backlog of several weeks means that the campaign is undergoing a lengthy period of uncertainty, as are those involved in many other cases. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that cuts to staffing and closures are not damaging my constituents’ access to justice?

As I mentioned, when we undertake court closures—they are undertaken very carefully, and the Lord Chancellor does not undertake these decisions lightly—we look at court utilisation rates, and the courts that are closed are often those that are not performing in terms of capacity. On the case the hon. Lady refers to, I am happy to take it up with her and to look at any backlog or delay.

The Government have been forced to announce a one-year delay to their £1 billion court reform programme. Many people are concerned that this programme is simply a smokescreen for sacking staff and closing courts. Will the Government take this opportunity to have a public debate about the issue and to allow Parliament to debate and scrutinise these changes?

Our court reform programme is one of the most ambitious in the world. We recently held a seminar at which at least 20 other countries were represented. They talked about their reform programmes, and none of them was as ambitious as ours in streamlining, making more effective and modernising the court process. The delay in the programme is to ensure that we can efficiently and effectively manage the programme going forward.

Prisoners: Access to Telephones

We need to prevent these mobile phones from getting into prison. That is not always easy, because some of the new phones are almost just an inch in size. This work involves not just metal detectors, but X-ray scanners that can look inside bodies. If these phones get inside prisons, we need to identify them, we need to intercept the calls and block them, and we need to seize the phones.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that, where prisoners use mobile phones to send vile messages to the families of their victims, social media giants such as Snapchat must take responsibility and help the police to bring the culprits to justice?

First, using a mobile phone in a prison is an illegal act. It is a horrifying thing to harass victims using a phone from prison. It is entirely illegal, and we will be working with colleagues from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to draw the attention of these social media companies to the fact that illegal action is taking place through their systems.

Rehabilitation in Prisons: New Technology

18. What steps the Government are taking to introduce new technology to support rehabilitation in prisons. (909727)

Technology can play an important role in supporting rehabilitation. The careful use of basic computers and telephones enables us to do that. New digital services are being built for prison officers as part of the offender management in custody programme.

Good mental health and wellbeing are key to rehabilitation in prisons. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to use the best technology in this regard?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. There is huge potential in this area, but we are already taking steps through telehealth and virtual consultations. We have in-cell telephony, which can be used in these circumstances. Digital hub services also exist, and the prison virtual learning environment includes a health application, so we have a virtual campus that can help people to address addiction issues. I think that there is much more potential in this area in the future.

Imprisonment of Offenders

Under this Government, the most serious offenders are more likely to go to prison and for longer, helping to protect the public and keep communities safe. Prison will be the right place for some offenders, but equally there is evidence that it does not work in rehabilitating others. I want to move the debate on from the old false choice between soft justice versus hard justice, and instead ensure we are focused on delivering smart justice. We need to think more imaginatively about different and more modern forms of punishment in the community.

I support the broad thrust of ensuring that sentences work, particularly for female offenders. Does the Secretary of State agree that at the same time we should look at early release and whether it could be recalibrated to improve prison discipline?

Incentives in the prison system are important to achieving good behaviour. Early release does help offenders to successfully make the transition from custody to living crime-free lives in the community. An additional early release scheme for certain offenders, home detention curfew, further helps to manage that transition and reduce future offending.

The hon. Gentleman’s question has been grouped. His opportunity is here. His moment is now. Let us hear the sonorous tones of the hon. Gentleman.

I am very grateful, Mr Speaker.

I understand the UK Government are looking at the effectiveness of short-term custodial sentences to reduce reoffending. I invite Ministers to look at the experience in Scotland, where short-term sentences have already been abolished yet reoffending rates remain stubbornly high. I therefore urge Ministers to look more closely at whether rehabilitation programmes in prison are working effectively, even those for prisoners on short-term sentences.

In conjunction with reforming short sentences, it is important that we have confidence in the delivery of community orders. We have been clear that in England and Wales probation services need to improve—we have already discussed that—but the two have to run together: reform of short sentences and adequate community alternatives.

What are the Government doing to ensure tougher sentences for those who are found guilty of violent crimes?

Under this Government, over the past nine years, sentences for violent crime have gone up. For knife crime in particular, the chances of a custodial sentence have increased and the length of the custodial sentence has increased.

Female Offenders

21. What steps the Government are taking to improve the management of female offenders in the criminal justice system. (909731)

The “Female Offender Strategy”, which we published last summer, sets out a raft of specific commitments underpinned by our vision to see fewer women coming into the criminal justice system, a greater proportion managed successfully in the community and better conditions for those in custody.

Rates of suicide in female institutions are often disproportionately high. Will the Minister update the House on what he is doing to work with female prisons to bring suicide rates down, including prisons such as Eastwood Park in my constituency?

Every death in prison is a tragedy, and we are committed to improving the safety and support available to all in our prisons. The rate of self-inflicted deaths in women’s prisons is lower than that seen in the male estate, but we recognise that the rate of self-harm is nearly five times the rate in the male estate. Therefore, we know that we need to do more. That is why we have set up a specialist safer custody team dedicated to the women’s estate and are rolling out revised and improved suicide and self-harm prevention training.

Topical Questions

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.