Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 658: debated on Tuesday 23 April 2019

On 12 April, the Voyeurism (Offences) Act 2019 came into effect. It criminalises the reprehensible behaviour known as upskirting. The offences specified in the Act are framed in clear and focused terms to ensure that that disturbing practice is tackled robustly wherever it occurs, so that victims can be confident that their complaints will be taken seriously. I thank Gina Martin for leading the campaign, and I thank all Members on both sides of the House who supported this law. Together, we have sent a clear message to those who think that they can get away with such invasive and unacceptable behaviour: it will not be tolerated.

A staggering 72% of decisions on personal independence payments and 65% of decisions on employment and support allowance are overturned in the first-tier tribunal. That means that not only are ill and disabled people having to fight for the social security support to which they are entitled, but a great deal of money is being wasted on the administration of appeal tribunals. May I ask the Secretary of State how much is being spent on the administration of PIP and ESA tribunals? If those figures are not recorded, will he agree to start producing them?

If I remember correctly, only 8% of awards are challenged in tribunals. As for the total cost, I will happily write to the hon. Lady providing the details.

T5. What steps is the Minister taking across Government to spread the successful best practice of organisations such as Care after Combat, which is doing brilliant work with veterans in prisons and driving down reoffending? (910437)

I know that my hon. Friend is a committed supporter of Care after Combat. Indeed, so committed is he that he will be running the London marathon next weekend in aid of the organisation, and I gather that all sponsorship is welcome.

As a member of the ministerial covenant and veterans board, I am happy to confirm that the Government’s new strategy refers explicitly to veterans in the justice system. We incorporate a wide range of military and non-military charities in our work on prisons and probation, including SSAFA, the Royal British Legion and, of course, Care after Combat, and we encourage the sharing of best practice on what works.

Climate change is now receiving the public attention that it merits. Greta Thunberg is in the House today, and my party pays tribute to her work. All too often, however, our justice system restricts the ability of citizens to take legal action against environmentally damaging decisions. Last month, the United Nations criticised the Government’s failure to meet their international obligations relating to access to justice in environmental matters.

Labour’s 2017 manifesto proposed the establishment of a new type of environmental tribunal with simplified procedures so that citizens would have alternatives to prohibitively expensive judicial reviews. Will the Government follow Labour’s lead, and commit themselves to the establishment of a tribunal that would empower people to use our legal system to protect our shared environment?

I am not sure that setting up a new tribunal is necessarily the right response to this particular issue, but of course we want to do everything we can to ensure that the law—including the Government’s ambitious climate change policies—is properly enforced.

Given that the Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Act 2018 became law last year to block mobile phone signals in prisons, could the Minister update us on the progress that has been made on introducing the technology across the prisons estate?

I thank my hon. Friend for the work she did in bringing the Bill through and turning it into an Act. It is an important piece of legislation, which extends our powers to work alongside network providers. We are taking significant steps in dealing with the security threat posed by mobile phones. We have to prevent them from getting into prisons. We have to use detection methods to find them and stop them working, and we are making advances on that. We also need to exploit the data that is held on them.

T2. I went to prison last week—to Downview Prison, which is a women’s prison—for the Sycamore Tree course on restorative justice. Does the Minister agree that restorative justice programmes of this nature, and also those run by the Chris Donovan Trust, can have a real impact on reoffending rates and provide some comfort to victims who want to go on them by helping them to recover from a crime? (910434)

Having also recently visited Downview, I know what the right hon. Gentleman is talking about, and I fully agree that restorative justice and the work of charities such as the Sycamore Tree project can have a vital role to play in making our prisons safer and more rehabilitative. Restorative approaches are already used across the youth estate and, as the right hon. Gentleman highlighted, in a number of other prisons. They have real benefits, in terms of both defusing conflict and repairing harm after an incident in prison.

I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I welcome the fact that a family impact test on the Government’s proposed divorce law changes has been published, but what is the justification for the Government cherry-picking not just public opinion, which, according to the responses to their own consultation, is 80% against the proposed changes, but the evidence they rely on, with Ministers seeming to ignore evidence that there will be an immediate spike in divorce rates, which will impact negatively on the families involved?

I have to disagree with my hon. Friend on this point. It is true that there was a surge of submissions to our consultation in the last couple of weeks, but the fact is that a YouGov poll on the day the proposals were set out suggested 73% support for them. Indeed, we have had support from the Law Society, Resolution, the Family Law Bar Association, Sir Paul Coleridge—the chair of the Marriage Foundation—Relate and National Family Mediation. This reform will help families and ensure that the divorce process is less acrimonious.

T3. Do the Government have any plans to change the legal system to protect against gender targeting of advertising towards children and teenagers? (910435)

We will certainly look at any proposals on this front. We do not, at the moment, have any plans, but I will certainly look at any proposals the hon. Lady might have.

I warmly welcome the commitment by the UK Government to recruit 2,500 more prison officers, because prison officers in Scotland have spoken out about the fact that the system there is at breaking point. Rising numbers have led to overcrowding in my local prison, HMP Perth, which was recently reported to rely heavily on inexperienced agency and bank nurses due to staffing shortages. Does the Minister agree that the Scottish Government need to make a similar commitment to restore order in our prison service?

My hon. Friend is a doughty defender of the interests of her constituents. As she points out, this is a matter for the Scottish Government, but I am more than happy to share our experience with the Scottish Government if that would be helpful.

T4. Will Ministers make a commitment today that the Domestic Abuse Bill will include guaranteed access to special measures in courts for survivors of domestic abuse and that that will apply equally across all our court systems and our entire courts estate? (910436)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. As he will be aware, we have brought forward the draft Domestic Abuse Bill, which we are currently considering in the Joint Committee. We would very much welcome any reflections he has as part of that process before we draft definitive legislation to bring forward to the House.

During an earlier answer, my hon. Friend the Prisons Minister mentioned the roll-out of PAVA spray. When will it be completed?

I am delighted to be able to remind the House that PAVA spray is an incapacitating spray and that it can be safer, when dealing with acts of extreme violence, to use a spray rather than pulling out a baton or rolling around with someone on the ground. We need to use these sprays in a moderate, controlled fashion, but they can reduce extreme violence in prisons and protect our prison officers, so we are proud to be rolling them out.

T6. In South Tyneside, disabled claimants are having to wait over 12 months for a tribunal, and 80% of those appeals are successful. What discussions have the Minister and the Department had with the Department for Work and Pensions about this flawed decision making? (910438)

I am happy to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question. I met the previous Minister for Disabled People twice to talk about how the DWP can get decisions right first time, and I have already spoken to the new Minister to follow up on those discussions. There were 3.8 million decisions made on the personal independence payment in the last year, of which only 10% were appealed and only 5% overturned. However, it is absolutely fundamental that the decisions should be got right first time and that only those that are more questionable should come through the system.

Ah, a Lincolnshire knight, and an illustrious member of the Privy Council to boot—we are doubly blessed. I call Sir Edward Leigh.

Having pissed off half our supporters by botching Brexit, why are we now irritating the other half with an extreme liberal social agenda? Every single study, including the Harvard Law reform and the Margaret Brinig studies, shows that it is poor, vulnerable and dispossessed children who suffer most from divorce. Will my right hon. Friend at least accept that if he makes something easier, it will happen more often?

The evidence on no-fault divorce is that in a steady state there is not a higher rate of divorce than otherwise. It is also the case that the current fault-based approach to divorce results in divorces that are going to happen anyway being more acrimonious than they would otherwise have been. That is why I believe that it is right that we make this reform.

T7. The Health Minister will soon be meeting the parents in Hull affected by the baby ashes scandal, including mothers who do not know how their babies’ bodies were transported from hospital with no coffin, no funeral director and no funeral service for the family. Does this not yet again show the need for the local independent inquiry that is still being sought by those parents, and was it not unwise for the Ministry of Justice to accept the assurances of Hull City Council that the parents’ concerns had all been dealt with, without asking the parents? (910440)

The hon. Lady raises an important and sensitive point, and I would be happy to meet her to discuss the issue.

Education is at the very heart of rehabilitation. What are Ministers doing to ensure that people have access to education and the jobs they need when they leave prison?

The big change that has been introduced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is to ensure that education in prison is linked to employment. This involves talking to the local job market, ensuring that we provide the skills that match that market and, above all, ensuring that we have safe, decent prisons so that we can remove the prisoners from their cells and into work and education so that we can get them into jobs. That reduces reoffending by an average of 7%.

T8. How are we getting on with securing the 26 prisoner transfer agreements that are currently in place with the European Union to ensure that they are in place at the end of this year? (910451)

I am delighted that Labour Members are working with us to try to get a good Brexit deal in place, and if we can get such a deal, we will be able to continue through the transition period. In a no-deal situation, however, it will become significantly more difficult because we will have to fall back on older and more cumbersome ways of moving prisoners. That would not be good for us or for Europe.

Despite the wilful destruction of thousands of small businesses by their own bank, no senior executive has ever been held to account. Will the Minister update the House on the Government’s proposals to bring forward legislation to make failure to prevent fraud a corporate criminal offence?

Of course, when people suffer economic crime it is as devastating for them as it is with any other crime. As my hon. Friend will know, we put out a call for evidence and we are looking carefully at the responses across the Departments. We will be responding in due course.

T9. The number of recorded child sexual abuse offences increased by 178% between March 2007 and March 2017. Can the Minister explain how his Government’s substantial cuts to the MOJ, the CPS and, of course, the police have helped victims achieve justice? (910452)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. I know that she has a sustained interest in this area. She will be aware that we increased funding for specialist rape and sexual abuse support services, including for child sexual abuse, from April this year. That means a 10% increase in funding, a move to three-year rather than annual settlements, and support for 96 centres across England and Wales—the highest number that the MOJ has ever funded—ensuring that support services are available in each of the police and crime commissioner areas.

The law regarding the sentencing of offenders has grown piecemeal and become ever more complex, even for experienced judges and practitioners. Bearing that in mind and noting that comparatively uncontroversial legislation is being sought for a future Queen’s Speech, would not paving legislation for the Law Commission’s sentencing code consolidation Bill absolutely fit the bill?

The Chair of the Justice Committee makes a good point. There is cross-party support on the matter, and I hope that we can make progress in the not-too-distant future.

In 2010, the then Secretary of State for Justice said that he wanted to examine what could be done to use technology more effectively so that fewer people have physically to attend court for routine purposes. Nine years on, however, this Government have admitted to not collecting information on how many times video links break down; nor have they published the business case for their modernisation programme. Will Ministers commit to undertaking that research before proceeding with any more closures or cuts to our courts?

There are a number of developments relating to the use of technology to ensure that people do not have to attend court or fill in lengthy, unwieldy documentation. People can now apply for divorce and for probate online, and users can be updated about social security claims through their mobile phone. We piloted online tax tribunal hearings, which were extremely effective, and we are now piloting further video hearings in the civil courts.

Of the 9,000 foreign national prisoners in our jails, 760 are from Albania. What are we doing to negotiate a compulsory prisoner transfer agreement with Albania?

My hon. Friend has raised this matter several times, and I recently met with the Albanian Minister of Justice. It is difficult to return prisoners to Albania. We are ahead of the Italians and the Greeks, but we still have a lot more to do. The problem is that the host country needs to receive these prisoners, so we cannot transfer prisoners in a compulsory fashion. I assure my hon. Friend, because he has asked this question in the past, that a no-deal Brexit will make such prisoner transfers not easier, but more difficult.

Three of the four men convicted of killing my constituent Jacqueline Wileman were on probation at the time of her death. Does the Minister recognise that that demonstrates the devastating failure of the privatised probation system? Will he meet with me to discuss both the case and how to prevent similar deaths, including by removing the maximum sentence for death by dangerous driving?

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her campaigning on this issue. This was a tragic case involving death by dangerous driving, and the individuals have now received sentences of between 10 and 13 and a half years for the crime. We fully support the idea that the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving should be increased up to a life sentence, but we still need to maintain a basic distinction in law between people who intend to commit murder and people whose actions lead to the horrible situation of loss of life through gross negligence and carelessness. We support the idea, and I will meet the hon. Lady.

I have met many excellent prison officers who serve at HMP Long Lartin in my constituency and elsewhere, but way too many of them seem to leave to pursue careers elsewhere. What more can be done to retain more prison officers?

In order to retain people in the job, we need to make sure that we have the right salary rates and that our prisons are safer. However, we also need to make sure that people feel motivated and that their morale is good, which is one of the reasons why the training and support packages we have introduced should transform retention rates for prison staff.

Two Members have been standing for some time, and I am keen to accommodate them. I feel sure they will agree that a sentence each seems fair.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Street & Arrow is a social enterprise street food project and is part of Scotland’s violence reduction unit. It hires people with convictions for 12 months, mentors them and provides them with wraparound support. Does the Minister agree that such support is the best way to reduce reoffending?

Obviously I must pay tribute to the extraordinary achievements, particularly in Glasgow, on reducing violence. On my recent visit to the United States, I also picked up things we could do to work with ex-gang members to interrupt the cycle of violence and have a rapid impact, but we can certainly learn from Scotland on this issue.