House of Commons
Tuesday 4 June 2019
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Prison Officers: Suicide
We do not hold the specific information requested by the hon. Gentleman. I fully appreciate that the pressures on prison officers can be considerable. However, we are committed to ensuring the health, safety and wellbeing of our staff, and have systems in place where if people are struggling, for whatever reason, including outside-work pressures, they will get the support they need.
Right across the public sector, the Government do not keep enough statistics on people in uniform who are taking their own lives due to physical and mental pressures at work. Will the Minister agree to meet me and members of the Prison Officers Association to discuss how we can record those statistics and, most importantly, how we can prevent prison officers from taking their own lives?
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important and sensitive point. I should add that the prison chaplaincy service provides invaluable support for many prison officers who are struggling. I will meet him about this issue. The current figures record deaths in service. Clearly, the issue of mental health and people taking their own lives has to be addressed.
May I start by welcoming my hon. and learned Friend to his post? I think this is the first question time that he has taken in his new role.
Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that it is not only important that we pay the highest tribute to the dedication and professionalism of the men and women of our Prison Service, but recognise that the pressures that they face come in no small measure from the difficulty of establishing secure regimes and stability within our prisons? Will he take on board the recommendations of the Justice Committee—in particular, our suggestion for a workforce strategy across the whole of the Prison Service?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I pay tribute to the work of his Committee. We have seen welcome increases in the number of prison officers, and that will help with stability. Retention rates are very important. I will certainly study very carefully the recommendations of his Committee, and work with him and other Members to make sure that we achieve our common goal.
Prison officers do a very difficult job on behalf of the community, but the loss of thousands of staff, leading to the highest-ever number of assaults in prisons last year, has put them under enormous stress. Does the Minister accept that warm words are not good enough in this situation and there needs to be a serious increase in the number of prison staff to alleviate the pressure on officers?
I am pleased to inform the hon. Lady that there has indeed been a significant increase in the number of prison staff. We are now up to over 4,500 extra prison staff from the low point. I take her point that with increasing staff, more constructive work can be done with prisoners. The key worker scheme that we have now rolled out in the majority of adult male closed prisons, where prison officers work with six named prisoners, is already yielding results and making prisons safer places. I very much take on board the point she makes about assaults.
I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend on his new appointment.
One of the issues that adds to the emotional stress on prison officers can be a very long commute at the end of a working day, particularly in London and the south-east in very high-cost housing areas. What discussions is the Department having with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to make sure that key worker accommodation is available for prison officers, who are often not that well paid, in high-cost housing areas?
My hon. Friend, as a former prisons Minister, knows this issue very well, and I pay tribute to him for his continued commitment to it. Yes, the question of housing is a difficult one. I am glad to say that recruitment rates in London have proved extremely successful. The extra increments that are paid to certain prison officers to recognise the particular pressures that they are under is a welcome part of the system. However, I will be happy to speak further to him about the issue.
The Minister will know that in Northern Ireland prison officers have been subjected to mental and physical pressures above and beyond—post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues. The Northern Ireland Assembly and Justice Department have been very active in offering support. Has he had the opportunity to speak to those in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Department to find out what is being done for prison officers in Northern Ireland?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am always willing to speak to and learn from experiences in other parts of our United Kingdom, most particularly Northern Ireland. Various therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, are available to prison officers should they wish to seek them. There is also a fast-track referral system, which is particularly encouraged where staff have experienced trauma.
Support for Litigants in Family Courts
Clearly, participation in the family court is difficult for all those involved, whatever stage of the process they are at. Through our legal support action plan, we are committed to working with the Law Society to improve delivery of family legal aid, be that in the court or through mediation.
I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. I was pleased recently to join students and staff at Anglia Ruskin University’s law clinic to celebrate the first year of their Support@Court service, which helps litigants in person to navigate the family courts. It is a great initiative, but Sarah Calder, the director, tells me that provision is patchy, and litigants in person all too frequently feel intimidated by facing a lawyer. Do the Government support the Bach Commission’s proposal that legal aid should be brought back into scope for all cases involving children?
I am pleased to hear about that example at Anglia Ruskin University. Our litigants in person strategy is a very important part of what we do. We have been spending £1.5 million a year hitherto. As part of the legal support action plan, we will improve that to £3 million a year and work with judges to ensure that all litigants in person are supported during the court process.
I am sure we were all shocked by the example raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh). My first decision was to ensure that the inquiry panel was established, and it will look carefully at what the Children’s Commissioner has to say. The right hon. Gentleman is right to point out that children should always be at the heart of the decision-making process in the courts, and I will look carefully at what the Children’s Commissioner has said.
I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. The Government are rightly reviewing practices in the family courts, including practice direction 12J, which looks at how the court is protecting children and victims. More than 30 expert lawyers, including the Victims’ Commissioner, have voiced their concerns that the review is not in-depth enough to look at the issues in sufficient detail and makes no mention of consulting family court lawyers. Do the Government acknowledge those concerns, and will they act on them?
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s initial support. There is a balance to be struck between speed of action, getting the right decision-making process in place and coming up with the right recommendations. We have lawyers who are experienced in family law on the panel, and we have the victims’ voice through the involvement of Women’s Aid. I think we have the right mix on the panel, and a three-month time limit is right for them to reach their conclusions, which we can then seek to put in place.
In children’s matters in the family courts, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service is treated as an expert witness. Is the Minister aware that CAFCASS has no training for the function it performs, has no guidelines, keeps no record of its recommendations and does not give sworn statements, so cannot be held to account for the recommendations it makes?
I am grateful for that interesting perspective in my early days in the job. I will clearly have to go away and look at what CAFCASS says and does, and I look forward to meeting it. It is important to bear in mind that, in these cases, the interests of the child have to be paramount—the Children Act 1989 is very clear about that, and judges are clear in how they interpret that obligation.
If material comes to light that, on the face of it, might cast doubt on the safety of a conviction, the police and prosecuting authorities should disclose it, and where it is alleged that such material may exist, they should co-operate in making further inquiries if there appears to be a real prospect that they will uncover something of real value. Failing that, the function of the independent Criminal Cases Review Commission is to investigate possible miscarriages of justice. Access to information about the cases they investigate is integral to their work, and they have substantial legal powers to secure the disclosure they require.
The Minister will know that I welcome part of what he said warmly, but as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on miscarriages of justice, I know that in order to challenge a conviction, access to pre-conviction material from the police and the prosecution is very valuable. Most advanced countries have a proper system that makes it much more possible to challenge an unsafe conviction. Can we have further movement on that?
The hon. Gentleman rightly highlights his extensive work in this area. It has been a pleasure to meet him on a number of occasions, and I am due to do so again. As I said, there are considerable statutory powers for the CCRC, but as he knows, the commission can refer only those cases it considers to meet the statutory criteria, and there are no plans currently to review that.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the importance of forensic science in convictions —increasing the number of cases that go through court and result in convictions—and therefore of the role it plays in reviewing cases post-conviction. If he wishes to write to me with further details of specific issues in that context, I will be very happy to write back to him responding to those points.
Both the Charlie Taylor and the Lammy reviews recommended changes to our criminal disclosure system for young people. On each count, this Government decided that they knew better, leaving us with one of the most punitive approaches to youth justice in the western world. Now that the Government have lost their case in the Supreme Court, will they recognise that our current disclosure system for children is outdated, ineffective and cruel?
Violence against our dedicated staff will not be tolerated. Levels of violence in prison remain too high, but I am pleased to say that the number of assaults from October to December last year decreased by 11% from the previous quarter. We know that positive relationships between staff and prison officers can make a big difference. That is the aim of the new key workers scheme, and 60 of the 92 closed male adult prisons have now completed implementing it.
Prison officers work in what their trade unions calls one of the most hostile environments in western Europe, with assaults on staff quadrupling since 2010. Does the Minister not think it is a bit unfair for a prison officer at 68 years of age to be forced to manhandle people and physically control them? Surely he could do something about early retirement for them.
It is important to remember that for many years prison officers have daily faced that sort of challenge. It is unacceptable, which is why I am glad to say that numbers of prison officers have increased. With that important work with prisoners, I strongly believe that prisons will become safer places. Let us not forget the roll-out of body-worn cameras as well: 6,000 have now been provided. I believe that that will not only protect prisoners, but protect prison officers from false allegations.
HMP Nottingham remains a particularly violent place for staff and inmates. The previous prisons Minister made improving this prison a personal priority. Will the new Minister commit to doing the same, and will he meet me to hear some of our local concerns?
I know from my previous role that the hon. Gentleman takes a keen interest in criminal justice issues in his city. I share the same commitment as my predecessor to reducing violence at Nottingham. A new violence reduction strategy was launched by that prison. We provided funding for physical alterations to set up a new violence reduction landing, and two safer custody leads are now working in the prison to improve physical security. Of course I will meet him as part of that developing progress.
My hon. Friend is quite right to chart the issues at HMP Lewes. I am glad to say that the prison is now fully staffed and performance has begun to improve in the second half of last year, but I accept that things have not recovered to the position that Lewes had been in when the inspectorate made a previous visit. However, the number of assaults has fallen to a level similar to that of three years ago, and work continues to be done. From the centre, both I and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service will continue to support the new governor in her work.
I have been taking part in the Prison Service parliamentary scheme at HMP Swansea, where over only two days I witnessed one dirty protest and two incidents at height. These were handled professionally by prison staff, officers and management alike, but surely the Minister shares my concern that prison officers are now expected to respond to such physically demanding and risky challenges as everyday workplace hazards? Will he meet the POA to discuss the absolute anomaly of our expecting emergency services officers to work until they are 68?
I pay tribute to the right hon. Lady for taking part in that important and valuable scheme. HMP Swansea was the very first prison I went into, nearly 30 years ago, and I pay tribute to the staff there. I take on board the point she makes. I have already spoken to the POA about that very issue, and I will continue a dialogue on that and many other matters.
My hon. Friend will be reassured to know that that sort of conduct and criminality is dealt with in two ways. The first is by the criminal courts. The recent Act promoted by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) covers prison officers, and I pay tribute to him for that. The second is via an internal process by which prisoners face consequences such as privileges being removed and categorisation changed.
I congratulate the hon. and learned Gentleman on his appointment. By now, he will know that since 2010 our prisons have been driven into a spiral of violence and a state of emergency as a direct result of his Government’s cuts, leaving staff, prisoners and the public less safe. Will he answer one simple question: when will our prisons return to being as safe as they were in 2010?
I think the work being done to recruit extra prison officers and the extra finance and resource given to my Department by the Treasury are allowing us to return to a position of greater safety. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks, but I have to say to him that my experience of prisons stretches back a generation, and I know that many of the issues relating to prisons take a long time to resolve, but that will not stop me having a sense of urgency when it comes to dealing with problems of drugs, violence and safety more generally.
Rehabilitating Prisoners: Role of Sport
Participation in sport and physical activity in custody can have benefits for the physical and mental health of prisoners, as well as building confidence, teamwork skills, discipline and improving prospects of successful rehabilitation and resettlement in the community. We have recently published Professor Rosie Meek’s independent review of the role of sport in youth justice, and our own internal review of sport in the adult estate. Sport is an integral part of our approach to rehabilitation in prison.
I refer to the House to my declaration of interest. The twinning project led by David Dein aims to take football into prisons to improve behaviour and reduce reoffending, and the Football Association referees department is now hoping to run referee courses alongside that, with Lancaster Farms Prison the first to offer the course. I know that the skills referees gain go far beyond officiating at match. Does the Minister agree that that element and the twinning project could have a very positive impact on the prisoners they work with, and will he encourage more prisons to get involved?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I acknowledge his interest as a qualified international referee, with skills that, on occasion, you probably put to good use in this House, Mr Speaker. I completely agree that the football twinning project, brilliantly led by David Dein, is hugely important and can have a positive effect on offenders. We have been working with FA referees to develop a bespoke referee course for prisons. Four pilot prisons have been identified to deliver this groundbreaking intervention, with the first course due to start in late summer at HMP Lancaster Farms, as my hon. Friend said. We all recognise the power of sport and we are determined to harness it.
Last year’s review of sport in prisons shows that reoffending rates were markedly lower among those who had participated in sports-based resettlement programmes than among those who had not, but the report noted a distinct lack of engagement in physical activity among women in prison. What steps will the Minister take to implement Professor Meek’s recommendation of a specific physical activity strategy for women, and what incentives will the Government provide to sports clubs to get involved with rehabilitation schemes?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Our view is that sport can play a crucial role in rehabilitation and resettlement not just for male prisoners but for all prisoners, irrespective of gender. I went to see David Dein in HMP Downview, where we introduced the twinning project in a female prison for the first time, yielding fantastic results. We are very keen on the idea and are continuing to work with Jason Swettenham, the director in the Prison Service with responsibility for the project, to work within the custodial estate and with community organisations focused on engaging women in sport. They are absolutely integral to what we are trying to do.
If the Minister is not already aware of it, may I encourage him to look at the eight-week programme being run at Feltham young offenders institution by the Saracens Sport Foundation, which is obviously linked to the European club rugby champions? It has helped to reduce reoffending rates among participants by more than half by using classroom sessions and mentoring and by focusing on the values of sport and what they can bring.
Will the Minister broker arrangements with our primary sporting clubs—rugby, football and cricket—to make sure they have the opportunity to pair up with a prison, so that there is a relationship that can evolve over time? Does he think that is a good idea?
I do think that is an excellent idea, which is exactly the principle behind the twinning project and exactly what is happening on the ground. The project is expanding to include more and more prisons. I have focused, given the nature of the question, on football, but the hon. Gentleman is right to highlight rugby, and from my perspective cricket is always a winner. He is absolutely right. The model is there with the twinning project and we want it to continue to expand.
Privately Run Prisons
The Government remain committed to a role for the private sector in operating custodial services. The sector has an important role to play and currently runs some high-performing prisons as part of a decent and secure prison estate.
Publicly run HMP Bedford has been deprived of adequate funding, while public investment has been given to the notorious blacklisting construction firm Kier to build a new supersized prison nearby in Wellingborough, which will be handed straight to the private sector to run. Will the Minister explain why the public sector was banned from bidding for the new prison?
I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the new Ministers on their appointment.
I am sure everyone across the House was deeply concerned by new research showing that, when comparing like with like, private male local prisons have 42% more assaults than their public equivalents. That is especially worrying given that the Government are planning to build a new generation of prisons run for profit. I am sure the Secretary of State would not wish to be deemed an ideologue who would back private prisons even if they were more dangerous. Before proceeding with those new private prisons, will he back an independent review of safety and overcrowding in private prisons to ensure that corners are not being cut to maximise profits?
The reality is that there are many very successful private prisons where the level of violence is lower than average. Let me give the hon. Gentleman an example. HMP Altcourse in Liverpool has low levels of violence compared with a typical category B local prison, including the public sector category B local prison in the same city where we have faced significant difficulties with violence. It is hard to compare one set of prisons against another on a like-for-like basis. I do not accept the analysis the hon. Gentleman sets out, and I do believe we need to have a mixed sector.
Prison and Probation Officers: Gross Misconduct Charges
The existing process is an internal employment process and is compliant with both employment law and ACAS best practice. It exists to identify where misconduct has occurred and to hold individuals to account. By holding all prison and probation officers to the high standard we expect, we protect the reputation of the entire service.
Napo has called for the scapegoating of probation officers to end, especially with the reviewing of cases that have already been covered by a review. It insists that senior managers are driven by a desire to be seen to be doing something rather than to deal with the root cause, which is the unbearable workload pressures caused by mass vacancies. Does the Minister agree that the probation service should take responsibility for structural failures leading to serious further offences, rather than hanging its workers out to dry?
The hon. Lady makes a very proper point, and I pay tribute to the probation officers I have worked with over many years. They are dedicated public servants who use their professional judgment and skill to help assess risk, which is an onerous task. I do not approve of scapegoating. I expect the service to support probation officers who are under pressure, but for cases where there needs to be an investigation, due process then has to take place.
Probation Supervision: Short Sentences
It is absolutely vital that prisoners get the support they need after release to turn their lives around. It would be premature to reverse reforms that, for the first time, saw those released on short sentences supervised after release, with a period dedicated solely to rehabilitation. We have already looked at ways of making that process more proportionate, but as my hon. Friend will know, I want to look at the broader question of short sentences and measures that actually serve to reduce reoffending.
If I may trespass for one moment on your good will, Mr Speaker, given the previous question, perhaps you would like to join me in congratulating the Nacro winners, who are in the Public Gallery at the moment and who are about to join me for tea in the Pugin Room—where are they? They are putting their hands up so they can be congratulated by all of us in the House today, who appreciate what probation staff and those who work with prisoners do for us.
Does the Secretary of State agree that we should put real resource into alternatives to custody, so that we can end the cycle of reoffending and stop all our constituents suffering from further crime?
I join in the congratulations to the prize winners in the Gallery and welcome them to the House of Commons.
I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of alternatives to custody, and I am keen to ensure that we make greater use of curfews, exclusion zones and new ways in which we can restrict offenders in the community in a way that can be more effective in reducing future reoffending.
Probation Service: Complaints System
Management of Offenders: Local Authorities and PCCs
We want to strengthen partnership working between probation and local partners, including local authorities and police and crime commissioners, and the future probation model announced on 16 May will better enable this with a new regional structure led by regional directors responsible for the delivery and commissioning of probation services. They will work with local partners to identify shared priorities and co-commission services that will better support the management of offenders in the community.
The short answer is yes. Our plan is to create a dynamic framework for the commissioning of resettlement and rehabilitative intervention opportunities. To complement this, we will ring-fence £20 million a year in an innovation fund to attract match funding from other Departments and commissioning bodies for innovative cross-cutting approaches.
Yes, I do think that is a very sensible goal, and sometimes that point has been missed in the debate about the transforming rehabilitation programme. My view is that we need to build on those reforms, and that is why on 16 May I outlined the changes we were making. My hon. Friend is right that we need to be ambitious and provide coverage for as many ex-offenders as possible.
I am not sure whether the Secretary of State has had a chance yet to see the report published this morning by Crest Advisory on the management of women offenders. It suggests that police and crime commissioners should develop gender-informed alternatives to cautions and thereby keep women out of the criminal justice system. Will he consider that recommendation and the others in the report, and would he or one of his ministerial colleagues be willing to meet me and representatives of Crest to discuss it?
I confess I have not had an opportunity yet to read the report published this morning, but from what the hon. Lady says it appears to go in a similar direction to the female offenders strategy I set out last year. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), would be delighted to meet her to discuss the matter further.
I also congratulate the new Ministers on their appointment.
Short sentences target the most vulnerable offenders, especially women, with 75% of all women offenders sentenced to less than a year going on to reoffend. Has the Secretary of State made an assessment of the impact of short prison sentences on offenders and communities?
Indeed I am concerned about the impact of short sentences, not just on those who receive them but on society as a whole, because if they are ineffective in reducing reoffending, we are not doing society a favour and we are not reducing crime in the way we want to. As I said a moment ago, we set out our approach in the female offenders strategy—there is a case for looking at alternatives to custody for less serious offences. As a whole, I am ambitious to reduce the use of short sentences, which I do not see as being effective in reducing crime.
There is a strong case for abolishing sentences of six months or less—with some exceptions—and we are working towards having firm proposals by the summer. There is persuasive evidence that short custodial sentences do not work in terms of rehabilitation and helping some offenders to turn their backs on crime, and that community sentences can be more effective in reducing reoffending and therefore keeping the public safe. That said, we must ensure that the public and the judiciary can have confidence in effective community orders that address offenders’ behaviour, meet their mental health and alcohol or drug misuse needs and provide reparation for the benefit of the wider community.
Before his promotion—potentially to Prime Minister—the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) said:
“We have a lot to learn from Scotland, specifically on community sentences, and indeed we will be looking at what more we can do to emphasise that a custodial sentence in the short term should be a final resort.”—[Official Report, 24 April 2018; Vol. 639, c. 714-15.]
Given the Secretary of State’s answer just now, will he ensure that there is a continuity of approach within the new ministerial team in the MOJ?
I am sure that there will be; I would certainly expect that to be the case. One thing that we should learn from Scotland is that we need to ensure that community sentences are not ignored, and that drug treatment orders are completed. I know that that has been an issue in relation to some of the reforms in Scotland, and we need to learn from it, because if we are going to make these reforms we must ensure that community sentences are working properly.
The latest generation of GPS tags can monitor the specific movements of offenders rather than simply enforcing home curfews. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that gives courts a powerful tool to punish offenders in the community while keeping victims safe, as an alternative to short sentences?
I very much agree with that. I can tell the House that I wore a GPS tag for a couple of days, and was subsequently able to be informed of all my movements for the period concerned: precisely where I had been, and when. Thankfully I had not been up to no good, but it was a demonstration of how accurate and effective those tags can be. I believe that they have considerable potential for reassuring the public about community sentences, and about our ability to track those who might pose a risk to the community.
The Secretary of State will know about the terrible legacy of the imprisonment for public protection sentence, and its negative impact on both reoffending and re-incarceration. Will he meet me, and my constituent whose son received an IPP sentence, to discuss ideas for reform of the licence that applies?
The challenge of IPP cases is that the Parole Board must satisfy itself that those who have been sentenced to IPPs no longer pose a risk to society. That can be very difficult, and in many cases there are risks to society, so we must be cautious and ensure that we protect the public. I know that the Minister responsible for prisons and probation, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Robert Buckland), would be happy to meet the hon. Lady.
It is now well recognised that a system that pushes offenders through a revolving door of short prison sentences simply does not work. Notwithstanding the riders expressed by the Secretary of State a moment ago, the fact is that the Justice Committee, as well as his Government, has recognised that the system in Scotland is working. The Committee’s recent report recommended that the UK Government follow Scotland’s approach of a presumption against short sentences. Will the Secretary of State commit himself to introducing such a presumption in England and Wales?
I hope to be able to say more about the details of what we want to do in the not too distant future, but in respect of the approach that is being taken in Scotland, it is worth bearing in mind that it is already the case in England that a custodial sentence should be pursued only as a last resort, so there is already something approaching a presumption in the English system. I am interested in seeing whether we could go further than that, but I welcome the hon. and learned Lady’s approach —our shared approach, I think—of scepticism about the effectiveness of short sentences.
As someone who worked in the criminal justice system in Scotland for 20 years before coming to the House, I can assure the Secretary of State that the idea that a custodial sentence should be a last resort existed in Scotland before the presumption against short sentences, so that is an additional presumption.
One of the bodies that gave evidence to the Justice Committee pointed out that diverting those who have been identified as low-risk offenders
“from short custodial sentences to suspended custodial sentences could reduce the prison population”
in England and Wales by about 3,000 places. Does the Secretary of State agree that the presumption against short sentences in Scotland can help to reduce the prison population, and could do so if introduced south of the border?
As I have said, I hope to say more about the approach we want to take, but there is a case that an approach on short sentences along the lines that I have discussed may reduce the prison population, but the principal purpose is not reducing the prison population. It will not be massively dramatic, but I believe it will help to reduce reoffending. That is the big prize, rather than what are likely to be relatively marginal changes to the prison population.
Legal Aid Reform
Access to justice remains a fundamental right and the Government are committed to ensuring everyone can get the support they need to access the justice system. We recently launched our legal support action plan, with a series of changes to enhance the breadth of legal support made available.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his new position and his excellent answer. Many are concerned that reductions in legal aid from 2000 onwards have gone too far, meaning that people struggle to get access to justice. Does he agree that the time has come better to fund legal aid, rethink the abolition of conditional fee agreements and ensure the court system as a whole is funded, to make sure we uphold the rule of law?
My hon. Friend is clearly easily pleased by my answers. Last year we spent £1.6 billion alone on legal aid, and that will continue. Our legal support action plan includes such measures as reviewing the means test for legal aid and the criminal legal aid fee scheme, so we constantly look to ensure the level of support is correct and appropriate.
The role of families at inquests is one of the most distressing that they come across. In February the Government said they would look into further options for the funding of legal support for families at inquests where the state has state-funded representation. What progress has the Department made that I can report back to my constituents who have suffered?
The hon. Lady makes a very fair point, and I am concerned about that myself. There has to be equality of arms in the courtroom and in inquests when the state is represented—when the state has a duty of care towards individuals. We are looking into this topic; I have nothing to report at present but I constantly engage with my officials on it. I am interested in it myself and would be happy to meet the hon. Lady if she wishes to share her ideas.
My hon. Friend alights on the pertinent point that not all legal support needs to come in the form of legal aid at the point at which a case reaches a court. Legal support can take many forms and shapes. Indeed, it might consist of a very early conversation to inform someone that their case has no merit and is best dealt with through mediation or some other means in the community.
Two years ago, Taylor Alice Williams died while she was supposed to be under the care of the state in a secure children’s home. Her bereaved mother, who is unable to work due to a disability, was recently told she would have to contribute thousands of pounds for legal representation at the inquest into her daughter’s death. Families should not be forced to mount press campaigns to get the legal aid they deserve.
There are too many families in this desperate situation. The Government’s own review estimates that 500 families a year lose a loved one in custody or state detention, leading to an inquest. Does the Secretary of State regret his recent decision to refuse those families legal aid, and will he revise the decision?
Inquests should always have bereaved families at the heart of the process, and legal aid decisions need to be considered in that light. Our recent review underlined the importance of preserving an inquisitorial, as opposed to adversarial, approach, meaning there ought to be less need for lawyers. None the less, as Dame Elish Angiolini’s report stressed, while the state has a duty of care there is a case for reviewing the thresholds and criteria appropriate for legal aid entitlement as part of a wider review into legal aid entitlement.
Sexual Offences Act 2003: Definition of Positions of Trust
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for this question. Protecting children from the scourge of sexual abuse in all its forms is a top priority for the Government. The law is clear: all sexual activity with someone under the age of 16 is illegal and all non-consensual activity is also illegal. However, the Government recognise that there are concerns about those who might abuse their position of power over a 16 or 17-year-old to pressure them into engaging in a sexual relationship. This is why we are working closely with colleagues across Government to take forward a review of the existing law to check that it is working effectively and protecting young people.
I am grateful to the Minister for his reply, but the truth is that there have been some harrowing situations in which young women in particular, although not exclusively, have been groomed by manipulative coaches, sports instructors or driving instructors who are in a position of care. For some time, the Government have said that they will look at this closely, but have tended to fall back on the line that once people are over 16 there is not much they can do. May I urge the Minister to look at this situation closely? The NSPCC campaign is a good place to start. Will he agree to meet me and representatives of the NSPCC to discuss this issue?
I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend and Peter Wanless from the NSPCC. My hon. Friend rightly makes a number of points that need to be borne in mind. We have to give an element of consideration to individuals who are in a position of responsibility in relation to young people with the degree of vulnerability. There is always a balance to be struck so that we do not criminalise behaviour that is currently legal, and the age of consent remains at 16.
People who prey on children often deliberately get themselves into a position of trust, and they know and exploit this legal loophole, as I believe the Minister is aware. Rather than simply carrying out a review, will he do what the previous sports Minister agreed to do, which is to change the law?
This is why we are having a review to ensure that we understand whether the law is working correctly and young people are being protected. I understand the points being made about sports coaches, driving examiners and many others, which is why I am keen to see the results of the review.
Leaving the EU: Assessment of Implications
The Government continue to believe that leaving with a deal is the best outcome for the UK. For my Department, this means seeking a new agreement on civil digital co-operation as well as a future security partnership that protects our shared law enforcement and criminal justice capabilities.
The Minister is doing a great job at the Dispatch Box. Does he agree with the Home Affairs Committee that, in the event of no deal, being forced to rely on the 1957 convention on extradition rather than the European arrest warrant would be a “catastrophic outcome”? Does he therefore agree that the next Prime Minister, whoever that might be, should rule out the UK crashing out of Europe without a deal?
We have always made it clear that we do not seek a no deal. We have also made it clear that any future security partnership with the EU would have to include protecting our shared law enforcement elements as well as the criminal justice capabilities. If this can technically be done and it is lawful, there is no reason why it should be left out of any future security agreement.
Prison Officer Recruitment
Our target to recruit an additional 2,500 officers was successfully achieved in the first quarter of last year, ahead of schedule. From October 2016 to 31 March this year, there was an increase of 4,675 full-time equivalent prison officers.
The key worker scheme is an important part of improving support for prisoners, leading to safer prisons. That work has begun in all 92 prisons in the male closed estate, and 66 of them have completed implementation activities and started to deliver key work. Only last week I spoke to prisoners in two of those prisons who are already receiving the benefits of that interaction.
On 28 May, we announced changes to the release on temporary licence—ROTL—rules, which will allow prisoners to be considered for temporary release earlier. This will provide more opportunities for them to work and train with employers while serving their sentence and increase their chances of securing an immediate job on release. Research shows that time spent on ROTL working in the community or rebuilding family and community ties before release significantly reduces a prisoner’s likelihood of reoffending. ROTL is permitted only after a rigorous risk assessment, and the compliance rate is over 99%. Any non-compliance is dealt with robustly.
I am grateful for that question, and I am genuinely sympathetic towards those in such situations. Family breakdown always takes a toll on those involved, whether parents or children, but the child’s welfare is paramount in court decisions about their upbringing. The law remains gender-neutral and presumes that a parent’s involvement in a child’s life is beneficial unless there is evidence to the contrary.
I recently met Donna Mooney, the sister of Tommy Nicol, who sadly took his own life in prison while serving an imprisonment for public protection sentence. I am sure that the Secretary of State will also want to meet her soon. It is a cause of regret that IPPs were ever introduced; their Labour author now acknowledges that. They were not reserved for the most serious of offences, too often effectively becoming a life sentence for those who had committed minor crimes. Does the Secretary of State agree that much more needs to be done to provide opportunities for people who are now way over their short IPP tariffs to prove that they no longer pose a risk to the public?
It was right that the coalition Government abolished IPPs, which were brought in by the previous Labour Government, and there is consensus that that was the right thing to do. The difficulty is that the Parole Board now assesses in each case whether someone with an IPP sentence would be a risk to society, and the board must obviously ensure that public protection is put first. It is also right that we seek to do everything we can to rehabilitate IPP prisoners so that they can be released into the community.
I think it is because that is unfair. We are looking carefully at how we manage demand in the family justice system. We are ensuring that legal support is offered within the family courts, and that can take many forms, not just legal aid. For example, the personal support unit now operates in 23 courts across 18 cities, so we are looking to make sure that the right support is given to those in the family courts at the right point in the legal process.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. SARCs fall under the remit of the Department of Health and Social Care, but NHS England commissioned a report last year to assess the current state and future needs of the SARC workforce. Alongside SARCs and other victim support services, I have increased the funding available to rape and sexual violence support services by 10%, moving the funding from an annual to a three-year cycle.
My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the importance of technology in rehabilitation, which is why in-cell telephones have now been rolled out to 18 prisons and work is under way to deliver them to a further 30 prisons by March 2020. The introduction of basic computers, with the necessary controls, can allow prisoners to start managing some of their day-to-day tasks ahead of potential release.
Both as a constituency MP and when I look at the media, I am concerned by increasing reports of cases being adjourned, often at the last minute, for the lack of a judge being available, particularly in the Crown and county courts. At the same time, courtrooms sit empty and Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is not advertising vacancies for recorders—part-time judges who are willing and able to fill those vacancies. Will the Minister urgently investigate what appears to be a lack of joined-up government by HMCTS?
I am very aware of this issue, which I have been discussing with various people at the top end of HMCTS. It is important that we recruit sufficient judges, on which we need to do better. I will happily discuss it with my hon. Friend and provide a fuller answer when I appear before his Select Committee next week.
The hon. Lady raises an important point. She alludes to the fact that this falls more directly within the remit of the Attorney General’s office but, of course, it cuts across a number of Departments. I have already had a number of meetings with my opposite number in the Home Office and with my new colleague, the prisons Minister, when he was Solicitor General. I look forward to further such meetings to get to the bottom of exactly what the hon. Lady highlights.
HMP Leyhill is a category B prison in south Gloucestershire. The number of abscondees is reducing year on year, but there remains significant concern in the community following an incident last year involving a school just half a mile away. Will the Prisons Minister be good enough to visit south Gloucestershire to see this prison and to talk about the emergency mechanisms that need to be put in place?
In addition to reviewing the Sexual Offences Act 2003, as raised by the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), will the Minister look at families who host international students and who are put in a position of trust over young people?
Patrick Mackay, formerly of my constituency, is one of Britain’s least known but most dangerous serial killers. In 1975, he admitted to three counts of manslaughter, but he is strongly suspected of carrying out a further 10 killings, including that of a four-year-old boy. Mackay is now eligible for parole and may well have already been moved to an open prison. Does the Secretary of State share my deep concern about the potential release of this man, still only in his 60s, and will he enable me to make the fullest possible representations to the Parole Board?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend who has taken up this issue tirelessly. As he knows, the Parole Board will release a life sentence prisoner only when, in its view, it is no longer necessary on the grounds of public protection for a prisoner to remain in custody. In making its determination, the board will consider reports from those who manage the prisoner and have assessed the risk of harm he presents. The board will also consider all relevant evidence of the prisoner’s risk of harm, and if my hon. Friend has such evidence I am sure it will be listened to closely. We will ensure that it is fully considered for inclusion in the dossier of reports given to the Parole Board.
My constituency is colossal—the second biggest in the UK—and the cost of travel to courts is a big issue. I plead with the Government to look at legal aid with a view to changing it to reflect the hardship that some of my constituents suffer from in paying the cost of getting to court.
I gently advise the hon. Gentleman that in his constituency that would be a matter for the Scottish Government. Beyond that, I recognise that it is an issue across the country. We wish to look at that in our legal services action plan to make sure that, if people are struggling to access justice, we have a new set of guidelines on how we keep open various courts and tribunals that will help to make sure that our courts remain as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.
EU Parliament Elections: Denial of Votes
The Government took all the legal steps necessary to prepare for the European parliamentary elections and put in place all the necessary legislative and funding elements to enable returning officers to make their preparations. We worked with returning officers, the Electoral Commission and other agencies, such as the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers and the Association of Electoral Administrators, to support the smooth running of the polls. The Government are greatly appreciative of electoral administrators’ hard work inside and outside election periods, which resulted in a higher turnout than for previous European parliamentary elections.
Electoral registration officers are under a statutory duty to ensure that people who are eligible to vote in elections have the opportunity to do so. For the recent European Parliament elections—as for all previous such elections—that included making sure that EU citizens who are resident in the UK and registered to vote in local elections were made aware that they needed to complete a voter registration and declaration form, commonly referred to as a UC1 or EC6, so they could vote in the UK. The Electoral Commission supported EROs in this and encouraged them to take additional steps to raise awareness of this requirement locally, through social media channels and other means.
The UC1 form implements a requirement under EU law. EU Council directive 93/109/EC requires all member states to send the details of any EU citizens’ declarations to the state they are a citizen of,
“sufficiently in advance of polling day”,
to ensure that an EU citizen does not vote twice in the same European parliamentary election. That is not a new requirement and has been in place for previous European parliamentary elections. Similar provision applies to UK citizens living in other EU member states. The UC1 form was accessible on the websites of the Electoral Commission, local authorities and Your Vote Matters.
On 5 April, the Electoral Commission published guidance for local returning officers and EROs on the upcoming European parliamentary elections. In it, the Electoral Commission reminded EROs to prepare and issue UC1 forms to EU citizens on the electoral register. On 3 May, the Electoral Commission published guidance advising EU citizens to avoid registering to vote using unofficial registration sites. The guidance further stated:
“Any EU citizen who wants to vote in the European Parliamentary election in the UK must also print, complete and return a declaration form stating that they will only vote in the UK.”
The guidance also included a link to the Your Vote Matters website, where the form could be downloaded.
The numbers of non-UK EU citizens who were reportedly denied a vote in the European elections should be a source of shame for the Government. We are talking about people who live and work here and who contribute to our communities, yet for the past three years they have been insulted, exploited, asked to apply to stay in their own homes and now denied a voice in an election that has massive implications for their futures. Have the Government learned nothing from the Windrush scandal about the consequences of shutting citizens out of public life?
After the previous set of European elections, the Electoral Commission warned that we needed to streamline the two-step registration process, like other European countries have done. Why did the Government refuse to listen? They buried their head in the sand in respect of the elections, even at the eleventh hour when it was clear that the House was not going to pass their botched Brexit deal. The Opposition repeatedly warned that EU nationals were not given enough time and notice. We put forward reasonable requests that could have been adopted to mitigate the risks, such as ensuring that EU citizens were handed a copy of the form when they voted in local elections and extending the deadline by a week to ensure that the forms could be returned.
What was the Government’s response? It was to tell EU citizens to vote in their own country. Not only did that add to the anger and sense of exclusion that many felt, but it was asking people to register to vote in a country that they may not have lived in for decades and where voting registration may well have closed. Does the Minister acknowledge how insulting that was? Will he apologise to those affected? Campaign groups have already raised more than £40,000 to fund a legal challenge; have the Government assessed whether their actions were compliant with the law? The failure to act made this democratic disaster sadly inevitable. In the light of the overwhelming evidence, will the Government conduct a full and urgent investigation?
We have to be clear that the process was exactly the same as what was required back in 2014 and 2009. The legal structure for how the vote takes place has not changed.
On the deadlines referred to, I can remember having a discussion with the shadow Minister about whether it would be possible to change the registration date, but that would have run up against the clear requirement that we have to share the declarations
“sufficiently in advance of polling day”.
That means sharing them in advance of polling day, not just a day or two before, to allow registers to be completed in home nation states. To be clear, this process has been in place for some years.
I accept the point that obviously people did not necessarily expect the EU elections to happen, given the result of the referendum and the fact that 80% of the people who voted in 2017 did so for parties that had pledged to respect the referendum result—something we have not seen much evidence of on the Opposition Benches. The Electoral Commission will review the European elections, as it reviews any other electoral event, and will look into any issues raised. As a responsible Government, we will of course consider carefully what the Electoral Commission says.
I thank the Minister for his statement.
I was contacted by a handful of my constituents about this issue. My local authority has confirmed that the relevant paperwork was sent out entirely in accordance with the rules on 12 April, to be returned by 7 May. Several thousand of those forms were returned, so the process was clearly working, but for a handful of people there seems to have been some confusion. Will the Minister confirm from the Dispatch Box that he will look carefully at the Electoral Commission’s report on the election, to understand why that group of people found it so difficult to follow the rules in this instance?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. I am pleased to hear her experience, which is that thousands did return the declaration and were able to take part. We will of course listen very carefully to what the Electoral Commission has to say in its review of the European parliamentary elections. The turnout did go up. In fact it was much, much higher than it was in 1999, which is the last time we had stand-alone European elections, so, again, that gives us some confidence in the system. None the less, we will certainly consider very carefully the points that the Electoral Commission brings forward and look at whether any changes are required.
Whether by accident or design, this Government have presided over the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of our neighbours and friends who wanted to vote in that election but were unable to do so. Frankly, the Minister’s complacency here today is simply compounding the problem. He acts as if this were some sort of surprise. Back in 2014, many people told the Cabinet Office that the system then was inadequate. The Electoral Commission itself called for a review of the UC1 system. Therefore, given the additional dubiety and uncertainty created by this Government about the fact that these elections would take place this year, surely it must have been obvious that something needed to be done in order to improve the situation. At any stage did Ministers approach the European authorities to get a dispensation from the regulations in order to cope with the situation in the United Kingdom? At any stage did Ministers consider bringing forward a statutory instrument to this House in order to truncate the existing system for filling in the UC1 form? Will the Minister promise that there will be a full and public investigation into this debacle?
Let me be clear: the Council directive is a piece of EU law. It is not something from which we can seek derogations or exemptions. I know that, normally, those on the Scottish National party Benches are very keen to see European law there and fully complied with. This is about an election across all 28 member states for one Parliament; this is not about a uniquely British election.
With regard to looking at the options open to us, we did briefly ask for official advice, but on whether it would be possible to consider a statutory instrument, I have to say that that rubs up against our need to implement that exact expression of being sufficiently in advance of polling day. Given that our registration deadline was 7 May—roughly two weeks before—it is hard to see how we could move much more beyond that date. As for how we will look at this matter, the Electoral Commission will comply with its statutory duty to conduct a review of how the elections were conducted. It is a body that has solid election knowledge, is appointed independently and is not under the control of Government. We can all think of views that the Electoral Commission has expressed that we have either loved or loathed. That is our best option. We will therefore carefully consider what conclusions it brings back.
The Minister does not appear to appreciate the Government’s responsibility for this mess. It was not until Tuesday 7 May that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said that the UK would definitely be taking part in the European elections. As the Minister has just admitted, Tuesday 7 May was also the closing date for the receipt of UC1 forms. Given that the Government must have known since 11 April, which was the date on which the EU granted us a further extension to 31 October, that we would be taking part in these European elections, why did it take the Government from 11 April to 7 May to confirm that fact? Earlier confirmation would have allowed more EU citizens to get their UC1 forms in in time, and they would therefore not have been denied the right to vote on 23 May.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. As I said in my earlier answer, it was on 5 April that the Electoral Commission published guidance for local returning officers and EROs, and it was on 8 April that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster laid the necessary orders for the poll. There was no restriction on submitting a UC1 application before those dates. There was no need to wait until it was completely confirmed to submit that form. As has been said, a number of EU citizens who are resident in this country made arrangements to vote in this election in the state of which they are a citizen. It is therefore clear that there was no undue delay and that advice was pushed out. By 3 May, there was clear advice published by the Electoral Commission, which has the primary role in promoting how citizens use their electoral rights in this country.
We see shocking complacency from the Minister and a complete denial of any Government responsibility for this shambles. A number of MPs—me included—raised these concerns in advance of the election, saying that EU citizens were going to be disenfranchised. And sure enough they were, as they were in the EU referendum. Is the Minister aware of legal advice that says that the use of the UC1 form is discriminatory, and will he—he has not yet answered this question—support calls for an inquiry into this shambles and the Government’s role in it?
The suggestion that the UC1 form, which has been used in a number of European elections, is now discriminatory is absolutely for the birds. It is a process that we have used for other elections and it is part of implementing a requirement under European law. The Liberal Democrats cannot say that they like the European Union’s laws one day and then demand that we should just ignore them the next, when it suits them. It is clear that the Council directive requires us to complete declarations and to send them sufficiently in advance of polling day.
The Minister said—once again, erroneously—that 80% of voters in the referendum voted for parties that supported a Tory Brexit. He knows that to be completely wrong. What he omitted to say was that the majority of voters who voted in the European elections voted for parties who want another referendum and want to remain in the European Union. The Minister was warned repeatedly about this issue in this House and outside it, yet we all have examples of constituents who came up to us in desperation on election day, having done all the right things but having had their names crossed out when they arrived at the polling station. It is an absolute scandal. Does this not reveal a Government who did not investigate properly the proven subversion and lawbreaking in the referendum, and who have absolutely no interest in the integrity of our democratic process? The Minister should resign.
Oh dear; well, I will not thank the right hon. Gentleman for that question. The reality is that we have an independent Electoral Commission and an independent police force which does not—and should not—operate under political guidance. Despite the right hon. Gentleman’s obvious disagreements with the referendum result, the relevant bodies have obviously looked at the evidence and come to their conclusions. It will be a dark day when Ministers at the Dispatch Box instruct the police and the Electoral Commission how to behave.
As I say, the UC1 form implements a requirement under European Union law. As for the right hon. Gentleman’s figures regarding the vote itself, they are not figures that I recognise because they normally imply that my party is somehow supporting remain.
Seven weeks ago, Mr Speaker kindly granted me an urgent question on this exact topic, but the warnings were not heeded. Scores of EU voters were in touch with my busy office and with the electoral registration officer on Haringey Council on the day, just as predicted by many Members in this House on 25 April. Will the Minister lay out exactly what investigations his team will undertake now to put this situation right once and for all?
The Electoral Commission will do a report and present its conclusions—as it does with all major electoral events in this country—and it will do so independently, not under the direction of a Minister. We will then consider its conclusions carefully. To resolve the issue completely, we will look to implement the 2016 referendum result, as we have pledged to do.
I think the Minister has misunderstood his job. He seems to think it is about disenfranchising people who are going to vote the wrong way. After the 2014 European elections, the Electoral Commission warned that the current practice of requiring citizens to complete an additional form needed to be more streamlined, moving to a near automatic system of inclusion as is the case in most other European countries, yet the Minister and his Department did precisely nothing about it. [Interruption.] Perhaps he could get the smirk off his face. We are actually talking about democratic involvement; even though the Minister does not seem to rate it, Labour Members think that it is an important principle.
This is a process that has been used before in elections that actually happened under a Labour Government as well—let us be clear about that. It is a process where we followed the law. We had to comply with the European Council directive in how we held these elections, and that means having a declaration that we send over. If we wanted to talk about disenfranchising people, we could talk about what happened when an arbitrary limit of 15 years was imposed on overseas elections.
Dozens and dozens of my EU national voters were disenfranchised at this election. Given that the election has now gone, would it not be prudent for the Government to re-enfranchise them by holding a public vote on how we leave the European Union, allowing people who live, work and pay their taxes here, and who have done so for decades, to be involved in the future running of this country?
Let us be clear: Britain’s membership of the European Union was first decided by the parliamentary franchise in the form of the elections to this House back in 1972. It was therefore the parliamentary franchise that was used, with the addition of Gibraltar and Members of the other place. That is the one that the House chose for the referendum in 2016, and hopefully this House will actually finally listen to what was said in 2016 and implement that referendum vote.
On 23 May, a significant number of my constituents who are EU nationals were denied their basic human right to vote, despite me and others having repeatedly raised on the Floor of the House the risk that that would happen, including my making a direct appeal to the Prime Minister at PMQs on the day before the elections to use the power of her office to do something about it. Does the Minister appreciate how this scandal has exacerbated the fears of EU citizens that their rights are not taken seriously by this Government? Does he therefore understand why there must be an inquiry into the Government’s failure to act, and will he answer the question posed by so many other hon. Members and commit to that inquiry?
I recall that the hon. and learned Lady’s suggestion at Prime Minister’s questions was about having forms at the polling station. However, that would directly conflict with the requirements of the Council directive, which says:
“sufficiently in advance of polling day.”
We could not have complied with that in having forms at the polling station. In terms of a review of what happened, as I have now said several times, the Electoral Commission, as it always does, will review the conduct of the poll and bring forward recommendations, and it is completely independent in doing so.
Can I say to the junior Minister that I feel sorry for him? Here he is, like the last boy left on the burning deck of the ship. He has no colleagues behind him. There is an absence of Government—where is his boss? The fact is that this is an important issue for democratic responsibility and accountability, and for parliamentary democracy, and we want to know the answer. Yet here we have—I hope it can be seen all over the world—an empty Chamber where this country has no Government and no Back Benchers: it has nothing. When are we going to get a general election to get rid of this ghastly regime?
I think that one is probably slightly beyond the scope of this urgent question. I would always say that it is good to have quality of support, if not necessarily quantity, on the Benches with me. The key issue in elections is that we comply with the law, and the law is as it has been set down for previous European elections. A key part of that is making sure that we comply with European law, given that this is not purely a vote in the UK about UK delegation members—it is ultimately an election of the entire European Parliament.
Listening to the Minister’s initial answer, I wondered, if this was all so good, why did it turn out so badly? The Government claim to have been preparing for “all Brexit eventualities”, yet despite the billions of pounds being set aside, we have still had this blundering democratic deficit. Is there not a real danger that this Government’s reputation for Brexit splits and betrayals will be excelled by an equally deserved reputation for incompetence?
The Minister does not seem to have accepted the fact that this vote happened as a result of something that was entirely predictable. The Department for Exiting the European Union has a Minister for no-deal Brexit. Why has it not considered that the third of the possibilities outlined by the Prime Minister might happen, and it should therefore have a Minister for no Brexit?
I wrote to every single one of my EU national constituents at my own personal cost to inform them of this voter suppression. I wonder whether the Minister will repay me the cost of the postage, and whether he will also reflect on article 9(4) of the directive he cites, which says that Community voters “shall remain” on the register until they are removed. Getting them all to re-sign the form was therefore a breach of Community rules, and he should learn his law better.
Mr Russell-Moyle, you are a person of passionate convictions. You are in some danger of rivalling your hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), who I am inclined to inform audiences across the country and round the world is the noisiest Member of the House. That is a questionable accolade.
Many EU nationals in my constituency were also denied their vote. It is simply unacceptable that registered voters who have turned out to vote were turned away without explanation. As decreed in article 39 of the EU charter of fundamental rights, the right to vote is universal and equal. Does the Minister agree that this fiasco is something that a modern democracy should not tolerate?
As I said, the Government took all legal steps necessary in conducting the European parliamentary elections. That included complying with European law, including the Council directive, which requires details of these declarations to be sent “sufficiently in advance” of polling day. We cannot just assume that people wish to vote in this country, rather than the country where they are a citizen.
The Minister is actually right about two things. He is right that this process has been used before, and he is right that the Electoral Commission makes independent recommendations. But ridiculously, he refuses to acknowledge that Conservative Ministers ignored those recommendations about this process right back in July 2014. Does he acknowledge that the Electoral Commission made recommendations about this process back in July 2014—yes or no?
As I have said in numerous answers, we complied with the legal steps necessary to conduct these polls, following the House’s refusal to back an exit from the European Union which many Members elected to this place had pledged to do. We will of course listen with interest to the Electoral Commission’s review of these elections, but it is our intention that the UK will no longer participate in European parliamentary elections, having implemented the result of the referendum.
If there had been 1 million Conservative voters—yes, I know—threatened with disenfranchisement by uncertainty about whether the elections would take place, the Government would have moved heaven and earth to ensure that they were registered and enfranchised before the vote took place. Is it not a fact that anyone who wants to know about his party’s and his Government’s contempt for the rights of EU nationals does not need to listen to his complacent answers today—they simply need to look at the Benches behind them?
EU citizens can be reassured that there is a huge amount of work going on to ensure that their rights are protected after Brexit, including their democratic rights in this country. Let us be clear: UC1 forms and declarations of their nature are not unusual for UK citizens living in the EU. We have used them before, and we will hopefully not use them again, because we believe in respecting referendums, although I accept that for the Scottish National party, that is a rather unusual concept.
Paloma Luna has lived in my constituency since 1992, and she has voted in every single local and European election until this year. Because of the impossible timetable set by the Government for our electoral services, Paloma never received the UC1 form. Electoral services normally have three months for such things, and this time they had three weeks. What does the Minister have to say to all of those who were denied their fundamental, basic human right to vote? And please do remember that these are human beings.
Starting with local elections and Assembly elections, there is absolutely no need to complete a UC1 form, because there is no requirement to make a declaration to another member state, so those electoral rights are protected and clear, and many used their vote in the local elections three weeks prior. To be clear, this is a process where we did what we could to make sure people were available. The Electoral Commission put out guidance and encouraged local returning officers well before the election—about a month before the actual deadline for registration. Plus, we have moved on in recent years in allowing registration online, something that was not available in the past.
It is disappointing that some areas seemed to accept UC1s on the day of the election, but not those in Scotland, which said they were instructed to do that. The Minister has said that he took “all legal steps”, so can he confirm the percentage of UC1 forms that were forwarded to countries overseas between 7 May and the election?
To be clear, UC1s should not be being accepted on polling day, given that the Council directive is very clear that the information needs to be exchanged sufficiently in advance of polling day. Once information was collated after 7 May, it was then communicated to member states, just as other member states communicated those details to us. That process has existed for many years.
A number of my EU-national constituents were prevented from voting on 23 May, and they are exceptionally angry about it. The issues on polling day were a direct and deliberate result of the failure by the Government—the coalition Government and then the Conservative Government—to address the concerns raised by the Electoral Commission after the 2014 elections. At the very least, my constituents are owed an apology. Are they going to get one?
Again, I can make it clear that the Government took all legal steps necessary to conduct this poll, as we were legally obliged to do. As I say, we will look with interest at what the Electoral Commission’s review of this election states. However, we are clear that we have no intention of taking part in the EU parliamentary elections in 2024, because we intend to leave the European Union and honour the referendum result.
Is the Minister seriously trying to say that nothing went wrong here, and that is why he will not apologise? I, too, have constituents who sent all the forms off in time and who went on the day with an extra form just in case, and they were denied the right to vote. They were disenfranchised by this Government. Surely they are owed an apology. Will the Minister take that opportunity now?
Again, what I would say is that we will ask the Electoral Commission to review that for anyone who did comply with the requirements, although clearly we would need to look at what happened in that particular instance with that particular ERO. Ultimately, at the end of the day the UC1 is not an optional process; we have to comply with the Council directive. That is not something we have an ability just to vary.
First, I would like to thank David Miller and his team at Glasgow City Council for doing their very best in the circumstances this shambolic Government have thrown at them. Those circumstances resulted in one of my constituents, who had registered in time when they moved into their property in Dalmarnock, not having enough time to get the UC1 form back and therefore losing their democratic rights. Will the Minister issue an instruction to returning officers to ask them how many people lost their votes in similar circumstances, and to ask for their advice on what the Government should do in response?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Clearly, it is the Electoral Commission that will be conducting the review of how the election went, and I am almost certain it will be in contact with local returning officers to discuss any issues that were raised. Likewise, at that point it would certainly more than welcome and would probably be quite interested in hearing the experiences of how the process operated in reality.
The Minister knows that the Government were tearing themselves apart on whether or not to participate in these EU elections until 7 May, but what steps did his Department take to talk to other EU countries about extending the deadline? In the age of electronic communication, surely fewer than 16 days is necessary.
The Government were never tearing themselves apart over whether to hold the elections. We were clear that we would fulfil our legal obligation to hold them if necessary as a member of the European Union, and we did. Regarding the exchange of information that already takes place electronically, there is a clear need to finalise registers at a certain point, and to ensure that information is collated and then exchanged with other member states. The timescales now are similar to those put in place in the past, and the UK is one of the first countries to vote, on the Thursday, along with Holland. Even though some countries vote later, we have to be ready for the start of the European elections, not halfway through.
The empty Government Benches will send a powerful message to EU nationals across the country. Many of them in my constituency contacted me to say that they had registered to vote online, after it became clear on 11 April that the elections would be taking place; they told me that the system did not alert them to the need to complete a UC1 form, nor was it available online. Does the Minister accept that the Cabinet Office’s failure to ensure that proper processes were in place denied them their vote?
To be clear, the Electoral Commission website had guidance on registering to vote; the UC1 form was available; and there were links to the Your Vote Matters website, where the form could be downloaded and returned. It was available online. There were some issues with those who mistakenly used unofficial registration sites, and perhaps the Electoral Commission will consider how we can make clearer the differences between unofficial websites purporting to be for electoral registration and Your Vote Matters, the official Electoral Commission site.
My constituent, a Spanish national, had a similar experience: he believed he had returned his UC1 form digitally, but the local authority said it could find no trace of it, and advising him on 3 May on a website that he should have downloaded it, printed it out and posted it back is not reasonable when he had an expectation that his digital form was acceptable. Is it not time there was a proper Government-sponsored inquiry into every stage of the process, so that we can understand exactly what went wrong with both the system and the information available to voters?
I think it right that the Electoral Commission independently looks at the process for the European parliamentary elections and draws its conclusions independent of Government. That seems to me to be a process that builds more confidence in the recommendations that emerge.