Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 663: debated on Tuesday 9 July 2019

The Government intend to bring forward legislation when parliamentary time allows to create a Helen’s law. We propose to change the life sentence release test to ensure that, in a case where an offender has been sentenced for murder and the remains of the victim have not been found, the Parole Board must take account of any failure or refusal to disclose the location of those remains when assessing whether such an offender is safe to release. Although the Parole Board already considers such a failure or refusal as part of its risk assessment procedures, our proposal will set that out in statute. I pay tribute to Marie McCourt for her tireless work on the Helen’s law campaign and the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) for similar such work.

Last month, in a letter to me, the Secretary of State revealed that more than £26 million of public money has been wasted in a single year fighting and losing personal independence payment appeals. That is a vast sum, in addition to an appeals process that is forcing many disabled people to wait for their decisions. Does he believe that we are getting good value for public money, or does he accept Labour’s view that this is not only cruel but wasteful, and that it shows that we need to scrap these unfit-for-purpose assessments?

It is important that, where we have a benefit such as personal independence payments, we make an assessment as to whether those payments are going to the right people, and that, if there is an appeal against that, those appeals should be defended unless we believe that a mistake has been made. It is worth bearing in mind that, from memory, something like 4% of PIP assessments are overturned.

Well, it is done on an alternating basis. [Interruption.] I am just helping the hon. Lady. One alternates between the two sides of the House, and although she has Topical Question 6, she is the first of the Government Back Benchers, so her time is now. During the period in which I have been helpfully prattling away, she will, I feel certain, have conceived of an absolutely brilliant question.

T6. Following the debate in Westminster Hall yesterday, can my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State tell me when he will be able to bring forward a Bill to increase the penalty for those who are convicted of causing death by dangerous driving? (911827)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. I am grateful to the Petitions Committee and to all hon. and right hon. Members who took part in that important debate yesterday, and to the families of the victims of that dreadful crime. It is my wish, and the wish of the Government, to bring forward the necessary legislation to change the maximum sentence from 14 years to life imprisonment as soon as humanly possible.

Last week I exposed the fact that the number of homeless women going to prison has almost doubled in the past four years. What is especially shocking is that almost half of all women now going to prison are homeless. This is an appalling indictment of our broken justice system. Prison is all too often the very worst place for people who desperately need help to tackle the underlying problems of homelessness, poverty, mental ill health and substance addiction that led to them being jailed in the first place. Is the Minister concerned that our prison system is targeting the poor, the marginalised and the vulnerable?

The hon. Gentleman sets out many of the reasons why we brought in the female offender strategy last year. We are seeking to address the root causes of criminality, which are very often—even more so with women—to do with mental health issues, as well as the fact that a very large proportion of women offenders are victims of domestic abuse. It is right that we have a female offender strategy that focuses on non-custodial measures; part of that will be women’s residential centres.

Will the Minister update us on the sale or transfer to the Isle of Wight Council of Camp Hill prison? Is he aware of the importance of the site to the Island and to public housing on the Island, and does he understand the frustrations of Islanders, who see yet another bit of land being land-banked by either developers or Government Departments?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. I am as anxious as him to ensure that that land can be put to good use. I wrote to him last month. We have commissioned a demolition survey of the former Camp Hill prison, and I will meet him when the results are available later this month. I will also visit the Island to see the prison estate and to talk about the matter directly with the Island council.

T2. Since the Corston review into women in the criminal justice system in 2007, over 100 women have died in prison. INQUEST has recently published an update on its report, “Still Dying on the Inside”, which sets out the tragic and often avoidable circumstances around the deaths of women in custody. What concrete actions has the Minister taken to resolve this crisis? (911823)

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. Although the female deaths in custody rate is lower than that of men, every single death is a tragedy that we must do everything we can to prevent; and likewise with self-harm. We have improved the support available to women in prisons. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, we believe that in many cases a community sentence or community support is better and more effective than prison. The hon. Gentleman will have seen the announcement we made a few weeks ago about the health and justice plan that we are currently working on to improve health and support for everyone in prison—not just female offenders, but obviously including them.

Recent Ministry of Justice research shows the increasing concentration of crime in the hands of a few prolific criminals, but written answers that I have received in the past few weeks suggest that too few are being jailed. Will my right hon. Friend look to review the sentencing of prolific offenders?

This is one of the rare occasions when I have to say that I disagree with my hon. Friend. For prolific offenders of minor crimes, it is my view that a non-custodial approach is the right one, but we need to ensure that that works effectively. That is why I have announced reforms to probation. One problem we have at the moment is that such offenders get a short custodial sentence, which only disrupts lives but does not allow any opportunity to do any work on rehabilitation.

T3. I agree with the Secretary of State’s last point, but in order to achieve that he will need to reverse the trend that has seen a fall in drug and alcohol rehabilitation requirement orders from 170,000 five years ago to 120,000 this year. Will he look at that point? (911824)

I certainly will. We have recently announced an extension of the community sentence treatment requirement pilots. That is the direction that we need to be going in to address some of the substance abuse and mental health issues that often lie behind these prolific offenders who do cause great difficulties for society. If we want to reduce reoffending, we need to focus on that group and take effective, evidence-led measures.

On behalf of my constituent Linda Jones, may I thank and congratulate the Justice team, from the bottom of my heart, for bringing forward Helen’s law? Let us collectively hope that making parole harder to achieve unless a perpetrator reveals the whereabouts of the body will lead to the discovery of the remains of Danielle Jones—Linda Jones’s daughter—as well as those of Helen McCourt and all the other victims of such tragedies.

I thank my hon. Friend, who has been tireless on this cause on behalf of his constituent. Having met Marie McCourt, I know the pain that is suffered by those relatives who never get the opportunity to say farewell to their loved one. My hon. Friend has been making that case very, very forcefully, and I thank him for that.

T4. Contrary to the Government’s fairly timid review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, Jo Wilding’s new report on legal aid for immigration cases warns that urgent policy action is required to avoid catastrophic market failure in England and Wales. Will Ministers read that report and respond with the urgency required? (911825)

I am always happy to read any report relevant to my brief. We are already reviewing many parts of the legal aid framework, particularly around the thresholds. I will have a look at that report and take it on board.

As we head into the comprehensive spending review, what pitch will my right hon. Friend be making to the Treasury relating to prisons and schemes that have been successful in reducing reoffending?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point about reducing reoffending. I hope that there can be a focus in the comprehensive spending review on what the evidence leads us to do in reducing reoffending and prioritising areas that are effective in bringing down crime. He hits the nail on the head.

T5. I have been in communication with the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), about a constituent of mine who is facing an appalling situation with the Legal Aid Agency. The Legal Aid Agency applies a £100,000 disregard to eligibility for legal aid if someone is living in their main dwelling, but because my constituent is fleeing domestic violence and living in a women’s refuge, her property is considered to be her second home and she is being asked for the legal aid back. That cannot be the intention of the policy, but the Minister has not been able to do anything for my constituent. Will he urgently look into this and get us to a situation where people fleeing domestic violence are not penalised as a result of living in a refuge? (911826)

The hon. Gentleman wisely sent his communication to my parliamentary email, so I got to read it. That is a note to other Members around the House as to how to get my attention. I have already asked to speak to officials this afternoon and I hope to be in touch as soon as I can.

The Non-Contentious Probate (Fees) Order 2018 went through Committee at the beginning of the year but has still not been subject to a vote here. Given that the proposed increase, for no additional work, from £215 to potentially £6,000 has been described as an abuse of the Lord Chancellor’s fee-levying powers, has he had second thoughts and decided to reject this iniquitous proposal?

“What does that mean?”, the hon. Gentleman chunters from a sedentary position. He is not in a minority of one in posing that question, but the Secretary of State’s reply was delphic.

T7. Youth offending teams are struggling to provide their services for young people and the public as the result of year-on-year cuts to those services. This has meant highly complex case loads for staff, meaning that they can only respond through crisis intervention work. What are the Government going to do to help councils provide the sustained preventive interventions that are desperately needed in this sector? (911828)

We, like the hon. Lady, value the work that youth offending teams do with children who have offended and the work they do to prevent offending. The Youth Justice Board’s total funding this year for frontline services, including youth offending teams, is £72.2 million, which is an increase on last year. We continue to invest in youth offending teams, but it is also important that we encourage innovations such as I saw when I visited Lewisham’s youth offending team earlier this year.

IPP prisoners are those imprisoned indefinitely for public protection who have been found guilty of serious violent and sexual offences. In 2011, 300 were released. In 2017, 616 were released. How can the public feel safe when more than 10 of these people a week are being released on to our streets?

My hon. Friend asks an important question about sentences of indeterminate length for public protection. I assure him that the Parole Board applies the most rigorous of tests before release. Indeed, the number of recalls to prison pursuant to that regime is about 1,000 prisoners. We still have 2,500 within the estate subject to that regime. There are counterweights that suggest to me that some prisoners have been there for too long, but I hear what he says.

T8. I have an urgent topical question for the Secretary of State. He has always been very good on victim support, and he will be relieved that my question is not about miscarriages of justice. Brake in my constituency works with victims of road crashes and road injuries. It is a very good and unique group, but I have heard that it is losing its grant from the Ministry of Justice. Why would that be? (911829)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. Let me look at that particular issue and, if I may, I will write to him.

In his speech at the Mansion House last week, the Secretary of State rightly and powerfully paid tribute to the integrity and value of an independent judiciary to this country. Will he make it possible for that speech to be disseminated to all Members of this House, so that everyone here recognises the responsibility that sits upon us to treat the judiciary with respect and support its independence from political or other attacks at all times?

I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks. I believe it is very important to this country that we respect the independence of the judiciary, and the rule of law is at the heart of what we are about as a country. I can tell him that my speech is available on the website—I hope that this announcement will not result in that website crashing, but I assure the House that it can be found there.

T9. I look forward to meeting the Prisons Minister next week to discuss HMP Nottingham. One of the major challenges at the jail is drugs. What is the latest update on the roll-out of body scanners at this prison and others? (911830)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his continued interest in and concern for the welfare of prisoners and staff at HMP Nottingham. I look forward to updating him in detail next week. Among the issues we will discuss is that of drugs and how to eradicate them.

I was delighted last Friday to present long-service awards to more than a dozen prison officers and staff at Long Lartin Prison in my constituency. Will the Prisons Minister join me in thanking them for their service, often of more than 20 years? What is being done on the recruitment and retention of prison officers?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for taking such an interest in his local prison and taking part in that scheme. I mentioned the prison officer of the year awards. The importance of those awards is to recognise the outstanding service of prison officers and other staff within the estate. In terms of retention, we are improving the way in which we train and support prison officers, particularly the newest recruits, and the number of prison officers has increased by 1,500 in the year to date.

T10.   The work of our youth offending service in Sunderland is vital, yet since 2011 it has lost almost half its funding. If the Secretary of State is serious about diverting young people away from crime, will he look again at the current funding situation? We can and should be doing much more to support our young people, their families and the wider community. (911831)

As I said to the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby), we recognise the vital work of youth offending teams across the country. We have increased the funding for frontline services this year. Local authorities also have a role to play. While she is right that the funding has reduced, it is worth remembering that so too has the statutory case load, by a significant amount. That is not the only factor—they do other work, which must be recognised—but it is a factor.

What assessment has the Minister made of the delays and errors at the Cardiff probate office, because what used to take a matter of 10 working days for my constituents is now taking months? Can he set out exactly what is causing the delays and, more importantly, what can be done to reduce them?

As I said at the start of Question Time, it is wrong that people in a state of bereavement are having to wait so long for these matters to be addressed. In May the average waiting time was eight weeks, and it has now decreased to six or seven weeks. I intend to keep working with Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service to keep that downward trend and bring waiting times back to the traditional two to three weeks.

The Prisons Minister has been good enough to keep me informed of developments at HMP Bristol in Horfield and of the urgent notification status. Will he agree to visit the prison with me, hopefully in the next couple of months, so that he can see for himself the challenges there are and how we can support the prison and the next governor to provide a safe regime?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her continuing interest in HMP Bristol. The response to the urgent notification will be issued this week, and I will indeed visit the prison with her in the coming months to ensure that the necessary progress is achieved.

In his answers to my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) and for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), the Minister seemed content with youth offending services, yet every day we see the results of the Government’s neglect of those services. Assuming that he has learned from that failure, what advice will he offer his successor to sort it out?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question—I am not yet sure whether that will be a matter for me or for a successor, but I assume he meant it kindly. He is right that the central Government grant has been reduced, as I said in answer to the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), and so too has that contributed by local authorities. It is important also to recognise the reducing statutory case load to set alongside that, although that is in no way to diminish the absolutely vital work that youth offending teams do. The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight that. I share his concern and will continue to work closely with the Youth Justice Board on it.

Campaigners and I are really pleased that the Government have commissioned a review of the treatment of victims of domestic abuse by the family courts, but we are concerned that survivors’ voices are not at the heart of the panel. I am looking forward to meeting the Minister next week, but will he take this opportunity to confirm on the record how victims and survivors of domestic abuse can participate in the review without fear of breaching gagging clauses imposed on them by the family courts?

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. I have already had discussions with the panel’s chairs on how to ensure that as broad a spectrum of people as possible can participate in the panel and its evidence taking. I will take away that point and hopefully have a concrete answer for her by the time we meet.

Witnessing domestic abuse, especially as a child, is traumatising and has an impact on life for years to come. In the upcoming domestic violence legislation, will the Minister commit to including children who have witnessed domestic abuse in the statutory definition of a domestic abuse victim?

The hon. Lady rightly highlights the importance of the draft Domestic Abuse Bill, which we hope to bring forward as soon as we have fully considered the recommendations of the Joint Committee on the draft Bill. I know that is something that came up in evidence and in the Joint Committee, and it is something we will be looking at very carefully.

My constituent Claire Ball was sexually abused as a child. She bravely went through the trauma of giving evidence against the perpetrator in court. Throughout that process, Claire was given less support than the perpetrator, had no option for witnesses to support her and, disgustingly, was accused of “leading him on”. He was found not guilty—Claire has still not been given a clear reason why—and has remained living close by. Can the Minister explain to me and to Claire, since she must relive the trauma every time she sees the perpetrator, when the Government will redress the inequity faced by child sexual abuse victims in our justice system?

The hon. Lady makes a powerful point. The issues to which she alludes are likely to fall under the responsibilities of both the Crown Prosecution Service and the court. I am happy to meet her to discuss the specifics of the case and, as appropriate, take them up with the Solicitor General and the Attorney General.