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Topical Questions

Volume 664: debated on Tuesday 8 October 2019

I know what my hon. Friend means. I laid a written ministerial statement before the House last week, and at the Conservative party conference, I announced reforms that will end automatic halfway release for the most serious violent and sexual offenders. These criminals will be required to serve two thirds of their sentence behind bars. I also announced that we will allow courts across England and Wales to sentence offenders guilty of alcohol-related offences for up to 120 days of electronically monitored abstinence. That follows two successful pilots, including one in London launched by the then London Mayor, now the Prime Minister.

During the last Prorogation of Parliament, I was looking forward to serving on a jury. When the Supreme Court decided that we should be here, I had to be released from that jury service by a distinguished judge in Hereford. It cannot be right that judges decide when we sit and who attends, but the Secretary of State’s Department has been pathetic in its written responses to me about how it proposes to make sure that we can fulfil both sorts of public service.

I am distressed to hear that from my hon. Friend—I have sat as a judge in Hereford and it is a most pleasant court. Matters of jury service and jury duty are, of course, for the court system, and it would be inappropriate for my Department or Ministers to—[Interruption.] No, I am sorry; it is not appropriate for us to intervene in these matters. This Parliament changed the rules about jury service some years ago not to exempt Members of Parliament, or indeed judges or barristers. That was the right thing to do. While the system is there to accommodate my hon. Friend and his needs, like all other members of the public, we just have to work with respect to the system.

The coming Labour Government are committed to restoring all legal aid-funded early legal help. That will restore legal aid help in nearly half a million cases, but the Government refuse to do it, so which of these groups of people does the Secretary of State think would be undeserving of such legal help: the 50,000 or so people who get help fighting dodgy landlords and other housing issues; the 90,000 or so people who get help fighting cruel decisions denying them the social security that they are entitled to; or the thousands of people who get help taking on bullying bosses? Which is it, or will the Government change their mind and agree to back this policy?

I am afraid that I will take no lectures from a Labour party that took a knife to civil legal aid back in the 1990s. I have a very long memory about legal aid, and I challenge anybody else to better it. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about early intervention. That is why we are working with a £5 million pilot—[Interruption.] I will not be heckled by the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry)—[Interruption.] I will not. I think it is extremely discourteous, Mr Speaker, and I am trying to—[Interruption.] And now she wants to insult me even further. [Interruption.]

Order. The Secretary of State for Justice is entitled to be heard. There is quite a lot of noisy chuntering from a sedentary position, but I wish to hear the mellifluous tones of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who is now looking discontented, to put it mildly. Blurt it out, man, with your usual elegance.

What I will say is that we are working on a housing repossession pilot. We are investing £5 million in early intervention services. I take a great interest in the work of law centres, and I want to do more to help them.

What plans does my right hon. and learned Friend’s Department have to help to facilitate careers for people who want to join the Ministry of Justice who have served in the military or the armed forces, so that it can help to communicate and facilitate their transition back into civilian life?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point about the role of the armed forces. They have a huge offer to make, and I will talk to him further about those points.

T2. A recent freedom of information request of mental health trusts showed that they had spent millions of pounds on legal representation and inquests. In the same year, 2017-18, just £118,000 was available to families for legal aid. Do the Government agree that such inequality of representation means that justice is extremely hard to achieve? (912619)

I fully understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from. It is fundamental to our legal and justice system that everyone has the right to a fair trial. None the less, it is important that we give our utmost support for bereaved families. I am determined to do all that I can to ensure that bereaved families are at the heart of the coronial process, and we are working across the Government to achieve this.

To reduce reoffending we need to improve ex-offenders’ employment prospects. What incentives can the Minister offer employers to take on people who have recently left prison?

My hon. Friend has done some work in this area as a former trustee of a charity that seeks to rehabilitate ex-offenders. He raises a very important point. The new futures network, which we recently set up, and to which 500 employers have now signed up, seeks to ensure that ex-offenders are rehabilitated into jobs in the community.

T3. The number of civil legal aid providers has fallen by a third since 2013. In February, the Government announced, under the legal support plan, a review of criminal legal aid providers. Will the Government today announce a similar review of civil legal aid provision to look at the levels of remuneration and how we can ensure capacity in all areas of the country? (912621)

As the hon. Lady will know, criminal defence lawyers play a crucial role in upholding the rule of law, and the Government greatly value their work. We have the legal aid support action plan, which we are working through, and I am keen to do all I can as legal aid Minister in this regard.

Might I reasonably hope that the Chair of the Justice Select Committee can ask a single-sentence question?

Will the Lord Chancellor confirm that the Government have no plans to change the right to trial by jury in serious criminal cases?

T4.   People in Lincoln are waiting on average 59 weeks for their personal independence payment appeal to be heard. It has gone up by 10 weeks in the last seven months. The Government have created a hostile environment for disabled people. The mandatory reconsideration process is causing distress, illness and hardship. Will the Secretary of State take urgent action to reduce the PIP appeal waiting time and provide accessible and financial support mechanisms for those going through the process? (912622)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point. The level of appeals and the number of successful appeals remain stubbornly high, which has been of concern to all of us who have taken an interest in this for many years. I want to see the mandatory reassessment process be as meaningful as possible so that the courts are not having in effect to overturn these decisions. I take her point onboard and am looking at it anxiously.

I am aware of two cases in the last year where the most senior Appeal Court judges have come to a unanimous agreement only for that to be followed by unanimous disagreement in the Supreme Court. The Justice Secretary might know of more. Would it be a good idea to have an independent body to write an explanation so that those of us who are not lawyers can understand what is actually going on?

A novel point, Mr Speaker. I think the judgments of their lordships and the lords justices in the Court of Appeal speak for themselves and are increasingly written in clearer language, and the recent Supreme Court judgment was an eloquent example, whatever one’s view of it might have been.

T5. There is growing concern about the explosion in violence in prisons directed against prison officers. Does the Minister understand or even agree with the assessment of the Prison Officers Association that the Government are breaching their responsibilities under health and safety legislation by wilfully exposing hard-pressed prison staff to assaults? The number is running at 10,000 a year, which is over 28 a day on average. (912623)

We are very concerned about the level of violence in prisons and very pleased that the 10 prisons project showed that we can reduce violence in prisons by reducing drugs in prison. I am very pleased that the Government recently announced the £100 million investment in prison security to make our prisons safer for those who work in them.

I thank the Minister for recently discussing the important Camp Hill site on the Island with me. Will the Ministry of Justice now develop, with me and Isle of Wight Council, a considered position in a timely way so that we can get a public interest outcome?

I was very pleased to speak to my hon. Friend about this matter. As he knows, I have offered to meet him and others, and I will be very pleased to do that.

T6. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that ordinary people are not priced out of accessing proper legal advice and representation by the civil legal aid means test? (912624)

Access to legal aid is an important part of our justice system. In the past year, £1.6 billion was paid in legal advice. The Government remain committed to giving people access to legal aid when they need it.

Very briefly, Mr Speaker. The Lord Chancellor will remember that there used to be a convention involving judges not speaking publicly other than in their written declarations. Does he agree that speaking publicly can sometimes make people confused about what is the judgment of the court and what is personal opinion?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The judgments speak for themselves, and the judges cannot really answer back when it comes to criticism. That is why I am here to defend them.

T7. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), may I point out that the Association of British Insurers has made very clear its view that the small claims limit in employer and public liability cases should remain at £1,000? We know that the Government would not listen to victims of injury and would not listen to the Justice Committee, so why are they not listening to the industry body that speaks for all insurers in the United Kingdom? (912625)

The £1,000 limit has not been changed for many years, and it is of course a great deal lower than the general small claims limit of £10,000. In my view, a small claims track limit of £5,000 balances access-to-justice considerations with reasonably administering the courts system.

T8.   More than seven out of 10 men and women in prison have at least two mental health conditions, and there was a 30% increase in the number of self-inflicted deaths last year. What investigation have the Government undertaken of the relationship between that increase and the significant delays in transferring prisoners to hospital? (912626)

The hon. Lady raises a hugely important point. I assure her that the mental health of offenders and prisoners is my priority. I think that we can do far more, and far more sensibly, working with other Departments such as the Department of Health and Social Care, to get the commissioned services right and to stop those delays. I will talk with the hon. Lady further about this important issue.

T9. I recently visited New Hall women’s prison, which is on the border of my constituency. We discussed drug smuggling, and how much of it could be prevented if the prison had a body scanner. I know that 10 were installed in male prisons in January this year, but there have been no further announcements about rolling them out in other prisons, or indeed in any women’s prisons, such as New Hall. Will the Secretary of State update us on the plans for future roll-outs of this vital equipment? (912627)

The hon. Lady will welcome the £170 million that we are investing in new scanners, up to now and in the next year. We are prioritising category B local prisons, which are particularly problematic in terms of security, but I will take away the point about New Hall and consider it carefully.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) has been jumping up and down like Zebedee, so I think he will be inconsolable if he is not heard. Let us hear the fella.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

Local families and police in the south lakes have been badly affected by the closure of Kendal court. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me to ensure that we restore access to justice in the south lakes?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and for the enthusiasm with which he called for your attention, Mr Speaker. I should of course be delighted to meet him to discuss any concerns that he may have about access to justice in his constituency.

Given the tragic case of the baby who died in prison and the mother who laboured on her own in a prison cell, will the Minister please, in her review, look at two issues? First, were enough prison officers on duty that night, and secondly, will every single pregnant prisoner be given a healthcare plan suitable to her needs for every day of her pregnancy on which she is in prison?

The hon. Lady has made a very important point. I assure her that a number of investigations are under way. Ten separate investigations of the incident are currently taking place, and I am pleased to announce that the Secretary of State and I have formally asked the prisons and probation ombudsman to conduct an overarching investigation. I spoke to the governor of the prison yesterday. She has introduced hourly checks throughout the night for all pregnant women, and fortnightly pregnancy review boards are being held for them, involving a multidisciplinary team. That is happening throughout the female prisoner estate.

It will definitely be one sentence. Will the Minister further outline what recent work has been done in co-operation with the Department for Education to target young people and knife crime?

The hon. Gentleman will know that there is cross-governmental work on this. We have a strategy on that issue, and the teachable moment and the importance of education are things that we absolutely understand.

What assessment has the prisons Minister made of the discrepancy between the starting salaries and pay scales for prison officers employed by Parc Prison in Bridgend, which is run by G4S, and those for officers employed by the Government-run HMPs in Swansea and Cardiff?

We have increased prison officers’ salaries in the public sector by over 2% across the board. The public and private systems are separate, and both produce excellent outcomes in some circumstances for prisoners.

In June, a 15-year-old and an older accomplice broke into my house to steal my car. Thankfully, Humberside police force was excellent. It found those two and made sure they were imprisoned and put on remand. However, that 15-year-old was released on tag but apparently has removed the tag and stolen two further vehicles, which have been crashed into community buildings and people’s homes. Can the Minister please explain to my community how the current system is working to protect them?

I listened to hon. Lady’s case with care and concern. I think it merits a further conversation, and I will have that with her.