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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 664: debated on Tuesday 8 October 2019


The Secretary of State was asked—

Female Offenders: Rehabilitation

1. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of funding for women’s centres to rehabilitate female offenders. (912593)

I start by saying how deeply upsetting it was to hear of the recent tragic incident at HMP Bronzefield. It was a terrible incident, and my thoughts are with all those who have been affected. As would be expected, there are a number of ongoing investigations, including an investigation by the police.

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the important role of women’s centres in providing holistic support to vulnerable women. This approach forms part of our female offender strategy, which announced a £5 million investment in community provision for women from 2018 to 2020. As we take forward the strategy, we are committed to ensuring sufficient funding for female offenders.

Almost half of all women sent to prison are homeless, up significantly in the past few years. Does the Minister really believe that this Government’s approach of failing to properly fund women’s centres is working?

Of course it is important that we look after all our offenders, and we have a particular strategy in relation to female offenders. We not only want to ensure they get adequate care in prison, but we are also intervening early to try to prevent women from entering the justice system at all.

Our local women’s centre, which supports many women in my constituency, helped 850 individual women in 2017-18. Currently, though, there is no core Government funding to help these women. Does the Minister agree that funding early intervention to support vulnerable women would prevent future crises and future pressure on the justice system?

I pay tribute to the centre’s work, which I am sure is important to the hon. Lady’s local community. There is funding from a variety of sources for women’s centres and, as I mentioned, it is something we will be looking at very carefully as we develop the female strategy. We have funded a number of very valuable women’s centres over the past year, including the Sunflower Centre in Plymouth and a new women’s centre in York.

Two thirds of women sent to prison get sentences of less than six months. Such sentences are proven to lead to more reoffending, and so create more victims of crime than tried and tested alternatives such as women’s centres. The Justice Secretary and his team know this, but they have chosen to ignore the evidence. Will the Minister tell the House today how many crimes her Department’s own research shows will be prevented by investing in such alternatives to ineffective short prison sentences?

We are very interested in looking at alternatives to prison sentences. Although we want the most serious offenders who commit serious violence and sexual crimes to spend the appropriate time in prison, we want to ensure there are sentences on offer in which the judiciary have confidence and that will turn people’s lives around. We are already working to improve the quality of information that sentencers receive about community sentencing options, including, for example, whether an offender is a primary caregiver and is pregnant or has given birth in the previous six months, so they can take that into account and give the appropriate sentence.

To help with that answer: the Government’s own research says that investment in alternatives would see more than 30,000 fewer crimes every year, an answer the Minister omitted, yet the Tories are deliberately choosing to ignore the evidence and are failing to invest properly in women’s centres and other proven alternatives. Instead, they are chasing “hang ’em and flog ’em” headlines, thinking that will help them win the coming general election. Luckily, the British people are not the mugs they are trying to take them for.

Does the Minister agree with her own Department’s report from July, which notes a

“statistically significant increase in proven reoffending”

for those on short sentences rather than effective community alternatives? If so, will she act on it?

I think the hon. Gentleman failed to listen to my previous answer on the importance the Government place on appropriate sentences and on our particular strategy for female offenders. I was at HMP Send a few weeks ago, and I saw how we are turning people’s lives around in prison. I met a woman who was due for a parole hearing—she is a lifer who has served 10 years—and she told me that she is not actually ready to be released because of the amazing support she is getting through the therapeutic community in her prison. For the first time, she is realising the consequences of her actions. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that women get the right sentences and the right provision in the community and in the prisons.

Knife Crime Prosecutions

2. What recent discussions he has had with the Attorney General on the prosecution of people who carry knives. (912594)

I work closely with the Attorney General and Home Office Ministers to ensure that the criminal justice system commands public confidence and tackles crime effectively. To address this and other serious crimes, we are recruiting an additional 20,000 police officers, investing £85 million in the Crown Prosecution Service and building an additional 10,000 prison places, and this is together with the work of police and crime commissioners in setting up violence reduction units.

The best way to prevent knife crime is to take knives out of circulation and off the streets. What steps is my right hon. and learned Friend taking in conjunction with the Attorney General to ensure that people who carry knives are prosecuted?

Of course, the prosecuting authorities take knife crime incredibly seriously. In 2015, minimum custodial sentences of six months for repeat knife crime possession were introduced, and in the year ending March of this year 83% of offenders received a custodial sentence for that type of repeat offence.

Does the Justice Secretary agree that the sentence should reflect the serious nature of knife crime and the serious damage it does to our communities? Does he support the work of organisations such as Only Cowards Carry, which help to highlight the devastating damage knife crime does to the individuals involved, on both sides?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the hard work of that local organisation and many others, such as the Ben Kinsella Trust, which do so much to educate young people about the folly of carrying knives. The new knife crime prevention orders, introduced by this Government as part of the Offensive Weapons Act 2019, will be a key tool in preventing knife crime, and we are working with the Home Office to develop operational guidance, because we want to get on with introducing that programme.

Yesterday, it was reported that knife crime in my relatively safe constituency has risen by 50%, which is extremely worrying, particularly for parents with teenage children in Darlington. Will the Justice Secretary look at the fact that since 2010 funding for youth offending teams has been halved?

The hon. Lady, like all of us in this House, whether we are parents or not, shares the worry about young people either carrying knives or coming into contact with people who do. The truth about the trends in knife crime offending are these: there was an alarming rise 10 years ago and there was then a decline, but we are seeing a rise again. We are taking a twin-pronged approach, which is about not just sentencing, but intervention. That is why announcements about youth funding at last week’s Conservative party conference are welcome and indeed this is part of the work our youth offending teams are doing all across the country.

The Secretary of State may be aware of the recent murder of high-flying teenager Yousef Makki from Manchester. His killers were found not guilty of either manslaughter or murder, coming as they were from affluent Hale. The case stands in stark contrast with many I have raised here recently involving groups of young black men from Moss Side, who are all serving mandatory life sentences under joint enterprise. Given that the Secretary of State’s Government’s own race audit and Lammy review found that there were burning injustices in our criminal justice system when it comes to race, background, class and wealth, what are the Government doing to address these very different outcomes in the same cases?

The hon. Lady raises an interesting point. I think she would agree that it is difficult to extrapolate trends from an individual case, however concerning and deeply distressing that case was. I think the lesson is that knife crime respects and knows no class or race boundaries. We should not stigmatise this, particularly outside London, as a crime that is exclusively based upon any racial profile—that is wrong. However, I take the point that she makes and clearly we need to look carefully across the piece as to whether we are sometimes being a bit shy—institutionally shy—about addressing knife crime in some of the less typical places.

Rape Convictions

The latest CPS figures from the “Violence Against Women and Girls Report 2018-19” show that the conviction rate for those cases taken to court has increased from 58% in the previous year to 63% in the year ending March 2019. However, the number of cases reaching court, which peaked in 2015, has declined significantly, which is a substantial cause for concern. A number of steps are being taken to address that, including recruiting 20,000 extra police officers and giving the CPS £85 million a year in additional funding.

Many women, including many survivors of rape and sexual violence, have lost confidence in our justice system, due partly to the appallingly low rate of prosecution for rape. Women’s organisations are calling on the Government to launch a fully independent review of how the justice system handles rape cases. Will the Minister take this opportunity to join Labour in committing to deliver on that?

A review by a sub-committee of the Criminal Justice Board is already under way and is due to report in spring next year—in just a few months’ time. That will be accompanied by an action plan, which is clearly needed, as the hon. Lady’s question pointed out. Just a few weeks ago, the Government announced additional funding for the victims of sexual violence; that extra £5 million a year is a 50% increase, bringing annual spending to £13 million a year to support victims of these crimes in exactly the way that the hon. Lady rightly describes.

It was remiss of me not to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his becoming a Minister. I hope he enjoys it; I feel sure that he is uncontrollably excited about the prospects that lie ahead.

The Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre in Guildford, of which I am a patron, is overwhelmed by women and men requesting help. The abuse often happened years ago, and a fear of coming forward means that the perpetrators do not face prosecution. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children’s Close the Loophole campaign aims to ensure that young men and women are better protected. I do not know what progress has been made in reviewing the Sexual Offences Act 2003; perhaps the Minister can update us.

My right hon. Friend rightly draws attention to the importance of giving victims the confidence to come forward and not only report these offences but take them through the system—there is quite a high drop-out rate between the reporting of an offence and the case being prosecuted in court. She mentions a particular centre in her constituency that is doing excellent work; I hope that some of the additional money announced last week may find its way into that centre’s hands to help with its work. The 2003 Act is among the matters being considered as part of the review that will report back in spring next year.

19.   I,  too, congratulate the Minister on his new post. Indeed, my question is linked to his being in that post. We simply do not have enough rape crisis centres and we need to support survivors of rape better. Will the Government consider ratifying the Istanbul convention? That should lead directly to their providing the right number of rape crisis centres. Will the Minister meet me to discuss that? (912611)

Via the Domestic Abuse Bill, which was debated last week, a number of steps are being taken in the direction that the hon. Lady points towards. I repeat the point I made a moment ago about the additional funding for the victims of rape: there has been a 50% increase, which I hope will increase provision of the kind that the hon. Lady rightly calls for.

Financial Capability: Prisoners and Prison Leavers

4. What steps his Department is taking to improve financial capability among (a) prisoners and (b) prison leavers. (912596)

As my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for Education knows, education is often the route out of a challenging background. I pay tribute to all the work that he did in his previous role. We know that we can sustain employment and manage our own budget only if we have financial capability, so we have ensured through the new prison education contracts that personal budgeting skills can be taught. Under the new prison framework, 103 out of 104 prisons currently commission functional mathematics qualifications.

Building up savings can be truly transformational. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 allowed for prisoners’ earnings to be paid into an account. I encourage my hon. and learned Friend to look at that provision again and enact the regulations, as part of her wider work on meaningful paid work.

My right hon. Friend is right to identify the fact that leaving prison with savings can be hugely beneficial to an offender’s rehabilitation. Although he is right to point out that the relevant clauses of LASPO have not been commenced, we do enable prisoners to save money under the terms of the Prisoners’ Earnings Act 1996. In addition, all prisoners have access to a prison savings account during their time in custody. We hope that our recent changes in respect of release on temporary licence will enable an even greater number of prisoners to benefit from saving. Since I have been in post, I have been looking actively at how we can ensure that all prisoners have a bank account.

Leaving prison with just £48 is not a great start for someone to manage their own finances. Can the Minister say, first of all, whether the Government plan to review that amount and, secondly, what steps are being taken to streamline the application process for universal credit so that it can start from inside the prison ahead of release?

As I mentioned, we are increasing the opportunity for people to do work on release on temporary licence, which will increase their ability to earn money while they are in prison, so we are looking at the point that the hon. Lady raises. In relation to universal credit, my predecessor, now the Lord Chancellor, had a number of meetings with his counterpart in the Department for Work and Pensions and offenders are now able to access a DWP work coach prior to release, so they can make an appointment early and then, even on the day of release, complete their claim, because universal credit is critical.

Whatever advice and guidance prisoners get while in prison, it is of little use if they are released at the weekend when support they need is often not available. How many prisoners as a proportion are released at the weekend and what are we doing to reduce that?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about releases on Fridays. It is something that I have been looking at, but whether a prisoner is released on Friday, Thursday, Wednesday, Tuesday or Monday, it is important that they have accommodation and support.

Today’s report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation is one of the most shocking independent inspection reports that I have ever read. Nearly two thirds of children are going on to reoffend. Accommodation, health services and support on leaving custody are all highlighted as failing. How much longer are Ministers going to throw good money after bad in providing more prison places, rather than the targeted investment on education and support that we know helps turn children’s lives around?

The hon. Lady makes an important point about rehabilitating people in prison. We have reduced the youth estate over the years, so only the most serious offenders are in prison and we do want to ensure that appropriate sentences are handed down. None the less, education in prison, accommodation on release and universal credit are priorities for this Government.

I hope the Minister will be interested in learning more about the Street & Arrow initiative run by Scotland’s violence reduction unit, which helps ex-offenders make a livelihood through its street food vans, which in turn are supported by public projects such as the Glasgow Hospital and Dental School and the University of Glasgow’s construction project. This helps them learn new skills and take initiatives to reduce offending and improve their livelihoods. I hope the Minister will be willing to look at projects such as that.

I would be willing to meet the hon. Gentleman and discuss this matter. I must say that, as I have visited a number of prisons since I have been appointed, I have seen some fabulous schemes around the country, and I am very happy to hear about this one.

Prisons: Staffing Levels

In my first orals in this role, I am very pleased to pay tribute to the hard work of all our prison staff. I have had the opportunity, since I was appointed, to visit a number of prisons and I have seen at first hand the dedication of their staff. It is critical that we recruit and retain staff to keep our prisons secure. We have invested significantly in increasing staff numbers, recruiting a net total of an additional 4,366 prison officers between October 2016 and June 2019, surpassing our original target of 2,500, and we will continue to recruit officers to ensure that our prisons are decent and safe.

Since 2010, the number of prison officers has dropped by 80,000. Violence and insecurity in our jails have soared. What estimate has the Minister made of the impact in jails of her party conference’s proposals to increase jail sentences on violent and sexual offenders and the cost of delivering it?

We have recruited more than 4,000 staff since 2016. The hon. Gentleman is right to identify that if the police catch more criminals and we prosecute them, there will be more people going into our prisons. That is why we have committed to investing £2.5 billion in prison places. He is also right to identify that we will need not only prison places but more prison officers. We are actually ahead of our recruitment targets in this regard. The Prison Service has been lauded as a good employer: for example, it is in the top 100 graduate employers.

I congratulate the Government on their efforts to recruit more prison officers. However, does my hon. and learned Friend accept that cuts earlier this decade contributed to a vicious cycle of prison violence because fewer officers on landings led to more assaults, which caused more staff to leave, leading to more violence and so on? With morale and retention of prison officers at rock bottom, does she accept that more must be done to reward these brave public servants—for instance, by improving and reducing their retirement age to 60 because 68 is far too late?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the profile of the work of prison officers in his Westminster Hall debate last year, as well as this morning in questions, and for participating and promoting the excellent Prison Service parliamentary scheme. He is right to refer to prison officers as “brave public servants”, and the Secretary of State referred to them in his conference speech as “unsung heroes”. We made offers to staff to reduce the pension age in 2013 and 2017, but both offers were rejected by the Prison Officers Association.

I welcome the Minister back to the Ministry of Justice in her new role. Like her predecessors, she comes to this House triumphant about the Government’s recruitment campaign. However, the reality is that we just have to look at the breakdown in the number of prison officers to see that it is far from the truth. Some 80,000 years of cumulative prison officer experience have been lost, a third of officers have less than two years’ experience and the number of officers is now falling again—still lagging 2,500 behind 2010 levels. Will the Minister in her new role simply commit to bringing prison officer numbers back to 2010 levels?

We have made a significant breakthrough in the number of prison officers. We have introduced the key worker scheme, which allows prison officers to build relationships with the prisoners, and during my visits to prisons I have heard that the scheme is extremely popular among prisoners and prison officers. We are professionalising our workforce in the youth estate, providing all frontline officers with a foundation degree—

Order. Resume your seat, Minister. I am sorry, but these exchanges are very protracted. I know lawyers like to expatiate, but the answers are just too long, with people reading out great screeds. That is not what the House wants.

But in looking at the way in which the Prison Service operates, will my hon. and learned Friend also review the kind of prisoners who are sent to open prisons? Bearing in mind the announcements made last week, there is concern that open prisons will contain more people who have been convicted of very serious offences and are therefore not suitable for open prisons. Will she review this?

I can, very briefly, assure my right hon. Friend that we are looking at the recategorisation of offenders to ensure that they are in the right prisons for them.

Judiciary: Independence

An independent judiciary is the cornerstone of our constitution and our democracy, and we are rightly proud of our world-class judiciary. As Lord Chancellor, I have sworn an oath to defend its independence. I take that extremely seriously and will continue to defend its independence vigorously.

I am encouraged to hear that answer. That is why—thank God—we are not a totalitarian state. I have a rather scary bit of advice for the Lord Chancellor: could he share his thoughts with No. 10 and perhaps Mr Dominic Cummings?

I think that everybody—whichever part of Government or our country they might come from—will probably be aware of my public pronouncements about this matter. I will keep saying it again and again and again, as long as it is necessary to do so.

Consistent with the Lord Chancellor’s speech at the opening of legal year, will he confirm that there is no place for political involvement in the appointment of judges and no question but that the rulings of the courts must be observed by all?

I am more than happy to confirm all those points, made so ably by the Chair of the Justice Committee.

Will the Secretary of State today put it on record not only that he believes in the independence of a robust judiciary, but that his Government will obey the law, and not crash us out of the European Union against the law?

I can confirm that this Government, like their predecessors and, I hope, successors, will continue to respect and obey the law, and respect the rule of law.

Might my right hon. and learned Friend honour his oath by restoring the proper role of his office in the other place?

My right hon. Friend tempts me along the path of debate about the constitution, and in particular the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. While I am always keen to engage in academic constitutional debate, we have many other fish to fry at the moment.

I thank the Lord Chancellor for speaking out in favour of the independence of the judiciary.

Lord Hope of Craighead, a former Deputy President of the Supreme Court and Lord President of the Court of Session, has pointed out that

“The Supreme Court justices were careful to explain in their judgment”

on the Prorogation case

“that they were not pronouncing on political questions. The issues with which they were dealing…were issues of law.”

Will the Lord Chancellor explain that to those in his party demanding a politicised appointment process for the judiciary?

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady. I treat the remarks of the noble Lord Hope with extreme gravity, bearing in mind his experience and knowledge. It always bears repeating that the judiciary do not have political motivations, and that case was no exception. Frankly, I think the matter needs no further debate. If we ended up with an American-style approval system, we would all be the poorer for it.

Yesterday a Scottish court recorded the Prime Minister’s unequivocal promise to comply with his statutory duties under the Benn Act. The judge, Lord Pentland, said:

“it would be destructive of one of the core principles of constitutional propriety and of the mutual trust that is the bedrock of the relationship between the court and the crown for the prime minister or the government to renege on what they have assured the court that the prime minister intends to do”.

Can the Lord Chancellor assure us that he will be impressing on the Prime Minister the grave consequences of ignoring that warning from a senior member of the Scottish judiciary?

I read the transcript of what Lord Pentland said with great interest. Of course, that matter is subject to appeal, and it would be wrong of me to speak about it in detail, but those comments are noted.

We have seen the Justice Secretary forced to take to Twitter to defend the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law after recent briefings from No. 10 Downing Street. He may well have to do that again later today, after this morning’s headlines. The Attorney General has briefed the press that he will resign if the Government refuse to adhere to the law demanding an extension to rule out no deal. Will the Justice Secretary do the same?

I hope that Members in this House and elsewhere feel that I have discharged my duties under my oath, and I will continue to do that. I will take whatever step I deem necessary to make sure that I am true to that oath, and to the rule of law.

Reforming Probation

We have already announced that we will strengthen probation by bringing back into the National Probation Service the supervision of offenders. In July, we published a draft operating blueprint.

The former Justice Secretary’s decision in 2013 to privatise probation was set up to fail from the start. Now that a partial U-turn has been announced, can the Minister set out for the House the full cost, from start to finish, of the failed privatisation of probation services?

We recognise that there is more we can do in relation to probation, which is why we are changing the system, but “Transforming Rehabilitation” brought 40,000 people back into supervision, and we are ensuring that the new procedure will work well.

Good probation can be the means to transform young people’s lives and help to rehabilitate them in communities. We do not have a prison in Cornwall, but we have many people who are involved in this process. What can the Minister do to help those organisations to get the funds they need to support those young lives, so that they can play a full part in life?

The new system will ensure that, while offender management is brought in-house, private sector innovation will be involved in providing unpaid work, and there will be a dynamic framework to enable new schemes and charities to bid to provide bespoke local services. I am happy to talk to my hon. Friend about what might be provided in Cornwall.

I rise as the co-chair of the justice unions cross-party group. Following disastrous mismanagement by the former probation provider, Working Links, it is to be welcomed that probation in Wales is due to come back under public control by 2 December. The terms on which staff are employed by HMPPS in Wales will set a benchmark for England. How confident is the Minister that terms will be agreed with the unions over the next seven weeks, and what will be the consequences if that does not happen?

We are working hard to ensure that we succeed in Wales. As the right hon. Lady mentioned, it is the first of our operations. I met representatives of Napo, GMB and Unison at the end of last month to discuss that very issue, and we are working hard to ensure that matters are in place by the end of the year.

Prison Leavers: Accommodation

10. What support his Department provides to help prison leavers secure appropriate accommodation on release. (912602)

I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady that finding accommodation for prisoners at the end of their sentence is vital. That is why we have already started pilots to help offenders released from three prisons—Bristol, Pentonville and Leeds—to secure and maintain accommodation, with £6.4 million from the Government’s rough sleeping strategy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) mentioned today’s report which says that young offenders are being set up to fail when they are released. One concern raised in the report is about the quality of unregulated supported living, which is a real concern in Bristol. May I urge the Minister to talk to her counterparts in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to see how we can regulate supported housing?

The hon. Lady makes an interesting point. I would like to assure her that we do liaise with MHCLG. In fact, on Thursday I am going with my counterpart from MHCLG to visit one of the pilots in Leeds, and I will raise that point with him.

I welcome what my hon. and learned Friend has said about the pilot projects now under way and wish them success. Since up to 30%, by some estimates, of people sleeping rough on the streets have a prison record, does she agree that one of the best ways to secure a reduction in reoffending is to step up these schemes and ensure that when someone has served their time, they have a roof over their heads on release?

I agree very much with my experienced right hon. Friend, from whom I learned so much as his Parliamentary Private Secretary. He is absolutely right about accommodation. We are looking at the pilots. We are also trying to expand the approved premises estate by an extra 200 beds. Accommodation is a critical matter, and we are looking hard into it.

Access to Justice: Court Digitisation Programme

12. What recent assessment he has made of the effect on access to justice of the court digitisation programme. (912604)

Digitisation is designed to improve access to justice and, of course, efficiency in the court system. Last year, 150,000 people accessed court services online. To date, no fewer than 63,491 people have entered uncontested divorce proceedings online. The take-up rate is now 62% and growing. Some 94,975 people have issued or responded to civil money claims to date, and they report an 88% satisfaction rating. No fewer than 317,206 minor pleas have been entered since 2014, and if the House is wondering, 85% of those pleas were guilty and 15% were not guilty.

From next April, the vast majority of personal injury claims will have to be dealt with online, without the benefit of legal advice. Even the Association of British Insurers—the major advocate and beneficiary of that policy—does not think the Government will be ready. It is urging the Government to drop the proposed increase in the small claims limit for employers and public liability and concentrate on road traffic claims. As the Government often follow the ABI’s advice, will they on this occasion?

The House has been in the process of legislating in this area for some time. The Prisons and Courts Bill fell at the 2017 election. We finally legislated in the Civil Liability Act 2018, which is due to be implemented along with the £5,000 limit for the small claims track in April next year, and that remains the Government’s intention.

In Suffolk, nearly half of all victims of domestic abuse or sexual offences are unwilling to proceed with prosecutions. Clause 75 of the Domestic Abuse Bill will help to improve the situation, but will the Minister confirm that the Government are committed to root-and-branch reform to remove the culture of confrontation, fear and intimidation in the courts and tribunals system?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point, which was touched on by Members under Question 3. It is vital that we help victims of these terrible crimes to pursue the case right through the court system, rather than dropping it after reporting the crime, and there is a lot more to do there. The provisions in the Domestic Abuse Bill, introduced for its Second Reading last week, will help that, as will the increased funding to support victims of these terrible crimes, to which I referred earlier.

The Government have undertaken an unprecedented sale of courts, which has made giving evidence in court far more difficult for the many victims of crime who now have to travel much further to have their day in court. As the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) said, the fact is that victims of sexual and other physical abuse are already reluctant to come to court, and this plays into that even more. Will the Minister agree to an independent assessment of the impact of these court closures and commit to no further closures unless it can be proved that they are not having a detrimental impact on access to justice?

Of course, access-to-justice considerations are extremely important. Before any court is earmarked for closure, there is an extremely thorough consultation process, and if any courts are due to close in the future, a similarly thorough consultation process will be gone through. I would point out that in the cohort of courts consulted on in 2015 that were subsequently closed, on average their utilisation rates were about one third. We need to balance a reasonable approach to the court estate with the access-to-justice considerations that the hon. Lady quite rightly raises.

Assisted Dying

The Government have not conducted a public consultation on the law in relation to assisted suicide. We remain of the view that any change to the law in this sensitive area is a matter of conscience and a matter for Parliament, rather than one of Government policy.

The Secretary of State will be aware that, under the current law, people can be sentenced to up to 14 years in prison for assisting the suicide of a terminally ill loved one in great pain, and that the Crown Prosecution Service is pursuing prosecutions, with traumatic effects in some cases, so why have the Government decided to abandon even the call for evidence that his predecessor initiated only a few weeks ago?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. There was no initiation of a call for evidence. However, I hear his point about prosecutions. The Crown Prosecution Service guidelines, which were actually pioneered by the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), in my view strike a very sensitive and sensible balance between the need to protect the vulnerable and the need to understand the sensitive and emotive circumstances of many of these tragic cases.

Last week, the police and crime commissioner for Durham, Ron Hogg, said there needed to be changes in the law on assisted dying, and this reflects the view of many in the police. I know that the Secretary of State for Justice is a very compassionate man, so will he meet police officers to discuss their concerns?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has taken a very close interest and been actively involved in this issue. Of course I would be happy to meet police officers—indeed, I have committed to meet others on this issue—but I do harbour the gravest of doubts about the ability of legislation to be watertight when it comes to the potential, sadly, for abuse.

It is a great pleasure to ask a question of my old friend the Lord Chancellor. I fear that he may not have received complete information from his officials, because his immediate predecessor did ask for a call for evidence and for No. 10 approval of a call for evidence. It is true that the previous Prime Minister resigned before that request could be approved, but the previous Lord Chancellor did make it clear that he thought a call for evidence was justified. To be clear about the reasons why: it is not that Government are going to take a position on a possible change of law, but only the Government can gather the information about the effect of the current law so that Parliament can decide whether that law needs to be changed.

I am grateful to my old friend for the way in which he asked that question. I accept the comments that he made. It was not agreed that there should be a call for evidence, and it is not my plan to initiate one. However, discussions and conversations will continue, and the wealth of information out there on both sides of the argument is something that will prompt right hon. and hon. Members to continue this debate, either on the Floor of the House or by other means.

Parliament is out of step with the people on this issue—90% of the UK population believe that assisted dying should be legalised. Shropshire man Noel Conway recently had his case turned down in the Supreme Court, which believed that it was a matter for Parliament to decide. Does the Minister agree that Parliament must look at this issue once again, because it is not right for us to decide that terminally ill people, who are enduring great suffering, have no right over how they choose to die?

My hon. Friend raises the Noel Conway case, in which the Court found that Parliament’s decision not to change the law did indeed strike a fair balance between the interests of the wider community and the interests of people who were in that tragic position. That was upheld by the Court of Appeal. It is a matter for right hon. and hon. Members to raise that issue, either in a private Member’s Bill or in a general debate.

Well, as usual, we are running late, but my judgment is that the House would be impoverished without the sound of Shipley, and it must not be. Mr Philip Davies.

Automatic Release from Prison on Licence

14. Whether he plans to abolish the practice of automatic release from prison on licence at the halfway point of sentences for all offenders. (912606)

I do not have any immediate plans to extend the proposals that I made last week. I reassure my hon. Friend that public protection weighs very much in my mind when it comes to automatic early release—something about which I have long held strong views, from my days in the criminal justice system.

The automatic early release of prisoners halfway through their sentences, introduced by the last Labour Government, is dishonest. It undermines public confidence in the justice system, and it lets people out halfway through their sentence even if they still pose a risk to the public and there is a risk of their reoffending. A Conservative Government should scrap that for all offenders.

I hear my hon. Friend’s strictures. He will be greatly encouraged by the announcement that I made last week to move that threshold to two thirds for serious, violent and sexual offenders. As I have said, this is about public protection and confidence in the system, and I am sure that he will fully support the Government’s measures.

The Secretary of State is aware of my constituent Jackie Wileman, who was hit and killed by four men driving a stolen heavy goods vehicle. They had nearly 100 convictions between them. One man was in the probation system; another two had just completed probation. As part of the Government’s renationalisation of the probation service, will the Minister commit to review the way in which offenders are classed and monitored? Those men were not classed as high risk and were not monitored as such. That was a clear failure, which, as he knows, had devastating consequences.

The hon. Lady and I have spoken about this case in the past. She is an assiduous campaigner on this and other issues, and I am grateful to her. The reforms to probation give us an opportunity to get that sort of risk assessment absolutely right. Ending the division between the National Probation Service and community rehabilitation companies will allow us to focus on the offender, rather than worrying about which part of the system they should be in. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that issue.

My constituent Valerie Matcham’s grandson was killed by a single punch to the side of his head. Bradley’s killer was sentenced to just two years in prison, and the family are distraught at the thought that he could be out on licence after just one year. I am encouraged by my right hon. and learned Friend’s words and urge him to keep the views of families at the forefront of his mind when considering these difficult decisions.

My right hon. Friend raises a distressing case. It is perhaps not appropriate for me to comment on it individually, but I extend my deepest sympathy to the family and friends of that victim. It is precisely why we have decided to take action to try to create a higher degree of confidence for victims and their families when it comes to the administration of sentences.

I was out with Gwent police on Friday. A large amount of their casework relates to serious high-risk offenders being released halfway through their sentences, which is a massive drain on resources both locally and nationally. Will the Lord Chancellor commit to review automatic release?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will join me in actively supporting my proposals to change the automatic release to two thirds for serious violence and sexual offenders. That will indeed help local police forces, such as Gwent, with their management of offenders in the community. I pay tribute to the work the police do in that respect.

When violent criminals are released, it is a time of fear and sometimes terror for their erstwhile victims. Release under licence allows the restriction of both movement and access, but not beyond licence. When the Lord Chancellor reconsiders the issue of licence, will he consider whether restrictions can be put on such criminals after their licence periods are over, to protect the victims?

My right hon. Friend asks a very important question. I have to accept the limitations on the period of sentencing. Supervision is an important part of the licence period, but what happens beyond that is difficult in terms of court order. However, work can and should be done by the probation service to ensure we are protected as fully as possible.

Almost two years ago to the day, the Government made a pledge to increase the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving from 14 years to life. In the light of the Secretary of State’s recent announcement, will he be revising that pledge? To date, no action has been taken.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who I know has written to me. I repeat my pledge to get on with legislating on that issue as soon as possible. We have, we hope, a new Session coming. I am not going to pre-judge what might be said then, but I think there will be an opportunity for us to right this wrong.

Support for Victims of Crime in Court

15. What steps he is taking to ensure the provision of adequate support for victims of crime in court. (912607)

The Government are prioritising support for victims through the criminal justice system and beyond, and we are committed to tackling poor criminal justice outcomes for them. Just last month, my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and I took part in a roundtable at Downing Street to discuss support for victims of rape. Victims and stakeholders highlighted the importance of support in their engagement with the criminal justice system.

The Minister will be aware that the recent consultation on the code of practice for victims of crime has recently closed, and she will be considering representations. Will she look closely at the greater use of criminal compensation orders for the victims of child sexual abuse? They are used in a woefully small number of cases, so vulnerable people have to re-live the trauma either through a private prosecution or through the criminal injuries compensation scheme.

Compensation orders are an important power. The purpose of the order is to pay the victim compensation for any personal injury, loss or damage caused by an offence, and they allow courts to ensure that offenders make financial reparations to victims where possible. As part of our review of the victims code, we will be considering the recommendation on raising awareness of criminal compensation orders made by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.

The hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) is leaving the House voluntarily at the next election to the very considerable detriment to Ashfield and to the House, so it would be discourteous of me not to hear her.

Support for victims is not good enough, so can I appeal to the Government to change the law to remove the automatic entitlement of joint assets from those who have attempted to murder their partners? The case I am working on sees the perpetrator demand £90,000 from the woman he attempted to kill, or, as she puts it, a £3,000 reward for every stab wound.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. I suggest that we perhaps meet after this session, when she can outline a little more about her case.

Topical Questions

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.