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Topical Questions

Volume 669: debated on Tuesday 14 January 2020

Prison officers are some of our finest public servants, and I have had the honour and pleasure of meeting many of them, not just as a Minister, but as a practising member of the Bar. The incident at HMP Whitemoor was quickly resolved thanks to the bravery and professionalism of the staff who intervened. Their courage in protecting others cannot be overstated. HMP Liverpool is driving prison officer safety through an increased focus on key work as part of our offender management in custody investment, through a new drugs strategy and through the improved use of data to understand the reasons for violence, but we recognise that more needs to be done, which is why were are introducing PAVA, a synthetic pepper spray, to protect staff from incidents of serious violence or where they are in imminent or perceived risk of serious violence.

Would my right hon. and learned Friend kindly update the House on the ambitious reform programme by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work when he was courts Minister. As he knows, the programme that he helped to spearhead is already improving both access to justice and efficiency. More than 300,000 people have now used new online services established to enhance access, such as to make civil money claims, to apply for divorce or to make a plea to low-level criminal offences. Last year alone, more than 65,000 civil money claims were made online, with nine out of 10 users saying they were satisfied or very satisfied with the service.

I, too, welcome you to your place, Mr Speaker. Let me also align myself with the comments of both the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State about staff at HMP Whitemoor.

Our probation service should keep us all safe, but this morning another damning report said that understaffing in a national probation service that is dealing with the most serious offenders is putting public safety at risk. Those shortages leave staff overworked and unable to conduct due diligence, force them to take on too many cases, and are a direct consequence of the Government’s decision to break up the probation service, so will the Minister commit herself to returning staffing across the service to safe levels in order to undo the serious damage they have caused?

I welcome this morning’s report from the inspectorate of probation. Its publication is timely, given the changes that we are making to create a more unified probation service. That transition has already taken place in Wales.

Having read the report, I am pleased to note that it says that leadership is good throughout the service. Of course we need to recruit more probation officers, and we are doing that—800 officers who are currently being trained will come on board imminently—but we also recognise that as we recruit more police officers, we need to recruit more prison and probation officers as well, and we are taking steps to do so.

T4. I am delighted that Finn’s law has received Royal Assent, but can the Minister update us on when the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill, also known as Finn’s law part 2, will return to the House? (900178)

I thank my hon. Friend for his tireless campaigning on animal welfare. I am, of course, delighted that Finn’s law reached the statute book last year, and increasing the maximum sentence for animal cruelty from six months to five years is a manifesto commitment which we intend to deliver as quickly as possible. It builds on the fact that—I am proud to say—this country has among the world’s best animal welfare provisions, including a tough ivory ban, CCTV in slaughterhouses, and a ban on the commercial third-party sale of puppies and kittens.

T2. According to the most recent figures, tens of thousands of people still have not had their employment tribunal fees refunded, although the Supreme Court declared them unlawful two and a half years ago. I really do not understand why it is taking so long. Names, addresses and contact details must be submitted in the case of all tribunal claims. Will the Minister please explain what the problem is? (900176)

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. Following the 2017 Unison case, employment tribunal fees are due to be refunded. The programme is under way, and many tens of thousands of fees have already been refunded. The hon. Gentleman can rest assured that the Ministry of Justice is looking carefully at the position to ensure that everyone who is eligible for a refund does indeed receive one.

T5. Does the Minister agree that the successful unification of offender supervision services in Wales under the national probation service is a positive change that will benefit victims and the wider public? (900179)

My hon. Friend—whom I welcome to his place—is absolutely right. We have looked at the system and recognised that it could be improved, and we have made those changes in Wales, where the national probation service has taken responsibility for supervising all offenders. I look forward very much to visiting Wales on Thursday to see how those changes have been implemented. I understand that the transition has proceeded very smoothly, and I look forward to speaking to staff there in order to ensure that when the same transition takes place in England, it too will proceed smoothly.

T3. For some weird, inexplicable reason, the Government have a dangerous and flawed obsession with handing huge contracts to private firms to run our prisons. I appreciate that the Secretary of State may not heed my call for prisons to be returned to public ownership, but will he at the very least implement a moratorium on private prisons until an independent review has ascertained whether they are indeed more violent? (900177)

I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I have to say, with respect to him, that the characterisation of “public good, private bad”—or, indeed, vice versa—is wrong. There are plenty of examples of privately run prisons that are more than passing muster with the inspectorate, and are doing an excellent job. I have always believed in a mixed approach, and I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that will continue. I will base my decision on hard evidence rather than on blind ideology in which, I am afraid, his Front Benchers have indulged far too much in recent years.

T6. One of the ways of preventing people leaving prison from reoffending is to ensure that they have a secure roof over their head when they leave. Under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, prison governors have a statutory duty to ensure that those leaving prison do indeed have that secure home. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the progress being made on ensuring that prison governors carry out their statutory duty? (900180)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that he did on the Homelessness Reduction Act, which has been very effective. I am pleased to be able to tell him that the latest statistics show that more than a quarter of the referrals to local authorities under the duty to refer were made by either prison or probation services. However, we need to work more broadly as well to ensure that when offenders come out of prison they have somewhere to go. We have a pilot with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government that involves a two-year wraparound service. When an ex-offender comes out, they are helped to find a home and to understand the duties of their tenancy so that they can stay in their home and manage it over the two-year period.

T7. Vauxhall Law Centre in Liverpool is one of only 42 law centres still in existence. It enables working-class people to defend their fundamental right of access to justice, a right that is currently under attack from Government cuts. What urgent action are the Government taking to guarantee the future of law centres in Liverpool and across the country? (900182)

I welcome the new Member to his place on the Opposition Benches. We recognise the valuable work that law centres do in our local communities around the country, and we support them through grant funding and legal aid contracts. In two of the early visits that I made when I went into the Ministry of Justice, I visited the law centre in Southwark and another in south-west London to gain a deeper understanding of the tremendous work they do. He can rest assured that we support our law centres and the work they do, to ensure that the people who need support can receive it.

T9. I am sure that the Government believe in leading by example and would want to emulate, and indeed go further than, companies such as Halfords, Greggs and Timpson in employing ex-offenders. Since the Government banned the box, what increase in the employment of ex-offenders has there been across Government and the wider public sector? (900184)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work both as a Minister in this Department and as a campaigner on this issue. I share his approach to these issues. Since we launched the going forward into employment scheme in January 2018, we have recruited 29 ex-offenders who are currently in post in civil service roles, with a further 20 due to start in post shortly. I commend the work being done on Ban the Box, the private sector community initiative, which I actively support.

When the Prime Minister was Mayor of London, the number of stop and searches steadily declined, but they became more effective and intelligence-led. As a result, the arrest rate significantly increased. Now that the Prime Minister has decided to increase stop and search, the reverse has happened. They are less intelligence-led, and arrest rates are declining. Does the Secretary of State agree with me and with the all-party parliamentary group on knife crime that stop and search is an important tool, but it is not the only answer, and that a long-term public health approach that puts prevention at the heart of policing is the way to tackle knife crime?

I agree that stop and search is a vital part of our fight against knife crime. When the use of stop and search was dramatically reduced between about 2014 and 2018, we saw a reduction in the number of convictions and, shortly afterwards, an increase in the number of offences. Leading police and crime commissioners, including Jane Kennedy, the former Labour MP and Minister who is now the police and crime commissioner in Merseyside, have said that the fair and effective use of stop and search remains one of the most powerful tools that the police have at their disposal. With body-worn cameras now in use, some of the issues to do with communities feeling disrespected have been largely addressed. However, this is only part of the battle against knife crime, as the hon. Lady says, and I pay tribute to her work as chair of the knife crime APPG. Preventive work and work in schools are important as well.

Do Ministers agree that the crime of burglary has devastating effects on those who have been burgled? Will they increase the sentences available for people who have committed that offence?

My hon. Friend is right to remind us that burglary is a crime not just against property, but against the wellbeing of people whose homes are violated. He will be glad to know that average sentences for burglary have increased over the years from an average of 21 months to 28 months. I will have a further conversation with him about this, but I assure him that sentences are going in the right direction when it comes to dwelling house burglaries.

Reading jail is a hugely important historical site. It is the burial place of King Henry I of England and also where Oscar Wilde was incarcerated. The building is currently up for sale by the Ministry of Justice. Will the Secretary of State or the prisons Minister agree to meet me before any decision is made on the sale and also to meet local campaigners and representatives?

I am pleased to have already spoken to the hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) about this matter. As the hon. Gentleman knows, bids are already in, and they are commercially sensitive. If it is appropriate for me to meet him, I will be happy to do so, together with his neighbour.

Before we move on, I advise the House that we will have 45 minutes for the urgent question and 45 minutes for the statement, so please let us help each other out.