The Secretary of State was asked—
Legal Aid Access
It is a pleasure to be in the Chamber, Mr Speaker, with you in the Chair.
Access to justice is a fundamental right and the Government are committed to ensuring that everyone can get the timely support that they need to access the justice system. However, legal aid is only part of the picture. We are also enhancing the support and offer to litigants in person by providing a further £3 million of funding over the next two years to ensure that those representing themselves in court understand the process and are better supported through it. We are additionally investing up to £5 million in a legal support innovation fund alongside many other initiatives.
I should declare my interest as a former legal aid barrister. One of the first emails that I received following my successful election as Member of Parliament for Derbyshire Dales was from a constituent about legal aid issues. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that we do not waste legal aid on those who do not need it or on poor administration and excessive charges, and focus legal aid on provision for truly vulnerable people who really need it?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. She brings a huge amount of experience in family law to this place. She has made an important point. The Government have always made it clear that it is important that legal aid should be targeted on those who need it most. Applicants for legal aid funding are subject to a stringent merits test. We have begun a review of the legal aid means test to ensure that those who need legal aid, particularly the vulnerable, can continue to access it in future.
Before asking my question I want to put on record the fact that my thoughts and, I am sure, those of the whole House are with the prison staff at HMP Whitemoor and their families after the horrific attack last week.
Over a year ago, the UN special rapporteur said that Conservative cuts to legal aid had
of their human right to a remedy.”
Is it not the case that if the UN special rapporteur returned today they would make exactly the same finding because the Government have not done anything to address that? Is that failure to respond the result of incompetence or is it simply because they do not care?
I do not accept the accusations made by the hon. Gentleman. I have made it absolutely clear that access to high-quality, early legal aid can be important in supporting people in resolving their problems at an early stage. Last year, we spent £91 million on early legal advice through legal help, and our total spend was £1.7 billion. We are in the process of launching a series of pilots offering support to people with social welfare problems such as housing. I believe in access to justice, which is a fundamental right, and the Government are committed to ensuring that everyone can have the timely support that they need.
What people who are denied their basic rights need from the Government is action, not words. The UN special rapporteur said that the cuts had “overwhelmingly affected the poor” and disabled people. Labour is calling for the return of all legal aid-funded early advice, which would be a lifeline for the single mother standing up to a lousy landlord, the worker standing up to a bullying boss, or the migrant fighting cruel Home Office policies. Does it not say everything about whose side the Government are on that they are deliberately preventing those people from defending their hard-won rights?
No, I do not accept that. I go back to my earlier point: we believe in access to justice, particularly early legal support for those people who absolutely need it. We have pilots, and the innovation fund is being introduced. The Government remain firmly committed to helping those people who need early legal support and legal advice.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. He makes a fair point, but this is about people having access to justice when they need it. As I said, the Government remain committed to ensuring that people have access to justice and support when they absolutely need it.
In March 2018, 22-year-old Luke Morris Jones of Blaenau Ffestiniog was the first man to die in HMP Berwyn following a heart attack caused by psychoactive substance abuse. His family, who in this instance did receive legal aid, remain concerned, following his inquest last month, that electrical equipment in cells such as kettles can be used to create the spark needed to take Spice. Will the Minister commit to work with others in reviewing whether electrical equipment such as kettles should be removed from cells holding prisoners with a history of Spice abuse as a matter of urgency?
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her question. Although prisons do not fall within my portfolio, I fully understand why she would be concerned about the issue and about the tragedy of the gentlemen who lost his life. My hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State would be more than happy to meet the right hon. Lady to discuss the matter further.
I welcome another new Member to the Chamber today for MOJ oral questions.
We have made it very clear that we remain committed not only to providing legal aid to those who need it, but to developing further means of legal support including the expansion of early legal advice to help some of the most vulnerable people in society with social welfare problems such as housing. We are committed to finding effective solutions, because it is often early legal advice that makes the difference.
Will the Minister share with us any plans she has to reverse the hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts to legal aid budgets under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 that have been so destructive of access to justice in this country?
I think it is fair to say that I have been setting out some of the action points that we are taking forward. We have had the post-implementation review of LASPO, and are looking at various means of legal support to help with social welfare issues. We could not be clearer that we support legal aid and legal support for those who need it, and we will continue to do so.
Criminal Appeals: Victims of Crime
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) for his tireless campaigning for victims over the years. Partly as a consequence of his campaigning, the unduly lenient sentence scheme was expanded in November to cover 14 more offences, including child sexual offending, stalking and harassment, in order to ensure that the victims of those crimes have a right of appeal if they feel that the sentence handed down by the judge is unduly lenient. I would urge any victim who feels that that is the case for a qualifying sentence to avail themselves of the ULS scheme.
Nobody has done more to widen the scope of the unduly lenient sentence scheme than the Secretary of State. However, may I ask the Minister to continue expanding the scheme? There is currently no ability to appeal against ridiculously lenient sentences for offences such as burglary, possession of a knife, actual bodily harm, and even for rape when dealt with in a youth court. Surely we owe it to the victims of crime to give them a right to an appropriate sentence.
I wholly agree with the sentiment that my hon. Friend is expressing. Let me reassure him on the question of rape defendants in the youth court. If the judge feels that the crime is sufficiently grave and merits a sentence of more than two years, they can move the case to the Crown court, where it is then eligible for the unduly lenient sentence scheme. In the past few years, the number of referrals under the ULS scheme has increased significantly. In 2018, 1,066 cases were referred to the Attorney General, who passed 140 on to the Court of Appeal; the sentence was increased in 99 of those cases. We keep the ULS scheme under continual review and will certainly consider very carefully my hon. Friend’s representations about its scope.
The hon. Lady is quite right to raise that issue. I do not have the figures she asks for immediately to hand, so perhaps I could undertake to write to her. Let me assure her that this Government are certainly committed to making sure that miscarriages of justice are properly investigated, and if there is anything more that needs to be done, she can rest assured that we will do it.
I very much welcome what the Minister says about procedures for unreasonably short sentencing, but my constituent Ellie Gould was brutally murdered by Thomas Griffiths this time last year and he was given only a nine-year sentence, much to the outrage of the family, and me, because he was only 17 at the time, although he was 18 when he was tried and convicted. Surely the hurdle is too high for referral to the Attorney General. It should be much lower to make it easier for the courts and for the families to seek the Attorney General’s referral to the Court of Appeal.
I believe that my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor is meeting my hon. Friend next week to discuss precisely that case. Not every case referred to the Attorney General will be referred onward to the Court of Appeal, because obviously the Attorney General has to assess the case in the light of statute. I know that the Lord Chancellor is looking forward to his meeting with my hon. Friend and will be discussing that particular, very distressing case in some detail.
Perinatal Women: Custodial Settings
I, too, welcome to your place, Mr Speaker.
I know that the hon. Lady is very interested in this very important area and chaired a roundtable that a former Justice Minister attended. It is absolutely right that pregnant women in custody should get the care that they deserve. I hope she will be reassured to know that there is a two-day programme that prison officers can attend to ensure that they get the appropriate training to deal with women in custody who are pregnant. However, we recognise that there are more things that we can do, and before the election was called we had already started a fundamental review of pregnant women in custody and the operation of our mother and baby units.
The current review of the operational guidance for the mother and baby units is welcome, but guidance is not enough. Will the Minister agree to meet me and the charity Birth Companions to discuss the recommendations in its new birth charter toolkit and the need for mandatory standards, so that prisons are scrutinised and indeed held to account for perinatal care?
I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady, who is very experienced in this issue. Last week I visited HMP Bronzefield where I spoke to people on the mother and baby unit. Birth Companions operates from that prison, but I would be very happy to meet the hon. Lady and take advantage of her expertise.
We have to recognise that the treatment of women in prison, their sentences and the treatment once they are sentenced might be different from men and if they are victims of crime. In our female offenders strategy, we recognise different treatment; but of course people who commit crimes must be punished for them.
I listened carefully to the Minister when she said that prison officers can access training. Does she agree that it should be mandatory for prison officers who are working with pregnant women to have such training, and can she confirm what proportion of prison officers have already accessed that training?
Victims of Domestic Abuse
We are committed to doing everything we can to end domestic abuse. It is an appalling crime that ruins far too many lives. It is vital that we better protect and support victims of abuse and their children and bring more perpetrators to justice. That is why we introduced the landmark Domestic Abuse Bill in July last year and set out a comprehensive action plan of non-legislative measures directed to this end. We reaffirmed our commitment to this Bill in the Queen’s Speech on 19 December.
County lines drug gangs are involved in the largest exploitation of our children that this country has ever witnessed. Children from all walks of life are being groomed by these gangs. Given that women and girls are particularly at risk of being abused and exploited, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that the criminal justice system is doing more to protect our women and girls, particularly using the Modern Slavery Act 2015?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. I know that she brings a huge amount of expertise in this area, which is to be welcomed. This Government recognise the risks to girls and young women who are exploited by these ruthless gangs. That is why the Home Office provided £400,000 this financial year for young people’s advocates in London, Manchester and the west midlands, to work directly with gang-affected women and girls, especially if they have been victims or are at risk of sexual abuse by gangs, including county lines gangs. I can assure her that colleagues in the Home Office are also working with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to take full advantage of powers in the Modern Slavery Act.
It takes courage to leave an abusive relationship. Living in fear of the next punch or being told that you are worthless, stupid or cannot cope alone destroys confidence. When people find the courage, they often turn to frontline workers and great charities such as the Stroud Women’s Refuge. Will my hon. Friend explain what the Department is doing to ensure that the people at the frontline of supporting domestic violence victims are prepared to adapt in order to assist victims as the new legislation comes in?
My hon. Friend makes some powerful points. She brings to the Chamber experience in legal matters, particularly divorce and family law. Our ambition is to build a society that has zero tolerance of domestic abuse and actively empowers victims, communities and professionals to confront it. We know that the legislation we are introducing will need to be supported by all those on the frontline, and we have started implementation planning for the Bill with all those who will be affected by the provisions.
The previous Government implemented an independent review of the family courts’ treatment of domestic abuse survivors. Domestic abuse survivors across the country will be watching with interest to see how that review is taken forward. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how that review can make the impact that is necessary?
I have a very simple answer: absolutely. I know that the hon. Lady takes an interest in that matter. We made a manifesto commitment in this area. We are determined to improve the family justice response to vulnerable victims and witnesses, including victims of crime. It is worth noting that in May 2019, we announced a public call for evidence, led by a panel of experts, to gather evidence to help us better understand this. I look forward to meeting her.
There is significant evidence from domestic abuse charities and police forces across the United Kingdom that during major sporting events, the number of domestic abuse cases increases. With the Six Nations in a few weeks’ time, what work is the Minister doing with the rugby unions across the UK, from the stadiums to television programming and working with the rugby players themselves, to explain that domestic abuse is clearly wrong and that there is never an excuse for it? There needs to be more investment to tackle the causes of it, which includes these sporting events.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, highlighting the fact that domestic abuse is out there in so many different areas, and not always where we expect. With regard to rugby, I would need to go away and ask a few questions, but I thank him for raising that in the Chamber and for highlighting the importance of bringing forward the Domestic Abuse Bill, to see an end to these abhorrent crimes.
Sentencing Policy for Prolific Offenders
Mr Speaker, may I welcome you to the Chair? This is the first opportunity I have had formally to do so, other than in the ceremony of appointment.
We have already started work to overhaul our sentencing framework. We know that prolific offenders generally have multiple and complex needs linked to their offending behaviour, in particular relating to drugs, alcohol and mental health. We will be introducing new sentencing laws, including more robust and effective community penalties.
The Lord Chancellor speaks very well on many matters of sentencing, but one of the things that came up in the manifesto that I would be particularly interested in hearing him speak about is extending sentences for some of the worst offences. On page 18 of our manifesto, as he will remember—indeed, I am sure he wrote it—there is a call for extending child cruelty sentences as well. I would be very grateful if he tried to introduce Tony’s law, named after baby Tony Hudgell, who was so brutally assaulted by his birth parents before, thank God, he found love with his true parents, the Hudgell family.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his consistent campaigning on this issue. He will remember my own involvement in getting child cruelty law updated to cover psychiatric and psychological harm because, frankly, it was out of date. I would be happy to talk to him about it. It is important to remember that there is an interrelationship between this offence and very serious offences of violence that tragically are inflicted on children and for which, for example in section 18, the maximum sentence is life imprisonment.
The average rate of reoffending in Derbyshire is 27.1%, which is lower than the average for England and Wales, but my constituents in Derby North are still rightly concerned about career criminals. What plans does the Minister have to bring down reoffending further both in Derbyshire and in England and Wales?
I welcome my hon. Friend back. We have missed her for the last two and a half years; it is good to see her back in her place. I pay tribute to her for her community campaigning in Derby North. She is absolutely right to raise the issue of career criminals. Sadly, there is a cohort of people who are very hard to reach, which is why all options have to be open to sentencers, including custody. But it will be part of our plans, canvassed in a White Paper ahead of any sentencing legislation, to see what extra programmes and measures can be taken to deal with that particular cohort of persistent offender.
For far too many, prison is the worst place to tackle the issue of debt, substance abuse and mental health problems that led them to commit crimes in the first place. Figures that I uncovered show that nearly half of all women sent to prison were homeless—up 70% in just four years. Many thousands are stuck in a destructive cycle of short sentence after short sentence, which costs a fortune, does nothing to reduce reoffending and fails to keep the public safe. Is it not about time that the Government face the facts and, finally, properly invest in alternatives to prison for less serious offenders?
I reassure the hon. Gentleman that that is precisely my policy. It is not just about being tough on crime, though public protection is important; it is about being smart on crime as well. Having had experience as a sentencer, the last thing we need to do, with respect to him, is to reduce sentencing options and prevent sentencers from imposing short sentences where appropriate. That has to be one of the tools in the box. Frankly, at the last election, he and his party advanced a mistaken policy.
Unlike the Conservative party, we care about what works. The Conservatives like to claim that they are not ideologues, but the Government’s own evidence shows that 30,000 fewer crimes would be committed each year if the Government properly invested in alternatives to prison. Does the Justice Secretary accept that his Government’s decision to chase headlines in the right-wing press, rather than acting on the evidence, will leave people right across our country facing higher levels of crime? Is it not time that he acted on his own Department’s evidence and put an end to ineffective super-short prison sentences?
It is a bit rich to be lectured about ideology and an ideological approach by the hon. Gentleman. After nearly 20 years in practice and now over 30 years’ experience of the criminal justice system, the approach that I and my team will be taking will be a multi-layered approach that will emphasise the importance of protecting the public and making our streets safer, while at the same time increasing the sentencing options on community orders to deal with the drivers of less serious crimes such as drug addiction, alcohol addiction, family relationships and accommodation. We understand it, we absolutely get the point and that is what we are going to be getting on with.
One of the areas of sentencing policy that has already been reviewed and consulted on is the whole question of death by dangerous driving, particularly when drugs are involved, such as in the tragic case of my constituent, Bryony Hollands. The previous Government committed to legislate on this issue to lengthen sentences in certain circumstances. This is not in the Queen’s Speech. Are this Government committed to legislate and, if so, when?
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that point. I have met in this place families of victims of this appalling crime and worked with hon. Members across the House on the issue. I want to get on with it. The commitment remains absolutely crystal clear. I very much hope that we can have a vehicle to do that. I am going to be doing a sentencing Bill this year; that could be one vehicle. I want to get on with this as soon as possible. We will have the time and the support of the Government to change the law in the right direction.
At the moment, there exists a loophole in the law that allows prolific sexual offenders to groom 16 and 17-year-olds with impunity. The independent inquiry into child sexual abuse, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Church of England, the Offside Trust and the all-party group on safeguarding in faith settings are all calling on the Government to close that loophole to protect children. Will the Minister please meet me to explain why the Government have not acted thus far?
Again, I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her consistent campaigning on these issues; we have worked together on them over many years. I am interested in the overall issue of grooming because it affects not only children but adults with learning disabilities. The Law Commission is looking at this issue now, but we cannot wait. We need to get on with change. I certainly will meet her and talk through the issues with her at the earliest opportunity.
My Broxtowe constituents have raised the TV licence fee with me and asked whether my right hon. and learned Friend has plans to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee and whether he has made any assessment of how that might impact the volume of cases brought before the magistrates.
May I welcome my hon. Friend to this House? He and I have known each other for a number of years and have campaigned together, and he will make an outstanding advocate for the people of Broxtowe. With regard to the issue of television licences, we believe that there is a case to examine decriminalisation. About one in 12 cases in the magistrates courts are taken up with television licence default. We want to consult on the matter, take evidence and see whether there is a better way forward.
Staffing at Courts: Access to Justice
The hon. Member will be aware that the court system is in the middle of a reform programme, whose objectives are to make it more efficient, of course, but also to improve the user experience and access to justice. Despite the intended and planned reduction in Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service headcount, I believe that access to justice has been maintained, not least through the very widespread use now of online platforms to access justice, such as issuing and replying to civil money claims online, entering and replying to minor pleas online, and online probate applications and uncontested divorce cases. So I am satisfied that access to justice is being maintained throughout the court reform process.
That reform programme, which I read as court closures, is creating delays, but there are further delays in respect of the administrative staff who are supporting the courts: for example, I am told that in Chester and other courts CPS court caseworkers are now having to manage maybe three cases at once, with all the resultant delays that that brings about. So will the Minister look at the levels of administrative and support staff working behind the scenes to keep these things moving, because at the moment we are having delays of up to two years in Chester?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his follow-up question. Questions concerning CPS staff levels are a matter for the Attorney General, but I can tell him that substantially larger amounts of money are going into the CPS—£85 million is going in over two years—to hire more staff. Also, innovations such as the common platform—the online system for handling criminal cases—will start to be rolled out very shortly, by which I mean in the next few weeks. So besides putting more money into the CPS, we are using the online system to make the staff working there more effective and efficient.
May I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Speaker, not just as a neighbouring constituency MP, but as a man who is making Chorley very famous? Normally, it is famous for the Frederick’s ice cream parlour, but with you becoming the Speaker Chorley is now even more well known.
The fire sale of our courts and deep cuts to our justice system have created a perfect storm as courts are left sitting empty even while sitting days are cut. The Government’s own statistics show that on average serious cases in the Crown court are taking 133 days longer to move from the offence to completion than in 2010, leaving victims waiting months and months more for their day in court. That is not good enough. Will the Minister commit to providing proper investment in courts and court staff and promise to end the reckless closure programme?
I had not heard of the fame of the Chorley ice cream parlour, but perhaps I should add it to my list of recess destinations. [Interruption.] The Lord Chancellor says he is going to come along as well.
On the question of Crown courts sitting, we need to bear in mind that, as reported by the crime survey, the most reliable measure of criminal offending, over the past nine years there has been a significant reduction in the total number of criminal offences, from about 9.5 million offences in 2010 to about 6.5 million offences today. That is a very welcome 30% reduction under this Conservative Government, so of course, bearing in mind the reduction in the number of criminal offences, one would expect to have fewer sitting days. However, we keep the question of Crown court sitting days under continual review. Just a few weeks ago, my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor increased the number of Crown court sitting days in this current financial year by 700 to ensure that we keep working through the outstanding case load. The outstanding case load is at its lowest level since 2001. We will of course keep the question of Crown court sitting days under review for the next financial year—the one starting in a few weeks— and, if necessary, we will of course increase Crown court sitting days.
Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission
Discussions with Cabinet colleagues are at an early stage, but I can say that we want a commission or similar body to examine the issues and make recommendations that restore people’s trust in our democracy and the institutions that underpin it. No decisions have been made yet on the appointment of such a body, its scope or composition. I will update the House in due course.
A key ongoing concern for public law practitioners remains the accountability of constitutional processes and safeguards. To what extent will the commission include consultation with relevant external professions, such as the legal profession, and will they be invited to have substantial input and proper scrutiny?
May I take this opportunity to welcome you to your place, Mr Speaker?
Following the Prorogation case, both the Prime Minister and the Attorney General have hinted that the judicial appointment process might change. Will the Justice Secretary confirm whether that will be considered by the commission?
The commission will look at a range of issues. I think I have made my position about the independence of the judiciary and the integrity of the appointments process very clear. It is nobody’s wish, I think on either side of this House, to see political influence being brought to bear on the appointment of judges. It is important to remember that we do not have a constitutional court, or a US-style system in this country and it is not something I would wish to see replicated here.
It has been reported that the commission is expected to look at prerogative powers. Currently their use can be challenged in the courts, which led to the ruling against the Prime Minister’s Prorogation of Parliament. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that it is imperative that the courts still have jurisdiction to look at prerogative powers?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising an important issue. After the stresses and strains we have all seen the constitution being put under as a result of the tumultuous events of the past few years, it would be wrong of the Government not to pause, take stock and look at the general constitutional position through the lens of the public because it is all about public confidence and the confidence the public have in this place being the ultimate arbiter of our democracy, which is key. But we will take time and do it in a measured way. I very much hope and expect that the commission will come up with some evidence-based solutions.
Members have every right to be concerned about what the Government are up to with the commission, given their previous noises about human rights, judicial appointments, prerogative powers, judicial review and much, much more. Those concerns are shared not just among Members, but across civil society and beyond. Does the Secretary of State agree that in any such commission Scotland’s perspective and experiences must be properly and independently represented, and that any changes proposed to the competences of the Scottish Government and Parliament must have the consent of those institutions?
I am very much aware of the important devolution aspect of this issue. It is about more than devolution, of course—the Scottish legal and judicial system was never devolved because it was always separate, and even when we did not have a Scottish Parliament, it had a separate legislative framework that was legislated for in this House. I fully understand the balance that needs to be kept and I take on board the hon. Member’s comments.
It is a pleasure to see you back in the Chair in this Parliament, Mr Speaker. I very much welcome what the Lord Chancellor said about the independence of the judiciary. That is fundamental to this country’s international reputation and we should set at rest any suggestion that that should ever be compromised. Given the wide-ranging nature of the commission, will he also consider that it may be beneficial to have, serving as members of the commission, experienced former members of the judiciary who have the integrity and independence of thought that would increase public respect and regard for the outcome that we all wish to see?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his recent honour, which is thoroughly deserved after a lifetime in public service, both here and in other elected assemblies. His suggestions are well made. I am already having a number of discussions with ministerial colleagues and thinking very deeply about the range of expertise and individuals that we need, and the diversity of that panel, so that we make sure that the commission, or the committee, is in the best possible place to gather evidence and come up with measured, sensible reforms.
Rapes Reported to the Police: Number of Suspects Charged
The hon. Member is right to raise this issue. It is extremely serious and, frankly, far too few reported cases are being progressed into the criminal justice system, so I entirely agree with and accept the premise of her question. The Government are taking action in this area. The extra 20,000 police officers will greatly help to get rape victims through the system and to get their cases into court. I referenced earlier the extra £85 million for the Crown Prosecution Service. A great deal of that will be targeted towards helping to progress those often very complicated rape cases. As recently as last September, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), provided an extra £5 million of funding for rape centres and ISVAs—independent sexual violence advisers—because one of the issues is rape victims dropping out of the process before the case reaches court. I hope that in the upcoming Budget and spending review, there is more we can do.
In West Yorkshire, the number of rapes reported increased by 25% last year, but just 4.4% of those cases resulted in someone being charged. The same is true across the country, so what are the Government doing to ensure that the criminal justice system is properly resourced and that it does not let down victims and add to the trauma that they have already experienced?
As I said, we are putting 20,000 extra officers into the system and £85 million into the CPS, and we are increasing expenditure on rape centres and ISVAs, although I am sure that in those areas, there is more we can do. There is also a review urgently under way to see what further steps we can take, but I believe that the actions that I have outlined, which are taking place as we speak, will move us back in a happier direction.
Court Proceedings: Proportion Covered by Court Reporters
We at the Ministry of Justice do not track or hold data on the number of reporters who report on court proceedings, but I am sad to say that anecdotal evidence suggests that in line with the general decline in local reporting, the reporting of local courts will have declined as well. When my right hon. Friend was Secretary of State at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, he was instrumental in making sure, at the BBC’s charter renewal, that the local democracy reporting scheme provided £8 million a year to get local reporters into the courts. I congratulate him on that step and hope that there is more we can do along those lines in future.
I thank my hon. Friend, and I thank the Minister of State, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), for the work that she has done in this area. Does he share my view of how important it is that court proceedings are properly reported by trained journalists so that justice can be seen to be done? Will he continue to work with the Society of Editors, the News Media Association and others to see what further measures can be taken to achieve that?
I strongly concur and can certainly give my right hon. Friend the commitment he asks for. Certainly from the perspective of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service, staff are given training to facilitate access by journalists, and the Ministry is currently giving very active and relatively imminent consideration to ways of making sure that court decisions and proceedings are brought more directly to the public.
Human Rights Framework: Reform
I have been discussing this issue with my Cabinet colleagues and will continue to do so. The United Kingdom is committed to protecting and respecting human rights and will continue to champion them both here and abroad. As set out in our manifesto, after Brexit we need to look at the broader aspects of our constitution, including the balance between the rights of individuals and effective government.
I welcome you to your place, Mr Speaker.
Before the general election, the Conservative manifesto promised to update the Human Rights Act 1998. Since its introduction, the Act has successfully protected countless citizens across the UK from human rights abuses, so can the Secretary of State tell me which specific aspects of the Act need updating?
I refer the hon. Lady to the answer I gave in the context of the constitutional commission. Updating Acts is something we do regularly in this place. The Human Rights Act is now just over 20 years old. Aspects of its operation have worked very well; others deserve a further look—for example, the operation of the margin of appreciation and how Strasbourg case law is adhered to. All those issues are relevant and material to the work of the commission.
The Human Rights Act is also part of the constitutional backbone of devolution, so again will the Secretary of State agree that there should be no change to that Act, given all its implications for devolved competences, without the express agreement of the Scottish Parliament and Government? Otherwise, what sort of democracy are we living in if one Parliament can change the competences of another with such ease and little respect?
As I said to the hon. Gentleman in a previous answer, I am in the spirit of working constructively with a fellow Parliament and fellow parliamentarians. I want to ensure a situation where the whole of the United Kingdom can benefit from improvements and rebalancing, and that applies equally to the people of Scotland. I hold out an olive branch to him today. I want us to work together on these issues. We can achieve far more working together than by pursuing pointless independence referendums.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.