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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
25 February 2020
Volume 672

MINISTRY OF JUSTICE

The Secretary of State was asked—

Stillbirths

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1. What progress he has made on bringing into force the terms of the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019 to extend the power to coroners to investigate stillbirths. [900811]

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May I welcome my new ministerial colleagues, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer) and my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), to their places?

I recently consulted on proposals for introducing coronial investigations of stillbirths, along with a colleague in the Department of Health and Social Care, and we will publish our consultation response in the early summer. I will of course be pleased to meet my hon. Friend about this issue.

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It is good to see my right hon. and learned Friend in his place and I know he is sympathetic to this, but the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act became law in May last year and the consultation on the terms of how the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 could be changed finished last summer, as he said. The former Justice Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), did a lot of preparatory work on this, and since then there have been further cases of clusters of stillbirths. What is the hold-up?

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I am very grateful to my hon. Friend and share his strong commitment to this issue. Many Members in this House have been touched directly or indirectly by the tragedy of stillbirth. It is important to note that we are ahead of target in halving stillbirths by 2025. I fully accept, however, that bereaved parents need answers now. We will be publishing the consultation response as soon as possible. I want to move this on as quickly as possible. I give him that assurance.

Istanbul Convention

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2. What steps he is taking to implement the Istanbul convention on action against violence against women and domestic violence. [900812]

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The United Kingdom signed the convention in 2012 to reaffirm our strong commitment to tackling violence against women and girls, and, as required by the Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (Ratification of Convention) Act 2017, we published the latest annual report on our progress towards ratification on 31 October. I can assure the hon. Lady that in forthcoming legislation we will include the necessary measures to cover all parts of the United Kingdom to ensure compliance.

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The Istanbul convention enshrines the rights of survivors of sexual violence; it includes the right to access crisis counselling and mental health support. Over 6,000 people are currently waiting to be seen by mental health specialists after experiencing sexual violence. Most of them have been told they will have to wait over a year to get help. What will the right hon. and learned Gentleman do to urgently address this?

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As well as introducing our important domestic abuse Bill, we are already committing more resources to rape crisis centres. For example, rape and sexual abuse support services have had their funding increased to £32 million over the next three years—an increase of over 50%—which will provide free advice, support and counselling at 94 rape support centres, which is more than ever before. That is encouraging progress.

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On International Women’s Day last year, Ireland became the 34th country to ratify the Istanbul convention, but unfortunately the United Kingdom is one of only six countries yet to do so. Can we take this as an indication of where the UK intends to position itself on the world stage in terms of rights and protections of citizens post-Brexit?

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I can reassure the hon. and learned Lady that not only is the United Kingdom committed both internationally and domestically through legislation—I know that she actively supported that back in 2017—to implement the convention, but in many respects we are ahead of the obligations that the convention places upon us, and we are among the leaders of the world in our support and in our approach to violence against women and girls and the victims of sexual abuse. We should not be complacent about that, but it is worth reminding ourselves of how far we have come.

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That is all very well, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s own Government’s report identified two major respects in which UK law has yet to comply sufficiently to make us able to ratify the convention. The legislation to which he refers, introduced by my former colleague Dr Eilidh Whiteford, was introduced three years ago, so what we need to know today is what is stopping the UK Government following the lead of the Scots and the Irish. Is it by any chance the requirement to support migrant women experiencing domestic abuse, who often find it impossible to access emergency protection because of the no recourse to public funds condition? His own Government identified that as one of the two major problems. What will be done about that, and when?

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The hon. and learned Lady knows that in response to the Joint Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill the Government are taking careful account of the evidence that has been provided on that specific issue. In previous annual reports we have indicated compliance with the articles, but we have to make sure that the concerns raised in the Joint Committee are properly addressed. We will no doubt have an opportunity with the forthcoming Bill to debate these issues, and I look forward to engaging with the hon. and learned Lady on the subject.

Deradicalisation of Prisoners: Longer Sentences

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3. What assessment he has made of the effect of longer prison sentences on the deradicalisation of prisoners. [900813]

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In order to protect the public, it is vital that those who are convicted of terrorism offences serve a longer proportion of their prison sentence in prison and are subject to release after an assessment by the Parole Board. Experience shows that the path towards deradicalisation is very complex, and interventions need to be provided over a significant period to have an impact on rehabilitation.

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I am grateful for that answer, but surely the purpose of putting someone who needs to be deradicalised in prison and lengthening their sentence has to be to give a greater opportunity for deradicalisation. What resources will be made available to people serving longer sentences to make that deradicalisation effective?

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The hon. Member will know that in January we announced a £90 million package of measures to counter extremism. Within that, there is a £3 million package for specialist intervention—counter-terrorism programmes and intervention centres—to build an evidence base for what works. We are also training our prison officers to assess when there are incidents, report them and challenge terrorist behaviour.

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When the Lord Chancellor introduced the Bill to curtail the early release of prisoners with his usual mix of alacrity and wisdom, I suggested on Second Reading, based on information from the House of Commons Library, that about 160 people might have been released early. Since then, having received further advice from our excellent Library experts, it has become clear that the Home Office quarterly report does not distinguish between early release and all release. Will the Minister take the opportunity to set the record straight by telling the House exactly how many prisoners have been released before serving their full custodial term of sentence in each year since 2013?

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My right hon. Friend has a lot of experience in this area, having been the Minister for Security, and I was very pleased to work with him on the Investigatory Powers Bill. He is right to highlight that very important point. We are looking into this matter and I am very happy to write to him with the precise details in due course.

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The Minister will know that the Prime Minister David Cameron asked me to carry out a review of disproportionality in the justice system. It showed a very worrying rise not just in disproportionality for all ethnic minorities but in the Muslim population in our prisons. Will the Minister ask the Secretary of State to meet me to discuss the Department’s progress on the review, a review that successive Secretaries of State have taken very seriously?

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We were very happy to receive the right hon. Member’s review in 2017 on ethnic minority individuals in the criminal justice system and have acted on many of its recommendations. We recently published an update on progress across the Lammy recommendations, which demonstrates a range of work. I am very happy to meet him. I do not make that offer on behalf of the Secretary of State—[Interruption.] I hear that the Secretary of State is also happy to meet him to discuss the very important work on this area.

Reoffending Reduction

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4. What plans he has to help reduce prisoner reoffending. [900814]

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7. What plans he has to reduce prisoner reoffending. [900817]

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13. What plans he has to reduce prisoner reoffending. [900823]

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There will be a renewed and ambitious cross-Government effort to reduce reoffending. It will build on the existing established partnerships with a range of other Government Departments. We will focus on addressing the health of offenders, educational attainment, rebuilding or reinforcing family relationships, and housing and employment issues.

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Many of those in prison have low educational attainment and lack skills, which makes it difficult for them to integrate on release. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that education and training in prisons give offenders the skills they need to have successful crime-free lives when they are released?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that question. She can be reassured that in April 2019 we implemented new prison education contracts which deliver services designed by prison governors and staff to best meet the specific needs of their prisoners and local labour markets. Indeed, we will be developing a new prison education service that will build on further commissioning, improving the range of training available to prisoners that is directly linked to real jobs on their release.

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As someone who used to mentor young offenders, I saw at first hand the impact that not having somewhere to go after release had on them and their chances of getting into meaningful employment. What steps is my right hon. and learned Friend taking to ensure that those who leave prison have somewhere safe to live?

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My hon. Friend speaks with authority on this matter. It is simple: a home, a job and a friend are the path away from reoffending. Through the Government’s rough sleeping strategy, we are investing up to £6.4 million in a pilot scheme to support individuals released from three named prisons: Bristol, Leeds and Pentonville. I am sure that that work can be scaled up to offer released prisoners a real opportunity to have stable accommodation.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that a key pathway to reducing reoffending is through meaningful and rewarding paid work that prisoners can do, such as that provided by my constituent in Clwyd South, Kerry Mackay, whose rapidly expanding business based in Llangollen sells environmentally friendly, biodegradable cleaning pads called Scrubbies, some of which are made by prisoners in Warrington and Wrexham?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for citing an example from Llangollen, a wonderful part of my homeland. I agree that meaningful and rewarding paid work can contribute to ex-offenders turning their backs on crime, and I commend his constituent for recognising that potential. As a result of the New Futures Network that was set up last year, over 480 businesses have signed up to offer work to prisoners as a pathway out of crime.

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With their privatisation of probation, the free market fundamentalists in the Conservative party sent reoffending up and made working-class communities less safe. Despite acknowledging that that privatisation failed, under new plans the Tories are still insisting on handing hundreds of millions of pounds over to private companies. Is that because they are ideologically wedded to the free market, or is it because the Tory party is in the pockets of the billionaires and the private corporations?

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The only fundamentalist I see is sitting on the Benches dead ahead. This Government are committed to reforming and improving the probation service by creating a truly national framework. I make no apology for wanting to harness the ability of small organisations and charities who specialise in rehabilitation, working together with our National Probation Service. We are not ideological; the hon. Gentleman is.

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I am afraid that even though the Government do not like it, what I said is in fact the truth. They even had a Justice Minister who was a spin doctor for the private sector justice giant, Serco. If they want to show that they actually care about public safety, will they guarantee today that any corporate giant involved in the probation privatisation scandal will be excluded, as they should be, from the new probation contracts? No waffle, please—a simple yes or no will suffice.

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The hon. Gentleman tries very hard to pin the ideological cap on me and our Front Benchers. I am afraid that he is playing a very old record that needs to be changed. We take an entirely new approach to probation. We will look at all providers and judge them on their past record, but we want to make sure that we obtain maximum value for money, harnessing the best of our National Probation Service with the work of the third sector, the voluntary sector and, indeed, the private sector, where appropriate.

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I have no doubt about the Lord Chancellor’s sincerity in trying to help people not to reoffend. I also know that he cares deeply about Wales. There is a specific problem with female reoffenders and there not being a women’s centre in Wales. Will he update the House on the progress he has made with the Welsh Government on ensuring that a women’s centre will be built in Wales in the coming months and years?

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The hon. Gentleman is right to press me on this. It is an ambition of mine to attain that, bearing in mind my deep knowledge of women offenders and the fact that Eastwood Park is the nearest secure accommodation for them. At the moment, I cannot promise specific plans, but I am prepared to work with him and indeed the Welsh Government to make that a reality through our excellent women offenders strategy, which is championed by the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer).

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Is the Lord Chancellor aware of the work of the Community Self Build Agency in helping ex-offenders to create their own dwellings, which they can then rent at an affordable rate and possibly buy in the future, and the startling effect that that has had on recidivism rates? Given that the National Self Build & Renovation Centre is in his constituency, will he consider working with the Right to Build Task Force on a project to scale up models that have already been demonstrated to work in this area?

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My hon. Friend is right to mention the National Self Build & Renovation Centre. I am very interested in modern methods of construction and how they could be developed on the secure estate as a real contribution to our housing supply issue, and I would be very interested to work with him and the organisation he mentions to make that more of a reality.

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In Scotland, we have seen a fall in reoffending rates, which are now at a 20-year low. This is a remarkable achievement by the Scottish Government, who have reformed the justice system by focusing on community sentences, such as community payback orders, and a presumption against short sentences. Will the Lord Chancellor meet his counterpart in the Scottish Government to discuss what the UK Government can do to learn from the SNP Scottish Government?

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I welcome the spirit in which the hon. Gentleman raises his question. When I was Solicitor General, I met the lead official on community sentencing in the Scottish Government, who had a lot of experience here in the capital and elsewhere in England. Yes, there is a lot we can learn, although I am not with him on an absolute abolition of short-term sentences. The evidence does not necessarily point to it making a big contribution to a reduction in reoffending. However, there is a stubborn cohort of prolific offenders who end up in a revolving door situation, and it is that agenda that I will be addressing as part of my smart approach to sentencing later in the year.

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For one category of crime—domestic violence—the moment of release of the perpetrator is the start of a period of fear for their erstwhile victim. Has the Lord Chancellor considered the possibility of extending the restrictions and restraints on those criminals beyond the sentence period they are given in court?

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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising an issue of deep concern to us all. He will be reassured to know that a range of options is available now to the courts, including restriction orders, serious crime prevention orders and other types of court order, that can prevent the perpetrator from contact or association with his or her victim. I would be happy to discuss the matter further with him. I do not want to add unnecessarily to the statute book, but he will be encouraged, I think, by the provisions in the domestic abuse Bill that will help to knit together the approach we want to take to protect victims of domestic abuse more effectively.

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A significant number of prisoners are ex-service personnel, many of them suffering from PTSD. To make sure they do not reoffend, what is being done to help them in prison with their PTSD?

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The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of veterans. It is important to remember that many of our veterans serve in our Prison Service as prison officers, probation officers and other dedicated public servants, and the learning they bring is often the best possible support that can be given to veterans who end up in the criminal justice system. I assure him that a lot of work goes into that issue, but yes more can be done—the identification of veterans is very important, although not the easiest thing to solve—and I take on board his comments and welcome his commitment.

Prison Capacity

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5. What steps his Department is taking to increase prison capacity. [900815]

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We are investing £2.5 billion in an additional 10,000 prison places. This is on top of the 3,500 prison places already being built and in the pipeline.

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Which types of offenders will my hon. and learned Friend be prioritising for these new prison places, and what will she do to make sure they are given opportunities for reform and that they are places of rehabilitation, not just incarceration?

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The next two prisons being built, at Wellingborough and Glen Parva, will be category C resettlement prisons that will house low-risk offenders coming to the end of their sentences, and will provide them with modern, safe and secure living conditions will enable them to rehabilitate. My hon. Friend is right that rehabilitation is critical, and the prisons will have in them industry spaces to enable them to learn skills and get jobs on the outside.

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I rise as co-chair of the justice unions parliamentary group. Figures released last week revealed that prison officers were resigning at record rates, which prompts the question: how can the Government consider increasing prison capacity without first dealing with the staffing crisis? How does the Minister propose to retain staff currently leaving the Prison Service in their droves, given the toxic combination of poor pay, a dangerous workplace and an inhumane pension age?

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The hon. Member is right to draw attention to the importance of prison officers, because they are critical to the whole system. I am very pleased that we have beaten our recruitment and retention targets with a net increase of over 4,300 officers, but, as the hon. Member says, we need to keep them safe. We are rolling out a number of measures including the use of PAVA—the pepper spray—and 6,000 body-worn cameras, improving and increasing training, and building on the key workers scheme which enables officers to build a relationship with the prisoners under their control and which we know is helping to reduce violence in our prisons.

Retail Crime: Sentences

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6. What steps he is taking to increase the length of sentences for people convicted of retail crime. [900816]

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My hon. Friend is right to ask that question. Shops are the lifeblood of our local communities, and shopkeepers should be free to go about their business without fear. My hon. Friend is, of course, a tireless campaigner on this issue.

Shoplifting is covered by section 1 of the Theft Act 1968. It is triable either way, in a Crown court or a magistrates court, and carries a maximum sentence of seven years.

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Can the Minister assure me that not only his own Department but the Home Office take retail crime, particularly shop crime, seriously? There is a feeling in the trade that what is sometimes referred to as low-level crime is not taken seriously at all, which, of course, just encourages it.

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Once again, my hon. Friend has made a very good point. The Policing Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), is present, and will have heard it. One of the issues on which the extra 20,000 police officers will focus is exactly the one to which he has referred—the need to ensure that our shopkeepers are kept safe and that, when crimes are committed against them, the crimes are investigated thoroughly and those responsible are prosecuted.

Domestic Abuse

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8. What steps he is taking to support victims of domestic abuse through the criminal justice system. [900818]

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11. What steps he is taking to support victims of domestic abuse through the criminal justice system. [900821]

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21. What steps he is taking to support victims of domestic abuse through the criminal justice system. [900831]

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Domestic abuse is an abhorrent crime, and we are determined to better protect and support victims and their children and bring perpetrators to justice. We are fully committed to enacting the landmark domestic abuse Bill during this Session. That Bill, and the wider action plan, will help to ensure that victims have the confidence to come forward and report their experiences, safe in the knowledge that those in the justice system and other agencies will do all in their power to protect and support them and their children and to pursue the abusers.

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What steps are being taken in tackling domestic abuse that are directed at perpetrator programmes to deal with the root cause of this serious problem?

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My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of perpetrator engagement. There are a number of programmes aimed both at those who have been convicted of domestic abuse and at those who have not received such criminal convictions but who pose a real risk. The programmes address the factors that lead to domestic abuse, helping to teach people how to solve problems, manage their own emotions, and make the changes in their lives that will render them less rather than more likely to commit acts of domestic abuse. However, the effectiveness of the programmes is subject to ongoing review via monitoring and evaluation.

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Will the Minister give a cast-iron guarantee that the domestic abuse Bill will be reintroduced during this Session?

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Matthew Ellis, the Staffordshire police and crime commissioner, reports that three out of four victims of domestic abuse in Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire have children, and local head teachers have raised concerns with me about the effect on those children. What are the Government doing to support children who have witnessed domestic violence?

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My hon. Friend raises a very important issue. Domestic abuse has a devastating impact on children and young people, which is why the Government have provided £8 million over the last two years for services designed to support children who are affected by it. We are also supporting the roll-out of Operation Encompass, which ensures that information is shared between the police and local schools when children have been exposed to domestic abuse. Following last year’s children in need review, we have committed ourselves to further action to improve the way in which that service is delivered.

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At the moment, the justice system is failing the most vulnerable victims. Far too often, domestic abusers are using the family and criminal courts to publicly re-traumatise their victims. Will the Minister ensure that no woman is callously and unjustly cross-examined by her abuser, and will he ensure that these provisions are in place by the end of this year at the latest?

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The hon. Lady is right to raise the perpetuation of abuse through the court system. That is why the provisions in the domestic abuse Bill relating to the prohibition of cross-examination by perpetrators are so important, and they will remain in the Bill when it is reintroduced. She will remember welcoming it last time. I can assure her that the special measures that we have already taken in the criminal courts, which she knows about, will be replicated in other forums to offer maximum protection and support to victims who get abused in that way.

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Given the recent well-publicised judgment in the Court of Appeal on consent and the family courts, does the Secretary of State agree with the President of the Family Court when he said:

“I am confident that every judge and every magistrate undertaking family law proceedings now fully understands…the emotional and psychological harm that may be inflicted by one adult in a close relationship upon the other and upon their children”.

If he does not share the president’s confidence, will he raise that matter with Andrew McFarlane urgently?

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The hon. Lady raises an important point. This relates to a case that enlisted an appropriately high degree of public interest and concern. She will be glad to know that I will be seeing the president tomorrow and that we will discuss this issue. I do share his confidence; he is an extremely experienced family practitioner and judge whose judgment I respect, and I will be talking about that issue, among many others, with him tomorrow morning.

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20. My constituent has been a victim of domestic abuse, harassment and assault. The offender got a community rehabilitation order but Staffordshire and West Midlands failed to enforce it, so he has walked scot-free and she is still being harassed. Where is the justice for her? [900830]

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It would be wrong of me to comment on an individual case, but there is a general principle about the enforcement of court orders and something has clearly gone seriously wrong here. That is why, as Minister of State and now as Lord Chancellor, I am driving forward, together with my colleague the Minister of State, thoroughgoing reform of the process so that we can ensure that when community orders are made they are properly enforced. If the hon. Gentleman wants to write to me about that particular case, I would be happy to hear his representations.

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What assessment has my right hon. and learned Friend made of the rape and sexual abuse fund, and does he have any plans to increase its funding?

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My hon. Friend raises an important point that affects people in his constituency and others right across the country. He will be glad to know that I have already referred to an increase to £32 million in regard to rape support services. We are also increasing support for independent sexual violence advisors. We announced a £5 million package relating to support services in September, and I want to drive that work further forward, first with the improved victims code and then with a victims law. Together with that, the evidence clearly shows that independent sexual violence advisors really make a difference when it comes to the maintenance of complaints of a sexual nature.

Public Protection Sentences: BAME Backgrounds

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9. What estimate he has made of the proportion of people serving imprisonment for public protection sentences that are from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. [900819]

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No one should face any discrimination. I am pleased to have been able to answer this question earlier by stating that we welcomed and have acted upon the Lammy review. The proportion of BAME and IPP prisoners is lower than the proportion of BAME prisoners as a whole: 23% of IPP prisoners are from the BAME backgrounds, compared with 27% of the overall population.

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Cases that I have been dealing with as a constituency MP concern me because of the potential for the race disparities that we know exist within the justice system, as the Minister has just said, to manifest themselves in cases of IPP prisoners from a BAME background, particularly in relation to access to courses and to the diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions. What can the Minister do to ensure that the injustices relating to IPP sentences are not further compounded by our systemic problem with race in the criminal justice system?

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The hon. Member is absolutely right to say that IPP prisoners need an opportunity for hope. They need the Prison Service to provide opportunities for reform and to help those prisoners to reform, so that at the end of the process, the Parole Board can consider them appropriately for release. She is right to identify the fact that there used to be a waiting list for certain accredited offender behaviour courses, but that is no longer the case apart from in relation to one. We are doing our best to ensure that all prisoners get the rehabilitation that they need while they are with us in the Prison Service.

Custodial Sentences: Non-UK Citizens

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10. How many non-UK citizens are serving custodial sentences; and if he will negotiate compulsory prisoner transfer agreements with other countries. [900820]

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I understand my hon. Friend’s concern about foreign nationals in our prisons. As he is aware, we have 110 prisoner transfer agreements with countries and territories around the world, and we continue to work closely with other Governments to try to increase that number.

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Foreign national offenders convicted in this country should serve their terms of imprisonment at the expense of their own Governments in their own countries. We may have 110 prisoner transfer agreements, but only about three are compulsory. Now that we have rediscovered our mojo for tough international renegotiation, can we please have more compulsory prisoner transfer agreements with high-volume crime countries with lots of nationals in our prisons, such as Pakistan, Nigeria and Albania?

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My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of removing foreign offenders to serve sentences in their own countries, and we have removed 51,000 such offenders from our prisons since 2010. He is right to highlight that we have a number of nationalities within our prisons, including a high number of Albanian, Polish and Romanian prisoners. We are considering all these matters in some detail.[Official Report, 17 March 2020, Vol. 673, c. 7MC.]

Violence in Prisons

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12. What assessment he has made of trends in the level of violence in prisons. [900822]

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We have seen a slight decrease in assaults, and this year is the first time that we have seen assaults fall since 2013. However, we of course recognise that there is still more to do in this area.

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When the Minister visits HMP Bedford tomorrow, can she look the governor in the eye and say that she is doing all she can to ensure the health, safety and welfare of his staff when the last Independent Monitoring Board report on Bedford prison revealed chronic levels of sickness, with nearly a quarter of officers off sick at times?

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I am looking forward to visiting the prison in the hon. Member’s constituency tomorrow and to speaking to the governor this afternoon. I recognise that the prison has some challenges, but I have heard that it is making real progress. I look forward to discussing the measures being taken in Bedford and talking about how we can support the prison to improve morale and the work of prison officers and to rehabilitate the prisoners.

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This afternoon, trade unions representing the wide variety of staff working in our prisons to keep us safe will meet to finalise the safe prisons charter, which has been drawn up by those facing violence in prisons first hand on a daily basis. Will the Minister adopt the charter and put the safety of staff first—yes or no?

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I very much look forward to seeing the charter. It is difficult to commit to it until I have seen it, but I am pleased to have met regularly with the unions to discuss general issues relating to their members. When I met prison officers at HMP Whitemoor after they experienced a terrible incident in their prison, I was bowled over to see their determination, resilience and stoicism at first hand and to hear about the amazing work they do every day and the support they give each other. I will look closely at the document the hon. Gentleman mentions.

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Will my hon. and learned Friend outline her Department’s plans to crack down on crime within prisons?

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My hon. Friend makes an important point about crime in our prisons, which takes several forms. A few months ago, we announced expenditure of £100 million on security within our prisons, which will enable us to stop the use of illicit phones, prevent drugs from getting into our prisons, and increase our intelligence and surveillance to stop criminal activity.

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Is it not about time the Government changed the law so that anybody who is guilty of assaulting a prison officer loses their automatic right to early release, thereby acting as a huge deterrent for this appalling activity and giving prison officers the support they deserve?

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My hon. Friend has made a number of points on the criminal justice system over a number of years that are all worth thinking about. He is absolutely right about protecting our prison officers. We have, as he will be aware, increased the sentence for assaulting prison staff.

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No, we did!

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Parliament brought it in, at the behest of the hon. Member’s Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018—cross-party working in this place is very important—and we continue to look at this important area.

Veterans

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14. What steps his Department is taking to support veterans in the criminal justice system. [900824]

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The hon. Member raises an important question. We recognise the unique nature of military service, which is why we committed in our manifesto to offering veterans a guaranteed job interview for any public sector role for which they apply. The MOJ continues to work in partnership with military charities to improve the prospects for ex-armed service personnel in the criminal justice system.

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I am grateful to the Minister for that response. She will know that a recent Barnardo’s study, funded by the Forces in Mind Trust, shows that veterans in custody and their families often do not receive the support they need. Does she agree that more effective identification of service leavers is needed, along with dedicated veterans support officers?

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Yes, I do. There is support available through the tremendous amount of work that charities do in this sector, but people cannot access that support if we do not identify them as veterans in the first place. We have changed our systems during the screening process to actively ask those entering custody about previous service in the armed forces. That is recorded on the basic custody screening tool but, of course, the more we record, the more we can do.

Rape and Sexual Abuse Victims

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15. What steps his Department is taking to support victims of (a) rape and (b) sexual abuse through the criminal justice system. [900825]

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The Government are committed to ensuring victims of rape and sexual violence have access to high-quality support services to help them cope and, as far as possible, recover from the effects of this devastating crime. From April, we will be increasing funding to rape support services by 50% to £12 million and investing an additional £1 million for independent sexual violence advisers annually until 2022.

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My constituent Dominique Martin has suffered the horror of being a rape victim twice in her life. Dominique described her ordeal to me as “like being murdered, except you are left alive.” What is more, Dominique has had to wait 18 months and counting to see the local mental health team. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the issues Dominique has raised to ensure nobody else has to suffer in the same way?

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It is obviously very distressing to hear about this particular case, and I am very sorry for the experience of my hon. Friend’s constituent. I am, of course, more than happy to meet her to discuss these matters. As the 2018 victims strategy has an ambition to join up services across Government and, indeed, with the third sector, I will endeavour to make sure a Health Minister is there as well.

Early Legal Advice

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16. What recent assessment he has made of the ability of social security claimants to access early legal advice. [900826]

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24. What assessment he has made of trends in the number of people able to access early legal advice. [900834]

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In a nation of laws, access to justice is a fundamental right. Legal aid for early legal advice remains available in many areas, such as for asylum cases. In addition, legal aid is available under the exceptional case funding scheme in any matter where failure to provide it would breach or risk breaching someone’s rights under the European convention.

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I spoke last night about the deaths since 2014 of social security claimants the Government had deemed to be fit for work. The number of social security claimants wanting to appeal a decision by the Department for Work and Pensions to stop or reduce their support who received legal advice fell from 82,554 in 2012 to 163 in 2013—I repeat, 163—and it has since remained at that level. What role have the cuts in legal advice to claimants had in failing to protect our most vulnerable citizens, including from the state?

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Later this year, the Government will conduct a review of the scope of legal aid, but that will sit alongside a lot of work on scoping pilots to ensure that legal aid and support is provided quickly, because early legal support is much better than late legal support, that it is evidence-led on the basis of the pilots and that it truly goes to those who need it most.

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Working in an advice agency, I saw for myself that many people have complex, interrelated problems and that access to early advice that covers all aspects is key to the prevention of often devastating and costly consequences, both to the individual and the state. Will the Minister look into extending the pilots to other areas of law, including family, housing and social security law?

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I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the work that she did in an advice agency. I entirely agree that if early support is provided, it can make an enormous difference in solving problems that would otherwise fester and become more difficult. A pilot is taking place on social welfare law that will consider housing and a raft of other aspects of law, and we will consider that evidence extremely carefully. If the hon. Lady would like to speak with me about it, I would be delighted to do that.

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It is now more than a year since the Government published the “Legal Support: The Way Ahead” action plan as part of their response to the review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. Since then, hardly any of the deadlines for Government action have been met, including the promise to

“pilot and evaluate the expansion of legal aid to cover early advice in…social welfare”,

which was meant to happen “by autumn 2019.” Will the Minister confirm when we are likely to see the proposals on early legal advice and explain why the Government have completely missed the deadlines in their document?

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Proposals for the early legal advice pilot will sit alongside pilots for co-located hubs and a legal support innovation fund. Those pilots have to be got right, so they are being considered together with academics to make sure that they will work precisely as required, because what is ultimately provided must be evidence-led and based on an exhaustive scrutiny of what works, so that it is sustainable in the long run. That is precisely what we shall do.

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May I welcome my hon. Friend to his new role and suggest as his first piece of homework that he look at Law for Life’s Advicenow website, which provides early legal support for social welfare claimants? Will he make sure that that is rolled out to existing legal aid deserts, such as my constituency? Many of my constituents could benefit from Advicenow’s services but simply do not know that they exist in the first place.

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I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s extremely distinguished service in the Department. On legal aid deserts, it is of course right that those who are entitled to legal aid support can always access it over the telephone—that is an important point—but none the less, I very much take on board his points and would be happy to discuss the matter with him should he wish.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [900836]

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Keeping the public safe from harm is the first duty of any Government. The terror attack in Streatham earlier this month sadly demonstrated that sentencing laws were not working as they should. People’s lives were being put at risk by the automatic early release of terrorist offenders without scrutiny by the Parole Board. Now that the Terrorist Offenders (Restriction of Early Release) Bill has passed all its stages in both Houses, convicted terrorists will serve at least two thirds of their sentence before being considered for release.

The introduction of emergency legislation is not a step that the Government would ever take lightly, but the law was not working and we had a responsibility to act. I am pleased that this House agreed with that assessment and we were able to get the new law on the statute book as a matter of urgency.

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Since 2010, the Conservatives have cut more than a third of all funding to local authorities’ domestic and sexual violence services. I have constituents coming to see me who are in shelters for months or even years because the facilities are not there. When are the Government going to bring forward the domestic abuse Bill, which has cross-party support, so that we can give justice to victims?

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The hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that we intend to bring that Bill forward very soon indeed—well before Easter—so that we can debate it. He made a point about local government services; no doubt, he will have welcomed the announcement on the local government settlement that was made yesterday. He will know from his own experience of local authorities, as indeed I know from my local authority, that choices can be made to offer direct assistance. For example, with women’s shelters and refuges, decisions on non-domestic rates can help the funding of those services. Important decisions were made about how homelessness and housing support was given to make sure that the interests of those centres were put first and foremost, because they are not just shelters but places of rehabilitation and support.

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T4. One of my constituents had £30,000 of his retirement savings stolen by fraudsters impersonating a legitimate bank and using Google’s advertising services to promote itself online. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss how we can improve support and compensation for victims of such crimes? [900839]

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. It is appalling to hear of the experience of her constituent. On the specific issue of compensation, following conviction for an offence under the Fraud Act 2006 or, indeed under the Theft Act 1968, the court has the power to award compensation to victims or even order confiscation of assets. I would, of course, be delighted to speak to her to see how we can strengthen protections more generally.

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The Grenfell public inquiry has been delayed again after firms demanded assurances that their testimony will not be used against them in a criminal case. We need new laws that force officials and private companies to come clean about wrongdoings and failures. The brave Hillsborough and Grenfell families called for a public accountability law that would do this. In the past, there has been cross-party coalitions of support for such a law, often referred to as the Hillsborough law. Does the Justice Secretary agree that it is now time for such a law?

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this important point. He knows that it would be invidious for any of us to comment directly on the ongoing inquiry, which he knows is a judicial process. However, he makes an important point for the long term about the status of individuals with regard to various legal proceedings and consequences flowing from them. I would, of course, be happy to talk to him further about that as an important point that we need to consider carefully, and I will do so.

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T6. Twenty-two members of a county lines drugs gang who are infiltrating rural towns across Powys have been sentenced to a combined 101 years. I cannot praise Dyfed-Powys police enough for their role in this action. Will my hon. Friend assure me that repeat offenders of the scourge of county lines will face harder, longer and tougher sentencing? [900841]

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question and for his tribute to the police. What we have done already, as he will be aware, is that, for the most serious violent and sexual offences, offenders will now have to serve two thirds of their sentences, rather than half, sending a clear message that those who commit serious crimes will be expected to pay for them.

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T2. Since the 2007 Corston review into women in the criminal justice system, more than 100 women have died in our prisons. Inquest has recently published an update to its report, “Still Dying on the Inside”, which details both the tragic and often unavoidable circumstances surrounding deaths of women in custody. What concrete action have the Government taken to resolve this crisis? [900837]

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Every death in custody is a tragedy. Every death in custody is investigated. What we need to do is to improve people’s mental health, stop women and men self-harming in prison and give them the skills and tools to turn around their lives through employment. I recently visited HMP Send, a fantastic women’s prison, and its therapeutic community, which offers a long programme that helps women to come to terms with their offending and to get their lives back on track. Those are the sorts of programmes that do a great deal of work for women and men in prison.

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T7. I was pleased to support the recent changes to the early release for terrorists, but what more can the Department do to protect residents of this country not only from terrorists but from other serious offenders? Once again, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s campaigning in this area. The Government will, quite shortly, bring forward a counter-terrorism release and sentencing Bill, which will make it clear that, for the most serious terrorist offenders, there will be a minimum sentence of 14 years and that such offenders will serve all their sentence in prison. [900842]

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T3. The Minister’s Department has taken the first steps of family court reform by banning cross-examination of victims by perpetrators, but a lot more needs to be done with family courts. What plans has he got to reform and modernise the family courts? [900838]

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I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. He will know that the work of reform should never cease. There is a lot of work being directed by the president of the family division, and I have referred to the meeting that I am having with him tomorrow. My view about family litigation is that we need to take the confrontation out of it, particularly with regard to children’s proceedings, where the interests of the child have been, by dint of statute, paramount for the past 30 years. All too often, those interests are trampled underfoot by a far too adversarial approach. I think that it is in that direction that we need to be going, and I would be happy to engage with him and, indeed, with all interested parties to improve the experience of people in the family system.

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May I say what a joy it is to see such a fantastic team on the Front Bench?

Now that the case of the Post Office workers against the Post Office has concluded with two damning judgments against the Post Office, it is time for those wrongly convicted workers to have their names cleared. Will the Minister work with the Criminal Cases Review Commission to allow these cases to be dealt with as a group, to ensure that justice can be done without further delay?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the injustice that has been suffered by so many, including—I am bound to say—someone in my own constituency. The CCRC is seized of this matter. It will, of course, have to consider the cases individually, but I know that it will want to proceed at pace, and I understand that it is meeting in March to consider the issue fully; let justice be done.

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T5. My constituents struggle to get legal aid support when their benefits have been stopped. This is leading to people being forced to use food banks and, in some extreme cases, even losing their tenancies. Do the Government regret cutting £900 million from the legal aid budget since 2010, and what is going to be done to redress this injustice? [900840]

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The hon. Gentleman will have heard the answer of the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), some moments ago regarding the investment that we are making in early intervention. It is clear to me from my many years of practice in the law that what often becomes a litigation problem could have been dealt with through early intervention. It is that approach—of direct help—that I want to take and that we need to take. It is no good refighting the battles of nearly 10 years ago. Let us move forward with a more effective system.

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Helen’s law will help to ensure that failure to identify victims or their locations will count against those convicted of murder or child pornography who are seeking parole. Will the Government consider extending this to cover victims of rape, such as those at Medomsley Detention Centre? Some of those victims have taken their own lives and their families are now asking questions.

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My hon. Friend has consistently raised this important issue since he was elected to this place. I have a huge amount of sympathy for the victims affected by the abuse at Medomsley Detention Centre. He will know that Helen’s law places a statutory duty on the Parole Board to consider the non-disclosure of information in two very discrete circumstances—that is, failure to disclose information about a victim’s remains, or information on the identity of victims in indecent images—which are both within the knowledge of the perpetrator, but no one else. Rape and buggery are outside the scope of the Bill, but my hon. Friend should be comforted that the Parole Board already takes into account non-disclosure of information in any assessment prior to release.

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T8. Law centres such as the North East Law Centre, which serves my constituents, provide a significant cost saving in public finances by helping people to resolve legal issues before they spiral out of control. Will the Minister commit to securing Treasury funding to provide law centres with a central grant to help ensure their survival? [900843]

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I pay tribute to the work of law centres, including Gloucester Law Centre in my county of Gloucestershire. We will continue with a pilot to ensure that there is that early legal support—whether face-to-face legal advice or other forms of legal support—so that people can get the assistance they need early.

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The prisons inspectorate has this morning published its latest report into Her Majesty’s Young Offender Institution Aylesbury. I very much welcome the progress that has been made, and pay tribute to the governor and her staff for that, but there is still a great deal to do. Will my hon. and learned Friend commit to providing the resources that will be necessary to implement all the recommendations of the report?

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We are very conscious of the state of Aylesbury. We are bringing two wings back online by the beginning of next year and remain committed to making improvements in that prison.

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T9. Violence in Norfolk prisons has reached unprecedented levels, with more than two attacks every single day last year. So when will this Government accept that the root cause of this crisis is the thousands of cuts to experienced prison staff that took place on their watch, and when will they commit to stopping the underfunding and overcrowding of prisons across this country? [900844]

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The hon. Member makes two important points. He may have heard my answer to the hon. Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin), when I said that in fact for the first time, September to September last year, we had a reduction in violence—a slight reduction but a good step in the right direction. As I mentioned to the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), we have recruited more prison officers—4,300 net since 2016.

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The introduction of a corporate offence of failing to prevent economic crime could well have prevented a succession of banking scandals: PPI, the rigging of LIBOR and forex and the scandalous mistreatment of thousands of small businesses. What plans does the Justice Secretary have to introduce such an offence?

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My hon. Friend has raised this issue on many previous occasions, and he knows that I have engaged very closely on it. Now that we have the time and space with regard to the further development of policy, I want to work with him and, indeed, other parts of government to develop these proposals. There is still more work to be done. We have two failing-to-prevent offences in the realms of tax evasion and bribery. We need to understand the learning from those in order to apply those principles to any future further economic crime offence.

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Women are more likely to be imprisoned for non-violent offences and to receive ineffective short sentences of six months or less, and children whose mothers are sent to prison are more likely than their peers to have future problems. With 17,000 children separated from their mothers each year in England and Wales, what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the safeguarding and welfare of children is prioritised in criminal courts?

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The hon. Lady makes a really important point about dependants and the effect of a custodial sentence on the mother of those children. That is why we are ensuring that in pre-sentence reports a checklist is filled out to ensure that the appropriate things are taken into account when a woman is sentenced, one of which will be the effect on her dependants.

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There is a significant shortage of magistrates in courts in England and Wales. To add to this, more than half of all sitting magistrates are over the age of 60 and due to retire in the next decade, which will only add to the problems. Will my hon. Friend look urgently at increasing the retirement age for magistrates so that courts have experienced presiding justices and the capacity to deal with their current and future workload?

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Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that commitment. It is the Government’s intention to consult very shortly—this spring—on increasing judicial retirement ages, including for magistrates, thereby retaining the very high levels of experience that he refers to. In addition, to maintain diversity on the bench, we need to make sure that we are also recruiting new magistrates who reflect the diversity of our great country.

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My constituent Kelly Chandler suffered sexual abuse from her brother when she was a child. As an adult, she found the strength to report this to the police. Her brother then admitted that he did perpetrate this abuse. However, a legal loophole states that due to his age at the time of the abuse, he cannot be prosecuted. Kelly, after reliving this trauma, is being denied justice. When will this loophole be closed?

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I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this individual case. I would be happy to discuss it further with her. There obviously seems to have been a prosecutorial decision, which is the responsibility of the Attorney General, but we will meet and discuss this troubling case further.