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Topical Questions

Volume 672: debated on Tuesday 25 February 2020

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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)

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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.

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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)

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, from 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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.