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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 677: debated on Tuesday 9 June 2020


The Secretary of State was asked—

Early Prisoner Release: Domestic Violence

What steps he has taken as part of the early prison release scheme to ensure that potential victims of violence in domestic settings are protected during the covid-19 lockdown period. (902951)

What steps he has taken as part of the early prison release scheme to ensure potential victims of violence in domestic settings are protected during the covid-19 lockdown period. (902957)

Domestic abuse is an abhorrent crime, and I am determined to better protect and support the victims of abuse and their children and to bring perpetrators to justice. I also recognise that measures announced to tackle covid-19 can cause anxiety for those experiencing or feeling at risk of domestic abuse, and therefore I have excluded any prisoner convicted of an offence relating to domestic violence, including harassment and stalking, from the scheme. I have also excluded anyone who is identified by prisons, police or other agencies as a domestic abuse risk from release under the scheme.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. As he will know, an increase in domestic abuse has been widely reported during the covid-19 outbreak. How many conversations have he and the Home Secretary had about suspending “no recourse to public funds” for any victims of domestic abuse to whom that condition applies?

The hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that the Home Secretary and I discuss many issues relating to domestic abuse. With regard to public funding and access to justice, he will know that in a large number of measures involving police activity on domestic violence prevention orders, legal aid is not a barrier to those orders being made. Indeed, emergency applications make the domestic abuse test somewhat more accessible for people who need that protection. There is ongoing work with regard to aspects of legal aid, which we will return to later in the year, but I assure him that we are doing everything we can to assist the victims of domestic abuse, and not just in terms of access to legal proceedings.

There is real concern that a six-month time limit on a summary charge could mean that some domestic abuse victims may lose out on the opportunity to take charge during lockdown. What steps is the Department taking to address those concerns?

The hon. Lady raises an important point about summary-only offences, which, although relatively speaking they might be not as serious as some other types of charge, have real effects upon the victims of domestic abuse. I have certainly drawn my mind to that issue throughout this crisis. I am confident, from the police activity I see, that arrests and charges continue and that a number of perpetrators are being charged within that time. Nothing has led me to believe that there should be a problem with regard to timely charging within the six-month time limit. That can be done, and then these people can be brought to justice.

Secure Estate for Young People

What recent assessment he has made of the trends in the level of violence on the secure estate for young people. (902952)

Levels of violence in our youth estate are too high. We are determined to improve safety by investing in staff, education, psychology services and mental health support and by trialling secure schools, with the first to open at Medway. I was pleased to read parts of the inspector’s report after he attended Cookham Wood, Wetherby and Parc young offenders institutions as part of a number of scrutiny visits last month, in which he described all three sites as “calm and well ordered”, and he saw staff interacting with children in a “caring, patient and professional” way.

In January, inspectors found that children were being confined in their cells for up to 23 hours per day and were subject to restraint techniques that cause injury and serious harm to children. The Government know that, and yet they continue to permit the use of those techniques. This is state-sanctioned child abuse. The Charlie Taylor review was due to report on this last summer. Where is that report?

The hon. Member is right to point out a number of reports in this area. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons’ thematic report in January on the separation of children in YOIs made very difficult reading. Because of that, we took a number of immediate actions, including enhancing local and national oversight and establishing standardised monthly data collection on separation. We commissioned Charlie Taylor to conduct a review of the use of pain-inducing techniques, and we will be publishing that report very shortly.

I appreciate that, as the number of young people in the secure estate has reduced, the cohort has become often more difficult to deal with. None the less, during its current inquiry the Select Committee has heard compelling evidence that violence remains too high. One of the concerns about Cookham Wood, which the Minister referred to, is the shortage and regular redeployment of staff—the churn and the inability to build relationships. Will the Minister look again at the need for a serious approach—a proper strategy for staffing in all our prisons but especially in the secure estate, where the building of relationships is particularly important?

My hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee recognises an important point. We are ensuring at the moment that we do not send young people into custody unless they have committed the most serious crimes. As a result, more than 50% of the youth in our estate have committed violent crimes. That leaves us with a challenging cohort. We want to provide more bespoke, individual support with early interventions for those in our care. As my hon. Friend will know, we are committed to establishing secure schools, which would expand our focus on education and individual support.

We have increased staffing in the youth estate by 27% and we are professionalising that service with a new foundation degree to ensure that those who work in our youth custody services deliver the right support.

As children in the general population continue to return to school, those in youth offender institutions remain locked up in their cells for almost the whole day, without any access to education. An inspection by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons last month found that children in Cookham Wood were spending just 40 minutes out of their cells. Can the Minister confirm that that was immediately rectified? The Children’s Commissioner for England found

“serious consequences for children’s rights, well-being and long-term outcomes”

and said that

“family and professional visits have been severely curtailed.”

As the Government prioritise returning children to school, will the Minister give me a date by which she expects all children in custody to have access to education, activities and family and professional visits?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his questions, which are on a very important subject. He is right to say that in the youth estate, as in the adult estate, we took severe measures when we realised that we were facing a pandemic. We took those measures to save lives. We were looking at 2,500 to 3,500 deaths across the estate, so we took drastic action that we considered very carefully, which resulted in a severe lockdown. Although every death is tragic, as a result of the lockdown we have suffered only 23 deaths in our prison estate.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to identify, as the inspector pointed out, that there was a lockdown in the children’s estate, with only a small amount of time out of cell. I am pleased to say that that time has increased as the lockdown has continued, and in YOIs children are now let out for between two and three and a half hours every day. In the secure children’s homes there is almost a normal regime, with 12 to 14 hours out of cell. We have published our national strategy for recovery, and visits and education will be some of the first things that return in the children’s estate.

These extra limits on contact must mean that now, more than ever, holding children in custody should be a last resort. One third of all children on the youth estate are being held on remand without a sentence. We know that two thirds of them will not receive a custodial sentence. With criminal trials slowly being restarted, what action is the Minister taking, along with the Lord Chief Justice, to ensure that children held on remand are prioritised for criminal trials?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that custody should be a last resort. I am pleased to say that it is a last resort, which is why we have a much smaller number of youths in custody at the moment: just over 700 across our estate. He makes an important point about remand, and I am pleased to say that, certainly in the adult estate, the judiciary have looked at and fast-tracked remand cases. I am also pleased to report that the Youth Justice Board has looked at those who are currently held on remand, and the youth offending teams will be reviewing whether any applications can be made to help those people who are on remand and can be released back into the community.

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that it is vital that prison officers have the right skills to manage young people? How are we training prison officers who work on the youth estate to ensure that we cut future offending rates and increase rehabilitation?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the training of prison officers: it is important that they get the right training to help turn lives around. We have introduced a new youth justice specialist role, with funding for every prison officer in youth custody services to take up a foundation degree in youth justice. Thirty people have completed it and 400 have started the training.

Prisoner Rehabilitation and Education

What steps he is taking to ensure that rehabilitation and education programmes for prisoners continue during the covid-19 outbreak. (902953)

In prison, as in the community, there have been restrictions, which have been designed to keep prisoners and staff safe from covid-19. We have taken unprecedented action and we have saved lives. As in the community, it has required the temporary suspension of classroom education. Education providers are working with Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service to deliver in-cell packs to support learning. We published our national framework for recovery last week and hope to bring back youth education in the next phase, with the adult estate following in this phase after that.

Education is key if we are to curb reoffending. The Government have talked about schools restarting, some last week and some on Monday. It is vital that we have education in prisons, so when will the Minister ensure that that happens? In addition, when will the Minister ensure that testing is available in prisons?

Those are two important points. On education, I completely agree with the hon. Lady that is it important to the reduction of reoffending. As I mentioned, we have set out in our national framework what provision we can bring back safely, and in the first phase we will bring back education in the youth estate. On testing, we already have some testing of prisoners in prisons, and testing is available to our staff. We will roll out increased testing in prisons as matters progress.

In Kent, Surrey and Sussex, the rehabilitation and education of offenders continues once they are released from prison, thanks to our excellent community rehabilitation company, which has also altered its practices to ensure that it can maintain some level of contact throughout the covid pandemic. In May, the CRC contacted the Ministry of Justice contract managers to ask whether a temporary change to unpaid work rules could be implemented in order to deploy people sentenced to community payback with small farmers and help with the Pick for Britain initiative. Such a change could provide an estimated 190,000 hours of work. Has the Minister had the opportunity to talk to colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about that suggestion, which would not only help offenders to complete their rehabilitation but benefit our farmers, who are desperate for workers?

My hon. Friend and other Members who represent Kent, Surrey and Sussex work closely with their CRC. We are looking carefully at how we can support the farming industry and other key sectors at this time. In particular, we want to encourage ex-offenders into permanent agricultural employment. The Secretary of State and I have had discussions on the issue with our counterparts at the Department for Work and Pensions. The New Futures Network, which organises links between prisoners, prisons and employers, is in active discussions with the National Farmers Union.

May I thank you, Mr Speaker, for all the work you have done to ensure that I once again have the opportunity to represent my constituents virtually? Thank you.

Worryingly, prisoners are getting less than 30 minutes out of their cells each day during the current covid-19 crisis. What is the Minister doing to ensure that all prisoners have access to specialist mental health support and can continue to learn vital skills for future employment, thus helping to break the cycle of reoffending?

I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. It is right to point out that, when the crisis first hit, we did significantly reduce our regimes in prisons, but prisoners should have access to the basic needs and should continue to do so, including in relation to food, showers and exercise. They will have access to healthcare in a number of ways. We have introduced in-cell telephony, which helps support the healthcare they get and to support their mental health through the Samaritans helpline and the Listener scheme that we operate in prisons. We are also able to continue some of our offender management programmes on a one-to-one basis. We set out our national framework for recovery last week, and we are very much looking forward to reintroducing those aspects that are most vital to prisoners to help them get on with their lives.

There are some great examples of rehabilitation programmes. One is at HMP Onley, where the charity Futures Unlocked and Rugby rotary club are collecting unwanted bicycles left at Rugby railway station, which are taken to the prison for refurbishment to provide purposeful work. Unfortunately, that project is temporarily suspended, as there has been the challenge of being able to collect the bicycles under the current measures. Will the Minister join me in hoping that steps can be taken to get that project up and running again at the earliest opportunity?

I am aware of the scheme, which is a great example of joint working between HMP Onley, Virgin Trains and Halfords. HMPPS has partnerships with over 300 such organisations, which provide daily work in prisons in normal times, and we value these partnerships enormously. Workshops have been closed in response to the pandemic, but last week, as I have mentioned, we published a national framework setting out how we will ease the restrictions, which we will do as soon as it is safe to do so.

Personal Protective Equipment: Prison and Probation Staff

What assessment he has made of the adequacy of personal protective equipment for (a) prison and (b) probation staff during the covid-19 outbreak. (902955)

Personal protective equipment is critical to protect staff and those in our care where close contact is necessary and unavoidable. There is currently adequate stock and forward supply of PPE, in accordance with public health advice. We have stock in the hundreds of thousands for aprons, coveralls, eye protection, pairs of gloves, respirator masks and fluid-resistant surgical masks. However, we are making continued preparations and keeping demand for PPE under regular review as we move into the next phase of managing this outbreak.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his answer, and for the support he has given me in recent years in my attempts to make sure that HMP Nottingham is the safest environment it can be. In that vein, will he give an assurance to staff at Nottingham, and indeed prison staff across the estate, that as lockdown restrictions are eased, they will still have access to those PPE stocks that he talked about, and that if that is what they need for them to be comfortable at work, they will be permitted to keep wearing it?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He knows, and he has followed very carefully, the good progress that is being made in HMP Nottingham. I know he would want me to pay tribute to all prison staff for the incredible work they have been doing throughout this outbreak. I can give him such an assurance. We are looking to ease the lockdown, and as the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer) said, we published the plan for recovery last week. For example, for visits to prisons, it seems sensible that visitors should wear coverings, so that we can minimise the risk of an outbreak coming into prisons. All those measures will continue to be discussed with the unions, as we have done throughout this outbreak.

Departmental Priorities: Covid-19 Implications

What recent assessment he has made of the implications of the covid-19 outbreak for his Department’s priorities. (902956)

Covid-19 has indeed brought unprecedented challenges to the justice system, but I am proud of how my Department, and everybody in it, has responded to keep the wheels of justice turning and to adapt to this changing world. We have harnessed technology to use audio and video in 90% of our hearings, and we are using video calls and secure mobile phones to keep prisoners in touch with their families and to maintain order. Getting the system fully back up and running is now our priority, which is why we are working at pace on issues such as increasing jury trials and, indeed, the legislative programme that we have. The world is changing, but we will need to continue to ensure that, as we recover, we build a more effective justice system.

As the Secretary of State is aware, 10 prison staff have died from covid-19. As in the health and social care sector, it is not medals that staff want, but decent pay and conditions. Will he commit to adopting the best practice demands of the unions for a safe working environment, and will he authorise the additional financial compensation to families who lose a loved one to covid-19, as applies in the health sector?

The hon. Gentleman knows that in response to this outbreak we took particular measures agreed by the Treasury to ensure that those working in the prison system were rewarded financially in terms of incentives and extra pay to deal with the pressure they were facing. That regime continues to exist, and we continue to engage regularly with prison representatives and the unions to discuss the issues he has raised. It is an ongoing discussion, but he can be assured that I, and my Ministers, have taken every reasonable step possible so far to support our dedicated staff.

People still need justice, even in an emergency. In normal times, more than 200 jury trials ordinarily take place in England and Wales each week. During the height of the covid-19 lockdown, jury trials were suspended entirely due to public health concerns. A few weeks ago, as the lockdown measures were relaxed, jury trials restarted, but at only a fraction of the normal rate. We expect the Ministry of Justice to at least know the size of the challenges it faces. What is the Secretary of State’s estimate of the total number of jury trials in the backlog currently waiting to be held?

The right hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that I continue to look at that on a daily basis. The overall case load in the Crown Court is approaching just over 41,000. Before the crisis it was 39,000, so there has been a slight increase. Within that case load, the courts have managed a lot of cases that can be dealt with administratively and by way of plea, but that does leave a cohort of trials to be dealt with. Normally, 200 jury trials a week will be heard in England and Wales, and we are still dealing with a very small number. That will clearly tell him the scale of the challenge, but I can say to him that the Lord Chief Justice and I are working together closely in order to scale up capacity, to look at court hours and the way the courts sit so that we can accommodate jurors and staff, and to do whatever it takes not just to manage that case load number but to bring it down as we go through the year.

The Lord Chancellor has a strong record of defending judicial independence, and I congratulate him on that. Does he agree that it is equally important that those in Government do not seek to influence the police or the Crown Prosecution Service in the exercise of their duties? Can he confirm that that is why he, unlike other members of the Government, refrained from tweeting in support of Dominic Cummings when there was a live issue as to whether Mr Cummings had breached the lockdown regulations and guidance?

The hon. and learned Lady will know that I refrain, in correspondence and, indeed, in statements or questions in the House, from talking about individual cases. I remind her and the House that, as Lord Chancellor, I will always act in a way that is consistent with the rule of law. The independence of the police and prosecutorial authorities has to be paramount, and that is something that I will absolutely uphold. My constitutional duties come first, and everybody within Government knows that full well.

Perhaps the Lord Chancellor could share those thoughts with the Attorney General.

Upholding human rights is also an important part of the Lord Chancellor’s Department’s priorities. When the Minister for the Cabinet Office gave evidence to the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union recently, he made it clear that the Government still intended to amend the Human Rights Act 1998. Can the Lord Chancellor reassure us that any such amendments will not seek to abrogate domestic law giving effect to the European convention on human rights?

I can tell the hon. and learned Lady that, as part of our manifesto commitment, we have pledged to update the Human Rights Act, which is now 20 years old in terms of its operation. That is only the right and proper thing to do. I can absolutely assure her that our membership of the convention is beyond any doubt or peradventure. That will very much remain the case as we go through the negotiations with our friends in the European Union on the future relationship and, indeed, domestically as well. We are working on an important independent review of the operation of the Human Rights Act, and I will update the House when further details are available.

People in Midlothian have made huge sacrifices, over months now, to obey the rules, while the Prime Minister’s most senior adviser was breaking them on multiple occasions. Does the Secretary of State believe it is right that some unelected bureaucrats appear to be allowed to break the law while the public are cautioned or fined?

The hon. Gentleman can be reassured: he knows that I believe in equality before the law, and that is why I refrain from making comments about individual cases. I respect the decisions made by the police independently and, indeed, by the Crown Prosecution Service and any other prosecutorial authority either north or south of the border.

Bereavement after a Public Disaster

The Government are determined to ensure that those who are bereaved after a public disaster are treated with respect and compassion, and get answers. That is why the Government ran a consultation exercise on a proposal for an independent public advocate, and we will publish a response in due course. In addition, earlier this year the Government published a revised guide to coroner services to promote effective participation for bereaved people at inquests. On 23 March this year, the Prime Minister appointed Nick Hurd as an independent adviser working with Grenfell Tower communities to represent their views at the heart of Government.

I thank the Minister for that answer. He will know that under the ten-minute rule procedure in this House, I have introduced the Public Advocate Bill, which is informed by the experience of more than 30 years of campaigning by the Hillsborough families and survivors, and that Lord—Michael—Wills has introduced it in the other place. Next time the Minister gets a chance to speak to the Lord Chancellor, will he ask him if he will meet Lord Wills and me to see whether the proposals on which the Government have consulted can be strengthened to ensure that they meet the needs of those bereaved by public disasters, because thousands more of our fellow citizens could now benefit from our getting these provisions right?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question and pay tribute to her for the campaigning that she has done on this issue. I had the opportunity to speak to my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor just a few seconds ago; he will be happy to have the meeting that she requests.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Disaster victims, just like victims of crime, deserve to have their rights enshrined in law. Only last week, a murderer was released on parole without the victim’s family even being informed, let alone consulted. Successive Governments have promised and pledged a victims law for the past 12 years. The Tory manifestos for the past three elections have promised a victims law. Will the Government commit to publish the draft Bill by this autumn?

This Government are absolutely determined to stand up for victims. We will be having a revised victims code and a revised victims law. That is built on a proud record of standing up for victims. [Interruption.] We will be publishing it as soon as possible.

Video and Audio Use in Court Proceedings

What steps his Department is taking to increase the use of video and audio to conduct court proceedings during the covid-19 outbreak. (902959)

The increased use of video and audio is a critical component of our response to the current situation. Over the course of the past eight weeks, we have increased the number of daily remote hearings to about 4,000 per day—about a tenfold increase on the pre-coronavirus level. That means that about 90% of all hearings are now being conducted remotely.

I am very encouraged by that answer. One of the consequences of this current crisis has been the impact on public transport capacity and therefore people’s access to courts. Will my hon. Friend consider the measures brought in in this emergency to be part of the long-term future for delivering efficiency, access, and a timely disposal of justice in our courts system?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point to the use of remote technology not just in the current circumstances but long into the future to help the quick administration of justice. We are now in the middle of rolling out the cloud video platform, which is the technology enabling court proceedings to happen remotely. That will be fully rolled out in the Crown court jurisdiction and the magistrates court jurisdiction by the end of this month, we hope.

We agree that with a backlog of over 1 million cases outstanding in courts and tribunals at the end of last year, before the coronavirus, virtual courts are part of the answer to tackle this particular crisis. There is, however, evidence of cases being halted because judges have felt that justice was not being properly served and of defendants in virtual courts being likely to get a more severe sentence than if they appeared in person. I also understand that the vast majority of cases have been opened just to be immediately adjourned. What assessment has the Minister made of the effect of these things on people’s lives, and will he agree to publish the number of cases simply opened and adjourned over the last five months?

The data on court listings and hearings is published regularly and available for everybody to see. On the administration of justice, it is for the judge in each case to make sure they are satisfied that justice is served by a remote hearing or by an in-person hearing. Ultimately, decisions about whether a case is heard in person or remotely are taken by the judge, having regard to the circumstances of that case. Making sure that every defendant gets a fair hearing and every witness and victim is treated properly and fairly must remain always at the heart of our approach.

Tenant Eviction: Coronavirus Act 2020

What discussions he has had with the (a) judiciary and (b) Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government on the exemptions on evicting tenants under the Coronavirus Act 2020. (902960)

The Government took the necessary action through the Coronavirus Act to ensure that landlords could not start proceedings to evict tenants until at least September, and on Friday, at my request, the judiciary passed a new rule to protect renters by making sure that evictions would be suspended until 23 August. I intend to introduce the necessary secondary legislation. The Housing Secretary and I will continue to work closely with the judiciary and others to protect vulnerable renters.

I do not want anyone to be unfairly evicted at such a difficult time, but could my right hon. and learned Friend offer guidance on two constituents who have written to me separately as landlords, the first having served notice to quit on a tenant whose behaviour had become very nasty, and the second a heavily pregnant lady who had to return home from working abroad when she was repatriated during the health crisis and who, along with her family, is now unexpectedly homeless?

My hon. Friend knows that I am more than happy to hear more detail about those individual cases if he writes to me this week. On the general point, I can assure him that this was not a matter I took lightly. I am bearing very much in mind the issue of small landlords in particular and—shall we say—egregiously continuing breaches, which is why we excluded, for example, trespassers from the provision, because clearly there is a social necessity to deal with them. Other measures are also available to deal with antisocial behaviour, but I will look at the two cases he raises.

Given the capacity constraints on the judicial system at the moment, which are of similar concern to many of my constituents affected by issues outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Gareth Bacon), will my right hon. and learned Friend give consideration to relaxing the mandatory retirement age for magistrates so that the loss of our valued local administrators of justice can be stemmed and additional capacity be allowed in the system for the foreseeable future?

Your non-intervention, Mr Speaker, shows how ingenious Members of Parliament can be in weaving in themes to questions. I admire my hon. Friend’s tenacity. He will be glad to know that we will shortly be consulting on the retirement age not just for magistrates but for the judiciary in general. I am grateful to him.

Court Backlog: Covid-19

What steps his Department is taking to reduce the backlog of court cases that has accumulated as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. (902961)

As I have suggested already, we are currently engaged in a herculean national effort to get our courts back up and running, starting with the use of remote technology, which I talked about a few moments ago. Beyond that, we are reopening courts that have been closed. We are now up to 168 courts opened as of 3 June, and we intend to open many more in the weeks ahead. We are also working to make sure those courts are used to their maximum safe capacity. Survey work is under way and has been completed in many cases so that we can understand the safe socially distanced capacity in those 168 open courts to make sure we use it fully, but the herculean national effort continues.

There was already a huge backlog of Crown court cases before the coronavirus outbreak. My concern is that many people will be remanded in custody without having been convicted of any offences. Technically they are innocent until proven guilty. What impact has the outbreak had on the time they are having to spend time remanded in custody without having been convicted of an offence? Does he have numbers?

Custody limits do still apply as they did before, and I know that as judges make their individual listing decisions, they have regard to custody time limits approaching. I imagine that individual judges as a matter of practice would seek to prioritise cases where custody time limits are being approached. Where someone has been convicted but awaits sentence, we have been working very actively with the judiciary to prioritise having those cases heard, because if upon sentence there is not a custodial sentence, obviously the person is then free to go. Those cases are being prioritised through the system, but in particular by judges in the way they take their listing decisions.

Prison Capacity

What progress his Department has made during the covid-19 outbreak on meeting its commitment to increase prison capacity. (902962)

Mr Speaker, I know the subject of court reopenings is very close to your heart.

To support the Prime Minister’s commitment to crack down on crime, we are investing up to £2.5 billion to provide 10,000 additional prison places. Construction for our prison at Wellingborough has continued safely since restrictions were imposed in March, and in May we started on early works for our prison in Glen Parva.

Will my hon. and learned Friend please provide an update on the women’s residential centre pilot scheme, which is due to be located in Wales?

As my hon. Friend will know, on 5 May I announced our commitment to locate the first residential women’s centre in Wales, and we are now working closely with our Welsh partners to develop a detailed proposal for the site in Wales. Our intention is for that to open by the end of 2021. I am grateful for her continued interest, and I look forward to meeting her to discuss it next week.

As my right hon. Friend will know, we have tried to increase headroom in the estate through a variety of mechanisms, and our early release scheme is one of those. We are continuing to operate that scheme.

Covid-19: Access to Justice

The covid-19 outbreak has raised real challenges for the justice system, and we have taken rapid action where we can with the help of practitioners and the judiciary, who have been fantastic, to overcome those challenges and maintain access for all. Some 159 courts remained open across all jurisdictions, and a further 116 were staffed. On 18 May, we were able to restart jury trials, and we will be scaling them up in the weeks ahead.

As the Secretary of State said earlier, it is estimated that more than 41,000 criminal cases in England and Wales are in the backlog, including three murders in Gwent. There is a real risk that victims of the most serious crimes, including domestic abuse, will withdraw. Will the Minister therefore meet with Gwent MPs virtually to discuss what the Department is doing in our area, as there is a real fear that justice delayed is justice denied?

I thank the hon. Lady for the very proper concern that she expresses. I or one of my fellow Ministers would be happy to have a meeting. Every effort is being made to increase capacity to the fullest extent possible, but on the specific issue she raised about keeping victims and witnesses engaged, we are very much alive to that. I spend a great deal of time speaking to victims’ services, which do a wonderful job, together with the police, of making sure that victims remain informed, engaged and involved.

The Law Society has highlighted how many legal aid providers are in danger of imminent collapse, because of the financial pressures of covid. They have had warm words from the Government, but no more. Will the Minister tell us what discussions he has had with the Treasury and when he last met it to discuss the plight of legal aid providers?

Legal aid is absolutely vital in a fair society. It is one of the vital bulwarks of our liberty, and we take extremely seriously the needs of legal aid providers. Steps have been taken to ensure that where there is money in the system—more than £400 million—that is more easily available for practitioners to draw down, so that they can be helped to weather the storm. That is of course over and above other schemes that apply to legal aid practitioners as to everyone else, whether that is the furlough scheme or the bounce-back loans scheme. Those measures are in place to keep these vital providers in business so that they can continue to do their important work.

Topical Questions

The death of George Floyd in the United States and the protests that have been taking place across the globe are stark reminders that we live in a world where prejudice sadly and unacceptably continues to play a role. We all have a duty to stand up to racism wherever we see it, and I am more determined than ever to work with our justice partners and the black, Asian and minority ethnic community to address racial disparity in our justice system. The right to peaceful protest is one of the hallmarks of a mature democracy such as ours, but under the rule of law, which is the guarantor of equality before the law. We must never accept violence or criminal conduct as a legitimate tool of protest. At a time when we face the national trial of covid-19, when for months this whole country has come together to fight a deadly plague, I believe that on this issue we, too, can and must come together.

I join in the remarks expressed about the Black Lives Matter protests, and the shadow Secretary of State wrote a fantastic report on this and the justice system, which I thoroughly recommend.

Will the Secretary of State ensure, in suspending all eviction proceedings during this crisis and fulfilling his party’s manifesto pledge to scrap no-fault evictions, that no tenant is evicted post-crisis by the courts if they have offered to pay, according to their respective means, a furloughed 80% of rent or a universal credit local housing allowance rate during the period?

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. He will of course understand that it is for the courts to judge each individual case, but I am confident that the work being done by Mr Justice Knowles and his committee to allocate and prioritise the work that will need to be done in possession actions will allow courts across the country to take very much into account the circumstances of individual renters and the effects of covid-19 upon their incomes and their ability to pay.

Following a series of burglaries and car break-ins in the Colne and Holme valleys in January and February, West Yorkshire police made a series of arrests. My constituents now want to see justice done, so what is the Department doing to reduce the backlog of court cases during the covid crisis so they can see justice done? (902978)

My hon. Friend, whom I am delighted to see back in his rightful place, speaks powerfully for the communities of Colne Valley, whom he represents and has represented so ably. He will be reassured to know that in the magistrates court a huge amount of work is being done to deal with technology and to allow for remote hearings, and the same is happening in the Crown court, where guilty pleas are being dealt with expeditiously. The issue here is about trials. He will have heard earlier the plans we have to scale up, in capacity and sitting hours, the work that needs to be done to bring justice to his constituents and many more.

Legal aid lawyers, often doing the most complex cases, are already struggling for their financial survival, but the Justice Secretary now plans to pile on more pressure through reforms of fixed fees in immigration and asylum appeal cases. He knows that this change means that lawyers will be forced to do more for an awful lot less or will simply walk away, so will he acknowledge that this ploy, pretending to give with one hand but snatching far more away with the other, will further drive lawyers away from representing the most vulnerable people? Will he now commit to working constructively with those professions to find a better and fairer alternative?.

The hon. Gentleman knows from my long background as a legal aid practitioner that I always work constructively with the professions and engage closely with the representative bodies.

The hon. Gentleman is making totally unfair comments from a sedentary position. We have started, particularly with regard to immigration, to increase the amount of money that is rightfully being paid. We are looking at trying to make sure that the money is targeted—[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman would listen, perhaps he might learn something. [Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr Speaker. We are trying to make sure that the work that is done, particularly in immigration cases, which often involves a lot of preparation in skeleton arguments, is remunerated. That end of it has seen a significant fee increase, but it is an interim measure and the hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that more work is being done in this area. Of course we will engage closely with representative bodies. He may shake his head, but he represents a party that took a knife to legal aid. I will take no lectures from him about legal aid and what he did to it. I had to live with the consequences of what his party did and he can put that in his pipe and smoke it.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend give a commitment that the Government will not seek to extend the early release scheme, which residents in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke think is too weak, and instead consider scrapping it? (902980)

I know that my hon. Friend speaks with conviction on behalf of his constituents. He knows that necessary steps were taken with regard to the covid crisis to allow a measured release of certain types of lower-level prisoners as an attempt to contain the outbreak. We have been very careful in the way that we have done that. On the more general issue of release, he will know that a scheme has existed for many years called home detention curfew. There are no plans to extend that, and, again, he can be reassured that we are dealing with prisoners who do not pose a high risk and have been carefully assessed. He will know from the measures I have taken to end automatic early release at halfway that the Government are determined to ensure that when prison terms are given, the majority of the term ordered is served.

As well as “I can’t breathe”, the Black Lives Matter protesters cry “No justice, no peace.” I am sure the Secretary of State will take the opportunity to condemn all violence and vandalism, as I do, but does he also recognise that that cry cries out for a response? Does he acknowledge that the Government’s failure to take any action on the report on racial disparities in the justice system by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) is not the response that will reassure protesters? (902977)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that important matter, but she can be reassured that the work done by the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and my Department’s response are far from being ignored or deprioritised. As a result of what has happened, we have already started “chance to change”, an important initiative about deferring prosecutions. We are already working to improve the way in which pre-sentence reports are prepared, in order to eliminate bias. Important work is being done to identify ethnicities within the system. In essence, the vital tools and foundations are being prepared to deal with the challenge that the hon. Lady rightly poses.

Following the immensely destructive Extinction Rebellion protests last year and the violence and the criminal damage committed over the weekend by a small minority of thugs, is my right hon. and learned Friend confident that the law as it stands is on the side of the law-abiding majority and our brave police officers, who have really stood up and been counted over the past couple of months? (902983)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to praise the work of our brave police officers, and indeed all emergency workers who put themselves on the line, particularly in the context of this crisis. We are in the process of looking carefully at the sentencing maximums for assaults on emergency workers. I will update the House on our progress.

The privatisation of probation has been a complete failure. The Secretary of State might want to remind his colleagues of Serco’s role in that failure, given the way it has just been awarded the contract for covid test and trace, but for today will he tell us when the family of probation services will be brought back together in their rightful place in the public sector and end this scandal of privatisation? (902985)

The hon. Gentleman knows that last year an important announcement was made on the reform of the Probation Service, which is progressing. I am considering the matter very carefully, particularly in the light of covid-19 and the effects on the process, and I will make a statement to the House as soon as possible.

The land banking scandal of nearly a decade ago is as real today as it was then to some people, especially in cases where solicitors have been prosecuted and struck off by the Solicitors Regulation Authority. The SRA deems compensation claims out of time after a year, even when the timescale from prosecution to striking off can be over a year. Will my right hon. and learned Friend ask the Legal Services Board to investigate whether the discretionary compensation fund administered by the SRA is actually fit for purpose?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. He and I have discussed this matter on a number of occasions, and he is right to raise this sensitive issue for those who have been unjustly deprived as a result of a fraud. The fund, which is operated by the SRA, is for those who have suffered financial loss specifically caused by solicitors. It consulted earlier this year between January and April. The SRA would need to seek the approval of the LSB for any changes to the fund. We need to be realistic about the fact that any compensation fund will not be able to fully recompense those who have lost under it, but I take his point about time limits, and it is something that I will discuss with him further.

Following the death of George Floyd, there have been peaceful, socially distanced protests in both Buxton and Glossop in my constituency. We should not pretend that there are not very clear differences between this country and the United States. It is 21 years since the Macpherson report and, as a country, we have come a very long way since then, but there is still work to be done. What steps are the Government taking to increase trust in the criminal justice system among the BAME communities?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. I can enlarge on the points that I made to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah). In February this year, we published an update against each of the recommendations made by the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). I have mentioned deferred prosecution schemes. There is also a change to the way in which the use of force in prison is scrutinised. We have completely revised the complaints process to ensure that it is fairer. On the recruitment of BAME people into the system, we are on target to meet our objective with regard to the percentage of Prison Service recruits and have increased the number of senior leaders. As the review recommended, we have concentrated on improving the quality and transparency of data, which ensures that we properly monitor ethnicity. A lot of work is being done, but there is a lot still to do.

It is reported today that Ministers are desperately looking for venues for Nightingale courts. Twenty-two magistrates courts were closed in Wales between 2010 and 2020, so will the Minister reopen those courts so that the people of Wales can be properly served?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but what he has to remember is that the extra courts need to be compatible with social distancing. What we are looking for is space and room so that people can stay safe, which is why in Wales we have been looking particularly at civic buildings near the established court centres in Cardiff, Swansea and, I think, Mold and Caernarfon Crown court, which I know well. I am confident from my close consultation with partners in Wales that work is being done that will allow that capacity to increase and allow justice to be served more swiftly in Wales.

It is now more than a year since my Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019 was passed. Before that, my right hon. and learned Friend’s colleagues did a lot of work on section 4, which would amend the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 to empower coroners to investigate stillbirths. That has still not happened—when is it going to happen?

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for his work on this matter and I am happy to continue to meet him on it. I had hoped to publish our report on the consultation about now, but covid, I am afraid, has affected things. My aim is to publish later this summer in accordance with his wishes, but I will of course engage with him on the matter.

A recent study by the London School of Economics has shown that people are torn about using the contact-tracing app, due to civil liberties concerns. To increase public confidence, will the Secretary of State commit to bringing forward a legislative framework and independent oversight of the app to protect human rights?

I thank the hon. Lady for that question. She knows that the Isle of Wight pilot is still ongoing and the precise nature of the app to be used has yet to be determined. I am quite clear—and I have been clear to the Joint Committee on Human Rights—that, if there was to be any change in the basis of the use of data, legislation would be necessary. But the important points for me are consent of the subject and indeed the use of that data and confidentiality. If the existing parameters are maintained, legislation might not be necessary, but we will have to wait to see the precise ambit of the app.

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members who participated in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I now suspend the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.