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Topical Questions

Volume 677: debated on Tuesday 9 June 2020

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.