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Commons Chamber

Volume 677: debated on Tuesday 9 June 2020

House of Commons

Tuesday 9 June 2020

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).

[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]

Oral Answers to Questions

Justice

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 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 into 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 to 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 youth 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 education is 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 both 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 into 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 us 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 on 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 concern to many of my constituents affected by similar issues to those 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 that my constituents 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. It 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 has 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 of 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 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.

Future Relationship with the EU

(Urgent question): To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office if he will make a statement on the fourth round of the negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the European Union.

Negotiators from the UK and the EU held full and constructive discussions last week via video conference led by David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator. The talks covered trade in goods and services, fisheries, law enforcement, criminal justice and other issues, in which both sides engaged constructively. There was, however, no movement on the most difficult areas where differences of principle are at their most acute, notably fisheries, governance arrangements and the so-called level playing field.

We have now reached an important moment for these talks. To make progress, we need to accelerate and intensify our work, and the Government are working closely with the EU to achieve that. It is our priority to conclude this negotiation in good time to enable our citizens and businesses to have certainty about the trading terms that will follow at the end of this year and, if necessary, to allow any ratification of agreements reached. We have always been clear that such a deal must of course accommodate the reality of the UK’s well-established position on the so-called level playing field, on fisheries and on the other difficult issues, and fully recognise the UK as a sovereign equal.

The House should also be aware that this Friday, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and I will be at the second meeting of the withdrawal agreement joint committee. We will be able to update the committee about the positive progress the UK is making on implementing our obligations, not least on citizens’ rights and the Northern Ireland protocol, but we will also emphasise that we will not be extending the transition period, and will push the EU on implementing its obligations under the terms of the agreement.

The Government remain committed to our negotiations with the EU and the implementation of the withdrawal agreement and will continue to keep the House updated on developments.

The UK left the European Union in January, and our task now is to build the best possible new relationship with our European neighbours. Our chief negotiator, David Frost, said last week:

“We need to conclude this negotiation in good time to enable people and businesses to have certainty about the trading terms that will follow the end of the transition period at the end of this year”.

We agree, but currently we are in the dark about what this new relationship looks like.

Both the CBI and the TUC are warning about the impact of chaos and uncertainty on jobs and livelihoods. The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry warned this week that, as a consequence of covid-19, the stockpile of medicines has been run down and cannot be rebuilt, in terms of volume or range, by the end of this year. The Road Haulage Association says:

“We are still missing the essential practical information on all new processes and procedures”

as the Government look to introduce millions of extra declarations at the border each year. Does the Minister believe that having 50,000 new customs officers to process those declarations will add to or reduce the red tape for UK businesses?

From freight to farming, fisheries to pharmaceuticals, we need clarity. During the general election, the Prime Minister claimed time and again that the Government had an oven-ready deal. Its fundamental ingredients matter, so will the Minister confirm that the Government still, as they did in December, guarantee that there will be no tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions across all sectors? Leaving on WTO standards, or even a Canada-style deal, does not guarantee that. Will she also confirm that the Government will safeguard workers’ rights and consumer and environmental protections? There is much concern that that is no longer Government policy. Are the Government still committed to a broad, comprehensive and balanced security partnership, which is essential to bring criminals to justice? Will the Government respect the Good Friday agreement in its entirety?

To conclude, this is not just a deal between the UK Government and the European Union. Through the course of the election, it was the basis of a deal with the British people. We urge both sides to redouble their efforts over the next few days and weeks to ensure that progress is made by the end of this month, so that the Government can honour their commitment to ensuring a good deal for Britain by the end of this year.

I thank the hon. Lady for those questions. At the start of her response, she made a powerful argument for not extending the transition period. If we have learned anything over the last few years, it is that that would only extend the negotiations. I agree that business, our citizens across the EU, and the rest of the world, with which we are also focused on trade negotiations, want to have certainty about the future, so we must press on with that. That is one of the many reasons why we will not extend the transition period.

The hon. Lady is also right to draw attention to the fact that the covid crisis is going on. I know that she is aware of the huge amount of work that was done last year on no-deal preparations, and the tremendous work that civil contingencies and all Government Departments have been doing to ensure that supply chains remain strong, that we can quickly adapt, and that we have stocks of all sorts of goods, including the medicines that we need. These are challenging at times, in the light of what the world is facing, but they are our focus. I assure her of the incredible work that those civil servants are doing to ensure that our citizens have what they need when they need it.

I take a keen interest in those areas as a former employee of the Freight Transport Association. We will shortly be saying more about our border operations. A tremendous amount of work has gone on to improve on our communication with businesses from every part of the UK last year to ensure that is good, and that we are not just giving people the right information, but picking up solutions from the sector, because that will be key to getting it right.

On the hon. Lady’s remarks about rights, animal welfare, security, zero tariffs and zero quotas, our policy has not changed. We will of course respect the Good Friday/Belfast agreement and we expect the EU to do the same.

Regrettably, is not the insurmountable blockage in this entire process the refusal of the EU to accept the UK as a sovereign nation and, therefore, its refusal to countenance a large-scale copy and paste of existing arrangements with the likes of Canada, South Korea and Japan to reach a mutually beneficial trading partnership?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The areas where we still need to make progress will be helped when the EU remembers that we are a sovereign equal.

Surprise, surprise: there is no Michael Macavity; when the going gets tough, the tough get gone in this case. It now looks like the Minister for the Cabinet Office will secure the no-deal Brexit he has always coveted. It will be misery heaped on misery, as covid and Brexit appear like the twin horsemen of the economic apocalypse trampling over any prospect of recovery.

Whose fault will that be? Obviously, not the Government’s: “Nothing to do with us, guv. It’s all these nasty, invidious Europeans. How dare they hold the Government to the commitments they’ve already given in good faith? These fiendish Europeans, asking us to deliver on what we’ve already agreed to.” When they sit down to negotiate, it is like watching Scotland’s B team take on Brazil of the 1970s. It is almost cruel to observe them with their screeds of documents and facts, and Team GB with its ill-fitting clown shoes.

We are having nothing more to do with this. Scotland is wanting out of all this. Another opinion poll at the weekend showed a majority for Scottish independence once again. The Union that we covet is not their failed variety; it is the European Union one. Does the Minister concede that we will have no deal, and that there is no way Scotland will be part of that impending disaster?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is disappointed to see me here today. I am always delighted to see him, and he will know that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster needs no encouragement to come to the Dispatch Box. My right hon. Friend has come to update the House and appeared in front of Select Committees, and he is committed to doing so. I am here because he is unable to attend today.

I am not sure there was a question in the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, but I reassure him of my commitment to working with the Scottish Government to ensure the best possible outcome from these sets of negotiations. I have been changing the format of how that is done, and we have put more time into key areas such as fisheries, to ensure that the Scottish Government have everything they need to contribute. We must ensure that we work together, constructively, and get what our businesses and citizens need.

Given that the German constitutional court recently said that Germany does not have to follow rulings from the European Court of Justice if that goes against German interests, despite Germany being a member of the European Union, would it not be unreasonable to expect the United Kingdom to obey any rulings from the European Court of Justice, now that we are no longer a member of the European Union?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The German constitutional court decision emphasises the point that we are a sovereign equal, and the EU needs to accept that. That decision will obviously have implications for the EU to consider.

Article 131 of the political declaration states that if a dispute raises a question of interpretation of Union law,

“the arbitration panel should refer the question to the Court of Justice of the European Union…for a binding ruling as regards the interpretation of Union law.”

Given what the Minister just said, do the Government still stand by the commitment that the Prime Minister signed up to in October?

The political declaration is not a treaty and there will be differences on both sides as to its interpretation. The point we have emphasised in the past few days is that the EU cannot be the referee in that.

I have received a large number of emails from farmers and constituents in North Devon who are concerned about food standards once we leave the EU. Will my right hon. Friend assure me, and worried constituents, that we will retain our current food standards, and prevent the import of chlorinated chicken and other inferior food?

I refer my hon. Friend to the very good joint letter that was recently sent out by the Secretaries of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and for International Trade. In this we should be trusting the consumer—if people do not want to put their faith in Government, we should trust the consumer, and I think consumers want high-quality, fairly priced food, with high animal welfare standards.

It is clear from the Minister’s remarks that this deal is far from “oven-ready”. Are the Government prepared to say no to any deal that will diminish our food and environmental standards and undermine British farming?

Of course we are working towards a deal on those issues, and many others. On some issues we very much feel that our interests are better served by having separate agreements. The key point is that we cannot keep negotiating for ever, and we must allow our businesses, farmers, and citizens time to implement the decisions taken. That is why we are now at this key stage and have to increase and escalate negotiations. We need to arrive at a deal soon.

The EU is insisting on level playing field guarantees,  the extent of which are not seen in any similar agreements and to which no sovereign country could agree. Does the Minister agree that if we are to reach that mutually agreeable and profitable deal, the EU will have to stop cherry-picking?

I thank my hon. Friend for that well put point. The EU’s proposals would bind us into EU law and impose controls over our domestic legal regimes, which cannot be acceptable. It is not in the political declaration and it is certainly not in any free trade agreement that I know of.

Tapadh leibh, Mr Speaker, and thank you for enabling this. During the covid crisis, people are getting a taste of border restrictions and they do not like it. Leaving the customs union and the single market would give businesses more significant Brexit borders. Anybody worth their salt in business and trade negotiations knows the numbers. Given that there is no good Brexit for the economy and that the damage to the economy was reckoned by the UK Government at one stage to be between 6% and 8% of GDP, does the Minister have updated figures for the damage, deal or no deal, to the UK economy, jobs and business, or are we still looking at 6% to 8%?

The Government’s policy is that, over the medium to long term, our approach to Brexit will maximise the economic benefits to the United Kingdom. That needs to be our focus in not just our negotiations with the EU but the work we are doing on rest-of-world trade. There are massive benefits for every part of the UK from that, and that is what we should all be working together to achieve.

The speculation regarding a possible extension of the transition period is concerning the residents of Blackpool, nearly 70% of whom voted to leave the European Union. Does my right hon. Friend agree that extending the transition period at this point would merely prolong the negotiations, prolong the uncertainty for businesses, and delay the moment at which we can finally gain back our control of our borders; and that none of those things are in the best long-term interests of the United Kingdom?

My hon. Friend’s constituents are very wise indeed. It would just prolong the negotiations. It would also see us paying into the budget and being subject to laws that we had no say in designing.

The Minister spoke a moment ago about accommodating reality. May I urge her to accommodate reality on the supply of crucial medicines and other supplies to our NHS rather than false hopes and aspirations, which have not served us well in the current crisis? The pharmaceutical industry said, in an internal memo provided to the Government in May, that after the pandemic ends there will be:

“less or zero product available in the market to allow for stockpiling of a broad range of products.”

Who is right: the pharmaceutical industry or the Minister?

The hon. Gentleman is right that there are challenges, but those challenges are known and a huge amount of work is going on to ensure that we can address them. We will be saying more in the coming weeks about those issues and on our border operations.

We have heard that Germany thinks it can pick and choose which laws it complies with, yet Mr Barnier still expects us to be subordinate to EU laws. The Minister said that there will be implications for the EU. Does she agree that this not only undermines the negotiations but the EU project as a whole?

The judgment of that court clearly raises issues that are for the EU to consider, and not for me at the Dispatch Box. The key point that my hon. Friend outlines is that we are a sovereign equal in the negotiations. Once the EU accepts that and looks at the negotiations from that perspective, we can make some progress on those remaining tough issues.

On 20 May, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said in the Chamber that the UK was now prioritising the principle of consent—the Government’s interpretation of it. On the same day, in relation to the Command Paper on the Ireland protocol, the Government insisted that the Northern Ireland Assembly should have the final say on the protocol. The Assembly finally gave a say on Brexit when it voted last week to request an extension to the transition period to allow businesses, which are currently in the fight of their lives due to covid, to adapt and to have the certainty that the Minister refers to. If the Northern Ireland Assembly’s consent is so vital, should the Government not listen to what it says?

Many of the issues, including the protocol, will ultimately rest with the people of Northern Ireland through their elected representatives. However, for the reasons that I have already set out, we will not extend the transition period. We believe that it would not be in the interest of any part of the UK to do so. It would just prolong negotiations. Hon. Members on both sides of the House, including those who have recently joined, will know what that looks like, having seen what happened to this country over the past few years.

The people of Stoke-on-Trent, who voted overwhelmingly for Brexit, expect the extension not to happen. A comprehensive free trade agreement could easily be agreed by both parties, without major difficulties, in the time available. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the EU must accept that the UK is an independent sovereign state and an equal partner in these negotiations?

My hon. Friend makes some very good points. Yes, absolutely: we are a sovereign equal and the EU must accept that. She is also right to point out that we are not starting from scratch in these negotiations. There are many precedents being set and the asks we are making are extremely reasonable and are found in many other arrangements that the EU has with other nations.

Farmers and crofters in my constituency and across the country require a minimum of two things from these negotiations: tariff-free access to the European markets, and the protection that their produce gets from the protected designation of origin regimes. Given the Minister’s description of progress in negotiations, how likely does she think they are to get that, and what would she suggest they do if they do not?

We are very aware of the asks of every sector in Scotland. I have been working with all the devolved Administrations to ensure that they are able to feed in. Indeed, those discussions have materially changed the shape of the negotiations. We will continue to do that. They know that I am committed to doing that. Many of the things we are asking for are in everyone’s interests. They are mutually beneficial things, so I remain optimistic.

Financial services are very important to my constituency, and indeed to the country as a whole, given their huge contribution to the Exchequer and the number of people they employ, not only in London but in Scotland and in the north of England. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the interests of financial services will be protected as part of the negotiations?

I can give my hon. Friend those assurances. We are obviously working very hard to deliver for that sector. It is a sector that was not well served—the whole of services were not well served—by our previous relationship with the EU. The asks that we are making with regard to financial services are in other agreements that the EU has, notably that with Japan, so we think it perfectly reasonable that they be extended to us.

Ebbw Vale in Blaenau Gwent has a European-based car parts manufacturer that provides well-paid jobs. What engagement have the Government had with this sector and its trade unions about their role in these negotiations?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. One of the areas that I look after in the Cabinet Office is our communications. We have had a complete overhaul involving every Government Department, including those for local government and for transport, which will be key to the sector that he raises, to improve our communications. Clearly, a lot of policy announcements are yet to happen because they are contingent on decisions that have been taken, but that structure is now in place. I make the commitment that the communications between all sectors and Government will be considerably better than what happened last year.

What assurances can my right hon. Friend give to businesses in the Cities of London and Westminster that both the UK and the EU are keen to have certainty and clarity in any future relationship, particularly to deliver an attractive business and investment environment, since financial and professional services will play a huge part in the post covid-19 economic recovery?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. The City of London is not just vital to the UK’s economic recovery; it is also a key institution for many nations around the world. We must ensure its success, and I assure her that the Government are very focused on that.

I voted for the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill. I want the Government to get a good deal. Delay will only increase uncertainty, but last week it was reported that talks about the oven-ready deal have stagnated. What red lines will the Government compromise on, if at all, to achieve that promised deal?

I thank the hon. Lady for her commitment to helping us deliver a good deal. The key aspect of why we cannot let these negotiations go on is that prolonged uncertainty. We believe that our asks are very reasonable. There are precedents set. They are upholding our rights in international law, and we will continue to ask for them. What is required is for the EU to understand that we are a sovereign equal in these negotiations, and I hope that that happens in the coming weeks.

I welcome the Minister’s comments on speed. We need to give people and businesses notice as soon as possible about the changes that they need to prepare for. On guidance, may I urge her to look at the fact that many businesses have not realised the consequences of coming out of the single market and the customs union? We can start preparing them for that reality. On the Northern Ireland protocol, there are businesses reporting to me that they are now moving jobs to the Republic. What progress has been made on implementing and discussing the checks and other measures that businesses will have to prepare for in Northern Ireland?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that important question. In addition to shortly being able to talk more about border operations and how we envisage things working in the future, we are already in discussion with businesses in every part of the UK. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has led some of those discussions. We have received a great deal of submissions from businesses in Northern Ireland, and those views are being taken into account as we design what the future will look like.

The London mayoral elections have been delayed by a year. The conference of the parties on climate has been delayed by more than a year. Where is the harm in delaying the Brexit negotiations for a year as well, so that we can get it right, by understanding the impact that the pandemic is having and will continue to have at the end of the year rather than going barrelling off the cliff edge? All it would take is a phone call, and we would give people the kind of certainty that we are being asked for by taking the time to get it done properly.

We will not be barrelling off a cliff edge. One of the reasons why we want to conclude the negotiations is to give people time to prepare for the end of the year. The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the fact that the situation we are in with covid has been grave. We need to ensure that our economies recover swiftly, and they will be helped not by perpetuating the uncertainty we saw over the last few years, but by enabling business to get on with it and using our finite resources to facilitate levelling up in the United Kingdom, not paying into an EU budget that we will never see any upside from.

We have recently seen an unacceptable increase in the number of illegal migrants entering this country through unauthorised crossings across the English channel. Does my right hon. Friend agree that being tied to EU rules and regulations during the transition period makes the return of illegal migrants more difficult, which underlines one of the important reasons why we need to end the transition period on 31 December? Will she assure me and my constituents that the UK will rebuff any EU attempt to make a new deal on illegal immigration contingent on us conceding in other areas of negotiations?

All nations have an obligation to combat the appalling and dangerous trade in human beings. Britain has chosen to do that, partly because of our geographic location, by putting in large amounts of funding upstream to create job security and food security and alleviate the need for people to move away from their homes to seek a better life. We will always uphold our obligations and our humanitarian obligations, and we want all other countries to do the same.

When does the Minister hope to be able to offer some reassurance to the west midlands motor industry that the negotiations will protect the industry and will not result in the imposition of a disastrous tariff on UK-manufactured vehicles intended for European export?

That and many other matters are why we want to increase the pace of negotiations. We will soon be able to talk about some of the operational aspects in respect of how we see our border working and many other issues that will be of interest to that sector. In preparation for that we have done a huge amount of work to ensure that we are talking to everyone we need to.

The reality is that a comprehensive free trade agreement, with all the benefits it could bring to both parties, is well within reach. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, rather than discussing an extension with Opposition parties, the EU should focus on securing a deal so that we can reach an agreement by the end of the year?

I do agree with my hon. Friend. It is vital that we get a move on with this; it is in the interests of the UK and the EU that we do so. The EU must accept that we are a sovereign equal in the negotiations; I think we will then make some progress. In fairness to the Opposition, even though they are campaigning on a transition period, they have not quite adopted that as their policy—I suspect because they know it would be crazy to extend it.

Scotland has important trading links with Northern Ireland, but Stena Line is really struggling because of covid-19. The Minister keeps talking about certainty; so that we can look forward with certainty, will she be the first Minister to explain how the invisible border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is going to be maintained? What technology has been invented and will be deployed in time for the end of the transition period? How will she ensure that that does not affect the movement of goods and people between Scotland and Northern Ireland?

The hon. Gentleman raises some important points. We will soon be able to talk in depth about border operations. I am not able to do that today, but he will not have long to wait.

The nature of the trading relationship that the UK is now seeking with the EU means that, whatever the outcome of the negotiations, the formalities with which exporters will need to comply will change on 1 January. I urge the Government to step up engagement so that businesses large and small throughout the country are ready for the end of the transition period and all the formalities that will bring.

My right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point that is absolutely accepted. We hope to be able to start to do that very soon indeed. In advance of that we have, as I have alluded to, done a tremendous amount of work, looking at all the stakeholders that Departments are working with and ensuring that we are talking to all the businesses that we need to, not just the obvious ones that are always at the roundtables. We do a good job not only of communicating that but of listening, because many of the solutions that need to be put in place will be derived from the ideas of businesses themselves.

I am sure the right hon. Lady will agree that we need a good deal. We need a deal in the time that we have set ourselves, but to get that, we need a mixture of trust, competence and integrity. As a new member of the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union, I—and the team—had the privilege yesterday of interviewing Michel Barnier and the Minister’s boss, the Secretary of State. Does it not worry her that I get a real feeling that the trust, competence and integrity are more on the Barnier side than on her boss’s side? Why can we not get a movement in which we look back to the political declaration and stick to its principles?

I am very disappointed to hear that from the hon. Gentleman. On the withdrawal agreement Joint Committee, I am Barnier’s oppo, and I thought I was charming.

No one would disagree with that sentiment. Post-covid, it will be essential to get the global trading system moving, and nothing could give greater confidence in that system than seeing a UK-EU trade agreement in place. To enable that to happen, the EU could give Britain a Canada-style agreement. Does my right hon Friend agree that the UK has a right to expect from the EU no less than what the UK itself agreed, as part of the EU, with Canada?

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point, which I agree with wholeheartedly. He is also right to put the focus on rest-of-world trade. Clearly, many decisions that will be taken in the negotiations and the workstreams going into implementing the withdrawal agreement are linked to our ambitions with rest-of-world trade. We must always remember that while the EU side of things is clearly a priority for many in this House, we ought also to be talking about the opportunities that exist with other nations around the world.

I congratulate the Minister on her stance and her determination to deliver Brexit. Will she outline whether there have been further discussions regarding our agrifood and fishing sectors in the United Kingdom, and in Northern Ireland in particular, with special reference to the protection needed to secure our dairy, beef, pork, poultry and fish markets? What have the latest discussions brought about to ensure that that happens?

The last round of negotiations touched on all the workstreams. There was in-depth discussion across all areas, and it was very constructive on both parts, but as I outlined in my opening statement, there are some very tough areas. One of them is fishing and we are asking for our rights, as enshrined in international law, to be upheld. We are not wavering from that point, and the EU needs to recognise that.

In my last exchange with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on 27 February, we learned that we were going to need 50,000 new customs officers by the end of the year. What assessment has the Department made of the annual cost to the UK economy of those officers, and who is going to foot the bill for them?

Our civil servants have been working on the personnel, training and recruitment aspects of this, and on the many other aspects that will need to be put in place. There are regular updates on readiness with our partners and with the devolved nations. I am leading on that aspect. Where there are additional costs to be borne, there is work that needs to be done, and the Treasury is aware of that fact. I am personally keen to see that where we are making investments, whether in personnel or in additional facilities that need to be created, we are also looking at the economic opportunities that will come with that for particular areas. I know that the Treasury is very keen on that, too.

With both sides being confident that a deal can take place by the end of year, the EU ratification process means that, in practical terms, agreement probably needs to be reached by the end of October. Ratification in the UK can take place relatively quickly. What guarantees has the Minister received from Michel Barnier that the EU will not allow a deal to fall because of the time it would take to complete the complex EU ratification processes?

All sides are very aware of the timetable we have to operate in, which is why we want to increase the pace of discussions and focus on those remaining tough issues, but we will not extend the negotiations. We are determined to ensure that any ratification or other practical measures needed can be done by the end of the year. That is critical and the reason we want to conclude the negotiations swiftly.

The Northern Ireland protocol is the sad and inevitable consequence of Brexit and the need to protect the Good Friday agreement, but it is right we do all we can to mitigate its impact. Does the Minister recognise that the greater the divergence by the UK from the EU—or indeed the absence of any trade deal by the end of the year—the greater the impact down the Irish sea in terms of checks and bureaucracy?

The best way to protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and to implement the protocol is to take a pragmatic approach that always has at its forefront jobs and the economy in Northern Ireland. That is why it is our policy that there should be no new procedures, no new customs infrastructure and no tariffs on internal UK trade, and that remains our policy.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that even the five months that Monsieur Barnier talked about on Friday for finalising legal texts on an agreement on the level playing field, fisheries and other matters is possible, provided that the agreement reflects the fact that we have left the EU? Is not what is needed here the flexibility in the EU mandate that we saw when the Prime Minister successfully renegotiated the withdrawal agreement?

I agree with my hon. Friend wholeheartedly. Remember, we are not starting from scratch; there are many precedents and it is perfectly possible for us to make progress. I sincerely hope we do so.

Last week, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster told me we did not need a Brexit extension, just good will on all sides, but this Government keep making commitments and then ditching them—hardly the way to encourage good will. Will the UK Government finally admit that they cannot deliver on their own commitments and just come clean that the real strategy is to crash out of the EU, leaving the rest of us to pick up the pieces?

No, that is not the strategy. The strategy is to escalate the pace of the negotiations, which the EU is aware is required, and make progress. As I say, in the latest rounds last week we had very constructive discussions on all workstreams, but there remain areas we need to focus on in the coming days and weeks. That is what we need to do. It is in everyone’s interests—not just ours in the UK, but the EU’s—that we secure this deal, and I remain confident that we will get there.

Our historic immigration Bill will end free movement, take back control of our border and pave the way for a new points-based immigration system. Does the Minister agree that as we come through coronavirus it is vital that we have this new immigration system in place so that we can attract the brightest and the best from around the world?

We need flexibility and the ability to respond to what our economy needs. Our immigration system needs to be based on a proper understanding of our own labour market and the needs of each local area, and yes, that will present us with opportunities that we need to be ready to seize.

The CBI says that the coronavirus has left companies with almost zero resilience to a chaotic exit from the single market. Ending the Brexit transition period without a deal would on its own be an act of economic vandalism. To do so in the face of coronavirus would be economic vandalism on steroids. This is no longer about leave or remain; it is about a Government acting responsibly in the interests of their citizens. Will the Minister please put ideology aside and persuade her colleagues that it is time to seek an extension to the transition period?

All that seeking an extension would do is to prolong negotiations. We need to conclude the negotiations and get a good outcome. Not pushing deadlines out will help do that. Then we need to give our citizens and our businesses time to prepare; time to socialise them with the new border operations. That is our plan; that is what is going to happen. All that extending the transition process would do is push negotiations out. We would be back to where the British people do not want to be—to uncertainty and chaos. They want clarity. They want to get a move on and they want to maximise the benefits of being outside the EU.

Is this not the only trade deal in history that starts out from a level playing field? Should that not make it much easier for us to find a pragmatic way forward?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is not just that we have been in this partnership with the EU but the fact that its arrangements with other nations set the parameters for many of the things that we are discussing. This is perfectly doable. It is just a matter of good will and focus, but there is good will, and there is increasing focus.

Time is running out, and there is a real risk of a cliff-edge Brexit, which would come in the context of a health pandemic and the associated economic crisis, with rising unemployment towards the end of the year. Have the Government initiated any planning for the event of a deal not being reached?

It would be prudent and wise for us to prepare for every scenario, just as we have always done. We did so last year and then did not need to implement those preparations. I am confident that we can not only come to an agreement but do so in a timeframe that gives people the time that they need to prepare and to understand. We are very aware of the other things that are going on in the world that form the backdrop to that. Our approach is going to be achingly pragmatic.

The EU says repeatedly that it accepts the fact of Brexit, yet its entire negotiating strategy seems to be geared to keeping the UK squarely in the legal and regulatory orbit of the EU. Does my right hon. Friend agree that unlocking the deal will require flexibility and good will but also fundamentally requires the EU to be realistic and honest about the path that the UK has chosen?

My right hon. Friend makes very good points. The EU needs to recognise that we are now a sovereign equal and negotiate with us on that basis. There are massive opportunities from us coming to a deal. The EU will be aware of those opportunities, and I hope that we can get the focus that we need to resolve the remaining issues and get a move on for their Union and ours too.

The Minister talks about time to prepare, yet the House has no clarity on where or how we will land, and businesses the length and breadth of the UK still do not know what tariffs will apply, which regulations they should follow, what customs processes will apply, how people and data can cross borders or whether professional qualifications will be recognised. Can the Minister honestly look business owners in my constituency and across Scotland in the eye and tell them that they are meant to prepare all of this in the next six months while battling the impacts of a global pandemic?

We are very aware of the backdrop against which these negotiations are taking place. Hon. Members will not have long to wait before they learn more about border operations, but in many of the areas that the hon. Gentleman mentions, we have made progress, and that progress is in the public domain. In other areas, we are simply asking for a reciprocal relationship for things that we currently do for other nations.

As we begin to recover from the coronavirus, while a deal would be very welcome, does my right hon. Friend agree that the UK needs as much flexibility as possible to help rebuild our economy and communities, and that remaining bound by EU law during this time would not allow us to do that?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; we have left the EU. At the end of this year, we will be a fully independent and sovereign nation. Our interests are best served by having that flexibility with rest-of-the-world trade and with the choices we make about our trading arrangements with others, as well as the EU. That is the basis of our negotiating position and it is one that we will hold to.

Is it not now inevitable that both Northern Ireland and Irish companies alike will increasingly look to use the new generation of massive roll-on roll-off ferries for direct links with the mainland in Europe, which will have disastrous effects for bypassed Welsh ports such as Holyhead?

As someone whose constituency is a port, let me reassure the hon. Gentleman that I very much understand the concerns the sector has. It wants information about future operations, and support to put in place any adjustments that need to be made and timely information about them. A tremendous amount of work has gone on with ports, and the organisations they work with and rely on, in advance of announcements about border operations and future arrangements, as he will know, and we will continue to do that. We have to maximise the economic opportunities such investments in UK infrastructure will bring for his constituents and others around the country, and we will do that.

A comprehensive free trade agreement can easily be reached by the end of the year between the UK and the EU for one simple reason, which is that we are starting from the same place. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time for the EU to get on with it and start negotiating in good faith?

I think that behind the political bluster there is good faith, because not only are we starting out from similar positions, as my hon. Friend points out, but a good deal is in our mutual interests. That is why I have always remained optimistic about the outcome of this process. [Interruption.] Because the EU needs to recognise us a sovereign equal, and I hope that it does.

World trade is forecast to decline by up to a third in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, and that could encourage a move to more protectionist trade policies globally. Given that context, why does the Minister think it is a good idea to rush through major changes to the UK’s trading relationship with the EU, when businesses want more time to recover from the economic shock of coronavirus and avoid a no-deal scenario?

The hon. Lady was cutting out, but I think I have got the gist.

We believe in free trade and do not want protectionist practices, not just because that is in our interests, but because we believe it is in the interests of every nation on earth. I assure her that one reason why we do not want to extend the transition period and we want to conclude the negotiations swiftly is to give businesses and her constituents time to prepare before the end of the year. Our approach to that, on our borders and on many other aspects, is going to be extremely pragmatic and sensible, and once business hears more about it, I think it will be reassured.

Many constituents from across Keighley have expressed to me their frustration at the speed with which the EU is progressing with these negotiations. My right hon. Friend has been clear that we need to see a significant step forward in the EU’s approach if we are to reach an agreement by the end of this year. Can she confirm that the Government are prepared to walk away from these negotiations if adequate progress has not been made, and that we are prepared for that eventuality if needs be?

My hon. Friend makes some very good points. The key aspect to this is, as I have said, the timing. There is no point in our arriving at an agreement at the 11th hour: we have to arrive at an agreement to enable it to be implemented and ratified, but also in order for our citizens and businesses to prepare. That is what is dictating the timetable, and that is why we must have renewed focus. We are talking to the EU about having a change of format—about how we can increase the pace of negotiations, get the focus where we need it to be, and get a deal done for both our sakes.

Easy extradition has made it possible for paedophiles, murderers and violent criminals to be brought to justice in the UK from other countries in the European Union. I understand that the Government have now given up on the European arrest warrant for the UK. Several countries, including Germany, Austria and Slovenia, have made it clear that constitutionally they will not be able to extradite to the UK when we are no longer a member of the European Union. How are we going to make sure that we do not become a protected place for European criminals?

On that issue, but on many other issues related to law enforcement and security, the negotiations have been good and constructive. We were having discussions on those areas last week and making good progress on them. Ultimately, though, having an arrangement, whether it is on other aspects of security or on protecting all our citizens from those who would wish to do them harm, is in our mutual interests. I have said this from the get-go since the referendum, and I am confident that common sense will prevail.

Having a deadline promotes deals, and I have high hopes for the negotiations over the next few weeks. But does my right hon. Friend agree that where there is no sign of a convergence in negotiating positions, an extension of the transition period, four and a half years after the referendum vote, would serve no purpose other than to cost us money, prolong business uncertainty, delay effective control of our borders, and hamper our economic response to the covid crisis?

One of the concerns has always been the potential for a future British Government to deregulate hard-fought workers’ rights. That ought not to be a worry if there is political will, so have the Government met trade unions and the TUC about maintaining and, indeed, improving our employment standards outside of the EU once the transition period ends in December?

Of course, not only the Cabinet Office but many other Government Departments have negotiations with a wide range of stakeholders, including the unions. The British people value the things that the hon. Gentleman has spoken about. They value their rights. They value high standards. They value high environmental standards, and all the other things that many Members care about, because they know their constituents care about them. On these things, including particularly on employment law, the UK has led the pack, so I would say to him: have a little faith. It is his job not to trust the Government, but he should trust the people.

The Minister will understand that many of Scotland’s fishermen voted to leave the European Union to retake control of our fishing waters, so can she assure me that the UK will not compromise on our fishing rights and that the EU will need to accept that the UK will become an independent coastal nation by the end of 2020?

I can give my hon. Friend that reassurance. We want a separate fisheries framework that reflects our rights in international law. Our requests are simple, reasonable and straightforward. We want the EU to recognise those rights, recognise us as a sovereign equal, and come to the negotiating table with renewed vigour to ensure that we can get that agreement and a deal.