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Topical Questions

Volume 678: debated on Tuesday 14 July 2020

Covid-19 presents one of the greatest peacetime challenges that the United Kingdom and the justice system have ever faced, but throughout the crisis we have kept courts open, we have kept cases flowing through the system and justice has been delivered, especially for the most vulnerable victims and with regard to dangerous offenders. We are ahead of comparable systems around the world and we should recognise the hard work that has allowed that to happen. Technological innovation has accelerated throughout the system, with over 14,000 cases heard remotely. Jury trials have safely restarted, with 48 Crown court centres now hearing trials, and Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service has published a plan that clearly outlines the next steps. We are not there yet and we are continuing to work on increasing available court capacity, ensuring that technology can be more effectively used throughout the system and exploring all necessary and appropriate options. This comes together with the biggest increase in the court maintenance funding structure for over 20 years.

In green spaces across my constituency, litter picks used to result in our picking up cans, bottles and crisp packets, but now, more and more, we are finding numbers of nitrous oxide canisters. An increasing number of youngsters are putting their health and lives at risk using this psychoactive substance. Will my right hon. and learned Friend look at that with colleagues across Government, so that we can get a grip of a growing and dangerous issue?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. He can be reassured, first of all, that nitrous oxide is a psychoactive substance classified under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, and it is an offence to supply it if someone knows, or is reckless as to whether, it will be used for its psychoactive effect. The most recent assessment of the drug was in 2015, when the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs concluded that there was evidence that the use of the drug can cause harm, but I would be more than happy to discuss the matter further with him.

A decade of under-investment and savage cuts in legal aid critically weakened the criminal justice system long before coronavirus. Time and again, month after month, the Bar Council, the Law Society and so many others have warned the Government about the dire predicament faced by legal aid practitioners up and down the country, but the Government’s much-delayed review of criminal legal aid is nowhere in sight. Will the Secretary of State commit to expediting the criminal legal aid review and provide a deadline by which it will report?

I am surprised by the right hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of the criminal legal aid review. Indeed, we have completed part 1 and the consultation has been completed, and we are proceeding with all expedition to implement the accelerated requests of the Bar and the solicitors’ professions. We are moving into part 2 and I want to get on with it. The right hon. Gentleman knows that I spent over 20 years as a legal aid criminal practitioner; and I saw, shall we say, a Government of which he was a member sometimes revelling in cuts to legal aid. We need to work constructively together on this now to help the professions that we both support.

May I wish you a very happy Black Country Day, Mr Speaker?Our prisons are primarily a place of punishment and deprivation of liberty, but maintaining and supporting family links is important for rehabilitation and for offenders’ lives after release. What progress is being made on allowing prison visits to start again so that those links can be preserved? (904735)

My hon. Friend is right to ask about the plan that we issued in June to clear a pathway for the easing of restrictions in our prisons gradually and cautiously, always guided by public health advice and designed to keep staff and prisoners safe. We are now seeing prisons start to open up, including prison visits in places such as HMP Humber. I pay tribute to everybody who has worked so hard to make that experience a safe one. So far, about half of all our prisons have begun to ease some restrictions. Progress is being made.

We have already heard a response on legal aid, but may I push the Lord Chancellor a little further? Restoring legal aid for early legal advice from a solicitor would help to resolve more cases before they reach court, speed up cases that proceed to trial and get rid of the backlog. As we have just heard, our justice system is only as good as the access to it for everybody. Will the Secretary of State please consider restoring legal aid, at least for early advice? (904736)

The hon. Lady brings together two issues. With regard to criminal trials and the like, of course legal aid remains available, subject to the means test. That is absolutely essential—from the police station onwards. With regard to more general legal advice, she will be glad to know that £5 million was allocated for the extra provision of early legal advice. That is a deep commitment from both me and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk). We are working with our officials to ensure that that is applied intelligently, in a way that diverts and prevents litigation, rather than exposing people to what can be a lengthy and burdensome process.

Meur ras, Mr Speaker. What steps is the Department taking to support victims of crime specifically in Cornwall? (904737)

My hon. Friend always speaks with passion on behalf of victims of crime in North Cornwall. He knows that the county of the Duchy sits within the Devon and Cornwall police and crime commissioner area, which has received over £2 million of funding to support victims of crime this financial year. The Ministry of Justice supplies £510,000 of funding directly to five sexual violence support providers in the PCC area through the rape support fund. We have allocated another £439,000, which has been distributed to local providers via the PCC, to support victims of domestic and sexual violence. An additional £195,000 of covid-19 extraordinary funding has been distributed to rape support centres in the Devon and Cornwall PCC area through the rape support fund.

Kinship carers ensure that children who cannot live with their parents can stay safely within the family network. They are nothing short of heroes, yet many end up paying thousands in legal fees just to secure the right to look after those vulnerable children. Will the Lord Chancellor pledge urgently to bring forward legal aid reforms for special guardians in private law cases, and go further to ensure that kinship carers are not left out of pocket for doing the right thing? (904739)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that specific point. It deserves closer scrutiny, and I would be happy to engage directly with her on the issue.

On Black Country Day, what measures is my right hon. Friend taking to reduce the backlog of court hearings that have arisen from covid-19? (904738)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that nudge. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) for not joining in the celebrations for Black Country Day. I will not attempt the accent. Some people think I am not a bad impersonator, but we will move on swiftly.

Recovery continues each week thanks to the hard work of professionals right across the system. More than 150 courts remained fully open throughout the pandemic and we now have over 300 courts and tribunals fully open. As I said in my initial remarks, we are developing and opening new court capacity. I urge providers and interested parties in the Black Country area to come forward and make suggestions to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service for suitable buildings we can use to ensure that we ramp up court capacity and deal with the case load.

People working in the criminal justice system in Cambridge tell me that because of the current measures there is limited court time available and backlogs are building up. However, when they suggest moving to available suitable premises—nearby arts premises and so on—they get very little response. Will the Secretary of State talk to the Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service to get some action on this and get justice moving in Cambridgeshire? (904740)

I listen with interest to the hon. Gentleman’s observations. I am extremely keen for local initiative to flourish. We are seeing that in other court centres right across the country. If there are further blockages, please come to me directly, because I am champing at the bit to make sure we can expand capacity as quickly as possible.

What is the initial response of Ministers to the latest report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights on children whose mothers are in prison? What progress has been made in accordance with the Government’s announcements in March and April this year of the early or temporary release of some low-risk mothers during the corona- virus crisis while visiting restrictions are in place? (904746)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, who is a member of the Joint Committee on which I served in a previous Parliament. I am grateful to the Committee for its report on human rights and the Government’s response to covid-19 in that respect. We will respond very shortly. The early release processes continue, with Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service continuing to consider eligible women for release on a rolling basis. A number have been released. In response to an earlier JCHR report about mothers and babies, we began a fundamental review of the operational policy with regard to mother and baby units. A report summarising our key policy reforms will be published in due course.

As we heard earlier, the Scottish Government plan to legislate to secure economic, social, cultural and environmental rights in devolved areas. Will the Lord Chancellor commit to matching that legislation with a Bill that would take those rights right across the UK? (904741)

I think it would perhaps be a little reckless of me to commit to more legislation. I already have a very full legislative agenda, but I am certainly happy to engage further with the hon. Gentleman on that specific issue. I want to make sure that our great four nations stay as one undivided Union wherever possible.

Children do not instantly turn into adults on their 18th birthday, yet our justice system often treats them as though they do, despite a huge amount of evidence that neuro- logical development continues well into the 20s. Will my right hon. and learned Friend look into ways in which the entire criminal justice system can better reflect the increased knowledge about maturity, perhaps starting with the sentencing Bill his Department is currently working on? (904747)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his previous service as a member of the Sentencing Council and his work in the youth justice sphere. He is right to recognise that the 18 to 25 cohort have distinct needs relating to maturity and development. In his constituency, excellent work goes on with regard to the neurological challenges that he mentions at Her Majesty’s Young Offender Institution Aylesbury. I will, of course, further engage with him and others on this issue as we develop the White Paper.

Ministry guidance is clear that a positive whistleblowing culture can save lives, jobs, money and more, yet unions consider the current procedures to be unfit for purpose and are calling for urgent changes, starting with a single dedicated hotline for reporting concerns. Will the Secretary of State listen to his staff and take action to protect them? (904742)

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. We already have the reporting wrongdoing integrity hotline, which is in place to allow HMPPS staff to raise any concerns they may have. Relevant guidance for employees and managers is available through the internet and the myHub service. HMPPS is reviewing and updating the policy. We very much hope it will be published later this year, following close liaison with the trade unions.

Following on from that answer, does my right hon. Friend accept that there are grave concerns among prison staff about the inadequacies of the current whistle- blowing system? Will he undertake an urgent review to satisfy himself that it is fit for purpose? If it is not, will he set up a new whistleblower hotline which staff can use with the confidence that it is truly confidential? (904751)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his assiduous representation of the many hundreds of prison officers in his constituency, and he is right to draw my attention to those concerns. I repeat the assurance that we are reviewing that policy. I want to get it right; I want whistleblowing to be a safe and meaningful exercise for all staff, and I am happy to undertake that review, which will be completed later in the year.

The new Civil Legal Aid (Remuneration) (Amendment) (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020, which came into force on 8 June, set a standard fixed fee that will make legally aided complex asylum and immigration work financially unviable. Will the Secretary of State commit urgently to assessing the impact of that fixed fee and to funding a system that pays a fair wage to legal aid lawyers, to ensure that access to justice is not denied to some of the most disadvantaged people in our communities? (904743)

The hon. Lady will be glad to know that I have already committed to the second stage of the consultation to do that, to reflect fully the nature of the work undertaken by immigration practitioners. Our aim in the first stage was to quickly bring forward increases to reflect important work on skeleton arguments —it was always a first stage. I have made that commitment and we are going to get on with the consultation, as we always planned.

My constituency contains HMP Peterborough, a privately operated prison. What reassurances has my right hon. and learned Friend been given by prison operators about their handling of covid-19, and what support is available from the Ministry? (904753)

I know that my hon. Friend takes a great interest in the work of the staff at HMP Peterborough. It has been a difficult time for all prisons, whether publicly or privately managed. The staff are hidden heroes, and I know he would join me in applauding their dedication to public service. We have worked closely with our privately managed prisons throughout this period. As with the public sector, the staff have responded with care and compassion to support prisoners through the pandemic, helping them to maintain family ties and providing them with in-cell materials, exercise, distraction, activity packs and reading matter.

We have the lowest rates of children in custody for years, which is great, but nine of the 10 children currently in custody in Croydon are black. That is a small statistic, but I suspect there is underlying discrimination and racism. One month on from the Prime Minister’s announcement of a commission to investigate racial inequality, can the Secretary of State give us any intelligence as to when it will be set up, who will chair it, what its terms of reference will be, and whether we will see some action? (904744)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. She is right to highlight the tremendous success in the reduction of the number of children in custody, but the disproportionate number of black, Asian and minority ethnic children is of real concern. There are issues, identified in the Lammy review, among other things, relating to how legal advice is tendered and to engagement with the system. She will know that already, as a result of that review, we have started the “Chance to Change” pilots on different ways of dealing with allegations against black and minority ethnic youngsters. As for the wider work of Government, I do not have those details at the moment, but I will make sure she is furnished with them as soon as possible.

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

Sitting suspended.