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Volume 678: debated on Tuesday 14 July 2020

The Secretary of State was asked—

Domestic Abuse: Supporting Victims

My Ministers and I are in regular contact with our counterparts across Government and the sector to ensure the smooth passage of the Domestic Abuse Bill and to provide timely support for victims at this difficult time. We announced £76 million to support the most vulnerable during the pandemic, including survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence.

One in six crimes in West Yorkshire is linked to domestic abuse. Lifting the lockdown restrictions may lead to an increase in reporting of this type of crime. What plans are in place to enable courts to deal with these cases swiftly?

My hon. Friend is right to talk about a local aspect of what is a national issue. The courts continue to prioritise cases of the utmost seriousness, which include domestic abuse. On 1 July we published a courts recovery plan, setting out how we are preparing to operate courts and tribunals after the pandemic, which includes priority being given to domestic abuse cases.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s remarks about priorities. The fact that courts have not been able to sit because of the covid-19 emergency has led to some hearings relating to domestic abuse being delayed, which is particularly damaging when child custody is contested and access to children is involved. What steps is he taking to ensure that these cases are heard at the earliest opportunity?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He will be glad to know that we are promoting access to the family courts via video or telephone, as well as through the 157 priority courts that remained open throughout the pandemic for essential face-to-face hearings. Domestic violence protection orders and non-molestation orders continue to be listed for urgent hearings, despite the current restrictions.

On Black Country Day, it is fitting that I pay tribute to Sam Billingham, a constituent of mine who, this being necessitated by her experience, founded her own domestic violence charity in the west midlands called SODA, which offers support for domestic abuse survivors. What is the Ministry doing to ensure that domestic violence survivors who do not have access to a lawyer can apply for domestic abuse injunctions?

I readily join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the work of local campaigners such as the ones in her constituency. She will be pleased to know that we are providing £800,000 of funding to the FLOWS—Finding Legal Options for Women Survivors—project run by RCJ Advice, which provides free legal support to victims of domestic abuse who wish to apply for an emergency protective order from the courts. That funding is used to provide a helpline and email service, where victims can be referred to a legal aid solicitor or receive free advice directly.

Will my right and learned hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to grassroots organisations such as MK Act in my constituency, which has worked tirelessly to assist victims of domestic abuse throughout the lockdown? I would also like to make the House aware of the Open University open justice team, who have collaborated with the charity Support Through Court to launch free online resources to support those dealing with domestic abuse.

I am delighted to hear of the excellent work done by those organisations in Milton Keynes. We fully recognise the role that charities across the country play in providing vital services, which is why we announced £28 million of funding across Government to support domestic abuse charities providing services in safe accommodation and in the community. I am aware of the collaborative work done by the Open University and Support Through Court. That work was funded, in part, by a Ministry of Justice grant.

I was proud to support the Domestic Abuse Bill in this place last week, which shows that we are tackling this serious crime and protecting victims. Most domestic abuse charities reported an increase in cases during the lockdown and fear a further surge in cases as restrictions are lifted. While I appreciate the money that the Government have made available for charities during lockdown, will my right hon. and learned Friend fight for additional funding to support the expected surge in demand from domestic abuse survivors?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s diligence in this area, and I am grateful to him for high- lighting the challenges. He will be glad to know that of the £76 million that we announced in May to help the most vulnerable people in society, £10 million has been allocated for charities providing safe accommodation, such as refuges; £2 million has been allocated for national and other non-local charities providing support to victims of domestic abuse in the community; and £25 million is already being allocated via police and crime commissioners for support services for victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence. Finally, there is an additional £3 million specifically to fund independent sexual violence advisers for the next two years.

Criminal Justice System: Support for Children and Young People

What steps his Department is taking to support children and young people who come into contact with the criminal justice system. (904675)

Fortunately, the number of children coming into contact with the criminal justice system is reducing; offences committed by children have fallen by 76% over the last decade. We have allocated £72 million this year for youth offending teams to provide support for children who have offended, to help them turn their lives around.

Following the Black Lives Matter movement, in Croydon we have held a series of quite urgent meetings to look at the system and what we can do to improve things—the police, the youth offending teams and community groups. One of the issues that the youth offending service has identified is that a lot of young people who come into contact with it but just brush the system and do not end up being charged with any offences have significant problems, whether with trauma, abuse or bereavement, and need intervention at that point, before they are criminalised. Will the Minister look at increasing the support given to our young people at that stage?

The hon. Member makes a really important point on both how we ensure that there is not racial disparity in those who enter the criminal justice system and how we divert people away from it. She will be pleased to know that over £220 million has been invested in early intervention, including £200 million in the youth endowment fund to support those most at risk of being drawn into crime.

The Minister will be well aware that although the number of young people coming into contact with the system has reduced, very often they present much more complex and challenging cases—not least because of the data recently published by the Youth Justice Board showing a large number of pre-existing problems that are there before they come into contact with the system. Given that, does she accept that it is necessary not just to continue the existing measures of diversion, but to pull those together into a much broader, overarching strategy for young people and children in the justice system—not just up to the age of 18, as is the case at the moment, but, given the evidence we have on maturity, beyond that, perhaps into the early 20s or even to 25 which evidence that the Justice Committee has strongly supports?

As usual, my hon. Friend the Chair of the Justice Committee makes a number of important points. He is right to identify the fact that the people coming into custody, because there are fewer of them, have committed more serious crimes—often violent crimes—and are very complex to deal with. He is right to point out the importance of the transition between youth custody and adult custody, and that is something we are looking at very closely. The Youth Custody Service is currently looking at improving the transition in prison from youth to adult custody, and at the feasibility of introducing an integrated healthcare model for young adults based on the system that is currently operated in the youth custody estate.

Over 60,000 children were arrested last year in England and Wales but only 118 parenting orders were issued. That is less than 10% of the figure in 2009. How can a troubled young person turn around their life if the Government are not doing everything they can to help them?

The hon. Member makes a very important point. I was pleased to discuss a number of issues that cross our portfolios yesterday. He makes an important point about looking at the whole system and at where a young person will return to—the parents, the family, the community and the friends whom they will return to. If we manage to overcome their issues in custody, we need to ensure that they do not return to crime on coming out. Oasis, the company that is providing the secure schools that we are looking at very closely, wants to ensure that there are places for people to stay when they come and visit their children, but it also wants to work with them when they visit to ensure that there is that support when the young people leave. The hon. Member makes a very important point about parenting orders, which we are looking at.

Human Rights Act 1998: Discussions with Scottish Government

What recent discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on proposals to update the Human Rights Act 1998. (904701)

What recent discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on proposals to update the Human Rights Act 1998. (904709)

We regularly engage with the Scottish Government, as well as the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive, on a range of justice-related matters, including human rights. The Government are committed to looking at the broader aspects of our constitution, including updating the Human Rights Act. I can assure the hon. Members that, once the work on the Human Rights Act review commences, the implications for the devolved Administrations will be closely monitored.

I thank the Minister for that answer. At Justice questions on 9 June, the Lord Chancellor told us that he was working on that independent review of the operation of the Human Rights Act, but given how hugely significant the Act is to the devolved settlements of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, does the Minister agree that any changes to it would need full consultation, not just monitoring, and the consent of the devolved Administrations?

Yes, of course. Scotland has a distinguished and distinct legal system and of course it would need to be consulted in that way. I do wish, though, to make one point crystal clear: whatever amendments may come to the Human Rights Act, the United Kingdom remains committed to membership of the European convention on human rights. That will not change.

Can the Minister outline the relationship between the independent review of the Human Rights Act and the proposed constitution, democracy and rights commission, as well as the terms of reference for the independent review and whether the devolved Administrations, including the Scottish Government, will be consulted about those terms of reference?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. There is a manifesto commitment to look at updating the Human Rights Act, which is now—what?—20 years old or so, but we have yet to set the terms of reference. Of course it is the case that, as we go forward in that process, the implications for the distinguished and distinct, separate legal jurisdiction of Scotland must be taken into account, and that is exactly what we will ensure takes place.

Can the Minister confirm what criteria will be used to appoint members to this independent review? Will it include members with expertise in the human rights regime in Scotland, and will civic society organisations from Scotland be able to submit evidence and participate in the review?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Of course, it is axiomatic that membership of that committee, which has yet to be settled, must include those who have the wherewithal to comment on precisely the points she alluded to, including the impact upon Scotland. I would want to see that being the case and, indeed, in respect of the other jurisdictions as well. We have to make sure that, as we go forward, we respect and recognise the differences that exist in the United Kingdom in this most important regard.

The Scottish Government have plans to pass a new human rights Act incorporating economic, social, cultural and environmental rights in the devolved areas. Does the Minister agree that it is unfortunate that, at a time when the Scottish Government are working to expand the rights of people living in Scotland, at least in respect of devolved areas, the UK Government are perceived as threatening to diminish human rights protections in respect of reserved matters and across the United Kingdom?

May I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her question? She will, I hope, acknowledge that perceptions are not always borne out by reality. The United Kingdom Government remain committed to the European convention on human rights, and nothing that will take place by way of an update or any proposals that emerge will threaten that fundamental point. We are a nation of laws. We are committed to upholding human rights. That is the way it is going to stay.

I thank the Minister for his answer and I hear clearly his assurance that the United Kingdom remains committed to the ECHR, but of course it is the Human Rights Act that gives people living in the United Kingdom the ability to avail themselves of the rights protected by the convention in the United Kingdom’s domestic courts. If, in updating the Human Rights Act, the Government have no intention of abrogating the domestic law that gives effect to the ECHR, why are they allowing the perception that they might do so to undermine the chances of securing an agreement with the European Union on future co-operation on law enforcement and judicial co-operation on criminal matters?

The hon. and learned Lady is right that, of course, the Human Rights Act does provide the power for individuals to assert and invoke those rights, but if we are committed to the convention, we are also committed to article 13 of the convention, which is the right to an effective remedy. The courts play an important role in allowing citizens to invoke and assert their convention rights. That will continue.

Radicalisation in Prisons

We take the threat posed by terrorist offenders very seriously. We utilise a range of rehabilitative tools, which include psychological, theological and mental health interventions. In January, the Government announced a number of additional measures for dealing with terrorist offenders, including increasing the number of counter-terrorist specialist staff in our prisons.

In the last eight months, we have seen terrorist attacks in Streatham, Fishmongers’ Hall and, most recently, Forbury Gardens, where the assailant either had just been released from prison, or was out on licence. What improvements does my hon. and learned Friend think could be made to de-radicalisation programmes to prevent these lone wolf, post-release attacks?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the tragic incidents that we have seen over recent months. She rightly highlights de-radicalisation programmes. Twenty-two trained imams are running such programmes in our prisons, but those are not the only measures that we are introducing. We have increased our training for prison and probation officers to deal with terrorism and we are bringing in new national standards for managing terrorists on licence. We want more counter-terrorism specialist staff and we want more places in approved premises as a transition from prison to the community. In addition to that, counter-terrorism police funding is increased this year by £19 million.

There was much discussion about the inadequacy of de-radicalisation work in prisons during the Committee stage of the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill, both in evidence and in debate. We heard that these programmes are not entirely fit for purpose and not always readily available. Clearly, they need a good overhaul—perhaps even more so given the new, longer minimum sentences. The hon. Member for Newbury (Laura Farris) certainly seems to agree with that. Sadly, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp). rejected our amendment in Committee proposing a review to examine the effectiveness and availability of de-radicalisation programmes in prisons. Will today’s Minister accept that they do need to be improved, and launch the review that is needed?

We have increased the number of imams operating the de-radicalisation programmes. We are looked at, and looked towards, by others internationally in relation to the programmes that we operate. Of course, we continually evaluate the programmes that we operate within our prisons.

Support for Victims of Crime

We are committed to ensuring that victims of crime receive the support that they need now, during covid, but also in the future. We are recruiting an additional 20,000 police officers, investing in the Crown Prosecution Service, and rolling out £76 million to support victims of sexual violence and domestic abuse, as well as vulnerable children.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Victims of domestic abuse in Redcar and Cleveland are supported and helped by fantastic local charities such as EVA Women’s Aid and Foundation. Will he outline how his Department are strengthening support services for domestic abuse and ensuring that they have the funding that they need?

I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent question. I also thank the domestic abuse charities, including EVA Women’s Aid, for the fantastic work they do in supporting victims of crime. We are committed to ensuring that that vital support continues as we ease lockdown restrictions. In response to the pandemic, the Ministry of Justice has distributed £22 million to date as part of the package for charities supporting vulnerable people. As announced at the Prime Minister’s hidden harms summit in May, we are also committed to developing a funding strategy for all victims of crime, including domestic abuse, which will look at the longer-term sustainability of funding.

Previous figures published by the Department for Education have shown that more than 18,700 suspected victims of child sexual exploitation were identified by authorities in 2018-19. Several grooming cases brought to court have revealed abusers targeting vulnerable girls, particularly those in care, in supported accommodation or with learning difficulties. It is gut-wrenching to hear, but the reality is that it is still happening. Will my hon. Friend confirm that he is dedicated to forming a joined-up support approach with police forces, local NHS services and children’s services to identify support for these victims, but also with the aim of preventing such abuse?

I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent question. Child sexual abuse and exploitation are truly abhorrent, and the Government are dedicated to taking precisely the joined-up action that he urges on us to prevent abuse and provide support for victims. The Government’s victims strategy outlines our commitment to improve support for victims of child sexual abuse to help them to cope. The Children and Social Work Act 2017 introduced the most significant reforms in a generation, requiring local authorities, clinical commissioning groups and the police to form multi-agency safeguarding partnerships.

Access to Justice

Access to justice is a fundamental right and this Government are committed to ensuring that everyone can get the timely support they need to access the justice system. We have removed the mandatory element of the telephone gateway to support access to advice, and we continue to prioritise work to provide a new £3.1 million grant that will further enhance legal support for litigants in person. In 2018-19, we spent £1.7 billion on legal aid, and in response to disruption caused by covid we are providing £5.4 million in funding for not-for-profit providers of specialist legal advice.

I support strongly what the Government are doing in funding law centres and providing much more information online for our constituents, but how does my hon. Friend think we can access the services where needed of an asylum lawyer at the Gloucester Law Centre? Also, will he ensure that the only magistrates court in our county—in his Cheltenham constituency—will be well funded, so that it can operate efficiently for years to come?

The answer is yes—thank you for pre-empting it, Mr Speaker—but first, may I welcome my hon. Friend’s support for the Gloucester Law Centre, which does fantastic work? The £3 million grant will allow law centres to increase their capacity to provide advice for those who need it. We are also considering the longer-term sustainability of providing legal aid more widely, including for asylum cases, to which he rightly adverts; my officials are working closely with stakeholders on this. As you rightly trailed, Mr Speaker, on court maintenance, we have announced a tripling of funding for repairs and upgrades to include £30 million for the roll-out of the latest video technology. That will be welcomed in Cheltenham and, indeed, Gloucester.

Legal aid lawyers are being asked, yet again, to carry the can for a decade of mismanagement on the part of successive Tory Ministers. Lawyers are now expected to work extended hours for no extra pay to clear the half a million backlog of criminal cases caused by savage cuts. Legal aid lawyers do not support extended or flexible operating hours, but why would they? Their patience and good will have been stretched too far. Ministers know full well that the underfunded justice system means justice denied, so what—if any—representations has the Justice Secretary made to the Treasury for more funding; or is it simply that he just does not care?

Absolutely nothing could be further from the truth. The Government are committed to this. I was a practitioner in 2010 and I well remember when Labour was in government and Labour Members derided the “gravy train” of legal aid. We will never do that, because we recognise its importance. This Government have eased the rules on hardship and interim payments to enable the early drawdown of payment for work done, and for solicitors we have doubled the number of opportunities to seek payment on account. This is really important: we are accelerating work on CLAR—the criminal legal aid review—because we want to put between £31 million and £51 million into the profession as soon as possible. That funding will be released before too long.

Lammy Review

What progress he has made on implementing the recommendations of the Lammy review, “An independent review into the treatment of, and outcomes for, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals in the Criminal Justice System”, published in September 2017. (904681)

What progress he has made on implementing the recommendations of the Lammy Review, “An independent review into the treatment of, and outcomes for, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals in the Criminal Justice System”, published in September 2017. (904706)

We remain absolutely committed to taking forward every recommendation that falls to Government and to completing the action on all those within our responsibility over the next 12 months. Recently, in February, we provided a further progress report in which we described the undertakings to which we had committed the Department in relation to the recommendations.

Black and minority ethnic young people already face discrimination in the jobs market, and those with a criminal record are doubly disadvantaged. By putting barriers in the way of young people who have changed and present no significant risk to others, the criminal records system traps them in their past. The Taylor review recommended reform to ensure that young people are not unnecessarily held back by childhood offences, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) called for a new approach, learning from the system for sealing criminal records adopted in many US states. When will the Government implement Lammy review recommendation 34 and allow young people to demonstrate that they are more than their past?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that question. She will be glad to know that only last Thursday the relevant statutory instrument was laid before the House to remove both the requirement for automatic disclosure of youth cautions and the multiple conviction rule, which cause problems for people who have old convictions, regardless of their nature or the sentence. I want to go further. I have considered carefully the recommendation of the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), and the sentencing White Paper later this year will have further proposals for reform of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974.

Stop-and-search is a misused, overused and discriminatory police tactic disproportionately applied to black, Asian and other minority communities, which results in deep resentment and distrust towards the police and the Government. Will the Government, at the very least, hold their hands up and accept that many black, Asian and other minority men, women and children are stopped and searched not on the grounds of evidence or reasonable belief but because of the colour of their skin?

I share with the hon. Gentleman a deep abhorrence of arbitrary use of police powers, including stop-and-search. We have committed—as we should—to a principle of intelligence-led policing. That means police officers acting lawfully, on reasonable grounds, and not profiling or stereotyping any person because of the colour of their skin. There should be no place for that in our society.

As we have heard, recommendation 34 of the Lammy review said that the criminal justice system

“should learn from the system for sealing criminal records employed in many US states.”

I welcome the Government’s finally responding last week, after 18 months, with plans to comply with the major Supreme Court decision on filtering youth cautions, and the indication that I think the Secretary of State has given on meeting recommendation 34. Will he undertake to consult with Unlock and other groups who have campaigned long on this issue, and speak to me in preparation for bringing forward those planned guidelines?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who has always come to this matter with great responsibility and constructive engagement. In that spirit, I am more than happy to continue engaging with him. I will, of course, speak to the charities he mentioned, whom I know well, and other major stakeholders such as Lord Ramsbotham, in pursuance of preparation of a policy that I very much hope will command the support of all corners of the Chamber.

Covid-19: Protection of Prison Staff

I take this opportunity to thank our prison staff and those who work in probation for the outstanding job they have done to keep our prisons and those in the community safe. We have taken a range of measures to protect staff from the virus, including reducing the risk of transmission in prisons, led by Public Health England guidance, and making personal protective equipment and testing available. The latest Public Health England advice indicates that the measures we have taken have had a positive impact on limiting the spread of the virus.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for her response and join her in praising prison staff for all the work they have done during this difficult time. What is the plan to continue to protect prison staff as restrictions start to lift and life goes back to near-normal?

As my right hon. Friend points out, as restrictions are lifted in the community we need to lift restrictions in prisons too, but we need to do so cautiously to ensure that we do not increase the risk of infection. Where prisons are starting to open up—for example, to introduce visits—adaptations are being made to ensure that the risk of infection to staff and prisoners is minimised.

On 5 May, the shadow Minister for Prisons and Probation, my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), wrote to the Department regarding concerns about the treatment of cleaners at Petty France during the pandemic. The Secretary of State’s reply on 29 May made it clear that he thought there was no issue in terms of management, access to personal protective equipment, social distancing or sick pay. However, hours of interviews and leaked emails and text messages confirmed that cleaners were forced into the Department during the lockdown period, were denied PPE, were offered no support and had medical issues consistent with coronavirus symptoms. Seven outsourced staff on the site have had those consistent symptoms; two are now dead. The Department had to be guilt-tripped into backdating sick pay. Will the Minister live up to the Ministry of Justice’s name by committing to a full independent review of what happened to those cleaners working in the Ministry of Justice?

As the shadow Secretary of State has mentioned, these matters have been looked at. I am happy to take on board any further points that he would like to make.

Terror Offences: Prison Sentences

Protecting our fellow citizens is our most important duty. The Government legislated in February, via the Terrorist Offenders (Restriction of Early Release) Act 2020, to make sure that terrorist offenders were no longer automatically released at the halfway point; instead, they become eligible for parole-board release at the two-thirds point. Via the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill, which comes back for Report and Third Reading next week, we are introducing mandatory 14-year minimum prison sentences for the most serious terrorist offenders and ensuring that other serious offenders serve all their sentence in prison. By doing that, we protect our fellow citizens.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the limited use of terrorism prevention and investigation measures, as amended by the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill that will come back for Report next week, will serve to help to keep my constituents in Northampton South and those elsewhere safe from terror attacks?

In Committee, we heard extremely compelling evidence from Assistant Chief Constable Tim Jacques, who is one of the national policing leads on counter-terrorism. He explained how, in his professional experience and that of the security services, the changes that we are making to TPIMs will make our constituents and our fellow citizens safer. I hope that Members will pay close attention to the evidence that Assistant Chief Constable Jacques gave when they consider the Bill on Report next week.

Probation Services: Community Links

What plans he has to improve links between probation services and (a) local employers, (b) adult education colleges, (c) health authorities and (d) jobcentres. (904689)

What plans he has to improve links between probation services and (a) local employers, (b) adult education colleges, (c) health authorities and (d) jobcentres. (904690)

What plans he has to improve links between probation services and (a) local employers, (b) adult education colleges, (c) health authorities and (d) jobcentres. (904707)

Joining up probation with other community services is critical. The new model for probation will allow us to build on local links that have already been forged. In the future probation system, more than £100 million a year will be spent on specialist rehabilitative and resettlement services, including education and employment.

Our recovery from this crisis will require support for all our constituents to get back into well-paid, good-quality jobs. We have to break the cycle of reoffending and ensure that when people leave prison, they have the help and support that they need to get back into work, so that they do not fall back into a life of crime and misdemeanours, which does none of us any good. Will the Minister guarantee that our agencies are linked to provide proper opportunities to turn former reoffenders’ lives around? Will she guarantee that the renationalisation of the probation service will not be used as an excuse for any more cuts, and will instead be used to work towards an improved and better staffed, trained and managed National Probation Service?

The hon. Member has made a number of points in her question. I would like to assure her that we are committed to ensuring that people who come out of prison are rehabilitated, get jobs and turn away from crime. We recently launched the New Futures Network, which is dedicated to establishing the links between prisons, prisoners and local employers. In relation to investment in the new probation service, I am sure that she has seen that we are investing an additional £155 million in probation over the course of the year.

I have spent time with Newcastle probation services, and I know just how dedicated the people who work for them are, but they are now being expected to pick up the pieces of the Government’s disastrous privatisation of the service, as well as integrating released offenders into a “new normal” of society post covid that is not normal at all. Will the Minister set out exactly how funding will be made available to ensure that there are links with, in particular, further education colleges in Newcastle so that offenders who are released can have a chance of rehabilitation and jobs in a post-covid world?

Like the hon. Member, I pay tribute to the dedicated work of all those who have been working in the community rehabilitation companies across the country and, indeed, the National Probation Service. I welcome the work of the CRC in her area. As I mentioned, £100 million has been put forward for the new scheme—the dynamic framework, which has already been launched—so that local voluntary sector and private companies can bid to provide local services in communities. I look forward to seeing their bids.

The Government were warned repeatedly that privatising probation would be a disaster—that it would cost more and leave the public less safe. The Government not only ignored those warnings but spent years ignoring the mounting evidence of their failed policy. They have practically had to be dragged kicking and screaming to finally agree to reverse this catastrophic privatisation. If they are finally going to sort out rehabilitation properly, is it not time to end, once and for all, the racket of mega-corporations like Sodexo, Serco and G4S profiting from our prisons and probation services?

We believe that we should provide good services, whether that is one by the public sector or by the private sector. We have in operation some excellent public service prisons, as we do some excellent private sector prisons. We are very pleased that we are integrating probation into the public service, providing a very important role, but we will continue to ensure that private sector companies and local voluntary sector companies can bid for rehabilitative services through the £100 million dynamic framework.

Inquests: Coroners’ Decisions

If he will undertake a review of the process of appealing a coroner’s decision not to hold an inquest. (904691)

We recognise the importance of bereaved families being able to seek an independent review of a coroner’s decision. Section 13 of the Coroners Act 1988, as amended, provides for the Attorney General to make or authorise an application to the High Court to consider whether an inquest should be held where a coroner has not held one. Individuals can also bring claims for a judicial review of a coroner’s decision. The Justice Committee has recently opened an inquiry into the coroner service, and we will consider its report and recommendations.

The new senior coroner for Merseyside has agreed to an inquest into the death of Laura Higginson in my constituency. The family’s request for an inquest under the previous coroner was turned down, despite new evidence being available. If the original decision had not been changed, then the family’s only option would have been to resort to a judicial review. Will the Minister look again at repealing section 40 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 to see whether we could have a much easier and less expensive way of families being able to challenge coroners’ decisions?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his campaigning work in this regard. He is absolutely right that Mrs Higginson’s sad death in 2017 is now subject to an inquest, for the reasons that he indicated. I thank him for the parliamentary questions that he has submitted on this issue. It is not absolutely right to say that the only option is a judicial review. For the reasons that I indicated, people can petition the Attorney General, and indeed the Solicitor General, for that to take place. But he raises an important issue, and of course we keep this under consideration. I cannot tell him that there are immediate plans to do as he suggests, but we will of course consider it.

Reoffending Rates

As we have heard this morning, the Government are committed to reducing reoffending rates across the board, not least because it is a specific target of the crime and justice taskforce set up by the Prime Minister. We will be bringing forward a number of plans over the next weeks and months to do so, not least the reinvigoration of integrated offender management, on which I will be leading across the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office.

The Chris Donovan Trust is an amazing local charity set up by a local couple, Ray and Vi Donovan, whose son tragically lost his life through unprovoked violence. Carshalton and Wallington residents recognise the incredible work of the trust to raise awareness of restorative justice and other victim programmes after Ray and Vi Donovan met their son’s killers. What further steps will the Department take to expand restorative justice programmes to help to reduce prisoner reoffending?

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing this organisation to my attention, not least because last night, I read Ray and Vi Donovan’s booklet “Understanding Restorative Justice”, and their very moving testimony of what happened to them. They have an incredible capacity for forgiveness, having forgiven their son’s killers, who perpetrated an appalling act, depriving them of the life of their child. They found it in themselves to forgive those three criminals, as they were then, and to move on with their lives. I will be more than happy to consider what more we can do in this area as we move towards our plans for rehabilitating offenders, and I would be honoured to meet Ray and Vi, if my hon. Friend is willing to bring them to Westminster when normal life resumes.

Topical Questions

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.