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Topical Questions

Volume 680: debated on Tuesday 22 September 2020

The first duty of any Government is to protect their people. Too often, our system of sentencing in England and Wales does not command the public’s confidence, so last week I laid a White Paper entitled “A Smarter Approach to Sentencing”. The measures in the White Paper will keep serious violent and sexual offenders in prison for longer, and prevent the automatic release of prisoners before the end of their sentence if they present a danger to the public.

Protecting the public from the effects of lower-level offending also means finding new ways to break cycles of crime. Our proposals for robust community sentences, backed by an empowered probation service and utilising the most up-to-date technology, will make the smart interventions to address the things that can drive low-level offending, such as poor mental health, and drug and alcohol addiction. This smarter approach will grow confidence in our system of justice.

A cross-Government approach will characterise the reforms, but as we bring them before the House I also look forward to support from across the political divide, so that we can work together to keep the public safe from harm and to bring down stubbornly high rates of reoffending for good.

The prison operator G4S is withholding full sick pay from workers who operate in close contact with prisoners. Does the Secretary of State agree with me and the GMB union that that is scandalous? Will he support calls for G4S to provide the sick pay its workers deserve?

While it would be wrong of me to make direct comment on what is, sadly, a dispute, I will certainly look into the matter and report back to the hon. Lady on the latest progress or otherwise. I hugely value prison staff and the incredible work they have done, not just throughout the covid pandemic but beforehand.

Magistrates have been dispensing justice in our communities for centuries, but in the past decade their numbers have more than halved. That is not helped by the fact that they have to retire at the age of 70, and we are losing about 20 a week at a time when we have a record number of cases to get through the courts. Will my right hon. and learned Friend look carefully at my private Member’s Bill to raise the retirement age to 75, as well as acting quickly off the back of the Government’s consultation on this issue? (906400)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he is doing on this important issue and for the introduction of his Bill. I fully recognise his concern, which is why we are working with the judiciary on a programme to increase the overall number of recruited magistrates. We are consulting on proposals to increase the mandatory retirement age of judicial office holders, including magistrates. That consultation closes on 16 October. I will consider the matter very carefully before reaching a final decision.

The Secretary of State will be aware that in recent years, there has been increased understanding of neurodivergent people and the issues that neurodivergence presents in the criminal justice system, yet there are still neurodivergent individuals who face disproportionate prison sentences and who, in the case of foreign national offenders, could risk deportation to a country where they have no support. Will he commit himself to immediately reviewing all cases of neurodivergent individuals, particularly those who face imminent deportation? (906404)

The hon. Lady raises an issue that, as she probably knows, is very close to my heart. In the White Paper, we have announced a call for evidence about neurodivergence within the criminal justice system, because I think that we can do much, much better, not just in understanding and making adjustments for people with autism and other conditions when they get into the system, but in preventing them from getting into the system in the first place. One of the issues that she raises is, of course, the question of diagnosis, and many people are not diagnosed even though they present with such problems. I will look at that matter more closely and I am grateful to her for raising it.

Community sentencing must contain a punitive element, most likely unpaid hours. Rather than an offender’s working in a charity shop or suchlike, what are my right hon. and learned Friend’s plans for ensuring that offenders really do pay their debt to society—by, for example, saving money for local communities and taxpayers through litter picking and so on? (906401)

My hon. Friend is right to raise the important issue of unpaid work, because it is a way for offenders to make reparation to wider society for the damage that is caused by crime. As part of our White Paper plans, we will introduce a new statutory duty for important stakeholders, such as police and crime commissioners, to be consulted on the type of unpaid work projects in their area. I believe that that means we will see the delivery of projects that are far more at the heart of the communities in which those people live.

This Government intend to break an international treaty that they negotiated while blaming the other party when it is going to act in good faith. Tomorrow, the Government will bring forward a Bill that seeks to decriminalise torture. Is this not a further indication that instead of representing global Britain, this Government intend to act as a rogue state? (906406)

Once people are behind bars, the public should be protected from further criminal activity by those in prisons, but too often, criminality continues. What use are we making of measures such as body scanners to ensure that criminals are not able to continue their behaviour behind bars? (906402)

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Last year, the Government announced a £100 million boost to investment in the installation of body scanners in many of our prisons, particularly category B local prisons with a high number of receptions and visitors. It protects not only prisoners from abuse, but staff, and it makes prisons, I believe, safer places in which to work and gives greater confidence to the wider public that we are doing everything we can to make our prisons as safe as possible.

I have been contacted by a local resident who works in a shop and who told me about the increase in abuse that she has faced during covid-19. She said that she has managed to get a full-time guard and body cameras but still the abuse continues. Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas), will the Government support the trade unions and the British Retail Consortium in their call for tougher action on those who assault retail staff? (906410)

The hon. Lady raises a very disturbing case, and sadly, it is not alone. Many shop workers have been at the frontline of providing vital services through the intensity of the lockdown and continue to do so. It is incumbent on all of us to make sure that sentencing guidelines properly reflect the role that they play. There is helpful reference in the sentencing guidelines, of course, to people in that line of service, but if there is more that we can do to draw the courts’ attention to the particular importance of shop workers, we should do so.

The White Paper published last week by my right hon. and learned Friend’s Department proposes the extension of whole-life orders to 18 to 20-year-olds in wholly exceptional cases. I think that most people understand and agree with that, but there are many others in that age group who will be released, including those serving at Aylesbury young offender institution in my constituency. Will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that young adults in custody can access programmes tailored to their specific age group and their particular needs, in an effort to ensure that they do not commit crime again once freed? [R] (906403)

I pay tribute to those who provide the therapeutic services at Aylesbury YOI, whom I have met in the past. We have clearly stated that we see young adults right up to the age of 25 as a group that need treatment that is different from other cohorts, and we have specialist models for operational delivery to support prisons holding young adults to get the best results for that group. The curriculum at Aylesbury includes personal and social development skills, business, horticulture, barbering and decorating, and we will reinforce that with our new national prisoner education service, which is focused on work-based training and skills.

It is crucial that victims’ rights are recognised and protected in their dealings with police, prosecutors and courts. Dame Vera Baird QC, the Victims’ Commissioner, has called on Ministers to make good the promises to give crime victims enforceable rights in law. She is right. The code consultation was a good first step, but where is the victims law up to? (906412)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that important point, and I pay tribute to the work of the Victims’ Commissioner and, indeed, her predecessor. The hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that a wider consultation on the new, revised victims code has been finished. We will be publishing the revised victims code in the next several weeks. It is a much smaller, user-friendly document. But further than that, we will legislate as soon as possible, within the next year, for a victims law to enshrine the rights contained in the code and elsewhere, to give victims the higher level of protection that both he and I want to see.

I strongly welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s White Paper, “A Smarter Approach to Sentencing”. However, what steps is he taking to improve the process of disclosure of criminal records? (906405)

My right hon. Friend is right to raise the important issue of disclosure of criminal records. In too many cases, it has been a bar to employment, which is a sure-fire way out of reoffending. For the first time, in our White Paper, we set out revised rules. Some custodial sentences of over four years will be able to become spent as part of criminal record checks for non-sensitive roles, in addition to significant reductions to the rehabilitation periods for sentences of under four years. These proposals, alongside recently approved legislation to change the rules governing disclosure for sensitive roles by removing the multiple convictions rule and the disclosure of youth cautions, will indeed help those who have offended in the past to access employment.

At a time when the public are confined more than usual to their homes, potential victims of domestic abuse are more vulnerable than ever. It is vital that the wheels of justice keep turning even in a pandemic. What steps are being taken to ensure that trials of people accused of domestic abuse are prioritised? (906414)

I can reassure the hon. Lady that domestic abuse trials have continued to be prioritised throughout the pandemic, with early listings. I am very impressed by the work that is being done in Wales in particular, which I visited recently, to list cases in the magistrates court to remove the backlog. Indeed, in the Crown court as well trials are being listed at the earliest opportunity. She can be assured that priority is given to domestic abuse cases when these matters are listed.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that delays in the court system can be damaging, if not traumatic, to all parties attending court? Can he assure me and the House that capacity across the Ministry and courts across the land is being increased to ensure that we catch up with the delays incurred as a result of the covid pandemic? (906407)

I would like to thank all our staff in Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service who have carried on working throughout the pandemic. Currently, over 70% of staff work from a court or tribunal building, and the rest are working at home via the cloud video platform. We are investing £142 million in our court system to speed up the technological and modernisation improvements, and we are investing an additional £80 million to support the recovery of our criminal courts, including the recruitment of 1,600 members of staff and further adaptations to our courtrooms to allow more and more of them to be used.

Could the Secretary of State outline the legislation or case rulings that preclude Northern Ireland Bar-registered barristers located in mainland GB, such as the silk Hugh Mercer of Essex Court Chambers in London, from claiming expenses for travel and hotel accommodation for Northern Ireland court cases? Does the Secretary of State believe that constitutional integrity should allow any silk to practise and be reimbursed? (906421)

I must declare an interest, because I am a member of the Northern Ireland Bar. The particular issue that the hon. Gentleman raises seems to be a matter for the Northern Ireland Justice authorities. However, I will discuss the matter with him further so that we can obtain maximum clarity.

In Gedling, Nottinghamshire police’s Operation Reacher teams are knocking down many drug dealers’ doors. Can my right hon. and learned Friend tell me what steps the Ministry of Justice is taking to ensure that we punish those guilty dealers, to keep our society safe? (906409)

I pay tribute to that operation in Nottinghamshire, and to the many others that are safeguarding our communities. Parliament has provided the courts with the full range of sentencing powers in order to deal effectively with these offenders, but tough enforcement is also a fundamental part of our approach. We are taking a smarter approach to the restriction of drugs supply using technology and data, and taking partnership action with other agencies to tackle drugs alongside other criminal activity.

Devon and Cornwall police were an early adopter of the virtual court processes, but sustaining these new arrangements is taking up valuable police officer time. Can the Secretary of State tell me what steps his Department is taking to ensure that these courts can continue to operate effectively during the outbreak, so that police forces can keep their officers on the streets? (906411)

The work of Devon and Cornwall police in ensuring that virtual court processes carry on at this challenging time is very much appreciated. I am going to include in primary legislation, to be introduced as early as possible in 2021, a provision to allow court-appointed contractors to staff those virtual courts within police custody suites, in order to relieve the burden on serving police officers.

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 a few minutes.

Sitting suspended.