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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 680: debated on Tuesday 22 September 2020


The Secretary of State was asked—

Sentencing White Paper: Public Protection

What plans he has to include proposals on improving the protection of the public in the forthcoming sentencing White Paper. (906339)

What plans he has to include proposals on improving the protection of the public in the forthcoming sentencing White Paper. (906340)

What plans he has to include proposals on improving the protection of the public in the forthcoming sentencing White Paper. (906354)

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Last week, I published a White Paper entitled “A Smarter Approach to Sentencing”, which sets out my plans to crack down on crime and keep dangerous criminals in prison for longer. It signifies a fundamental shift in our approach to sentencing towards one that is fairer, smarter and, ultimately, better protects the public. The measures I have announced include the abolition of automatic halfway release for certain serious sexual and violent offenders, and we will also introduce a new power to prevent automatic release if a prisoner poses a danger such as a terrorist threat.

May I start by wishing the Secretary of State a happy birthday?

The use of technology to prevent crime is developing rapidly. From drones and predictive analytics to biometrics, technology is helping to keep our cities, towns and rural communities safer. How will the Government work with expert organisations to ensure that we use the best technology to tackle crime and protect local communities from burglars and robbers?

My hon. Friend is right to talk about changes in technology that can be harnessed to improve the way in which we monitor offenders and drive out crime. The White Paper contains important measures to utilise GPS technology. For example, we will use electronic location monitoring to track burglars following their release from custody. That will allow probation to monitor the whereabouts of an offender and, where appropriate, share that data with the police, which will help in the investigation and prosecution of further offences.

Protecting the public cuts both ways. I welcome the plans in the sentencing White Paper to ensure that those convicted of the most serious crimes spend longer in prison, but given the impact of covid on the court system, those on remand face long delays to have their cases heard. What plans does my right hon. and learned Friend have to ensure that those in that position will see justice sooner rather than later, the public will be protected and community tensions will be tamped down as much as possible?

My hon. Friend will be glad to know that, as a result of the hard work of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service and the judiciary, we are already reaching a turning point in our magistrates courts, with disposals exceeding receipts. In the Crown court, we continue to scale up jury trials, with more than 100 jury trials being heard every week in our Crown courts. We will have 250 courtrooms ready for jury trials by the end of October, which includes using existing capacity, with safety measures such as Perspex screens, up to 30 Nightingale courtrooms, experiments with different court hours and a range of measures that are designed to reduce the wait for the victims of crime.

I thank the Lord Chancellor for his answer. Tragically, in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, we are plagued with county lines gangs, who take advantage of some of the most vulnerable people in my community. What steps are the Government taking in the White Paper to tackle county lines offences and ensure that these vile offenders are punished with the full force of the law?

My hon. Friend is right to talk about the scourge of county lines. Like me, he will welcome the investment of £25 million by the Home Office to boost law enforcement efforts by not only local police forces but the British Transport police, who are doing incredible work across our railway network, which I have seen at first hand. The Sentencing Council for England and Wales is currently revising its guidelines for drug offences. It is important to note that among the plethora of county lines is the exploitation of vulnerable children and young people, and that needs to be fully reflected by the investigating and prosecuting authorities.

May I, too, wish the Secretary of State a happy 52nd birthday?

Sentencing reform is needed, but on its own it is not enough. The truth is that most criminals will be released from prison at some point, and if they are not rehabilitated when they are released, they will commit further crimes and create new victims. This Government’s prisons simply are not working. Six out of every 10 offenders who serve less than 12 months in prison reoffend. A recent Public Accounts Committee report accused the Government of a “staggering” failure on the prison estate. Does the Secretary of State plan to publish a cross-departmental plan to reduce reoffending within the next three months, as the PAC recommended last week?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind comments.

The right hon. Gentleman can be reassured that in response to the Committee’s findings, the Government are working across Departments, which I think is vital. He will share my belief and understanding that the Ministry of Justice alone cannot solve these issues; it takes the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Education and the Department of Health and Social Care working together. That is why the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Committee, the crime and justice taskforce, meets regularly. Indeed, on its agenda are our ambitious targets to improve offender employment and resettle offenders in a more co-ordinated way to reduce reoffending. The right hon. Gentleman will see the results of that work very shortly.

Criminal Justice System: Covid-19

What assessment he has made of the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on service users and victims in the criminal justice system. (906341)

The Government are determined that victims should receive the help and support they need to cope and recover during the pandemic. In addition to existing funding, the Government have provided £76 million to support victims of modern slavery, domestic abuse and sexual violence, as well as vulnerable children and young people. We have set up the victims and witnesses silver command, which consists of the Victims’ Commissioner, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner and others, to identify needs fast and deliver support to the frontline.

Even before the pandemic, young people often endured terrible conditions on the prison estate, and things have grown much worse since the pandemic began. Many young people have found themselves locked up in their cells for 22 hours a day and face-to-face learning has ended. Education and training play an essential role in reducing reoffending and improving the wellbeing of prisoners. Will the Ministry of Justice consider introducing virtual rehabilitation and education classes while prisoners remain under tight restrictions due to covid?

I was expecting a question about victims, but the hon. Gentleman rightly raises an important issue about prisons. The answer to his question is: yes, we are doing it.

UK Internal Market Bill: Rule of Law

What assessment he has made of the implications of the UK Internal Market Bill for his responsibilities in upholding the rule of law. (906342)

What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s role in helping ensure that the Government is compliant with the rule of law. (906343)

What assessment he has made of the implications of the UK Internal Market Bill for his responsibilities in upholding the rule of law. (906365)

I am absolutely committed, under the oath I took as Lord Chancellor, to upholding the rule of law; the freedoms and protections we all enjoy rely on it, and as a responsible Government, we remain wholly committed to it. At all stages, as a responsible Government, we must ensure that we have the ability to uphold our commitments to the people of Northern Ireland. We will do what it takes to protect the integrity of our United Kingdom.

I believe the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but millions wouldn’t. The Bar Council and the Law Society of England and Wales say that clauses 41 to 45 of the Bill

“enable Ministers to derogate from the obligations of the United Kingdom under international law in broad and comprehensive terms and prohibit public bodies from compliance with such obligations. They represent a direct challenge to the rule of law, which include the country’s obligations under public international law.”

They are not wrong, are they?

With respect to those organisations, with which I engage almost daily, it is important that as a result of any potential conflict that might occur between domestic and international law, we make provisions as a responsible Government to prepare for the worst. That is the honest and upfront approach, as opposed to confession and avoidance in the event of any international dispute. Members must remember the context: these powers will be triggered only if there is a material breach by the EU, and we have set out examples on the Government website.

May I wish the Secretary of State a happy birthday? He will be delighted to know that he shares his birthday with my little dog, who is two today.

Mr Speaker,

“the Government are acting recklessly and irresponsibly… It will lead to untold damage to the United Kingdom’s reputation and puts its future at risk.”—[Official Report, 21 September 2020; Vol. 680, c. 668.]

Those are not my words, but those of the former Conservative Prime Minister just yesterday in this House. With the Government ready to break international law, can the Secretary of State please explain to my constituents in Cardiff North why there is one rule for them and another for this Government?

I thank the hon. Lady for her kind remarks.

Attractive and charismatic though the hon. Lady’s remarks might sound, they do not bear any scrutiny at all. The reality is that we are preparing for a situation that we do not wish to come about. It would have been far easier for us to ignore the matter and kick the can down the road, but it is far better to be upfront about the potential dispute. I hope and expect that it will never come, because we will get the deal and the Joint Committee will resolve its deliberations accordingly.

May I also wish the Lord Chancellor a happy birthday? With age may come wisdom.

The Lord Chancellor has said that he will resign only if the Government break the law in a way that is unacceptable. Thousands of ordinary members of the public were fined for breaking lockdown regulations, while Dominic Cummings did so with impunity. Can the Lord Chancellor explain to those people what criteria he uses to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable breaches of the law?

I thank the hon. Lady for her kind remarks. The issue is very straightforward. If we are in a position where the EU has acted in material breach of its own treaty obligations, meaning that acts to the active prejudice of the United Kingdom are being occasioned, then we will act.

I also wish the Lord Chancellor a happy birthday. I calculate that I have known him for about half his life. Throughout that time, I have never had the slightest doubt as to his integrity and his commitment to the rule of law. Does he agree that the important changes that the Government accepted during yesterday’s Committee stage yesterday would not have happened without some pressure from the Back Benches, and without his very close personal and direct involvement in making changes to the Bill and to the test that the Government will apply? That was precisely because he, I and many others are committed to the rule of law. Ad hominem attacks to the contrary are unworthy and unjustified.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend. He is right to remind us that personal attacks are no substitute for real debate. What he has done, and what I have sought to do, is, at all times, to make sure that we find a way through these problems. Brexit has thrown up unprecedented challenges to a Government in peacetime. I never pretended that it was going to be anything other than a difficult road. He shares that view and, through his constructive work and the work that I and others have done, this House has a lock on these matters, and, indeed, I think the way is much clearer and much more satisfactory.

On 30 July 2019, in the Royal Courts of Justice, the Lord Chancellor made an oath that no other member of the Cabinet is required to make. He said:

“I do swear that in the office of Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain I will respect the rule of law”.

Lord Keen, the Advocate General for Scotland, and Jonathan Jones, head of the Government’s Legal Department, resigned because the Government’s internal market Bill does not respect the rule of law. May I ask the Lord Chancellor whether he thinks that Lord Keen and Jonathan Jones got it wrong and, if so, how? If not, may I ask him how he can turn up in this House with a straight face after voting to betray his oath and break the law?

That is a very serious allegation to make. I took that oath in English and Welsh—I took it twice—and I believe in it in both languages, indeed in any language. I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman takes that view. As he has just heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), I have done everything that I possibly can consistent with that oath to make sure that this Government act in a way that is consistent with the rule of law. That is what is happening. This House is directly involved, quite properly, in these serious deliberations. Amendments are being made to this Bill as we speak, and the contingency in which these exceptional provisions are to be used has been clearly set out. These are unprecedented times. We do not want to see a breach in any obligations either by us or by the EU, but it would be irresponsible if we did not make those necessary preparations. That is why I am here, and that is why I will continue to be here as long as I feel able to discharge my oath, and I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that, thus far, I feel very able to discharge my oath.

It is not me who takes that view. Every living Prime Minister takes that view. The Bar Council and the Law Society take that view. The Lord Chancellor previously said that the Government can indeed break the law if it can be fudged, but there is no fudging this—not only does the Bill breach the international law; it is also a flagrant attack on the rule of law at domestic level, and he knows it. As the Bingham Centre states, clauses 42, 43 and 45 authorise a breach of any relevant international or domestic law, including any order, judgment or decision of any international or domestic court. I say to the Lord Chancellor that he is an esteemed barrister and he swears to a code of conduct. Does he not now risk bringing the profession into disrepute by breaching that code of conduct, which states:

“You must not behave in a way which is likely to diminish the trust and confidence which the public places in you or in the profession”?

I really find it extraordinary that the right hon. Gentleman brings the code of conduct into these matters. Like him, I am acting as a Member of Parliament. I am acting as a Minister in the Government—[Interruption.] I am not a Law Officer; I am the Lord Chancellor. The Law Officers of this country are the Attorney General, the Solicitor General and the Advocate General for Scotland. I do not give legal advice to the Government. I am not a Law Officer.

However, every member of the Government is obliged to follow the rule of law. It is very clear. I take a particular oath to uphold that and to defend the judiciary. As I have explained, I have absolutely no qualms about what has been happening. I have worked extremely hard to make sure that this House is fully involved. I say to the right hon. Gentleman that the idea that the passage of this Bill is a breach of UK domestic law is just plain wrong, and to misquote me is unhelpful, misleading and damaging, frankly.

The Bill affords the United Kingdom Government the power to breach obligations that they freely entered into less than a year ago, rather than employ the dispute mechanism that they agreed to. When Lord Keen resigned as Advocate General, he wrote to the Prime Minister that he found it increasingly difficult to reconcile what he considered to be his obligations as a Law Officer with the Government’s policy intentions. The highly respected former Attorney General the right hon. Dominic Grieve has said that the Lord Chancellor’s position is even more clear cut than that of the Law Officers, and that the Lord Chancellor has taken

“an oath of office to uphold or protect the rule of law. The rule of law includes international law…his position is untenable.”

Are both these senior distinguished QCs, Lord Keen and Dominic Grieve, wrong? If not, why is the Lord Chancellor still in office?

The hon. and learned Lady is right to draw attention to Lord Keen. I pay tribute to his long service in the Government as Advocate General for Scotland, and I was sorry to hear of his resignation. I do not believe that it was necessary, bearing in mind the important changes that have been made to the Bill.

I think that the position is now very clear. The hon. and learned Lady talks of breach, but as I will remind the House again, the eventuality or potential use of these clauses would be only if the EU was in material breach of its obligations, and therefore we would be facing a breakdown. I remind her again that of course we will use the withdrawal agreement mechanism and the arbitral mechanisms within the provisions of the withdrawal agreement, and indeed the Northern Ireland protocol, too. It is not a question of our abandoning our obligations; we will use them, but this is the “break glass in case of emergency” provision that underlies and will protect the United Kingdom’s position if we face such a breakdown.

Lord Keen’s resignation was in keeping with the highest traditions of the Scottish Bar. The Lord Chancellor has said that he wants us to consider his own actions as an MP and a Minister rather than as a lawyer, so I put this to him. In 2018, in the Gulf case, England’s Court of Appeal ruled that a Government Minister’s overarching duty to comply with the law includes international law and treaty obligations, even though these are no longer explicitly stated in the ministerial code. This Bill gives the Lord Chancellor and other Ministers the power to run a coach and horses through their obligations under the withdrawal agreement. I know that Conservative Members do not like hearing that, but it is the reality. In the light of what the English Court of Appeal has said, just how is this Bill compatible with his oath as the Lord Chancellor to uphold the rule of law?

As I have said to the hon. and learned Lady, the contingency that underlines the coming into force and use of these powers is a very narrowly and clearly delineated one. I do not believe, as I have said in public, that we are at that stage, and I do not believe we will get to that stage, if both parties renew their efforts, act in good faith and double down on making sure that we get a resolution. It would have been far easier for us to avoid the issue, to pretend that there was not going to be a problem, and then to hit the new year with an avalanche of difficulties when it came to Northern Ireland and its relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom. Members of this House would have rightly criticised us, and, frankly, we would have been in an indefensible position. This is a tortuous process. I reject her allegations—her assertions. We will continue to govern responsibly and consistent with our obligations under the rule of law.

Access to Justice

What assessment he has made of the effect of the backlog of cases in HM Courts and Tribunals Service on access to justice. (906344)

What assessment he has made of the effect of the backlog of cases in HM Courts and Tribunals Service on access to justice. (906349)

What assessment he has made of the effect of the backlog of cases in HM Courts and Tribunals Service on access to justice. (906371)

I am delighted to report to the House that the recovery of our court system following the coronavirus pandemic is very well under way. The magistrates court is recovering strongly. Disposals last week exceeded 21,000, which is more than the number of receipts, and therefore the outstanding case load went down, as it has gone down for each of the past five weeks. In relation to the Crown court, the recovery of jury trials continues strongly, and last week over 100 were held.

The majority of court cases have been moved from Barnsley and are taking place in Sheffield, increasing the likelihood of losing witnesses and, in some cases, victims. Prosecutions are already at record lows thanks to this Government’s record on law and order. Does the Minister accept that drastic measures need to be taken to reduce the backlog of cases and increase access to justice?

Drastic measures are being taken. We have recently invested £153 million to improve court buildings. We have just invested, in the past few weeks, an extra £80 million to support criminal courts, including the recruitment of 1,600 extra HMCTS staff. In addition to that, we have opened 10 emergency Nightingale courts with 16 courtrooms, and a further eight such Nightingale courts with 13 courtrooms will be opened in the course of September and October. The steps that the hon. Lady is calling for have been and are being taken.

From next week, the maximum period that someone can spend in pre-trial custody for Crown court cases will be increased to 238 days. I am particularly concerned that this includes children, as well as adults, on remand. At the moment in the prison estate, there is a higher proportion of children on remand among children in custody than there has been for a decade. What can we do to make sure that juveniles, in particular, get a speedy hearing and do not spend so much time in custody when they may very well be innocent?

The hon. Lady is quite right to draw attention to custody time limits. Of course we want to get cases heard as quickly as possible because people on remand may well be found not guilty subsequently. I do agree with her sentiments about children. I know that when judges look at listing cases, they are very mindful of that. By the end of October, we will have 250 Crown court jury trial rooms operating, which will enable us to get through these cases as quickly as we possibly can.

Shop workers have faced rising violence in recent years, and yet too often the perpetrators are not being brought to justice, partly, at the moment, because of lengthy backlogs in court hearings. Industry experts, business and trade unions are all calling for greater legal protection for shop workers and for more investment in the court system. When are Ministers going to listen?

Ministers have listened. I have already explained that we have just announced an extra £80 million to support court recovery, on top of the £153 million to improve the court estate just a short time ago. As regards sentencing, the hon. Member will, I am sure, welcome the sentencing White Paper published last week, which imposes tougher penalties on serious offenders and keeps them in prison for longer. He mentions outstanding case loads. I remind him that the outstanding case load in the Crown court, even with coronavirus, is lower today than it was in 2010, so we have managed to run the court system more effectively with coronavirus than the last Labour Government did without it.

The Minister outlines a different picture from that outlined by the Bar Council, which I met last week. It told me that covid-compliant courts throughout the country are running under capacity. Even after yesterday’s announcement, only a handful of the promised 200 Nightingale courts are in place. Magistrate numbers have halved since 2012, and there is a huge shortage of judges. Court listings are in chaos, with trial dates being set way into 2022. To top it all off, HMCTS is the only Government agency for which there is still no covid risk-assessment template agreed with PCS. The Lord Chancellor said he was looking forward to the spending review with relish; I sincerely hope that means that proper funding is on the way. When can we expect this mess to be sorted out and the buckling court system fixed, so that it can deliver for those it serves and employs?

I have already pointed out that the Crown court case load is lower today than it was in 2010 under the Labour Government. I have also pointed out that the magistrates courts, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, are disposing of more cases now than they are receiving: the backlog, or the case load, is going down and has been for each and every one of the past five weeks. The hon. Gentleman mentions custody and the time until hearings; in August, 84% of Crown court cases for which the defendant was in custody were listed for trial before February next year. We are working at pace and investing at pace. The recovery of our criminal justice system after this coronavirus epidemic is well and truly under way.

Public and Private Prisons

What comparative assessment he has made of levels of (a) violence and (b) staffing in (i) public and (ii) private prisons. (906345)

Levels of violence in our prisons remain too high, but I am pleased to say that we are on a downward trend in respect of assaults. In January to March this year, assaults on staff decreased by 5% on the three previous quarter, and in the latest quarter the number of assaults on staff decreased by a further 4%. Decreases have been seen across the public and private estate. We have also seen a net rise of almost 4,000 prison officers in bands 3 to 5 since 2016. We do not hold figures for the number of staff at private prisons, as we measure performance in a different way.

I thank the Minister for that response. I had hoped that even this Government would accept the link between prison understaffing and high levels of violence. Why are the Government building a new generation of private prisons that will have no minimum staffing levels and no requirements for private operators to reveal staff numbers as they will not be subject to freedom of information requests? Frankly, this is an appalling policy of “Don’t ask me any questions and I won’t tell you any lies.”

As I mentioned, we have increased the number of staff in the public sector. We have also introduced the key worker scheme, which is essential for staff to liaise with the prisoners. Private prisons perform well, as do public prisons. Recent reports from this year for HMP Parc and HMP Rye Hill, which are both managed by G4S, judged both to be good. There is not a mantra that public is good, private is bad; both work well.

Reoffending Reduction

Reoffending rates are too high, resulting in some individuals repeatedly posing a danger to their communities and the undermining of public confidence in the criminal justice system. Last week, we published the sentencing White Paper, which sets out measures to better supervise and support offenders following their release from custody. It includes proposals for changes to the rehabilitation periods set out in the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, to improve access to employment and education for those with criminal records.

I recently visited MTCnovo’s hub for offenders from Aylesbury and was impressed by the dedication and commitment of the staff, as well as of those completing their sentences there. Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that a vital element of reducing reoffending is having enough well-trained and skilled probation officers who can thoroughly oversee and supervise sentences?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I thank all the staff at MTCnovo and Thames Valley community rehabilitation company. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that dedicated prison officers are a key part of reducing reoffending, which is why last month we launched the probation workforce strategy, setting out our commitment to recruit an additional 1,000 probation officers by the end of January next year. It is about not just recruiting staff, but how we work with them and invest in their skills. We will be focusing on their skills, recruitment, retention, diversity, leadership and wellbeing.

Communities  across the Bolsover constituency are desperate to see serial reoffenders punished, and that requires a level of innovation. What innovative approaches to reoffending is the Department taking?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s question on innovation. Our sentencing White Paper sets out a number of innovative ways of reducing reoffending, and I will mention just two. First, my hon. Friend mentioned prolific offenders, and we would like to deal with prolific burglars by tagging them so that when we release them from prison, we know where they go and can prevent them from committing further acquisitive crime. Secondly, we want to help people turn their lives around through community treatment programmes, ensuring that offenders get the support—including the drug addiction treatment and mental health support—that they need to enable them to turn their backs on crime.

Young People in Custody: Covid-19

I am very aware of the difficulties that many children in custody have faced over the covid period. I recently had a remote meeting with all the governors of the youth estate to discuss the impact of covid on young people in custody. As a result of that discussion and what we have heard, we have prioritised and focused on ensuring a return to face-to-face education and social visits, which are vital to young people’s mental health. I am pleased to say that we have already recommenced both of those across the youth estate.

With the second wave of covid fast approaching, will the Minister set out what plans she has to ensure that all young people and children in custody can access proper face-to-face education and rehabilitation, which are so vital for those vulnerable young people?

The hon. Member is absolutely right to focus on the importance of education. It is something that the Government have prioritised for the community as a whole, and it is absolutely right that we mirror that in our youth custody estate. That is why we have prioritised education in the youth estate as against the adult estate in the first stage of opening up, and it is why all such institutions are now open. We are looking at lessons learned. As we plan for the next phase of restrictions and closures in the community, we will be looking carefully and closely at how we deal with education.

Despite Ministers’ previous answers to my hon. Friends, throughout the pandemic the Government have actively supported children in prison being locked in their cells for over 23 hours a day, with their education and therapy sessions cancelled and family visits stopped. Does the Minister feel that these criminal measures have helped or hindered their rehabilitation?

I would like to clarify what the hon. Lady has said. We have not actively supported the lockdown; when we went into the pandemic, we were told by Public Health England that we were potentially facing 2,500 deaths in our prisons, and we rightly took action very quickly to stem that. Every death is tragic, but I am very pleased that, through our efforts, we only had 23 deaths. The problems in the youth estate are very different, but, equally, we did not want transmission among users and staff, leading to the NHS becoming overwhelmed and staff getting sick, so we took measures that were appropriate at the time. As I mentioned to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith), we absolutely recognise the importance of education. It is something that we are prioritising and have prioritised, and we will continue to do so.

It is good news that in the years approaching covid, the number of young people required to attend court fell by 10,000, but the bad news is that the backlog of young people requiring justice—their day in court—stayed the same over the same period. If Ministers lack the competence to end the backlog at a time when demand is falling by a third, what hope is there of the Government getting a grip in the challenging times ahead?

It is vital that we manage the backlog in the courts, and we are doing so across Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service. I am looking closely at the youth estate because it is vital that we ensure that the youth—who are particularly vulnerable and who cannot do as many remote hearings as those in the adult estate—get justice and get it swiftly. We have opened up a number of youth courts and are working hard to ensure that youth justice continues.

Women Leaving Prison: Resettlement

I am very pleased to have spoken regularly to the hon. Lady about residential women’s centres, which are a vital part of the female offender strategy. I hope she is aware that we invested an additional £22 million a year over the remaining life of the community rehabilitation company contracts to deliver an enhanced through-the-gate resettlement service. We also have specific funding for women—we are putting £5 million into community services that help female offenders to address the underlying causes of their criminality—and we recently invested a further £2.5 million to assist in further supporting female offenders. That is currently being distributed via a funding competition, which opened on 6 July.

The independent monitoring board recently reported that almost 60% of female prisoners are leaving prison for homelessness, which overwhelmingly leads to reoffending. To give these women a chance in life we need an effective through-the-gate strategy, including community support and adequate housing, so can we expect the autumn statement to deliver extra resources to allow that to happen?

Our statistics are that 4.2% of the female prison releases were to rough sleeping and 14% were released as “other homeless”, but the numbers, whatever they are, are too high. The hon. Lady rightly identifies the fact that we are talking to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and that a spending review is coming up. Members will have heard the Lord Chancellor talking about our absolute commitment, and we will be looking at a number of things—education, employment and tackling homelessness on release.

Criminal Legal Aid

I hugely value the work of criminal defence lawyers, who play a vital role in upholding the rule of law, testing prosecution evidence and ensuring that the innocent walk free. To support the profession through the pandemic, we sought to improve the cash flow for it by making it easier to draw down payment for work already collected, halting the collection of debt by the Legal Aid Agency and relaxing LAA contract requirements to ensure that more staff can be furloughed.

According to Government figures, in 2010-11 there were 1,861 firms with criminal legal aid contracts, whereas now there are only 1,138, which represents a 39% decrease. In addition, there appear to be significant recruitment shortages in the profession. According to the Solicitors Regulation Authority, in 2017 fewer than 3% of 11,000 trainee solicitors were working in criminal law. That raises real issues as to people’s ability to access justice. What plans does my hon. Friend have to address this decline?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We want criminal law and criminal defence to be an attractive, sustainable profession, which is why we put £23 million into the advocates’ graduated fee scheme last year, which can benefit solicitor advocates, and why we put, as the first wave of criminal legal aid, up to £51 million into the profession. It is a great and important job, and we want people to go into it.

I thank the Minister for his answers. Equity of access to justice is a central tenet of the rule of law. Does he agree that is it essential not only that everyone who needs it has access to legal aid, but that it is set at a level that does not disincentivise lawyers from taking on legal aid cases?

My hon. Friend makes a crucial point. Anyone in this Chamber could be accused of a crime they have not committed, and we need to ensure that there are lawyers who can take on the cases, challenge the prosecution and evidence, and ensure that justice is done. That is why we have the criminal legal aid review, and we want to ensure that that independently led review secures a sustainable profession into the future, so that justice can be done in the future.

I applaud the Minister for his ongoing efforts to ensure that we have a viable and sustainable criminal legal aid sector. Will he work with all stakeholders to ensure that fee income is increased, as he knows it is the single most important issue to every firm of criminal law solicitors in the country?

I particularly thank my hon. Friend, who has been such a powerful champion of criminal defence. He is absolutely right. It has to be a system that offers rates that are attractive to people coming into the profession. Crime lower work—that critical work at police stations and in the magistrates court—has to be properly remunerated. The vital work that he has done in the past and that his colleagues do needs to be recognised and rewarded.

Again, we have heard warm words from the Dispatch Box. I am sorry to have to spoil the Justice Secretary’s birthday, but the truth is this: the Government simply have not got to grips with the crisis in legal aid, and those on the front line of our criminal justice system know it. Nearly two years on from the announcement of a criminal legal aid review, the plan for accelerated items has only just been published. That sticking plaster might just have sufficed before covid, but for a justice system already on its knees, it is woefully insufficient, and victims, defendants and practitioners alike are paying the price. Will the Minister put a stop to the dither and delay, recognise the urgency of the situation and commit himself to expediting the remaining stages, or at the very least come up with a realistic timetable?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I like him, but I am afraid he is completely wrong. This is the Government who have put money into the profession. Let me ask him one thing: does he know how much money was paid for unused material for advocates under his Government? Not a penny piece. This is the Government who are putting money into the profession, and that is the way it is going to stay.

Topical Questions

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.