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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 683: debated on Tuesday 3 November 2020


The Secretary of State was asked—

Magistrates: Mandatory Retirement Age

The Ministry of Justice has been running a consultation on increasing the retirement age for judges and magistrates. The consultation closed on 16 October. Over 1,000 responses were received and we will respond formally very shortly.

My hon. Friend is very aware of my private Member’s Bill to raise the retirement age of magistrates to 75, which has been bumbling along the bottom of the Friday Order Paper for a couple of months now. Bearing in mind that his own consultation on this increasingly urgent matter closed over two weeks ago, is he able to give me and many hundreds of magistrates, who have been forced to give up dispensing justice at a time when we can least afford to lose them, some hope that he will be able to legislate at the earliest opportunity, either through my Bill or through other means, so we can get that on the statute book as soon as we can?

My hon. Friend is quite right. We are losing something like 1,000 magistrates a year as they turn 70, often very experienced magistrates who still have a great deal to offer the justice system. The consultation had two options: raising the age to 72 or to 75. I strongly commend my hon. Friend for his patience, persistence and perseverance in trying to get his private Member’s Bill through, often in the face of somewhat unfortunate headwinds, on private Members’ Bills Fridays. This is an urgent issue. As soon as we have formulated a response to the consultation, we will certainly be looking to legislate via whatever vehicle is available as quickly as we possibly can.

The Rule of Law

Naturally, I do not disclose the details of private conversations I have with Cabinet colleagues, but they, and everybody else who cares to listen, should be in no doubt that I am, and will continue to be, a very active Lord Chancellor in supporting the rule of law, using the authority of my office to advise, to warn and to encourage. I am absolutely committed, under the oath I took, to my constitutional duty to uphold the rule of law.

The Lord Chancellor said he would resign if he saw the rule of law being broken in a way that he found unacceptable. Ten days ago, more than 800 of some of the most senior legal figures across the UK wrote to the Prime Minister stating that attacks on the legal profession by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary undermine the rule of law. When he read that letter and saw the signatories, did he think things had got to the stage of being unacceptable?

The hon. Lady is eliding two issues. I was talking in early September about the United Kingdom (Internal Market) Bill. Since then, the Government made important concessions in this House to qualify the coming into force of those provisions, and set out examples where, to all intents and purposes, the EU would have acted in clear bad faith. She is eliding the two issues, I hope inadvertently. When it comes to defending the legal profession, I have already publicly stated my steadfast support for the profession that I am honoured to be a part of.

Former Supreme Court Justice Lord Dyson described the Government’s toxic rhetoric on the legal profession as “irresponsible”, “dangerous” and “inflammatory,” and

“the language of a demagogue.”

The former Director of Public Prosecutions, Lord Macdonald, said the Government’s language is indecent and typifies

“precisely this sort of ugly authoritarianism that the rule of law is called upon to counter.”

What discussions has the Lord Chancellor had with the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary about those very serious allegations from senior lawyers?

As I said in response to the previous question, I do not disclose details of discussions I have with Cabinet colleagues. However, I can reassure the hon. Gentleman and everybody else that people should be in no doubt about my steadfast defence not just of the judiciary but of an independent legal profession. We have, of course, seen criticism of lawyers throughout the ages. I respect the views of members of my profession, but we should put things into their full context.

I welcome what the Lord Chancellor said about defending the legal profession and I join him in that. It is an honourable profession and I have always found that those I dealt with at the Bar and solicitors generally left their politics behind when they went to argue the case for their client, which they must do without fear or favour. Equally, will he recognise that when he and I were doing an awful lot of legal aid work in practice, the former leader of the Labour party and then Prime Minister was describing legal aid lawyers as fat cats? No one has entirely clean hands on this and perhaps we all ought to moderate our language when dealing with the professions.

The Chair of the Justice Committee puts the matter into its fullest context. Sadly, from Shakespeare onwards, and probably before, lawyers have come in for criticism. The question is how far that goes. We live in a lively democracy and none of us is above criticism, but I say to him that in all my years in practice, I did precisely what he did, which was to leave my politics at home whenever I went into chambers or into the courtroom.

Our country is a country that prides itself on the rule of law. Without lawyers, the rule of law would collapse. In recent weeks, the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister have launched repeated attacks on lawyers representing asylum seekers. Even after a man launched a knife attack on an immigration solicitor days after the Home Secretary condemned “activist lawyers”, the Government continue to pour petrol on the fire. Does the Lord Chancellor agree with his colleagues’ characterisation of legal professionals as “activist lawyers”, or does he have the courage to publicly condemn that vile rhetoric?

The right hon. Gentleman will know that on two occasions in public forums, I have made my defence of lawyers very clear and made it clear that physical and verbal attacks and the other types of threat that we might see are entirely unacceptable. He talks rightly about a very serious case that is ongoing—I do not think it would be right for me to comment directly upon it—but we all know the context within which we operate. I can assure him that I will continue in my resolute defence of lawyers. I will say this: I think there are times when there is a legitimate debate to be had, and I firmly believe that lawyers who are passionate about politics are best advised, if they wish to pursue politics, to do as he and I did, which is to get elected and pursue politics here or in other democratic forums.

The Home Secretary’s remit includes responsibility for making sure that all our communities are kept safe and secure. On 7 September, a man wielding a knife entered an immigration lawyers’ office in London and launched a violent, racist attack. In mid-September, counter-terrorist police from SO15 warned the Home Secretary that it was suspected that a far-right extremist had attempted to carry out a terrorist attack at a solicitors’ firm in London, yet in early October at the Tory party conference, she went on to intensify her anti-lawyer rhetoric. I am not asking the Lord Chancellor to disclose the precise details of private conversations, but can he confirm newspaper reports that prior to her speech, he warned the Home Secretary against using this sort of language? If she will not listen to him, will he consider his position?

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for the way in which she put her question, but I have to repeat again that it would be invidious of me to repeat private conversations. She knows that I have been publicly on the record twice in the last month making my position very clear and condemning attacks. I think she would agree that we all need to be careful, as lawyers, about a matter that is currently sub judice and within the criminal process. Therefore, I think it is best not to try to draw direct links at this stage without knowing more about the evidence, but I reassure her that I will continue to do everything I can to make sure that the tone of the debate is right and that passions are cooled when it comes to talking about the important role of lawyers.

I reiterate that I am not asking the Lord Chancellor for the precise details of conversations or, indeed, to comment on an ongoing case. I am asking him about the general advice that he has given to his colleagues in relation to his duties and responsibilities regarding the rule of law, because, after the Home Secretary’s speech, the Prime Minister went even further in his conference speech, declaring that he would prevent

“the whole criminal justice system from being hamstrung by…lefty human rights lawyers and other do-gooders.”

I ask the Lord Chancellor again: are newspaper reports that he spoke with the Prime Minister in advance of that speech correct? And did he tell the Prime Minister about the attack on the immigration lawyers’ offices and the warnings from counter-terrorism police to the Home Secretary about the dangers of inflammatory language against lawyers?

I can assure the hon. and learned Lady that the information about the serious allegations about the attack has been communicated to the appropriate Ministers and that everything that I have done and will continue to do is entirely consistent with my duty. Although, sadly, it might be the province of previous and current Prime Ministers to make provocative and sometimes lively comments about the legal profession, it is not the job of the Lord Chancellor to police every jot and tittle. I will continue to make sure that we get the tone of the debate right and that where we can improve on our language, we will do so.

Reducing Reoffending

Reoffending is a complex issue, so we need to take a wide-ranging approach. That is why we will invest £20 million in the prison leavers project to test new solutions. We are also making sure that our new prisons have rehabilitation right at their heart. Our programme to build 10,000 additional places, plus two new jails at Wellingborough and Glen Parva, will deliver improved security and better training facilities to help offenders to find employment on release.

May I be the first of the magnificent seven to thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer? Reoffending rates have historically been too high, as many of us are aware from our time in court as advocates or on the magistrates bench. Does he agree that working with organisations and businesses such as the Gelder Group at HMP Lincoln, which has been involved in delivering meaningful training courses to equip those spending time at Her Majesty’s pleasure with useful skills, is the right way to provide inmates with a positive restart to their lives after jail time?

My hon. Friend, who has considerable experience of the justice system in a former capacity, is right to highlight the work of organisations such as the Gelder Group and its great work in delivering training to prisoners in his county. He is also right to identify how transformative training and work can be for serving prisoners and those who are released, and that will involve a cross-Government approach as well. I was delighted to hear recently about the great work of Agile Homes at Her Majesty’s Prison Leyhill, which is not only training men to build homes but helping them to save for their own homes in future through work.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his commitment to the investment in the prison leavers scheme. He will know, however, that not all schemes provide rehabilitation and training. Some schemes, such as the so-called Nottingham Knockers scheme, send out men and ladies who are released prisoners to sell overpriced goods to embarrassed customers, providing humiliation but no training. Will he make sure that the prison leavers scheme has the element of training and rehabilitation that is needed, so that ex-prisoners can have successful lives thereafter?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Without that specialist support, there is a real problem that such matters might become counterproductive. Nottingham Knockers-type activities, as described, are not part of a recognised rehabilitative scheme, so I urge the public to be vigilant. When it comes to authorised schemes, we anticipate spending more than £100 million a year on accredited services.

Social media use in prisons essentially amounts to prisoners reoffending before they have even been let out. It sends a poor message about our criminal justice system that could lead to more reoffending. Will the Lord Chancellor commit to doing everything he can to ensure that those who use social media in prison are robustly punished, and will he be open to increasing and reviewing sentences rather than just giving in-house slap-on-the-wrist punishments?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to talk about the potential impact and the shock that can be caused to members of the public if people who are known to be in custody are communicating and using social media, and prisoners who break the rules should face consequences. The internal adjudication system allows the removal of privileges, stoppage of earnings and confinement to cell, and more serious breaches can be referred to the independent adjudicator, but some crimes committed in prison are clearly so serious that governors will continue to refer those matters to the police.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that prison education in itself is crucial to reducing reoffending?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, because the evidence is that the completion of any prison education reduces reoffending by 7.5%. We plan to strengthen rehabilitation further by creating a prisoner education service that will be focused on work-based training and skills. The Prison Service’s new future network is doing great work to build partnerships between prisons and employers to ensure that prisoners are job ready on release.

Reoffending rates in the Black Country currently stand at around 30%, and it is clear that we need to take a local stakeholder approach. What work is my right hon. and learned Friend doing with local stakeholders in the Black Country to ensure that we can bring reoffending down? Will he meet me to discuss a long-term strategy to tackle reoffending in the Black Country?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who speaks with knowledge on this subject, and I would like to thank him and the Mayor, Andy Street, for their continued work on helping to tackle reoffending. We know that offenders typically have complex needs, and the community sentence treatment requirement programme, which went live in the Black Country in June this year, aims to improve access to appropriate mental health and substance misuse services as part of community sentences. Of course I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this and other issues relevant to West Bromwich in detail.

What assessment has my right hon. and learned Friend made of the likely impact of the reduction of rehabilitation periods on reducing reoffending?

My hon. Friend speaks with continuing passion on behalf of his constituents in Blackpool, and he knows that when it comes to improving rehabilitation, employment is a key factor. Reducing the length of time that offences need to be disclosed for most jobs will improve job prospects for people with previous convictions. It not only supports them but protects the public by decreasing the likelihood of reoffending, as there are few better crime-fighting tools than a regular pay cheque.

In my constituency, Jackie Blackwell, the CEO of the citizens advice bureau, and her team provide support for offenders and their families as they transition out of prison. How is the Lord Chancellor supporting charities such as Fine Cell Work and the Irene Taylor Trust, and Jackie and her team, in this vital work?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her passionate work in this area and her advocacy on behalf of the people of Anglesey Ynys Môn. I recognise the value that organisations such as the ones she mentions can bring to supporting offenders and families through a challenging time. Our grants programme supports the piloting of new rehabilitation services and the further development of current programmes. I am delighted to be able to say that both Citizens Advice Ynys Môn’s and the Irene Taylor Trust have benefited from our grants programme, and I look forward to seeing the contributions they make to supporting prison leavers as they make the transition towards a new life.

Sexual Offenders: Transfers to Open Prisons

What risk assessments are conducted prior to the transfer of people convicted of sexual offences to open prisons. (908303)

Access to open prison conditions is not a right, and there is no automatic progression. It is based on a detailed risk assessment. To be considered for open conditions, an individual must generally have served two to three years and have that time left to serve before the earliest release. In addition, a thorough risk assessment must be completed, considering the likelihood of the individual absconding and the risks to the public, as well as whether they are suited overall to the open estate.

I ask this question on behalf of my constituent, who I will call Elizabeth. For a decade, she was subjected to brutal abuse by a grooming gang in Rotherham. Because of her tenacity, she managed to secure convictions, including sentenced to an individual for nine years for two counts of child rape against her. After two and a half years, she discovered that he had been downgraded to an open prison. Neither Elizabeth nor the police were consulted about this or notified as part of a risk-assessment process, so one wonders whether it is just prison conduct that contributes to risk assessments. More concerningly, he is potentially up for weekend release, although that is not going to happen because of covid. In Elizabeth’s own words, how effective does the Minister think the release on temporary leave system is? I would appreciate a direct answer.

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this important and tragic case. She has written to me about it, and I hope that she has had the content of my letter back. I know that the service has already apologised to her constituent, and I apologise on its behalf, for not contacting her before the referral to open conditions. The victim liaison officer has made the offender manager aware of conditions that should be imposed on any release on temporary licence, so those will be taken into account should any ROTL be granted. I am happy to continue to discuss this case with the hon. Lady at any opportune moment.

Covid-19 Lockdown in Prisons

What lessons his Department has learned from the (a) implementation and (b) effect of the covid-19 lockdown in prisons. (908304)

In March, we faced 2,500 to 3,500 deaths in our prisons, according to Public Health England’s worst-case scenario, and we took decisive action to implement national restrictions to protect our staff, prisoners and the NHS. As the pandemic continues, and in line with the overall Government position, we have now developed a more localised approach, which allows governors to operate regimes that are proportionate to the risk in their local area. Throughout the pandemic, we have continued to recognise the importance of prisoners’ wellbeing and mental health, and we have responded accordingly. We will be thinking again in line with the new national restrictions that will be imposed on Thursday.

Given the likelihood that prisoners will continue to suffer extreme restrictions, resulting in possible damage to mental health, for the whole of this winter and beyond, will the Minister guarantee that additional phone credit for prisoners and free access to video calls for families will continue for the duration of the pandemic?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for highlighting the measures we put in place during the last wave; as I said, we are very conscious of the impact on reduced liberties in prison. We did make available 1,200 handsets and £5 extra phone credit, and, as she mentioned, we rolled out video calling. Of course, we will continue to consider whether those are appropriate in the next phase of this pandemic.

Between today and Christmas, thousands of people will be released from prison, many of whom will have spent the past six months locked in cells for 23 hours a day, with education impossible, rehabilitation disrupted and mental health problems rising. They will be released with no job, money or second chance and an increased risk of reoffending. So, Minister, when will we have an action plan, learning the lessons from past months and providing prisoners with support, which, in turn, keeps our communities safer?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question, but I would like to challenge her position, because we already have an action plan. We have had the roll-out of a national framework to position 3—many prisons are already operating that. It rolls out the lifting of a number of restrictions, so that we have increased social visits across the estate, as well as offender management and a number of other measures. We are, of course, now reassessing the position and we will be having an action plan, following the imposition of further national restrictions on Thursday.

Illicit Substance Use in Prisons

What steps he is taking to improve the capability of prisons to test for the use of illicit substances among prisoners. (908305)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the impact of drugs in our prisons, because there is a link between drugs and violence and assaults. That is why we in Government are supporting the Prisons (Substance Testing) Bill, promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan). The Bill had its Second Reading last month and will ensure that we can extend the range of substances that can be tested automatically, so that we can respond more quickly to new formulations of psychoactive substances.

I am grateful for that answer. What support can be provided for prisoners to ensure that they can recover permanently from drugs misuse?

We are taking a number of approaches, of which I shall name just one: the rolling out of the NHS Reconnect service, which ensures that those having treatment in prisons can continue that treatment when they go into the community on release. The service includes assistance in making referrals and also provides peer mentoring services. It will ensure that, as my hon. Friend suggested, offenders permanently stay off drugs on their release.

Access to Justice

Access to justice is a fundamental right and the Government are committed to ensuring that individuals can get the timely support that they need to access the justice system. In 2018-19, we spent £1.7 billion on legal aid for those who needed it. In response to the destruction caused by covid-19, we have introduced measures that include scheduling more than 100 additional Saturday court sittings each month; providing funding to not-for-profit providers of specialist legal advice, such as law centres; and rolling out the cloud video platform to enable remote hearings in all civil, family and criminal courts.

The Government have failed to provide any significant additional support for legal aid practitioners. The breaking point for many firms is likely to come in 2021, especially as the volume of completions in the Crown court remains low. Many legal aid firms and practitioners urgently need financial support to survive, so will the Government announce new measures to support legal aid lawyers over the second national lockdown?

Legal aid lawyers do a magnificent job of ensuring access to justice. I am pleased that the Government have been able to roll out support through furlough and so on, but it is also important that in this second lockdown the courts are continuing. It is really important to note that the magistrates courts are dealing with more cases than they are receiving, and the Government have accelerated CLAR 1, the first criminal legal aid review, which means that defence solicitors, for example, are being paid to review unused material—something that did not happen under a Labour Government.

We know that too often the courts are clogged up partly because too little has been done to minimise crime in the first place, which is why it is astonishing that in Cambridgeshire the number of police community support officers is to be halved, particularly at a time when they have a key role to play in covid compliance. Will the Minister join me in condemning those cuts and demanding that they be withdrawn?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, but I hope he will welcome the fact that this Government are recruiting an additional 20,000 police officers. It is those officers who will crack down on crime and ensure that people who rob innocents and cause violence end up getting their just deserts.

Court users deserve the fullest protection from covid while they access justice, as do the staff who serve them, yet there have been an alarming number of outbreaks at courts and tribunals throughout the country, including Manchester magistrates court and others near my constituency. Does the Minister agree that by failing to consult properly with the staff union, the Public and Commercial Services Union, over risk assessments, the courts service risks making a bad situation much worse?

I pay tribute to the staff of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service whom I had the privilege of meeting when I went to Isleworth Crown court. It is the staff who are keeping courts running in extremely difficult circumstances: they are the ones who have ensured that the Perspex is there, that the jury retirement rooms are properly socially distanced and that the jury assembly points are well administered. I pay tribute to them for what they are doing, and it is a testament to their achievements that the courts will continue to do what they do best: dispensing justice in our country.

Equality before the law is a fundamental right, but for the vast majority of people in the country who are not eligible for legal aid, that right does not actually exist. Facing a difficult winter, even greater numbers will find themselves trapped in the justice gap of being forced to choose between legal representation and the basic essentials, as 94% of working single parents—mainly women—already do. What is the Minister going to do to ensure that the rights that we hold dear actually exist in practice?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that ensuring access to justice is of fundamental importance, which is why, when we saw that the law centres, for example, were going to have difficulties during this pandemic, we answered the call and provided them with the funding. I was also able to speak to a great number of them to reassure them about the work that they were able to continue doing. That was the right response to take, and we are proud of the actions that we took.

Court Delays: Covid-19

If he will bring forward a strategy to support victims affected by court delays as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. (908307)

If he will bring forward a strategy to support victims affected by court delays as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. (908309)

If he will bring forward a strategy to support victims affected by court delays as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. (908315)

We continue to make significant progress on criminal courts’ recovery. Since August, magistrates courts have consistently completed more cases than they are receiving. In the Crown court, millions of pounds have been invested in Perspex screens, technology and Nightingale courts to enable thousands of hearings to be listed each week. Significant progress, too, has been made to accelerate the roll-out of the section 28 pre-recorded cross-examination service to support alleged victims to give their best evidence.

Rape is a violent and devastating crime, putting enormous pressure on its victims, who may view the trial of their rapist as a second violation. Across the north-east, rape victims are waiting months and months for their trials to start and Northumbria police and crime commissioner Kim McGuinness tells me that that is putting enormous strain on their mental health. What support is the Minister providing, specifically to victim support organisations such as the sexual exploitation hub in my constituency, and what is he doing to make sure that more trials can take place?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this point, and I am grateful to her for doing so. We take this extremely seriously. Of the £76 million that we allocated to victims’ organisations, a full £20 million was rolled out through PCCs to provide the community support that she refers to, but that did not emerge from a clear blue sky. We were also providing money for independent sexual violence advisers to support victims as they progress through the criminal justice system. The critical thing is to keep the courts going during this pandemic. That is what we are doing when others might not have done it, and we are proud of what Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is providing.

In Hull North, levels of antisocial behaviour in areas such as Orchard Park, Beverley Road, Pearson Park, Princes Avenue and Kingswood have been growing, and the perpetrators behave as if they were beyond the reach of the justice system and the law. What discussions has the Minister had with his counterpart in the Home Office about a specific strategy for communities where antisocial behaviour is growing to work with victims affected by court delays, and will he meet me to discuss what more can be done?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. Let the message go out in Kingston upon Hull that people who want to perpetrate antisocial behaviour should understand that the courts are operating, that the police are there to make arrests and that justice will be done. That is what is being delivered during this pandemic, thanks to the hard work of plenty of people. On her final point, of course I would be delighted to meet her to discuss this matter further.

I hope the Minister will meet with me as well to discuss this matter. The delays, as my colleagues have already said, have meant that victims of serious violent crime, such as rape, sexual abuse and other kinds of crime, are facing a double threat: first of the crime and then of the delay. That is causing huge trauma. In the context of half a million unheard cases, can the Minister specifically state how many of the 200 additional court venues have been provided and how much additional funding has been provided to deal with the additional crisis caused by coronavirus?

Let me deal with this point about courts. Because so much money has gone into providing Perspex and so on, the number of courtrooms available for trials is higher than the baseline. That is important. Even before this pandemic, we had increased by 50% the amount of funding that was going into rape support centres, because we recognised the importance of providing that support. We will continue to support individuals through independent sexual violence advisers and through providing that capacity in our court system so that victims can get the justice they deserve.

The court backlog is not just a number; it is a tragedy for every victim who is awaiting justice. The Tory PCC for Hertfordshire wrote to Ministers back in June to say that victims were pulling out of trials and that criminals were walking away scot-free as a result. How many crimes need to go unpunished before Ministers will come before the House with a plan backed up by targets and resource so that criminals are brought to justice?

I regret that the hon. Gentleman has not read the plan that has been published, because if he had, he would know that in the magistrates courts the backlog is being eroded, because disposals have exceeded receipts since the end of July, and that the number of trial courts is higher than the baseline. If he had read the report, he would know that. This Government are keeping courts running and ensuring that justice will be served.

Courts: Three-tier Covid Levels

What assessment he has made of the effect of the Government’s three-tier local covid-19 alert levels on the operation of the courts. (908310)

We have made a very careful assessment of the safety of all our court buildings. I am pleased to say that courts across the country are opening and operating regardless of the tier they may have been in previously and regardless of the altered circumstances that are commencing on Thursday. The courts are open, they are operating, and justice is being done.

In firebreak Wales, the justice system has had to operate under really difficult circumstances lately, and I pay credit to those who have worked so hard to adapt. However, figures shared with me by the chief constable in Gwent point to significant delays in first hearings and a 57% increase in witnesses being supported locally. To help deal with this, will the Government prioritise hearings for the most serious crimes before they get lost in another backlog?

I echo the hon. Gentleman’s thanks to HMCTS staff and the judiciary and magistrates who have been keeping our courts running in what have been difficult circumstances. The cases that are prioritised are decided by the judges, who take responsibility for listing. However, cases such as domestic violence protection orders, which are often very urgent, are certainly being prioritised, and the most serious cases, particularly where there are vulnerable victims—we have heard about rape cases already this morning—are being listed at the earliest possible opportunity.

As the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), said, in the magistrates court we are now disposing of more cases than are being received. That has been the case since the end of July, so the outstanding caseload is coming down. As for Crown court jury trials, we now have more Crown court courtrooms for jury trials open and operating than was the case before the pandemic, so we are expecting similarly encouraging progress to start feeding through with regard to those trials as well.

In recent times we have seen outbreaks of covid in different courts around the country, despite the claims and answers to my parliamentary questions that everything possible is being done to keep them safe. The Government have been found out and hit with fines by the Health and Safety Executive for what can only be described as a catalogue of failures at Westminster magistrates court, including risk assessment found not to be suitable and sufficient. Then there were issues with social distancing, staff training and management arrangements. Can the Minister put his hand on his heart and honestly say that other courts would not fail the HSE test, and will he agree that it is now time to work with staff representatives to put things right, and carry out the national risk assessment demanded today by the Criminal Bar Association?

A huge amount of work has happened over the past six months to risk-assess different courts, working with Public Health England and Public Health Wales, and talking to union representatives as well. That is how we have got almost every court in the country now up and running in a socially distanced way. For example, we have installed Perspex screens to make sure that jurors are separated from one another, and we are making sure that there are jury retiring rooms where jurors can space out. There is extremely frequent cleaning happening throughout every courtroom. What is important is that justice is done, justice is delivered, and it is done safely, and that is precisely what is now happening.

Female Offender Strategy

The female offender strategy launched two years ago recognises a different approach to female offenders, and we are making good progress. We initially invested £5.1 million in funding for 30 women’s services across England and Wales, and we are currently in the process of allocating a further £2.5 million for this year to improve women’s centres’ financial viability.

There are over 2,200 more women in prison than 25 years ago, and 82% have been sentenced for non-violent offences. A second lockdown will hit them hard, so can the Minister tell us what steps are being taken to give women in prison virtual access to their children, how many pregnant women are currently in custody, and how many women have been released as part of the early release scheme?

We are very conscious of the impact of lockdown on our female estate, and we will be looking very carefully, as we look at the new framework for the new provisions on Thursday, on how we can in particular protect women on the female estate, recognising the significant mental health issues they face. We are very conscious of the need to ensure family contact, and all on our female estate have access to virtual calls. The hon. Member is aware, I hope, of our recent mother and baby unit review in relation to operations to look after pregnant women and women with young children on the estate. That is currently in a consultation phase. We have set out a number of measures, including personalised access and plans to help those across our female estate who are pregnant or who have dependants.

Topical Questions

Throughout the pandemic, dedicated public servants across the justice system have continued delivering vital services. We have implemented contingency measures to ensure that hearings can continue safely and securely, and we now have 16 Nightingale courtrooms. We have also implemented a national framework for dealing with covid in our prisons and secured greater access to testing in order to manage outbreaks.

As the Prime Minister outlined at the weekend, it is now necessary for England to enter into a new set of national restrictions so that we can stem the spread of the virus, protect our NHS and save lives, but essential public services will stay open and that of course includes courts and prisons. We are well prepared to respond to the current restrictions, having acquired valuable knowledge from the first wave of the virus, with contingency plans in place to manage risks throughout the winter. I am sure the whole House will want to join me in expressing gratitude to all our justice heroes working in prisons, probation and the courts, who will continue to go the extra mile.

Can the Justice Secretary give an example of a military operational decision that has been changed as a result of court action or the threat of court action, and an example of a vexatious claim that has not been dismissed by the courts, with costs?

I take it that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the Bill that will be debated this afternoon, which contains important provisions to get the balance right between the need to make sure that our armed services are supported properly and their contribution is valued and the need to make sure that, as with everybody else, no one is above the law. There have at times, in years gone by, been a number of examples where members of our gallant armed services have been unfairly exposed to the potential of legal action, which has caused real hurt, disquiet and genuine concern among the general public. It is right that in the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill we take corrective action to get that balance more finely adjusted.

A decade of cuts, court closures and mishandling of the pandemic has created a backlog in the Crown courts of nearly 50,000 cases. It could reach 195,000 by 2024. The courts service says we need at least an extra 200 venues to fill the gap, but on 19 October 2020, the Judicial Office confirmed that only five Nightingale courts were hearing jury trials. That is a failure of epic proportions, leading to thousands of victims of serious crime being denied justice. Has the Lord Chancellor failed to ask for enough resources to get justice moving, or has he been denied them by the Treasury?

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong on all fronts. First, we secured an extra £80 million of funding from the Treasury to deal specifically with covid court recovery. That came on top of the largest investment and increase in court maintenance in 20 years, including during his stewardship. That has resulted in the scaling up of courts, so that today we have 255 courtrooms hearing jury trials, which is ahead of the target I had set for the end of October. We will go further. We have already opened 19 courtrooms under the Nightingale court scheme. This is not a story of failure. This is a story of success and hard work on the part of everybody in the Courts Service. The projections that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned are based upon some pretty inaccurate predictions that do not bear the closest scrutiny.[Official Report, 9 November 2020, Vol. 683, c. 8MC.]

What are the Government doing to support the resourcing of magistrates courts, which are vital to the dispensation of justice in my constituency and across the UK? For victims of violent crime and domestic abuse in particular, it is important that their cases are expedited. (908364)

Like my hon. Friend, I am very grateful to the magistracy in County Durham and elsewhere for the part they have played in keeping our system working. All victims—none more so than those he mentions—deserve prompt justice. That is why I am grateful to every part of the criminal justice system that is working so hard to ensure case progression. To that end, we have made available £1 million to improve the recruitment process. We reviewed our planned recruitment in line with changing demands on our magistracy, and are consulting on proposals to increase the mandatory retirement age of all judicial office holders.

When somebody under the age of 18 commits an offence, they join the long list of those waiting for their cases to come to a hearing, and they are then tried in the adult courts. That cannot be right. Will the Justice Secretary review this and ensure that, if a crime is committed by a youth, they are tried through the youth justice system? (908360)

The hon. Lady can be reassured that these issues are being examined at the moment. The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), and I take a particular interest in the threshold in the change from youth status to adult. It applies in a multiplicity of ways. I can assure her, for example, that people who have attained the age of 18 are dealt with as youths for the purposes of sentencing, but the position is complex, and we are looking at all the ramifications of it, including the one that she raised.

Will my hon. and learned Friend explain what she is doing to ensure that prison staff have access to swift testing, to avoid unnecessary periods of self-isolation? Has consideration been given to making mandatory the wearing of face masks by prison officers when on duty? (908365)

I would like to thank all the staff who have been working so hard at this particularly challenging time. We have started to routinely test staff, and we are providing personal protective equipment, including medical-grade face masks.

Access to justice is under threat. In my constituency, we have just lost one of our most established independent legal advice centres. As Members will know, access to that service is vital; we see it in our casework. It is important for citizens to have access to free legal advice. The sector has faced so many cuts over the years, and since lockdown, demand has grown—demand from people facing debt and people facing employment issues. If these centres are to close, it will cause unimaginable stress. Can the Secretary of State outline what steps he is taking to ensure that these vital services are available for citizens? (908361)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising an important and enduring issue. I, too, pay tribute to the work that law centres and other organisations play in administering important advice and those first steps that are sometimes so crucial in actually dealing effectively with problems that can be averted. Already as part of pre-covid work, we had allocated £5 million for early legal help. I know the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), is working tirelessly to evolve a scheme of early legal support and advice. It is something that I passionately endorse as well. We will continue to develop that and to achieve the ends that I think the hon. Lady and I share.

The female offender strategy rightly recommends women’s centres over custodial sentences, but the funding committed as part of the strategy ran out in March. The Minister referred earlier to more funding for women’s services, but I am talking about women’s centres, and I have been unsuccessfully trying to set one up in Bath. Will the Government commit to providing a significant amount of core funding for women’s centres?

If I could correct the hon. Lady, the £2.5 million that we have committed this year for the female offender strategy will be going directly to women’s centres where they bid for it. I am very happy to talk to her about her particular centre, but the £2.5 million is specifically to help sustain the women’s centres to continue to support our female offenders.

What steps is my right hon. and learned Friend taking to ensure that all victims, but in particular those subject to crimes such as sexual offences or modern slavery, are being properly supported and that their rights are being properly protected during this time? (908368)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, and I know she works closely with support services and victims groups in her constituency. We are committed to ensuring that victims like the ones she mentioned receive the support they need. We have delivered £22 million of emergency funding to support victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence. That has reached more than 540 charities in the frontline so far. Indeed, following the No. 10 hidden harms summit, which I took part in, we are delivering an action plan that puts victims at the centre of the criminal justice system and, indeed, our courts recovery programme. We are strengthening the victims code to establish a clearer set of rights for victims.

At a time when England is entering a second national lockdown, potential victims of domestic abuse are again increasingly vulnerable, so what steps are being taken to make sure that trials of people accused of domestic abuse and, indeed, support for their victims are being prioritised by Government? (908367)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and he can be reassured that, throughout the pandemic, domestic abuse cases appearing in a magistrates court and indeed in the Crown court have been given the priority that we all expect them to be allocated. We have seen, of course, a big demand spike in the covid crisis for domestic abuse support services, and the package that I referred to in the previous answer—the £25 million package, of which £22 million has already been allocated to support groups dealing with domestic abuse and sexual violence—is already making a real difference to victims and those affected by domestic abuse.

Records show that, because of police underfunding, Cleveland police are 500 officers down. Hartlepool magistrates court has closed and our local cells have been mothballed. Would the Secretary of State agree to meet me to discuss the reopening of our police cells in Hartlepool as a matter of importance in order to build back confidence? (908369)

I am sure the hon. Gentleman would support very much the Government’s moves to scale up the number of police officers. In Cleveland, the numbers are already rising in an encouraging way. I note the point that he makes about particular custodial facilities. Of course I will discuss the matter with him. He will know that it is vital that we maintain local justice, but at the same time make sure that we use remote technology in order to deal cases with as quickly as possible and to deliver justice to victims.

The Lord Chancellor will be aware of my constituent Kelly Ormerod, whose parents sadly died while on holiday in Egypt more than two years ago. Unfortunately, in the last two years, the UK coroner has been unable to get the answers he needs to be able to identify the cause of death. That has caused great anxiety for the family and denied them the answers that they are looking for. Would the Lord Chancellor therefore meet me and Kelly to see how we can progress this case through the UK coroner to give them the answers they deserve? (908373)

My hon. Friend has worked tirelessly on this very sensitive and sad case, and I pay tribute to him for his hard work on behalf of his constituents. I am sure that this delay is causing them additional distress, and of course I will be happy to meet him. He knows that, sadly, the Government cannot compel the production by the Egyptian authorities of documents for a coroner investigation but my officials have indeed contacted the senior coroner in the local area for more details and an update, and I understand that the senior coroner has now written to the Egyptian prosecutor general.

The YPeople project in Lindsay House in East Kilbride in my constituency has had the police called out 700 times in two years in respect of antisocial behaviour, crime, weapons and drug misuse, and this has continued at a high rate even during lockdown. Local residents now tell me they are terrified and parents are saying that children are being offered drugs during their school lunch breaks. What more can be done to provide intensive offender and substance abuse rehabilitation prior to relocation to local communities so that residents are not put at such pervasive risk? (908372)

The hon. Lady raises a very serious case in her constituency, and I am sure that her colleagues in the Scottish Government, who of course have always had responsibility for these matters, Scotland being a separate criminal jurisdiction, will consider this very carefully. I am concerned to hear that in that local instance, despite best intentions, there does not seem to be the necessary reach into the community to give people the speedy comfort and the confidence that they deserve. May I say that south of the border we are working very hard to enhance and improve community treatment requirements to deal with drug addiction and alcohol abuse and, indeed, to try and get to the root cause of some of this reoffending that causes misery to communities such as the one the hon. Lady serves?

    My constituency in south Devon is home to LandWorks, a fantastic charity that helps prisoners those at risk and of going to prison into jobs and back into the community. With so many prisoners released every month who are unable to access universal credit and housing, will the Minister meet me to discuss how we can improve access to those mechanisms, as well as visiting LandWorks? (908375)

I would be very happy to visit when we are allowed to do so, and certainly before then to discuss the issues in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and I pay tribute to the work of LandWorks in his area. The issue of universal credit is fundamental, as is getting people into homes, and I work very closely with my counterpart at the Department for Work and Pensions and the Secretary of State at the Department, along with the Lord Chancellor, to ensure that prison leavers can access universal credit in a timely way on their release, and we are doing other work in relation to their getting a job and a home.

As we enter another lockdown with severe restrictions on prisoners, will the Minister consider the impact of the very serious other harms that the covid-minimising restrictions risk causing to prisoners, prison officers and their families?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. We are very conscious of the impact that the very restrictive conditions we have imposed will have on those in our custody and care. Since restrictions were lifted over the summer, prison staff across the country have worked very hard to open up the estate. Since the end of the previous lockdown we have reintroduced visits in every prison, and 119 of our prisons are operating at stage 3 of the national framework; this reintroduced key work, education and offender management activities where it was appropriate to do so. As we enter a new phase, we are thinking very carefully about the balance between security and resistance to the virus and the mental health needs of our prisoners.

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 suspend the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.