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Topical Questions

Volume 683: debated on Tuesday 3 November 2020

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.