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Topical Questions

Volume 685: debated on Tuesday 8 December 2020

Justice is a vital public service and a cornerstone of our success as a society, which is why the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced huge investment in the system as part of his recent spending review. Part of that money will go towards the recovery and restoration of justice from the effects of covid-19, notably in the Crown courts, and to support victims as they make their difficult journeys through the system, including the family courts and tribunals. The spending review announced £105 million for the maintenance of courts and tribunals, and there was also £4 billion to build back better in the prison estate, with 18,000 additional places in the pipeline plan for the mid-2020s, helping us to deliver modern, green prisons that can be launching pads for rehabilitation. We are moving at pace with the first of our new prisons, HMP Five Wells, which is opening in 2022, while continuously increasing resources for the maintenance of our existing prison estate. This investment continues to deliver on the Government’s crime agenda, keeping the public safe, delivering a green revolution and bringing our prisons into the 21st century.

I thank the Justice Secretary for that, but judicial review is the only way in which the public can challenge the Government when they believe the Government have acted unlawfully. It is important that we keep that protection in place for the public to hold the Government to account, so will he commit today to fully publishing the independent review of administrative law?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the central importance of judicial review, and he will remember that that is set out in the terms of reference. The review will report shortly, the Government will respond and the whole documentation will be published. The question of submissions to the review is a matter for the review, but I assure him that the outcome will, of course, be published as part of the Government’s policy position in due course.

Last week, a three-week consultation was launched on proposals for a new prison adjacent to Grendon and Spring Hill prisons in my constituency. With nearby communities already dealing with massive pressures and parish councils overstretched with day-to-day issues with the construction of things such as HS2, three weeks is just not long enough to ensure that everyone has their voice heard. So will my right hon. and learned Friend commit to extending the consultation, so that everybody in my constituency can have their say? (909980)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know that he met my colleague the Minister of State for Prisons and Probation at the end of November to discuss the issue of the consultation. I know the site well, having visited both Grendon and Spring Hill, and I pay tribute to the staff and, indeed, to the community for supporting the prisons that exist in that part of his constituency. We are considering all comments and suggestions sent to us through the consultation before we submit any outline planning application. I can assure him that the local community will also have an opportunity to provide further feedback once a planning application is submitted. I am happy to extend the public consultation and my officials are in communication with the local council regarding that.

Back to the independent review of the Human Rights Act. The Lord Chancellor has said that, after 20 years, it is time to see whether the Act is working effectively, but the terms of reference do not actually contain any reference to an analysis of whether it is working effectively. Recently the Joint Committee on Human Rights found that most black people living in the United Kingdom believe that their human rights are not equally protected compared with those of white people. That is a shocking finding. Does not that finding alone justify a proper examination of whether the Act is working effectively and, if so, why is that not in the terms of reference?

The hon. and learned Lady knows that I gave evidence to the Committee of which she is a member about a week or so ago and acknowledged the important point made by the Committee. I think it was important for us to set up a very focused review as to the machinery of the Human Rights Act. It is not about the rights themselves; it is about the way in which they interact with our domestic law and the interplay, therefore looking in particular at sections 2, 3 and 4, for example, of the Human Rights Act. However, I am sure that these wider issues will become part of the debate as we see the recommendations come forward and as this place has an opportunity to play its part in those deliberations.

I commend my right hon. and learned Friend and his Department for the minimal impact that the covid pandemic has had on our courts system. Can I ask when it will return to normal? Can I also ask that he review contingencies should they be needed in the very near future? (909981)

My hon. Friend can be reassured that the Courts and Tribunals Service is working daily to review its plans. I am sure that he will be glad to note that, in the magistrates courts, we are now exceeding receipts and we expect the position to return to pre-covid levels by about Easter time or the early summer. The position of the Crown court is more challenging, but the funding that we have obtained through the spending review will allow us to start dealing with the backlog. We also constantly review the social distancing measures. The current assumptions are that social distancing will apply until the end of June. If there is any progress on that front, clearly we will recalibrate, which will give us even more capacity.

The chief constable of West Midlands police, MPs, local councillors and others have all expressed concern about the large number of people being released from jails all around the country to unsuitable exempt accommodation in Birmingham. How can that possibly help with rehabilitation and getting these people back on the straight and narrow? (909982)

The hon. Gentleman will be glad to note that, throughout this pandemic, the Ministry of Justice has funded accommodation support for people who otherwise would be released into rough sleeping and homelessness. Indeed, we are working on plans as result of the spending review to scale up and improve approved premises and the other type of accommodation that can house in an appropriate way people who are released from custody. I shall furnish the House with an update as soon as it is received, but he can be assured that we are working on this issue because we recognise the scale of the problem.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission is the only body in its area of jurisdiction with the authority to send cases back to an appeal court. It is imperative that this process must not be delayed, as it has the propensity to overturn cases and clear the names of those innocent of conviction. Can my right hon. and learned Friend outline the steps that he is taking to ensure that the CCRC enacts its duty in a timely manner, especially for more sensitive cases, including those of our frontline workers and police officers, such as my constituent Danny Major? Mr Major has been miserably let down by the CCRC. (909983)

Order. Unfortunately, questions are meant to be short and punchy. We cannot have a statement beforehand. Minister, can you deal with that, please?

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point.  I understand his consternation on behalf of his constituent and his wish that that case in particular be dealt with speedily. No doubt the commission will have paid attention to his concern. We have recently invested significantly in the commission, with hundreds of thousands of pounds in capital funding to ensure that its IT is up to scratch. It is within a whisker of reaching its target of 36 weeks as the average time taken to deal with a case, and of 85% of cases being dealt with in under 12 months. It is very important for the integrity of the judicial system not only that we convict the guilty, but that we make sure that innocent people who are erroneously convicted have their sentences corrected.

Increasingly we have seen individuals with a gambling addiction committing crime to fund their habit. These crimes inevitably end up being punished with custodial sentences, yet the gambling industry—which is often complicit, encourages these individuals to continue gambling and always profits from the situation—is not held accountable and escapes prosecution. Will the Lord Chancellor meet me and the officers of the gambling related harm all-party parliamentary group to discuss how we can rectify this outrageous and indefensible lack of accountability? (909985)

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her consistent and passionate campaigning on this important issue, which is an addiction for far too many people. As she knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport will make a statement on gambling later, which I know she will broadly welcome. Of course, I will be happy to meet her and members of the APPG. Primarily, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport holds the brief on this issue, but no doubt there are wider criminal law ramifications on which I am happy to engage with her.

Will the Secretary of State outline to the House what steps he has taken so far to ensure that the Independent Monitoring Authority for the Citizens’ Rights Agreements will be ready for the end of the transition period, so that it can effectively monitor the rights of European Union and European economic area citizens? (909984)

My hon. Friend is right to raise an important issue that we undertook to get ready by the end of the year. I am confident that it will be ready by the end of the transition period to provide EU, EEA and European Free Trade Association citizens here in the UK with an additional layer of assurance that their rights will be safeguarded. We have had a dedicated project team in the Ministry working on that, and the IMA has taken up residence at headquarters in Swansea, my old stamping ground—with tribute to the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris).

Over the last few weeks, there have been concerning reports that there were more cases of covid in prisons in October than in the previous seven months combined. In some prisons, that has led to restrictive regimes that have had a real impact on mental health. What conversations has the Lord Chancellor had with the Secretary of State for Health about when we should be vaccinating prisoners in order to protect prison staff and prevent hotspots from forming? (909988)

It is important to note that, as a result of increased diagnosis and testing, we have been able to establish with greater certainty the number of prisoners who are symptomatic or asymptomatic. We were not able to do that in the first wave, so the true numbers of covid sufferers were probably not clear to us; they are much clearer now. With regard to vaccination, it is important that we prioritise those who are the most vulnerable and at risk of death or serious illness. That is why, as with the rest of the population, we will be inoculating the older part of the population and those who are vulnerable. That will inevitably include staff, on whom I place a very high premium, and some prisoners. We will continue to work with Public Health England and Public Health Wales to ensure that we bear down on covid in our prisons.

Some very impressive work is done by the charitable sector in supporting ex-offenders to deal with addiction problems. Will the Lord Chancellor ensure that his Department takes very seriously the importance of rehabilitation of offenders by enabling them to leave the substance abuse problems behind them, in the past? (909986)

My right hon. Friend raises a critical issue for us in the prevention of crime, behind which so much substance abuse lies. While she is right that the charitable sector has a huge role to play, so do we. She will be pleased to know that earlier this week I had an interview with one of the first recipients of our alcohol sobriety bracelets, who has, for the first time in his memory, been alcohol-free for the last two months. He said to me—it was very moving—that it had literally saved his life. As well as doing good to his society, we have done good for him.

The Government have made countless mistakes during the coronavirus crisis that could have been unlawful, including failing to provide health and care staff with adequate personal protective equipment, and sending hospital patients back to care homes without testing them. Will the Secretary of State confirm that any changes to judicial review will not affect cases related to Government failure over coronavirus? (909989)

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, he perhaps misses the whole point of the judicial review—independent review—which is all about making sure that the current ambit of administrative law is in the right place, in the sense that we want to make sure that our judiciary are not brought in to a merit space or a political arena. As for individual cases, it is clearly stated in the terms of reference—and I will say it again—that the Government utterly support the right of citizens to challenge their actions or omissions by way of judicial review.

A long-term view of victim funding will lead to better services and outcomes for victims of sexual assault, domestic abuse and serious violence. I therefore ask the Minister to provide an update of work within the Department to develop a long-term victims funding strategy to support those affected by crime in our communities. (909987)

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. When I was on the other side of the table as an eager recipient of Whitehall largesse, it long frustrated me that I had to spend six months spending the money and then six months planning to bid for the next round of money. She will know that in particular in this area, where we want to build resilience, out of the hidden harms summit earlier this year came a commitment to create a victims funding strategy, which is currently under way, but she will also know that we have awarded three-year funding through to 2022 via the rape support fund, to give sexual violence services greater stability in the future. I hope that will progress into all the areas that are concerned with this particular offence.

According to solicitors in Warwick and Leamington, the court system dealing with criminals is at breaking point. They see it as being completely chaotic. I appreciate that in the spending review the Government have announced additional money—£337 million—but the Law Society is calling for more. Will the Government actually accept what the Law Society is calling for and give additional funding to break the backlog? (909991)

The hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that both the Law Society and the Bar Council agree that this year’s settlement was encouraging. Of course, it is not the end of the story, and I have talked about us beginning to turn a corner. The good news in the magistrates courts is that receipts are now behind disposals, so we are dealing with the overall number of cases in the magistrates system. In the Crown court, we continue to scale up the number of trials being heard. In fact, in the past week or so, I have been looking at figures of effective trials, crack trials and trials that have been dealt with by way of a guilty plea: the numbers are now in the high 300s. We need to get that up, and I am confident that we can do that in the new year to return us to the pre-covid levels, and then work even harder.

Earlier this year, another child was tragically stillborn after a failed forceps birth at an Essex hospital. There were calls for a coroner’s investigation until it was pointed out that coroners have no power. But of course they do under clause 4 of the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019, which was passed 19 months ago. When will those regulations be laid so that coroners have the power to investigate those tragic stillbirths? (909990)

I am a great admirer of my hon. Friend and his persistent and effective campaigning on issues that are dear to him, but also to many people across the country. I understand his impatience on this issue and I know he has been given assurances previously in the House about it, but he will understand that the effect of the pandemic, which has ruined so much, has also delayed our consideration of the consultation on this matter. We will be publishing as soon as we possibly can, recognising the enormous impact that this has on particular families across the country.

During the current negotiations, the EU has asked for a guarantee that the UK will not do away with domestic law giving effect to the European convention on human rights, but the UK has refused. Does that not tell us what the review of the Human Rights Act announced yesterday is really all about? (909998)

I am afraid the hon. Gentleman is wholly misinformed. That certainly is not my understanding of the negotiations, and he will forgive me if I say I am a little closer to them than he is. The review that we announced yesterday was about looking at the mechanism 20 years on—nothing to do with undermining or changing fundamental human rights. We believe in them. It was British Conservatives who wrote the convention, and I will always stand for and uphold the importance of the European convention on human rights.

What steps are the Lord Chancellor and his team taking to address the widespread perception among my constituents that detention arrangements in prisons are not sufficiently robust to act as a deterrent? (909992)

I understand that my hon. Friend is concerned about the perception of his constituents, but I hope he will explain to them that we have quite interesting and clever plans to deal with offenders, not only in prison but after prison. For example, from early next year, we will GPS tag every single burglar who leaves prison on licence so that we are able to locate them, particularly when a burglary takes place in their community, so that we can at least rule out those prolific offenders in the future. There is lots that we can do in the criminal justice system that is much more smart than severe.

A third of prisoners transferring from HMP Altcourse to HMP Berwyn last month tested positive for covid. I understand that Berwyn has requested a stop to transfers. Will the Secretary of State agree to that request, considering the extreme concerns about community infection?

The hon. Lady knows that, since the beginning of this pandemic, we have taken unprecedented steps. All new arrivals in prison receptions are quarantined as part of our strategy of compartment- alisation. We are also now testing new arrivals at HMP Berwyn. That is an additional measure that allows us to identify positive cases early and put the right precautions around those individuals. It is with testing that we can improve the way in which we administer the prison system through this crisis.

Ministers will be aware that the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service was already experiencing a workload crisis pre pandemic, which has only worsened through the lockdown. Although the Ministry of Justice has provided additional welcome short-term funding, do the Government have a longer-term strategy to ensure that CAFCASS can better retain staff and deliver a service that truly meets the needs of children and families?

The hon. Lady will be glad to know that an extra £3.4 million has been allocated to CAFCASS to help it through the crisis. Indeed, I take the point about long-term planning. In fact, we are looking wholesale at the way in which family cases are dealt with. The family harms report published this year was a no-holds barred analysis of what is wrong with the system, and both I and senior judiciary within the family division will do something about it.

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.