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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 685: debated on Tuesday 8 December 2020


The Secretary of State was asked—

Prison Capacity

We have committed more than £4 billion to deliver 18,000 additional prison places across the prison estate by the mid-2020s to support the Prime Minister’s commitment to crack down on crime. Those 18,000 prison places include the 10,000 places being made available through the construction of four new prisons, the expansion of a number of other prisons, refurbishment of the existing prison estate, and the completion of our ongoing prison builds at HMP Five Wells and Glen Parva.

Wymott bowling club has been based at HMP Wymott, near Ulnes Walton, for about 42 years. It is a fantastic part of the community, with a library in a portakabin because the old building associated with the prison estate had to be knocked down. It has some big ideas for a really good community resource, but it needs to know when the Ministry of Justice will finalise its plans. Can my hon. and learned Friend share when the community centre can have some certainty and get its exciting plans under way?

I am happy to do that. I really understand the value of community centres, and I am aware of the brilliant plans that Ms Kitching, the chair of Wymott bowling club, has for a new community centre. Work is under way to determine appropriate sites for other prisons, and we need to ensure that we do not release land we own that we might use in the future. We expect to make a decision on this in spring 2021. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that my officials are planning to meet Ms Kitching in mid-December to discuss this matter in more detail, and I would be happy to keep my hon. Friend updated.

Can my hon. and learned Friend confirm what types of offender will be prioritised for these new prison places and that the most dangerous criminals will be kept off our streets?

We anticipate that the additional places will deliver a mix of places based on population type and category, which will enable us to ensure that prisoners are kept in the right security category according to their risk assessment. In September, the Lord Chancellor published “A Smarter Approach to Sentencing”, which sets out our plans for a system that protects the public. These reforms will ensure that serious sexual and violent offenders and those who are dangerous are kept in prison for longer.

England and Wales already have the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe. Shocking figures released last week show that the prison population is going to explode from 79,000 to 100,000 by 2026. Overcrowded, understaffed and crumbling prisons can never be safe. In 2016, the Conservatives pledged 10,000 extra prison places by 2020, but they have only managed 200. They pledged another 10,000 last year, but the Ministry of Justice says that the business case has not yet been approved. Trust matters in politics. It is fatally damaged when pledges are missed and promises are broken. The Secretary of State said last week that he would provide 18,000 new prison places. Why should anyone believe him?

The right hon. Member mentioned the fact that we had overcrowding. I would like to point out that overcrowded accommodation has gone down since the Labour Government in 2004. He also mentioned the increase in the prison population. That is not something that has just occurred under this Government. Labour failed to reduce the prison population, which increased by nearly 25,000 between 1997 and 2010. We have already made significant progress on the development of two prisons, and we have made a commitment to build others. Those plans are well under way, and we will be delivering them.

Government and Parliament: Relationship with Courts

What plans he has to review the relationship between Government, Parliament and (a) the Supreme Court and (b) other courts; and if he will make a statement. (909920)

As set out in our manifesto, we are looking at the broader aspects of our constitution, including the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts. Our independent courts and legal system are respected around the world, and I would like to protect our world-class judiciary from being drawn into political matters. I am interested in reviewing the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, and I will update the House on arrangements in due course.

My right hon. and learned Friend will share with me—indeed, I suspect the whole House will share with me—the respect we have for our Supreme Court and its judgments. Nevertheless, it is called in from time to time to look at issues that are highly political and highly contentious. Does he not agree with me that we urgently need to establish some sort of framework so that we can decide precisely what the Supreme Court should be looking at and what issues are perhaps beyond or different from its remit?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I understand the concern that he outlines. Of course, the Supreme Court does not of its own volition investigate matters. It hears cases and answers the questions before it on arguable points of law of general public importance. However, as I have already said, I think it is important that we look again at the balance. As a full-throated supporter of an institution that brings together the three jurisdictions of our United Kingdom, I want to make sure that its future is indeed a secure and a bright one.

The terms of reference for the Government’s review of the Human Rights Act 1998, which were announced yesterday, include the relationship between domestic courts and the European convention on human rights. But of course human rights themselves, as opposed to the Act, are not a reserved matter, and Scotland’s courts play an important role in supervising human rights protections under the Scotland Act 1998. So can the Lord Chancellor give me a cast-iron guarantee that the British Government are not planning to interfere with the competence of the Scottish Parliament in respect of human rights and the jurisdiction of Scotland’s separate legal system in enforcing human rights protections?

I am happy to assure the hon. and learned Lady that the terms of reference have been carefully couched to make it clear that we have distinctive contexts and natures in each of the jurisdictions, and that they will be considered where that is necessary. I am also content that where there are particular questions on devolved matters or of a devolved nature, the independent review will be approaching or inviting engagement from all appropriate parties. Of course, it is only the first stage in making recommendations. I can assure her that any proposals that will come forward will of course involve the fullest consultation with the devolved Administrations and, indeed, of course the fullest respect for the devolved settlement.

Can I welcome the tone of my right hon. and learned Friend’s statement and his very clear commitment to supporting the independence of the judiciary? That is an absolute and fundamental principle of our constitution, and should never be undermined by anyone. Can I also welcome the terms of reference of the review, which are balanced and measured in relation to the Human Rights Act and, in particular, the quality of the panel that has been appointed? I happen to have known Sir Peter Gross throughout my professional career, and he is known as both a man and a judge of the highest independence and integrity, as are the other members of the panel. Perhaps my right hon. and learned Friend can reassure us that they will have a completely free hand to act as they think is appropriate within the terms of reference, without any pressure on their independence from any quarter.

My hon. Friend the Chair of the Justice Committee is absolutely right to highlight the impeccable credentials of the chair, Sir Peter Gross, not only as a distinguished former Lord Justice of Appeal, but of course as the judge responsible for international relations: he understands very well the issue of judicial diplomacy, which is very much at the heart of this review. I am glad that the geographical representation also includes an academic from the Republic of Ireland, because it is my fundamental belief that we need to look at the position in all parts of our islands to respect not only the human rights settlement, but the Belfast agreement.

The independent review of the Human Rights Act will have an enormous impact on the basic rights and freedoms that British citizens enjoy. The Government caused outrage by failing to publish submissions to the independent review of administrative law. Transparency and accountability are fundamental parts of our democracy. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that both the submissions to the human rights review and the review itself will be published in full?

I think perhaps the right hon. Gentleman is to be forgiven for his descent into hyperbole when it comes to the ambit of this review. It is all about the mechanism, and comments about fundamental rights being affected are way wide of the mark. First, with regard to the process in the review, it is a matter for the review as to what precise submissions it publishes, but I can assure him that the outcome of the review and the Government’s position will of course be published in full, so that he will be able and others will be able to digest it and we will be able to debate the matter.

Court Cases: Backlog

What steps his Department is taking to reduce the backlog of court cases that has accumulated as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. (909942)

Justice systems around the world have been profoundly affected by the coronavirus pandemic, but I am pleased that the court system in England and Wales has been among the world’s leaders in recovering from that pandemic. Magistrates court disposals are now exceeding receipts, and 260 Crown Court jury rooms are operating—more than we had before the pandemic. Substantial additional resources, both people and money, have been put into the system, to ensure that our recovery continues to be world-leading.

The Lowry theatre in Salford is being used as a nightingale court, which I think is a good idea and model because it brings income to a venue that has been hit hard by the crisis. However, it is one of only 16 courts that were up and running by the end of November, and the chief executive of the Courts Service has said that we need 200 to clear the backlog. What number does the Minister think we now need to clear the backlog?

As the hon. Gentleman says, 16 nightingale courts are up and running, and the Ministry of Justice has secured a total of just over £110 million in additional funding from the Treasury, to support not just those nightingale courts, but many others as well. We intend to open further nightingale courts in the future. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the use of the Lowry theatre—we all do—and as I said, up to 260 Crown Court jury rooms are now open and operational, which is more than we had before the pandemic.

The backlog for individual cases in employment tribunals has already passed the post-2008 financial crisis record, with 37,000 workers in the queue. Analysis by Citizens Advice suggests that if that continues to grow at the current rate, the number of outstanding claims could pass 500,000 by spring. When will the Minister take action at the scale necessary, and stop the Chancellor’s jobs crisis becoming a justice crisis, by targeting much needed support to employment tribunals?

As I said, we are putting a great deal of extra resources into the justice system, including employment tribunals, to ensure that we recover from coronavirus. There is £110 million in total extra this year, and a further 1,600 staff of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service across the entire system. The hon. Lady mentions employment tribunals, and I am pleased to report to the House that since the beginning of October, disposal rates in the employment tribunals have been running at 740 a week. That is higher than the level of disposals pre-pandemic, which was 718 a week. We hope and expect that that recovery will continue.

There has been a welcome focus from the Department on domestic violence and sexual assault cases, including the landmark recent Domestic Abuse Bill. We know that a delay in bringing those types of cases to court can lead to a significant increase in attrition rates, and therefore convictions. Will Ministers focus particularly on bringing those types of cases to court quickly, and will they meet me and the Kent police and crime commissioner, Matthew Scott, to discuss what more we can do?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that important area, and it is certainly a matter that Ministers are mindful of and focused on. The judiciary decided early on in the pandemic to prioritise domestic violence protection orders, so that even when much of the court system had stopped functioning in the immediate aftermath of the first lockdown, DVPOs continued. As judges consider which cases to list, they are mindful of my hon. Friend’s point about protecting vulnerable witnesses and victims. In addition, we have committed £28 million extra to support domestic abuse services, and we have provided £800,000 to the finding legal options for women survivors project, which provides free legal support to victims—my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) has been leading on that work. I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and the Kent police and crime commissioner, Matthew Scott, who is doing a fantastic job for the people of Kent, and I look forward to that meeting happening in the near future.

The Lord Chancellor was keen to talk up his court successes in his statement on Thursday, yet the situation remains dire in many parts of his Department, according to answers to my written questions. The number of effective trials was down from 19,000 in 2010 to 12,000 last year, and that was before covid; expenditure on recorder sitting days has halved from £19 million to less than £10 million since 2018; and disposals in care proceedings within the legally required 26 weeks have collapsed to just 34%. This is about people’s lives, so will the Minister outline when victims, witnesses and families will get the court system they desperately need and justice will be properly served?

The shadow Minister makes reference to a reduction of trial numbers last year. Of course, that is because crime is significantly down since 2010, when Labour left office. If there are fewer crimes being committed, there will be fewer trials in consequence; that is a symptom of success. The outstanding case load in 2019 was in fact at a 10-year low.

As I have said already, we are fully committed to making sure that the justice system recovers from the pandemic. That is why we have more Crown court jury trial rooms open now than we did before the pandemic, we are consulting on having extended operating hours to allow more cases to be heard, we have put £110 million of extra money in, we have recruited 1,600 extra staff—[Interruption.] It is working, as evidenced by the fact that there are more magistrates court trials now than there were before the pandemic and disposals are exceeding receipts. We will continue this work and make sure that the recovery in this jurisdiction continues to lead the world.

Homophobia in Football

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on bringing forward legislative proposals to strengthen sentencing to tackle homophobia in football. (909922)

All hate crimes, including where motivated by homophobia, are unacceptable. The courts already have powers to treat hostility based on sexual orientation as a factor that aggravates the seriousness of an offence. However, hate crime laws in England and Wales are complex and are spread across different statutes. That is why the Government gave a commitment to carry out a comprehensive review of hate crime legislation. That review is currently under way.

I am grateful to the Minister for his answer and in particular for the review being done by the Law Commission at the moment, which is looking specifically at the incidence of homophobic abuse in sports grounds. As the Minister will know, the Football (Offences) Act 1991 defines “racialist” abuse—that is the word it uses, which shows how old the Act is—but not homophobic abuse. Clearly, there is no space for abuse of any kind in a sports environment. In particular, match day stewards and officials seem unclear of their powers in these situations.

I thank my hon. Friend for the work that he has done on this issue. It has been noted and appreciated. He is absolutely right; from memory, it is question 57 of the Law Commission’s review of this precise issue. I hope that that work progresses. The extraordinary thing about football is that so much of an advance has been seen in respect of racism, yet homophobia still seems to exist, although I have to say that there is much better work going on in the women’s game than the men’s. The men need to catch up.

Covid-19 in Prisons

Throughout the pandemic, we have worked really closely with Public Health England to respond to any outbreaks in prison and to keep our staff and those in our custody safe. We are taking a number of measures, which include compartmentalisation—keeping separate the vulnerable, those who are symptomatic and those who are coming into prisons from outside—as well as increased testing and more use of personal protective equipment, including face masks, where it is appropriate.

During these tough times of covid, health and safety is more important than ever. Will the Minister consider introducing a hotline for staff so that they can report health and safety breaches, particularly around the covid question but in other regards as well, given that prisons are a difficult place to work?

I thank the hon. Lady very much for her suggestion. There are a number of hotlines available to staff. We work very closely with the unions on a local level, as well as a national level, but I am very happy to take away her suggestion to see whether it is necessary.

Youth Justice: Racial Disparity

What progress he has made on tackling racial disparity in the youth justice system since the publication of the Lammy review in September 2017. (909925)

What progress he has made on tackling racial disparity in the youth justice system since the publication of the Lammy review in September 2017. (909941)

What progress he has made on tackling racial disparity in the youth justice system since the publication of the Lammy review in September 2017. (909946)

We have taken important action across the review recommendations. For the three recommendations specific to youth, we have promoted parental and community involvement in referral order panels and evaluated an update of the Youth Justice Board’s ethnic disproportionality toolkit. Beyond that, we have now ended automatic disclosure of youth cautions on criminal records. We have put equalities plans in all young offenders institutions and are piloting the Chance to Change alternative to charge, which was one of the recommendations of the review. However, there is no quick fix and more work will continue to be done.

With fewer than half of the Lammy review’s recommendations having been enacted and with many others from many other reviews into deaths in custody still outstanding, what can the Secretary of State do to assure black, Asian and minority ethnic communities that the Government are not just dragging their feet on racial disparity in the justice system?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that is far from the case. Indeed, 16 recommendations have been completed. There are two recommendations that we did not take up, but of the 17 that are still in progress, we aim to complete 11 within six to 12 months. I am being told that the further six will take slightly longer. That is not good enough for me and I will be going back to my officials to make sure we make earlier progress. I can assure him that, as overall numbers go down in the youth estate, what concerns me is that we are still seeing a disproportionate number of BAME children being held in custody, even though the overall numbers are now dramatically fewer. There is clearly more work to be done on that front.

The Lammy review was published in 2017 and it said that racial inequality and unfairness runs rife throughout our country’s justice system. At that time, zero Supreme Court judges were black. That number is still zero. In fact, not a single Supreme Court judge is from a black, Asian and minority ethnic background. Why does the Secretary of State think that is and what are his Government doing to change it?

Like the hon. Lady, I want to see far more people from a diverse and BAME background in the senior judiciary. The truth is that the senior judiciary is often a product of the supply into the legal professions some 20 or more years ago, when we know things were not as promising when it comes to diversity as they are now at the Bar, in solicitors’ practices, or for legal executives and Government lawyers, for example. However, we cannot use that as an excuse, which is why I am working hard with the senior judiciary and the chair of the Judicial Appointments Commission, as part of the Judicial Diversity Forum. We are meeting again this week and in my convening role I am pushing all sides, the Bar Council and the Law Society, to come up with more plans and more engagement, so we can help and support BAME candidates ahead of any application processes to level that playing field.

In a 2020 update on progress against the Lammy review, the Secretary of State said:

“It is crucial, if everyone is to have confidence in our system, that the people working in it reflect the diversity of Britain today.”

Yet in written answers to my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), the Ministry of Justice confirms that there are zero BAME staff working for the Youth Justice Board outside London. What is the Secretary of State going to do to make sure the system reflects the communities those people are serving?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I know the new chair of the Youth Justice Board, Keith Fraser, will be particularly concerned about that figure. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that in many other areas we are seeing BAME representation higher than the national average. For example, there is an extremely encouraging figure for the probation service. I will look at that particular issue and discuss it with the chair of the YJB, because clearly he feels strongly about BAME issues and he will want to take appropriate action to see what we can do to improve that.

In 2016, 22% of kids sentenced were black and minority ethnic. Now, it is 27%. Some 41% of youth prisoners were black and minority ethnic. Now, it is over half. The proportion of black and minority ethnic young people subject to the use of force in youth prisons has gone up from 41% to 48% since the Lammy review. This Government have been in power for 10 years. It has been two years since the Lammy review. It is not that not enough progress has been made; things are going backwards. Why should anybody have faith that this lot can sort it out?

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, he is just wrong about that—totally wrong. In the last 10 years, there has been a fall of 83% in the number of children receiving a caution or a sentence, and last year there was a fall of 19%. That means in actual numbers of lives and families, the number of children and BAME children affected is reducing. I accept the point about disproportionality—I acknowledged it earlier—but it is a calumny to say that the Government are inactive or uninterested in the issue. We have made incredible progress in 10 years. The child population in our young offender institutions or other institutions is now down to about 500. That is a generational low, and he should pay tribute to the Government for presiding over such dramatic change.

Child Trust Funds: Children with Learning Disabilities

What steps his Department is taking to improve access to child trust funds for parents of young adults with learning disabilities. (909926)

As a young person turns 18, the contents of their child trust fund belong to them and them alone, whether or not they have a learning disability, which is an important point of principle, but for those loving parents who, for good reason, want legal authority to access those funds, we want to make the process more cost-effective and more straightforward. As a result, fees can now be waived in appropriate cases and we have set up a working group to work quickly alongside the judiciary to review the process, with a view to streamlining it while maintaining vital safeguards.

I thank the Minister for that answer, the work that he is doing on this issue and the letter he wrote to me this week about my constituents who are affected. As he knows, around 200,000 disabled children could be affected by this in the coming eight years, unable to access their Government-backed child trust fund, so I urge him to continue the good work that he is doing and to really make sure that applications to the Court of Protection are the least onerous possible for the parents of these disabled children.

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that issue on behalf of his constituents. He makes an incredibly important point. We have a duty to make sure that the rights of those individuals are maintained, but it is also important that, when there are loving parents and all they want to achieve is the best for their children, they are able to access that money in the interests of their children with the minimum of fuss, the minimum of bother and, frankly, the minimum of expense.

Female Offender Strategy

The female offender strategy launched an ambitious programme to improve outcomes for female offenders and make society safer by tackling the causes of offending. It will take several years to deliver, but, two years on, we are making good progress. We have invested over £5 million in 30 women’s services across England and Wales, and we are in the process of allocating a further £2.5 million to increase the financial stability of those providing these important services.

Under the Bail Act 1976, the courts can remand an adult to prison for their own “protection” or a child for their own “welfare”. This even happens when the criminal charge cannot result in a conviction. We are restricting a person’s liberty—usually someone with complex mental health needs, and often women—because of the failure to provide the appropriate treatment, care or support in the community. Will the Minister support the repeal of this outdated, offensive and draconian power, which is contrary not only to human rights, but to human decency?

The hon. Member will know that we are looking at the Mental Health Act 1983 provisions and reviewing them. We never think that it should be appropriate to use prison as a place of safety. Combined with that, we recognise the need to tackle mental health issues in all those who come through the justice system, particularly women, because women have a high incidence of mental health needs. We will be looking carefully at how we can commit further funds to ensure that women and men get the services they need to help to turn their lives around.

We know that the majority of women sentenced for non-violent crimes are given short prison sentences, which are totally ineffective in rehabilitation but can split up families, put children into care and lead to eviction from the home—all things that we should not want to happen. Women’s centres are successful, as we know in Greater Manchester. They are cost-effective, but also much better in human terms and better for society. Can the Minister guarantee that we will enhance the investment in those centres and get women who should not be in prison out of prison and into the kind of care that makes a difference to them and to society?

The hon. Member makes a very important point: we need to ensure that we support women not only in custody, but outside it. He will have heard me mention that we are in the midst of a £2.5 million funding exercise, in which some of the money will go to community centres. However, we are doing other things as well, such as improving pre-sentence reports to ensure that women get the right order and go into the community, not into custody, where that is appropriate. He will also have heard me announce recently our first residential women’s centre, which will be in Wales and which we are progressing with. It is for those women who are on the cusp of custody, but whom we do not want to put in custody where we can avoid that, so that they can instead be ordered by the court to go into a residential women’s centre, which will better look after their needs.

The female offenders strategy published in 2018 by the then Justice Secretary and Prime Minister got it right. One woman in every three in prison self-harms. They are twice as likely as men to have mental health needs and more likely to have drug problems. According to those Ministers, short-term prison sentences

“do more harm than good”,

but last year, half of all women’s sentences were of less than three months, and the plan is to increase the women’s population by 40%. Why have these Ministers so quickly abandoned the promises made by their predecessors?

I refute the claim that we are changing our policy in any way. As the police are funded to search out and investigate further crime with our 20,000 additional officers on the beat, it is inevitable that some further women will go to prison as a result, and it is our obligation to ensure that there is a safe place for them to go. We, too, are concerned about women coming through short sentences, but the judiciary makes those independent decisions on short sentences, and we are ensuring that when people do come through on short sentences, they will have specific probation officers looking after them in the new, reformed probation system to ensure that those women, and men, get the support that they need.

Desecration of Corpses: Criminalisation

What assessment his Department has made of the potential merits of criminalising the desecration of a corpse. (909928)

The bodies of those who have died should be treated with dignity and respect. Where that does not happen, the criminal law can intervene and there are a number of offences that may apply: preventing the lawful burial of a body, outraging public decency, perverting the course of justice, removing human tissue without consent and so on. We will of course keep the law under review.

I thank the Minister for that reply. I am supporting the campaign of the mother of Helen McCourt, whom we know in this place for successfully campaigning on Helen’s law, but who is equally determined, while understanding the points the Minister has made, to see further reform so that the criminal justice system adequately reflects how we would feel if one of our loved ones was desecrated after death. Will he agree to meet me and discuss with Helen McCourt’s mother further steps we might be able to take?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that excellent point and for paying tribute to Mrs McCourt, whose brave campaign has led to Helen’s law, as he rightly indicates, getting on to the statute book, having recently received Royal Assent, in large part because of her campaigning activity. We keep the matter under review, and I would be delighted to meet him, as he suggests.

Drug Use in Prisons

Justice colleagues work closely with our Health partners, and since April 2018 a national partnership agreement on prison healthcare in England has been in place. Tackling drugs is a priority within that agreement. In April last year, we published the national prison drug strategy, which focuses on three strands: tackling drugs in prison by restricting supply, reducing demand and helping to ensure that we turn people’s lives around by building recovery from drugs and substance misuse.

I know that the Lord Chancellor and his Department have previously made known their support for the Prisons (Substance Testing) Bill, led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan). Given that the Bill would make such a difference in this area, will my hon. and learned Friend reaffirm that support today and give an indication of the timescale according to which we might expect the legislation to appear?

I am so glad that my hon. Friend has raised this question, because we wholly support the Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan). It is going to help us to tackle illicit substance misuse and help people to get their lives back on track by identifying who is taking drugs and how we can better support them. I am pleased to note that the Bill is scheduled for consideration on Report and Third Reading on 22 January, and, should it receive Royal Assent, we will be implementing the provisions at the earliest opportunity.

As the Minister will be aware, it is equally as important to ensure that there is proper rehabilitation and support on substance dependency when people are released from prison. That is equally important in ensuring that we break the cycle of reoffending, but, far too often, arrangements are not in place adequately to support people once they are released. What can she do to reassure me that the Government are taking this issue seriously and will put in place better arrangements to support substance misusers with dependency issues once they are released from prison?

My hon. Friend raises a really important question. We are doing a number of things, and I shall highlight two of them. First, as I mentioned, in relation to our probation services, we are getting that help to people earlier, so that a probation officer will be working with a prisoner on his or her release at an earlier stage, so as to help them to get that support organised in the community. The second thing that we are doing, working closely with NHS England, is rolling out our Reconnect service. That service links up the healthcare in the prison with the healthcare in the community, which are not always aligned. The Reconnect service is being rolled out across the country.

Sentencing Regime for 17-year-olds

I thank my hon. Friend for his correspondence regarding the reforms in the sentencing White Paper. All offenders, including 17-year-olds, who commit the most serious offences and who pose a risk to the public should serve time in custody that reflects the seriousness of their offending. To reduce the gap between the sentencing of older children and younger adults for murder, we plan to replace the blanket starting point of 12 years for murder committed by a child with a sliding scale to reflect age and the severity of the offence.

Young Ellie Gould was brutally murdered in her own home in Calne in my constituency last year. Her assailant, Thomas Griffiths, was given a sentence of 12 and a half years because he was 17. The sentence was further ameliorated by the fact that he did not bring the weapon to the murder scene, but picked up a kitchen knife at the scene. He was 18 when he was convicted and given 12 and a half years. I very much welcome the fact that the Minister is considering this matter. Does she not agree that 12 and a half years for a crime of that sort committed by a boy aged 17 years and eight months is woefully inadequate? He should have got the 15 to 25 years he would have got had he been an adult.

I cannot begin to imagine what Ellie Gould’s parents must have been through. In addition to the point that I made about introducing a sliding scale to reflect age and severity, I want to make it clear that we are considering a particular minimum threshold for those who are 17. My hon. Friend mentioned the knife already being present at the scene of crime, in the home. He will know that the Sentencing Council has produced guidelines for judges on domestic abuse, which outline that the domestic setting of the offending behaviour makes it more serious. As he knows, these are matters that we are looking at in our sentencing White Paper.

Community Sentence Treatment Requirements

What steps the Government are taking to increase the use of community sentence treatment requirements. (909932)

My hon. Friend is right to raise community sentence treatment requirements as an important area to push, expand and develop. The Government firmly believe that, where someone has mental health problems, or drug or alcohol addiction causing the offending behaviour, treating the causes of the offending is very often a much better sentence than a short custodial term in terms of rehabilitation and reducing reoffending. So we certainly intend to expand the roll-out of these. They operate already in 14 areas and we intend to make sure that half the country is covered for mental health treatment through CSTRs by 2023-24. We are looking at other ways in which we can speed up the roll-out even further.

The new probation system is set to be in place in the next few months, with unpaid work and key programmes to stop criminals reoffending to be delivered by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service from next June. Seetec has recently been awarded a Ministry of Justice contract for a co-financing organisation activity hub in the south-east region, to deliver support to help offenders reintegrate back into society. The hub will be based in Chatham, with a satellite provision in my constituency at St Leonards-on-Sea. Can my hon. Friend confirm that there is still a role for the private sector in offender rehabilitation, even if not by community rehabilitation companies?

My hon. Friend asks a good question. CRCs are being transitioned out and the probation service will take over organising this activity, but within that there will be opportunities for private sector, or indeed charitable sector, organisations to bid to provide certain kinds of activity and certain kinds of rehabilitation work via the dynamic framework. We envisage eventually spending about £100 million a year on procuring these services via the dynamic framework. Any organisation, such as the one she mentions, that has something to offer and can help with rehabilitation is, of course, strongly encouraged to bid for those services to make sure we are drawing on the full range of available services as we try to rehabilitate offenders and build a better life for their future and protect our constituents as well.

Topical Questions

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.