House of Commons
Wednesday 20 January 2021
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Peace Plus Programme
Mr Speaker, before I begin, I hope you will not mind, but I just want to send my very best wishes to my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and to Minister Edwin Poots from the Northern Ireland Executive for a full and speedy recovery for both of them.
I would also like to send best wishes to President-elect Joe Biden on the inauguration later today. He is a man who has a strong personal connection with the island of Ireland. We all know that the US has been a huge supporter of the peace process in Northern Ireland for many decades.
I am pleased that the UK Government are the majority contributor to the Peace Plus programme. We have committed to providing over £500 million between now and 2027, which will fund activities that promote peace and reconciliation. The framework for Peace Plus is in development now, but we remain as a Government committed to that Peace Plus programme and to engaging with key partners to ensure that, once agreed, it will have maximum impact for all the people of Northern Ireland.
As we enter the centenary year for Northern Ireland, it would of course be easy to reflect upon a history that has been characterised at times by division. Given the possibilities of the new EU trade deal, of dual trade in Northern Ireland and relative peace and prosperity, does my right hon. Friend agree that we should be looking forward with confidence as one Union?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. As Northern Ireland enters its centenary year, it is the right time to shine a light on what makes it so special as we look to a bright future. Fostering economic growth and social cohesion is key to building a stable and prosperous future for Northern Ireland. I was pleased to be able to announce the £400 million of new money, in the new deal for Northern Ireland just before Christmas, to help boost economic growth, competitiveness, infrastructure and the social fabric. We are planning an exciting programme to promote Northern Ireland’s potential across the United Kingdom, and also internationally.
Payment Scheme for Victims of the Troubles
From recent engagement with victims’ groups, their overriding concern is that the scheme be open for applications as quickly as possible. We share that objective, and I will continue to work with the Executive’s delivery of this scheme. We must make sure progress is not diverted by any red herrings. This is a devolved matter, and devolved matters are funded from the block grant. The Executive need to step up and fund this scheme. The Department of Finance in the Northern Ireland Executive needs to step forward and to get the independent fiscal council organised to provide that independent advice and scrutiny to help them on these budgetary matters.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Eighteen months ago, I was proud to play my part in finally delivering the payment to victims who had campaigned for decades for redress for the unimaginable suffering they endured during the troubles. The fact that it still has not been delivered, though, should shame us all. So does the Secretary of State agree that failing to deliver on these promises to victims will do immense damage to trust, and when will he act to ensure that those promises are kept in Northern Ireland?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate—being, as he outlined, part of the process—we are all proud to have got this moving forward. He is absolutely right: I think there is a moral as well as a legal and an ethical duty to ensure that the victims are able to access that programme of work. I know the work is ongoing to do that. In the Department of Justice, the Minister there is passionate and determined about that, as is the First Minister. One of the frustrations I had in 2020, I have to say, was the fact that it took a court case to get the Deputy First Minister to even designate a Department. That simply was not good enough. The Department of Finance now needs to ensure that it does not play games with victims and their pensions and payments, and that that money is made available to the Department of Justice to get on and deliver this programme.
May I first, on behalf of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, echo my right hon. Friend’s opening comments this morning? I welcome, too, as he has, the movement on the historical institutional abuse payments, but he will be aware that there are other issues with regard to legacy remaining outstanding and long overdue. I know he is consulting on these at the moment. Can he give a commitment that that consultation will have concluded, any draft legislation will be published and a route plan to delivery will be in the public domain by the time the House rises for the summer recess-?
To my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee, I have to say that this is to the huge credit of the Committee and the work it has done. The recent piece of work it has done looking into legacy has been immensely helpful. There have been some very useful contributions in that. He is quite right: we are engaging widely on this issue at the moment. Obviously, this was delayed, as we were all—across both the Irish Government and the UK Government, the Northern Ireland Executive and of course in communities—focused on covid over the course of last year, but that work is now ongoing, and I certainly intend and hope to be able to fulfil the timeline that he has just set me as a target.
May I join the Secretary of State in sending the best wishes of the whole House to the former Secretary of State and to the Minister, Edwin Poots?
Victims of the troubles have been badly treated in the last year in particular and are fast losing confidence in whether we will all deliver on the promises we made to them in this House. The troubles pension was legislated for in Westminster, it applies to victims across the UK and beyond, and we simply cannot wash our hands of our responsibility, so will the Secretary of State urgently meet with the relevant Ministers in the Executive to discuss meeting the upfront costs of the scheme, which he must accept are not reasonable to be funded out of the block grant, and ensure that the pension too many have waited decades for will finally be delivered?
I am sure the hon. Lady will be aware that I meet with Executive Ministers on a regular basis, whether the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister or indeed the Justice Minister, who is taking this work programme forward, and who I have to say is doing a very good piece of work. She is still, as of the last conversation I had with her, on target to have the administrative structure in place—I think her intention is by the spring, or late March—in order to allow victims to apply for the scheme. She has also been very proactive as the owner of this portfolio in engaging with victims’ groups both directly and, as I am sure we have all seen, on social media, so I think they are very much aware of the work she is doing to get this progressed. I have said to her that I will continue to give her my full support. The UK Government have shown our support through not just the approximately £15 billion of block grant but the £918 million uplift that we secured through the spending review. I look forward to seeing the details as the Executive are able to work through exactly what they think this scheme will cost. It is a priority for the Executive—it is clearly a part of “New Decade, New Approach.” It is a devolved matter. I look forward to seeing exactly what the Department of Finance in the Northern Ireland Executive is putting into this priority to deliver it for those victims, as is required.
I am sure the Justice Minister and other Ministers who have been pursuing a meeting with the Secretary of State on this issue for some time will be pleased to hear that he has now committed to that.
Another issue of confidence for victims is the delay in the publication of the Shawcross report, which the Secretary of State’s Government commissioned, into compensation for victims of Libyan-sponsored IRA terror. Why are the Government refusing to publish this report and fulfil their promises of compensation for victims?
First, I would just correct the hon. Lady: what I actually said was that I have been talking to the Justice Minister—I spoke to her just a few weeks ago—and she raises the victims’ payments issue quite widely on a regular basis. Obviously, I talk to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister very regularly—often more than once a week—on a range of issues, including this one.
We recognise the very sensitive issues that are raised in the scoping report Mr Shawcross has produced. Ministers are now carefully considering the internal scoping report in order to ensure that we can do justice to the important and sensitive issues that it covers and to give due respect to the victims it is working for. We as a Government are working hard to ensure that across these issues we are doing everything we can to make sure that the victims get the support that they need.
“New Decade, New Approach” Deal
Good progress has been made in implementing the “New Decade, New Approach” deal, despite the challenges that have been posed by the ongoing public health crisis. The Government have released over £550 million of the £2 billion of funding agreed in the deal. That has already delivered multiple commitments over the last year, including appointing a veterans commissioner, launching the shared history fund as part of our programme to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland, and establishing the governance structures that underpin NDNA.
Last January, the Government made a commitment in the “New Decade, New Approach” agreement to introduce legislation within 100 days to address legacy issues. The current delays in bringing forward proposals are understandably causing concern among those veterans who served in Northern Ireland and are rightly anxious to bring an end to the vexatious prosecutions of former British servicemen. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government are indeed still committed to bringing forward legacy proposals, despite the inevitable delays as a consequence of the current pandemic?
Absolutely. We will bring forward legislation to address the legacy of the troubles in a way that focuses on reconciliation, delivers for victims, ends that cycle of investigations that is not working for anybody, and ends unwarranted vexatious claims against former British soldiers. These proposals will deliver on our commitment to Northern Ireland veterans. We will provide a fair, balanced and proportionate system for all those affected by the events of the past. As my hon. Friend rightly says, progress on this has, as with other priorities, been affected by covid-19, but we are now moving forward, and we intend to move forward as quickly as we can, ensuring we are working across all communities.
I echo the Secretary of State’s comments in relation to the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), and my constituency colleague, Edwin Poots. Our thoughts and prayers are with them both.
Paragraph 11 of annex A of the “New Decade, New Approach” document commits the UK Government to negotiating flexible arrangements for trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland under the Northern Ireland protocol, yet that has not happened. We have seen over the first few weeks of January the enormous difficulty that the protocol is causing for consumers and businesses alike in Northern Ireland. What is the Secretary of State going to do to resolve this problem?
The right hon. Gentleman and I share a strong desire to ensure that we keep trade flowing as smoothly as possible, with unfettered access, as we promised, for Northern Ireland businesses, which we have delivered, and that we have a smooth flow from Great Britain into Northern Ireland as well. I will continue to work closely with him and his colleagues in the Northern Ireland Executive to do so.
It is important that we do not overstate some of the issues. That does not mean that there are not issues; I appreciate that there have been challenges. The grace periods, though, are working well. Goods are moving, and we are working closely with traders as they adapt, particularly here in Great Britain. Our focus is on taking this work forward to ensure that we can deal with the issues here permanently, continuing to take a pragmatic and proportionate approach in maintaining Northern Ireland’s integral place in the UK internal market. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right; as the Prime Minister rightly said last week, we will not resist using article 16 if it is appropriate and right to do so.
I support the comments made by others earlier in this Question Time about the need for the UK Government to work with the Executive to deliver the payment scheme for victims, but there is another aspect of New Decade, New Approach that requires Government commitment, and that is the full implementation of the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State assure me that when the armed forces Bill comes forward in Parliament soon, Northern Ireland will be treated on exactly the same basis as the rest of the United Kingdom, with full implementation of the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland?
Yes. Further strengthening of the armed forces covenant in law is both an NDNA commitment and a manifesto commitment for the Government, and we are determined to deliver on that; the right hon. Gentleman is quite right. The Ministry of Defence is working closely with my Department and the devolved Administrations to draft legislation that will ensure that no former member of the UK armed forces is disadvantaged as a result of their service, and we are determined to deliver for the whole of the UK.
Northern Ireland Protocol
A pragmatic and proportionate approach has been taken to implementing the Northern Ireland protocol, protecting unfettered access to the whole of the UK market for Northern Ireland businesses, supporting businesses to adapt to new requirements, delivering additional flexibilities, and ensuring that the protocol’s operation reflects Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances.
Goods continue to flow effectively and in normal volumes between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Initial issues, which I accept there have been, are being addressed in consultation with businesses, and that work will continue. We recognise the importance of a strong economy and strong social as well as economic links for Northern Ireland with the whole of Great Britain as part the United Kingdom, and we need to ensure that they are impacted as little as possible in everyday lives. The protocol itself sets out that very fact.
But it is not working. The Northern Ireland Secretary has denied that there is a border; the Prime Minister has denied that there are border checks, yet the queues and chaos confirm that there are both, with new customs declarations and rules of origin, while businesses have had insufficient preparation time and support. Can the Secretary of State categorically say when—that means on what date—there will be seamless movement of goods across the border? I fear that many in the supply chain will not withstand more chaos.
I am not quite sure what the hon. Lady is referring to, because what she describes is not what is happening in Northern Ireland; queues are not the issue. There have been reports of empty shelves, which is absolutely true. I have also heard Welsh Ministers talk in meetings about empty shelves in Wales, which we all saw, partly as a result of the challenges at Dover and the Dover straits just before Christmas due to covid. There have been issues for parcels and parcel deliveries, because the guidance, I fully accept—I have outlined this—was published on 31 December, but that is not what the hon. Lady outlined. It is important that we work pragmatically and sensibly, looking at where the issues are, to ensure that we find a way through them, working with business, so that we get a permanent resolution and the protocol can work and deliver the smooth, free flow of trade that we all want to see and that is important for Northern Ireland.
It sounds to me like the Secretary of State has not been listening to the Road Haulage Association, which has warned that supply chains to Northern Ireland are close to collapse because of the problems with the new processes at the borders. As he says, there have been scenes in Belfast of empty shelves in supermarkets, but there have also been reports of hauliers losing huge amounts of money because lorries are having to return to Northern Ireland empty. Will the Government listen to the Northern Ireland logistics sector and take urgent action to address that?
As I said in my previous answer, we are working with the industry on some of the issues it is facing. There is a range of different things. The issue the hon. Lady referred to—vehicles moving from Great Britain back into Northern Ireland—is about ensuring that Great Britain businesses are engaged. I encourage businesses to engage with the Trader Support Service. Companies that have used it have found it a really good, easy way to ensure the free flow of goods. It is why supermarkets are able to get that good flow of products through. Companies such as Marks and Spencer have seen a really good flow through. I encourage companies to sign up to this Government-supported and paid-for scheme.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster told me last week that there is an issue with groupage, but at the same time he said that lorries were able to get into Northern Ireland without hindrance. Obviously, both those statements cannot be right. The experience of Northern Ireland hauliers will feel very familiar to Scottish hauliers and exporters. James Withers, chief executive of Scotland Food and Drink, has referred to “crippling” red tape. It is clear that the UK Government are simply not on top of the Brexit problems at border crossings. How will the Secretary of State resolve groupage issues and the disruption which is causing such difficulty for businesses and consumers?
As I said in answer to previous questions, a range of issues have come together at the same time: companies who made commercial decisions before the deal was secured and before even the protocol was agreed before Christmas, let alone the guidance notes on parcels, and of course the covid challenges we have had. We have had a few issues come together in early January at the same time. We are working through all those issues with businesses, including ensuring that Great Britain businesses are signed up to the Trader Support Service and the Movement Assistance Scheme so they understand their ability to flow products into Northern Ireland. All those businesses and people will continue to ensure and support the fact that the Government secured a good deal with the EU. It is just a shame that the Scottish nationalists decided to vote against it and effectively wanted to see no deal, which would have seen real chaos across both Northern Ireland and Scotland.
I thank the Secretary of State for the considered engagement he has had over the past seven to 10 days on the issue of steel. The Secretary of State knows just how important aerospace is not only to my constituency but to the Northern Ireland economy as a whole, with £1.9 billion-worth of activity each year. ADS is concerned about the additional tariff which is now being placed on goods considered to be at risk for the aerospace sector, yet when the raw materials are brought into Northern Ireland for processing, they can then subsequently leave Northern Ireland tariff free because of the air worthiness agreement. There is an issue on these raw materials. They are not at risk for onward transit. I would be very keen for the Secretary of State to agree this morning that he will engage on this issue as constructively as he has with steel.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. He has been a strong and passionate supporter and promoter of the sector for the benefit of Northern Ireland for a very long time, and I think everybody can recognise that. He outlines some specific details. We have been very clear that there should not be any tariffs on internal UK trade. We will make full use of waivers and reimbursements to minimise the impact on business in any scenario. I will be very happy to engage with the sector directly, and with him and any other colleagues, on this issue. We have pledged £1.95 billion for aerospace research and development through to 2026, alongside £125 million in grants to be awarded through the Future Flight Challenge. There is an opportunity for the industry and I would be keen to work with him to ensure we can deliver on that for the people of Northern Ireland.
I thank the Secretary of State for his words about Edwin Poots. Everybody here is rooting for the Minister in his battle. Has the Secretary of State given any thought to structures he can use to engage with the Irish Government on the protocol and other relevant issues now that they are not meeting within EU frameworks? Specifically, does he think the British-Irish Council or the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference can be used more constructively going forward?
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments on Edwin Poots. I had a communication with him this morning, and he is determined and focused on continuing to do his good work for the people of Northern Ireland and having a good and full recovery, as I know my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) is.
The hon. Lady is right: there are a range of ways, as she has outlined, that we can continue to engage, and we are determined to do so. I know that the Taoiseach, like the Prime Minister, is very keen to build a good, strong friendship and partnership with our closest neighbours in Ireland. I talk to Minister Coveney on a regular basis. We also have quad meetings with the Northern Ireland Executive, me, Simon Coveney and other Ministers where relevant, so we have a good join-up. We are determined to work together to make sure we do that for everybody across Ireland and all the United Kingdom.
Covid-19: UK-wide Response
The Secretary of State and I continue to hold regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues and the devolved Administrations on this crucial issue. Although each devolved Administration controls their own public health policy, we have been co-ordinating our responses to covid, seeking alignment in policy and approach where appropriate to ensure that measures safeguard the health and wellbeing of the whole United Kingdom. Our commitment is demonstrated through the UK Government’s procurement of vaccines and tests on behalf of all parts of the country, working with the devolved Administrations to ensure that they are deployed fairly across the UK.
Obviously, the world-leading steps that the Government have taken to acquire and roll out the vaccine have benefited every part of the United Kingdom. Will my hon. Friend confirm that Northern Ireland is benefiting, and will continue to benefit, from this vaccine roll-out, which is only possible if our devolved Administrations continue to work together as one Union?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I am pleased to see that Northern Ireland now has the highest vaccination rate in the UK, and, indeed, across any jurisdiction in Europe, with almost 6% of the population having been vaccinated. This clearly demonstrates the strength of the Union when we, as four nations, all work together. To date, over 114,000 people in Northern Ireland have successfully been vaccinated, including care home residents and health and social care staff. The vaccination programme began on 8 December, and by 6 January the mobile teams had visited 91% of care homes and achieved uptake levels of 90%-plus for residents and around 80% for staff.
Centenary of Northern Ireland
There are a number of important strands to our centenary programme, including historical understanding and engagement, and supporting trade and investment, which showcase Northern Ireland’s rich potential. We also want to focus on the future, especially Northern Ireland’s young people, and will ensure that their voices are heard in the centenary programme. We recently announced £3 million to support this work, including a £1 million shared history fund, supporting the engagement of non-profit organisations across the UK with the centenary. We are continuing to develop the centenary plans and will publish them further over the coming months.
The year 2021 marks 100 years since the creation of Northern Ireland, which paved the way for the formation of the United Kingdom as we know it today. In Burnley and Padiham, we are proud Unionists and want to share in the celebration of this momentous date, so will my hon. Friend set out what steps he is taking to make sure that all parts of the United Kingdom can share in this celebration?
My hon. Friend raises a really important point. Given the significance of this anniversary, we want to ensure that marking the centenary has a lasting legacy both in Northern Ireland and right across the UK. The shared history fund will support the engagement of a wide range of arts, heritage, voluntary, community and other non-profit organisations across the whole United Kingdom. We are engaging with Departments across Government, including the other territorial offices, the Cabinet Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, as we continue to drive forward on this and other elements of our centenary programme.
I recognise the hon. Lady’s work on this important issue and appreciate the engagement that we have had on it to date. Regulations have been in place to make provision for safe and lawful access to abortions since 31 March 2020. Some service provision has been available since last April, with over 719 women and girls having been able to access services locally by mid-October last year. We take our moral and legal duties on this matter very seriously and remain disappointed that full abortion services remain to be commissioned by the Department of Health, which would be the most appropriate way to progress the matter. We continue to monitor the situation closely.
It is a very familiar situation. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and a vulnerable woman have been left with no option but to take the UK Government to court to ensure access to abortion at home—except we are in a different situation, because this House voted to require the Secretary of State to uphold these women’s rights and ensure that they could access abortion at home. With clear evidence that over 100 women have been refused abortions and that they are buying pills online again, will the Secretary of State and Ministers confirm that they will act to uphold UK legislation, save the UK taxpayer court costs and act to intervene now?
I can confirm to the hon. Lady that we continue to engage with the Minister of Health and his Department on commissioning full services, and have been since the regulations came into effect. We remain of the view that this is the most appropriate way to progress the matter. I am pleased that the Northern Health and Social Care Trust was able to resume services early this year, and I am hopeful that the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust will soon be able to do so as well. The Government continue to fund access to services in England, particularly where local access may not be available; even in the current circumstances, some women and girls have availed themselves of those services. We continue to monitor the situation closely and will consider further legislative action at Westminster at the appropriate time, should it be required.
Members across this House, and indeed the country, will be shocked that women are still not able to fully access these services, and that the services are still not being commissioned. It is unconscionable that women are travelling, against Government advice, during a pandemic because of a lack of service. I hear what the Minister says. I welcome his work on this issue, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) said, we seem to be back here again. Every day is a tragedy for women in Northern Ireland who have to travel. Will the Minister expand on his comments? What will he consider doing and, crucially, how soon will he act?
I recognise the strength of feeling behind what the hon. Lady says. It is the right of women and girls in Northern Ireland to access healthcare, including high-quality abortion care, in the full range of circumstances set out in regulations. I believe, as I think she does, that those rights should be the same across the United Kingdom. We continue to engage with the Minister of Health and the Executive on this, and we believe that this is best progressed by the Executive. However, I reiterate that we will closely monitor the situation, and we will absolutely consider whether further legislation is required by this House.
I am grateful to the Minister for his recent correspondence on this issue. There is considerable support in Northern Ireland for the change in the law, but unfortunately political games are being played. While local action is better, will the Minister confirm that he will not let this issue slip indefinitely, and that he will act within a matter of months if no action is taken by the Northern Ireland Executive?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comments. He is one of those who has pressed hard on this issue. We recognise the urgency of this matter, but we also recognise the huge challenges facing the Executive, and indeed every part of Government, relating to the covid situation. We want progress on this issue. We would prefer that to be delivered by the devolved institutions, but as I said, we stand ready to act if that progress is not made.
It is still a matter of deep regret that the overwhelming view of the people of Northern Ireland, in wanting to protect life, was and is still disregarded by those in this place. I take a contrary view to the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry). On implementing what the Government term adequate abortion provision in Northern Ireland, is the Minister concerned that under Northern Ireland’s abortion regulations, sex-selective abortion is permitted? The regulations permit abortion for any reason up to 12 weeks, within which time it is possible to determine the sex of the foetus. What measures will he take to address this matter of deep concern?
I recognise that the hon. Lady has taken a consistent and firm position on this issue. The Government take this issue seriously. It is about protecting the rights of women and girls. The regulations in Northern Ireland, as she will recognise, do not make any reference to sex-selective abortion. They follow the same approach as those in the rest of the UK on this issue. The Government publish an annual analysis of the male-female birth ratio for England and Wales to see whether any evidence of this issue arises. The latest reports show no evidence that this is an issue in England and Wales. We will continue to report on the sex birth ratio, and will work with the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency to consider including Northern Ireland in this analysis in future years. In the meantime, we will continue to monitor the implementation of the regulations, and urge the Executive to move forward with commissioning.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Mr Speaker, I know Members from across the House will want to join me in echoing you in congratulating President-elect Biden on his inauguration later today. I said when I spoke with him on his election as President that I looked forward to working with him and his new Administration, strengthening the partnership between our countries, and working on our shared priorities for tackling climate change, building back better from the pandemic, and strengthening our transatlantic security.
Our sympathies also go out to those affected by the latest floods, and I want to thank the Environment Agency and our emergency services for the work they are doing to support those communities. I will be chairing a Cobra meeting later on, to co-ordinate the national response. This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in this House, I will have further such meetings later today.
May I start by fully associating myself with all the Prime Minister’s opening comments? Will he join me in welcoming the fact that free school meal pupils in Elmet and Rothwell will continue to receive free lunches over the forthcoming school holidays, thanks to the winter grant fund provided to Leeds City Council by this Government?
Yes, indeed. I can confirm that eligible pupils in Leeds will continue to receive free school meal support over the February half-term. This Conservative Government have given over £2 million to Leeds City Council through the covid winter grant scheme to support vulnerable families in the coldest months, and it is the intention of this Government, on this side of the House, that no child should go hungry this winter as a result of the covid pandemic.
May I also welcome the inauguration of President Biden and Vice-President Harris? This is a victory for hope over hate, and a real moment for optimism in the US and around the world. I also thank all those on the frontline helping to deliver the vaccine, including the NHS, who are doing so much to keep us safe under the most extraordinary pressure.
It is 10 days since the Home Office mistakenly deleted hundreds of thousands of vital criminal records, including fingerprints, crime scene data and DNA records, so can the Prime Minister tell the House how many criminal investigations could have been damaged by this mistake?
The Home Office is actively working to assess the damage. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman will know from the urgent question that was held in the House only a few days ago, it believes that it will be able to rectify the results of this complex incident, and it hopes very much that it will be able to restore the data in question.
That is not an answer to my question, and it was the most basic of questions. It was the first question that any Prime Minister would have asked of those briefing him: how many criminal investigations have been damaged? So let me ask the second basic question that any Prime Minister would have asked of those briefing him. How many convicted criminals have had their records wrongly deleted?
I answered the first question entirely accurately. We do not know how many cases might be frustrated as a result of what has happened, but I can tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman that 213,000 offence records, 175,000 arrest records and 15,000 person records are currently being investigated because they are the subject of this problem.
I have a letter here from the National Police Chiefs Council. It makes it clear that 403,000 records on the police national computer may have been deleted. In addition to that—[Interruption.] Prime Minister, this is from the National Police Chiefs Council. I am sure he has been briefed on this. In addition to that, we are talking about 26,000 DNA records from the DNA database and 30,000 fingerprint records from the fingerprint database, so this is not just a technical issue. It is about criminals not being caught, and victims not getting justice. This letter makes it clear that data from criminals convicted of serious offences is included. This has impacted live police investigations already, and it includes records, including DNA, marked for indefinite retention following conviction for serious offences—the most serious offences; that is why it is marked for indefinite retention. It has been deleted.
Is the Prime Minister seriously telling us that 10 days after the incident came to light, he still has not got to the bottom of the basic questions, and cannot tell us how many cases have been lost, how many serious offenders this concerns, and how many police investigations have been investigated?
It is becoming a feature of the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s questions that he fails to listen to the answer I have just given. Let me repeat this, because I think he gave a figure of 413,000. I have just done some maths briefly in my head, and if you add 213,000 to 175,000, plus 15,000, you get to 403,000. If only he had bothered to do that swift computation in his head he would have had the answer before he stood up and claimed not to have received it. It was there in the previous answer.
Of course it is outrageous that any data should have been lost, but as I said in my first answer, which I hope the right hon. and learned Gentleman heard, we are trying to retrieve that data.
The Prime Minister complains about not listening to answers, but the figure I quoted was 403,000—that will be in Hansard. [Interruption.] I said 403,000, plus 26,000, plus 30,000.
Prime Minister, let me try the next most simple question that you would have asked of anyone briefing you. How long will it take for all the wrongly deleted records to be reinstated to the police database?
That will depend on how long it takes to recover them. I can tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman that people are working around the clock, having been briefed on this both by my staff and by the Minister for Crime and Policing. We are working around the clock on this issue. Any loss of data is, of course, unacceptable, but thanks to the robust, strong economy that we have had for the past few years, this Government have been able to invest massively in policing to drive crime down, and that is the most important thing of all. I have no doubt that we will be able to continue to do that by relying on excellent data.
This morning, the Home Secretary said that the Home Office is still washing through the data. She said it does not know where the records are and, if you can believe it, they may have to be “manually re-entered”, which will obviously take a long, long time. The letter from the National Police Chiefs’ Council also makes it clear that the obvious places to reinstate from—the DNA and fingerprint databases—have themselves been compromised, so the Prime Minister’s answers need to be seen in that light.
Let me turn to another of the Home Secretary’s responsibilities. Last night she told a Conservative party event, and these are her words:
“On ‘should we have closed our borders earlier?’, the answer is yes, I was an advocate of closing them last March.”
Why did the Prime Minister overrule the Home Secretary?
I think, last March, the right hon. and learned Gentleman, along with many others, was actually saying that we did not need to close the borders, but as usual, Captain Hindsight has changed his tune to suit events.
It is interesting that his first few questions were about a computer glitch in the Home Office, which we are trying to rectify as we are in the middle of a national pandemic. This country is facing a very grave death toll, and we are doing everything we can to protect the British public, as I think he would expect. That is why we have instituted one of the toughest border regimes in the world. That is why we insist that people get a test 72 hours before they fly. They have to provide a passenger locator form, and they have to quarantine for 10 days, or five days if they take a second test.
I am delighted that the right hon. and learned Gentleman now praises the Home Secretary, which is a change of tune, and I am delighted that he is now in favour of tough border controls, because last year he was not. Indeed, he campaigned for the leadership of the Labour party on a manifesto promise to get back to free movement.
The Prime Minister talks of hindsight. What the Home Secretary said last night is not disputed. It is not disputed—this is not hindsight—that she said last March that you need to shut the borders. She was saying it, so I repeat the question that the Prime Minister avoided. Why did he overrule the Home Secretary, who claims that she said last March that we should shut our borders?
We have instituted one of the toughest border regimes in the world, and it was only last March that the right hon. and learned Gentleman, along with many others in his party, was continuing to support an open border approach. I must say that the whole experience of listening to him over the past few months has been like watching a weather vane spin round and round, depending on where the breezes are blowing. We are getting on with tackling this pandemic through the most practical means available to us, rolling out a vaccine programme that has now inoculated 4.2 million people in our country, whereas he would have joined the EU scheme, I seem to remember. He attacked the vaccine taskforce, which secured the supplies on which we are now relying. And he stood on a manifesto at the last election to unbundle the very pharmaceutical companies on whose breakthroughs this country is now relying. The Opposition continue to look backwards, play politics and snipe from the sidelines. We look forwards and get on with the job.
I thank my hon. Friend for everything he does to fight for the interests of the people of Aylesbury. I can confirm that we are on track to deliver our pledge, although I must stress to the House that it is very hard because of constraints on supply. We are on track to deliver a first vaccine to everyone in the top four cohorts by mid-February, including the people of Aylesbury.
This afternoon, millions around the world will breathe a massive sigh of relief when President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris are sworn into office. The democratic removal of Donald Trump gives us all hope that better days are ahead of us—that days will be a little bit brighter. Turning the page on the dark chapter of Trump’s presidency is not solely the responsibility of President Joe Biden; it is also the responsibility of those in the Tory party, including the Prime Minister, who cosied up to Donald Trump and his callous world view. This morning, the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) accused the current Prime Minister of abandoning moral responsibility on the world stage by slashing international aid. So if today is to be a new chapter—if today is to be a new start—will the Prime Minister begin by reversing his cruel policy of cutting international aid for the world’s poorest?
I think it is very important that the Prime Minister of the UK has the best possible relationship with the President of the United States—that is part of the job description, as I think all sensible Opposition Members would acknowledge. When it comes to global leadership on the world stage, this country is embarking on a quite phenomenal year. We have the G7 and COP 26, and we have already led the world with the Gavi summit for global vaccination, raising $8.8 billion. The UK is the first major country in the world to set a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050—all other countries are following, and we hope that President Biden will join us. We are working to promote global free trade, and of course we will work with President Biden to secure the transatlantic alliance and NATO, which of course the Scottish nationalist party would unbundle—I think they would; I do not know what their policy is on our armed services, but I think they would break them up. Perhaps they would like to explain.
Good afternoon Mr Speaker. May I add my warmest of welcomes to President Biden and Vice-President Harris on their inauguration in Washington today?
In answer to my question in July, the Prime Minister promised an independent inquiry into the UK’s response to covid. In the six months since, covid cases have soared, our NHS is on its knees, and 50,000 more people have died. The UK now has one of the highest death rates in the world—higher, even, than Trump’s America. To learn the lessons from what has gone so devastatingly wrong under his leadership, will the Prime Minister commit to launching this year the inquiry that he promised last year?
The right hon. Gentleman answered his own question with the preamble that he set out. The NHS is under unprecedented pressure. The entire British state—including virtually every single arm of officialdom—is trying to fight covid and to roll out the biggest vaccination programme in the history of our country. The idea that we should consecrate vast state resources to an inquiry now, in the middle of the pandemic, does not seem sensible to me, and I do not believe that it would seem sensible to other Members. Of course we will learn lessons in due course and of course there will be a time to reflect and to prepare for the next pandemic.
I think people would find the Prime Minister’s claims about the UK’s global leadership a bit more believable if last night he had not ordered his MPs to vote down an amendment to the Trade Bill that would have prevented trade deals with countries that commit genocide. Genocide is not a matter of history; it is happening in our world right now. The international community has stood idly by as Uyghur Muslim men, women and children are forced into concentration camps in China’s Xinjiang province. Yesterday, the outgoing US Secretary of State officially said that genocide was taking place, and the incoming Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, agrees with his view. Is the Prime Minister prepared to follow that lead? Is he prepared to stand up today and clearly state that genocide is being committed against the Uyghur population in China? If he is, will he work urgently with the new Biden Administration to bring the matter to the UN Security Council—
The right hon. Gentleman knows very well that the attribution of genocide is a judicial matter, but I can say for myself that I regard what is happening in Xinjiang to the Uyghurs as utterly abhorrent, and I know that Members from all parties in the House share that view. I commend to the right hon. Gentleman the excellent statement made recently by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on what is happening there, the steps we are taking to prevent British commercial engagement with goods that are made by forced labour in Xinjiang and the steps we are taking against what is happening.
I ask the right hon. Gentleman, in all sincerity, what he would propose by way of a Scottish national—not nationalist but national—foreign policy: would he break up the FCDO, which, after all, has a big branch in East Kilbride?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to warn us of the need to continue to inoculate our populations and ourselves against the wretched virus of antisemitism, which has a tendency to recur and re-infect societies, including, tragically, our own. I am very happy to join her in encouraging all Members to ask all schools to do what the excellent Q3 Academy in Great Barr is doing and to tune in to the event that she mentions.
There could be no more fervent and effective advocate for the people of Rother Valley than my hon. Friend, and I am sure that he has much support for his campaign for a police station. I hope that a solution can be found. In the meantime, I can reassure him that we are making sure that there will be the police officers—the policemen and women—to put in that police station, because, as he will know, we are delivering on our commitment to have 20,000 more police over the lifetime of this Parliament.
As the hon. Lady may know from what I said to the Liaison Committee several times, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Actually, there is more transit now taking place between Larne and Stranraer—Cairnryan, than there is between Holyhead and Dublin, because it is going so smoothly.
Yes indeed. My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point, and we have been talking intensively about that with the scientists over the past days and weeks and also in the past few hours. We are confident that the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency will be in a position to turn around new applications for new variants of vaccines, as may be required to deal with new variants of the virus.
I could have heard almost any amount about the rich food-producing parts of West Lancashire: the hon. Lady is entirely right, and we will protect those areas. She is entirely right to call for flood defences. That is why we put £5.2 billion over six years into flood defences, including the Crossens pumping station refurbishment scheme that she mentions, in which we have invested £5.7 million to protect nearly 4,000 homes.
The potential of the greater south-west is enormous, particularly in the areas of blue and green technology. My hon. Friend can be assured that we will be giving massive investment in infrastructure to support the green industrial revolution in the south-west as well as in all parts of the UK.
It is absolutely true that some British fishermen have faced barriers at the present time owing to complications over form-filling. Indeed, one of the biggest problems is that, alas, there is a decline in appetite for fish in continental markets just because most of the restaurants, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, are shut. But the reality is that Brexit will deliver, and is delivering, a huge uplift in quota already in the next five years. By 2026, the fishing people of this country will have access to all the fish in all the territorial waters of this country. To get them ready for that Eldorado, we are investing £100 million in improving our boats and our fish processing industry, and getting fishing ready for the opportunities ahead.
Absolutely. I know that my hon. Friend knows of what she speaks. She is completely right to say that they are partners in care and should not be considered as visitors. That is why the current guidance has been put in place—and yes, we will be monitoring it to ensure that it is observed.
I can tell the hon. Lady, who I know has campaigned hard and well on behalf of her constituent, and quite rightly, that we are working virtually round the clock to secure the release of all the dual nationals that concern us in Tehran. Without going into the details of the cases, which are, as she knows, complex, we are doing everything we can to secure what we regard as the completely unjustified detention in Tehran of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, although, as the hon. Lady knows, she is now out on furlough, admittedly in the conditions that she describes.
My hon. Friend is a great advocate for his constituents in Colne Valley, and I much enjoy my exchanges with him. I thank him for what he says about those groups. We must rely on what the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has to say and the priorities that the experts have decided, but of course we want to see those groups that he mentions vaccinated as soon as possible. I am very pleased that in spite of all the difficulties in supply, last week we gave 1.5 million people their first dose, up half a million on the week before.
I thank the hon. Member for what he has done just now to draw attention to the scheme, but I must say that I respectfully disagree with him about the ignorance in which our wonderful EU nationals have been, because 4 million of them have successfully applied and been given residence, thanks to the scheme we have instituted. It is a great success, and we pay tribute to the wonderful EU nationals in our country who do a fantastic job for this country.
Indeed. I remain a champion of liberty in all its aspects, but I am also the living embodiment of the risks of obesity. There is no question but that it is a comorbidity factor in the pandemic. I think that is something that the people of this country understand. They understand that it is all of our individual responsibility to do what we can to get healthy and to stay healthy, because that is one of the ways we can all help protect our NHS.
Doctors, researchers, experts, campaigners and my constituents, of whom just under two-thirds are from BAME backgrounds, including a large Bangladeshi population, have all observed the covid-19 pandemic disproportionately affecting BAME communities. The Royal College of General Practitioners has even requested that these communities be prioritised for vaccine roll-out. Will the Prime Minister finally recognise that this disparity is as a result of structural racism, and can he outline what his Government are doing to address the issue?
I do not agree with the hon. Member’s last point, but she makes a very important point about the need to reach hard-to-reach groups in society. That is why it is so important that the vaccine roll-out is not just conducted by the NHS, the Army, pharmacies and volunteers, but in co-ordination with local government at all levels, because it is local government that will know where we need to go, as I am sure she would understand, to ensure that we reach those groups we must vaccinate and who may be a little bit vaccine hesitant, as the jargon has it.
I have every sympathy for the residents of Stafford who have been affected by flooding and for everybody who has been affected by flooding in the latest bout. What I can say to my hon. Friend is that the Environment Agency is working hand in glove with her local authority and other partners to find a particular solution to the flooding in Sandon Road and Sandyford Brook.
My constituency is served by two local councils. Recently, Bexley has taken emergency action to shed hundreds of jobs, while Greenwich needs to make £20 million of cuts in its upcoming budget. Last year, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government promised councils “whatever it takes” to get through the pandemic, so why is the Prime Minister dropping a council tax bombshell and asking my constituents to pay for his promises?
The last time I looked, Bexley was a Conservative council and Greenwich was Labour, which may explain part of the problem. The reality is that we are supporting every council, with £4.6 billion of support for local government so far during the pandemic. The hon. Lady raises council tax. Perhaps she could have a word with her friend the Mayor of London, who is threatening to put up his council tax by 10%.
The announcement by my right hon. Friend that the G7 summit is to take place in Carbis Bay in June presents a tremendous opportunity for my constituency and, of course, the Duchy of Cornwall. I thank the Prime Minister for this. Does he share my belief that the G7 summit offers the perfect opportunity to secure a global commitment to embrace and accelerate our ambitious low-carbon industrial revolution?
I do indeed. I believe that the G7 summit in Carbis Bay will be an opportunity to not only bring the world together to tackle covid, to build back better, to champion global free trade and to combat climate change but also to showcase that wonderful part of the United Kingdom and all the incredible technological developments happening there, such as Newquay space port, Goonhilly earth station and lithium mining. Cornwall led the way—I think the Romans mined tin in Cornwall, did they not? I have a feeling they did, and, indeed, the copper mines there were at the heart of the UK industrial revolution. What is going on in Cornwall today shows that Cornwall is once again at the heart of the 21st-century UK green industrial revolution.
Serious Criminal Cases Backlog
Before I call the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) to ask his urgent question, I remind all hon. Members participating in these exchanges that it is important that no reference should be made to individual cases in a way that prejudices current and prospective criminal proceedings.
To ask the Secretary of State for Justice if he will make a statement on the backlog of serious criminal cases in the justice system.
The covid pandemic is truly unprecedented. It has affected every corner of our lives—from hospital operations delayed, to schools closed, to businesses struggling and even to how Parliament itself operates, we have seen covid’s effects. The court system is no different: bringing people safely into buildings for trials—especially jury trials—and hearings is a difficult thing to do. That is why so much has been done to keep delivering justice in these difficult times.
We have invested £142 million in upgrading court buildings and technology, alongside £110 million to increase capacity, making an investment of over a quarter of a billion pounds in court recovery this year. We are hiring 1,600 extra staff. We have opened 19 new Nightingale courts, with 35 new courtrooms. As of today, we have over 290 covid-safe jury trial courtrooms—substantially more than before the pandemic. We have installed plexiglass screens in 450 courts to protect users. We have installed cloud video platform technology in 150 magistrates courts and 70 Crown courts, allowing 20,000 remote hearings per week.
In the first lockdown, and as these measures have been put into place, backlogs have, understandably, developed. That has been the case across the world. But the fruits of our labours are now being seen. We have been faster than almost every jurisdiction to recover and we believe that we were the first country in the world to restart jury trials, back in May. Since August, the magistrates court backlog has been relentlessly reducing, month on month. Crown court jury trials are obviously much harder, for reasons of social distancing, but even there, in the last four weeks before Christmas, Crown court disposals exceeded receipts for the first time since covid began. At this very moment, as we stand here, about 230 jury trials are taking place. The joint inspectors’ report said earlier this week:
“It is a real testament to the criminal justice system that in spite of the pandemic…service was maintained.”
I pay tribute to the judges, magistrates, jurors, witnesses, victims, lawyers, court staff, Crown Prosecution Service staff and Ministry of Justice officials who have made that monumental effort to deliver justice in spite of covid.
We will not rest. We are adding more courtrooms, further increasing remote hearings, and examining options for longer operating hours. We are also taking action to mitigate the impact on victims and witnesses, this year providing an extra £32 million of funding and next year an extra £25 million of funding, including for rape and domestic violence victims.
This year has been incredibly difficult in the courts, as in so many places, but through a monumental, collective effort the system is recovering. The recovery will gather strength and pace with every day that passes, and I know that everyone in the House will support that work.
We all know the numbers. The backlog of criminal cases in the Crown court has grown to more than 54,000. Including the magistrates courts, it has reached more than 457,000 cases. Serious criminal cases are being delayed by up to four years. Convictions are at by far their lowest this decade. Estimates show that the current scale of increase in the backlog would take 10 years to clear at pre-pandemic rates.
Numbers do not tell the whole story. Behind criminal cases, there are victims: victims of rape, robbery, domestic abuse, and violent assault. Each of those victims is being denied the speedy justice that our society owes them. It has been repeated many times, but it is true: justice delayed is justice denied. This is not just the case because of the pain that delays cause victims and the wrongly accused—it is because delays to justice can affect the verdict.
On Tuesday, four criminal justice watchdogs for England and Wales warned of “grave concerns” about the impact of court backlogs. Victims and witnesses may avoid the justice system entirely because of the delays. Witnesses may be unable to recall events properly many years after the event. As a responsible Opposition, we accept that the pandemic has caused unprecedented challenges for the justice system. However, we do not accept the Government’s presentation of the backlog as a crisis that has resulted only from coronavirus. Before the pandemic, the Crown court backlog stood at 39,000 cases.
That figure was the result of sustained attacks on the justice system by successive Conservative Governments: an entire decade of court closures, cuts and reduced sitting days. Blackfriars Crown court was sold off by the Government in December 2019. It is now sitting empty, but it is being rented out as a film set by the developer for a new series of “Top Boy”. The Minister said “recovery”, but meanwhile the Government are paying through the nose for Nightingale courts a stone’s throw away.
Six hundred court staff, judges, lawyers and jurors have tested positive for covid-19 in the past seven weeks. A pilot scheme of lateral flow tests has now been authorised at only two courts in London and Manchester. A pilot scheme is not good enough, and neither is the plexiglass. Why have lateral flow tests not been implemented across the court system? The Minister knows that that is a serious problem and that we are a long way from recovery. Can he tell the House why the pitiful 19 Nightingale courts that he has managed to deliver fall so short of the 200 that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service said were needed? Can he tell the House why lateral flow tests are not being trialled across the whole country? After 11 years of incompetence and cuts, will he admit that his Government failed to fix the roof while the sun was shining?
The shadow Justice Secretary referred to the number of cases outstanding in the magistrates courts: 460,000. What he neglected to mention to the House was that, after the first lockdown, that peaked at 525,000 and has come down since then by 65,000 as the case load reduces relentlessly, month on month, and as our system recovers.
The right hon. Member mentioned waiting times. Of course we do not want to see very long waiting times, but I can tell him that the clear majority of remand cases that had their first hearing in November will have their trial by July of this year, and the clear majority of bail cases will have their trial heard by December of this year. He mentioned the report, which I have read carefully. Its authors, who do not inspect Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, did not engage with HMCTS prior to finalising it, which was regrettable.
The right hon. Member mentioned witnesses and victims, who are at the heart of everything that we do. Vulnerable witnesses, where it is appropriate, can give evidence under section 28 recorded well in advance of the trial, in order to avoid issues with forgetting particular evidence. I strongly encourage the CPS, defence, judges and other court users to use that section 28 facility.
The right hon. Member mentioned the number of cases outstanding in the Crown court. He claimed that before the pandemic the system was in bad shape. He mentioned the 39,000 Crown court cases outstanding in March of last year before the pandemic. What he forgot to mention was that when Labour left office in 2010 it was not 39,000; it was 47,000—considerably higher.
The right hon. Member talked about cuts. I anticipated that he might, so I looked up the HMCTS budget, which in 2011 was £1.65 billion. It has gone up by £200 million to £1.85 billion. He asked about the number of courtrooms and court centres. As I said, we now have 290 operational covid-safe Crown court jury trial rooms—significantly more than we had before covid. As I said in my first answer, in the magistrates court the outstanding case load has been declining relentlessly month on month, every month since August, and in the Crown court disposals exceeded receipts, so the lines crossed, for the first time in the full week before Christmas.
The right hon. Member asked about covid safety. Of course, Public Health England and Public Health Wales have signed off our courts as covid-safe. The number of HMCTS staff testing positive is in line with what we would expect in the general population; it is no higher, and no lower. Lateral flow testing is available at local authority lateral flow testing sites. We are exploring whether we can roll it out more fully.
Finally, the right hon. Member asked about the record of this Government on criminal justice. The most authoritative source of data is, of course, the crime survey. It is the only Office for National Statistics approved set of crime statistics. Crime in the last 10 years under this Government has fallen from 9.5 million offences down to about 5.6 million—a 41% reduction—according to the crime survey. Those numbers speak louder than words. Our record is a good one.
The Minister is right to pay tribute to the work that is being done by all those in the system under very difficult circumstances. It is right, too, to recognise the investment that has been made to deal with this, but I am sure that he will also accept that for the backlog to be reduced to acceptable levels, disposals in the Crown court in particular will have to exceed receipts for a sustained period of time.
The Minister will also know that there are a number of serious organised crime cases with multiple defendants coming into the system, which will put in additional strains. Does he therefore agree that to make the system sustainable going forward we will need sustained and continued investment at higher levels than we have seen before for a number of years to come? Will he recognise that that is the case that all of us who care about the system, regardless of party, need to make to the Treasury and elsewhere?
I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Justice Committee, for his question. He is of course right: we need to have sustained levels of disposals exceeding receipts. We got there just before Christmas for the first time during the pandemic following a heroic effort, but he is right that it needs to be sustained. We are making it clear that the resources needed to achieve that will be made available. In the current year, Crown court sitting days will not be any constraint on getting cases listed. Subject, obviously, to the usual discussions with the judiciary, we anticipate a very significant increase in Crown court sitting days in the next financial year to achieve the objective that he rightly and properly calls for.
Criminal justice is devolved in Scotland, and here the focus has been on ensuring that jury trials continue in the most serious cases where accused persons are in custody and where the nature of the alleged offence demands that priority be given, which includes sexual offences. The report we are talking about today deals with England and Wales only. It has found numerous examples of serious cases being cancelled at short notice, and it has warned that delays could result in crime victims being unable to support prosecutions.
What new steps is the Minister taking to ensure that, as already happens in Scotland, the United Kingdom Government are complying with their duty under article 3 of the European convention on human rights to ensure that there are effective remedies for the victims of sexual offences and, in particular, that we avoid—or that he avoids—undue delay in getting cases of sexual offences to trial? I know what has been done in Scotland. I am keen to know what the Minister is going to do in England and Wales, given the finding of this report.
We are as keen as the hon. and learned Member is and everyone is to make sure that these very sensitive cases involving rape or similar offences get heard quickly, but of course it is a matter for the judiciary to decide when they are listed and sometimes there are reasons to do with case management why a case may get adjourned while things are dealt with. But we have, for example, now rolled out the section 28 evidence provisions that I mentioned, so sensitive evidence can be given by recorded video, which can be taken well in advance of a trial—designed to help exactly what she is describing—and we have made large amounts of money available, with the extra £25 million next year and £32 million this year, to support and help witnesses and victims.
I was slightly concerned to read a remark by the Lord President in Scotland saying that during lockdown criminal cases in Scotland would be down by 75%. I am sure the hon. and learned Member shares my concern about that, and anything we can do to exchange ideas in our mutual interests I am sure we will be very happy to do.
Around the world, the United Kingdom rightly has a reputation of having a first-class criminal justice system. The present large backlog in criminal trials due to the pandemic is of immense concern to me in terms of the rights of victims, witnesses and defendants and the need for a timely trial. Can my hon. Friend assure me that sufficient resources are going to be forthcoming to resolve the present backlog within a proper timeframe?
My hon. Friend is right to raise this question. As I said in my opening remarks, the pandemic—the global pandemic—has had a huge impact on public services not just in this country but across the world, and the court system is not immune from that. That is why we have seen the additional cases that we have discussed this afternoon.
My hon. Friend asked about resources. The Government are categorically committed to putting in the resources necessary to facilitate the recovery of the courts. I mentioned earlier that this year alone we have invested an extra £143 million in court buildings and technology to make our courts covid-safe and an extra £110 million in increasing our courts capacity. That is an investment of an extra quarter of a billion pounds this year alone to make sure that the court recovery not just gets started, but continues in the current vein. So I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that she is quite rightly asking for.
There is more and more evidence that domestic abuse has increased dramatically during lockdown. The Bar Council has led calls for non-means-tested legal aid to be made available for all cases of domestic abuse. Will the Minister provide this as a matter of urgency, and commit to provide this as a matter of urgency, please?
Domestic violence most certainly is a very serious and very important matter. That is why, when the pandemic started, the senior judiciary sent directions to magistrates courts laying out which cases should be dealt with as a matter of priority. One of the items in the top priority—the priority 1 list of cases—was domestic violence protection orders, because the judiciary and the system recognise their importance. In relation to legal aid, it is kept under review of course, but we are always making sure that domestic violence victims receive not just protection, but quick protection. That is vitally important.
All criminal cases begin in the magistrates courts and all magistrates are volunteers, so will my hon. Friend join me in thanking and congratulating magistrates on everything they are doing to clear the backlog in their courts? Will he assure me and all users of our magistrates courts that he will do whatever it takes to keep them safe and ensure that justice continues to be done in our local communities?
I know my hon. Friend has a long and distinguished history serving on the bench as a magistrate, so I would like to publicly recognise that and I join him in extending my warm and enthusiastic thanks to magistrates up and down the country, who have been keeping justice going in incredibly difficult circumstances—and not just keeping justice going, but clearing down the backlog, which has been reducing since August, as I said earlier. One of my parliamentary team sits as a magistrate in Croydon Crown court—one of the many thousands of magistrates—and I thank all of them for what they have done to deliver justice in these most trying of times.
Rape and sexual violence prosecutions are at their lowest ever level in England and Wales, and domestic abuse prosecutions are down 19%, and that is at a time, during lockdown, when domestic abuse is widely reported to have increased, so what steps are the Government taking to speed up justice for vulnerable people who are victims of these abhorrent crimes?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. There is an issue with, for example, the charging and prosecution of rape cases in particular, which predates the pandemic. There is a problem and it needs to be addressed. Some steps have been taken already—for example, changes to the rules around disclosure, which had been a problem in rape cases, and the provision of significant extra money even before the pandemic to support independent sexual violence advisers and rape crisis centres and to support the victims of these awful crimes, but more needs to be done. The Ministry of Justice and the Home Office are conducting a rape review, which is being led by the Minister for Crime and Policing. That is due to report very shortly and will contain further actions in this very important area.
I worked in the Courts Service for 20 years, and there have been case delays under all colours of Government, so the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) has a very selective memory on this issue. It is not surprising that this pandemic has caused delays in court cases right around the world, but will my hon. Friend the Minister ensure that delays to domestic violence cases are prioritised? As he knows, often pressure grows on victims as a case progresses and too often their resolve diminishes and they feel unable to continue supporting the case.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. We are very concerned about these cases and that is why we are spending a great deal of extra money—as I say, next year, an additional £32 million—to help protect victims and witnesses of awful cases such as those of domestic violence and rape. As I have mentioned, the judiciary have already prioritised domestic violence protection orders in the magistrates courts and, although listing is a judicial function, I know that judges are prioritising very serious cases of rape and domestic violence to make sure those cases get heard quickly, for the reason that he has mentioned. In addition, we rolled out section 28, the video evidence provisions, in, I think, November last year—just a couple of months ago—to make sure vulnerable witnesses can give evidence by video quickly, well in advance of the substantive hearing, to make sure some of the issues to do with victim attrition that he mentioned are addressed quickly and as far as they possibly can be.
In 2016 the Government announced the closure of 127 courts and tribunals centres. Responding to a debate I secured at the time the Justice Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), acknowledged the importance of prompt investment in digital courts, saying:
“Otherwise, there will be an extraordinarily chaotic justice system, which is the last thing any of us want.”—[Official Report, 1 March 2016; Vol. 606, c. 258WH.]
Does the Minister accept that, notwithstanding coronavirus, the Government’s court closures, combined with a digital investment programme which only started after the closures, was scaled back and is running significantly behind schedule, represents a catastrophic failure to sustain access to justice?
I do not accept the hon. Lady’s criticism. Travel times to courts before and after the programme that she mentions were very little different. As I said, due to the actions that we have taken during this pandemic, there are significantly more covid-safe Crown court jury trial rooms today than there were before the pandemic.
In relation to online justice, the cloud video platform was developed prior to coronavirus. Its roll-out has been expedited. In the weeks running up to Christmas we saw 20,000 remote hearings per week across all jurisdictions, and in fact last week was a record week. There are 150 magistrates courts and 70 Crown courts now connected. The use of remote video and audio hearing technology has been extremely widespread. It is very impressive, and it is doing its job extremely well in these difficult circumstances.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on all the hard work that his Department has done during this incredibly difficult time, particularly with regard to the implementation of video hearings. Twenty thousand hearings have now been undertaken through the cloud video platform every month. Will he outline whether the use of remote technology will be expanded to help reduce court backlogs?
I thank my hon. Friend, who of course has a distinguished background in this field himself, for his question. We do intend to continue rolling out the use of video and remote technology in the way that he describes. We see huge opportunities there. The Lord Chief Justice, in response to the most recent lockdown, urged trial judges and other judges to use remote hearing technology as widely as they possibly can, so this work is continuing. As I said in response to the last question, last week was a record week for remote hearings, and we expect the roll-out and the adoption of this technology to continue apace.
The Minister points, as if it were an excuse, to previous backlogs of jury trials. The difference is that in 2010 and 2015, the previous peak, there were 600 to 700 trials happening a week and numbers were falling. Now he is boasting about 230 happening, despite his target back in November being 333. Does he accept that his proposals for clearing the Crown court backlog at the moment are not working and are inadequate?
I would point out that 230 is the number happening as we speak; in the weeks leading up to Christmas, the average was more like 275. In relation to the number of trials over the last few years, as I said in answer to the shadow Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Tottenham, crime, as measured by the British crime survey, has fallen by 41% since Labour left office, so it is not entirely surprising that the number of trials has reduced commensurately.
However, we are now increasing the number of sitting days and the number of jury trials. As I said, the last full week before Christmas saw the number of Crown court disposals exceed the number of receipts for the first time in the pandemic. As the Justice Committee Chairman rightly said in his question, we now need to sustain that over a period of time to ensure that the outstanding case load gets back down to where it was before, which I remind the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) was a great deal lower than when Labour left office.
I am grateful for the answers that my hon. Friend gave to the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) and my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) in relation to support for victims of domestic violence and other vulnerable witnesses. It is a tremendously tough time for everyone involved in the judicial system and on its periphery. I am thinking particularly of MK Act, the domestic violence charity in my constituency, and all the wonderful homelessness charities that we have to support vulnerable people. Sadly, however, those people do end up in the courts system, so what support do we have during the pandemic specifically for vulnerable people going through the courts system?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Witnesses and victims, particularly in connection with offences such as domestic violence, sexual assault and rape, are very vulnerable and the experience is very traumatising. Often, going through a court process re-traumatises victims, who have often suffered terrible crimes. It is our duty as a justice system to support, protect and look after those victims as they go through the process.
We recognise that that needs investment, which is why we are spending an extra £25 million this year over and above previous plans, and an additional £32 million next year, specifically to support, protect and look after witnesses and victims. We are investing in things such as additional ISVAs, who can help support victims as they go through reliving awful crimes. I entirely concur with my hon. Friend’s sentiment, and we are doing everything possible, including putting in lots of extra money, to achieve the objectives that he points to.
I listened very carefully to the response the Minister gave and this really is not a time for bragging. My very elderly constituent, whose case the Minister knows about through correspondence between us, has been waiting for four years to have a case of alleged fraud come to court. She and her family want justice to be done during her lifetime. That is what they are telling me. The system is clearly not working. It will not be fixed by bragging, but by investment, real reform and perhaps a little bit of ministerial humility.
In relation to investment, I have already said two or three times that in this current financial year, because of the massive challenge posed by coronavirus, we have invested an extra £143 million and the extra £110 million—an extra quarter of a billion pounds—in delivering court recovery. A quarter of a billion pounds is an enormous investment. It is designed to help with cases like those of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent, which we want to be heard quickly. Of course, every individual case has its own circumstances and sometimes there are procedural, evidential or other reasons why individual cases get listed some way into the future, but we do want all those cases to be heard as quickly as they can be. As I said, for remand cases where the defendant is in custody that had their first hearing—their first mention—in November 2020, the clear majority will have their trials heard by July this year. However, we do want to move faster. That is why, as the Chairman of the Select Committee said, we need to make sure that the happy circumstance of disposals exceeding receipts, which we achieved just before Christmas, is continued and sustained into the new year to help people like the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, who quite rightly and reasonably, want their cases heard.
I pay tribute to the work done by the Ministry of Justice in getting the courts open again quickly last year and actually increasing throughput so that we now have more sitting hours and more Crown court trials than we had before covid. Does my hon. Friend agree that we have the opportunity for a real transformation in criminal justice, making more use of technology in trials and in disposals? Can he update the House on plans for more smart tagging, as proposed in a recent Centre for Social Justice report by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler)?
My hon. Friend raises a very good point. As we face the future, the use of technology will be critical in making our justice system faster, more efficient and more accessible. I have already laid out how we have expedited the roll-out of a cloud video platform which facilitates remote hearings. We have been doing quite a lot of work with the police on video remand hearings, where a prisoner who has been arrested and is in a police custody suite has their remand hearing with the magistrates done by video link, rather than being taken to the magistrates court. Quite a lot of that has been going on. We are also just beginning to roll out the common platform, which is an IT system that integrates many parts of the criminal justice system, the Crown Prosecution Service, defence, prosecution and the courts themselves. That work is being trialled pending a full roll-out. My hon. Friend also mentioned a smart tagging, a point, as he said, raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury. We have this year procured a large number of additional GPS tags, which we are now using. We are moving in that direction. The measures he referred to in the sentencing White Paper, which we published, I think, back in September, will, I can tell him, form part of legislation arising in the relatively near future.
Many court users and their representatives are asking for courts to be closed again because of increasing covid outbreaks. Her Majesty’s chief inspector of the Crown Prosecution Service told the Justice Committee yesterday of concerns that some courts are not safe. He said, “I particularly would not wish to be in a court at this time.” Is the Minister planning for courts to close again? What impact will any such change in policy have on the Crown court backlogs that we are concerned about today?
We are not planning to close down the court system, and the Lord Chief Justice made that very clear when the current lockdown was announced. As I have said, we have invested a quarter of a billion pounds in making our courts system covid-safe so that it can keep operating. The hon. Lady cited some remarks by the CPS inspector at the Committee yesterday and I have to tell her, in all candour, that those comments are inaccurate and inappropriate. The proper authorities for determining the safety of our courts system are Public Health England and Public Health Wales, not the inspector of the CPS, and they, having looked at the measures we are taking, have found them to be appropriate and found that our courts are covid-safe. The proof of that pudding is in the eating. As I said earlier, the number of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service staff who have tested positive for covid is in line with the number in the wider population; courts are not especially unsafe, because of the measures we have been taking and will continue to take. I hope that reassures witnesses, defendants, jurors, lawyers—anyone using the courts—that our courts are safe. Justice should, will and must continue to be delivered.
Northamptonshire police have made really good progress during the pandemic in targeting serious and hardened criminals and, in particular, in busting up local drugs gangs. Having arrested these people, the police need them prosecuted, so will the Minister tell me what the courts situation is in Northamptonshire and what progress is being made on reducing the backlog?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. As I have said, we are opening up as many covid-safe jury courtrooms as we can, to hear the cases such as the ones he is describing. I would be happy to speak to him about opportunities to find additional court space in his fine county, perhaps by looking for some new Nightingale courts that we can use. There are particular challenges associated with so-called “multi-handers”, where there are a large number of defendants, because getting them into a single dock in a covid-safe way is challenging, particularly when there are more than seven defendants. We are looking at that carefully to see what more can be done. We recognise it is an area of particular challenge, but where there are fewer than seven defendants we are able relatively easily to hear those cases and we are doing so.
I have listened carefully to the Minister talk about covid-safe courts, but covid is spreading at an alarming rate and a growing number of legal professionals and organisations, including the Criminal Bar Association and the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, are stating that courts are not safe. HMCTS’s desire to address the case backlog should not compromise the health, safety and welfare of workers and court users. So can the Minister confirm reports by the Public and Commercial Services Union that on a single day last week 19 crisis management team meetings were needed to assist areas with multiple covid incidents?
The measures taken to make sure our courts are covid-safe have been assessed and signed off by Public Health England and Public Health Wales, which are the appropriate authorities. We are very concerned to make sure that courts remain covid-safe, which is why as many hearings as possible are being done remotely, following a direction from the Lord Chief Justice a short while ago. It is also why we have social distancing in courts, why they are cleaned very frequently, and why we have plexiglass screens installed in courtrooms and in jury retiring and deliberation rooms. If any court user, be they barrister, solicitor, witness or anyone else, is concerned about any particular circumstances that they observe, there is a reporting process—an escalation process. I strongly urge anyone who sees anything amiss to use that reporting service. On the situation generally, I point to the figures I mentioned before, which show that the number of HMCTS staff testing covid positive is in line with what we would expect in the general community. But we are not complacent about this and we are going to work hard to continue to make sure that courts are safe.
Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking all the court staff, legal professionals and the judiciary, who have kept our justice system running throughout lockdown? Does he agree that the recruitment of an extra 1,600 court staff will help speed up our justice system’s recovery?
Yes, I certainly will join my hon. Friend in thanking the judiciary, magistrates and everybody involved in delivering justice for their heroic, herculean efforts during this pandemic. In many countries around the world, justice has slowed or even stopped. Although we have many challenges, as we have discussed, we are doing a great deal better in this jurisdiction than many other countries around the world, thanks to the work of judges, magistrates, court staff, lawyers and everybody who makes the system operate. I extend my warm thanks to them. She is quite right that the 1,600 extra staff—getting on for a 10% increase—will make a big difference in delivering the court recovery we need and, importantly, in sustaining that into the months ahead.
Last September, I raised in the House the fact that the majority of Barnsley court cases have been moved to Sheffield courts. The measures the Minister claimed had been put in place have clearly not worked in reducing the backlog. I ask him again: what is his plan to make sure that everyone can access justice?
We are putting more resources into the system, with more court rooms for jury trials, more magistrates courts sitting on Saturdays and no limitation this year on the number of Crown court sitting days. All those things are designed to make sure that we get through the work available and deliver swift justice. If there are any particular local issues affecting her and her constituents, I would be happy to correspond or meet to discuss them. The Government have an unshakeable commitment to making sure that justice is delivered right across the country.
I thank the Minister for his statement. However, this problem will outlive the pandemic. We need criminals to face the sentences they deserve as soon as possible. I have constituents in Redcar and Cleveland who have been waiting more than two and a half years for their day in court, and we all have victims who are waiting for justice to be done. It is great that we have established a Nightingale court in Middlesbrough to help with this, but what is the long-term strategy to cope with these delays, and how long can we expect the Nightingale courts to continue?
I think the Nightingale courts will continue for as long as we need them. My hon. Friend makes a good point: at some point in the relatively near future, we hope that the current restrictions will be eased or even lifted, but that will not be the end of the story as far as the courts are concerned, because we will need to continue working, probably significantly beyond the end of the current coronavirus circumstances, to make sure that the court system is in the shape that we want. This journey will continue; it will not end suddenly in the coming months. We will make sure that the courts and sitting days needed are available so that justice is delivered. He mentioned making sure that criminals get the right sentences. He will have read the sentencing White Paper last September. We will shortly legislate in this area, and that legislation will include longer sentences—more time spent in prison—for the most serious criminals, which I am sure he and his constituents will strongly welcome.
Can the Minister advise how many of the 400,000 lost police records are linked to these backlogged court cases? Will he take this opportunity to apologise to all victims who are being denied justice because of the Justice and Home Secretaries’ incompetence?
My colleague the police Minister gave a full statement on the police records situation a day or two ago, and the Prime Minister answered questions on that topic from this very Dispatch Box just an hour or so ago, which I am sure the hon. Member listened to carefully. The Justice Secretary and Home Secretary and the Government will take no lessons from the Labour party on criminal justice when, according to the British crime survey, crime in the last 10 years under this Government has fallen 41% in comparison to our predecessor.
The Minister is probably aware that the Lord Chief Justice recently set out in a very honest statement his view of the continuation of the rule of law by the sort of changes that he introduced. He also pointed to some of the difficulties. Will the Minister join me in congratulating and praising the Lord Chief Justice for all that he, specifically, has done in leading the judiciary forward in this difficult area?
Yes. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, has provided exemplary leadership through these difficult days, keeping our justice system running in a way that many other countries have not. I join my hon. Friend in extending my thanks and congratulations to the Lord Chief Justice, the senior judiciary and, indeed, the country’s entire judiciary for the work that they have done in delivering justice in these last nine or 10 months, and for the work that we are going to do together in the months ahead.
Behind every alleged offence lies a victim, often many. I cannot imagine how hard it must be for them waiting month after month for justice. What is the Minister doing to reassure all those victims, who could be waiting up to four years for a trial, that justice will be done? After this statement finishes, what concrete action will he take to do something differently to address this?
The lead times that the hon. Member is describing are, thankfully, very rare exceptions. As I said, for the most serious cases, where the defendant is remanded in custody, a clear majority of those that had a first hearing in November will have their substantive trial by July this year. We are taking action, we have been taking action, and we will continue to take action to look after victims of the most serious offences— the most distressing ones, such as rape and domestic violence—by making sure that they are supported. I have mentioned the £32 million of additional money that will be spent next year on the victim service, ISVAs and all those things that support victims and witnesses. I have also mentioned the use of section 28 evidence, which means they can give their evidence by video at a very early stage, rather than having to wait a long time. All those things are concrete, tangible actions that will help in the area that she raises today.
I thank my hon. Friend for his statement on recent progress in clearing the covid backlog. There will be victims out there who will look at these headlines and wonder whether they should pursue their cases, or perhaps recent victims of crime wondering whether they should come forward at all, given the delays that the papers have suggested. What is my hon. Friend’s message to victims of crime at this time?
I say to victims: we are there to support you, to hear you and to seek justice for you. As my hon. Friend knows, we are hiring 20,000 extra police officers to keep victims safe. We are keeping the court system running in these difficult circumstances. We are getting back to a period in which magistrates courts are clearing the backlog and, I believe, the Crown court shortly will do so. So I say to victims: justice will be done. Your voice will be heard. Come forward. We are here for you. Do not hesitate—we want to hear your story. We will listen to it, we will act and we will make sure justice is done.
Shockingly, only 1.4% of those reporting rape secure a conviction, and that figure was before the news of deleted police records and the covid court backlog. For the last 10 years, this Government have run down the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, courts, prisons and probation, so what confidence can the Minister give to victims and survivors of sexual violence that they will be able to secure justice?
The Crown Prosecution Service, even before coronavirus, had an extra £85 million a year put into it to enable it to hire 400 more prosecutors. We are hiring an extra 20,000 police officers—we are about a third of the way through that programme already—and the Ministry of Justice had a significant funding increase for the current financial year, announced before coronavirus, running into several hundred million pounds. Those extra resources are being brought to bear, but the hon. Member is right to say, I am afraid, that there is a problem with the charging and prosecution of rape cases, which predates coronavirus. It is a very serious problem. We are taking action through the recruitment of more ISVAs and changes to disclosure rules, but that is not enough on its own. More needs to be done, and the rape review being led by my colleague the Minister for Crime and Policing, which is due to report very shortly, will propose further actions to address the problem that the hon. Member raises. It is a problem. It is not yet fixed. We need to take more action, and we will.
As a former criminal defence solicitor, may I ask my hon. Friend to join me in praising all the practitioners who have contributed so much to access to justice during the pandemic? Many have asked me to ask the Minister what steps the Government have taken and are taking to enhance capacity in the criminal courts. Finally, does he not think it odd that the Scottish National party is asking questions about the English judicial system, despite its call for English questions on English laws?
I have such a choice to choose from! Yes, I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the legal profession and the judiciary for the work they have done in these difficult circumstances. To answer the question that his colleagues have put via him, we are opening up Nightingale courts. A total of 19 are open, with 36 additional courtrooms. We have already rolled out the cloud video platform to ensure that hearings can be done remotely, and we are ensuring that Crown court sitting days are not a limitation in this financial year, so we are doing everything we can to open up capacity in the criminal justice system. We are also considering whether we can extend operating hours, and I would be interested to hear my hon. Friend’s views on that, perhaps after today’s question. We are leaving no stone unturned to ensure that our capacity is increased.
North-west Wales’s only justice centre, in Caernarfon, is equipped with small cells, consultation rooms without protective screens, and insufficient space for jurors in one of its two Crown courts. There has recently been a sharp rise in covid cases in the area, and those conditions pose a significant risk to everyone attending court. The chronic underfunding of courts and the covid-induced backlog of cases are combining to create a crisis of justice. Will the Minister therefore commit to developing a recovery strategy for courts in Wales, once the vaccine has significantly reduced the risk to staff and users?
Our recovery plans apply across the whole jurisdiction, but I would like to pay particular tribute to the court system in Wales. When we look at the figures for magistrates courts and Crown courts, we see that Wales is one of the parts of the jurisdiction that is doing either the best or very nearly the best. The courts in Wales are performing extremely well, and I would like to thank and pay tribute to the Welsh judiciary, HMCTS staff and the legal fraternity for the work they have done to make that possible. And yes, the recovery will continue beyond the immediate coronavirus pandemic. There will be work to do that goes on into the future, as the right hon. Lady says, and as the Justice Committee Chairman said. The work will continue across the entire jurisdiction.
I join the Minister in paying tribute to magistrates in Cheshire and Merseyside for the work they are undertaking, and invite him to welcome the new volunteer members of the bench who were sworn in just before Christmas and are now serving in courts in the north-west. Having sat as a magistrate last week myself in Liverpool, I can confirm that the magistrates court and the Nightingale court at St George’s Hall are covid-safe and working very efficiently. Can my hon. Friend outline what steps are being taken to ensure that the most serious cases are heard quickly, both in magistrates courts and Crown courts, so that justice is not delayed?
I will do my best, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am delighted to hear that the courts in Liverpool are functioning so well. The listing of cases is a matter for the judiciary, but I know that judges are mindful of the points that my hon. Friend raises, and where there are serious and sensitive cases, judges do prioritise those in listing.
I thank all those working in the justice system across the UK. As a former police officer with family who serve, I know the enormous efforts being made to keep the systems functioning. We clearly need more Nightingale courts and proper long-term investment to increase capacity. Can the Minister assure me, however, that the Government will not respond to this backlog by doing anything to either weaken or undermine the fundamental right to trial by jury?
I thank the hon. Lady’s family for their service in the police force. We are, as a nation, grateful for everything they do on the frontline. It is not our intention to undermine those fundamental principles of justice, and even though we are in difficult circumstances, we have not cut corners with those fundamental rights to justice, nor do we plan to.
We are putting as many resources as we can into cases in the mental health tribunal, and we are using remote hearing technology as much as we can in tribunals generally, including the mental health one. My hon. Friend will have seen the recently published mental health White Paper, which aims to go even further in supporting the rights of people with mental health problems.
Is the Minister aware that many lawyers and people using the courts are absolutely terrified of going to work? These are not covid-safe environments. As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on miscarriages of justice, I have talked to a lot of people working in our courts. He is being very complacent. Many people think that courts are the place to catch the covid infection. What is he going to do to show the leadership and management to sort that out?
The Government have spent a quarter of a billion pounds this year on making our court estate covid-safe. Public Health England and Public Health Wales find it to be safe. I hope that it reassures the hon. Gentleman’s constituents to know that the number of positive cases in the court system detected among court staff is no different from what we find in the general population. The measures that have been taken are working, and people who need to use the justice system do not need to be afraid in the way he describes.
We are not complacent. We aim to do more, particularly in the area of testing. I urge people using the court system to take a lateral flow test, administered by a local authority testing centre, before going into court where they can, and if they see anything that concerns them, they should report it quickly, because there are reporting processes available. We are committed to making sure that courts are safe, and that work will continue.
Given that the Minister has previously expressed sympathy for the idea of raising the mandatory retirement age for magistrates in particular, may I appeal to him to ensure that when he does so, there is provision to reinstate those magistrates who have retired in the meantime, so that the valuable services of people like my constituent Peter Power JP are not lost to the bench?
As my right hon. Friend knows, we ran a consultation in the autumn on this topic, and I hope we will be able to respond formally to that and move forward in the near future. His suggestion that recently retired magistrates who are under the new retirement age can return is a very good point well made, and I can assure him that it will definitely feature in our thinking when we respond to the consultation.
Nottinghamshire police offered the empty Hucknall police training school to the Courts and Tribunals Service for use as a Nightingale court at zero cost months ago, but it has been rejected, and HMCTS is refusing to discuss alternatives with our chief constable and police and crime commissioner. Why has HMCTS not opened a Nightingale court in Nottinghamshire? Why was that free offer refused, and why is the Minister not working with Notts police to ensure that victims and witnesses are not denied justice?
We have opened 36 Nightingale courts across the country. I am sorry that there is not one so far in the hon. Lady’s county, but I would be willing—delighted, in fact—to speak with her about her proposals for her county. If she would like to make contact, I will happily either exchange correspondence or have a meeting to discuss those ideas. There are sometimes reasons why a particular building is not suitable that are not immediately apparent—it might be to do with custody cells or something else—but I am happy to have a proper, detailed conversation with her about her ideas, to see what can be done. If she follows up with my office or my Department, I will be delighted to do that.
Last year, the Ministry of Justice received calls to temporarily dispense with juries as a way of clearing the backlog in the criminal justice courts. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for his determination not to do this. However, will my hon. Friend reassure the House that as he works to accelerate the disposal of criminal matters, he remains committed to preserving juries as a fundamental cornerstone of the criminal justice system?
The fact that we have had to open the Nightingale courts to increase capacity, welcome though that is, indicates how mistaken it was to close local courts in places like my constituency of Rochdale or in Bury and to concentrate all the magistrates courts in Manchester. Local justice is still a sensible idea. Will the Minister use this opportunity to think about a review of localism and the possibility of reopening local courts?
Some local courts have been brought back into use in response to the pandemic. We have had to use Nightingale courts not because the current court estate is, in itself, inadequate, but because we need to space out a lot more to hold hearings and trials, especially jury trials, in a covid-safe way. Even where particular courts—the Old Bailey is a good example—have quite a large number of courtrooms, we can only use a subset of those in a covid-safe way. We have enough jury courtrooms, but they are sometimes difficult to use in a distanced, covid-safe way, and that is why we have had to open up the Nightingale courts. However, we will see what lessons we can learn, as the hon. Gentleman says. We will keep this under careful review and reflect on it very carefully.
The Minister will understand the attention that has been paid to this issue, but I welcome the highlighting of the historical trends with regard to the hyperbole coming from the Opposition Benches. Does he agree that with many private events venues unable to operate and claiming taxpayer-funded grants and support, it makes sense for the taxpayer to be paying into those as Nightingale courts instead? May I encourage him to hasten the roll-out of such venues?
The Government like to talk tough on crime, but since 2010 the MOJ has been cut more than any other Department: police funding was cut, recorder sitting days were cut, the CPS was cut, and more than half the courts across England and Wales were closed. The new resources that the Minister has talked about will not make up for those 10 years of cuts. That is not being tough on crime, is it?
I will tell the House what is being tough on crime. According to the crime survey for England and Wales—the only source of crime statistics that the Office for National Statistics says is reliable—the number of crimes in the jurisdiction of England and Wales has gone down by 41% since 2010, and that is the number that matters the most.
I commend the Minister for the work he has done to get jury trials back up and running. I have a constituent who has been called for jury service and is quite worried about their own safety and the safety of those they live with. What information can my hon. Friend give about the steps he is taking to make jury service covid-safe so that my constituents can be reassured when they are undertaking this important public duty?
My hon. Friend can reassure her constituents who have been summoned for jury service that we have plexiglass screens in place to prevent the spread of any infection, distancing in the jury retiring rooms, regular cleaning, of course, and a whole range of further measures. If any of her constituents, or indeed anyone’s constituents, who are summoned for jury service are in some way vulnerable—perhaps over the age of 70 or feeling that their health might be compromised—they should contact the Jury Central Summoning Bureau to discuss that. Although there is no blanket rule in place, where somebody has legitimate concerns, they will be sympathetically listened to.