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Topical Questions

Volume 688: debated on Tuesday 2 February 2021

The criminal justice system can struggle to meet the needs of those who live with serious mental health problems or conditions such as autism and learning disabilities or learning difficulties sometimes described as neurodivergent conditions. That is something we are determined to change. Last month, we announced landmark reforms to the Mental Health Act 1983 that will strengthen the role that our justice system plays in protecting the most vulnerable, enhancing vital checks and balances to ensure that patients’ rights and wishes are respected, and making sure that offenders with serious mental health problems can gain access to the care they need as quickly and as early as possible. At the same time, we commissioned an independent review to increase our understanding of neurodiversity in justice services, so that we can see what provision is available currently and how we can improve support in the future. A greater emphasis on specialist needs will enable us to build back a fairer and more effective criminal justice system.

I would like to pay tribute to all the incredibly hard work that prison staff in my constituency at HMP Bure in North Norfolk have contended with over the pandemic. There have been some extraordinary dedicated staff working long hours with onerous duties as we fight the pandemic. Can my right hon. and learned Friend tell me, given the risks prison staff are facing, what assessment has been of vaccinating them as soon as possible?

I join my hon. Friend in his tribute to staff not only at HMP Bure but at every institution in the prison estate and the wider Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service community for the tireless work they have been doing since the outbreak of the pandemic.

My hon. Friend is right to point to the importance of vaccination. Already, prison staff who come within the existing criteria in wave one are being vaccinated in accordance with the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation advice. For the next phase, I am strongly and actively supporting the prioritisation of prison staff. My officials are working on that with the Department of Health and Social Care. The JCVI has already said that

“those involved in the justice system”

should be considered for prioritisation. I strongly agree.

Cases of covid-19 are now getting out of control in our prisons. In December, there were 75 cases per 1,000 in prison compared to 46 in the wider community. There are 87 outbreaks, across an estate of 170, in prisons in England and Wales. There have been reports of prisoners who have tested positive for coronavirus leaving cells and being taken to court, putting all at risk. In December, the total number of deaths in prison throughout the whole pandemic spiked by 50% in just one month. Can the Secretary of State tell the House how many prisoners and prison staff died after being infected by the coronavirus in the month of January?

I will furnish those precise figures to the right hon. Gentleman when they are finally available, which will be very shortly. May I deal with the general points that he makes? It is important to note that an outbreak is defined as any number of cases in excess of two in our prisons. Every case is regrettable, but it is important to put this in context: at the moment, as I speak, two thirds of the prison estate either has no outbreaks at all or outbreaks of fewer than 10 cases. That is an important qualification. Clearly, as a result of testing, which we have ramped up right across the estate, we are able to identify more asymptomatic prisoners, and we test prisoners before they go to court. Nobody who presents with symptoms should be presented at court anyway.

This work has been impressive. The quarantine compartmentalisation work that the right hon. Gentleman knows about continues, and I am confident from my daily briefings with Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service that everything is being done to control outbreaks in our prisons. It is not right, with respect to him, to say that this is out of control in our prisons. That, frankly, is an insult to the hard work that staff are doing every day to contain covid-19.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of the early years healthy development review that is under way? Can he tell me what support is available to new babies and their mothers who are in the prison system? (911745)

I pay warm tribute to my right hon. Friend. Indeed, I met her recently in connection with her important work, which she has championed for many years. She will be glad to know that women on mother and baby units are supported by multidisciplinary teams to enable mothers to have the positive experience with their babies that she passionately believes in, and I share that belief. We still apply covid compassionate leave, the most recent release having taken place last month. There are individual care management plans for all pregnant women as well. We are in the process of a fundamental review of all policy here to make sure that we are getting it right for as many women as possible.

During the pandemic, women in prison have experienced an intensified lockdown. Many women are permitted only 30 minutes outside their cell a day and 30 minutes every other day for exercise. Alongside this and many other restrictions, the Ministry of Justice’s most recent safety in custody statistics showed that incidents of self-harm and suicide in women’s prisons have increased by 8% in 2020. I and the public need to know what the Government are going to do to protect these women from having a mental health crisis in prison and to ensure that transformative rehabilitation is effective. (911748)

The hon. Lady is right to raise the particular challenges facing women prisoners. There does seem to be a different effect of the current restrictions on women prisoners as opposed to the male estate. Sadly, we have seen rates of self-harm and, indeed, repeated self-harm from individual prisoners increase. I assure her that the female offender strategy that we launched two years ago is at the heart of our considerations. It is all about understanding why a lot of women not just self-harm, but end up in the custodial estate in the first place. We continue with work on that. More investment is coming, with the creation of secure centres. We will continue to look at ways in which we can reimagine and redesign how women are incarcerated. She will be glad to note that overall numbers in the custodial estate remain quite low compared with recent years as a result of covid and, indeed, the approach that the courts have been taking.

Despite best efforts, the transfer of prisoners increases the risk of covid-19 transmission. With prison occupancy 6% lower than at this time last year, what steps is my right hon. and learned Friend taking to ensure that transfers take place only where absolutely necessary? (911746)

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. We have taken steps to minimise the risk from transfers. We allow only essential transfers—for example, where courts need to be served and justice must carry on. We have clear policies in place to define the need for essential transfers, and we have our compartmentalisation strategy, which means that new admissions to prisons are kept separate from the general population. We are testing new prisoners and, indeed, testing those being transferred between prisons to minimise the risk of spreading the virus.

All too often, people who commit retail crime escape a custodial sentence. The Scottish Parliament recently passed legislation that will provide frontline retail workers with important protection from abuse and violence when they serve their communities. Will this Government finally ensure that key retail workers in England and Wales are covered by similar specific legislation? (911749)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that important issue. He is right to talk about retail workers being on the frontline. He can be reassured that in relation to offences such as assault and other serious crimes well known to the law, the Sentencing Council has set out guidelines in which it specifically refers to people such as retail workers in an important public service position, which means that the courts should be increasing sentences and finding aggravating factors where shop workers have been the victims of crime. I think all of us in this House share the need to support our shop workers, particularly at this time of covid when they have done an outstanding service to us all.

I have met my local police and had many letters from my constituents who are concerned about covid-related offences, including breaches of lockdown, spitting, vaccine fraud and grant fraud. What assessment has my right hon. and learned Friend made of the effectiveness of legislation in prosecuting covid-related offences? (911747)

My hon. Friend is quite right to highlight the particularly egregious nature of offences that are based either on the threatened spread of covid or on the abuse of trust that is inherent with anybody who purports to be a vaccinator but who tries to profit out of it. Having considered the matter carefully with my officials, I think that we have provisions within the Fraud Act 2006 that can cover a lot of the false representations that are being made. Indeed, there does not need to be a detriment proved as a result of the provisions of that Act. We also have other legislation. Any spitting, for example, is an assault and should be treated as such, and I note that a number of cases have been brought against the perpetrators of that appalling crime.

The Minister claimed just now that the pay rise for band 3 prison officers needed to be affordable and value for money, so given that more than £30 million is currently wasted due to the hundreds of frontline prison officers leaving the service within their first two years, and that much of the extra spend would be returned to the Treasury through taxation, is not rejecting this fair and sustainable pay rise simply a false economy? (911750)

The hon. Lady is right to raise the position with regard to our outstanding prison officers. She can be reassured that as a result of the Chancellor’s announcement regarding the pay freeze, a lot of officers will receive the £250 rise next year, and there will be incremental increases to pay that are part of their current terms of employment. I hear what she says about the particular decision that we had to take. It was not an easy one. We are living in exceptional times, and I will continue to work as constructively as possible with the Prison Officers Association and other representative bodies to ensure not only that we reflect the need for support for our prison officers but that we retain as many of them as possible. It is not an easy balancing exercise. We did carry out the vast majority of the recommendations, but considering the times in which we live at the moment, that particular recommendation was not one we felt able to support at this time.

This week is children’s mental health awareness week, and information from the Children’s Commissioner indicates that there are more than 1,000 children in Burnley who live in a household where domestic violence occurs. Could my right hon. and learned Friend therefore update us on the status of the Domestic Abuse Bill, which will protect all victims of domestic abuse including the children who witness it? (911751)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point so powerfully. We fully recognise the devastating impact that domestic abuse has on children and their futures. The Domestic Abuse Bill will ensure that all children who experience the effects of domestic abuse are considered victims of domestic abuse in their own right, whether or not they are related to the victim or the perpetrator. I am pleased to report that the Bill was given a Second Reading in the other place last month, and we expect it to complete its passage by the spring.

With the introduction of the early release scheme at the outset of the pandemic, more prisoners will have needed assistance with their pre-release benefits from Department for Work and Pensions prison co-ordinating staff. Can the Lord Chancellor confirm that the DWP prison staff have indeed returned under covid-19 guidelines to help prisoners as part of that pre-release process? (911753)

The hon. Gentleman makes a very reasonable point. I can assure him that the degree of partnership with the DWP is better than it has ever been, with work coaches in our prisons to support prisoners prior to their release, in the weeks and months beforehand. Indeed, we are working actively to make sure that if benefit is needed, for example, it can be available in loan form on release. Of course, on Friday we made a major announcement about accommodation for people who are released from prison. It is all part of an overall approach that involves a home, a job and a friend, and of course the benefits system is playing its part in helping to improve that provision.

Harlow resident Charlotte Budd, who is a survivor of domestic abuse, suffered a great deal from her experiences in the family court system. I would be grateful if my right hon. and learned Friend could provide an update on what steps the Government are taking to address the concerns brought to light by the Ministry of Justice report on assessing the risk of harm to children and parents in private law children cases. Will he also explain what measures the Government are taking to make certain that the correct guidance and education is in place for members of our judiciary in dealing with domestic abuse cases such as that of Charlotte Budd? (911752)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that point so perfectly on behalf of his constituent. Good progress is being made following the expert panel’s report. First, we have launched a review into the presumption of parental involvement. Secondly, the design of the pilot integrated domestic abuse courts is under way. Thirdly, measures in the Domestic Abuse Bill to provide further protection to victims and survivors who use the family courts are passing through the other place. Guidance is a matter for the judiciary, but I have raised this with the president of the family division and he is very much seized of it and will consider making recommendations on judicial training to the judicial college in light of the recommendations of the harms panel and other developments.

Covid is spiralling out of control in prisons. In December, deaths surged by 50% and cases by 70%. Unlike during the last lockdown, the Government insist that non-essential workers go in and out of prisons every single day, risking spreading the virus. The University and College Union, which represents prison educators, tells me that teachers are not even allowed to prepare lessons or carry out marking at home. Instead, they have to go into prisons to print worksheets, deliver them to cells, pick them up from cells and mark them on site. Will the Minister please intervene to stop this reckless practice? (911755)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, but she must not repeat the myth that covid is out of control in our prisons. It serves nobody’s interests, least of all those of staff who are working day and night to control it. She makes an important point about education. Clearly, in this lockdown we wanted to ensure that more education and skills training were available. That is absolutely right and everyone would support it. However, there is a problem with what she says because, of course, the passage of paper and other documents in and out of prison inherently poses a security risk. That is the reality we live in and it is therefore important that we balance the needs of prison security alongside the needs of prisoners to access education. I will look carefully at the point she makes, but I think she will understand that a sensitive balance has to be struck.

Many of our Victorian prisons are still in use. These prisons are typically located in densely populated inner-city areas. What plans do the Government have to replace these old prisons with modern facilities that are safer for both inmates and guards, much cheaper to run and more effective at rehabilitation and at reducing reoffending rates? There is an opportunity not just dramatically to improve our prisons but to raise significant funds to be reinvested back into the justice system and to free up much-needed land for housing in inner-city areas. (911754)

My hon. Friend will understand that it is very important that proper calculations are made about prison capacity and that we do not end up in a position like that under the last Labour Government when we were having to use police cells to house prisoners, which was both expensive and, frankly, inhumane. He will know about and will welcome the huge commitment of £4 billion to deliver 18,000 additional prison places—modern places—across the estate by the middle of this decade. That additional space will allow us to do even more purposeful activity. On maintenance, we have committed £315 million next year—a huge increase on the previous capital settlement for maintenance—because we need to get on with ensuring that our current estate is decent, safe and secure.

There are yet more reports this week of bailiffs on people’s doorsteps breaking the rules meant to govern their behaviour. In view of those reports, will the Minister meet me and representatives of concerned charities, such as StepChange and Citizens Advice, to discuss what further measures can be taken to protect vulnerable people? (911756)

We have been very clear that there should be no enforcement of evictions during this pandemic—the law is in place—save for the most exceptional and egregious circumstances. I am very concerned to hear the hon. Lady’s point about bailiffs behaving inappropriately. I would of course be delighted to meet her to discuss it further.

What steps is my hon. Friend taking to increase the provision of Nightingale courts during the pandemic? (911757)

This Government consider the opening of Nightingale courts to be absolutely essential. I have visited a number myself. They play an important role in taking the strain, allowing other courts to carry out custody cases. We have already opened 40 Nightingale courts—an additional 20. That will play an important role in our ongoing courts recovery.

I will now suspend the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business.

Sitting suspended.