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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 688: debated on Tuesday 2 February 2021

Justice

The Secretary of State was asked—

Nightingale Courts

What progress he has made on planning for the (a) opening and (b) operation of Nightingale courts. (911684)

Coronavirus has had an enormous effect globally and on public services in this country, which is why this year we have invested an extra quarter of a billion pounds to facilitate court recovery. As an important part of that we have already, as of today, opened up 40 additional Nightingale courtrooms, with a further 20 to open by the end of March.

But there are huge delays in the justice system. Her Majesty’s justice chief inspectors report 53,000 cases waiting to come before Crown courts. In Cambridgeshire, housing associations tell me that when they file papers for community protection notices, they are frequently lost or not even opened. Will the Minister tell me exactly how many Nightingale courts are hearing criminal trials today, and how many will be by the end of 2021?

In relation to criminal cases, I am pleased to report to the House that since August last year, every single month, relentlessly, the number of disposals in the magistrates court has exceeded receipts, so the outstanding caseload in magistrates courts has been declining relentlessly since August, as the system has recovered. We now have more than 290 effective Crown court jury trials, which is more than we had before the pandemic, and just before Christmas disposals exceeded receipts for the first time during the pandemic. That quarter-of-a-billion-pound investment is working and we are getting the justice system back on its feet following the very substantial and understandable challenges that coronavirus has presented.

The Minister already knows that Nottinghamshire’s police and crime commissioner, the chief constable and I are all extremely concerned about the delays in bringing serious criminal cases to trial and the failure to establish a Nightingale court in Nottinghamshire. I look forward to the discussion that he promised last week, but all Members will want to understand why progress is so slow. The Minister talked about 40 courts being open now and 60 by the end of March, but Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service said that 200 would be needed; what is preventing him from addressing that problem? How much investment has the Treasury earmarked for Nightingale courts?

On the question of investment, I have already said that in the current financial year we have spent an extra quarter of a billion pounds on justice recovery. We are hiring an extra 1,600 HMCTS staff and we have more Crown court jury trial rooms operating than we did before the pandemic. I am, of course, carefully studying the proposals for Nightingale courts in Nottingham and look forward to a conversation with the hon. Member on that topic in the near future.

In terms of speeding up the system, even before coronavirus hit us we had increased expenditure on the Crown Prosecution Service by £85 million a year, hiring an extra 400 prosecutors, and we are on track to hire an extra 20,000 police officers. Our commitment not only to dealing with coronavirus but to speeding up the justice system more generally is clear for all to see.

The extra investment is important and should be recognised, and Nightingale courts can make an important addition to court capacity, but does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that most Nightingale courts are not equipped to handle custody cases and therefore many of the most serious trials? Is not the long-term solution sustained investment, over a period of months and years, to make sure that all available physical Crown courts sit the maximum number of days that they can safely sit, and to ensure that there are resources in terms of judiciary, support staff and a safe environment for court users, to make sure that that can be done? Is that not the top priority?

As he is so often, my hon. Friend the Chair of the Justice Committee is correct. Often when a Nightingale court is set up, it does not have the required custody facilities, but it does free up space in our existing Crown court estate, which does have custody facilities, and allow more Crown court or jury trials in which the defendant is remanded to take place in existing facilities.

Crown court sitting days are very important. We have been clear that in the current financial year Crown court sitting days should not impose any constraints on listing and sitting cases. The situation for the coming financial year, starting in April, is the subject of discussions between my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, but it is fair to say that we are expecting a substantial increase in Crown court sitting days.

The Government’s answer to the question about the scale of the crisis in our justice system is that the backlog has been higher in the past, but the Minister knows that this is just a distraction. In 2010, Crown court cases took, on average, 391 days to complete. By 2019, the Government had closed half of the courts and had 27,000 fewer sitting days, meaning that each case took an average of 511 days. A total of 30% fewer cases were completed, but they took 75% longer. Each year that the Minister’s party is in government, justice for victims is further delayed. How can he be so complacent, announcing just 40 extra rooms? We have 20 Nightingale courts and the head of Her Majesty’s Courts Service said that we needed 200. When are we going to get them?

A range of other measures are being used, not least the roll-out of the cloud video platform, which led last week to more than 20,000 remote hearings across all jurisdictions, and, as I have said, 290 jury court rooms, which is more than we had before. The right hon. Gentleman asked about the past, but he rather conveniently skated over the fact that the outstanding caseload in the Crown court before the pandemic in 2020 was 39,000, whereas in 2010, under the last Labour Government, it was 47,000. He asked about the number of cases and the number of cases being disposed of, but he neglected to mention that crime, according to the crime survey—the only Office for National Statistics-certified source of statistics—had fallen from 9.5 million cases in 2010 to 5.6 million in 2020 under a Conservative Government delivering reductions in crime. I notice that, last week, the shadow Justice Secretary talked about wartime juries of seven. I also noticed that, in June of last year, writing in The Guardian newspaper—

Order. Minister, I think you could have saved a little bit for later. It is a very full answer, but I now need to make progress.

Reoffending

We are committed to cutting crime and reducing reoffending. A total of 80% of people in our prisons have reoffended, so if we want to cut crime we absolutely need to stop reoffending. In the past two weeks, we have announced a transformative cross-governmental package to address the underlying causes of reoffending: £80 million to increase the number of drug treatment places for prison leavers; and £70 million investment to cut reoffending by supporting people from prison into accommodation.

My hon. and learned Friend will know that, under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, it is the duty of prison governors to enable people leaving prison to have a secure roof over their heads, so that they are not tempted to reoffend. I welcome the package of measures that has been introduced. Can she go further and explain the roll-out that will take place so that we can ensure that every person leaving prison is offered safe and secure accommodation, and is not tempted to return to a life of crime?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and, indeed, for the superb work that he has done in introducing the Homelessness Reduction Act. I commend him for his work in this area. He is right to reiterate the £70 million that we have put in to ensure that prisoners do not end up on the streets. That builds on what we have been doing throughout the pandemic: we have been operating an £11.5 million scheme to get people into accommodation from prison. That and other measures will continue to ensure that we cut crime and that people do not reoffend.

It is important to support former prisoners, who sadly include ex-armed forces personnel, to ensure that they do not reoffend. Can my hon. and learned Friend please reassure me that her Department is committed to supporting probation services and the fine work that they do?

I am very pleased to commend the work of the probation service, which has been doing important work at this time. We are supporting it with the finances that it needs, with increased funding of an additional £155 million per year, making a total of more than £1 billion for our probation services. That will enable us to recruit 1,500 additional probation officers next year. The investment will also allow us to help people from custody into the community and create specialist short-sentence teams so that prisoners get help before and after they go through the gate.

The Dyfodol centre provides drug rehabilitation services in Bridgend town, and lots of businesses close to the centre are telling me that its presence has negatively impacted on them. The situation has been made worse during covid as the centre socially distances its users, often outside. G4S, which runs the centre, has engaged constructively with me on this and we now have an agreement in principle to move the service to a more appropriate location. Will my hon. and learned Friend meet me to discuss how her Department can facilitate and expedite this?

We are aware that there have been some difficulties with the building in Bridgend, and we are working with the local community, via the commissioned services to which my hon. Friend refers, to find an alternative location. I know that he has discussed the issue with his Dyfodol partners, and I am happy to have a meeting to discuss it further.

All too often, we see the same people committing the same crimes. In Redcar town, we have a specific issue where the same people are willing to steal from garages or to steal cars, sometimes just for a couple of quid. Our Conservative candidate for police and crime commissioner, Steve Turner, wants to crack down on these repeat offenders by using technology and tagging, if he is elected in May. Will the Minister outline what more the justice system can do to stop reoffenders committing these so-called low-value crimes?

The measures to which my hon. Friend refers—those which his prospective candidate is interested in—are exactly the measures that we are rolling out. We are looking at shortly rolling out tags for persistent offenders, and expanding and refreshing our integrated offender management tools to ensure that the police crack down on neighbourhood crime.

I declare an interest as the founder and chairman of a prisoner rehabilitation charity. I very much welcome the announcement of a new package to support the reduction in reoffending that my hon. and learned Friend just mentioned. Does she agree that the dynamic framework for probation contracts should have an explicit objective of enabling small frontline charities and social enterprises to play a full role, with full cost recovery, in the delivery of rehabilitation services?

I do agree, and I commend my hon. Friend for the work that he did before he came to Parliament to support youths at risk of reoffending. He will be interested to know that of the 221 organisations that qualified for the dynamic framework, nearly 80% are voluntary sector or community organisations. So far, we have awarded 17 contracts, four of which have been awarded to the voluntary sector or community organisations, but we hope to build on this. We expect the proportion of awards in those sectors to increase in the next round, because 70% of the personal wellbeing bids and 100% of the women’s services contracts have come from organisations in those sectors. As I have discussed with him, we are also conducting a review of the first stages of the competition to ensure that we maximise those sectors’ participation in future competitions.

Supporting Ex-Offenders into Work

We know that offenders are 9% less likely to reoffend if they have a job, which is why we are working with the Department for Work and Pensions to increase the number of work coaches to ensure that ex-offenders have the support they need to enter into the workplace. That is in addition to the work that we are doing in the Ministry of Justice to build up the New Futures Network, which continues to broker partnerships between prisons and employers to improve employment opportunities for prisoners and prison leavers.

Getting information and opportunities to prison leavers as early as possible is key to helping them to build a new life on the outside, so does the Minister agree that the Government’s excellent kickstart programme should be available to suitable offenders under the age of 25, and that ideally they need to get connected to the scheme before they leave the care of the Prison Service?

I absolutely agree. It is appropriate that the work programmes that are available in the community are available to prison leavers. That is why I am working closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on this issue, including by delivering on our manifesto commitment to increase the number of prison work coaches, who will further support prison leavers. It is those work coaches who will enable us to connect to those long-term Government programmes.

Human Rights Act 1998

The Government established the independent Human Rights Act review to examine the framework of the Act—how it is operating in practice and whether any change is required. The review will consider the approach taken by the domestic courts to the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights, and it will also examine whether the Act currently strikes the correct balance between the roles of the courts, the Government and Parliament. It will then consider whether—and, if so, what—reforms might be justified. It will report back in the summer and its report will be published, as well as the Government’s response.

Last week in the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Lord Neuberger pointed out that the Human Rights Act plays an important role in ensuring that people have access to justice and the means to protect their rights in court, and that the Act is even more vital as legal aid is squeezed. Does the Secretary of State agree with this statement, and does he recognise that removing human rights avenues at the same time as legal aid centres will reduce the ability of citizens to protect their human rights?

I agree with the noble Lord that the Act has played an important part in helping many applicants with important cases that have been brought before the courts. However, I can reassure the hon. Lady that the review is all about the framework of the Act itself, not about the scope of the convention rights that are scheduled within it, and the two issues should not be confused, either accidentally or intentionally.

I would like to start by noting the focus and perspicacity with which my predecessor, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), approached this role.

In my previous role as equalities spokesperson, I noted a change in narrative from those on the Government Benches, who had started to deny the existence of structural inequality based on, for example, race or disability. In my new role, I note that the same Government Members seem resistant to properly explaining the need for or aims of their review of the Human Rights Act. Are the two linked, and do this Government simply not recognise human rights and the need for robust legislation?

May I welcome the hon. Lady to her new role? I well remember working with her on the Investigatory Powers Bill in the 2015 Parliament. I will not dwell upon the internal grief of the Scottish National party; I will simply pay tribute to the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), who always prosecuted her case with extreme perspicacity.

Let me reassure the hon. Lady in one word: no. They are not linked. As I have already said, this is not about the ambit of convention rights; it is a sensible and measured review of the mechanism that we have here domestically. It involves representatives from all corners of the United Kingdom, very much including Scotland. It has a balanced panel with a diversity of thought, and I am confident that it will produce robust and important recommendations.

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his answer and his welcome, but I am not the only one questioning this Government’s commitment, because the globally respected Human Rights Watch recently published a report stating that this UK Government showed a

“willingness to set aside human rights for the sake of political expediency and a worrying disdain for the rule of law.”

Is it wrong, and if so, can he offer any reason as to why it might have come to that conclusion?

Yes, it is totally wrong. In this Lord Chancellor, and indeed in every Minister, there is an absolute understanding and a deep respect for the rule of law, which underpins the United Kingdom Government’s approach internationally, representing a force for good in world affairs and underpinning what is a proud liberal democracy. I and my colleagues will stand up steadfastly for that, and we do so with confidence and clarity.

Court Backlog

The covid pandemic has had an enormous effect on public services, including the court system, but we have risen to that challenge, investing a total this year, as I said earlier, of an extra quarter of a billion pounds in court recovery. That has included installing 450 plexiglass screens in courtrooms to facilitate covid-safe hearings and installing the cloud video platform in 150 magistrates courts and 70 Crown courts to enable remote hearings, which last week delivered a record in excess of 20,000 remote hearings across all jurisdictions. We are not resting. There is more work to do and this Government will take whatever action is required to ensure justice is delivered.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, and I welcome the establishment of the 40 Nightingale courtrooms and the rapid increase in the use of video technology, but may I reinforce a point and ask him to confirm the importance of prioritising urgent cases to protect the public during this extremely difficult time?

My hon. Friend is right to raise the prioritisation of urgent cases. Listing is a judicial function and is a matter for judges, but I know that judges do prioritise the most urgent cases. For example, right from the beginning of the pandemic, domestic violence protection orders were one of those matters that were most prioritised. I hope I can also reassure my hon. Friend by saying that for those most serious Crown court cases where the prisoner was remanded in custody, well over half that had their first hearing in November will have had their substantive trial by July this year.

The Minister will I hope be aware that in the year ending March 2020, an astonishing 99% of rapes reported to the police in England and Wales resulted in no legal proceedings against the alleged perpetrators, and even the 1% of victims whose cases do proceed to the courts have to wait years for justice. What concrete steps is the Secretary of State taking to speed up the process and to address this appalling situation?

The hon. Lady is right to draw the House’s attention to this very serious problem, which most certainly does need to be sorted out. Some steps have been taken already, such as the roll-out of section 28 video-recorded evidence to help the most vulnerable witnesses, where that would be of assistance. Changes have also been made to disclosure rules very recently, which often pose obstacles in these kinds of cases. In fact, only yesterday the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) and the Lord Chancellor announced an additional £40 million to help victims, including victims of these terrible crimes, but it is fair to say that a great deal more needs to be done, as the hon. Lady rightly references. There is a cross-Government, cross-criminal justice system rape review currently being undertaken, led by the Minister for Crime and Policing. That will be reporting very shortly and will have further concrete actions in this very important area.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for those earlier answers. The additional funding that Suffolk constabulary has received for victims’ services is extremely welcome, as many victims of the most horrific violent and sexual offences are, along with their families, in urgent need of additional support at a time when the period between charging and the commencement of a trial can now be between a year and 18 months. That delay is causing great distress, so to reduce the backlog of cases, will my hon. Friend provide more court staff and a Nightingale court in Suffolk to increase capacity in Crown courts?

I can most certainly offer my hon. Friend an assurance about the additional staff. We are in the process of hiring an extra 1,600 HMCTS staff. As I mentioned to the Justice Committee Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) earlier, we are also expecting a significant increase in Crown court sitting days in the next financial year. More money is being invested in the Crown Prosecution Service, which of course brings these prosecutions, with an extra £85 million a year to hire 400 more prosecutors. The purpose of all those measures is to speed up the system in the way that my hon. Friend has rightly just requested. I would be very happy to study proposals for a Nightingale court in East Anglia. Perhaps we could discuss that after this session to see what ideas he has.

My constituent owns a construction firm. He completed a significant project before the first lockdown, but his customer has not yet paid. He understands from his solicitor that it is impossible to submit a request for a winding-up order through the courts at present, even in cases where the temporary restrictions on them do not apply. If that is the case, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that businesses can request winding-up orders when required while covid restrictions are in place?

It is important that people to whom debts are owed can enforce those debts and get judgment; it is the foundation upon which commercial transactions are built. I am not sure that I entirely recognise the situation to which my hon. Friend refers. Perhaps we can correspond after today’s session, and I would be happy to look into the particulars of the case that she references and see whether I can assist in any way.

My constituent reported her case of historical sexual abuse four years ago. The trial is listed for mid-2022, but with court delays, there is no certainty. Meanwhile, this traumatised victim cannot access therapy, as it might jeopardise the conduct of the trial. She is seriously unwell. What equality impact assessment has the Minister undertaken on the impact of court delays on victims of sexual and domestic crime, and will he look to expedite those cases?

I recognise the considerations that the hon. Lady raises. I know that when judges make listing decisions, they carefully take into account the sort of considerations that she rightly outlined. Of course, many of the delays in bringing these cases predate coming to trial; they might be related to issues to do with disclosure or the time it takes to investigate and then assemble the case. We hope that many of those issues can be addressed via the rape review, in addition to the work that is being done on disclosure rules, and the extra money going into the CPS will help. As I said, we recognise that there is a problem in this area, which the rape review and the other measures aim to address, because delays do not serve the interests of justice; they cause distress for victims, as the hon. Lady rightly says. That is one of the reasons we have invested so much extra money in supporting victims, but I agree that delivering speedy justice in this area is critical.

From all the evidence in Yorkshire and the north-east from judges, retired judges and senior barristers, I get the feeling that there are serious problems. Is it not the case that the Government are using covid as a fig leaf for the fact that our justice system was in terminal crisis before covid, and we must have a renewal of our justice system and investment in it? When are we going to see the royal commission on criminal justice up and working?

I am afraid that I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of the justice system prior to coronavirus. Waiting times in the magistrates court prior to coronavirus were about eight weeks, which is an entirely respectable figure. The outstanding case load in the Crown court prior to coronavirus—39,000—was quite low by historical standards and significantly lower than the 47,000 it was when Labour left office in 2010. Moreover, the HMCTS budget in 2020 was higher by some £200 million that it was in 2010. There is, of course, a great deal more that we need to do. A lot of money is being invested this year, and more money will be invested in the future. My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor is working at pace on the royal commission on criminal justice, and we are expecting announcements in due course.

It was revealed in a coroner’s court last week that in August 2019, an 18-year-old woman who was a victim of sexual assault was told that she would not get her day in court for 19 months. The day after, she lost her life to an overdose. The coroner said that the two events were linked. This was six months before covid landed on our shores. It is not covid that broke our system of justice—it is this Government who did it. Will the Minister offer an apology to that young woman’s family and to every single victim of assault and every single victim of crime in this country who is waiting month after month after month for justice?

I have already pointed out that our justice system prior to coronavirus was in good shape, with magistrates court waiting times, as I said in response to the last question, at about eight weeks and a Crown court outstanding case load that was low by historical standards, but we do recognise the distress that witnesses and victims in particular suffer. That is why, only yesterday, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), and the Lord Chancellor announced an additional £40 million to support victims—that is extra money on top of additional money already—because we recognise the importance of victims in this system. A rape review is under way to make sure that these cases are brought to court as quickly as they can be, because we do recognise that they are taking too long. However, that is not just a courts issue; it is to do with disclosure rules, putting a case together and properly investigating these cases. Of course, the extra 20,000 police officers will help. Victims are at the forefront of our mind, and we will do everything we can to look after and protect them.

Evictions and Bailiff Enforcement Activity: Covid-19

What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department’s policies of (a) evictions and (b) other enforcement activity conducted by bailiff organisations during the covid-19 outbreak. (911690)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. Effective enforcement is essential to the administration of justice, but it must be done safely during the pandemic. This Government have banned bailiffs from enforcing evictions in England, except in the most serious circumstances, until at least 21 February, to help control the spread of infection. We have published covid-safe guidance for bailiffs who are enforcing debts and fines, and have requested that they do not enter homes at present to take control of goods.

I am glad that the Minister has touched on this, but I am sure he will agree that, in the middle of a deadly pandemic, there could be no worse time for hard-up families to receive a knock at the door, yet the Government are still permitting bailiffs to undertake unsafe and unfair doorstep enforcement action. The shadow Minister for legal aid, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), has written to the Lord Chancellor twice in the last six months, urging him to pause home visits, as have 11 debt advice charities, which have also outlined widespread abuse of bailiff action during covid-19. Can we have a very clear answer from the Minister: will he reimpose the ban on home visits from the first national lockdown, and will he deliver on the Government’s 18-month-old promise of better industry regulations?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. It is very important to distinguish between evictions and enforcement. In respect of evictions, the Government have been very clear: people cannot be evicted before 21 February unless arrears are of over six months. In normal circumstances, if someone simply had two months of arrears, they could then be subject to enforcement action. Now there needs to be six months’ notice before possession proceedings even start. This Government are clear that we want to ensure that enforcement agents do not contribute to the spread of this virus, and that is why we have strict regulations in place.

We have, on average, over 20,000 new covid infections each day and, tragically, more than 1,000 deaths, so how can the Minister possibly justify allowing bailiffs to crack on with business as usual in the midst of this deadly pandemic?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, but he knows and I know that it is not business as usual. In making that remark, he has completely disregarded the guidance that is in place. Of course we want to make sure that these proceedings happen safely. That is why Public Health England has considered these matters, and it is satisfied with the situation as it exists. We have to make sure in this Government that we respect all rights, including convention rights—article 1 of protocol 1—and he should be in favour of that too.

Prison Service Pay Review Body Recommendation 3

What assessment he has made of the effect on prison officer (a) recruitment, (b) retention and (c) morale of his Department’s decision to reject the Prison Service Pay Review Body’s recommendation 3. (911691)

In July 2020, the Government accepted in full six out of seven recommendations made by the Prison Service Pay Review Body. This delivered an increase of at least 2.5%, with some staff receiving up to 7% with progression. This delivered an above-inflation increase, and it was the third year in a row that prison staff have benefited from a pay award of at least 2%. In rejecting recommendation 3, the impact on recruitment, retention and staff morale were carefully considered alongside affordability and value for money for the taxpayer. I would like to say that I highly value the work of the prison staff, and the decision to reject recommendation 3 should in no way suggest otherwise.

Prison officers are poorly paid for the incredibly difficult job that they do, and the Government’s experts recommended a £3,000 pay rise for band 3 prison officers to tackle the crisis in recruitment, retention and morale. The Government are committed to departing from their recommendations only under exceptional circumstances, so will the Minister explain what exceptional circumstances justify not paying band 3 prison officers what they deserve?

To repeat, I recognise the very difficult work that prison officers are doing up and down the country at this time. The pay proposals that we have accepted deliver an increase in pay, and as I mentioned, we took into account factors including affordability and value for money at this time.

Violence in our prisons has increased massively over the past decade, and skilled staff are essential to keep prisons safe. The Minister knows that the pay review body recommended a one-off increase to wages in band 3 as a job retention package, to ensure that our prisons keep the staff they need. She knows that staff and vulnerable prisoners will be at greater risk if yet more skilled officers leave the profession, so let me give her another chance to answer the question: she chose to ignore that recommendation—why?

I would like to address the point that the hon. Lady raised about violence in our prisons. I am pleased that violence in the adult male estate has gone down over recent months. Of course we accept that it is too high, and we must continue to do more to protect our prison officers. That is why we are rolling out body-worn cameras, and why we have 24/7 counselling and trauma support, as well as other things to support prison officers. Of course pay is a critical factor in the way that people value their job, and we are introducing a package of measures to ensure that prison officers continue well in their roles.

Covid-19: Court Estate

What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the steps taken by HM Courts and Tribunals Service to mitigate the risks of covid-19 infection on the court estate. (911693)

What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the steps taken by HM Courts and Tribunals Service to mitigate the risks of covid-19 infection on the court estate. (911714)

We take covid safety very seriously, and as I said earlier, we have invested £0.25 billion in making our courts covid-safe this year. That has involved the buildings and other measures that include plexiglass screens, nightingale courts, social distancing, and an enhanced cleaning regime. We work closely, of course, with Public Health England to ensure that our courts are covid-safe.

Solicitors in my constituency, particularly those who may be vulnerable, have contacted me to say that they are frightened to attend court due to the lack of safety provisions. That has led to some of them refusing to take on new cases, and resulted in defendants not having the levels of representation to which they are entitled, and further backlogs. Those solicitors have a simple request: that the Court Service resumes video remand hearings, such as those in place at the peak of the first lockdown, so that we can get through the backlog and they can conduct their work from home if possible, which is the Government’s national advice.

The Lord Chief Justice rightly gave a direction in January at the beginning of this lockdown that every case that can be heard remotely should be, for all the reasons mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. Video remand hearings have been recommenced as much as possible, and they are used a lot more now than they were in December, for example. I reassure the hon. Gentleman’s constituents that Public Health England says that our court estate is safe, and incidents of covid among Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service staff are no higher or lower than in the general population. I hope that gives his constituents confidence to continue their work in person where that is absolutely necessary.

The connection to the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) who has the next question has failed so we will go straight to the shadow Minister.

Labour Members share the horror of the legal profession at the fact that the already huge court backlog has increased by 35% since the start of the pandemic, and now includes more than 53,000 Crown Court cases. Lawyers want to keep the justice system open and moving, but it is wrong to ask them to pay for years of Tory cuts by putting their health and safety at risk. Like everyone else they are anxious, and given the hundreds of covid cases across the court estate, as revealed in answers to my parliamentary questions, we should not be surprised. More than 100 new cases were reported in just eight days in January alone. Sadly, we hear that precautions vary considerably across the country, so what new measures will the Minister take in the estate to ensure that all courts operate best practice, and provide those who use them with a guarantee that they will be safe?

We have already invested, as I have said repeatedly this morning, a quarter of a billion pounds in total this financial year to make our court estate covid-safe. That is why we have managed to keep the court system operating in the month of January and beyond in a way that was very difficult back in March and April last year. Public Health English is regularly consulted.

On the covid cases the hon. Gentleman mentions, there are tens of thousands of people passing through our court system every day, and the number of covid cases reported among HMCTS staff is in line with what we would expect in the general population. Indeed, those cases are now going down. Best practice is being adopted. Our courts are safe. Of course, where hearings can be done remotely they should be, as we are doing here in Parliament, and that is why we had over 20,000 remote hearings across all jurisdictions last week, but where hearings have to be done in person courts are safe to hear them.

Topical Questions

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.