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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 691: debated on Tuesday 16 March 2021


The Secretary of State was asked—

Mental Health Act Reform

We are determined to work across Government to modernise the Mental Health Act 2007 so that it ensures that patients receive the right care in the right setting at the right time. Prison should be a place for rehabilitation, not a convenient holding pen for those people for whom mental health is the primary driver of their offending.

What is the timetable for the Mental Health Act consultation and how can interested parties participate?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her continuing interest in this important process. We are consulting widely on these proposed reforms, including service users, carers and professionals, to ensure that we get this once-in-a-generation opportunity right. The consultation is now available on the gov.UK website, and will close on 21 April.

Will the Secretary of State explain how reforms of the Mental Health Act will strengthen the role that the justice system plays in protecting society’s most vulnerable, both in north Wales and across the country?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend who, from his professional experience, has a great deal of expertise and knowledge in this area. Among other reforms, we want, in particular, to increase patient access to the Mental Health Tribunal, which provides vital independent scrutiny of detention orders. We wish to expand its powers so that it plays a greater safeguarding role. Health policy is devolved to Wales, so it will be for the Welsh Government to decide whether they wish to join the UK Government on many of our reforms in the White Paper, and we will continue to work closely with them in order to secure that partnership.

Covid-19: Legal Aid Sector Support

With regard to the legal aid sector during this crisis, we have expanded the scope of and relaxed the evidence requirements for hardship payments in Crown court cases, including reducing the threshold for work done; we have increased opportunities to claim payment on account in civil legal aid cases, as well as increasing the amounts; we have halted the pursuit of outstanding debts owed by providers of legal aid to the Legal Aid Agency; and we have suspended sanctions in relation to mixed deadlines. That is in addition to the range of measures that we have taken in order to support the sector through this crisis.

The latest Ministry of Justice figures show that there are 56,544 outstanding Crown court cases at the end of January. Given that defence lawyers are paid for litigation when a case finishes, can the Secretary of State confirm what steps have been taken to assist legal aid lawyers with their cash flow at this time?

The hon. Lady will be glad to know that, as I referred to in my initial reply, we have already relaxed the evidence requirements for hardship payments and, importantly, reduced the threshold for work done by criminal lawyers to £450 from the current £5,000. It is absolutely essential that we maintain throughput, and as we move on through this year with the road map out of lockdown, I am confident that the court system will be able to list even more proactively, making sure that there is plenty of work for dedicated criminal legal aid lawyers.

The independent criminal legal aid review is a once-in-a-decade opportunity to fix a vital element of our criminal justice system. There are more than 400 fewer criminal legal aid firms today than in 2015. That means that more than one in four has left the system. When these firms fold, legal aid family law departments often go with them, leaving domestic abuse victims without representation. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Government cannot simply wait for the recommendations of CLAR before taking action and that we must make sure that the number of unrepresented domestic abuse victims does not increase yet further.

The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about the need for representation for domestic abuse victims. He knows, of course, that in criminal scenarios the Crown Prosecution Service will act with regard to the prosecution of offences. He will also note that, in phase 1 of the CLAR process, up to £51 million a year has already been injected into criminal legal aid fees. That is the most significant increase in investment in legal aid for a quarter of a century. We are working on the existing body of evidence with the new chair of the criminal legal aid review, Sir Christopher Bellamy QC, who is already engaging with the professions. I am confident that his work will deal not only with the situation with regard to fees in court, but, as he says, the “sustainability” of those criminal legal aid firms that are the lifeblood of representation in that sector.

HM Courts and Tribunals Service: Backlog

In common with so much of the public sector, and life in general, courts have been profoundly affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The Government have taken decisive action to address this, investing a quarter of a billion pounds in covid recovery, which has paid for, among other things, 40 Nightingale courtrooms, soon to increase to 60 by the end of this month, and installing video technology enabling over 20,000 hearings a week across all jurisdictions to take place. As a result of that, for example, the outstanding caseload in the magistrates courts has dropped by about 50,000 cases over the past eight months.

Three court buildings have now failed safety inspections by the Health and Safety Executive, yet the Government continue to say that courts are covid-secure. What evidence is there to support this claim, and what steps are Ministers going to take to ensure that no more court buildings fail safety inspections?

We work very closely with Public Health England and follow the guidelines that it gives us. The number of coronavirus cases that have been detected among court users is no higher than among the general population. It is not true to say that there are any more coronavirus cases in courts than anywhere else. That is, in part, because we have invested so much in coronavirus measures like installing plexiglass screens, ensuring there is social distancing, and having overspill rooms so that people can space out when using courts. Where we have tested people in courts, we found extremely low levels of coronavirus cases.

I am encouraged by the measures my hon. Friend is taking to catch up on the backlog. Will he update me specifically on how many Nightingale courts are now open and in use for Crown court work?

There are currently, as we speak, 49 Nightingale courtrooms open and available for work. There are five more opening this week, one of which is Croydon, the borough that I have the honour of representing in south London, and by the end of this month we will get up to a total of 60. Many of those courtrooms can be used for Crown court work, but even where they cannot—for example, because they do not have custodial facilities—they are very often able to do work that would otherwise be done in a Crown court centre that is then freed up for work where, for example, custody suites are required. This is making a real contribution and we intend to go further.

Justice delayed is justice denied. That is no cliché; it is the lived reality for the many, many victims who have not had their day in court during this pandemic. The Minister has said that he expects the number of cases to be brought back to acceptable levels before Easter 2023. Is this really acceptable, and what confidence can victims have that this late date will be met?

I do agree that timely justice is essential. In the magistrates courts, the outstanding caseload has already come down by about 50,000 cases since last summer, which is very welcome progress. In Crown courts, we are now getting through about 2,000 cases a week, which is about the same as it was before the pandemic. But we do need to go faster: the hon. Lady is right. I think the judiciary eased off listing a little bit in January, February and the early part March owing to the more recent lockdown. Now we are moving out of those restrictions, in phases, our expectation is that listing levels will go up again. We have certainly created the capacity to do that, with 290 jury courtrooms available. As listing levels increase, using the capacity we have created I expect the outstanding caseloads to come down.

This is an issue that is very close to the heart of many of my residents in South West Hertfordshire. How is the Department increasing use of remote hearings to ensure the safety of the people involved during the covid-19 outbreak?

I thank my hon. Friend for a very prescient question. We have made a huge investment in IT and technology. We have purchased getting on for 10,000 laptops to enable remote working and video working. We have rolled out the cloud video platform on an expedited basis. As a result of that work, more than 20,000 hearings per week across all jurisdictions are now being held remotely. That is orders of magnitude higher than was the case before, and that is why we have managed to keep getting work done across so many parts of the jurisdiction when in many other countries around the world work has considerably slowed down or even stopped.

An application for bail to Chester Crown court today will not be listed until February next year. This is not a problem of the pandemic, as there was already a backlog because of court closures and because the Government chose to reduce the number of sitting days at Chester Crown court and others. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) says, how can the Government claim to be the party of law and order when justice is being delayed and justice is being denied?

The hon. Gentleman talks about sitting days, and the Lord Chancellor has confirmed that there will be no constraint on sitting days at present. The judiciary can list as many cases as they like, and we are anticipating a very considerable increase in sitting days for the next financial year. The hon. Gentleman talks about the justice system prior to the pandemic, and he may be aware that the outstanding Crown court caseload prior to the pandemic was 39,000—considerably lower than 47,000, as it was under the last Labour Administration. He talks about our record on law and order, and he may be aware that the only authoritative source of crime figures, the crime survey, shows a 41% reduction in crime since 2010, from 9.5 million to 5.6 million, so I will certainly be taking no lectures on law and order from the Labour party.

Will my hon. Friend join me in recognising the efforts made by the police and crime commissioner in Devon and Cornwall, Alison Hernandez, in helping to ensure that our area was the first outside of London to set up virtual remand hearings in police custody during the pandemic? Can he assure me that Devon and Cornwall will continue to receive its fair share of resources and funding to continue dealing with the backlog in criminal cases?

I pay tribute to police and crime commissioner Alison Hernandez and all those working in Devon and Cornwall and across the country. I congratulate them on being first out of the blocks on video remand hearings. We are continuing to do video remand hearing work, particularly during the recent lockdown, and we have in fact made some funding available to support some forces to do that. I am sure that Devon and Cornwall will be receiving its fair share of support as part of the Government’s commitment to recruit 23,000 extra police officers, underlining our commitment to law and order.

As we have already heard, the Crown court backlog has reached nearly 57,000 cases. Many victims of rape and sexual violence face waits of three or four years until their case comes to trial, all the while unable to fully access the therapeutic support they desperately need. It is yet another example of this Government failing to support victims of male violence properly. Will the Minister finally listen to calls from the Victims’ Commissioner and urgently roll-out section 28 measures to all intimidated witnesses, so that victims of these horrific sexual crimes can give evidence as soon as possible, relieving some of the burden of stress and anxiety that they carry as they journey through our criminal justice system?

I share the shadow Minister’s concern about rape prosecutions. There is a rape review currently under way. It is being worked on by the police Minister and the Lord Chancellor, and will be reporting very shortly. Much of the waits actually relate not to the court system but to the time taken to collect evidence, to disclosure issues and to the time taken to prosecute, which is why we are putting £85 million extra into the Crown Prosecution Service.

The shadow Minister asked about section 28. The application of section 28 has been considerably widened recently, and we want to make that available as widely as we can, as quickly as possible. We also want to support victims. That is why we will be spending £140 million in the next financial year—a significant increase—on supporting victims and witnesses.

Finally, on rape, perhaps the shadow Minister can explain to the country and his constituents why it is that this evening the Labour party will vote against—

Order. Minister, we need to calm down. [Interruption.] I am not being funny; you are taking advantage of a situation and I do not expect that. [Interruption.] It is no use looking at me in that way. Trying to score points at the end is not the way we need to do it. We need shorter answers to get through the questions as well.

Sentencing Policy

This question is about sentencing, and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is before the House on Second Reading today, will see whole-life orders for premeditated child murder. It will see life sentences imposed for causing death by dangerous driving and causing death by careless driving when under the influence. It will also see longer prison sentences for rapists, which I believe the Labour party plans to vote against.

This month, a Nottinghamshire removal man was convicted of possessing 8,000 indecent images and videos of children ranging from 15 to just one year old, with many classed as category A or extreme child pornography. This man was given a two-year suspended sentence and, as a result, is unlikely ever to see the inside of a prison cell. I welcome proposals to toughen sentencing and be tough on crime, but a sentence like that one seems to be inconsistent with that work. Will my hon. Friend look again at guidance that says that a suspended sentence is the same as a custodial one, because it is pretty clear that in practical terms that is not the case? Will he also ensure that people who commit serious crimes like that, where children have been exploited and abused, are given a punishment that fits the crime?

Individual sentencing decisions are obviously for the judge who sentences the case, having regard to the facts of that case, but we do take very seriously the kind of offences that my hon. Friend has described. In fact, the maximum penalty for the offence of taking indecent photographs of children is 10 years’ imprisonment. Where an offence is sentenced at a lower level and somebody thinks that that is inappropriate, they can apply under the unduly lenient sentence scheme within 28 days. In 2019, the Government added those kinds of offence to the list of offences eligible under that scheme. If anyone feels that a sentence is too light, I strongly urge them to make an application to the Attorney General under the ULS scheme, and she will then look at that again.

Reconviction rates in Scotland are at a 21-year low. That is because of the community justice approach of the SNP Government for less serious crimes. Even the Minister has admitted that harsher sentencing has

“limited or no general deterrent effect.”

It is not a competition; all countries can learn from each other. If he truly aspires to reduce reoffending—because that is what keeps people safe—will he at least consider a community justice approach, in the knowledge that it is working in Scotland?

I understand that Scotland has the highest rate of imprisonment of any country in western Europe, so I find the question slightly surprising. However, we do accept that, particularly for less serious offences, community sentences have a role to play in rehabilitating. That is why we are keen to expedite the roll-out of community sentence treatment requirements, whereby if someone has a mental health problem, a drug addiction problem or an alcohol problem, we treat that as a health problem as an alternative to short custody. That is being rolled out.

Reoffending Rates

Probation, the police and other services are working together to address the drivers of reoffending, to cut crime and keep our neighbourhoods safe. We recently announced a £70 million investment in accommodation and rehabilitative support for prison leavers to reduce reoffending—part of a £220 million Government plan to cut crime and protect the public. I am pleased to say that, hopefully tomorrow morning, I will lay legislation to impose GPS tracking on offenders who have committed burglary and theft offences, who often have the highest rates of reoffending.

What happens immediately upon release is fundamental. What progress has been made on ensuring that prison leavers have access to benefits and accommodation and can get on the road towards sustainable employment?

With his usual wisdom, my right hon. Friend has put his finger on two of the three pillars of success after prison—a job, a house and a friend—and we are working hard to ensure that all those released from prison have exactly that. The majority of the £70 million investment that I referred to is being focused on providing accommodation for prison leavers. We are working closely with the New Futures Network, a specialist part of the Prison and Probation Service that brokers partnerships with employers to ensure that ex-offenders have access to jobs, which is critical to their success. There is lots of work being done at the moment and lots more to do, and I welcome his concern in this area.

I thank the Minister for his reply. The Farmer review in 2017 concluded that family is the golden thread in reducing offending rates. It cited evidence including a 39% reduction in reoffending among those who had maintained family contact during incarceration. Does he agree that such effective measures should be at the heart of any effective strategy to reduce reoffending, and will he commit to refreshing the data to ensure that the best available evidence is informing the Government’s approach?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that maintaining strong family links has a significant impact on the likelihood of reoffending for people who have been in the secure estate. We are committed to trying to retain those links as much as we possibly can both to families and to the communities from which offenders are drawn. We have made good progress on the Farmer review in embedding that as part of our work, and we will be looking at innovative approaches to offender management in the future.

My hon. Friend may be interested to know that, any minute now, we will be rolling out sobriety tagging in the rest of England; it is already operational in Wales. The critical thing about this disposal is that it does not mean that somebody goes to prison. Nevertheless, it does mean that their offending is managed in a way that we know now sees enormous compliance—90% compliance. This means, critically, that they can maintain their job and maintain their connections with the family in the community, and that is the kind of innovative approach that we want to look at in the future.

I thank my hon. Friend for his previous answer. What are those innovative approaches, and how are he and his Department bringing them to the reducing offending challenge?

It is no surprise that my hon. Friend, with his background and interest in science and technology, can see the potential for the use of technology in particular for managing offenders. As I say, alongside our sobriety tagging programme, we are going to be rolling out GPS tagging for those convicted of acquisitive crimes—burglary, robbery and theft—so that when they are released on licence, we can put a tag on their ankle meaning that, 24 hours a day for up to a year, they will know that we know where they are. We think that will be an enormous deterrent to reoffending and in particular, if there is any offending, it will allow the police to make much swifter detection. It is all part of our plan to revolutionise the management of offenders in the future, and I would welcome my hon. Friend’s ongoing interest and input.

What is my hon. Friend doing to help the young people of Wolverhampton who have previously offended to turn their lives around and build a better, brighter future?

My hon. Friend is a strong voice for Wolverhampton and in particular for the young people of that town. I know that he will commend the brilliant work of probation, police and other partners in Wolverhampton to support young people to, as he says, turn their backs on crime. There is a very proactive community safety partnership in the area, which is committed to making those communities safer. We have been putting pressure on the local services to make sure that they are focused particularly on driving down violence in the town and turning people away from crime. There is fantastic intervention in Wolverhampton, as I say, and I know he will be very supportive of it in the future.

Four years on from my landmark Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which required prison governors to ensure that ex-offenders had secure accommodation on leaving prison, we are still letting people go from prison with £46 in their pockets, two bags of clothes, no accommodation to go to and no job. I welcome the money the Minister is providing for new accommodation, but what action is he taking to make sure that prison governors carry out their statutory duty to ensure that ex-offenders are started off, on leaving prison, in the right way?

My hon. Friend has done fantastic work over the last few years on the issue of homelessness, and it is to his great credit that he has focused on this particular cohort. As he knows, I hope, we are spending £50 million to expand our approved premises, providing temporary accommodation for prison leavers at risk of homelessness and ensuring that there is a proper rehabilitative approach to reintroducing them into society. However, he makes a good challenge on prison governors, and I will go away and make sure that we are seeing maximum compliance in the way that he intends.

Some 20% of sex offenders already have a previous conviction for sexual assault. The latest figures show that, in the last year, 37 convicted rapists already have convictions for the same crime and 14 have been convicted for rape three times previously. When will protecting women drive policy? The Minister cannot say it is now—just look at the numbers.

The protection of women is at the forefront of much of the work we do. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Bill, which I gather he is going to oppose tonight, contains a number of measures that would help us in that fight, not least the serious violence duty, which will bring all partners in an area together to diagnose the problems related to violence in that area and promote a strategy to address it. I am surprised that he raised those particular points, given that the Bill currently going through the House contains the notion of longer sentences for those convicted of serious sexual offences. We think that that will be an enormous deterrent for those who are thinking about offending, and such measures will protect women in the future.

Legal Aid Advice Deserts

The Legal Aid Agency is currently acting to fill any gaps in the market, and it frequently renews capacity, to ensure adequate provision. We are currently considering civil legal aid market sustainability, and I have provided £5.4 million in emergency funding for not-for-profit legal advice providers during covid-19.

Bradford’s community advice centres that provide legal support have been devastated by the Government’s funding cuts and preference for bigger providers. As a result, some of our excellent, hard-working, local grassroot community advice centres have been run into the ground, creating legal aid and advice deserts in some of our most vulnerable communities that need the greatest support. Will the Justice Secretary commit to a “local first” policy, to ensure that community advice centres get the funding they need to help some of society’s most vulnerable people, who cannot afford help elsewhere? Will he commit to ensuring an increase in the number of grassroot community advice centres in Bradford?

The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about the importance of community provision. Indeed, among those sectors that were helped by the £5.4 million funding during covid was the Law Centres Network, which plays an invaluable role. He will be glad to know that the Legal Aid Agency has launched a procurement process to identify new providers in the areas of housing and debt, where there is currently little or no provision, to help citizens get that advice. It will shortly announce a positive outcome to that process.

Covid-19: Justice System

At the beginning of the pandemic, we were guided by public health advice, and we took immediate and decisive action across prison, probation, youth justice and courts services, to implement a range of measures to respond. Our protection of those in prisons, through compartmentalisation, testing, the use of exceptional delivery models and probation services and the creation of Nightingale courts, alongside physical changes to courtrooms and increased video technology, helped to mitigate the severe impact of the pandemic.

I am grateful for the Lord Chancellor’s response. We all know the impact that the pandemic has had on life in our country, and I have seen for myself its impact on many communities who live, learn and work across Newport West. What discussions has he had with the Welsh Government about ensuring that those who need justice are able to get it in a timely manner?

The hon. Lady will be glad to know that I regularly engage with the Welsh Government, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, and Her Majesty’s Prisons and Probation Service in Wales to ensure that the prison estate is safe, and the probation service is delivering. We have heard about the sobriety tags that have been piloted in Wales, and our courts are working well. I am glad that in Wales the management of cases has demonstrated that, now that there is no backlog. In particular, Newport Crown court was home to a multi-handed murder trial, which was dealt with successfully in recent weeks. A lot of good work is going on in Wales. Wales is leading the way, and I am proud of that.

Prison Education Programmes

Education helps prisoners to boost their employability, build their self-esteem, and make a law-abiding contribution to society post release. Since April 2019, we have invested more than £20 million in improving technology in prisons, including investing in infrastructure that will support educational delivery.

I thank the Minister for that answer. As he says, prison education programmes can be hugely beneficial, in terms of rehabilitation and preventing reoffending; future employability, life skills and literacy; or simply, as he says, boosting self-esteem. However, despite the figures that he mentions, there has been a dire lack of investment over the years. Can he tell us why the Government’s promised prison education service, which was in last year’s sentencing White Paper and, indeed, the Government’s 2019 manifesto, is completely absent from the Bill that we will vote on later today?

We do not need to legislate for that. We are absolutely committed to an enhanced prison education service, and I am pleased to be able to say that, in a prison close to the hon. Lady’s constituency, we are rolling out additional curriculum and neurodiversity specialists to drive reform. We absolutely believe in education and we are putting in the resources to ensure that it gets better every day.

“A Smarter Approach to Sentencing” White Paper

What progress his Department has made on the proposals in its September 2020 White Paper, “A Smarter Approach to Sentencing”. [R] (913474)

Last week, we introduced the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. This landmark piece of legislation will deliver on the commitments that I made in the White Paper to make punishments tougher for the most serious offenders and those who commit crimes against women and girls, and to introduce more effective community sentences. We are working on those non-legislative reforms in the White Paper that aim to tackle the underlying causes of criminal behaviour and to improve the rehabilitation of offenders in our community.

I thank the Lord Chancellor for that answer. Over the years that I have been involved in the criminal justice system, I have often been struck by the potential for technology to play a greater role in keeping the public safe, punishing criminals and helping to reduce reoffending. I wonder whether my right hon. and learned Friend can tell the House how measures in the White Paper will enable the courts, prisons and probation services to exploit new technology.

As ever, I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s continued commitment to this issue. We are expanding the use of electronic monitoring to support robust and responsive community supervision. Following its well-received launch in Wales, as I mentioned, courts in England will shortly be able to impose the alcohol abstinence and monitoring requirement—the sobriety tag—to help tackle offending. We will shortly lay legislation to impose GPS tracking on offenders released from custody who have committed burglary and theft offences. The Bill will extend the maximum length of a curfew from 12 months to two years, making the use of those powers more flexible, and we will use those powers to test the house detention order concept outlined in the White Paper to see how that can contribute to reducing reoffending.

The Secretary of State’s own strategy says that short prison sentences for women do not work because they fail to tackle the reasons women are there, which is often due to the abuse and trauma caused by the men in their lives. His own strategy says that. When the Government’s neglect of crimes against women is under the spotlight, why is he still insisting on spending another £150 million on ineffective prison places when that money could be spent on action to break the cycle of abuse and reoffending?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to refer to the female offender strategy, which is at the heart of our approach to women offenders—the trauma-informed approach that she knows is so important. I can reassure her that the prison places that we are building will improve and enhance the existing female estate, some of which, frankly, is not fit for purpose. This will replace and revivify the estate and allow women to be in a secure environment where they can do purposeful activity, support each other and, indeed, benefit—[Interruption.] I do not know why Labour Front Benchers think it is so funny, Mr Speaker. I have certainly supported the female offender strategy, and I will repeat the point that what we are doing is improving and enhancing the custodial experience while delivering the strategy and, of course, residential centres such as the one in Wales that will be opening very shortly indeed. [Interruption.] I really fail to see why women offenders are so funny, Mr Speaker.

Can I just reassure you, Secretary of State, that they were not laughing at you? I think it was the expressions of the shadow Minister that they were laughing at—and people might think that those on the Government side were, too. I just want to reassure you that nobody was laughing at that situation.

Human Rights

What steps his Department is taking to maintain human rights standards after the end of the transition period. (913482)

The UK has a long-standing tradition of securing human rights. Indeed, the United Kingdom, for many decades and centuries, has been a beacon around the world for the protection of human rights. The operation of the Human Rights Act, now over 20 years old, is being reviewed. The review is being led by Sir Peter Gross, a retired Court of Appeal judge, supported by, among others, two QCs and two professors.

The pandemic has seen necessary but drastic restrictions on human rights, including the right to assembly and protest. There are fears that not all of those restrictions will be fully rolled back. The campaign group Liberty has said that the United Kingdom Government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will undermine protest, stifle dissent and make it harder for us to hold the powerful to account. Does the Minister agree that as the Bill moves through Parliament it should be guided by the principle of the right to peaceful assembly and protest, as fundamental human rights must be protected at all costs?

I agree that fundamental human rights should be protected at all costs. The Bill we are debating does protect the right to peaceful protest, while at the same time respecting the rights of other people to get to their work and the need of emergency vehicles to secure safe passage down the highway, for example. On human rights, I was concerned by the passage through the Scottish Parliament last week of a law that had a chilling effect on free speech.

[Inaudible.]—of the Human Rights Act, in which it is made clear that it would robustly oppose any attempt to undermine the UK’s commitment to the European convention on human rights or distance the UK from membership of the Council of Europe. Does the Minister agree it is crucial that those assurances are given to Scotland and will he be working to ensure that the views of Scotland’s Government are heard and respected?

Yes, most certainly. There is no plan to repudiate our obligations under the European convention on human rights and there is certainly no plan to leave the Council of Europe, so I can absolutely give the hon. Lady the assurance she asks for. On working closely with the Scottish Government, yes we are doing that and I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Scottish Government for the response to the review’s call for evidence, which I believe has already been received.

[Inaudible.]—my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) has just referred to, and both this Government’s desire for power grabs in many other areas of Scottish Parliament competence and the fact that Scotland’s legal system is separate and distinct, does the Minister agree that when published the review should include a commitment that they cannot and must not impinge on the integrity of Scottish law?

The review is into human rights. As I said, the United Kingdom has been a beacon of human rights for many centuries now and we intend to honour our ECHR obligations. There is no intention to interfere with the Scottish legal system, although I am rather concerned by the remarks Lord Hope made about the apparent problems with the independence of Scotland’s prosecutors.

Prison Service Pay Review Body: Recommendation 3 and Prison Safety

What assessment he has made of the potential effect on prison safety of the decision to reject the Prison Service Pay Review Body’s recommendation 3. (913478)

Prison safety and security is a key priority. The Government are investing £100 million to introduce robust measures such as x-ray body scanners and phone blocking technology, as well as tools such as body-worn cameras and PAVA spray. On pay, in July 2020 the Government accepted in full six out of seven recommendations made by the Prison Service pay review body, delivering an increase in pay of at least 2.5% for all Prison Service staff, from those working on the gate through to those on the landings.

We heard at last month’s Justice questions that rejecting this expert advice will undermine prison safety and is, in fact, a false economy, because once tax receipts and staff retention are taken into consideration this pay rise practically pays for itself, so what is the real reason for denying prison officers pay justice? Is it because the Treasury is worried it will encourage other public sector workers to demand a decent pay rise too?

It is important to note that six out of the seven recommendations were accepted in full. The freeze will not apply to those people earning under £24,000. When it comes to safety, which was the central premise of the hon. Lady’s question, we have to consider the conditions that make a difference to those valuable and professional officers on the landings. Do they feel safe? Do they have a body-worn camera? Do they have SPEAR—spontaneous protection enabling accelerated response—personal safety training? That is what we want to focus on, so they can get the protection they deserve.

Reclaiming Fines: Universal Credit

What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of court fine deductions in reclaiming fines for people in receipt of universal credit. (913479)

Deductions from benefit orders are made by the court, and when the court makes them, the judge will take into account the affordability and the means of the person who is having the deduction order made. Someone can, of course, make an application later to remit part or all of the deduction, if their personal circumstances have changed.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, but he will know that the Government have ordered jobcentre staff to apply the maximum 30% deduction from universal credit for claimants who have to pay a court fine, regardless of their circumstances. This approach is failing on two fronts. It pushes vulnerable claimants further into poverty and recoups less money. The Ministry’s own data shows that the amount of money recouped in respect of court fines fell by over 13% between June and August last year, when the arbitrary 30% deduction was applied to all claimants. Does the Minister accept that this is the worst of all worlds, and will he begin urgent discussions with his counterparts in the Department for Work and Pensions to follow the data and allow local decision makers a greater degree of discretion as to how much is deducted from each individual claimant to pay a court fine?

I ask the House to be aware that these deductions pay not only for fines, but for compensation to victims, and we should be mindful of that. These orders are ultimately made by a judge, who, in making the order, has discretion and will take someone’s circumstances into account. I repeat the point that I made previously: if someone is experiencing difficulty, it is always open to them to go back to the court to have the order remitted, either in part or in whole.

Topical Questions

The entire country has been shocked and appalled by the disappearance of Sarah Everard and the discovery of her body last week, and I know the thoughts of the whole House are with Sarah’s family and friends. Our minds are also on our constituents—the women who have shared their own stories of harassment and harm over the last week. After a quarter of a century of working with victims as a criminal practitioner and sitting as a part-time judge, and as someone who has worked with Members of all parties to successfully include stalking offences in our criminal law, and having taken groundbreaking legislation through this House on coercive control, these stories were all too depressingly familiar to me. Our country today should be a place where no woman has to live in fear of men, and I will continue to work tirelessly to build a criminal justice system that is better able to protect women and girls and that, most notably through our landmark Domestic Abuse Bill and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, delivers more protection. The Government will work across this House to achieve that end.

I thank the Justice Secretary and echo the sentiments that he expressed.

It was the Justice Secretary who made the required statutory statement that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is compatible with convention rights, but given the many voices expressing grave concerns about the impact of that Bill on our human rights —especially rights relating to protest—did he have second thoughts about making that statement and, most importantly, will he listen to those concerns and act on them?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, but no, I do not have any second thoughts. The particular provisions on protests are a reflection of the Law Commission’s 2015 report and of the common law in England and Wales on public nuisance, which refers to, among other things, “annoyance”, “serious annoyance” and other terms that are well known to law. The maximum penalty in common law for public nuisance was life imprisonment. That is being reduced to 10 years. Frankly, I really do not see what the fuss is about. I rather think it is a confection designed to assist an Opposition in difficulty.

I, and I am sure all the members of the Justice Committee, will also want to associate ourselves with the Secretary of State’s comments. Does he agree that protection of the public is served not only by deterrent sentencing where necessary, but by a much a broader and more nuanced suite of alternatives for less serious offenders? Can he help us, in particular, on the timescale for the roll out of problem-solving courts, which have been called for by the Select Committee and by many other commentators over a number of years, but which, until now, have perhaps not always had the ministerial or governmental impetus behind them that is required to make them succeed as part of that smarter sentencing package?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Chair of the Justice Committee for raising the important issue of problem-solving courts. This will be an opportunity to bring together not just the courts system but other agencies around the issue in order to deal with the particular challenge being faced by a family or by somebody who has been accused of a criminal offence. The work on this is ongoing, and I want to launch the pilots later this year. This is very much at the heart of the sentencing White Paper that I published last September. It is all about getting smart on sentencing and making sure that we reflect the reality of the challenges that are often faced by our courts.

A study by UN Women UK has shown that 97% of young adult women in the UK have experienced sexual harassment in public places. One in five women will suffer sexual assault in their lifetime. Under the Lord Chancellor’s watch, rape convictions have fallen to an all-time low of just 1.4%. What does he have to say to the 96% of abuse victims who feel it is no longer worth making a complaint? What does he have to say to the 45% who said complaining would make no difference? What does he have to say to all women who have suffered abuse and who have given up hope of this Government’s ability to deliver justice?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise the worrying statistics about the gap that exists between the system and the confidence of women, in particular, who feel that the system does not work for them. I would remind him that this Government have pioneered important legislation in areas such as coercive control, stalking reform, and the changes in the Domestic Abuse Bill that I know he and his party support and that have been further refined in their lordships’ House to include offences such as non-fatal strangulation, an extension to coercive control, and threats to inflict revenge porn. We are able, in the Bill that we are debating today, to go even further and impose longer sentences for those who commit crimes predominantly against women and girls. He and his party have an opportunity tonight to help the very women that he talks about, but they choose to vote against the Bill and not to support the Government in their fight against crime and in their support for victims such as women and girls.

The Secretary of State has got to watch it, because I think he is getting annoyed, and he has made that something that you can go to prison for in the Bill that we are voting on a bit later.

Some 80% in prison of women are there for non-violent offences, serving short sentences that the Government know do not work. Most are themselves victims of crime—often much more serious crimes than those they have been convicted of. Separated from their families, they lose their children, their jobs and their hope. They make up 5% of the prison population, but they account for almost 20% of the self-harm, which has gone up under the Secretary of State’s watch. While he works to save statues and gag protesters, more and more women become victims. When will he admit that his Government just do not care?

I think I am entitled to be more than a little annoyed by the refusal of the Opposition to come together to work to achieve a better society for women and girls—[Interruption.] No, they have chosen the path of party politicking, and in an attempt to cover the deep divisions that exist on their side, they are politicising an issue that should rise above politics. I am deeply disappointed and, yes, I am annoyed on behalf of the thousands of women and girls who see this as an opportunity for change. The right hon. Gentleman is rejecting that, he is voting against tougher sentences, and he will have to answer to his constituents and the country.

Nightingale courts have played a pivotal role in keeping our justice system going throughout the pandemic. May I ask the Minister for an update on when a Nightingale court will be established in Kent? This will be vital to speeding up access to justice for my constituents and helping with the cases at the highest risk of attrition, such as those of sexual violence. (913521)

My hon. Friend has been a tireless and energetic advocate for a Nightingale court in Kent, and the options are being studied carefully by officials, who will continue to work with her and her colleagues. We have got 49 courtrooms open for Nightingale courts, and that will shortly increase to 60. On the terrible problem of domestic abuse and violence against women, which she mentions, the Domestic Abuse Bill is, of course, going through Parliament; we will be spending £140 million next year supporting women and victims; and we have been prioritising domestic violence protection orders throughout the pandemic. I look forward to continuing our conversation about that Nightingale court in Kent.

Will the Cabinet Secretary or a Minister welcome the announcement from the Scottish National party Government that while the UK Government seem intent on rolling back human rights in the UK, Scotland will aim to strengthen them in a truly groundbreaking human rights Bill? That Bill will incorporate four United Nations treaties, to further enhance the rights of women, people with disabilities, older people and minority ethnic communities. Does the Minister agree that independence is the only way for the people of Scotland to truly safeguard their fundamental human rights?

If the answer to the hon. Lady’s question is separation, it is entirely misconceived. The jurisdictions of England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland should be standing shoulder to shoulder in that fine tradition of the rule of law and respect for human rights. She correctly refers to the Holyrood Parliament’s decisions, and of course we respect that, but across the UK we have world-leading, world-beating laws and provisions relating to the rights of vulnerable people, which she talks about. The job is to make sure that that becomes more of a reality for more and more people, and that is what we should all be working together to achieve.

I will be making announcements on the independent review and the next steps very shortly. Judicial review plays a vital review in upholding the rule of law, and the reason we established the review was that we wanted to look carefully at whether it was running as it needs to or whether changes will be needed. I will make announcements to this House very shortly.

T8. More than 230 people have now been prosecuted under the Coronavirus Act 2020, but according to the Crown Prosecution Service every single one was incorrectly charged. Does the Secretary of State agree that this amount of confusion and mistakes brings the law into disrepute? Will he therefore accept that the Act should not be renewed in full this month and that instead we should look at the replacement “protect everyone Bill” proposed by Liberty and others? (913520)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that question. The primary responsibility for the superintendence of the CPS rests with my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General, but the hon. Lady does make an important point about the reputation of the rule of law, and I know that these matters are being looked at carefully. I commend the existing coronavirus legislation to her; it has been carefully sunsetted with review provisions, and I assure her that Ministers, including me, take that responsibility very seriously and will not hesitate to remove provisions that either have not been used or are just not proportionate to deal with the problems we face.

Covid-19 has had a significant impact on victims, witnesses and defendants involved in court proceedings in the past year. This is similar to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott), but the backlog of cases in Nottinghamshire stands at 1,200 in the Crown court and 8,000 in the magistrates court. To ensure the timely administration of justice, has my right hon. and learned Friend considered a Nightingale court in Nottinghamshire, so that cases can be heard as quickly as possible? If not, will he agree to meet me to discuss what steps his Department is taking to make sufficient inroads into the backlog of cases in Nottinghamshire? (913530)

I am delighted to let me hon. Friend know that, as a result of the campaigning that he and other Nottinghamshire colleagues have undertaken, we will be opening a Nightingale court in Nottingham before the end of this month. I agree that adding additional capacity through opening up Nightingales is the key to tackling the higher level of outstanding cases caused by the pandemic. We have now opened Nightingales in every Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service region, and we are on track to have a total of 60 additional courtrooms by the end of March.

After the post-war recovery, legal aid was celebrated as being one of the great pillars of the welfare state, but thanks to a decade of Tory cuts many of my constituents and vulnerable people across our country no longer have access to justice. So what exactly is the Secretary of State doing to halt the terminal decline in the number of legal aid firms and solicitors? (913522)

I greatly respect the hon. Gentleman, and I am more than happy to have a longer discussion with him in real time about the evolution of the legal aid system, which evolved under Governments of both colours. Civil legal aid was slashed considerably by the Labour Government in 1999. This Government still spend £1.7 billion on legal aid. We are already dealing with criminal legal aid, and have a big review into it. With regard to civil legal aid providers, I have already answered questions about the way we are seeking to procure more housing and debt advice. I assure him that the challenges are great, but my personal commitment to legal aid, having been a practitioner in legal aid in my professional career, is real, sincere and will yield proper results.

As my right hon. and learned Friend knows, the Atlantic hotel in Porthcawl and the Sunnyside Wellness Village in Bridgend are two of the five sites that have been shortlisted for a women’s residential centre in south Wales. I thank my hon. and right hon. Friends for the engagement that I have had so far on this issue, through which I have conveyed strong feelings of opposition to both sites. Will he reiterate to the constituents of Bridgend and Porthcawl that he will consider the feelings of local residents and stakeholders before a decision is made? (913531)

My hon. Friend is a doughty representative of his constituency. Rightly, he has consistently raised those issues with me on behalf of concerned local residents. The Department has already written to residents living near the proposed locations in the options listed. We have advised them of the proposal, and are seeking their views. We also want the views of Senedd Members, local Members of Parliament such as my hon. Friend, and councillors before any final decision is made.

When I introduced the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018 in 2008 as a private Member’s Bill, with great support from the Minister, I was always anxious that just passing the law would not be enough; we would have to do lots of other things to ensure that we really were cracking down on assaults on emergency workers. One problem is that it is all very well doubling the sentence, as my Bill did and as the Government intend to do later today, but magistrates courts can only issue a sentence of up to six months, so it has next to no effect unless the Government implement section 154 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. When will they do that? (913524)

The hon. Gentleman—I nearly said my hon. Friend—makes a very important point. I am looking very carefully at those provisions. It is important to remember that the magistrates have the power to commit for sentence to the Crown court where they consider their powers to be inadequate. I urge that they do that with regard to particular—[Interruption.] Well, I am listening to him, and I do not want to get into a debate with him, but it is important that that point is strongly made in the guidance issued to legal advisers in magistrates courts. I will look into that point to ensure that the maximum sentence that should be imposed, consistent with the facts in a case, is imposed to meet the justice that this House wanted to achieve for blue light emergency workers.

Order. I am suspending the House for three minutes in order for the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.