Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 691: debated on Tuesday 16 March 2021

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.