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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 695: debated on Tuesday 18 May 2021


The Secretary of State was asked—

Sentencing Reform

On 9 March we introduced the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which has been carried forward into the new Session. This legislation will deliver on our manifesto commitments to make punishments tougher for the most serious offenders and to introduce more effective community sentences, and work is also under way on the non-legislative reforms set out in my White Paper last year, which aim to tackle the underlying causes of criminal behaviour and improve the rehabilitation of offenders in the community.

It is essential that the public have confidence in the sentencing decisions reached in our courts. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that an important element in that confidence can come from judges and magistrates explaining clearly the aims their sentences are designed to achieve, recognising that they are about not just punishment but rehabilitation in order to reduce reoffending and then create far fewer victims of crime in the future?

My hon. Friend speaks from experience about these matters, and he will know that by law the court must explain the effect of a sentence and its reasons for deciding on it in clear, ordinary language. The pre-sentence report pilot that I announced in the sentencing White Paper also aims to increase sentencers’ confidence that their determinations will indeed improve outcomes for offenders and reduce reoffending.

Sedgley in my Dudley North constituency has recently seen gangs of youths coming together, throwing stones at passing cars and at people’s property and generally engaging in behaviour seen as very intimidating towards neighbours, so will my right hon. and learned Friend consider the following three things? First, please can we refrain from describing this type of activity as “low-level antisocial behaviour” because victims of these crimes certainly do not see it as such? Secondly, could we ask the police and the judiciary to look at prosecuting and indeed convicting so that sentencing is meaningful and therefore acts as a deterrent? Thirdly, can we please engage with colleagues across Departments to look at investment in schemes for young people that are tailored for them?

I understand, Mr Speaker, but my hon. Friend had to cover a lot there because the question of offending by young people and children raises complex issues. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to talk about the way in which we describe this behaviour, and indeed I made that very point in my maiden speech to the House. We should label that criminality as “criminality”, and it will sometimes be in the public interest to prosecute, because we have flexible community orders for children to address their offending behaviour, involving parents and carers in that process, too. But there are alternatives, and it is important to commend restorative action and early interventions to prevent children from getting into the criminal justice process in the first place.

The Government’s 2019 manifesto promised to do “right by victims” and

“to fight crime against women and girls”,

but I have to say to the Secretary of State that nothing seems further from the truth. Women do not need rhetoric; they need legislation, but he appears more interested in silencing protests than giving a voice to victims of sexual crimes—more interested in defending statues than women and girls. Will the Secretary of State show that he cares by working cross-party to implement Labour’s Bill on ending violence against women and girls?

That was not a question; it was a soundbite, which bears no reality to what this Government have been doing. We have passed landmark domestic abuse legislation, we work tirelessly in the fight against violence against women and girls, and we continue to do that in our new Bill, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which presents a golden opportunity for Labour to work together with us. But what did they do? They voted against it on Second Reading; they voted the whole thing down. I will not believe Labour until they truly match their rhetoric with their deeds; so far their record has been dismal and weak.

In 2019 Philip Leece viciously raped a woman on her way home from a night out; she was 26 and soon to be married. Adding insult to injury, he published the name of his victim online and ridiculed her as being too fat and disgusting to rape. For that, he received a pathetic fine of £120. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman will not commit to implementing Labour’s whole Bill on ending violence against women, will he at least agree to implement Labour’s proposals for tougher sentences for those who name and shame victims of sexual offences?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise that distressing case, and he can rest assured that over the years in which I have dealt with the unlawful and criminal naming of victims in that way I have not hesitated to take action as a Law Officer. Indeed we are already making preparations to see what can be done to improve and strengthen the law in this area, because, make no mistake, the naming of victims of sexual abuse—and other types of offending as well where anonymity is an essential part of the process—is not just wrong, it is criminal and we will do whatever it takes to help stamp it out.

Legal Advice Deserts

Legal advice and legal aid underpin a fair, rules-based society. The Legal Aid Agency keeps market capacity under continual review to ensure provision across England and Wales, and legal advice is always available through the Civil Legal Advice telephone service.

In Greater Manchester, we are lucky that the Greater Manchester Law Centre provides an excellent service for people across the city region, but in my constituency of Stockport there are no community legal aid providers; it joins the 78% of local authorities in England and Wales that do not have that service. Does the Minister agree that these legal aid deserts are denying vital support to millions of people, and will he make representations to the Treasury to ensure that there is the necessary funding for every area to have an acceptable number of legal aid providers?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. Legal aid is essential, which is why I am delighted that when the law centres sought support from the Government, every penny piece requested was provided—including, by the way, to Greater Manchester Law Centre, which received £140,000. We are standing behind excellent legal aid providers, including those who provide it digitally and remotely, because when it comes to legal advice, what matters most is quality, not necessarily geography.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) is spot on, is he not? The Government must address the vast deserts where no legal aid providers exist. The disabled and vulnerable in most of England and Wales have been denied access to justice due to the Government’s inaction. How can the Minister possibly justify a situation where 37 million people in Stockport, Hull and across the rest of England and Wales do not have access to a community care legal aid provider? He talks tough, he promises all sorts; he does nothing. Get on with it!

It is always a pleasure to hear from the hon. Gentleman. What a shame that when there was a Labour Government, he did nothing to stand up to the Labour Prime Minister who decried “fat cat” legal aid lawyers and said that he was going to

“derail the gravy train of legal aid”.

Where was the hon. Gentleman then? Nowhere. This is the Government who are getting behind legal aid and getting behind the civil legal aid service, and who, by the way, funded the community justice fund, which provided support for the Disability Law Service that he wants to see, and so do I.

Sexual Assault: Naming of Victims

Complainants in rape and sexual offence cases are protected by automatic reporting restrictions. There is a lifetime ban on reporting any matter likely to identify a victim from the moment the offence is reported. As the Lord Chancellor has outlined, we are giving consideration to what more we could do to provide greater deterrence and punishment when an offence is committed.

While we still see instances of victims of sexual assault being named publicly, women continue to be silenced from naming their abusers by civil actions from those who are wealthy enough to take them. I wrote to the Prime Minister in March asking him to take action on this, but the Minister’s reply of 13 April missed this point entirely. Will he now say what steps he will take to prevent victims from being gagged by wealthy and powerful abusers in civil courts?

Obviously, we want to make sure that there is equity before the law, and no matter how rich or powerful someone is, they have to obey the rules as they are laid down. As the Lord Chancellor has outlined, we are giving consideration to what more we can do in this area to make sure that the anonymity of victims in this kind of case is protected and there is sufficient deterrent and punishment for those who name their own victims, or indeed those who are victims in court, so that it does not occur.

Backlog of Court Cases

Prior to coronavirus, outstanding case loads in the Crown court were low by historical standards. However, coronavirus has put huge strain on the court system, in common with so many other public services. The Government have taken decisive action, with 60 Nightingale courtrooms, a quarter of a billion pounds spent on improving the justice system, 290 safe jury trial rooms and 1,600 extra staff. It is thanks to those decisive measures that magistrates court case loads are now 60,000 cases lower than they were at the peak over the summer.

I thank the Minister for his answer and for his previous engagement on the issue of a Nightingale court in Kent. Will he provide an update on when he thinks the court will be established and up and running?

My hon. Friend has been a tireless advocate for a Nightingale court in Kent. My colleague Lord Wolfson is working very actively on that question and I strongly hope we will be in a position to make a positive announcement in the very near future.

The employment tribunal backlog stands at a staggering 51,000, which is 45% higher than pre-pandemic levels. The Minister will blame that on covid, but he knows the system was broken before, with cuts made by his Department. Now, as we see multiple employment claims shooting up and some employers using covid as a cover for fire and rehire or cutting people’s employment rights, we have a tribunal system that is unable to cope. Labour warned about this and called for a package of urgent measures. When will the Minister finally step up and take responsibility for the backlog of cases?

In common with so many other areas of the justice system employment tribunals were profoundly affected by coronavirus, but we have taken decisive action. The number of employment tribunal sitting days is being increased dramatically, and the tribunal is benefiting from the 1,600 extra staff hired across Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service and from the enormous investment in technology, which is enabling across the court system, including the tribunal, 20,000 remote hearings a week. Those are the actions we are taking to address the issue the hon. Lady raises.

The Minister is being remarkably complacent, because he must know that much of the backlog was actually caused by massive cuts by the Conservative Government. That was a huge error, impacting not only on very serious criminal cases in the Crown court, but on dealing with the petty crime and antisocial behaviour that is blighting our communities. He also knows that cases are taking years to get to court, with the impact that that has on the availability or willingness of witnesses. When he will he stop putting out this complacent line and get a grip of the problem?

The right hon. Gentleman talks about the situation prior to coronavirus. The outstanding case load in the Crown court prior to coronavirus was 39,000 cases—low by historical standards and substantially lower than the 47,000 cases left behind by the last Labour Government. Moreover, under this Government, crime, as reported by the crime survey, has dropped by 41%. There is no complacency. A quarter of a billion pounds has been spent, 1,600 extra staff have been hired and 23,000 extra police are being recruited. There is no complacency here.

I asked the House of Commons Library what was going on in the east midlands pre-pandemic. Interestingly, in Bosworth the number of court cases in the backlog has stayed the same. That is partly because there was an 11% rise in Leicester courts, but a 12% fall in Leamington Spa. Clearly, covid has had a massive impact and I pay tribute to the court staff working tirelessly to clear that, but overall there is a mixed picture. What is the Minister’s Department trying to do to tease out what is covid and what is pre-existing, and, most importantly, to share good practice to try to deal with all those cases?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his interest, of course, in his constituency and his region. There is a great deal we are doing across the country, including in the east midlands. I mentioned the investment of a quarter of a billion pounds. We are also saying that for Crown court cases there will be no constraint on the number of cases listed. We are encouraging the judiciary the length and breadth of the kingdom, including in the east midlands, to be forward-leaning in listing. We have, of course, already opened the Nightingale court in Nottingham and are planning to open a further Crown court in Loughborough in the late summer, which will accommodate large multi-handers—it will be a supercourt. I hope my hon. Friend will welcome that important step, which will benefit his region.

Even the Minister’s own MPs accept that there is a crisis in the court system. There are now a record 57,000 outstanding Crown court cases. Lawyers are concerned that they cannot safely see their clients in cells and facilities in many courts are inadequate for the same purpose. The temporary leases on many of the Nightingale courts will come to an end within weeks. Defendants are spending longer than ever in prison and on remand, and some are wrongly feeling pressured to plead guilty rather than face months and maybe years before their cases will be heard. Will the Minister confirm his plans for the future of Nightingale courts, put a stop to the other planned court closures and tell the House just how long is it going to take to clear this backlog?

I am rather perplexed to hear the shadow Minister talk about planned court closures. There are not any planned court closures and, in fact, as I have said, we have opened up 60 new Nightingale courtrooms and will be looking to continue those as long as they are needed. I already said, in the last answer, that we are planning to open up a new Nightingale court in a number of places in the country, including in Loughborough. The Lord Chancellor has been clear that the judiciary can list at will in the Crown court to encourage the recovery, which we are supporting with money—I have mentioned the quarter of a billion pounds several times already—remote hearings and extra staff. The pandemic has caused enormous difficulties for the court system, as it has for public services. Jury trials and pandemics do not mix very well. We have taken decisive action. That decisive action is delivering results.

Will the Minister look to fast-track rape cases by providing DNA testing hubs requiring immediate testing of the accused on request, like breath tests, and confirm that positive tests, alongside a dated audio recording from the victim’s mobile phone saying that they do not consent to sex, would be sufficient to enable immediate imprisonment through fast-track Nightingale courts to massively scale up the number of rapists taken off our streets and put behind bars? Will he meet me to discuss this?

The hon. Gentleman is raising an extremely important point. Some of the questions that he is raising, to do with DNA testing and disclosure, are being addressed in the rape review that is due to report very shortly. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Crime and Policing would be delighted to meet and discuss some of these—[Interruption.] He is leading this work and he would be delighted to discuss these points; he gave me that undertaking just a moment ago. We are looking to expedite and ease these matters through, for example, the wider use of section 28 pre-recorded evidence, so people can give their evidence more quickly. On prioritising hearing rape cases, the hon. Gentleman is raising a very important point. Listing is a matter for the judiciary, but I know that judges think very carefully about the kind of points that he made when they decide which cases to prioritise.

Supreme Court Reform

I know that my right hon. Friend has taken a long and keen interest in the Supreme Court. It is entirely legitimate to look, in the wider context of constitutional reform, at the Act that underpinned the creation of that court to see whether it can be improved and updated. I will be open and consultative as that work is carried out, and I will say more at a later date about which aspects of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 I intend to consider.

For 600 years, the House of Lords and, latterly, its Appellate Committee did a superb job of being our Supreme Court. Nobody has ever given a proper cost-benefit analysis of what has been gained by abolishing it, apart from spending so much more extra public money. I doubt that the Government, or any Government, have the guts to abolish this wasteful institution, but will the Secretary of State and Lord Chancellor make it clear that we do not have a written constitution? We are not America. The Queen in Parliament —in other words, this House of Commons—is supreme, not the Supreme Court. That is particularly important if the Scottish National party should ever carry out its threat of a unilateral referendum against the wishes of this House of Commons in an Act of Parliament. Will the Secretary of State—

Order. Sir Edward, you should know that it is not supposed to be a speech; it is a question. You have been here so long you should know that.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to decry the rationalist approach that was taken by the then Labour Government to our unwritten constitution. He is absolutely right to warn us against a descent into a United States-style constitutional court, which will do no one, least of all the judiciary, any good. I pay tribute to the members of that august body, but it is right that in the wider context of constitutional reform, we look at all aspects of our constitution to make sure that we get the balance right and to emphasise the point that Parliament is supreme.

The Leader of the House described a Supreme Court ruling on his Government’s plans as a “constitutional coup”, yet we now see the UK Government using the same court to prevent the Scottish Government from implementing human rights legislation. Is the message to judges from the UK Government that they should just stay out of Downing Street’s business, but stand by if needed to prevent the devolved nations from implementing democratically agreed policy? How does the Secretary of State think that that will protect the Union?

Tempted as I am to talk about the particular issue that the hon. Lady raises, there is an ongoing Supreme Court reference. That is a normal use of our constitutional devices to make sure that all parts of the kingdom, including the devolved Administrations, legislate in a way that is consistent with the powers that they have. That is what is happening; it is a very good example of a mature democracy in operation.

With regard to the hon. Lady’s underlying political point about the Scottish Government’s decision to legislate in that way, this country is among the leaders in the world in child safeguarding. No amount of virtue signalling about the incorporation of international conventions that will make no difference to the quality of safeguarding of children in our country will get away from that fact.

Is not one of the key features of our unwritten constitution respect for the independence, integrity and quality of our judiciary? Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that we have no intention of going down the American route with any political interference in the appointment of our judges?

My hon. Friend is absolutely on the nail, as ever. He knows that I have long valued the principle of comity, which is that we as parliamentarians respect the independence and role of the judiciary, and that in their work the judiciary likewise respect the position of Parliament. That is what comity is all about, that is what I believe in, and that is what we will embody in our policies as we develop them.

Crime in Prisons

Reducing crime in prisons is a key priority. We are delivering on our commitment to invest £100 million in bolstering prison security and clamping down on the weapons, drugs and mobile phones that fuel violence and crime behind bars. This investment enhances security at the entry point to prisons, using the latest technology, and strengthens staff resilience to corruption, as well as targeting organised criminals who exploit prisons as a lucrative market.

As the Minister says, many of the crimes committed in prison are related to illegal contraband that finds its way inside. Constituents who live close to Thorn Cross Prison in Appleton Thorn in my constituency have told me about their increasing worry about daylight drops in gardens that border the open prison. Could the Minister tell me what steps he is taking and what residents can do to address that real concern, particularly where children are playing in gardens and their parents are concerned for their welfare?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important point on behalf of his constituents. The Government’s £100 million investment to prevent crime in prison has enabled hundreds of security items to be purchased that will assist his constituents, including 176 search dogs, 300 metal detection archways and wands, mobile phone detection technology and 51 X-ray body scanners. We have also developed clear guidance for prisons on managing trespassers within the open estate, including protocols on reporting evidence to the police and addressing the site-specific security risks. I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter further if that would be helpful.

Office of the Chief Coroner: Provision of Services

What steps his Department is taking with the Office of the Chief Coroner to help ensure timely provision of services by that Office. (900146)

I am grateful to the Chief Coroner, his predecessor and his staff for their work in supporting coroners during the covid-19 pandemic. Covid-19 has had an enormous impact on coroners and their staff; it is therefore to their very great credit that in 2020 the average time from a death being reported to the conclusion of the inquest remained at 27 weeks, as it was in 2019.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but my constituents who are served by the Birmingham and Solihull coroner service often express frustration at delays when they are making burial arrangements. It is a particular issue for Muslim and Jewish families, for whom burials should take place as soon as possible after death. What is being done to ensure that coroners’ courts engage with local religious group to address these problems and make sure that religious beliefs are respected and honoured?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Coroners are independent judicial office holders, so they will operate independently. However, I can say that the Government have provided over £4 billion to local authorities to ensure that those coroners who are doing this important work have the resources they need. So far as the Birmingham and Solihull coroner service’s timeliness is concerned, the average time from a death being reported to the conclusion of the inquest in that area was 10 weeks, down from 14 weeks, in 2019. I am pleased to say that that is well below the average in England and Wales.

Prison Officers: Years of Experience

What recent estimate his Department has made of the cumulative number of years of experience held by currently serving prison officers. (900147)

As at 31 December 2020, the cumulative length of service by all band 3 to 5 prison officers was more than 243,000 years. From late 2016 to the end of December 2020, the number of prison officers has increased by more than 3,600. Having experienced staff in prisons is vital to ensuring that they remain safe, secure and decent.

I thank the Minister for his answer to my question. We both know that being a prison officer is a difficult job that takes years of experience to perfect, yet a combined 86,000 years of experience has been lost since 2010. Does he accept that this has had a catastrophic effect on safety, and will he commit to giving prison officers the pay rise his experts recommend to tackle the problem?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for rightly paying tribute to our prison officers. Let us just pause to reflect for a moment. At the beginning of this pandemic, Public Health England estimated that, on a reasonable worst-case scenario, more than 2,500 prisoners could die in prison. Because of the excellent work of our prison officers, that figure—although each one is a tragedy—is closer to 119. It was prison officers who delivered that. I am pleased to say that, even in this difficult financial situation, our prison officers received between 2.5% and 7.5% increases last year. We are also investing heavily in the security equipment needed, including PAVA spray, SPEAR—spontaneous protection enabling accelerated response—training, and body-worn video cameras, that make prisons a better and more conducive environment not only for prisoners but for prison staff.

The Minister must surely recognise that there are consequences to 86,000 years of staff experience being lost since 2010, because what happens when there are not enough experienced staff can be summed up in one word: violence. In 2019, violence was 134% higher than in 2010. Even last year, with prisoners locked up alone, violence was 38% higher. Self-harm has doubled, and assaults on staff have tripled. Experience matters. With further cuts coming, thanks to the Minister’s friends in the Treasury, will he recognise this? How is he going to make our prisons safer?

I agreed with the first half of that but not the second half. It is absolutely right that we have retention. May I reassure the hon. Lady that there are an additional 3,600 prison officers? In fact, I am sorry to say that what she said about the data on violence is wrong. The violence in terms of assaults on prison officers has gone down by 20%. I hope she will also be reassured to know that the leaving rate is down by nearly 3% as well. We are getting behind our prison officers. We are investing in our prisons. We are providing the security, providing the investment and making sure that their brilliant work can continue long into the future.

Pet Theft: Maximum Sentence

What assessment he has made of the potential merits of increasing the maximum sentence for pet theft. (900148)

I recognise the deep distress that the theft of a much-loved pet can cause, which is why laws are already in place to deal with offenders who commit such abhorrent crimes, but more can be done. The Environment Secretary, the Home Secretary and I have had discussions to consider further action, and I have set up a taskforce to investigate and tackle this issue from end to end, looking at prevention, reporting, enforcement and prosecution.

I welcome the setting up of the taskforce, because what is important is not just the sentencing but the deterrent effect, so that we see fewer pets—dogs, particularly—being stolen. The Secretary of State’s answer will be very welcome, but can he say what more can be done? I ask him this on behalf of my two rescue labradors, Sophie and Chase, but also on behalf of the newly elected police and crime commissioner in Gloucestershire, the Conservative Chris Nelson, who made stopping pet theft one of his key election priorities.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I declare an interest, as an owner of a cat. Let us not forget that this applies to a number of much-loved animals, who have, particularly in lockdown, proved an invaluable source of solace and comfort to many millions of people. He is right to talk about the wider issue. Those who minimise pet theft forget that it is often the thin end of a wedge and it might even involve organised crime. We need to take a zero tolerance approach here in order to deal with wider criminality, so we will be looking at the nature of the black market that exists and the rises we have seen with regard to the value of individual animals. All that is very much on the table.


We have increased resources to handle calls and inquiries relating to probate applications and, as a result, the average time taken to process such an application is running at between four and six weeks. We have also had a big push towards moving the process online—to be digital—and in March more than 75% of grants were done digitally.

One of my constituents applied for probate and was mistakenly sent the wrong will. This was discovered only after they chased it and they discovered that the case had been closed, with no word from the probate office. When the correct will was sent, it was lost and once again my constituent was not informed. It took nine months for probate to be granted from when they first applied. The loss of a friend and a relative is already an incredibly difficult time. Can the Minister tell me and my constituent what he is going to do to improve communications in the probate office so that nobody has to go through a similar experience?

Thankfully, distressing examples such as that are extremely rare. I encourage Members who encounter them to write to us at the Ministry of Justice so that we can make sure they are rapidly resolved. The number of complex cases where there are various queries and difficulties has reduced by two thirds since January—they have gone down from 2,500 to 650. I urge constituents to use the digital system, because for straightforward digital cases we are now issuing probate in one week and, even for stopped cases, where there is a query, it is being done in four weeks. We should all be urging our constituents to use the digital service to make sure this is as fast as possible.

UK Nationals in US Prisons

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on enabling UK nationals imprisoned in the US to serve their sentences in the UK. (900151)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question and letter to the Department on this issue, and we will be providing the response. There is already a mechanism in place to facilitate transfers of sentenced persons to and from the United States. British nationals serving sentences in the US can request to be transferred to a UK prison under the Council of Europe convention on the transfer of sentenced persons.

In the particular circumstance, and given the powerful case I have made in correspondence, can the Minister fix it for my constituent to commence his sentence in the UK?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has fought doggedly on behalf of his constituent. The prisoner transfer agreement that exists between the US and the UK has been in place for 31 years. It does not allow for the so-called “takeover” of sentences. The only way this individual can be transferred is for his constituent to return to the US, commence his sentence and apply for transfer to a British prison. But I can assure my right hon. Friend that, once that application is agreed by the US, Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service will endeavour to process the transfer as quickly as possible.

Emergency Workers: Assaults

In 2019, 11,257 cases were prosecuted for an assault against an emergency worker and in that year 9,066 resulted in conviction and sentencing. As you may know, Mr Speaker, the Government are legislating to double the maximum sentence for an assault on an emergency worker from 12 to 24 months. Just this morning, we had Committee proceedings taking evidence on that and the move was widely welcomed by the police chiefs who gave evidence to our Committee.

It sounds as though that was a very well-written piece of legislation in the first place because it seems to be having an effect. However, we do still have large numbers of emergency workers being assaulted and the Sentencing Council still has not produced new guidelines to insist that magistrates must treat simply spitting as a “proper assault”. Especially in the last year, that has become more important than ever before. May I ask the Minister: how many of the people who have been prosecuted have had sentences longer than six months? That is the key to determining whether lengthening maximum sentences to two years will be effective.

I should start by congratulating the hon. Gentleman on the instrumental role that he played in bringing forward the legislation to which I have just referred. On the question of Sentencing Council guidelines, I understand that the Sentencing Council, which is independent of Government, is in the process of looking at the sentencing guidelines. I hope that it will reflect the very strong feelings on both sides of this House about the seriousness of assaulting an emergency worker and that it will bear that in mind when it publishes those revised guidelines. I am afraid I do not have to hand the number of those being sentenced to more than six months; of course many will be. Where the assault is more serious, it will be prosecuted as grievous bodily harm or GBH with intent, which carry much higher maximum sentences. I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with those figures if that will assist him.

Reduction of Reoffending

We have innovative and ambitious cross-Government action plans to tackle reoffending as part of our uncompromising mission to cut crime. For example, we are introducing GPS tags for serious acquisitive offenders to track their movements for up to 12 months post release and increasing the length of curfews. In January, we announced a £70 million investment, which included enhancing the Department’s approved premises and providing temporary basic accommodation for prison leavers to keep them off the streets and reduce reoffending.

I thank the Minister for that answer. It is jobs that I am interested in. We know that having a job can reduce a person’s chance of reoffending by up to 50%, so what steps is his Department taking to support young offenders to get on the job ladder? I will give a local example here. We have an excellent “Ban the Box” campaign, which Milton Keynes College supports, to end that cycle of reoffending and offer a chance to young people to turn their lives around.

My hon. Friend has identified, with his usual wisdom, one of the three pillars of success post incarceration: a house, a friend and a job. He is quite right and I congratulate Milton Keynes College on its participation in the “Ban the Box” campaign. The Ministry of Justice has also been pleased to support business in the community at the event marking the remarkable milestone, it tells me, of 1 million roles covered by “Ban the Box” in March this year. We adopted “Ban the Box” in the civil service in 2016 and about 350,000 of those 1 million jobs are now in the civil service. More widely, as part of our approach to revising offender management, we are working very closely with colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions to make sure that those who leave the secure estate have a fair shake in the job market, which, as he rightly said, will go a long way to cutting reoffending.

Violence against Women and Girls: Support for Victims

What steps his Department is taking to improve support in the justice system for victims of violence against women and girls. (900154)

What steps his Department is taking to improve support in the justice system for victims of violence against women and girls. (900158)

Supporting victims to seek justice is a significant priority for the Government. We are investing in vital victim support services—more than £150 million this year—and a new victims code sets out the level of service that victims can expect to receive from justice agencies, but we must go further. The victims Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech will enshrine victims’ rights in law, hold agencies to account for delivering those rights and set expectations for the standard and availability of victim support.

The Minister talks about a victims Bill. There has been one in every Queen’s Speech since 2016 and we have not seen any concrete action. So can I ask him to remedy that by starting with a particular concrete action? Can he back the amendment that the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) and I are tabling to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to address the fact that 50% of women seeking abortion at clinics face intimidation and emotional distress? We want national legislation put in place to provide clarity for women, police and girls rather than relying on councils all the time, which do not have the bandwidth, resources or time to do this issue justice.

I take the hon. Lady’s rebuke about a victims law, but she should be reassured that we are currently scoping the outline of that Bill with an intention to consult for prelegislative scrutiny later this year. We are firmly of the conviction that the victims code, which became effective on 1 April this year, is worthy and should be enshrined in statute and that is what we are aiming for. As to her amendment to the Bill, no doubt it will be considered as part of the legislation going forward.

At a recent Oldham roundtable on domestic abuse, we heard of the increase in abuse during lockdown and the issues that the victims were facing. In particular, the lack of measures to address wider cultural issues, the fact that poverty is a driver and consequence of abuse, and the lack of availability of appropriately adapted or supported safe accommodation, were all cited as issues with the Government’s new Domestic Abuse Act 2021. What discussions has the Minister had with his counterparts in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that the Domestic Abuse Act is as effective as we all want it to be? At the moment, it is just a sticking plaster over a gaping wound.

The hon. Lady is quite right that legislation is only half the fight. The implementation of that legislation, and what we actually do physically on the ground for the victims of domestic abuse, are key to ensuring that we reduce the number of victims and increase the number of perpetrators who receive punishment.

When I was Housing Minister, I was pleased to work closely with the supported housing sector, particularly in the area of refuge, to ensure that refuges stayed within the housing benefit regime, rather than moving towards universal credit. One key plank of the argument that we made to Treasury colleagues was that that would enable greater investment by the sector in this area, as it could then be confident on the income stream that will arise from people who are within that kind of accommodation. I have just taken over the brief on victims, so I will shortly be talking with colleagues in MHCLG about what more we can do on supported housing—not just for people in that particular situation, but more widely for those who are seeking either to build a better life post incarceration or to escape victimisation.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

The first duty of any Government is to protect and deliver justice, but justice for victims of violence against women and girls is becoming ever more distant. Rape convictions have fallen by more than 50% in the last two years—a record low, according to the Crown Prosecution Service. Worse still, more and more victims are dropping out of the process altogether. The Government are due to release a violence against women and girls strategy, but Labour’s is ready to go and includes: a fast-track system; a dedicated Minister for survivors of sexual violence; and a survivors’ support package, which would aid victims before, during and after the process. Will the Minister commit to taking these proposals forward now? If not, can he explain to victims why this Government choose further delay and inaction?

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her appointment, but I am afraid that I reject her rebuke as to inaction. With my other hat on at the Home Office, I have been working very hard over the last two years to address some of these issues, in particular, for example, by setting murder as one of the key national priorities; a third of all murders are domestic. In order to prevent murders, the police and others have to reach back into the crime types that result in that catastrophe, not least domestic violence and abuse. There is an enormous amount of work going on.

The hon. Lady should not believe that the fact that we have not yet published our rape review—I hope to publish it shortly—means that work has not been under way. For her and other Members’ information, I chair an action group—a taskforce—that brings together the police, the CPS and other partners across Government to focus on this issue, and to see if we can drive better outcomes for victims and better performance in the courts; there is an enormous amount of work going on. Having said that, this issue is not one on which there should be a political divide. If there are good lessons to be learned from the Opposition or, frankly, from around the world, we would be foolish not to have a look at them.

Topical Questions

In the Gracious Speech last week, the Queen outlined this Government’s plans to recover from the covid-19 pandemic and to build back a better country for our future. The justice system has a vital part to play in that—to cut crime, to protect victims, and to guarantee fairness in our society. My ministerial team and I look forward to steering a number of new Bills through Parliament during this Session. As I said earlier, I am pleased that our new pet theft taskforce will now look at how we can better protect people from the awful crime of pet theft and ensure that action is taken against those who perpetrate it and those who organise it.

Will the Secretary of State advise on what is being done to ensure that prisons reopen for family visits as soon as possible? The guidance on the Government website has not been updated since 29 March. Although I am told that prisons can reopen once they reach stage 3 of the national framework, I certainly know of some that have reached that stage but still are not open, which is very upsetting for the families involved, so will he give us an update?

Of course, Her Majesty’s Prison Bristol will be near to or in the hon. Lady’s constituency. I am glad to tell her that the majority of prisons have now reached stage 3 in accordance with the plan that I published last year. The individual decision making is very much up to governors and regional group directors, but I can assure her that Ministers and senior officials are driving forward progress on reopening, allowing visits, and indeed considering moving to the next stage, stage 2, which would further open up the prison environment —consistent of course with public health guidance and the needs and the safety of prisoners.

What a brilliant question! I have always regarded myself as an early adopter of technology as one of the first in my family to own a Sinclair pocket calculator—remember those?—so I am now given the opportunity to early adopt in criminal justice as well. There are lots of ways that we can use technology to decrease offending. For example, I referred earlier to the GPS trackers that we are fitting to a group of criminals post release. Some 50% of those released from prison following, for example, conviction for a burglary go on to reoffend. If we know where they are all the time, then they are less likely to offend, but also, if there is a burglary, the police are able to match their location to the data to eliminate them or make them a person of inquiry. Similarly, Mr Speaker, you will be pleased to know that we are rolling out alcohol abstinence tags, which we fit to the ankles of those who are convicted of a crime where alcohol has driven their criminal behaviour. At the moment, compliance with these tags is well over 95%.

In reply to my earlier question, did the Secretary of State really say that the incorporation of international conventions—we were talking about the UNCRC—will make no difference to the quality of safeguarding of children in our country? I was so taken aback that I have changed my second question. I have to ask: does he actually believe that, and is it just this international convention or are they all as impotent as he appears to think that one is?

As the ban on evictions starts to lift, what preparations has my right hon. and learned Friend made to ensure that the courts can cope with the surge of applications? (900205)

Volumes of possession actions remain significantly low as a result of measures that we took in response to the pandemic. Indeed, although the ban in England on bailiff-enforced evictions will end on 31 May, the requirement for landlords to give extended notice periods to seek possession orders in all but the most egregious cases has really struck the right balance. We intend to taper down these notice periods to pre-covid levels by October, which will help to manage demand in the courts. I pay tribute to senior judiciary for working at pace to develop a case management approach to possession cases.

According to the Government’s own research, 60% of people in the north-east have no up-to-date photo ID and 44% say they are unlikely to apply for local authority ID in order to vote. Will the Justice Secretary update the House on the most recent data on investigation and prosecutions for in-person voter fraud, because without evidence of significant abuse, the Government’s sledgehammer to crack a nut risks undermining rather than protecting the integrity of our elections by unjustifiably preventing many people from voting? (900201)

With respect to the hon. Lady, I think that her concerns are wholly misplaced; I would be kind enough to say that. Some of the objection to this is, frankly, synthetic. The last Labour Government introduced it in Northern Ireland in 2003 without any concomitant reduction in turnout. Countries such as France and Canada and other mature democracies have long had this system in place. We will provide free identification for the tiny minority of people who do not have it. Frankly, the people of this country are wondering why on earth this has not been done before and are bewildered by the Opposition’s confected objections.

I met with TSB last week to discuss fraud and was surprised to find out that there has been a big increase in young people being subject to fraud. TSB’s internal research showed that over 50% of these scams and frauds directly involved social media. What does my hon. Friend believe should be done about that, and what conversations are taking place with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to develop ways to clamp down on this in the light of the online harms Bill? (900207)

My hon. Friend rightly identifies an expanding area of business, sadly, for the courts and the police. He will be pleased to know that just last week, I held a meeting with the National Economic Crime Centre at the National Crime Agency to talk specifically about this issue. He will understand the complexity of online fraud in particular, whereby the offender may well be overseas, laundering money through a third territory and banking it in a fourth. Nevertheless, we need to do more to increase our capacity and capability to tackle this issue, to which we are all, including me, subject.

Far too many women are sentenced by our courts to short or very short prison sentences. The overwhelming evidence is that non-custodial sentences, with properly resourced and properly structured alternatives to prison, work better in preventing reoffending. What are the Government doing to ensure that we invest in these non-custodial options for the courts to use? (900204)

The hon. Gentleman speaks with a lot of experience, not just as a Member of this House but as a former police and crime commissioner. He will be reassured to know that the female offender strategy continues. In particular, with regard to the work that we are doing on pre-sentence reports, we will help courts and decision makers come to conclusions based upon community sentence treatment requirements, whether that is support for addiction or for mental health problems, which are a constructive direct alternative to those short terms of imprisonment that he rightly criticises.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend reassure my constituents of the steps his Department is taking to improve judicial and public confidence in sentencing? (900209)

My hon. Friend is right to hold the Government to account on these issues. He will recall that the White Paper I issued last year set out our plans for a framework that will do just that, by targeting the most serious violent and sexual offenders, ensuring that they serve longer proportions of their sentences of imprisonment in custody, therefore reflecting more appropriately the severity of their crimes and protecting the public, and ensuring that we introduce robust and effective community options for those who commit less serious offences.

There are no black, Asian and minority ethnic Supreme Court judges. Can the Secretary of State explain what decisive action the Government are taking to ensure greater representation of people of colour across our judiciary? (900206)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. She will be encouraged to know that the Judicial Appointments Commission, senior judiciary and I work together on that very issue, to ensure that the professions are doing all they can to encourage and support applicants from a black and minority ethnic background. In particular, I pay tribute to CILEX, the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, for driving forward that important diversity. There is much more work to be done, and progress for all of us is frustratingly slow, but I will continue to put my shoulder to the wheel to ensure that we see sooner rather than later someone of a black and minority ethnic background sitting in the Supreme Court.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans), the Treasury Committee has been hearing about the explosion in online financial fraud. Could my right hon. and learned Friend explain how the victims Bill will help so many of our constituents who are being preyed upon by these financial fraudsters? (900210)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise an issue that affects many people. One issue is the embarrassment and shame of people who fall victim to such fraud that they could have been tricked in the first place. Not only is supporting victims to overcome that stigma very much part of the victims code that we introduced in the past month or so, working with the sector, but as we develop the consultation into our new law, there will be opportunities fully to reflect the pernicious nature of online criminality. By helping to design out fraud, the financial services sector can make its greatest contribution to the reduction of such heinous crime.

To return to the questions asked earlier by my hon. Friends the Members for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) and for West Ham (Ms Brown) about the loss of prison officer experience due to experienced prison officers leaving the service, will the Secretary of State confirm whether it was the Chancellor himself who vetoed the fair pay rise for frontline prison officers that was recommended by his own experts? (900208)

I remind the hon. Gentleman that in the context of those recommendations, prison officers received rises of between 2.5% and 7.5%. It is right to say that in one specific instance the recommendations of the body were not accepted—we are mindful of our overall duties with regard to the public purse—but I assure the hon. Gentleman that in terms of the recruitment, support and promotion of the vital role of prison officers, the Government will not stint in their unwavering support and encouragement.

Festus Akinbusoye, the inspirational police and crime commissioner for Bedfordshire, has championed the use of addiction recovery programmes for low-risk offenders. Will the Minister tell the House what encouragement he is likely to give to police and crime commissioners to expand the role of such programmes? In particular, what encouragement will he give to Festus for his campaigns? (900212)

I join my hon. Friend in celebrating the election of Commissioner Akinbusoye, who is one of the 29 Conservative police and crime commissioners—a full 70% of the available slots were secured by the Conservative party at the elections two weeks ago. My hon. Friend is quite right that police and crime commissioners have a critical role to play in offender management, given that more than half of crime is committed by reoffenders. At the severe end in particular, we know that, on average, all murderers in the country have committed at least seven previous offences. In my role as Policing Minister, I will work closely with police and crime commissioners to make sure that not only as chairs of their local criminal justice board but more widely they can play an important role in driving down reoffending.

Involvement in the criminal justice system can be especially upsetting for children, so will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the Scottish Government’s proposal for a Bairn’s Hoose? The idea is that families and children would all be under one roof and looked after in a way that could be beneficial to families who come out of the criminal justice system. Are the UK Government willing to look at the idea as well? (900211)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that suggestion and would be interested to know more about the specific approach being taken. I assure him that south of the border the concept of supported accommodation and a supported approach is very much at the heart of what we are seeking to do, particularly with regard to young offenders. The development of the use of smaller units and diversionary work has been very much at the heart of what we have done over the past 10 years. The hon. Gentleman will see that the number of children now incarcerated has fallen from 3,000 to just over 500 or so in the past year. That is a dramatic improvement, but I am certainly interested to know more about the Scottish Government’s initiative.

Does not the collapse of the Serco fraud trial and the fact that the Serious Fraud Office was prosecuting only mid-level managers rather than the people responsible for defrauding the taxpayer, which they admitted, high- light the need to bring forward a “failure to prevent economic crime” offence at corporate level, and to make it a criminal offence? (900216)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his assiduous campaigning on this important issue. He knows that I have always placed heavy emphasis on the need to examine the law carefully in this area, because I accept that there are loopholes. I asked the Law Commission to undertake an in-depth review of economic crime law and, if necessary, to make recommendations on options for reform. It began its work last November and is aiming to publish an options paper later this year. We will work with the Law Commission to implement any next steps.

The Government’s own review warns that any changes to judicial review should be made only after the most careful consideration, so will the Government listen to themselves and will the Secretary of State rethink his plans to limit individuals’ powers to challenge Government through the courts? (900215)

We commissioned an independent review, which was published after public involvement, and we have now conducted a consultation process, again with full involvement from civil society. We will have plenty of opportunities, in this House and in the other place, to debate and scrutinise any legislation that comes forward. There are ample opportunities for all of us to take part in this important process, and I am sure that the product of those deliberations will indeed be one of quality that enhances the balance between the judiciary, Parliament and the Executive.

I will now suspend the House to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next item of business.

Sitting suspended.