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Topical Questions

Volume 695: debated on Tuesday 18 May 2021

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.