The Secretary of State was asked—
We recognise and share public concern over abuses of new technology to harm victims, and we are taking action. Today, new provisions on threatening to share private sexual images come into force, and we are going further. We have asked the Law Commission to review the law on image abuse to ensure that victims are properly protected. The commission will publish recommendations in spring next year, and we will consider them very carefully.
My constituent Helen Mort had the appalling experience of finding out that someone unknown to her had taken ordinary images from her social media and superimposed them on violent and extreme pornography. These were not intimate images, but they were used to create deepfakes. When she went to the police, she was told that there was no crime to investigate as the original images were not private. The Law Commission’s review, to which the Minister refers, proposes extending the criminalisation of sharing intimate images to include deepfakes. Will the Minister ensure that the Government respond positively and quickly to those proposals so that people like Helen are protected in the future?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that harrowing case. He is absolutely right to do so. We recognise that the law needs to keep pace with those who would use technology to perpetrate dreadful abuse. We have asked the Law Commission to act, as he indicated. It is doing so at pace, and we will be looking very carefully with a view to extending the law where it is appropriate to do so.
The pandemic has affected courts, like it has affected so many other areas of life. The Government have responded energetically and comprehensively, for example by opening 60 new Nightingale courtrooms, hiring an extra 1,600 Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service staff, injecting hundreds of millions of pounds extra into the system, and making sure that around 20,000 hearings a week can now be conducted online. These measures are designed to enable court recovery, and I can assure the House that these efforts will continue.
The Minister’s total failure to improve court waiting times is having a very real-world cost, no more so than for my 100-year-old constituent whose fraud case against a former carer amounts to more than a quarter of a million pounds. Despite initiating the case more than four years ago, that elderly woman is still waiting and is unlikely to see justice served in her lifetime. The Minister knows about that case, as I have written to his Department on multiple occasions, but still the delays persist. What exactly does he have to say to my constituent, along with the thousands of others like her who are once again being left behind by this Government and denied justice?
Listing of individual cases is a judicial function, and there are sometimes legal reasons why cases get put off. I must say that in Wales, actually, the court system is performing particularly well at the moment. The hon. Lady talks about delays. Of course, during the pandemic some delays have built up, but in the magistrates court, for example, about half of the backlog that accumulated due to covid, which peaked in about August last year, has already been removed. The outstanding case load in the magistrates court is currently dropping at a rate of around 2,000 a week. I also gently point out that the outstanding case load prior to the pandemic in the Crown court, at 39,000 cases, was considerably lower than the 47,000 cases in 2010.
We are continuing Nightingale courtrooms. We are also saying to the judiciary, critically, that there will be no constraint on Crown court sitting days this current financial year; the judiciary can list as many cases as they are physically able to. On Crown court numbers, clearly, jury trials and pandemics do not mix very well, but thanks to the steps taken, we have seen the corner turned just recently—in the last few weeks. Crown court case numbers are beginning to edge down for the first time, and we are committed to making sure that continues.
I welcome the Minister’s last point, because the Director of Public Prosecutions told the Justice Committee two weeks ago that case loads in the Crown court are currently at 95% of physical capacity, making allowance for the Nightingale courts, but that the Crown Prosecution Service’s total case load has increased by some 53% since February 2020. Does the Minister agree that that must mean that, to keep the backlog reducing in a sustainable fashion, we must have long-term, continued investment in increased court capacity, but also in judges and recorders, in court staff available to hear and try cases, and in CPS staff to ensure that they are ready for trial on time?
The Chair of the Justice Committee is, as always, right in his analysis. We need to ensure that the capacity exists and, for the reason he mentioned, 1,600 extra staff have already been hired for Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service. He also mentioned Crown Prosecution Service capacity. I think its budget recently went up by about £80 million to enable 400 additional prosecutors to be hired.
In relation to judicial capacity, we will shortly bring forward measures to increase the mandatory retirement age for magistrates and judges from 70 to 75, which we hope will retain the most experienced judges who will be able to sit and hear these cases. In relation to physical courtroom capacity, we have clearly invested enormously in technology to enable remote hearings and, as I mentioned, about 20,000 a week are taking place. In addition to that, we have the 60 Nightingale courtrooms. When social distancing is relaxed—nothing has been confirmed, but we have a reasonable expectation that it will be in the near future—a reduction in those requirements will enable more courtrooms to be used safely than is the case today, which will also greatly assist court recovery.
The Minister has been keen to talk up the Government’s efforts to get court waiting lists down, but it is vital that efficiency does not come at the expense of effective and proper justice. I hope he is aware of the controversy surrounding the use of the single justice procedure in relation to the thousands of people prosecuted for coronavirus-related offences and the fact that hundreds—the bulk in their absence—may have been wrongly charged and convicted. Indeed, 37 people have been unlawfully prosecuted under schedule 22 of the Coronavirus Act 2020, which has never been activated in England. When that problem was highlighted by Big Brother Watch and The Guardian newspaper, the Ministry of Justice said that
“defendants can…have their conviction voided and reheard if necessary.”
Surely the Minister agrees that such incompetence adds to the burden of the courts, is more expensive, weakens justice and may well be unlawful. What is he going to do about it?
First, it is important to make clear that prosecution decisions are taken by the independent Crown Prosecution Service, not by the courts system. Secondly, when it comes to maintaining standards of justice, I think the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), the shadow Secretary of State, floated the idea of having smaller juries earlier in the pandemic. Of course, we have maintained juries at 12. However, where unusual measures such as remote hearings have had to be taken throughout the pandemic, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice has ensured that justice standards have been maintained. Judges have always had the proper discretion to direct proceedings in their courtrooms so that justice is not only properly done but fairly done.
Human Rights Act 1998 (Amendment)
The Government have established the independent Human Rights Act review to examine the framework of the Act, how it is operating in practice and whether any change is required. The review is considering the approach taken by our domestic courts to the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights and whether the HRA currently strikes the correct balance between the roles of the courts, the Government and this place. The report, due this summer, will be published, as will the Government’s response.
Given this Tory Government’s track record of either not consulting or railroading changes without consultation, will the Secretary of State confirm that any proposals to amend the Human Rights Act will be subject to a full public consultation lasting at least three months?
The hon. Lady will be glad to know that a wholly independent review reflecting opinion from right across the United Kingdom and beyond was set up and will report in due course. Then, no doubt, there will be a consultation on those issues ahead of any legislative change that the Government might introduce to this place.
This week, the UN’s special rapporteur for human rights said that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act 2021 and the judicial review Bill will all make human rights violations more likely to occur. The Lord Chancellor will be aware of his special responsibilities to defend human rights both in his Department and across Government. As his two-year anniversary as Lord Chancellor arrives next month—I congratulate him on that—will he consider starting to do that part of his job? How will he respond to the UN special rapporteur’s assessment?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words. With respect to the special rapporteur, I would strongly argue that in everything we do and say in this place and in Government, the necessary checks and balances are carried out to ensure that the human rights that he and I believe in are preserved. I can think of no better example than the Bill currently before the House with regard to the duties that the police will have on the need to balance freedom of expression and the rights of other people. That is a balancing exercise at all times, and I will discharge my duties in the way that I believe I have for the past two years.
Violence Against Women and Girls
We are investing in vital victim support services to the tune of more than £150 million this year. The forthcoming victims Bill will enshrine victims’ rights in law and explore the provision of domestic abuse and sexual violence support. We are also working with the Home Secretary to develop new violence against women and girls and domestic abuse strategies to help to drive a step change in response to these crimes.
During this pandemic, we have seen an unprecedented rise in domestic abuse cases in the UK. In my constituency, the Broxtowe Women’s Project has worked tirelessly to support many victims of domestic violence. Will the Minister outline what the Government are doing to ensure that they are tackling domestic abuse? Will he also set out their plans to provide long-term support, both to those who are directly affected and to their children, who often do not receive the support they need?
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing that organisation to prominence; I am grateful to it for the valuable work that no doubt it has done, alongside others, during these dreadful past 16 months or so. For our part, we have boosted funding for specialist services by £51 million to support victims through the covid-19 pandemic and beyond. That included £20.7 million for local community-based sexual violence and domestic abuse services and a £27 million investment over two years to recruit more independent sexual and domestic violence advisers. The landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021 contains new measures to protect victims and will be followed by new violence against women and girls and domestic abuse strategies, while the victims Bill will further transform victims’ experience. I hope that that will have an impact in Broxtowe, along with the rest of the country.
“Domestic abuse victims have to be taken seriously and listened to”.
That is a direct quote from a letter to me from a constituent who suffered physical, emotional and financial abuse at the hands of her now ex-partner. She came to my surgery not to talk about him, but for help with dealing with the police, who she says mishandled her case and have not taken her seriously. Instead of believing that the red marks on her neck were from an attempted strangulation, they responded that the marks were too thin and did not look serious enough. They also did not follow up on the spy camera in her home.
Victims of domestic violence and abuse have told me that the burden of proof is on them. Can the Minister tell me what steps he is taking to bring about a culture change in the police so that victims of domestic violence are believed from the outset?
Obviously, I am very alarmed to hear about that incident. I hope that the hon. Lady will advise her constituent, if she is unhappy, to pursue a complaint about her treatment through the provisions available to her, both through the Metropolitan police and through the Independent Office for Police Conduct. As part of our work over the next few months towards a new violence against women and girls strategy, we will be engaging the police to ensure that, as the hon. Lady says, every victim who comes forward to the police and makes allegations of such a serious nature is taken into account.
I have to say that, while I am sorry to hear about that experience, I have witnessed some very good and important work by the police, not least the Metropolitan Police Service. I recently visited its predatory offenders unit, which specifically targets those who commit domestic violence and abuse where the victim is too afraid to pursue a prosecution, and looks for other ways to apprehend the perpetrator and put them behind bars.
Henriett Szucs and Jan Mustafa were brutally murdered, and their bodies were found in the freezer of a known violent sex offender. Their deaths were avoidable, had it not been for a catalogue of failures within the justice system—failures that allowed this man the freedom to repeatedly commit horrifying crimes—and the collapse in victim safeguarding. Two women each week are murdered by a current or former partner, and apologies simply are not enough. I do not see the necessary action being taken to prevent the next Henriett or Jan. Labour has a ready-to-go plan, including a review of domestic violence and homicides; new progress indicators, as we have in Wales; more sustainable funding; and better access to specialist support services. The Minister has the power to stop violence against women being an afterthought in the justice system, so will he work with us to achieve it?
I obviously reject the assertion that violence against women—or, indeed, anybody—is an afterthought for this Government. I do not think anybody could look at what we have done over the past two years and think that we have done anything other than throw our entire weight behind the fight against violence. Specifically, the hon. Lady will have noted that one of the five key priorities set by the National Policing Board for the whole of the criminal justice system, including the police, has been the suppression and reduction of murder, a third of which are domestic. She will be interested to know that I am now entering the second round of homicide murder roundtables with police forces across the country and looking at their murder prevention strategies to ensure that they get ahead of exactly the kind of heinous crime that she points to. We know that the perpetrators of murder in this country have, on average, seven previous offences. That means that we should be able, as she rightly says, to identify them before they commit that catastrophic and appalling act, and that is exactly what we are trying to do.
Domestic Violence Victims
We are working across Government to transform the response to the abhorrent crime of domestic violence. We passed our landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021 in April, to be followed by the new violence against women and girls and domestic abuse strategies. The victims Bill will further transform victims’ experience. We have also provided unprecedented funding to support the sector.
My constituent, a courageous woman, Ms Charlotte Budd, is a survivor of domestic abuse, but she suffered a great deal further from her experience in the family court system. Ms Budd has criticised the pro-contact nature of the family court, arguing that decisions have resulted in unsafe child arrangements. I would be extremely grateful if my hon. Friend could set out what steps the Department is taking to ensure that the presumption of contact issue does not have damaging consequences for victims of domestic abuse like Ms Charlotte Budd. Will one of the Ministers in the Department meet me and my constituent, Ms Budd, to discuss these issues further?
I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising this case, and I am very sorry to hear this distressing story. He is quite right to say that the presumption of parental contact has been a cause of concern to many, on the basis that it might expose parents and children to greater risk, and we are reviewing this provision at the moment. I would be more than happy to meet him to discuss this case—and, indeed, the review—further in the hope that we can move to an improved situation.
The Government recognise the deep distress that the theft of a much-loved pet can cause, and I have met the Home Secretary and the Environment Secretary to create a taskforce to investigate the problem end to end. That work is under way and it is gathering evidence to understand the factors that may be contributing to any rise in pet theft and to recommend measures to tackle the problem. It will report to Ministers on potential solutions by the summer.
I am grateful for that response. Mandatory microchipping has been a welcome step forward, and I understand that the law is now consistent across all parts of the United Kingdom. What steps have been taken to improve the microchipping process so that owners can know where microchips are being run, when and by whom?
My hon. Friend will know that our manifesto pledge is to extend microchipping to cats as well. With regard to dogs, over 90% of them in England are now microchipped. This year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is carrying out a post-implementation review of the regulations that introduced microchipping in 2015, to see how the various databases can operate in a more co-ordinated way, and it will come forward with proposals later in the year.
Pet theft is the most scurrilous crime, and residents have spoken to me about the loss they have felt when their dog or cat has been stolen from them. Does the Minister agree that each local force should have a dedicated dog theft lead? Will he join my calls for the police and crime commissioner to have a dog theft lead for South Yorkshire police, like the one for the Nottinghamshire constabulary?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s commitment to this campaign. I am pleased to hear about his energetic efforts in this sphere and I wish him well. Decisions on priorities are, of course, a matter for individual forces, but I am sure he will want to work with his local force to achieve the laudable aims that his campaign represents.
Pet theft is a shameless and disgusting act that harms families across our country. Scumbag Malachy Doherty of Tunstall was recently sentenced to 27 weeks in prison for stealing Labradors Denzel and Welly. Twenty-seven weeks does not seem long enough to me, so does my right hon. and learned Friend agree with the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke that, as part of the pet theft taskforce, firmer punishments and vets checking microchips at the first visit will be ways to help prevent the heartache felt by many victims’ families?
My hon. Friend always speaks with vigour on behalf of his constituents, and I wholeheartedly agree with his revulsion at this appalling type of crime. We share his deep concern, which is why the sort of ideas and proposals he outlined are very much at the forefront of Government thinking.
I thank the Secretary of State for speaking to me recently about pet theft. In the recent local election campaign in Wolverhampton, I spoke to several constituents who are now too nervous to go out to walk their dogs, especially in the evening time. Does he recognise that, for their wellbeing, and for that of their dogs, this is an urgent matter? Can he reassure me that as soon as the taskforce reports the Government will take action on pet theft reform?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her deep commitment to this issue. She is so right to highlight the wellbeing and mental health effects of the loss of a much-loved pet on her local residents in Wolverhampton and more widely. That is precisely why we took action to set up the taskforce, and we will indeed be reporting as soon as possible to address the concerns of her constituents.
Pet theft can be absolutely heartbreaking for families. I have spoken to some of the families in my constituency who have gone through this process and they warmly welcome the establishment of the pet theft taskforce. Can my right hon. and learned Friend outline what kind of solutions the taskforce is looking at?
My hon. Friend is right to reflect the views of his constituents in Bolsover and the wider community. We are looking at not just the consequences of pet theft, but ways in which the black market in the trade in animals can be dealt with. Lots of ideas and initiatives merit serious consideration as to how we can prevent the incentives for this sort of despicable crime from occurring in the first place. That is the work that is being carried out now.
It is clear today that pet theft is having a huge impact on so many families across the country. Indeed, if my mam had the choice between me and her beloved, slightly obese Bichon, Archie, it would be a close call and I would not fancy my odds. Pet theft is on the rise. The loss of a furry family member is having an impact on so many families. Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm not if and how, but when we will update the law to tackle this terrible crime?
I am glad that my hon. Friend declared his interest, as is appropriate. Many other Members of this House will be dog owners. I am a cat owner, so I declare that interest. Clearly, behind that, there is a very important point about the ways in which we can help to prevent the spread of this crime. As the Prime Minister said, this is often the underbelly of more organised and serious criminality, where profit is being made on the backs of the misery of not just the pets themselves, but their owners, who suffer great distress as a result of the theft.
International Treaties on Human Rights: Obligations
The United Kingdom has strong human rights protections within a comprehensive and well-established constitutional and legal system, and a long-standing tradition of ensuring that our rights and liberties are protected domestically and of fulfilling our international human rights obligations. We have put in place a combination of policies and legislation to give effect to the international human rights treaties that we have ratified. We have a strong record before the various UN treaty-monitoring bodies and fully participate in the relevant reporting processes.
By contrast with what the Secretary of State just said, the Joint Committee on Human Rights recently published a report that concludes that his Department’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will restrict peaceful protest
“in a way that we believe is inconsistent with our rights.”
The report also singles out the provisions on noisy protests as
“neither necessary nor proportionate”.
With findings like those, will the Secretary of State reconsider his assertion that the Bill is compliant with the European convention on human rights?
I am happy to repeat the declaration that I made on the face of the Bill: its provisions are indeed compatible with the convention. As a former member of the Joint Committee, I well appreciate its work, but with respect, I wholly disagree with the analysis that it has produced. The balance between freedom of expression and other fundamental rights and the need to maintain order and protect the rights of other citizens going about their lawful business is properly struck in the Bill, which I commend strongly to the House.
The Secretary of State recently dismissed the relevance of international treaties, so it is interesting that today he is using what he says is compliance with the ECHR to convince us that his Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is not, as the Joint Committee said, “inconsistent with our rights.” How relevant, then, is the opinion of the UN special rapporteur on human rights, who said last week that the Bill runs “counter to the” human rights “direction” that the UK
“need to be going in”?
Is the Secretary of State not just a little bit embarrassed about that?
So the Secretary of State does not respect international treaties and is not listening to Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights; let us see whether he has a little more respect for the UK’s Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. Will he join in the condemnation of the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson), who branded Travellers as thieves? What does he say to Travellers who described the Bill as
“the single biggest threat to”
“traditional way of life”
and said that it may “entirely eradicate nomadic life”. Does the Secretary of State want to eradicate their way of life?
I have not seen what was reported to have been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson). I simply say that in everything that we seek to do we uphold the principles of equality, inclusion and diversity in our society, but it is also right to remember that the interests of one group will sometimes conflict with the interests of another. It is important for us to maintain the balance between the rights of, in that instance, local residents and the rights of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community. It is all about balance, which is what this Government constantly seek to strike through their legislation.
Outcomes for Rape Victims
We are taking steps to ensure that we tackle this horrific crime and restore confidence in the criminal justice system, as outlined in the rape review that was published 10 days ago. We will return the volume of rape cases going through the courts to at least 2016 levels by the end of this Parliament and are taking steps to improve the quality of investigations and reduce the time taken for victims to be given their phone back during the course of investigation. Furthermore, we are going to improve the culture of joint working among police and prosecutors and hold each part of the system to account through performance scorecards.
The Crown court backlog currently stands at a record high of almost 60,000 cases, and figures show that there has been a 67% rise in the number of sexual offences cases awaiting trial. In the Secretary of State’s own words, rape victims have been “failed” by this Government. The rape review accepted that court delays have contributed to the plummeting number of rape prosecutions. Rape victims deserve a criminal justice system that works for them and not against them, so why did the Government vote against Labour’s amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that called for the fast-tracking of rape cases to be rolled out across England and Wales?
The hon. Lady is quite right that delay in the criminal justice system, both from report to charge and then from charge to court, has a significant impact on victims and is a driver of victim attrition and cases therefore not proceeding. We are very focused on compressing each of the various parts of the criminal justice system so that they work efficiently and speedily, in line with the need to get quality cases into court that will hopefully secure convictions. While we have not supported the measures that she put forward for the Bill, she will in time be able to see the performance and the timeliness of various parts of the criminal justice system through the publication of comprehensive scorecards, which will allow us to judge, over time, first, whether the number of cases in court rise, which I believe they will quite significantly, but, secondly, whether more measures are needed to be taken to drive further progress.
Rehabilitation of Offenders
We must rehabilitate offenders by focusing relentlessly on the factors that we know drive reoffending. That is why we are working across Government to support people into a job, stable accommodation and treatment for substance misuse. We have recently announced a £200 million investment in third-sector providers that deliver specialist rehabilitation services to address those core priorities.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer thus far. What further measures does he intend to introduce to ensure that prison governors enable those people leaving prison to be properly trained and briefed on how they can get not only housing, but job opportunities and benefits if they qualify for them, so that when they leave prison they are not tempted to go back to their old haunts and, indeed, to reoffend.
My hon. Friend speaks with great authority on this matter. This House will recall well the excellent work that he did in respect of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. He is absolutely right. We are investing more than £20 million in a landmark new accommodation service, providing up to 12 weeks of accommodation for prison leavers who would otherwise be homeless. That will start later this summer in five of our probation regions in England, but we want to go further. We want to introduce housing specialists in 20 prisons to strengthen partnerships with key stakeholders such as those of local councils and housing providers and to improve the expertise in prisons. We also want prison work coaches, so that not only is the accommodation sorted, but getting into a job is as well. Why is that important? It is because those who leave with a job reduce their chances of reoffending by 9%, changing lives in the process.
HMP Berwyn is one of the largest and newest prisons in Britain and has been chosen as a pilot site for the Ministry of Justice’s employment advisory board scheme. This scheme will bring together business leaders, prison coaches, statutory services and the MP in order to secure employment for offenders on release. I thank the Minister for backing Berwyn and invite him to Wrexham to see the businesses that are putting their faith in the justice system and to sample one of Berwyn’s award-winning custodial pies.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for her question, but I am even more grateful to her for being such a champion of HMP Berwyn and, indeed, of this important initiative. She is absolutely right: getting more prison leavers into jobs is key to cutting crime. As I have indicated before, it reduces the chance of reoffending by 9%. Of course, I would be delighted to visit her in Wrexham to see the great work of the employment advisory board. I congratulate her and all those she is working with on their fantastic work at Berwyn in the Custodial Pie Corporation, upskilling men in the hospitality industry.
Government and the Courts
Forgive me, Mr Speaker, I was thinking about the pies at HMP Berwyn.
Well, not me. I will leave that to others to answer.
Naturally, I do not disclose the details of private conversations that I have with Cabinet colleagues, but I can say that the Government are thinking very carefully indeed about how to make sure the balance of our constitution is right. In addition to the reviews of administrative law in the Human Rights Act 1998, I am now considering the constitutional settlement that was left by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. I will say more about that in due course and I will be open and consultative as that work is carried out.
The Public Law Project requested a breakdown of Government spending on judicial review, but it said that the information received was “barely a fraction of what should have been published. It is not detailed or clear enough to give any meaningful insight as to how judicial review impacts Government departments”.
Why are the Government so reluctant to publish everything requested?
The hon. Gentleman has expressed the view of one contributor to the consultation. I would argue on the contrary—that, indeed, we are publishing everything, consistent with our wider public duty and with our duty to maintain collective Cabinet responsibility. The current consultation has been ongoing. We are due to publish a response to that ahead of any potential legislation. That will all be done. Of course, any proposals will have the fullest scrutiny from him and other right hon. and hon. Members in due course.
Domestic Abuse: Legal Advice
We are committed to ensuring that civil legal aid remains accessible to those who need it, including, in particular, victims of domestic abuse. The Legal Aid Agency keeps market capacity under review to ensure adequate provision across England and Wales. We are reviewing the legal aid means test, including in relation to victims of domestic abuse. On 3 March, the Chancellor announced a further £19 million package to tackle domestic abuse, and we have made changes to the evidence requirements to make it easier to access legal aid.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that legal aid is a vital pillar of support to many people, which is why we have taken steps to ensure that the evidence requirements for those who want access to legal aid have been relaxed. We have also gone further; we have supported organisations such as RCJ Advice through its Finding Legal Options for Women Survivors service, which is a fantastic digital portal to assist people in the agony of that moment—as they may be in their home circumstances—to receive the kind of support that they require so that they are best placed to get a non-molestation order or an occupation order. We are determined to stand up for victims of domestic abuse.
Independent Human Rights Act Review
Since January this year, the review has conducted a public call for evidence, which has received more than 150 submissions, and has engaged with a wide range of interested parties at roundtable meetings and online public roadshow events. The evidence-gathering period has now concluded. The panel is now considering the evidence and will draft its report over the summer. The report will then be published, as will the Government’s response.
What does the Secretary of State want to achieve with his review? He will be aware that as long as we remain a party to the European convention on human rights, the rights that are available to citizens as a consequence cannot be altered. Any changes to the Human Rights Act would just return us to the situation that we had before the Act, when we could only enforce the remedies for these rights by going to Strasbourg. Is that what the Government want to achieve here?
I know that the right hon. Gentleman will read the review’s findings with great care. I have been clear that this is not about changing the fundamental rights themselves, as he has quite rightly observed; it is about the way in which the domestic courts implement and interpret those rights. It is about the mechanism, if you like. It is now 20 years since the Act came into force and I think it is right at this juncture to give it a careful examination. That is what the independent review is all about. As he would expect, it will be followed up by the fullest consultation, in which I know he will play a vigorous part.
Sexual Assault Victims: Public Naming
It is an offence to publish any matter likely to identify a person who has made an allegation of rape or other sexual assault. The prohibition applies automatically from the moment the offence is reported and has effect throughout the complainant’s lifetime.
The public naming of a rape victim who has bravely come forward is devastating for the individual concerned, but under current legislation perpetrators of this crime get no more than a mere £200 fine. At a time when 44% of rape victims are actually pulling out of the justice system before their day in court, does the Minister agree that such lax laws can deter even more sexual assault victims from coming forward? If so, why did his Government vote down proposals that would have strengthened prosecuting powers against such perpetrators?
Medomsley Detention Centre
I have every sympathy for the survivors and victims of Medomsley detention centre, who suffered abhorrent abuse. The Ministry of Justice has been working for several years to compensate properly survivors and victims. Where necessary, claimants are able to submit medical evidence to support allegations of abuse so that damages can be appropriately assessed. That includes both physical and psychological injury. The majority of claims for compensation have now been settled under a settlement protocol.
I am grateful for that answer. The compensation scheme covers physical, not sexual abuse. My constituent suffered terrible, much more serious abuse. He was drugged and raped, which has had a profound effect on his health for over 40 years—both his physical and his mental health—and that of his family. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet me, my constituent and the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Medomsley detention centre to discuss a proper compensation settlement for my constituent?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, and he paints a truly harrowing picture. For the avoidance of doubt, cases involving serious sexual harm and psychological injury can be dealt with by the Government Legal Department, albeit outside the standard compensation scheme. Because of their seriousness and complexity, they are considered on a case-by-case basis and awards made have been significant. We take great care to ensure the level of compensation properly reflects the seriousness of the abuse. It is of course always open to claimants to issue proceedings in the courts outwith the scheme, should they see fit. I would be happy to meet to discuss the protocols, but I just say this: it is important that Ministers do not interfere in specific cases when litigation is ongoing.
Over the weekend, we launched the unified probation service for England and Wales. It was the culmination of huge amounts of preparation over two years, and I am hugely grateful to probation colleagues and frontline staff for making it happen. We have invested £310 million in that time to recruit 1,000 extra probation officers, with 1,500 more on the way, alongside making more use of technology such as GPS and sobriety tags. We are determined to ensure that the millions of hours of unpaid work handed down to offenders every year are served more visibly, keeping our towns, cities and our countryside clean. I have said many times that every Department of Government should be a criminal justice department, and the new probation service will be at the heart of a more joined-up approach with police, health services, local authorities and others to cut crime and keep the public safe from harm.
On 17 June, I wrote to the Justice Secretary about probation services, raising a deeply concerning whistleblower case in the probation service. When my constituent first joined the service, there were 10 members of staff in her team. At the end of 2020, three members of staff had left and a further three were on long-term sick leave, and the case load was overwhelming. Does the Secretary of State accept that the 60% drop in staffing levels presents an unacceptable risk to public safeguarding, the welfare of probation service officers and the rehabilitation of offenders?
I will make sure that the hon. Lady’s letter is brought to my attention. She sent it just over a week ago. I will not comment about the individual case, but it will of course be looked at carefully. She will be encouraged to know that as a result of the investment we are making, 1,000 more probation officers have been recruited already. We are going for another 1,500, and that means that, together with the changes to how case loads are managed, probation officers will be supported and encouraged, and the sort of issues that she raises I believe will start to diminish, because that is my determination. I want to sing the praises of an unsung public service.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. The Government’s response to the economic crime threat is set out in our economic crime plan, which lists seven strategic priorities for combating crime through a specially convened public-private partnership. That includes a number of specific actions, including focusing on high-harm fraud types through online activity such as courier fraud, romance fraud and investment fraud. We are considering whether further legislative changes need to be brought in to provide law enforcement with the tools it needs to combat these emerging threats.
Both the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have apologised for the Government’s failure of rape victims resulting in record low prosecution and conviction rates. In attempting to atone for these mistakes it is vital that the Government are honest with victims. Last week, in Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister claimed he was investing another £1 billion in clearing the court backlogs, but in the spending review the figure announced to address the backlogs is £275 million. I am sure that the Prime Minister was not deliberately misleading the House. Will the Secretary of State correct the record?
The right hon. Gentleman raises an issue that I think I can help to clarify for him. With regard to the specific figure, that of course relates to spending during this coming year. We spent another equivalent sum in the previous year on court recovery. Indeed, when you look at the figures that we were spending anyway on new technology in our courts, and indeed the Crown Prosecution Service expenditure as well, then the figure actually is the correct one. He should realise that it is not just the Ministry of Justice that is funding court recovery and the effects of covid; the Attorney General’s Office and indeed the Home Office as well have a responsibility with regard to victims. So I am afraid that fox is well and truly shot.
I have to say that the Secretary of State’s verbosity serves him well.
In March, the Lord Chancellor told the Justice Committee that he had been “played for a fool” in relation to improvements at Rainsbrook secure training centre. He was clear that
“this will not happen again. Otherwise, the consequences will be extremely serious for those responsible.”
Yet this did happen again, and only a year and a half later have children been moved out of harm’s way. As the saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” Does the Lord Chancellor feel like a fool, and what “extremely serious” consequences will he deliver to ensure that this does not happen again?
I am very glad that the right hon. Gentleman asks me that question because I can reassure him that as soon as the particular reports were received from the independent monitors I took swift action to make sure that the safety and wellbeing of children at Rainsbrook was preserved. That is why we ordered that children in the unit were moved. Indeed, work is carrying on with regard to the overall future of Rainsbrook. It would be wrong of me to speculate while discussions with the provider remain ongoing, but I can tell him this: I will do whatever it takes to make sure that the children in our care are protected and that all our institutions, including Rainsbrook, are run properly. I can assure him that the providers have had the message loud and clear from me and that there will be no second chances.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that matter. It is an extraordinary fact that 10 years ago stalking was not even an offence, but it was made an offence in 2012. I, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), had a campaign to double the maximum sentence so there is a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment. But it is not enough to have the punishment; we have to make sure that these matters get before the courts as well, and that is why I am grateful to the police and the courts for prioritising them. Those who stalk should know that they will be punished properly.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising an issue of genuine and widespread public concern. He will note that the phraseology in the Bill talks about memorials, which of course would include memorials such as the one to Sir Winston Churchill. The important point is that we can now move away from the court determining on the mere cost of repair to criminal damage to look at the overall cultural and emotional value of statues like that one, and indeed, ordinary “unvisited tombs”, to quote George Eliot, of people who have a great value to the local community and to their loved ones.
I thank the hon. Lady for paying tribute to law centres; she is absolutely right to do that. They do an important job of ensuring that individuals—sometimes vulnerable individuals—can get that vital legal advice and access to justice that they need. That is why, at the beginning of the pandemic, when the message came out that they might face real threats to their viability, we stepped in. The Law Centres Network asked for £3 million and we provided that. It was distributed through the network to ensure that law centres have the funds they need to continue their excellent work.
My hon. Friend is right to analyse the figures closely. It is interesting to note that some of the assumptions that people make about foreign nationals and where they are from are out of date. My hon. Friend is right to highlight our agreement with Albania, but operationally those issues are difficult because often the individuals whom we have identified, prosecuted and properly incarcerated will not be known to the authorities in the receiving country and there are issues with identity. However, we carry on with our joint work across Government to ensure that as many of those foreign national offenders as possible are repatriated as quickly as possible. I think the latest cumulative figure over the past five years is about 5,000, but of course I will correct the record if that proves to be incorrect.
May I put on record my condemnation of the appalling incident involving Professor Whitty in the last few days? With regard to the way in which antisocial behaviour is policed, there have been welcome initiatives and, indeed, changes to the law by Government on preventive measures, particularly for young people and children. Our youth offending teams and other diversionary teams have done a lot to ensure that those issues do not end up before a court, when the damage is already done. I take the strong view that the distinction between crime and antisocial behaviour is artificial. Of course, I will look constructively at anything that we can incorporate in the forthcoming victims consultation and, indeed, the Bill, which, I assure the hon. Gentleman, will come.
My hon. Friend is right to raise on behalf of his constituents in Bury the real damage that can be caused to the community by careless and dangerous driving. Through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, we will increase the maximum penalties for causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink and drugs, and for causing death by dangerous driving, from 14 years to life imprisonment. There will also be a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving, to close a gap in the law.
I thank my hon. Friend for speaking so strongly on behalf of his constituents. Colin Pitchfork’s offences were the gravest of crimes, and the families of Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth still live with the pain that he caused. The independent Parole Board’s role is to assess whether he is safe for release, rather than whether he has been punished enough. I understand why this decision has affected public confidence. It has been reviewed by officials in my Department, and we found arguable grounds that the decision was irrational, so I have asked the Parole Board to reconsider it using the mechanism that my hon. Friend rightly identified.
I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for that question. I can absolutely assure her that the rights of LGBTQ+ people will be respected, honoured and celebrated by my Department. We are taking the fullest and most enthusiastic part in Pride Month, which of course is now. The issue with regard to Stonewall was simply this: my officials and I were no longer convinced that the particular scheme that we had taken part in was the right use of public money. There were concerns about the direction of that organisation, which has done so much to advance the cause of people of an LGBT+ orientation. It was with great sorrow and regret that that decision was made, but I assure the hon. and learned Lady that the underlying commitment to and passion for those issues absolutely remains.
Over 8,000 criminal cases are waiting to be resolved in Devon and Cornwall. Many of my constituents in East Devon are anxiously awaiting progress on their cases, and they feel no closer to justice. What steps is my right hon. and learned Friend taking to reducing the backlogs in Devon?
My hon. Friend is right to raise issues affecting his constituents. He will be glad to know that in his region, huge strides have been made in magistrates and Crown courts to deal effectively with the case load. Based on the figures I see regularly, I am encouraged by the progress being made in his local courts. That is part of a national drive to deal with capacity, which we have increased through Nightingale courts. There is no limit on sitting days in the Crown court during the year ahead. If all is well with the road map later in July, the further easing of restrictions will allow even more cases to be listed, so that justice can be delivered as quickly as possible, both for my hon. Friend’s constituents and for the wider public.