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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 703: debated on Tuesday 9 November 2021


The Secretary of State was asked—

Forensic Services

1. What discussions he has had with the Home Secretary on the quality of forensic services used in the criminal justice system. (904087)

As the Minister with responsibility for cross-departmental criminal justice issues, I spend a lot of time talking to myself.

I am sure the Minister is aware that many people in the criminal justice system are deeply worried about the state of forensic science, on which so much depends. I will not play the card that it is all the fault of privatisation; it is much deeper than that. Will he not only have a serious look at the evidence from the recent House of Lords inquiry, but keep in touch with me and with the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), my co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on miscarriages of justice? This is an urgent matter that goes to the heart of many miscarriages of justice. Will the Minister work with us to get it right again?

I am more than happy to work with the hon. Gentleman on the issues that he raises. He is quite right that forensics are a critical part of a good and functioning criminal justice system. He will know that in the Home Office part of my job, significant work is going into the transforming forensics programme, which has received investment of more than £25 million in each of the past two years, bolstering and reinforcing the Forensic Capability Network. He will also know that the Mackey review, which was completed in April, has been looking at where forensics goes next, and that there is a jointly chaired forensics sub-group of the Criminal Justice Board that looks at the issue across both Departments.

Contrary to the question from the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), will the Minister welcome the developments in forensic science that led to last week’s conviction of David Fuller for two murders and multiple counts of sexual abuse in mortuaries? Will he commit to ensuring that with every development in science and technology, the system routinely returns to unsolved cases so that justice can be done?

My hon. Friend makes a really important point. She is quite right that as forensic science develops—and it is developing very rapidly indeed—we are able to revisit some quite elderly cases in which evidence is still available and reveal the true perpetrators of some awful crimes. What we saw last week was a brilliant result by Kent police. A matter that I have to confess that I was involved with, where exactly what my hon. Friend describes took place, was the catching of the killers of Stephen Lawrence nearly 20 years after the killing: it was driven specifically by developments in the ability to assess microdots of blood in a way we had not been able to do before. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that all police forces, through the Forensic Capability Network, need to keep all so-called cold cases under review as science leads us towards greater and greater answers.

Road Traffic Offences and Penalties

As part of the Department for Transport’s longer-term and wider work on road safety, road traffic offences are kept under review to ensure that irresponsible driving and the risk it poses to others are appropriately punished. In the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, we are increasing the maximum penalties for causing death by dangerous driving and by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs, and we are introducing a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving.

Businessman Hassan Nasser al-Thani, who killed retired railway worker Charles Roberts while driving his Rolls-Royce at nearly twice the speed limit, was given a short driving ban and fined last month because prosecutors accepted that he was driving carelessly, not dangerously. That is just the latest example of a road criminal receiving a ridiculously light sentence while their victim’s loved ones are left grieving for the rest of their lives. It has been nearly eight years since the Conservative then Secretary of State for Justice, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), promised

“a full review of all driving offences and penalties”—[Official Report, 6 May 2014; Vol. 580, c. 17.]

Where is it?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who I recognise has been very vocal on these issues for a long time. I obviously cannot comment on the specific case; sentencing and decisions of the courts are a matter for our independent judiciary, as he knows. However, we had a review in 2014 that looked at driving offences and penalties, which led to the consultation in 2016 and to the new measures that were debated in the House of Lords yesterday. Those measures significantly strengthen the penalties for the two offences that I mentioned, not least because the maximum penalty will increase from 14 years to life. I think that sends a strong signal about our overall position on these very serious matters.

Drug Smuggling into Prisons

What steps have been taken to ensure that state-of-the-art X-ray body scanners have been installed throughout the male prison estate, and that we are harnessing the best available technology to help our prisons to become places of rehabilitation rather than addiction to drugs?

My hon. Friend is right to ask that question. Since 2019, the Government have invested more than £100 million in prison security. We have installed 74 X-ray body scanners, which has resulted in more than 10,000 positive scans. I recently visited HMP Highdown and saw the equipment in action. It has stopped 100 smuggling attempts in the last year alone, involving drugs, weapons and mobile phones, and it allows that prison to operate safely.

Prison staff have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to keep the prison population safe. They are also key to preventing instances of drug smuggling in our prisons. What is my right hon. Friend doing to support and resource their important work?

On top of the investment and the scanners, we have the Prisons (Substance Testing) Act 2021, which gives prison officers the powers to test prisoners for any psychoactive substance. We also now have enhanced gate security at 35 high-priority sites, and fixed and portable mobile phone blocking equipment to give officers all the tools that they need to keep their prisons safe.

I speak as co-chair of the justice unions parliamentary group. Drugs in prisons cause chaos, putting immense strain on prison officers, and such stress is a factor in the prison staffing crisis. This year, 134 band 3 officers left HMP Berwyn. Each officer’s training had cost £13,000; that is £1.74 million of public money wasted. Does the Secretary of State agree that implementing the recommendations of the pay review body is a key part of the solution to the crisis, and that good prison staff deserve proper wages?

The right hon. Lady is right to raise that issue. It is important to consider not just the technology that we have been talking about, which helps to keep prisons safe, but the men and women who—day in, day out, at considerable risk to themselves and under considerable pressure—do such an excellent job. She asked about the independent pay review body; this year we have accepted its recommendations, which is critically important and only right.

In the past, and perhaps even in the present, a great many drugs and other items have been smuggled into prisons by means of drones. Can the Secretary of State give any indication of what has been done to stop that happening, and thereby stop prisoners’ access to those items?

I was up at Glen Parva recently to look at one of the new state-of-the-art prisons. There, and across the prison estate, we are introducing improved cell windows, netting and other physical upgrades, as well as technology, to counter the threat of drones.

UK Human Rights Framework

Under this Prime Minister and before the next election, we will overhaul the Human Rights Act to end its abuse by dangerous criminals and to restore some common sense to our justice system.

Does the Secretary of State believe that the UK should remain a signatory to the European convention on human rights, or does he plan to join such liberal luminaries as Belarus outside the convention? Yes or no?

Will the Secretary of State listen to calls from the campaign group Liberty, and commit himself to ending what it has described as a cynical use of violence against women and girls as justification for the planned HRA reforms, bearing in mind that the legislation has been instrumental in securing women’s rights?

As a trainee lawyer I worked at Liberty, and I have huge respect for the work that it does. In fact, back then I took a test case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg relating to gender discrimination. However, it is also right that we listen to the wider voices, and we have conducted the independent Human Rights Act review to consider all the issues from all the different angles. We are grateful to Sir Peter Gross for chairing that review and we will carefully consider its recommendations in the round.

The Human Rights Act handed power to unelected judges, both at home and abroad, meaning that Britain remains tied to a foreign court. The creeping power of the courts is directly interfering with the Government’s ability to conduct their business, not least in preventing the Home Secretary from combating the unacceptable numbers of illegal immigrants crossing the channel. In the light of this, does my right hon. Friend agree with many residents of Blackpool in thinking that it is time we scrapped the Act altogether?

We will look at reforming and overhauling the Human Rights Act, and I think my hon. Friend raises a reasonable point. I support continued membership of the European convention on human rights, but a fair challenge has been raised by lawyers and judges past and present about the elasticity of rights and whether, when they are expanded, that decision ought to be taken by elected Members of this House and not by courts and lawyers. That is a fair challenge, and if hon. Members look fairly at the data from successful challenges on seeking the deportation of foreign national offenders, they will see that there is a good argument that there are too many cases of criminals being able to flout the system because of that elastic interpretation of rights.

The victims of the most horrendous crimes wait years for justice in this country, the courts backlog might not be sorted for eight years, rape convictions are at shamefully low levels, and even with strict lockdown conditions, violence, self-harm and drug abuse are still rife across the prison estate, yet the Secretary of State is investing his time and energy in his personal obsession with dismantling the Human Rights Act. What message does he think this sends to victims about the priorities of his Government?

I have visited three prisons in my time as Justice Secretary. We have secured an important settlement for the courts backlog in this spending review, but on top of that, a lot of victims and their families say that it is galling to see foreign national offenders who cannot be deported and who are claiming their right to a family life. I think the hon. Gentleman needs to instil a little bit of balance and perspective, and we are going to reintroduce some common sense to the system.

Crown Court Backlog

5. What his timescale is for clearing the backlog of Crown court cases resulting from the covid-19 outbreak. (904092)

We are already seeing the results of our efforts to tackle the impact that the pandemic has had on our justice system, and the number of outstanding cases in magistrates courts has dropped by around 80,000 since its peak in July 2020. I am pleased to say that the spending review provides an extra £477 million for the criminal justice system, which will allow us to reduce Crown court backlogs caused by the pandemic from 60,000 today to an estimated 53,000 by March 2025.

The Government try to blame covid-19 for the backlog, but the Crown court backlog had already increased by 23% in the year leading up to the pandemic. Does the Minister regret the decision to slash sitting days in 2019?

I say to the hon. Lady with the greatest respect that it is quite extraordinary that anybody in this place should try to pretend that the pandemic has nothing to do with the backlog. If she visits a Crown court, she will see extraordinary measures having to be used to ensure that, with a jury present and potentially multiple defendants, a case can be disposed of while upholding the rules that we brought in for public health. It would be very welcome if the Opposition recognised that the best part of £500 million of investment to clear the backlog is a very significant step and a positive way forward.

Last week, the Justice Committee visited the Crown court in Manchester and met the recorder, His Honour Judge Dean QC, and the rest of the judiciary. We also met court staff and practitioners there. I hope my right hon. Friend will join me in paying tribute to the hard work that they are all doing to try to keep the show of the jury trial on the road in these exceptional circumstances. Does he agree that it is extremely difficult to deal with jury trials when social distancing is required, and that we have to be realistic about that? Will he also note that the magistrates courts are now, as he observed, dealing with cases in a timely fashion? Is it perhaps worth looking again at the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 in relation to the powers of magistrates, because a lot of lower-level offences could be disposed of in magistrates courts?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I also had the pleasure of visiting Manchester Crown court and saw the brand-new super court, put in place at a cost of £2.5 million to the Treasury to deal with multi-handed cases. I am pleased to say that today we have opened another in Loughborough. On the matter of magistrates, he will know that in the Judicial Review and Courts Bill that is before the House—in fact, we have just been in Bill Committee—we will increase the number of cases that are remitted from the Crown court to magistrates, saving 400 days in the Crown court to hear serious backlog cases such as rape and other indictable charges.

I will let you get the benefit of the applause, Mr Speaker.

On a recent trip out with officers from the Waterfoot police station in Rawtenstall, one of the challenges they talked about in getting cases to court is that the Crown Prosecution Service insists that full disclosure is done before charge. Will my hon. Friend go away and look at that? It is currently warranted officers doing that disclosure, when it could easily be a civilianised job. Will he agree to speak to the Crown Prosecution Service and his colleagues in the Home Office to ensure that Lancashire constabulary—as you know, Mr Speaker, the finest police officers in our United Kingdom—can be out getting criminals and not doing paperwork?

My right hon. Friend makes a good point and has significant experience as a lawyer himself. I can confirm that there is extra resource for the CPS in the spending review, and the Home Office and our Department work closely together on that question and will be looking at what more we can do to improve those processes.

On 5 October, the Secretary of State said it would take up to 12 months to get the backlog down to pre-pandemic levels. Yet we know now, according to the Ministry of Justice’s own analysis, that the backlog may not return to those levels until 2025. Just this morning, he said it could take up to eight years. Was he mistaken when he said it would only take a year, or has it taken him a little longer to get on top of the Department?

On the contrary, I can confirm that what my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor actually said was that cases would start to stabilise. They are stabilising now, at around a 60,000 backlog, but we accept that that is still significant. I think what matters to our constituents, though, is not the size of the number of cases outstanding—though that is important—but how long their case is going to take. On timeliness, we are seeing a very significant improvement, because we are working at full capacity. In July, the Crown courts in this country sat more days and disposed of more cases in a single month than at any time since November 2018. We are making significant progress, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman will welcome the additional investment in the spending review, which will ensure we can go even further.

I am glad to see the Minister come to the aid of the Secretary of State, but he has not answered whether it is a year, eight years or 2025. The Secretary of State told Sky News today that he did not recognise that there was a workforce crisis in the criminal justice system. The Lord Chancellor has got to get real. The workforce is beyond crisis: it is in end times. Criminal solicitors and barristers are leaving in droves, cases are up right across the country, they are stalled right across the country and nobody is available to take them. The Criminal Bar Association is threatening to strike. How does the Lord Chancellor expect to reduce the backlog if there is no one available to take on the cases? Holiday time is over. It is time to act, or let the system collapse.

It is quite extraordinary: 43 minutes ago in Bill Committee, the Labour party voted to keep clogging up our courts with immigration and asylum cases with almost no chance of success. Quite extraordinary. Those cases take up 180 days of court time. That means a High Court judge, and that is precious resource. That is why we are taking that measure. It just proves that when it comes to the backlog in the courts, Labour says one thing and does another.

Former Offenders: Employment Support

We will invest £200 million a year by 2024-25 in initiatives to reduce reoffending, including supporting prison leavers into employment.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that prisoners and ex-offenders out on licence should help fill the labour shortage, that on release all prisoners, including some ex-Labour MPs, should be ready for work and that starting work should be a condition of their licence?

One of the first things I did as Secretary of State was host an employers’ summit attended by 600 organisations last month, where we committed to working together to improve employment rates for prison leavers. I have seen how that works at Ford prison and at HMP High Down, whether we are talking about HGV training or call centres. We know that if we give offenders the skills, and if they have the attitude to take a second chance, getting into work significantly reduces the risk of reoffending and that protects the public.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that giving offenders the chance of employment is key in driving down reoffending rates? What additional support is his Department providing to prisons to ensure that offenders are seizing the employment opportunities available to them?

In addition to the spending review settlement and the employers’ summit, we are making sure that we design prisons the right way. I visited Glen Parva, one of the new state-of-the-art prisons that we are building with our £4 billion investment programme. It had in-cell technology to ensure that inmates can learn skills, particularly numeracy and literacy, and state-of-the-art workshops, so that not only can they get skills, but we can get employers in to get inmates into meaningful, purposeful work.

I absolutely welcome the recognition that employment is pivotal to rehabilitation, but why then the obsession with short prison sentences? What is the point of locking somebody up for one or two months, which achieves absolutely nothing but will often cost somebody a job and a chance of rehabilitation?

We think that justice must be served; punishment is important. The short sentences are often for those who have systematically flouted and breached community sentences. To cut crime, the answer is to make sure justice is served. As well as incarceration where that is required for the purposes of punishment, we work on drug rehabilitation, skills and employment so that those offenders who want to take a second chance to turn themselves around—not all of them will—have the opportunity to grasp it.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s focus on helping offenders into employment. Given estimates that more than half of offenders may be dyslexic and given the impact of dyslexia and illiteracy on the ability to work after a sentence, what is he doing to make sure that screening is available to ensure that prisoners can get the right training, especially on literacy if they are dyslexic, to help them into more successful work afterwards?

One issue we have discussed—I will be hosting prison governors at a roundtable shortly—is making sure that there is an immediate diagnosis within days of an offender getting into prison, so that we know two things: their numeracy and literacy levels, which will of course bring in other special educational needs, to which my right hon. Friend rightly refers; and what the next qualification is that they may—or may not—be able to achieve, so that we have a decent plan that gives them the chance to improve their skills, get into work and avoid a life of crime.

Judicial Review and Courts Bill

The Bill had its Second Reading in this House on 26 October. As the hon. Lady knows, it is now in Committee—she is part of that Committee. The Bill fixes inefficient processes that cause delay in our justice system and gives judges more flexibility to resolve judicial reviews in a practical way. The Secretary of State discusses these matters with Cabinet colleagues, and we are confident that the package of reforms in the Bill is proportionate and effective.

Judicial independence is under threat across Europe, so given the Minister’s recent chilling comments that the UK Parliament should correct decisions of the judiciary that Ministers disagree with, can he see the concerns that this raises for the principle of the separation of powers? How can the UK credibly join other countries who threaten the independence of judges?

We have been debating these matters at length. The Bill is a very good one. It strengthens judicial review in relation to quashing orders with the new remedies. Far from what the hon. Lady said, those new remedies—for example, being able to suspend a quashing order—will bring great benefit to our constituents and support better public administration.

The Bill has a whole chapter on coroners yet entirely neglects the key issue of giving bereaved families a fair hearing at inquests. Victims’ families have no right to legal aid, even when many state institutions are represented at public expense. At one inquest, 18 public bodies were represented but families had to fight to be heard. Will the Minister commit, now, to non-means-tested funding for bereaved families when the state is represented, and table amendments to the Bill to achieve that?

I am pleased to confirm to the House that we are currently drafting the measures that will ensure that we remove the means test on exceptional case funding for such matters. Furthermore, I can confirm that the changes should be implemented early next year.

There has been much gnashing of teeth in the past week over MPs who breach standards and their right to appeal—natural justice, I think they call it. Why, then, do the Government propose to remove a vital last line of defence for ordinary people by removing Cart and Eba-type judicial reviews—the type used by the most vulnerable and the least powerful?

We have just debated this issue at great length in the Bill Committee and I understand that the hon. Lady feels strongly about it but, as we have explained, in those cases there are—we keep using this phrase—three bites at the cherry, whereas in almost all other areas of law there are only two, so the Bill is fair in that sense.

I am bound to say that it is incumbent on the Government to look at resource. When we have a backlog like we have, we have to ask whether using up 180 days of court time for cases that have a tiny chance of success is the best use of that resource. We have a backlog of very serious cases to deal with; that is our Government’s priority and where we are focused.

We have just spent a considerable amount of time arguing about that issue in Committee, so let me turn to another part of the Bill. The presumption in favour of prospective quashing orders will mean that this Government will be able to treat ordinary people unlawfully, safe in the knowledge that even if the courts say they have done so, there will be no redress or compensation, and there will even be time for the Government to change the law so that the unlawful thing becomes lawful. I wonder what it is about the wealthy, powerful friends of this Government that makes their right to so-called natural justice so much more compelling than the right of the ordinary man or woman on the street.

The hon. Lady knows that that is a wholly erroneous interpretation of the presumption clause, which is there simply to ensure that we expedite the accumulation of jurisprudence.

Rape and Violence against Women and Girls: Prosecutions and Convictions

11. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to improve the prosecution and conviction rates of those charged with rape. (904099)

The Government are providing £150 million this year for victims and witnesses and the support services relating to all types of crime. Of that, more than £50 million has been ringfenced specifically for rape and domestic abuse victims.

In Bath we are fortunate to have the charity Somerset and Avon Rape and Sexual Abuse Support, which empowers survivors to tell their stories. With just 2.4% of reported rape cases ending in a conviction, too many women do not come forward for fear that they will have to relive their trauma, and they do not get justice. Will the Secretary of State commit to mandatory training in the Crown Prosecution Service on understanding the impact of trauma and supporting victims, so that all victims of rape come forward in the knowledge that justice is being served?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this very important issue in the forensic way that she does. The funding that I referred to includes funding for 700 independent sexual violence advisers and independent domestic violence advisers, precisely to give victims the support, advice and confidence to see their cases through. We have to bear down on the attrition rate—as it is called in the criminal justice system—of victims falling out of the system because of lack of confidence.

To respond directly to the hon. Lady’s point, before Christmas we will publish criminal justice scorecards not only for general crime but specifically for rape, so we will be able to see the performance at every step in the system. That will help to spur an increase in performance, which will give victims the confidence to come forward and get prosecutions to court.

When it comes to this issue, I would hope that all Members from all parts of the House speak with one voice, but the Secretary of State will know that recorded rape offences have hit the highest number on record at 61,000, with just 1.4% leading to a suspect being charged. There were only 1,333 convictions, and yet the Government could not even agree to the target on improving prosecutions in their own review. Will the Secretary of State, who I know wants to get on top of this issue, commit to getting conviction and prosecution levels back to those last seen in 2016 by the end of this Parliament?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point to this as a problem, a challenge—and a systemic one at that. It is of course good news that a number of victims have been willing to come forward, talk to the police and report that crime, but it cannot stop there. That is why we are publishing the score cards that I mentioned to the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin). We are looking at every stage of the system, including improving phone technology and digital disclosure. We are making sure that victims can access an online or telephone device 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He will know about Operation Soteria, which is shifting the focus of investigations from the victim to the suspect so that they are suspect-centric, and that we are also trialling section 28 pre-recorded cross-examinations so that vulnerable types of victim do not have to go through the added trauma of giving evidence in front of an assailant.

Women and girls do not seem to be safe from sexual predators whether they are alive or dead. David Fuller violated 100 bodies at a Kent hospital. Many of my constituents are impacted by these crimes. At present, necrophilia is illegal under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, with a maximum sentence of just two years. Can my right hon. Friend consider reviewing that to ensure that the maximum sentence is extended so that the punishment reflects the gravity of the crime?

I share my hon. Friend’s total disgust at what we have learned about those hospitals in Kent, and, indeed, in relation to the David Fuller case more broadly. Although I have already said this, as has, I think, the Health and Social Care Secretary, I am very happy to repeat that I am willing to look at those sentences again. Incidents of this kind of event are rare, but they are abhorrent and the sentence must match the level of outrage, the trauma and the renewed trauma that it will put the victims’ families through.

Women and girls who are victims of human trafficking suffer extreme violence, yet, last year, there were only 91 prosecutions and 13 convictions for specific modern slavery offences. However, there is some good news: the charity Justice and Care has been working with the Government to provide victim navigators to help in prosecuting these evil gangs. In nine out of 10 instances where the victim navigator is involved, we get the evidence to prosecute. Will the Government look at extending their support for that charity?

I am very happy to look at that. We have a record-breaking amount from the spending review, certainly the largest in the past 10 years, for justice issues, and I will be looking very carefully at the support that we can provide for victims. My hon. Friend referred to the work of the charity in question, and it dovetails with what I have already mentioned to the House about the independent sexual violence advisers. We know that, if the victims who have gone through these awful crimes get the support they need, they are less likely to fall out of the justice system. That is one of the important ways that we will secure more prosecutions.

On the Home Affairs Committee, we recently heard from Sir John Gillen, Baroness Stern and Lady Dorrian, all of whom have conducted independent reviews into rape or serious sexual violence in some part of the United Kingdom recently. They were unanimous in saying that the single most important factor in preventing a rape victim from withdrawing from the criminal process is the ability to give evidence early under section 28 procedures. I know that my right hon. Friend shares my view on this. Will he tell the House when he expects this procedure to be rolled out across the nation?

That is incredibly important not only for the victims of rape, but for other vulnerable victims. The evidence so far from the pilots and the trials needs to be gleaned and carefully evaluated, but I can tell my hon. Friend that this is something that I want to look at very carefully not just because of the ability to secure a more effective prosecution, but to deter defence lawyers from perhaps not the universal practice, but certainly the widespread practice of encouraging the accused to wait until the moment in court before they take the decision on whether to plead guilty.

Whether victims of sinister spiking, rape or sexual assault, women and girls are being retraumatised by the system. They are cross-examined, disbelieved and made to feel like they are on trial, despite having had their own bodies used against them. No wonder 80% of rape victims do not report it. Last night, Channel 4’s “Dispatches” exposed the ugly truth behind women’s experiences and about a system that is letting victims down. As one woman put it:

“It’s soul destroying not to be believed when you’ve been through so much. They discredit and they destroy you.”

Will the Secretary of State tell us who is on trial here, and explain to women and girls what he will do to put this right and restore their faith in a broken justice system?

I totally share the hon. Lady’s sense of frustration on behalf of victims up and down the country. There is no single silver bullet, precisely because it is a system-wide failure. As has already been mentioned, more victims are reporting to police stations than before; that is positive. We have Operation Soteria, the whole purpose of which is to shift the way in which investigations address these crimes to make them suspect-centric, rather than focusing on the behaviour of victims.

There are a number of technical things that we can do: section 28 has been mentioned; and improving phone technology and digital disclosure is another aspect. It will be important when we publish the criminal justice scorecards for rape that we can see not just at a national level, but—in due course, following that—at a local level, which areas are getting it right and why those other places are not following best practice, and that we ensure we can correct the gaps.

Electronic Tagging of Offenders

I am happy to report excellent progress on our electronic monitoring programme. We recently expanded our world-first acquisitive crime project, GPS tagging all those released from prison who were convicted of those crimes, to cover half of England and Wales. Between April and September, more than 1,500 offenders had to wear a sobriety tag.

The Minister will know that it is actually a relatively small number of hardcore, prolific offenders who are responsible for so much of the misery that is inflicted on our constituents. I therefore welcome the progress on tagging and encourage him to think about other offences that we could use it on. What discussions has he had with the police about the resources that they need to bring back in people who may be breaching their tags?

It is typical of my hon. Friend to think about the burden on policing. He is one of the primary supporters of the police in this House; I am grateful to him for that. We hope that the GPS tagging programmes—specifically, as he says, for prolific acquisitive criminals—will actually reduce the burden on policing. As he knows, something approaching 50% of offenders who have been burglars or robbers go on to reoffend. By putting a tag on their ankle so that we know where they are 24 hours a day, we essentially put a probation officer or police officer alongside them. We hope that that will be a huge deterrent. It also means that if there is a breach or somebody is identified as being at the same place that a crime has occurred at the same time, it is much easier for the police to find them because we can track them down through the tag. As we expand the programme further, from six to 19 police forces across the country, we need to monitor the impact on policing, albeit that, thus far, the police are enthusiastic proponents of the scheme.

Newcastle-under-Lyme plays host to the North Staffordshire Justice Centre, so I know that my constituents will welcome what the Minister has said. What steps will he take to invest in the latest technological advances, so that tagging will keep pace with the behaviour of offenders?

That is a brilliant question, not least because my hon. Friend has put his finger on the button of where we need to go next. As part of the £183 million that the Treasury has now invested—with some confidence, I like to think—in the future roll-out of our electronic monitoring programme, we have £19 million to invest in future technology. In particular, I am keen to stimulate the market to find the holy grail of tagging, which would be a drugs tag that we could fit to the ankle of offenders with that kind of problem, and therefore deter them from taking drugs in the first place.

Community Payback

We are investing an extra £93 million over the next three years to recruit 500 additional community payback staff, so that we can increase hours worked to a record-breaking 8 million a year.

Requiring offenders to give back to their communities not only delivers a just punishment but sends out a clear signal to other criminals that crime does not pay. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that where a community sentence is given, the offender actually then serves it?

I can assure my hon. Friend that we are investing significant extra resources, time and effort into making sure that community payback is both seen and effective. He is quite right that we want the public to see that justice is done, and we want offenders to know that their punishment is meaningful. There is a third reason why community payback is important, however, which is that offenders need to learn what the rest of us know—that we all have to play our part in building a great community and a safe neighbourhood. By this method we can almost teach them the value of contribution to their local neighbourhood.

We want to make sure that community payback is visible, and that means that there will be more people out there on the street cleaning up, improving the environment and so on. That will enable us to square the circle, with a sense of repaying a debt to society but also an ongoing commitment to it.

HMPPS Staff: Government Pay Policy

15. What recent assessment he has made of the effect on (a) recruitment, (b) morale and (c) retention of Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service staff of the Government’s pay policy for public sector workers. (904105)

I start by thanking all prison and probation officers and staff across the country. They do an absolutely vital job protecting the public and rehabilitating offenders, and they deserve our thanks and our acknowledgment. Pay awards for this financial year across HMPPS are subject to the public sector pay pause, which was imposed due to the covid-19 emergency, but I welcome the Chancellor’s recent Budget announcement on public sector pay and the fact that from 2022, it will return to a normal pay setting process.

I am an honorary life member of the Prison Officers’ Association, with which I have worked for the last 25 years. Morale is at rock bottom among prison staff, and that relates to pay. In response to the chair of the justice unions committee, the Secretary of State said that the Government were accepting the pay review board’s recommendations. The pay review board has made it clear in its report that the remit that the Government have given it precludes it from making a full recommendation on pay awards. It finds that to be incompatible with its independence and in conflict with its role as a compensatory mechanism for the fact that prison staff are not allowed to strike. May I request that the Minister meet a delegation from the justice unions group to talk about morale and the development of a pay strategy?

I am delighted to inform the right hon. Gentleman that I have met not just the POA but the Prison Governors Association and many of the smaller unions that represent the interests of vital members of staff such as chaplains and educationalists, who play a really important role in the prison system. I very much look forward to working with the POA and others not just on matters of pay but on ensuring that we value their role in the prison system. I want prison officers to feel safe in their workplace, for example. That is not up for question. We should be making sure that they feel safe, and that is one of my priorities as Minister with responsibility for prisons.

Topical Questions

Over the last month, I have visited HMP High Down, Ford prison and the new state-of-the-art prison at Glen Parva. Today, we opened a new super-court at Loughborough, which will help to reduce the courts backlog, along with a real-terms increase in MOJ funding of 12% by 2024-25.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s work to bring together employers in the offender employment summit, and the significant investment that is to come. One more key element to addressing reoffending is the third sector. Will he join me in paying tribute to Sussex Pathways, which does such tremendous work for offenders pre and post release, so that they can make good on some of the opportunities afforded them in prison? What specific steps is the Department taking to connect women with employment and education opportunities?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need a tailored approach to the female prison estate. I can tell her that the number of women in custody has fallen by almost a quarter since 2010. That reflects the Government’s investment in community services and community sentences. Custody should remain the last resort for women, but we need to ensure we have better services that are better tailored. That is why we have 500 new places in the women’s estate—a mixture of open and closed conditions—tailored particularly to mental health challenges, addiction, skills and work. Indeed, there are some trailblazing examples of work in prisons, such as The Clink restaurant in HMP Downview.

Baby A died in Bronzefield women’s prison in 2019. Mum called for help time and time again, and no one came. She had to bite through her umbilical cord as her baby died. Baby A’s mother had not been convicted of any crime; she was there on remand. She and her baby were in a place that should have kept them safe, but the prison system is not keeping our women safe. Self-harm among women prisoners has increased by nearly half in three months. Many are self-harming over and over again. This House knows what needs to be done. The Minister knows what needs to be done. There is even a female offender strategy. When are this Government going to do it?

I thank the hon. Lady for drawing the House’s attention to that tragic case. She will know that we asked the ombudsman to examine it in detail, and we are very grateful to the ombudsman for having gone through it so that the Department, HMPPS and other providers can learn the lessons from that terrible incident. We have set out extensive plans to help women who are pregnant, mums and babies in prison, and that framework has been published and is being very much implemented. On her wider point about supporting women in custody, we have the female offenders strategy. The Government maintain our aim that we should support women outside of custody and give magistrates the confidence to impose community sentences, but we must ensure that when women are in the female prison estate, they are supported, but importantly, rehabilitated. If they leave prison, we want them to be able to re-enter society and we want to protect the public.

May I just say to both sides that this is a very important question, and it should really be dealt with in the main questions? Topicals are meant to be short and punchy. I understand why the answer has to be detailed, because the issue is far, far too important, but please can we put such important questions earlier in the agenda? That way, it will be easier to get through them.

T3. Across the UK, more and more young women are reporting being spiked by injection, a truly abhorrent attack on people just trying to have fun. What are the Government doing to protect women who are being attacked in this way? (904117)

We share my hon. Friend’s abhorrence at this appalling new phenomenon. To reassure him, the Home Secretary and I are in close touch with the National Police Chiefs’ Council, which is co-ordinating local and national investigation assets across the country to try to prevent the crime and help protect young women.

T2. We heard the pretty shameful remarks to the Opposition earlier about immigration cases. If the Secretary of State wants to help reduce the backlog in court cases, will he consider speaking with the Home Secretary and dropping plans to criminalise asylum seekers for exercising their legal rights under international conventions signed by this country? Those plans are estimated to cost more than £400 million. (904115)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. The Government are firmly committed to the measures set out in the Nationality and Borders Bill that will deter people from making hugely dangerous crossings of the English channel. We need to take action. Public concern on this is profound. We simply cannot have people putting their lives at risk at the hands of dangerous people smugglers. We must put the smugglers out of business.

T4. Last week a new report was published by a group of Conservatives on Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council, which found multiple current examples of what they allege to be active grooming and child sexual exploitation in multiple locations across Rotherham. The working group felt that the response from Rotherham Council was“practically non-existent, and at times the working group has felt that various elements within the Council are deliberately avoiding talking about CSE.”What steps can the Secretary of State’s Department not only to bring the perpetrators to justice but to ensure that the sentencing fits this abominable crime? (904118)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend; these are sensitive matters. We remain clear that allegations of child sexual abuse and exploitation must be thoroughly and properly investigated by police. Since Alexis Jay’s report into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, significant improvements have been made in how local authorities and the police safeguard children both in Rotherham and across the country. However, we know that there is further to go, and we continue to drive improvement in response to actions set out in the “Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy”. We are also bringing forward measures in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that will ensure that an additional cohort of serious and sexual offenders will now serve two thirds of their sentence in custody, instead of half.

Two and a half years ago, practitioners were promised that the criminal legal aid review would be published in summer 2020. We are still waiting. The all-party parliamentary group on legal aid conducted an inquiry into the sustainability of legal aid, and the report was published last month. We heard compelling evidence from practitioners about the impact of inadequate legal aid rates. The consequent crisis in recruitment and retention is feeding directly into the courts backlog. Does the Minister agree that there is no route through tackling the courts backlog that does not also deal with the crisis of inadequate legal aid rates?

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady in her role as chair of the APPG. It is precisely because I see the importance of legal aid that I went to the meeting at which she launched the report. I very much enjoyed it; colleagues from both sides of the House were there. Key to this is the criminal legal aid independent review under Sir Christopher Bellamy QC. Of course, we are still waiting for him to publish that, but we look forward to seeing it as soon as possible.

T5. The criminal justice system has had a good spending review settlement, which is welcome and, frankly, a relief. Will Ministers ensure that that helps to put prolific offenders for crimes such as burglary behind bars? (904120)

My right hon. Friend is right that we have seen a 12% boost to the Department’s budget, which will see £11.5 billion invested by the end of the Parliament. That will help us build prison places and invest in tagging as well as the drugs, skills and work regimes for people in prison and on licence to cut reoffending and protect the public.

The Law Society of Scotland has explained in detail why clause 2 of the Judicial Review and Courts Bill requires the Scottish Parliament’s legislative consent—it is basically because judicial review is a devolved matter. When I raised that with the Minister on Second Reading, he said that he would write to me addressing the Law Society’s detailed arguments. When should I expect to receive that letter?

Without wishing to sound like one of the famous online shopping alerts that we receive by email, I confirm that it has been dispatched and that the hon. and learned Lady will receive it imminently.

T6. Many victims of crime feel extremely vulnerable. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to bring forward measures focused on protecting the victims of crime by ensuring that they are constantly supported through the criminal justice system? (904121)

My right hon. Friend is a long-standing advocate for victims in his community. I hope he will be reassured that we will consult as soon as possible on how we best guarantee victims’ rights in law and the level of support that they can expect. We will want to hear from a wide range of individuals and stakeholders to inform that process and shape policy, getting it right from reporting the crime through to the courtroom experience.

Sarah Child, aged 26, was run down and killed by a driver doing 64 mph on the Walsall Road. Poppy-Arabella Clarke, aged three, was run down and killed on the Walsall Road by a driver who could no longer see and had been warned never to drive again. With RoadPeace, we have campaigned for tougher penalties for those who kill with a car, and some welcome progress has been made. However, does the Minister not understand that changing and strengthening the law is one thing and that helping to enforce the law is something different? With 1,000 police officers cut in the west midlands and huge cuts to Birmingham city council’s budget, they are unable—

I understand the hon. Member’s distress at that case. As he knows, we are busy about the job of increasing police capacity. We are over halfway to the 20,000 extra police officers—we have 11,053—and a significant number of those are heading towards the west midlands.

The main reason for my call for a Rotherham-style inquiry into child sexual exploitation in the Bradford district is to bring justice to the victims of these offences and help ensure the safety of children across my constituency. Will my hon. Friend join me in that call so that we can tackle the issue once and for all?

I absolutely recognise the trauma endured by victims and survivors and their need for answers. The Government continue to be clear that it is for local authorities in individual areas, which are responsible for delivering services, to commission local inquiries. However, we expect Bradford Council to take the most thoroughgoing approach to ensuring that all lessons have been learned and that local partners are doing everything possible to identify offending and protect children from harm.

As a veterinary surgeon I really welcome the fact that the Government have listened to the calls that have been made and are introducing a new pet abduction law. Sadly, in rural areas such as Penrith and The Border, other animals are frequently stolen, including farm animal livestock, horses and ponies. Will my hon. Friend look to expand the legislation from pets to encompass all animal abduction offences, including those involving farm animal livestock and horses, so that we can put an end to the horrific and distressing crime of animal theft?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I do see the point he makes. As he knows, the focus has been on dogs and other pets that we keep in the home, but I am happy to speak to colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and to get back to him about what we think of his suggestion.

The Justice Secretary is working with the Law Commission on bringing forward a new corporate offence of failure to prevent economic crime. There are concerns that the offences will be downgraded to regulatory offences, rather than those involving criminal sanctions. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there must be criminal sanctions if we are to have a true deterrent against this terrible crime?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. He has been following it for some time, and I have worked with him on it in the past. We will make sure that we have the right combination of toughness and robustness and send a clear message that these are not victimless crimes.