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Topical Questions

Volume 703: debated on Tuesday 9 November 2021

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.