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Topical Questions

Volume 705: debated on Tuesday 14 December 2021

Over the last month, I have visited HMP Isis with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and the South Essex Rape and Incest Crisis Centre. We have launched a White Paper on our prisons strategy and a consultation on a new victims law. I have also met Lissie Harper, and I have announced Harper’s law to bring in mandatory life sentences for those who unlawfully kill emergency workers in the course of their duty.

The Justice Secretary’s book “The Assault on Liberty” attacks the Human Rights Act 1998 for having “opened the door” to challenges against the Government, so in his drive to amend the Human Rights Act, which rights does he want to stop—rights against torture, rights against medical experimentation on British military personnel or rights preventing discrimination against disabled people in our social security system?

I shall be making a statement to the House on our plans for reform of the Human Rights Act and its replacement with a Bill of Rights shortly. I am sure the hon. Member will listen to that and contribute.

T4. In 1976, Janet Commins was killed in Flint in my constituency. The wrong person was initially convicted and served a significant prison sentence. In 2016, DNA evidence came to light that finally led to the conviction of Stephen Hough for her death, but on a plea agreement from murder down to manslaughter, for which he received a 12-year sentence. He is due out under the 50% rule in 2023, and Janet’s family are rightly concerned. Can my right hon. Friend confirm what options may be available to stop an early release and ensure that her violent killer is not let back on to Delyn’s streets? (904738)

I do understand the concerns of the hon. Gentleman and obviously of the victim’s family. It was a dreadful crime, and I am obviously pleased, although it took some time, that the right person was put behind bars for it. As he will know, release at the halfway point is automatic. However, I am happy to write to him to outline what steps will be put in place to manage this individual in the community.

The Government have closed nearly 300 courts since 2010. One of them was Runcorn magistrates court, and two weeks ago the police found criminals using it as a cannabis farm. While 60,000 cases are still waiting to be heard because of a lack of court capacity, can the Secretary of State tell us how many other former courts are now in the hands of criminals, and does he regret that, under the Conservatives, courts that used to hand out justice now hand out spliffs?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place. I look forward to working with him, where we can, constructively and usefully. However, if the Labour party wants to start suggesting that it is tough on crime, it needs to deal with its voting on police numbers and the mess that it has made of voting on tougher sentences. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we have trebled funding for victim support.

In relation to the courts backlog, as part of the spending review we are investing £477 million in the criminal justice system over the next three years. We have extended the Nightingale courts and removed the limit on the number of days for which the Crown court can sit this year. We are also using the cloud video platform, which enables 13,000 cases to be heard each year; this is an important lesson from the pandemic.

I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s kind words, but I regret that he did not seem to quite answer the question, so let us see if we can do better with this one. BBC Radio 4’s “You and Yours” programme has exposed serious fraud relating to lasting power of attorney. A criminal was granted full control over a member of the public’s home and finances, and tried to sell her home without her knowledge. The fraudster was granted lasting power of attorney by the Office of the Public Guardian, after filling in an official form using fake names and signatures. Astoundingly, the Government do not require the Office of the Public Guardian to carry out basic identity checks on people applying for lasting power of attorney—

Order. We have to get this right. Topicals questions, by nature, mean short answers and questions. Both of you are taking the time of Back Benchers. If you really want to ask a question, do it early when there is more time. Please do not use up Back Benchers’ time.

The hon. Gentleman actually raises an important point. We are reforming the system. If he writes to me about the specific facts of that case, I would be happy to respond.

T5. Now then, for far too long foreign dangerous criminals have used the Human Rights Act to avoid deportation. Unlike the Labour party, the vast majority of Ashfield residents want to see dangerous foreign criminals deported as soon as possible. Will my right hon. Friend please advise us on what plans he has to put the rights of UK residents first and those of foreign criminals second? (904739)

My hon. Friend talks a lot of common sense, as ever. I will be saying something shortly about our plans to reform human rights. One thing that we can do is to avoid that kind of abuse of the system, on top of the efforts that the Home Secretary is making; since January 2019, we have removed close to 10,000 foreign national offenders, and the early removal scheme in the Nationality and Borders Bill will allow foreign national offenders to be removed earlier.

Last week, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove) steadfastly refused to confirm that the UK would remain in the European convention on human rights. This morning, we read that the UK will do so. Can the Secretary of State confirm that we will remain a signatory and will continue to respect the provisions of the ECHR in full?

I have already made it clear before this House that we plan to stay, and will stay, a state party to the European convention.

The former Justice Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Robert Buckland), warned that any attempt to alter the Human Rights Act would make the UK less secure. Yesterday, GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 warned that changing the Human Rights Act would make it more difficult to fight terrorism. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of what they have said? As he launches his consultation today, will he commit himself to taking very seriously what senior figures in our security services have said?

I am not going to respond to claims or anonymous reports in the papers about what the security services may or may not say, but I am absolutely clear that the reforms that we will take will strengthen our protection in a whole range of areas that have been undermined by the Human Rights Act.

T7. The Justice Secretary is absolutely correct in his determination to drive up the employment rates of ex-offenders. Does he agree that today’s unemployment figures, which show a further fall in unemployment and record numbers of job vacancies, underline the scale of the opportunity that we have to get many more prisoners into a job from day one, which is good for the economy, good for business and good for the whole of society? (904742)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. He will have seen in our prison strategy White Paper plans to roll out more employment boards, which link prisons to local businesses and industries in their communities. I hosted an employers summit to encourage employers to come forward and ensure that the prisons are better linked up. We are also expanding the new futures network, which is a dedicated part of the prison service that will support businesses to partner local prisons.

T2. It is no good blaming covid. The Crown court backlog was 41,000 before the pandemic, and the wholly inadequate announcement that the Justice Secretary gave a moment or two ago means that it will be 53,000 after the pandemic. When will the Secretary of State admit that the Government’s approach is simply nowhere near that which victims of crime have every right to expect from their Government? (904736)

I just say to the hon. Gentleman that, as has already been pointed out, the backlog was lower before we went into the pandemic than that left behind by the last Labour Government. However, we are not for a moment complacent. That is why we have invested the money and we secured the money at the spending review, and it is why we have the Crown Nightingale courts and we have removed the limit on the number of days they can sit each year. I regularly consult the senior judiciary about what more we can do. Of course, technology—in particular the cloud video platform—can enable more than 13,000 cases to be heard virtually every week.

T8. Large numbers of my North West Durham constituents work at HMP Frankland, HMP Low Newton, HMP Durham and the young offenders institution at Deerbolt. One issue that they face is prisoners on drugs and psychoactive substances assaulting members of staff. Will the Minister outline what measures the Government are taking to tackle this scourge? (904743)

My hon. Friend’s regard for his constituents who work in the secure estate is very welcome. As he will know from the prisons strategy White Paper, we are taking a zero-tolerance approach to drugs, we will be spending about £100 million, and I hope he will have seen that we recently rolled out 74 X-ray body scanners, which have resulted in more than 10,000 positive scans. All of that will reduce the amount of drugs, and therefore violence, in prisons.

T3. What consideration has the Secretary of State given to the need for a specific offence or amended sentencing guidelines for those who desecrate or conceal a murdered body, to reflect the extra suffering faced by bereaved families? (904737)

If the hon. Gentleman wants to write to me about that and make the case—I do not know whether his question relates to a particular constituency case or a more general concern—I will be very happy to look at it and make sure that we engage with him further on it.

The brilliant news on unemployment rates means that businesses in Broadland are crying out for staff. Bernard Matthews has been working with HMP Norwich to provide jobs for ex-offenders immediately on their release, and it tells me that there have been great results from that. Other local businesses have told me that they want to do the same, so what can the Government do to encourage such practices?

At last, a Christmas story to warm the heart. I am sure that all those tucking into their Bernard Matthews turkey this Christmas will not only find it delicious and a celebration of their family, but recognise that they are playing their part in a better future for all those individuals who are working with Bernard Matthews, which is to be congratulated on its work. My hon. Friend is quite right that there is an enormous amount that can be done with the private sector to help get ex-offenders back on to the straight and narrow. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently held a summit with employers to do exactly that, and we will be building a network of business partnerships across the country where businesses and prison governors can sit down together and talk about how to get ex-offenders into employment in exactly the way that Bernard Matthews has done with remarkable success.

If we are to get prosecutions of child abusers, we need the support of victims and survivors, so I am really angry that this Government have cut £500,000 from children at risk of child sexual exploitation. What is the Minister doing to make sure, through the forthcoming victims Bill, that the resources are in place to help those at risk?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, with whom I have worked closely on other matters that the House is considering at the moment. The Government continue to be a global leader in tackling child sexual exploitation and abuse. The tackling child sexual abuse strategy that we launched is the first of its kind and very much cutting edge. I would be happy to have a conversation with her, and I encourage her to make her views known as part of the victims Bill consultation.

Foreign-born criminals have long used human rights legislation to avoid deportation to their country of origin. Can my right hon. Friend confirm whether plans to reform human rights laws will include the introduction of a British Bill of Rights?

My hon. Friend is right about the problem that he has diagnosed, and in the not-too-distant future I shall make a statement about our plans for reform.

The Minister confirmed earlier that he had not visited a drug consumption room in any of the European countries where they have been operating for years. Will he come instead to my constituency to see where people are injecting—on waste ground, in bin sheds and in lanes away from Christmas shoppers—so that he can see what the alternative is under his plans?

I am always more than happy to visit Members’ constituencies, as the hon. Lady knows. In fact, just 18 months ago, I held a home nations drugs summit in Glasgow to deal with exactly these issues. The hon. Lady consistently and persistently badgers me on these issues; I just wish she would apply the same persistence and badgering to her colleagues in the Scottish National party, who have been in government in Scotland for many years now and have presided over the worst drugs misuse and deaths numbers in the western world. I have committed to working closely with the Minister in Scotland on trying to improve those numbers; I wish the hon. Lady would do the same.

When we think about the family courts, we must be mindful of the experiences of not only families who desperately need court intervention to work smoothly but the families who should be nowhere near a judge and would not be if they had other support to resolve their differences. I know that the Justice team cares deeply about this complex issue and that welcome changes are coming next year, so what progress has been made on the implementation of the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 ahead of April 2022?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that a certain category of case, particularly in respect of the private family law courts, needs to go before a court because of safeguarding issues or domestic abuse. Such cases account for 60%, more or less, while the others ought to avoid going to court through the use of mediation or alternative dispute settlement. Not only is that the right thing to do for all those involved, and particularly for children, but it saves the precious resource of the family courts for when they are really needed.

Will the coming review of human rights legislation explicitly acknowledge the concept of universal human rights—rights that are ours for no reason other than that we are human beings, that do not need to be conferred by any Parliament and that cannot be revoked by any Parliament on earth?

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was making the case for the wholesale repeal of the Human Rights Act, but we are not going that far. We need to put in place a legal framework and that will, of course, respect this country’s proud tradition of freedom under the rule of law.

The courts complex in Blackpool is due to be relocated to allow a £400 million regeneration scheme to go ahead. The business case has already been submitted to the MOJ, so will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State meet me to discuss it, get it approved and allow the ambitious regeneration scheme to proceed?

Given what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is doing on prison education, will he support an amendment to the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill that I plan to table to allow prisoners to do apprenticeships, to change their employment status and ensure that they get the minimum wage? The amendment is backed by members of the Education Committee, and I have discussed it with the Secretary of State for Education.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee for his question. I have been talking to other Members about this important issue. If he would like to write to me or, indeed, meet me, I would be very interested in considering his idea further with the Secretary of State for Education.