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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 705: debated on Tuesday 14 December 2021


The Secretary of State was asked—

Misuse of Drugs Act 1971

1. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the effectiveness of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. (904744)

21. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the effectiveness of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. (904767)

There are no plans to amend the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The principle remains that drugs are dangerous and need to be controlled appropriately.

I am not surprised by the reply we have just heard from the Minister. However, in Germany, the incoming Government have agreed to join Canada and many US states in legalising cannabis, while across Europe drug consumption rooms are operating with positive results. As countries around us move forward, what message does the Minister think it sends to the rest of the world to see the UK stuck in the last century on drugs policy?

I refute the claim that we are stuck in the last century. In fact, we launched a world-beating strategy just last week, if the hon. Gentleman was paying attention, that proposes a three-pronged approach on drugs, which we believe will have some success over the next decade. I understand that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues often push for the legalisation of cannabis, but I point him to the mixed experience of various parts of the world that have done so, not least California, where it is widely agreed to have been a disaster.

I visited a drug consumption room in Geneva, right next to the central station in that city. Has the Minister visited a drug consumption room? It is important to make Government policy on the basis of evidence and what actually works in other countries.

I have not visited a drug consumption room, although I did have a very illuminating meeting with Ruth Dreifuss, the former President of Switzerland who has been promoting the policy, to discuss the issues they have faced in Switzerland and elsewhere. While I understand that repetition is not uncommon in this place, the hon. Lady will not elicit from me an answer that expands on the ones I have given to her previously.

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

Sorry, that question is unrelated to Question 1; it relates to Question 2. I call Peter Grant.

The Minister, as every Minister does these days, describes the strategy announced last week as world-beating. I suggest we maybe wait to see how it works before we make those claims. I also suggest that he also looks at what is actually working in the rest of the world. Can he explain why this world-beating strategy still insists on putting the medical and health needs of drug users in second place at best to treating them as criminals to be ostracised and punished, rather than sick people who desperately need to be helped?

As usual, SNP Members mischaracterise what we are trying to do. The key feature of the strategy is twofold. First, we are ramping up restrictions on supply, building on our success thus far, particularly on dismantling county lines, which will have a direct impact on drug supply in Scotland. The reason we are doing that is that by restricting supply we believe we can create more space for the £780 million we will be spending on therapeutic interventions, particularly with heroin and crack users, to have an impact. Critically, the two have to go together. If we are dealing with a heroin or crack addict, very often they will leave a therapeutic intervention—I am sure hon. Members see this in their own constituencies—and walk straight back out into the hands of a drug dealer. We need to make that less likely if we are going to ensure those therapies stick and have an impact. As far as criminalising addicts is concerned, large numbers of them do commit crime. They commit crime from which there are victims. Those victims deserve to see justice done, too.

Will the Minister be supporting my new clause to the Local Government (Disqualification) Bill, which is coming up for debate on 14 January? My new clause would make offences against the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 a ground for disqualification from being able to serve as a local councillor.

It is unusual that the doings of my hon. Friend pass me by in this House, but sadly that amendment has. It is an interesting proposal, but I hope he will give me a moment to consider it before I give him a response.

Reoffending Rates

This Government are tackling the drivers of reoffending to keep our communities safer. That includes the investment of £70 million this year to keep prison leavers off the streets and £80 million for substance misuse treatment services.

I thank the Lord Chancellor for that answer. Will he confirm that some of that £70 million will go to schemes that rehabilitate, offering long-term opportunities in both employment and housing, because that is a successful way to keep reoffending rates down?

We are investing £183 million in the expansion of electronic monitoring, which includes £90 million to fund and promote innovation, including in respect of drugs and tags. We are also working carefully on prisoner passports, which are all about resettlement, to make sure that we reduce prisoner and offender homelessness, and there is a big push to encourage them to work with local businesses to get them into work.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that education and employment are key drivers in getting reoffending down and allowing communities that are blighted by crime to heal? Will he therefore outline to the House the progress that has been made in the prisons strategy White Paper in this area specifically?

I thank my hon. Friend for that, as he is absolutely right: those are two core drivers of reoffending. So in the White Paper we set out plans to deliver a prisoner education service that will focus not only on the big challenges we see with inmates on numeracy and literacy, but on encouraging vocational qualifications—a step up during their course in prison. We will be driving better outcomes on work by implementing dedicated employment advisers in prisons and a digital tool to match prisoners to jobs on release.

One way of preventing reoffending would be to make sure that appropriate sentences are imposed in the first place, so what is the Minister doing to ensure that pre-sentence reports are available before prisoners are jailed or given alternative community sentences?

I do not see these things as binary opposites; we need to see robust punishment and robust deterrence. I am disappointed that Opposition Members voted against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which would end automatic release at the halfway point. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) wants to vote against stronger sentences for dangerous criminals, he can stand on that record. But in answer to the hon. Lady’s question, let me say that we are looking at all the other drivers: drugs rehabilitation and, in particular, drugs recovery wings in prisons; vocational educational training; and, crucially, providing hope and the chance to get inmates into work, be it during their time in prison or while they are on licence.

Like others, I have concerns about what help the Prisons Minister or the Lord Chancellor can give those who have served in the armed forces and fallen to post-traumatic stress disorder or other difficulties. What will be done to help veterans in particular?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right on this. A proportion of people are, in effect, mentally unwell and then trip up into prison, and we know that veterans are among them. That is why I have been liaising with the Health Secretary to look at mental health care and provision, in the community and for those who go into prison, to make sure that we can tailor what happens to them during their sentence to try to give them a better chance to get the support to go straight.

The Lord Chancellor is absolutely right to say that the protection of the public and rehabilitation are not mutually exclusive. Does he agree that one key factor here, as outlined in the White Paper, is early assessment of prisoners when they come into prison to make sure that we pick up issues of mental health, lack of literacy and drug addiction and that we have a proper plan throughout their time in incarceration for release into the community in a much better place than they were before? Is that not the key issue that we need to be looking at?

My hon. Friend the Chair of the Justice Committee is absolutely right; it is important that on early admission into prison we evaluate all the different factors—the level of numeracy and literacy, the level of addiction, whether the offender has a qualification and the mental health issues—to make sure that the offender’s time in prison takes them forward in each of those regards and that we then, with the prisoner passports, link up the support they will get on release. That is the way we will drive down reoffending, give offenders a second chance, if they want to take it, to turn their lives around, and ultimately protect the public.

The Sentencing Council says that most domestic abuse perpetrators will receive a sentence unlikely to reduce reoffending. Coercive and domestic abuse is a hidden pandemic, getting worse every day, and it is the hardest thing in the world to come forward and report it. I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Burton (Kate Griffiths) for her courage in pursuing and exposing the horrific case of coercive and domestic abuse by her husband, former MP Andrew Griffiths. It can happen to any one of us. But the justice system is indifferent to the victims it was set up to protect. I spoke to a young woman last week who told me that her experience of the system was worse than the abuse itself. Labour has a plan ready to go to protect and support victims. When will this Government act?

First, I associate myself with the hon. Lady’s comments about my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Kate Griffiths) and her experience. She showed incredible courage.

The hon. Lady asked when we started to act. We did that when we came into government—[Interruption.] Can the hon. Lady listen? We have tripled the amount of support for victims during our tenure. We will invest £150 million this year. On top of that critical support for the independent sexual violence advisers and the independent domestic violence advisers, we have also published a victims law consultation, which, for the first time, will make victims’ experience central to the functioning of the criminal justice system. [Interruption.] I remind the hon. Lady again: triple the amount of funding for victims during our tenure.

Child Sexual Exploitation: Support for Victims

Getting the right support at the right time is crucial for all victims, particularly children and young people. The Department has provided £150 million to victim support services this financial year, which includes support for children and young people. We are also consulting on a victims Bill so that we can make tangible improvements for all victims. That will include reviewing what more can be done to strengthen victim advocate roles, including those supporting children and young people; looking at joining up services better across agencies; and reviewing standards, guidance and frameworks.

We can provide full justice and protection to victims of child sexual exploitation in Keighley and across the wider Bradford district only if we fully understand the extent of those horrific crimes and, indeed, the complexities of how child grooming actually happens at a local level. The Minister will be well aware that I am calling on Bradford Council to instigate a full, Rotherham-style inquiry. I ask him to join me in my calls for that and to outline how we can support victims better locally.

My hon. Friend is a tireless advocate on behalf of his constituents in raising these most distressing matters. The Government believe that it is right for the authorities in individual towns and cities to commission local inquiries. It is crucial that answers are provided where failings have occurred, and that we work nationally and locally to improve services’ response to this horrendous crime. The Government welcome Bradford’s work to do that through commissioning and disseminating its recent review. The local authority and police must now do everything possible to understand the current threat and ensure that children at risk are safeguarded and offenders prosecuted.

I also just add that, at a national level, the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse continues to investigate public bodies to ensure that they are doing everything that they should to protect children.

Prison and Probation Officers: Recruitment and Retention

4. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the recruitment and retention of prison and probation officers. (904748)

Since October 2016, band 3 to 5 prison officer numbers have increased by more than 4,000 from 17,955 to 22,325 full-time equivalents. In the year to March 2021, we recruited more than 1,000 trainee probation officers and we will recruit a further 1,500 by the end of March next year.

The prisons White Paper concedes that attrition rates among prison officers are too high,

“causing an unsustainable level of turnover in the system… contributing to a vicious cycle of staff dissatisfaction and lack of retention.”

With even the Prison Service’s new retention framework conceding that low wages are key driver of attrition, when will the Minister stand up for both prison officers and probation officers and give them the proper pay rise the Government’s own experts recommend?

We do recognise that attrition among prison officers is an issue, which is why we have put in place retention toolkits in prisons, providing governors with the support and tools that they need for employee retention. As far as pay is concerned, the hon. Lady knows that the economic ravages of the pandemic meant that there did need to be a pause in pay, but now that the Department has received a three-year spending settlement, it means that we can commence more coherent conversations with unions and others about what pay might look like in the years to come.

I welcome the Government’s plans to recruit 5,000 new prison officers, but recruitment of prison officers and their retention would be made easier if the number of assaults in prison were to come down. In the 12 months to June, there were 7,612 assaults on prison officers, one third of which were categorised as serious. What is being done to prosecute and extend the sentences of each and every convict who assaults a prison officer?

Obviously the issue of assaults against our staff in all its forms is one that we take extremely seriously. My hon. Friend is quite right that we hope and expect that prison governors work closely with their local police forces to ensure that any crimes that are committed against prison staff are appropriately pursued and prosecuted, and that sentences are handed out where appropriate. He will know though that much of the violence in prisons is driven by drugs, and I hope he will recognise and welcome the work that we are doing as part of the prevention approach to reduce drug consumption and therefore abuse within the secure estate.

Youth Custody Estate: Safety

The number of children and young people in custody is at a historically low level, falling from around 2,600 in 2008-09 to 515 at the end of October 2021. Although welcome, this has resulted in a concentrated cohort of children with particularly complex needs. Fifty-five per cent. of children in custody last year had been sentenced for violent offences. We are clear that levels of violence within the youth estate are too high, which is why we are taking a number of measures to reduce it.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but the reality is that youth offenders institutions and secure training centres are not safe places for children. Two have closed after children there suffered significant harm. At the two remaining institutions, violent assault on children has reached 70%, resulting in admissions to accident and emergency. Children are locked in their dilapidated cells for up to 22 hours per day. Ofsted described one institution as barely meeting

“minimum standards of human decency”.

This is state-supported and state-sanctioned child abuse. Why has he not put a stop to it yet?

We do acknowledge the problems within the secure estate, although I hope the hon. Lady will also acknowledge the difficulties faced in handling the remaining cohort of young people. We have put in place steps to try to improve the situation—for example, allocating a member of staff to every child to support them with weekly therapeutic interventions. I know that, as one of her first acts on getting the job as Prisons Minister, the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), engaged with a number of providers in the secure institutions to outline to them that their performance was not acceptable.

Short Prison Sentences for Women

We want fewer women serving short sentences in custody and more managed in the community. We welcome the fact that, in the decade between 2010 and 2020, the female prison population has decreased by 21%. We have also seen a 32% fall in sentences of less than 12 months in the five years since 2016.

I raised this issue four years ago in Westminster Hall with one of the Minister’s predecessors. Short prison sentences for women have a huge impact on society. Children of women offenders are more likely to be in care. Women are more likely to be victims of domestic violence. When they leave the prison gate, they are locked in the same cycle that brought them there. Will the Minister now launch an urgent review of the way that women are treated in the justice system?

The hon. Gentleman speaks with great passion on this matter and I do understand where he is coming from, but that is precisely why we have put in place £46 million of wraparound support over three years for women leaving prison or serving community sentences, to address some of the root causes, such as accommodation, substance misuse, education, training and employment, financial management and family relationships.

An estimated 17,000 children are affected by maternal imprisonment every year, yet the sentencing guidelines are designed to ensure that judges and magistrates consider sole or primary carer status as a mitigating factor, and research by Crest Advisory suggests that awareness and application of these guidelines is low. We recognise that the number of women in prison has fallen in recent times, but with the majority of women serving short sentences for non-violent offences, what will the Minister do to cut these numbers even more by ensuring that the rights of the child are explicitly considered in every case where a primary carer is sentenced to custody?

First, may I put on record that I am sad that the hon. Gentleman is standing down at the next general election? He has been very constructive in our engagements to date on these important matters.

The care of children and other dependants and the impact of the loss of a parent or carer are well-established mitigating factors in sentencing. Sentencing guidelines issued by the independent Sentencing Council include as a specific mitigating factor being the

“sole or primary carer for dependent relatives”

and are clear that the court can consider the effect of the sentence on the health of the offender and the unborn child. The case law in this area, particularly R v. Petherick, makes clear that the court must perform a balancing exercise between the legitimate aims to be served by sentencing and the effect the sentence has on the family life of others, especially children.

Protections for Shop Workers

8. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on improving protections for shop workers against violence and abuse. (904752)

Everyone has the right to feel safe at work and the Government share the concern that reports of abuse and assaults against retail workers continue to increase. The Government have therefore tabled an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which will place in statute an aggravating factor based on that currently used by the courts and set out in sentencing guidelines. This will apply where an assault offence is committed against those providing a public service, performing a public duty or providing a service to the public. It will reinforce in statute the seriousness with which the court should treat these offences and will send a strong message to the public that assaults of this kind on retail workers are totally unacceptable.

I recently visited hard-working shop workers in the Co-op in the ward of Bush Fair in my constituency of Harlow. They have faced abuse, intimidation and often assault, and other shop workers I have met in other supermarkets face the same experiences; that is unacceptable. They have asked me if they can get the same protection as NHS workers are now rightly given. Given that shop workers provided an important public service during covid, does the Minister agree it is important to do that?

My right hon. Friend is a brilliant champion of his constituency. My message to those shop workers is that they may have received abuse from a tiny minority, but the overwhelming majority in the country think they are heroes. I am sure that every single MP thinks our retail workers are heroes; we know the important job they do, and to underline that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State with the Home Secretary and the Attorney General will be meeting senior representatives of the retail sector today to talk about this very subject. We are backing them in spirit and we are backing them in law.

No one deserves to work in fear of violence and abuse, but this is the daily reality of many shop workers. These same workers will now face an increased risk of violence and abuse as they enforce new Government rules on mask-wearing and social distancing. Scottish Labour has led the charge in legislating to protect retail workers in Scotland by instituting a new specific offence for attacks on shop workers. Will the Minister now commit to doing the same in England and Wales so there is equity across the country and ensure that it is backed by the necessary resources to charge and convict offenders?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place, as I did in the Committee considering the statutory instrument earlier, which went through very quickly with his co-operation, for which I am grateful.

On the reforms, it is not just about the change to statute that we will put in place by amending the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, important though that is. I emphasise that such reform has been strongly supported by the sector—the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, the British Retail Consortium and others—but it is not just about the law: we are also putting in place the necessary mechanisms to encourage such crimes to be reported, regaining confidence in the police and criminal justice system by bringing the perpetrators to justice, and looking at the root causes of abuse and violence such as drug and alcohol addiction.

Rape Cases: Conviction and Prosecution Rates

In June we published the interim rape review report and action plan, which sets out plans to significantly improve the way the criminal justice system responds to rape. We are expanding pre-recorded cross-examination under section 28 for victims of rape and sexual violence, rolling out a new investigatory model known as Operation Soteria and introducing a single source of 24/7 support for victims of rape and sexual violence.

According to a recent report from the Victims Commissioner, just 1% of rape cases made it to trial. The Minister is telling me that these new measures are trying to improve that record. However, many rape victims recorded that their sexual history and mental health records were “pulled apart”, so will he commit to a radical reform of Crown Prosecution Service governance as called for by the End Violence Against Women Coalition to make sure that victims of rape are not treated as suspects?

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. Given the location of her constituency she will be aware that the main pilot we will be holding for Operation Soteria is with Avon and Somerset police. Let me explain to the House the importance of this pilot. Instead of the usual single officer investigating allegations of rape, we will instead have two officers, one of whom will have primary responsibility for liaising with the victim. A key part of that is to avoid the attrition whereby those who have been victims drop out and lose confidence in the system. We want to restore confidence in the system and show the whole country that we have a joined-up approach to tackle the root causes and improve investigation of all rape cases.

Does my hon. Friend think it is right that victims of rape and domestic abuse should have to pay child contact costs to maintain their abuser’s contact with their child?

Let me first add my comments to those of the Secretary of State in terms of the experience of my hon. Friend. She has been incredibly courageous. I am speaking on behalf of the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), who I will ask to write to my hon. Friend on that specific point. I do not have an immediate answer to hand but it does sound an important issue and she is right to raise it.

I, too, place on record the courage that the hon. Member for Burton (Kate Griffiths) has shown.

The first rape review scorecard published last week made for pitiful reading. Just 0.6% of adult rape cases reported to police resulted in a charge. It takes three times as long for rape cases to get through the justice system compared with other crimes. Victims are being told that they are lucky if they get justice within three years. While we welcome the roll-out of section 28, Labour was calling for this back in March. It is not good enough. The Government have apologised and admitted that they have failed, but it has been almost three years since the rape review was commissioned. How much longer will survivors have to wait for justice?

I am glad the hon. Lady raises the issue of the rape scorecards. While it is obviously disappointing that key 2020-21 data show that performance is consistently lower than the baseline in the priority areas, it is important to note that these metrics reflect the period before the rape review was published and the action plan was implemented. But we have a choice, and it is a really important one. We can spend our time using the scorecards to pick out individual statistics for political point-scoring or we can take a joined-up collaborative approach to recognise that the whole reason for bringing forward the scorecards is to shine light on what exactly is happening out there in the system, focus on where the problems are, and work with the CPS, the police, victims and victims’ groups and all the key stakeholders to improve the whole system. That is the important thing to do. The whole point is that by bringing these figures into daylight we will improve the system.

Offenders in Prison: Numeracy and Literacy

We are working to deliver a transformed prison education service that will improve numeracy and literacy of all prisoners. Prisoners will be assessed on entry and a personal learning plan will be created to monitor and track progress against starting points and resettlement goals. This will include learning in workshops, kitchens and sports activities.

I am glad to hear it. Should core skills not always be part of the prison regime for everybody who needs them? Will the Minister continue to take steps to make sure that people’s employability is enhanced by their stay in prison?

My hon. Friend is exactly right. Education is very often the solution to so many of society’s problems. It is a stepping stone towards employment, which, in itself, reduces reoffending very significantly. He will be pleased to know that as part of our plans we will establish a literacy innovation scheme to incentivise new providers to work with us to deliver these kinds of improvement programmes. We will also introduce specific measures of progress to track how successful each prison is at improving prisoners’ English and maths, with governors held to account for poor performance. We agree with my hon. Friend that these basic building blocks of education are key to future success.

The reduction in reoffending rates is marked where the furtherance of numeracy and literacy skills is ongoing in prison, such as in my constituency in Magilligan prison. Will the Minister, in any discussions that he has with the relevant devolved Justice Minister in Northern Ireland, re-emphasise the need for support for prisons that offer such facilities?

This is obviously an issue that affects all the home nations, and I will be more than happy to work collaboratively with counterparts across the whole of the United Kingdom, as we do on so many issues with great success.

Child Cruelty: Sentencing

Child cruelty requires the strongest response possible from our justice system, and we will ensure that our sentencing powers are the most robust to protect the most vulnerable.

The harrowing case of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes makes it clear that child protection must be at the heart of our sentencing policy. What steps will my right hon. Friend take to ensure that child killers are never released from prison?

I thank my hon. Friend and totally agree with him about the appalling case of little Arthur. He is right, and in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, child murder will be where there is premeditation, and will carry a whole-life order as its starting point. I hope that all hon. Members across the House will join us in supporting that measure. May I also mention Tony’s law, which we are introducing to increase the penalties for causing death and causing serious injury from child cruelty.

Offenders: Illegal Drug Addiction

Our landmark cross-Government drugs strategy sets out an ambitious long-term vision and includes £780 million of additional investment in treatment and recovery—the largest ever single increase. This will increase and improve treatment services, including providing 950 additional drug and alcohol criminal justice workers. The specialist drug and alcohol workers will give the police, courts and probation the facilities that they need to assess offenders and give sentencers confidence that they can make greater use of community sentences, because they will know that the treatment will be available.

The police in Clwyd South and Wrexham deserve great credit for their work in breaking up county lines in north Wales. Will the Minister please provide more information about the other main aspect of the Prime Minister’s 10-year drug strategy, the £780 million devoted to new approaches to treatments, and how that will be put into effect in Clwyd South and elsewhere in the UK?

I am pleased that my hon. Friend is seeing the impact in his constituency of the remarkable work that his police force have been doing, mainly with Merseyside police, who are the chief exporter to his part of the world of that appalling practice of county lines. We have indeed been remarkably successful in driving the numbers down, but if we are to make that a permanent reduction we need to reduce the demand for those drugs, particularly from heroin and crack addicts. So we will be spending significant amounts of money, as he outlined, on treating their addiction, as well as making sure that they face the consequences of their crimes. That money will be channelled through local authorities. It will take time for them to rebuild and retrain the people required to deliver those services, but I am confident that over the next 10 years we will make a significant difference.

Road Traffic Offences: Sentencing Guidelines

15. What steps he is taking to review the sentencing guidelines for people convicted of road traffic offences. (904759)

The Government take road safety very seriously and I commend the hon. Lady for her campaign to tackle bad driving and improve road safety through, I believe, a parliamentary petition. I want to reassure her that this Government want to see safer roads for all users. That is why, in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, we are increasing from 14 years to life imprisonment the maximum penalties for causing death by dangerous driving and for causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs. As for sentencing guidelines, these are produced by the Sentencing Council, which is independent of Parliament and Government.

I welcome that response. Road safety is a huge issue for people in Batley and Spen, so I have launched a petition to the House calling for additional support, resources and funding. I also recently attended a local memorial service for victims of road traffic incidents. Does the Minister agree that as part of the review into road traffic offences, we must put victims and their support at the heart of any strategy?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I congratulate her on championing those issues. Many hon. Members raise their harrowing cases of serious road traffic incidents at Justice questions. In addition to the increase from 14 years to life for the offences I referred to, in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, we are also creating a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving. In Government amendments, we will increase from two years to five years the minimum period of disqualification from driving for offenders convicted of causing death by dangerous driving or causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs. That sends a strong signal that we want to put victims first, which is why we are bringing forward those changes.

Court Cases Backlog

20. What estimate he has made of the length of time required to clear the backlog of Crown court cases resulting from the covid-19 outbreak. (904766)

We are already seeing the results of our efforts to tackle the impact of the pandemic on our justice system. Outstanding cases in magistrates courts are falling and are close to recovering to pre-pandemic levels. In the Crown court, the backlog is stabilising. 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 about 60,000 today to an estimated 53,000 by March 2025.

What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that evidence is not compromised by the passage of time if there is a delay?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Since 2000, outstanding cases in the Crown court have never been below 30,000, so it is inherent in the criminal justice system that some cases take time. It is important that we consider how to preserve evidence and section 28 is a key part of that. Since November 2020, vulnerable witnesses have had the option to pre-record cross-examination evidence in advance of a trial. In September, we extended the pilot to allow intimidated witnesses to pre-record their cross-examination evidence to a further four Crown courts. We recently set out that we want to go much further and roll it out to all Crown courts.

Reducing the Crown court backlog to 53,000 still does not take it back to pre-pandemic levels. We cannot just blame covid for the backlog, because in the year before the pandemic, it grew by 23%. Does the Minister regret the Ministry of Justice’s decision to slash sitting days in 2019?

The key point is that we have lifted and removed the limit on sitting days in the Crown court for the moment. In February 2010, the last comparable full month when the Labour party was in power, the backlog in the Crown court was about 48,000. It was 40,000 in the month before we went into the first full lockdown. As anyone in the court system knows—our professionals and our judiciary—the pandemic has had a huge impact.

We are confident that we have a wide package of positive steps that we are bringing forward, including the funding that I just announced plus the steps in the Judicial Review and Courts Bill that will see more cases moved from Crown court to magistrates court. Perhaps with a new shadow spokesman—I welcome him to his position—the Opposition will finally accept the importance of those measures and join us in supporting the Bill on Third Reading.

Violence Against Women and Girls

We have introduced legislation to tackle crimes including stalking, forced marriage and female genital mutilation in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will also introduce measures to crack down on serious violent and sexual offenders, including by ensuring that the most serious sexual and violent offenders spend longer in prison; to reform pre-charge bail to better protect vulnerable victims and witnesses; and to enable positive obligations to be imposed on those who pose a risk of sexual harm through sexual harm prevention orders and sexual risk orders. The victims Bill consultation has also launched, which will ensure that victims feel properly supported.

Since Sarah Everard was murdered, at least 104 more women have been killed by men. That endemic violence against women must be met with the national urgency that it deserves. Will the Minister take the opportunity to show that he is serious about the issue by committing today to classing misogyny as a hate crime?

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady, who raises this very important issue for all Members of this House. As she would expect, this Government take incredibly seriously the issue of violence against women and girls, and all our thoughts are with the families of those affected. Of course, I welcome the measures that we are taking on sentencing that I set out in my earlier answer. On misogyny specifically, we are grateful to the Law Commission for the detailed consideration it has given to its review of hate crime laws. We are of course giving that proper consideration, and we will respond as soon as we can.

Can the Minister assure me and the women and girls of Sevenoaks and Swanley that funding for Kent’s Nightingale court will continue past March next year? Kent’s Crown court case load stands at 93% above pre-pandemic levels, and we know that sexual violence crimes are most likely to be dropped due to delays. We urgently need this court to continue.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, who is a very passionate advocate for her constituents on these matters. It is worth pointing out that more than £1 billion has been allocated to boost capacity and accelerate recovery from the pandemic in courts and tribunals, and we have been able to reopen more of our existing court estate. The Nightingale courts provide additional capacity for the Crown court either directly or by hosting other work, which makes space for jury trials on the existing estate. These temporary courts supported our recovery, and that is why we extended their use until the end of March 2022. Decisions on future spending will be subject to ongoing spending review allocation discussions, but her point is very much heard.

Topical Questions

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.