House of Commons
Tuesday 14 December 2021
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Misuse of Drugs Act 1971
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?
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that scheme. I would be delighted to meet him; it sounds like an exciting project.
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.
Human Rights Legislation
Today, I am launching our consultation on proposals to overhaul the Human Rights Act and replace it with a Bill of Rights. I thank Sir Peter Gross and the panel he chaired for conducting the independent Human Rights Act review—the report of which is published today—which has influenced and informed our thinking in this regard.
The Government’s proposals for a Bill of Rights will strengthen this country’s proud tradition of freedom, curtail abuses of the human rights system and reinforce the democratic prerogatives of elected Members in this House over the legislative process in respect of the expansion of human rights. Above all, we will restore some common sense to the system.
At the outset, let me reassure the House—this issue was raised earlier in oral questions—that the UK will remain a party to the European convention on human rights. As we have shown with the introduction of our Magnitsky regime for human rights abuses, we will continue to lead internationally in the championing of freedom around the world.
Our objective in overhauling our human rights legislation will be to change, reform and revise the domestic interpretation and application of the convention by the UK courts. Following the reforms to the convention system reflected in the 2012 Brighton declaration, we will assert the margin of appreciation, as appropriate, in the UK’s dialogue with the Strasbourg Court.
As I said, we have a long, proud and diverse history of freedoms in this country that stretches back to Magna Carta through the 1689 Claim of Right Act and Bill of Rights, the Slave Trade Act 1807 and the Representation of the People Act 1918. It is a tradition steeped in great thinkers such as John Locke, John Stuart Mill and Isaiah Berlin, and in the advocacy of great champions of freedom and human rights from Emmeline Pankhurst through to Violet Van der Elst.
As we take the next step in our country’s reforms, and as we look to the future, we can and, I believe, should confidently build on those traditions and values.
Our proposals will recognise the right to trial by jury, as it applies variably across the different nations of the United Kingdom in important ways, as part of the common law tradition of human rights. We also have the opportunity to reinforce the weight we attach to freedom of speech, a quintessentially British right—the freedom that grants all the others—that we have seen eroded of late by a combination of case law that has introduced continental-style privacy rules and the incremental narrowing of the scope for respectful but rambunctious debate in politically sensitive areas, which is something we in this House should resist both on principle and in the interest of effective decision making that comes only from a full airing of contrary views. Freedom of speech sometimes means the freedom to say things that others may not wish to hear.
While retaining the European convention on human rights, we will prevent the misuse and distortion of those rights that we have seen from time to time through elastic and innovative expansions that go well beyond anything the architects of the convention had in mind during the post-war settlement. Some of this has arisen from Strasbourg case law, and some has arisen from UK case law, and I make it very clear at the outset that my critique is levelled at the Human Rights Act and how it operates; it is not levelled at the UK judiciary, who have quite properly sought to implement legislation passed by this House.
I will give three examples of the problems we have encountered and a sense of how we can address them. Under our proposals, we will be able to prevent serious criminals from relying on article 8, the right to family life, to frustrate their deportation from this country. One example—the case law is littered with them—is the case of the convicted drug dealer who was also convicted of battery against his partner. He paid no child maintenance but, none the less, he claimed the right to family life to trump the public interest in his removal.
To give a sense of scale, because it is easy to cite one case or another and people will say it is not representative of the problem, article 8 claims now make up around 70% of all successful human rights challenges by foreign national offenders against deportation orders. Our proposals will enable us to legislate to curtail that abuse of the system, and hon. Members will have to decide whether they are for or against that proposition.
Secondly, under our proposed reforms we will be better able to protect the public in other ways by addressing our well-intentioned but, frankly, distorting jurisprudence. I cite the example of the Osman case, which has skewed the operational priorities of some of our major police forces. The ruling has required police forces to divert officers, resources and focus to protect criminal gangs from the threats they make to each other, which are of course time, effort and resources that could otherwise be prioritised towards protecting law-abiding members of our society.
Thirdly, these changes will help to deliver root-and-branch reform of parole proceedings, which hon. Members on both sides of the House raised with me in the aftermath of recent cases, including the case of Colin Pitchfork.
In these areas and others, our reforms will enable Parliament to act and, where necessary, assert the margin of appreciation with respect to Strasbourg while remaining party to the convention. We will achieve these objectives through carefully targeted reform under our Bill of Rights, which will revise and replace the framework provided under the Human Rights Act.
Our independent judiciary and parliamentary sovereignty are the cornerstones and the foundations of our democracy and, indeed, our success as a country. With that in mind, we will sharpen the separation of powers and reform the duty in section 2 of the Human Rights Act that requires UK courts to take account of Strasbourg case law, but has at various times been interpreted as a duty to match the Strasbourg jurisprudence, which is neither necessary nor desirable—[Interruption.] I see hon. Members shaking their heads, and I point them to the Ullah case in particular, but of course the case law has ebbed and flowed. That ebb and flow has created uncertainty, so it is right that we provide greater legal certainty by making clear the primacy of the UK’s own case law and primary legislation and the role of the UK Supreme Court, not Strasbourg, as the ultimate judicial arbiter when it comes to interpreting the European convention on human rights in this country. We will make it crystal clear that the UK courts are under no duty to follow Strasbourg case law, which itself does not operate a doctrine of precedent.
Next, we will replace section 3 of the Human Rights Act so that our courts are confined to judicial interpretation and are no longer—effectively, in practice—licensed by the Act to amend or dilute the will of Parliament expressed through statute. One of the consequences of the elastic extension of rights has been the incremental expansion of so-called positive obligations on public authorities by the courts, which are something that has no basis in the convention, as even a cursory reading of the travaux préparatoires to the convention—the negotiating history—will demonstrate. That was the case in the Osman ruling, which I referred to; it has had the much broader effect of skewing public service priorities and allocation of precious public resources. Our approach will provide a check on what is quite properly a legislative function that ought to be left to elected lawmakers in Parliament.
Finally in this regard, as we reinforce a clearer demarcation of the separation of powers, we will consult on plans for a democratic shield. This will help to promote meaningful dialogue with Strasbourg—which we achieved in cases such as prisoner voting, which hon. Members on both sides of the House will remember—by asserting the margin of appreciation where it is appropriate. It will recognise the proper role of Parliament in responding to adverse rulings from Strasbourg, but let me be crystal clear: hon. Members in this House must have the last word on the laws of this land.
Next, one of the consistent complaints that we hear from the public is that human rights can be subject to abuse. Our proposals will address this in a number of ways. We will introduce a permission stage, similar to that which exists in continental jurisdictions, including in the German Constitutional Court and indeed the European Court of Human Rights itself. This will bring an appropriate check by requiring claimants to demonstrate that they have suffered a significant disadvantage, which will help to prevent spurious or unmeritorious claims.
We can also do more to recognise that rights come with responsibilities, so we will reform the approach to remedies so that our courts give greater consideration to the behaviour of the claimant and the wider public interest when considering the compensation that may be paid out. That will give judges greater discretion to strike the right balance between claimants’ rights, their responsibilities and indeed the rights of others in our society when considering human rights cases. It is not right that those who have broken the law can then reach out and claim human rights, to claim large chunks of compensation at the taxpayer’s and the wider public’s expense.
Our proposals also recognise the diverse legal traditions across the United Kingdom, as well as the common heritage that binds us together. That is the linchpin of our success as a Union. We will consult with each of the devolved Administrations and across the UK to get that balance right. We want to guarantee protections across the Union in accordance with a common framework reflecting our common traditions, while respecting devolved competences.
In this country, we have a long and proud tradition of liberty, but we must actively cherish and nurture it. As we write the next chapter in that proud history, our proposals for a UK-wide Bill of Rights will strengthen our freedoms, reflect our legal traditions, curtail those abuses of the system, reinforce the separation of powers between the judicial and legislative branches and respect the democratic authority of this House, which—as so often in our history—has been a bulwark and the protector of our freedoms. I commend this statement to the House.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement, but the truth is that this country’s criminal justice system is in crisis. There are record backlogs and delays in the Crown courts, drug use by prisoners is out of control, and just 0.6% of rape cases reported by women and girls ever result in a charge. If the Secretary of State really wanted to restore confidence in the system, his priority would be sorting that out, but he is choosing to fiddle with the Human Rights Act instead of stretching every muscle and sinew to make sure that rapists and violent offenders are banged up behind bars where they belong.
Every time the Government are in trouble politically, they wheel out reforming the Human Rights Act. It is a dead cat distraction tactic by a Government who do not know how to fix the criminal justice system that they have broken and are desperate to divert attention from the corruption scandals that they started. This is little more than an attempt to wage culture wars because they have surrendered in the war on crime and corruption.
The Secretary of State says that he will restore the role of Parliament and the UK courts in interpreting rulings from Strasbourg, but they already have those powers under the margin of appreciation that gives national courts freedom to implement convention rights on the basis of local laws and custom, so he is offering nothing new. He is telling us today that it is not necessary to leave the ECHR to deport foreign criminals, so why have his Government done nothing about that in their past 11 years in office? A quarter fewer foreign criminals have been deported in the last year than in the previous year, so it is clearly not the Human Rights Act that is preventing foreign criminals from being deported; it is this incompetent Conservative Government.
The Secretary of State has become so overexcited by his empty rhetoric that he has missed warnings from senior figures in the intelligence services telling him that his reforms could actually make it harder to deport foreign criminals, including terrorists. They warn that, if the Government go too far in raising the evidence threshold a person must prove to claim that deportation would disrupt their family life, that could affect the ability of MI5 and MI6 to provide evidence in secret to the relevant courts and lead to more cases going directly to the European Court, where evidence cannot be submitted in secret. Perhaps this is the level of detail that we should expect from a Secretary of State who does not know that the police can investigate crimes a year after they are committed—even in Downing Street—but is he really prepared to stand by as cases collapse and terrorists walk free?
These proposals are all mouth and no trousers. They do nothing to deal with the severe failings in the criminal justice system, they repatriate no powers that are not already based here, and, astoundingly, they actually threaten to make it harder to deport the most dangerous foreign criminals, including terrorists. Labour will always defend the human rights of the British people to live in freedom, safety and security, but we face a Conservative Government who are high on tax, soft on crime and desperate to distract from their political failings. If the Secretary of State really wants to restore trust in the criminal justice system, his priority should be to fix it and bring wrongdoers more swiftly to justice. If he is prepared to ditch the empty rhetoric and political posturing, I will offer him my party’s full support in doing that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his response. I read his remarks, which were quoted in the early hours of this morning, before we had published our consultation and hence before he had read the proposals in it. He accused me of merely tinkering with human rights and, in the next sentence, of ripping human rights to shreds. That is an impressive feat of flip-floppng in a single press statement, but I think it highlights the fact that the Labour party, or at least its current Front Bench, has absolutely nothing to say about this issue.
The hon. Gentleman talked about rape. We have published scorecards and in the new year we will publish local scorecards, which will highlight various points where the challenge is so we can tackle it. We have published a consultation on a victims’ law. We are rolling out section 28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 to allow pre-recorded evidence from rape victims, and Operation Soteria is being piloted to bring about a better approach on the part of police and prosecutors. In fact, we are doing all the things that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. If he wants to be tough on criminals, as he claims, he should have supported our Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. If he wants to come down hard on drug dealers and serious offenders whom we should remove from this country, he should back our proposals to allow them to be deported.
The hon. Gentleman asked about security, and seemed to warp even the ludicrous reports about it that have appeared in the papers. Let me be absolutely clear: the reforms that we propose would strengthen our ability to deport foreign national offenders, and the reason we have faced a challenge is Labour’s Human Rights Act. If he looks at the data—if he is remotely interested in the facts—he will see that. We are not talking about deporting someone back into the arms of a torturing tyrant. I would not support that, and my party and this Government would not support it. We are not talking about article 3, but we are talking about article 8 and the right to family life, which makes up 70% of all successful human rights challenges. Let me quote to him what the architect of the Human Rights Act, Jack Straw, said:
“There is a sense that”
the Human Rights Act has become
“a villains charter”.
I have not used language like that. There is a sense and a genuine concern that terrorists are not being deported and that criminals are benefiting—that was from Labour’s own architect of the Human Rights Act.
The hon. Gentleman went on to criticise the approach we take to the Strasbourg Court. Let me read to him from one of the premium textbooks on the subject. The author said that the Strasbourg Court is primarily concerned with supervision and its role is subsidiary to that of the domestic authority. That author stated that it
“has no role unless the domestic system for protecting human rights breaks down”.
I agree with that, but it is not what we have in the Human Rights Act. That quote actually comes from the leader of the Labour party, in his seminal textbook on the subject back in 1999. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that Captain Hindsight rarely makes predictions for the future, but on this occasion he did and he was proved right, and that is exactly what our proposals for reform will deliver.
The Lord Chancellor has made an important and considered statement and I am particularly grateful that he paid tribute to Sir Peter Gross and the work of his committee. Their report, such that I have been able to read it, because it is a detailed one, is very thoughtful and stands head and shoulders above the rather trite comments we get in politics and in the media. I commend the report to anyone who is seriously interested in the topic.
Does the Lord Chancellor agree that it is important that he has confirmed, as Sir Peter’s report confirms, the reality that the Strasbourg jurisdiction has never been binding on UK courts in the way that the European Court of Justice’s decisions once were, that the margin of appreciation is well established in the jurisprudence and that, therefore, as we make sensible reforms, which is always proper and appropriate, this is precisely the sort of area ripe for pre-legislative scrutiny through a Bill? Does he agree that, when we make changes, we should take on board, in particular, that we should not inadvertently permit legislation to go directly to Strasbourg, which would undermine the protections that our own domestic procedures have in relation to issues of security and other sensitivity? Surely that is capable of being dealt with in our reforms.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He refers to the Independent Human Rights Act Review report by Sir Peter Gross, and I again thank Sir Peter and his panel for the extensive work they have done. They have not only shown us the challenges that the Human Rights Act has presented, but given us a range of options and influenced the approach that we have taken—they have certainly informed it. My hon. Friend is also right to highlight the confusion there has been with the case law of the Strasbourg Court, which does not operate, as many civil law courts do not, by adopting precedent; and the way in which, in the UK courts, particularly as a result of section 2, it has virtually been turned into a system of precedent. That is clearly an area where we can reform, and I think we can do it in a sensible way that respects the primacy of the UK courts and gives greater legal certainty for everyone involved.
I thank the Secretary of State for prior sight of his statement, which says that these reforms are necessary to
“curtail abuses of the human rights system”.
This Government regularly tell us that abuses of the system are the reason for all manner of reforms of legislation that simply does not suit them. I know from my experience of the Elections Bill recently that they rarely manage to produce anything other than anecdotal evidence—ironically, evidence that would not stand up in a court of law. So, this time, where is the empirical evidence for this enormous change and where can we see it? The Secretary of State says that the UK will remain a party to the ECHR, but, again, different Ministers give different answers, so will he confirm, once and for all, that every provision in the ECHR will be adhered to in full, without tinkering or equivocation? It takes some brass neck for this Government to invoke a history of upholding human rights, given that this statement comes hot on the heels of multiple dreadful pieces of legislation designed to absolutely trash those rights, be it the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the Elections Bill, the Judicial Review and Courts Bill or, most appallingly, the Nationality and Borders Bill.
On Scotland, does the Secretary of State have any appreciation of how the Human Rights Act is fundamental to how the devolution settlement works and that any change to that would be a recasting of the UK’s constitution? I have no doubt that he will come back to me saying, “We will consult the devolved Administrations” but that is not enough. We expect—no, we demand—a guarantee that nothing will be done without the Scottish Government’s permission. The Scottish Government have made it absolutely clear that any attempt to erode the Human Rights Act will be robustly opposed. The Secretary of State may have scant regard for the democratically elected Government of Scotland, but he needs to understand just how much the people of Scotland value their human rights and how outraged they will be about this.
The SNP and the Scottish Government will fight to protect human rights across these islands and indeed across the globe. The best way we can do that is simply by voting yes in our next independence referendum, and I thank the Justice Secretary for the part he has played in ensuring that that happens.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the evidence basis for what we are doing. That has been set out at some length in the independent Human Rights Act review, if he takes the trouble to read it, which was published today and chaired admirably by Sir Peter Gross. It is also set out in the pretty extensive consultation document that we have published. I have said it once today but I am happy to reaffirm that we will stay within the European convention on human rights. We will qualify areas such as article 8—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says “Ah”, but he will know that paragraph 2 of article 8 invites qualification—it admits of it—in the interests of a whole range of reasons, including security. That will allow us to deport more foreign national offenders, in which we have been hamstrung by article 8 as it has been interpreted under the Human Rights Act. I am pretty sure that the people of Scotland, and the people across the UK, want us to be able to deport more serious, dangerous offenders from these shores.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the devolved Administrations. We are very sensitive to the devolved settlement. As he knows, the Human Rights Act is UK-wide legislation and a protected enactment under the devolution settlement, and ending it is therefore a matter for the UK Government, but we also recognise that the devolved legislatures can legislate on human rights in areas that are devolved to them, and that will remain the case. I look forward to consulting with the relevant devolved Administrations and with civil society in all the nations of the UK.
Would my right hon. Friend accept that this article 8 issue has been at the root of a great number of extremely unsatisfactory appeal decisions? Does he agree that, in the light of our sovereignty and our right to govern ourselves and have our own legal system in this context, the combination of that change and the Nationality and Borders Bill that we put through this House only last week will be of great benefit to the people of this country and immensely popular up and down the land in dealing with illegal immigration?
I thank my hon. Friend for the huge amount of forensic legal work and analysis he has put into this, as well as for his political and parliamentary contribution to the debate. He is right to say that the reforms will enable us to take measures to deal with the very real problems that his constituents and mine, and those in all four corners of the UK, are concerned about.
Article 8 is an interesting illustration. A lot of people say, “Well, we will still have to comply with Strasbourg”, and it is true that ultimately we will still have to accept the obligations under the convention, but the democratic shield will provide us with a proper means of stretching the margin of appreciation within the boundaries of the convention. Also, the case for article 8 expanded far more aggressively and energetically in this country, and it was later that the Strasbourg Court followed the case law in this country. So what we do is important, and the relationship is two-way. That is why the margin of appreciation, the dialogue and the provisions in the consultation document are so important.
I thank the Justice Secretary for his statement. It sounds as if he has come to the House with many of the complaints that all his predecessors since the Conservatives have been in government have made when they pledged to change the Human Rights Act, but those proposals have ended up amounting to nothing. We shall see whether he is able to turn his concerns into anything of substance. In the Joint Committee on Human Rights, we will obviously look carefully at his consultation and respond to the Gross review. Can I just say how pleased and relieved I am that he has made such a strong commitment to the European convention on human rights and all the rights protected therein, including article 8—the right to private and family life? I hope he will be able to confirm that he will do nothing to make it take longer or cost more for people to enforce their rights. He pledged to stand by the European convention. We cannot have a situation where those rights are available only for those who can afford to enforce them.
I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her perfectly reasonable and thoughtful response. She is right that we will stay within the European convention. If she looks me up on the record, she will see that I have consistently said that the problem is not the convention, which is totally unobjectionable as a list of rights. She asked about Conservative politicians bringing these concerns to the House of Commons. That is right. There have been long-standing issues with the Human Rights Act, but it is not just Conservative politicians. I cited Jack Straw—there have been others—as one of the architects of the Act who has been seriously concerned and has made the case for reform. So there are, across the political divide, strong arguments for making a change. We have put proposals forward—that is the difference—including draft illustrative clauses precisely to stimulate the kind of debate we should have. I think that that answers not only the right hon. and learned Lady’s point, but that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), the Chair of the Justice Committee, about pre-legislative scrutiny. By putting text out there for consideration, we can get right to the crux of these issues.
The right hon. and learned Lady rightly asked about remedies. We will, of course, retain effective domestic remedies, but what we will do with the permissions stage is have a check, which the Strasbourg Court itself has, on unmeritorious claims. It is also right that it has been a long-standing principle in this country that he who comes to equity must come to the court with clean hands. [Interruption.] She is nodding. I hope she agrees. So I think it is right for us to look at strengthening the provisions for the courts, within their discretion, to be able to take into account the wrongdoing of those who claim human rights.
As the leader of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe, which looks after the ECHR, I am pleased to hear that we will remain in the convention. I think that that is very important to us. The ECHR is itself badly in need of reform. Will my right hon. Friend join me in the work I am already doing to try to achieve a reform of that court, so that it better deals with the human rights problems across the whole of Europe?
I thank my hon. Friend, who has been a champion of the ECHR and makes, in a powerful and eloquent way, the case for trying to deliver better outcomes at international level. We want that as well, so I will work with him and support his efforts. We, of course, want to ensure that the Council and ECHR system, post the 2012 Brighton declaration, is properly implemented. We were told—my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, the Chair of the Justice Committee, is nodding—that the Court was entering an age of subsidiarity, which also picks up on the point made by the leader of the Labour party back in 1999. What we are doing goes with the grain of that, but we will also hold Strasbourg and the Council system to its word to see through those reforms.
It is the Justice Secretary who is contradictory, is it not? All the convention did was to be enacted in the Human Rights Act, so he cannot say he is keeping the convention and taking away the Human Rights Act. We are talking about evidence, not opinion. Will he publish a list of cases where British judges have not applied British law and have been hamstrung by European law?
I always enjoy engaging with the right hon. Lady on these subjects. She will see a list of the cases set out, the diagnosis, in both the IHRAR report by Sir Peter Gross and the consultation document. She will not have had a chance to read it cover to cover yet, but I encourage her to do so. She talks about it as if there is only one way to incorporate or implement the ECHR in UK law, but there is no one on either side of this debate who thinks that that is the case. We had proposals. I remember that when I sat on the Joint Committee on Human Rights there was consideration of a next stage of a Bill of Rights which took a different approach. We have seen in every Council of Europe member state different ways of enacting the ECHR, so I gently say to her that the convention and how it is interpreted and applied, in particular the operation of the separation of powers between the judicial, the Executive and the legislative branch, can be done in different ways and we want to sharpen that demarcation.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that recent court judgments appear to have extended privacy law in this country against the provision of section 12 of the existing Human Rights Act and without the debate or approval of Parliament? Can he say whether his reforms will strengthen section 12 to right the balance, and will he stress once again the importance of freedom of expression?
My right hon. Friend, as ever, hits the nail on the head. We will be looking precisely at that provision. We think it was introduced with a legitimate aim. It is one of those things that we actually support, but that has not delivered the kind of emphasis and protection around freedom of speech. I agree with the point that he made about avoiding the incremental extension of continental-style privacy law into the UK; we have a common law tradition, and tend to have a greater emphasis on free speech and transparency. That is coupled with the EU influence—I do not want to get wholesale into that debate, but he will remember proposals for a right to be forgotten—and the sensitivities that we increasingly see around debate, which, in this Chamber, in our country and in our society, we have to protect, and our proposals will allow us to do just that.
After 96 people were crushed to death in the Hillsborough disaster and the victims themselves were blamed, it was the Human Rights Act that helped their families finally to have their voices heard. The Human Rights Act is also a cornerstone of the Good Friday agreement. Why do the Government see the need to create greater uncertainty and jeopardy in Northern Ireland just for the sake of political posturing? By the way, I have seen a very interesting poll by Lord Ashcroft, which is about what people in Northern Ireland think about the future. More than 60% now believe that there will probably be a united Ireland within the next 20 years.
I say gently to the hon. Lady that, if she looks at the Good Friday agreement, she will see that it talks about incorporation of the ECHR, not incorporation of the Human Rights Act. We have made it clear that we will maintain our position as a state party to the European Convention on Human Rights, which is complemented by our stalwart support of the Good Friday agreement.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement today on overhauling our human rights framework. Does he agree that his reforms, after discussion and deliberation with colleagues and a wide variety of people, must strengthen the role of Parliament and the UK courts, rather than relying on judgment from Strasbourg?
I thank my right hon. Friend. He has been a long-standing champion of this issue, and has had a long-standing interest in it. I think the separation of powers between the legislative, the Executive and the judicial branches is really important. We want a robust judiciary, which is why we are proposing to strengthen the primacy of the Supreme Court—it is called a Supreme Court for a reason, and there is not a doctrine of precedent in Strasbourg. We also need to make sure that if there are expansions of human rights, the shifting of the goalposts that frustrates many of our constituents, they are subject to the democratic scrutiny of this House.
The Secretary of State said in his statement that the Government will make it crystal clear that the UK courts are under no duty to follow Strasbourg’s case law, so will it be a matter of pick and mix from the articles contained in the convention? If that is the case, using the Secretary of State’s logic, what is the point of being signatories to the ECHR when he has made it clear that the Government will choose only those articles they feel are appropriate?
With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, he has not followed the point that I was making. We will stay within the European convention. There are some articles, such as article 8(2), which admit a qualification to protect security. We will avail ourselves of that. The issue is about the interpretation of the application. There is no doctrine of precedent in Strasbourg, which is one of the areas of confusion that has arisen because we do have a doctrine of precedent in the UK courts. We will make it clear that it is for UK courts to apply in relation to UK case law and UK circumstances and, above all, to follow the will of the elected lawmakers. When there is a declaration of incompatibility and the courts will be free to still use that tool, that should come back to this House to decide what to do.
When speaking with politicians from former Soviet countries, it is invariably the European convention on human rights that they value as the protector of their, and indeed our, western democratic values. My right hon. Friend has made it quite clear that he is not intending to pull out of the ECHR or to change it, but I can foresee that this will cause upset with our allies, so will he today say that he will go to our allies and make it quite clear that he actually wants to back the ECHR and will be backing their democratic values?
I think the message we send—that we will remain a state party to the European convention—is important. We know how important it is in relation to our allies and partners and the Good Friday agreement. It is also incumbent on us to lead by example, as we have done for many years, and ensure that we have a system that is well regarded the world over. That means getting our own house in order. Reforming the Human Rights Act and making sure we have clear separation of powers, and ensuring that, when the goalposts shift, this House—elected Members, accountable to our constituents—makes those decisions, are absolutely crucial.
If we were playing authoritarian bingo, after today’s statement, we would have a full house. Not only have the Government come for our trade union rights, our rights to vote and our rights to protest, now our human rights are up for grabs. Today’s statement does nothing to strengthen human rights and everything to weaken them. The Conservative party is not a party of freedom, but one of growing authoritarianism and many of them over there know it.
The Secretary of State is to be commended on the statement, but will he be clear that we need to challenge the very principle of natural rights, which gave rise to the Human Rights Act? It has had the effect of emphasising individual interest above social solidarity, weakening communal will and undermining the sovereignty of this Parliament, which is and always has been the primary guarantor of Britain’s rights. Will my right hon. Friend conduct a root and branch reform of that assumption about rights, put aside consideration of the Human Rights Act, which is part of the Blairite legacy, and challenge those parts of the convention that frustrate this Parliament and the wishes of the British people?
I always enjoy hearing my right hon. Friend’s side of the argument. As John Stuart Mill said:
“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”
I do not take quite the same view as my right hon. Friend, but I welcome his iconoclasm and his challenge to ensure that we get a better balance between individual rights— which, as he has often said to me, Bentham described as “nonsense upon stilts”—and communal and societal needs, and particularly public protection in the areas that I outlined, whether parole reform, police forces or deportation of foreign national offenders.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Llefarydd. During the course of devolution, Wales has developed a distinct body of law, which safeguards specific rights arising from international law, including the rights of children and older people. Schedule 7A of the Government of Wales Act 2006 makes it clear that
“observing and implementing international obligations and obligations under the Human Rights Convention”
are the responsibility of our Senedd.
In Wales, we learn fast. We learn that, for this Government, the word “consult” means a tick-box exercise. I therefore ask the Secretary of State how the proposed consultation on the UK’s international human rights obligations will not undermine the Senedd’s ability to protect and promote human rights in Wales.
We will consult not only the devolved Administrations, but practitioners, academics and civil society in all the devolved nations. As I mentioned earlier, the Human Rights Act is UK-wide legislation and its enactment is protected under the devolution settlement. Amending it is for the UK Government. However, we also recognise that devolved Administrations can legislate on human rights in areas that remain devolved competences. That is the position. We respect it and I look forward to consulting the right hon. Lady and proving her cynicism wrong.
It is important to have the consultation, to listen carefully and look at how we can refine, hone and chisel the proposals, given all the sensitivities we are very mindful of, but we want to introduce the Bill of Rights and get it enacted in this Parliament.
I am not a lawyer, but this piece of legislation really worries me, because with legislation I always look at where the drive for it comes from. I cannot find it supported in the academic community, the legal community or the business community, and it is increasingly clear that it comes from the increasingly strident right wing of the Conservative party and the Back Benchers so positively in favour of it. Will the Secretary of State, even today, look at all the serious leaders in the newspapers—The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Independent? He has very few friends on this.
I think the hon. Gentleman must have read the papers a little bit quicker than I did. It is not just Conservative politicians. Indeed, former members of the judiciary make the case for reform very powerfully, and there is of course the Labour architect of the Human Rights Act in Jack Straw, who has made the case for reform. But the real truth is that the calls for reform and a bit more common sense in the system have come from our voters—the public—and he would do well to remember that.
I am a member of the Council of Europe, which I think has lost its way. It lets Russia literally get away with murder but interferes in the minutiae of so-called human rights in western democracies. I support what the Secretary of State has said today, but I want to be convinced that if we stay in the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe, what he is doing will actually make much difference. He can convince me in one way. At the moment, our deportation policy is a complete joke. We never deport anybody. Illegal migrants know that they can vanish in the community. Will he now convince me that after we pass this we will be able to deport these people and stop this illegal migration?
Human rights reform will no more be a silver bullet for all the ills of the world than any other reform, but it will deal with a whole range of serious and significant issues that the people of this country, my right hon. Friend’s constituents and mine, want dealing with. The reason I give in the consultation paper—I wrote about it in The Times today—is that article 8 is an example of a qualified right that allows us to stretch, or to press, the margin of appreciation. Some 70% of the successful human rights challenges to deportation orders by foreign national offenders come from people claiming under article 8 on the right to a family life. That is a very good example of what we can address.
Leading human rights lawyer and expert, and former adviser to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Adam Wagner, said of these proposals this morning that this Government may be the first in the history of liberal democracies to enact a Bill of Rights that has the effect of reducing rather than increasing rights and protections. Are a Government who have traditionally provided themselves on the defence of the individual against the state proud of that description?
I do not accept it, but I know that a number of people, including the shadow Justice Secretary, have commented on the proposals before having read them. Freedom of speech, and trial by jury and the recognition that we can give to it, are just two examples of the way we can strengthen human rights, but also strengthen the credibility of human rights so that they are not dirty words in the minds of many of the public.
Significant planning harm is being caused in the Kettering constituency and across the country by Gypsies and Travellers deliberately building permanent, unauthorised structures in the open countryside, against all the planning regulations. When the local planning authority seeks to enforce against this in the planning courts, more often than not the authority is overruled by the Human Rights Act. Will the reforms that the Secretary of State has proposed today help to rebalance the planning system so that planning laws apply equally to everyone, everywhere?
My hon. Friend raises an issue that I have heard raised quite widely across the House. He will know that the Home Secretary has already announced proposals to strengthen our powers in relation to illegal encampments. The critical thing that our proposal for a Bill of Rights will do is protect legislation enacted in this House by elected Members accountable to our constituents and stop it being whittled away, revised or amended as a result of the Human Rights Act and what it requires the courts to do.
The Lord Chancellor’s statement made a cursory reference to the devolved regions. I am not sure if he ever got round to reading all of the Good Friday agreement after he revealed at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that he had not read it, but the prospect of the Human Rights Act was critical in those negotiations and has proved crucial in the years since, both for victims and survivors and for all those seeking good governance in all areas of life, because it puts those safeguards in the hands of citizens. Has he received specific legal advice on the interaction of his proposals with Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Act 1998?
The residents of Blackpool are sick and tired of the way in which the Human Rights Act has been abused by foreign criminals so they can remain in the UK. My constituents will be delighted by my right hon. Friend’s statement, but can he reassure them that the measures he outlined will help to make it easier to deport dangerous foreign criminals and will work alongside our new Nationality and Borders Bill to make it easier to deport failed asylum seekers?
Let me be clear that, as we have set out at some length, there are some things that we cannot do. We cannot send people back to the arms of a torturing tyrant in violation of article 3. Even if we came out of the European convention, there would be other international treaties and frankly, morally, I do not think that is the right thing to do. The reality is, however, that the majority of the challenges that we have had—70% of those in relation to foreign national offenders—have come under not article 3 but article 8. That is a good example of why this reform will be meaningful and far-reaching, and will have the support of our constituents.
My fear is that the consultation on our Human Rights Act is more about giving more power to the Executive and there being fewer challenges to it than about meaningful reform. Will the Justice Secretary answer my earlier question on which of the following breaches of human rights, on which the courts ruled that the Government could be challenged, will no longer apply: rights against torture, rights against medical experimentation on British military personnel, or rights preventing discrimination against disabled people?
Of course it is right to say that in none of those areas will our reforms prevent accountability through constituents being able to bring cases to the courts. I will correct the hon. Lady on a broader point. If she looks at the consultation, she will see that it is not about accumulating authority or power to the Executive; it is about the separation of powers between the judicial and legislative branch. As the goalposts shift on human rights, which is fundamentally a legislative function, hon. Members on both sides of the House should be responsible for that, and ultimately should be responsible to our constituents for that.
I first send best wishes for a speedy recovery to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), who, had she not tested positive for covid, would certainly have been here with some difficult questions for the Secretary of State. I have no doubt that those questions will be coming as soon as she is restored to full health.
The Secretary of State said that hon. Members in this House must have the last word on the law of the land, by which I presume he means this land. He will not forget that there are three other lands—three other nations—that are only partially under the jurisdiction of this place and partly under the jurisdiction of their respective national Parliaments. Will he give an absolute guarantee that if any of those national Parliaments seeks to use its devolved powers to grant its citizens a higher level of human rights protection than is covered in UK legislation, the rights of those devolved Parliaments will be respected?
I pass on our best wishes to the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry). I hope that she is back up and running and well soon.
I say to the hon. Gentleman that we think that it is elected lawmakers who should have the last word on the laws of the land—that includes the devolved competencies. What he is saying, logic would suggest, is that he wants Strasbourg to be able to overrule not just Westminster but the Scottish Parliament. We are supporting democracy in all the nations of the UK and in this House.
This is the third or fourth attempt by successive Tory Governments to fillet the Human Rights Act, and it is no more coherent than the ones that were abandoned. We know that it is intended to pick on what are perceived as the easier or unpopular targets, but it will mainly disadvantage ordinary citizens of this country who are victims of unlawful decisions by the state. It purports to repatriate powers from Europe, but we are rightly staying in the European convention on human rights, so more decisions will go to Strasbourg. Judges will no longer be bound by the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, but they are not now. Will he take the opportunity of the consultation to look at that again and see whether the measures are coherent in any way?
I think this is the first time that a consultation document has been put forward to the House of Commons. The hon. Gentleman is right that it has been much debated; we are now taking action. I am afraid that I disagree with him: we are very much focused on protecting and strengthening our tradition of freedom, of which I have given freedom of speech as an example.
Frankly, the hon. Gentleman has a choice to make. He can sit back and bask in the generalities of what he has said, or he can recognise, as the former Home Secretary and architect of the Human Rights Act does, that there has been abuse of the system and that if we reform and take our responsibilities in this House seriously, we can make a change for the better and introduce some much-needed common sense.
The Justice Secretary has made much of his concerns about article 8, the right to family life. To the extent that it affects the best interests of children, it is of course a particularly important article. Can he assure me that the changes that he intends to bring in will in no way water down our obligations to serve children’s best interests, as prescribed in the Children Act 1989, or our obligations under the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, to which we are of course a signatory?
Of course we live up to our international obligations, and it is precisely partly the aim of these reforms to protect the bespoke, tailored approach to primary legislation when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable in our society, including through the Children Act.
How will the Secretary of State convince me that his biggest supporters in this will not be President Erdoğan of Turkey and President Putin in Russia? Can he also tell me this: if the Government move ahead with his proposal to give an amnesty to those who committed murder during the troubles in Northern Ireland—and they do have that intention—and given that he says he supports the article 13 of the European convention, on the right to an effective remedy, how will the families of those murdered get justice if there is not proper access to the Strasbourg Court?
We are very confident that the proposals that we have put forward, given the passage of time, are ECHR-compliant. The hon. Gentleman talks about being friends with dictatorial countries. Frankly, this reform will be about restoring some common sense and some credibility to human rights in this country. He asks whose side we are on. We are on the side of the British public, and he should get on board.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. The prospect of a Bill of Rights is an overwhelming project, as we all recognise. What steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that all minority groups receive protection, and that religious freedom and the expression and sharing of faith are explicitly protected as a foundation of this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—better together?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. Of course there are provisions for non-discrimination in the ECHR, but also in UK law. This reform will allow us to strengthen the protections that we in this House provide, including the hon. Gentleman, and make sure that they are not whittled away, not undermined, and not revised through a combination of section 2, section 3 and the other provisions of the Human Rights Act.
The Human Rights Act is entrenched in the Welsh constitution, so what amendments would need to be made, if any, to the Government of Wales Act if these proposals were to be implemented? Will the Secretary of State give an undertaking not to proceed to legislate unless he receives prior consent from the Welsh Government, the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. As I said, it is a protective enactment. We will respect the devolved competences. Until we have got to the stage of full legislative proposals—which we will, and I look forward to having the discussion then—I think it is a bit too early to touch on the points that he made.
New licensing rules for arms trade announced last week are already causing concern that they could make it easier for international human rights abuses to be ignored when the Government make decisions on sales. Has the Secretary of State considered how changes to domestic human rights legislation could have a knock-on effect on our international strategies?
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Twice in the last couple of days I have been confounded in my attempts to represent my constituents by public authorities—[Hon. Members: “Who?”] NHS England and National Savings & Investments. They have refused to deal with me because they tell me that I do not have the permission of the constituents to share their details. Now, I do not know about your office, Mr Speaker, and I do not know about the offices of other hon. Members, but we are far too busy dealing with plenty of genuine cases to get a phone book, pick a name at random and make up a bogus case to write to these public authorities.
So can you confirm, please, Mr Speaker, that if a constituent comes to see us and asks us to make representations on their behalf, that should be considered by any public authority—not just NHS England or National Savings & Investments—to be permission granted by the constituent, and they should stop hiding behind such rules that do not exist?
I thank the hon. Member for giving me notice of his point of order. Although I cannot comment on individual cases, I am aware that the data protection regime recognises the importance of constituency casework and that schedule 1 to the Data Protection Act 2018 allows that data to be shared with elected representatives in certain circumstances. I am surprised that public authorities such as NHS England—which should know better given how many cases it deals with—and other public authorities do not appear to be aware of this. I am very disappointed that NHS England in particular should prevent hon. Members such as the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) from getting on with their duties. I hope that it will get the message quickly and reflect on what we are saying in this House.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. At Defence questions on 15 November, I raised the plight of nearly 200 Afghans who had worked with the British Council but are still hiding in Afghanistan in fear of their lives, moving from safe house to safe house, often with no money, as they flee the Taliban. These individuals are eligible for the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme, but are facing long delays in their applications being processed. At Defence questions, the Secretary of State committed to arranging a meeting with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Home Office, but despite regular chasing through the normal channels, this still has not taken place.
Mr Speaker, I seek your guidance as to how we can ensure that this meeting takes place, because a number of us across this place want to ask why there is such a delay in the processing of applications. I opposed and voted against the Afghanistan intervention once al-Qaeda were evicted, but I believe that we are now compounding our error by not honouring our debt of honour to these individuals—and it needs to be put right now.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. I am sorry to hear that the meeting with the Secretary of State that was offered almost a month ago has not yet happened. I am sure that this matter will be brought to the attention of the Secretary of State, and I expect the meeting to take place as quickly as possible. The hon. Gentleman has certainly put it on the record, and I would like to hear from him if the meeting does not happen.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On 6 December, I tabled two named day questions to the Cabinet Office, asking about a simple matter: have air filtration systems been installed in rooms in No. 10 and No. 11; which rooms have they been installed in; and how much did that cost? Of course, the motivation was to see whether No. 10 has better protections than, say, schools. There are two days left before the recess and I am keen to get an answer before the House rises to those simple questions, which should have been answered by now. What more can I do to get the answers that we need before we all go on our Christmas break?
I thank the hon. Lady for giving me notice of her point of order. I am disappointed that the answers to named day questions were not given on the day specified, as they should have been. The hon. Member may well want to raise the issue with the Procedure Committee, which monitors the performance of the Government in this area. In the meantime, I am sure that the exchange will be brought to the attention of the Department, and hope that the answers will be provided quickly. The rules should be taken seriously by the Government. I am sure that everybody will be listening, and I am sure that the disappointment will be reflected on and responded to with an early answer.
Cold Climate Allowance
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to report to Parliament on providing additional allowances to people in receipt of the state pension and other social security benefits in places with colder climates to reflect the increased cost of domestic heating; and for connected purposes.
The Bill seeks, on a cross-party basis, to introduce a cold climate allowance throughout the United Kingdom. I am grateful to the colleagues from eight parties, along with an independent Member, who have lent it their support. I am pleased that, as well as having cross-party support, the Bill has attracted support from MPs in each of the constituent nations of the UK. Indeed, as someone who was born in the north of Ireland, I am pleased that every party from Northern Ireland represented in this Chamber supports the Bill. That is no small achievement.
In essence, the Bill is the same as Bills introduced in the 1980s by the former SNP leader Gordon Wilson MP and in the 1990s by the former SNP parliamentary group leader Margaret Ewing MP. I consider it a great honour to follow in their footsteps.
The Bill is UK-wide in its scope and seeks to tackle income, as one of the recognised causes of fuel poverty, by paying a cold climate allowance: an additional monetary payment during the winter months that would be paid directly to eligible people in receipt of the state pension and other social security benefits. The amount of the proposed cold climate allowance is based on paying 10%, 20% or 30%—depending on location—of the annual equivalent service charge for fuel and associated costs that is calculated in respect of housing benefit. It would be an automatic and continuing payment, over 17 weeks from December to March.
The Bill would divide the United Kingdom into four climatic zones: zone 4 would cover the highlands and northern Scotland and would result in an automatic weekly payment of £45.05; zone 3 would cover central and southern Scotland, Northern Ireland and northern England and would provide a weekly payment of £27.56; zone 3 would cover central England and Wales and would entail a weekly payment of £13.78; and zone 1 would cover the remainder of the United Kingdom but would not produce an automatic payment. Existing cold weather payments would continue to apply in zone 1, as they would throughout the UK during cold weather snaps.
The Bill has been welcomed by those organisations in the UK that are committed to ending fuel poverty—namely, Energy Action Scotland and its sister body National Energy Action, which operates in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Why should we introduce a cold climate allowance now? People right across the UK face a perfect storm this winter, with rising energy bills combined with an increase in the energy price cap and falling incomes for families, particularly in the wake of the removal of the universal credit uplift. The Bill would go some way towards shielding our most vulnerable from that perfect storm. In addition, there is a crisis in the energy market as large energy suppliers go out of business. With the rise in wholesale gas prices, 28 suppliers have gone out of business in the UK, including Bulb Energy, Britain’s seventh-largest supplier with 1.7 million customers.
Energy Action Scotland predicts that, as a result of high energy prices, poor levels of energy efficiency in homes and falling incomes, this winter
“many lives will be lost and unnecessary pressure placed on the NHS”.
Already, 2,000 more lives in Scotland are lost across the winter months than in the summer because people are living in cold, damp and difficult-to-heat homes.
All Members will be aware of rising household energy prices. The surge in the market price of gas is unprecedented and has more than quadrupled in the last year. National Energy Action estimates that the expected increase in gas bills in April could mean that the cost of heating the average home will have doubled over the past 18 months. Energy prices are already high and are set to rise substantially in April 2022, with high prices expected for some time to come.
New research published only last week by the Global Change foundation predicts that household energy bills are set to rise by up to £900 per annum in the coming year. Customers on standard tariffs will see a rise of between £450 and £650, and those who switch from cheaper fixed-price deals as they expire will go on to the price cap, which could see a rise of between £700 and £900.
According to National Energy Action, the cost of living is at its highest level in a decade, with household energy bills being the principal driver. NEA estimates that average domestic energy bills have soared by more than £230 per customer compared with last winter. This leaves 4.5 million households across the UK now struggling to heat and power their homes. Many are sinking further into debt; others are forced to ration their energy use or turn off the heating altogether, leaving them at acute risk of serious ill health or even premature death.
Unfortunately, many energy experts predict that bills will soar again this coming April, possibly by as much as £550 for the average dual fuel bill. Those calculations are based on average energy use; larger families and people who live in poorly insulated homes are likely to pay even more.
Last week, E.ON Energy chief executive Michael Lewis told ITV:
“Many people are in for a shock”.
He said that rising energy bills
“will certainly cause hardship to customers.”
The Bill would go some way towards addressing that hardship for some of our most vulnerable constituents this winter. According to a new study published earlier this month by Citizens Advice Scotland, 36% of people in Scotland—one in three—are now struggling to pay their energy bills. Of those, 80% cited rising energy bills as a reason.
Why pay a different cold climate allowance in different parts of the UK? The stark reality is that it is colder in different parts of the UK and that weather conditions are predictably more severe in some areas than others. The different rates of cold climate allowance that the Bill proposes would reflect those climatic variations. It is thanks to the campaigning efforts of Margaret Ewing and others in decades past that the UK Government finally conceded the difference in heating costs across the UK. According to the Building Research Establishment domestic energy model, taking Bristol as a baseline, heating a typical semi-detached house with gas central heating requires 23% more fuel in Glasgow, 28% more in Edinburgh, 32% more in Dundee, 41% more in Aberdeen, 53% more in Braemar and a staggering 66% more in Lerwick.
We know that there are extreme pressures in remote, rural and island communities. Households, particularly in off-gas areas, face some of the highest energy costs anywhere in the UK. Households in Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles of Scotland endure the highest rates of fuel poverty. The Bill would provide those households with welcome additional support. It is beyond doubt that significant climatic variation exists across the UK; the Bill would allow us to balance it and do something meaningful about it.
Why use incomes to tackle fuel poverty, not home insulation or other energy efficiency measures? It is not a case of either/or. Someone may have the most energy-efficient home in the world, but if they have insufficient income, they may be too afraid to turn on their heating system or use it to the level required to provide adequate warmth. Indeed, the home energy efficiency standard in the social rented sector in Scotland is an exemplar in these islands, but many of the people occupying those homes are on low incomes or in receipt of the retirement pension or other social security benefits. Further help for households struggling to afford the rising cost of energy is therefore necessary in Scotland and across the UK. The Bill seeks to provide that support.
Frazer Scott, chief executive of Energy Action Scotland, put it well:
“Far too many people are facing a cold, cold winter, unable to afford to heat their homes to the levels that support their health and wellbeing.”
Age Scotland and Age UK have both highlighted the financial challenges that older people face this winter. These people are our constituents and we have a duty to act. Energy Action Scotland and National Energy Action believe that more must be done to amplify support when extreme weather has an impact on already financially stressed households. People should never feel compelled to self-disconnect or otherwise ration their energy supply. National Energy Action says:
“We hope the Bill is successful or, at the very least, it prompts the UK Government to come forward with their own proposals to help more vulnerable households afford a warm home”.
As we move into winter recess, hon. Members may view winter scenes on Christmas cards with warm fondness. However, it is likely that too many of our constituents will be filled with fear and dread if such wintry conditions descend upon their reality. My Bill would provide practical help in the winter months when it is needed most, help to keep people warm, reduce pressure on the NHS and, ultimately, save lives. I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Neale Hanvey, Kenny MacAskill, Angus Brendan MacNeil, Grahame Morris, Mr Alistair Carmichael, Liz Saville Roberts, Jim Shannon, Claire Hanna, Stephen Farry, Margaret Ferrier and Alison Thewliss present the Bill.
Neale Hanvey accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 14 January 2022, and to be printed (Bill 218).
Business of the House (Today)
That, at this day’s sitting, notwithstanding the provisions of Standing Order No. 16 (1) (Proceedings under an Act or on European Union documents), proceedings on the Motions in the name of Maggie Throup relating to Public Health (SI, 2021, Nos. 1400, 1415 and 1416) and the Motion in the name of Secretary Sajid Javid relating to the draft Health and Social Care Act 2008 (Regulated Activities) (Amendment) (Coronavirus) (No. 2) Regulations 2021, shall be brought to a conclusion not later than 6.30 pm; the Speaker shall then put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on those Motions forthwith; such Questions, though opposed, may be put after the moment of interruption; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.—(Craig Whittaker.)
[Relevant documents: First Special Report of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, Rule of Law Themes from COVID-19 Regulations, HC 600 and the Government Response, HC 774; Fourth Report of the Justice Committee, Covid-19 and the criminal law, HC 71.]
The Business of the House (Today) motion just agreed to by the House provides for the motions on the four statutory instruments on today’s Order Paper, each relating to public health, to be debated together until 6.30 pm. At the end of the debate, the Deputy Speaker will call the Minister to move each motion formally and will put the Question on each motion separately. I hope that that clarifies the situation for the House.