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Volume 708: debated on Tuesday 8 February 2022

The Secretary of State was asked—

Domestic Abuse Victims: Legal Aid

1. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of support provided through the legal aid system for victims of domestic abuse. (905496)

Access to justice is a fundamental right, and this Government are committed to ensuring that everyone gets the timely support they need, including legal aid, to navigate the justice system. In addition, the Government are absolutely clear that victims of domestic abuse must have access to the help they need. In the light of this, we are conducting a review of the means test for legal aid and this is specifically considering domestic abuse victims; we plan to publish this consultation shortly. We have already made some further changes to improve access to legal aid by removing the cap on the amount of mortgage debt used in determining access to civil legal aid.

The Bellamy review outlines serious and long-standing concerns about the lack of funding for criminal legal aid. Domestic abuse victims already face trauma, and experience mental and physical scars that are only exacerbated by the Government’s failure to fund legal aid properly. What assessment has the Justice Secretary made of the impact of the potential strike by the Criminal Bar Association on the already immense courts backlog? Will he finally commit to engage with the CBA, so that victims are not denied access to justice?

Legal aid for domestic abuse is primarily a civil legal aid matter, but in relation to criminal legal aid I am pleased to confirm to the hon. Lady that I am meeting the CBA later this week and engaging with the association through the all-party parliamentary group on legal aid in a webinar tomorrow. I am engaging with all stakeholders because I think that is the right and constructive approach to drawing up this important policy so that we achieve our aim, which is better reform of the criminal justice system.

Lighthouse Women’s Aid in Ipswich does huge work in the area and across Suffolk, as the Minister knows. I hope that Ipswich being one of the seven outposts for Ministry of Justice civil servants will mean that we are at the forefront of new initiatives to tackle domestic abuse. Will the Minister update me on the timeline for these jobs coming to Ipswich and the strategy to ensure that as many of them as possible go to Ipswich people?

My hon. Friend and neighbour is a great champion of his constituency. We will set out further details of our plan to move staff out of London. It is entirely right that we do that as part of the Government’s levelling-up agenda. I should also say that I welcome his championing of what the voluntary sector can do to support victims of domestic abuse.

UK’s Human Rights Framework

2. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on reforming the UK’s human rights framework. (905497)

5. What steps he is taking in response to the publication of the Independent Human Rights Act Review published by his Department in December 2021. (905500)

Under this Prime Minister and this Government, before the next election, we will replace the Human Rights Act 1998 with a Bill of Rights to end the abuse of the framework and the system by dangerous criminals and to restore some common sense.

The Justice Secretary claims that his reforms will protect free speech—a right that already receives special protection in the Human Rights Act—yet simultaneously the Government want to criminalise exercise of the right to protest, through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and there are already plans to take away whistleblower protections in the Official Secrets Act. Is it all free speech the Justice Secretary aims to protect, or only the kind his Government want to hear?

I thank the hon. Lady, because she raises a good substantive point. We want to strengthen and reinforce the right of free speech, in particular given some of the judge-led privacy law we have, but also some of the encroachments on free speech we have seen in political debate. I think constituents of Members in all parts of the House would recognise the difference between free speech, lawful protest and, frankly, the downright sabotage that we have seen by groups such as Extinction Rebellion, where we are right to legislate to protect the freedoms of others.

This is not new territory for the Secretary of State. He has been around this course. He failed last time of course, because he could only do what he wanted by leaving the European convention on human rights. That is still the situation now, so will it be Government policy that we should follow the human rights example of Belarus in leaving the protections of the convention?

We have been around this house a few times. It is precisely because our reforms through a Bill of Rights can make a substantial difference by injecting some common sense without leaving the European convention that we will proceed. I will give one example. I visited HMP Frankland in Durham. It is a high-security category A prison. One of the challenges in dealing with terrorist offenders, particularly those who could infect the minds of others, is the issue of separation centres. We are increasingly seeing litigation claims claiming article 8 as a right to socialise getting in our way. That is a good example for the common-sense approach and the balance we want to have. I am very surprised that the right hon. Gentleman is opposed to it.

The position is that the Government commissioned an independent review, did not like the conclusions and so have simply just ditched them. Why should anyone have any faith that the Government will listen to their consultation responses if they are so hellbent on pursuing what Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC has labelled an

“indefensible…inward-looking and cowardly”

retreat from human rights?

I am very grateful for the independent Human Rights Act review. We looked very carefully at all the recommendations, some of which we take on board and for others we are going to innovate in different areas. I will give one example. I suspect the hon. Gentleman’s constituents would want us to reform the system to stop foreign national offenders, whether they are living in Scotland or any other part of the UK, from frustrating deportation orders on the most flimsy, elastic grounds created by article 8. That is something we will do, and I think he should support it.

I am grateful that my right hon. Friend made reference to the independent review of the Human Rights Act. I am sure he would want to join me in thanking the right hon. Sir Peter Gross, the chair of that review, and his colleagues for their exceptionally hard and diligent work in this regard. Sir Peter gave evidence to the Justice Committee last week. He pointed out that while the Government have published their own consultation document—“Human Rights Act Reform: A Modern Bill of Rights”—that document is not in fact a response to the independent Human Rights Act review report. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that it would only be fair and courteous to Sir Peter and his colleagues to ensure that once the consultation on the Government’s document is concluded, their response to that consultation includes a full response to Sir Peter’s panel’s review, including detailed replies to all the points the Government do or do not accept, exactly as was done with the Faulks review?

I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee. First, I have already thanked the chair and all the panel, but I am happy to join my hon. Friend in doing so again. The IHRAR panel produced a well-considered and useful report, and I considered it very carefully. The consultation that we are pursuing is ongoing, and includes—this is an important point—areas beyond the terms of reference of the IHRAR report, such as adding a recognition of the right to trial by jury and strengthening freedom of expression, which Members have already raised. There are also areas where the Government wish to explore only a subset of the options considered by that review, and section 3 is a good illustration of that.

Can the Deputy Prime Minister outline how his reforms to the Human Rights Act and a new British Bill of Rights can help us to take back control of our borders and stop the small boats crisis in the channel?

Clearly the issue of small boats goes well beyond issues in the European convention on human rights, but what I would say to my hon. Friend more generally is that the reforms we are pursuing allow us to take more firm action under the Nationality and Borders Bill and under wider powers to deal with foreign national offenders. He should be aware that some 70% of claims by foreign national offenders scuppering deportation orders are under article 8. That is clearly an area where we can reform.

I am tired of hearing the rights of asylum seekers so desperate to get here that they will go on these dangerous boats conflated with those of dangerous foreign national offenders. The Secretary of State needs to stop drawing that parallel.

I echo the Chair of the Select Committee in calling for a full response to Sir Peter Gross QC. Indeed, I wonder why the Government bothered to appoint him if they were not going to listen to him. Does the Secretary of State at least agree with his first recommendation, which is that there should be a full and robust programme of education about what the Human Rights Act actually is? Or would that be a bit of a hindrance to this Government’s programme of misinformation?

It is precisely through the process of consultation on our proposal for a Bill of Rights that we can have a proper, substantive debate, listen to all sides of the argument and inject some common sense back into the system, and disseminate that more widely. I think that constituents of hon. Members in all parts of the House would appreciate that.

The other thing that the Secretary of State keeps on doing is saying that we have to review this because there are so many dangerous foreign criminals, but will he listen to the UK security services, who know more about dangerous foreign criminals than he does? They have warned that overhauling the Human Rights Act could affect their ability to provide evidence in secret. I know he knows why that is dangerous, particularly in terrorism cases, so will he listen to them and to his predecessor in this role, who has also warned that this could make the UK, and by extension all of us, less secure?

May I gently say to the hon. Member that there is an issue around extraterritorial jurisdiction, where we will want to consult very carefully? Whether it is the deportation of foreign national offenders—and no, I am sorry, but we will keep talking about that; it is something that our constituents care about, and this is a reform that needs to happen—or whether it is parole reform, which I believe we also need to undertake, or separation centres in our most high-security prisons, these are all areas where the public, constituents of hon. Members in all parts of the House, will expect us to take a common-sense approach. That is exactly what our Bill of Rights will achieve.

Sentencing for Terrorist Offences: Northern Ireland Executive

3. What recent discussions he has had with the Northern Ireland Executive on sentencing for terrorist offences. (905498)

I have had no recent discussions with the Northern Ireland Executive on sentencing for terrorist offences. While sentencing is a devolved matter, the Department continues to engage in discussions with the Department of Justice on devolved matters where helpful and relevant.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland makes huge efforts to bring to justice those responsible for terrorism there, but the chances of convicting those offenders are undermined by excessive delays in the criminal justice process. Will the Minister work with the Northern Ireland Justice Minister to try to address this problem, so that we can hold to account those who still seek to use violence to achieve political ends in Northern Ireland?

My right hon. Friend speaks with great expertise on these matters. She will be aware that justice and policing are devolved matters, and the Northern Ireland Executive recently reaffirmed their commitment to speeding up the criminal justice system in the New Decade, New Approach agreement. At the end of last year, the Northern Ireland Assembly passed the Criminal Justice (Committal Reform) Bill, which contains measures that will simplify the current system, remove some avoidable delays and ensure the quicker progression to court of some of the most serious cases. I welcome this significant step forward in reforming the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland.

Violence Against Women and Girls

May I take a moment, Mr Speaker, to place on record my sincere thanks to Her Majesty the Queen, as we celebrate the seven decades of peerless public service that she has provided to our great country? May she long reign over us.

This Government set out its ambitious tackling violence against women and girls strategy in the summer to change attitudes, support women and girls who are victims of crime, and pursue perpetrators relentlessly. This focus includes rolling out section 28 video-recorded evidence in sexual and modern slavery cases nationally and helping victims of domestic abuse to have more time to report common assaults, through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Last week we also launched the tender for the first ever national 24/7 support service for victims of rape and sexual assault.

This Sunday we marked International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. Sustainable development goal 5.3 commits the UK to the elimination of

“all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation”

by 2030. However, the UN estimates that 2 million extra girls are at risk of cutting due to the pandemic. Is the UK on track to meet its own targets?

We are. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this important subject, because female genital mutilation is one of the most hidden crimes. Those poor victims, who are often very young, face the most terrible pressure to explain to others what has been done to them, often by their loved ones. We are really supporting victims not just through the tackling violence against women and girls strategy that I have already discussed, but through our work over the last decade to tackle those terrible crimes, so that they can, if they feel able, seek help. Importantly, we are also educating people that it is not a fit practice for the 21st century.

A woman has approached me for help. She tells me that as a teenager, she was raped and has lived with the trauma for over 30 years. She has no confidence or trust in the police or the criminal justice system. She feels intimidated and frightened by her attacker to this day and fears that she will not be listened to, taken seriously or protected. What can I say to her?

May I thank the hon. Gentleman for gravely articulating the many effects that such terrible crimes have on victims, not just in the immediate aftermath but for many years, often decades? We have a programme of work to address the failings in the criminal justice system in terms of prosecuting sexual assault and rape cases. We have already been publishing our national scorecards, which aim to bring transparency to every corner of the criminal justice system to give victims and the public the confidence that they need in it.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point, I commend to him the current Ministry of Justice campaign #ItStillMatters. I very much hope that the lady he speaks about can seek support through that campaign or through the sexual violence helpline that I outlined in my previous answer, which I hope will be up and running very soon.

One of the most heinous forms of violence against women and girls is found online and the law has some serious gaps, as my hon. Friend knows. Cyber-flashing, which is online indecent exposure, and deep fake pornography are not against the law. What is she planning to do to change that?

I thank my right hon. Friend who has been concerted in her campaign on that terrible form of online crime involving deep fake imagery. On cyber-flashing, I am pleased to confirm that the Government are looking for a legislative vehicle in which to outlaw that pernicious modern-day crime. On deep fake imagery, she will know that we have sought the advice of the Law Commission to help to update our general laws to better reflect the 21st century in which we all live.

Many women are sent to prison for low-level summary offences, and incarceration has a catastrophic effect on them and their families. The female offender strategy will see the first residential women’s centre sited in Wales that will provide accommodation and rehabilitation for vulnerable women. Can the Minister give an update on the progress of that centre in Wales? Will it house a families unit?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend because, as she will know, because she has a particular interest in the area, there are women in the criminal justice system who have been the victims of crime, including domestic abuse. Of course there are women who commit incredibly serious crimes—indeed, sadly, we have seen them in the news recently—and who must be imprisoned to serve their sentences. For the more vulnerable women who my hon. Friend talks about, however, we are looking seriously at and progressing our plans for a residential women’s centre in Wales. I cannot go into more detail at the moment, but I hope that I will be able to come back with an update in due course. It will provide an alternative for judges and magistrates in dealing with those particularly vulnerable female offenders who may benefit from the sort of intensive care that we hope to provide in such a centre, rather than putting them in prison.

At a roundtable with rape survivors last week, victims told me that they had come to terms with what had happened with them, but could not come to terms with how they had been treated by the criminal justice system. It now takes a shocking 1,000 days for a rape case to get to court, and only 1.3% of rape cases are prosecuted, so it is no surprise that victims feel that the system is working against them. Will the Minister back Labour’s fully costed plans to give rape victims a legal advocate from the moment they report the crime through to trial, or will she continue the Government’s failure to tackle violence against women and girls?

I sincerely hope that the hon. Lady has welcomed the victims Bill consultation. As she will know, it has just closed, but it is very much part of this Government’s work to bring the victims Bill into law to provide safeguards of the sort she indicated. In addition, we are already funding more independent domestic violence advisers and independent sexual violence advisers. These people can really help from the very moment a victim feels able to report their crime to the police, and they have that support when they need it. I also think, as I say, that using the helpline—the 24 hours a day helpline—we are setting up for victims of sexual violence may be the first step some victims feel able to take before reporting the crime to the police.

Finally, I very much hope that we can persuade the Opposition to support the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. It has many measures to help tackle violence against women and girls, but in particular we are raising the period of time that violent offenders and sexual offenders spend in prison from half to two thirds if they receive a sentence of more than four years. This is a really important step, and I very much hope the Opposition will support us in our efforts to keep dangerous sexual offenders in prison.

Restorative Justice

The new victims code sets out clearly that victims must be told about the option of restorative justice and how to access it. We are enshrining the code in law, and for 2021-22 we are providing £115 million of grant funding to police and crime commissioners for victim support services, including restorative justice. Overall, we are increasing MOJ funding for victim and witness support services to £185 million by 2024-25.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on restorative justice, I have seen how it can massively help both offenders and victims of crime. Would the Minister agree to meet me to discuss the findings of the first ever APPG report on restorative justice and how we can integrate some of its recommendations into the victims Bill?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, who is a tireless campaigner on the issue of restorative justice, for sharing the APPG’s report with me and my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, who I know has also thanked him for his efforts. We are carefully considering its recommendations and will respond in due course. I am particularly mindful of the fact that, especially in relation to acquisitive crime, restorative justice can play a significant part in righting such wrongs, and I would of course be delighted to meet him to discuss this further.

Domestic Abuse: Prosecutions

8. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to help increase the number of successful prosecutions for domestic abuse. [R] (905504)

This Government are committed to bringing more perpetrators of domestic abuse to justice. It is a key plank of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, which creates new offences such as non-fatal strangulation, and extends the coercive or controlling behaviour offence to include former partners.

The excellent work the Government have done on domestic abuse risks being seriously undermined by recent reports of Met police conduct published by the Independent Office for Police Conduct. One officer who had attended a domestic abuse incident said of his victim that she was mad and deserved a slap. As Members of this House will know, that was the tip of the iceberg of the remarks uncovered. Police conduct is of course the subject matter of the Angiolini inquiry, but before that concludes, what work is my right hon. Friend doing with the Home Secretary to ensure that domestic abuse victims retain confidence in the criminal justice system?

I thank my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right. The remarks she cited are utterly abhorrent I would imagine to everyone on all sides of the House. The public rightly expect the behaviour of the police to be beyond reproach, which is why we have tasked the Angiolini inquiry, as she said. In addition to that work, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Crime and Policing set out last week, inspections are ongoing in forces across England and Wales to judge their vetting and counter-corruption capabilities. More broadly, we are of course taking forward the victims Bill consultation and we have increased funding for support services. They have actually increased to £185 million by 2024-25, which will help fund an increase—by about a half, up to 1,000—in the number of independent domestic abuse advisers. So we will keep showing zero tolerance of domestic abuse while those wider inquiries are ongoing.

Domestic abuse victims face the trauma of first, gaining the courage to report it, fearing for themselves and their children’s safety, wondering whether they did the right thing and whether their truth will be believed, then they face this broken justice system: being cross-examined, questioned and treated like a criminal. With prosecutions collapsing and criminals being let off the hook, the Government cannot keep letting victims and survivors of domestic abuse down, so will the Secretary of State commit to putting in place a proper package of training, specialist support and trauma counselling for all victims of domestic abuse and their children?

I totally agree with the hon. Lady’s sentiment and frustration. We need to do more. We have got the local criminal justice scorecards, which will deal with not just wider crime, but rape. Those are coming up in the first quarter of this year. The victims strategy and the victims consultation will put victims at the centre of the justice system. That is important: I think it is a moral duty, but it will also make us more effective in delivering prosecutions. We also have a wider domestic abuse strategy, which will be outlined later in the year. As the hon. Lady knows, we have introduced in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill an extension of the time limit for reporting domestic abuse and common assault and battery to give victims of domestic abuse longer to come forward with their claims and to prevent the perpetrators from finding themselves timed out.

Sexual Offences: Timeliness of Cases

9. What recent assessment he has made of the timeliness of cases involving allegations of sexual offences. (905505)

In June, we published the end-to-end rape review report and action plan, which examined forensically each stage of the criminal justice system response to rape. As part of that, we are publishing timeliness data for each part of the criminal justice system in our new national and soon-to-be-released local scorecards, allowing us to increase transparency and hold agencies to account for delivering across the system.

According to the latest figures from last September, 23% of the cases waiting in the Crown court backlog have been outstanding for more than a year. That is up from 15% in the previous September. The National Audit Office says that rape and serious sexual offence cases have been disproportionately affected by those delays. Does the Minister therefore agree that victims of such crimes should not be expected to wait for years and years and years to get justice and that the increasing delays are a shameful indication that the Government have lost their grip on tackling serious crime?

If I may correct the hon. Lady, the Crown court backlog is beginning to come down. We all welcome that, following an investment of £250 million by the Government to ensure that that happens. On the data, I hope that she has had the opportunity to look at the national scorecards. She will see how detailed they are. Recent timeliness data shows that timeliness for adult rape cases has improved slightly from the second quarter of last year. I do not take that as job done by any means. This will be a very long journey, involving every aspect of the criminal justice system, to give victims the confidence to report and then remain with a case. I hope that she will see that our work through the rape review looks at not just timeliness, but all the other levers we have at our disposal to try to improve the situation.

The delays across our courts system cause lasting damage to the lives of victims, defendants, witnesses and their families. I was therefore very surprised to hear that yet another Nightingale court—Monument this time—is closing in a couple of months, when the delays in criminal cases, including sexual offences cases, recently reached a record high. Will the Minister explain why that is happening, confirm the Department’s plans for the remaining or any new Nightingale courts and let us know just how much longer that vital resource will be available?

In an effort to help the hon. Gentleman, I point out that we have extended 32 Nightingale Crown courtrooms until April and we have opened two new super-courtrooms in Manchester and Loughborough. In the Crown court, the outstanding case load reduced from around 61,000 cases last June to around 58,700 cases at the end of November. As I say, we do not in any way say that this is job done. We will continue to invest in this, but the figures are beginning to go in the right direction after the pandemic.

Family Courts: Delays

We are determined to reduce delays and bring down waiting times in the courts to reduce the impact the pandemic has had on children and their families. We invested £0.25 billion to support recovery in our courts in the last financial year, and that included £76 million to increase capacity to hear cases in the family and civil courts, as well as in tribunals. Last year’s spending review provided £324 million over the next three years to further improve waiting times in the civil and family courts and tribunals.

In east London the position is getting worse. The delays in the east London family court are the worst in London. Several months ago we were told that parts of east London would be transferred to other courts to ease the problems, but nothing seems to have happened so far and families are now having to wait a minimum of seven months for a hearing. When will we finally see some progress on this? Do we not need additional court capacity?

I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says. I can confirm that the Government and senior judiciary are working closely together to increase the sitting capacity across the east London cluster. In recognition of the pressure on family work across the east London estate, a Nightingale court was created at Petty France, with four additional courts, and additional courts are being utilised at Stratford magistrates and the Royal Court of Justice. But I recognise that this is an important issue for his constituents and I would be more than happy to meet him to talk about what more we can do.

Criminal Courts: Backlog of Cases

11. What steps his Department is taking to reduce the backlog of cases before the criminal courts. (905507)

We are already seeing the results of our efforts to tackle the impact the pandemic has had on our justice system. In the magistrates courts, the caseload is close to recovering to pre-pandemic levels and, as we have just heard, in the Crown court the outstanding caseload has reduced from around 61,000 cases in June 2021 to around 58,700 cases at the end of November 2021. I can confirm that in the next financial year we expect to get through 20% more Crown court cases than we did in the year previous to covid.

Will my hon. Friend update the House on how his Department is working to ensure we maximise use of the current court estate, including courtrooms not used during the pandemic, and what view he takes on the continued role of Nightingale courts to address the backlog?

My hon. Friend speaks with great expertise as a former criminal solicitor. In terms of Nightingales, as I have said, we extended 32 Crown Nightingale courtrooms until the end of March and we are taking steps to extend individual Nightingale courtrooms on a case-by-case basis. He makes the crucial point about the existing estate in our courts, which is where the custody cell capacity is, and we need that to come back into use.

Two key decisions were made to help us to bring those rooms back into use. First, last summer we came out of lockdown at the earliest opportunity while others were suggesting we should remain in lockdown. Secondly, this Christmas we did not panic, we did not lockdown and we listened to the data. If we had gone with the recommendation from the Labour party in the Administration in Wales, we would have had 2-metre social distancing back in our Crown courtrooms. Fortunately, I spoke to the Counsel General in Wales, and they took measures to be more flexible and were able to keep the courts open, which is why the backlog is now falling.

The average time between a victim reporting a rape and the case coming to trial has just hit a record high of more than 1,000 days, thanks to the Government’s courts backlog. Many rape victims live in fear of being confronted by their attacker if they have to wait so long for the case to come to trial. Can he tell victims why the delay in getting justice is still far too long?

The volume of convictions for rape has actually just increased, but I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about timeliness. As the Minister of State, Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins) pointed out earlier, the backlog is now falling. It has fallen significantly in the Crown court, but of course we will continue to take steps to improve it. We have taken a whole range of positive steps to battle the backlog. Importantly, we have taken the Judicial Review and Courts Bill through the House: his party opposed it. We keep coming up with constructive measures to deal with the backlog, but the Opposition oppose them and fail to come up with any constructive suggestions of their own.

I am afraid that to many victims who are waiting nearly three years for their case to come to trial that response will sound very complacent. The Bar Council has told the Government that their proposal to give magistrates more sentencing powers could make the backlog even worse because it would lead to more defendants choosing to go to Crown court, where there is already a very significant backlog. Are the Government making a bad situation worse because they do not have a clue what they are doing or because they have gone soft on crime?

We are not going to take any lectures on being soft on crime from a party that voted against our measures to toughen sentences for serious sexual and violent offences. Labour Members voted against that in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, so we will not take any lectures. The key thing is this: we keep taking positive measures—we have mentioned the super-courts and the Nightingale courts—and they keep opposing them. They have not yet come up with a single constructive suggestion. We are putting the investment in place, with £477 million in the spending review. At some point the hon. Gentleman will have to come up with a constructive suggestion, not just carp from the Opposition Benches.

Drug Use in Prisons

Before I begin, may I associate myself with the spontaneous expression of fealty by the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins) towards Her Majesty? We do a lot in our Department at Her Majesty’s pleasure and I know that my hon. Friend’s remarks will have added to her good humour this morning. Before Christmas, we published a 10-year drug strategy that will reduce overall illegal drug use across the whole of the country, with a huge investment in treatment and recovery. Making sure that all prisons have a zero-tolerance approach towards drugs is critical to our success in that regard.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his response. Drugs are responsible for about half of all acquisitive crime, burglaries and robberies in the UK, so if we hope to give people who are leaving the prison estate a chance in the future, we have to drive down drug use within that estate. With that in mind, does he agree that the only way we are going to drive those figures down is through improved security measures and abstinence-based treatment?

My hon. Friend has put his finger on the button. Too often in dealing with drugs we imagine there is a silver bullet, whereas in fact we need a suite of tools to attack both demand and supply. He is right that increased security in prisons is critical, making sure we have a ring of steel to ensure it is very hard for drugs to penetrate the secure estate, but also that we invest in treatment and rehabilitation, not least as prisoners leave the secure estate. You will be pleased to know, Mr Speaker, that last year we secured funding, and ongoing, that will ensure everybody who does need a treatment place on exiting a prison will secure one. He is right that it is totally critical for our assault on acquisitive crime that we get that approach correct. I would just point him towards a new development in this area, which is the roll-out of what is called depot buprenorphine. That is, effectively, a new inoculation against heroin and opium addiction, which we think holds out enormous promise.

Just look at the state of our prisons: drugs up 500% in the last 10 years; violence up by more than 100% between 2010 and 2020; and almost 12,000 frontline prison officers leaving the service since 2016. With prisons in crisis, it is no wonder that reoffending rates are, staggeringly, over 40%. The Government are failing to keep the public safe. When are they finally going to get to grips with this?

The hon. Lady, as usual, gives a partial picture. She will know that reoffending rates now are lower than they ever were under the Labour party and we continue to make inroads into that number, pushing hard—critically, between the two Departments, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice—to get the number down. She will know, of course, that since the last quarter of 2018, assaults in prisons are on a downward trend. Look, we are not pretending that the picture of the prison estate is entirely rosy—there is still lots more to do—but the Government have recently announced enormous investments, not least in drug rehabilitation and treatment both within and outside the secure estate, and we believe that will make a huge difference.

Reform of Family Law

We are committed to reforming family law to reduce conflict, protect children and protect victims of domestic abuse. The Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 will commence on 6 April. This is the biggest change to divorce law in 50 years and introduces no-fault divorce to reduce conflict. Courts in Dorset and north Wales will pilot new integrated domestic abuse courts from 21 February, introducing a less adversarial way of hearing private family law cases, and we are supporting the private Member’s Bill from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) to raise the age of marriage to 18 in England and Wales.

The current system for child maintenance, administered by the Child Maintenance Service, clearly financially incentivises resident parents to withhold contact with children from non-resident parents. Does the Minister think that this is a fairer system for children and parents alike?

My hon. Friend asks an important question. I can confirm that Baroness Stedman-Scott is the Minister with responsibility for the Child Maintenance Service at the Department for Work and Pensions, and I would be more than happy to put him in touch with her on that specific point. Child maintenance calculations can be adjusted to reflect a situation where care of the child is shared between both parents. That reduction is intended to broadly reflect the cost associated with any care that is given. The calculation is not intended to take into account every aspect of a person’s circumstances. Bespoke rules that aim to reflect each family’s individual and changing situation will result in complexity and delay money getting to children.

Safety in Prisons

Prison staff carry out a vital role in protecting the public, and we must do all we can to protect them and the prisoners in their care. That is why in the prisons strategy White Paper we have committed to a zero-tolerance approach to crime and drugs, which fuel violence behind bars. We have introduced the key worker role into the Prison Service to support individual prisoners and to try to deal with problems before they escalate, and we are providing PAVA spray and body-worn video cameras to prison officers to help them to protect themselves.

I thank the Minister for that response, but since I presented my Bill to reduce violence in prisons—the Prisons (Violence) Bill—last month, numerous prison officers have contacted me to share their experiences of being attacked at work. I noticed that the Minister was nodding during the presentation of the Bill. Will she listen to her prison staff and back the provisions in my Bill to reduce violence, including the obvious step of counting all kinds of violence, not just the most serious cases, against prisoners or staff as key performance indicators or management targets for every prison?

The hon. Gentleman talks about an issue on which there is agreement across the House. I do not think that anyone in the House wants to see our brave prison officers hurt or put at risk in their place of work. That is completely unacceptable, which is why I was nodding along through his comments on his Bill. I recognise many of the points that he rightly made in presenting his ten-minute rule motion. We note, however, that Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and private prison providers are already subject to statutory duties to protect staff and prisoners from violence. We have committed to further work to improve the safety of everybody behind prison walls through our prisons strategy White Paper, including—I am delighted to say—by March this year, the completion of our £100 million security investment programme to root out the drugs, phones and other illicit items that can play such a terrible role in the safety of our prisons.

Topical Questions

Over the last month, I have met offenders participating in the community payback scheme in Birmingham, prisoners at HMP Hatfield who are being supported back into work in partnership with the charity Tempus Novo, and frontline staff at HMP Frankland working to tackle extremism and terrorism, including through their separation centre.

On behalf of the prison officers I represent in Plymouth, I ask the Secretary of State: now that he has dropped his plans to close Dartmoor prison, what plans does he have to invest in facilities at the dilapidated prison to ensure that it can be a safe and humane environment again?

I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman about that particular prison in his constituency. He will know that we are investing almost £4 billion over the next three years to deliver 20,000 additional modern prison places by the mid-2020s. I have been to look at some of the advantages that they can have, including at Glen Parva prison, which has started the operational build. It is not just about the numbers; it is also about such things as the in-cell technology and workshops that can be a pathway to get offenders to go clean and get into work, in order to cut reoffending and protect the public.

T2. Wrexham houses the newest and largest prison in the UK, HMP Berwyn, with a criminal justice network to support it. Wrexham is therefore the perfect place to locate a justice satellite hub, and I welcome the relocation of hundreds of jobs to Wales under the levelling-up White Paper. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is proof that the Government have a commitment to the seats that Labour left behind? (905523)

My hon. Friend is an absolute champion of her constituency and she is right to want it to get its place in the levelling-up agenda. As she said, the Ministry of Justice is already a major employer in Wrexham through HMP Berwyn, which employs around 750 staff directly and over 250 more through partner organisations. We also have two courts in Wrexham employing around 100 staff. The key point, as detailed in the levelling-up White Paper, is that our Department is committed to moving more than 2,000 roles from London to the regions by 2030, of which 500 roles will be moved to Wales as a demonstration of our full support for strengthening the Union. This will include a number of locations, particularly Wrexham.

T3. Women leaving custody without a safe and secure home risk harm to themselves and to the public, but many of those women are not captured in official homelessness statistics. Will Ministers commit to rolling out the temporary accommodation service to all probation areas this year, and to extending support for vulnerable women to get into permanent housing beyond 12 weeks? (905524)

I thank the hon. Lady for her point about the important role that accommodation plays in resettling women. I know that she will take comfort from the fact that nearly 23% fewer women are in custody than in 2010, but of course work continues and we need to ensure that women as well as male prisoners are set up for their life on release. Although the prisons strategy White Paper focuses on the male estate, because that is where the majority of offenders reside, it applies equally to the female estate. I hope that the hon. Lady will take some time to look at resettlement passports, for example, to see what we believe can really make a difference to the life chances of those who are given that second chance.

T5. Reforming our broken asylum system and tackling illegal immigration is in part dependent on reforming the Human Rights Act. The British people expect action on the issue, so how quickly can we expect firm proposals to reform the HRA, following the end of the consultation next month? (905526)

I thank my hon. Friend for his support. He is right that across a whole suite of issues, including illegal migration, the proposals for a Bill of Rights with common-sense, sensible reforms will help us to address the problems. Once the consultation results come back, we will want to listen very carefully and proceed to legislation in the next Session.

T8.   When my constituent Neil was 27, they discovered that they were the product of rape. Although they had been adopted as a baby by a loving and supportive family, this left them feeling hollow, cut adrift, scared and alone. Thanks to Share Psychotherapy, a fantastic charity based in Sheffield, Neil got the support that they needed, but so many like them do not have such services available. Will the Secretary of State commit to recognising in law those conceived from rape as victims? (905529)

May I thank the hon. Lady and express my solidarity in the awful and harrowing case that she refers to? If she writes to me, I will be happy to look at her specific proposal.

The overall level of funding for victims this year is three times the level in 2010. Through the victims Bill consultation, we are ensuring that victims are at the very heart of the criminal justice system. Our local as well as national justice scorecards will help to monitor where there is best practice within the justice system and where we are falling short, right across the country.

T6. The Judicial Review and Courts Bill—I served on the Public Bill Committee—will allow a few low-level crimes to be dealt with automatically online. Will the Minister consider extending that provision to help clear the courts backlog? (905527)

My hon. Friend, who put in a great shift on the Committee, makes an excellent point. The Judicial Review and Courts Bill will introduce a new procedure for certain low-level offences such as travelling on a train without a ticket, enabling defendants who wish to plead guilty to make a plea and accept a conviction and standard penalty entirely online, without the involvement of the court. Given that it is a new type of procedure for dealing with certain minor offences, we are proceeding with caution and limiting its scope initially to three offences. However, new offences could be added in future. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that through precisely such steps and through the single justice procedure, we will reduce in-person pressure on magistrates so that we can move more business from the Crown court to magistrates and bear down on the backlog.

There are three prisons in my constituency, Belmarsh, Thameside and Isis, which a lot of my constituents work in. Prison officers and other justice staff go into work to protect us, but the Government are failing to protect them at work. One cause of increasing violence in prison is understaffing. Can the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to tackle the recruitment and retention crisis?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that our officers and staff are a critical part of protecting the public through our prisons. Without those staff and officers, our prisons simply do not function. The Deputy Prime Minister and I are looking intensively at not only the pay but the other conditions under which officers and staff are working. The hon. Lady will appreciate that we are about to enter into the pay round review, which is done by the independent body. We take that very seriously. As I have said, I also want to look at the conditions for staff and officers working in prisons, because they are the hidden emergency service that keeps us safe day in, day out.

What plans are there to take heed of the National Audit Office’s recent comments on the delivery of the female offender strategy? Can I highlight community solutions such as the North Wales Women’s Centre in my constituency, which provides support to help tackle the root causes of crime, such as domestic abuse and poverty?

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the vulnerabilities of some female offenders. We are very much committed to delivering the female offender strategy by reducing the number of women in custody and seeing a greater proportion of women managed in the community. We are investing £9.5 million in women’s community sector organisations, and the North Wales Women’s Centre received nearly £50,000 of that investment last year. I commend him and the women’s centre for doing such important work in his constituency.

The Justice Secretary will have heard the exchange with the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers). He should be aware that there is a cohort of IRA murderers who have evaded justice, successfully fought extradition and now abide in other countries. Would he consider any Government proposals to deal with the legacy of our past to be morally repugnant if those individuals were allowed to come home and retire with a level of dignity that they never offered to their victims?

I do understand the level of pain, suffering and anxiety that the hon. Gentleman has expressed. I can understand it from communities on all sides of the troubles and the conflict, which is why the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has come forward with a set of proposals that offer a balanced approach and that we hope will allow those communities on both sides to move forward.

In Darlington, organisations such as Family Help provide specialist domestic abuse support for women and children fleeing abuse. Our landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021 sets out a framework for the delivery of support locally. Will my hon. Friend outline the progress being made towards establishing domestic abuse local partnership boards and the role that local organisations will play?

I thank my hon. Friend for the tireless work that he put into the Committee that scrutinised the Domestic Abuse Bill. I am delighted to confirm that all tier 1 local authorities have set up domestic abuse local partnership boards, in line with the Act, to provide them with advice on the provision of the specialist services that are such an important part of that landmark Act. I genuinely encourage all Members across the House to engage with those boards to see what they are doing for their local communities and how they are helping their constituents.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s defence of free speech earlier today, but the truth is that free speech is under attack in our courts. Tom Burgis is appearing in court today against oligarchs who are seeking to silence him. When will the Secretary of State bring forward a defence against strategic lawsuits against public participation—SLAPPs? If we want to live in truth, we need SLAPP-back laws now.

The right hon. Gentleman is not the only one who has raised this with me; my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) has also been campaigning on it. I am very happy to look at the specific issue. The House has periodically looked at questions of libel law and we will keep those issues under constant review. As I have said in relation to a Bill of Rights, this is an opportunity to reinvent the priority attached to freedom of speech.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the focus on getting prisoners into stable employment when they leave prison has been critical in achieving the current reoffending rates, which are lower than they were under Labour? Can he also outline to the House what further measures he can take in this area?

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. I was at HMP Hatfield just last week, looking at the excellent work that the governor is doing with a local charity, Tempus Novo. One of the issues is the weighting attached to this key performance indicator, which is far too low. It is currently below 1%, which is extraordinary to me, and it will be ramped up as part of the review in the prisons White Paper. It will be much more central to the work that all prisons do and we are making it a presumption that offenders can be given a pathway into employment when it is suitable and secure to do so.

Although the justice system clearly has a role to play in prosecuting offences against women and girls, it is equally important that young men and boys grow up in an environment where they understand that misogyny, in all forms, is unacceptable. With that in mind, will the Minister join me in commending the fans of Raith Rovers football club, who last week forced the club to reverse its decision to give a playing contract to someone who, in two separate court hearings, had been found guilty of rape and who refused to show any remorse for his crimes? Does the Minister agree that, given the important role models that professional footballers are for young men and boys, there must be serious doubts as to whether that is a job that can ever be performed by an unrepentant and unreconstructed rapist?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that is absolutely abhorrent and of course I think that the club in question took the right decision. As the father of two young boys, I take very seriously, as we in Government should take seriously, and we in this House should take seriously, how we raise our children, and the level of education and awareness of these issues. We are taking a whole suite of measures, from the local justice scorecards to the victims’ Bill, the violence against women and girls strategy and the rape action review. But it is incumbent on businesses, including football clubs, which are so high profile, to make the right calls, as the football club has done in this case.

Will the Minister commit to supporting victims of sexual abuse in the victims’ Bill in ways such as by rolling out section 28?

I absolutely endorse what my hon. Friend said. She will have seen that section 28, which deals with pre-recorded evidence from victims of rape, is set out in there. We will be articulating more clearly a plan to move from the limited trials we have at the moment to a national roll-out, which will be done in the first half of this year.

Two excellent support providers in Loughborough, the Exaireo Trust and the Carpenter’s Arms, look after people who have been repeat offenders and/or suffered from addiction for many years. As one resident put it, they were

“lost, broken and with no hope”.

These two organisations completely transform the lives of those residents in their service. What is my right hon. Friend doing to work with local providers and support these organisations financially to help people into work?

I congratulate my hon. Friend and those organisations on their fantastic work. She is right that, if we are going to get ahead particularly of acquisitive crime, we have to look at the root causes of people’s offending and so often that is drug addiction. As part of our 10-year drugs strategy, we are committed to binding together coalitions of organisations, including the kind of organisations she described, to make an assault on this kind of crime and addiction in every area of the United Kingdom.

Later this month, the best new prison will be opened in Wellingborough, on the site of the old prison. It is a strange time that we live in, because the same Department that is opening that prison wanted to close it years ago. A young councillor in my constituency, who represented the Croyland ward, put a community group together to save it. I wonder whether the Under-Secretary has any knowledge of that.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is always innovative in his questions. I well remember that campaign. It is funny how these things come around. I am delighted that the Ministry of Justice has changed its mind and that this new super-prison is going to open, which is going to employ his constituents and mine. It is fair to say that he listened, campaigned and delivered.

As my right hon. Friend knows, I take every opportunity to champion the work of the Private Law Working Group and the Family Solutions Group. In 2020, their reports clearly set out the need for change in family law and why it is really important that we do that for families. What steps is he taking to increase the resolution of family disputes inside and outside courts?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I recently met the president of a family division. About 60% of the cases that go there, certainly on the civil side, are safeguarding or domestic abuse cases. They ought to go there, but for the rest we need to be looking at the incentives and disincentives, the use of mediation and the whole structure of the system to prevent these harrowing cases—they are particularly harrowing for children. In any event, many cases do not need to go through the courts and I am working with the judiciary to try to achieve that reform.