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Topical Questions

Volume 708: debated on Tuesday 8 February 2022

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.