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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 711: debated on Tuesday 22 March 2022


The Secretary of State was asked—

Ukraine: Potential War Crimes by Russia

1. What steps his Department is taking to support an investigation into potential war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine. (906194)

7. What steps his Department is taking to support an investigation into potential war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine. (906200)

8. What steps his Department is taking to support an investigation into potential war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine. (906202)

11. What steps his Department is taking to support an investigation into potential war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine. (906205)

14. What steps his Department is taking to support an investigation into potential war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine. (906208)

With your forbearance, Mr Speaker, may I join the expression that you gave on the fifth anniversary of the murder of PC Palmer? I send my sympathies to the family and our total solidarity in this House with those who risk their lives on the frontline.

Vladimir Putin’s regime is responsible for an illegal invasion. There is strong evidence of war crimes and we believe that those responsible must be held to account.

I associate myself with my right hon. Friend’s remarks regarding PC Palmer. What steps has he taken to ensure that the mechanisms are in place so that the evidence of war crimes can be confidently collected by the International Criminal Court?

We are doing two things in particular. First, I have convened a cross-Whitehall group, which we have done in the past, to ensure that we can provide whatever support may be needed for everything from witness protection services to the gathering of evidence and information co-operation. Secondly, I have been to The Hague and I will be going back this week. I am working with a coalition of countries that also have unique expertise in that area to provide the support that the Court needs.

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that our recently passed Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act 2022 will ensure that this Conservative Government will take every step to deprive those found guilty of war crimes in Ukraine of their illegally gotten gains?

My hon. Friend will know that, because of the Sergei Magnitsky regime for asset freezes and visa bans for anyone who has committed serious human rights abuses, we already have that capacity in place. That is on top of the further co-operation that we will provide with the ICC and, I should mention, that the Attorney General will provide with the prosecutor general of Ukraine.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, while the shelling of civilians is itself a war crime, any use of chemical or biological weapons, as predicted by President Biden today, would be a breach of the Geneva protocol and the chemical weapons convention and would most certainly be a war crime?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am always careful to allow the ICC, of which both the prosecutor and the chambers of the Court are independent, to make those determinations, but the points of principle that he has set out are absolutely right. There must be no impunity for those in Moscow or the commanders on the ground who commit those atrocities.

Can my right hon. Friend outline to the House what steps the Government have taken to build the broadest caucus of support for prosecuting President Putin and his regime over their actions in Ukraine? Will he join me in applauding the role of the British ICC judge and British prosecutor in their work on the issue?

My hon. Friend is right. We secured the election of Karim Khan and Jo Korner. They operate independently on the Court but it is a sign of how well regarded this country’s legal profession is that we have two such senior figures there, as well as the registrar. Again, they operate independently, but we are working with the Ukrainian authorities, led by the Attorney General. I am also going back to The Hague to ensure that we understand the specific needs of the ICC, not just to provide support ourselves but to ensure that we bring together a coalition of countries with that unique expertise so that justice can be done.

There will not be many people watching the TV each night who think that what Putin is doing to Ukraine does not constitute war crimes. I appreciate what my right hon. Friend says about the evidence and that these things can take a while. Without going into details, therefore, can he assure the House that we have learned the lessons of previous attempts to pursue war crimes cases, so that we might bring Putin and co to justice faster?

My hon. Friend is right, although, of course, we have a war going on and we need to be realistic that that will take time and strategic patience. We had Radovan Karadžić, the butcher of the Balkans, delivered to a British jail cell last year under a sentence enforcement agreement that I happened to negotiate with the UN in 2004. These things will take time; that is the realpolitik that we are dealing with. We are ensuring, however, first, that things such as the preservation of evidence are a priority now in conduct on the ground, and secondly, that the message goes out that we and our partners in support of the ICC are being clear that, if someone commits those kinds of crimes, sooner or later they will end up in the dock of the Court and behind bars.

As the Secretary of State is a very senior member of the Government, would he ensure that this House is updated regularly on what is going on? So much has happened, even over the last weekend, in this dreadful conflict, so would he send a message that this House should be updated regularly? I started by thinking that this must be settled peacefully, but are we really going to allow injustice to rule in this country and to let Russia get away with it?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I thank him for what he has said. I would be happy to update the House through oral questions or other means, and I am very happy to meet him. It is absolutely right that there will not be a peaceful settlement to this. I think we can all agree that trusting Vladimir Putin to keep his word is going to be a very tall order for anyone in the community, let alone President Zelensky, and there cannot just be a brushing under the carpet of atrocities committed now or in the future.

The Secretary of State will be aware that Russian criminality in Ukraine did not start this year; it started in 2014. Since then, there have been crimes against the people of Ukraine, including, we have to say, gross abuses of the human rights of ethnic Russians in Ukraine. Will he use his influence to ensure that any war crimes investigation is extended to the beginning of the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who makes a really important point. Of course, I must at this point say that it will be for the ICC, which operates independently, to determine the temporal scope of its jurisdiction.

The Justice Secretary made a very important point earlier when he said that this is about not just those in Moscow, but the commanders on the ground, although in fact it is even about individual soldiers. What can we do as a nation to help the ICC get the message across that those in the field could find themselves before the Court?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I think he is right. Of course, one of the things Putin has done is to clamp down on all independent sources of media, but that is of course something that we are looking at trying to support so that Russians get the facts on the ground. He is also right to say that the conscripts, as well as the commanders, are at risk here. Many of those young Russian conscripts, who were told they were going in as peacekeepers, will have points at which they are not sure whether to follow essentially illegal orders either for their own welfare or for the good of Ukraine itself.

Especially perverse have been the Russian attacks on hospitals, schools and churches—on babies, children and elderly people—in Ukraine. What steps have been taken to co-ordinate with the UN to ensure that these travesties will not go unanswered in The Hague and that evidence is collected, collated and unquestionable?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who I know has long had an interest in this area of accountability, and he is absolutely right. Of course, one of the critical issues right now is the preservation of evidence—not just that crimes were committed, but on whose orders they may have been committed. Those are all things we are looking at, and I think it is important that we work with all our allies on this. We have some unique expertise in law enforcement, with mechanisms in relation to information co-operation, witness protection, sentence enforcement and forensic evidence, but other states also have unique capabilities in those areas. What is crucial is that the early evidence—not just of crimes, but of the responsibility up the chain of command—is preserved where possible.

Bill of Rights and Human Rights Act 1998

22. What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the independent Human Rights Act review published in December 2021. (906216)

The Government were elected on a manifesto commitment to replace the Human Rights Act 1998, and we have launched a consultation on a UK-wide Bill of Rights. We intend to bring forward legislation in the next Session.

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree with me that to ensure that the Nationality and Borders Bill we are debating later today is fully workable, especially in supporting those who desperately need our help, such as those coming from Ukraine, a British Bill of Rights is essential to close the loopholes that allow those who seek to abuse the system—and, in doing so, take away resources from our authorities helping those in need—in relying on existing human rights legislation?

I thank my hon. Friend, and he is absolutely right that the Nationality and Borders Bill is crucial for dealing with those issues—not just as a matter of the protection of our borders, but in stemming this appalling trade in misery. The Bill of Rights would make sure that we have the right balance of protecting our freedoms by ensuring that the Executive can be held to account, but also making sure, when Parliament makes difficult balanced judgments on qualified rights, that there is greater respect for that in the public interest.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the current human rights laws are not fit for purpose and are stopping us deporting foreign criminals including rapists and murderers, much to the delight of the leftie lawyers. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should fast-track the new Bill of Rights so we can get rid of these foreign rapists and criminals as quickly as possible and send them back to where they come from?

My hon. Friend is bang on; he speaks in a very straightforward way, but I think that is what the public expect. We are not talking about undermining the fundamental freedoms—in fact, we are going to strengthen them, including free speech. We are making sure that those who do us harm or have been convicted of serious offences can be returned home without elastic interpretations of rights scuppering the process.

Contrary to the comments of the last questioner, the Law Society has said that the Government’s Human Rights Act proposals

“do not recognise the significant benefits that have been achieved…through the HRA”,

while the General Council of the Bar says that the HRA

“has worked and continues to work well.”

Given that those who work in our justice system reject the need for changes and only despots and tyrants like Putin object to human rights other than their own, why does the Justice Secretary not scrap these proposals and stop wasting taxpayers’ time and money?

We are of course familiar with the views of the Law Society and others but respectfully disagree, and in the end it is not solely our job to listen to legal practitioners, important as they are, or indeed to serve their interests, but also to stand up for victims and the public and make sure we have a common-sense approach to justice. [Interruption.] I respectfully disagree with the hon. Lady; she might want to put herself on the side of the criminals, but we will put ourselves on the side of the victims.

The Scottish Government have committed to introducing a new Human Rights Bill for Scotland by 2025 incorporating four major United Nations rights treaties—an international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights; conventions on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women; the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination; and the rights of persons with disabilities—along with other progressive human rights. Has the Secretary of State reviewed these plans with a view to incorporating them into any future Bill of Rights?

Although I disagree with the hon. Gentleman, I pay respect to the way he has introduced this question. There is a school of thought—I have been up to Edinburgh and discussed this with the Scottish Government—that we should expand a wider range of policy issues, social and economic, and environmental goals, and turn them into judicially enforceable rights. Many of those areas involve collective issues that require finely balanced judgment calls and often require public finances to be allocated in a very sensitive way, and I think they should be decided by hon. Members in all parts of this House, accountable to the British people, not lawyers in a courtroom.

It is agreed by legal experts in areas ranging from local government to the House of Lords that the HRA is a delicate and well-tuned piece of legislation, and the organisation Lawyers in Local Government said in its response to the independent HRA review that the Government’s proposals not only risk reducing the accountability of public authorities and undermining the rules but will concretely cause further delay in reaching decisions on social housing, which is worse for all our constituents and for councils. This is not about ideology but about real-world outcomes. The HRA is working well, so will the Government accept that plans to scrap it are counterproductive?

I am afraid that I will not, and I respectfully disagree. I will side with the local authorities of whatever political colour or composition who are trying to serve their constituents. They of course need to be held to the rule of law and be accountable, but I am not on the side of the lawyers suing local authorities.

In their consultation response the Scottish Government highlighted that in the initial UK Government approach to Windrush:

“No amount of evidence or reasoned argument proved able to persuade the Home Office of the catastrophic errors which had occurred.”

The HRA was instrumental in securing justice for the Windrush victims, and the UK Government later said they would learn lessons from those failings. Should they not start by ditching plans to overhaul the legislation that was instrumental in securing justice for the Windrush victims?

It is really important that the hon. Lady raises the question of the Windrush scandal. Hon. Members across the House would agree that that should never have happened, but of course it happened throughout the entirety of the entry into force of the Human Rights Act and there was nothing about the Act that led to the situation being addressed in this House—that was down to hon. Members who became aware of what had happened because of members of our communities who had been affected. Frankly, the Human Rights Act did not stop Windrush and had absolutely no role in remedying it.

I call Angela Crawley for her second question. No, she does not want it, so let’s try somebody else. I call Gavin Newlands.

Sanctions: Assets Seizure

4. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on seizing the assets of sanctioned Russian oligarchs. (906197)

12. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on seizing the assets of sanctioned Russian oligarchs. (906206)

19. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on seizing the assets of sanctioned Russian oligarchs. (906213)

I am pleased to report that the Ministry of Justice is working closely with colleagues across Government to look at how we can go further to crack down on illicit money in British property, including considering temporary asset seizures beyond the freezing regime that we already have in place. I am not yet in a position to present the details of this to the House. It is a complex issue involving important policy and legal considerations. What I can say is that unlike the Putin regime, the Government will always preserve the rule of law and act against kleptocratic wealth.

When concerns about Russian interference in UK politics were raised by the Intelligence and Security Committee a couple of years ago, the Prime Minister laughed them off, saying that they were driven by “Islington remainers” unable to accept Brexit. What confidence should we have that the Government are taking the threat seriously, particularly given the slow approach to sanctioning oligarchs that saw Putin’s cronies handed two weeks to rush their wealth out of the UK before the rules came into force?

Everybody can be incredibly confident that the UK has acted swiftly to execute the biggest package of sanctions ever imposed against a G20 nation. Let us be clear that the UK has designated more than 1,000 individuals, entities and subsidiaries under the Russia sanctions regime since the invasion, including President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov. More than 3 million Russian companies are barred from raising money on UK capital markets. We will also target more than 500 members of the Duma and Federation Council. That makes up the largest and most severe package of economic sanctions Russia has ever seen.

Given the rushed nature of legislation as the Government play catch up with EU states, for example, there have been reports that further measures will be required to close remaining loopholes exploited by oligarchs. What discussions have taken place around that, and will the Minister confirm that further legislation should be expected in this coming year?

The hon. Gentleman is right that we need to legislate effectively and that is why we will take time to get the detail right on property while prioritising further action as far as we can. To be clear, in the past week the Government have passed the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act 2022, established a register of beneficial ownership, and sanctioned more than 1,000 individuals and entities. The Deputy Prime Minister explained in answer to the first set of questions the action he is taking at the International Criminal Court to ensure that it can fully investigate Russian war crimes, but I accept that more might need to be done.

The international corruption unit and the international anti-corruption co-ordination centre have operated for some time now in the National Crime Agency. Why was it necessary to set up a third kleptocracy unit and how will this new body’s work differ from that of the existing bodies? Were they not already investigating the behaviour of oligarchs?

I do not think that anybody should doubt that we have the measures in place. Our sanctions regime is bold and we have taken swift, comprehensive measures. I also remind the hon. Lady that only last week the Deputy Prime Minister announced further measures on strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs. When we talk about powerful oligarchs in this country, that is important. Judge us by the actions. I am sure we all agree that these measures are swift and comprehensive and, most importantly, will have an impact on the Putin regime.

Does the Minister agree that the international sanctions causing such hardship to the Russian people are totally the responsibility of one man, and his name is Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin?

My hon. Friend puts it perfectly. Of course, the sanctions will have and are having an economic impact. We have no quarrel with the Russian people. The blame for that impact lies squarely at the door of the Kremlin, and I think the whole world knows that.

First, Mr Speaker, let me associate myself and my party with your comments earlier about PC Keith Palmer and others who died five years ago today.

The Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia report states that under this Government, some UK law firms became “de facto” Russian state agents and played a role in

“promoting the nefarious interests of the Russian state”,

including oligarch’s assets. Will the Minister tell the House what he has done to stop UK law firms such as Debevoise & Plimpton, Cleary Gottleib Steen & Hamilton and Steptoe & Johnson acting as enablers of Russian criminals and the Kremlin?

As I set out very recently in my written answer to the hon. Gentleman, the rule of law means that everyone has a right to access legal representation. Legal advice is often necessary to ensure that those who are subject to sanctions fully understand and comply with the restrictions, but as I said to him, lawyers are required to follow strict procedures when transacting with sanctioned individuals. Those individuals are required to obtain a licence from the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation to make payments for legal services, and lawyers should carefully consider whether their advice is helping the client to comply with the sanctions or is participating or facilitating a breach of those sanctions. To be clear, there are severe penalties for breaches, including fines and potential imprisonment.

Given what is happening in Ukraine, there is an urgency about going further than the Minister outlined. Will he consider imposing sanctions on law firms that continue to act for the Kremlin and Putin’s cronies, whose looted wealth is funding Russia’s murderous war machine?

It was only on 20 January that the Backbench Business Committee brought before this House a debate on SLAPPs lawfare. I responded to that debate, and at the end I said the Government would be responding. Less than two months later, the Deputy Prime Minister came before the House with detailed proposals. Of course, a key part of this is the behaviour of law firms. Any action we take—we have to be clear on this; we are the Ministry of Justice—must be subject to the rule of law and must take a balanced approach, recognising that while we want to take action, it is a fundamental right to be legally represented.

Violence Against Women and Girls

6. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to tackle violence against women and girls in (a) Newport West constituency and (b) Wales. (906199)

20. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to tackle violence against women and girls. (906214)

The Government set out in the summer their ambitious tackling violence against women and girls strategy to fundamentally change attitudes, support women and girls who are victims of crime and relentlessly pursue perpetrators. This focus includes plans to roll out to all Crown courts pre-recorded cross-examination for complainants of sexual and modern slavery offences, and giving victims of domestic abuse more time to report incidents of common assault. Last month, we launched the tender for the first ever national 24/7 helpline for victims of rape and sexual assault.

Last week, I met Cyfannol Women’s Aid Newport, whom I thank for all the work they do to keep women and girls in my community safe and supported. Labour has published a full Green Paper with serious and common-sense measures to end violence against women and girls. Will the Minister now commit to working with the Labour party to implement those important and long overdue proposals? After all, this is a matter of life and death.

I thank the hon. Lady for her kind invitation. I note that throughout the passage of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, I was delighted to work with colleagues across the House. I think we all recognise the vital importance of that legislation brought forward by the Government. I am particularly pleased that we are helping the police and crime commissioner in Gwent to support victims in the hon. Lady’s constituency and elsewhere in the police area. There is more than £6 million to help victims across Wales. We are absolutely determined to tackle violence against women and girls in a way that looks after victims, but also, importantly, changes some of the behaviours and attitudes that sadly lie behind so many of these crimes.

The backlog of court cases means that victims of rape are facing years fighting for justice. Rapists are walking free because victims are dropping court cases due to the trauma caused by delays. Will the Minister carry out an immediate review into setting up specialist rape courts, as recommended by the joint inspectorates, so that justice can be done and the public, including my constituents in Prestwich, Radcliffe and Whitefield, can be kept safe?

I do hope the hon. Gentleman in his, I imagine, copious free time now that he has crossed the Floor, is able to read the rape review, because had he done his homework he would have seen the forensic examination we have conducted of the investigation and prosecution of offences of rape. We have seen tentative first steps toward increases in convictions for rape, but we are clear that through the rape review and working with the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and victims, we will make progress. I very much hope he will support the Government in our measures to do so.

After women spoke out about feeling exposed to physical aggression and sexual harassment when travelling on our regional north-east public transport system, the Northumbria police and crime commissioner, Kim McGuinness, launched the free Safer Transport Northumbria app, which takes people through a series of simple steps that allows them to raise safety concerns and report crimes. Does the Minister agree that that is a brilliant initiative from our Northumbria PCC, and will she commit to providing more funding for our region to tackle violence against women and girls?

I welcome local initiatives such as the one that the hon. Member describes. I hope that she also welcomes the national efforts that we set out in the tackling violence against women and girls strategy, particularly on public transport, because we know that that can be a place of harassment and very unwelcome behaviour by perpetrators. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones), who led a campaign to outlaw cyber-flashing. I trust that when provisions to outlaw that crime on public transport and elsewhere are introduced in the Online Safety Bill, they will have the hon. Lady’s support.

I wish my hon. Friend a very happy birthday. In June, after three years’ work, the Law Commission will publish recommended changes to the criminal law to stop the publication of intimate sexual images online without consent, which is one of the worst forms of violence against women and girls. Will the Minister include those changes in the Online Safety Bill through Government amendments before it reaches the Lords, or will she look for others to do that on her behalf?

I thank my right hon. Friend; I can think of no better way in which to celebrate one’s birthday than by receiving questions from her.

We absolutely understand that the law must keep pace with society, which is why we are taking action to address some of these 21st-century crimes, such as cyber-flashing, and making efforts in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to tackle breastfeeding voyeurism and to extend the so-called revenge porn offence to include those who threaten to post or disclose such images. We have asked the Law Commission to advise us on that very complicated area of law. We await the results of that advice in the summer and we will look carefully at implementing or acknowledging any such changes that the commission may advise.

Ministry of Justice figures show that between 2015 and 2020, 17% of rapists sent to prison received sentences of less than five years. Does the Minister agree that that is incredibly lenient for one of the worst crimes? Will she back Labour’s call for minimum sentences of seven years for rape, or will the Government continue to be tough on victims and soft on crime?

I know that the hon. Lady and I share a determination to crack down on the perpetrators of vile crimes. It is with some regret, therefore, that I note that the Labour party declined the opportunity to support the Government on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, in which we require serious sexual and violent offenders to spend more time in prison when they receive sentences of between four and seven years. I also gently remind her that the average sentence for rapists is around 10 years, so rather than putting different proposals forward, it would be very nice if Labour Members supported the Government’s real-time work to ensure that rapists spend longer in prison.

That is precisely what Labour’s proposals would have achieved. The Government are not just letting victims down on sentences for rape; the Government have failed to act despite Labour’s call for a review into sentences for spiking offences and the introduction of minimum sentences for stalking. The Minister has an opportunity to show that the Government are serious about tackling violence against women and girls by backing Labour’s proposals. Will she do that today?

Forgive me, but the hon. Lady seems to have misunderstood how legislation happens in this place. Labour Members had the chance to vote for rapists to spend longer in prison through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill; they did not just abstain, but voted against that. I entreat the Labour party to consider acting and putting real pressure behind their warm words and to stand with the Government to ensure that rapists spend longer in prison. That is what the Government are doing, and we will achieve that through the good work of Conservative colleagues.

Prison Leavers: Employment

The Government will deliver a presumption in favour of offering offenders the chance to work in prison, on release on temporary licence, and on release.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that getting offenders into employment is vital to reducing reoffending? Will he therefore outline to the House what steps his Department is taking to refocus on the key performance indicators that it measures, to ensure that offender employment is a priority for this Government?

My hon. Friend, in his usual manner, has put his finger on the button of part of the solution to the reoffending cycle. We firmly believe that there are three pillars for success in rehabilitating offenders: the first is a home, the second is a job, and the third is a friend. We are committing to providing all three to those who leave the secure estate. With all other Departments, we will publish our outcome delivery plan in the new financial year. I can reassure my hon. Friend that our right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is setting extremely challenging and ambitious targets for the Department, particularly in regard to housing and employment.

Court Cases Backlog

We are taking action across all jurisdictions to bring backlogs down and improve waiting times for those who use our courts by expanding physical capacity, introducing new legislation and ramping up judicial recruitment. We are already seeing the results of our efforts. In the Crown courts, the outstanding case load has reduced from approximately 61,000 in June 2021 to approximately 59,000 at the end of January 2022; in the magistrates courts, the case load is close to recovering to pre-pandemic levels; and for most of our tribunals, the outstanding case load is either static or already beginning to reduce.

The Minister will be aware that a recent report by the Public Accounts Committee revealed that the number of rape and sexual assault cases waiting to be tried increased more than 400% in the first year of the pandemic. Delays in such cases were already over 18 months pre-pandemic. The toll that those delays take means that the victims of sexual assault are much more likely to withdraw their case. Will the Minister support greater investment, as the Committee and indeed the rape review recommend, in independent sexual violence advisers, whose support for victims halves the likelihood of their withdrawing from the process?

The hon. Member makes a very good point. We sympathise with those whose cases are backlogged. Our aim is to increase capacity across all our courts so that we can continue to bring the backlog down. On her specific point about funding, I am pleased to say that investment in the advisers will increase to £185 million by the end of the spending review.

I welcome the £477 million that the Government have committed to dealing with the backlog, but we know that it is an acutely regional issue. Will the Minister assure my constituents in the Black Country that as the Government roll out the £477 million, they will take a regional approach to its operational delivery? One way he could do so might be to visit the Black Country and see how he can ensure it gets the maximum delivery from that £477 million.

I would be absolutely delighted to come and visit. I should say, of course, that the biggest Crown court in the midlands is Birmingham’s, which was the first that I visited after getting this job. My hon. Friend is right that we have to look at the issue regionally. There are significant variations, but the most important thing we can do is have wider capacity across the country. Alongside the almost half a billion pounds of funding that my hon. Friend mentions, key measures include increasing magistrates’ sentencing powers so that we can free up almost 2,000 days in the Crown court, where the most serious cases can be heard.

Last week, the roof of Sheffield magistrates court fell in, delaying countless cases. A rape case was delayed when toilet water leaked into a courtroom at Maidstone Crown court in Kent. Survivors of rape already wait three years for their case to come to trial. How many cases have been delayed in total over the past five years because the Government have failed to fix crumbling courts?

I have given the hon. Gentleman a written answer detailing these points, but I am happy to write to him again. As I just said—it is crucial to stress this—not only is the backlog falling, but we want to go further. The key measures include legislation to increase magistrates’ sentencing powers; funding, with almost half a billion pounds in the spending review; and increased court capacity, with renewed Nightingale courts where appropriate. Increasingly, the biggest challenge is judicial capacity, but I am pleased to say that we are recruiting more full-time judges and allowing more part-time recorders to sit for more days. Importantly, having launched our £1 million recruitment campaign for our volunteer judiciary, the magistracy, we have had in excess of 20,000 expressions of interest.

Aylesbury Crown court was the first to fully reopen after covid, thanks to the determined leadership of His Honour Judge Francis Sheridan, who steps down as resident judge this month. Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to all the court staff in Aylesbury for their progress in clearing the backlog, and in thanking Judge Sheridan for his constant innovation to make his court more efficient and much more strongly focused on victims?

My hon. Friend, as a former magistrate with much additional knowledge of probation issues, speaks about these matters with huge expertise. I do pay tribute to the resident judge, and indeed to all members of the judiciary. They are, of course, independent from Government, and they have huge responsibilities. As I said during my first appearance at the Dispatch Box, we owe a huge debt to all our judiciary as well as all our clerks and all those who work in our courts for keeping justice going during the pandemic, and we can repay them by taking every possible measure to reduce the backlog.

Preventing Reoffending: Youth Custody Centres

The number of children entering the youth justice system has fallen by 81% in the last decade and the number of children on the secure estate has fallen by about three quarters. We are, however, developing a more specialised workforce focused on rehabilitation, because we accept that that is how to help these young people to move away from a life of crime. Every prison officer on the youth estate is now funded to take up a qualification in youth justice by next year. We have also created specialist youth justice worker officers, who are trained to work with children, and we already have 284 in post.

I hope that the Minister has been talking to her colleague the Housing Minister about his plans to regulate supported housing, which were announced last week and which we very much welcome. Will she now talk to him about the need to ensure that if 16 and 17-year-olds are released from custody and it is not appropriate for them to go back to their family home, they are not placed in unregulated housing?

Very much so. As I said in answer to previous questions, home is a vital part of rehabilitation and cutting reoffending. We know about some of the particular pressures that young people can face if, for example, they have been drawn into county lines gangs, and the geographical location of their home may be a pertinent element in their reoffending or their vulnerability to reoffending. I am happy to confirm that I will be speaking to the Housing Minister. I am also drawing together a cross-Whitehall group of Ministers to discuss how we can tackle youth offending at the earliest stages, not just when a child reaches the justice system.

Domestic Abuse Offences: Prosecution Rate

The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 will ensure that more perpetrators are brought to justice. The Act creates new offences such as non-fatal strangulation, and extends the coercive and controlling behaviour offence to include former partners. Through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, we are also giving victims more time to report domestic abuse-related assaults so that they can seek justice.

My constituency sits in the London Borough of Sutton, which, while having relatively low levels of violent crime, has higher domestic abuse rates than the London average. Surely poor police conduct only serves to undermine the efforts to increase prosecution rates. What work is my hon. Friend undertaking to encourage domestic abuse victims to come forward and to ensure that there is confidence in the criminal justice system and protection for victims and their children?

Trust is the fundamental bond between us, the public, and the police, prosecutors, the courts and the criminal justice system. Given recent events, it is right that Members ask difficult and scrutinising questions of those agencies, but it is also right that we support the Home Secretary’s review through the Angiolini inquiry into police attitudes and conduct, as well as the review carried out by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services. Let me also draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the success of the Domestic Abuse Matters training. There is real evidence of improvement in the rates of charging people with coercive and controlling behaviour offences in police forces in which that training has been undertaken. Some 32 police forces have undergone the training. and we expect the rest to follow so that victims of domestic abuse can be supported.

The lack of reporting, understanding and prosecution of domestic abuse at child contact centres is creating a potential risk at those venues. Happily, the Domestic Abuse Act committed the Government to producing a report on this. Is the Minister willing to meet the all-party parliamentary group on child contact centres and services to discuss the matter further?

I am happy to take up the hon. Gentleman’s kind invitation. As he knows, we are very concerned about evidence from the family harms panel review about how some perpetrators use the family courts to continue their abuse. I hope the hon. Gentleman will be comforted by the news that in February we launched an integrated domestic abuse courts pilot in courts in Dorset and north Wales, which is testing a more investigative and less adversarial approach to family court proceedings.

Equality Act 2010: Time Limits for Claims

23. If he will consider the potential merits of extending the time limits for claims under the Equality Act 2010 from three to six months. (906217)

The Government continue to look closely at extending time limits for these Equality Act cases. However, these decisions must take account of wider impacts across the justice system. The pandemic has put additional pressure on the entire Courts and Tribunals Service, and restoring existing service levels needs to be prioritised before additional loading is added.

I thank the Minister for his answer. The Government have committed to considering extending the time limits for Equality Act claims in employment tribunals. Currently, a three-month time limit means that pregnant women have to bring a case in the first months after birth, and sexual harassment victims have to do so while they are still incredibly traumatised. That is unconscionably restrictive, and because it forces people down the litigation route before mediation is finished, it is probably also very inefficient. Will the Department deliver an extension so that those who are subject to workplace harassment and discrimination can access justice?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. The tribunal already has the discretion to provide the extension that she is seeking, where it considers it to be just and equitable to do so. This is a Government Equalities Office lead, and as the Ministry of Justice we are happy to engage with the GEO and to look at this closely.

Topical Questions

Last week, I went to The Hague to offer British assistance to the International Criminal Court in bringing those responsible for war crimes in Ukraine to justice. Russian commanders carrying out war crimes should know that they cannot act with impunity and that, like Karadžić and Charles Taylor before them, their actions risk landing them in a jail cell. I also set out proposals to tackle strategic lawsuits against public participation—SLAPPs—to stop oligarchs using our libel laws to muzzle journalists and academics.

My constituency has strong links to Ukraine. Can my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents that this Government will do everything to support the investigation of war crimes potentially committed in Ukraine?

We are looking at a package of measures including financial assistance and also technical assistance, which is crucial to the preservation of evidence. The kinds of things I am analysing with colleagues across Whitehall include specialist IT capabilities and other expert areas such as police and military analysis—all the things that the ICC will need.

Can I bring the Minister on to a more domestic issue? Victims of domestic abuse and other serious crimes are more often than not denied justice due to the broken criminal justice system. Legal aid provides a lifeline to those who need it most, but the system is on its knees due to chronic underfunding. Sir Christopher Bellamy QC recommended a minimum fee increase not as an opening bid but as a necessary first step to nurse the legal aid system back to health. How will the Minister stop the continuing haemorrhage of criminal solicitors and barristers from the workforce in the meantime, so that further victims are not denied access to justice?

We have set out in detail our response to the Bellamy review, and indeed we matched the Bellamy recommendations on the quantum of investment and on the 15% uplift for fees. I think it was only last week that he backed those plans pretty much wholeheartedly, and I hope he still does.

Litigation or the threat of litigation should not be used to intimidate or to silence things that are in the public interest. I welcome what my right hon. Friend said last week about SLAPPs. Can he reassure me, my constituents, journalists across the country and the wider public that he will do whatever it takes to support the freedom of the press and freedom of speech more widely?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and we have set out our proposals on SLAPPs. I also want to bring his attention to the submission that we had from the media group that involves the i, The Times, Associated Newspapers, The Daily Telegraph and others, which talks about the specific proposals we have put forward in our Bill of Rights to strengthen and reinforce freedom of expression and media rights as critically important, alongside the other work we are doing. I hope that the Labour party will support it.

T2. In December, my constituent Daphne Franks and I delivered a paper to the Ministry of Justice setting out proposals to end predatory marriage, but so far nothing has been done, mainly because the review of wills has been paused by the Law Commission. Given that the elderly and vulnerable are still being targeted every day, may I ask the Secretary of State whether he will now step in and support the legislative changes set out in our proposal so that we can finally bring this appalling abuse to an end? (906229)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue in the House. I am happy to have a conversation and a meeting with him to discuss his proposals in greater detail. It is important to recognise that in the marriage space we are awaiting the outcome of the Law Commission’s review, which is expected in July. Like other Ministers in the Department, I will want to have a thorough look at all these matters in the round.

T4. Today would have been Harry Dunn’s 21st birthday. Instead, his twin brother Niall faces this fabulous milestone alone and there is still no justice for Harry’s family from the tragic killing of him by an American citizen who was driving on the wrong side of the road. I know that the hearts of colleagues from across the House go out to Harry Dunn, his whole family and all his friends, particularly his brother. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who has done so much to try to help, give the House an update on what is being done to deliver justice for Harry? (906231)

So that the House is aware, let me say that this is sub judice, so please be cautious in your answer, as I would expect that you would be.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, I will be mindful of what you say. First, let me thank and pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, who has championed the Dunn family and the memory of Harry in the most remarkable way. Of course my heart goes out to Tim, Charlotte, Bruce, Tracey and all the family right now. Indeed, I was thinking about Tracey and Charlotte in particular as we prepare for Mother’s day this week. I can tell my right hon. Friend, without tripping up in the way that Mr Speaker described, that the whole Government and I wholeheartedly support the Foreign Secretary’s ongoing efforts to secure a virtual trial so that we can see justice done for Harry and his family.

T6.   Will the Secretary of State confirm clearly, for the record, that the Government will not make changes to the Human Rights Act without legislative consent from the devolved institutions? (906234)

The hon. Gentleman will know, because I have said it in the House on a number of occasions, that it would be inappropriate to consider the application of the Sewel convention until we have the text of the Bill of Rights, but he will not have to wait too much longer for that.

T5. Will my right hon. Friend look again at whether there are any opportunities to support grandchildren to have better access to their grandparents following a divorce or bereavement? (906233)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. The Government understand the important role that grandparents often play in children’s lives—I can very much relate to that through my own experiences growing up—and the stability they can provide, particularly during times of divorce, separation or bereavement. I know that she had a productive meeting with my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister recently. This matter is under active consideration at pace and we will revert to her as quickly as possible.

T8. One of my constituents, after leaving a near two-decade-long abusive relationship, reported an assault to the police, but she was then told that the statute of limitations on her case had run out, as it was not processed in time, which means that she will never see justice. What steps will the Minister take to reform the statute of limitations process for victims of assault in abusive relationships? (906236)

I hope that the House will understand that I must not comment on an individual case, but for offences that are triable either way—assault and occasioning actual bodily harm—or those that are indictable only, there are no such time limits. One category of offence—common assault charges—does have the traditional six-month time limit. Exactly the situation the hon. Lady has described is what we are seeking to change for the better through the police Bill. We are removing that six-month time limit—extending it to two years—so that cases of the sort she describes will not hit that legal barrier to securing justice for victims.

T7. I commend my right hon. Friend the Minister for the steps he has taken recently to publicise community payback to tackle antisocial behaviour. In Darlington, antisocial behaviour involving off-road bikes and quad bikes causes tremendous trouble; will the Minister outline what steps he will take to use community payback to tackle that? (906235)

I am pleased that my hon. Friend recognises that dozens of teams of offenders are fanning out across England and Wales and doing fantastic work, paying back into their community by improving the environment. My hon. Friend has been a persistent campaigner on the antisocial behaviour that quad bikes bring to his constituency and I know he will have conversations with his local police and crime commissioner about what the police can do to catch the individuals responsible. When they do catch them, it is absolutely appropriate that they pay back into the community through the kind of work that we now see on a daily basis. It might also be appropriate to GPS tag offenders so that we know where they are moving at speed off-road.

If, as the Secretary of State said earlier, he is concerned about the oppressive use of litigation costs in SLAPP cases, will he look into the same problems in respect of media cases? Will he consider introducing—perhaps in his Bill of Rights—the type of low-cost arbitration recommended by the Leveson inquiry?

I recognise the issue that the hon. Gentleman wants to deal with but we are not going to rake over the old coals of that debate.

My right hon. Friend the Minister recently met me and my constituent Donna Mooney to discuss imprisonment for public protection sentences. Will he update the House on the progress of his thoughts on the matter and whether he plans to bring forward any plans for reform?

I had a useful and informative meeting with my hon. Friend and his constituent. As he knows, we have in place an action plan for IPP sentences that we are prosecuting with, I hope, some verve and energy to drive down the numbers. My hon. Friend will know that the Justice Committee held an inquiry into IPP sentences; we await its conclusions before we look at the next steps.

My constituent Huw Davies is struggling to regain control of a home that he has owned for many years and is wondering when there will be tougher action to prevent lasting powers of attorney from being taken out fraudulently. Will Ministers set out what they are doing to toughen up the law and to toughen up the enforcement activity in respect of lasting powers of attorney?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising an issue of which we are mindful. He will know that we are soon to embark on a process to reform lasting powers of attorney, to make sure that all the processes are fit for the modern world, that incidents of abuse and fraud are tackled robustly and that all the right checks and mechanisms are there.

I welcome the work that my hon. Friend the Minister has been doing to recruit more magistrates and the changes to the retirement age to enable senior magistrates to sit for longer. Will he tell us about the plans to introduce powers to keep more cases in the magistrates court and when he expects those powers to come into effect?

My hon. Friend is, of course, a serving magistrate and speaks with great authority on these matters. As he knows, the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, which contains key parts of those powers, has not yet received Royal Assent. On my hon. Friend’s other point, I can confirm that the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill recently received Royal Assent. The Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Act 2022 raises the statutory mandatory retirement age to 75. As my hon. Friend says, that is an important measure to ensure that we maximise the number of people in our judicial labour force.

Does not Mariupol alone demand that we go even further on sanctions in relation to Russia? Could we not sanction all the Russian banks, rather than just 60% of them? Should we not be taking action against the oil and gas companies? Should we not be removing tier 1 visas from people in the UK who have them and have not yet condemned the war in Ukraine? Should we not be putting more pressure on companies—such as Infosys in India—that have big investments in Russia? Should we not make sure that all the family members and apparatchiks are also sanctioned?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we should continually challenge ourselves. The most important thing, though, is that we are focused on and targeted at those either with direct links into the Kremlin or who fund or indirectly fund, to put the squeeze on Putin’s war machine.

On 30 March last year, my constituent Tim Dack sadly passed away from covid-19. Before he passed away, he woke up from his coma and he proposed to his partner; she was then doubly saddened to find out that she could not be listed as his partner on his death certificate, despite the fact that they had lived together for multiple years. My understanding is that there are uncommenced provisions in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 that would allow such listing to happen. Might one of my Front-Bench colleagues be able to enlighten me on when those changes will be brought forward?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that difficult and tragic constituency case. I would be grateful if he took the opportunity to meet me to discuss it in more detail, so that I can understand the circumstances and provide a full response.

Last week, I received an email from the Gwent Citizen Panel about the consultation on the Government proposals to scrap the Human Rights Act 1998. The Government produced a consultation on 14 December but did not produce an easy-read version, nor any other versions, such as one in British Sign Language, an audio version or one in Makaton. Why was that?

I will look at the various variations the hon. Lady has referred to; I will make sure to get her an answer by correspondence within the week.

Are the Secretary of State and the Minister for prisons aware of the shocking report out this morning by Ofsted and Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons, which describes a terrible level of reading ability in prisons and a lack of progress over recent years? What plans do the Government have to put in place the recommendations of the 2016 Coates report and to ensure accountability, so that prison governors understand the vital nature of teaching all prisoners to read? Without that skill, there can be no serious rehabilitation.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his attention to this issue and wider issues of education within the prison system. We absolutely understand the criticisms made in the report. I hope we have pre-empted some of the report’s observations through the “Prisons Strategy” White Paper, which shows the Government’s determination to cut reoffending through rehabilitation. The White Paper includes, for example, the development of personal learning plans for prisoners and the introduction of new prison key performance indicators in English and maths, so that we can hold prisons to account for the outcomes they achieve for prisoners.

On this day five years ago, our lovely friend, the policeman Keith, was tragically killed—it haunts us all.

Can I ask a question about a real crisis occurring in the criminal justice system—the failure to attract the right number of young recruits into criminal law? Civil law and commercial law are so well paid that we cannot attract young men and women into criminal law. It is a real crisis. What is the Secretary of State going to do about it?

I thank the hon. Gentleman. He is right to say that there are difficulties in this area. If he reads our response to the Bellamy review, he will see that there are a number of ways that we want to address the issue, including by increasing fees and breaking down some of the barriers, for example through the promotion of CILEX, so that we can encourage more non-graduate routes into the profession. That will help with not just the volume but the diversity of practitioners.