The Secretary of State was asked—
Victims of Crime
We are increasing victim support funding to £185 million by 2024—almost double the amount in the 2020-21 core budgets, and more than quadruple the victims funding in the last year of the last Labour Government.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the particular vulnerability of children in such cases. The courts already have the power to prioritise cases, for example those with a particular risk of the victim or a witness being intimidated. The Department for Education’s statutory guidance for schools and others makes it clear that they can take appropriate measures to safeguard children, which can include transfers to and from schools where necessary.
The Thames Valley police and crime commissioner, Matthew Barber, provides excellent support to victims of crime through his office’s Victims First support service. One challenge that he faces is that the Ministry of Justice does not allow victims funding to be used to support victims of antisocial behaviour. That is a real concern for my constituents in Bracknell. Might the Secretary of State be willing to review the policy?
I pay tribute to the work of Commissioner Matthew Barber. In 2022-23, we are providing PCCs with £69 million of core funding to commission victim support services. How they allocate the funding is at their discretion, based on their assessment of local need, but it can include services to support victims of ASB that reaches the threshold of a criminal offence. As my hon. Friend will know, we are consulting on new powers for courts to consider community impact assessments in trials so that the blight and oppression that antisocial behaviour causes in whole communities can be properly factored in.
Ryan Passey was tragically killed in 2017, at the mercy of a perpetrator with a knife. The case went to court and the perpetrator was acquitted, which was considered a bizarre verdict. You will be pleased to hear, Mr Speaker, that I and the Passey family have secured a review of the police investigation. That review is ongoing, but the family feel let down by the lack of support after the trial, at the time when they most needed it. They have lost their only son, but had no support despite the verdict. Will my right hon. Friend meet me and the family to understand how improvements can be made in the provision of support for victims’ families, not just during an investigation but after the verdict, particularly when a bizarre verdict is given?
My deepest sympathies go to the family and friends of Ryan Passey. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing an independent review; I will be happy to make sure that she can see an appropriate Minister.
We have made £130 million available this year to tackle serious violence. As my hon. Friend will know, the latest data shows a 4% decrease in recorded cases of knife crime. On post-trial support, we are providing £4.6 million a year in funding for the national homicide service, which provides a range of services, including counselling and emotional support, that can continue as long as is needed for a bereaved family, including after trial.
The Secretary of State will be aware that I have worked across Government for many years to secure support for victims of crime, particularly victims and survivors of child abuse and sexual assault. I welcome the introduction of the victims Bill, the enshrining in law of the victims code and the Secretary of State’s commitment to funding, but we need more sexual assault referral centres, more independent sexual violence advisers and more special measures in courts; indeed, we need more courts and prosecutors. Has the Secretary of State done the analysis to show that the money he is bringing forward will cover all that?
I am pleased to see, in the context of the latest data, that rape convictions are up 67% on the previous year. We will be bringing forward our response to the consultation on the victims Bill and the associated package very shortly. There will be a step change—a quantum leap—in the number of ISVAs and independent domestic violence advisers as a result of the settlement that I have secured with the Treasury. I am happy to give the hon. Lady specific details.
Over the years, many people have been coerced, often through violence, into being filmed in pornography that has been put online for people to see for years to come. Will the Government consider making provision in the Online Safety Bill for people to withdraw their consent and have that content removed from the internet?
Four years ago, Jackie Wileman was tragically killed on her daily walk by four men joyriding a stolen HGV around Barnsley. The men responsible had 100 convictions between them. I pay tribute to Jackie’s brother, Johnny Wood, for his campaign to increase sentences for causing death by dangerous driving, and I welcome the change in the law, but Johnny has now been informed that one of the offenders may shortly be released from prison on temporary licence without the proper process being followed. Will the Secretary of State meet Johnny and me to discuss what more can be done to support victims?
Offenders: Giving Back to Communities
When people have broken the law, and when it is safe and proportionate for them to do so, they should serve their sentences in the community. It is important for them to be seen to be paying back to the communities to whom they have caused harm. We are investing £93 million in community payback staff over the next three years so that we can increase the number of hours worked to a record-breaking 8 million a year.
Justice needs to be seen to be done, not just for victims but for the wider community, so that they can be confident that offenders are not getting away with it. Community payback projects allow for offenders to make reparations to the communities whom they have harmed. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that he will be working to expand such projects across the country?
My hon. Friend is right: people do want to see justice being done, in a visible way, in their communities. I hope that he saw some of the 300-odd gangs of offenders who delivered about 10,000 hours of community work across the country, particularly on environmental schemes, during the recent Keep Britain Tidy spring clean-up week. However, Members of Parliament can also play a part in this project. We do need to increase those hours to 8 million a year, and we need Members’ help in nominating schemes on which we can put offenders to work, so if Members feel like it, I ask them please to go online and look at the Ministry of Justice website. They can nominate a scheme, and we will send some people to do some cleaning up.
Fonmon castle park and gardens, in my constituency, provides a first-class day out for visitors, but will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating those who run it on the partnership that they have established with HM Prison Parc? This offers new opportunities for offenders, while also resolving some of the labour shortages in the area.
I am, of course, happy to celebrate the success of Fonmon castle and its partnership with Parc prison. As my right hon. Friend knows, we believe that employment for offenders is critical to moving them into a better life. Building partnerships of that kind between businesses and prisons is key for the future, and I am pleased to tell my right hon. Friend that Parc prison is in line, in the next year, to have one of our new employment advisory boards, which will bring such partnerships to life across all the UK’s geographies.
Offenders are unlikely to be able to give back to their communities if they find themselves homeless on their release from prison, as I have discovered when supporting people in that situation in my own community. Will the Minister undertake to bring to the House a report indicating the extent to which homelessness among ex-offenders is a fact—which it clearly is—along with an action plan to help constituency Members in all parts of the House to support people when they leave prison so that they can lead a stable existence in their communities and therefore give back?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the provision of a home—of accommodation—for those leaving the secure estate is critical. We believe that there are three pillars to success: a job, a house and a friend to put people on to the straight and narrow. I do not have to publish a report to underline that, because there has been plenty of research to prove that it is the case. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that we do have an action plan, with some challenging targets, to ensure that all those leaving the secure estate can access the accommodation they need to get them back on to the straight and narrow.
Unpaid work gives offenders a chance to give back to their communities, but huge workloads and staff shortages in the probation service mean that in some areas there is a backlog of up to 100,000 hours owed by offenders, and some have even had their hours wiped because they have not been completed in time. Is this not just another example of our broken justice system—a system that lets offenders off while victims pay the price? When will the Government get serious and fix this?
It is very sad that the hon. Lady is not celebrating the achievements of the probation service, which is expanding. We are recruiting 500 new community supervisors so that we can get on top of some of the covid-related backlog in unpaid work. We have to hit 8 million hours and we have thousands of offenders out there in high-vis jackets doing the work, particularly environmental work with organisations such as the Canal & River Trust. When the Prime Minister promoted that scheme, the Opposition condemned it, saying that it was somehow inhuman. Actually, all our communities across the United Kingdom, day in day out, are seeing justice being done by these offenders, and that is set to grow.
Court Delays: Attrition
I am pleased to report that we are making progress on court delays in the Crown court. As of the end of March 2022, the outstanding backlog was 57,800, which is 5% lower than the peak of 60,700 cases in June 2021. Prior to the pandemic, the outstanding caseload had reduced significantly from 46,100 in 2010 to around 33,000 in late 2018. That underlines just how significant the impact of covid was. On attrition, we recognise the importance of addressing these issues, and that is why we are increasing victim support funding to £185 million by 2024-25. That will fund more than 1,000 independent sexual and domestic abuse advisers to help victims through the process.
Last year, a staggering 1.3 million cases were dropped because the victim could not carry on any longer. That is on top of extraordinarily low charge rates—7% for robbery and 3% for theft. For my community, that means that cases are delayed, crime is up and charges are down. The Minister talked about progress, but it is not quick enough, is it?
These are important points. Attrition is most important with regard to rape. As the Deputy Prime Minister has said, the total number of rape convictions was up 67% last year, and I can confirm that in the last quarter of last year they were up 15%, so we are making progress but we want to go further. That is why it is so important that we have put in place all the measures to increase capacity in our courts and it is why the backlog is now falling.
The Minister is right to highlight the work that is being done to increase support for victims, but he will be aware that the Justice Committee published a report on court capacity on 27 April. I look forward to hearing his response to it. In the summary, we highlight that despite efforts from the Government to go in the right direction:
“Delays in the Crown Court have reached a point where they are causing significant injustice.”
Is it not the reality that solving this will require not just victim measures but, more significantly, a root-and-branch attempt to tackle all the elements of delay, which relate to judicial capacity, physical capacity and maintenance of the estate, improved data and technology and improved processes in the Crown court? All those must come together, and that requires sustained investment. Will the Minister respond in detail to the report in due course?
I look forward to responding to it. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about resources, and that is why we had almost £0.5 billion of funding in the spending review settlement, particularly to tackle Crown court backlogs. He is also right to talk about judicial capacity. As we came out of the pandemic, having resisted the temptation to lock down again at Christmas, we reopened 60 courtrooms that had been closed, so we have the rooms, more or less—with some local variance—but he is right to say that we need judicial capacity. One key issue in the recruitment of judges was the pension scheme, but we have just had Royal Assent for a new scheme, which should address that important aspect of capacity in our courts.
Let me remind the Minister that 67% of a small number is still a small number. The recent criminal justice joint inspection report into pandemic recovery noted:
“The prospect of waiting years for justice is likely to be traumatising for victims and their families and has a damaging impact on justice itself, making it more likely that victims will drop out of cases”.
We know that the Ministry has secured funding to reduce the backlog to 53,000 cases by 2025, but that number still dwarfs pre-pandemic figures. We all want timely justice for defendants and victims, so can the Minister confirm how long on average people are waiting for their cases to come to court, and what impact the additional funding will have on cutting those waiting times?
These are, as I said, important points. I am glad the hon. Gentleman recognises that we have committed the funding. Where is it going? For the second year on the trot, we have removed the cap on sitting days in the Crown court, which is probably the single most important aspect of delivering capacity. We are also doing it through legislation.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we recently had Royal Assent for the Judicial Review and Courts Act 2022, which is a key measure in helping us to increase magistrates’ sentencing powers, releasing up to 1,700 days in the Crown court. That is 1,700 days when we can hear serious cases—rapes, murders and all the rest—to get through the backlog, because capacity is key. I have always said that it is about taking a joined-up approach. We have the funding in place and we have the legislation. It is such a shame that the Opposition could not support us.
Access to Legal Aid
Last year, to ensure accessibility to vital support, we spent £1.7 billion on legal aid. We are consulting on changes that will result in an additional 2 million people in England and Wales having access to civil legal aid, with 3.5 million more people having access to legal aid at the magistrates court. By any measure, that is a very significant expansion of access. Alongside that, we propose to invest up to £135 million a year in criminal legal aid, more than £7 million in improving access to housing legal aid, and £8 million in expanding access to immigration legal aid.
Next month I will be visiting Northampton Community Law Service, which has proved indispensable to many of my constituents. What steps are being taken to ensure sufficient funding streams for areas of specialist legal advice and support that are proving to be the most in demand amid the cost of living crisis, particularly debt and employment law?
My hon. Friend, who is a champion for his constituents, makes the important point that these are increasingly important matters in the current economic context. That is why we have committed to ensuring that specialist legal advice services continue to provide support for those who need it most, and it is why, in particular, we will be spending £5 million to pilot early legal advice on social welfare matters, including debt, this summer. Throughout 2020 we provided £5.4 million of grant funding to not-for-profit providers of legal advice, supporting more than 70 organisations to help vulnerable people resolve their legal problems. I am pleased to confirm that those rounds of funding provided more than £130,000 to Northampton Community Law Service.
From the Minister’s answers, we might think everything is rosy in the world of legal aid, but the reality is that there are legal aid deserts in many parts of the country where practitioners have packed up and stopped providing vital access to the justice system. What is the Minister doing to ensure that, in every part of England, there is fair access to legal aid?
That is a fair question, but I do not accept that there are areas of the country where people are denied access to justice because there are no legal aid providers. The Legal Aid Agency keeps market capacity under constant review and takes immediate action where gaps appear by tendering for new providers and amending contractual requirements to encourage new providers into the market. In England and Wales, legal advice on housing matters is available, wherever people are, through the Civil Legal Advice telephone service.
On access to legal aid, as I said, we are consulting on proposals that will increase the number of people who can access civil legal aid by 2 million, which is a significant measure.
I thank the hon. Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer) for raising the importance of access to legal aid. In fact, his region—the east midlands—has seen an above average fall in access to criminal and civil legal aid since 2013. Compared with England and Wales as a whole, the region also has a higher proportion of local authorities with no providers of legal aid on housing, immigration, family and community care law. These legal aid deserts are worst for family and community care law, with the cost of living crisis compounding that further. Victims are being let down at every stage.
Legal aid deserts are a direct result of chronic underfunding, and they deny justice to victims across the UK. The Government have failed to deliver even the bare minimum of what Sir Christopher Bellamy advised in his review. I understand that the Government are considering a civil sustainability review, so perhaps the Justice Secretary will provide further details. The Government like to pay lip service to levelling up the country, but when will the Lord Chancellor level up access to justice?
It would probably be more helpful if I referred to what the hon. Gentleman said on a previous occasion. On 15 March, in response to the Deputy Prime Minister’s statement about criminal legal aid and the measures that we were taking, he said:
“Today’s announcement and response to the Bellamy review is welcome, particularly the Government’s commitment to increase legal aid rates by the 15% that Sir Christopher Bellamy recommended.” —[Official Report, 15 March 2022; Vol. 710, c. 777.]
That is what we are doing. He recommended £135 million of additional funding for criminal legal aid. That is what we are proposing and what we are consulting on. So my job as I see it is very clear. It is to get on with ensuring that those criminal legal aid rates are increased as soon as is practicable, and we look forward to introducing a statutory instrument later this year.
I wonder if I might suggest that another review of partygate could help inform Government policy on legal aid and access to justice. I say that because of the widely perceived link between a person’s ability to pay for legal advice and the number of fixed penalty notices that that person might receive, compared to others attending the very same event. So during his consultation, will the Minister speak to junior Downing Street staff and civil servants about their views on the significance of access to and the affordability of criminal legal advice?
It’s a nice try, but our discussions in Downing Street are about the measures that we are bringing forward to tackle crime, not least the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which the Labour party voted against and Opposition Members spoke out against, and which will see violent and sexual offenders serving longer in prison. That is where our focus is and the focus of the British people is.
Human Rights Framework Reform
As announced in Her Majesty’s Gracious Speech, the Government will replace the Human Rights Act 1998 with a Bill of Rights to be introduced in this parliamentary Session.
Will the Secretary of State follow last year’s recommendation of the Joint Committee on Human Rights and ensure that there are no changes to the Human Rights Act—the provisions of which are embedded in the Scotland Act 1998—without the consent of the devolved Administrations? If that consent is withheld and his Government unpick the Act unilaterally on behalf of the four UK nations, what message does he think it will send to citizens across the devolved nations?
I thank the hon. Lady. As she knows, we will assess the question of the applicability of the Sewel convention, quite rightly, when the full Bill of Rights text is provided. This reform will strengthen free speech, but curb the ability of, for example, criminals to take advantage of and abuse the system. I believe that that will be welcomed in all four nations.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that reform of our human rights framework will help to prevent foreign national offenders from avoiding deportation and help to restore some public confidence in our human rights legislation?
My hon. Friend is right. The still high volume—around 70%—of successful challenges, on human rights grounds, of deportation orders by foreign national offenders is on article 8 grounds. That is exactly the kind of thing that our reforms will address and the public across the UK will welcome.
Thank you again, Mr Speaker. The Human Rights Act 1998 has become a cornerstone of justice and democracy in the United Kingdom. It is pivotal legislation not to be tinkered with lightly. Given that cross-party MPs have today found that the now Justice Secretary presided over a
“disaster and a betrayal of our allies”
“a lack of seriousness, grip or leadership at a time of national emergency.”
in relation to Afghanistan, I have to ask in all seriousness why he should be allowed anywhere near such fundamental legislation and indeed why he is in ministerial office at all.
Defendants on Remand: Sentencing Hearings
The current position is that the courts can require that a defendant held on remand attends their sentence hearing, but they cannot force them to do so. Where a defendant is likely to be disruptive in court or where taking action to ensure that they attend would cause delays, it can be in the best interests of justice and victims to proceed in their absence. However, I fully appreciate that, in other circumstances, a defendant’s absence can cause anger and upset for victims and their families, and we are actively considering what can be done to address this.
It is important for public confidence that justice is seen to be done. When defendants in murder, rape and other serious cases hide in their cells and fail to appear for sentencing, they are effectively abusing their victim and the victim’s family once again. So I welcome the work that my hon. Friend is doing on this issue. May I encourage him to look at giving judges the power to increase custodial sentences in such circumstances?
My hon. Friend makes a really important point: justice being seen to be done is a key principle of our case law system. I am sure we all agree that a defendant should be brought before the court to face the consequences of their crime. Of course, one case in particular comes to mind. Sabina Nessa’s family wanted Koci Selamaj to be present to hear their victim impact statement, so that they could convey the hurt that he caused. In that case, the sentencing judge referred to the defendant’s actions as “cowardly…refusals” to attend.
However, I have to stress that, although defendants can be punished for refusing a prison order to attend court, they cannot be forced to attend. As I say, it is important to recognise that, although the presence of the defendant may be a comfort to some victims, there will be circumstances in which a defendant’s behaviour is distressing to victims and their families. For that reason, we have to take a balanced approach but, as I say, we are looking at what can be done. One option could be to make it a statutory aggravating factor.
When Sabina Nessa’s killer did not turn up to court to hear his sentence, his cowardice caused further unimaginable hurt to her family. Anisha Vidal-Garner was killed by a hit-and-run driver; when he stayed in his cell during sentencing, he avoided listening to the powerful victim impact statements from her family. This soft-on-crime, tough-on-victims Government have had 12 years to compel criminals to attend court to hear their sentences. Labour has been calling for it; where is the action? Why is it taking so long to get progress on this issue?
The hon. Lady knows that these are primarily matters of judicial responsibility. We have to ensure that whatever measures we take can work in practice in our courts, with the right balance being struck. She says we are soft on crime; I remind her that we recently received Royal Assent for an Act that will ensure that serious violent and sexual offenders will serve longer in prison so that we keep our streets safe. Labour voted against that. That tells us one simple message: when it comes to the big calls on law and order and keeping this country safe, the Labour party still cannot be trusted.
The reoffending rate for prisoners who leave prison has fallen by nine percentage points—from 51% to 42%—since 2010. The rate of prison leavers who secure a job within six months has risen by almost two thirds in the past year alone.
Getting prison leavers into work is crucial to reduce reoffending, turn ex-offenders’ lives around, cut crime and protect the public. Employment advisory boards have an important role to play in building links between prisons and local businesses. Will my right hon. Friend update us on progress in this policy area?
My hon. Friend is absolutely bang on. More than half of resettlement prisons now have a business leader who chairs their EAB. That puts us ahead of schedule for our national plan to deliver for every resettlement prison by April next year. To be clear on the results and outcomes we are looking for, let me give one example: at HMP Wandsworth, 39 prison leavers have been helped to find jobs and further training through their board and the prison’s employment team.
As recently as February in my Hyndburn constituency, Lancashire police had to issue dispersal orders in Accrington town centre because of antisocial behaviour. Will my right hon. Friend tell me how we can prevent young people in particular from reoffending or falling into bad habits, particularly when they have been through the youth justice system?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was up in Blackpool last week to announce a £300 million fund that local authorities can access to prevent youth offending. It is called the turnaround project and is targeted at around 20,000 children. The idea is to get them into sports, whether that is boxing or martial arts, or indeed into drama or other positive outlets. By doing that, we can then wraparound the pastoral care and work with the law enforcement agencies. That will not just give those children the opportunity to take a springboard into school, training and, ultimately, work, but keep our streets safer for communities.
In the last year alone, we have seen a step change in respect of offenders being in work within six months of release from prison; the number has increased by two thirds. The prisons White Paper sets out the strategy. We are rolling out the chairs of employment advisory boards and now have chairs for 48 out of 91 prisons. We have also stood up 29 of the employment hubs in our prisons. Those are the links between prison governors and local businesses that will get offenders into work and to stay on the straight and narrow.
A recent report showed that thousands of severely mentally ill prisoners who had been assessed as requiring hospitalisation were not being transferred because of the shortage of NHS beds, or they were facing long delays. Does the Secretary of State agree with the director of the Prison Reform Trust who said that this guarantees that
“people will leave prison in a worst state than when they came in, with every likelihood that the behaviour that originally led to their arrest and conviction will continue”?
I thank the hon. Lady. I think that there will cross-party support for the work that we are doing with the mental health Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech, absolutely ending prison as a place of safety, if you like, for those with mental health issues and making sure that those who are seriously mentally unwell can be transferred into secure hospitals. I recently met the Health and Social Care Secretary to expedite those arrangements.
Approved premises house the highest risk offenders—terrorists and serious sex offenders—on release from custody. Their location is sensitive both for rehabilitation and protection of the public. Why on earth, therefore, is the Ministry of Justice building approved premises next to the main entrance of Wormwood Scrubs Prison, when the counter-terrorism security assessment lists 18 vulnerabilities, including potential assaults on staff, observation over the prison wall, use of a launch site for drones and undermining rehabilitation? Will the Secretary of State abandon this dangerous and counterproductive scheme?
Approved premises are vital. Of course we take all the requisite security advice on the matter and I am very happy to write to the hon. Member about any of the details. However, may I suggest that he write to me to set out the facts that he asserted, so I can test them very carefully and rebut them very clearly?
Does the Secretary of State agree that more needs to be done to promote programmes that lead to reductions in reoffending rates, particularly in prisons such as Magilligan prison in my constituency, so that the wider community can feel safer as a result of successful programmes?
The hon. Member is right. The prisons White Paper sets out an overhaul of the regime. We want to assess offenders in week one, whether it is for their addiction, mental health or state of mind, or for things such as numeracy, literacy and their educational qualifications. We then want a pathway right the way through that gets them sustainably off drugs, not just abandoned on methadone. We want to give them the skills and education that they need and, fundamentally and critically, a step change in the approach to getting offenders on licence into work. Those are the keys to driving down reoffending beyond the 9 percentage point reduction in reoffending that we have seen from offenders leaving prison compared with the last year of the last Labour Government.
If we can improve prisoners’ literacy and numeracy skills, we will increase their ability to get jobs when they are released, which, in turn, will cut crime and make our streets safer. That is why we have set our plans to achieve exactly that in the prisons strategy White Paper. We have already introduced measures of progress in English and maths to hold governors to account, and we will be establishing an innovation scheme to deliver new initiatives to improve the reading and writing of prisoners.
I welcome what the Minister has said on improving literacy among prisoners and what the Secretary of State said in answer to the previous question. May I just strengthen the point about governor accountability? Training in prisons is currently accountable through Ofsted and the training provider is held accountable. Until governors themselves are fully accountable for the literacy of prisoners as they leave, tied of course with the need to get prisoners into work, on which there has been excellent progress, it will always be harder than it should be to get the reading training needed, especially for those who are dyslexic.
My right hon. Friend is completely right. We are putting in place a new deal for governors based on clear expectations and accountability, giving them greater autonomy over education provision in their establishments, which includes transparent key performance indicators, outcome measures and targets, including on prisoner literacy. Indeed, in Highpoint Prison in his constituency, there is a prisoner who was completely illiterate on entering prison. He had the ambition to read to his young child and is now three chapters into a book. With that sort of personal determination and encouragement from the Prison Service, we have high hopes for the chances of prisoners when they leave prison and keeping our communities safer.
Diolch yn fawr, Lefarydd. Education and literacy highlight the inconsistency between what is devolved and what is reserved in relation to justice in Wales. Does the Minister therefore welcome Welsh Government’s proposals, published today, to further the devolution of justice in Wales, and will she commit to work with Welsh Government to further those proposals?
I like working with the Welsh Government; that may come as a surprise to some, but I have found them incredibly helpful on plans such as the residential women’s centre, which I launched the plans for only last week. We will see a residential women’s centre set up in Swansea to help vulnerable women who are on the cusp of custody, giving them 12 weeks’ residential accommodation and courses to try to steer them away from offending. I believe that, by working together we can come up with some really interesting and innovative ideas to help not just the good people of Wales, but the entire United Kingdom.
Child Cruelty Register
The entire House and the whole country speak with one voice in saying that child cruelty is abhorrent. The Government are determined to ensure that the law offers the fullest protection to children; that is why we brought forward the sentencing measures through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. My right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor has asked the Department for Education and the Home Office to consider issues around the management of child cruelty offenders, including the introduction of a register.
Does the Minister agree that the creation of a child cruelty register would be enormously helpful to those already involved in child welfare issues, such as social workers and police? Does he also agree that it would ensure that no looked-after child would be placed with any person who is on such a register, and that that would not only save lives, but prevent injury, both physical and psychological?
My hon. Friend is right to raise this matter, not least given the hugely troubling and distressing cases that we have seen reported in the media of late. One thing we know, which was borne out in the care review published yesterday, is that there is a challenge with data and information sharing between agencies. I am sure that my counterparts in both the Department for Education and the Home Office will consider whether a register of child cruelty offenders would improve child safeguarding processes, alongside wider learning from the findings of forthcoming reviews, such as that into the tragic deaths of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson.
Non-custodial Sentences: Enforcement
Community sentences are robust and increasingly command the public’s confidence, not least as they can see more and more offenders in high-vis, brush and shovel in hand, in their streets.
My county colleague can always be relied on to emerge from the forest and ask the most challenging questions. He is correct that independent working projects, while not ideal, were introduced during the pandemic to allow offenders to discharge their sentence with robust and rigorous projects done at home, such as manufacturing personal protective equipment or, more recently, clothing items for Ukrainian refugees. It is our intention to reduce the proportion of sentences that can be done under home working, although for those who cannot handle a brush and a shovel there may well still be a place for it in the future—
We have heard a lot of complacency from the Government Benches on this issue. According to the Minister’s own Department, community payback offenders now carry out 75% fewer hours of unpaid work compared with five years ago. On average, 30,000 offenders get away without completing their community sentences every year, and now we hear the Government are letting criminals finish their unpaid work sentences at home. Why have they gone so soft on crime that they are letting those criminals get away with it?
It is not the case that community sentences can be completed using those hours, but I am sure the hon. Gentleman will understand that, during the pandemic, with the restrictions placed upon us, we had to find a way to allow offenders to complete their sentence in a satisfactory way. We have systems in place to make sure the jobs are done rigorously to time and, as I have said, we will be winding down that project.
Family Justice System Reform
We are committed to reforming family law to reduce conflict and protect children and victims of domestic abuse. We are reducing demand in the private family courts. In 2021, we invested £3.3 million in the mediation voucher scheme, and over 8,000 vouchers have been issued to separating couples. In February, we launched pilots to test the less adversarial way of hearing private family law cases, and we aim to reduce the retraumatisation of domestic abuse survivors.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his answer. Our family courts, of course, remain under significant pressure. It is welcome that there is additional funding for the likes of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service and that the prioritisation protocols are being used for the time being. During my time as chair of CAFCASS, we established that about one in four cases going into private law children’s courts could have been avoided had pre-proceedings work been done. Is the Department also looking at that?
There are domestic abuse or safeguarding concerns in half of private family cases; those cases, of course, need to be heard in court. But when it comes to cases that do not involve those concerns, the Government will support parents to resolve their issues earlier and outside court. We are considering making mediation compulsory for those cases.
As a former distinguished Children’s Minister, and given his former role at CAFCASS and his professional experience, my hon. Friend brings an awful lot of experience to these matters. Let us have a meeting to discuss his ideas in more detail.
Court Backlog: Sexual and Violent Crime Victims
We are taking action across all jurisdictions to bring backlogs down and improve waiting times for those who use our courts. I can confirm that the number of days taken for an adult rape case to progress from Crown Prosecution Service charge to completion has fallen by 38 days since the peak in June 2021. That is encouraging.
Under the leadership of Kim McGuinness, our police and crime commissioner, Northumbria police have invested heavily in victim support. But they cannot make up for the wholesale failure of the justice system, with victims telling us that they feel revictimised by the length of delays and the complexity of the process. Does the Minister acknowledge that his plan to get the backlog down to 53,000—still a huge number—will not significantly address the delays? What additional support is he putting in place for the mental health of victims during these long, long delays?
The hon. Lady asks about what supports are in place; I am grateful to hear from her police and crime commissioner about the role that independent sexual violence advisers are playing. I confirm that we are investing further in victim support services by increasing funding to £185 million by 2024-25.
I am coming to those. Of course we want to reduce delays as far as possible, but, to give a sense of the progress that we are making, I should say that in March there were 124,000 disposals in the magistrates courts and 9,280 in the Crown courts. Those are the highest figures for both since the pandemic. They show that output is increasing. That is why the backlog is now falling; we expect it to continue falling further.
The victims of modern-day slavery experience the worst of violence and sexual assault. One of the ways in which we can keep them engaged with the justice system is for there to be victim navigators, which the Government are piloting. If that approach could be spread further, more people would be kept in the court system and more of these evil gangs would be taken off our streets.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. As he will know, this is primarily a matter for the Home Office, but the roll-out of section 28 will support those cases. As we have mentioned several times today, there is a significant increase in funding for ISVAs, who provide significant support for dealing with precisely such issues as attrition and for ensuring that victims are supported throughout the process.
Since the last Justice questions, I have published the Government’s response to Jonathan Hall’s independent review of terrorism in prisons and the Government’s root-and-branch review of the parole system in England and Wales. I have also discussed action to hold to account the perpetrators of war crimes in Ukraine with International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan and United States war crimes ambassador Beth Van Schaack.
Delays in family courts were already far too long before covid, and the problem has only got worse since then. It often means that a parent is not able to see their child in the meantime—a point raised by many parents in my constituency of Tatton. Will the Minister make the reduction of those delays in the family courts a priority?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. As was mentioned earlier, something like 50% to 55% of cases that go to the family court are safeguarding or domestic abuse cases. I do think those need the authority of a judge, but the rest, frankly, should by and large be dispensed with before court through an alternative dispute resolution of one sort or another. We talked about considering making mediation compulsory, but crucially, we need the incentives and disincentives for early resolution to be unequivocal.
Voters in Wakefield are furious that the Conservative party ignored a victim of child sexual abuse and allowed his paedophile abuser to become their MP. Will the Justice Secretary back an independent investigation into why his party failed to act on what this courageous victim told them?
Can I just say to the hon. Gentleman first of all that to politicise a case that has been subject and potentially remains subject to judicial proceedings is quite wrong? If he wants to talk to the voters of Wakefield about the choice at the upcoming by-election, it is a choice between Labour, which is weak on crime, and us. Violent crime has fallen by more than half since Labour was in office. We can talk about tougher sentences for dangerous sexual and violent offenders, which he voted against. We can talk about reoffending, which is lower than it was under Labour, or we can talk about funding for victims, which we have quadrupled since the last Labour Government.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Let me just talk him through what we are doing. The in-cell technology in the new prisons will give them much greater access for the purposes he described. We are also delivering digital upgrades to a further 11 prisons. The prison employment advisory boards will be crucial in linking local businesses with prisons. Critically, not only have we got key performance indicators, but I have increased the weighting for employment and skills from below 1% to 20%, so that governors focus on it. That will drive a step change in getting offenders into work.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for highlighting good examples of best practice, particularly in getting offenders off drugs. We know that that is the key, along with skills and getting them into work. If he writes to me on the facts of the case, I will certainly make sure that we look at it very carefully.
A man after my own heart. My hon. Friend is right that it is a total abuse, which the Opposition seem to want to give succour to, to allow the freedom of speech and the right to peaceful protest to become a right to sabotage. It will be very interesting to see in the weeks ahead whether they stand on the side of the public or on the side of those saboteurs. The Public Order Bill will help us to address this issue, and I can also assure my hon. Friend that courts already have the power to impose compensation.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I mentioned earlier the increase in rape convictions that will be promoted by the use of section 28 to allow pre-recorded video evidence for the victims of rape and other serious sexual violence. She should also know that, working closely with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, we are making great progress on Operation Soteria to make sure that the focus is on the accused rather than overwhelmingly on the victim who comes forward with the courage that that takes.
It is very telling that the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), did not want to talk about those issues or Scotland’s record and asked us something totally outside the realm of Justice questions. My hon. Friend makes a compelling point, but we will not rest on our laurels south of the border. We will introduce a victims Bill that will place the victims code into law and send the clearest possible signal that the justice system must deliver for victims as a matter of moral correctness and to ensure the efficacy of the system.
First, we have seen a step change increase in convictions by 67%—two thirds—over the last year. I think the hon. Lady is wrong, if I may say so, to use the statistic that she used. In fact, the conviction rate has increased from 68% in July to September 2021 to around 71% in the last quarter. Through Operation Soteria, section 28 and changes that are being made to disclosure, we will drive a step change in support for victims with the quadrupling of victims funding, which will help to support victims through the process and secure more convictions.
I am proud that we are quadrupling victims funding to £185 million by 2024-25, which is up from £41 million in 2009-10. The fact is that the longer-term multi-year funding settlement that we are introducing should help to give certainty to restorative justice programmes. Raising awareness of restorative justice is also key, as my hon. Friend and I recently discussed, and I am giving that close attention.
Is the Secretary of State aware of the growing concern on both sides of the House about people in prison who have been charged with joint enterprise, and the fact that there is now a campaign to look at those cases and the kind of convictions that are taking place? Many people who are charged and imprisoned are later found to be on the autism spectrum. That is a real concern, so will he meet me and JENGbA—Joint Enterprise Not Guilty by Association—to talk about it?
I am very concerned about the endemic levels of mental health challenges and illness in prison. Interestingly enough, I have talked particularly to the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation about the link between autism and at-risk offenders. If the hon. Gentleman writes to me about the findings and learning that he has had, I will be happy to look at them carefully with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.
Is that not a sign of a community as a whole taking action, not just to reduce crime but to try to ensure that the young men my hon. Friend describes get on the straight and narrow and start to build healthy and happy lives for themselves? I would be delighted to discuss that further with him. I know for a fact that he has a superb police and crime commissioner, who I am sure will be supporting A Band of Brothers helpfully and meaningfully.
The Secretary of State will be aware that police officer numbers play a key role in reducing crime and reoffending, so what plans does he have to increase England’s officer level of 23 officers per 10,000 people to bring it closer to Scotland’s of 32 per 10,000 people?
Mr Speaker, as you know, the Government are in the middle of a huge recruitment drive of police officers. We have, happily, increased the number by 13,500, and I am confident that by the end of the financial year we will have hit our 20,000 target.
Families living near HMP Thorn Cross in my constituency have again raised with me concerns about absconds from this open prison. I am very grateful that the Minister took the time to visit the prison recently. Could she give us an update on what steps the Government are taking to reduce absconds from open prisons?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this, and I know the concerns his community have. As he rightly says, I visited Thorn Cross to see for myself and to ask the governor what can be done to improve the abscond rate. This is an open prison, so it is right that the assessments of risk for each prisoner entering Thorn Cross must be as full as possible to understand whether they have ties that may cause them to abscond from an open prison. What I have done is commission a further look into the assessments that are conducted nationally to ensure that the team at Thorn Cross are able to manage the people who are staying there as well as possible for the local community.