Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 715: debated on Tuesday 24 May 2022

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.

T3. The Justice Committee recently visited HMP High Down and HMP Downview, where we saw excellent examples of businesses working with offenders to provide training and experience that will help them get a job when they are released, but there is a problem for prisoners trying to find out about job vacancies when they are still inside, because for very obvious reasons they cannot have access to the internet. Will my right hon. Friend look into ways of overcoming that obstacle so that offenders have the best opportunity to apply for jobs before they are released? (900213)

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.

T2. The much-heralded diamorphine assisted treatment programme in my constituency has been running for two and a half years and produced some remarkable results, including a massive reduction in crime and the call on other health services. Sadly, the funding has now been withdrawn. If this programme unravels, all that work will be undone, so will a Minister meet me at the facility to discuss how we might secure its future? (900212)

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.

T6. Does my right hon. Friend agree that these eco-hooligans who are causing untold damage up and down the country should be made to pay every single penny it costs for the repairs and made to arrange the work, as well as doing their community payback? (900216)

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.

Order. I know that we may have some by-elections coming, but the fact is that we are on topicals, and they are meant to be short and sweet. Lots of Members want to get in, and you are stopping Members from getting in. It is not fair.

T4. My brave constituent Claire Ball used all her strength and courage to report that she was sexually abused as a child. She endured a painful court process, where her good character was continually called into question. While her abuser was allowed multiple character witnesses to state that he was a good person, Claire was not. What is the Secretary of State going to do to make sure that victims are afforded the same rights as perpetrators? (900214)

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.

T7. The Government should be proud of their pioneering efforts to protect victims, and I very much look forward to seeing the draft victims Bill. Have they considered how their actions contrast with those taken by the SNP Government in Edinburgh? Victim Support Scotland says that Scotland lags behind the rest of the UK on victims’ rights. (900217)

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.

T5. In all nations of the UK, rape victims are being let down by criminal justice systems that make prosecuting rape extremely rare, lengthy and difficult. At present, charge rates for rape vary widely from 1.3% in Surrey, home to the Secretary of State’s constituency, to 8.2% in Durham. Some 63% of cases are closed because the victim gives up on the process and withdraws from it. Despite progress on disposals, what additional steps is he taking to address that horrific reality? (900215)

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.

T8. Carshalton and Wallington residents are rightly proud of Ray and Vi Donovan for their work to promote the rights of victims to go through restorative justice, which they went through after the murder of their son Chris. Can my right hon. Friend assure me, in my position as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on restorative justice, that access to restorative justice practices and services will be enshrined in the victims Bill and that funding will be outlined to go along with that? (900218)

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.

T9. I had the great privilege of meeting A Band of Brothers, which is a voluntary organisation based around the UK, including in Cornwall. It works with and alongside men in the community who are in trouble with the law or at risk of getting in trouble with the law. Over 12 weeks, it helps those young men to get their lives back in order. The problem is that it works completely voluntarily. It has done great work to support the criminal justice system and safety in our communities. What more can be done to help it to grow and flourish and to upskill the great work it does? (900219)

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.

Given the constitutional importance of his role, is the Lord Chancellor considering his position in the Cabinet in the light of the Foreign Affairs Committee report on the withdrawal from Afghanistan?