House of Commons
Tuesday 5 July 2022
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The probation service is committed to increasing recruitment to fill probation officer vacancies. The adequacy of staffing levels is monitored on an ongoing basis through operational management and plans around recruitment and retention.
I recently spoke to a probation officer who is off work due to stress. They told me:
“We are losing no end of experienced officers and management doesn’t seem to care.”
With record levels of staff leaving the service and overworked officers fearful that any wrong decision could lead to tragedy, what specific actions will the Minister take to improve working conditions for probation officers?
Although, obviously, people do leave the probation service from time to time, I hope the hon. Gentleman recognises the very vigorous recruitment campaign over the past three years. We have taken on: 1,007 new recruits in 2020-21; 1,518 in 2021-22; and 1,500 more this year. However, he is right that we need to work hard to make sure that we retain staff as well. There is a variety of strategies that we can put in place to make sure that that is the case, not least looking at the workload, which is often a cause of stress and strain. I am pleased to say that the latest numbers tell me that only 4% of probation officers have a workload above the recommended maximum, and there are obviously reasons why that may be the case. Having said that, there is, obviously, much more that we can do, and one of those things is to agree a productive and helpful pay settlement. We are in conversation with the unions and, indeed, with colleagues in the Treasury about reaching a conclusion on those discussions soon.
Dedicated probation officers are telling me that they cannot manage their workloads as it is. One said:
“I used to spend about an hour each week with my high risk cases, but that simply isn’t possible with my current caseload. I no longer have confidence I can manage my cases in a way that keeps the public safe”.
After the Prime Minister’s pledge to cut civil service numbers by a fifth, will the Minister now rule out any more cuts to the probation service?
As I said in my previous answer, we are always reviewing case loads. I know the hon. Lady will recognise that the Inspectorate of Probation report on case loads, workloads and staffing numbers indicated that the recommended case load should not exceed 50, although it also said that there should not be a precise target. I am happy to tell her that 96% of probation officers and probation service officers hold fewer than 50 cases, with an average caseload of 34. Having said that, we recognise that the profession, which is valuable and does important work, presents particular stresses and strains. As part of the reunification process, and moving towards a target operating model, staff wellbeing and welfare will be a key element in our considerations.
Let me take the chance, on behalf of those on the Conservative Front Bench and, I believe, on all the Benches behind me, to offer our condolences to the shadow Justice Secretary on the passing of his father.
The overall reoffending rate has decreased by 5 percentage points from 31% in 2009-10 to 26% in 2019-20. Over that period, reoffending rates for robbery, criminal damage, arson, drug offences and sexual offences have all fallen.
I very much welcome the work that is being done to reduce reoffending rates. I vividly remember visiting Armley Jail and hearing about the work being done there. A big part of this work is transitioning ex-offenders into work. What role does my right hon. Friend see apprenticeships playing in that work?
My hon. Friend is right: the work that we are doing on skills and education right the way through to getting offenders into work is vital. I am very pleased, as he may know, that, working with the Department for Education, we are introducing a statutory instrument to introduce apprenticeships in prison. That SI will pass in September, and we will start the first apprenticeship straight away.
The top 10 repeat offenders being dealt with by police in North Devon have committed 108 offences in April to June this year. As the police themselves say, many of these individuals have previously been in prison—some on multiple occasions—but the offending cycle continues. What more can be done to reduce repeat offending, as, locally, the current system is clearly not delivering that desired outcome?
By 2024-25, we will be investing £200 million a year, in dealing with skills and work, as I have already said, and also with drug rehabilitation, particularly sustainable absence-based drug rehabilitation. The further action that we are taking on resettlement passports will avoid that potential cliff edge when an offender leaves prison, and makes sure that the wraparound care is there as they transition.
Sussex prisoners’ families have highlighted how important families of offenders, particularly prisoners, are in reducing offending. Prisoners’ families are often forgotten about in the criminal justice system, but research shows that if prisoners have a supportive family, they are less likely to offend. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to support such families, thereby helping to make our communities stronger and safer?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; research shows that the odds of reoffending are 39% higher for prisoners who did not have visits from family or friends while they were inside prison. That is why the new builds, Five Wells and the others, have not only in-cell technology that can facilitate dialogue and close family ties, but family centres to ensure that the ties that bind, and can cut crime by reducing reoffending, are strengthened and not weakened.
Careful parole decisions are important to minimise reoffending. Can the Justice Secretary explain why new Parole Board rules will mean that expert report writers will be forbidden to provide a view on suitability for release of the most serious offenders?
At the moment, when the vital question of risk is assessed, there is a risk that separate reports, whether from psychiatrists or probation officers and those who manage risk, may give conflicting recommendations. Therefore, in those serious cases that the hon. Lady refers to, there will be one overarching Ministry of Justice view, so that the Parole Board has a very clear steer and we make sure—the hon. Lady shakes her head, but I think she agrees with me—that the overriding focus is on public safety and protecting the public.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, the Secretary of State and other hon. Members for their condolences on the passing of my dad, Roy Reed, a few days ago. Everyone’s very kind words were a great comfort to our family at a very difficult time.
Community payback is vital for reducing reoffending and giving justice to victims, but the number of hours completed by offenders has been falling since 2017. It fell in 2018 and again in 2019, before anyone had heard of covid-19. Please can the Secretary of State explain why?
There is renewed investment going in to community payback. There has been a covid effect since the years the hon. Gentleman mentions; I know he has raised the issue of those obligations being discharged from home, but that will all be phased out by the autumn. This is a valuable scheme for restorative justice, so that the public see those who have committed crimes making recompense.
Prison Officers: Pension Age
The Government are committed to recognising the extraordinary public service carried out by our hard-working prison staff and officers, and to ensuring that we have a modern employment offer that attracts and retains the very best. I am listening to and working with officers, staff and trade unions on all employment matters.
The Minister agreed more than six months ago in this place and on a number of other occasions to meet with the professional trades union for prison, correctional and secure psychiatric workers—the Prison Officers Association—to discuss prison officer pension age as a standalone issue. Yet I am informed that that meeting is yet to happen or even to be scheduled. Does the Minister understand that making promises to prison officers and then breaking them is an insult to hundreds of my constituents in Durham, but entirely consistent with the way this Government treat those brave and loyal workers?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising this matter. I have in fact met the Prison Officers Association; indeed, I was delighted to attend its conference in Eastbourne a couple of months ago. I note in passing that sadly the Opposition were not able to accept the union’s kind invitation to attend that same conference. In terms of pensions, I am determined to have a good employment offer for all our officers. I will continue to meet the POA union and the other unions that work in our prison estate. I emphasise both to officers and to staff that we want to ensure that the hard work they put in to our prison service is reflected in the coming months in the offer we put to our staff.
Rape and Sexual Abuse Victims
The Government are committed to supporting victims of rape and sexual violence. We have seen rape convictions increase by two thirds since 2020, but we are committed to doing much more and going further. Last year the Government announced our ambitious end-to-end rape review action plan, which includes quadrupling the funding for victim support from £41 million in 2009-10 to £192 million by 2024-25. More than half of all Crown courts are equipped to use pre-recorded cross-examination and re-examination for vulnerable witnesses, to make the experience of giving evidence to the courts less daunting. There is much more happening, and I know the hon. Gentleman takes a close interest in these matters.
I thank the Minister, who clearly has a very clear strategy to move forward. However, recent statistics from the charity Rape Crisis state that in 2021 only one in 100 victims of rape felt they could report it to the police, with some feeling completely unable to do so due to intense fear and angst about reprisals from the perpetrator. What steps will she take to ensure that victims feel that they can come forward and place their trust in the authorities, to find the closure they so very much want?
The hon. Gentleman is right to identify the concerns that victims have from the very first moment of reaching out for support from the police in reporting these offences. As I say, we have conducted a forensic end-to-end review of the criminal justice system. Part of that includes ensuring that the police conduct so-called suspect-focused investigations whereby, rather than looking at the witness’s credibility, they focus on the suspect’s behaviour. We will be rolling this out nationally over the coming year, and I very much hope and expect that we will begin to see some real results from that.
Three years on from the Government’s end-to-end rape review, little has changed, with victims waiting three years for their case to get to court, section 28 rolled out in 37 out of 77 Crown courts, and specialist rape courts to be piloted in just three. When I raised the Conservatives’ appalling record in Parliament last week, the Minister accused me of
“false, damaging and intemperate language”,
but I make no apology for standing up for victims. Does she accept that it is her Government’s actions and not my words that are letting rape survivors down?
I am extremely grateful to the shadow Minister for raising that matter. You know, Mr Speaker, that I wrote to you privately concerning conduct in this Chamber, because how we conduct ourselves in this Chamber matters: it has implications far beyond these walls for victims of crime. I raised this privately in a letter to you, Mr Speaker. I copied in the hon. Lady, as a professional courtesy, and it has mysteriously found its way into The Guardian newspaper; I know not how that could have happened. Just on a matter of House business, it is a very great shame that when colleagues express discreetly concerns about conduct in this Chamber, it becomes a matter for the national newspapers.
Turning to the hon. Lady’s allegations, we have more victims reporting their crimes to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service charging more perpetrators. We have timeliness in the Crown court improving by five weeks on last year. What is more, we have seen the conviction rate increase since last year, by two thirds. These are steps towards the targets that we want to meet. I do not for a moment claim that our work is done, but we must, for the sake of victims, ensure that we give them the reassurance and the support they need to bring these allegations to light.
Support for Victims of Crime
Our landmark victims Bill will improve support for victims and help to give them confidence that if they report a crime the criminal justice system will treat them in the way that they should expect. We have increased the funding for victim and witness support services to £192 million by 2024-25—quadruple the level in 2009-10. With this funding we are increasing the number of independent sexual and domestic violence advisers to over 1,000—a 43% increase over the next three years—and introducing a 24/7 support line for victims of rape and sexual violence.
Last June, a six-year-old girl was tragically killed when a car hit her and her father as they walked along a road in Stoke-on-Trent North. The victim’s mother has had to wait over a year, suffering in silence, because the defendant took so long to give permission for his blood sample to be tested. If a person has done nothing wrong they should have nothing to fear. That is why I am campaigning for an amendment to section 7 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 for blood testing to take place without permission, required where loss of life has occurred, to give victims the answers they deserve and need quicker. Would my hon. Friend support such a change?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this terrible tragedy in the House today. The impact on the family is unthinkable and what has happened is just awful. He will recognise that the measures introduced in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022—with his support—came into force last week, tightening the offences and reflecting the culpability of offenders and the devastating harm that these crimes cause, as well as introducing a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving. The Department for Transport is about to launch a call for evidence looking at motoring offences, and I know it is keen to engage with my hon. Friend on that.
I hope that I can reassure my hon. Friend that the victims Bill focuses on delivering improvements to the quality and consistency of victim support services, backed up by more funding than ever before, with £192 million by 2024-25—a four times increase on 2009-10—as well as a multi-year commitment that gives victim support services confidence to plan for the future. That will benefit people in East Devon, and it is fair to say that this Government are committed to delivering on our promises.
With the victims Bill, a quadrupling of money for support services and the lengthening of sentences, it is clear that this Government are on the side of victims. One key expectation of victims is that justice will be served and prisoners will not escape, yet twice this year violent sexual offenders have escaped from a Lincolnshire prison, causing anxiety and danger to my constituents. What is the Minister doing to ensure that that does not happen again?
I am hugely grateful to my hon. Friend for her support for the measures we are introducing through the victims Bill, and I know that the prisons Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins) would be willing to speak to her about the specific issue of absconding. What I can say is that we are tightening the rules governing open prisons with a tough three-step test and greater ministerial oversight, which I hope will give her confidence on this issue.
I would also like to raise the case of a constituent, because in an act of outstanding bravery, Sheila Whitehouse went to the aid of a neighbour who was being viciously attacked by a dog. The owner had no insurance, and when the case came to court, Sheila was awarded just a token sum. She suffered life-changing injuries, but had no compensation through the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority. Will the Minister review the eligibility for compensation for those injured in such circumstances as Sheila’s?
I am very sorry to hear about this particular incident, and I commend, as my hon. Friend did so brilliantly, Sheila’s bravery in stepping in to help the individual affected. The criminal injuries compensation scheme exists to compensate for serious physical or mental injury attributable to being a direct victim of a crime of violence. The scheme is publicly funded, which means that there are strict eligibility criteria. An animal attack will amount to a crime of violence only where the animal was used deliberately to inflict injury. In 2020, we had a consultation on proposals to make claiming compensation simpler for victims of violent crime. We set out that expanding the definition of a crime of violence would go far beyond the original intention of the scheme, but we will be publishing a response in due course.
I am afraid to tell the Minister that victims of crime are being further let down by the Government’s terrible handling of the Criminal Bar Association dispute. I know that a Minister has now finally agreed to meet the Bar Council and the Criminal Bar Association, and I think that meeting is tabled for next week, but what they need to know at that meeting is when the Department will set a timetable for implementing the money that Sir Christopher Bellamy said was needed urgently. Incidentally, Sir Christopher Bellamy, who I have a great deal of respect for, is now a member of the House of Lords. When is that money coming?
No doubt the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), will be answering questions on that from Members on both sides of the House. I have heard what the hon. Gentleman said, but I note that the Opposition backed the Bellamy review and its outcomes, which we are getting on with delivering.
As we have heard, Members on both sides of the House want victims’ needs to be put first, so why did the Secretary of State tour the TV studios to defend the Prime Minister for ignoring the victim of predatory sexual behaviour by a former Foreign Office Minister when he promoted him to Deputy Chief Whip, despite having been alerted to that behaviour by the permanent under-secretary and despite the Minister in question having admitted to the behaviour?
My clear understanding is that the hon. Gentleman is wrong about that, but of course it is right that the processes that have been set out should be allowed to run their course. All hon. Members take a very dim view of people being ill-treated and it is right that due process can now be followed. What is not in question is the Government’s determination to ensure that outcomes for victims are better; the funding and the measures in the Bill are there, and we will get on and deliver that.
We are investing £1.3 billion in transforming the justice system, including by introducing 21st-century technology and online services to modernise the courts. Digital reforms and simplified services are removing simple cases from court; cutting down on unnecessary paperwork; and helping some of the most vulnerable people, who are facing difficult situations, to get justice as quickly as possible. That is also critical to enable us to recover workloads in courts and tribunals, which are still experiencing the impacts of the pandemic.
It takes private landlords an average of about nine months to repossess a property through the courts, and the end of section 21 repossessions will lead to more cases. The rental reform White Paper committed to improving the courts system. Will the Minister commit to those reforms being in place before the Government make changes to the way that private rented tenancies operate?
My hon. Friend asks an important question. I can confirm that on 16 June, the Government published their response to the “Considering the case for a Housing Court” call for evidence. Moreover, we are injecting more than £10 million a year into housing legal aid through our reforms to the housing possession court duty scheme. By 2023, we will modernise how the courts deal with possession claims as part of the Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service reform programme that I referred to. We will further streamline the court process to ensure that landlords can get possession in the most urgent circumstances. Finally, we will continue to make administrative efficiencies to maximise bailiff resource for enforcement activity, including the enforcement of possession orders.
I thank the Minister for his substantive reply. Modernising the courts system is essential if we are to clear the covid backlog and get victims the justice they need. I ask him to update the House on video technology and remote hearings, and how they can help.
My hon. Friend raises an excellent point. We have to understand that when the pandemic hit, it presented the greatest challenge to collective access to justice for many decades. We cannot underestimate the way that technology in every jurisdiction, including Scotland and England and Wales, helped to ensure that we maintained access to justice as far as possible. To confirm, more than 70% of all courtrooms, including more than 90% of Crown courtrooms, are fitted with our video hearings platform, which enabled up to 20,000 cases to be virtually heard every week at the height of the pandemic. Of course, whether a specific hearing is heard remotely or in person is a matter for the independent judiciary, but I confirm that we work closely with it through HMCTS to look at what more we can do to increase throughput and output in our courts by the use of technology.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. Further to the question of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), I can confirm that I have met the chair of the Criminal Bar Association seven times since the publication of the independent review of criminal legal aid. My officials meet representatives of the CBA almost weekly, so there is lots of engagement going on. I meet frequently with the Bar Council and the Law Society, because we have to remember the criminal solicitors’ view in all this as well. I can clearly confirm that we have decided to increase most of the key criminal legal aid fees by 15% from the end of September. We think that is a generous offer, as I am sure most of our constituents would agree, in the light of what is happening with the economy. I urge those engaged in disruption to reconsider so that we can get back to reducing the backlog, instead of threatening to increase waiting times.
The courts system relies on litigants having access to appropriate advice and representation, so why are the Government cutting funding to the Support Through Court charity and extending fixed recoverable costs to housing cases that will prevent law centres and other providers from having the means to represent vulnerable tenants against bad landlords, including in disrepair and unlawful eviction cases?
On the hon. Member’s first point, I have provided a written answer, which I will happily forward to him—I cannot remember if the question was from him—in which the existing position on funding was clarified. I am confident that we have put in a huge funding package across the justice system, with £477 million to support court recovery in the spending review. That is a significant investment, but I am more than happy to look at what has happened to funding for specific charities.
As the Minister considers how to modernise the courts system further, he might want to reflect on the lessons learned—or not—from a court case in 1984, when 37 workers from the Cammell Laird shipyards were unjustly imprisoned at a maximum security prison, and as a result were sacked, blacklisted, and lost redundancy and pension rights. Will he commit today to examine what papers his Department and the rest of Government hold on this case so that such an injustice can never happen again?
My hon. Friend talks about implementing the Bellamy review, but that recommended a 15% rise immediately. As I understand it, the Government are saying there will only be a 15% rise from September, and that will only be in respect of new cases. Why do the Government not commit themselves to implementing the Bellamy review, thereby ensuring that our courts are not blocked as they have been?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, as ever. What the Bellamy review said was that the increases should be delivered as soon as is practicable, and I am 100% certain that we are doing so. We had to consult, which is a requirement under public law principles, and we have to legislate through a statutory instrument, which is the parliamentary procedure, but I am confident that we are delivering this as fast as we can. There have been calls for the increases to somehow be backdated to existing work, but there are huge legal questions about that and it is also very difficult practically. How practical would it be, politically, to start delivering backdated increases in public sector pay?
International Criminal Court: Ukraine
We have offered the International Criminal Court a comprehensive package of financial and technical support to ensure that leaders under President Putin and those in the field can be held to account for any war crimes in Ukraine.
The International Criminal Court celebrated its 20th anniversary last week, but it is striking that in that time the Court has managed only three war crime convictions. Does the Secretary of State agree that, if the Putin regime is to be held accountable, that will only happen with sustained international support and funding? Has he had discussions with international counterparts in Governments who are not members of the International Criminal Court to encourage them to join?
I thank the hon. Lady, and she is absolutely right that the Court can only do so much. It is not an overarching justice system with all the investigators, witness relocation schemes and enforcement powers that a domestic scheme or a domestic jurisdiction would have. We have provided financial support and a dedicated liaison officer from the Met, based in The Hague, to facilitate information co-operation. We have offered military analysis support and witness protection support. I have had discussions, and so has the Foreign Office, with other supportive states parties, including the US war crimes ambassador, about how they can support the ICC in ensuring that there is accountability for war crimes in Ukraine.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the decision of Russia and its proxies to place on trial four British nationals—three of whom are serving members of the Ukrainian armed forces, and the other is a civilian—and subject them to a kangaroo court, sentencing two of them to death, amounts to a war crime? What support will he give to the Ukrainian authorities, specific to these cases, to help them amass the evidence they will need in due course to bring all those concerned to justice?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: this is another unlawful act, taking Russia further and further into pariah status. We have said that clearly, and our allies have too. On Ukraine, as well as the support that we are providing to the ICC, I have had meetings with the Ukrainian Minister of Justice and the Ukrainian Prosecutor General, to ensure that they have all the support that we can practically provide in relation to the domestic investigations they are conducting.
Duty Solicitors: England
The Legal Aid Agency keeps market capacity, including the number of duty solicitors on each local duty scheme, under constant review, to ensure that there is adequate provision of legal aid throughout England and Wales. The LAA is satisfied that there continues to be sufficient duty solicitor coverage across all duty schemes in England and Wales, and it moves quickly where issues arise to secure additional provision and ensure continuity of legal aid services. Provision under the duty scheme is demand led, so there may be variations in numbers across each local rota, or other fluctuations in numbers. A procurement exercise for new criminal legal aid contracts commenced on 1 October and is currently under way. The LAA will publish lists of providers and duty solicitors under those contracts, once the contract has commenced.
I send my solidarity and support to the barristers in Liverpool, and to those striking nationally over unsustainable cuts to pay and conditions and the failing justice system. Merseyside and Vauxhall law centres in my Liverpool, Riverside constituency do an excellent job providing legal support to people losing their homes. What steps is the Minister taking to review the shortages of duty solicitors at housing possession court, and what are his plans to improve that, because it is not a consistent approach?
The hon. Lady says that she stands in solidarity with the striking barristers. I remind her that back in February, before the publication of our response to the independent review of criminal legal aid, she attended a debate on legal aid in the north-west. Every Labour MP who spoke supported a 15% increase in fees, including three Labour MPs who would subsequently go out with the RMT. They supported 15% then, as did those on the Opposition Front Bench. Do they still support 15% now? If they do, they should not be supporting the strike action when we have that offer on the table. By the way, that 15% increase includes duty solicitors. It will increase the police station scheme funding. That is why it is good news for the criminal legal aid solicitors the hon. Lady is talking about.
Last week I visited Boothroyd Solicitors, who provide legal aid services in my constituency. They told me that despite being very busy, the business costs of their work, mixed with cuts to criminal legal aid, mean that they and many other criminal duty solicitors are in financial difficulties. They are receiving promises from the Government, but no action. Boothroyd Solicitors warns that access to an availability of duty solicitors will be severely impacted in the years ahead, if it is not tackled now. Will the Government urgently address that?
We all want to see thriving duty rotas in our police stations, and it is incredibly important that we support funding for criminal legal aid for the police station scheme. That is why we are increasing those fees by 15%. Indeed, I confirm that in relation to police station fees, the actual increase overall is 18%, as that will include expected additional expenditure, including pre-charge engagement. In total it is an 18% increase for police station duty solicitors. In addition, we want to see a new generation coming through, so we will also be ensuring that those with Chartered Institute of Legal Executives qualifications can more easily participate in the duty solicitor scheme.
The Minister knows that the Justice Committee welcomed the Government’s acceptance of Sir Christopher Bellamy’s review, which relates to fees for both barristers and solicitors in criminal work. We all want barristers and solicitors to return to accepting instructions in all forms of case. The Minister will also remember that Sir Christopher’s review stated that the £135 million that is being paid, I grant in tranches, and subject to certain reforms, was
“the minimum necessary as the first step in nursing the system of criminal legal aid back to health after years of neglect”.
The “minimum necessary” first step. Will the Minister reassure practitioners of both professions that he accepts it is a first step, and that the Government are willing, able and ready to engage with the professions on the second step? Reassuring that good faith would make it easier to resolve the current impasse.
I am grateful, as ever, to the Chair of the Justice Committee. He may have seen that on Friday I published an article in the Law Society Gazette where I said that now that we have confirmed we will be legislating to deliver 15% increases to most criminal legal aid fee schemes by the end of September, I am keen that we move on to the next phase of reform. I am keen to engage with all parties, including the Criminal Bar Association, on how we can deliver that next stage. Everybody, including the CBA and the Bar Council, wanted this to be done in stages so that we could get in the initial increases as fast as possible, and that is what we are committed to.
We have implemented almost all the actions that we committed to in response to the Lammy review and our work continues on the longer-term recruitment targets for HMPPS. That work is firmly embedded in the HMPPS race action programme: a significant three-year investment to deliver long-term change in inequality. We recognise that the Lammy review was an important start, not a complete solution, and our work has evolved considerably. Central to that are our commitments in the inclusive Britain strategy.
The Government’s offensive Sewell report sought to dismiss evidence of institutional racism in Britain, yet we know that systematic discrimination remains rife in the criminal justice system, such as the proportion of prisoners from ethnic minority backgrounds on remand. Will the Minister commit to publishing further progress updates on the Lammy recommendations so that the Government’s progress can be publicly held to account?
The hon. Lady makes a fair point. We obviously want to be held to account, and I am more than happy to write to her with further details of the progress that we are making. To give just one example, in our inclusive Britain strategy, we committed to a special pilot in police stations that is ensuring that juveniles receive legal advice. As she knows, many juveniles—and, it must be said, particularly those from ethnic minority backgrounds—were not engaging with the system; in the pilot, they must proactively choose to opt out. I have personally been to Wembley police station and to Brixton, where the trial is happening, and I am pleased to say that so far the results are incredibly encouraging: they suggest less time in custody for those juveniles who are participating. Most importantly, some of them are more likely to have an out-of-court disposal. We are trying to break that chain of getting stuck in the criminal justice—[Interruption.]
Reoffending Rates: Friday Releases
I know that accessing timely support on release can be particularly challenging on a Friday and that that can increase the risk of reoffending. That is why the Government have committed to pursuing legislation when parliamentary time allows to enable the release of prisoners up to two days earlier when a release date falls on a Friday or before a bank holiday. I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mark Jenkinson) has introduced a private Member’s Bill on the issue. I look forward to that.
What is key is that if we release ex-criminals and ex-offenders on a Friday, they are likely to return to their former habitat, reconnect with individuals whom they committed crimes with and reoffend. Equally, if they are homeless, they will not get any service from the local authority. I therefore commend the moves to change the position so that we can encourage people to rebuild their lives after being in prison.
I thank my hon. Friend, who has a long record of tackling homelessness. We are particularly conscious of the impact that homelessness can have on ex-offenders released from prison, so, in addition to our commitment to legislate on Friday releases, by 2024-25 we will invest an additional £200 million a year to transform our approach to rehabilitation, including expanding our transitional accommodation service across England and Wales. Ex-offenders need a home, a job and a support network, and we are determined to help them to gain all three.
Sexual Offences: Delays to Trials
The Government are committed to supporting the recovery of the courts for all court users, including those who face delays in accessing justice in serious sex cases. Of course, the listing of cases is a judicial function, and judges continue to work to prioritise cases involving vulnerable complainants and witnesses such as serious sex cases.
Timeliness is improving. The time that it takes for adult rape cases to be completed from charge continues to fall and is down by five weeks since the peak last year. I do not have the figures for child cases, which are not broken down on that basis. I confirm that we are increasing funding for victim support services to £192 million by 2024-25.
I thank the Minister for his reply. In Nottinghamshire last year, for cases involving rape the average time between a case arriving at the Crown court and being completed was 470 days—more than a year and three months. I am sure he agrees that that is completely unacceptable. I welcome the pilot of specialist courts to prosecute rape cases in just three areas, but that will not tackle the root causes of the backlog, which was growing long before the pandemic and which the Victims’ Commissioner says is due to underinvestment. When will the Minister reverse the cuts and ensure that everybody receives the justice they deserve?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. She talks about the backlog being a problem before the pandemic, but I have to point out to her that the backlog was lower going into the pandemic than it was when Labour was last in power. There is always a backlog of cases. There are always outstanding cases. The point is that when the pandemic hit there was a complete and total collapse in our courts, because they were closed, and then we had two-metre social distancing and they took a long time to recover. But they have recovered and the backlog is coming down. She talks—[Interruption.] I am answering the hon. Lady’s question. She talks about funding. I can confirm that we put in almost half a billion pounds of funding into the spending review. That will ensure, for example, that this year, for the second year on the trot, we are removing the ceiling on sitting days in the Crown court. Provided we reduce the disruption we are experiencing now, we should be able to continue to reduce the backlog and deliver swifter and better justice for our constituents.
The Lord Chancellor claims that protecting women and girls is his No. 1 priority, yet victims of domestic abuse face an invasive legal aid application that turns many women and girls away. The recent means test review is a step in the right direction, but it still does not go far enough and leaves many vulnerable women representing themselves in court. Will the Minister outline what steps he is taking to increase legal aid accessibility for victims of domestic abuse and violence?
I can confirm, as the hon. Gentleman is aware, that our consultation on the means test threshold would result in 2 million more people having access to legal aid in civil cases and more than 3 million people having access in the magistrates court. In both cases, that could of course include domestic abuse. An important point in that consultation is that we are proposing that where property assets are in dispute in a domestic abuse case in relation to the means test and the capital test for civil legal aid, they would be removed. That underlines again, not just in criminal legal aid but in civil legal aid too, that the Government are putting in significant investment and driving very positive reform.
Since the last oral questions the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 has entered into force, I published the Bill of Rights and we submitted our victims Bill to pre-legislative scrutiny.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his response. For as many years as I have served as Eastbourne’s Member of Parliament, Eastbourne residents have expressed to me their dismay, their outrage even, that foreign national offenders—dangerous criminals—have used the right to family life to frustrate their deportation, a deportation ordered for public safety. How will the Bill of Rights address that?
I thank my hon. Friend; she is absolutely right. The Bill of Rights is now published and she will see, explicitly and squarely in relation to article 8, clear guidance and prescription on interpretation to prevent the ever-elastic interpretations of the right to family life, the shifting goalposts, that allows those offenders to trump the overwhelming public interest in their deportation.
Seven years on, we do not have a victims Bill in statute. Thousands of victims are trapped in court backlogs and domestic abuse victims are still being cross-examined by their abuser in family courts, despite that being made illegal last year. Not only does the abuse continue, but the Government have facilitated it by deciding that that provision will not apply to domestic abuse victims who are already in the system. Will the Government ensure that that will apply to them and explain why victims should think that they are anything but an afterthought for the Government?
Again, an Opposition Front Bencher is denigrating the important—albeit incremental—reforms that we are making for victims. In fact, a victims law is currently subject to pre-legislative scrutiny and it will be introduced. We are increasing the victims surcharge by 20% and are changing the way that the Crown Prosecution Service communicates. Since the last Labour Government, we have quadrupled the amount of funding that goes to victims services, and we have rolled out section 28. She is right to say that we have prioritised rape and serious sexual violence. [Interruption.] We will get on to that. In fact, the reality is that the number of rape convictions has increased by two thirds over the past year. We have also taken action through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 on domestic abuse, which the hon. Lady voted against.
I have fond memories of playing Sunday league football in my younger years in The Mount prison against the offenders. They won fairly convincingly—something tells me that they were not out on the Saturday night in the way that my team was.
My hon. Friend asks a serious question: what are we doing? In the past year, we have seen a 67% increase in offenders leaving prison being in work within six months. That is a big step change and we are restless to go further. We are doing that with the roll-out of employment advisory boards—I am very grateful to James Timpson for driving that forward—employment hubs in prison, and critically, the drugs strategy, which will stop offenders languishing on methadone, at which point they are no good for anything.
Last week, Russia followed the UK Government’s lead in ignoring a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights, telling the Court:
“Russia no longer complies with the prescriptions of the ECHR—that’s all there is to say”.
When the Lord Chancellor sees that kind of behaviour, does he ever have second thoughts about the type of company that he is taking the UK into as a result of his proposals? How does he think that will be viewed by the international community?
I am not sure what the hon. Lady thought she was referring to in the sense that we have ignored any rulings. We have one of the highest compliance records in the Council of Europe. Frankly, I think she has a problem with her moral compass if she is equating our approach with that of President Putin. [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Speaker. This really is a tale of two countries.
In Scotland, legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament is not law if it is incompatible with the rights defended in the Human Rights Act. That is also woven through the devolution settlement. If the UK removes the Human Rights Act, but the Scottish Parliament refuses consent, what will the Government do? What options exist, other than voting yes to independence, to retain our human rights protections in Scotland?
This always comes back round to independence rather than the bread-and-butter issues that the people of Scotland face. The hon. Lady should vote for our Bill of Rights because the people of Scotland are frustrated, as are people across the United Kingdom, when they hear of cases—such as those raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell)—of people committing serious offences, but who are not able to be deported because they claim ever-elastic interpretations of the right to family life.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that magistrates are the backbone of our criminal justice system. When the pandemic hit, output completely collapsed in the magistrates courts, but individual magistrates, their legal advisers and staff in our magistrates courts have worked incredibly hard to recover the position. In March, we had the highest number of disposals in magistrates courts since before the pandemic.
We have taken two key measures to strengthen magistrates: we have increased their sentencing powers from six months to 12 months, and launched a £1 million recruitment campaign. I am pleased to say that we have had 33,000 expressions of interest so far, which bodes well for the next generation of our volunteer judiciary.
A huge body of work is going on across every part of the criminal justice system, from the police to the Crown Prosecution Service and through to the courts. It involves the recruitment of more independent sexual violence advisers, who can make such a difference not only to victims’ recovery, but to their willingness and ability to continue with a prosecution. In particular, we are introducing enhanced measures for specialist support within three pilot courts to support victims who are taking forward these very difficult cases. We are working with the judiciary, the police and the CPS to ensure that we measure and identify what is working so that we can replicate it across the country.
When it comes to female offenders, trauma-informed and gender-responsive programmes are the only way to break a cycle of crime and incarceration. Tomorrow, the brilliant charity One Small Thing will be here in Parliament to discuss the latest research on the intergenerational traumatic impact of maternal imprisonment. I would really love all Justice Ministers, but particularly my hon. Friend the Minister of State, to come along and hear how the justice system could better be formatted to support women and children.
I thank my hon. Friend for that kind invitation; I would be delighted to attend. On the impact of intergenerational trauma, one of the many reasons we are piloting the first residential women’s centre in Wales is that we want to see how women who should not be receiving the very short sentences that can be imposed can benefit from an intensive residential course rather than prison. I will be watching the results with interest.
We are making a significant investment in additional funding for legal aid in immigration cases. I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with the full details of that important step change. On the wider issue of access to legal aid, I spoke earlier about our consultation on civil legal aid reform and the means test, which will enable 2 million more people to have access to civil legal aid and 3 million more people to have access to legal aid in the magistrates courts. Combined with the £135 million that we are investing in criminal legal aid in response to the Bellamy review, that is a significant investment, by any measure, in legal aid in all our constituencies.
Further to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) asked, I commend the courts Minister for his announced intention to meet representatives of the criminal Bar. May I press him to do so at the earliest opportunity? Will he make the subject matter of that meeting the implementation of the rest of the Bellamy reforms, notably the reforms to the advocates’ graduated fee scheme and the composition and remit of the advisory board?
My right hon. and learned Friend has made an extremely good point. He is aware of the article to which I referred in my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst—the Chairman of the Select Committee—in which I made clear my wish to engage with the Criminal Bar Association on the next stage of reform, which includes the advocates’ graduated fee scheme and some of its core elements that were not in the first phase. As I have said, we adopted that two-phase approach precisely in order to deliver the initial increase in fees as soon as practicable, and it will be introduced in September: a 15% increase for criminal barristers working in magistrates courts and police stations and for those in the AGFS. We think that that is a very generous offer, and we hope the members of the CBA will think about it and stop their disruption of our courts.
Given that 40% of crime is now economic crime, it is disappointing that the Law Commission has recommended restricting corporate criminal liability for failing to prevent economic crime to fraud, and leaving out key crimes such as money laundering and false accounting. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me to discuss the benefits of a review with a much wider scope?
As I have just made absolutely clear, as a result of our consultation we will be increasing access to legal aid. Two million more people will have access to civil legal aid, 3 million more will have access to legal aid in the magistrates courts, and there will be £135 million of additional funds for criminal legal aid following the independent inquiry conducted by Sir Christopher Bellamy, now Lord Bellamy. We think that this is a significant and positive reform, which, incidentally, will help to drive wider reform of the criminal justice system and civil legal aid.
The Government are consulting on SLAPPs—strategic lawsuits against public participation. How will this ensure that action is taken against candidates who seek to use litigation and threats of it in an oppressive way to shut down debate during elections?
We issued a call for evidence on a suite of proposals, and we are gathering the responses and formulating proposals to ensure that those with deep pockets—oligarchs and the like—who try to silence the voices of transparency cannot do so in this jurisdiction. I will be seeking a legislative vehicle to implement those proposals.
The International Criminal Court has just issued arrest warrants for three men on suspicion of abduction, torture and other war crimes during Russia’s invasion not of Ukraine, but of Georgia. This is a reminder that Putin’s barbarity stretches back many years, and that prosecuting such barbarity also takes many years. Can the Secretary of State ensure that our commitment to delivering justice for those who have suffered in Ukraine will endure for the longer term?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this issue. We have been there at the outset supporting the ICC. I remember, as a young lawyer in The Hague, negotiating the UK-UN agreement on sentence enforcement, which, just last year, enabled us to take Radovan Karadžić into this country. That is exactly the kind of staying power that we will need in the case of Ukraine.
An inspection report on Oakhill Secure Training Centre has been published today. The centre has a very poor recent record. I am pleased to see that there are signs of improvement, but much remains to be done to achieve a sustained high standard. Will the Minister commit herself to ensuring that both the Ministry of Justice and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service continue to focus strongly on ensuring that Oakhill can enable children to truly turn their lives around?
Very much so. As my hon. Friend knows from occasions when I have given evidence to the Justice Committee, we are keeping this under close review. We want the children who are held at Oakhill to be held in a way that is safe but also decent, and we want to rehabilitate those young people so that when they are released they can lead productive lives that are free from crime. I welcome my hon. Friend’s focus on this issue, and believe you me, it is absolutely mirrored in the Ministry.
The Justice Secretary said this morning on television and on the radio, on the basis of conversations that he had had with the Prime Minister in the last 24 hours, that Lord McDonald’s claim that the Prime Minister had been directly and personally informed and briefed, in person, on the allegations that were substantiated at the Foreign Office, while he was Foreign Secretary, against the right hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) was untrue. Has the Justice Secretary had further conversations with the Prime Minister, and is that still his position?
Could I have a reassurance from Her Majesty’s Government that any proposal for an independence referendum coming forward from the Scottish Government, or indeed any proposed extrapolation of a general election result, will be closely examined within the context of United Kingdom law?
I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Government’s position has not changed. We do not think that now is the right time for a second referendum, given all the pressures and challenges and given the outcome of the first. I think what the people of Scotland want to see is both their Governments—in Edinburgh and in Westminster—working closely together.
Standards in Public Life
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. It is a pleasure to appear before you and the House on this important matter. We are fortunate in this country to have a sophisticated and robust system for upholding public standards. That system is multi-faceted; it is made up of interlocking and complementary elements. It is of course founded on the seven principles of public life, which have been in place for a quarter of a century and which provide the overarching qualities and standards of behaviour that are expected. I have some time to run through all the mechanisms that underpin the seven principles, but I will touch on something else first, which relates to the potential victims in any case where there are allegations of impropriety of any sort. I was a barrister in criminal practice for 17 years before being elected to this House, and I know how difficult it is for individuals to come forward. It is important that we do not prejudge any individual case. It is also right that the system that, after all, this House created relatively recently—namely the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme—is allowed to work its course.
There are additional rules and guidance to help to ensure consistency of approach—for example, in relation to public appointments, corporate governance and business appointments—when individuals move to roles outside Government, and there are independent bodies that provide a broad oversight of standards. The deputy leader of the Labour party, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), has asked about the mechanisms for upholding those standards, which exist as a result of the decisions of this House. There are bodies and officeholders with a role in overseeing specific aspects of public life, such as the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, the Civil Service Commission and the Commissioner for Public Appointments. Alongside them are regimes for the publication of Government transparency data and information on those who lobby Government.
We have a Parliament that upholds standards to cover all those in public life, but it is incumbent upon us not to prejudge these decisions. Ministers, public office holders and officials, in all their activities, must maintain the confidentiality of those who wish to make complaints across the lifetime of their involvement, but let me say that no system can replace the fundamental importance of personal responsibility. We all know this to be true. Codes, rules and oversight bodies are there to guide us, but all of us in public life must ultimately choose for ourselves how to act.
This constant charade just will not wash. These latest disturbing allegations about ministerial misconduct are all about abuse of power. There is one common fault with the system that the Minister spoke about, and that is the power that is granted by this Prime Minister.
The Minister spoke about personal responsibility. Well, he needs to remind the Prime Minister of his personal responsibility. Last week the Prime Minister said that he knew nothing of “specific” allegations about misconduct by the right hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher). Then he claimed he had only been aware of “reports and speculation”. But the truth is out today, and that defence has been completely blown apart.
Lord McDonald says the Prime Minister was informed about a complaint, which was upheld, of inappropriate behaviour against the then Minister. Does the Minister for the Cabinet Office accept that Lord McDonald is telling the truth, or is he telling us that the Prime Minister was not aware of the complaint? What happened to the complaint, and why was nothing done at the time? A Minister of State at the Foreign Office has a deeply sensitive role in national security. Was this issue even brought up in the vetting process, and was the Prime Minister informed? Why was this conduct not considered a breach of the ministerial code? Why did the Prime Minister allow him to stay in post?
This goes to the heart of wider issues, and the public have had enough. Since the resignation of yet another of the Prime Minister’s ethics advisers last month, there has been an even bigger ethical vacuum in Downing Street, with no accountability in place. How can the Minister come here today and say that this simply would not happen again?
The Prime Minister was personally informed about these allegations, yet he was either negligent or complicit. What message does that send about the standards of this Government and those they set? What message does it send to the British people facing a cost of living crisis while their Government are paralysed by scandal? When will this Minister stop defending the indefensible and say, “Enough is enough”?
The matter of what happened with regard to the right hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) is now under investigation. It is possible that a police investigation may—may—follow, so it is clear that the sub judice rule should apply to individual cases, in the interests of justice for everyone concerned, both those accused and potential victims. The sub judice rule should apply very much to these proceedings.
With regard to the appointment to the Whips Office in February that the right hon. Lady mentioned, appointments in Government are subject, of course, to advice on matters of propriety—they are not subject to veto, but they are subject to advice. In addition, the usual reshuffle procedures were followed by the Government. I ask the House to accept that, bearing in mind that the Member in question had been reappointed to Government by a previous Prime Minister in 2018 and appointed in 2019 as a Foreign Office Minister, and that then, crucially, he was appointed for a third time in February, I doubt whether anyone with knowledge of those facts could say that this Prime Minister should have acted otherwise than he did.
It is the morally fair thing to do, in any case, to assess the situation based on evidence and not unsubstantiated rumour. It is incumbent on all of us in this House, as it is in society generally, to act fairly. If there is no evidence at the time—if there is no live complaint, no ongoing investigation—surely it is not unreasonable to consider making an appointment.
In the limited time available, I have made some initial inquiries. This is subject to further assessment, but my understanding is as follows: in October 2019, officials raised concerns with the then permanent secretary about the Member in question. The permanent secretary commissioned work to establish facts, and that work was undertaken on his behalf by the Cabinet Office. That exercise reported in due course to the permanent secretary, who had agreed its terms. It established that although the Minister meant no harm, what had occurred caused a high level of discomfort. [Interruption.] That is what the exercise established. The Minister apologised, and those who raised the concern accepted the resolution. The Prime Minister was made aware of the issue in late 2019; he was told that the permanent secretary had taken the necessary action, so no issue arose about the Minister remaining a Minister.
Last week, when fresh allegations arose, the Prime Minister did not immediately recall the conversation in late 2019 about this incident. As soon as he was reminded, the No. 10 press office corrected its public lines. The position is quite clear. Further inquiries will be made, but the position is that the Prime Minister acted with probity at all times. It is not appropriate, whether in private life or in public life, to act on unsubstantiated rumour.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. My right hon. and learned Friend mentions the sophisticated and robust systems for upholding standards in public life, but those systems are, on the whole, irrelevant if the participants have no regard to them. The Government and, I suggest, my right hon. and hon. Friends sat on the Front Bench—I notice there is a preponderance of Government Whips there, rather than other Ministers—should consider what they are being asked to say in public, which changes seemingly by the hour. I ask them to consider the common sense of decency that I know the vast majority of them have, and to ask themselves if they can any longer tolerate being part of a Government who, for better or worse, are widely regarded as having lost their sense of direction. It is for them to consider their position. This is not a question of systems; it is a question of political judgment, and that political judgment cannot be delegated.
My hon. Friend is quite wrong. The Government know their direction, and that is to serve the British people by dealing with the issues that matter to them, including the cost of living, the crisis in Ukraine and the pandemic, which this Prime Minister and this Government have dealt with in an exemplary fashion.
Here we are again, Mr Speaker. Once again, the Minister for defending the indefensible is sent out to defend his boss, but even he must realise the frequency with which we reconvene in this place to question the veracity of the Prime Minister’s version of events; it is like being on a merry-go-round that gets faster and faster. Today, it is the turn of Lord McDonald, the former senior civil servant at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, to call out the Prime Minister’s claim that he was unaware of any specific allegations against the right hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) when he appointed him Deputy Chief Whip. In his letter to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Lord McDonald is unequivocal in saying that three years ago, in 2019, the Prime Minister
“was briefed in person about the initiation and outcome of the investigation.”
Lord McDonald’s letter absolutely demolishes the Prime Minister’s claims that he did not know and, once again, raises serious concerns and questions about whether he has broken the ministerial code. How much longer will we have to endure this seemingly endless merry-go-round? Will the Secretary of State now commit to holding a full and transparent investigation into this matter, and perhaps finally allow us and the people of the United Kingdom to get off this appalling merry-go-round?
I realise that the hon. Gentleman from Scotland wishes to make political hay out of this situation, but it really does not wash. It is not indefensible to defend natural justice. Natural justice means acting on evidence, not on gossip, rumour and innuendo. It is a fact that in this place, and in SW1 generally, there are rumours, gossip and innuendo about a multitude of issues and people. The reason journalists do not report it is that they cannot stand it up with evidence. The reason why others do not act is, in many cases, because they have not got evidence. It is not indefensible to defend the principles of natural justice and not expect people to act—to defenestrate individuals—without proof. That is the difference.
There is periodically much discussion in this place, and about this place, in respect of how we should address its culture, which seems to give permission for the wrong attitudes and wrong behaviours. How does it help if our political leaders, in all political parties, finish up promoting people with the wrong attitudes and the wrong behaviours? Is that not exactly what gives permission for the wrong attitudes and the wrong behaviours to persist?
My hon. Friend would be right if he were working under the assumption that those making the appointment knew that the individual in question had the wrong behaviours and the wrong attitudes. Submitting that it is a possibility, or that there are rumours, would not be sufficient; that is the crux of the difference.
I hope one day that the Minister plays these things back and listens to himself. I do not think he will be proud of himself in later days. I know that many decent Conservative MPs feel terribly ashamed of everything that has been happening in this sordid process. Is not this the real problem? If the boss is someone who has spent all his political career trying to get away with things, and finding himself innocent in the court of his own opinion; if he boasts to everybody, laughingly, that all the sex pests support him for the leadership; if, whenever he gets into trouble, he tries to destroy the system; then all his allies will endlessly take liberties. It does not then feel like a Government who are trying to serve the British people. It just feels like a Government who are trying to help themselves.
The hon. Gentleman takes a sanctimonious tone. When it comes to this Government, he wishes to set himself up as judge, jury and executioner, but the reality is that taking the moral high ground is not something that fits well. He should bear in mind that it is also moral to treat people fairly; that includes victims and the accused. That is what I have done, and what I seek to do.
The Minister rightly pointed out in his introductory remarks that the seven Nolan principles of integrity in public life underpin and run all the way through the ministerial code, but it is clear from Lord McDonald’s letter today that No. 10 has not been honest in what it has said. That is what Lord McDonald says in terms. One of the seven Nolan principles is honesty. No. 10 was previously accused, without rebuttal, of lacking leadership by Sue Gray in her report on what went on over partygate. How many more of the seven principles have to be breached before my right hon. and learned Friend stands up and says, “Enough is enough”?
I do not accept the premise of my hon. Friend’s question. As I think he will note, when, after the exercise—the investigation that I referred to a few moments ago—the former Minister in question was appointed to the Department for Levelling Up, and then to the Whips Office, I am not aware that any further objection was made by the senior civil servant in question. That is something from which my hon. Friend can draw a note.
As many in this House know, I am a former police officer, and something that is important for every single one of us as MPs is our responsibility for safeguarding, both on the estate and in our constituency. If I received an unsubstantiated allegation, I would do my best to find out as much as I could about it, not just from curiosity, but to ensure that people were safe. What has failed here? Is it a failure of process, integrity or both?
No. As I have articulated, there was an exercise in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on the matter, which I believe went on for several weeks. I need to confirm the details, because I had insufficient time to do so this morning, but as I say, there was an exercise, and it concluded to the satisfaction of all involved. That was within the Department and, it appears to me, before the Prime Minister was made aware.
Recently, at a Brexit opportunities debate here, there were no Liberal Democrats and virtually no Labour Members. The only time they turn up here is to bash Boris. Does my right hon. and learned Friend think that our constituents in Northamptonshire, which we both represent, are more concerned about an MP they have never heard about, or the biggest tax reduction in decades, which will happen tomorrow?
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head, as usual. As he points out, Labour Members have made frequent requests for business in this House to be about not what our constituents primarily care about, but personalities. They do not raise the issue of policies, because when they do, they lose. Instead, they focus on personalities, and that has been the drive of the past six months.
Given the character and record of this Prime Minister and of this No. 10, and given that numerous Ministers have, in recent days, been sent out to spout different versions of events—which the BBC political editor this morning described as all having become “drivel”—how can any of us, including the Minister, have confidence that the latest version of events that he has given the House is true?
Well, in the first place, what I have set out to the House is a principle of natural justice that is true in every case. It would be true in the case of an allegation against anyone, in any circumstances. It is fair to complainants and those subject to allegations alike, and it applies all the time, so it is not a question of the individual facts that the right hon. Gentleman is alluding to. It is an overarching principle of fairness in life, which is to act on evidence, rather than gossip, innuendo and rumour. It may be that that gossip, innuendo and rumour later turn out to be true, but when persons in authority have to make decisions, they should do so properly and for good reason.
I have listened to my right hon. and learned Friend very carefully, and I hear what he says about natural justice, but the Government Whips Office is meant to organise us to get the Government’s business done. That involves providing a safe space for discussions about policy issues, where there are differences on them, and a safe space for welfare. Notwithstanding what he said about natural justice, the very whiff of rumour and historical incident, which Simon McDonald referred to in his letter today, should have been enough to tell the Prime Minister that that appointment was not wise, and that he could have made use of the talents of the hon. Gentleman in question in a different Department, as he had done previously.
We have a real problem here. No. 10 has addressed the issue of its knowledge of these events with varying degrees of honesty; there has been, I think, half a dozen different variations in what it has said. I am very fond of my right hon. and learned Friend, and I think he is on a really sticky wicket today, but the way we move on from this is through a complete reset of standards, and a complete reboot of the ministerial code. What does he intend to do to convey to this House that the provisions of the ministerial code are taken seriously by this Government?
I can assure my hon. Friend that the codes of conduct—the codes of practice—are adhered to firmly by this Government and supported by this Prime Minister. She will know that any Prime Minister—in fact, any Secretary of State, Cabinet Minister, any Minister of the Crown—will regularly be dealing with a vast quantity of information. It is a question not of honesty or dishonesty, but of recalling every fact years after the event. If the circumstances were such that they were not firmly crystallised in any individual’s mind at the time they were being given that information, they can easily not be recollected. It does not necessarily immediately impugn dishonesty if someone does not recall something years after the event, so I ask her to bear that in mind.
The Minister has danced on a pinhead here, but as the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) says, we are not just MPs, Ministers or Whips; we also employ staff in this place. Staff, who are often alone in our offices with us, rely on a code and a proper workplace. We do not have that here and this just undermines the support that we should be providing to the many people who work here. We have to get away from the idea of MP exceptionalism and stop dancing on a pinhead. The Minister should heed the words of the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) and say, “Enough is enough.”
I agree with the hon. Lady in as much as she says that we need to have care for our employees here. That is something with which we would all agree. In fact, it is this Government who set up the independent complaints and grievance system for staffers from this place to do that. So I ask her to characterise it as something on which we are all on the same side. I urge anyone who has any complaints at any time to make those complaints known. That is how justice is done.
My right hon. and learned Friend says that all are innocent until proven guilty, and makes the point, which I agree with, that unsubstantiated allegations should not lead to people losing their jobs or not being appointed. What he has said is that the Prime Minister knew of the allegation in 2019. He said that discomfort was caused and he said that the right hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) apologised. The letter from Lord McDonald says:
“In substance, the allegations”—
at that time—
“were similar to those made about his behaviour at the Carlton Club.”
The allegations, as reported from the time at the Carlton Club, include sexual assault. Can he confirm whether the allegations made back in 2019 were of sexual assault? If they were and they were upheld and an apology was given, why were the police not involved and why was he not sacked at the time, never mind given another job?
I am unable to speak to that. But what I would say is that we must do everything we can to protect the confidentiality of those who make complaints. I am very concerned that the way in which this matter has been processed by some individuals means that it opens up a risk of a breach of confidentiality for those who have made complaints. That is paramount.
The Minister is increasingly looking like the boy who stands on the burning deck. His problem is that the Prime Minister is going to desert him as well. The trouble is that gossip and innuendo actually become facts, which is something that the Minister does not recognise. Minister after Minister has been humiliated, going out and giving a storyline that has been given to them by No.10, which subsequently changes. And the story has changed again today from the Minister’s own mouth. We have heard from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), and now we have the facts from Lord McDonald. The fact is that special advisers have been used to put out and peddle this misinformation. So what is going to be done to investigate them and the special advisers’ code of conduct because we cannot keep having No.10 just peddling lies?
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. There is absolutely no evidence of what he speaks. The reality is that, when years-old allegations resurface, inquiries have to be made. It is not an immediate exercise; those have to be got right. Every effort is being made to give accurate information. I said in my opening remarks to this honourable House that, in the limited amount of time that I have had available, that is the information that I have received, but, clearly, there will be an exercise to be done.
Last week, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) tabled a Bill that would make it an offence for politicians to wilfully mislead the public. Will the Minister press the Leader of the House for parliamentary time for a Second Reading debate of that Bill as a step towards restoring people’s faith in democracy?
I wondered whether the Minister was able to confirm whether anyone had personally raised with him concerns about the right hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher).
A few short weeks ago, at Lord Geidt’s resignation, I asked the Minister what fresh scandal was coming down the tracks. He assured me that there was none, yet here we are. The principle at stake here should resonate not just in this place, but in Parliaments across the UK and beyond, because accepting personal responsibility, lawfulness and truth telling are essential conditions of honourable conduct. As President Nixon discovered, it was the cover-up and the decision to lie that delivered his undoing. Misconduct in public office is a serious charge. Following the recent revelations from Lord McDonald, can the Minister tell the House: what did the Prime Minister know and when did he know it?
I have already dealt with that matter but I will say this. I do not think that any Member of this House from any of the Opposition political parties should take the moral high ground in this matter. I do not choose to reiterate why, but none of us should come to this House expecting all the criticism for any misconduct by any Member to be levelled against any one individual. What happens is that, when wrongdoing has been found to be done, it is properly dealt with in the interests of justice, whatever the political party. But Opposition Members wish to make party political points out of a serious matter.
Over the past few days, Downing Street and the Prime Minister’s official spokesman have said different things at different times: first, that the Prime Minister was not aware of any allegations against the former Government Deputy Chief Whip; then that they were not aware of any specific allegations; then that they were not aware of any serious specific allegations; and then that they were not aware of any allegations that were substantiated. Yet the letter from Lord McDonald to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, published today, shows that all those briefings appear to be untrue. So can the Minister tell the House whether the Cabinet Secretary is investigating these serial breaches of the special advisers’ code of conduct?
I do not accept the hon. Lady’s characterisation. What she obviously does not wish to recognise is that, as days pass during a heated episode, investigation and media inquiries, pictures become more crystallised. As I said in my opening remarks, when fresh allegations arose, the Prime Minister did not immediately recall the matter that had been raised with him in late 2019. As soon as he was reminded, the No.10 press office corrected the public line. So it is not a matter of anything other than recollection and due process.
Just two months ago, the Prime Minister stood at the Dispatch Box at Prime Minister’s questions and told me:
“of course sexual harassment is grounds for dismissal.”—[Official Report, 27 April 2022; Vol. 712, c. 759.]
Yet in 2019 he kept the right hon. Member for Tamworth as Minister, and this year he gave him powers over MPs’ welfare as Deputy Chief Whip, despite knowing that a formal complaint had been upheld against him. Let us be very clear: Lord McDonald’s letter says in black and white:
“Mr Johnson was briefed in person about the…outcome of the investigation.”
This is not about rumour, innuendo or gossip. Does that not show that the mechanisms for upholding standards in public life are only as good as the independence and integrity of the person charged with enforcing them—and does that not show not just that we need radical systems reform, but that the Prime Minister himself just has to go?
What the hon. Lady wishes to do is to draw politics into this matter. I would respectfully suggest to her that her drive to remove the Prime Minister will fail. The reason is that she focuses on personalities rather than on politics and policies. If she wishes to change the Prime Minister, she needs to win a general election in order to do so. This mechanism is not suitable for the party politics that she wishes to play.
I wonder if the Minister has seen his own Government’s “Enough” campaign about abuse and harassment, which literally has an image of a drunk in a pub groping someone. The line is that, “This is enough” and that people should step in and do what they can. It does not say, “Wait until a completely independent inquiry has gone on, while you’re in a pub with a gropey man— until you can try and do anything about it.” The Minister has stood in here today and sought to use the standards bodies in this House, which he was not in the meetings for—I was— and which were set up to protect people and to look after victims. Whether it is the Sue Gray report or the ICGS, there is always something that is meant to be for the standards for the public, but a Minister stands there and leans on that to try to get out of basically telling untruths to the public, allowing sycophancy rather than morality to be the reason why people are given their jobs. My question to the Minister is: if it had been me giving out those jobs, does he think the MP for Tamworth would have been able to get one?
I would expect of the hon. Lady perhaps more than she would expect of me. By that, I mean that I would expect her to act fairly. I hope that answers her question. If she was in that position of responsibility for making decisions about appointments, I would expect her to act fairly, full stop.
It seems that the problem we have is many processes, all of which lead back to the personal discretion of the Prime Minister. Is it not the case that we need a single, unified process, without the engagement of the Prime Minister or internal party documentation or machinations, where light is shone on this, and which protects the victims and the accusers rather than the abusers? Is it not the case that we need that now, away from the Prime Minister and independent of this place and himself?
In response to Sue Gray’s interim report, the Prime Minister announced that he would set up an office of the Prime Minister to address what she had identified as “fragmented and complicated” leadership structures that, in turn,
“led to the blurring of lines of accountability.”
Given the variety of conflicting accounts that we have heard in the past few days, how does the Minister think that has worked out?
If the right hon. Gentleman is asking me about machinery-of-Government processes and changes, that is not within my area of responsibility, but he knows what has been said about that. There is work going on all the time to look at machinery of Government and no doubt that will continue.
We now seem to be in a position where No. 10 have just admitted that the Prime Minister was told about the upheld complaint, but he forgot. Has the Minister ever found himself in a position where he did not immediately recall being told of an upheld complaint of sexual harassment against a fellow Minister?
I would ask the hon. Lady to understand that a Prime Minister has myriad urgent and pressing responsibilities. He may be told literally hundreds of things in any one day. The reality of the matter is that I cannot speak exactly to somebody else’s mind, whoever that person may be. But if she says to the House that she has never forgotten anything, or asks whether I have ever forgotten or misremembered something, I do not accept that.
There is real concern among staff and Members of Parliament about a culture within Westminster that protects abusers and does not encourage victims to come forward. We see here potentially the start of an unlocking of a type of abuse that has been common in Westminster for far too long, of men abusing other men, particularly young men. That is a scandal that will run for miles and miles, because it has been overlooked and deliberately hidden and those behind it have, in some cases, had the very highest people protecting them, through forgetting that things have happened. Will the Minister give us assurance now that he will treat a sexual abuse attack on a man in the same way as he would an attack on a woman, and make clear that there should not be a single Member of Parliament in this place, in any party, who is guilty of that?
The hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. There is no such culture either in this legislature or in the Executive. I have already said from this Dispatch Box that any victim should come forward about any incident at any time, and make themselves known and make their complaints. All are treated equally and will be treated equally. I have prosecuted personally cases in court. He asks me about that; there are a few barristers in this House who have been in criminal practice, and I am one of those who has prosecuted individuals for sexual assault and other criminal offences. So I am very alive to the issues generally, and I ask him to accept that we all come to this House in good faith to do the best we can, for our constituents and to look after those who work for us. Where there are failings, it is incumbent upon us to do the best we can to remedy and rectify those failings. That does not mean that we expect perfection in all cases, but it means that we should act fairly and reasonably at all times and do the very best we can.
My constituents are facing a cost of living crisis made worse by underfunded, slashed public services. Does the Minister agree that, in the interests of the most efficient use of public funds and public service time, it would be best to open one commission to identify and investigate the occasions on which the Prime Minister has actually told the truth?
The hon. Lady mentions her constituents and mine and the focus on cost of living, but I am afraid that the Labour party has requested and been granted numerous hours in this House, which I have had the honour of responding to from this Dispatch Box, not to ask about or debate cost of living, but to debate personalities. I ask her to bear in mind, if she is asking about the time of this House, what her party has been focusing on—and it is not the global cost of living crisis.
I have no idea what the hon. Gentleman is referring to. I do not recall at any point anyone’s saying that that would be the case. I cannot confirm something that I do not know to be the case. In fact, on the contrary, the Prime Minister is focused on ensuring that proper mechanisms are in place to uphold all standards in public life.
Quite frankly, this stinks. The Minister does us all a disservice today, because standards in public life do matter, despite what anyone on the Government Benches might say. People need to be sure that the people who make decisions and work in organisations that work on their behalf can be trusted, and we no longer have an independent ethics adviser since he resigned. Does the Minister not believe that it is urgent that a new ethics adviser is found and put in place, because otherwise how can anyone trust this Government to uphold standards and investigate breaches effectively?
I have already said that the matter is being given the closest attention by the Prime Minister and by Downing Street. We do focus on standards in public life, as we do, as I have adumbrated before, in the list of matters that are available to those who seek to make complaints and wish to make complaints. In the interim period, people can make complaints to their permanent secretary, or the permanent secretary of the relevant Department, and that appears to be what happened in this case in 2019.
The Minister has stated that the Prime Minister’s current defence in this matter is, “I was told but I forgot.” The Minister mentioned his time in practice. If a client had produced that defence, what advice would he have given him, and would he have put him in the witness box?
If anyone should go into the witness box, it is those on the Labour Front Bench. The hon. Gentleman seeks to challenge this party, but it is this party that delivers what the people of this country want. It is this party that secured the largest majority since the 1980s at the last general election, and it is this Prime Minister who will go on to fight the next general election. It is about policies, not personalities, and the hon. Gentleman wishes to make political points out of a serious allegation.
Around one in three women and one in seven men are survivors of sexual violence. Many of them will work on the parliamentary estate, and whether we know it or not, they may be sitting in this very Chamber right now. What assurances can the Paymaster General give those survivors here and across the country that Parliament is a safe place to work and this Government are fit to govern, given the gaslighting that we have been subjected to today from the Dispatch Box, and the fact that Cabinet Ministers, including the Justice Secretary, are happy to go on national television and obfuscate and minimise the severity of allegations of this nature for as long as the alleged perpetrators are sufficiently loyal to the Prime Minister?
Obviously no one has, from this Dispatch Box or anywhere else, done what the hon. Lady alleges. The fact of the matter is that not everyone who disagrees with the hon. Lady is being dishonest. She needs to recognise that there is a version of events that every individual has. She wishes to make political points and claim that there is dishonesty involved. There is a difference of recollections in some cases—a difference of circumstances. That does not mean that the party that disagrees with her is dishonest.
Over the past week, we have heard the Prime Minister talk about no allegations, no specific allegations and no serious specific allegations. The response is changing on an almost daily basis and we now know that none of those responses was true, and were ever-changing smoke and mirrors. Why do this PM and Government have such a problem with truth and honesty?
This Government do not have the problem that the hon. Gentleman particularises. In fact, it is the Labour party that needs to look to its own soul when it takes the sanctimonious position that it has done. I am sorry to say that there are examples in the Labour party and it takes a high moral tone that I do not think is fitting.
The Minister may enjoy being pedantic in defending the Prime Minister, but the cover-up he is defending has resulted in reports of sexual assault. Today we are witnessing the Minister obfuscating and misusing his power. Is it not time that withholding information about misconduct, including sexual assault, results in immediate suspension of those individuals and that this misuse of power and safeguarding is brought into sharp focus and immediately handed over for independent investigation?
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Minister has said repeatedly that there is an investigation ongoing. He has absolutely no means of knowing that, because the ICGS process is entirely confidential, and indeed it is important that it is kept confidential. Even the fact that there is an investigation is confidential. I hope that you can confirm that, Mr Speaker, because it is so important to the victims, in particular.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Once again, it returns to the question of not getting answers. I would be very grateful for your guidance on how we as Members can secure satisfactory answers. On two occasions now, I have tabled written questions relating to the Department of Health’s links with the Beijing Genomics Institute, following its failure to answer properly a question tabled by my predecessor as shadow Asia Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock). My first question, tabled on 13 January, was ignored until the House rose for Prorogation on 28 April. I subsequently tabled a follow-up on 18 May, and to date I have only received a holding response. These are vitally important questions relating to our national security and this is not good enough. Will you please advise, Mr Speaker, on how the Government should answer these questions?
I thank the hon. Member for giving me notice of the point of order. Of course, I am hoping that Ministers will have heard it. It is certainly on the record. The hon. Member might also consider raising it with the Procedure Committee, which monitors the performance of Government in answering questions. I say quite clearly to the Government that they have a duty to answer all Members of Parliament, whichever side of the House they come from. They should be diligent in making sure that questions are answered as promptly as possible.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am concerned that the House may have been misled inadvertently, at least by omission. The Paymaster General asserted that the Prime Minister did not recall that he had been advised by a civil servant about the previous issues regarding the right hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) because he forgot, but my understanding is that meetings with civil servants are a matter of record, and his private office would have investigated that. So how do we get redress, because surely it was investigated? What was in that record and who told who about it?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Could you give guidance to the House? The Opposition are apparently very cross with the Government at the moment. Is there any reason why the Opposition cannot move a vote of no confidence in the Government?