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Topical Questions

Volume 717: debated on Tuesday 5 July 2022

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.

T2.   I recently had the pleasure of visiting HMP The Mount in my constituency, where I learned about its excellent work to provide inmates with practical work skills for life after prison. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that when individuals leave prison, they are given the tools and skills to successfully rehabilitate themselves back into society—as they are at HMP The Mount—and get back into work, and not to fall back into a life of crime? (900883)

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.]

Order. It is one thing for an hon. Member to come in to the Chamber very late, but it is another for them to start shouting. If they want to shout, shout outside.

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.

T6. Does the Minister agree that the many people who give their time free of charge to act as magistrates are a fantastic asset to this country? They are the backbone of our justice system: without them, it could not function effectively. (900887)

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.

T3. Prosecutions for rape cases are at an appallingly low 1.3%—even an increase of two thirds still translates to less than 2%, which is truly shocking—and drop-out rates are at more than 40% because of court delays and onerous evidence requirements. What is the Minister of State doing for victims of rape, to significantly increase the number of prosecutions and convictions? (900884)

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.

T4. There is only one legal aid provider for immigration in Brighton and the surrounding area of Sussex: BHT, which is currently operating a waiting list and is only prioritising unaccompanied minors. Lawstop, a legal aid provider in other areas, has applied to the Legal Aid Agency for immigration legal aid support, but has been told that there is no demand in the area. How can that be, if the only other provider has to operate a waiting list and is only able to help unaccompanied minors? Is it not now time to change how legal aid contracts are given, so that all those who request it can get access to legal aid? (900885)

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.

T8.   I understand that the Government have now received the recommendations from the Prison Service pay review body for a rise in prison officers’ wages. I do not know whether the Secretary of State chats to any security guards on the House of Commons estate, but many of them are former prison officers who left the service because of poor pay and bad terms and conditions in our prisons. When will the Secretary of State respond to those recommendations, and will he agree to follow them in full and not pick and choose, which is what has been done for the past three years? (900889)

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue. I am considering the recommendations very carefully, and will respond shortly.

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?

T10. In the wake of legal aid cuts and, now, cuts in a few charitable services—such as Support Through Court, which, as we heard earlier, has had its core funding cut—and given the cost of living crisis, how do the Government expect people who cannot afford lawyers to navigate court if the last remaining services that could help them are lost? (900891)

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.