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Volume 720: debated on Tuesday 18 October 2022

The Secretary of State was asked—

Prisons: Working Environments and Violence at Work

1. What steps his Department is taking to help (a) create safer working environments in prisons and (b) support prison staff who are victims of violence at work. (901679)

We are committed to making prisons a safe place in which to work and providing prison officers with the right support, training and tools to empower them to do their jobs. Our prison officers are the hidden heroes of the criminal justice system; they do great work, keeping the public safe every single day.

I am grateful for that answer from my right hon. Friend, and I hope he would acknowledge that prison officers work in a dangerous and violent environment. I urge him to take this opportunity to acknowledge also that expecting them to work in such a violent environment until they are 68 is wholly unacceptable. Will he commit to an urgent review of how the pension age for prison officers can be reduced so that it reflects that of other public sector workers in similar challenging environments, such as police officers and firefighters, who are able to retire at 60?

I appreciate the challenge that my hon. Friend fairly makes, and I would say a couple of things on that. First, anybody who is violent towards staff will face the full consequences of their actions and should be properly, effectively and swiftly dealt with—we will ensure that they are. On the age issue, all prison officers who joined the service after April 2001 go through and have to pass an annual fitness test. Obviously, that applies to prison officers over the age of 65, and even some of the people who have applied for those roles at that age range have passed the fitness test and are performing their roles effectively. The service, and the prisoners themselves, can benefit from people with that level of experience, who play an important part as key members of the team.

I thank the Minister for his response. It is not just the prison officers who feel the pain of the attacks and what happens to them—the families do, too. What is being done to help the families, not only of those who are suffering physically, but of those who are perhaps suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder coming out of prisons?

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, as he often does in this House; we focus on the frontline service personnel, such as our brilliant prison officers, but their families and friends pick up on this, as they are the people who work with them and are in their social lives and family lives. We do provide post-incident support through our care teams, trauma risk management teams and the work associated with occupational health. Obviously, there is also counselling for staff who are impacted by violence in the workplace. The best way we can crack down on this is by being very clear that that kind of behaviour simply will not be tolerated and will be prosecuted.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. First, may I welcome the Secretary of State to his place and indeed welcome his colleagues on the Government Front Bench?

Uncontrolled violence in prisons is a key reason officers leave their jobs nearly as quickly as Tory Chancellors. One in four prison officers now quit their job within a year of starting, which damages the supervision of prisoners, leaving victims’ families sickened to see Stephen Lawrence’s killer bragging about using a mobile phone in his cell and the murderer Sean Mercer running a drugs empire from behind bars. When will the Government get back control of our prisons?

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his initial remarks in welcoming our team to our places. I am sure that there will be a range of issues on which, across this Dispatch Box and away from it, we will be able to work together for the benefit of the safety of the public. Obviously, I also look forward to our exchanges here at the Dispatch Box.

We know that there is a link between staffing levels and prison violence, which is why we are continuing to strengthen the frontline. We have seen an increase in the number of prison officers from under 18,000 to almost 22,000; we have some 3,770 more full-time officers. He has also highlighted a couple of incidents. I agree that they are completely unacceptable, which is why I have initiated a review to ensure that those kinds of situations cannot happen again. People need to understand that if they are in prison, they are there for a reason: to keep the public safe. We will make sure that they are.

We might need to speed up; if we take eight minutes on one question, it is going to take time.

Violence Against Women and Girls: Criminal Justice System Reform

2. What steps his Department is taking to reform the criminal justice system to help tackle violence against women and girls. (901680)

12. What steps his Department is taking to reform the criminal justice system to help tackle violence against women and girls. (901692)

Since we published the end-to-end rape review, rape convictions have increased by 77% in the past year, and they are up by 30% on pre-pandemic levels. But there is much more to do, which is why, among other measures, we are more than quadrupling funding for victim support, to £192 million, and investing in increasing the number of independent sexual and domestic abuse advisers to 1,000 by 2024-25.

Crime is up, charges are down, criminals are getting off and victims are being let down—and that is just in the Met police. Yesterday, we saw the alarming weight of evidence from the Casey report, identifying structural misogyny, racism and homophobia in the Met, with thousands of serving police officers getting away with breaking the law. That cannot be a problem for the Met alone but goes across police forces. That culture explains the failures in our wider justice system, where sexism, racism and homophobia are unrecognised by police officers, and victims are not believed or supported. Unless those issues are addressed, we will never change the appalling low charge and conviction rates for rape and sexual assault, so will the Secretary of State—

Order. I am sorry, but I just said that we need to make progress. We cannot read speeches out; there has to be a question.

Will the Secretary of State look into whether this culture is symptomatic across police forces and take steps to ensure that victims get the justice that they deserve?

I thank the hon. Lady for her remarks; I have two observations on what she said. First, she talks about the Met police. The Labour Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is the police and crime commissioner for the London police forces. I also ask her to direct her questions to the Home Office, which leads on these matters. Of course, we will play our part, which is why we are rolling out all the measures in the Crown courts to protect victims of sexual assault and rape, and there is a lot more to do.

Under this Conservative Government, people can be fined for cycling on the pavement but not for following a girl walking home from school. The problem is so widespread that research by Plan International revealed that one third of all schoolgirls have received unwanted sexual attention in their school uniform. For so many women, a lifetime of feeling unsafe on our streets starts in childhood. The Government continue to ignore the problem. Does the Minister agree that the law must be changed to criminalise street harassment?

I thank the hon. Lady, but I strongly disagree with her remark that we are ignoring the problem. As she will know from Home Office questions, in which we have had many exchanges over the Dispatch Boxes about that issue, the Home Office is leading on a review of the laws relating to street harassment—not to mention the significant amounts of funding that we have put in to local councils all over the country to keep women and girls safe at night.

Under the Ministry of Justice’s masterplan to increase the number of approved premises available, high-risk and very high-risk offenders could be located at Highfield House in Consett right in the centre of my local town, in a residential area near a lot of local youth facilities. Will the Minister meet me to discuss that, because it is quite inappropriate for the location that has been suggested?

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing his constituents’ concerns to the House and I would be delighted to meet him to discuss that in detail.

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State and his ministerial team to their place.

Under the Tories, we have seen rape prosecutions reach record lows, court backlogs reach record highs and victims waiting more than three years for justice, yet in his conference speech, the Justice Secretary did not announce any tangible ways to change that. Labour, on the other hand, would introduce specialist rape courts to drive up prosecutions, reduce delays and fast-track cases through the system. Does that not show that the Tories have run out of ideas and that it is only under Labour that the public can again have confidence in our criminal justice system?

It is lovely to have these exchanges across the Dispatch Boxes with the hon. Lady, and I am sure that we will have more of them, because it is in all our interests that we improve the criminal justice system and the response to rape. That is why, as she well knows, the work of the rape review is vital, and we have seen police referrals, Crown Prosecution Service charges and Crown court receipts increasing as a result of that vital work, driven by our law enforcement partners and the CPS. I draw her attention to two specific measures that we have introduced to assist: we have ended the criminal Bar strike, thanks to the efforts of the Lord Chancellor; and we have rolled out section 28 pre-recorded evidence to all Crown courts in the country to spare rape victims the trauma of live cross-questioning.

Offenders: Employment after Release from Prison

3. What steps his Department is taking to help offenders find employment following their release from prison. (901681)

23. What steps his Department is taking to help offenders find employment following their release from prison. (901703)

Getting prisoners into employment helps not only to fill the 1.25 million vacancies that businesses have right now, but to drive down reoffending. To achieve that, we are building stronger links with employers and suppliers and are offering more offenders the chance to work in prison, on release on temporary licence, and on release from prison.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that through the apprenticeships programme that his Department is running, prison leavers will be given the opportunity to achieve qualifications that will help them into new jobs and careers and help them to turn their back on crime?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We want to get more prisoners the skills and qualifications that they need to get into employment and have the chance to contribute to society, which cuts crime and grows the economy. I am delighted that the first apprentices have now started work. We are planning a roundtable to encourage a wide range of employers, particularly in the UK hospitality and construction industries, where there is a lot more that we can do.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to building links with employers to ensure that prison leavers go into sustainable employment. Will he assure me and the House that his Department will support that ambition with appropriate funding?

Yes. My hon. Friend makes an important point. We are investing in new roles, such as prison employment leads and a head of education, skills and work, to give our prisoners the support that they need to get into jobs. We are also funding new infrastructure such as employment hubs. This investment will cut crime and help prisoners to get work-ready, which will mean a better, safer society and a healthier community.

Having visited HMP Thorn Cross recently while I was a Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions, I have seen the great work that Timpson and TalkTalk, among others, are doing to prepare offenders for the world of work. At a meeting in Macclesfield on Friday, Sodexo also demonstrated its clear commitment to the task. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need more such partnerships, as well as clear pathways of support on leaving prison, including access to relevant benefits, to ensure that more prison leavers land better on their own two feet?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and gives some key examples. The employability innovation fund announced in our prisons strategy White Paper will help prisoners to build more partnerships with employers like those at HMP Thorn Cross. I have seen other organisations and initiatives such as twinning projects that are looking into different things and are even using sports such as football to prepare prisoners for leaving prison and contributing positively to their community and future life. Those are great projects, and my hon. Friend gives a good example of a good prison doing great work.

One in three prisoners are released on a Friday, but many support services are closed over the weekend, which makes the transition and route into employment more complicated. It is welcome that the Government have said that they want to end Friday releases. Will the Secretary of State update the House on when that will happen?

The hon. Gentleman makes a clear and correct observation about timing. A private Member’s Bill on the subject—the Offenders (Day of Release from Detention) Bill—will come before the House in the next few weeks, and we are looking at it very carefully.

Diolch yn fawr, Llefarydd.

Securing employment for offenders is vital to rehabilitation, and the role of experienced probation officers is key to success. Earlier this month, I visited the Caernarfon office of the north Wales probation delivery unit and learned that the region has 27 vacancies in a present workforce of 200. Does the Secretary of State recognise the risk to the effectiveness of rehabilitation and to public safety as a result of the loss of experienced probation staff and increased workloads? Will he commit to no further cuts in probation?

I recognise the challenge across prisons and probation. Making sure that we have the right teams, with staff who have the right experience to work with people, is important in preparing people and avoiding reoffending, which is so important to the safety of our communities. I am very focused on the issue. We are recruiting people across His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service at the moment. I look forward to making sure that we can support people across the country, and I look forward to visiting Wales to see that for myself.

The probation service is not finding jobs for prisoners, because understaffing is at crisis point: the service now faces a shortage of nearly 1,700 officers, according to the MOJ’s own figures. That allows serious offenders such as Katie Piper’s acid attacker to evade monitoring and escape abroad. Will the Secretary of State apologise to victims, including Katie Piper, for letting the probation service get so run down that it can no longer control offenders?

I appreciate that for political reasons the hon. Gentleman will want to do the probation service down. I have to say that I think our probation officers across the country work hard every day, not only to keep communities safe but to help prisoners to rehabilitate and get into communities.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight situations that are not acceptable. The example of Katie Piper is a current one, and it is not acceptable. As Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State, I am determined to do everything I can, working with my ministerial team and the brilliant teams across probation, to ensure that such situations do not happen in future. It is not acceptable, and it should not have happened.

Rwanda Partnership: Legal Compatibility

4. Whether he has had recent discussions with Cabinet colleagues on the compatibility of the migration and economic development partnership with Rwanda with (a) domestic law and (b) the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees. (901682)

17. Whether he has had recent discussions with Cabinet colleagues on the compatibility of the migration and economic development partnership with Rwanda with (a) domestic law and (b) the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees. (901697)

19. Whether he has had recent discussions with Cabinet colleagues on the compatibility of the migration and economic development partnership with Rwanda with (a) domestic law and (b) the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees. (901699)

20. Whether he has had recent discussions with Cabinet colleagues on the compatibility of the migration and economic development partnership with Rwanda with (a) domestic law and (b) the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees. (901700)

21. Whether he has had recent discussions with Cabinet colleagues on the compatibility of the migration and economic development partnership with Rwanda with (a) domestic law and (b) the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees. (901701)

The Secretary of State works closely, and has regular discussions, with the Home Secretary and other members of the Cabinet on tackling illegal migration. The migration and economic development partnership is an essential part of the Government’s strategy to improve the fairness and efficacy of the United Kingdom’s immigration system. Its aim is to deter illegal entry to the UK, break the business model of people smugglers, and remove from the UK those who have no right to be here. There are ongoing legal challenges to the partnership, but the Government remain confident that it is fully compliant with national and international law.

I thank the Minister for his answer, and welcome him to his place—for the time being.

The United Nations refugee convention prohibits refoulement—returning a refugee to a place, including any third country, where they would face persecution. Given that UK Government officials are warning their own Ministers about Rwanda’s appalling human rights record, how can the Minister be confident that this plan is compatible with the convention?

Nothing in the UN convention prevents people from being transferred to a safe country. Rwanda is a safe country. It is a signatory to the convention. It has been praised by the UN for its work on refugees, and it is a good partner to do business with.

Yesterday I returned from Rwanda, where I saw at first hand what some people are now calling Hopeless House, a refurbished orphanage. It is clear that there is zero transparency in respect of the £120 million payment to Rwanda.

Is the Justice Secretary not alarmed by the fact that the world’s largest refugee agency, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has said that this policy will

“undermine, not promote, the Government’s stated goal of improving protection for those at risk of persecution”,

and, as a result, will send the clearest possible message to international partners that this UK Government are stepping away yet again from their international responsibilities on human rights protections?

What is clear is that the current situation in the channel is deathly. What we need to do is smash the business model of the people smugglers, and ensure that we have a safe and human route for those people who have been transferred to Rwanda. I am confident that we are on track to do that. We are confident of our legal position; no court has deemed our plan to be in any way unlawful.

Under the Government’s plans people could be given as little as seven days’ notice of deportation, which is clearly insufficient time for them to seek any legal advice about their removal to Rwanda. Does the Minister agree with the Law Society of England and Wales, which says that anyone subject to a life-changing order must be able to challenge the decision and have their case processed fairly and transparently?

Access to legal advice is, of course, extremely important to anyone seeking asylum, which is why legal assistance is available to all asylum claimants. For example, 30 minutes of telephone legal advice and access to legal aid are available to people who claim asylum in this country.

Does the Minister agree with the chief executive of the group Refugee Action that stepping back from the UK’s obligations under the 1951 convention would be

“a blatant breach of the international refugee laws that the UK proudly helped create in the first place”,

and does the new Justice Secretary not feel a responsibility to uphold those international obligations?

Everything we are doing complies with the UN convention, and with the UN convention on human rights. It also complies with national law. I have to say to Scottish National party Members that if they spent a little more time looking at the border between the UK and France and a little less time looking at the border between England and Scotland, they might come up with some viable alternatives.

Does the Minister not realise how embarrassingly abject it is to hear the Home Secretary accuse judges in Strasbourg of mission creep, when all they are doing, when it comes to the refugee convention, is interpreting and upholding laws that successive UK Governments have helped to create and have tasked them with upholding?

The hon. Gentleman should have more faith in our judges. I repeat that everything we are doing complies with the UN convention on refugees. It complies as well with UK law and with the European convention on human rights. We are determined to stop what is going on in the channel. This is the fourth question we have heard from the Scottish National party, and not once have we heard a viable alternative proposal from them. Not once.

Human Rights

The Government stand by their manifesto commitment to update the Human Rights Act 1998. Obviously we want to look at the best way to do this and we are therefore looking again at the Bill of Rights to ensure that we deliver on the Government’s objectives as effectively as possible. And, as the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) has just outlined, we remain a committed party to the European convention on human rights.

Has the Secretary of State proposals to protect free speech from the use of strategic lawsuits against public participation?

Yes. SLAPPs, as they are referred to, are an abuse of the legal system involving people using legal threats and litigation to silence journalists, campaigners and public bodies. The invasion of Ukraine has heightened concerns about oligarchs abusing these laws and seeking to shut down reporting on their corruption and economic crime. I have met the Justice Minister and Deputy Justice Minister from Ukraine to talk about these issues. I am still determined to introduce legislation to deal with SLAPPs and with freedom of speech more widely.

The Minister is crying out for alternatives and advice, but section 3 of the Human Rights Act requires Parliament to ensure the compatibility of UK legislation with the European convention on human rights

“so far as it is possible to do so”.

Why, then, are his Government so intent on removing these protections altogether, when the Act already grants them this obvious flexibility?

I will say two things. First, we want to ensure that we have protection of freedom of speech, as in some areas we are seeing a sad increase in the cancel culture and, importantly, the targeted anti-SLAPP reforms will be able to be deliver through a statutory definition of a SLAPP, with identifying characteristics and cost protections for SLAPPs cases, giving absolute confidence that we are not going to have our legal system abused by ne’er-do-wells and foreign oligarchs trying to suppress the reality of what is happening in situations such as those in Ukraine.

To save me raising a point of order later, I want to say in response to the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), that we are constantly saying that there should be safe and legal routes. If he looks them up, he will find out what our solutions are to the Rwanda plan.

Professor Aileen McHarg, a professor of public law and human rights at Durham Law School, has told the Joint Committee on Human Rights that she has

“no doubt that…any changes to the Human Rights Act will have knock-on consequences for the scope of devolved competence.”

Does the Secretary of State agree with her? Assuming that he does, does he also accept that this brings any future reforms firmly within the scope of the Sewel convention and that he must therefore seek the consent of the Scottish Parliament?

On the hon. Lady’s opening remark, one thing that was not clear from the questions asked is that we have to ensure we are cracking down on the people who are abusing the system and abusing people through modern slavery and using these tragic life-threatening transports. I make no apology, and nor does anybody in this Government, for trying to do the right thing and crack down on those criminals. I have already said that we are looking at the Bill of Rights, and she will be able to see what we are bringing forward in due course to ensure that we are delivering on our objectives correctly. I repeat that we are a committed party to the European convention on human rights.

I am not sure that that was an answer to my question. However, assuming that the Secretary of State does agree with Professor Aileen McHarg and that he will consult the Scottish Parliament, if the Scottish Parliament, on behalf of the people of Scotland, says no—as it absolutely will do—to tinkering with our human rights, will he stop tinkering with them, or will he do as many Members right across this House do and dismiss the views of the people of Scotland, thus adding to the very many reasons to say yes to independence and yes to retaining our human rights?

It did not take long to get on to a separatist debate in oral questions today, but as I have said, we are looking at the Bill of Rights. Actually, the Government have consulted all the devolved authorities through the entire process of looking at the Bill of Rights; I know that my predecessor did that as well. I will always look to continue to engage, but we are committed to delivering on our manifesto pledges and doing the right thing by the people of the United Kingdom—all of the United Kingdom.

Magistrates: Sentencing Powers

We extended magistrates courts’ sentencing powers from a maximum of six months’ imprisonment to 12 months’ imprisonment for single triable either way offences in April of this year. We estimate this will save up to 1,700 Crown court sitting days a year, and we are keeping the impact of these increased powers under review.

That does not really answer my question, although I thank the Minister for his response. My question is whether he intends to extend the sentencing powers further. Although I obviously share his desire to tackle backlogs and reduce waiting times in the Crown courts, concerns have been raised that further increasing the sentencing powers of magistrates is not the right way to go about this. More defendants may elect to be tried in Crown courts anyway, and expanded powers could result in higher sentences, putting even more pressure on already overcrowded prisons and leading to an increase in Crown court appeals. What consideration has he given to these concerns, and what alternatives are there?

I make no apologies for locking up criminals. I have confidence in the good blend of district judges and justices of the peace in the magistrates courts. We have not seen how the existing increase in powers has been borne out, and we have not seen what the impact will be. We will keep that under review and, until we have that information, I cannot add anything further.

Prisoners: Mental Health

The Government published the draft Mental Health Bill in June, and it is now subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. It includes vital reforms to support people with serious mental illness in the criminal justice system by speeding up access to specialist in-patient care and treatment, and it seeks to end the use of prison as a place of safety. The Bill will introduce a new statutory time limit of 28 days for transfers from prison to hospital.

As the Minister is aware, a very high percentage of prisoners have mental health problems. It may also be the case that they end up in prison because of mental health issues. Will the Ministry of Justice work more closely with the Department of Health and Social Care and other people who can provide mental health services to try to stop the spiral?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am pleased to tell him that the Government are working very closely with the national health service. I will give two quick examples. We know that people leaving custody present a risk of reoffending, so we work with NHS England on a project called RECONNECT, which offers prison leavers targeted support to ensure they go to their appointments in the community to help them on their journey. At primary level, we are rolling out community sentence treatment requirements, including mental health treatment requirements. NHS England is on track to roll them out to every court in England by the end of 2024.

Intimate Image Abuse

9. If he will hold discussions with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on the potential merits of including the recommendations by the Law Commission on intimate image abuse published in July 2022 in the Online Safety Bill. (901688)

The Government welcome the Law Commission’s review, and we are carefully considering its recommendations. As my right hon. Friend will expect, the Lord Chancellor is working very closely with his counterpart in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

The Law Commission’s report says there are gaps in the law on online intimate image abuse that

“mean that harmful, culpable behaviour is not appropriately criminalised and victims are left without effective recourse.”

The Government have a strong record on tackling crime against women, including by introducing the new revenge pornography laws. Rather than just talking about it, can we please act now and either include this in the Online Safety Bill or have a standalone Bill, as the Government recently did to tackle upskirting?

My right hon. Friend has a hugely impressive track record of campaigning on all these issues, to enable women and girls to live safely both online and in the real world. She points to some of our previous work. Of course, technology is always changing, and the Government always keep this under review. It is right that we take time to consider the Law Commission’s recommendations, but I would be happy to meet her to discuss it in more detail.

Will the ministerial team go further in protecting women online? Is the Minister aware of the number of women journalists at the BBC who are trolled mercilessly into mental health issues? One dreadful troll was described as being in the Olympic class. These women have never been supported by the BBC, and they have never been given the support they should have been given. Will she join our campaign to secure justice through an independent inquiry into the negligence of the BBC towards its employees?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing that matter to the attention of the House. Of course, the Government have a range of responses to keep all women—not just BBC journalists—living their lives. It is absolutely right that we put in place the further protections that are contained in the Online Safety Bill. If he has further proposals, I ask him to bring them to me and I will be happy to look at them.

Criminal Court Backlog: Bolton

The outstanding case load in the Crown court in Bolton was 528 at the end of June 2022. We are taking action across the criminal justice system to deliver swifter access to justice for victims and to reduce the backlog of cases. That includes the investment of £477 million into the criminal justice system over the next three financial years to maximise the capacity of the system.

As a former prosecutor, a barrister in private practice and a shadow Justice Minister, I find sitting in this House and watching the Government oversee the managed decline of our legal system deeply concerning. In Bolton, as the Minister has said, the backlog stands at 500—more than 10% greater than six months ago. It includes 20 rape cases among other serious criminal cases. Can the Secretary of State for Justice inform me why the Government have effectively legalised criminal activity in Bolton, in Greater Manchester and throughout Britain?

The hon. Lady is right to raise the issue of the backlog; it is a serious matter. That is why we have put in a catalogue of measures to help tackle it, including: introducing Nightingale courts, which will be sitting until 2024-25; increasing the cap on sitting days; and raising the retirement age for judges. We have done a lot and I hope the hon. Lady will be gracious enough to congratulate the Lord Chancellor on successfully negotiating an end to the Bar strike, which will help tackle this serious problem.

With regards to addressing the backlog of criminal cases, the Minister will know that the largest category in the backlog of 60,000 cases is sexual offences. Previously, I have made representations to the former Lord Chancellor and the No. 10 policy unit to have specialist sexual courts to address that category. On 16 June, the previous Justice Secretary announced pilot projects for sexual offences courts in Leeds, Newcastle and Snaresbrook Crown court. That is something that I pushed for along with Kim Hollis, the former Director of Public Prosecutions in the British Virgin Islands. Has that taken place and what further steps have been taken to ensure that those pilot project results are taken forward?

I understand that, yes, that has taken place. My hon. Friend raises a very serious issue about the backlog and particularly about the serious offences that are contained within it. This is why we must get the number of outstanding cases, particularly the serious sexual offences, down. As far as the courts specialising in sexual offences are concerned, we are looking at pilots and considering the matter. There are pros and cons to that approach, and that is represented right across the criminal justice system with some people speaking up in favour of it and others against. That is why we need to look incredibly carefully at that very serious issue.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) for raising this question—a question that could be asked of each and every town and city with a courtroom, because the picture is dire up and down the country. I am glad, however, that the Ministry of Justice got back round the table with representatives from the criminal Bar and engaged with their concerns so that justice could get moving again. However, just a couple of weeks after that strike action ended, the Minister is facing more. It is about the failure of the Common Platform, which is preventing staff from doing their jobs effectively and holding up justice for victims and defendants alike. I welcome to his place the fourth Justice Minister that I have faced across the Dispatch Box. Will he now do what his managers and predecessors have refused to do and pause the further roll-out of this system until he gets it fixed?

I totally reject the argument that somehow the Common Platform is responsible for the backlog in the courts; it is not. What happened is that the backlog in the courts increased during covid. We were the first country in the world to recommence jury trials and get our courts back working again. The backlog was going down, but we then had the Bar strike, which, understandably, increased it because barristers were not working, but thanks to the actions of the Lord Chancellor, we now have resolved that issue and can look forward to the backlog coming down.

Criminal Barristers: Return to Work

We have boosted the system with additional investment and engagement with the Criminal Bar Association. I welcome its constructive engagement and that of the Bar Council, which led to the end of the strike. We have ensured there is an uplift on new cases and for the vast majority of existing cases, which will come into force by 31 October 2022, plus additional funding for case preparation work, further funding for defence barristers involved in pre-recorded cross-examinations, which are used to reduce the trauma of a trial for vulnerable victims and witnesses, by early 2023—coming back to the earlier question from the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves)—a substantial uplift per year for fees in the youth court and the criminal legal aid advisory board. All those changes, alongside the longer-term proposed reforms, mean there is an increased expected criminal aid spend of £1.2 billion per year. I am glad the barristers are back to work; that is good for victims and we can get these cases moving.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his collegiate approach and the speed with which he has brought about this situation with the Criminal Bar Association. Can he further assure me that, as well as the 15% uplift for barristers, his Department will continue to invest more widely in criminal legal aid, to ensure that it is adequately funded for the future as well?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The reality is that all lawyers, barristers and solicitors want to be working for the benefit of their clients and to ensure that victims are able to see cases come to justice. Speedy justice is good justice, with positive and proper outcomes through the right processes. Following the publication of the criminal legal aid independent review, we will be investing a further £135 million in criminal legal aid per year, the biggest increase in many decades, and setting out further plans for all parts of the profession as part of our response to CLAIR at the end of November.

The Secretary of State mentions solicitors, so can he say why solicitors have received only a 9% increase in fees, prompting the Law Society to say that they may not undertake criminal defence work?

I am not sure many people would class 9% as “only”, but that also does not reflect some of the other investments that solicitors will benefit from, particularly the substantial investment in youth courts, for example. As I said, we will respond more widely to CLAIR for the whole profession at the end of November and work with the relevant societies and associations.

I warmly commend the intervention of the Secretary of State to end the dispute; it was decisive and constructive and it is hugely welcome. I echo the points made just now: it is important for the criminal justice system to work well that solicitors too are properly remunerated. That is the view I take and I know the Chair of the Justice Committee would have made those points if he was not unavoidably detained today.

My hon. and learned Friend makes an important point, and from the Dispatch Box I congratulate the Chair of the Justice Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), who is otherwise engaged today on some very enjoyable and well-deserved matters. I hope he has a wonderful day. As I have said, we are going to be responding more fully to the CLAIR report, but my hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right that the criminal justice system works best when all parts of it are functioning fluidly and effectively for the benefit of all their clients and for wider society, and I am determined to ensure that we deliver that.

On the issue of solicitors’ fees, the Secretary of State clearly does not agree with his Justice Minister in the other place, Lord Bellamy, who said that the situation for criminal legal aid solicitors is more parlous than for barristers. The 9% is below the rate of inflation and it follows a 25-year pay freeze. When is the Secretary of State going to look properly at the issue of solicitors’ fees?

In the classic phrase, I refer the hon. Gentleman to the remarks I have made many times already in the last few minutes.

I hope the Justice Secretary will join me in congratulating Lubna Shuja, who becomes the first Asian and Muslim president of the Law Society.

Sir Christopher Bellamy’s review of criminal legal aid was clear that legal aid rates needed to rise to 15% to put the system on a sustainable footing. However, the Government’s proposals would raise legal aid rates only to 9% for solicitors, which is below inflation. The Law Society warned that the justice system is on the verge of collapse without funding all parts of it equally. Will the Lord Chancellor adjust his proposals to meet the recommendations of the Bellamy review?

I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating the new president of the Law Society. I look forward to working closely with her, as I do with other parts of the criminal justice system’s leadership through the Criminal Justice Board. We will respond to the full CLAIR report and we will be working with solicitors. There is a wider package for the entire criminal justice system; even within what we have announced as part of the Criminal Bar Association package, there are substantial chunks that benefit solicitors as well. The hon. Gentleman should have a look at the wider package.

Support for Victims

Our victims Bill will improve support for victims of crime, so they can cope with and recover from the impact. It will help them remain engaged with the criminal justice system and strengthen the transparency and accountability of those agencies and authorities that should be there to protect them.

I thank the Minister for her comments, but I want to raise something specific that could be done through the victims Bill, which is to ban the use of victims’ counselling notes in courts. In July, the Attorney General extended the guidance, making it easier for such notes to go into the public domain. That has had a huge and immediate chilling effect on victims getting pre-trial therapy and on them coming forward at all. Please can the Minister address this.

The hon. Lady raises a vital issue to which we are paying close attention through the work of the rape review. It is not the case that it is now easier for those notes to be requested. I am aware that the hon. Lady is holding an event this afternoon. I would be very happy to come along, talk to her and put right some of the points she has made. We are determined to improve the experience of victims of rape and we are making great strides already.

While the Government derail the economy and crash the markets, victims and survivors are still being abandoned. This Government are too busy trying to save their own skin to care about what is happening to victims. One survivor told me her partner sexually assaulted her and abused her child. Her truth was misbelieved and mistrusted. She never got her day in court. Now she is just one of many Jane Does denied justice and traumatised by the criminal justice system. These are the victims being failed by this Government’s negligence, and now we have a victims Bill going nowhere. Will the Minister tell victims when she is finally going to put them first and bring forward a Bill?

This Government are determined to stand behind victims of crime. That is why, as the hon. Lady knows, the Justice Committee has carried out detailed pre-legislative scrutiny. We are reviewing that very carefully and we will bring forward the victims Bill as soon as parliamentary time allows.

Topical Questions

My immediate priority on becoming Justice Secretary was to end the disruptive strike action that was delaying justice in our criminal courts. I am pleased that the Criminal Bar Association voted to agree a new legal aid deal and its members returned to work last week.

The Government have reset a constructive relationship with barristers and we have agreed to work together to bring down court backlogs, so that victims can get the timely justice they deserve. We have also announced more plans for more prison leavers to be fitted with GPS tags, so that we can keep a close eye on them to help deter reoffending, reduce crime and, importantly, keep our citizens and communities safe.

Ten years since the abolition of the sentence of imprisonment for public protection, nearly 3,000 people are still in prison serving indeterminate sentences. Last month, the Justice Committee released a report calling the sentence “irredeemably flawed”, highlighting the severe psychological harm it causes and its adverse impact on rehabilitation. Will the Secretary of State act on the report’s recommendation to bring in legislation to resentence prisoners subject to IPP sentences?

As the hon. Lady rightly says, that report has been published. We are considering it and we will respond in due course.

T3.   I was pleased by my right hon. Friend’s announcement at the party conference that more criminals will be closely monitored through GPS tagging. Can he assure me that the funding for that is available, so that my constituents can have the confidence that they will be safer on their streets? (901706)

Yes, absolutely. I am looking forward to being able to roll out up to 8,000 new tags as part of the scheme we have announced. The scheme is funded and will be happening. It is important to stress that it is on top of current prison leavers, and it will give extra protection and confidence to communities because we will know what the people who are tagged are doing and where they are. It adds to community safety and gives a sense of safety to everyone.

T2. Recent statistics show the backlog in the Crown court has increased to more than 61,000 cases. Given our collective experience during covid and the necessity of non-face-to-face meetings, and how valuable the work done during such difficult times was, will the Justice Secretary update the House on what discussions have taken place on more use of virtual proceedings, and on a full and sustained funding package to modernise the courts estate? Does he agree that this needs to be implemented urgently, with Scotland receiving its full Barnett consequentials? (901705)

The court backlog is an important issue. As part of the deal done with the Criminal Bar Association, we are looking at giving better funding for cross-examination under section 28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 for victims of serious sexual violence, but the hon. Gentleman will know that the Government have put in place a catalogue of measures to tackle the backlog in the Crown court. We want to get on top of the backlog; we were getting on top of it until the Bar strike took place, and thanks to the deal that has been struck, we are now optimistic that it will start to come down.

T5. Everyone is scratching their head about how to send illegal migrants back across the channel, but every time we try something, it is trumped by human rights lawyers. Clearly something must be done. Is there anything in the Human Rights Act 1998 or the convention on refugees to stop us sending illegal migrants straight back to our sovereign military base in Cyprus, which we own? They do not need to be locked up; they can just be sent back to where they come from. (901708)

We believe that our proposals to process people in Rwanda are compliant with not only the UN convention on refugees, but the European convention on human rights. We believe that our proposals are within not just international law but national law. There is nothing in those laws that prevent us from carrying out the policy we are proposing.

T4.   A teenage girl in my constituency was sexually assaulted by two boys from her school. The police took a long time to investigate, but eventually the file was passed to the Crown Prosecution Service. The CPS has stated that there was sufficient evidence to show that the young woman was physically and sexually assaulted by the two youths; however, it went on to state that despite this evidence it would be dropping the case because it would prejudice further the two youths in future. Is this justice? What message does it send to women and girls across England and Wales? (901707)

I will be happy to look into that case. More broadly, the hon. Lady highlights the vital importance of the police and the CPS working closely together when they develop case files to go forward to the courts. That is the work we are doing in Operation Soteria. It is already resulting in more charges and more convictions for rape and serious sexual assault.

T7. I very much welcome the Department for Work and Pensions having a dedicated team in my constituency to ensure that ex-offenders find gainful employment. May I seek assurances from the Ministry of Justice that that collaborative work to rehabilitate ex-offenders will continue? (901710)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question, to which the short answer is yes, it absolutely will. It is a priority for this Government to increase the proportion of prison leavers in sustainable employment. We work closely with DWP to do that via its network of prison work coaches. We are also committed to working with the Department to improve access to universal credit.

T6. Before shelving the Bill of Rights, the Justice Secretary’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), attempted to exclude the Government from the protections on free speech. Does the current Justice Secretary agree that if the Bill is to return in some form at a later date, the Government should not seek to impose on others rules that they are not willing to accept on themselves? (901709)

We will always make sure that we are working within the rule of law, including internationally. That is vital to us. We are committed to bringing forward proposals that work, that protect freedom of speech, and that ensure we deal with some of the egregious attempts at prosecution and shutting down debate being made by ne’er do wells around the world.

T9. It is becoming pretty clear that we cannot get a grip on the small boats crisis and deliver significant reform of our asylum system without reforming the Human Rights Act. What is the Government’s plan? (901712)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. It is the Government’s position that we can tackle that significant problem within the current law. He will be aware that two judicial reviews are pending, but we are committed to the European convention on human rights and to the UN refugee convention. We believe that our proposals are within the law and that no court has said otherwise.

T8. In recent weeks, my constituency has endured a spate of drugs and knife crime, which has resulted in the tragic loss of young lives. We must get more policing and preventive resources for Slough. Given the current justice backlogs, caused by Conservative Governments closing half of all our courts in England and Wales since 2010, what reassurances can the Secretary of State give to victims and their families that they will not have to wait up to the current unacceptable average of four years to get their day in court? (901711)

As we said earlier, getting on top of that core backlog, which has obviously gone up as a result of pressures, is an absolutely key piece of work for us. People sometimes forget that we have lost almost a couple of years through covid and through the Bar strike this year. It is also about making sure that communities are safe through things such as the tagging scheme that we are rolling out, to ensure that people have confidence in their communities as well.

T10.   Stoke-on-Trent has been blighted by drugs recently, particularly monkey dust, which is ruining lives. I am calling for monkey dust to be reclassified as a class A drug. Will my hon. Friend update the House on what action the Government are taking to increase the penalties for people who trade in those horrific drugs? (901713)

My hon. Friend is completely right to highlight the harm and the horrendous impacts of drug dealing in his constituency. There are already significant penalties for supplying that drug—as a class B drug, the maximum penalty is four years in prison—but the Government always keep such matters under review.

It is not just the criminal courts that are seeing backlogs; the probate registry service and the divorce courts are also causing problems. One constituent came to my surgery last week. She is still living with her husband but her divorce case has been passed to Suffolk, where people cannot understand how she could still be living in the same house as him while trying to divorce—but that is the reality of the London housing situation. What action is the Minister taking to make sure that the pace of dealing with such cases increases?

The Government have invested £324 million over the next three years to bring down the backlog in the family courts. The hon. Lady is right to mention the probate court as well. Obtaining grants of probate has a satisfaction rating of about 90%, but there are some serious delays with that other 10%. When people apply online and everything is order, probate is swiftly dealt with, but there are difficulties with some of the other 10% of cases. We are working on that at speed.

Colin Pitchfork is a double child killer and rapist who came in front of the Parole Board. My predecessor referred the case back to the Parole Board to be reviewed, but Colin Pitchfork was then released and had his licence revoked again after worrying behaviour around young women. The Government committed to a root-and-branch review of the parole system in March. Will the Minister update the House on progress on that, so that such cases never happen again?

The public rightly want to know how that was allowed to happen, which is the impetus for our root-and-branch reform of the Parole Board. It now falls to the Parole Board to review Pitchfork’s detention. I assure my hon. Friend that it is very much the Secretary of State’s intention to provide a view on suitability for release. As soon as parliamentary time allows—

Order. When I say I am moving on, I am moving on; it is not for you to continue. It goes at my pace, not yours. I call Emma Lewell-Buck.

I have repeatedly raised the anguish that my constituents, the parents of Chloe Rutherford and Liam Curry, are going through. Chloe and Liam were murdered in the Manchester Arena terror attack. Archaic law in relation to terror attacks prevents my constituents registering their precious children’s death. I first raised the issue in March—it was urgent then. Despite multiple promises from the Government Benches that legislative change was being considered, nothing at all has been forthcoming to me or my constituents. Why?

I thank the hon. Lady for the work that I know she has being doing on the issue and I am very conscious that the matter is outstanding. I can only reassure her of the Government’s commitment to find a route through the current legal blockage that does not allow the families to take part in registration. I promise her that I will bring forward a solution as soon as I can.

Yesterday, The Telegraph reported on some very worrying cases of babies who were born alive but sadly died soon after, but whose deaths have been recorded as stillbirths by the hospital, meaning a coroner could not investigate. Three and a half years ago, my Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019 required the Secretary of State to prepare a report on how the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 could be amended to give coroners the power to investigate those stillbirths. Why has it still not happened?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Government are still reviewing those recommendations and looking forward to bringing forward methods, with the Chief Coroner, on how we can address that backlog.

Will the new team look at the way we handle miscarriages of justice in this country? Will they look at the report from the all-party group on miscarriages of justice, which is chaired by me and the Chair of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), and help us to reform the way in which we treat miscarriages of justice?

I always make it a priority to ensure that I am working with Committees. I will very happily have a look at that report. I am happy to talk to the hon. Member and his co-chairman in due course as well.

Order. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) is going to have to take her seat. She cannot just stand there while we are in the middle of questions.

The Justice Committee, of which I am a member, published our report on IPP—imprisonment for public protection—sentences on 28 September. There was a very clear recommendation that all IPP prisoners currently in custody should be resentenced, something which I wholeheartedly support. Could I ask my hon. Friend to confirm the timeframe for the Government’s response to the Justice Committee report? Further, what immediate steps are being put in place to support IPP prisoners currently struggling in a custodial environment?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. It is probably right that I point out that I was still a member of the Justice Committee when it took evidence for that inquiry, but I did not contribute to the drafting of the report. I absolutely acknowledge that we find ourselves in an extremely difficult position with IPP prisoners, and I am determined to resolve the problem as far as possible, but it has to be understood that there is not a simple one-size-fits-all solution that is appropriate for all people, so I am very carefully considering the recommendations. That is something we are doing very speedily, and as soon as we have come up with a conclusion, the Justice Committee will receive my response.

The Government rightly abandoned their Bill of Rights, describing it as a “complete mess”, principally because it sought to stay within the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights while ignoring its judgments. Is that still the Government’s position and, if so, how will they stop their next attempt also being a complete mess?

Rather like the answer earlier, I would refer the hon. Gentleman to answers I gave earlier. I have extensively outlined the position on the Bill of Rights.

So-called open prisons in constituencies such as mine, such as North Sea Camp, play a vital role in our justice system, but the inmates in those prisons often cause concern to local residents. Would the Minister join me in encouraging both the Prison Service and the Parole Board to engage with local communities so that they can understand what they do to make sure local communities are kept as safe as they possibly can be?

I am very happy to do so. Open prisons play a very important part in the rehabilitation of offenders, and I am more than happy to make sure that they have the understanding and the commitment of local communities, so we can rehabilitate prisoners, reduce reoffending and ensure we have fewer victims of crime.

That completes the questions. We now come to the urgent question. Those who wish to leave, please do so.