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Topical Questions

Volume 723: debated on Tuesday 22 November 2022

Since my last Justice questions, we have begun construction of Britain’s first all-electric prison at Full Sutton and made apprenticeships available to prisoners for the first time. We are preparing to bring the Bill of Rights Bill back to this House for its Second Reading, so that we can strengthen free speech, deport more foreign national offenders and restore some common sense to our justice system.

To help the rehabilitation of offenders and to reduce reoffending, will my right hon. Friend support the scheme being promoted by Gloucestershire’s police and crime commissioner, Chris Nelson, to involve prisoners in the construction of eco-pods, providing much-needed environmentally friendly accommodation as well as valuable construction skills and work experience for prisoners?

It is a cracking scheme that tackles two of the key issues we need to tackle: homelessness on release, and getting offenders into work. Following the successful proof of concept at HMP Leyhill, the scheme is now operational at HMP The Mount, and we plan to expand the activity to more prisons across the estate. It is good for offenders to grasp a second chance to turn their lives around, but critical to reducing reoffending and keeping our streets safe.

I welcome the Secretary of State back to his place on the Treasury Bench. This Friday is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, but too often the news headlines are dominated by horrific crimes against women such as Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa, and now Zara Aleena. How far have rape prosecutions fallen since the action plan on rape was launched in 2015?

Because of the backlog and some of the challenges we have faced, there have been difficulties. I have set out before the House some of the initiatives, from Operation Soteria to the national roll-out of section 28 pre-recorded evidence. As I mentioned earlier, over the last year, convictions have increased by two thirds, and the trajectories of police referral, CPS charge and Crown court receipt level have all seen a substantial improvement, but we are restless to go even further.

Let me remind the right hon. Gentleman that the number of prosecutions has halved in that time, and today barely one in 100 reported rapes ever makes it to trial. As we just heard, he keeps trying, but there really can be no excuse for a failure to prosecute rapists. Will he take the opportunity of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women to apologise to rape survivors for his Government’s decision to sack 22,000 police officers, close 160 courts and slash the number of judges, when they should have been focused on caging these dangerous criminals?

The hon. Gentleman and I get on very constructively, but I have to tell him that we are not going to take lectures on standing up for victims from a party whose Members voted in this House against the recruitment of police and against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which increased sentences, and a party that provided a quarter of the funding for victims that we have provided.

Order. May I remind the Front Benchers that topical questions are about getting other Members in? It is their time, not the Front Benchers’.

T3. There are long waiting lists for the Crown court in Essex, and I am told that that is in part due to a shortage of judges. What progress is being made to shorten the waiting lists and appoint judges in Essex? (902368)

We are working hard to ensure that we recruit over 1,000 new judges. We are allowing 80 circuit judges and 125 fee-paid recorders to sit for more days to ensure we increase capacity. We are boosting circuit judge recruitment, with about 90 new appointments, who will sit in London and the south-east, including Essex, to address the issues my right hon. Friend raised.

T2. The miners strike of 1984-85 was hugely traumatic in my Midlothian constituency and other coalfield communities. Although the future is bright, many people still need closure. Will the Secretary of State follow the Scottish Government’s lead and pardon convictions from that period, and launch the UK-wide inquiry necessary to finally close this episode? (902367)

I understand the passion with which the hon. Gentleman spoke. We do not have current plans to do so, but if he wants to write to me on that issue I will, of course, look at it and reflect.

T5. There are direct links between education and reducing reoffending. Education is a factor in promoting reintegration and rehabilitation. While there is rightly a focus in prison on education for employment, too many prisoners have very poor literacy skills, which impacts their ability to access education. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to improve literacy in the prison population? (902370)

My hon. Friend is dead right: literacy is fundamental, including, of course, to access those other parts of education. I welcome the work of organisations such as the Shannon Trust and I welcome the recent Ofsted report. We are sharpening our focus, creating a literacy innovation fund.

T4. Two weeks ago, an inquest into the death of my constituent’s brother, Liridon Saliuka, found that significant and multiple failings at Belmarsh had contributed to his death while on remand there. I recognise that Ministers will not immediately know the details of what happened, but I believe my constituent is entitled to understand how her brother could have been so comprehensively let down. Will the Secretary of State find out what went wrong and, in the first instance, write to me? (902369)

These kinds of cases are harrowing for the family. If the hon. Gentleman writes to me with further details, I will be very happy to look at them and report back to him.

T8. The Minister will be aware that I have raised a series of concerns with a number of Ministers and Secretaries of State about the proposals to put a third prison in the small Chorley borough village of Ulnes Walton. There is not sufficient road infrastructure to support it, there is no public transport solution, the local council objects to it, the councillors objected to it, and a survey I put out to local residents was overwhelmingly against it. Please can he commit today to withdrawing the planning inspector appeal and look again at the plans? (902373)

The estate expansion programme is important and fulfils a manifesto commitment. I absolutely acknowledge that my hon. Friend is a very strong campaigner. I hope she will also appreciate that a planning appeal is ongoing and, in those circumstances, it is not appropriate for me to comment further.

T6. Imprisonment for public protection—IPP—sentences are a stain on the criminal justice system, but the Justice Committee’s recent report offers a way forward. Will the Minister take the opportunity to act on the report’s key recommendation of a mass re-sentencing exercise, or will he allow the hopelessness, despair and even suicide among IPP prisoners to shamefully continue? (902371)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question, which she puts with typical passion and care. My noble Friend Lord Bellamy and I are carefully considering the Justice Committee report and will respond to it in due course.

My Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022 comes into force in February. Will the Minister confirm that cross-departmental work with the relevant Departments is taking place, so that from day one teachers, social workers, police, Border Force officers and others will have had the right training and know exactly what to do when faced with a case of child marriage?

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work on pursuing this important issue. As she said, the law will come into effect in February 2023. I can confirm that cross-departmental work has been taking place to ensure that officials across Government, the College of Policing and the National Police Chiefs’ Council are as up to date as possible. The Home Office has been updating its forced marriage guidance, which provides detailed advice to groups such as Border Force officers, social workers, police and teachers on what to do when faced with a case of forced child marriage. I hope that in swift order the work she has been so passionate about is enforced.

T7. In 2010, there were 1,861 firms of criminal solicitors with duty contracts; there are now 964. The profession of criminal defence solicitor is broken and so is the justice system. Who does the Lord Chancellor think broke the system? [R] (902372)

The Government have invested significantly in the criminal justice system, not just through the recent settlement with the Criminal Bar Association, but in the run-up to the settlement. There is continued investment in the criminal justice system. He may disagree, but those are other facts.

Although I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to increasing rape charging rates and the positive news regarding rape convictions, the facts suggest that what is happening is somewhat to the contrary. In the year ending March 2022, the police recorded the highest annual number of rape offences to date—70,330—but charges were brought in only 2,223 cases. With the split in responsibility between the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, what steps can my right hon. Friend take, working with his Home Office colleagues, to make sure that more people are charged and put before the courts?

I thank and pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all his work on this issue and the considerable experience that he brings to bear. I read out the statistics and there is clearly more work to be done, but, actually, the trajectory of the latest figures is going in a better direction. The decision making on CPS charging is independent, but it is critical that we proceed with the national roll-out of Operation Soteria, because it is proving to be a very effective tool in getting the police and the CPS to work together more collaboratively to bring forward cases that can go to court.

T9. It is exactly four months ago today that the Government published their response to the consultation on reform of the law on strategic lawsuits against public participation. Recently, the Joint Committee on Human Rights heard that a journalist who wants to defend themselves against one of those malicious attacks might need backing of £1 million before they can do so in court. How much longer will it be before the necessary legislation is brought to Parliament? (902374)

I totally share the hon. Gentleman’s commitment and it is good to be able to address the issue on a cross-party basis. Earlier this year, we ran a call for evidence on SLAPPs reform. I brought that together at very short notice and the Department did an incredible job in providing specific proposals. Our proposals include a new statutory definition, an early dismissal process to strike out SLAPPs claims without merit, and cost protection for defendants in cases. I intend to introduce legislative proposals as soon as possible.

One issue with family court delays is that lawyers will advise their clients to get a court application in early. That is not the lawyers’ fault; they have to do the best for their clients and they know that delay is not in the best interests of the child. However, once a court application is in, parents go into a defensive crouch. Some parents refuse to negotiate until the first hearing and separated parents information programmes do not kick in until the court hearing has happened. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that Ministers in this House and in the other place are working together for family law reform to reduce court delays?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I thank her for her continued campaigning on this issue. It is worth saying, first, that around 45% of the private family law case backlog is non-safeguarding, non-domestic abuse cases. It is important that those other cases go to court. In relation to the others, we are using mediation and the roll-out and promotion of a voucher scheme to support mediation. Where a reasonable solution has been the outcome of mediation, it is also important that we use cost shifting in the courts, so people cannot just double-dip or go from one to the other. If we do that, we will have the right balance between carrot and stick and, certainly, far better outcomes for children.

T10. An official staff network within HM Prison and Probation Service has circulated an email to all staff, advising them that use of the phrases “protecting women and girls” and “same-sex attraction” is transphobic. That email came from a Ministry of Justice address and was marked “Official”. Does the Minister agree that that advice risks creating a hostile environment for female staff and for lesbian, gay and bisexual staff? Will he distance the Ministry of Justice from it? (902375)

I can reassure the hon. and learned Lady that the email she speaks of was not an official Ministry of Justice or HM Prison and Probation Service email; it was from a network of staff. It does not constitute official advice. The Department is looking again at how internal communications are done. Most importantly, she will be aware of the Deputy Prime Minister’s move to ensure that in future the default assumption is that if you are a transgender woman with intact male genitalia, you will not be placed in the female estate. That is an important part of the reform package.

Last June, six-year-old Sharlotte-Sky was killed as she was walking along the pavement near her home in Norton Green. Her killer, John Owen, had been drinking, was on drugs, was speeding, was not wearing a seatbelt and was on his mobile phone. He got an insulting six years and four months in prison. Will the Lord Chancellor meet Sharlotte’s mother Claire and me to urgently discuss sentencing guidelines, to ensure that justice is truly served next time?

May I express my condolences and deep sorrow to the family of my hon. Friend’s young constituent? He will know that we have increased the sentencing for driving offences, but I am happy to look at the matter again with him and meet his constituents.

A constituent who is a rape survivor told me in tears how her phone was taken off her. I have talked to Metropolitan police officers who say that that was because the courts have stipulated it. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that phones are not taken off rape survivors? They say that it compounds the abuse they feel. Evidence could be taken very quickly and returned to them. My constituent could not afford to buy another one.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right about this issue, which is one of the eight levers that we are pressing down on to improve outcomes and give victims the confidence to come forward. A new scheme is in place in relation to digitisation, which is being rolled out and increased across England and Wales. There is also the possibility of swapping, but the key thing is that a victim who comes forward gets their phone back quick sharp—within 24 hours—in order to prevent that sense of dislocation, which can only add insult to injury. If the hon. Lady writes to me about it, I will give her chapter and verse, because it is such an important issue.

In 2018, HM Inspectorate of Prisons issued an urgent notification document setting out serious failings at HM Prison Exeter. Last week, the inspectorate, for the first time ever, issued a second consecutive notification about the same prison. I am grateful to the Minister of State for his courtesy in giving me advance notice of it, but will he look urgently at why the failings were not picked up in the four years in between?

I will indeed. I take this extremely seriously, as my hon. Friend knows. This is the first time that we have had two consecutive urgent notifications about the same prison. The Department will come forward with a full action plan within 28 days. As he rightly says, this is a very serious matter.

My constituents Mr and Mrs Amner sustained horrific, life-changing injuries when their motorbike was hit by a car driver under the influence of drugs overtaking a van. They are understandably extremely distressed that while they will live with the consequences of that accident for the rest of their lives, the perpetrator was sentenced to just 30 months. As the Secretary of State will know, although there has been a recent consultation on sentencing, the guideline sentence cannot be raised above five years without primary legislation. Has he any plans for a Government Bill with a clause to raise the maximum sentence for drink and drug driving?

We have relatively recently increased the sentences in relation to driving offences, but if the hon. Lady writes to me again about this harrowing case, I will look at it very carefully and write back to her with the detail.

I have a constituent who is a victim of grooming. She has been sexually abused and assaulted. The trial of the defendant keeps being pushed back, which naturally is causing a great deal of distress. We know that there are delays in the criminal courts, some of which have been exacerbated by industrial action, but can the Justice Secretary tell me how such cases will be prioritised so that justice can be served for the victims and the perpetrators can be locked away with good, strong sentences?

My right hon. Friend and I worked together closely to increase sentences for the most serious crimes, and she is right about the impact of the Criminal Bar Association’s strike action on the backlog. I can reassure her that under the spending review settlement—something I will be keen to protect as far as I can, given the autumn statement—an extra £447 million will be going into the criminal justice system to help improve waiting times. On top of that, we are recruiting up to 1,000 judges in 2022-23 and we have removed the limit on sitting days in a Crown court for the second year in a row, precisely to get the wheels of justice turning more quickly and to give her constituents the justice they need.

The surgeon who caused life-changing injuries by inserting surgical mesh into my constituent Carol recently acted as an expert witness in an unrelated surgical mesh negligence case. The judge was highly critical of his evidence and accused him of cherry-picking parts of the evidence that were supportive of the defendant’s case. Will the Justice Secretary meet me and the victims of surgical mesh to hear directly from them how such conflicts of interest are proving to be a barrier to justice?

If the hon. Lady writes to me with the details of that case, I will certainly ensure that she has a meeting with the most appropriate Minister.

By their very nature, family court cases are sensitive, delicate and complex, but all are urgent. During the time for such cases to be heard, will the courts provide assistance for families who are having difficult times to get them through the process?

Yes, and if the hon. Member writes to me with the details of his concerns, I would be happy to address them in more detail, on top of the assurances I have already provided to the House about the approach we are taking forward.

My constituent Lisa Brown has been missing, presumed murdered, in Spain since 2015, yet this morning I heard from Lisa’s family that the prime suspect, who was imprisoned in Liverpool in 2020 for 12 years for drug offences and gun-running, has absconded. Can I ask the Secretary of State or their prisons Minister to assure me, Lisa’s family and the House that their Department is doing all it can to return this dangerous criminal to prison, where they rightfully belong?

Certainly I can give the hon. Gentleman and his constituents that assurance. Absconds are actually very rare now; they have fallen by nearly two thirds over the last decade, from 235 in 2010-11 to 95 in 2021-22. The majority are captured quickly, but he will want to know that that happens in this case and I will ensure that his concerns are passed on.

The Bill of Rights Bill strengthens the power of the state by weakening the ability of victims to enforce their European convention rights. Does the Secretary of State think that it is appropriate for him to be piloting this legislation when he is himself under investigation for the abuse of power and may not be in Government to complete the passage of this controversial constitutional change, for which he appears to be the only advocate?