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Justice

Volume 723: debated on Tuesday 22 November 2022

The Secretary of State was asked—

Social Security Benefits Tribunal Hearing: Waiting Times

1. What the average waiting time is for a social security benefits tribunal hearing in (a) Northamptonshire and (b) England. (902341)

Between April and June 2022, the average waiting time for benefits appeals in Northamptonshire was 46 weeks. In England it was 28 weeks. Waiting times can fluctuate due to a number of factors, including volumes of benefit decisions made locally, the complexity of the case, the availability of panel members and venue capacity.

When I asked the same question three years ago, the figures were 21 weeks for Northamptonshire and 33 weeks across England. While there has been improvement across the country as a whole, clearly things are going backwards quite severely in Northamptonshire. Does the Minister share my concern that this is clearly an unacceptable situation, and will he outline plans to tackle it?

My hon. Friend is spot on: it is not acceptable that his area is going backwards. I have commissioned officials to report in detail on the exact problems affecting his area, and I will report to him in the next four to six weeks.

Common Platform

2. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of the Common Platform on the delivery of justice by HM Courts and Tribunals Service. (902342)

We have rolled out the Common Platform at 173 criminal courts in England and Wales and 76% of courts are now live. It has improved the format and timeliness of outcomes of hearings generated and shared with our criminal justice partner agencies and removed the need for staff to re-key information across different IT systems. If we are to reform the criminal justice system, we need to press ahead and reform the IT that underpins it.

The Common Platform has been nothing short of a disaster—one quarter of a billion wasted on a project that was fundamentally flawed from the start and designed primarily to slash thousands of highly skilled legal jobs. Even the Lord Chief Justice has raised serious concerns recently to the Justice Committee. Is it not time the Minister held up his hands, admitted this was a mistake and told His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service to build a better system that focuses on delivering justice instead of wasting money in such a damaging and short-sighted way?

Last month, staff at courts across the country, including the magistrates court in Luton, went on strike—not over pay or pensions, but because the Common Platform IT system is so flawed that it is effectively unusable. That should have been enough to make the Government sit up and take notice, but if the Minister will not listen to his own workers and their trade union, the Public and Commercial Services Union, maybe he will listen to the judges who are speaking out? One judge called the Common Platform “completely unsuitable” and “not fit for purpose”. Does the Minister agree?

No, I do not agree. All new IT systems take time to bed down and officials continue to work with user groups, both staff within the criminal justice system and judges. The system replaces eight legacy systems that are at the end of their lives, support for which is being withdrawn. If we do not reform the IT system underpinning the criminal justice system, we will not be able to make the progress we wish.

The Minister is of course right to say that we need to modernise and improve IT systems and replace the legacy systems, but will he sit down and talk in some detail with users of the system, both judges and practitioners? For example, a platform that is unable to record whether a case concludes in a guilty plea will not be very much help in tracking the progress of cases or improving listing at a time when we have massive backlogs. Practical changes are surely what is needed.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am always happy to speak to staff groups and my legal friends in the justice system to iron out any particular issues, but the roll-out of the Common Platform needs to continue.

Oh dear, dear, what a mess: our courts systems were in chaos before the pandemic, and now it is much worse, with some cases taking years to come to court and remand numbers at record levels. The Common Platform was supposed to make courts more efficient, but fails in everything from recording criminal convictions to getting crucial data to the Registry Trust on time. Worst of all, it is having an adverse effect on people’s lives, including those who use it. Costs have soared from £236 million to more than £300 million, with Ministers ready to pay an IT firm another £20 million for product enhancements. Will the Minister tell us where the money has gone, why the system has not been sorted and whether he will pause the roll-out until it is?

I point out that the backlogs were on a downward trajectory until the Criminal Bar Association action. The roll-out of the Common Platform is a necessary part of modernising our systems, and I am confident that we will ensure that the system is delivered for the benefit not just of users, but of everyone who touches our criminal justice system.

Males Convicted under Joint Enterprise: Black and other Ethnic Groups

3. If he will make an estimate of the number and proportion of males convicted under joint enterprise who were (a) Black and (b) from other ethnic groups. (902344)

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker—it is nice to be back in the Ministry of Justice after an absence of a little over three years.

Data is collated on the ethnicity of defendants who are prosecuted and convicted of a criminal offence, but not on whether that crime was part of joint enterprise. We are, however, considering whether such data could be collected as part of the Common Platform programme. The Common Platform aims, as Members will have heard, to provide a single case management system that will enable the sharing of evidence and case information across the criminal justice system.

Members have been hearing for nearly a decade that the data will be released soon, but nothing ever comes of it. What possible excuse can there be for not being open about which prisoners have been convicted under this discredited and biased doctrine and which have not? It is that the data would clearly show how joint enterprise has been used to target black people disproportionately, particularly young black men.

On the hon. Lady’s first point, we are unable at this stage to give a firm timescale for that data because capturing data on joint enterprise will depend on the level of change needed to the Common Platform and on the cost and work required to develop, test and implement it. On her broader point, the Government recognise that convictions based on joint enterprise appear from some studies to affect black, Asian and minority ethnic groups disproportionately. However, I assure her that the Crown Prosecution Service can only apply the law when making decisions, and race or ethnicity should play no part in any such decision making. We recognise the importance of the law of joint enterprise, and the consequences it can have for defendants and their families as well as for victims and their families.

Family Court: Waiting Lists

We established the family mediation voucher scheme in March 2021 to help to reduce the number of private law cases coming into court. We have invested nearly £9 million to date and issued more than 12,800 vouchers to support families. In 2021, family sitting days were at their highest level ever. In July, we introduced a regional virtual court pilot to allow deputy district judges from other regions to sit virtually in London and the south-east so that they can hear as many cases as possible.

We all know that there are significant backlogs in the family court system. However, what some might not know is that it is having real knock-on effects on families, single parents and children across the country. The sooner those cases can be heard and dealt with, the better for everybody involved. What does my hon. Friend intend to do to address those backlogs, and what specific measures is he taking to ensure that there are enough judges and adequate funding for our family courts?

My understanding is that the voucher scheme has been successful, and that about 65% of families who have used it say that it kept them out of the court process. It is our intention to ensure that the voucher scheme continues, with additional publicity. To address some of the other issues relating to capacity, using the virtual courtroom is a possibility, and the general recruitment of more than 1,000 new judges should help.

Government figures show that, as of last week, the backlog in the family courts now stands at more than 110,000 cases. Given that the Ministry of Justice budget will go up by about half the rate of inflation next year—meaning a real-terms cut of hundreds of millions of pounds—does the Minister think that this and other backlogs will go up or down?

Our intention is to ensure that the backlogs go down by ensuring that as many families as possible are kept out of the court system through the use of schemes such as the family mediation voucher scheme.

Strengthening Human Rights: Discussions with Cabinet Colleagues

We have introduced the Bill of Rights and look forward to bringing it forward for Second Reading shortly so that we can strengthen quintessential UK rights such as freedom of speech, as well as deporting more foreign national offenders and restoring some common sense to our justice system.

Given his last stint in the role, the entire legal sector was—how should I put this?—rather surprised when the Secretary of State was reappointed, and they are not alone. The former Lord Chancellor, the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) called his Bill of Rights “worse than useless”. The former Northern Ireland Secretary, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) called it “wrong headed and regressive”. Other Ministers described it as “a complete mess”. If that is what his friends think, the House can only imagine what we in the Scottish National party think about this measure. Can the Secretary of State tell us why his own colleagues do not think his pet project is required or desirable?

The hon. Gentleman is wrong on all counts. I am confident that—[Interruption.] He can quote anonymous sources, and there are some well-known differences of opinion, but I can confidently predict that on Second Reading, the Bill of Rights will have overwhelming support in this House. He cited academics, but I point to Lord Faulks KC, Oliver Sells KC, Jonathan Fisher KC, Steven Barrett KC and John Larkin KC, former Attorney General for Northern Ireland, all of whom have very much welcomed the proposals.

Four out of the five parties in the Scottish Parliament are committed to protecting the Human Rights Act. That view is shared by the party of Government in Wales, it constitutes the majority position in Northern Ireland and it is shared by more than 40% of MPs here, who collectively represent a clear majority of the electorate. Does the Secretary of State not see that by pushing his proposed Bill, he is trampling on the will of the devolved Administrations, but also on the views of the majority of the public?

I am afraid I do not accept that. It was a manifesto commitment. The Human Rights Act is a UK-wide piece of legislation and a protected enactment under the devolution settlements. Amending it is therefore a matter for the UK Parliament. I have been to all the devolved Administrations and talked to all the Executives. I have had roundtables with all the relevant stakeholders, as have fellow Ministers. We continue to be committed to working with the devolved Administrations in Scotland and elsewhere to ensure that the reforms work well and benefit people across the UK.

Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government pointed out this month that the Human Rights Act has a 22-year record of delivering justice, including for some of the most vulnerable people in communities across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Given how the Act is woven into the very fabric of the constitutional settlements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and how it benefits us all, will the Secretary of State accept that it is not in his power or that of his Government to unilaterally unpick that on behalf of the other nations of the United Kingdom?

What I will say to the hon. Gentleman is that this was a manifesto commitment. We are not removing the European convention on human rights—indeed, it will stay, as it was under the Human Rights Act, in a schedule to the Bill of Rights—but I do think that the idea that the Human Rights Act was the last word on human rights in UK constitutional history is daft. Actually, there is an opportunity to strengthen things such as free speech to the benefit of people across the United Kingdom, but also to deal with problems and abuses of the system, particularly things such as foreign national offenders abusing the right of article 8—the right to a family life—to avoid deportation. I suspect that that is as popular in Scotland as it is across the rest of the United Kingdom.

It is carers, victims of domestic violence, disabled people, trafficking victims and people with mental health issues who are among those who have vindicated crucial rights and tackled Government discrimination using the Human Rights Act. Their victories could not have happened under his Bill. As we face up to the cost of living crisis, should we not be strengthening our citizens’ rights rather than undermining them? Why does he want to put people in the UK into a second-tier system of rights protection?

A series of cases have been put about that either would not be affected by the Bill of Rights or were not the product, in terms of the remedy, of the Human Rights Act. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s assertion; I want to work with hon. Members from all parts of the House. There is a great opportunity to strengthen the UK tradition of human rights—I think we should be proud of that as one United Kingdom—but to deal also with the elastic interpretation of rights and the shifting goalposts that have undermined the credibility of human rights and put huge pressure and strains on our ability to protect the public.

The only thing undermining human rights protections in this country is the Justice Secretary’s proposed Bill of Rights. The reality is that a nursery class could have designed a more sensible piece of legislation than his Bill of Rights. Everybody from human rights campaigners to big city lawyers are saying so—indeed, even the disastrous Truss Administration understood that fact. Given the universal criticism, what exactly is it that makes him think he can just carry on regardless, without even a further consultation?

I am afraid I do not accept that characterisation. I think that on Second Reading, the hon. Gentleman will see the level of support. There has already been consultation on not just the policy proposals but specific clauses. We have looked at this at length. It is a manifesto commitment dating back to 2010. It remains one today, and we are going to deliver it for the British people.

Isle of Wight Constituency: Camp Hill Site

As my hon. Friend knows, HM Prison Camp Hill in his constituency was closed in 2013. We are currently exploring options for a number of decommissioned prison sites, including Camp Hill.

Do Ministers agree that one way the Government can drive economic growth is through quicker decision making? As the Minister has admitted, we have waited nearly a decade for an answer on Camp Hill. Do Ministers understand, and have they taken on board, that our preferred option on the Isle of Wight is for the Camp Hill site to be sold to the council at a price it can afford—we have done that with the Columbine building in East Cowes—so that we can use that land for jobs, housing and development, taking pressure off greenfield sites and creating wealth on the Island, rather than having this valuable site stand empty for such a long time?

First, I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of making timely decisions on all such matters. I also hear what he says; transferring that site to Isle of Wight Council is one of the options being looked at, among others. I know that MOJ officials have been speaking to the council, and I commit to my hon. Friend that they will continue to do so.

Criminal Justice System: Support for Victims

In May, we published our landmark draft Victims Bill and a wider package of measures to improve victims’ experience of the criminal justice system. We will respond to the Select Committee’s scrutiny of that shortly.

The victims of crime matter, but it has been seven years and six Justice Secretaries since the Victims Bill was first promised, and it still has not made it to the statute book. Why are the victims of crime not a priority for this Government?

I say gently to the hon. Lady that I do not accept that characterisation. The Victims Bill had to go through pre-legislative scrutiny; it was right that it should do that. We are now ready to bring it forward, as and when parliamentary time allows. We will also be including a victim surcharge. Alongside these measures, we are increasing the funding for victims and witness support—we are actually quadrupling it compared with the last Labour Government, which ought to show that it is the Conservatives who are standing up for victims and the public when it comes to fighting crime.

I am actually reassured by my right hon. Friend’s comments about the Victims Bill. We need this Bill, and he is aware of my long-standing support for it. With this Bill, the victims of crime cannot be forgotten, including my constituents who have been let down by the courts and the Crown Prosecution Service, which must be held to account when it comes to securing compensation for victims of crime, because the perpetrators are getting off too lightly. These are fundamental areas that the Victims Bill must put forward. May I urge him to give me a commitment today that these areas will not be forgotten?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I pay tribute to her for all the work we did together on these issues, and what a stalwart, doughty supporter she has been. The Victims Bill will place the victims code into law. It will increase oversight of how the criminal justice agencies work, both at the police and crime commissioner level and in the national inspections. I mentioned the increase in funding for victims. The increase in the victim surcharge will mean that we have more restorative justice, with offenders paying for the wrongs they have done and victims getting extra compensation.

I find myself in agreement with the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), whose Government, of course, have been in power for 12 years. The court delays are a real problem for victims. One of my constituents was violently attacked and given a court date three years later. Her seven-year-old witnessed the attack, and the perpetrator keeps pestering her, breaking non-molestation orders, leaving the police pretty powerless, because he knows there is no traction. The Public Accounts Committee has looked into this. The backlog is not going down and will not be lower than pre-pandemic—it is not about covid. What is the Secretary of State doing to get a grip on his Department and make sure the courts deliver justice for victims?

I say to the hon. Lady that the Crown court backlog reduced from more than 60,000 cases in June 2021 to under 58,000 cases at the end of March 2022—[Interruption.] Hold on. The increase and the reversal of that trajectory were the result of the Criminal Bar Association’s strike action, which was unwarranted—[Interruption.] I am looking at Opposition Front Benchers. When we announced our proposals on the legal aid review, they agreed with every single one. Yet again, when it comes to the justice system, as with many other things, they are on the side not of the public, but of those who take disruptive industrial action.

The best way to support victims is better criminal law. The Government have done much to tackle violence against women and girls, but the law still fails anyone who discovers a fake or real nude image of themselves that has been posted online without their consent. I suggest that my right hon. Friend looks at including in the Online Safety Bill, which is hopefully about to come back to this place on Report, an amendment to address that once and for all, particularly in the light of the Law Commission’s recommendations, which were finalised some five months ago.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her incredible work in this area. As ever, I listen to her carefully. I reassure her that I am looking positively and actively at bringing forward legislative changes in this area, and I will confirm the vehicle for that shortly.

I am sure the Secretary of State will share my concern about a local case whereby a man who had pleaded guilty to sexually abusing two girls was given permission by the judge to go abroad on holiday while awaiting sentencing. Does the Secretary of State agree that that is totally unacceptable and that measures must be taken to stop it happening again?

The hon. Gentleman knows that I cannot comment on individual judicial cases, but I understand the concern in such cases. Of course, if he wishes to write to me with the details, I will be happy to look at that very carefully.

Two of my constituents who were subjected to a vicious, unprovoked knife attack, as well as many others in the bay, felt let down by the justice system due to the level of sentence that was applied. They continue to feel let down by not getting information about someone who was connected with that series of offences. Will my right hon. Friend, or the relevant victims Minister, meet me to discuss that case and what we can do about it?

I will certainly ensure that my hon. Friend gets a meeting with the victims Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar). I will not comment on individual cases, but we have increased sentencing substantially through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, against which Opposition Members voted. In individual cases, however, it is of course for the judiciary to decide and that discretion is important.

My constituent Sarah was sexually assaulted. After a three-year wait and a hugely traumatic trial, the defendant was found not guilty. Of her experiences in the criminal justice system, she said:

“I felt like I was being publicly beaten and humiliated. I wouldn’t advise anyone to go through it, they destroy you.”

Can the Secretary of State tell me how survivors such as Sarah are supposed to trust the Government when, seven years on, we are still waiting for the victims Bill and he is under investigation for bullying?

I am afraid that the hon. Lady rather demeaned the important point that she was making by trying to score political points at the end. Let me answer directly: we appreciate the concerns that there are for any victim, particularly female victims of crime, whether that is sexual violence or non-sexual violence. That is why we have rolled out section 28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, which provides the opportunity to give pre-recorded evidence, and why, when we have the Victims Bill—

It has been going through pre-legislative scrutiny and it is important to respond to that. It will increase the oversight of all elements of the criminal justice system, both at the PCC level—the local level—and at the national inspectorate level. One thing that, notwithstanding the fiscal event, I am committed to protecting is the quantum leap in support and funding for victims, which has quadrupled under this Government compared with the last Labour Government.

Death Registration Process

10. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on reforming the death registration process. (902353)

The Ministry of Justice is working closely with the Department of Health and Social Care and the General Register Office on the implementation of a statutory medical examiners scheme, which will provide an additional layer of scrutiny on cause of death in non-coronal cases. We are also working with the General Register Office to consider how families might play a greater role in the registration of their loved ones’ deaths following an inquest.

I thank the Minister for that response. For many of my constituents, a swift burial is a core tenet of their beliefs and faith, but in many cases this swift burial is held back by bureaucratic legal difficulties in formally registering the death, particularly when GPs cannot be reached, there is a bank holiday or it is the weekend. I think the whole House will agree that no one wants their relatives to be held in a mortuary any longer than is absolutely necessary. Will the Minister meet me and colleagues from the Department of Health and Social Care to discuss what can be done to break down these legal barriers and address these issues so that everybody can be afforded dignity in death?

First, I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that I have discussed this specific issue of how faith communities are dealt with by the coroners service. I have discussed it with the Chief Coroner, and I have a meeting next week with representatives of both the Jewish and the Muslim faiths. Once I have had those meetings, I would be very happy to meet him so that, having looked at the issue in the round, we can discuss how we can move forward.

Parental Imprisonment

11. If he will take steps with prisons to estimate the number of children affected by parental imprisonment. (902354)

Yes, I certainly will. I agree about the effects that parental imprisonment has, and I certainly agree that it is important to understand the number of children this affects.

I thank the Minister for that response. I have previously had meetings with former Justice Ministers, Children’s Ministers and so on. We absolutely need this data because we think there could be hundreds of thousands of children affected over the years. Not only is it really traumatic for them, but it puts them at risk themselves. Once we have the data, we can look at support services, but may I urge him to do what he can to work with prisons, schools and local authorities to try to make sure there is a comprehensive database?

I agree. I have spoken to one of my predecessor Ministers—my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins)—about the conversation she had with the hon. Lady. I was also reading with interest the hon. Lady’s speech in Westminster Hall the other day, and about the work of the charity Children Heard and Seen. She is absolutely right that the first step and the basis has to be the data, and there is important work under way, including changes to the basic custody screening process, and then the big cross-Government project called “Better Outcomes through Linked Data”, and we will continue to work hard on that.

Violence against Women and Girls: Reform of the Criminal Justice System

12. What steps his Department is taking to reform the criminal justice system to help tackle violence against women and girls. (902355)

The Government are taking a range of measures to tackle violence against women and girls. The number of convictions in rape cases has increased by two thirds in the last reporting year, but we are restless to do more at every stage of the process from Operation Soteria, linking up police and prosecutors, through to the current national roll-out of pre-recorded evidence in all Crown courts in England and Wales.

Rape Crisis statistics show that only 3% of cases saw charges brought last year, CPS figures show that only 1.3% of reported rapes are charged or summonsed, and there was a 21% increase in rape reports from the previous year, so what on earth is the Secretary of State going to do to reverse these serial failures and to deal with this epidemic of rape, which on his watch is going unpunished?

I can reassure the hon. Lady, first, that police referrals and the number of suspects charged have gone up over the last year, and Crown court receipts of those actually arriving in court are going up, but she is right to be restless to do more. We have rolled out national and local data dashboards for crime, but also specifically for rape, to provide greater transparency and to spread better practice in how we secure those vital convictions. As I have already mentioned, we have quadrupled victim funding support since 2010. We have expanded so-called section 28 pre-recorded cross-examination, which is now in place for sexual and modern slavery offences in all Crown courts in England and Wales. I think Operation Soteria is probably the single biggest thing, as we get to a national roll-out next year, because it will get prosecutors and police working more collaboratively together, but also get the focus not on grilling and interrogating the complainant—the victim—but on making sure the balance does not shift and that the focus is predominantly on the suspect.

The Opposition are wrong in their characterisation and narrative of this issue, and the Justice Secretary and his colleagues across the Home Office are to be commended for the leadership that they have shown in driving up rape prosecutions across the whole system, holding independent partners to account. Will the Justice Secretary update the House on how the data are trending in the latest reports? What is he doing to hold the independent court system to account to tackle backlogs in the system, so that rape prosecutions do not have to wait longer than they should to see their day in court?

I thank my hon. Friend and pay tribute to her for the incredible work she did at the Home Office. She was involved in the meetings on this, and I know how committed she was and how much impact she had. On the results—those are what female victims of crime and the whole country want to see—between April and June 2022, police referrals were up by 95% from the 2019 figure. The number of suspects charged was up by 65% compared with 2019 figures, and Crown court receipts were up 91% from 2019 figures. There is much more to do, but that shows the trajectory and progress, and all the hard work that my hon. Friend and others have done.

Responsibility for ending violence against women and girls is a key role of Government, yet we have a Justice Secretary who could not get the definition of misogyny right, who is accused of bullying, and who is desperate to scrap the Human Rights Act—law that has helped to protect women against male violence. When domestic violence is up and rape charges are at 1.5%, does that send a message that tackling violence against women and girls is not a priority for the Justice Secretary?

Amid all the bluster and political point scoring, the hon. Lady is losing the opportunity to pay tribute to the important work being done across the justice system, which will give female victims confidence to come forward. That is what we need to see: improvements in police referrals and in the number of suspects charged, improvements in Crown court receipts, and the ability for victims to opt for pre-recorded evidence, so that they go through what must be a harrowing experience without being in the glare of the courtroom. Those are all positive steps. We are restless to do more, but we have made progress, and I do not think it helps to instil or improve confidence in the justice system if inaccurate characterisations of the progress we have made are asserted in this place.

Imprisonment Rates

The Ministry of Justice publishes information on the number of people sentenced to immediate custody, along with other sentencing outcomes, in the criminal justice system statistics publication. The latest publication is for the year ending June 2022. The custody rate was 6.6% in the year ending June 2022 for all offences, 33% for indictable offences, and 1.1% for summary only offences. Although sentencing is entirely a matter for our independent courts, it is right that those who commit serious crimes should expect to receive a custodial sentence. This Government have ensured that courts have the powers they need.

These data are significant. Cardiff University has uncovered the fact that courts in Wales imprison more people per head of population than England, and I am sure the Minister agrees that we need to know why. That is nigh-on impossible, however, when England and Wales are treated as identical for justice, even though key services are devolved. For justice to be best served in Wales we need to know what is happening in Wales, and who is responsible for what. Will the Minister commit to publishing Wales-specific data annually from now on?

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady, and she tempts me a little. I appreciate the point she makes but, as she will appreciate, the English and Welsh justice systems are one justice system, and it is not a simple task to disaggregate the data depending on whether someone is sentenced to imprisonment and serves in England or in Wales. I am happy to meet her to discuss the issue, but I would not underestimate the complexity of what she asks.

Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid

16. Whether he has made an assessment of the effectiveness of the steps taken by his Department to implement the recommendations of the independent review of criminal legal aid. [R] (902359)

In March we consulted on our approach to recommendations made by the independent review of criminal legal aid, and we published our interim response in July. We have introduced a 15% uplift across most free schemes, in line with the recommendations. That means an additional annual benefit of up to £63 million for solicitor firms, and up to £39 million for criminal barristers in a steady state situation. Uplifts for solicitors and barristers have already started being paid, and we have also applied fee uplifts to the vast majority of existing Crown court cases, to address concerns that the uplifted fees did not apply to ongoing work.

Well before the Criminal Bar Association took action to strike, I warned the Lord Chancellor that that was inevitable unless he sat down with the association and worked constructively. He accused me of being its shop steward. Now, criminal defence solicitors’ firms are on their knees. The Justice Secretary is not known for working constructively, but will he sit down with the Law Society and representative groups of criminal solicitors to come to an agreement on parity of funding between the criminal Bar and criminal defence solicitors?

My right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor meets all stakeholders on a regular basis, and I think he has a meeting coming up to address those very concerns. I am sure that he will sit down and discuss those concerns in the next few weeks.

The Lord Chancellor’s successor and predecessor was able to achieve more in a few days than the current Justice Secretary ever has by agreeing a deal and ending the CBA’s strike action. The Law Society has warned that it may be forced to advise its members to stop working in criminal practice if Bellamy’s recommendations are not met. Will the Lord Chancellor get his priorities straight and honour the Government’s own review by giving legal aid solicitors the funding they need to avoid collapse and make our justice system sustainable?

I know that the Lord Chancellor—he is his own predecessor, as was pointed out—has been committed to ensuring that the system remains correctly funded within the spending envelope. He will continue to address the concerns raised by all stakeholders in the criminal justice system. We are entirely committed to working with the advisory board to address all the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised.

Criminal Justice System: Racial Disparity

In response to the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, the Government’s inclusive Britain strategy sets out a clear commitment to tackling race and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system. We are reducing the number of individuals from ethnic minorities entering the criminal justice system by expanding the use of diversionary initiatives such as out-of-court disposals to divert towards treatment or drug education courses. For those in contact with the system, we are providing funding for grassroots ethnic minority-led and specialist voluntary sector organisations to provide rehabilitative services.

The disproportionate representation of black children in our justice system starts with arrests, with black children over four times more likely to be arrested than white children as of 2019. We must address the deep-rooted causes of that, ensuring that those from ethnic minority backgrounds are not discriminated against and drawn into a cycle of criminality due to a bias in our criminal justice system. The Lammy review exposed that bias and discrimination more than half a decade ago, so why have the Government still not implemented its recommendations in full?

We have implemented the majority of the actions that we committed to in response to the Lammy review. The hon. Gentleman raises important points regarding the over-representation of ethnic minority children in the system. There is a range of activities, including work that we are doing in two test areas, to ensure that those people who are arrested have access to and can only opt out of legal representation, to try to ensure that the issues that he raised are addressed. I am happy to meet him to go through those activities and discuss them in much more detail.

Establishment of a Royal Commission on Prisons

The hon. Gentleman will know of our commitment. Following the pandemic, it is also right that we prioritise recovery in the criminal justice system.

Notwithstanding that answer, which I thank the Minister for, a little earlier the Justice Secretary referred to manifesto commitments, and I remind the House that the Conservatives made a manifesto commitment to establishing a royal commission on criminal justice, but that is looking like a pretty slim commitment. Prisons in particular are at the heart of our criminal justice system, and they are in crisis, plagued by violence, drugs, squalor and a shameful lack of meaningful rehabilitation activity. Does the Minister accept that the priority must be a full public inquiry with statutory powers to find out what has gone wrong?

The hon. Gentleman is of course right about the commitment, and I referred to it in my opening response. It is true that the coronavirus changed many things, including causing significant issues in the criminal justice system and in prisons. We have published the prisons White Paper, which sets out a strategy for further improvement in all aspects of the secure estate, and I am pleased to be able to report significant progress on matters such as employment, which we know is important to reducing reoffending, and accommodation, with a five percentage points reduction in the number of individuals leaving prison who are homeless or rough sleeping.

I am sorry we did not get to the end of questions, but people were a little indulgent in the time taken.

Topical Questions

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?