House of Commons
Tuesday 21 February 2023
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Prisoner Skills Development
We are delivering a new prison education service. The first prisoner apprentices have now started on highway maintenance for Kier and hospitality for Greene King. We are launching an employability innovation fund to bring more businesses into prisons.
MMC Homebuilding Ltd in Hardwicke is working with inmates from Leyhill Prison to build affordable homes quickly. I have met some of the lads, and they have mastered the skills needed to create thousands of homes for key workers, but there are daft barriers in place, particularly in relation to the acquisition of public land. What is the Ministry of Justice doing, with the Department of Health and Social Care, the Home Office and the Treasury, to unlock those issues so that win-win schemes such as this one can build thousands of key worker homes and allow prisoner rehabilitation at the same time?
I thank my hon. Friend; she is championing a brilliant project in her constituency. Getting more prisoners into work is absolutely vital for them, but also for reducing reoffending. Training prisoners in modern methods of construction is one of the ways we can equip them with the skills to deliver. As a former Housing Minister, I am very conscious of the need to release more surplus land for those purposes and I will speak to my colleagues in the way she asks.
Last month, the chief inspector of prisons wrote a paper on why prison education is so poor. He said it is not a priority, prisoners are not taken to classes, there is an inadequate curriculum and there is no accountability from the MOJ. Does the Secretary of State agree with all that, and if so, what is he doing about it?
The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to the problem. In relation to covid, it has been more difficult. What I can tell him is that: first, through the use of in-cell technology; secondly, with vocational skills and apprenticeships; and thirdly, when I became Justice Secretary I applied a whole set of key performance indicators and lifted up the waiting for both study in prison and getting offenders into work. That is having a dramatic effect.
Levels of Reoffending
The overall proven reoffending rate has fallen since 2010, from over 31% to less than 25%, but that is still too high, so we are making major investments in drug treatment, accommodation support, education and employment to drive it down further.
Onward’s latest levelling up report found that tackling antisocial behaviour in crime hotspots is one of communities’ top priorities. In the six months to October 2022, the top 10 offenders in North Devon committed 137 offences. What steps is the Minister’s Department taking to reduce that reoffending and to support communities in tackling antisocial behaviour?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that antisocial behaviour is a blight. It is one of the reasons we are upping the amount of unpaid work hours available, including in Devon and Torbay probation unit. There were 37,000 hours of such work last year, and we want to increase that further. On stopping people reoffending, a number of things need to come into play to make that work, including some of the things that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was just talking about: sustained attention on drugs, both outside prison as well as inside; and the Turnaround programme for young people on the cusp of offending.
Futures Unlocked, a charity based in my constituency, does great work to rehabilitate ex-offenders, with a 30% reduction in reoffending rates among its clients. Will the Minister join me in welcoming the £90,000 grant it has just received from national lottery funding, which will allow John Powell and Laura Halford, together with their team of 33 volunteer mentors, to continue this really important work?
Yes, indeed. It really is important work across Warwickshire, Coventry and Solihull. I join my hon. Friend in strongly commending John, Laura and the whole team of volunteers. I also very much welcome the news about the grant from the national lottery community fund, which will help Futures Unlocked to extend its support for ex-offenders to lead crime-free lives and help to ensure that communities are safer.
Does the Minister agree that education and training are absolutely crucial in preventing reoffending? If so, how does he account for the 90% reduction in the number of prisoners taking AS-level qualifications over the past 10 years? Will he address that Select Committee finding from just three years ago? Will he also address the fact that one in four people in the prison estate are care leavers? How will he target those who have been in care to ensure that they do not go into the prison system in the first place?
That is a multifaceted question; I do not think I will do justice to all of it, but there were a number of very important points. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about care leavers. We are very conscious of the prevalence of care leavers in the system. Of course, we do not always know exactly, because it depends to some extent on self-declaration and not everybody wants to do that, so we have to be very conscious of that. I am also very conscious of people who leave the youth offending estate who may be going back into it. That is another thing we need to look at. I am slightly puzzled by his focus on AS-levels. As he will know, the whole landscape has changed, away from the AS and A2 system and towards a more linear programme of study—that is nothing to do with prisons; it is the general education system. But he is absolutely right about the centrality of education, which is why we have such a focus on literacy, numeracy and, increasingly, IT skills, as well as crucial vocational qualifications.
A company in my constituency called LettUs Grow, working with HM Prison Hewell in Worcestershire, is introducing prisoners to vertical farming, which is an excellent way of not only growing food for the prison but teaching prisoners new skills. However, it is disturbing to note that many prisons are doing less in the way of food growing and involvement in farming. Is the Minister planning to roll out this pilot to other prisons?
We are, in fact, introducing more variety of employment in prisons, but I want to see that go even further. One of the advantages of urban vertical farming is the fact that, for obvious reasons, it takes up less space than traditional farming. There are, of course, limits to what can be grown in that way, but the hon. Lady has made an interesting point that we shall no doubt have an opportunity to discuss further.
An effective probation service is key to reducing reoffending, but ever since the disastrous Tory privatisation the probation service has been in crisis. Six serious further offences are committed each week, experienced staff are abandoning the service, and the chief inspector of probation has said that it is
“impossible to say the public is being properly protected”.
The Tories’ legacy is failing to protect the public, failing to punish criminals, and failing to prevent crime. Is it not time they stood aside and let Labour fix their mess?
If I may start at the end of the hon. Lady’s question—no. I do not think that we will be taking lessons from the Opposition Front Benchers when it comes to clamping down on crime and standing up to criminals.
The people who work in the prohibition service do a unique and immensely difficult job, making difficult judgments and helping to support people, but also determining when it is necessary for them to be recalled to prison. It is important that when things do go wrong we learn lessons, and we have been learning those lessons. Let me also gently say to the hon. Lady that, sadly, serious further offences, although rare among people who have come out of prison on probation, happen every year, and it is important that we bear down on them and seek to learn lessons whenever they occur.
Criminal Courts Backlog
The outstanding case load at Chester Crown court at the end of September stood at 626. We are taking action across the criminal justice system to bring down backlogs and improve waiting times for those who use our courts. We have introduced new legislation to give more flexibility for cases to be returned to the magistrates courts, we have ramped up judicial capacity, and we are investing a significant amount of funding for the criminal justice system.
We are now witnessing a backlog of 60,000 Crown court cases and 350,000 magistrates court cases, all as a direct result of political choices to close 260 courts, one of them in Runcorn in my constituency—it became a cannabis farm next to a police station before being burnt down. Does the Minister actually believe that a four-year wait for victims to have their day in court is acceptable?
The hon. Gentleman is right on one count: it is about political choices. If the Opposition stopped backing strikers, there might not be the current case backlog in our criminal justice system, which is a direct result of action by the Criminal Bar Association. It is this Government who are increasing the judiciary, who have settled the dispute and who are increasing court capacity, for instance by opening more Nightingale courts. We are taking the action; the Opposition back the strikers.
In the context of addressing the backlog and engagement with the legal profession, when I spoke to leading criminal lawyers such as Sarah Forshaw KC, they raised with me a specific question: when will the Government appoint the chair of the Criminal Legal Aid Advisory Board? The board was set up in October 2022, nearly a year after the independent review conducted by Sir Christopher Bellamy. Is there to be another year’s wait before this appointment is made?
The appointment of the chair following the independent review is currently being considered by the Secretary of State and an announcement will be made in due course. The board has met and continues to do its work. It is working effectively while we decide on the best form of chairing the meetings.
The Government’s common platform roll-out has been nothing short of disastrous. Among many other problems, I have heard of dozens of prisoners being released without the tags that their licence conditions demand and other instances where individuals have been detained in custody beyond their release date. This is all avoidable chaos caused by Tory incompetence. Can the Minister explain why, despite the best efforts of the staff, the data systems simply do not work? Will he outline when he will finally get a grip and sort out this very wasteful scandal?
I have to say to the hon. Gentleman yet again that if he wishes to return to the legacy systems he is welcome to argue that case, but those systems are at the end of their useful life. Since taking on this portfolio, I have gone out of my way to speak to the practitioners—the people down at the sharp end—and ensure that their concerns are reflected in all the technological enhancements. To describe the common platform as a disaster is simply untrue. This Government are investing in modernising our criminal justice system; Labour Members are nothing more than luddites.
European Convention on Human Rights
Our Bill of Rights will envisage us remaining a state party to the ECHR and fully availing ourselves of the margin of appreciation to restore some common sense to our human rights regime.
As we prepare to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, will the Secretary of State recognise the extent to which the ECHR is integrated into that agreement, and the fact that leaving the convention would be a breach of his Government’s obligations under the peace process, which I am sure is something he would never countenance?
No one is more committed to the integrity of the UK than this Government. I set out the position on the Bill of Rights earlier. We have made it clear that we would not rule out ever withdrawing from the ECHR in the future. We certainly need to make sure that we have a viable legal regime that allows us to tackle illegal immigration.
Does the Secretary of State agree with the former Prime Minister, Sir John Major, who reminded the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee earlier this month that, far from being some bureaucratic creation, the ECHR was championed by Churchill and his Conservative Government, and that leaving the convention would place the UK in the dubious company of Belarus and Russia?
I do not think that many people take issue with the convention. Of course, it was negotiated at a very different time and place. The real issue has been the mission creep and the expanding and elastic interpretations of the ECHR since that time. I am confident that, with the Bill of Rights, we can address that in a comprehensive way.
The Secretary of State’s proposed Bill of Rights will mandate British courts to override the European convention on human rights in certain circumstances and restrict access to convention rights through British courts, but the Good Friday agreement guarantees direct access to the courts for any breaches of the convention, so how will he achieve his plans without breaching the Good Friday agreement?
We can remain absolutely committed to the Good Friday agreement with the Bill of Rights, not least because—the hon. Gentleman would know this if he had bothered to read it—the ECHR is retained within a schedule to the Bill of Rights. He has to face up to the fact that at the moment we have too many foreign national offenders whom we cannot remove from this country because of things like elastic interpretations of article 8. If he really wants to show his mettle—as he beats his chest, given the potential reshuffle on the Labour Front Bench—he should back us in taking every measure to remove foreign national offenders, because that is what the British public care about.
The truth is that the Justice Secretary has no answer to the question and his plan to rip up the Human Rights Act will create fresh divisions in Northern Ireland, where there is still no agreement on the protocol. What discussions has he had about this reckless plan with the Government of the Republic of Ireland or with the US Government, who have made it clear that any unilateral attempt to weaken convention rights in Northern Ireland would threaten a future US-UK trade deal?
Both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have repeatedly failed to rule out withdrawing from the convention in the longer term, the impacts of which would be international humiliation for this country and a severe blow to international human rights law. It is shocking that these questions even have to be asked of the Government. What we need from the Justice Secretary is a full-throated defence of the convention and a commitment to the UK’s long-term membership. Instead of playing along with his more extreme Back Benchers, will he now deliver that unequivocal defence and a long-term commitment?
I am surprised to hear the SNP talk about extreme members of other parties. At the moment, the UK’s single biggest human rights concern is the trade in misery we see with the small boats and illegal immigration across the country. If the hon. Gentleman is committed to human rights, he should back us in taking every conceivably measure to deal with that problem.
The “Beating crime plan” of 2021 highlighted, once again, the importance of early intervention for young people. One such programme is our support for 200 voluntary and community projects to engage children at risk of involvement in crime through mentoring and sports activities.
I am keen to see a more preventive approach to crime committed by young adults, particularly knife crime. In 2017, Ryan Passey, aged only 24, lost his life to a perpetrator with a knife, and we are still seeking justice. Will the Minister join me and the Passey family in exploring more ways of reaching out to young adults to ensure that carrying a knife does not become the norm? We all know that people who carry a knife risk becoming either a perpetrator or a victim.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Obviously I cannot comment on this individual case, but I join her in extending my sympathies to Ryan’s family. We have to do everything we can to bear down on serious violence, and serious violence reduction orders are part of that. The work of youth offending teams is also important in trying to catch people before they turn into more hardened criminals. Even before that, what happens in schools and in our communities is fundamental to helping children and young people stay on the right course.
We see a concerning number of young people being criminally exploited by drugs gangs, particularly in Stoke-on-Trent. Will my right hon. Friend look at what more can be done to prevent young people, particularly the most vulnerable, from being drawn into a cycle of criminality?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I am always keen to hear from him on this important subject. The Government have invested a lot of money in the 10-year drugs plan, and there is a strong commitment across Government to making sure we see through those commitments. He is also right that the best intervention point draws young people away from the lure and the great personal danger of drugs in the first place. The youth offending teams are part of that, and the new Turnaround early intervention programme goes further, alongside programmes such as the youth justice sport fund.
I do not think the public are convinced that the Minister is serious about preventing children and young people from entering the criminal justice system. I say that because £1 billion has been slashed from youth services, 750 youth centres have closed and 14,000 youth and community jobs have been axed. This Government have consistently cut services for children and young people. Will he agree to look again at the Government’s policies and, indeed, to follow Labour’s plan to invest in youth services?
It is not the case that we do not have a comprehensive approach to supporting young people. The Turnaround programme is an important new investment in this area. By the way, fewer under-18s are being incarcerated than when Labour was in government. It is right to try to keep people out of young offender institutions—out of being deprived of their liberty—where, quite often, they turn into more hardened criminals. We must also ensure that there is community support, and programmes such as the youth justice sport fund, which my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary launched the other day, are an important part of that.
People in Hull North are a bit fed up with a very small minority of young people who are blighting their community through antisocial behaviour, including, most recently, throwing objects at buses, which has meant the suspension of bus services to an area of the country that has a very low rate of car ownership. What more can the Government do to help police forces such as Humberside, which is a top performing police force, and Hull City Council, which has seen its budget slashed over the past 13 years by this Government, to divert young people from crime and to deal with young offenders early?
I understand what the right hon. Lady says about the frustration and anger felt by her constituents when they have to deal with antisocial behaviour. In different ways, it is something that all hon. Members have to deal with, and it is important that we bear down on it. A range of out-of-court disposals is available to be used for young people, and there are diversions to help them get back on the right path. It is difficult for me to comment about the specific case of the kids throwing things at buses without knowing more about it, but I have no doubt that she will be in close contact with her local authority and her police as needed.
Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls
The hon. Lady raises a hugely important issue. It is completely unacceptable that women and girls continue to be subject to violence and to the horrendous crimes that constitute VAWG—violence against women and girls. That is why, on top of the significant measures already taken by the Government, the Home Secretary yesterday announced a range of additional steps, including adding the most dangerous domestic abuse offenders to the violent and sex offender register. Much has already been done, but it is right that the Government remain focused on doing more and on continuing our reforms in this area, as I am sure the hon. Lady would expect.
Fewer than one in 50 recorded rapes results in a charge and it takes two years on average for a rape case to come to court. I hope the Minister will congratulate Northumbria’s police and crime commissioner, Kim McGuinness, on introducing independent sexual violence champions to support victims in their journey through the criminal justice system in the face of the massive failure of his Government, which is retraumatising victims. Will he agree to the immediate roll-out of specialist rape courts to prioritise rape victims, to which Labour is committed?
I am happy to join the hon. Lady in congratulating her local police and crime commissioner on her work on this hugely important issue. I would highlight the significant progress that has been made under this Government. The number of reports to the police of rape and serious sexual offences is going up, the number of referrals from the police to the Crown Prosecution Service for charge is going up, and the number of Crown court receipts is going up. Those are all significant signs of progress, but there is more to do.
On the hon. Lady’s point about courts, she will be aware that three courts—Snaresbrook, Leeds and Newcastle—are piloting additional measures on these issues. Those pilots are in their relatively early months and it would be wrong to prejudge them, but I continue to follow the progress of those courts with specialist measures with care.
The Minister is right to emphasise the importance of bearing down on these dreadful offences. Has he seen the research published this week in the Criminal Law Review based on the largest ever dataset of Crown court cases, which suggests that convictions for rape have risen markedly since 2018 and now stand at 75%, against an increase in charging as well, and that the conviction rate for rape and serious sexual offences is now higher than for other offences of violence against the person? That is important information. That work was carried out by Professor Cheryl Thomas, who is regarded as the leading academic expert on juries, using the largest ever dataset. Does the Minister agree that we should take that into account when we consider how best to take forward our policies to bear down on these serious offences—using up-to-date information to adjust our policies?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I confess that while I am aware of the Criminal Law Review article, I have yet to read it in full. I will certainly do so, given his strong recommendation. He is right to highlight what it says, which is that significant progress has been made, and that it is important to base our debates on this hugely emotive and important subject on evidence. A lot has been achieved, but there is still more to do.
Two years on from the Government’s end-to-end rape review, rape allegations leading to a charge or summons stand at 1.6%, rape victims are waiting 1,113 days for their case to get to court, and only 2,500 rape prosecutions were completed last year—half the level of 2016. Is this not a Government who are letting rapists off and letting victims down?
I debate these matters regularly with the hon. Lady, but I have to say to her, as I have said to other hon. Members, that while there is still more to do, there has been considerable progress under this Government. The number of people convicted of an adult rape offence went up by 65% over the past year; compared to pre-pandemic levels, convictions are up by 41%. That is significant progress, but of course there is more to do. That is why the Government are supporting the roll-out of Operation Soteria, quadrupling funding for victim and witness support services, and increasing the number of independent sexual and domestic abuse advisers by 300, to over 1,000. Those are just some examples of the measures the Government are taking. There is no complacency here—just a strong track record of work and delivery.
Support for Victims
The Government have consulted on the draft Victims Bill and have now responded to the Justice Committee’s excellent prelegislative scrutiny of it. Alongside that Bill, which we will bring to the House when parliamentary time allows, we continue to invest in victims’ services, as I set out in response to the previous question.
A survey by the former Victims’ Commissioner revealed that less than half of victims who had made a police report would do so again, due to their traumatic experiences. Victims are important, but seven years and six Justice Secretaries since the victims Bill was first promised, it still has not made it to the statute book. Will victims ever be a priority for this Government?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, with whom I normally have a measured interaction on these issues. We have been clear in our commitment to the victims Bill, and we have been clear that we will bring it forward as soon as parliamentary time allows. It is a priority for my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor.
I say gently that this party and this Government put the needs of victims front and centre. We have massively increased the support and funding they receive. Through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, we have ensured that courts have the powers that they need to give tougher sentences to ensure that victims get justice. The Opposition talk tough, but when it comes down to it, as we saw with the PCSC Act, they fail to back victims and to put their votes where their mouths are. They talk; we get on with delivering for victims.
A staggering 3,000 incidents of antisocial behaviour take place every day, with almost 20 million people having experienced it last year. With the Government allowing this behaviour to fester and go unpunished, when will Ministers finally appoint a Victims’ Commissioner to champion the rights of victims of ASB?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on being drawn in the ballot to ask a similar question to the one that he asked at the last Justice questions. The Victims’ Commissioner is a hugely important role, so it is right that we follow due process and ensure that we get absolutely the best candidate installed, as he would expect. That process is ongoing, and I look forward to a Victims’ Commissioner being appointed shortly.
Strengthening Human Rights
We introduced the Bill of Rights to this House, which will limit the abuse of human rights and restore some common sense. I have regular discussions with my colleagues, particularly the Foreign Secretary, on the work that we are doing to support the International Criminal Court and end impunity for war crimes in Ukraine.
In an article this morning, Lee Marsons of the Public Law Project sets out the significance of the European convention on human rights to LGBTQ people and the fact that the ECHR has allowed the expansion of human rights. Does the Secretary of State understand that human rights are for us all and that withdrawing from the ECHR is a specific threat to marginalised communities, whose hard-won rights should not be undermined?
Given that the Joint Committee on Human Rights has said clearly that the UK Government should not pursue reform of the Human Rights Act 1998 without the consent of the devolved nations, will the Secretary of State promise right here, right now that he agrees with that and that his Government will not roll back or interfere with our human rights?
The hon. Lady will be shocked to know that I did not agree with all the contents of the JCHR report, but I refer to the statements we have made on how we have approached the devolved Administrations. I have personally been to all the nations of the United Kingdom to speak to not only politicians and Government officials, but academics and practitioners. We will continue that engagement and I am sure we will get the right thing for all people and all citizens of the UK.
Forensic Science: Miscarriages of Justice
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. The Department has been working closely with the Home Office and other criminal justice partners to deliver on our commitment to drive up quality standards in forensic science. Yesterday, the House debated the new statutory code of practice required by the Forensic Science Regulator Act 2021, which will grant the independent regulator statutory powers to investigate providers who fail to meet the required quality standards and who may put the interests of justice at risk.
Is the Minister aware that the Chair of the Justice Committee and I are co-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group on miscarriages of justice? The group is very concerned at what leading forensic scientists are telling us about the running down of the forensic science service in this country—a service that must be at the heart of any good justice system. Some £55 million was put into the pot to improve forensic science over the past three years, but nobody knows where it has gone, where it was spent or when it will take effect to stop the loss of great experts that we are experiencing.
Again, the hon. Gentleman makes an important point. This is a complex issue and I am more than happy to sit down with him and my hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee to discuss it in further detail, to get their expertise and to see how we can move things forward.
We have launched the early legal advice pilot; we have invested in domestic abuse legal aid; we have invested money for housing reform and immigration legal aid; and legal aid spending is £1.2 billion per annum. The Government have a record of delivery on legal aid, investing in key areas, unblocking access and ensuring that money is well spent to protect those who need access to justice.
With the number of civil legal aid providers falling from more than 2,100 to fewer than 1,400 in the past 10 years and with areas such as the south Wales valleys, including my Cynon Valley constituency, becoming legal aid deserts, what assurances can the Minister provide that he will not allow further closures of legal aid providers before the review of civil legal aid concludes?
In fact, since the new standard contract was introduced in October, we have seen an increase in duty solicitors and firms taking on legal aid. We have restored some stability to the system. I understand the hon. Lady’s concerns, but I can tell her that the Legal Aid Agency monitors the issue of what are known as deserts closely to ensure that no part of the country is left uncovered.
The Government have repeatedly made political choices that have left our criminal justice system on its knees. They have recently found additional money to ensure that defence and prosecution barristers are given the 15% increase in line with the Bellamy review recommendation, but solicitors have been given only a 9% increase. That unequal decision puts at risk access to justice for victims, with more than 1,000 duty solicitors quitting in the last five years. Will the Lord Chancellor commit to funding all of Bellamy’s recommendations and put solicitors on the same footing?
The uplift for solicitors and barristers has already started to be paid. The hon. Gentleman mentions duty solicitors and, as I have said, since the new contract has been in place, we have started to see an increase in the number of people taking on those roles and in firms taking on legal aid, so we are seeing the benefits of the investment in both the litigators’ graduated fee scheme and the advocates’ graduated fee scheme.
On the general investment in legal aid, I am aware of the concerns of the Law Society, with which I am having constructive discussions to try to find a way forward.
Violent and Sexual Offences: Processing Times
Although I have faced the hon. Gentleman in Westminster Hall, I think this is the first opportunity that I have had to congratulate him from the Dispatch Box on his election to the House last year—[Interruption.] Wait and see.
It remains our priority to deliver swifter justice for victims. We are increasing court capacity by removing the limit on sitting days in the Crown court for the second financial year in a row, and we are recruiting up to 1,000 more judges across all jurisdictions in 2022-23. The Government took action to tackle the Criminal Bar Association strike, which added to those delays, and alongside all those measures we are implementing the £1.3 billion court reform programme, which aims to make our court processes more efficient.
As I highlighted in response to previous questions, reports to the police are up, referrals by the police to the CPS are up, and charges and Crown court receipts for such crimes are up. As I said to the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist), who is no longer in her place, I will take no lessons from the Labour party about being tough on sentencing. That party voted against measures in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 to give judges the power to increase sentences.
Female Prison Estate
Last month, we published our plan to deliver the female offender strategy for England and Wales, including better outcomes and physical conditions for women in custody.
The recent controversy over the custody of double rapist Adam Graham and other violent offenders has illustrated the danger and naivety of self-ID, with tumultuous consequences, yet the Ministry’s latest statistics for England and Wales show that 230 trans-identifying males are being held on the female prison estate, and that there have been 97 sexual offences, 44 of which were rape. The Scottish Government acted swiftly, so what action will the UK Government take to limit that harm, review practices and clarify equalities legislation to ensure that prisoners are protected from abusive males?
Of course, safety must always come first. I can confirm that we do not hold prisoners based on their self-declared gender identity. Our approach is that transgender women, including those with gender recognition certificates, can be held on the main women’s estate only if a risk assessment concludes that it is safe. The changes to our policy mean that no transgender woman convicted of a sexual offence, or who retains male genitalia, can be allocated to the general women’s estate other than in truly exceptional circumstances.
Order. That does not link into this—[Interruption.] Order. One of us will have to sit down, and it is certainly not going to be me. It might help us both if I suggest to the hon. Lady that she might catch my eye during topical questions, when it would be appropriate to raise the very important matter in her constituency.
This question relates to the previous question, as well. Since the 2019 strengthening of our policy, there have been no assaults or sexual assaults committed by transgender women in women’s prisons, and last year we further strengthened that policy.
I welcome the fact that the Government are issuing new guidance on the accommodation of such prisoners, but does my right hon. Friend agree that having no biological male imprisoned in a woman’s prison should be a strong principle henceforth? Does he agree that women’s prisons and the women within them must not be used as therapeutic support for trans-identifying male prisoners?
I am happy to confirm to my hon. Friend, as I said a moment ago, that safety must come first. We want to support everybody who is in our care and who we are keeping inside for the protection of the public. We need to make sure that safety in prisons is as strong as it can be, and I can confirm to my hon. Friend that following the policy updates, transgender women with male genitalia will not be held in the general women’s estate except in truly exceptional circumstances. Exemptions will require sign-off by a Minister to ensure they can be considered only in the most truly exceptional cases.
For those who identify as transgender, it is important to recognise, as the Minister has, the safety issues. Across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, it is important that we have a policy and a strategy that is the same everywhere. Has the Minister had any opportunity to talk to the police and the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland to ensure that we in Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Assembly have a policy that follows the route and focus here?
The short answer is that I have not had a chance to have that conversation. It is true that there are differences in different parts of the United Kingdom, and those have been played out in the media substantially over the past couple of weeks. I believe our policy here in England and Wales is the right one. It is respectful to everybody, but makes sure we are making safety paramount.
Since the last Justice oral questions, I have announced the expansion of incentivised substance-free living units from 25 to 45 prisons and investment in up to 18 abstinence-based drug recovery wings. I have also announced 220 community support organisations that will benefit from a £5 million fund to prevent young people from falling into crime, and I visited Strasbourg to discuss with colleagues at the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe how the Government’s Bill of Rights Bill will protect and promote human rights.
Testimony provided by the POA trade union to the Justice Committee shortly before recess illustrated just how cruel, degrading and utterly dangerous it is to make prison officers work on the landings until the retirement age of 68. Would the Minister have wanted his own grandparents to have been forced to restrain violent young prisoners, or will he agree to open negotiations with the POA over the retirement ages of officers? We all know that 68 is too late.
I thank the hon. Lady. Of all the public servants I have worked with in my time as a Minister and an MP, none command greater respect than prison officers. I understand the huge job they do, which in the pandemic in particular was difficult. We are not going to revisit the retirement age issue, but I am always willing to discuss matters with prison officers and in particular the POA, and my door is always open.
My hon. Friend is right about this. It is one of the crusading missions we have, along with getting offenders into work. That is why we are increasing the number of incentivised substance-free living units from 25 in 2022 to 100 by March 2025 and investing in drug recovery wings. The big thing is not just to stop illegal drugs getting into our prisons, but to wean offenders off heroin and opiate substitutes such as methadone.
It has become apparent that if the Justice Secretary does not act, the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill could see thousands of part-time judges face a massive loss of pension rights, pushing many away from office at the worst possible time. This morning, when we debated the matter in a Delegated Legislation Committee, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), was a little vague about whether the Department would fix this specifically by retaining the relevant regulations. Can the Lord Chancellor give that clear commitment today?
Of course, as the retained EU law Bill goes through, we will consider any significant issues that are raised, but that Bill is critically important as we take control of our own destiny and make sure that we have laws tailored to the UK that best suit the circumstances of the UK, whether that is England, Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales. The hon. Gentleman ought to support that.
I am aware that this is an incredibly sensitive issue, and one that the Government want to get right. I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Government will be publishing the response to that review very soon—as soon as we can do so.
We published our response to the Bellamy review and the criminal legal aid independent review, and indeed are already implementing those reforms. They include uplifts of 15% to most legal aid fee schemes, which is very significant given the current context of public sector pay challenges. The hon. Gentleman needs to put this in some kind of perspective: just to give one aspect, criminal legal aid spend is expected to be £1.2 billion a year, so we are doing the right thing to make sure we support the most vulnerable who need access to legal aid and to the courts.
I thank my hon. Friend and pay tribute to him for the work he did as Prisons Minister—I remember it, because I was a junior Minister in the Department at the same time. He is absolutely right about the value of prison officers, and how they are out of sight and out of mind; people do not bang pots and pans for them in the same way they do for other public servants, but we should take every opportunity to sing their praises.
To answer my hon. Friend’s specific question, between the end of 2016 and 2022, the number of full-time prison officers increased by 3,677 to 21,632. That shows that the recruitment programme is bearing fruit.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who I know has a very considered and long-standing interest in this issue. Legal aid needs more money, which is why we are increasing spend by up to £138 million a year, taking the expected criminal legal aid spend next year to £1.2 billion, but it also needs reform. We cannot have the situation that we always have with the Labour party, where it just asks for more and more money but does not face the challenge of reforming systems so that they work in the best interests of the people of this country.
HMP Garth and HMP Wymott are successful prisons that do great work rehabilitating prisoners, but the Ministry of Justice has plans to put a third prison on the site, almost doubling the number of prisoners there—[Interruption.]
The MOJ plans to almost double the number of prisoners on the site of HMP Garth and HMP Wymott, but those plans are hamstrung by an almost complete lack of public transport improvement or roads infrastructure improvement. Does the Minister acknowledge the deep concerns about these plans in Ulnes Walton, Croston and Leyland, and will he withdraw them, think again, and stop the third prison?
I acknowledge what my hon. Friend says about the concerns that people have. She could not be faulted for the strength and consistency with which she has campaigned on behalf of her constituents on these matters, and particularly the transport infrastructure that she mentions. She knows this, because there are already two prisons there, but a new prison delivers hundreds of construction jobs locally, hundreds of ongoing jobs and a whole range of roles and careers, with a very significant boost to the local economy.
The challenge is less gaps in the law and more evidential difficulties in bringing prosecutions, but I share the hon. Lady’s aim to do everything we can with new technology to ramp up the number of prosecutions, to make sure there is accountability for what is, it must be said, an awful crime.
HMP Berwyn in Wrexham is piloting an MOJ employment board, chaired by John Murphy of J. Murphy and Sons and the governor, Nick Leader. The board brings together businesses and agencies to equip prisoners with meaningful employment ahead of release via work academies that certify them in logistics, construction and hospitality, while addressing issues for reoffending. I sit on the board, and I know that the Justice Secretary has not visited the UK’s newest and largest prison, so will he visit, please?
How could I resist such a tantalising offer? My hon. Friend makes the case powerfully. As the Prisons Minister just said, this can bring huge opportunities to the local economy, but critically, it gives offenders who are willing to take a second chance to turn their lives around an opportunity to get skills and get into work, and that makes our communities safer.
On the availability of legal aid, does the Secretary of State agree that where successful applications for legal aid are made by the same person successively on similar or the same issues, it is important that freedom of information requests tabled by Members of Parliament are answered, and the full cost of such legal aid is made available to the public?
I certainly support the hon. Gentleman’s pursuit of maximum transparency. If he is having problems, he can feel free to drop me a line and I will see what I can do, but the FOI Act sets out clearly prescribed limits, and we want to make sure we process those applications fairly and properly.
There are a couple of things we are doing to achieve our target of 1,000 additional judicial vacancies this year, which is on track, and I am willing to share that with my hon. Friend. We have reformed judicial pensions today. In addition, we have increased the age limit, so that we can retain the best judiciary.
Is the Secretary of State aware that probably the greatest scandal in the justice system at the moment is joint enterprise? I believe that there are nearly 1,000 young people in prison with long sentences for it. He should take this cause to his heart. I will be here every time he is in the House, reminding him about joint enterprise, until he talks to the senior judiciary and gets something done about it.
I am meeting the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) tomorrow to discuss this issue, and I am about to be briefed on the announcement that the Crown Prosecution Service made over the weekend on this subject. I will, of course, make sure that the hon. Gentleman is kept informed.
The Secretary of State will know the importance of good, reliable data in driving justice policy and will recognise the work done by the Legal Education Foundation and its director Dr Natalie Byrom in this regard. Will he welcome its establishment of Justice Lab, a new dedicated research centre in this field, which is being launched in Dining Room A in this House tomorrow?
As always, the Chair of the Justice Committee draws our attention to critical developments in the criminal justice system. Data and that initiative are incredibly important. The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar) will attend the event in the House of Commons, so he will laud that even further and at more length.
Water Company Performance
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs if she will make a statement on what measures can be deployed to ensure water companies are performing adequately.
First, I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) for bringing the matter of ensuring that water companies are performing adequately before this House. I think we all agree that this is an incredibly important and serious issue. I have been clear that water companies’ current performance is totally unacceptable and that they must act urgently to improve to meet Government and customer expectations. The British people expect better and so do this Government.
We have committed to deliver clean and plentiful water, as set out in the environmental improvement plan, and we have set out clearly how water companies must deliver that. First, our strategic policy statement to Ofwat, the water company regulator, sets out four clear priorities for water companies to protect and enhance the environment, deliver a resilient water sector, serve and protect consumers, and use markets to deliver for our customers.
Secondly, we have set new duties, through the Environment Act 2021, on water companies to monitor their overflows and set new legally binding targets to restore our precious water bodies to their natural state by cracking down on harmful pollution from sewers and abandoned mines, and improving water usage and households.
Thirdly, the storm overflow reduction plan, launched back in the summer, requires the largest investment programme in water company history and builds on the existing statutory duties. Water companies already have a statutory duty to provide a supply of wholesome water under the Water Industry Act 1991 and associated water quality regulations. They must ensure the continuation of their water distribution functions during an emergency.
I will begin by addressing my right hon. Friend’s concerns, because she has been in touch. I appreciate the lengths to which she has gone to hold her own water company to account, particularly over the supply interruptions experienced by Southern Water’s customers following multiple emergency incidents back in December 2022. A more recent incident last week led to approximately 15,000 Southern Water customers being off supply for an extended period, as she will know. Although some supply interruptions cannot be avoided, the repeated failure to properly ensure customers’ continued water supply is totally unacceptable. I will be meeting with Southern Water’s chief executive officer to understand how it plans to address its failings.
The Government and their regulators hold water companies to account in a number of ways, particularly through transparent reporting and performance. As the economic regulator for the water industry, Ofwat tracks performance against performance commitments, which are set at the start of the funding cycle.
The current performance commitments were set for the cycle from 2020 to 2024 and include pollution incidents, treatment works compliance and supply interruptions. Ofwat assesses performance against each of those metrics annually and ranks the companies in the water company performance report according to whether the metrics have been achieved. It reported that five water companies were extremely poor. The Secretary of State and I met them to hold them to account and to make it clear that we need further progress—
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I want to be clear that where water and sewage companies are found to be breaking the law, there will be substantial penalties. We have increased all our measures on those penalties, and we are looking at whether we will go ahead with the £250-million cap that has been proposed. We will be consulting on that shortly.
Water companies’ performance is not just about finances and Ofwat must not just be an economic regulator. It is about customer satisfaction, consistent supply, treating waste water, investment in networks, and making sure that our constituents have a clean drinking water supply all the time. In addition to compensation, customers need there to be better ways to hold water companies to account for significant outages, such as the three that we have seen in southern Hampshire in just five months, each of which lasted for days.
There is the ignominy of being in the Ofwat category of “lagging behind”, but that does not seem to have improved Southern Water or Thames Water, which have been in that category for two years running—shame does not appear to be effective. There are poor customer satisfaction ratings, but what do they change? There is a requirement to produce an action plan and targeted improvement plans, but by when, and what are the penalties for not delivering on them?
My constituents have gone without water to wash with, to drink, to cook with and to flush the loo with for days on end, with poor and in some instances misleading communications and without access to bottled water stations in my constituency. The only one was accessible on foot only, but water is really heavy to carry. They want significant fines for failure to supply, in the same way that there are significant fines for pollution. They want a requirement for emergency and back-up supplies to be available when parts of the network go down. Is it acceptable that if one part of the Otterbourne water supply works in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) is out of action, there is no provision to bypass the problem and continue supply?
Ofwat has said that it will push the “lagging behind” companies, but how hard, and what is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs doing to make sure that that happens? What is the penalty for not delivering on improvement plans? Last year, only 68% of the forecast improvement moneys were spent. At what point will DEFRA step in and recognise that the current situation is not working for the companies, the regulator or the poor customer?
We heard last week that there were plans to “water down” excessive fines, but a record £90 million was levied on Southern Water a few years ago, and that was not enough to convey the message. Rather than fines, can we therefore ensure that money is levied to force investment in the network, because current performance suggests that, so far, it simply has not worked?
I thank my right hon. Friend for reiterating the situation that we have just witnessed with Southern Water, which was completely and utterly unacceptable, particularly following the incidents in December. I have communicated with the chief executive and I am asking again for an urgent meeting as a result of the situation last week.
My right hon. Friend raises some pertinent points about holding water companies to account. She knows that there is a system whereby water can be credited back to the billpayers, and I urge that that will be looked at and followed up. She also asked about the action plans for different companies. The Secretary of State and I had the five worst-performing water companies in before Christmas to talk about their failures, including leakages. We are taking swift action against them: they all have to produce an updated action plan to say what they are doing.
We have done a great deal to ensure that there is enforcement, which is critical, because everybody wants water companies to be held to account for what they do. The Environment Agency already has powers to issue unlimited fines through the criminal courts, but that can take a long time, as my right hon. Friend knows. It also needs data, but because of all the monitoring that the Government are doing, we are getting more of that, so we will be able to take more enforcement action. DEFRA is currently consulting on plans to raise the cap on fines and to make it quicker and easier to issue fines when we know things are not working correctly.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on securing this urgent question. She, like many of us, is absolutely sick and tired of the impact that sewage discharges are having on our streams, rivers, seas and local economies. They are devastating whole regions and devastating our coastlines. Frankly, we are here again with the same old excuses and the same old promises for action getting drawn out, but there is no action behind it. The water companies know they can laugh all the way to the bank because the Government will not take action, and the regulators know that the Government will not take action because they have taken away the capacity to take action from the regulators.
All the while, it is local people who are suffering—whether that is people being able to enjoy their local beauty spots and to take a walk down the river, or that is coastal businesses that are reliant on seasonal tourism to provide jobs and livelihoods to people. They are affected, not the Government, and what do we see? This year alone, when the Bank of England and the Government are telling hard-working people to rein it in and stop asking for pay rises, the water bosses are asking for 20% increases in salary. There is not a single thing the Government have said—in the environmental improvement plan or in anything said at the Dispatch Box—that sends out the message that things will be any different, and the water companies know that. They have already banked £66 billion in dividend payments and more will follow.
Labour does not want to sit on the sidelines and witness our country being turned into an open sewer. We set out at the Labour party conference in September a position that would clean up the water industry in this country, deliver value for money for consumers and bill payers, and finally work in the national interest, so when on earth will the Government get on and deliver Labour’s plan?
It is so easy to just stand there with no facts and no detailed information, and level an attack. I agree, as does the Secretary of State, that sewage in water, unacceptable leakage and so forth are not to be tolerated, and that is why we have set so many actions in train—more than ever before. We are taking more action than any Government have ever before on the water companies.
Do not forget that, since privatisation, the water companies have made a huge investment—billions of pounds of investment—in improving our water company infrastructure. Because of our new storm overflows discharge reduction plan, they are now committed to £56 billion of investment up to 2050, and £7.1 billion of that is already under way, including the Thames Tideway super sewer. A great deal of enforcement action is already taking place. Just in 2021, £121 million of fines were meted out to water companies. Because of the very detailed investigation now under way by Ofwat, the regulator, and the EA, we have more and more data and information to pinpoint where permits are being contravened and where water companies are not taking the actions they should be, and enforcement will follow. We are now consulting on a potential figure of £250 million to make sure we have a realistic and sensible fine that will really do the job in holding our water companies to account.
The Minister knows that the River Mersey flows through the middle of Warrington—she has been to see it for herself—and I was struck recently by the comments of a local resident who reminded me of the pink film that used to exist on top of the river. Much has been done to clear up our rivers. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that it is absolutely right that water company dividends are directly linked to their performance in providing services to their customers and in cleaning up our rivers?
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. In 2019, transparency became much more critical in Ofwat’s holding the water companies to account, because it had to agree, in the price review, how much they should be spending on infrastructure to provide clean water and to ensure the supply. Ofwat has now been directed to ensure that water companies can demonstrate that payments to bosses and so forth are linked to environmental performance.
Does the Minister agree with the almost 209,000 voters who have signed a petition started by my constituents, SOS Whitstable, calling on the Government to at least consider renationalisation of the water companies? Profit-driven, largely foreign investors do not prioritise the cleanliness and economy of British beach communities or the way of life in constituencies such as mine? If the companies were answerable directly to the taxpayer, they might start to act at last.
The hon. Member forgets that since privatisation £120 billion has been invested by the water companies in the critical infrastructure that we need not only to provide clean and plentiful water but to ensure the supply, so I do not agree with her that we should be renationalising them. What we do need to do is hold them to account where they are doing wrong, but also enable them to continue to invest the £56 billion they are now required to spend to deliver our future water system, with our growing population and the demands of climate change.
The use of storm overflows is completely unacceptable, but does the Minister agree that the best way to tackle that is through enhanced monitoring, requiring a record £56 billion investment by the water companies, and the use of significant fines and criminal prosecutions? Does she also agree that the water companies should be in no doubt that they are in the last-chance saloon and that they and regulators must be held to account to deliver major improvements for our constituents?
I thank my hon. Friend for those sensible points. To be honest, it is because of the monitoring this Government have put in place that we now know what is going on. Under the Labour Government there was virtually no monitoring at all: in 2016, some 5% of storm sewerage overflows were being monitored; that figure is 90% now, and by the end of the year it will be 100%. We will also have to monitor upstream and downstream of every sewerage overflow outlet, so we will know exactly what is going on, and unacceptable behaviour will be acted upon.
Water bosses are actively allowing more pollution, because they know it is cheaper to pay the fines than to put in the investment, mend the leaks and stop the sewage. When will the Minister introduce the higher fines of £250 million that the Environment Secretary has pooh-poohed, and take the Environment Agency’s advice to put directors in jail if they fail? Will she give an undertaking that the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill will not get rid of all the protections from Europe, so that we do not have even more stools in our rivers and on our beaches?
If the hon. Gentleman had been listening earlier, he would have heard me say that we are consulting on plans to raise the cap on fines to £250 million, to make it quicker and easier to tackle enforcement. That will be a significant step, along with all the other measures we are taking, which I have clearly outlined, to hold the water companies to account.
The Minister knows the importance of water quality for my beautiful constituency of Southend-on-Sea and that the use of storm overflows has been completely unacceptable. I welcome the Government’s actions to ensure executive pay and dividends are linked to environmental performance, but she will know that the chief executive of Anglian Water earned £1.3 million last year, including a bonus of £337,651. I have asked him repeatedly for meetings but have still not got a date; will the Minister meet the CEO of Anglian Water with me so that we can understand his plan to stop storm overflows being used in Southend West?
We have seen £2.8 billion in water company profits, £1 billion in shareholder dividends, and a 20% rise in executive water company pay, 60% of which has been in bonuses—in my book, bonuses are for doing a good job, not a terrible one. Meanwhile in Cumbria, the River Eden at Kirkby Stephen has had 101 days of sewage outflows, Swindale Beck at Brough has had 115 days, the River Eea at Cark and Cartmel has had 252 days, and Windermere lake at the heart of the English Lake district has had 71 days. All of that, outrageously, is legal. When will the Government force the water companies to clean up not only their act, but our lakes and rivers too?
If I might say, the hon. Gentleman is a fine one to talk. I believe the water Minister in the coalition was a Liberal Democrat: what exactly did he do? It is this Government who are taking action now on the water companies. This Government introduced the storm overflows reduction plan and, in addition to that plan and all the requirements it puts on the water companies, just this week the Secretary of State has asked that a plan be submitted for every single storm sewerage overflow, with water companies’ proposed actions clearly outlined.
Before Christmas, some 20,000 of my constituents were without water—last week, thousands were—and this clearly stems from a chronic lack of investment in infrastructure by South West Water, despite its balance sheet showing an ability to do so. Six weeks later, we have the same issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) has organised a meeting with the chief executive later, but one word not elaborated on is “compensation”. Will the Minister contact the CEO to press that point, and will the Government up their game not by asking water companies to invest in infrastructure but by forcing them to do so?
There is a clear compensation scheme, as my hon. Friend will know, and that will be being looked at by his water company. I urge him to press for that. If he wants my involvement in ensuring that that is properly understood and followed, I am happy to do that.
The same greedy water companies that are dumping sewage into our rivers and increasing people’s bills, ripping the public off, have handed out more than £50 billion to shareholders since privatisation. That is the reality. Is it not time that we had our water back in public ownership, rather than empty words from the Minister?
Clearly I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The water companies have invested billions of pounds since privatisation—£120 billion—and they will invest a further £56 billion up to 2050. That investment has already begun and Ofwat is going through the water companies’ new plans to agree what is necessary in the next price review. We must remember that what comes out of our taps is considered the cleanest water in Europe. We must also be mindful of the cost to bill payers. We have to balance a clean and plentiful supply of water with holding our water companies to account, while enabling customers to be able to afford the bills.
In Edgware ward in my constituency we have had a large number of new housing developments without a single improvement to the sewerage system. As a consequence, during heavy rain raw sewage comes out of the manhole covers on to the streets. Will my hon. Friend have a word with the planning Minister to ensure that before developments take place sewerage systems are improved to cope with the additional housing?
My hon. Friend raises an important point about housing supply and the suitability of our water supply system. I have been in close communication with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities about all those related issues, which is why I am delighted that we have agreed that sustainable urban drainage systems will now be mandatory. That will make a great difference to our water system. Similarly, the amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill will enable the upgrade to tackle phosphates produced by waste water treatment systems—after all, sewage comes from us—and make sure that what goes back into rivers is clean, so that we can have the clean water that we all deserve.
People in Lancashire know that we are lucky to live in an area with so many beautiful river walks by the River Wyre and the River Lune, but they are no fools—they can see their water bills going up as are the profits of companies such as United Utilities. At the same time, we are seeing higher discharges into our beautiful rivers. Can the Minister explain why she thinks the current system appears to be working just fine?
If the hon. Lady had been listening, I did say that pollution—which is a range, not just sewage but phosphates, nitrates and pollution from old mines—is unacceptable, and that is why we have set all the targets through the new environment improvement plan, with a trajectory for making the changes that we need. It is also why we have signalled through the regulator that performance and payment must be linked to environmental performance.
Can my hon. Friend assure me that more will be done to give out accurate information when water companies invest in making improvements and to ensure that campaigners have that information, rather than the Opposition’s fiction? Bathing water quality on beaches in North Devon is improving, following millions of pounds of investment, and our overflow usage halved last year and will continue to improve because of the work the Government are doing through our world-leading Environment Act 2021 and the storm overflows discharge reduction plan.
I thank my hon. Friend for that and I could not agree with her more. She is a strident campaigner for the beautiful environment in which she lives, and our bathing water status should be commended—72% of our bathing waters are classed as excellent and 94% as good. It is an extremely good record and we should be proud of it.
Over the course of 2020 and 2021, raw sewage was dumped in Britain’s rivers and seas more than 770,000 times. That is almost 6 million hours of pollution discharge. But, as we have heard, the pay of water company executives increased by a fifth, on average. Will the Minister force water companies to invest those profits into urgently upgrading the outdated sewage infrastructure—not ask them, not require more plans, but force them to do it? Will she look again at bringing the companies into public ownership so that money is properly reinvested, not siphoned off to shareholders? She does not seem to understand why people are so angry when water companies are swimming in cash while the rest of us are swimming in sewage.
I have said constantly that it is unacceptable that storm sewerage overflows have been used in contravention of permits. Let us not forget, however, that they were put there for a reason by the Victorians: heavy rainfall and sewage all goes down the same pipe and could back up in our loos, so storm sewerage overflows are there as an emergency precaution. It is clear that they have been relied on too much by water companies, and that is why the Government, having put in the monitors and got more data, can step in. We have launched the storm sewerage overflows reduction plan and the water companies are now committed to so much funding to put all the overflows into the correct operating position, concentrating first on areas near bathing waters and our wonderful protected sites and then all the others. There is now a clear plan of action against which to hold the companies to account.
The River Tame in my constituency is cherished by all the residents who live along it. The Tame valley is the jewel in the crown, but unfortunately the river is subject to regular pollution from several outlets, including chemicals as well as sewage. What more will the Minister do to work with United Utilities and—more importantly—to get the Environment Agency to tackle those companies that use the Tame as an open source to pollute?
The hon. Gentleman raises not only the issue of sewage but a whole range of issues. That is why the Environment Agency operates a permit system, why it has powers to take action to enforce, why we are looking at stronger enforcement through increased fines, and why we set targets under the Environment Act to tackle not just sewage but chemicals and the run-off from old and abandoned mines and to clear up whole stretches of rivers. I think—we met about this—that that applies to his particular area. It will take time—we cannot pretend things will happen overnight—but in fairness there is now a clear plan when under other Governments there was not.
The Minister may be aware that Thames Water is considering plans to draw out water from the river at Teddington in my constituency in times of drought and replace it with treated sewage. That can cause all sorts of havoc with ecosystems if it is not monitored and regulated properly. She will appreciate that my constituents and I have little faith in regulators when Thames Water is currently losing a quarter of its supply every day through leaks and avoiding fines because the targets set for it are just not strong enough. Will she look at strengthening those targets so that companies are more liable to fines and at cracking down on the eye-watering bonuses executives are raking in, which is forcing them to look at these sorts of damaging river abstraction plans when they should be fixing leaks?
The issue of leaks is important. We are tackling it and water companies have targets to cut leaks. In the 2019 price review, they had to cut leakage by 16% and reduce bursts by 12%. If they are not seen to be reaching their targets, Ofwat imposes penalties on them. Three companies are currently paying back £150 million because of leaks and supply cuts. So there is already a system in place and it needs to be adhered to. Water is a precious resource and we need all the water we can get, which is why it is so important to tackle leakage and not just tackle environmental performance in terms of bonuses. I agree with the hon. Lady that bonuses should be linked to environmental performance, and that is what we have directed Ofwat to do.
As the Minister will know, Cornwall is often at the coalface of the fight against sewage. When we had a leak in St Agnes a few months ago, one issue we found was that the investigation did not take place immediately and there was some ambiguity as to whether it was sewage or run-off. Can the Minister explain to the House what we are doing to ensure that when there is a problem we get the data as quickly as possible so that there is no further ambiguity?
I thank my hon. Friend for that important point. I think the incident she refers to turned out to be one of not sewage but soil. That is another issue we face and we now have targets to reduce soil sediment run-off. We do not want all that soil in our water; we need soil on the land because it is so precious. She is absolutely right about having the right data. Now, because of the increased monitoring that the Government have set under way, every storm sewage overflow will be monitored by the end of this year. It is a phenomenal project that has happened at great speed, ramping up over the last few years. It will provide us with the clear data we need, as well as monitoring upstream and downstream. Real-time monitoring will come into play. That is what we really need, so we can go on to a website, look at our home area and say, “That storm sewage overflow should not be emitting. It is not heavy rain. We have not had a massive downfall. It should not be emitting.” We will be able to go on there and truly hold the water companies to account.
I am sure the Government are well aware that the public are really upset about this issue. In my constituency people are very much disgusted by it and they do not see a market in operation. We had a 67% increase in discharges locally in the River Avon and River Leam. In Worcestershire, there was an increase of 80,000 tonnes of discharge into rivers which led to a £1.5 million fine for Severn Trent Water. Yet the chief executive got a 27% pay increase to £3.9 million. Can the Minister confirm whether chief executive pay is index-linked to discharges?
I am not going to disagree with the hon. Gentleman that the discharges are unacceptable, but I would also like to say that it is because of what the Government are doing and because we have made this such a priority that it has come to light—a great deal more than it did under previous Governments. We are taking action. It is now a top priority through all the measures we have in place. The strategic policy statement to Ofwat, the targets in the Environment Act and our storm sewage overflows reduction plan—all that cumulative work—will take us on the trajectory we genuinely want and need. We still have clean and plentiful water coming out of our taps. We should not underestimate the fact that that is what the water companies are also delivering.
The fact is that every two and a half minutes people can smell sewage and see the sewage in their rivers and on their beaches, yet water companies are laughing all the way to the bank. The best we can get from the Minister is that we now monitor it. It is pathetic, isn’t it, after 13 years of Tory government?
I clearly understand the concern among the public. I count myself as one of them. I have said many times, as have other Ministers, that sewage in water is unacceptable. But let us not mislead; let us get our facts straight. As I said earlier, 72% of our bathing water is classed as excellent and 94% is classed as good. That is a tremendous record that has been achieved under this Government. It has improved year on year and will continue to improve. All the actions the Government have put into place will tackle the issues the hon. Gentleman talks about. They will tackle unacceptable pollution all round, and that is what we need. It is about not just sewage but getting the right infrastructure in place—the £56 billion the water companies will be investing, required by this Government, and all the other measures, not least working with farmers on the pollution they cause, through our new slurry infrastructure grants and so on. A comprehensive and holistic programme is now in place, which was not in place under previous Governments.
Labour’s plan to clean up the water industry would include cutting sewage discharges by 90%, mandatory monitoring of outlets and automatic fines for discharges. Will the Minister enact it, for the benefit of Portsmouth people, with immediate effect?
The current arrangements are clearly not working. Last month, I asked the Minister if she thought that water regulation was fit for purpose. She replied:
“Yes…but many tweaks and improvements”
“to ensure that it is working properly.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2023; Vol. 725, c. 702.]
Let me give her another opportunity to answer the question. Does she really think that the current system of regulation for the water industry is fit for purpose?
We have a regulator. Its job is to regulate the water companies. The Government sent a very strong policy statement to Ofwat to direct the water companies on a whole range of measures, not least putting the environment at the top of the agenda but also enabling the supply we need for the future population, so we can all have the clean and plentiful water we deserve. We now have an extremely comprehensive plan in place to deal with that.
As the Minister knows, Wolvercote Mill Stream in Oxford became the second river in the country to get designated bathing water status. Can she therefore understand our frustration when the official designation for 2022 was poor and over the Christmas period 676 hours—nearly an entire month—of sewage was discharged upstream in Witney? Can she seriously say, in light of that, that she and the Government are doing enough? Why will she not set even stricter targets, especially in areas with bathing water status? Can she give a cast-iron guarantee to our community that we will not lose bathing water status because of lacklustre action by the Government?
As the hon. Lady will know, I visited that site, and indeed I even paddled in the water. She knows full well that the system we have introduced will help to clean up bathing water areas such as hers, and the monitoring that we have introduced both upstream and downstream will deliver the change that we need.
I am sure that the Minister does not want to mislead the House in any way when she talks about the quality of bathing water, but Yorkshire Water has told me that there is not one river in the United Kingdom that is fit to swim in, and that is a real mess. Have her Government considered—after 13 years—adopting a plan that Labour Members discuss frequently, namely, the introduction of a golden share in these companies with two directors, so that we can actually do something about the dreadful mess that we are in?
Talking of misleading the House, I am not sure where the hon. Gentleman gets his data. Let me reiterate what I said earlier: 72% of bathing waters are excellent and 94% are good, so a great many are extremely clean and wonderful to swim in. We now have a comprehensive plan for inland bathing waters, and we have gone out to ask whether people want to present proposals for further bathing waters. There is a strict protocol applying to how they reach the right standards and whether they are classed as fit to swim in. I urge the hon. Gentleman to have a look at the details.
The scale of the mismanagement of our nation’s water resources under the stewardship of the private water companies is far greater than that of the appalling disregard for our precious beaches and waters. Sir James Bevan has warned that much of the country is now staring into “the jaws of death”—the point at which we will not have enough water to meet our needs. Last summer demonstrated just how ill-equipped the water companies are to deal with protracted periods of extreme heat. Does the Minister agree that the most effective way of tackling water insecurity is to create an integrated publicly owned water supplier serving the whole of England?
In July 2021 several hundred properties in my constituency suffered a combination of surface and sewer flooding, some for the third or fourth time in 20 years, despite these being—according to Thames Water—one in 100-year or one in 300-year floods. Last week Thames Water wrote to the affected households saying that if their properties were at low risk, medium risk or even high risk and were subject to surface flooding, they would “not require a solution”. This constitutes appalling complacency and neglect on the part of Thames Water. What is the Minister going to do about it? In the words of my constituent Brendan Smith, Thames Water needs to be “held to account”.
The issue of the surface water flooding is serious. It is all related to the ground water table coming up and influencing the whole system. It is a complicated system, and the situation obviously needs to be addressed. Thames Water is investing a great deal in cleaning up its water; as the hon. Gentleman will know, it is the company that is putting in the super sewer. That scheme, which would never have happened without the Government’s support, is a tremendous model which I believe will be copied elsewhere and will make a significant difference. However, where Thames Water has contravened its permit, it will be held to account.
Earlier this month, along with some other Members, I received an email from Pennon Group, which owns South West Water, stating:
“we wanted to provide you with the most recent information so that you are able to have an informed debate”.
Does the Minister agree that what should inform our debate is the experience of our constituents, who are seeing their bills rise and sewage flood our waterways, and does she agree that water companies should be focusing on delivering a quality service to bill payers rather than quality lobbying of politicians?
South West Water is a one-star company. It is one of the worst-performing water companies. I have had its representatives in a number of times to look at its performance, and it has a clear plan of action for its trajectory to improve. We must hold its feet to the fire in that regard. Let me also say, however, that our friends the Liberal Democrats have been spreading an awful lot of misinformation about this issue—particularly in the south-west, where I come from—and independent fact-checkers have often found many of their claims to be false.
I thank the Minister for her responses to all the questions.
Given the increased pressure on the water system as a result of the increase in the number of power showers and spa-type waterfall showers—as well as the increase in the number of homes, which I consider to be another critical factor in what is happening—it is clear that our current infrastructure is not up to scratch. How will the Minister ensure that we do not sacrifice the balance between quality, as developers who are under financial pressure owing to the cost of living are looking for cheaper options, and the bare minimum where permissible?
The hon. Gentleman has broadened the debate by talking about the water supply issue as a whole. The Government are looking closely at the issue of water efficiency, because we must ensure that we use water wisely. We have consulted on mandatory water efficiency labelling. If we use water efficiently in our homes, with the help of the correct gadgets and the correct legislation from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, we will use water better, and there could potentially be a beneficial impact on our bills. We must always think about the costs to bill payers, and about enabling them always to have the clean and plentiful water that they deserve.
Democracy is precious. The United Kingdom’s electoral system has a hard-earned reputation for transparency and integrity, and that needs regular review and, where appropriate, enhancement to ensure that it works today just as it did in the past.
One of the most basic principles of voting is that the people who cast their votes are eligible to do so. The introduction of voter identification at polling stations from May will be another lock in ensuring that the integrity of our democracy is protected for the long term. Nor is this anything new: voter identification has been in place in Northern Ireland for nearly 20 years. As for elections in Great Britain, this Government stood on a manifesto that said we would introduce it, won on the basis of doing so, introduced legislation to fulfil that commitment, and are now delivering on that promise. We will not shirk our responsibilities to protect the integrity of the ballot box.
According to Government research, about 98% of the electorate already have an accepted voter ID, whether it is a passport, a driving licence or one of nearly 20 other eligible types of identification. That includes, for some, expired identification, in order to maximise participation. The reality is that the overwhelming majority of people already have what they need to fulfil this new protection at the ballot box. For those who do not, the Government have made available a voter authority certificate, which can be applied for today. It is free of charge and can be issued to everyone who wants it in readiness for May. To date, more than 21,000 applications have been made. Hon. Members will likely have seen—as have I, along with many millions of others—the extensive communications campaigns now under way, run by the Electoral Commission and, at a local level, by individual councils. Those will continue all the way up to May.
There are few tasks more important in public life than maintaining the trust of the British public in our electoral institutions and our electoral processes. A huge amount of work is under way, and that will continue until May. I am grateful to officials, to the Electoral Commission and to councils up and down the land for the work that they are doing. We are taking action to strengthen the integrity of those institutions and processes and to protect the sanctity of the vote. It is now incumbent on all Members—having had the debate and having resolved to do this last year—to send a collective clear signal that this change is important to protect the integrity of the ballot box, and that we should all get ready for this to happen in May.
For months and months, Members on the Opposition side of the House have fought the Government’s voter ID plans tooth and nail. We have warned that this is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, at an exorbitant cost to the taxpayer, and that it is a thinly veiled attempt to make it far more difficult for people to vote.
This morning I was appalled to read new statistics relating to the Government’s botched roll-out of voter ID, revealing that of the estimated 2 million people who will now need a new form of ID—a voter authority certificate—in order to vote, just 1% have applied for it. And of that tiny number—not even 21,000—a tiny minority are older people or young people, groups who we were warned risked being disenfranchised under these new plans. We are just 10 weeks away from the local elections. Safeguarding our democracy and the fundamental right to vote should be the priority of any responsible Government.
I therefore urge the Minister to answer the following questions. What are the Government going to do to fix this? In particular, how are they going to target groups who have limited access to the internet to ensure that they do not lose out? What engagement will take place with local authorities and what support will be provided? It seems absurd that local authorities might have to pay the cost of the Government’s botched roll-out of voter ID.
Will the Minister commit to, at the very least, pausing this year’s roll-out? He will be aware of the Electoral Commission’s analysis that this roll-out means that the May elections cannot be run in a
“fully secure, accessible and workable”
manner. Will the Government expand the list of acceptable forms of ID so that fewer people have to apply for a local authority certificate? Many Members were rightly concerned when it was revealed last autumn that some forms of student ID were not included in the list. Do the Government have any handle on the level of awareness among the general public regarding the need to bring ID with them to vote in May? I would say that the Government were sleepwalking into a disaster, but I am afraid that, to me, this looks a little more cynical.
We are clearly going to have a discussion today in which hon. Members have every right, should they wish, to use quite outrageous rhetoric in relation to this basic, fundamental change to ensure that we protect the integrity of the ballot box. I would encourage them to think carefully about how they approach this during the urgent question.
To answer the hon. Lady’s questions specifically, I need to take on this notion that there are 2 million people who need voter ID. That is absolutely not correct and I hope that hon. Members will stop reiterating it. Of those 2 million people—which is an estimate—a large number will not have elections in their area this year. Secondly, of that group, a number will choose not to vote, much as we would like them to do so. They may have chosen never to vote, and although we would encourage them to do so, that is ultimately the purpose of a democracy: people have a right to vote and a right not to vote. We are seeking to encourage them to vote and seeking to guarantee that integrity. There may also have been a choice for people to change to postal votes. We are continuing to work to encourage take-up where it is necessary, but it is fundamentally incorrect for hon. Members in this House to suggest that some form of target is being missed.
The hon. Lady also asked what we were going to do to target groups. We are already doing that. We have engaged on multiple levels at multiple times with those who could be hard to reach, and we will continue to do that all the way up until May. It is not correct that local authorities are paying the cost, as she suggested. New burdens funding has been paid and there will be a true-up process afterwards to ensure that people are not out of pocket. The list of means of identification that the hon. Lady asked to be expanded already had more than 20 on it, including passports and driving licences. As I said in my initial response, that includes some instances where expiration had happened. I would encourage the Liberal Democrats and other hon. Members to understand that we are seeking to ensure that the sanctity of the ballot box can be protected, and I wish that they would support these reasonable and proportionate measures to do that.
Personation and multiple voting by individuals is notoriously hard to prove, which is one of the reasons that very few people get prosecuted. But we know it goes on, so does my hon. Friend agree that, in order to safeguard the validity of voting, it is vital that people can substantiate who they are when they go to vote?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right.
“Personation at the polling station will be made much more difficult by the requirement for all voters to provide a specified form of photographic identification.”—[Official Report, 10 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 739.]
Those are not my words but those of the Labour Minister who introduced photographic identification in Northern Ireland in 2003.
The implementation of a voter identification scheme has always been a solution in search of a problem. We are more likely to be struck by lightning 54 times than to be queueing behind a person committing vote fraud at a polling station. Nevertheless, for their own purposes, the Government chose to force through voter ID legislation this time last year.
For months, those who administer and monitor our elections—the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Local Government Association, the Electoral Commission—all warned the Government that there was not enough time to safely implement the scheme for May or for those without ID to get a voter authority certificate. The Minister disregarded this expert advice and pushed ahead anyway, and the complacency that we have heard today is breathtaking.
I am sorry if the 2 million figure is such a problem for the Minister, but the reality is that the applications that have been made represent just over 1% of those who will need this. At the current rate of sign-up, it will take a decade to get credentials to everyone who needs them, but there are only 72 days to polling day. We are risking widespread disenfranchisement. When is the Minister going to wake up and act to prevent these voter ID requirements from locking huge numbers of people out of our democracy at the next election?