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Topical Questions

Volume 730: debated on Tuesday 28 March 2023

Since the last Justice questions I hosted a conference of Justice Ministers and representatives from around the world—more than 40 countries—and we agreed a package of financial support and technical assistance to help the International Criminal Court, in particular with the indictment in relation to alleged war crimes in Ukraine. We have also published the independent domestic homicide sentencing review, announcing new statutory aggravating factors, to increase sentences for those horrific crimes.

Although we know that vaping and e-cigarette products can reduce the harms of tobacco smoking in adults, those products are not risk free and there is an alarming popularity of vaping among under-18s, and even among primary-age children. There are concerning reports of schoolchildren becoming addicted to those products, disrupting their sleep patterns, and leaving lessons and even exams to vape. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the Government are taking action to prevent the promotion and illegal sale of vapes to under-18s, and prosecute those who break the law in that regard?

As my hon. Friend will know, vapes can only legally be sold to those over 18 in this country. We limit nicotine content and refill bottle and tank sizes, and there are also restrictions on labelling and advertising. When there is evidence of any breaches, we expect and I know that law enforcement authorities take that seriously. More generally, given the age group we are talking about, the Department of Health and Social Care is exploring a range of new measures, particularly about addressing youth vaping, and preventing and spreading awareness of the harms.

Last December, I announced Labour’s plan to crack down on antisocial behaviour by forcing fly-tippers to join clean-up squads, and giving victims a voice in choosing the punishments of offenders right across the country. When the Prime Minister copied our policies, why did he shrink them down to just a handful of pilots, leaving most of the country with nothing?

Labour does not have a plan. We are the ones delivering. [Interruption.] I say to the shadow Justice Secretary that actions speak louder than words. Labour Members voted against extra money for police recruitment and they voted against tougher sentences. The Mayor of London wants to decriminalise cannabis. The hon. Gentleman says he agrees with that. The British people would have to be smoking it themselves to vote for them on law enforcement.

If the right hon. Gentleman thinks the Government are doing such a fantastic job on antisocial behaviour, perhaps he could explain this. Since 2014, according to his own Department, offenders who were given community sentences have dodged over 16 million hours of unpaid work that they were sentenced to carry out but never made to do—16 million hours. Why?

Actually, we toughened up community sentences, with community payback and a massive expansion in the number of hours. The use of electronic monitoring has meant that we can be far more secure and crack down harder when conditions are not met. If the hon. Gentleman wants to talk about crime, he can explain this: since 2010, crime has come down. It has more than halved, excluding fraud and computer misuse. Reoffending is lower than under Labour by 7%. We have also seen a massive reduction in the number of prison absconds. He talks a good game; we deliver.

T2. In 2015, my constituent’s brother was brutally and senselessly murdered. The perpetrators were convicted and sent to prison. One remains in prison serving a life sentence. The family were devastated to find out that he had been moved to Rochester prison, less than three miles from where the family and extended family live and work, and close to the brother’s grave. This is causing the family great distress, as an exclusion order was placed on the other perpetrator who is now on parole. Will my right hon. Friend meet me and the family to discuss the impact it is having and the distress it is causing to a local grieving family? (904368)

I thank my right hon. Friend. All our sympathies are with her constituents and the family. I will, of course, be very happy to meet her.

The Casey report reminds us that we must be alive to racism not only in the police, but in the whole justice system. Will Ministers engage with and act on a significant report by Manchester University and a Crown court judge, which found that racial bias plays a significant role in the justice system, including discrimination by judges? The report made a series of constructive suggestions to address this issue.

I will certainly take a look at the Manchester academic report the hon. Gentleman refers to. I know, through my work with His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service and the senior judiciary, that they are very mindful of the issue he raises. It is important. Equally, we need to ensure that we are rigorous and colourblind to all crimes, and ensure that the rule of law applies across all communities. That is the best way to make sure we strengthen and reinforce public confidence in the justice system.

T8. Antisocial behaviour is a source of huge frustration, irritation and inconvenience for many of our constituents so I welcome Government action, but I have to say that we have heard announcements like this before. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the justice system’s response on antisocial behaviour becomes more effective, so that this week’s announcement can make a real difference to people’s lives? (904376)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right and that is the focus of what the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister announced. For example, in the initial 10 police and crime commissioner areas, the ambition is for offenders to be doing reparatory work—for example, litter picking or cleaning up graffiti—in their communities within 48 hours of an offence. The powers to allow the police to drug test for a wider range of drugs, including methamphetamine, will give communities a sense of reassurance that action is being taken.

T3.   Last week, a supervising officer at HMP Wormwood Scrubs was brutally attacked a matter of yards from the prison entrance. The Prison Officers Association tells me—the right hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) will be concerned about this—that last week an officer leaving Rochester Prison was threatened by an ex-prisoner. He was told he would be shot and his house burnt down. I am sure the Minister will join me in wishing a speedy recovery to the officer who was hurt, but we need more than that. What is the Ministry of Justice doing to ensure that prison officers, who have a difficult job, are safe coming and going from work? (904369)

I echo the hon. Gentleman’s good wishes for the victim. He is absolutely right about the importance of the safety and security for our prison officers. Things such as the rolling out of body-worn video cameras are an important part of that, along with the sensible use of PAVA spray, which I know the POA wants.

I am not sure that I can respond in quite the same style as my right hon. Friend. During the pandemic, being able to do certain tasks remotely or from home was a way of carrying on with unpaid work. But in general, we expect people to turn up and do that work, usually, in a group setting.

T4.   In January I told the Justice Secretary about my constituent, who was a victim of historical child sexual exploitation, having her trial postponed three times since 2019. She is still waiting. I also asked him if he would tell me what proportion of historical CSE cases were delayed by up to four years, and I am still waiting for an answer. Will he please answer me now? (904370)

The hon. Lady raises a very serious issue. Particularly complex cases have been delayed because of the pandemic, the backlogs and the Criminal Bar Association strike. I am happy to write to her about that, and I apologise for not having done so already. In addition, if she would like to meet the victims Minister, he will be happy to talk her through the issues.

Thank you for your generosity in allowing me to ask this question, Mr Speaker. My constituent Joanna Brown, a wife, mother of two children and daughter of loving parents, was brutally murdered in my constituency back in 2010. Her husband was convicted of the murder and was sentenced to 24 years. Sadly, it seems that he will be let out on licence in November. May I urge the Justice Secretary to ask the parole board to question whether such offenders should come out of prison?

My hon. Friend raises a terrible and tragic case. He knows that I recently met Joanna’s mother, Diana Parkes, and Joanna’s closest friend Hetti Barkworth-Nanton, who are co-founders of the Joanna Simpson Foundation. They have shown inspirational courage through their grief. I assured them, and I am happy to assure the House, that I will give Mr Brown’s case my closest personal attention. There will be maximum rigour in assessing risk to determine whether to use the new power given to me by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. I am happy to arrange for my hon. Friend to meet the relevant Minister if that is useful.

T5. Rather than the Tory bluster on article 8 of the European convention on human rights, does the Secretary of State acknowledge the findings of the Joint Committee on Human Rights that the UK actually has tight restrictions on article 8 rights in deportation cases, often requiring the need to prove very compelling circumstances? (904371)

I am afraid that I do not, but I respect the Committee. There has been pretty rampant abuse of the Human Rights Act 1998 when it comes to deporting foreign national offenders. That is what our Bill of Rights will cure.

The recent investigation into lawfare by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and The Sunday Times revealed how witnesses can be paid vast sums of money—up to £1 million—to appear in British courts. That is illegal in America. Does the Government agree that the payment of such a huge amount of money has the potential to sway witnesses and should be outlawed?

I thank my right hon. Friend for bring that to my attention. It sounds very serious and capable of having a negative and pejorative influence on proceedings. If he writes to me or—even better—comes to see me, I will be happy to look into it further.

T6. The Joint Committee on Human Rights concluded that the UK Government should not proceed with the Secretary of State’s proposed British Bill of Rights, saying:“it weakens rights protections, it undermines the universality of rights, it shows disregard for our international legal obligations”. I realise that his Government show little regard for international legal obligations generally, but what is his response to the JCHR’s recommendations? (904373)

We showed only last week, when we brought together more than 40 countries to give effect to the International Criminal Court mandate to investigate and prosecute war crimes in Ukraine, how we are leading the charge and upholding the international rule of law. That is not helped, however, by abuses of the system, particularly, as suggested by her colleague the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), foreign national offenders using elastic interpretations of human rights to frustrate a deportation order. That is the ill that we will cure in addition to strengthening quintessential UK rights, such as freedom of speech.

Last year, the Government rightly accepted the Bellamy review’s recommendations on criminal legal aid, one of which was the establishment of an independent advisory board. When will the Government publish the board’s membership and detailed terms of reference?

T7. Only one in 50 rape cases gets to court, and the Secretary of State has already confirmed that it can take over two years to get a prosecution, but what is he doing about rapes following needle or drink spiking? Is he working with clubs on surveillance, scanning and testing? Has he written to the police so that people do not say, “You’re drunk, love”? Has he any idea how many convictions have followed cases of women being raped after being spiked, including by needles? (904375)

I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman that this is a serious new category of threat to women. The forensic capabilities are there, and the practice is clearly already illegal, so it is just a question of gathering the evidence to bring cases to court. Police referrals, CPS charges and Crown court receipts in adult rape cases are all up by around 100%.

As my right hon. Friend will know, my private Member’s Bill reforming the process of creating lasting power of attorney passed through this place two weeks ago and is now in the other place. Assuming all goes well, when does he expect it to receive Royal Assent?

While I cannot determine the date of Royal Assent, I reassure my hon. Friend that once the Bill passes through the other House, we would expect it to complete its passage here before the end of the Session.

Too many families are being failed by our broken courts system, including my constituents. With poor handling of domestic abuse allegations, the disregarding of children’s voices, and an obsessive pro-contact culture that puts unfit parents’ demands ahead of the children’s best interests, we need urgent reform. What steps is the Justice Secretary taking to protect vulnerable children and ensure justice for victims?

I take this matter very seriously. Broadly speaking on the family courts, which I think is the crux of the hon. Lady’s question, of course there is a need for safeguarding in getting domestic abuse cases to court—around 55% of cases—but the best way to ensure that they are dealt with effectively is to ensure that the other 45% of cases go through mediation and do not double-dip their way into the courts system.

The concordat on children in custody provides a protocol for the transfer of children out of custody and into local authority accommodation, yet many police forces and local authorities have not signed up to it and too many children are being detained in custody, even after being charged. Why is that the case, and what is the Minister going to do to address it?

Huge efforts have been made to try to ensure, where possible, that we divert young people from the criminal justice system. The hon. Lady should know that the number of children in custody has fallen by 68% in the past decade. At the end of January this year, 438 children were in custody—down from 1,349 in January 2013—but we are also considering other measures, such as secure schools, to ensure that we can deal with all such cases appropriately.

Has the Secretary of State seen “The Gold”, the gripping but disturbing BBC series about the Brink’s-Mat robbery? If he has, does he feel that justice has been served? Is there any more justice to come?

I have to say that I have not seen it, but now that “Love Island” is over I shall transition seamlessly to the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion.

Has the Minister made an assessment of the number of wills and estates that are disputed over assets each year in the United Kingdom? What discussions has he had with the devolved Assemblies about the timescales for solving such issues?

I am not aware of any particular statistics on the number of wills that are contested, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman and ensure that we liaise with the devolved Assemblies.